Adoption Story, Part 3: The Thing With Feathers

IMG_1597

This is the third — and final — installment of a 3-part series on our family’s experience adopting our son.

I sat in our minivan, parked next to the playing fields where I’d just dropped off my daughters for an afternoon field hockey practice. I was clutching my cell phone to my ear; on the other end, our adoption counselor was saying that a birth mother had chosen our family as a potential home for her baby.

It had been 22 months since Erick and I had first walked through the doors of the adoption agency; nearly two years since we set off down the path of becoming a “waiting family.” Waiting for exactly this moment, the moment a birth mother would choose us — a moment that had seemed like an increasingly remote possibility as time wore on.

Our adoption counselor asked whether we’d like to move forward, whether we’d accept the birth mother’s wish to place her child with us – if that remained her wish.

“But,” our counselor continued, “don’t get your hopes up. She’s still not entirely sure that she wants to go the adoption route.”

We were required to make this enormous decision with shockingly little information. The baby was due in early November – about six weeks away. Our adoption counselor thought it was a boy. We were given a brief sketch of the mother’s situation, which is not my story to tell.

That was it. I promised to discuss things with Erick and give our answer the next morning.

Driving home, I felt oddly calm. There was a package waiting for me at our front door.

A month earlier, we’d visited family in California. My sister-in-law has beautiful prints of Bible verses hung all around her house, and my daughters and I particularly loved the work of the artist Ruth Chou Simons. So, for my birthday, which had happened about a week before this phone call, I’d suggested that Erick and the girls order me a Ruth Chou Simons print. I’d picked out the particular verse and design that I wanted.

Now my print had arrived. But the first thing I noticed upon opening it was: it was the wrong print.

After an immediate wave of confusion and disappointment, I shrugged. “Oh well,” I thought, “so I didn’t get the verse I wanted; I probably got the verse I needed!”

Then I read the verse.

It was Genesis 18:14. To set the stage: God has just told Abraham and Sarah that they’re going to have a baby in their old age (extreme old age), and Sarah laughs to herself because…that’s impossible. Right?

But God says to Sarah, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

That was my verse: Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It was one of many miracles that swirled around us during this journey. I don’t use the word “miracle” lightly, as a sort of saccharine greeting card sentiment. Erick and I have 19 years of higher education between us, but when we decided to adopt, things happened to us that I can’t explain logically; things that were edged in magic and raised goosebumps on my arms. And these things happened repeatedly. The more I travel through life, the more I believe that we open ourselves up to miracles when we start out blindly down a path that makes no sense apart from our faith that it’s the path we’re supposed to take.

We took this path. We agreed to be open to taking this baby. And I needed that print hanging on my wall every single second of every single day of the six weeks that followed – six weeks that number among the most spiritually challenging of my entire life.

We saw no point in hiding anything from our daughters: Even if this ended in disappointment, it would be a valuable experience for them. So we kept them fully informed, while cautioning them often that this adoption still might not happen.

They were overjoyed. They immediately set to work pulling together stuffed animals and books for the baby. They held a “Big Sister Training Camp” for their youngest sister, complete with a graduation ceremony. They drew pictures of the baby, whom they referred to as “Turtle:” a round-faced infant with red hair and blue eyes. They were deaf to our warnings.

“Why are you so worried?” they’d ask. “This IS our baby!”

But that wasn’t at all clear to us. Weeks went by in which we heard nothing, only to be told that the birth mother was still “struggling” and “having a hard time.” (Hardly surprising, given the weight of the decision she was making.) Then, more silence. We walked a fine line between trying to prepare for a new baby – but not too much, so that it wouldn’t be as painful if things didn’t work out.

“If it happens, it will probably happen all at once,” our adoption counselor told us. That’s what it felt like on the night, two weeks before the baby’s due date, when we got a call that the birth mother had decided to induce labor the next morning.

The baby would be born at a hospital two hours away from us. We scrambled to find childcare and make accommodations for our various animals. We packed our bags.

The next morning, I started getting texts from our adoption counselor: The birth mother and her options counselor were at the hospital. They were still there and waiting. Still waiting. And then…silence.

Several hours later, the final text came: The birth mother had decided not to induce after all. She’d gone home. We were back to waiting.

