It’s 2008 and I’m driving the bright blue PT cruiser they gave me at the rental desk. I’m on the outskirts of Chicago, where I’ve just spent a long weekend celebrating Thanksgiving with Bradley. I dropped him off at the barracks of the Great Lakes Naval base; they don’t let wives in to their bachelor quarters. I’ll head back to the hotel for the night and then catch a flight home in the morning. At this point we’ve been living in two different states for almost five months. I make the flight from Virginia, to Chicago O’Hare, about once every six weeks, but this is his final weekend off before Christmas, and it will be the last time I can travel.
I’m thirty-four weeks pregnant with our first baby.
She’s due on January 6, one week after Bradley’s Christmas break is over and he reports to the final stage of his training in San Diego. He’ll fly across the country, find us an apartment, wait for our belongings, begin the most rigorous part of training, and I’ll join him when the baby is three weeks old.
I’m sad he can’t be with me for the weeks leading up to Christmas and feeling unsettled about the unknowns we’re facing. Snow is falling and I’m not accustomed to navigating through winter weather. I’m also tired, uncomfortable and swollen. This is not a good combination for driving on slippery roads.
I put one of our Christmas CD’s into the stereo system, hoping to drown out the fear and uncertainty of all we would face in the coming weeks. Sarah McClachlan’s voice rings through the speakers, “If I could only have you near, to breathe a sigh or two. I would be happy just to hold the hands I love, On this winter’s night with you. And to be once again with you…”
To have him near, this was all I needed. I wanted him to help me assemble the stroller, put the carseat in the car, and count minutes between contractions. I wanted assurance of his presence in the delivery room, the surety that his hands would be the ones releasing the pressure on my back and wiping the sweat from my face. I wanted him to be the one to say, “It’s a girl,” and be the first to welcome her into the world.
I frantically turn up the speed on the windshield wipers as the snow begins to fall more steadily and my vision is blurred, not just by the weather, but by the tears streaming down my face. I miss the toll booth and groan over the fine they’ll send me in the mail. I make a wrong turn and backtrack on the highway, praying my inexperience in driving on snow-covered roads won’t result in an accident.
During those moments in the car, and in the weeks to come, I experienced a physical ache in my soul unlike anything I had ever felt. I missed my husband. I longed for him. I was desperate for his presence. He would be there for the birth, but I didn’t know it at the time, so all the unknowns we were facing left me fearful, overwhelmed, and anxious. My peace hinged upon his presence, but he wasn’t there.
It’s December 1, 2019, and I’m driving down a back country road on the outskirts of Richmond. My six children are with me in the van and we’re heading home after spending the weekend with my family for Thanksgiving. I can’t plug my new phone into the sound system, so I put our old CD’s into the player. Once again, Sarah McClachlan’s voice breaks through the silence. There’s no snow this time, just light rain, but again, I reach for the windshield wipers because my vision is blurred by the increasing fog and the tears brimming in my eyes.
Only this time I’m crying because I know Bradley won’t be there for Christmas, or for the next three months. The ache returns.
I’m not fearful or anxious like I was in 2008; our life is pretty settled. I just want him with me. I want him to light a fire and talk after the kids go to bed. I want to sit by the tree together and reminisce. I want us to stuff stockings on Christmas Eve and hear him tease me about wrapping every single item in multiple pieces of tissue paper. I’m going to miss getting up early together on Christmas morning, drinking our coffee and waiting for the kids to come downstairs.
His presence comforts me. Being with him brings me great joy.
So what am I supposed to do when he’s not here? It’s the same question I wrestled with in 2008, when I longed for him as we waited on the birth of our baby, prepared for a cross-country move, and anticipated a challenging season with his career.
It’s a similar question we all face in the midst of unsettling or less-than ideal circumstances.
Where is our peace when life feels uncertain or our dreams die? What fills the emptiness in our souls when our longings are yet to be fulfilled? How can we rejoice when the ones we love are absent from special moments? Is hope possible when everything comes undone and we’re left with a physical ache in our souls? Can we experience true satisfaction in this life?
Last week, as I read through 1 Samuel, I came across a story I had forgotten, or maybe just never really paid attention to before. Israel was living under oppression of the Philistines, and had been for a number of years. This was in the time of the judges, before there was a king over Israel and before Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem. During those days, God’s glory dwelled in the ark of the covenant, inside the tabernacle. The ark was a sacred and holy possession.
The Israelites were losing in a battle against the Philistines, so in an act of faith that God’s presence would provide deliverance, they brought the ark of the Lord to the battle. But the Philistines overtook them, thirty thousand Israelite soldiers died — including two sons of the priest — and the ark of God was captured.
When the wife of one of the priest’s sons heard the news of her husband’s death, the lost battle, and the ark being captured, she immediately went into labor. 1 Samuel 4 records, “And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her…And she named the child Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel!’ because the ark of God had been captured…”
Her sadness over the removal of God’s presence produced a physical ache in her body.
On this side of the cross and the resurrection we don’t have to wonder what it’s like to not experience God’s presence. Jesus took on flesh, lived among us, and displayed his glory in human form (John 1:14). We’ve been given access to God through Jesus (Hebrews 10:19-23) and we have the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). The promise of Emmanuel was fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But I think we all experience a similar ache in our souls because while we have the gift of Christ in us, we still live in a broken world. We face loneliness, fear, anxiety, and loss. We get interrupted, inconvenienced, and ignored. We grow weary from the agonies of this life and our hearts burn for something better.
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, grown inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:22-25).
We’re still groaning and waiting for the day when we get to enjoy God’s presence as we were meant to enjoy him: in fullness, completeness, and perfection.
Hope. This is the gift of Advent. Because our hope is sure. It’s not if Jesus returns, it’s just a matter of when. So we keep holding onto the promise that his presence will bring about the removal of every ache we’ve ever felt. He’s coming back to make all things new.
Tonight I’ll tuck the kids into bed for one last sleep, stuff the stockings by myself, put the cinnamon rolls in the fridge to rise overnight, and sit for one more glance at the tree. I know I’ll be lonely and I’ll ache for Bradley’s presence. I’ll want his hand in mine and to be with the one I love.
But in the absence of my husband this Christmas, I have the greater joy of Christ’s presence living in me, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). And if you’re in Christ, you have it too. So no matter what disappointment, suffering, loss, loneliness or pain you’re experiencing this Christmas, you can rest in the grace of Christ poured out for you. He’s near. He’s with you. He will never forsake you.
He’s coming again to be with us forever.
I’ll leave you with words from my favorite Christmas song this year:
Every valley will be lifted high
And the weak will be the strong
When You come like lightning in the sky
How long, O Lord, how long?
Kings on earth will scatter when they hear
Thundering sounds of angel songs
Hearts will tremble, filled with holy fear
How long, O Lord, how long?
All our hopes are fixed on You
That Your promises are true
And one day You will return
All our treasures here will fade
So, we long to see Your face
Until then our hearts will burn
How long, O Lord?
You will conquer every evil thing
Every sorrow, pain, and wrong
They will cease with Your return, our King
How long, O Lord, how long?
(Lyrics by Sovereign Grace Music, 2017)