In These 12 Days…

I cried a lot this Christmas.

This Christmas—like this year—has been beautiful in so many ways. But it’s also been hard. Hard as iron, at times. Hard in a way no one can prepare you for.

Back in the fall, my little book club re-read an old favorite, Anne’s House of Dreams. I love all of the Anne books, but as a wife, that one has become my very favorite. Nevertheless, it had been years since any of us had revisited that story, and the most poignant element of all to us (without giving away too much, I hope!) was that Anne wasn’t able to connect in real friendship with her intriguing but emotionally distant neighbor, Leslie, until she herself had suffered greatly. It wasn’t until Anne had walked the valley of the shadow that the hurting Leslie was able to trust her, not only with her sorrow, but with her joy as well.

“Why did no one tell us how hard life was?” I asked, looking around the circle of trusted friends.

“We wouldn’t have believed them,” one of them replied. “You have to learn it for yourself.”

She’s right. Life is beautiful, full of dreams and ideals and joys that threaten to make your heart pound clean out of you. But—as Anne learned, as we’re all learning in our own ways—life is hard.

And when the hardness of life invades the tenderness of Christmas, well, then, that’s very hard, indeed.

You have all been so kind with your notes and comments during Advent and Christmastide, and while I really feel I have nothing whatever worthwhile to say, I also feel that I owe it to you, dear readers, to slip in here and let you know I’m still around. To let you know that I appreciate you and your words and the fact that you come back here to see if I’ve posted anything new. That’s really so astonishing to me that after ten years (!) of writing in this space I still can’t get my mind around it. But I’m thankful—thankful for you; thankful that we’ve been able to connect here. It’s precious to me.

This Christmas I had the blessing of leaning deep into the longing and waiting of Advent. Advent is, should be, a season of Longing, of pressing into the sadness that all is not as it should be; that hopes remain unfulfilled and prayers remain unanswered; that another year on this broken old earth finds it more broken than ever.

Early in December, I was feeling rather self-conscious about my sadness—even though it’s entirely justified: my father is terminally ill, and every day holds a fresh heartbreak. I can hardly write about it here, the pain is too raw, too private, though I’ve filled reams of paper journals over the past few months.

But I felt the Lord calling me to honor that sadness. To make myself even more at home with the unresolved tension of loss and grief and hope deferred. To welcome my nearly unbearable longing as a friend and guide that would draw my heart towards an irresistible, undeniable Light.

For the truth is, even if God did answer all my prayers and give me everything I’ve asked Him for, the longing would still be there—because, like all the generations before me, it’s Jesus I’m longing for.

What gift, then, to have such a poignant image of that reality to stab my soul awake this Advent season. How precious to be caught up into that great Longing for the Savior’s appearing that’s broken the hearts of the faithful with sorrow and joy for centuries. The joy is real—but the sorrow is inseparable from it.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!

The shadow cast by Daddy’s illness leant a somber air to our traditions and observances and beloved rituals this year. Some things had to be laid aside by necessity amidst all the tangle of responsibility and uncertainty and care. And some things, in spite of all, we held to more firmly than ever. I told Philip that if there was one thing I wanted this Christmas, it was to have my home stuffed to capacity with people I love. I wanted to cook for them and care for them; create beauty for them; celebrate with them the glorious reality that no amount of earthly sadness can ever undo: namely, that He came, He’s coming again, and every tear will be wiped away.

I wanted to send people to bed in firelit rooms with steaming mugs of peppermint tea. I wanted that bright ring of children’s faces around my table on Christmas Eve—the nieces and nephews and children of friends with whom we’ve celebrated for years. I wanted noisemakers and paper hats on Christmas Day, and silly cracker mottoes and singing. I wanted to affirm that all this hoopla really matters. It seemed so discordant with grief—but after the waiting, the silence, the darkened way of Advent, I wanted to celebrate.

And we did. I had my wish—the Lord honored my desire. I made beds; I set tables; I crammed the freezer with casseroles and cookies. Philip laid the fires and helped me stuff dozens of Christmas crackers. In between trips to the nursing home (in which Bonnie Blue was always a most eager participant!) we listened to favorite records and watched a few favorite movies and read our Advent prayers.

And I cried. A lot.

And that’s okay. I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m learning in a way I never have before that life is HARD.

