Every mother prays.

Every mother prays.

She whose faith is her marrow.
She whose faith chirps timidly on her shoulder.
She who claims no faith at all;
every mother prays.

In gasps, in whispers, in sighs and shouts,
every mother recognizes their ineptitude, along with the sacred ground upon which they walk. And there is no better recipe for prayer than
fear and longing and love,
those three currents which push the blood through a mother’s veins.
Fear of failure. Fear of loss.
Longing for answers in dark nights.
Love that buries her and brings her back to life.

Every mother prays.
We pray for the children we never knew. For the children we lost.
Deep cries for the children we hope to hold.
We pray for the ones who run to us,
who call us home.

We pray for the ones who already grew, who cannot possibly understand the moaning prayers poured over their lives, the impossible scales which balance what a mother intended to do,
and what a mother actually did.

And what the child will remember instead.

Every mother prays.
She does this because even when God is not who she imagines or
even someone she believes exists,
in the thick of mothering, prayer escapes without a word on our lips.
Wordless poems of fear, longing, and love.
Feelings explained with a shrug because who could guess what happens under
a mother’s breast,
in that ever-expanding heart of hers,
that space which smells
like her neck in a hug and tastes
like her mouth in a kiss and sounds
like her breath in a song?
Every mother prays. Because what else can one do in that holy ache of kindred love?

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The Breastfed Gospel.

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I spent my 30th birthday in bed, moaning in pain from a knock-out case of mastitis. Mastitis is an infection you get from breastfeeding, except it affects the whole body. It’s like the flu, if the flu was trying to kill you. My incredible mother-in-law Debbie used an entire week of leave from her job to stay in town and care for me and my kids, since my husband had to work and I could not get out of bed. It was the sickest I have ever been; at one point Debbie was spoon feeding me applesauce as I deliriously cried in her arms, unable to lift my own head. I hadn’t showered in three days, I was sticky with breastmilk, sweaty from my fever, and could not stop weeping. It was quite the birthday party. And also, GOD BLESS MY MOTHER IN LAW.

I have had a baby at my breast for most of the last 4 years. I have taught myself and three newborns how to nurse, I have kept three children alive with my milk, and I have suffered greatly at times in order to do so.

Breastfeeding seems like a normal, easy task when you see other women doing it. They sidle their baby up to their chest, an invisible transaction occurs, and then they both go back to their lives. I love nursing my babies, but it is most certainly not the easy task I once assumed. It demands physical and emotional sacrifices that can’t really be explained: I can tell you that it hurts to have a baby learn to suck on my nipple, and I can tell you that when my milk comes in a few days after birth I can’t sleep from the pain of engorgement, and I can tell you that setting aside all other responsibilities every two hours all day long means that I lead a life of constant disruption; but none of that makes sense until it’s your own baby, pressed tight to your own chest, trying to drink milk from your body.

The complications of breastfeeding often feel like the hidden shame of new mothers. Because we’ve seen so many depictions of it happening so freely, when problems arise (when, not if) we wonder why we didn’t know how hard it would be. We wonder why everyone else nursing looks like an oil painting that might be entitled “Peaceful Mother and Baby at the Brookside,” when our own experience looks more like uncomfortable latches and too much milk and choking babies and not enough milk and infant reflux and painful breast infections and tied up tongues, and wanting to give it all up because we are tired. 

Damn the brookside, we say.

I’ve never wanted to give up nursing my babies until my birthday bout of mastitis. I wondered why in the hell I was putting myself through such madness. Because there is another way, of course, and baby formula is a remarkable answer to how we can feed our babies when breastfeeding isn’t working. I have no qualms with formula. I’ve seen both sides of the bottle-fed equation: the mom grappling with her guilt over using it, and the happy, healthy babies drinking it. I know there are lots of studies that tell us breast is best, and I think breast milk is a miracle from our bodies, but I also can’t tell a lick of difference between the kids given formula and the kids given milk. The kids are all fine.

I know this about myself- it’s not about bottles versus breast for me. I don’t keep breastfeeding for the baby’s sake; I do it for my own.

