Here in the wondrous mountains of Southern Appalachia, we begin Advent in a state of extreme drought, circled by raging wildfires. We wander a parched land through a haze of smoke, eyes stinging and throats burning. Never before have the psalmist’s words meant so much to me: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul thirsts for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).
We awake every morning anxious to hear the day’s air quality hue: green (go ahead and breathe), yellow (breathe, but do so cautiously), orange (don’t breathe too much if you have heart or respiratory problems), red (take comfort in knowing that breathing is bad for everybody), or purple (consider hibernation). I listen to the regular radio reports but could get the news just as easily from the rooster at the end of our cove. He raises a piercing alarm and crows endlessly whenever we’re shrouded in smoke—the very times he should be saving his breath.
During the worst hours, those of us with respiratory issues don medical masks, stay inside, and breathe as little as possible. We give thanks when the wind shifts in our favor, only to realize that our momentary relief means discomfort for other souls east or west of us. We bake cookies and collect lip balm and eye drops for the 2,500 firefighters from around the country who are working 24/7 to contain fifteen infernos—knowing it’s not nearly enough to thank them for their dangerous and exhausting effort.
In these days of drought, no deer come to the stream at the bottom of our hill, which is now a mere trickle, barely moving. The pond is shrinking, exposing its red clay banks. Yesterday I bathed our recently planted young trees with water from the tap, the last drop in the rain barrel being long gone. I mulched the blueberry bushes and planted some bulbs deep in the earth, away from the smoke, anticipating a spring flourishing that now seems improbable—and eons away.
But we live in hope. It is, after all, Advent.
Today, praise God, for the first time in two months, the heavens opened. Micah, our German shepherd mix, and I set out on our morning walk in a drizzle. By the time we reached the ridge at the top of the pasture, the rain was coming in a steady stream. I stretched out my arms and looked to the sky, letting the downpour wash over me. I gave thanks. I laughed.
The wildfires will be stifled. Hope will continue to burn in our hearts. We know, as every Advent before has shown us, that the Holy One will be born among us once again. Like deer longing for streams, we search and wait. We look with expectation for the One who comes as a child, quenching our thirst for mercy, compassion, and joy. And as we wait, we abide in the promise and challenge of the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).