In retrospect, this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but in the moment it almost broke me. Our disappointed family went for a walk that afternoon. As we strolled through a gorgeous autumn afternoon, I felt crushed by my total lack of control.  I was so tired of waiting…but I had no choice.

A poem that I’d never particularly loved before came to mean a great deal to me during this time; it was Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all

I needed that kind of hope. I could relate to “the tune without the words,” as my heart cried out for things I couldn’t even verbalize. Waiting, at this point, felt anything but passive; it felt like my soul was running an ultra-marathon.

A few days after the induction that wasn’t, we received another call from our adoption counselor: The birth mother and birth father, who had initially not wanted any contact with us, now wanted to meet us.

We set a date and time for the meeting, which would happen at the same hospital where the baby was to be born – two hours away. We arranged for childcare.

The night before the meeting with the birth parents, another call came from our adoption counselor: The mother was in labor. At around 9 PM, a text: A baby boy had arrived. He was healthy but tiny, tipping the scales at just over 5 pounds. We would all meet at the hospital in the morning.

Another miracle: We’d already lined up childcare for the next day, since that’s when our meeting with the birth parents was supposed to have happened.

The hours that followed were a blur. I packed – again. I wrote a note to the baby’s birth mom (I’d like to take credit for that idea myself, but it was on the suggestion of our adoption counselor – I was far too scrambled.) I slept a little, then woke at dawn to take care of animals and say goodbye to our daughters. My husband and I got into the truck and drove across the mountains in the misty autumn morning.

Our adoption counselor met us in the hospital lobby, and after a short wait that seemed like forever the birth parents’ counselor arrived to take us all up to the room.

Now. You may have all sorts of opinions and stereotypes when it comes to mothers who place their children up for adoption. I did, too, and this experience exploded them all. Adoption is every bit as much about supporting a mother in the heartbreaking situation of needing a safe home in which to place her child, as it is about supporting that child.

What happened in that hospital room, when we met our baby and his birth parents for the first time, is far too personal and emotional to put into words, but I will say only that this woman loves this baby, she wants the best for him, and she handed him to me. It was one of the most profound acts of grace that I have ever experienced.

And then he was our baby. He was tiny, but all of our babies have been tiny. I looked at him and saw that he had a head full of fuzzy, strawberry blond hair and blue eyes – almost the red hair and blue eyes my daughters had envisioned when they still called him “Turtle.”

Our son is now seven months old; his adoption was just finalized. The past seven months have not always been easy: Almost immediately, our son was diagnosed with severe gastric reflux, which required medication, special formula, and home visits from a nurse. In December,he was hospitalized for “failure to thrive”because he wasn’t gaining enough weight. A week later, he caught a respiratory virus and was intubated for two weeks in the PICU. And as soon as those issues had stabilized, a global pandemic hit.

But our little guy is thriving now. He is happy, full of smiles, giggles, and babbles. His big sisters are over the moon. Adoption, more than anything else in their young lives, has shaped their understanding of love and family; it has done that for us adults, as well. I have no idea what the future holds, but I can say with total certainty that adoption was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I’m not sharing our story because I think it’s the most interesting, amusing, or touching. My “ulterior motive” is to encourage, in case there’s anyone out there who is standing where we were four years ago. Do you sense a tug towards adoption? Is it something you’ve considered vaguely, but discounted because it just feels too difficult or scary? Does it seem like stories of adoption are following you everywhere you turn?

We have been there. We know it’s a huge threshold to cross. There are 1,000 great reasons NOT to adopt. And we’d be the last people to tell you to leap without looking.

But if you need some encouragement to keep going, please let us encourage you. We are not saints. We are not the world’s best parents. We are not fantastically wealthy, brilliant, energetic, or hyper-organized. We started with love, we felt a pull, we put one foot in front of the other, and we adopted a child. So can you.

Adoption Story, Part 1: Vague Feelings, Specific Decisions

Adoption Story, Part 2: The Next Right Thing

Adoption Story, Part 2: The Next Right Thing

feet-walk-journey-pilgrim

This is the second part of a 3-part series about our family’s journey through adoption.

