I am that little child with that flimsy toy drum strapped around his angular little boy shoulder. Come, they told him. The sticks strike that moon face, commanding air and passers-by to listen to the rhythm, the foolish parade of one. I am that simple, repeat refrain. And even then, he does it better. He found the drum and the sticks and the bravery to begin.
Honest talk, I’m getting a little worked up facing this blank page. I am sad for being gone, sad for not playing my song (foolish as it sounds), sad for hiding my gift under a bushel basket full of distractions – mindless social media and early bedtimes with a tired brain.
My wet mess of a face almost matches the mess I meant to clean in our apartment when Pat left with Zella two hours ago. I don’t know why, but imagining myself into the story of the little drummer boy is just so exactly where I am right now. I guess the small gesture – lifting strap over shoulder and calling on a hidden, inner repertoire – convicts all my defenses.
Whew, I didn’t know I needed this kind of cry – let me take a moment. Let’s all take a moment.
I know – it’s not technically Christmas music. But sometimes the song beating rhythms behind our ribcage isn’t jingling bells. Most times, in my case. The Advent season is not triumphant. It is precious beauty, but it is sad too. We are the reason Jesus came all the way down, all the terrifying way down, from celestial glory to stomachs growling and torrential storms. I am both loved by this act and reminded that there was reason for His condescension. I am the reason.
My proneness to wander so pressed on the heart of God until it broke Him and compassion poured out in the real life of a little babe.
Anyway, I salute you – little boy and your silly pa rum pum pum pum refrain. Thanks for being brave enough to bang on your drum and make a grown woman cry while thinking about it. Here is me striking my drum in your honor.
The cold blue sky hugged the red bricks of all the buildings in the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon in February. Our Friday sleepover friends had just left and Zella Ruth was tucked away for a nap in her crib.
Pat rolled the rocking chair back and forth, back and forth… with a hiccup where it caught the carpet. And I was there – curled up tight in his lap, with my head tucked under his chin and with my eyes weeping motherhood. I humiliated myself into a little cocoon on his chest, folding all my limbs as small as they would go. I had lost something, something very precious, at the laundromat and that hiccuping rock let me forget adulthood for a little bit.
I wanted to blame everything – the laundry ladies, the drudgery of schlepping overstuffed clothes bags on city streets, the baby strapped to my chest, the postpartum stuff I still don’t understand – but I didn’t have the energy. I wiped sad slobber all over one of his zip up sweaters and listened as he prayed, feeling very like a child.
That was months ago, before we sang the Heidelberg Catechism on Sundays for Eastertide and before the cherry blossoms peak bloomed and then swirled down like snow. It was before my bit of breakdown that happened in the hours stretching between endless walks and goo-gaw talks and failed attempts to get anything done except answering “present” when Zella Ruth gave roll call.
I relax into that spot on the bathroom floor – the place where I sit as Z splashes wonder up from her little whale tub. I am slow. I sink into her gaze, round eyes and wet hair stuck to her little head – shining little bruises from little bonks. She splashes again for my reaction and I answer “present” to her roll call – mirroring her chin down, slow blinking face. She lingers. I take the soft, red measuring cup that doubles as bath toy and pour warm on her shoulders. She shudders with delight and follows the water to the breaking surface, slow blinking wet lashes while the warm trickles off her fingertips before looking up for more.
I hum around a few bath songs and settle on a catchy little tune her Papa made up. I sing it softly, touching her little wet features as if this is the only thing in life.
I love your nose, nose, nose
I love your nose
I love your lips, lips, lips
I love your lips
I love your eyes and your ears and your tiny, little tears
I love your nose
She pauses, lifting her nose up so my pointer can keep time on its tiny surface. She waits for the song to cycle again, letting the faint sounds of bath water fill the empty space. I start again, tapping on that nose and watching her open mouth grow into a half smile. There are other verses, of course. Endless verses.
It is Pentecost now and the liturgical season is green – for new life, for growth, for Jesus. The season is green because Jesus is the seed God threw to the earth to be planted in death and raised in new life. And this – this throwing down, dying, and raising is my only comfort in life and in death. It seems so singular – so exclusive and definitive – to say my only comfort at all, ever, always is that I belong to Jesus. If that is so, I must belong in a way that isn’t attached to postpartum or marriage or geography or accomplishment or feelings. I must belong to Jesus so deeply that I am not my own anymore (and that is a comfort?).
It sounds messy and untrue because my gut says that comfort is when I am my own.
