O ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow…
The past few weeks have been marked by much suffering for those I love. The pain seems overwhelming: a cheating spouse, soul-crushing anxiety, an ex-husband who seems bent on destruction, an out-of-nowhere heart attack, a teen in the struggle of his life with substance abuse, babies who are stuck in the NICU, my own grief over huge life-changes and financial struggles that seem insurmountable. You get it. You might be in the middle of it. Like me, your thoughts are shouting, “How long? How much? Why? Why especially right now?”
I love the holiday season. From November 1 to January 1, like many of yours, our house is filled with decorations, food (and way too much of it, as my waistline is currently showing), family, friends, celebration, and traditions. Along with these external manifestations of the season, there are also the underlying inner emotional expectations of gratitude, wonder, joy, peace, love, hope and generosity, to name just a few. (A quick confession: I like this paragraph more than the first one. I want to live here. I want all good things, happy thoughts.)
The four-week period leading up to Christmas morning is commonly known as Advent. It’s Advent right now. Shauna Niequist says,
“Advent is about waiting, anticipating, yearning. Advent is the question, the pleading and Christmas is the answer to that question, the response to the howl. There are moments in this season when I don’t feel a lot like Christmas, but I do feel a lot like Advent.”
Advent speaks about and grieves broken places that are yet to be healed, questions that have no answer today, and yearning that is unfulfilled. However, Advent ALSO gives a glimpse of hope at the end of a long season of waiting. Advent says there is suffering and it is real, palpable. But Advent ALSO reminds us there is promise of healing, just as real and palpable. Advent says “do NOT skip over the suffering. Do NOT minimize the heartache. Sit in it, acknowledge it, and feel it.” This is not an easy place. I struggle with Advent. I have difficulty sitting with the grief, the waiting, acknowledging and feeling it. I skip right to Christmas morning, the happy place, where the answer is here and salvation has come. As Emily Freeman says, “I rush to joy.”
Skipping right to Christmas does NOT work in the end. Rushing to joy does NOT take away the pain. It does NOT prevent bad things from happening (I was in the ER this past weekend to prove that point…I am fine now). It does NOT bring true healing. Advent might be the better place that brings lost-lasting healing. Advent speaks the deeper truth of heartache and hope, suffering and a savior. Both are needed in this beautiful, messy life of ours.
God seems to do some of His best work during the seasons of “Advent” in our lives, the waiting periods, the not-yet times. Especially if we look for those who will “sit with us in the dark,” when we can’t see the light, those who will venture into the not-so-pretty places with us and remind us that we are not alone, Immanuel is coming and has come and will stay with us for as long as it takes until we can see “Christmas” on the horizon.
We still have more than two weeks until Christmas. Let’s not skip to it. Let’s stay in the not-yet, the place of anticipation. Let’s dive into the questions, the grief, the “howl,” the yearning of both ourselves and those we love. Let’s be okay in the waiting. Christmas will come soon enough. A baby will be here. A Savior will come. What is empty will be filled. Heartache will be healed. Yearning will be fulfilled. What is broken will be repaired. What we’ve lost will be found. But in the meantime, we wait together, not forgetting the howl of our hearts.
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!
(It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Fourth Verse)
Now Mary Magdalene and another Mary kept vigil there, seated opposite the tomb. Matthew 27:61
It’s not Good Friday.
It’s not Easter Sunday.
It’s just Saturday. The space in between.
What do we do when…
We’ve lost our job AND don’t have a glimmer of the next?
Our kids are grown AND our hearts wonder what comes after?
Our marriage is over AND we don’t know if we’ll ever be truly loved?
We’ve gotten the diagnosis AND there’s still no “good course of action” from our doctor?
We’ve filed for bankruptcy AND we still can’t give up our life’s dream?
Our Savior is dead AND it’s still Saturday.
What do we do with this space in between?
WE GRIEVE, whether wailing out loud or whimpering into our pillow
WE QUESTION, possibly shouting to the sky or shushing our inmost fears and doubts
WE SIT SILENT, perhaps eyes wet with tears or as a stunned bird gathering strength
WE WAIT, living the tension of the known past but the unknown future
WE WATCH, expectantly yet with trepidation
WE HOPE, for we long to believe that what lies ahead is somehow richer because of what lies behind
We hope in this place of rest. SHABBAT.
We hope in this place of peace. SHALOM.
Yes. It’s just Saturday…still Saturday! The space in between.
Hear this my soul, my friend: Rest In Peace today!
“Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)
I walked into Panera this past Wednesday and there was a gift waiting for me.