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I keep nursing because – and maybe this is petty, maybe I shouldn’t admit it- breastfeeding cleanses something in me. That’s why it’s so important. Not because I think my kids will be ruined by formula, or because I want to prove something to someone, or because I think breastfeeding will make an enormous difference in the lives of my kids; I breastfeed because it requires an offering.

Like a lamb on the altar, I offer my body for the sake of a greater cause, and pour out my life to save the life of another. It is a hallowed act, one I find hard to match. There simply aren’t many ways to sacrifice myself so easily. My privileged way of life doesn’t naturally produce opportunities for pure, selfless giving. Even sex with my husband, the most raw and exposed of interactions, can exist in a vacuum of self. I have to be deliberate in that space, be mindful in the giving of myself and accepting of his vulnerability, to become one out of two when I often prefer to just be one, if only for the beige ease of being independent. 

Motherhood is a balancing act on the pendulum of martyrdom and selfishness; somewhere in the middle is a meeting, joy in the giving, but also peace in receiving what I need to be healthy. I don’t want to be a shadow of myself, burning at the stake of my children and their future. And I don’t want to be a shadow of a mother, cooly standing in the corners of my children’s lives.

And though I live under a gospel of grace, the law now abolished by love, there is still an essential element of sacrifice in my faith. A sacred transformation takes place when I offer myself on the altar, when I lay down my own life for the sake of another. That’s what breastfeeding is to me- here is my body. Here are my open arms. Here is my time. Here is my life. Let me nourish you. I wonder what would happen if I could find that depth of love for everyone, not just my babies.

This is something that continually draws me towards the Christian faith: the fact that though my salvation is complete, and God has finished all that is required to forgive me, there is still a wholeness yet to come. We will be made whole. He is writing love into me, circumstantially and holistically, through pain and suffering of every weight, through the mundane and the grand. So though the work of being saved is done, there is still a great work being made in my life to reveal the goodness, the completion, the truly loved and realized version of me. That’s beautiful. And it is unique to the God I worship- no other god or religion makes this distinction. There is no earning anything from the God of the Bible. There is only grace. Only sacrificial love, righteous justice. And there is no perfected version of human on earth, no priest or holy woman or prophet above anyone else, because we are all being perfected until the day of Christ Jesus. I love that.

We can’t be perfect. I can’t. I can barely manage to be kind of good, and only on a few odd days. But I can pay attention. I can look for ways to be softened, to be humbled. I so badly want to be made whole. And if I know anything, it’s that being made whole only comes after being taken apart. For me, right now, breastfeeding takes me apart. It makes me pause. It makes me give up time and space in order that a baby might live. And in that time, in that space? On my couch, on a park bench, in a public bathroom, at church, at the booth in the restaurant, in a class that I’m teaching or a group that I’m leading, I sit with a baby at my breast and offer my body up to another, humbled and amazed.

When I pray outside my house at night, under the hazy stars of a suburban neighborhood sky, muffled street sounds a block away, breathing in the air of home, I always ask for more of God. And over the roofline, across the horizon, settling like dew on the windows to the rooms which hold my sleeping children, I always hear these words come floating right back:

Pay attention, dearest.
I’m right here. 

 

 

 

Always wear nice underwear to buy groceries.

I should have seen this coming when the lady at Albertsons saw me in my underwear, but listen: I cried a lot on my birthday this year. I tend to feel an expectational forcefield around holidays and special events, and I work hard to create happy, lovely holidays. This was an easier feat before we had three small children. Not that our kids don’t make life happier and shinier in exponential amounts; they are the reason we keep traditions at all. Those three beautiful faces are the reason I make pink pancakes in February, the reason I stay up late hanging decorations before birthdays, the reason the dollar section at Target suddenly seems like a very important stop before any holiday (Tiny buckets. Tiny sponges. Tiny buttons. All useless.) I love to make my kids’ lives happier, even though I don’t want to worry if they’re happy, because I know happiness doesn’t really matter or last. They have to choose joy, eventually. (This is the absolute conundrum of motherhood- to love giving them what we know does not have much to do with us in the end.)

