December 2019. I have begun the Advent season on my knees. Not in prayerful dignity; I’ve simply buckled next to the unadorned Christmas tree and forgotten to move, it seems.
The many-splendored process of getting crutches for one child, enduring allergy tests with the other, and scheduling my own appointments with a new specialist has whittled down my perspective this week. This is enough to explain my posture, I suppose. But undergirding all of these is also a leaden awareness that something has gone deeply awry.
“Grieve what you must,” I hear Joy Clarkson say via podcast. The words gently unlock some latent floodgates within. My husband and I have been grieving the difficult death of his father. In quiet hours here and there I stop to lament the ease of days past; I miss the presence of certain friends and family members, the once-blithe health of a body that knew nothing of chronic illness, and better days for beloved people who are fighting daily challenges.
But was it ever truly easy?
From my vantage point beneath the tree, brokenness floods everywhere—sideways, backwards with each new revelation or diagnosis—and it threatens, like a vast winter sea, to surge forward chillingly into every view of the future. I am never far from the sting of its spray.
Later in the evening, I wander the aisles at a craft store, in search of ribbon for boxwood wreaths. As I weigh the grosgrain and satin options in my hands, I hear an older woman ask her husband which garland would look best for their family gathering. The happy anticipation in their voices makes me miss my own mother, half a world away this year, and her gift for bringing hospitable elegance to any environment.
I shake my head to regain my senses. I am here because I’m planning to hang a wreath on the girls’ bedroom door. Our Christmas decorations usually never extend outside of the main rooms—the living area, the dining table, the stairs—but this year, this simple green circlet has taken on an unexpected significance. In classic fashion I’m probably overthinking it all, but—I want our daughters to know that there is no corner that isn’t affected by the truth of Christmas and the Incarnation it celebrates. I want something as close as a mother’s touch on their foreheads and a tangible greeting on their door to remind them of the far closer and far more beautifying touch of Christ.
What I truly want to say to my children, I gradually realize, is that brokenness isn’t the only pervasive force in our world.
The birth upon which history turns has impacted every part of my own life. How could it not be so? The life, the life-giving death, and the death-shattering resurrection of Christ have established a kingdom once described as a mustard seed and a sprinkling of yeast. Out of these, everything is changed. This King awakens deadened and defeated souls, kindles joy and beauty from ashes, humbles the proud, extends His hand across raging waves to save those who sink in fear. I have seen Him do these things.
On the drive home, I remember the engulfing ocean of postpartum depression from nearly a decade ago, and how keenly it felt like a straight plummet through bottomless darkness.
When I finally gathered enough command of my voice to ask for help through conversation and prayer and counseling, my actual movement out of the abyss came incrementally—in phases hardly noticeable to anyone but me. A friend posted a video of his toddler joyfully learning to climb the stairs. A mother in our new small group, twenty weeks pregnant herself, offered to watch my tiny one some time. Chapters from Mary Beth Chapman’s Choosing to See helped me understand that my depression did not signal a failure of faith. My husband and I made plans to visit friends in the next state.
These and other seemingly small happenings shine out vividly in my mind still; they formed a bright line that allowed me to slowly reconnect my life with the presence of God, to live and to comprehend once again that “the Present is the point at which time touches eternity” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters). I have since read and delighted in Clyde Kilby’s assertion that the provision of the Lord can be taken very personally: “Several of his former students, for example, mention Dr. Kilby’s love for the dandelion, and Marilee Melvin recalls his bringing a drooping dandelion to class and asking, ‘in a voice filled with awe, how many of you believe that the Lord God made this dandelion for our pleasure on this day’” (Loren Wilkinson, A Well of Wonder, viii-ix). As I live one day at a time I realize I am still learning to take my encounters with beauty and respite as direct gifts from the hand of my Lord, but I see the gifts themselves more clearly as well: the dandelion, the birdsong in the tree, the care of a friend, the words of a writer, the intersection of a sunset’s timing and my view of it. And I see the dotted path from darkness to light, reprised in many chapters of my life, that I have come to recognize as a chain of stepping stones.
Like a certain bewildered and heartsore voyager atop the Dawn Treader, in my bleakest hours I have pleaded for rescue: “If ever you loved us at all, send us help now” (C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). There has never been, to date, a total eradication of darkness and difficulty. But I have followed small and radiant reminders of His goodness out into the free air of hope, and I dare to expect that this is the way He will faithfully guide me until the incomparably glorious day when this kind of “sea [is] no more” (Rev. 21:1, ESV).
December 2020. And so, this year, I wait. Of all the years I can remember, the temptation to look for grand moments of deliverance in this one has been exceedingly great—a cure or a clear voice to speak reason into the political arena or a firm shake to end this surreal dream. Surely one of these would pave the way for a grateful peace within our tired souls, and a chorus of joy at Christmastide.
Yet if I have learned nothing else, the experience of the wondrous reality of God-With-Us relies less upon looking for a blaze to rend the sky and more upon keeping watch for every glimmer of His presence, and keeping still to hear the voice of His Word and Spirit with ears willing to hear.
Watching Him move is, I believe, more akin to hearing the jubilant song of one young unwed girl in an overlooked corner of Galilee, or observing the appearance of one new star among millions in the night sky.
Like the smattering of drops before a long-awaited deluge these came, like the first shots of dawn light across bare ridges and the high crowns of trees, and I think I would have missed them if I had been alive then.
May God grant me the eyes to see the stepping stones before me now.
This year I hold the news of the Incarnation close within a tattered spirit, waiting for a renewal of hope and peace, wonder and joy. And somehow this spot—on my knees once again beside a Fraser fir, tying ribbon onto a plain boxwood wreath—seems a good place to begin.
The featured image is made especially for Amy Baik Lee by Lancia E. Smith. It is used with glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.