There is Advent on this blog. And there is Advent in my home.
Advent on the blog is, I like to think, serene. Advent at home? Less so.
Here is a confession: I have everything it takes to be a good mother. Unfortunately, those qualities consistently abandon me during the tired edges of the day. Which means I only have what it takes when ¾ of my children are at school, and the last little quarter is asleep in her crib.
Translation: I do not have what it takes.
So far, our family Advent observance has been … impressive. At least, I’ve been impressed. Most nights we have sat down together to light candles and read a devotion. I can’t take the credit. The whole thing is due entirely to the friend (angel, really) who gave us a complete Jesse Tree collection the first Sunday of Advent. We had everything handed to us: beautifully crafted ornaments for each day, a printout of Ann Voskamp’s family devotional (tied up in green silk ribbon), even a large glass vase. We supplied a bare branch from our yard, and we were in business.
But the wait for Christmas is long and heavy, and our observance has cracked a bit around the edges. Well, worse than that, really. I may have exploded one recent evening after yet another argument over who would hang the ornament. I may have called the whole thing off and sent them to bed. One of them crying those enormous, guilt-inducing crocodile tears.
And yet, Monday night somehow found us gathered, again, around our Jesse tree. I wasn’t optimistic. I was tired. When I glimpsed the evening’s reading – 2 ½ pages from the book of I Kings?! From an obscure story about idol worship?! – I panicked.
I was this close to shutting the book up again and announcing a change of plans. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read the whole thing while children fought and pestered me with questions like Who is Baal? What is a prophet? They did what to the animals??
But a fight over who was or was not touching someone’s favorite ornament on the tree threatened to boil over so I did the only thing I could.
I started reading.
Do you know the story?
There is a showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Baal’s followers prepare an altar and a sacrifice. Then they spend hours calling on their god to set the thing on fire. They shout. They dance. They prophesy franticly. They even slash themselves until the blood flows.
Here is the eloquence of Scripture: “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
At this point in the reading, I had the full attention of my children. They sat mesmerized. It was as if we could see that frantic, bloody dancing. It was as if we could hear the deafening silence of heaven.
I kept reading.
Elijah sets up the stones and the wood for his own altar. He douses it in water. And more water. There is so much water, and the impossibility is doubled. Tripled.
Elijah prays: “Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
We sat – each of us – with eyes large and breath caught – until: the God of Fire came.
He heard. He came. And there was fire.
“The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!”
Making space for God’s presence in my home feels about as back-breaking as hauling stones. My husband and I stack those stones while little people bicker around our ankles. Too often, their bickering is contagious.
I lose my temper. I can’t take even one more thing. Not one more mess. Not one more argument. Until, I have filled our home, our altar of stones, with so much water. An impossible flood of water.
Making space for God’s presence in my home is also a free gift. It is a beautiful and complete family advent collection handed to me by a friend.
It asks nothing of me. Requires nothing of me.
It is an impossible mess, and it is grace, and my children and I have seen fire.
Because God came.
Because God always will come.
And I am sorry. I wanted to give you metaphors that sing, but I have only this empty page and a blinking cursor. This is doubly unfortunate because today’s essay was intended for the column at Living the Story. In other words, today’s essay had a deadline.
I feel embarrassed by this blank page, as if it exposes something of which I am deeply ashamed. It seems to matter more than a blank page should.
This page is my life, I think. I rush and worry, trying to fill it up with words. I am terrified that I might run out of words.
Typically, I fill my empty pages quickly. So quickly, in fact, I rarely notice their emptiness. That this page has stayed blank longer than most, I blame on my ragged throat and tissue-burned nose. I blame it on my flexible work-from-home husband who was not, this week at least, able to work from home. I blame it on the baby girl whose cough matches my own.
She knows the baby signs for “milk” and “more” and “banana” but not for “sick.” I have to read it in the way she clings to me, the way she asks for food then tosses it down, the way she makes it impossible for me to live. Because isn’t my life composed of tasks ticked off, essays written, deadlines met? Which means today my life is not being lived. It means today this essay is not being written.
Or is it?
Perhaps even our blank pages have stories to tell?
I hope you’ll click through to read the rest of this one for the Living the Story column at the website BibleDude.
While you’re there, I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know you stopped by.
A brief story about a Purity Ball in my Sunday newspaper catches my attention. There is an image (a church altar decked in lace like a bridal veil) and there are words spoken by a twelve-year-old girl (“I’m saving my purity for my husband”), and I feel troubled, as if there is a small pebble in my shoe.
I don’t know why I am troubled. These are my people, after all. We speak the same church-y language, we love the same Lord. And goodness knows we need more fathers like this one, fathers who dance with their daughters and whisper prayers over their heads.