Part 1 of our family’s adoption story was a 2,000-word description of the two-year process that we went through before even deciding to proceed with adoption. My purpose in laying all of this out was not to bore readers silly, but to make it clear that this was not a simple or spontaneous decision: It was slow and filled with false starts, doubts, and frustration.

Once Erick and I decided to pursue adoption, we began a long journey of small steps. Our mantra during this time was, “Let’s just do the next right thing.” (This was several years before “Do the Next Right Thing” became a copyrighted earworm via the Disney film Frozen 2.)

The first thing to do was to sign up with an adoption agency. Erick felt very strongly that we should try to adopt a child within Vermont, so that we could have a local impact in our home state. Vermont is a small state, with few adoptions: In 2018 there were 859 total adoptions in Vermont, the third lowest of all 50 states (only North Dakota and Wyoming had fewer.) So, without much to choose from, we met with an adoption counselor at a Vermont agency.

At this particular agency, prospective adoptive families work with an adoption counselor in order to become approved for child placement. Birth parents work with an options counselor in order to discern whether adoption is the best choice for them, and to choose an adoptive family. All adoptions are “open,” which means that, although some privacy is respected, adoptive and birth parents are known to each other. There is a whole spectrum of possible post-adoption contact, but when we signed up with this agency we agreed to provide the birth parents of any child we might adopt an annual update with photos for 18 years, and at least one in-person visit. Open adoptions are now widely considered to be the healthiest scenario for adopted children, so we were happy to agree to this.

Applying to adopt a child is a serious business that shines a light into every crevice of your family –as it should. More than once I thought, “My goodness, if this process was required of anyone who wanted to have a child, we’d have many fewer children!”

We had to get fingerprinted, have our backgrounds checked, and release our DMV records. We had to provide our financial records. We had to obtain three letters of reference. We had to fill out a questionnaire that asked detailed questions about our upbringings, our families of origin, our marriage, and our childrearing philosophy. If we wanted to consider transracial adoption (in our case, a child who wasn’t either White or Asian) – and we did – we had to spend at least 8 hours reading or watching videos on the subject. We had to fill out a “key sheet” — a terrifying document that listed every possible physical or mental condition that might come with our adopted child, including race, age, disability, parental behaviors — and check which ones we were willing to accept.

We began the process in November 2017; we completed the paperwork in March 2018. Then we had an in-person interview with our adoption counselor to review our answers. Our home visit took place in June 2018, during which our adoption counselor came to our house to see the physical space and to interview our biological children. Finally, we had to compile a photo album of our family and write a letter to the birth parents – any birth parents who might be considering us; this was what birth parents would use to determine whether our family was the right home for their child.

In August 2018, we were notified that our home study was complete: We were cleared to adopt a child. At this point, the next right thing was to wait.

So, we waited. We waited and waited. Over the next 13 months, we received three calls about potential adoptions, but all of them were in states outside Vermont. Our adoption agency has a reciprocal relationship with several other agencies, but interstate adoption would have required us to travel to another state and stay there until the legal paperwork was completed – a stay of between 2-4 weeks, in most cases. This did not work well for a family with four homeschooled children, and at the time (pre-COVID-19) Erick’s teaching job could not be performed remotely. So, we had to let these opportunities pass us by.

As the months stretched out, my old doubts returned. I must have heard wrong – again. If we were supposed to be doing this, why were the years passing without anything happening?

Finally, despair set in. Vermont IS such a small state, with so few adoptions. And anyway, what birth parent would choose US, a family that already has four biological children? There was no way.

Erick, as usual, was less emotional and more philosophical.

“Well, we’ve made ourselves available,” he’d say, shrugging. “There’s nothing more we can do; it’s all up to God now.”

But I felt like adoption was receding into the haze.

Around this time, our daughters, who hadn’t mentioned adoption throughout the months of silence, suddenly started asking when their new sibling would arrive. All four of them – even the ones who hadn’t been enthusiastic at first – agreed: “We need a new baby in the house!”

I’d force a smile and parrot Erick: “It’s all up to God now.” It was painful.

Then, one afternoon in mid-September 2019, my cell phone rang as I was dropping our daughters off at a field hockey practice.

To be continued.

