Advent has nearly reached its fulfillment, yet I am finding the peace it promises just a little harder to grasp as Christmas approaches.
How easily I can be undone by one two-year-old with a permanent marker and an extra-long grocery list.
My friend Ashley has given me a gift this morning. It took me longer than anticipated to post it for you because I can’t stop re-reading it. I want to feel the truth of it that desperately. I want to forget the fourteen things still on my to-do list. I want to be overwhelmed in the way she describes.
By his light.
We drive I-5 through Oregon’s mid-section, far from major cities, and the sky is pitch, punctuated occasionally by lines of Christmas lights and the glow of solitary windows.
For hours, days, anxiety has coursed through my body, and now in the silence of our car, I feel I may succumb to overwhelm – so many details and inadequacies pressing down on my shoulders, shouting through the quiet. But the light finds me in the calls of the dark, and then my eyes are downright searching for the light – this steadying hand, this hope slicing through.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
Out the window I see a curtain of pitch night, and then a parting to reveal the light. Light, light, light. Night.
As we follow the winding freeway, I wonder at those who traveled hundreds of miles on foot and animal back, following the light, not a road, to their destination. Keeping course by the new star on a journey itself until it came to the One worthy of all praise.
I consider the wise men’s trek to Perfect Love held within a little boy’s body, their joy at finally beholding Jesus’s light. I imagine their overwhelm bursting forth in worship, gratitude and praise, the offering of awe, gifts from hands and mouths.
Overwhelm usually speaks to burial and drowning, utter defeat. And I know this when limitations glare and glower, and I feel I might go under. But as I watch through my window at how Light overtakes the dark, I know I truly cannot be consumed by my own mind or this world.
Just look at how light pierces through. And I am guided to the place where He is, and I am overwhelmed.
Ashley Larkin is a story collector, wife to Michael and mother to three shining daughters (ages 12, 9 and 6). She longs to be a place of welcome and seeks hard after the hope and grace found in broken things. A writer, Ashley recently has embraced God’s call to speak to groups of women, as well. She delights in sharing face to beautiful face about our completeness and utter beloved-ness in Christ. Ashley and her family live in a 110-year-old house in Portland, Oregon with a grove of horse chestnut trees that clearly has taken over. You can find her blogging about living fully awake to the messy glory of everyday moments here and on Twitter here.
I am incredibly grateful for the community of writers I’ve come to know through the internet.
But there is nothing like sitting face to face. Nothing like talking over cups of coffee while children run through our legs (or beg for another push on the swing). Campbell has been that friend to me, and I am grateful beyond words.
Campbell is also a smart and talented writer, and she’s written the Advent reflection I desperately needed as Christmas Day approaches.
Every year, I am surprised when the world doesn’t seem to grow brighter, lighter as Christmas nears. Every year, at about this point, I wonder what is the point? The news goes from bad to horrific, and, like Campbell, I fear Christmas joy will never be found. Peace is impossible.
But here is hope. Here is the light that shines in darkness. That has not, nor ever will be, overcome.
Looking for Christmas
I’m looking hard for Christmas this year. I feel my broken edges, sharp and pointy, and I’m tired and weary from the world. I’m needing something holy. I’m trying to find Jesus, trying hard to see the babe in swaddling clothes, the one who brings light and love and makes things right again.
Maybe Christmas looks like twinkly lights, strung along roof lines and spun around bushes. Is this holiness – these tiny dots of light, twisted and tied into a brighter picture? One small LED bulb isn’t much on its own, but step back a bit and I can see the shape of a reindeer, or the letters that spell out “peace.”
My small light isn’t much on its own, either. Sometimes, even, a bulb or two are missing or out. Maybe if I string my little light offerings with your little sparks we can step back and see His burst of glory, the grand story spelled out in twinkles. Peace for each other, one small light at a time.
Maybe Christmas is like this: – maybe it’s the late night rock concert, where I’m sitting with folks who I know and folks I don’t and it smells like sweat and beer. It seems about as holy as donkey poop and hay. The darkness inside the theater is not unlike the winter dark.
The show has built with percussive intensity and it’s nearing the end. I’ve scooted my way to the edge of my seat. My body is prickly with emotional electricity, as if I could start a forest fire, standing too close to tinder and kindling. She stands at the edge of the stage, surrounded by her bandmates, lit up like a Christmas tree, and after one big breath in she lets it all out: “Rivers and roads” she belts out with emotional intensity, “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. The strength of her voice is punctuated by a sharp drumbeat and with it the lights die out. The theater is absolutely dark, utterly quiet. Maybe like Bethlehem?
She breathes deep, maybe we all do, and she sings it again “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. We are in darkness again.
This year has been nothing but tinder and kindling, and I’m in flames.
I think Christmas is like this: the pitch darkness, the creeping loneliness, the cold intensity of a world too big, too hard, too closed in. And when the light bursts back, it’s with this same message: till I reach you. To reach me. Rivers, roads, fields, trees, stars, stables, donkeys. It is all the message, and all the means, and it is Jesus here, in this darkness, in this theater, in my heart, reaching. Reaching. Boom. The show lights are back on.
