There’s a lot I could do, write, remember, cry over, and give thanks for at the end of 2020. I keep shadowboxing the scary idea of summing it all up— wrestling the last twelve months into a corner and chalking them up as “good,” “terrible,” or “sanctifying” (all the above).
But summaries tend to accentuate the bad and ugly and miss the good. 2020 will always toll the eerie bells of sickness, loneliness, weirdness, violence, racism, division, and death. But there were strings of melodies and harmonies, too, that I want to remember and sing to my kids someday.
What’s interesting is that I remember the good things when I remember the books I read. Biographies, chronicles, Psalms, prophets, kids’ novels, not-kids’ novels, and classics each marked a stretch on 2020’s road for me. What’s more, each one shaped the curves and straights of that road.
So here’s a little journey— a hard and harrowing year lamplit by good books that reflected some of the glory to come.
I wanted to spend time sitting with C.S. Lewis over the winter. To me, he’d been too much like the Professor up in the old house the Pevensies had only seen at the doorway (just enough to call him “odd-looking”). But I was ready to sit in his study and ask about the Wardrobe.
Lewis’ stories and essays drew me to the edge of my seat and closer to the fire. In fact, I finished The Weight of Glory over the oven door on a February night, and I couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the words that made my arm hairs dance. I’m grateful to Lewis for that steady supply of warmth during a dark winter that would melt into a lonely spring.
Thanks to him, early quarantine welcomed me into Narnia and so thoughts about faith and imagination and childlikeness; that is, the way Susan didn’t always have eyes to see Aslan, but the way Lucy always did. Easter dawned, and sitting at home instead of in church, I thought about the deeper magic before the dawn of time that brought Aslan roaring to life. I thought about how Lewis described himself in Surprised by Joy as running after something that kept escaping him— a sense of longing, of sehnsucht, for something more.
And looking back, I see my own run-ins with sehnsucht as I stood brushing my teeth at the window on March mornings, waiting for the ground to soften and grow things again. Longing drove me out on bitter days to survey my garden-to-be and work the soil. In between Narnian battles, I buried myself in a library book about Beatrix Potter’s gardens at Hilltop, and the way she cared for each corner in every season, from crocus to columbine to trees heavy with fruit. So I planted lettuce and spinach while the skies were still cold. I tended them the way Beatrix might and watched as they sprouted heads. Then, I feasted on the work of my hands, feeling spring fever for the New Eden like never before.
I saw Aslan on the move.
I ’d been homebound for months by the time I picked up Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. But this one took me home in ways I hadn’t been, not even in quarantine. I started spending June evenings on the back porch, watching clouds wisp by and catching snatches of neighborhood gossip. I walked with Papa Jay (a real-life Athey) under his umbrella and down to the pond to watch the creek bed surge. I spent more time in the dirt—my dirt—that I’d sown into and was now gathering from. Berry worked in me a love of home in all its slowness, warmth, and even sorrow.
Because when you’ve grown organically from a certain plot of land and people, and you’ve never left, and a virus starts brewing on the horizon and clouding your sunny patch of land (shared with your grandparents), you cower.
That’s where Ecclesiastes and Derek Kidner’s commentary found and fed me. Life is fleeting, but it’s also good. Life is a breath, but it’s a God-given and beautiful breath that still carries the scent of Eden (however faint). Enjoy it, don’t cling to it. It isn’t the Home you were made for, but it is a shard that reflects some light.
Under this sun, there’s toil and oppression and envy and evil (Ecc. 4:1, 4)— but the end of the matter is glorious for those who dwell under the Son.
“They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” – Rev. 22:5
And yet before “forever and ever,” there are Mondays in August, with dirty laundry and rebounding sins. I thought a lot about eternity in 2020, but I also acted more like “those who dwell on the earth” in Revelation— the people without an eternal future (and who live accordingly). I grabbed onto old sins and grew callouses to them. The Spirit’s conviction felt more like a knife than a gentle wind, and I arm-wrestled it.
I needed Jude’s letter. I needed the sharp truth that Jesus has the power to “keep angels in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgement of the great day” (Jude 6). I also needed to hear that the same Jesus “is able to keep [me] from stumbling and to present [me] blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).
God doesn’t call anyone he doesn’t keep, and I’ve been called. So even as I persevere (and slip along the way), Christ preserves me from forever falling into sin. That truth is the sweetest strand of music I hear when I listen back on 2020.
Music works in things, doesn’t it? To the darkness, it brings light.
I read about Sam Gamgee months before I wrote about him in September (The Song That Was Sharper Than Sting), but Tolkien’s The Hobbit reminded me again of the mighty hope inside halflings. Trapped in the belly of Mordor, Sam chose to sing about home.
And so can we. We can sing light into COVID-19, into fear and political hate.
As I reread The Hobbit, I realized just how much 2020 has made us more like Sam or Bilbo. I see a Tookish Baggins in us, as we plant gardens at home and face Mordor outside. This year has been one looming juxtaposition of the now and not-yet. We’ve journeyed and battled, and as we come to the year’s end, I hear Gandalf saying:
“My dear Bilbo… You are not the hobbit that you were.”
I began studying Revelation as I finished The Hobbit and saw myself as more than a Tookish Baggins. I’m a part of Jesus’ own Bride, his Body, his Church, and he’s calling me to “hold fast” to the end. Like Jill and Eustace in The Last Battle, I can see the doorway to a New Narnia, but on this side, there are dragons. I must cling to Aslan’s mane, even as he carries me on his back.
So the December sun sets on Narnia and Middle Earth and Hilltop and Port William and every other world I found in books this year.
As I write, Advent is wrapping me in its silent worship, and I’m learning more about this patient love that came down at Christmas (but began in Eden). I’ve returned to the long days and slow work of Port William in Hannah Coulter. It’s Nathan and Hannah’s long, slow story of love and is reminding me that love comes in the work of years. Sometimes, even 400 years.
It was tempting in 2020 to think God wasn’t at work, that he’d stepped away, forgotten his creatures, left them to be crushed under grief and fear and hate. But that’s all untrue. God works slowly, but he’s always working. Wasn’t it slow, careful work that preserved the Seed of salvation from Adam to Manasseh to Joseph? Wasn’t it slow, careful love that Jesus carried to us, then took to the cross?
God has always loved his people with a patient love, even in the wilderness. Especially in the wilderness, because that’s where we know the darkness and beg for a pillar of light.
There’s a lot I could do, write, remember, cry over, and give thanks for at the edge of 2020’s wilderness. I’m thankful for the books I read. They were lanternlight, helping me along, helping me look up, helping me sing songs to the God of Aslan’s Country and the Grey Havens— the God of the Promised Land and the New Eden to come.