My kids are 4, 3, and 1, which means their world keeps spinning on special days and they just keep on being themselves, which is a fast way to ruin a party, I am sorry to report. “Kids ruin birthdays,” I told my brother the morning I turned 31, hoping my kids didn’t hear me say it. But also kind of hoping they did. I was in a bad place, ok? The morning was hectic and full of fits. Then the older two injured the baby because of their wild wrestling, and I was furious. Like, wicked stepmother tossing people into dungeons, furious. I don’t like animals but I found myself wishing for a mean pet to follow me around and scare my kids straight.

On a normal day, my kids are 85% wonderful and 15% mean-pet deserving. On my birthday last week, I cried because their percentages took a dive in the wrong direction. Bear markets all around. Again, I should have seen this all coming when the night before my birthday, I ended up nearly naked in front of an Albertsons grocery store employee.

In every grocery store, there is a sign outside the bathroom that says, “No merchandise permitted in bathrooms.” Which, fine, I understand, and who wants their cart full of groceries in a public bathroom anyway? But what- and I am asking this in all sincerity, and would appreciate tips- what are you supposed to do with the baby and the cart when the other kids need to use the restroom and they’re not big enough to go on their own? I never know what to do. Leave my cart and food in the hallway and hold the baby and my bag while helping the other two kids? Leave the baby and take the bag and pray that no one wants a grumpy baby with a runny nose anyways?

On this particular occasion, I was in a very small hallway that barely fit my cart and the bathroom was small too, and only one child needed to use the toilet. So I left Clara, my four year old, in the hallway, with the baby and the grocery cart, and tried to take Sammy in as fast as I could so the girls wouldn’t be alone for too long. We went in the bigger stall together, and after he was finished I sat down to pee, knowing it would be a long time before we were home and everyone was unloaded and I was allowed a few minutes to go to the bathroom.

Here’s where the trouble starts.

Toddlers, as a people group, love two things:

-opening and closing doors

-not listening to their parents

This is especially true in bathroom stalls, I’ve found. They love to turn that shiny latch and let themselves out, I think simply for the power of it. But since I always have to be the one who pees last, and we all use the same stall, they’re always opening the door while I’m still sitting there. I’m usually sitting on a public toilet with gritted teeth while anger-whispering “Do. Not. Open that door” and slapping my kids’ hands away from the handle.

Again, my kids are actually decent human beings whom I enjoy very much.

But public bathrooms aren’t their sweet spot.

So I’m sitting there in the Alberstons bathroom with my pants around my ankles and I hear a small commotion in the hallway where my girls are, and then I hear the baby crying. I stand up to put my pants back on, and in a perfectly timed sequence of humiliation:

  1. Sammy opens the bathroom stall door,
  2. I stand up in my underwear,
  3. An Albertson’s employee opens the bathroom door,
  4. I am still standing in my underwear,
  5. The employee looks at me standing there in my underwear,
  6. I hastily pull on my pants,
  7. Sammy marches out of the stall,
  8. The Albertson’s employee apologizes,
  9. I apologize,
  10. The employee gestures towards my crying baby,
  11. I rush out to the baby,
  12. The employee informs me that the baby is ok, she’s just crying because a  man who came out of the men’s restroom said hello to her,
  13. I finish buttoning my jeans and then pick up the crying baby,
  14. Clara loudly retells the whole story,
  15. I hustle Sammy back in the bathroom so we can wash our hands,
  16. The Albertson’s employee steps around us so that she can use the restroom,
  17. I get my kids out of the hallway and hurry up to finish my shopping,
  18. I field 100 questions about life and liberty and where gum comes from while in a long line to check out,
  19. I get out my debit card to pay for our groceries,
  20. and hand it to the checker,
  21. who in turn asks me if the baby is doing ok,
  22. because it is the lady who minutes ago saw me basically naked in a bathroom stall.

On our way out of the store, as Clara was singing a love song at the top of her lungs and Audrey was throwing a screaming fit because she wanted out of the cart, Sammy walked in front of me and I didn’t see him before his heel got clipped and he fell to the floor crying. Not a huge problem, of course, because he was wearing his new bike helmet that he refuses to take off, so his head was fine. This all happened right as my friend Stephanie waved hello from where she was watching us stumble down the aisle in mass chaos. I was sweating profusely at this point, from my efforts to contain Audrey’s 18 pounds of fit-throwing, and also from the kind of humiliation reserved for mothers with small children.

