I forgot about the cross shaped ash above my eyes until gray shaded Zella’s right temple. My human wore off on her human and we sat snuggled, human dust together. She refused the ashes offered at the service, “One day,” she told me later, “when it’s that time, I’ll get some ashes on my forehead.” But she got them anyway, by way of her clinging nearness to me. Like Jesus, but with defiance and doubt.
I struggled to be completely present as we walked the short aisle to my “from dust you came and to dust you shall return” pronouncement. I spent all 14 steps whispering into Zella’s squirming cheek the reasons why we were doing this strange thing. But later, when motherhood wasn’t on my hip, I considered that Jesus became sin. His coming to earth was nothing like a charade, nothing pretend; God made Jesus to be sin (2 Corinthians 5:20, ESV), a crumbled corpse of human wretchedness so that we could enjoy the glorious perfection of God’s righteousness. Jesus became sin so that sin could die.
Jesus got so clinging near to me that He took on my worst thoughts, my worst days, my worst dust. And I am, yes, the child squirming on the hip – the defiant and doubtful toddler with skeptical eyebrows and too-loud voice.
The weight and the wild of this season pushes down and presses out, and I stretch my limbs in a contorted, desperate dance to make the mystery less ethereal; to feel the flesh and the blood and the dust of it on my skin and in my lungs and with my teeth.
“I love you and I want you to come here to my house and I don’t want you to die,” she said, “write that to her.” I filtered. I decided it wasn’t the kind of uplifting message we wanted for Zella’s library teacher, Miss Lisa. But as her crazy, fly-away (three day old) top knot bounced with squealing excitement to deliver the message, I knew I would have to tell Miss Lisa what I edited out. Zella does not want her to die and that is a wonderful thing to want for a person. A beautiful and pure and human thing to want for a person.
Maybe it is not ethereal yet, for her. Maybe she feels everything with her skin and lungs and teeth and I have long forgotten how.
I war against my dust. I am tempted to poof it like chalkboard erasers – to make much and little of it all at once, getting caught up and long-winded and concerned with the way the light hits it or how I can’t seem to see anything else. In Ecclesiastes, the word often translated as “meaningless” is used nearly 40 times to stress this human condition, but it is the Hebrew word “hevel,” which means: smoke or vapor. In Jesus, God again makes something out of nothing. He repeats the good work of Creation when he takes dust and makes it divine.
Jesus got so clinging near to get all my dust that I might get all His righteousness.
It started like a subtle uneasiness, bubbling somewhere between my bulging belly and my disappearing collarbone. I am not nervous, exactly. Lost, treading, hidden, furrowed, heavy… but not exactly nervous. Whatever it is beats in the blood stretching out toward my fingertips.
“I am alive,” this baby reminds me with a flutter. I watch the rise and the fall, the ebb and the flow of the new life hidden in me that is starting to hide my toes when I look down. It must be so dark in there, like the sea or outer space or the deep underground. Someone once told me that my emotional state affects the babies I carry. But then, I was pregnant in grief and birthed a joy child. So, even if this baby is perceiving my emotional waves or my pregnant negligence, there must still be hope.
Can this baby feel my strange worry, hovering just above the first home God is building around his/her life? Or maybe the refuge inside this womb is absolute – a formidable, soft fortress against whatever ails me on this side of birth.
“By the way, you are evil. That is half the gospel. That’s half the gospel, you are nothing.” – Tim Keller
Um, thanks Keller. That’s like one of those demotivational posters, but way worse. I need affirmation and approval and good vibes. The antidote to strange worry, I am almost certain, is not a giant wa-wa-wa.
Baby is twirling now. Oh, little one – does your home feel like a safe place to dance? And swim? And dream? And be? Do you feel like you are nothing inside there? Does the whole or the half of the gospel reach you?
Do you have my heart condition already – the one where you constantly need approval and good vibes only? In a talk on Galatians 6, Keller calls this heart condition “empty of glory,” which is to be desperate for recognition and affirmation. Because, according to Romans 1 and 2, deep down we know we were made to serve and honor God and nothing else.
It seems unreasonable for the baby inside me to be empty of glory while also being so close to it, knitted and formed and covered by Glory Himself. But then, I guess, the knowing is knitted in, too. We don’t begin to know we were made to serve and honor God. It’s a knowing that’s just there like blood and cells, I guess.