We buried our grandfather, generous patriarch of this wide family, this week. He lived a glorious life, but there is heartache and sadness as we think of a tomorrow with no Grandpop in it. Can the babe in swaddling clothes be here, too, graveside with our grieving family, listening to Taps on the bugle behind us?
It’s through this veil of tears that somehow I see that He is here. He’s reaching us, rivers and roads, to hold hands and wrap His arms of love around me, around you. Not like my imaginary friend Jenny, who I used to see in the mirrors in the produce section at the grocery store, a fancy image of what I wanted to see. But instead Jesus is God himself, with me. He became human, cried human tears, laughed human laughs. Maybe He had heart burn and runny noses. He got tired and hungry and angry and hurt. And He loved. He gave love, He showed love, He is love.
It doesn’t seem to matter that I don’t know where to look for Jesus, or how to find Christmas this year. What I’m finding is that it can all be holy, because in God becoming human He sanctified it all. His holiness is everywhere. And through sadness and weariness, He’s reaching me with twinkle lights and rock concerts.
Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. She writes about it on her blog and can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds. Campbell’s work has also appeared at Brain, Child Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Mamalode.
Amy is another friend I owe to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.
We met rather accidentally when we found ourselves seated together in a large auditorium. Yet, it is a wonder we’d never met before. Our paths once crisscrossed through the English department of a Texas university and even at a local church.
Amy is smart and funny and she has excellent taste in books and music. I follow her playlists on Spotify, and I wish I could follow her library card, too.
But most importantly, Amy’s writing makes me uncomfortable. That might sound like criticism, but it is my highest praise. She notices things that must be noticed. She questions things that must be questioned. She knows what we must each learn; she knows that ease and comfort are not always our friends.
And Advent is not for the comfortable.
“When childbirth is normal, the pain is not a sign of injury; rather, as Sheila Kitzinger has said, it is ‘pain with a purpose.’ By acknowledging your pain, working in suggested ways with your body during childbirth, and remembering that the pain will soon end, you will be more likely to put the pain in perspective and to prevent it from overwhelming you…”
(Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn by Penny Simpkin)
72 hours after my water broke, 36 hours after the heavy labor had begun, 3 hours after I started pushing, I gave birth to my firstborn daughter, Rosemary. I had fought, alongside my husband, mother, midwife, sister-in-law, and a bevy of nurses, for her arrival, and when my screams finally quieted, after midnight, snow was falling outside the hospital.
She was born. My husband looked awestruck, said with wonderment, “She’s perfect.”
Weeks later, my body slowly healing, I was still wondering why it had taken so long. I’d labored for hours without seeing any progression: had I been doing something wrong?
My instincts had led me to fight the painful contractions; but upon re-reading the childbirth book, I found that I should have tried to accept each one. I should have welcomed the pain, used it.
As Christmas nears, I find myself thinking of Mary. Did she embrace the pain? Did her labor last for three days, like mine did? I wonder if she understood that her whole life with Jesus would be bookended by pain, from the pain of childbirth to the pain of the cross? I wonder if she understood that when her groaning finally fell silent, the whole earth felt a thrill of hope!
And then continued groaning for its full deliverance.
If I see another beautiful picture of flickering lights or another chocolate advent calendar, I think I’ll scream. This year, all the beauty and the longing and the quiet yearning just feel like cliches to me. I’m tired of waiting. I’m fed up with injustice and violence, death and disease. I can’t bear to see evil triumph again while we keep waiting under twinkle lights and shiny aluminum ornaments. The waiting doesn’t feel beautiful: it feels like those hours and hours of contractions, with no progression.
If these are the labor pains of God’s kingdom being born, what does it mean to embrace them? How can we lean into the pain, our hearts heavy with lament? How long, oh Lord, will these contractions last?
The pain is too much for us. In the prosperous West, we’ve found the epidural of materialism, and made ourselves comfortable for the duration.
But in doing so, what have we lost?
When we can’t feel the pain, we don’t realize how much we need deliverance. How much we depend on hope. Pain teaches us to hope. And somehow, to believe that, these thousands of years later, God is still at work, that the long labor will end, that the new kingdom will truly be born. Leaning into that pain, breathing through it, is how the kingdom will come on earth.
“Labor cannot be controlled,” Penny Simpkin warns. So, too, God’s new kingdom cannot be controlled; it is being born, all around us, whether we fight for it or against it, whether we can see it or not. The weary world will rejoice. God’s kingdom will be born on earth.
And we will be awestruck at its perfection.
Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors Guild at Taylor University. She writes about pop culture, church, books, food, intercultural communication, mothering, and education; and always, about what it might mean that God is making all things new. Follow her on twitter and read more at her blog.
Kimberly and I have been online friends for a few years, but we met for the first time in person just this October. I’ve recently taken a few friendships from the online world to the real world, and it is always a treat to discover that the person you like from a distance is also completely likeable face to face. But Kimberly? Well, we spent almost the entirety of our first in-person conversation saying, “You too??” We are more alike than I ever would have guessed, and I love knowing that this talented writer and like-minded friend is only a few hours away by car.