After putting all our groceries away that night and staying up late to clean my whole house (because the only way I wanted to wake up on my birthday was to a spotless home), I woke up tired and surprisingly surprised at how the next day went with my kids. Because really, people who bust open bathroom stalls and sing loudly in public and lay down on dirty linoleum floors to cry cannot be trusted to make sure you have a happy birthday.

They cannot.

Still. I had many beautiful surprises on my birthday; flowers and sandwiches and cherry pies and friends who love me; it was a sweet, sweet day. And when my little family sang Happy Birthday to me at home that night, my three year old son, that helmet-wearing bathroom bandit, was so overcome with emotion he couldn’t even finish the song- he just lovingly kissed my cheek and buried his head in my shoulder with tears in his eyes, and told me he loved me “the whole world, even to heaven.”

Happy birthday indeed.

So, now I know. This is my version of 31- sticky and exhausted, and often surrounded by bare bums- and as humiliating as mothering can be, it’s the ultimate gift. My joy is deep, and their love is as good as it gets.

Now I just need to find a new establishment where I can buy our French bread, and everything will be fine.

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Birthday with my babes.

A millennial just won an Oscar for the movie he made, and I know why.

No one would write this article except a millennial, you’re thinking with a roll of your eyes, and you might be right. You’re correct in assuming my status as a millennial, about a childhood spent knowing I could’ve crushed “Legends of the Hidden Temple” and an early adulthood that started with MySpace and ended with Snapchat. So yeah, I’m a millennial, and while there are certainly traits of my generation that are not only embarrassing, but appalling, there’s a reason that 32 year old Damien Chazelle just became the youngest director ever to win an Academy Award, for directing “La La Land.”

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You heard me right- 32. That means he wrote the script for “La La Land” in his twenties and won an Oscar for directing it a few years later. His composer, Justin Hurwitz, who won an Oscar for Best Score? Also 32 years old. Two millennial friends, making history.

I know why Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz won those awards at such a young age, and how Damien made that movie happen. There’s a lot of talk about us millennials, a lot of well-deserved disdain towards our general attitude of entitlement, but let me tell you something- we are also poised to change the world. Here’s how:

We think we can.

Sounds assine. Let me explain.

Damien Chazelle won that Oscar because he wrote a movie and then believed he could make it. He shut down a freeway and directed a complicated musical number using an entire freeway on-ramp because he had vision. He won an award for a very millennial trait, which is that we are willing to try impossible feats because we tend to believe in ourselves… because you told us to. It was written on every pencil in our teacher’s prize box, on every cat poster in the counselor’s office; you said it when we were nervous to try out for a play, our coaches shouted it during our games; pop stars sang to us about it…. And we took you at your word. We think we can do anything, because that’s what you told us. So when you think we’re crazy for wanting fulfilling jobs with amazing paychecks, a happy family, and a successful side small business that we start in our garage: remember, you told us we could do it. We might sound crazy and yes, some of us are entitled pricks, but a lot of us simply took you at your word and decided to do what we set out to do.

Like win an Oscar for an old-school Hollywood musical that we wrote and directed with our friends.

This particular strand of chutzpah has an obvious parent: Google. YouTube. Reddit. Instagram. Facebook. We know that social networking, search engines, and community information canvassing aren’t simply recreational. These laptops and phones attached to our fingers are passports to a world of knowledge. Why argue a detail, like how far it is to the moon or how many people live in Somalia, when the answer is in your pocket? Why hire a plumber when you can just learn the basics on YouTube? Who needs a wedding DJ when your friend curated a killer Spotify list? You might say this means we don’t think for ourselves anymore, or that we are lazy learners, but we know that it just means we can do anything we want to try. There is a freedom that comes with access, and the motto of our entire age group might as well be: “Let’s try.”

Also- we live a life examined. Ok, yeah, selfies aren’t actual self- examination. But the truth is, even though a lot of us didn’t have social media until high school and college, we spent our formative young adult years in a fishbowl society, where The Real Word made us want to be watched and then the internet made it possible. Our lives are on display in a manner unknown to any previous groups of people, which makes us self-conscious, self-aware, self-centered and  self-deprecating. In light of all that self, we have another skill: when you ask us how we’re feeling, we know the answer. Thanks to you, of course.