Imprinted on us, between the DNA and eternity, is a knowing that God is full of glory and we are empty of it.
But back to that demotivational, half-gospel before pregnancy brain unravels me completely. I am nothing – disappearing dust, withering grass, a whole year of my life passes like a sigh (Psalm 90).
And I feel the dissonance. It is 6 am and I am hungry. My body is growing in mass around this baby. All the cells on top of cells amount to something or my eyes and all my clothes are playing bad tricks. Also, this strange worry. Something chemical or physical or emotional or maternal is making my brain and my heart crazy. It is not nothing.
Galatians 6:3, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
So, I guess this is different – this nothingness. At the root of things, deep in the underground of it, I want to know who I am and (maybe more) that who I am is important. And, in this particular moment, I want to be seen and recognized and known for all the complicated, strange worry that I cannot explain. I am not even sure how to ask for this kind of knowing – for something to crawl into the space between belly and collarbone and sort it all out.
“Nothing will heal your heart except God looking at you and saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” Keller says. We are wired to want to hear those words. And not just from a Prime Minister or the Pope or Bey. We are wired to desperately want to hear those words from our Creator because His approval upon us matters more than anything else. And in our sinful search to find approval, fill the empty glory, and feel that we matter, we see a distorted view of creation. Our eyes are too clouded to see the people who need care.
Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
I can’t see to serve the toddling dancer who just dunked her cookie in milk before leaving it in a mess on the plate. I have no vision for friends and neighbors, each with bodies full of burdens, and even my husband fades behind my need. I cannot fulfill the law of Christ – to lay down my life for others. I cannot serve because I am in the middle of a constant search for who I am, hoping that who I am is important.
I still can’t find the words for this worry, but (praise Jesus) the words, the whole words, of the Gospel have found me.
And it is offensive. It is offensive to everyone, because everyone is empty and looking to be filled. Everyone is looking for affirmation – assurance that we are something and something important. Ideally, we want this kind of affirmation without God getting involved. We want to be so much something that we have enough to give away. But not a single person, even the most generous, has enough substance to serve out of abundance instead of need.
And Jesus. And the cross. The Gospel uncovers all the ways we look for recognition and approval in other things, but then it offers Jesus – our only hope of feeling the full approval we were designed to crave. Because, in Christ and “at the heart of creation and redemption,” says Keller, is Jesus saying “my life for yours.” At the cross, He embodied love in sacrifice. And, in Christ alone, we see past our need to be something so that we can offer all of who Christ is to the people around us. Real abundance.
Is this strange worry a tangled mess of approval seeking madness? I actually have no idea. But I do know that it is my human heart condition to swim inside it – to let it define, even a little bit, who I am right now and what I need. It is human to convince myself that, because I can’t explain it, it is incurable and requires endless and special attention.
There is no darkness – anywhere – that is resistant to the light of Truth. The cross makes the midnight shine like noonday (Psalm 139). It anchors my identity outside today’s strange worry and enables me to offer abundance when I am completely empty. The cross is my only boast and battle cry, because apart from it I am nothing.
“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:14
She clung to my shoulders with her arms and knees, her neck wrapped on mine as the fountain misted our backs and absorbed our squeals. As soon as the wind changed, she anticipated the next mist and around the Bailey Fountain we went – a blurred, bouncing spectacle for the tourists posing in front of the mysterious, mythological scene. The sun beat down just as the mist dewed our faces and there are no photos of our delight. It lived so perfectly in that moment, just after 12 noon on a Tuesday.
Her little, tumbling giggle surprised us both. It was almost too generous – too full and wild. And, if I was guessing, I would say this is a little bit why little children can come to Jesus.
This full and wild generosity of a child is unrestrained – like their Maker, ready to unleash lavish goodness in response to beauty and in the middle of delight.
There are many ways an adult can ‘become like a child’ and none of them are so easy. I have moments, like the fountain, where delight washes over and nothing ‘adult’ matters. But, most moments, I am aware of my unfortunate maturity. I squirm in skin that has worked hard to shake free of dependence – to get established and known and significant. But, the world is stingy with delight, starved of any true kind. All my slow (and unsteady) progress toward adulthood often feels like chasing after the wind. Meaningless. Culture doesn’t help me get past this curse – I’m constantly reminded that my life is supposed to be linear, that my work is supposed to build and progress and flourish into an evolving and important identity.