I climbed 20 flights of stairs last January and another gift was waiting for me.
I went to my normal chiropractor appointment at the end of the summer and a third gift was waiting for me.
I went to church on a regular Sunday and a fourth gift was waiting for me.
All the talk right now is what do I want for Christmas. What do you want? What gifts are we going to get come nine days from now (yes, I know, it’s the final countdown…9…8…7)?
Walking into Panera a few days ago stopped me in my tracks. Right there on Route 22 in Watchung, NJ was a gift I had already been given in 2018: my new friend Jackie! Her bright eyes and cheerful smile greeted me before we even reached each other for a hug! Our conversation unfolded in authenticity and grace. We didn’t really want to leave at the end of two hours, but other things beckoned us to pack up our plates and give a quick hug goodbye. As I pulled out of the parking lot, filled to the brim with joy over this wondrous gift of a budding friendship, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of all the gifts I have already opened in 2018, gifts strewn lovingly by God’s hand to my heart.
Maybe it’s just me (and somehow I would hazard a guess that it might not be), but with all the struggles that come from my average, every-day life, my mind tends to swirl around all the gifts I’m NOT getting on any given day. They range from the minuscule (I forgot something at the store and now I have to go back and I just lost a half-hour of time) to the grandiose (some of the prayers I fasted for during Lent on my Hosanna List have not been answered yet). I become discouraged and disheartened, wondering where God is in all of it and if He sees me and even cares.
Enter Panera. My 2018 AHA moment. “Take stock, Esther, of the gifts you’ve already received and opened and enjoyed this year,” a Voice inside my heart nudged, or more like prodded, “You don’t have to wait until December 25.” So on this ordinary Sunday, December 16, 2018, I am doing just that…one for each month of the year!
- The beauty of Allen’s apartment in the Strip district in Pittsburgh. Yes, it’s 20 flights up (there is an elevator for the faint of heart), but the view of the river and the sheer “one-of-a-kindness” of it takes my breath away each time I turn my key and open the door. And can I just say, Jared moving to this land of Allen’s birth is the icing on the cake!
- My solo visits to my friend Kim in prison. Who knew prison could be a place of restoration and joy? I didn’t. Who knew a long-lost friendship could be rekindled in such an unlikely place? I didn’t. And now, my women’s group penned individual notes to her for Christmas! I am undone with gratitude.
- Fellow writers, editors and podcasters like Afton, Janis, Gail, Annie, Sarah, Debbie, Tracy and so many others who are encouraging me on this new-found and scary, but exciting journey of blogging, and book-writing. (check out some of the links by clicking on their names…you won’t regret it). AND YOU READERS who this would be useless without!!! Huge thanks and shout out to those of you who read and share and encourage! You have no idea how my heart leaps with each “like,” “share” and “comment.” It means what I’m doing matters. Thank you.
- Authors who share their hearts with a waiting and skeptical world and the books that come out of them. My two favorite this year and who I am determined to meet one day soon (one moved to NYC and one moved to Pittsburgh, so I have a good chance!!! One knows a friend of mine and already emailed me back and I have a couple of friends who know the other personally…if you know them, hook me up!): Shauna Niequist and Tish Harrison Warren!
- Our cozy beach house that provides a place of respite and restoration for our family, my women’s group, our friends and even the renters who call it “our house” year after year. Memories are forged, love is shared, the salt air heals and each one leaves better than when they came. There aren’t enough words.
- Sharing at church about marriage mentoring and all the wonderful couples who came forward to be mentored and especially to mentor! This makes my heart so happy. Not only do we get to share about our own marriage journey (filled with struggles and strengths), but that others willingly come to receive and give themselves. #yayformarriage #yayforvulnerability #yayforredemption
- Budding friendships with those I didn’t even know existed a year ago. Jackie isn’t the only one, even though she’s pretty AMAZING as I’ve already told you. How about Susan, Stacey, and Tatiana, girls who jumped into my small groups and opened their hearts wide, sharing their very selves (BTW my small groups are unbelievable…don’t live without one)?! WOW! What about Liz, a young wife who loves Jesus and whose heart matches mine on this wholeness and healing journey (she’s the one who was waiting at the chiropractor, a very unlikely place)? How about Natalie, my cohort in mischief and joy on my trip to Rwanda? As a pastor’s kid, she gets the “growing up in ministry” part of me very few understand. Plus, she’s a great match for this Esthergizer Bunny.What other surprise people are in store for me? I never want to say it’s enough. As I’ve told Sarah so many times in her life, “the best friend you’ll ever make might be waiting just around the corner.”