You asked about our feelings a lot when we were kids, even developed curriculum around the idea of sharing our feelings, probably mostly in reaction to the fact that your parents did NOT ask you about feelings. Did this also create a group of kids who can’t believe when college professors and employers don’t care about their precious emotions? Well, yes. Does our generation put too much stock in an emotional currency that changes by the moment? Absolutely. But we are also connected to ourselves in a layered, nuanced manner, because we’ve been allowed to explore our psyches.

Encouraged our entire lives to look inward, some of that prompting produced selfish masses of navel-gazers, but it also produced an entire generation of feelers. And feelings are what draw us into the plight of others, because mature feelings develop into empathy, and in this age of technology and connection and GoFundMe accounts, we know how to create change that is powered by our empathy. Which is why we give our money away, and start non profits, why we take jobs for less pay because they mean something to us, and why we actually think we can change the world.

So please excuse our occasional selfies and our obsessive need to stay connected. Don’t worry when we change jobs with the wind and still live with our parents in between traveling gigs. It might not make sense, but trust me: we are working hard, and we want to leave this world better than we received it, just like every generation before us, and every generation after.

Speaking of which, I can only imagine the articles my children will write to convince all of us that they’re not really robots, and they care about the world too.

I probably won’t believe them, either.

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future robots.

 

This is normal.

Greetings from February 23, from overcast skies and wind whipping the neighborhood American flags, from a dishwasher whirring though a wash cycle, from the muffled clatter of jeans in the dryer, from a baby crying half-heartedly during nap time, from the squalls of two kids playing together after many days of doting grandparents and holiday weekends; greetings from a Thursday in this little life of ours.

Hello from coffee on it’s third reheat. Hello from three kids still in pajamas (a rarity at 10am these days, for better or worse). Hello to a “normal” I appreciate more than ever, when we are healthy and have jobs and happiness; when I don’t have a lot of emotional energy to write but I do have a lot of people I love; when being a grown up means a lot of things, but mostly it means figuring out the Tetris of needs and responsibilities that surround us, letting the false pressures fall away and the true pursuits build up.

I’m jotting off a postcard from this second, from right now, because if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that nothing is certain.

So I sit here in this hour and consider the absolutes: Bodies fail. Kids get sick. Marriages implode. Friendships are hard. Church stuff sucks. Faith is less an absolute and more a moving target, in which we are the ones who keep moving, and then expect God to look the same from every angle.

I can’t say I wish you were here, because I don’t. I’m happy to be in these walls with these people, my four year old and my three year old and my baby who will be one year old this weekend. I’m glad for the quiet, for scattered story books, for a pretend camping site, for the birthday decorations slung cheerful and bright over walls and doors, for the smell of this morning’s waffles, for Sammy’s laugh and Clara’s ever-so-accurate impression of me as she plays house, for Audrey’s screech as she toddles to and fro on those tiny legs of hers, for the faint wind chimes across the street and the way winter stomps out like a tantrum as spring pokes in like a nervous new friend. I’m glad for today. I’m glad for a normal hour. I’m glad for a reprieve.

Tomorrow is coming. I know. This February wind is blowing in a change of seasons, in every sense, and normal won’t keep. It is also a moving target. But, like our faith, we don’t chase old normals. We don’t look for God in old ways, because as we evolve, so does the way we know Him. Today is today is today. It cannot ever be again. I am learning to be content in all situations; to appreciate when a day is kind to us; to let normal move and shift like the weather, so that when this quiet dissolves and new worries rise up, and new concerns overcome: I have stored up past hours of goodness and peace from which to draw deep breaths. Waffles for breakfast. Babies learning to walk. Coffee in my own home. Kids happy. Spring coming.

Hi, from today, from this morning, from the only moment I am promised, which is right now.

Greetings. And blessings.

-Jessie

 

One place.