Adoption Story, Part 1: Vague Feelings, Specific Decisions

Adoption Story, Part 3: The Thing With Feathers

Adoption Story, Part 1: Vague Feelings, Specific Decisions

moth_attracted_by_light

This is the first part of a 3-part series about our son’s adoption, which was just finalized last week. 

***

“Who knows, really, where dreams begin? Perhaps they first take shape in the unknown realms of sleep or in the far corners of our consciousness, gaining size and substance off in the distant wings of awareness, until one day, just out of the corner of your eye, you see it – the hazy shape of a new idea that is suddenly too big and insistent to ignore.”

–Katrina Kenison, The Gift of an Ordinary Day.

***

It started as a gnawing at the back of my mind, vague feelings that flitted through my brain like moths around a porch light.

“I don’t know what, but I just feel like there’s something more that we should be doing,” I’d say to my husband as we sat on the couch at night after the kids were tucked into bed.

This started in the spring of 2015. Our family had been happily settled in Vermont for four years. Erick was halfway down the road to tenure in his job as a professor of economics at Middlebury College, and was about to begin his sabbatical year. We had four daughters, between the ages of two and seven. I was busy at home with the girls, but also found time to maintain a blog and write bi-weekly columns for our local paper; I’d recently completed a draft of my first book. Life was good.

Maybe that’s why I was feeling unsettled: because life was starting to feel too settled. I start getting twitchy when life gets too comfortable. In my experience, comfort is the start of a spiritual death spiral: Life feels easy, so I stop paying attention, I stop caring as much, I fritter away time, I lose my edge, and my soul curls up and goes to sleep.

Or maybe it’s just that I was turning 40 that September.

But Erick felt it, too. Our approach to life is shaped by our Christian faith, so when we both started feeling these stirrings and rumblings we didn’t attribute them to something we ate, or something we read, or turning 40; we figured that it might be possible that God was trying to get our attention.

We talked, we prayed, we thought, we talked some more.

“I just feel like there’s something more that we should be doing.” The question was: WHAT?

This wasn’t about making ourselves feel better, earning pats on the back from others or from God. It was more about getting outside of ourselves, sending love out into the world in a fresh, bold way. Like Miss Rumphius in Barbara Cooney’s picture book of the same name, we wanted “to do something to make the world more beautiful.”

This was not the ideal time to add something more to our life, which was already quite full. Four young children kept us running, and also limited our bandwidth.

Not only that, but in January we’d be traveling across the country to spend the semester in Berkeley, California, where I’d homeschool our two school-aged daughters for the first time while Erick did research at his alma mater, UC Berkeley.

Oh, and did I mention that we were in the process of buying a new house in Vermont? This house was part of our vision of living closer to the land, raising animals and growing more of our food. It sat on 12.5 rolling acres. The only problem was that the house itself was a mess, requiring a down-to-the-studs total renovation. And the garden plots and animal pens? They didn’t exist. We put our current house on the market, authorized a contractor friend to handle the renovations on the new house while we were away, and spent hours over at our new property shoveling dirt and lugging the stones we uncovered.

I realize that all of this may seem at odds with my original claim that life was getting “too comfortable.” But this is the kind of climate in which I thrive, when life is full of love and purpose, and big dreams are being followed – just as long as I have enough coffee, chocolate, books, and quiet alone time to recharge my deeply introverted self.

Still, even with all that was happening, both my husband and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else we were supposed to be doing.

Then one afternoon I opened our local newspaper, and the front-page story brought everything into focus. The story was about Vermont’s opioid epidemic and how it was causing a massive increase in the number of children placed in foster care; between 2014 and 2015, the number of Vermont children taken into custody increased by 75%.

There are children out there who need homes, I thought. We adore children, we’re a stable family with plenty of love to give, and we have a home that we could open to more children.

I discussed it with Erick, and it seemed so glaringly obvious, it was hard to imagine why we hadn’t thought of it before. Fostering or adopting fit our particular skill set, was something our family could do all together, and the Bible – on which we base our lives – makes clear that faith-in-action involves caring for orphans (and all other disenfranchised peoples.)

First, though, we had to go on sabbatical and then move into our new house in Vermont. We agreed to spend the intervening months thinking and praying about foster care and adoption.

