One of the best things I did for my emotional health this fall was listen to my husband when he said: “Take in the hibiscus.”
We were wintering our yard before the first snowstorm: raking up leaves, wrapping our hydrangeas in burlap, and tossing out old annuals that were withering in their containers. Gardening is a soothing and joy-filled pastime for us both, and it’s always a bittersweet feeling when we bed everything down for six long months. Sometimes we’re scrambling, surprised by a sudden winter storm in the forecast, and working for hours as dark clouds gather on the horizon. This year, autumn lasted long and we had several weekends to enjoy the work. It was often warm, and we talked and listened to podcasts as we relished the last nice days together. And when we got to a pair of hibiscus bushes potted in the back yard, they were still glossy-leafed and blooming—even in November. We couldn’t bring ourselves to throw them out.
“But I don’t know if they’ll last,” I said, wishing we could rewind the months and start over in May. Summer during Covid, though very different, felt manageable. We grilled, saw friends outside, went for long walks, swam in lakes. Knowing winter was coming seemed ominous somehow. I already felt trapped. Sad.
My husband shrugged. “It’s worth a shot. What if they bloom?”
It’s been a hard year.
For someone who likes to employ hyperbole as much as I do, that’s an almost ridiculous understatement. And yet, it’s really all I can muster up as I reflect on the last nine months and how they have affected our world. I believe it’s indicative of an unexpected 2020 side effect that many of us are experiencing: numbness. A loss of sensation, an anesthetization, a deadening of not just our senses, but our hearts.
Every morning our news feeds fill our screens with more bad news. We all know the drill: grim records, rising tensions, sharp divides. It seems everyone has something to scream about, and we often do exactly that, running roughshod over each other in the process, and then congratulating ourselves for being truth-tellers. Sadly, Christians are no different. During a time when we long for tenderness like parched earth wants for rain, we’ve resurrected fire and brimstone, a scorched earth gospel that focuses on eternal damnation instead of everlasting love. In some cases, we’ve abdicated our roles as open-armed witnesses and taken up our soap boxes, peddling in a “repent or burn” theology that—let’s face it—feels appropriate and timely as our world seems poised on the brink of apocalypse. Even so, it’s an ugly, loveless posture.
In the face of all this grief, anger, and uncertainty, some of us are chilled into stillness. We can’t read one more toxic post, the comment section littered with hostility and name-calling. We can’t bear another wrenching story of front-line workers with faces bruised by PPE goggles and souls scarred by everything they’ve seen. No more court cases, natural disasters, political or personal upheaval. Please, God, make it stop.
And in the middle of all of this, it’s Christmas. Twinkling lights and a pinch of whimsy, but far more than that, a time of remembrance and awe. We’ve waited the long weeks of Advent, trying to focus expectant hearts to celebrate the birth of Christ with even a modicum of the glory and reverence it deserves. We know we fall short every year, but maybe this year—Christmas in the middle of a global pandemic—is the most difficult yet. It is for me. Never before has the concept of love been harder to grasp. Our world does not feel very loving right now.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (I Corinthians 13:4-7)
The birth of Christ is love incarnated, the physical, temporal manifestation of God’s uncontainable fervor for his creation. It’s patience and kindness, truth, trust, and hope. But sometimes we forget that in the most humbling and human of ways, Jesus grew inside Mary’s womb and was born in a cave amid great historical and cultural turmoil. Israel under Roman rule, Herod committing genocide against an entire generation of boys, Mary and Joseph in exile to rescue the savior of the world from imminent death. The sanitized narrative of long, flowing robes, winter-soft landscapes, and a cherubic baby in the arms of his immaculate mother isn’t just inaccurate; it fails to plant the Christmas story in the dark, dirty, dangerous place where it began. Sometimes we forget that before something can bloom, it must first be broken: the hull of a seed, the earth split in two.
I feel mired this year in that dark, dirty, dangerous place. Instead of the usual wonder and extravagance, renewed devotion and nostalgic awe, Christmas feels blue—maybe even a little bitter. I don’t feel very lovable or very loving. I feel numb.
But maybe that’s an okay place to be. Maybe it’s in the waiting that we are refined, whispered over in the quiet place where God works the magic of his mysterious love. Maybe even now, as we curl tight, bend our heads, perhaps even shed tears, he is doing the secret labor of transformative love that allows us to emerge in his image: patient, kind, slow to anger, enraptured by truth, exuberant in hope, rich with perseverance.
Our hibiscus shrubs are blooming—in fact, thriving. Dozens of buds take turns unfurling day-by-day so that each plant is never without three to six glorious, ruby-colored flowers. I never imagined that they could flourish in this environment, but every morning when I look at them, I think: “They don’t know that it’s winter. They just keep blossoming.”
Love never fails. (I Corinthians 13:8)
Christmas isn’t so much a celebration as it is a covenant. The beginning of a promise fulfilled, that God won’t give up on us—indeed, that he will never leave us or forsake us, and that his love will redeem even the darkest of days, the hardest of unrepentant hearts. We may be buried in the hidden place this Christmas, wondering if we deserve the love we’ve been given and sure that we don’t know how to be the conduit through which God’s indelible love flows freely to a lost and hurting world. But maybe our uncertainty is enough. Open hearts and open hands leave us vulnerable to the gentle watering of grace, the warm sunlight of his incomprehensible love. Perhaps there will come a day that we, too, unfurl.
And then: what if we bloom?