Sometimes, Z will cruise herself across a room, close enough for our foreheads to touch and then lean in between me and whatever has my attention to say, “Ah!” With raised eyebrows and an open mouth smile, she declares with one word, “Here I am, Mama! You must have forgotten about me, but it’s okay because I am here! And I am wonderful!”
The truth of it was more ethereal and less tactile before Z was born. (Not my own, uh sure. Yeah.) This tiny human sleeping a few feet from our marriage bed (and needing me in the most complete way I’ve ever been needed) made “not my own” less delicate and more… more desperately tangible.
I do the same thing I did in singleness: try to claim that I belong, body and soul, to me. My comfort is queen. But motherhood has been an especially physical response to that tendency – in its denial of what I want to do.
I cannot understand her words quite yet, but it sounds something like, “Be fully present, mama. Be completely here. Look at me long enough to notice the hair swooping over my eyes and the way I can make a bowl be a hat.”
God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him. It’s kind of an updated Westminster Catechism idea called Christian Hedonism and it’s what I think of when Zissou appears in front of me thinking she is the world (Sidenote: she is only 10 months, so I realize this analogy unravels really quickly – like in a month or so).
Zella is teaching me how to joyfully choose to not be my own, to be satisfied completely in the Lord. She is teaching me that there is comfort in being present for the banal moments of bath time and the tender night cries of teething because this is the way of the Father. He came all the way down to earth to be present with us.
He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my father in heaven. In fact all things must work together for my salvation.
My truest and most enduring comfort is belonging to Jesus, the one who watches over me in all the ways I can’t watch over Zella. He is the one who watches over me when I lose laundry and when I can’t sing another made up song. He knows exactly what I need and then He gives it abundantly. He is the only one who can grant salvation with belonging.
You won’t find it anywhere in red letters, but I hear it in this season – I hear God saying, “Be fully present when I take roll call because I am here and I am wonderful!” There is absolutely nothing that is more precious or more important than being with the One who set you free, the One who made you so deeply belong that it is a comfort to say, “I am not my own.”
In the spirit of being present, this blog post took weeks with plenty of breaks for giggle parties on the bed, forts in the living room, catechism sing-a-longs, tongue cluck contests and sweet, singing walk dances in the park. My living room is currently in an impressive display of unkept and the bed is not made. Just keeping it real.
Thoughts from almost exactly a year ago…
I am wearing white for Eastertide.
It started because we wanted to see and feel Easter – to shake off everything regular for our greatest festival celebration. So, we literally put on our party, looking like a wedding where everyone is the bride. And then somehow it stretched into the whole Easter season… my high kick to winter and death and the muted colors of typical Brooklyn fibers.
Yesterday, I folded into a wooden pew next to Patrick after I successfully passed Z Ru off to the nursery magicians. I followed the stitching on the white that hung just over my wrists as Vito talked about the deep sadness of joy – the weeping and the wearing and the working of it.
Jesus preached that there is blessing – there is joy – absolutely inside the worst things. Yes, absolutely. Because Jesus is inside the worst of things, just exactly where you think He is not. He is behind and in between and above the worst, saying, “Come, heal, breathe, hear, repent, believe, stay, rest…”
And that’s hard. I disbelieve that for joy, I think.
I already confessed my light Lent, but I forgot to say that there is something else I feel – something other than regret. The world is brimming with weeping and wearing and working, in bad ways. The worst. I am not strong enough to even hear all of it. I don’t know what to do with the headlines and the histories and personal hells typed out in simple texts. Because I am afraid I can do nothing, afraid what I can do is not enough.
My grief weight is heavy. Just the weight of my sorrow could sink a ship, I am sure of it. But there are entire cities, countries, and continents filled with people who bear the same weight.
The sheerness of my white sleeves put a fuzzy filter on my arms, a weird and welcome distraction from the message about sad joy. The points rolled out on Luke 6:20-26, just two about joy coming by way of discipling relationships and consolation.
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26 ESV)
I heard myself mmhmm. Jesus. I want to get in his sights. I want to be there when he lifts up his eyes because then I might feel sure about being in His presence. I know that is where joy reaches fullness, somehow.
But He pairs blessing with the absolute worst things: poverty, hunger, weeping and then being hated, excluded and reviled. How can joy get inside these things? Jesus.
Somehow, mysteriously- magically even, Christ is deeper than dark. Light came into the world and the darkness could not overcome it. I memorized that when I was nine, but I always thought it was a light like the break of day, chasing cold shadows to corners and covering like a warm blanket that keeps only good underneath. I’ve always imagined light versus dark as a cosmic battle of no contest, where the two rushed in from separate directions to make a messy collision in a long, deep valley. A crowded mess of thunderstorms and white robes and lightning and dark forces and probably Gandalf, but the sides stayed easily distinguishable – in my mind.
