This year, the women’s ministry at my Pennsylvania church published an Advent devotional with written reflections from twenty-nine of our parish women. I was honored to write a reflection for the first Sunday of Advent, and I am so glad to be able to share it here, too.
The following piece appears in Behold, God’s Promises, an Advent devotional from the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA. You can download the entire devotional for free here.
Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent are from the Daily Office (Year 1) in the Book of Common Prayer: Psalms 146, 147, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matt. 25:1-13
Peter told us the scoffers would come, but I never imagined they would speak with the voices of my own children.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the six of us gather at the dining room table where our Advent wreath lies ready for us.
My younger son grips the candle snuffer and asks, “Why do we do this every year?”
“To remember Jesus came and will come back again,” I tell him.
“What’s taking so long?!” he says.
His older brother and older sister chime in, “It’s been thousands of years!” Their baby sister echoes, “Thousands!”
My children, like those scoffers Peter warned against, believe “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” Day follows day like a soothing lullaby until we, like virgins waiting with our lamps, drift complacently to sleep.
Even my oldest child cannot remember a day beyond twelve years ago, and yet how confident they are life will go on always the same.
I look at their faces and remember well those years when there were no children in my home. I cried for children and prayed for children and witnessed four times the power of God to change everything. Like Mary before me, I sing, “… the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49).
In a moment the world is changed utterly.
In a moment our ordinary is shattered by joy.
If a voice in our culture, or our home, or even our own heart says, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” do not listen and despair. With every turning of this planet, with every setting of the sun, with every swish of the calendar page, we are nearer.
This Advent season we are nearer.
Prayer: Dear Father, wake us for this Advent journey. You, our bridegroom, have been a long time in coming, and we do grow weary. Remind us of your nearness and impress on our hearts the reality of your return. Make us ready to welcome you. Amen.
I see the world through a lens of metaphor and story. The magnolia tree near our chicken coop is a love letter. The window in our stairwell is a promise.
Like a pair of good eyeglasses, metaphor helps me see the world and my life more clearly. It is the tool I use to scratch beneath the surface of things.
These days, I am learning its limits.
Or, maybe, I am learning my own limits.
I plunge my arms up to the elbows in a deep farmhouse sink. Snap peas, carrots, a rainbow of swiss chard, and heads of broccoli so richly green they’re also purple. In every moment I can spare, I am harvesting, washing, blanching, freezing, eating, feeding. The kitchen garden we rushed to build and plant this spring has become a fountain. Between the rain and the explosion of good things to eat, that is no metaphor.
Apparently, metaphor has been more than a pair of eyeglasses to me. It has also been my preferred tool for setting up distance between the spiritual world and my own. I have used it to say here are my life and my world and way over there? Can you see it off in the distance? Those are the promises of God. The things that truly matter. We will get there someday.
Except, someday is today.
The things of God are here.
The things of God are now.
In my Bible, I can point out an inky smear of a date. Also, a little scribble of a star. They remind me that two years ago, I heard God say this, “they will make gardens and eat their fruit.”
Those words felt like a promise, and I held on to them through two very unfruitful years. In other words, I believed them. Yet, I know now that I believed them in a hazy, over-spiritualized kind of way.
What if God means exactly what he says?
What if his metaphors indicate, not distance, but nearness?
He promised, and, today, I am eating those words. I have sautéed them in oil and garlic, roasted them at high heat. I have shredded them and peeled them into ribbons. I have tossed them in salads and shared them with neighbors.
They taste good.
There were years when a little flag would start waving in my head any time I heard someone say God told me to do this or God told me to do that.
A red flag.
It sounded too much like crazy-talk. I’d never heard God’s voice, so what makes you sure? What makes you special?
Now I am that crazy person.
I’m the one setting eyes to roll with my casual God told us this and God gave us a dream, and, the boldest of all, God promised …
That’s the big one, isn’t it? Talk of promises is crazy and dangerous all at once. To talk about promises is to set oneself up as special and risk looking like a fool.
