If the last couple of weeks have been as hectic for you as they have been for our family, then maybe we should take a minute to let out a deep, collective sigh of relief. We made it this far through a season of busyness my husband has described as “pre-pandemic,” a pace we haven’t been used to in a couple of years and, frankly, have learned to not miss.
Maybe that’s why this week’s Question for Advent feels especially appropriate: Where does my help come from? That’s what we’ll explore in week two of our Advent series where we’re asking (and responding to) questions from the Psalms. These are the questions the people of Israel wrestled with for centuries, questions we too are facing in the 21st century, questions that find their most satisfying answers in both the first and second comings of Jesus.
I’m glad you’re here with me for this season so we can ask these questions together.
1. Where Does My Help Come From?
Over the summer, after the difficult decision of enrolling Mom in hospice and the heartbreaking job of coming to terms with her impending death, I began making a list of all the things I’d need to do once she was gone. As hard as it was to be living through those final months, I suspected the days after would be even harder. So I decided to get prepared.
I printed out the AARP article, “What to Do When a Loved One Dies,” and took notes in the margins. I made lists of accounts that would need to be closed, along with account numbers, addresses, and phone numbers. I contacted the funeral home, where Mom had prepaid for her funeral, and got instructions for what to do when it was time. And I also began looking for the keys to mom’s lockbox.
Years ago when my stepdad passed away, Mom asked me to go to the bank with her so I could be a signer on her lockbox. That meant both she and I would have a key and access to the box where she stored a few old coins and other small “treasures” she’d collected. Later, when she moved to my town, we turned in our keys to the original lockbox and opened up a new one in a nearby bank. The branch manager handed us each a small key, tucked into a tiny red envelope with a metal snap. Red, so it will be harder to lose, the banker told us. And by the way, she’d said, make sure you don’t lose it. Replacing a lockbox key can be expensive.
“I lost Mom’s lockbox key,” I said, holding back tears.
“What do you mean?” Steve asked.
“I’ve looked everywhere—twice actually—and I can’t find the key anywhere.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Well, it means I’ll have to pay a lot of money to get a new one unless I can find it,” I said.
Lord, please help me find this key, I prayed as I started looking again.
Eventually, I found what “might” be a lockbox key. It wasn’t in the red envelope, like I remembered, but when I Googled “what do lockbox keys look like,” this one definitely fit the bill. By then I realized Mom’s key was also missing. She probably knew where it was, but she was no longer able to communicate that kind of information. It only mattered that I didn’t know.
“Her lockbox key is probably with the key to her fire safe,” I told Steve one evening, exasperated that I couldn’t find it either when I’d looked through Mom’s boxes stored in our basement. Thankfully, the only papers I really needed and couldn’t find—the ones that must be locked in the fire safe for safekeeping—were the ones for the funeral home. After another urgent call to the funeral director, he assured me that he had a copy and would take care of Mom even if I couldn’t produce them.
“Do you think the bank will feel that way when I come with only one key?” I asked Steve, running back up to my desk to be sure the one I’d found earlier was still where I’d put it.
Three days after Mom died, my brother, Gerry, and I were preparing to go to the bank to close out Mom’s accounts and empty the lockbox. Ironically, I’d found mom’s lockbox key, snapped into its little red envelope and tucked into a pocket of her purse, the day before. I recognized it as soon as I found it, realizing immediately that the key I’d guarded all summer was, in fact, not a key to Mom’s lockbox.
“Well, at least we actually do have one key,” I’d said to myself, and later to Steve and Gerry. The weight of being Mom’s lockbox cosigner had begun to feel oppressive. “Maybe it won’t be as expensive if you don’t lose both keys.”
Just before we walked to the garage, I asked God for help again—this time with feeling. Please God, please. Help me find the lockbox key. I searched my purse, where I originally thought the key would be. I searched our own fire safe, whose key had not yet been lost by me. I searched my desk drawer, where I sometimes stick important tiny things in the grooved section right at the front. I’d searched all of these before, but I thought, hoped even, that maybe I’d missed it and now, with God’s help, I’d find it.
When this final search proved as futile as the previous ones, we headed to the car. On the way, I remembered Mom’s handicapped parking placard, which I kept in the glove box, and I asked Gerry to grab it for me. When he opened the glovebox, the placard was there, but so was an assortment of plastic dinnerware I’d collected during pandemic takeout meals we’d eaten in the car. A fork fell from the glove box and into the narrow space between the seats.
“I’ll get it,” I said, as Gerry shoved things back into the glovebox. I slid my hand into the space, and instead of a fork, I felt a tiny piece of cardboard. I pulled it out, and there in my hand, was a tiny red envelope with a little metal snap.
“Thank you, Lord,” I said, through tears.