And this reflection? Well, this may be Kimberly’s first year observing Advent, but she has captured it beautifully, perfectly.
Here is an Advent treasure.
To Hold Longing
I hand-picked the peeling birch branches we cut off the dying tree in the backyard. They’re white and spare and beautiful. Last Christmas, I hung small white doves from every twig. They sat like tiny messengers delivering a promise of peace for the year to come.
This year, I chose those same spare branches to hang the ornaments for our first Jesse tree. Every day, I look at it, and it feels unfinished, lopsided, undone. I miss the doves with promise caught up in their wings. When I hung them, the look was complete. Instant beauty, strung up and done. Next project, please.
Now, the branches sit waiting for the next reminder, the next piece of the Advent story we string into place each night. My children don’t know what to make of it. We’ve never observed Advent before, and they don’t know exactly where this story and this Jesse tree will lead us.
Over the years, they’ve grown increasingly unaccustomed to waiting. They want insta-Christmas with all of the parties and early gifts and holiday cheer distracting them from the wait for presents on Christmas Day. This year, I want all of us to learn what it feels like to sit with the undone. To hold longing. To wait with anticipation for the next thread woven into Jesus’ story to unravel from the spool.
I don’t know what beauty these threads will weave into place. I know the end result is the Baby, but I don’t know what he will teach me in the waiting. I hope to sit with hands cupped, holding each day and each story lightly, ready to catch and then release them onto what’s left of my backyard tree.
Perhaps this is where the manger always leads us, to the tree where everything that appears unfinished is finally called finished and done. I’m sitting with this promise during Advent, believing that the work of redemption is complete, but knowing I wait still, watching for the final threads of this story, for Kingdom come to unfurl.
After three years spent living in Switzerland, Kimberly Coyle recently relocated with her family to New Jersey. She loves stories, chasing beauty, and grace. Always grace. Connect with Kimberly on her blog or on facebook.
Kris Camealy is an encourager with a gift for friendship. Though we have yet to meet in person, I am already blessed to call her friend.
Also, this lady knows how to get things done. At least, that’s how it looks from where I sit. I have no idea how she manages to write and create and teach and organize (and cook!) the way she does, but she inspires me.
I think her reflection will inspire you, too, though it is her vulnerability, even her weakness, that shines so beautifully in this piece.
In the middle of the busiest shopping weekend of the year, with the steady lure of distractions and temptations streaming into my inbox, I fight to be present—to pay attention.
The Saturday before Advent, I listen to a scripture reading on my phone while warming Thanksgiving leftovers for dinner. The recorded voice reads a passage from the 13th chapter of the book of Mark. As I listen to Jesus’s words to his disciples urging them to “stay awake,” I am struck by the insistence with which He speaks this message.
“Be on guard,” He says. “Stay Awake.”
Meanwhile all I can think about is how tired I am. I turn the page on the calendar; how is it December already? I seem to enter the season of Advent every year like this — unprepared, tired, and teetering on anxious. The sun slips away by five pm, and the premature darkness leaves me sagging well before dinner. I shuffle through the evening routine with one eye on the clock, anticipating crawling into bed.
Stay awake, Christ urges. For you do not know when the master of the house will come…lest he come suddenly and find you asleep (Mark 13:36).
Advent comes with an unbearable weight bearing down, the expectation of Christ coming. I wonder if Mary was able to stay awake in the waiting? How long a journey it was to Bethlehem, to stable, to the floor of a crude barn, where she spilled the Glory of the World into the soiled hay at the feet of livestock.
Stay awake — five days after hearing them, these words refuse to leave me. Advent comes every year at a pre-determined time, marked on virtually every calendar available. I know exactly when it will begin. I know when it will end. But Christ’s urgency to his disciples reminds me that I don’t really know what I think I know.
The season of Advent offers an opportunity to learn to prepare, to remain awake, even when the temptation to hibernate presses in. Wakefulness requires a conscious effort to be present, even in my weariness.
After dinner I close up the kitchen. I’ve scuttled the kids all off to their beds. I find a quiet spot at the edge of the sofa and sit for the first time in a couple of hours. I light the candle on the table beside me and sit still in the dim, flickering light while the dishwasher hums busy in the background.
Recounting Mary’s journey to the stable, in the dark of a waiting world, Advent invites me to hold on. I’m reminded to ready my heart for the King’s coming.
Stay awake, He urges. Pay attention. Be present.
As a sequin-wearing, homeschooling mother of four, Kris is passionate about Jesus, people and words. Her heart beats to share the hard but glorious truth about life in Christ. She’s been known to take gratuitous pictures of her culinary creations, causing mouths to water all across Instagram. Once upon a time, she ran 10 miles for Compassion International, a ministry for which she serves as an advocate. Kris is the author of Holey, Wholly, Holy: A Lenten Journey of Refinement and the follow up Companion Workbook.
You can read more from Kris at kriscamealy.com.