But this deeper-than-dark light is something new to me. If in Christ all things are held together – the aloe plant in my window, the rain drops dripping April, Zella’s squishy little body, and the superlative worst – then He is there in all these things, too.
Inside poverty and hunger and sadness – the deepest of it – Jesus is deeper still. It seems wrong to flip the superlative like that. Find the absolute worst thing, and there find the absolute best thing hiding. It doesn’t make any sense for Jesus to promise that. And then I think about the cross, the whole cruel journey of it, and the story looks different.
He was the light that couldn’t be overcome, but he was crucified. He was so, so deep in the darkest of us. He is light in the deepest, darkest of us – holding all things together, overcoming death and claiming victory over evil. Definitively. Absolutely. Making joy the surest thing because He (Jesus) is the surest thing. Surer than death, even.
I ended up with a whole loaf of communion bread on the bus ride home from church. Zella wriggled under my chin, fighting sleep, and it felt deeply appropriate to rip off fistfuls of the sourdough and let it work my jaw. The body broken for me… the darkness lit for me… the joy assured for me.
It still doesn’t make any sense. I think the light hiding deeper than dark scene is hard to choreograph behind my eyes. The light that doesn’t come from darkness… the light that is somehow deeper than darkness and can reach all the sunken ships full of the world’s grief weight.
And in that mixed up meeting of light and dark, there is our joy called Jesus. And we are happy with Him alone.
This was the offering song Sarah Gregory sung for church yesterday and it is still sweet honey to my disbelieve-for-joy soul. She learned of the song four hours before she sung it. God is so good and full of grace for us.
Zella Ruth knows nothing about Good Friday – that it is actually bad, dark, and terrible. She knows nothing about the repetition of “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and nothing about the silent exit of the night liturgical service. I’m not really doing a very good job of educating, though. I spent Holy Week singing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and dance-contorting all over the spring warmth in our apartment. We spread a blanket in the park and talked about blooming trees, fingered blades of green grass, and squinted up at the bright sun. We woke up extra early on Friday to go to the flower district in Manhattan for Sunday’s centerpieces. ZRu’s first Holy Week outside my belly was not heavy with sadness at all.
I lacked sorrow for the via dolorosa this year.
I just couldn’t manage to let death and depravity cast its shadow over those 40 days. I couldn’t get around to it. Grief wiped me out the last two years. It took all my energy and I didn’t have time to imagine plumbing those depths again.
After the dust settled on Christmas and Epiphany, my heart got good and fixed on the resurrection. No, this year was not the time to teach Zella about Lent sadness, not with words anyway. Maybe she felt the water dripping off my eyes… or a different rhythm as she pressed up against my chest… or a restlessness in my preparations as I wore her tight under my chin.
It’s all tangled up, this celebration and this sadness, in confetti tears and Google spreadsheets and clean sheets and a bit of silence that comes as a surprise on a Thursday before the mushroom red sauce is served over quinoa.
I am not making any progress and I suppose that is still grace.
There was a moment at our Easter celebration, one of those I just curled up into. Can you sit on the lap of a moment, can it stroke your hair and say, “You will be okay.” Can a moment do that?
In some ways, Easter was everything my heart was hoping for because it has to be. It is the easiest party to plan because there is victory already inside it – the biggest and most victorious victory that heaven declares with celestial confetti and hell recognizes like yesterday’s news. Because it is. It already happened.
So, I’m not surprised my heart swelled to sing liturgy, to stand with the choir, to sway with sweet Zella on my hip, to take the bread and the cup, and to hear the words proclaiming our greatest festival.
But there’s something you may not know or assume about me, when it comes to parties. I get so worked up – so blind with starry eyes about the beauty of it that I almost make myself sick. I had imagined this crazy build up for the moment we honored the Host of our gathering, but I got caught tongue tied and fumbled all over the raised glass I was pretending to hold. I had misplaced the confetti and the champagne was only partially poured when I called for the big hoo-rah!
But then, this moment happened and I melted into it – right onto the floor where I found my people. These sweet, bright souls who knew exactly what to do when confetti appeared.
Looking back, I might have spent too much of the liturgy of that day wishing I had Lent-ed harder or planned better. But, somewhere inside that moment, I was learning from Senna and William and Ezra and Orion and Hannah and Zella – all the littles who knew just what to do with paper celebration.
We got lost in it. I’m not sure how long I sat there in my white pants, letting gold and white confetti rain down from the sky from sweaty little fingers rushing to throw it up in the air. The moment, God, held me with a tender knowing.
