During Advent twelve years ago, I was newly pregnant and very afraid.
I should have remembered the angel’s proclamation to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Instead, because I had waited so long and with so much agony for this second child to be conceived, the news of a growing baby felt too good to be true. I became convinced that my child would be born with serious health problems.
My prayers had been answered, but I dimly sensed there must be some price to pay.
I had suffered just enough to stop believing in good news and gifts freely offered.
The good news of this season is God’s nearness. A son has been born to us, and his name is God-with-us.
The good news is that the God who came near has promised to return. Advent is that season when we pinch ourselves awake, we rub the sleep from our eyes, and we remember to watch and wait.
“A light shines in the darkness,” and despite everything–everything— we’ve seen, we believe the “darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
My son Thaddeus was born at bright noon on my very own birthday. He was healthy and strong, and I held in my arms the answer God had been whispering to me for months: This son is a good gift. No strings attached.
That was the good news, and it was absolutely true. Yet my grip on it slipped as Thaddeus grew.
He had his first serious allergic reaction at six months old. It was Christmas Eve.
We used the epi-pen and drove him to the hospital for the first time when he was two.
We did the same when he was three.
When he was four, I took him out for a treat and forgot to bring his epi-pen. A stranger with an epi-pen in her purse saved my son’s life.
I remember once standing with an exhausted doctor in a hospital corridor. We were both watching Thaddeus, lying so swollen and so still in that enormous hospital bed, and I asked, “Will he grow out of it?”
The doctor sighed, his eyes never leaving my little boy. I waited.
“Normally, I would say yes. But I’ve never seen a reaction like his. How could a little processed-cheese dust cause this?”
Through a decade of constant vigilance and fear that was still, too often, not good enough, I prayed for my son.
Heal him. Please.
But every single time I prayed, the same few words would drop—like a stone—in my heart:
He is already healed.
I never knew what to do with that stone. Some days I believed the good news: already healed. But the good news couldn’t fully erase the fear that we would make another mistake, miss something, forget something.
And the good news seemed to offer little to a boy who ate his lunch alone at the “peanut-free table” and cried after every class party: I just want to eat what all the other kids eat.
I can’t remember when we first decided to let him try dairy. Two years ago? A year? I know he asked for a long, long while before we said yes. I can’t even remember what we fed him. Was it a muffin baked with a little bit of butter? Or was it a waffle made with a small amount of buttermilk?
I’ve forgotten how it began, but I remember the culmination: cheesy homemade pizza on a Friday night. We let him try one bite. We kept his epi-pen on the counter. We made him wait twenty minutes before another bite, and we peppered him with questions:
How do you feel? Is there any scratchiness in your throat? What about now? Does your mouth itch? What about now?
He ate one whole piece of pizza that night, but we still took it slow. The light of that good news announced for years to every one of my prayers was dawning, but Jonathan and I covered our eyes.
We were afraid, I think, to look directly at the thing we had always desired.
This year, our son has eaten cookies and cakes baked with butter. He has eaten cookies and cakes baked with milk. Twice, he ate a cupcake frosted with butter frosting. Once, he sprinkled parmesan cheese on his soup, and I didn’t stop him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we realized too late we’d forgotten to buy almond milk. We made the mashed potatoes, Thaddeus’s favorite food, with real milk, real cream, and real butter.
That night, having had no reaction to the potatoes, Thaddeus ate his first slice of apple pie with real whipped cream.
“I like it,” he said, in a quiet voice.
A week or so ago, I realized we were out of the almond milk Thaddeus has always used on his Cheerios and his oatmeal. Jonathan would be heading to the grocery store that day, but as I wrote up a list for him, I couldn’t decide whether to add almond milk.
The only thing we had not yet tried giving Thaddeus was pure milk. I knew in my mind he could have it. He ate whipped cream! I knew he had outgrown his milk allergy, but over all these years, I have grown accustomed to doubt and fear.
The last time Thaddeus took a sip of milk, he was three, and it was a glass meant for his sister, and the whole nightmare ended with a bloody mark on his pants from the epi-pen and a trip to the hospital.
My pen hesitated until, finally, I wrote: almond milk (do we need to buy more?).