So we went to California. The entire time, it felt like foster care and adoption were stalking me: In books and articles I read, in interviews I heard, in email updates from friends, I kept bumping into stories of children who needed homes and the families who welcomed them.

After we were settled into our new house in Vermont, we began pursuing foster care. Erick was drawn to foster care as a starting point, since it’s often a temporary situation: The goal of foster care is to reunify the child with his or her birth parents. Erick thought this might be a way of “easing in” instead of cannonballing right into the pool of adoption.

We filled out some paperwork, met with a social worker from the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF), completed a home study (basically a tour of our house with an emphasis on safety), and were added to our county’s list of potential foster families.

And then we waited. We waited and waited. Even though the Vermont foster care system was (and is) overloaded, we received very few calls about children needing placement, and none of those calls met our lone criteria: That any child we took in be younger than our youngest daughter, who was three at the time. (Our daughters have a strong sense of birth order, and we didn’t want to shake things up more than necessary.)

It was our first of many experiences with waiting, but honestly, I didn’t feel frustrated or anxious; I felt relieved. As usual, there was a lot going on in our house. The homeschooling that began as a temporary situation while on sabbatical had turned out to be one of the best parts of sabbatical. Our two oldest daughters wanted to continue homeschooling, so not only were we adjusting to a new house, but we were all getting settled into a new school routine as well. In retrospect, it’s hardly a surprise that some of our daughters weren’t enthusiastic when we introduced the idea of fostering a child: They’d had to adapt to so many changes over the past months, and now we were throwing a baby at them?!?

Truth be told, the idea of getting a call that a child needed a home today felt a little overwhelming to me, as well.

We used those months of waiting to do more research on adoption and foster care. We met and spoke with multiple people who had adopted and fostered, we read books and articles, and we continued to talk and pray.

The more we learned, the more it seemed to me that fostering might not be the “easing in” scenario that Erick had envisioned. Yes, it can be a temporary situation, but it’s also extremely wrenching for all concerned. Foster care placements typically happen very quickly, as the result of a family trauma. And while a foster child would live with our family, there were limits at how much they could be part of our family. (I could not, for instance, homeschool a foster child with my own children, but would be responsible for transporting them to their current school.) There would be regular supervised parental visits, in pursuit of reunification. And that desired-for reunification meant that this child, to whom my own children would grow deeply attached, might have to leave us.

I think that foster families are heroes, and I am honored to count some of them as my friends. We have kept up our foster care certification and it remains something we might consider in the future. But based on where our family was at, foster care looked like a more confusing, difficult, and emotionally draining scenario than straightforward adoption. In adoption, at least, I figured that the child entering our home would be more clearly our child from the outset.

I discussed this with Erick, and we spent a lot more time talking and praying. (You’re probably sensing a theme here.) He was just starting the process of applying for tenure, so he had – to put it mildly – a lot of things on his plate. By this point, I was feeling confused: It had seemed so clear that opening our home to a child was something we should pursue, but it just didn’t appear to be working out. The foster care system, which seemed less and less right for us, wasn’t exactly knocking down our door. Our own children were lukewarm on the idea. Adoption felt like a big, scary choice. Maybe I’d misunderstood what we were supposed to do.

“I just wish someone would drop a baby on us, so we’d know for sure!” I moaned, more than once.

In the summer of 2017 – if you’re counting, that’s two years after we first felt nudged towards adoption – I went on a weekend retreat in the Vermont mountains. Just me, some books, and my laptop. On the agenda were resting, writing, and doing some serious praying about adoption.

I’ll be honest: At this point, I fully expected God to give me a pass. I thought I’d pray about adoption, and God would say, “You know what, Faith? You’ve given it a good shot, but it’s just not what I want your family to do right now. Guess you must’ve heard me wrong the first time.”

Now, this might sound a little woo-woo, so I want to be clear: I am not in the habit of hearing voices, certainly not the voice of God. In fact, most times when I’d like to hear directly from God, He’s maddeningly silent. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt that God was giving me direct, clear instructions. This was one of those times.

I prayed alone in my room in the mountains. I waited for God to give me a pass. And instead I heard — as clearly as if God was sitting right next to me: “Keep going.”

To be continued….

