Staying Awake

I’ve always had sympathy for the apostles who fell asleep while Jesus was praying in Gethsemane. I have even more sympathy these days, when a Friday night finds me, more often than not, passed out on my couch by 8pm. I wonder if they could have stayed awake better if they’d known why they had to wait so long. Waiting always seems easier when you know why, so perhaps they could have kept their eyes open if they’d understood what was really going on in that garden.

We’re just around the corner from the start of Advent. Every year I give a little nerdy spiel to my students about how the word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “arriving”. I tell them about why that matters, and that we use this time of year to think about two arrivals of Christ: the one already happened, and the one not yet here. I tell them we live in a time between, and that Advent gives us the space to reflect on that in a special way.

The problem is, outside of the Advent season, I’m often just killing time while waiting for that not-yet-arrived Jesus to show his face again. I’m tapping my toes and checking my watch as if I’m at the DMV, wondering why, for the love of all that’s holy, I am still stuck here. Just like the apostles, I am bad at waiting, and too often I fall asleep when I most need to be alert. However, I think I could be better at waiting if I had a deeper sense of what was around the corner and a greater purpose in what I ought to be doing in the meantime to help keep my soul awake. It’s one of the reasons I treasure the Advent season as a time to refocus and reorient my habits of waiting. It allows for a more natural rhythm of peace and reflection that can so easily elude me during the other months of the year.

My friend Becky shares my love for this season, and this year we teamed up and wrote a prayer journal specifically for Advent.  Check out by clicking here.  It’s full of different verses and creative exercises to facilitate a time of quiet reflection. In a season so easily overtaken by a flurry of activity, we hope it’s something that can bring peace and direction as you wait in Already-Not-Yet.


On Coming Home

Same same, but different
Yesterday your fingers recalled
How it felt to play Christmas songs
On the piano with a rattling F key–
The piano which is rightfully yours,
Except for as much as you miss it
You still have no space in your house.

The day before, your feet stayed warm
Inside boots two sizes too big.
You found them in a dusty box in the basement,
The basement which is also full, incidentally,
Of everything you’ve forgotten
But might need, someday.

Today you sat by a Christmas tree
And opened a gift from your parents:
A Nativity scene
Which looks like a miniature of the one you used to unpack–
Each year looking for a fragile baby Jesus
Hidden inside old newspapers.

Last week, coming home had different expectations
You had planned on divesting yourself
Of accomplishments and stories,
Then leaving with a lightened load.
How could you forget?
They fill your suitcase every time
Until the zippers fear bursting.


I adore visiting my grandparents house. Especially at Christmastime. Everything about that two-storied structure, built by my grandpa, communicates warmth and love. As I sit tonight, I think about what happens within these walls each year, how we go through the same happy routine.

There’s the room paneled in pine, where we all congregate the evening before the big family gathering. A wood-burning stove quickly raises the temperature of the room to over 80 degrees. I watch the thermometer rise and fall, first as my grandpa adds wood to the stove, and then as my grandma opens three of the windows to let in a blast of chilling, winter air. The dog sits panting in front of the fire, much like the rest of the family – overheating, but too relaxed and happy to move.

We move into the dining room to eat, my grandma insisting that all of us to eat as much as possible. There is the initial calm as we devour the pork roast and potatoes, taking pause only to comment on my grandma’s incessantly perfect cooking. Of course there’s too much food. We tuck in second helpings to appease my grandma, knowing we’ll regret it later but pleased with the smile on her face.

Conversation lasts much longer than dinner does. Despite my grandpa’s protestations we inevitably drift into politics. Perhaps it’s my fault, now that I live near D.C. Or maybe it’s my brothers now serving in the Air Force. Not that grandma needs a reason – there’s a typical pattern to this portion of the evening. A snide remark about Obama and his vacations, then commentary on congress’ poor decision making. In recent years, the talk is capped off with concern for my well-being, living so near to the source of their vexations.

And then there are the stories, each told so many times that I could quote them the way I do my favorite movies. The time I broke my arm and didn’t tell anyone, or how grandma called those people by the wrong name; Marcus was Maxwell, Gideon was Edison, and don’t even start with what she called that game I got for my 6th birthday. We know the words and the endings well, yet they never cease to send us all into fits of laughter.

Back into the room with the pine and the wood stove. More sweating and interchange between fire and open windows. We plan for tomorrow’s Christmas festivities, beginning by predicting how late everyone will be.

Did you tell Julie the actual time we were eating?

When did Steve say they’d leave to come here?

What time shall we start cooking the ham?

Quickly this devolves to reminiscing over past Christmases. Like last year, when the snow was so bad that half of us didn’t make it to Grandma’s. Or the year we tried ordering pizza instead of making food. Aunt Julie is bringing Bev’s slush again….with the slush, my grandma emphasizes.

Each year the traditions grow and expand to fit in the newcomers and changes in our family, while still gently rooting us in the things we’ve built our love and laughter upon. We repeat the stories until even the newest in-laws can rehearse them with us. We mock mistakes of yesteryear with the grace-filled understanding that we’re all hopelessly flawed, so we may as well laugh. We plan around the relatives who will never be on time, though when push comes to shove we’d rather overcook that ham than try to eat it without them. Tomorrow the cousins and aunts and uncles will arrive, and we’ll eat the same jello salad that we have every year, and then we’ll settle down in the same room that really shouldn’t have a fire going with that many people in it, and we’ll talk and we’ll laugh, and it will be Christmas. Beautiful, happy Christmas.


A non-traditional favorite of mine:


By Sleeping at Last

The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
Christmas lights tangle in knots annually

Our families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
But our bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow

So we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome december with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

The table is set and our glasses are full
Though pieces go missing, may we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls

So let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers, the snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white
New year’s resolutions will reset tonight