Maybe Advent is the long, slow leaning in toward the good news we do believe. Maybe Advent is a gradual waking up.
The good news we have waited for has been announced in our lives. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. My much-loved boy is no longer allergic to milk, and this year, for the first time, he and I will share a birthday cake made with real milk and real butter.
But when I think about pouring him a glass of milk, my hand starts shaking with old memories and old fears, and I can’t do it.
I haven’t yet done it.
When Jonathan brought the groceries home, I saw the familiar box of almond milk amidst the bananas and the avocados.
“You bought more almond milk,” I said to him.
It was a statement.
It was a question.
Jonathan looked at me. He didn’t say anything until he finally looked away.
“It feels good just to have it in the house,” I said, and he nodded.
We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for Christ’s return.
But maybe we’re also waiting on ourselves. Gently and with patience.
Because the good news is a bright light, and our eyes are weak. Our hearts still a little fearful. And maybe we need to hear, just one more time, what Mary heard not so long ago:
The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.
Image credit: Chelsea Hudson
There is a white oak tree near my house that is older than these United States.
Lately, I have needed the long perspective this tree provides. I have needed to remember that there are still living witnesses to years far beyond every one of our forty five presidents.
This one tree has outlived all the great divisions that have plagued our national community. It has outlasted the rebels and the loyalists, those who fought duels, and those who took up arms against their brothers.
But political division is much older than our country.
Even much older than this tree.
Did you know that Jesus called a traitor and a terrorist to be among his first followers? Of course, even those words are contentious. You could call Simon a freedom fighter. You could say Matthew was a law-and-order guy.
Simon was a Zealot. Matthew was a tax collector for the Empire. Politically, the space between these two makes the different between an American Democrat and an American Republican look as insignificant as the tiny bird’s nest I once saw tucked into a branch of the old oak tree.
Jesus ate with them both. Walked with them both. And while we might imagine that each man tossed his political opinions out like garbage when he chose to follow a carpenter from Nazareth, we have no evidence of that. It seems far more likely to me that they went on disagreeing about many things. Only now, they disagreed as they ate together, prayed together, and became servants of men together.
Each man saw some things clearly and was blind to others, and Jesus wanted them both on his team.
I know. I don’t like it any more than you do.
Perhaps you cannot imagine worshiping alongside someone who thinks abortion should remain legal. Perhaps you cannot imagine worshiping alongside someone who thinks abortion should be made illegal.
Feel free to insert any one of the many political issues that divide us.
For me, it is deeply painful to know that I love the same Jesus as some who favor closing our borders to Muslim refugees fleeing war. Perhaps you find it painful to realize that’s my view.
This is not easy. It will make us cry.
The only thing that will help is if we name one another rightly. Not pro or against. Not right or left. Not terrorist or traitor. But Beloved.
We who seek to follow do it well and we do it badly, often all on the same day, but always we are Beloved.
You and your neighbor both:
You and your enemy both:
I worry that the old oak tree down the hill from my house will not survive much longer.
The average lifespan of a white oak tree is three-hundred years, but this tree has already lived long beyond that. I believe the oldest white oak tree lived to see six hundred, but I doubt that it sat, as mine does, on the edge of a possibly over-watered and over-fertilized golf course.
Not even the grandest tree is immune to the decisions of men and women. Shall we tend forest, pasture cows, or build a golf course? Even these seemingly non-political decisions have something to say about our political commitments, and even the most personal experience can become political.
Politics matter. After all, justice, as Cornel West has said, is what love looks like in public.
I can almost guarantee that you know a woman who sees the face of the man who groped her in the face of our new President.
And I am sure most of us know someone who remembers when their public school teacher began the day with prayer and worries that the faith of his grandchildren is at risk in our now much more secular culture.
Politics is personal. And, yes, lives are at stake.
I will go on choosing silence. I will go on choosing speech. I encourage you to do the same.
Lord, help us to know when to choose the one and when the other.
And let your banner over us be Love.
In our home, Friday night is for pizza. I imagine that is true for many of you as well.
For ten years, we lived in pizza heaven (also known as Chicago.) Late on Friday afternoon, we would decide which neighborhood pizza place was calling our name.