There is another baby bulging out of my belly, did I mention that? That’s very adult. The second time around is different for all the obvious reasons, but also because I am not in my first months of marriage and my brother did not just die. But my favorite part has been watching Zella’s sweet affection grow with the size of my belly. She leans in to sing her own made up songs. She tells the baby about all the excitement of this world (mostly noting the baby will get to drink milk). She perceives when the baby is awake and asleep. I’m glad she is paying attention; her wonder pulls me in.
Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing;
I think about that stanza often. It plays in my head without invitation and all my neurons rush to find its melody. Maybe the elusive “winning” is the undercurrent of my everyday, the obvious wanting in every disrupted simple task. The edge of the full dustpan tips on the trashcan and empties on the floor. Not winning. The internet refreshes on days of blog rambles and doesn’t save a word. Not winning. The laundromat increases their prices 8 quarters more than all your cash and the nearest free ATM is 10 blocks away and your potty-trained lady just made a puddle by washer number 4. Not winning.
But God undoes win-lose scenarios – actually disappears them, and not because my daily losses are unimportant or irrelevant. But because he cares so intimately about the sweeping and the creating and the laundry, that He redeems and redefines winning completely. His measurement is an altogether different scale, interstellar dimension status. If not, the “right man on our side” would have been one big loser.
Were not the right man on our side, a man of God’s own choosing
I get now why He let the little children come. They aren’t so wrapped up and weighted down with losses. Or, at least they aren’t keeping such close track. Or, they get His measurement system – where delight can disrupt the scales in the middle of a series of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad moments. If I’m honest, I need a million of those blurred, bouncing moments – chasing fountain mist with a giggling toddler. I need almost constant reminders of the different win-lose dimension scale.
In a recent talk (which, BTW is winning), Jen Wilkin said, “Human love is based on need. God’s love is not. His covenant stands because it is in no way dependent on me.”
Because God is altogether different, in being and knowing and doing, He is hope against wind chasing. Even as we become like little children – embracing their delight and dependence – we must be supremely aware of His absolute goodness and absolute other-ness. He is true and present in a windstorm and on a still day. In our struggle against a world of devils, it is His truth that triumphs through us – not because of all of our wind chasing, but because He is good. That is why He can be so generous, why His generosity never changes with temperaments or time.
His absolute goodness is in Him like our infinite humanity is in us.
I stretch out my limbs and too quickly my fingers reach the walls of our apartment. The cluttered cubic space shouts for thrown open windows and, in Brooklyn springtime, the windows shout back. Zella Ruth is sleeping now, so I have a chance to splatter thoughts on this page while the busses whir and that persistent man sings on the corner. His voice almost convinces me, six floors up.
But, back to these walls – these boundaries of our existence and mine especially as I newly articulate the bold title of “at home work.” The sun splashes against the wall of our kitchen – a hot, glorious reminder of a Spring long come and I stand in it awhile before clearing the remains of fresh salsa construction from our tiny countertop. I remember Zella’s scurry steps into the bedroom to babble very seriously about a broken something in the kitchen… and her pained brow when I found a special bowl in pieces on the floor. “It’s okay, Mama! It’s okay! I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry.”
Oh, this light. If only I could bottle it up! This patch travels up the kitchen wall, another climbs the bedroom above our bed, and a generous warmth makes a wake across the living room in midday. Windows are beauty and ours are giant, stretching almost floor to ceiling.
But, these walls. Every time I wash my hands in the bathroom, I wonder about the workers who tiled the walls. I wonder because it’s a curious construction, almost like a child’s mosaic the way the slivered pieces sometimes dwarf in comparison to the grout around them. And where the wall is uneven, more grout is applied and the effect is three dimensional. A statement of sorts about living in New York. Art.
We love this place. Even around the newest luxury condo, we can see the tips of the trees in Prospect Park, waving like sentinels and beckoning us to play in our neighborhood’s backyard. We often do.