Adoption Story, Part 2: The Next Right Thing

Adoption Story, Part 3: The Thing With Feathers

Of Hospitals and Hawks

440px-northern_goshawk_-_catalonia_-_spain_s4e8845_282521789449529

One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that we are able to endure a great deal more than we believe is possible. Life is not a benevolent tutor, handing down lessons one at a time in order of increasing difficulty; instead, life often feels like an opponent in a boxing match landing a punch in your ribs and then throwing a jab to your eye while you’re still catching your breath. The remarkable thing is how many of us remain in the ring. We may be hanging on the ropes, bruised and battered, but we don’t go down.

This is why, when I found the mangled carcasses of two of our chickens (the rooster in the shed, the hen on a snow drift next to the coop) after having just switched places with my husband at the bedside of our ten-week-old son (who was beginning the second week of his second stay at the University of Vermont Medical Center in less than a month) – on the same day that my husband discovered fraudulent charges on our credit card – I simply thought, “Of course: Another predator.”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

A Still Small Christmas

baby-jesus-sleeping

I hesitate to assume that there’s such a thing as a “typical” Christmas, but if it exists then I feel quite confident in stating that this has been a very atypical Christmas for our family.

As some of you may know, I have spent the past five days in the pediatric inpatient ward of the University of Vermont Medical Center with our 7-week-old son. This was completely unexpected and sudden. Our entire family – including all four daughters – had driven happily up to Burlington for some scheduled testing for the baby. We’d planned to have lunch and look at holiday decorations after what we assumed would be an hour-long appointment. But, to quote Joan Didion, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” And in that instant, we were being told that the doctor was concerned about our baby’s growth trajectory and wanted to admit him to the hospital for “failure to thrive.”

So, without any preparation or planning, without a toothbrush for me or extra clothes for the baby, and with a long list of pre-Christmas plans and to-dos that was going to require sudden and extreme revision, I found myself ushered into a pediatric hospital room. I found myself discussing who-takes-the-girls-where-and-when logistics with my husband (whose birthday was the following day.) I found myself groping through my own dashed expectations as I tried to explain to four teary girls what I knew of the immediate plan, and how little idea I had of anything beyond the next couple of hours.

This is not a medical drama, so I will very quickly set your mind at rest about our son: He is fine. He was tiny at birth and has always been a robust spitter-upper. His pediatrician has been monitoring his weight since birth, and everyone was pleased with his steady gains until his spitting up increased dramatically after a routine outpatient hernia repair surgery. His weight gain never stopped or reversed, but it slowed. After a couple of days of testing at the hospital to rule out Big Scary Things, he was diagnosed with severe reflux, which we will manage at home until he outgrows it eventually.

But I didn’t know the end of the story as I sat in our hospital room that first night, trying in vain to sleep in a pull-out chair while my freaked-out baby fussed beside me and nurses came and went all night long. The next days would be the darkest of the year; this made a certain narrative sense to me. What I couldn’t quite manage was to find the sense in our situation – I couldn’t figure out where God was in the whole thing.

Even though you know better, it’s so easy to fall into thinking that life should reward the good and punish the bad. We are adopting our son, not to earn brownie points with any person or deity, but because we love children (this one in particular; he’s our son) and we wanted to provide a good home for a child who needed one. Since his birth, our sweet boy has not had an easy road: Each of his seven weeks of life has brought some new health wrinkle – none deeply serious, all treatable, but most of them involving a degree of disruption and discomfort for him and for the rest of our family. All of this is outweighed by the extravagant amount of love the little guy has brought into our lives. Still, the temptation every time we hit the next hurdle is to say, “Really, God? This kiddo has been through so much; can’t he just get a break? We’ve all been through so much; would it have killed you to make this just a little less hard?”

On that first night in the hospital, I looked out the window at a narrow strip of dark winter sky barely visible between the buildings opposite our room, and my heart screamed, “Where ARE you, God?”

A passage of the Bible that I’ve always loved for the beauty of its language is 1 Kings 19:11-12. The backstory is that the prophet Elijah has been doing everything right, risking his life by warning the Israelites and the corrupt King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to turn back to God. In response, Ahab and Jezebel kill all the other prophets and threaten to do the same to Elijah. Elijah escapes into the wilderness, where he is on the run for forty days and nights until he reaches a cave on Mt. Horeb.