Within a few blocks of our apartment we had two long-time pizza restaurants that served traditional, deep-dish Chicago pizza. I still dream about that spinach pizza pie. One slice would make you grab your belly and groan. Every once in a while my husband managed two.
There was also the little Italian restaurant on 53rd Street with its gourmet, thin-crust pizzas. We loved a version with thinly sliced potatoes and fresh rosemary, but I made the mistake of eating it early in my pregnancy with my firstborn. It was years before I could eat that pizza without remembering first-trimester suffering. Every few months, my husband would ask, plaintively, “How do you feel about potato pizza?”
Toward the end of our decade in the city, a new “bake-at-home” takeout place opened up. It was a little more affordable than the other options, and the ingredients were incredibly fresh. Baby spinach, large leaves of basil, golden, caramelized shallots, rich, briny olives … I think we tried a new combination every Friday night.
Then we moved to Florida.
In Jacksonville, we sampled every pizza place in a 15-miles radius before accepting that things had changed. We’ve been making our own pizza ever since.
Our homemade pizza is cheap, quick, easy, and, oh my goodness, is it delicious. It may not be Chicago deep dish, but it is good.
I’m sharing a story of homemade pizza, practical hospitality, and prayer over at Grace Table today. I am also sharing our recipe.
Won’t you join me?
When I was invited to write about “quiet hospitality” at Grace Table, I knew just what I would say.
I meant to tell you all about the loud hospitality we used to practice. About the parties and events and big efforts. Those days were good, but they are long gone.
I meant to tell you about the daily rhythms of our current life at Maplehurst. Those quiet practices, like a cooked breakfast every morning and homemade pizza every Friday night, that are easy and natural to share with others.
But all the while a very different story was unfolding at my own kitchen table. And that is the story I’m sharing today.
Grace Table is about love for God, love for neighbor, and love for the table. If you haven’t yet spent time there, I suggest you do. The storytelling is excellent, and the recipes are mouthwatering.
It’s a delicious combination.
Find my story here.
I tend to think of seasons as four separate compartments to the year. Like nesting boxes in graduated sizes.
I forget that they are more like the Lego blocks in my son’s latest creation. Interlocking and overlapping. Difficult to pry apart.
Recently, I stood over the sink and ate a peach. It tasted perfectly peachy, and the juice ran in rivers down my right arm. Like a sunset, melting.
I held the fading summer sun in my hand, and watched gray clouds hauling themselves briskly across an autumn sky. Yellow leaves somersaulted across the grass.
I also tend to think of prayer in separate compartments. Like the paper trays I keep on my desk.
There is the inbox and the outbox. There is a spot marked urgent and one for the less pressing overflow.
If I think long enough, I can assign each prayer a neat label. Answered. Unanswered. Ongoing. Expires in five days. The paper trail of prayer is clearly defined. Requests move in one direction. Responses in the other.
But of course prayer is nothing like my paper tray. Of course, of course, I tell myself. Of course it is so much more like standing in a chill autumn wind while you hold summer in your hand.
The truly astonishing thing about prayer is not that our prayers are sometimes answered. The thing that never fails to startle me, to wake me up and scatter the paper piles of my mind, is that even the prayers themselves are given.
First, the prayer like one falling leaf.
Then, the answer, like the taste of that sweet peach.
On Friday, I breathed out the heaviness of the whole week with the thought It has been a long time since someone prayed for me.
That sort of thing was once a regular occurrence. I lived on a cushion of tightly knit community, and I rarely went more than a week or two without someone reaching out a hand. Someone holding out a prayer.
But two cross-country moves in four years have disrupted so many once-regular things. And every so often I let myself feel the jagged edges. Every so often I lean into them and breathe my own jaggedness.
Which is one way I know to pray without ceasing.
On Saturday a friend drove thirty minutes to come sit on my porch. While our children played, we talked. And we prayed.
She reached out her hand. She gave me her prayer.
I responded, with surprise and with gratitude, Amen.
Which came first? Like chickens and eggs. Like seeds and flowers. Prayers and answers are a puzzle I hope I never solve.