These pre-Christmas days are full of hospital work and cookie-baking and lights and carols, and the wind of a drier season sweeping away the clouds for radiant days. Jack reads, watches cooking shows, plays basketball and soccer, and goes on long piki (motorcycle) rides with friends. Julia crochets and bakes and hikes and plays soccer and runs and reads some more. Last night they pitched in together to make pasta from scratch (as in dough rolled out, cut in strips, dried a bit, then boiled) with a spicy bacon and tomato and wine sauce they found on the internet. I've not been home that much, the responsibilities of ICU care and the Paeds department weighing a bit this month. In the late evenings though we've been watching Lord of the Rings together, one disc of the extended version each night. Tomorrow will be our last. Then we'll be ready for the Hobbit, whenever it opens in Kenya. We celebrated our first Advent Sunday with two neighboring families who are good friends. And today Scott and I were able to leave the hospital early and drive into the Nairobi suburbs to enjoy a few hours of food and creative gift-exchanging with the World Harvest team there. It was a lovely gathering with decorations and a tree and laughter and stories of family.
So I'm still processing why a wave of something like grief nearly knocked me over as we pulled away. A physical chest-tightening numbing sorrow without a clear antecedent cause, tears springing up as we walked into the mall on the way home to quickly gather fresh fruits and vegetables and a few bags of bread and staples. It felt like homesickness, but I really couldn't think of what home I was sick for. The tasteful house we had just left with a bit of southern flair perhaps brought to mind my childhood home in Virginia. The team gathering perhaps brought to mind our 17-year home in Bundibugyo. And the familiar faces perhaps made the absence of half our kids more acute. All in the context of what is usually my favorite holiday, which has left me on edge this year. I just feel profoundly tired. I really like our little house in Kijabe, the fireplace hung with stockings and the bright yellow kitchen walls. I love this work, and my colleagues.
But something is missing, something that Christmas and lights and icing and music cannot fully veil. Luke and Caleb are most obviously missing, and I can't even let myself think about decorating and baking one day without Julia, and eventually even Jack. But something bigger is missing. Home. This life of pilgrimage just becomes too much sometimes.
The Christmas story is about home, in a reflective longing way. Elizabeth longed for a child, with a physical emptiness even while in her ancestral village. Mary had to shelter in a cave. Joseph ran across borders at night with his young family into the unknown. The magi traveled long and far, which in those days carried a significant chance of no return. The Israelites were shaken up by an occupying power that pushed them into countable quantums in temporary towns. And Jesus left the home of the Trinity in some way, loosening his due grasp on equality and power and love, to experience abandonment and darkness.
For a holiday that two thousand years later is symbolized by a happy hearth, the original reality involved an awful lot of pilgrimage.
Bethany wrote on her blog that Advent carries a necessary element of restlessness. The shadow of discontent with the current state of things gives birth to the longing for a real home, real fellowship, real belonging. Lord of the Rings is a Christmas trilogy; the King returns in obscurity, small faithful people plod on against the odds, the serpent of Evil battles the faithful, sacrifice and courage finally allow good to prevail. And even the characters that go home never ever feel at home again, their souls have seen too much to fit into the old life, and they carry that longing for a fully restored earth.
So in hard moments of the weight of loneliness, remember these characters, and hold on. Here is a closing line from an on-line Advent devotion (Joy! To Your World! A Countdown to Christmas, on YouVersion):
"I hope that the first lesson you will learn in the Christmas story is to be patient with God. Trust God even when your circumstances are challenging. Continue to live a righteous life through days of disappointment. Pray fervently and believe that God is listening to your prayers. Continue to embrace a positive heart attitude when you don’t get your own way.
Allow the loveliness of Elizabeth to remind you that true believers walk by faith and not by sight."