We have turned a corner. Can you feel it?
The word for this third week of Advent is Rejoice. It is a word associated most closely with Mary.
Here is a prayer for this, the third Sunday of Advent.
“Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
– from The Book of Common Prayer
On the first day of Advent, our church sanctuary was draped in evergreen.
There were no shiny ornaments. There were no red or green ribbons. I looked at those unembellished greens and heard them say, “Not yet. Not yet.”
Our home looks much the same. Undecorated, except for the white pumpkin still sitting on the front steps.
It wasn’t intentional. Thanksgiving turned so quickly to Advent, all in a rush of visiting friends and family, that I couldn’t quite keep up. I found the advent wreath in the basement. The boys circled it with greenery. And that was all.
The world outside our walls has thrown on the glitz and made room for the glitter and every other year I have been right there keeping time with that fast Christmas beat.
Not this year. Not yet.
For more than a week, I’ve sat with bare branches, four candles, and a pile of Christmas books. Every other year I have rushed to fill in the gaps, to embellish the plain, and to pile on more. This year the Advent cry Come, Lord Jesus, Come has echoed in bare corners and across empty tabletops.
And I have heard something in those echoes. Something that frightens me.
I have heard as if for the first time the story of how God came and his own did not recognize him. Of how he appeared in a story crowded with a greedy empire, an oppressed people, and long-whispered promises of deliverance and restoration. A good story. A true story. And yet …
Living within the density of their story, God’s own people were unprepared for the ways in which God himself would turn the story inside out and upside down. They were unprepared to meet the Truth face to face.
And this is what I have heard echoing in the empty spaces of my house: who am I waiting for? Will I know him when he comes?
Year after year, I have rushed to fill the empty space of my fireplace with stockings. I have moved quickly to cover bare branches with ornaments. I have penciled in the calendar; I have filled the closet with gifts.
Year after year, I have greeted the Christmas season with everything I already know and all that I have figured out. I have said Come, Lord Jesus, Come to a face I find comfortingly familiar. A face with no more power to shock.
This year should have been the same, but a severe mercy and a difficult grace intended differently.
Without meaning to, I have decked these halls with empty space.
My prayer today remains the same. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. But this time, emptiness has made way for echoes. Bare corners have left room for the unknown and unseen.
And I prepare to have my world turned upside down by the King whose name I call.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
A hymn for this, the first Thursday.
“See the Lord of earth and skies; / Humbled to the dust … .”
GLORY be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend!
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears!
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.
Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King.
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!
See the eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of man;
Dwelling in an earthly clod,
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies;
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.
We, the sons of men, rejoice,
The Prince of peace proclaim;
With heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.
– by Charles Wesley
I’ve mentioned this before.
I do think it’s worth repeating.
I believe the secret to the dreaming life is knowing when to let go of a dream.
Here is what I have neglected to mention: that dream never really goes away. There are days when you see it back there in the past and you thank God your dream was never realized. But there are other days and other dreams. You look back at them and you ache for the younger you who poured so much of herself into that dream. You wonder, what was the point of all that effort? Was it for nothing?
All this makes you a little less eager to embrace new dreams.
I shared my story this week. I wrote it out: how God spoke to me and the language was my desire. But there is more. There is always more to our story while we are living it.
Here is Part Two: My dream came true (the dream I never could have imagined on my own), and it is good. But the old dream, the dream I willingly released, still comes creeping back. Some days, I look over my shoulder. I remember how in that dream I was called professor (not stay-at-home mom). In that dream I wore heels (not muddy garden boots). In that dream I had an easy answer to the question what do you do? In that dream I was admired, respected, and I stood at the front of the room.
Like many dreams, it was a muddy swirl of selfishness and altruism. Of wisdom and foolishness. Most days, I am relieved that I no longer keep office hours. No longer grade essays. However, there are days when I look at the interview jacket in my closet and wonder, with something that might be an ache, if I’ll ever wear it again.
I’m not sure I want to wear it again.
I haven’t given it away, either.
Old dreams are never fully discarded. There is no donations drop-box for the dreams we outgrow.