It’s dark and early and cold, snow piled in my front yard in heavy berms from Sam’s constant shoveling in the constant winter storming, my house a cocoon of sleeping children. I only make it out of bed before my kids a few times a week, and the silence is a rich reward. So is the hot coffee. And the silence, did I mention the silence? You could trade quiet as a commodity to people who live with small children, honestly; who needs bitcoins when you could buy or trade 30 minutes alone?

Christmas is just past, my table is lit with the candles I’ve been burning all month in anticipation of the season. I don’t know what we’ll do today. We don’t have many scheduled hours during these holiday weeks. Soon the baby will call for me from her crib, Sammy and Clara will shuffle out with bleary eyes, and we’ll begin our little life together again, easing ourselves into the routine of breakfast and questions and crane trucks and combing out curly hair and changing diapers, drinking warmed up coffee, playing in the snow, reading new books. Calling friends. Carrying ourselves through the hours of the day, trying to do what we’re meant to do, trying to keep up, trying to mean something.

Trying to mean something. Those words seem to be typed over our hearts from birth.

A few nights ago, as I nursed Audrey in my bedroom after a particularly chaotic evening and a disappointing day, I flung a desperate prayer heavenward. I couldn’t believe how badly I had done so few things, how many people I had left out of my loop, how many times I’d questioned my decision making abilities, how many untied ends my hours had produced. I’m more of an initiator than a finisher anyways, that’s a clear downfall of mine, but there are times when I go to bed by 8:30 at night because I can’t stand to face all the projects and ideas I’ve begun, with no clear path to an end in sight. So I bury myself in sleep and cross my fingers that everything will be different in the morning.

I’m a hider, through and through.

That night, Audrey warm in my arms, filling herself on my milk, I closed my eyes against the pressure of all my unfinished business and parenting mistakes and personal failures and cried out to God,

“I cannot be three places at once!”

I mean, I can’t. I try. But I can’t. And I needed to say it. I needed someone to know that I hate that pressure, to be and do and mean something; so I told God.

And then- this doesn’t happen all the time, and I’m sorry if it freaks you out when I talk about it- but then, God spoke back to me. Not like, a booming voice across my bedroom, shaking the lamps, but in a thought that didn’t sound like me at all, planted firmly in my head.

“Then be one place at once, Jessie.”

Be one place at once.

What a thought. Of course. One place. Wherever I am. That’s the one place.

 

I don’t have to hide when I only expect myself to be one place at one time. The pressure recedes. The demanding tide rolls back. I can breathe again. My failures, my shortcomings, my desperation to be and do; Those rising waters drain and I find my breath again.

This sounds impractical. Of course we must be doing many things at once, because we are many things at once. For me: mother, wife, friend, sister, writer, etc etc, of course I nurse a baby while I text you back and while dinner is in the oven and while answering a question from Sam and while contemplating what I’ll write tomorrow. Of course. The idea of being “one place at once” sounds ethereal, sounds like blog fodder, sounds like an idiotic bumper sticker.

But.

When I find my life in Christ shockingly similar to a life outside of Christ, it always looks like this. Striving and struggling rule my thoughts. The voices of the world become my guide- “DO MORE. BE MORE. EARN MORE. SAY MORE. EXPECT MORE. CARE LESS. CLOSE YOUR DOOR. YOU MATTER MOST.”  If there is any one thing I want to say with my life, it is the opposite of all that: It is to cease striving. To worship a true God, rather than the gods of my thoughts and my legacy and my comfort. To abide and be in one place at one time, always in the center of the One who whispers when everyone else shouts.

My kids are awake now, of course, it’s midmorning by now, so they’re watching a show while I write this. The baby is napping. I need to call my friend back. I need to answer an email. I have laundry to fold, meetings to plan, books to write. Can I, should I, do any of that? Can I, should I, dream and plan while living here, in this space, one moment at a time?

I don’t know, you guys. I have no idea. But I’m going to listen to that still small voice, because the message is such a relief. It’s the only peace I’ve found in a chaotic world.
Abide. Be still.

“Be one place at once.” Not two. Not three.
One.

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-Jessie

 

Pressed to the Glass.

