They tell me to sit down. While I’ve been on an important phone call they’ve been rummaging through dress ups and their own imagination and come up with an elaborate game. They take me on a journey with the map in the living room, across the ocean in a steam ship, by train over land…all the while Caleb points to each spot on the wall map telling me where they are traveling.
After the “travels” they disperse around the house. I watch and listen and smile.
Caleb: “I’m pounding nails in (holding an imaginary hammer and pencils for ‘nails’), is this a good place? Watch out for my nails Audrey.”
Audrey: “Yes, it’s good.”
Mom: “What are you doing?”
Caleb: “Building Audrey’s orphanage, I’m almost done.”
Mom: “What’s the name of the orphanage?”
Audrey (ever so matter-of-factly): “A Chunk of Love Orphanage.”
Mom (deep breath and huge grin – could I love them any more?): “That’s awesome. I love it.”
Somehow, don’t ask me how, Caleb tells me that he’s Ronald Reagan before he was President of the United States and he is building Audrey (who tells me she’s dressed up to be Clara Barton because she didn’t like the name Gladys Alward) an orphanage in Hong Kong. I bite my tongue and try not to laugh, looking at the outfit Caleb has chosen, brown Carthartt coveralls and leather gloves and brown leather boots.
Kyler is a rock climber. He’s scaling Mt St Helens (our living room recliner chair) before it blew up.
Rylee makes me guess who she is…her bright fuschia sari is a dead giveaway though and I get it right on my first guess, Amy Carmichael.
And this little one is content to watch it all unfold…
No, she’s not embarrassed that she is still in her pajamas at 3:00 in the afternoon 🙂
I sit across the table from her in the early morning as we drink coffee in the corner of this tiny breakfast spot that is a 45 minute drive for both of us. It’s the perfect middle meeting place. She drives south as I’m driving north. It isn’t anything pretty to look at, this little diner that seems to be full of locals who all know each other and talk farming and friendship and bureaucracy. But to me, on this rainy Saturday, it is sacred ground.
We’ve somehow managed to carve out time with none of our combined thirteen children and have two full hours of face time. Not the electronic app type, but the real kind where I can reach across my coffee cup and touch her arm. There is little time for chit chat or anything light or mindless, not today. We know our time is short and we both know too there is heartache of many varieties on each side of the table. There are twenty five years of friendship in between as well.
Our banter is quiet and though we find things to laugh about, as we exchange words and share about life, something happens that is always a bit beyond the reach of my understanding. Somehow, in the sharing, in the hearing, in the remembering together, the burdens that are pressing so heavy on my heart are lifted just a bit. We don’t answer any big questions or solve any mysteries. The process reminds me of these words that are life to me these days…
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
These two hours are rest for my soul. In the midst of the talking, the listening and the tears there is some sort of mysterious exchange. It feels like she is a stand-in for Jesus. There isn’t any better way to describe it. In daring to speak out loud my deep sadness and struggle, and listening to hers….in shouldering it alongside each other in the corner booth, it doesn’t weigh the same. It is lighter.
At certain times, I think God knows we need a physical person to represent him in our life. We need someone living, breathing, sitting right there whose own eyes well up when they see us cry. Someone who holds no judgement over our failure or mistakes. Someone who doesn’t offer an answer but extends compassion and makes sure we know they aren’t going anywhere. We can read in a book or on a blog or know God’s word by memory, all sorts of truth. But there are moments in life when things press in a little (or a lot) too hard and we need a person who looks like Jesus to hold us up, to bear with us under the weight of life, until we can stand again.
Thankful today that we don’t have to walk it alone. That one way or another, God stands near. Ever present in our pain.
Yesterday it seemed like the sun might set at 3:30 in the afternoon, the sky was black and ominous and promised showers but it was bone dry outside. I nuzzled a soft baby head and felt a pang of nostalgia wash over me. It feels like summer just ended last week, then our daughter was born and here I am knee deep in dark, wet days. Some quick math tell me Liberty is almost 10 weeks old so I must be off somewhere…oh how my mind wants to cheat and steal when it comes to time.
