Image credit: Chelsea Hudson
There is a white oak tree near my house that is older than these United States.
Lately, I have needed the long perspective this tree provides. I have needed to remember that there are still living witnesses to years far beyond every one of our forty five presidents.
This one tree has outlived all the great divisions that have plagued our national community. It has outlasted the rebels and the loyalists, those who fought duels, and those who took up arms against their brothers.
But political division is much older than our country.
Even much older than this tree.
Did you know that Jesus called a traitor and a terrorist to be among his first followers? Of course, even those words are contentious. You could call Simon a freedom fighter. You could say Matthew was a law-and-order guy.
Simon was a Zealot. Matthew was a tax collector for the Empire. Politically, the space between these two makes the different between an American Democrat and an American Republican look as insignificant as the tiny bird’s nest I once saw tucked into a branch of the old oak tree.
Jesus ate with them both. Walked with them both. And while we might imagine that each man tossed his political opinions out like garbage when he chose to follow a carpenter from Nazareth, we have no evidence of that. It seems far more likely to me that they went on disagreeing about many things. Only now, they disagreed as they ate together, prayed together, and became servants of men together.
Each man saw some things clearly and was blind to others, and Jesus wanted them both on his team.
I know. I don’t like it any more than you do.
Perhaps you cannot imagine worshiping alongside someone who thinks abortion should remain legal. Perhaps you cannot imagine worshiping alongside someone who thinks abortion should be made illegal.
Feel free to insert any one of the many political issues that divide us.
For me, it is deeply painful to know that I love the same Jesus as some who favor closing our borders to Muslim refugees fleeing war. Perhaps you find it painful to realize that’s my view.
This is not easy. It will make us cry.
The only thing that will help is if we name one another rightly. Not pro or against. Not right or left. Not terrorist or traitor. But Beloved.
We who seek to follow do it well and we do it badly, often all on the same day, but always we are Beloved.
You and your neighbor both:
You and your enemy both:
I worry that the old oak tree down the hill from my house will not survive much longer.
The average lifespan of a white oak tree is three-hundred years, but this tree has already lived long beyond that. I believe the oldest white oak tree lived to see six hundred, but I doubt that it sat, as mine does, on the edge of a possibly over-watered and over-fertilized golf course.
Not even the grandest tree is immune to the decisions of men and women. Shall we tend forest, pasture cows, or build a golf course? Even these seemingly non-political decisions have something to say about our political commitments, and even the most personal experience can become political.
Politics matter. After all, justice, as Cornel West has said, is what love looks like in public.
I can almost guarantee that you know a woman who sees the face of the man who groped her in the face of our new President.
And I am sure most of us know someone who remembers when their public school teacher began the day with prayer and worries that the faith of his grandchildren is at risk in our now much more secular culture.
Politics is personal. And, yes, lives are at stake.
I will go on choosing silence. I will go on choosing speech. I encourage you to do the same.
Lord, help us to know when to choose the one and when the other.
And let your banner over us be Love.
Four brothers: one Day family son, and the men who married three Day daughters.
Generally, time moves consistently and at a measured pace. Each day arrives and passes like the blank squares on the print-your-own calendars I persist in using rather than the app I once downloaded onto my phone.
But there are days.
There are days when all those neat squares swim like the tears in your eyes until the past and the present sit right on top of one another. Then, you are caught. Time passes, but you are snagged on the past. You are like a winter coat dangling all summer long from that hook on the closet door.
I am caught on a winter day almost twenty years ago. I wore a white dress, and my sisters, my bridesmaids, wore green. We gathered in the fellowship room of the church of our childhood. We ate little sandwiches and cake and held white china cups of steaming coffee.
I am caught on a summer day fifteen years ago. The same fellowship room in the same church. My sister Kelli in white this time, our sister Lisa and I in pale gray.
I am caught on another summer day ten years ago. The same room. Lisa in white. Kelli and I in deep red. This time, there was a chocolate fountain.
I had not seen that room until a week ago, Saturday. We buried Shawn that day under an already hot Texas sun. Then, the fellowship room, and one more reception, but this one unimagined, unanticipated. We stood in the same room, our dresses a trio of somber colors. We held steaming cups of coffee, plates full of tiny sandwiches and cake.
Small children tugged on our arms, made it impossible to talk.
Every day, my children ask for ice cream and every day I give them some green vegetable. Last night, I served arugula sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Eager for a second helping of sliced strawberries, my older boy announced that he had finished all of his “kale stuff.”
I love my children, and I long to give them good gifts. Some days I hand out the lollipops. As Elsa’s Uncle Shawn was laid to rest, I unwrapped three lollipops in a row because she would not stop complaining, loudly, about the heat.
They weren’t gifts, they were bribes.
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9) Yet though my children ask for candy, I give them gifts of bittersweet broccoli, caramelized in the heat of the oven. It is my best gift for them.
I give it because they are precious to me.