I still have no idea how the lockbox key ended up in the car. The best I can figure is that when I bought a new purse and wallet 12 months earlier, the key, which had in fact been in my purse at one point, must have slipped next to the seat as I transferred my belongings from the old to the new.
But I’d stuck my hand into that narrow space dozens of times in the interim, reaching for dropped coins, ink pens, and straw papers. Why was it, that in the exact moment that I really needed it, the lockbox key appeared? Was this God’s help to me after months of asking for it?
It felt like it.
I learned later that the penalty for losing a lockbox key wasn’t, in fact, that expensive. Forty-nine dollars, to be exact. Of course I didn’t want to pay the fee; it would have felt awfully wasteful, especially if I’d found the key later. But I haven’t thought back on this instance as if God were helping me save a little money. I’ve also gotten over the fact that I was careless enough to lose something so important. I carried shame around with me for a few months, but eventually I let myself off the hook. I’m responsible for a lot of important things and sometimes I make mistakes. So I also don’t think God’s help in that moment was merely so I could avoid the consequences of my error.
What I needed most in that moment was not, actually, the lockbox key, but a reminder of God’s presence with me, a reminder that he would help me through these impossible days of grief. Losing the key was nothing compared to the pain of losing Mom, and seeing that little red envelope in my hand that day felt like holding the very hand of God. I’m here with you, he said.
When the Psalmist asks in Psalm 121, “Where does my help come from?” this is the answer he gets, too. Not easy answers or practical solutions. God doesn’t promise only smooth paths and clear skies. Rather, he says when we sleep, he’ll watch over us. When the way gets difficult, the Lord will not let us fall. When evil surrounds us, he will guard us. God’s help to us is provision, peace, protection. Or, in a word, presence.
I wonder … where does your help come from? What help do you think you need? What help do you really need? Where do you seek it? What help does the Lord provide to you?
I will raise my eyes to the mountains;
From where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who watches over you will not slumber.
Behold, He who watches over Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your protector;
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not beat down on you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The Lord will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time and forever.
Oh Lord, may all our questions lead us to you. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
DON’T FORGET: You can lean even further into the questions of Advent by using this free workbook I created. It includes 25 questions from the Psalms, one for each day of December ending with Christmas.
2. “Nothing to Fear” by Porter’s Gate (feat. Audrey Assad)
3. A Few Advent Favorites
Some Advent purists resist any notion of Christmas during this preparatory season leading up to Christmastide. But I like what my pastor says about this season of preparation: anything we do to prepare for Christmas can be an Advent sacrament. Of course we don’t have to give in to the whirlwind that can be December, but as we shop for gifts, bake our cookies, and decorate our homes to prepare for Christmas, we can use these activities as reminders of the work God is doing in our lives to prepare us for his second coming.
I have three Advent traditions that I’ve begun over the past few years that move me quietly and deliberately through this hectic season.
First, I make dried orange slice garlands. These beautiful, natural decorations look complicated, but they’re actually very easy to make. They just take time. One afternoon during Advent, when I know I’ll be home for several hours, I slice the oranges and begin the process. As the orange fragrance permeates the house, I remember the slow work of growth and maturity that Jesus is accomplishing in my life.
Second, I read Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. This is just my second year to read this book, but I was astounded last year to find out how many people read this novel on a yearly basis. It’s a beautiful story about an unlikely group of people who find themselves together for the holidays. It’s not a “Christian” book, per se, but this time of year, I’m always longing for a deeper connection to others than the rush of the holidays seems to afford. This book reminds me of the fellowship of the great banquet of heaven we’ll one day share with Jesus and all His people.
Finally, I start my baking. Every year I do some bit of baking, and often I’ll freeze part of it to serve on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This year, I have visions of putting together the perfect cookie spread for family gatherings, a la The New York Times’ How to Make the Perfect Cookie Box. Here’s what I’m planning:
Classic Snickerdoodles (with red and green sugar)
*FYI, I have tried all of these recipes EXCEPT the starred ones.
Thanks again for sharing this time with me. As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
Thanks again for being a subscriber. One of the reasons I write is because of readers like you!
Until next time,
As per usual, you got me right down to my soul, Charity. Now your amazing reminder is mine, too. I know I need to ask for help more often. I praise you for sharing your life in the form of generative art. This touched me deeply.
Thank you Charity, I relate to all your musings, right down to the cookies and orange slices. I am missing my Mom for my third Christmas without her. Your insights resonate with me and aid in grieving but also in rejoicing her heavenly perch. In her later years, she would make me my favorite cookie for Christmas as her gift to me. This year I will make them for myself...hmmm, it might be another form of processing her passing. I have downloaded The Winter Solstice, an answer to my search for a new book to read this month. Merry Christmas, thinking of you.