Just before the actual sunset, spectacular beams of light burst through the trees and lit up our patch of land. The sky was still so dark. But somehow light was finding its way through. It was so dramatic and so stunning, I made the kids come outside and see it before the light disappeared. Writing about it makes me think of sweet friends who we were privileged to share life with last year at church and in our home group. They abruptly moved to Arizona in August in pursuit of treatments that might help Bryan’s aggressive melanoma. The road they are walking, at just freshly past 30 years old and with two young kids, makes my face pale. Talk about darkness in the light of day. Talk about needing light to burst through and find its way. Talk about wanting to steal time. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder why things like that happen. It is anything but fair.
My reaction to thinking about them yet again is twofold…first prayers for the miracles they need. And second is calculating all that lies around me – a sacred, precious, puking mess. Three days in with a wicked stomach virus that has completely taken over. As I sat with Finn yesterday on my lap, killing time until bedtime by watching tractor movies on youtube, I breathed his smell in deep. I rested my weary head on his sweaty neck and remembered the highlight of his summer as he chatters on about each John Deere he sees on the screen. It was this:
He could sit on my lap and stare at that picture for ten minutes. And believe me, there isn’t much that keeps him busy for ten minutes! Its been two and a half months and he still asks every time we drive that directions, “Can we go to the fair mama?”. I thought doing the fair, nine months pregnant, with five other children might just do me in. And it may have come close. But oh the happy in his voice when he talks about it, remembers with me, the insane crazy fun we had practically living at the fairgrounds for six straight days.
Bedtime finally came and we did the same heartbreaking routine every night these days:
Mama (at his bedside): Finn, what song should I sing with you?
Finn: No, I don’t want you to go mama, I want to sleep WITH you.
Mama: How about I pick a song? (I do, and I start to sing)
Finn (big brown eyes brimming with sadness): Oh mama, no, please don’t leave me.
Over and over again. If I start to cry, like I did tonight, I leave sooner than later because there is a baby to feed and other kids that need tucking in. I promise him that I’ll see him in the morning and that when the sun comes up, I will be there. And I think again of our friends in Arizona and how much I want their sun to come up and their too-long-night to be over. Every single day – even our puke-filled ones or the ones where all your kids are in hysterics at the grocery checkout or the ones where all your life’s efforts don’t seem to count for anything or any other kind of less than lovely day – is such a tender gift. To be prized, tucked away and treasured. Tomorrow is not promised to us, today is what we have.
I’m only thirty five. I feel like I’m still in my twenties though truth be told I love this age and I love this decade of my life more than any of the ones prior. My twenties were awfully insecure for me. No doubt I missed out on a good many things just because I was too worried about what someone thought to “just do it” or “just say it”.
These days, increasingly, someone asks a question or seeks advice about something and it catches me off guard. My first blush response is usually (in my head at least) “I have no idea – I’m not qualified to answer that”. And then I usually say something (out loud) that hopefully sounds like “I may not be qualified but I’m at least willing to try to help”.
Last year I got off the phone with someone and told my husband in disbelief:
I’m the older woman. How can that be?!
I’m not sure how it happened, how I got to be thirty five and have six children over a ten year span and be married to the same (amazing) man for almost 15 years. Well, of course I sort of know how most of that happened. But the point is I still feel like the young, inexperienced, not-excellent-at-anything mother. And regardless of anything redeeming I’m able to share with anyone, anywhere – I really need a still-older-than-me woman to beckon me down this path.
Last month I thought to myself “How does any mother make it without a Mrs. Nelson?”. She’s a teacher at our homeschool co-op. She had my two older sons in class last year, dealt graciously with the one who can be challenging and has my two middle ones this year. Last year she spoke just a few kind words about my son that told me she gets it, she gets him and she sees good things in him despite his difficulties. I can’t explain what that meant to me. She affirmed who he was; his nature-loving, quiet, bright, book-devouring self. I remember the tears the day I realized she saw great things when all I could see in that moment was a mess. She spoke life. She invited herself over this summer and I could hardly believe she’d want to come spend an afternoon over her break from school on my front porch but she did. She engaged all of my children that day in the most delightful way. It was such a gift to me.
When Caleb hurt his hand and had surgery she was quick to offer to come help at the Fair with kids and goats and anything. It totally blessed me. She came and she helped in the most practical ways. She gently, firmly corrected my five year old who grabbed kettle corn out of her bag without asking. She somehow did that with such grace that I didn’t feel judged for my daughter being a little bit rude, only thankful for the kind correction. Mrs. Nelson continues to give me little pep talks and words of encouragement along the way and truly, some days, they hold me up in ways nothing else quite could. And it makes me wonder, over and again, how people survive the arduous, un-glamorous, largely-without-thanks but most incredible privilege of motherhood if they don’t have a few good cheerleaders who are further down the road than they are.
In the same regard, we have Suzanne. She texts me spur of the moment and says “can I bring you coffee?”. She has a long lunch some days of the week. Why anyone would stop by our crazy house on their lunch hour I have no idea. And we don’t exactly live in the city or on anyone’s way anywhere. So for someone to pop by with coffee is most unusual. And most wonderful. Her stay is always short and she makes sure to “check in” with each of my children. Her genuine interest in their goings on is totally precious. She is one of those people you meet and think “too good to be true, too sweet to be real?”. But she’s the real thing. She wrote me these words a while back that I come back to over and again (her email is tucked in my ‘special’ folder):
Full of tender mercy & love, fiercely devoted to your family- that is how I see you.
Heaven knows as mothers we sure don’t see ourselves in a lovely light every day, most days probably. I’d been discouraged and sad and unable to see past my failure of the moment when she wrote me that note. It literally infused hope just when I needed it. We often need someone else to tell us how they see us because what we see isn’t always an accurate picture.
The most lovely thing is as they cheer me on, I am inspired to do the same with the mama’s who are coming along after me. It’s beautiful. I’m fairly sure it’s the way life is supposed to work and part of how we were mysteriously, intricately, lovingly created by a gracious God to abide in community with others.
We began this journey in September, I read the sign up list for small groups at church and ours was the only one that said “children welcome”. Which is totally normal for American church, I get it. But we decided from the get go that if we were going to host a community group in our home, it would have to be all of us. The logistics of a weekly sitter wasn’t even the real issue. The much more significant factor was that we saw great value in figuring out how to build community with our kids in the mix. They are after all, an integral part of our life.
After much consideration we decided last summer that we would host a Sunday evening group and meet for dinner at 5:00. We thought maybe no one would sign up for our family oriented group. We had no idea that we’d end up spending the better part of a year sharing life with these 21+ people (11 of them being children 10 and under!).
Here are a few reflections and lessons learned from our first year doing this:
Sharing a meal together weekly is a major investment – but it is tremendously worthwhile. Everyone has to eat right? So why not figure out how to do it together?
Simply eating together poses all sorts of opportunity to get to know people better. You gain understanding of food allergies, favorites and how people tend to eat in their own homes.
By delegating the components of each meal, the load can be shared reasonably well with the whole group.
NOT delegating means me cooking dinner for 20 people. Which happened more than once. But it was my poor planning and failure to ask for help. Lesson? Next time we will choose 5 or 6 favorite meals and simply rotate each week through the options. This would require much less of me (who already plans and prepares about 18 meals a week for 6 or 7 people).
Hosting a small group does not require impeccable housecleaning skills. Sometimes the guest bath smelled terrible. Sometimes the counters weren’t cleaned off. Sometimes there was still laundry about.
It’s more than okay not to have your house in tip top shape. It’s real and real is good. What matters far more is that your heart and attitude say “welcome” when people walk in your front door.
If you’ve been having a spat with your hubby and aren’t on speaking terms, it might be slightly awkward to have a load of people over, discuss a book and pray together all the while offering a cold shoulder to your spouse. Dealing with your issues would have probably been better. However, this again, is just life and sharing it with others is part of the journey. No one has it together all the time and its okay for other people to see that!
When you don’t feel well and you want to stay in bed, throwing sweats on and saying “come on in” anyway is enough. There is something intimately wonderful about inviting others into your (imperfect) life and home.
Your children will at some point be very loud or very naughty or very naked and it will be embarrassing. This. Is. Life.
Half way through the year I told everyone “You are like family now and it sometimes takes me 2 or 3 days to finish the dishes from us all eating on Sunday! So I really need some help in the kitchen after we eat.” Problem solved.
Paper products are expensive and wasteful. I couldn’t see buying and using them every week. So we use real dishes. This wouldn’t work for everyone (which is totally okay, you’ve gotta do what works for you!) but we made it work.
While kids played after dinner, we could discuss the chapter in the book we were reading together and then pray for one another. Yes, we were interrupted at times. Especially in winter it was a little hard and loud. But the kids learned over time that they needed to wait till after we prayed to ask for dessert or to come see their shows.
It is a tremendous privilege to be able to pray for others and even more amazing to watch those prayers be answered. Every family in our group including ours came up against some tough stuff this year. Being able to share those burdens is a beautiful picture of love in action.
And last but certainly not least – everyone could use a Roger in their life…
Don’t ask me how he got dubbed “Roger”, I’ve absolutely no idea. But Kyler, in this particular costume, is Roger. And he has entertained us many Sunday nights. Tonight’s year end final show was as unique as the rest:
It’s six o’clock in the morning and my alarm goes off. I hit the snooze but only twice. I’d gone to bed the night before thinking “Easter is in four days and we haven’t even done an amazing craft project or talked deep about the meaning of this, the most holy day in all our faith”. Right as I will myself out of bed to do some thinking, preparing, praying on the matter I hear a banging so loud that Chris leaps out of bed running. Sounds like someone is taking a hammer to our front door. He quickly realizes its Finn. Pounding on his door from the inside with his little two year old fist and a plastic baseball bat. He’s learned to climb out of his crib, strip himself naked, turn on the lights in his room and then perch precariously on his toy tool bench so he can peek out the window down our street. Every morning. But usually he hollers or taps softly. And usually at a decent hour. Just not today.
My attitude goes down a few notches as I face the prospect of finding peace and quiet with a precocious little man by my side. I coarsely tell him that I’m really quite unhappy he is awake at this hour and his brown saucer eyes just look at me and smile. He wants a cheese stick. I want coffee and quiet. I wonder if TV would keep him busy for a few minutes. Not a chance.
While I make coffee, Finn finds his way into the laundry room, grabs two cans of Guinness left over from St Patrick’s day and hands them to me. “Need this. Now.” he states emphatically. I smirk just a little and say “um, no. those aren’t yours.” But he is two. And two doesn’t lend itself well to sharing or being told no, especially before the sun is up.
I try to put on a tractor movie. It’s the first time I’ve ever even attempted to occupy him with TV. Totally fail. He screams when I leave. I offer him an orange. He takes it and I go to finish with the coffee. I come back and he shoots me an angry glare. “Squeeze oranges. Hmph.” he says while avoiding eye contact. I look down and he’s squeezed a (very) juicy orange all over his shirt, pants, carpet, shoes and the couch. Just to spite me I’m quite sure.
I lose my cool. Tell him we don’t have a working washer at the moment and would he like to clean the carpet and wipe off the couch. He crumbles and whimpers and says “oh, sorry mama” and helps me scrub the floor. My contemplative morning in quiet is long gone. I settle for sitting next to him while he eats, at the counter in the kitchen. The words of Ezekiel sit on the page and I try to focus and soak in some piece of bread that will feed my soul this Thursday before Easter.
It is lament and prophecy one after another, depressing and weighty. Words blur and I wonder if God could possibly say anything to my annoyed but tender and heavily burdened heart this morning. There are so many broken pieces around me and so many questions that aren’t being answered in the way I want. I give it one more chapter. I get to chapter 34.
My eyes well up…this may not be an “Easter” passage but it’s the glimpse of God’s heart I need right now, this very minute. He paints this gentle but oh-so-strong picture of his sheep and I hang on every word:
I myself will search for my sheep
I will seek out my sheep and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness
I will feed them with good pasture
They shall lie down in good grazing land
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep
I myself will make them lie down
I WILL SEEK THE LOST
I will bring back the strayed
I will bind up the injured
I will strengthen the weak
I will rescue my flock
Not a passive word in the lot. Not I might or I could. But I will. And this shaky heart of mine that’s worn plain thin today needs to hear the I WILL. I need to hear that He intends to feed my heart with good things, to strengthen me in my weakness and make me lie down when I need it. He will bind up the places that are broken, how many times have I watched Him do just that?
And when I start to wonder what does this have to do with Easter, with the greatest sacrifice ever made it becomes clear in an instant – Jesus was the means of the rescue. Long after those words were penned by a prophet, He came and lived those words so we could see. He made a way for me to come. To find my way to the cross and leave my burdens there, my bad choices, my deepest secrets and my gaping heart wounds. To find new life and freedom that only comes from laying my own life down.
We never did a stellar project that drove home the holiday today. But we lived and breathed together. They watched me hurt and wiped my tears for a situation that’s so beyond my control but so near to my heart. I talked soft to Audrey as her tremendously empathetic self wrapped little arms around me this morning, I told her “I just want to fix it, I want to make her well. We keep asking and God isn’t doing what we’re asking. And that’s so hard.” Her response to me is one I hope I never, ever forget – in her tiny voice, so matter-of-fact, she looked up at me and said:
You can’t mama, there’s only one who can, you know?
And that’s the simple truth. He’s the rescue. He’s the one who WILL step in and bring back lost ones, bind up broken ones. That’s the bread for my soul today and tomorrow and the next day.
It was Fajita Friday. I had emailed my mom requesting Taco Friday (since it was already Wednesday when I asked for the impromptu convening of our extended family over Mexican food) but she said Taco Friday didn’t sound nearly as fun as Taco Tuesday and since it was Friday she would have to rename it Fajita Friday. I was happy to oblige especially if it meant seeing my sisters and parents.
We managed to leave the house 20 minutes early and still somehow got to dinner 30 minutes late. Friday night traffic was dismal. But then there were cousins and fajitas and all was wonderful. We left before anyone had a giant meltdown and no one broke anything.
I shoved our front door open, loaded with random bags and a purse and two sweatshirts and various other things we did the inevitable dump on the floor, run to the bathroom, throw on jammies, grab a quick snack, pretend to brush our teeth….all the required happenings when we get home past bed time. It was then I noticed the school room door was shut. That was odd, it’s always open with the baby gate shut.
Timidly, I nudged the door open. My hand covered my mouth without thinking and I walked away. Our 10 month old (60 pound) teenager of a dog, Charlie had been locked (by a child who shall remain nameless) in the school room for several hours. He is never left unattended inside the home. And he had been very bored. Obviously. I beckoned Caleb to come see, the carpet was barely visible through the carnage.
As Caleb and I peered in over the baby gate unwilling to even enter the mess, I saw for just a fraction of a second what looked to be the empty cover of my Bible surrounded by shreds of paper in all directions. My head spun around and the rest of me followed running up the stairs in a desperate plea for back-up.
I shut myself in my bedroom while everyone inspected the dismal situation of our “older kids and adults only” school room. The room where I tuck myself on the short, squat couch every morning in the dark and give my day, my life, my everything to Jesus and trust that He’ll meet me there.
The weeping that ensued was unlike tears I have shed for several years. While you may wonder why I was completely out of my mind over a book that I can replace at my leisure you must first understand that it was not just a book. For the first time in my life, over this past season, that brown soft book with paper thin pages has been more alive than I have ever known it to be. I’ve wondered why that is, having grown up with it always near and hearing it every Sunday. But the wondering hasn’t answered any questions and I’ve simply resolved that maybe it is only my desperate need for it to BE alive that it finally is. I don’t really know.
My kids walked timidly toward my bed and even upon their entrance I couldn’t pull myself together one iota. They whispered quiet words, they so sensed the sacred. Indeed, it was the sacrilege of seeing the words of the title page “the Holy Bible” ripped and wrinkled and lying in a heap of what only looked like trash, that so undid me. But far beyond that was the reality that I’d purchased that specific, one column Bible so I could write in the margins, bought special pens that wouldn’t leach through the fragile paper.
And write I had. Every insight that God spoke to my heart all those dark mornings, every verse that inspired awe or the like was carefully underlined, the major themes I was seeing emerge were circled in a special color. I choked out what I could to a glassy eyed daughter who rested her hand on my back,
Those words, that book, it is life to me.
Hence the sting so deep. It wasn’t replaceable. It cannot be bought. It has come at a price that I’ve paid morning after morning fighting the strong urge to stay in my warm bed but getting up anyway because I was learning there was something I needed more than sleep, something that would seep into the marrow of my life and not leave me unchanged.
An hour passed before I could catch my breath. Fajitas were a distant memory and my sleeves were soaked with mascara and tears. It had so completely caught me off guard. It was happy low-key Friday one minute and the next minute the whole evening had unraveled. Even a year ago I would have been bummed and felt bad but my reaction would never have been even close to similar.
This train of thought started me down the “well then, why couldn’t this have happened last year and my new Bible been spared along with all my tenderly penned words?”. That train never takes me anywhere good, so I hopped off quick. Upon further thought, maybe my takeaway is simply this…
Perhaps those words that are life are meant to be written on my heart instead. And my guess is that if I come back and start over with fresh, new, un-chewed pages…He will still have things to show me that will change my life.
I am counting on it. That is my life theme this season. Counting on God to do all I can’t, fill in where I lack so much, to do impossible things in the lives of people I love so deeply, to come through for me in my great need for Him. He does not disappoint. He does not fail to come through. For that I am exceedingly grateful.
I notice a perfect lip-shaped imprint on my water glass. It is pink lip gloss, perhaps a color I would like but not when it wasn’t my lips that left it there. I catch her eye and noting the lip gloss, I ask for another glass. She apologizes profusely that she didn’t notice it and brings me a clean one.
My four year old tea-date and I order our drinks and tea accompaniments and we wait. The fifty-something year old server is the only one in the tea house and she is spread thin. I see beads of sweat on her forehead and I smile at her. “It’s so hard to get good help” she tells me as she whisks by.
My little lady and I talk about tea manners and how to hold our cup and talk all things girl together. A quite elderly lady walks slowly by, listening to the little girl banter across from my seat, she grins wide and whispers “I love this, this is too wonderful”. I nod in agreement and keep listening to the sweet face across the table. She won’t be four forever. I won’t be her whole world like this for long. I listen and I savor the minutes, the sweetness.
My coffee comes, fairly warm, and I try to wait for the hot cocoa to come so we can sip together. But ten minutes pass and there is no cocoa. I remind her that we did order it and she apologizes again that she forgot it. I observe her righting mistakes all over the place, trying to keep up with an impossible pace.
Audrey tells me what she loves most about having a big sister, how lucky boys are because they get to be married to pretty girls someday and have lots of kids with them and how fun that is – she determines tea dates are fun and “we should do this again” she tells me.
Our bill comes and it’s wrong. I gently note the errors and she goes back to rework it. She returns and I put cash inside and she thanks me for understanding and I reply with words that come without thinking…
I live under so much grace, how could I not extend it to you?
I’ve never said it before or read it in a book but its a truth that sinking deep into my heart, that I’m holding tight to and learning how to live out in new ways. She stops cold, wraps her perspiring self around me and hugs me, total stranger, so tight. Thank you, oh thank you, I’m going to remember that. I needed to hear that. She tells me she’s sorry, again, that she’s too sweaty to hug and I just keep smiling.
It is the absolute truth to me, the daily grace of a living, real God that loves so fully, so infinitely. I feel it covers over mistakes, hurts, misses and frustrated-mom-moments like today when someone shattered a snow globe in the kitchen and went running away instead of alerting me to the danger and then I had glass shards in my socks and…grace wasn’t a frontrunner just then.
I forget. Every day.
And every single day I get the chance, again, to pick up the mantle of grace and hold it over those around me. Knowing full well, I don’t deserve it, neither do any of us. That’s why it’s called grace.
It’s impossible not to feel a pang of guilt getting to wake up this morning, snuggle my kids on the couch and spend the morning making Christmas treat bags for our neighbors when there are parents planning funerals for their kids who are the same ages as these pajama-clad ones around my living room. Impossible.
A decade or so ago I remember being twenty-something and pondering with a fairly light, optimistic heart that indeed Christmas must be sad for many but it surely was only joy for me. I would think kind thoughts, do kind things and pray for those who must know sadness this time of year. But the people I loved that were synonymous with holiday tradition, happy moments and love were all still alive….my parents weren’t divorced so I didn’t know what “splitting Christmas” or “trading off” looked like….I’d never truly gone without a basic need met.
As the years passed though, beloved grandparents died, friends dear to me had to navigate the challenges of broken families and so many different places to go every December to appease everyone, and our growing family made it just till payday on our food stamps balance more than once.
Then just a few years ago only 4 weeks after Christmas, Chris’ dad died on a hunting trip. Our whole-family-Christmas photos were fresh from the photography studio and I was sure we had at least another decade or two of our Christmas Eve traditions. Eleven months later my oh-so-precious Grandma who’d flown in for the festivities had a stroke the day after Christmas and passed away just before New Year’s.