Standing in the doorway of my closet, fingering the polished fabric of that interview suit, I fear I am Lot’s wife. Will I, too, be punished for looking back?
That is a story I struggle to comprehend. It reads to me like something from the Greeks. Mortal women transformed into swans and trees and the shape-shifting gods who chase them. Certainly, the Bible is a strange collection of legend and history, myth and poetry, wisdom and epistle, but I believe it is God-breathed. Where is God’s life-giving breath in the story of Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt?
But Jesus says remember her and so I do (Luke 17:32). I remember her, and I remember that with the next breath he says whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and I remember that I have lived the truth of those words.
I remember how he lived them, too.
Maybe it isn’t a question of punishment but of choice. I can look back and cry my life away. I can squander these good days with endless longing and salty tears.
Or, I can listen. I can trust.
I can be grateful for memory. I can be grateful for the persistence of old dreams.
I can wake up every day eager to let it all go one more time, and one more time, because I know the only way to live is with empty arms.
If this room were hanging on the wall of a museum, like a painting, I would call it “After the Celebration.”
The fabric birthday banner is draped over a dining room chair (having fallen, gracefully, from the top of the china cabinet). A pile of gift bags, in shades of pink and purple, is stacked on the floor waiting for a return trip to the third-floor closet. I think there may still be a few candles, slick with the crumbs of a cinnamon-apple cake, hiding beneath the birthday cards lined up across the tabletop.
I am not yet ready to sweep away the remains of this past year or the party with which we ended it. I am following the trail of these crumbs trying to piece together the story of my baby girl’s first year.
I suppose it is more my story than hers. One day she will look at photos from this day and feel utterly disconnected from the beautiful baby in the pink dress. If I can discover the story, the meaning that lurks in a messy pile of remembered odds and ends, I can pass it on to her.
A better gift, I think, than any doll or keepsake book or slice of cake.
I don’t have what it takes (and what does it take? Time? Skill? Dedication?) to pray long or complicated prayers for my children. Instead, I ask for a verse, I write it on an index card, and I pray it just whenever I find myself sitting at my desk.
All year my prayer for this child (my second daughter, my last of four babies) has been less of a prayer and more of a long exhalation of gratitude. I have prayed this: “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19a).
However, this story doesn’t begin with longing. It begins with my determination not to ask or desire. It begins with a hole in my heart where longing should have been.
After the birth of our third, I gave away the baby things. I packed clothes in boxes and mailed them off. I left books at the used-book store. I sold the pricy breast pump on consignment.
This made perfect sense. Having finally earned my PhD, I was embarking on a career that left little space for more babies. I would soon round the corner of my late 30s. But beneath the reasonableness was something much darker: fear.
I had three children, but I had never conceived without doctor visits, invasive tests, medications. Even the surprise of my third pregnancy arrived only after months of tearful prayers.
I had always assumed we’d have another daughter. I sometimes remembered the tiny pink things I had packed away years before, but when I tried to imagine praying for another baby, waiting for another baby, I couldn’t.
Whatever store of desire had fueled my prayers for three children I had used it all up. I was empty, so I gave away every last object that might say hope.
Here, then, is the beginning of the story.
It is the quiet, twilit hour of bedtime. I am sitting at the end of my daughter’s turquoise bedspread. Her face is lost in shadow, but I can hear her voice clearly: “I want a sister.”
I have heard these same words before. I have heard them many times. I think it is exasperation that prompts my reply, but I wonder now if it was my own desperation?
I tell her, “I can’t give you a sister. Only Jesus gives babies. If you want a sister, you have to ask him.”
You might think this memory became meaningful only in hindsight. But that is not the truth. I knew something had happened as soon as the words left my mouth. It felt as if a boulder had shifted. Where there had been nothing within me but irritation there was something new.
Was it desire? Was it hope? I’m not sure I can name it, but it felt like this: pain.
My daughter prayed, and here is where hindsight does color this memory. Looking back, I really cannot say whether it was her prayer being offered or my own.
“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.”
I Samuel 1:27
*first photo by Kelli Campbell, second photo by Christie Purifoy