- Our monthly couple’s massage. Best birthday present ever given by my awesome husband. Somehow, though, he benefits from this. He’s a sneaky, but cute one.
- An invitation into the redemption story of Rwanda! To see this dream fulfilled after 10 years of our family’s “clean water obsession,” was absolutely incredible. Not only to be a small part of it on the ground, but sharing with our team, meeting the people who do this day in and day out, and being completely invigorated by the ways God is bringing true restoration to a county so broken and devastated. Even the Rwandan woman who prayed for me one day! What a gift! We cannot wait to go back with our family!
- Long, deep and abiding friendships that are too many to count! (I can’t even begin the list because I so don’t want to miss anyone. You know who you are! Some of you are even my family members!) Friendships that stand the test of time and love all the fabulous and flawed parts of me. Friendships that remind me never to give up hope and speak grace over me when I’m hurting. Friendships that keep me on course as we “limp our way together to redemption” (Tish Harrison Warren).
- The latest Podcast I listen to and online book club I am carefully venturing into with the Bible for Normal People. This is the place I get all my mental feels and my brain gets stretched and I can discuss and argue and be free to express all my doubts and questions about God and the Bible. For this girl who grew up thinking she (and a few other chosen ones) had all the answers to the big questions nailed down, it’s a huge, precarious step into the largeness of God! On a very silly note: I even got to record my voice giving a shout-out in one of their upcoming podcasts! #90secondsoffame
- Allen, Sarah, Cody, Broden, Jared, Lady, Josh, Daniella, and Rachel. Heart of my very own heart! Can you even believe that I have permission from them to share about them?! Can you believe a husband and a bunch of mostly Millennials let their stories be known? Who has that? Believe me! I don’t take it lightly! This gift of them and from them allows my voice to be heard and there is nothing I treasure more! They are even willing to go further! How about that?? Here’s the LITTLE SURPRISE: you will begin to hear more from them and from me in the New Year on my new podcast called “The Dolly Mama and the Millennials.” So excited!!
So what’s your Panera today? What gifts have you already opened this year? Take stock, my friend! And please please share at least one! Or two, or twelve! You can comment here, but even better out on social media! Or BOTH!
Advent is the “Howl of the Not-Yet,” the WAITING for wrong to be made right, hopes to be made sight, broken places to be healed and questions to be answered. We wait for God to come. We wait for Christmas morning!
Our journeys are bumpy, filled with twists and turns, steps forward and slides backward, confusion and clarity, the messy and the beautiful. It can seem like Advent never ends. We cry out! We howl! We plead! “How long? How long?” We wait.
But is waiting only reserved for us? Are we the only ones who cry and long and plead? What if God has His own Advent, His own howl, His own waiting. What if God is waiting for us?
Join with my friend Annie Ellerbusch as she uncovers this.
I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about waiting (the Season we have upon us). What am I waiting for? What have I been waiting for all my life? Maybe it’s more like what am I missing? I know I am missing something, but what is it?
As I persisted in thinking, I realized I had been focused on my waiting, MY waiting. But I was not the only one waiting. God was waiting for me. God had been for a long time.
God was waiting in the most intimate places of my being, in the parts that only the two of us could visit, the memories that only the two of us shared, the places where I pushed down all that I could not accept, understand, or live with
…all the parts that I had ignored, dismissed, disowned, outgrown, left behind, rejected, abandoned, hid away or hid from
…all the parts that I could not expose or share, that needed to be locked away for their own protection, or to protect myself and others
…all the parts that were either too bad or too dangerous to be set free, or too good and precious to risk losing
God was there waiting for me, waiting IN me.
God was keeping all the parts safe, every one of them. God valued and treasured all of them, all of me. The words that came to me were intense, even insistent.
“It is your JOB and your JOY to take care of all of your parts, to take care of your self. Only you can do it. No one else will do it for you. No one else CAN do it for you. Not even ME. This is your job, your responsibility.
This is also your gift. You are a GIFT. You are My gift to Me. You are My gift to you. You are My gift to the world.
Take your self. Love your self. Own your self. Care for your self.
Trust me. You will see. You will see what good will come from this.”
God was waiting for me to come and claim all my parts, to look at them and learn about them, to see them and hear them, to understand them, to accept and love them, to learn to care about them and for them, to welcome them back, to gather them up into the whole, my whole
. . . to inhabit my own wholeness , wholly known, wholly loved, and wholly free.