The problem with being snagged on the past in this way, is that the events of life do not stay in their proper places. Clearly, the weddings were good gifts, and the funeral is a terrible thing, and yet all of it has seemed to merge in my mind.
Ten years ago, I stood in that fellowship room, coffee cup in hand, trying so hard not to cry. I had found out only that morning that the latest round of fertility drugs had not worked. My grief was the same color as the deep red of my bridesmaid dress.
Because I am snagged, I am no longer confident of what has been good and what has been bad. It seems to me now that the empty womb was as much a good gift as the son who will turn ten this summer.
Once, I was confident that our good God never causes the bad thing that is pain. But I have lost that easy answer and gained a much more mysterious question: how sure can I be calling one thing good, another thing bad?
I will let the mystery be. I will follow the pattern set in the first chapter of James. For after fifteen verses on hardship, we find these words: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:16-17).
God does not change. He is good through and through. Yet we are easily deceived. Time plays its tricks. We feel ourselves to be standing at an end.
Forgetting that we will open our mouths wide.
For this is not the end.
Yesterday, there was softly falling snow. Today, there is a hard rain hurling itself against the windowpane.
In my ears, the quiet shush of snow has always sounded like the voice I most want to hear. It has always seemed like the embrace of the One who is so often hidden from us.
But if the snow whispers I Am, this rain screams Why? Why? Why?
It is the unanswerable question the world keeps on asking. Why do terrible things happen? Why did this terrible thing happen?
To be honest, it’s a question I don’t want answered. At least not yet. If there is an answer, I know that I am not ready to hear it. The only question I feel able to ask is this: what happens next?
What comes after the nightmare?
The answer I’ve considered this week has surprised me. I am not sure why that is when I have felt it before. For me, what comes after the nightmare is a strange sort of peace.
I once watched my son begin to die in a suburban Florida frozen yogurt shop. Two bites in to his dairy-free frozen treat and some trace contamination caused his throat to swell shut. I realized what was happening in the same second that I realized I had forgotten to carry his epi-pen.
A stranger in that shop saved my son’s life when she pulled an epi-pen junior from her purse. She had curly, red hair and two kids by her side. I struggled to uncap the pen because my hands would not stop shaking.
My son recovered so quickly he didn’t even need to ride in the ambulance that arrived a few minutes later. But it took me longer to recover. It took a long time for my hands to stop shaking and an even longer time to realize that all the fear I had carried since my son’s first allergic reaction was gone.
I felt sad and guilty and shaky, but I was no longer afraid. I understood that I could never keep my son perfectly safe. I understood that life and death are so much bigger than I am. So much bigger even than the love a mother has for her child, and that both, life and death, are held in someone else’s hands.
Today, again, I am sad and shaky. Today, again, I feel guilty. Before, I felt guilty and ashamed because I had risked my son’s life through forgetfulness. Now, though I recognize it isn’t logical, I feel guilty that I still have a husband. That my children still have a father in their house.
But I am not afraid.
I no longer think that losing my husband or even my child to death would be the end of me. I could lose even this house, this hilltop where I have planted so much of myself, and still go on. I have seen how it is possible to smash into a thousand pieces yet remain, not happy, certainly, not well, or whole, but held. Sustained. I have seen how God carries us through the very thing we imagine we cannot endure.
It is written, “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). I have read those words and imagined this love like something familiar, something sweet like the candy hearts my children have been eating for days. But fear is powerful. Enormous. It takes a very big love to drive it out.
I don’t know if this love causes terrible things.
I don’t know if this love allows terrible things.
All I know is I cannot look at the terrible thing without also seeing love.
I hate the sound of this driving rain. I don’t like the questions it is stirring up. But though I still long for the comforting blanket of yesterday’s snow, I am grateful for any rain that washes all my fears away.
I am grateful to be where I am. Here, in the churning, foaming center of a great river of peace.
For years, my children have sung the same old tired song. It goes like this: it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.
I used to argue with them. I tried banning those words, altogether. But for the past year or so, I have said only this:
In our house, we don’t do fair. We do love. Do you want fairness or do you want love?
I heard the familiar complaint again as we sat around the dinner table Sunday night. My mind was elsewhere, my body tired, so I let the conversation take it’s course. The kids didn’t argue. They traded ideas with more civility than is typical. But they never could decide what a fair distribution of the baguette might have been. The baguette they had already polished off between them. Four pieces, each? Wait, no, that doesn’t work.
I hesitated before I spoke. I hesitated because I wasn’t sure if it was right to say it. I wasn’t sure if I could say it without tears. But I said it:
Do you think what happened to your cousins in Hawaii was fair?
They looked at me with wide eyes and said, No.
Do you think God loves you more than them?
They lowered their heads. They whispered, No.
No one at the table said anything for a long while. We know the truth, we hold it in our hands like the shell my daughter brought home from the beach, but that doesn’t mean we understand it.
While I was in Hawaii, I heard a young child cry, It isn’t fair.