Well, anyway, the kingdom is here. In between the grout tile mosaic and in the view through dirty windows and under the gate leg table that opens up to fit twelve in our living/dining/den room, as long as everyone is cool with shoulders touching. The kingdom is in this midst.
I remember a sermon from a while back – one of those well known passages I almost tuned out but later I couldn’t get out of my mind. The kingdom is in my midst like the brothers in Luke 15. Their inheritance and mine is available right now, in its entirety. The robe, the fattened calf, the signet ring, the feast, and the best last name. Any good thing I can imagine requesting? Mine. A vast richness I could not possibly spend or exhaust or even fully enjoy. It’s that much inheritance. And the only way I can’t get to that inheritance is if I am not free.
The kingdom of God is freedom.
But a kingdom has walls and gates and guards and I am skeptical like the son that there is any freedom inside. My mind drifts. I imagine the dreams I dreamt once – the ones that somehow wore charity and luxury at the same time, where dinner was never late or burnt or frustrating. Dreams chase freedom. And we chase dreams, hoping the blank will get filled in, “I just want to be able to ____” and the story ends well or doesn’t end at all.
And, I think, dreams are only bad if they have you convinced that you are not already free.
The Band spins on the record player, a leftover request of Zella’s for “mugik” and that sermon from awhile back crackles over my laptop, “Both of these sons are on the precipice of being dead, of being lost… What’s most important to know is that you need to be found by the Father who wants to pull you into His feast.”
Hm. This kingdom, the kingdom of God is in the midst of us – another sermon especially settled in my bones. It’s a comfort and a horror to know that it’s here when I’m all unraveled and here when the knick knacks are all prepared for company. It, the kingdom, Jesus. Here.
Maybe this heart was getting annoyed at my spiritual procrastination and so started ahead that I might catch up. Or maybe these few sermons and a talk from Galatians 5 just started swimming together in the same direction in my spirit (do sermons swim?). This kingdom that came in Jesus had a vastness to it, a depth reaching outside existence. Yet, it was present physically in Jesus and is still present physically with us. The kingdom is here, and with so much repeat in the New Testament.
The message feels so precarious because the inheritance is so vast. The kingdom of lavish inheritance is everywhere, so why does our air feel so impoverished? Those brothers felt it too. With all the inheritance anyone could ever grasp for, neither was satisfied. They wanted a better freedom, something more fitting for the appetites in their bellies. Something not so established by a father who has everything. Something not so… available. They wanted different walls with different rules and different work.
And these walls, remember. And this work.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14
Called to freedom, yes. Use it to serve neighbors? Sounds like constraint. Freed to be constrained? Sounds like gates and guards again and that generous father’s farm.
There was a watercolor disaster in the living room yesterday. I said things like, “I am very disappointed,” and “Mama is sad,” to a not-quite-two-year-old who doesn’t yet understand the cost of an area rug. Deep breaths, we take them together. I pretend like I’m teaching her about coping mechanisms for frustration, but it’s really about keeping me under control. Inside these walls and inside this work is the vast and glorious kingdom inheritance, but I will keep feeling impoverished unless I claim freedom.
Teaching on Galatians 5, Thabiti Anyabwile says Christian freedom is the antidote to the Galatian error, that freedom is even the goal of the gospel that we must embrace, enjoy and cherish. “We are freed to inherit all that Christ has purchased for us,” he said, “…but we must remember what we are freed from.”
I am freed from the desires of the flesh and freed to an inheritance. I am freed from a dream of better walls and different work, freed from the betraying appetite in my belly. Freed from chasing an answer to the open ended and paralyzing question, “What is my calling and God’s will for my life?” Because it all comes in the same inheritance-freedom package.
Q: What is my calling and God’s will for my life? A: That I would be free and use my freedom to serve others.
This inheritance that we are freed to accept – it so blesses us and so fills us that the greatest dream we can dream hangs like mist in the air above our fingertips. In love, serve one another. This is the most freed act. There is no haggling about worth or comparing about value, no hierarchy of importance or ranking of achievement.
The most free thing anyone can do with freedom is serve others. And not just the glory, headlining kind of service. The quiet kind – make a meal, tidy the toys, clean the dishes, disinfect the toilet, arrange the bookshelf, run the errands, write the letter, invite them over, wash the laundry, crunch the numbers, listen to the neighbor. You get it. Also the glory kind – definitely keep that around, but not for glory’s sake.
This cold traveled slowly and took about one week to get from my chest to my throat to my nose. Now, it is flowing freely on this flour sack kitchen towel and my shirt sleeves, which I’ve newly re-purposed as handkerchiefs (why don’t we carry those anymore?!). One was not enough. The hum of the restaurants and traffic and sirens at street level drift up and settle between my cotton ears.
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
I army crawled out of the bedroom last night, but the floorboards right by the door gave me away, even as I was singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” in slow fade perfection. The hymn is her usual sleep inducer, but I guess a nasty cold will make a baby uber aware of being alone. This baby at least, this Zella Ruth. In the middle of every stealthy retreat, she would reach out sweaty, pudgy hands and lift her chin with eyes still closed – expecting to find me on the other side of her still soft touch.
For the first time in almost seven months of mamahood, I kept a log of rectal temperatures and naps as I swam inside my little one’s red eyes and employed my own clothes for snot rags (not the first time for that).
This morning I was glad for the sanctuary of Lincoln Road under the sunshine and blue skies of an unseasonably warm January day. I irreverently mixed “Peace Like a River” and “It is Well with My Soul” on the short walk to the pie shop, thankful for a coat and a baby to cover up my snotted garb.
This Sabbath is slow and staccato, long snuggles interrupted by gravel coughs and wet sneezes. Her wispy hair has started to peek out over her ears and we still aren’t convinced of its color. Sand or cypress wood grain or amber, maybe. I’ve had time to inspect the curious patches of length on the top and back of her head, neither looks like fashion.
This Sabbath is not how imagined motherhood, not that I was ever romantic about it. Zella sits in a diaper next to me, in my pajamas. She is momentarily entertained by the feel of her fingernails on her pale pink snowsuit. I am seizing these moments to listen to Epiphany music and write a few rambled thoughts. This makes two weeks of home church.
It was supposed to be a big storm last weekend, but we’ve heard that before. We woke up slowly Saturday, eventually making fluffy buttermilk waffles and sitting in the late morning window light to watch the flurries gather on the ground. The neighbors joined our lazy fun around 11 am for snowfall projections and cheese boards and card games. Curiosity led us outside, where the blizzard was real. I made it a couple blocks and 10 pictures before I decided it was best for me to pick up the essentials (hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and dark chocolate covered cranberries) and hold down the fort.
I felt like a real mom – you know, the kind that stays inside so there is something warm to eat when the cold adventurers are soaked to the bone. With Zella Ruth still strapped to my front, I started the soup in between capitalized texts to all my adventuring friends: MTA IS SHUTTING DOWN AT 4! MAKE SURE YOU CAN GET HOME.
Then my husband called,
“Hey, is it ok if everyone comes over?”
“Yeah, that’s fine, but I don’t think they’ll be able to get home…”
“I know, how do you feel about having all of them spend the night?”
“Oh…. Ohhhhhh! Oh. Yes, uh, ok yeah. Yep, let’s do it. Ok, yeah!”
And that’s how nine pairs of boots found their way to our door, wet layers got draped over radiators and shower curtains, and a vegetable chicken soup doubled in depth.
I can’t be certain, but I think it was a full house.
The crowd huddled around stovetop hot chocolate and chips and salsa and hummus before the soup was ladled out to a stack of bowls. And somewhere into the evening in between board games, those who could find dry socks fetched groceries for a second dinner from our corner market.
All the ingredients for our church’s monthly Burrito Bar were sliced and diced in the fridge when we found out church was canceled the next day… so the breakfast menu was easily set and additional invites were sent out to friends and neighbors.
And that is how we spent Storm Jonas – covering every square inch of our apartment with humans and board games and chicken soup and whiskey and hot chocolate and laughter and burritos and coffee and a doorstep full of snow boots.
Every square inch.
The living room full of sleeping bags and the clogged bathroom sink and the tiny-turned-industrial kitchen and my heart and the slow flushing toilet and the deep, snow covered streets and the baby girl on my hip – all of these square inches.