My mom used to stay up until dawn on Christmas morning, cleaning the house, wrapping gifts, creating a Christmas dream in our family room. I never knew why she waited so long to get everything done until I had my own kids, and now realize that anything I could prepare before Christmas Eve would need redone by Christmas Eve, because kids live here. I have 3- she had 7. It would be like preparing a special morning for a pack of wild dogs, and doing it while they were off leash.  It is impossible to understand our parents until we are parents ourselves, and while I know that I can’t possibly comprehend the pain and joy of a lifetime of parenting after my measly 4 years of doing that work; understanding my mother’s holiday rituals is a small step in understanding her and her love for us.

As the mother in this particular home, I also now get why people dread holidays. It’s a lot. The self-created expectations often suffocate the joy, and I’m beginning to see why some people (including my husband) hate Christmas. Or, honestly, just don’t “do” Christmas at all. But the reason I anticipate this time of year with such delight isn’t Christmas- it’s Advent.

I love Advent, the season of celebrating Christ’s coming. I grew up with Advent as the focal point of our year as a family. December was the one time we consistently spent together with our Bibles open as a family. My Dad was a pastor and our church was very small, and he and my mom didn’t exercise great boundary setting with their congregation, so I don’t have that many memories of my dad being my dad versus being my pastor. He was always gone. Besides the church, he also owned a remodeling company, and, of course, there are also 7 kids in our family. He was busy. He even told me recently that he doesn’t really remember much from our childhoods, so I know he felt that distance too. The most concentrated memories I have with my dad are when all of my siblings and my parents gathered in our big upstairs family room around the Advent candles, learning the story of Christmas and how it tells the entire story of our faith.

We lit 4 Advent candles over four weeks: a candle for the prophets, the angels, the shepherds, and the wisemen. We studied their purpose and place in the story- and I mean, we studied. My parents were not afraid to push us into the Old Testament, to ask us to fight through the sacred texts of Isaiah and then connect those promises to the telling in Luke; they made us work for our faith. We weren’t allowed to come by it easy, they didn’t make excuses for the Bible and how weird it is sometimes, or for the hard work it takes to dig through the word of God. Christmas in our house was a deep abiding in the promises from the prophets, the fearful glory of the angels, the unadulterated joy of the shepherds, the relentless seeking of the wise man.

Looking back, I know that these 4 weeks each year were what made me love the Bible. I’ve always been a story-teller, and I’ve always loved words, and the word of God is like nothing I’ve ever encountered.

My childhood faith was formed in an eccentric, tiny, conservative baptist church. We were pretty hip, using new fangled stuff in the early nineties, like praise books instead of hymns and overhead projectors in the sanctuary: we were real trailblazers. We rented a church each Sunday afternoon and every family had to help set up and tear down each week. Church was an extension of our whole life. But even as a child it all felt void of tradition, so the Advent season appealed to me in it’s liturgy, in the repetition, in the candle lighting, in these ancient stories and how they still meant something now.

There’s a weight to this tradition that calls to a deeper part of me. Advent. Jesus coming. It’s the nucleus of our entire faith, and it rings with the truth of who our God is and who we are- it’s the pinnacle of everything that matters, the point when everything changed.

Advent is when we remember that our God is a God of kept promises. And what I’m realizing as I learn to trust Him with more and more of my life, is that God works in layers, in layers upon layers, concentric and tangent and angled: an entire geometry of truths connected to truths. I love that the transparency of the Gospel, the message of that revolutionary love and sacrifice, works like double-paned glass. There are two visible planes, two equal and undividable surfaces on which He works: the sweeping narrative of a universal love story, God coming down and saving all of His people; but also, the intimate love story in each individual human heart. 

One side of the glass is The Story- the big story- of an entire human race in big trouble. Right? The sin of Adam and Eve stamped forever on our DNA, a darkness each of us is born carrying deep within. Although we are presented with great evil at every turn – we look around this world, we watch the news, we cringe with the harsh realities of what sin unchecked can produce – it’s hard to understand the destitution of a newborn soul, the cloud of poverty we live under when still sinners without a savior. It’s hard to look at my baby daughter and imagine that she carries in her very blood enough sinful tendencies to require the full blood of Jesus Christ.

