I wrote this Advent reflection two years ago. My daughter is twelve now, but she still asks difficult questions. I still have no easy answers.
When 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. 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 the angel costume we once found at a thrift store. 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. 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.”
I know that the killing freeze arrived later this year because I checked last year’s date in my journal. I understand that the cold air pouring in even as I type is, if anything, overdue, and yet I wish it had held off longer still.
Winter approaches, and I find myself afraid.
Most of the maple leaves have fallen, but the trees still wear a few. They look like dabs of watercolor paint. It is autumn’s last deep breath before the descent of winter’s gray veil.
Last winter was long, and the memory is still heavy. I love snow falling past the window, and I love pulling my children on a sled through the Christmas tree farm, but winter is not only that. Winter is also dark afternoons and ice in the chicken’s water and snow turned to mud.
We have all been sick for weeks, and I keep getting better only to get worse again. The baby’s eyes are red and infected, and our whole house shakes with bone-deep coughs.
I am too weary for bad news, I have kept the radio turned off, but terrible tidings slink in, like that draft around my office window. First there was a text from my friend. Such a devastating loss. A week later there was a phone call from family, and that one was so much worse.
They aren’t my stories to tell. Perhaps they aren’t stories at all. They are ruptures. Faultlines.
But you don’t need the details. I’m afraid you’ve heard them before. You, too, have received a text. You, too, have picked up that phone. These are the things that should never happen.
These are the stories every atheist mentions when he or she says they cannot, cannot believe in a good and loving and all-powerful God.
And I find I have no desire to argue with them. Such things should not happen. My atheist friends are absolutely right about that.
When the text came in, I started praying a prayer I’ve never prayed before. I think every true prayer is given, but the given-ness of this one was more apparent than most.
I prayed Let there be light.
I was still praying that prayer when the phone call came. And now I see no reason to stop. Lord, let there be some light. Dear God, please.
It is a winter prayer, and it beckons me toward spring promises:
For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people …
They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune.
– Isaiah 65:22-23
I want to believe that these words are true, but I am thinking of two mothers. One labored in vain. One bore a child doomed to misfortune. At least, that is what appears to be so.
But what if death was no more the end than winter is the end? What if these words are yet true for these mothers and their children? All hope seems lost, but maybe that is a lie.
After the cross came an empty tomb in a springtime garden.
Winter is near. They say it will be long and cold. I know for certain that it will be dark. But I also know that on the other side of winter is spring.
On the other side of death is life.
… for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.
– T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
The kids and I are reading the Little House books. One chapter each night. We began with Farmer Boy and a fire in the old stone hearth. Now we are in the big woods of Wisconsin, and there is birdsong through our open window.
It is also haying time in the fields west of this house. When we drive in that direction, to buy chicken feed from the feed and lumber store or flats of annuals from a greenhouse, we watch teams of muscled, shaggy horses at work in every field. They look as if they have been plowing the same red-clay soil for two hundred years. Day in, day out.
Sometimes there is a young boy holding the reins. He wears suspenders and a straw hat, and together we wriggle to keep from pointing and shout “Look! Farmer Boy!”
In this place, when the breeze carries the bracing smell of hay, just-cut, I am able to understand something about time that is normally hidden from me.
Time is not a line carrying us always farther from the past. Time is not a thread, and we are not simply biding it until the day ours is cut.
These days, in Lancaster County, I can see that time is a spring. Past and present and future bubble up together, and the sound is like music. Like the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Like birdsong through an open window.
But my children appear to be lines racing, racing away from me. Willowy is the word that comes to mind when I observe my firstborn girl. For nearly two years, I’ve seen her baby face when I look at my youngest, my second girl, but that face is now lost. Elsa Spring has grown into herself. There is a family resemblance, yes, but more and more she looks only like Elsa. Something has been shed, and the lines of her eyes and chin are now hers alone. No longer her older sister’s.
And thus, two baby girls vanish from every place but memory.
