Room for Joy

At times, the simplicity imposed upon us by both the house fire and our temporary living quarters feels like a gift brimming with meaning and grace. Stripped of all pretense and encumbrance, I really could not be better positioned to embrace the more penitential side of Advent, and this is a very good thing.

But at other times, the starkness is oppressive. Although I know this season is just that—a season—the hope of what will be just can’t quite take the sting out of what is. To my seriously limited sight, the earth-shattering “now” of God-with-us seems somewhat eclipsed by the heartbreaking “not yet” of ultimate redemption. Like all of Creation, I’m desperate for the unveiling of God’s kingdom: the happy ending; the big reveal. The hand of God wiping every tear from every face. I see this longing in the trees reaching barren arms to the sky; I hear it in the far-off cries of the sand hill cranes homing southward, and in the rendings and groanings of my old farmhouse as saws and crowbars plunge into its heart pine bones.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this Advent and Christmas season. Back in the summer, I wanted to leave town, escape all the sadness of displacement through novelty and distraction. As December drew near, however, something persistent and familiar kept tugging at my sleeve, like an old friend calling out my name amid a roomful of strangers.

There is beauty in this place, it whispered out of the void. There is something here you don’t want to miss.

Soon after we moved into this RV I felt a surge of resolve: I would bring beauty and order into these “conditions that seem unpropitious.” I would incarnate all my ideals within this 36-foot trailer, carrying every conviction about the sacredness of domestic spaces and the essential holiness of home into exile with me. I would hone structure out of chaos, shaping our days to an ancient rhythm. I would show hospitality, keep this trailer spotless, take daily walks, and maintain the practical miracle of a vegetable garden. I would have flowers on the table, regular tea times, morning devotions. In short, I would fight sorrow and loss with the time-honored weapons of candlelight, pretty china, routine, and home-cooking.

I wanted to win this round for Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Instead, I ended up with a pinched sciatic nerve and a summer of rest and muscle relaxers.

It wasn’t what I had in mind, and, in a way, my despair over physical pain and helplessness was even darker than my despair over the fire.  Beauty for ashes had been a flickering hope amid such terrible grief; bed rest, on the other hand, felt like one blow too many. I finally understood the connection between hopelessness and squalor, and how feelings of abandonment can ultimately lead to the abandonment of standards and ideals. That was a terrible precipice my heart drew back from in horror—but the understanding remains.

“There’s a deeper beauty here, sweetheart,” my mentor said, after listening to a litany of my complaints. “There’s beauty here because He’s here—and sometimes outward beauty has to take a backseat to that truth.”

~

Advent is, first and last, an assent to a great hope. It is a confident expectation, all appearances to the contrary. To observe this season is to clear a space for Christ to come into the messes and mundane realities of our lives; to become a womb, as it were, for the good and loving purposes of God. As with Mary, God isn’t seeking our credentials, our perfect observances, even our most ardent intentions—with jaw-dropping heavenly courtesy, He’s merely seeking our consent. The loving latch-key of “Be it unto me.”

The eyes we lift to Him may be tear-filled, but the gaze they meet is unfailingly tender, radiant with mercy and—dare we believe it?—mirth.

There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth. ~G.K. Chesterton

It’s nearly dark now, and there are dishes in the sink, a pile of mail to process on the coffee table, animals to feed, supper to prepare. From the house, the saws and hammerings persist, a strangely sweet music in this phase of restoration, and there’s a dwindling pile of rough-sawn lumber on the front walk. Instead of Christmas mirth and merriment, my home is filled with sawdust, cold shadows, empty spaces waiting for walls.

But out here in this trailer, there’s a little Christmas tree blooming bravely against the darkness, and an Advent wreath hung from a hook over the coffee table. Their familiar beauty is a comfort in an unfamiliar setting; all of the strangeness of this time and place feels somehow friendlier in the face of twinkle lights and handmade ornaments and an unprecedented use of tinsel.

Oliver and Bonnie

Let every heart prepare Him room, the old carol reminds us, and if there’s anything that this particular Advent season is teaching me, it’s that this preparation is much less active than I had previously imagined. Not to dismiss the bright bustle and joyous celebration of Christmas–I’ve always loved and found great meaning in it, and I always will. But amid such a forced leanness, I’m learning that preparing Him room means little more than an opening of the hands and a whispered yes.

In his incomparable book of liturgies for the common hours, Every Moment Holy, my friend Doug McKelvey includes an exquisite prayer for an Inconsolable Homesickness (and what does Advent underscore if not our exile?). Towards the end, Doug articulates the work of sorrow in a way that, to my mind, distills the longing of Advent and the hope of Christmas into a few short lines:

…we are not just being homesick;
we are letting sorrow carve
the spaces in our souls
that joy will one day fill.

That’s an image I’m carrying with me into this Christmas season, as the circumstances of my life and the grief of the world around me all cry out for the coming of our King. “Good is always coming,” as dear old George MacDonald faithfully reminds us, “though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil is the only and best shape which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.”

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

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8 thoughts on “Room for Joy

  1. Dear, dear Lanier. Thank you. It would take a book to show you exactly what your words mean to me in the midst of my own space that sorrow is carving. Thank you so very much. <3

  2. What a beautiful reminder. My Christmas season is not like yours, but I, too, have that “strange longing” this year for something greater amidst the bustle of a busy season.

  3. Thank you, dear Lanier, for this beautiful and honest reflection on the season. My circumstances are different, but in so many ways my heart is with yours in the ways you talk about here. 💕

  4. I love this, Lanier. 🙂

    Oh how many times a surge of hope and longing and joy has risen in my heart when I have thought about the “spaces in our souls that joy will one day fill.” This hope has been the tenderest of companions in long seasons of depression and darkness. Thank you for sharing!

    Love your Christmas tree, too!

    <3 Elyce

  5. You’re in good company this Advent as you learn from this experience of celebrating from within the context of ‘reduced circumstances.’

    Bonhoeffer writing to his fiancee from prison says, “I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential.”

    May the richness of the ‘essential’ prove to be enough.

  6. There is so much to learn in both times of plenty and times of need, and if we keep our eyes open we will see the grace and truth He carries with Him as He comes. Thank you for sharing your heart with us, Lanier. We are waiting with you to see the restoration that is coming.

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