My inner eight-year-old followed celebration and found sorrow. I gave in to wild delight inside that confetti moment, but there was – creeping in the cracks of that fellowship hall – a stretch of sorrow.
Like light streaming in, sorrow pulled at my eyelids and scratched across my throat. Already and not yet, they say. Christ has conquered the grave and offered that victory to us, but we are awaiting his return. We are looking forward to final peace.
And I am having trouble with the tension.
I can’t put words to it because they seem at once too harsh and too soft. I am the disciples on the way to Damascus. I am disbelieving for joy. I am in the middle of a spirited hoo-rah, summoning energy from a force outside me to throw joy into the air when I become very aware of corners and shadows and my brother’s ashes somewhere in an urn on a shelf.
I am disbelieving for joy that God has won, that He wins in the end. Somehow, I can’t formulate the cardboard book version of this tale, not now anyway.
Until then, Eastertide – this season to celebrate freedom and life and secure hope. And mushroom red sauce with quinoa.
Winter is not in my marrow this year and I am trying to figure out why it bothers me so. I like a snow that settles fast and deep like a feathery blanket, and then fades without a slush parade. The snow of this winter is just exactly the way I like it and today felt like April. But discomfort better suits the Lenten season; the chill in my marrow is its perfect pair.
O, Lent. Old, steady, dark, and stubborn friend.
This is the season of giving up and taking up and pressing in. I added that – the pressing in. My soul is weary of resolutions and restrictions. I hear Grover saying, “Neeeeeeeear” …….. “Faaaaaaaar,” and this is my Lent dance – searching for the Lord and pressing in, getting near, bending toward, listening.
I joked with some guests recently that we host 10-15 times a week. We laughed because there are seven days and that’s silly… but there are also mornings, noons, and nights. There are coffees and teas and stop bys. There are neighbors and strangers and friends. And there is this little human named Zella Ruth, always bending out of the hold on my hip to see who will open the door next.
She has a shoebox in the kitchen with jar lids, measuring spoons and a hot and sour soup container. She spends a lot of time with that shoebox because I spend a lot of time in the kitchen because Team Kolts is in the habit of meeting together. In the first months of our marriage, we struggled to agree on our definitions of “an open door.” One night, I was angrier than I ever remember being in my entire life – so angry I felt heat puffing out my ears and we called an emergency counseling session with our pastor the next day (silly story about a couch, not even really worth re-telling).
All these … months later, we weekly compare notes to see who we’ve invited over and daily check in about who might be stopping by. *I got a text while writing this and now a friend is staying with us for the weekend. Don’t worry – no hot ears.
Lent is pressing in.
And I am holding fast the confession of my hope without wavering. I’m praying for the unwavering part, actually. But there is something so irreplaceable about meeting together. I remember an exasperated mom at the dentist’s office asked my parents once, “How’d you get your five kids to turn out alright?” And my parents said something like, “It was the Lord… but we did go to church every Sunday.”
It was never about attendance. It was about the habit of meeting together and I think I am starting to feel the best weight of that.
Hebrews 10:24-25, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
I need this preached to me – I need to hear this good news that there is hope, the good news that God is faithful. And I need to preach the same.
Our pastor spoke recently about salvaging the word “preaching.” He said that we need to both hear and speak true words to each other, the good news that God says we matter and that what we do matters. We need to hear and speak the true words that the pain and hurt of this world needs to be reckoned with and has been already in the person of Jesus.
Sometimes I preach to Zella. Nose to nose, I sing into closed eyes and (sometimes) her open mouth wail, “…I’ll be satisfied as long, as I walk let me walk close to Thee.” If she can’t hear the good news in it, I do. “Thro’ this world of toil and snares, If I falter, Lord, who cares? Who with me my burden shares? None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.”
After Will died, I needed preaching. I needed true words, simple words of hope and peace and kingdom come. I needed Jesus more and above anything else.
Lent is pressing in and I need the habit of meeting together to keep happening in my living room. I need friends who come looking for prayer and neighbors who accept invitations to dinner. I need conversations in kitchens and I need walks in the park. I need to be pressed farther up and further in, where the preaching is desperate because the siren song is too strong to stop.
Her eyelashes are like branches now, shading those sweet cheeks from winter skies gray. We ventured out on Ash Wednesday and Zella Ruth made irreverent babbles throughout the somber liturgy. She didn’t know Lent was pressing in, but I hope she felt something of the ash on her head and the silent exit from the meeting together.
I can’t seem to shake this Ash Wednesday prayer and especially that this liturgy assumes a gathering.
The Collect for Ash Wednesday
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen