Part of me wanted Christmas to be over before it started. It feels sacrilegious to say that, especially since I usually try to squeeze every moment of joy out of this time of year. Each December, I refer back to Old Testament prophecies as a reminder of all that Jesus fulfilled when He came as a baby in a manger. We hang an advent calendar and build the nativity one piece at a time in anticipation of Christmas day. As I child, I even asked for “swaddling clothes,” though I didn’t receive them.
I tend to leave my Christmas trees out through the middle of January at least. (Yes, I have more than one tree. Three at home and another in my classroom at school.) But this year, I only put the trees up for the kids’ sake. I cried when I couldn’t find the ornament with Olivia’s name on it, hurting over this extra poke at a fresh wound.
As Christmas day grew closer, my aunt suggested I buy something, perhaps an ornament, to remind myself that Olivia is still very much a part of our family during this time when her physical presence is so acutely missed. I went to Hobby Lobby in search of something to hang on the tree for Olivia and found empty aisles where the Christmas ornaments should have been. I remember thinking, “God why couldn’t You have given me this one little thing? It seems so little to ask.” With no ornament in hand, I picked up a tiny ceramic owl, pink and glittery, to set on the mantle in Olivia’s honor.
Christmas came, and joy mingled with sadness. Jingle, the Elf on the Shelf, joined our advent calendar adventures. The girls and I got to help distribute gifts through an outreach at our church. A.J. and his puppy had matching pajamas, and the man-giggle that rolls out of my sweet boy’s belly in response to Rusty’s antics was made even more precious by their little outfits. We got to surprise Jazzy and Roxie with their new “mermaid” and “unicorn” rooms and talked with Hilaria on video chat. We played spoons for lottery tickets, sang Whitney’s Christmas songs with Gammie and Pappy, and enjoyed plenty of food and fun with aunts, uncles and cousins.
I nearly took everything festive down the day after Christmas. If I hadn’t been so emotionally spent, I probably would have.
Grappling with the reality of how easily Christmas could come and go without Olivia there, I stayed in bed more than I should’ve. When I received a text from a friend letting me know she’d left a gift in my mailbox, I decided to leave it for later. Eventually, Robert checked the mail and Jazzy came running in with a small gift bag stuffed with tissue paper. I opened it to find an ornament. A glass angel, rimmed in gold, holding a heart. My friend said, “I wanted your angel to hold a heart because I know how very deeply Olivia loved you … And your love for her is more than words could ever describe.”
Such a small thing, that glass angel, and yet how incredible that God would move the hearts of people and orchestrate circumstances in order to remind me that He cares deeply about even the smallest details of my life. God could’ve made it so that the same ornament was hanging in the aisles of Hobby Lobby as I shopped there a few days before Christmas. But the angel means much more having come to me as it did and when it did. It is a tangible expression of love. Of my love for Olivia and hers for me. Of the love of a treasured friend. And of God’s love which goes to any length, circumventing human plans if necessary, to offer hope at just the right moment. He truly does know best. If ever we doubt that our Father has our best interest at heart, we need only “wait a little longer” to see what He will do.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”—Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”—Job 42:2 (ESV)
Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.—Proverbs 19:21
An ornament is a small thing, I know. But many things seem small that are actually big. Two worlds exist at once–one temporary and one eternal. The first we all know well as it is natural and easily accessed through our five senses. The second is spiritual, and we are invited to explore it if we but open our eyes. And the permanence of God’s eternal, spiritual kingdom makes it necessary to measure significance differently.
Consider the world in Jesus’ time. Many Jewish people were preoccupied with the major issues of the day. The political atmosphere under Roman rule. The disagreements between religious factions. How significant was the birth of one, tiny baby whose parents were forced to deliver Him in a stable? With the exception of the shepherds and Mary and Joseph, I am sure most people’s lives moved steadily forward, unaware of the Gift that had been bestowed on them.
I wonder how often I miss such grace gifts, because I am so wrapped up in things I deem more worthy of my attention?
It is easy to look at the great atrocities that plague this planet, apply human reasoning, and come to the conclusion that God is somehow lacking—in power, in goodness, in compassion, or in proximity to us.
But what if we turned that thinking on its head and instead looked first for the countless, gracious ways God pursues His people? What if we stared hard at His abiding faithfulness throughout eternity, how He consistently shows up in our lives in ways–both intimate and grand–that prove He is Emmanuel, God with us. What if we prayed for eyes of faith and then allowed the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth? I think we would find that God is awesome in power, thoroughly good, brimming with compassion, and closer than our next breath.
At times, Olivia’s death seems to me like a great atrocity on a personal level. I do not know why she wasn’t healed on this earth. I did ask God. I still do sometimes. I’ve found He isn’t threatened by my asking and does not rebuke me or cast me aside. His answer has been the same, each time I’ve asked. It isn’t what I had in mind, but it is an invitation to peace:
Two simple words that can feel unattainable when your feet are mired in grief or loss of any kind. I struggle to trust in the goodness of God when I think only of Olivia’s death and the fact that she is not here with me.
These words can sound empty, idle and paltry to a soul drowning in sorrow, but they begin to pulse with strength, life and peace when I lift my eyes, as Peter did, to look at Jesus. I look at the Living Word of God and remember the many examples of God’s grace to me and to others. How He sustained Joseph through slavery and slander in Egypt, leading him out into a position of favor. How he used my Olivia’s resilience to teach me endurance, her fragile body to show me what it is to depend on Him, and finally raised her up to new life in Heaven. How the Apostle Paul, despite being shipwrecked and stoned, could say “our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! (II Corinthians 4:17, NLT).” How Peter, and Paul, and Olivia are now indescribably free, as I too will someday be.
Yes, I can respond to that simple request. I can trust God, even without answers. His goodness runs deeper than my questions or pain. And He is so faithful to remind me.
I think I’ll leave the tree out a little longer.