I am that fool.
This is how I got here: desperation. It was the not having, the hurting, the longing, and the pain.
It was that one time I threw my Bible against the wall. I could see the pages bent and the cover smashed, but I could also see words that were so comforting, so particular, I was tempted to make Bible-throwing a regular spiritual discipline.
It was that time I screamed at heaven, until I turned the corner around the clump of trees and saw an optical-illusion moon so enormous and fiery I couldn’t tell what it was. But I heard it. It said, “I’m here. You’ve been heard.”
Sometimes, it wasn’t pain so much as utter emptiness. When there are no friends and no activities, when the phone never rings and you’ve given up the job you pursued for ten years, small things begin to sound very loud.
Like the verse that pastor shared from the front. I was one of a crowd, but those words were an arrow and I was the mark.
Like the song that came over the speakers just as I asked my question aloud. That song with the answer.
Or, all those times (so many times) when all I could do was open my Bible on my lap.
And that’s all it took. Because there it was. Right there.
I’m wary of prescriptions, of three-step plans. But if you want to hear the voice of God (and think very, very carefully whether or not you do), then this is what I suggest:
Lean in to the pain.
Listen to the silence.
Let the emptiness be just what it is.
There is a river, and it has washed my slate clean.
New home. New baby. New friends. New church. New weather. The year is new, and my days are full of new things.
Strangely, not one bit of it feels new. These are déjà vu days, and everything in them feels familiar and comfortable. As if I have already worn deep grooves into this daily life.
My baby daughter looks exactly like her sister, my firstborn. Holding this baby, nine years disappear, and I am a new mother again. I sit in the same rocking chair, she wears the same pink dress, and I sometimes can’t tell who is in my arms, the first baby or the last.
I tuck her into the same blue pram, and we walk beneath maple trees on our way to meet the school bus. I remember this stroller cutting through the icy winds on Chicago’s sidewalks, and I think I must have always known, somewhere deep within, that I was headed to this good place.
It is simply too familiar. I am not surprised by any of it. Only grateful. Deeply grateful.
I once wrote that I was living the first half of this verse: “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down … so I will watch over them to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 31:28).
Now I am living the second half.
My firstborn was a firecracker of a baby, and she broke me. In so many good and necessary ways, she broke me.
My fourth is like gentle rain in spring. One fierce and one gentle, they have both been good gifts.
There were years when all was uprooted. Now new things are growing. Both are necessary. Both are good.
I have been hearing this whisper for months, but now it is a shout: “Return! Return!”
I have said, “Yes, Lord, I am coming,” again and again I have said it until this moment, having just tipped over into this new year, I know I have arrived. I have returned.
And every day of this year, I will wake with one word in mind: return.
The poet T. S. Eliot says “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
I have journeyed to my own beginning, and there is no surprise in this. Haven’t I always felt most at home with the One who names himself Alpha and Omega?
He is my beginning, and he is my end, and I have come home. I have returned; I am, every day, returning.
“My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”
Only seven weeks old, and she’s seen her first hurricane. Actually, “heard” might be more accurate. I’m not sure any of us held her up to the window to watch the rain fall, but we were both awake to hear the wind in the night.
It was a wind to make you thank heaven for thick brick walls, even while you wondered if the storm windows would hold.
She breathes warmth and peace into the side of my neck, and I am newly determined: when storm clouds hover I will, like this baby girl, expect to be cared for.
I will practice hope.
I will assume Jesus meant it when he said we have no reason to worry.
When Hurricane Sandy threatened to cut off our power and water, I lined up baby bottles on my window ledge. They were filled to the brim with clean water. Then I went and filled a few more containers with water. And then, a few more. Possibly, a few more after that.
Does the Lord of the storm (Job 40:6) love me any less?
“Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
(Psalm 107: 28-29)
(photo by yours truly)