It would be easy to keep turning the pages, forget the nagging pebble, but I do have an eight-year-old daughter, after all. I hold the paper still and say to the sky, “Lord, do you have wisdom for a firstborn girl raising a firstborn girl? I’m troubled, and I don’t know why.”
And I can’t say if it’s an answer to my prayer but what comes to me is a story: the woman at the well. The woman with five husbands and one who wasn’t even that. Considering her, I decide that she wasn’t created for a husband (or five). She was created for Jesus.
In fact, she was so highly esteemed by him that Jesus chose her to be the first to hear his earth-shattering news: the Messiah you have longed for is here. I am He.
I want to take this lovely twelve-year-old girl by the hand, look her in the eyes, and try to explain (but how to explain?) that purity isn’t some thing wrapped up in a box. It isn’t a commodity exchanged for a price. It’s a fire, it’s a light, it’s a fountain, and, yes, it turns the values of this world upside down because it’s holy and it’s a sacrifice.
What I would try to say is something like this: purity is a renewable gift, not a thing to grow dingy and worn (though I’m not quite sure who is the giver and who it is that receives, is it me? Is it Jesus?).
But the best news of all? Husband or no, you are invited to live the kind of love story in which even a prostitute can be the belle of the ball.
So, dear little girl, may your light shine, may my light shine, may the light given my daughter and my sons shine and shine. For He is ours, and we are His.
The firstborn and I will be back in Chicago soon. Four days with the people and places we both love best.
I feel an urge to write that we are going home, except that we aren’t.
It isn’t only that we sold our Chicago apartment 18 months ago. It isn’t because we have no family there. We do have many friends, and they were our family for ten good years. Rather, it is that I was once planted in Chicago. I’m not planted there any longer, though I haven’t yet laid down roots in any other place. I feel as if (actually, I hope as if) we are in between homes. (Florida, you are lovely, but I do not think you will ever be home.)
Perhaps I can write of Chicago from my daughter’s point of view. She was born there, after all, and has more of a claim to the place than I do. Here is the hospital where she took her first breath. A few blocks away is the converted hotel (with a tunnel where Al Capone once smuggled gin). It was her first home. Here is the museum that became her own private wonderland; fairy castle, baby chicks, and all. And there is pebble beach, our pebble beach, where we swam in summer and climbed ice dams in winter. Even now when I stand at some water’s edge and look to my left, I half expect to see the glittering wall of a downtown skyline. Perhaps she does, too.
In this life, home is always temporary. In Chicago, I learned that it is possible to feel at home in a temporary place. It is possible to breathe deeply and live thoroughly in a home that won’t always be home.
Possible, yes, but never a given. Or, perhaps I should say that it is exactly that: a given thing. A grace thing.
When God tells his exiled people in Jeremiah that he will bring them home one day, he also says: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage …” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). His gift to them is a home in exile. Permission to live, even as they wait.
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills.”
I can still hear my paternal grandmother: “Bless her heart,” she would say. It was one of those Southern-isms that fascinated me as a kid. I may have been growing up in Texas, but my own San Francisco-born mother never said, “Bless her heart.” She never said, “over yonder” or “back forty.” Neither did she serve biscuits every morning or insist on only drinking Dr. Pepper that had been bottled in Dublin, Texas (still the only Dr. Pepper made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup). But Grandmother did.
I’ve been hearing her voice because I read an interview in Southern Living magazine. This country singer mentioned that her favorite thing about the South is women who say “Bless her heart.” Personally, my favorite thing about living in the South is being able to justify a subscription to Southern Living magazine. It’s good for me to remember this, because the list of things I do not like about living in the South is long (Curious? My top three are heat, humidity, and mosquitoes.).
Though I miss Chicago desperately, I do love Southern Living. It reminds me to look past the strip malls and remember that this place really is unique. And I love women who say “bless her heart.”
Regretfully, these three little words do conjure a common stereotype of Southern women. You know, sugar-sweet on the outside but with a deep vein of mean underneath. As in, “Poor thing looks like she got dressed in the dark, bless her heart.”
Yes, I’ve heard comments like this one (though never, ever from Grandmother), but, for the most part, “Bless her heart” isn’t used to sugar-coat the ugly.
Rather, it’s always sounded to me like a precious way of viewing other people. When we remark upon someone’s trouble, pain, or folly with a “bless her heart,” we are emphasizing that which is child-like in the other. Bless her heart (‘cause she can’t really help it). Bless her heart (‘cause we’ve all been there.)
At its worst, “bless her heart,” is infantilizing. At its best, it reminds us that we are all unfinished works-in-progress, generally trying (and frequently failing) to do our best.
To say “bless her heart,” is to notice what’s gone wrong but then . . . to extend a little grace.