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” ― Abraham Kuyper
Now this baby girl lays on my lap, sleep-nursing after afternoon company and before a small crowd returns for dinner. Her cheeks have less flush and her sneeze has less slush, thank God. I think we’ll have leftover spaghetti squash… no, probably not enough. Maybe the chicken thawing will stretch if it’s over a salad? Ooh, or maybe a mushroom red sauce? Probably the easiest would be some sort of stir fry… I’m not sure.
I never had the imagination to picture this scene – this baby stretched across my knees while I hover over her to write this blog post and simultaneously brainstorm impromptu dinner plans. There are lot of things I do as a mama that surprise me. My mama self is not near as organized or gentle or patient or forgiving as I think I had hoped. I can remember seeing moms and saying, “I totally want to do that with our kids…”
In my private thoughts, I hoped I would shed all the worst of me like old skin when I had a baby and put on all the best of me like mom pants. In my public thoughts, I knew that was never a possibility.
I never thought I would be the mama nursing her daughter while sitting on the toilet… or the mama who wears pajamas all day and then also the next day… or the mama whose life is entirely rearranged by a little tiny human and her red eyes… or the mama who just spliced three blog posts together in order to post something on her blog.
I thought it would be hard, and it is. I thought it would be good, and it is. I thought it would be adventure, and it most definitely is.
Patrick brought home the bulletin from church today and the closing hymn was “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” It makes me feel like we’re doing church every time we lay Zella down to sleep and that makes our home feel sacred. It is really what we are after – a closer walk with the One who owns all the inches in all the sabbaths and storms and sleepovers.
Ok, babe is awake and folk songs can only distract for so long.
It was the smallest bent of the shoulder, the slightest tilt of the head – away from destruction and toward restoration. It took one calendar year and then some. I should be straight-facing the Lord by now, parallel to the Presence. Feet to feet and eye to eye, if God would stoop to look me in the blues He painted on my round face.
It’s October now, and for months I’ve been saying all the spiritual self-talk, “You’ve turned toward the Lord, now gaze on Him. Delight in Him. Love His presence. Feel His embrace. Taste His provision. Be with Him. Rest in Him. Listen to Him. Breathe the breath of Him.”
But foolishness can follow a person, like spider webs that play phantom strings on skin hairs long after being swept away. Foolishness doesn’t care about posture or position. Maybe that’s why I have trouble lifting my gaze or moving toward the One who redeemed my soul.
God is always on my mind like grief is always on my mind, but this year I didn’t have an appetite for Him. I didn’t crave Him like I craved a medium rare steak or Nonna D’s Oatmeal Lace ice cream (read: pregnant).
I guess I am waiting for that moment – you know the one, in all those Psalms? The moment in the stanzas that say, “and then they cried out… turned from their wicked ways…” Because in the next stanza, the Lord would come down.
He would come all the way down to listen and heal and deliver the wayward from the sure destruction of spoiled appetites. Stanza after stanza, story after story, He came down when they cried out. And then He fed them with rich, mysterious food – though I imagine they never knew they were starving until that first bite.
Taste and see that He is good. (Psalm 34:8)
This command is soaked in love, drowning in it. In this command I hear the heart of my Father saying, “Oh, child. Your foolishness has confused your appetite. You don’t even know what real food looks like anymore. What you put in your belly is spoiling you from the inside. But now that you have turned toward me, you can hear me when I say I am the best food. Eat your deliverance. Unleash your appetite on something that will satisfy.”
Eat and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 8:10)
If I could relax my shoulders with palms face up like benediction, I might hear the Lord saying, “Oh, darling. Eat your deliverance.”
Is it fear that has my hands tied? Am I afraid that Joy will tip the scale and Grief will lose out? Maybe Pride is too good a friend, blinding me to the food my soul craves. Maybe I am suffocating because I covet the past and I covet the future.
The longer I let the spoil sit in my belly, the less I live.
It sounds strange. But it is death in my belly if it is not life. God did not come all the way down, in Jesus, for our bellies to rot and for our breath to die. Jesus came to give life and breath and food, the richest food, and this is my deliverance.
“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.” Jeremiah 15:16
Praise comes like all the waves in all the oceans, because you cannot gulp down the glory of the Lord. It is a slow delight. His deliverance happens when desperation makes space for His glory and our praise happens because those who have been delivered say so.