The heavy weight of loss, the burden of sadness that threatens to completely overwhelm has so many times seemed just too much. I can only imagine it seems that way to mama’s in Connecticut who already had gifts wrapped to put under the tree for their sons or daughters.
Just too much.
The brightness of the season dims a little (or maybe a lot). And though we celebrate fully and delight in the gift of Jesus, sometimes the night is a little too silent. Sometimes there is a face we want so badly to behold, a lame joke told that we’d love the chance to laugh at, a velvet soft Grandma-hand that we long to squeeze, a giggle we would give anything to hear, a baby-belly that was supposed to be growing – and that these things are missing? Deep sadness. There’s just no way around it.
Last night the weight pressed so heavy and I took so many deep breaths, kids stung with words and I ate dinner alone in my room. I tucked myself in under the covers as if that would ease the hurt, take away the sense of loss I felt so acutely. But it didn’t. Nothing does.
Nothing but a quiet whisper under the darkness, under the sadness. A whisper of love. His words that are life to me, ringing in my mind “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) It’s all I can do to believe those words for the families across the nation attending memorial services instead of Christmas parties. And to believe it for me in my own sense of loss.
There is no way to know if the people who live on my street or the ones who live on yours have their own stories of sadness, but I’m pretty sure most of us do. And one way I’m learning to lift my heart up is to love, to do something thoughtful or fun no matter how much I don’t feel like it. Today it was putting together Christmas treat bags with goodies we made and cards the kids drew themselves, for each house on our street. Most we’ve met, some we know. There is something lovely and beautiful about spreading kindness. In the process of blessing, we are blessed.
It’s been five years now since I asked, if I promised to do the leg work, if we could include a live nativity in the Christmas party for low income, pregnant and newly parenting women and their families. I relished serving every holiday season and it became the highlight of our families calendar every December. But I couldn’t shake the sense that it was strange hosting the event at a church, showering them with tangible blessings (toys to put under their tree, a bag of groceries, etc) – and not have anything that pointed to the heart of the season.
This year was exceptionally special because we finally had our own set of farm critters to bring to the party. My friend Holly has always graciously brought her own for me. It was a delight for our kids to bring their beloved animals to share with others. It was also extra special because the friends that I spent almost two years praying for for our daughter, joined her as angels this time. My heart nearly burst with gratitude for these sweet girls and their families who have crossed paths with ours.
I turn to a friends’ husband last night, telling him how I find it so interesting how certain people groups, cultures tend to pay so much more mind to the nativity scene. Every year I watch this, usually there are two or three unique people groups who linger there, place their baby in the manger, take dozens of photos and exude this sense of respect, awe.
They come once, then sometimes come through again later. I hear a little boy not more than five – I know I’ve seen him once already – he’s pushing, elbowing through the crowd that has gathered and I hear him say “move, I need to get through, I need to see Jesus”.
I listen to the little boy and my eyes well up because that’s all I want.
Somewhere in the midst of a wild holiday schedule and gift lists and parties and baking to do and my Christmas boxes still untouched in the garage… all I’m looking for is a glimpse of something holy.
A taste of the miracle that God came down. Emmanuel.
My hands are a little numb and the earthy smell of the animals and their wet fur and hay meets my nose. It may not be Bethlehem and the night is surely anything but a silent one – but I breathe cold air in deep and ponder the baby laid in straw in the manger a few feet from me and can’t help but feel a sliver of the “holy night” that came so long ago.
He could have come any way He wanted. But this, this was the way He chose. Innocent, small, helpless and perfect.
He would walk among us. Live among us. Know loss and heartache and struggle and unspeakable joy in the midst of all of it.
Emmanuel. God among us. Not God-in-heaven-distant-one.
God with us, with me. One who is intimately acquainted with sorrows. One who understands pain and the deepest heart sadness. One who came so I would know what life to the very fullest would look like. One who hears every word I utter and all the ones I can’t.
Deeply, unceasingly grateful. For all that He is and how He fills in the places that need filling in. Brimming at the very thought that God would choose this way, this simple manger in the back of an inn instead of a royal palace….so that I would know, so we all could know, that His gift is for everyone. For me with the dishes undone from 5 days ago and shredded stuffed animal all over this room and no clean clothes ready for kids tomorrow. And for every other person who feels a little less than worthy.