And she’s right. It isn’t fair.
“Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” Job 21:7
Why would such a good man, such a loving and much-loved man, die young? I don’t know the answer, but I know that the God of heaven and earth is something better than fair. He is love.
So many have asked. How are you? How is your sister? How are the kids? I can only speak for myself, but I think that we are all walking the wild, unfamiliar edges of a very great love.
We are discovering that God’s love is deeper than the great depths of the ocean only a mile off Oahu’s North Shore. We are finding that God’s love is higher than the mountains that climb like great green fingers to a crumbling, volcanic rim. We can see that God’s love is wider even than a rainbow so wide it embraces the horizon.
This loss, this sorrow, is enormous. It stretches out as far as we can see. But, there, too, matching it, overtaking it, is this love.
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” Job 42:3
Every day God gives good gifts. He gives those ordinary miracles of day and night, work and rest, bread and wine and laughter. But, too often, we receive those gifts as if we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. The irony is that when life is good, when life seems easy, too many of us do not feel loved. And we do not feel safe.
I have long believed that life is a journey of love. More and more, I am becoming convinced that some days are for love’s gentleness. Other days for its wildness.
There is evening, and we sleep in love’s quietness. There is morning, and our eyes are opened to love’s vast, almost unfathomable borders.
Today, we are wide awake.
“I am walking every day nearer to the edge. I committed myself almost with a running leap … but there is always this edge running through our lives and our days. … it is the cliff edge between winter and spring. The fault line between death and life. … I am realizing how frequently we are invited to dive into the unknown. To make a flying leap toward light and life and love. How frightening it always is. And how necessary. And also how well cared for we always are, even if we are never, at least not exactly, safe.” – Christie Purifoy, Roots and Sky
It is true that we are loved, but it is also true that we are not safe. Not in the way we take that word to mean. Shoes do drop. Suffering knocks on our door, but this isn’t because some cosmic scale has tipped. This isn’t because we have reached the end of God’s goodness. Or of our supply of good gifts.
To have your soul awakened. To have your eyes opened.
Those are also good gifts.
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job 42:5
If you pray for us, perhaps you might pray for sleep. If wakefulness is a gift, it is one we cannot bear for long. We need at least a few hours when our eyes can close.
We need, sometimes, to forget. We need darkness, especially when, all day long, we cannot seem to stop staring straight into the sun.
Before I began writing these Advent reflections, I had a very general structure in mind. The whole series would move, I thought, from dark to light, from ordinary to extraordinary, from dust and dirt to starlight.
Oh, the best laid plans.
Instead, I have consulted this writing plan each morning and discovered my own emptiness. No words. No stories. No ideas. Which is a desperate place and a very good place to find oneself. It has led me to frantic prayer and constant listening. Finding no stories in the plan, I have listened hard for any hint of story in my day.
Often, I have found my stories in my daughter’s difficult observations.
Yesterday, she said, “I think it must be the worst thing in the world to have a child who dies.”
I am a writer, and I abhor a platitude. An easy answer. The cliché we use to bypass actual thought. Even so, it can be tempting to fall back on those things when we are faced with the unanswerable and the terrible. But I have learned a few things from writing and from reading, and I have learned a few things mothering this daughter.
I fight the pull of the pretty, easy answer and say nothing but “Yes, yes, I know.”
She is only ten, but she already understands love’s terrible shadow. She knows intuitively, without ever being taught, that great love rips us open. Leaves us wounded and bleeding.
I have no good answers for these kinds of questions. I have no band-aid for this degree of pain. Today, I do not even have much of a story. And the writing plan? Well, that has been entirely abandoned. Sometimes, the world looks darker and more ordinary the closer we get to Christmas. Sometimes, there is no perfect, timely trajectory from Advent waiting to Christmas fulfillment.
But if I have no story, I do have this one thing to share with you. A vision of sorts.
After our conversation, I kept seeing a picture in my mind. It was my daughter, so full of difficult questions and a grief too old for her years, and she was wearing her angel costume. It is white and shimmery, and the padded, embroidered wings are gold.
I kept seeing her sad eyes against the white glow of the angel’s dress, and I realized, I think for the first time, how much our Christmas gift was heaven’s loss.
I realized how vast an emptiness the Prince of Heaven left behind him when he poured himself into Mary’s womb.
I looked into angel eyes, and they seemed to say, “We have lost him. We have said goodbye. How long till he returns to us?”
I can’t erase love’s dark shadow, and I’m not sure I would if I could. But I know that the parent heart of God has known it all already. I know he has passed by a heavenly chamber and found it empty. Heart-breakingly empty. And I know he suffered that pain for love.
And yet, the emptiness of heaven at the moment of incarnation is as much good news as the emptiness of the tomb.
This is the good news of God-with-us. This is the good news of our restoration.
This is the comfort of believing God sees our emptiness, our pain and says, “Yes, yes, I know.”