It’s a little easier to understand when I look at my 2 year old and four year old, admittedly, because they clearly need saving. It’s also easy to understand when I examine my own heart, when I parse out my own past, when I consider the uncertainty of my own future: I need a Savior. While that truth, that all of us are born with such great need and hurt, isn’t a popular view, I think we all know. When we are quiet: we know. We have no peace. We are desperate for something better, something clear.

And that’s the other side of the glass. Each one of us. 

I am at this point in my life where I often feel fragile, worn to the bones by the children I’m raising. They’re little and they’re always with me, and they always need me, and honestly, sometimes I feel so alone in that weariness. Like, surely the Lord has bigger things to deal with, even in me, than this tired place of defeat I often operate out of. But I read this verse recently, and it made me cry, because it told me once again how tender and personal the Lord is to His people. To me.

Isaiah 40:11 says,

“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to His heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

He gently leads those that have young. I just couldn’t believe it when I read that. He knows I’m tired. And he knows how often during each of my hours I fail my children. And how emptied I am in their needs. And he leads me gently. Because he knows I have young.

 And the thing is, I won’t always be in this place. Life will move and grow and change, these kids will grow up, my needs will change, and in that, He will move ahead of me and come behind me, and will give me exactly what I need in each season.

He will answer our calls. He will clothe the poor. He will care for the widow. He will comfort the bereft. He will guide the teachers. He will be faithful.

 

God promises to save the whole world from sin and sorrow, and then he does it. So we know He will also keep every promise he lays in our own beating hearts. He came to rescue all of us, but that’s just the harmony. The melody is being sung over you: He came to rescue you. 

This also means that we mustn’t look away from suffering. If Jesus was for all, we are for all. We cannot actively or passively avoid the pain around us. We cannot ignore our family we can’t stand, the stranger we don’t understand, even the person we sleep beside each night, while wondering how to stand with them at all. In fact: We must be advent to them. Caring for the widow. Comforting the bereft. Guiding. Teaching. Giving. We are Christ come, the kingdom in a willing pair of hands and feet.

God says in Isaiah 43, He says this to every single person, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.”

That is advent. That’s advent for me, raising my little kids, that’s advent for you in your season of life, that’s advent for all the kids who didn’t eat yesterday, for the men who are dropping bombs, for the leaders we love and the ones we hate: He gives people in exchange for their lives. 

The gospel story is in the entirety, and the story is entirely in the individual. Two panes. That’s how our God works. And it’s beautiful. It’s incredible. Advent reminds us that the long narrative of the gospel, told through the prophets and the angels, told to the shepherds and the wise men, is the story of all mankind; but also, it is the promises kept to each and every one of us. He saved every Jewish slave from Pharaoh: He also kept his promise to Moses. He made a nation from Abraham as numerous as the stars in the sky; but first, he kept his promise to Sarah. He saved all of us through his beloved son; but also, he would have done it for even just one. Just one of us would have been enough for God to sacrifice His only son. 

And that’s what we see in the movements of Advent. A gospel story that began the moment God breathed us into being; a story of kings and nations, of prophecy and war, a story that stretches throughout all eternity, the width and depth of which we cannot fully understand this side of heaven.

But also.

The story of Prophets who spoke truth through history. The story of a blessed Hebrew girl named Mary. The story of shepherds who heard and then shouted the news to all. The story of angels who obeyed and believed. The story of 3 magi who risked their lives to bow down to a baby. The story of that baby, played out in that stable, now present here, to all of us, each of us, our personal savior. He who came to save the world called my name. Calls your name. 

God’s love is that glass window, those two equally weighted planes of glass, inseparable- the story of us all; and the story of each one. 

I used to wonder if I love Advent just because it reminds me of my mother, up until dawn on Christmas, of my father and his steady belief, and if maybe my faith is too wrapped up in memories and my family to be valid. Then I grew up. And life got hard. And I had to find God on my own, had to burn my own idols before I could really worship the King of Kings.

But now, as a parent, as a woman being led gently as she leads her young, I can only hope and pray that someday, when my kids blow out a candle, the smell of that thin smoke will remind them of our family room and our Advent candles, and will draw them back to the story, draw them back to the window where they will press their faces to both panes of glass and know that they have been called to glory, along with everyone else who would confess that Jesus is Lord.

Merry Christmas, but really:

Welcome to Advent.