I don’t really know if I am living in a country of lost things or a kingdom of restoration and everything made new. I look around, I read the news, and I find both. Hopelessly jumbled.
We lose babies and grandmothers. We lose marriages and homes. We lose our younger selves and friendships and health and peace between nations and on and on forever, it seems.
But every new season is also a return, and the month of May, this pivot between spring and summer, reminds me that it is possible to root myself in that bubbling spring. To live sure of what I cannot always see: that time is not linear but rhythmic. It is a song where every note returns and every note is new.
And this is the living water that sustains me. This is the living water I hold out. To my racing children. To my thirsty neighbor.
Maybe eternity begins when I read a favorite story for the third, fourth, fifth time.
Maybe eternity begins here. Now.
We wake again to the most terrible news.
Like many of you, I turn the radio off when my children stumble, sleepy-eyed, into the kitchen. In an hour, they will sit in their own elementary school classrooms, and I don’t have answers for the questions they will ask.
I pack lunches, and my own head pounds with questions. Old, old questions.
Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?
We are not the first to ask these questions, but they have grown more insistent over the years, not less. At one time, God walked among us. But we have seen so much trouble since those days. We have cried rivers of tears.
I sometimes think I have the answers. When Jesus, speaking of resurrection, says, “Do you believe?” I say, yes. I believe.
But belief is not the same thing as answers. Not, really. Belief cannot silence questions like Why and Where were you?
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Because I believe, I reach too quickly for answers. Because I write stories, I move too soon to imagine happy endings.
In other words, I do not follow the example of the One I profess to follow. It seems too hard to do what he did: to let myself be moved. To let myself be troubled.
To let the tears fall.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
I don’t have answers for a day like this. How does anyone keep going after a two-mile-wide nightmare overtakes them?
I don’t know.
I hope – I can only hope – that when the time comes to stand up again and move, I will be there, cross in hand, following.
Following the suffering King.
The man of sorrows.
The one who stays and weeps and is moved by our questions.
Why? Why? Where were you?
Here is one thing I know: the world will keep on falling apart.
Sometimes it’s terrible, and you think you can’t go on. Bombs explode and guns are aimed at children, and the unimagined thing becomes our new reality.
Sometimes it’s a pebble in your shoe, a child apparently born without an indoor voice, and the discovery that you can, in fact, ruin brown rice even when you make it with an automatic rice cooker.
Sometimes it’s a Friday night thunderstorm that sounds terrible but lasts only fifteen minutes. You wake the next morning to blue skies and sunshine and the sight of a once-beautiful and massive maple tree lying stricken across your lawn.
The gloomy face of your chain-saw wielding husband annoys you. The tears of your firstborn both sadden and exasperate.
You move swiftly to combat both gloom and grief.
The tree was already at the end of its life! It was only a matter of time! It’s the circle of life! Nothing to cry about!
But you are wrong.
It is worth the gloom. It is even worth the grief.
The young girl is right, and you consider that even flowers were not created to fade. Life was never intended for death.
If we numb ourselves to the loss of one great tree, do we lose our capacity to grieve the harsher pain? The less explainable calamities?
Can our optimism become a kind of blindness? A refusal to see and acknowledge that all is not as it should be?
You are grateful your Saturday story does not end here. You consider that pain rarely seems to signal The End. In your (admittedly) limited experience, there is always something more.
Joy does come in the morning.
On this morning it appears in the form of a half-dozen teenagers. Needing to earn money for summer camp, you had agreed weeks ago (and quickly second-guessed your agreement) to give them odd jobs. You’d spent too much of the previous week worrying about the tall ladders involved in window washing and the poison ivy involved in brush clearing.
But here they are, and there, you have only just discovered, is the tree, and for that entire Saturday morning and the next Sunday afternoon, they will haul and carry and load. They will be your very own, unasked-for, tree-clearing work team, and your children will only occasionally slow their progress by treating the log pile like a jungle gym.
The tree is lost, and that is a terrible thing.
But it is not the only thing.