“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Psalm 107:2
“Let” is the command to everyone in earshot of the redeemed: allow these people to praise rightly the God of their redemption. Listen to their praise because they can be trusted. Especially if they were foolish before – let them swoop ribbons and dance swirls and sing melodies and make a ceremony out of praise.
Let those with life in their bellies say so.
Someday soon I hope to make a ceremony of silly praise, a tribute to the God of my redemption, the God who satisfies with good food. I am waiting for that moment…
I know I have not nested enough or planned enough or read enough or enoughed enough – with this whole parenting thing, I mean. I know this because it seems like all pregnant ladies have lists – to do, to buy, to think, to read, to reflect, to pray.
There are also the “don’t worry if you haven’t made a list – this is the one list you’ll need” lists.
I’m not as organized as I used to be (or maybe I am just more honest). I have no lists. [Actually, that’s not true – I am keeping a list of songs that pop into my head unannounced. So far I have: 21 Questions by 50 Cent, Away in a Manger, Video by India Arie, The Storm is Passing Over, We Like to Party, Easter Song by Keith Green, I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross. And those are just the songs that come when I’m near the pen and paper at work where I keep track.]
I do daydream about baby’s hair color and baby’s imagination and what kind of family we will be when baby turns five.
I do have doubts about being a mom, though with every day my body confirms that I am created for it.
I do imagine what Brooklyn will look like from new eyes as a stay-at-home mom.
I do wonder about the privilege of welcoming a baby with special needs – if that is one of the surprises waiting on delivery day.
A few days ago I gave a strange, bullet pointed version of “my story” for our Brooklyn Fellows class. In the process of preparing, I remembered some precious words my mom said once on a terraza in Santa Lucia, Honduras. My parents were visiting from the States for a week and I had taken them to all my favorite spots – the garbage dump school, the feeding center, the orphanage, and the home for boys – before bringing them to my student’s home for a late lunch (except that, in typical ambiguous fashion, Alejandra and I had never communicated or confirmed this plan… so my dad ended up eating a LOT of pastel (cake) and coffee in the absence of meat).
When my dad was on his third slice and my mom had shared all of our galavanting stories, Alejandra’s mom asked, “Don’t you worry about Caroline being here?”
She answered it just like she would her age or her affinity for the country life, “Well, she’s not ours. She is the Lord’s.” So simply, so true.
I nodded with all my silly, missional enthusiasm. I had done a lot of things in that wonderful country – hitchhiked in El Salvador and La Tigra, been stranded overnight hiking a mountain, driven students through El Centro at night, been pulled over by fake cops, taken students with bodyguards on mission trips, rode in the back of pickup trucks, wandered up to houses that looked like mechanic shops, accepted invitations from neighbor-strangers, stayed up all night with students baking pumpkin muffins and making sushi at 2 am, argued with cops who pulled me over and wanted to take my car… the list is too long and too embarrassing to recount. Not all of it was wise or prayerful or good.
My parents prayed a lot. And they never told me to slow down or to move back home.
“She is the Lord’s.”
I don’t know yet the kind of courage it takes to believe that as a parent. I think it’s the way she said it – like I am first God’s family and I am on loan. It was a fact like the price of corn, but it came out like she was announcing I had royal relatives. It rippled across every belief in my heart that God is sovereign and a kind of kinship welled up as if to say, “I am the Lord’s!”
All of the Scripture I read as a child was not mumbo-jumbo. All those verses and sermons and conversations in the kitchen before dinner and talks before morning milking chores – those were about my Father. I belong to Him.
And He is a good keeper, the best.
I have thought about my mom’s words often, especially this past year when we have held so tightly to Will with possessive pronouns: my son, my brother, my husband, my friend, mine.
And even as we push against it, God is saying, “He is mine. He belongs to me. I am his keeper. And I do not fail.”
That’s hard to hear.
It was a strange time to get pregnant – in the first few months of marriage and in the first few months of grief. But God never stopped being faithful, never stopped keeping promises, never stopped claiming us as His. So, now I pray that when people ask, “Aren’t you afraid your baby will…” we will respond, “Oh, Baby K is not ours. Baby K is the Lord’s.”
It sounds crazy, but I can still hear it spoken over me, like last year’s corn prices and the announcement of royal heritage.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thank you for not claiming me as your own – for doing the harder thing in confessing that I am the Lord’s.