But it’s also good, as God is good. On Christmas night, the tears that burned my eyes had their source in joy. We were all gathered in the parlor, Philip and me and our houseguests and the darling family of eight and their lovely friend we’d invited to spend Christmas with us, singing everything from “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” (which, I admit, I had to sight-read, as I had no idea how it even went!) to “Away in a Manger”. The hymnals were pulled from their bottom shelf on the bookcase and passed around and requests were taken. It was one of those rare moments in life when you knew how good it all was—knew it down to the marrow of your soul. But it was during “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that my cup (and nearly my eyes) overflowed: its bright triumph has always been especially dear to me, but the words almost seemed to catch fire and light up the room as we belted them out together. And in the midst of it all, our littlest guest, a three year-old lass in a party frock with bare feet, marched around the room, tooting the horn from her Christmas cracker with ear-splitting abandon, almost in time to the music. Such unadulterated joy it nearly broke my heart.

There’s heartache awaiting that little one as sure as it’s come to the rest of us. It’s called being human and alive on this dear old hurting earth of ours. But, being the smallest present, she represented something in our midst: something fresh and pure and utterly, utterly REAL. So lately come from God herself, she was the closest of all of us to the mystery we were celebrating. Whether she could ever comprehend it or not, her innocent antics woke an elemental gladness in me that the darkness absolutely cannot extinguish. That Light is just too faithful.

Philip said I was crazy when he saw me putting those horns in the childrens’ crackers. But, in a way, they made my Christmas.

After the 25th, I’ve retreated (as much as I can right now) into the rest and the wonder of these blessed 12 Days. And here, it’s the 10th one already. It’s a deliciously misty and gloomy one, just right for a quiet afternoon by the fire, keeping and pondering what this holiday has meant. My Christmas tree gleams bravely against the darkening afternoon, and in another moment here, I’ll light my Advent wreath (now graced with red candles for Christmastide). I don’t feel that I’ve kept Christmas this year, so much as it’s kept me—which is a very beautiful thing. The older we get, the more loss we have under our belts, the more complicated our tenderest times become. But as Sarah Bessey so wisely and bravely said in this breathtaking essay,

“The joy born out of suffering and longing is more beautiful for its very complexity.

We greeted the New Year a few days ago, not as we’d planned, but with tears and question marks. I told Philip I was a little afraid to open the door to 2015—I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t break my heart even more thoroughly than 2014 had.

But then I remembered: sorrow’s not the only thing that breaks our hearts.

Sorrow remains for a night—but joy comes in the morning.

I felt God’s challenge stirring in my tired, battered heart: the one—the only—thing He’s asking of me in the face of so many unknowns: dare to believe He loves me as much as He says He does. Dare to take the joy He’s holding out to me.

Dare to believe that JOY really is my word for this New Year.

Challenge accepted.

Happy New Year, dear ones. My prayer for you all on this 10th Day of Christmas is that for you and all who are dear to you, the light breaks and the shadows flee.

Much love,

~Lanier

43 Responses to “In These 12 Days…”

  1. Josie Ray says:

    Oh, Lanier…

    Weeping…

    And will pray…

    More later.

    Thank you for telling us.

  2. Katherine says:

    Praying hard for your father, your family, and you. Thank you for your beautiful words these past 10 years.

  3. donna says:

    Lanier, my heart goes out to you. How wonderful that you were able to salvage the joy of Christmas even though your heart is heavy. I too, am grieving a loss and it is a tender pain at the holidays. I have been using Grace Livingston Hill novels as lullabies to soothe me. Come here when you can and your friends will help.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Donna, what a lovely notion, that of dear, old, gentle books as lullabyes to soothe the soul. I love that. I realize I’ve used Temple Bailey’s Christmas stories in a similar way.
      Thank you, and God bless you in your own path of loss.

  4. Nancy says:

    Lanier,
    Ten years ago, when my mother was dying from ovarian cancer and I felt desolate and uncertain of how I could possibly bear up, a dear friend who had lost her mother to cancer several years earlier, said to me, “even though your heart is breaking, you are privileged. . . this time you will have with your mom- to be there with her, to hold her hand, to be by her side as she leaves this world for another– is precious.” She was so right. While the pain has diminished over time, the love has only grown stronger and I thank God every day for allowing me to care for her when she was ill and for the certitude that I will see her and my dad again, in God’s time.

    Love and prayers to you and your family.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Nancy–yes, yes YES. Your words resound in my heart. Privileged, indeed. The Lord keeps reminding me what a gift this is, to love my dad in such practical ways. Thank you for your comments and for your prayers. Both are precious.

  5. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM says:

    Oh Lanier. Praying for your father. I can remember you writing about him
    and suddenly a whiff of the Holy Spirit came upon me like warmth.
    Joy.
    Be surprised by it.
    Thanks for writing this.
    I needed your words.

  6. Kim says:

    I’m so sorry for your suffering. My husband just lost his mother to dementia this past October. So Christmas was sad, raw, and entered into with trepidation. We are clearing out her closet and personal items now. We look forward to reuniting with her at the resurrection. We are so glad she is at peace. It was a long two-year struggle for her. She went quietly to be with her Savior with her family around her. Hospice was a great help as she was home.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Kim, I’m so very sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. What a beautiful (and rare) blessing that she was able to leave this earth in the presence of those beloved to her. But I know that the holidays, with all their memories and tender associations, are very hard in the face of loss. Blessing to you in your grief.

  7. Susan says:

    This is beautiful.

    Praying.

  8. Natasha says:

    Your words, as always, seem to fill in the gap where my own words have failed me. Praying for you, dear one. And as prayer is the thing I am asking God to teach me more of this year, that is a real promise. Blessings.

  9. Oh, Lanier …

    ***Hug!***

    Praying for you this day in England. <3

  10. Teresa says:

    Dear Lanier –
    I am so sorry to hear of your dear father’s illness.
    Your thoughts on suffering are well said –
    when you think about what it means to share in our Blessed Lord’s suffering, it is almost too much to take in. A privilege, yes, but oh so hard.
    I will be remembering your family in my prayers – With much love

  11. Diane Robertson says:

    Hold fast to the Joy that you are glimpsing through tear-filled eyes……..for it is truly Jesus’ gift to you! With love and many blessings to you and your dear ones, Lanier.

  12. Judy says:

    I was once naive enough to think that the “a time to be..born/die, grieve/dance, weep/laugh” passage in Ecclesiastes spoke of seasons that neatly separated themselves, but increasingly I have found them intermingled, as you have. Sometimes events of darkest sorrow and greatest gladness coincide, sometimes it seems that we are called to focus on one, though we find ourselves in the midst of the other, in a sense creating that time, as you did this Christmas. How lovely that the Lord graced your heart with joy.

    On another note, Lanier, please don’t ever feel you do not have something worthwhile to say – your writing, the sharing of your life, is a gift. This spoke to me at depths I cannot articulate well – your capacity for joy in the Lord gives me hope in a long sorrow. Thank you.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Thank you, Judy. I’m very touched to know that this brought hope to you–I could have no worthier ambition in my writing. God bless.

  13. Finally got to read this and oh! It’s lovely, Lanier. I’m praying for you as you step hesitantly into 2015.

  14. Josie Ray says:

    On Loss: I increasingly feel, when we lose a family member, an odd joy, even excitement, in the midst of sorrow. The longer I live, the more I see life as one of those board games we played when we were children, where you had to get all your pieces around the board and safely “home.” And so I think, in loss, “Another one safely home!” And I feel, somehow, this joy: “Soon we’ll all be safely home!” where we can no longer be knocked off the board by the opponent.

    I also have an increasing sense of being a split family, half on earth and half in heaven, and a feeling that the family reunions and Christmases that *they* are having are tremendously more joyous than ours, and that they can see us, with smiles and love, though we cannot see them; I feel that God lets them help me in the fight, and I try hard to listen because of Abraham’s comment to Dives that his relatives *wouldn’t* listen. I try to slow down and loosen my hold on my own desires and vision enough that I can change from wise nudgings and hints from above. We feel that they are lost to us, for now; they see that we are still marching around the game-board and will come to fill in their numbers soon. “I will go to him, but he will not return to me,” and the entire idea of how the Old Testament refers to death as one being “gathered to his people” grows. This is not to minimize the sense of loss and parting; only it’s something that’s also there, and growing.

    On Suffering: By staying close to Him, we avoid much suffering (we mourn but not as those who have no hope, and our larger vision makes us bypass worldly sorrows daily), but the pointless suffering that we avoid seems to be replaced with dark nights of the soul, the fruitfulness of which I still have to take on faith. If there are two types of suffering, that of redemption and damnation, the first is the type that is fruitful. It seems there’s a certain amount that we simply must bear to be formed in this life. But I wouldn’t believe in it AT ALL, at all, if Christ Himself hadn’t suffered, as if to say, “If I Myself submit to this from the Father’s hand, will you trust that it is for a purpose?”

    But to submit to it, and only when unavoidable and from the Father’s hand, does not mean to believe in it, to propagate it on earth for self or others. I believe in health, joy, and light! Long live strong, happy, contented, vigorous growth in the sunshine! I disagree that people grow more through sorrow and restrain myself from writing paragraphs on that. 🙂 I think part of pain’s forming power may lie in the very accepting it from Him, while not believing in it: it is there, primarily, for us to fight and cast out! And I’m often wrong about which to do: fight or accept from His hand. I’ve fought, then had a light come on that He sent the sorrow and wanted me to bear it patiently. I’ve borne things patiently and felt Him say, “Fight this! Aren’t you going to fight?”

    “Ah, because you have suffered is the one reason why you should never make others suffer. Only the small and mean retaliate for pain. You, Madam, are too high for it….And of what meaning is suffering, if it does not teach us, who are the strong, to prevent it for others? We are shown what it is, we taste the bitterness, in order to stir us to the will to cast it out of the world. Else this earth itself is hell.” Pearl S. Buck, Pavilion of Women.

    Why did no one tell us how hard life is? It’s like God really does want each generation to restart from the beginning, from innocence and naivete, get blindsided, and learn to trust in Him. Otherwise, we would have learned much more as a race through the centuries, I think, yet though there are so many writings, so much accumulated wisdom, we still come into this world with blinders on, or maybe (as you suggest) with a higher vision that blocks out what is low. Why are we sent in dancing and wide-eyed, tooting horns? I’ve often said I feel like a wide-eyed, naive, bare, defenseless baby tossed into a shark-tank, but when we stop baking cookies and tooting horns, we might as well leave: we have lost our usefulness. We must be bringing in light and optimism that defeats the darkness. I’m going to bed with your beautifully symbolic cup of peppermint tea tonight. You are so right to create light in the face of sorrow. I believe in you.

    On your generous Christmas writings: I love my family very much, but they do simply tolerate and indulge my Christmas celebrations, my joy, exuberance, and giving. They wouldn’t celebrate if I wasn’t here; they don’t feel that way about Jesus or His blessed birth. That is not to complain; they indulge me lovingly. It is only to explain why it is such a relief to come here and find another who is celebrating from her heart, who has her own Christmas momentum. It is an utter relief, rest, and joy to my heart to read about your Christmas. When I begin to wear down from generating all the joy and thoughtful giving that I can, thinking up new ways to tell the Story, I seek the candle in your window.

    A Blessed Twelfth Night, Star Dipper.

    With apologies for the length,
    Josie Ray

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Dearest Josie, I’m at a loss how to reply to such grace and kindness and truth, but I’m keeping your words very close to my heart. YES–Joy and beauty and hope are native to our souls–why else would the fierce longing for them arise in the darkest of days? Yes, and amen, sister. Thank you for these jewels. Much love and gratitude to you…

  15. April Pickle says:

    Such joy abounds here in the opening of your broken heart, in the opening of your wonderful home, in your making of casseroles and crackers, and in your singing “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Thank you for the gift of such a beautifully written piece. It makes me think of “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” Much love and grace to you, dear one.

    In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
    with thee, dear Lord, beside me;
    thy rod and staff my comfort still,
    thy cross before to guide me.

    Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
    thine unction grace bestoweth;
    and O what transport of delight
    from thy pure chalice floweth.

  16. You have so beautifully articulated the sense of loss and heartache which we must all face, in turn, as the end of life looms for a loved one. As I grow older I find that I increasingly grieve that age and illness must so diminish us, in outward appearance and ability, at least.
    Our Christian faith does not always bring the solutions we long for–healing, longevity, remission from pain or sorrow, but I cannot imagine how we would endure without that faith and hope, both of a Savior’s return, and of His presence as we walk our life’s path of joys and sorrows.
    Thank you for another heart-felt essay.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Thank you, Sharon. Such wisdom and truth. So thankful He’s given us Himself and each other for this often dark and winding journey.

  17. Rachel says:

    Lanier, Dearest. No words. I’ve known that life was hard for too too long. And this just, validates it, somehow. Makes the pain, far away now, seem almost beautiful. Thank you. I’m saddened to hear about your Dad. Character, Honor, Distinguished, Humorous, and Kind, very Kind, come to mind when I think about of him. Where you write about the 3 year old as the littlest present I at first mistakenly read it as she was a gift (the littlest of all the gifts). And that made my mouth twitch into a smile and my heart happy. You’re so smart to fill your house with people. Especially the wee ones. Love you. Rachel.

  18. Martina says:

    Praying for you and your family…
    I remember you like Mendelssohn – do you happen to know his second symphony, “Hymn of Praise”? If so, listen to the tenor-solo:
    “He notes our tears in the days of our affliction,
    He comforts our distress with His word.”
    One of the most beautiful pieces of music on earth, and pure comforting for me. For you also, hopefully.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Thank you so much, Martina. We truly cherish your prayers.

      And thank you for the Mendelssohn! Absolutely exquisite. A gift on this grey afternoon. xx

  19. Sharra says:

    I found your blog through Sarah Clarkson’s recommendation on her Storyformed website. This is my first time reading your blog. I am stunned. I would like to leave a meaningful comment but words fail me. Your post on grief and joy reduced me to tears and encouraged my weary heart. Thank you for sharing the beauty and pain of our fragile lives. I will pray for your family. May God’s presence surround you with his heavenly peace.

  20. Doris Gradle says:

    Dear Lanier,
    I had noticed that you had not posted in a while and thought you were probably quite busy with your studies. I am so sorry to learn of such a tremendous affliction with which you and your family are dealing. And yes, oh my, affliction during the holidays is so, so difficult to bear. Even after twenty-seven years, there is an anguish which is present. The Lord does give us grace to withstand the trying fires. Reading always gives me hope and comfort. Outside of the Scriptures, Affliction, by Edith Schaeffer, A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, and of course A Severe Mercy are always my books with the greatest sources of comfort.
    I have shared with my husband what is going on in your life. We are praying for you and your family.
    God’s grace and mercy to you and yours,
    Doris, for the Gradle Family

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Doris, thank you for such compassion and understanding. We are truly cherishing your prayers in this difficult place. God bless you…

  21. Josh says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your father’s illness and the sorrow that’s accompanying it. This life will break our hearts in a thousand ways, but yes, that morning is coming when they’ll be ultimately and forever broken and healed by Joy Himself. I join all the others here in offering prayers for you and your family, and hope that, while 2015 will surely hold its own sorrows, you’ll find and be delighted by the innumerable little joys she’ll also bring.

  22. Josie Ray says:

    Lanier,

    Just sitting down for a long-neglected reread of Pascal’s Pensees, encountered this, and had to send it to you:

    “When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man. Whereas those who have good taste, and who seeing a book expect to find a man, are quite surprised to find an author.”

    Thinking of you often; praying for you daily. Tenderest blessings to you and your family.

  23. Gwen says:

    Lanier, I just wanted to add my voice to the many who have sent you words of love and prayers; and to tell you that your blog and your words have been a dear dear friend to me in the hardest times I have faced in my own life. When I walk through waterless places your gift of seeing beauty in hardship, grace in darkness, and dignity in truth, has inspired me and lifted me up. Your honesty, your talent, and your faith make the internet a better place. I am thinking of you and your family.

  24. Josie Ray says:

    Pausing for a moment between curling up with an old, falling-apart volume of Robert Frost’s poems and picking up a book on calligraphy, to brew a pot of tea, and thought of you (as I considered peppermint tea). Praying for you, still…for you and your family. You are never out of mind when I’m out of sight. As I’m sure is true with others who read and comment here, our silence is only one of consideration, not of forgetfulness. You are swaying in a prayer-from-friends hammock, gently moved by a breath of wind that is the Holy Spirit. Sweetest blessings to you.

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