11 Then He [God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. [New King James Version]

When Elijah hears that still small voice, he knows it’s God, and God gives Elijah instructions about what to do next.

It took me three days in the hospital to realize that the answer to my cry, “Where ARE you, God?” was: Right here. It took that long because God’s voice didn’t boom down from heaven, there were no chariots of fire, comets, flashy miracles, or apparitions. But there was a still small voice – a series of them, in fact.

God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire:

God was in the nurse who, while tenderly giving my son a bath, told me how she’d switched from geriatrics to pediatrics seven years earlier, when she learned she couldn’t have children.

God was in the young man from Patient Transport who, while wheeling my son down to a swallow study, told me how he drives his mother an hour to her haircut appointments in our town. (“She used to go with my grandma, but after my grandma died, I started taking her.”)

God was in the doctor from radiology who, observing me walk the halls for an hour as the barium solution moved through my son’s digestive tract, ushered me into the staff break room. “There’s a nice, big window,” he explained.

God was in the gentle hands and kind words of the countless doctors, nurses, and staff throughout our stay who counseled us and brought bottles, warm blankets, white noise machines, and mobiles to make my son more comfortable.

God was in the faces of the hospital patients – the really ill ones who passed us on gurneys in radiation, the other children on the pediatric floor – and their caregivers.

God was in my parents, who took our daughters at no notice and provided them with love, security, and fun.

God was in my husband, who couldn’t have cared less that his birthday had been overshadowed, and who drove an hour up to and back from the hospital numerous times to bring me clothes, toiletries, and Chipotle dinners.

God was in my daughters, whose primary concern was never their own plans, but the fact that they were separated from their baby brother.

God was in the stunning sunrise in the strip of sky between buildings on the morning of the darkest day of the year – a reminder that there is always light in the darkness.

And God was in our baby, because this experience taught us that he needs us, and we need him.

Since this all happened days before Christmas, I was thinking of another baby, too: A New Testament baby who was the embodiment of the “still small voice” in 1 Kings. Isn’t that just like God? He doesn’t show up like you’d expect, in the earthquake, wind, or fire, or with the rich, powerful, or lovely; He shows up in the hospital corridors, amid those who suffer and those who serve. He shows up as a helpless newborn baby, born in a barn on the back edge of an empire. There may have been choirs of angels in the sky, but God lay in the straw crying for milk.

On this most atypical of Christmases, I learned to stop scanning the skies for those angel choirs, and to listen instead for the still, small voice in the dark.

On the Art of Waiting

bank_of_river_a_fisherman_is_waiting_for_fish_2818674488329

“I can’t stand it! I just can’t wait any longer!”

I hear these words from my daughters on a daily basis, it seems. Sometimes they’re spoken in frustration, sometimes in excitement. Always, the object of their waiting is something pleasurable, wished-for. It might be a birthday, time with a friend, a destination, or simply dinner. These days, of course, it’s Christmas. The problem is that they’re not there yet; they have to wait.

“It’ll come,” I tell my daughters repeatedly. “Just be patient.”

Right now, we are smack in the middle of Advent. The major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter have built-in waiting times attached to them: Easter comes after 40 days of Lent, and the four Sundays before Christmas Day make up the season of Advent. We celebrate Advent by lighting candles (our church lights one candle for each Sunday, but our family has an Advent wreath with a candle for each of the 24 days prior to Christmas.) We open the doors on Advent calendars (our family prefers the ones with a small piece of fair-trade chocolate for every day of Advent.) We play Christmas carols and decorate the house.

In these modern times, we also spend Advent shopping, addressing Christmas cards, and running around to a dizzying variety of holiday parties and events.

I was surprised this year when I heard an interview with the British poet and priest Malcolm Guite, in which he said that Advent used to be a time of quiet, a time to stay in, a time to be thoughtful. The celebratory part of Christmas would begin on Christmas Eve and last for the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany; Advent was a time to be still and wait.

But we don’t like to wait, especially in our current culture of high-speed internet, movie streaming, and free two-day delivery. The way in which we spend modern Advents is further evidence of our impatience: We distract ourselves from the wait by filling the days with a flurry of activity. How can we be still when there’s so much to buy, do, and bake?

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.