singing catechisms

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.

Heidelberg Catechism

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 JesusIf 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.

I want to get in His sights

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.

celebration and sorrow

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?

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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.

 

 

a holy hush did not hover

IMG_8272The advent wreath is uneven – dried eucalyptus folded and woven around a green foam ring with four purple candles sticking up like smooth royal towers in a bramble patch. My grandpa made the wooden base that holds the large, white pineapple candle in the center. And the bulky tradition sits unceremoniously on our table, on top of a feast-speckled fabric runner and underneath long eucalyptus branches leftover from a chandelier I couldn’t throw away.

The irreverent transformation of our antique gateleg table did not have all the feels of spiritual renewal. No mystery hid in the clinking of cider and whiskey glasses. A holy hush did not hover above our bowls of butternut squash soup.

We ladled out seconds and then reclined to read the liturgy for the first week of Advent. Tam struck the match that lit the first candle – the candle of Hope – and Grace read from Matthew 13,

35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows,[c] or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

I heard my soul saying the emotions are spent. We are dead broke on emotions so I don’t try to wrestle more out. I just say, “Ok, soul.” And then I heard the words from this passage and thought, but at least let’s stay awake.

The neighbors must have opinions. Our windows were open, on the first day of the first week of Advent, to let the last cool breezes of autumn hug our shoulders. While the good folks next door were high-fiving touchdowns and shaking fists at referees, we were singing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” … all the verses. And then we sang the first verse again to layer some harmonies under the skillful conductorship of our friend Jeremy. The prayer of confession sounded the most Monty Python – all nine of us confessing out loud, with the same words, how we have strayed and how badly we need to be rescued, forgiven, and restored.

It’s the 14:39 mark in Bach’s Cantata 140. After the soul pleads salvation’s quicker coming for six minutes, Zion hears the watchmen calling… and I say to my soul, let’s stay awake for this.

Wake up and don’t sleep through this. Be awake to plead and to grieve and to joy and to see and to fail and to receive and to hear. Be awake to anticipate the song of a Savior.

Be awake for Advent, I say to my soul – all the irreverence of it… the leftover decorations and the mess of it. Be awake and at all costs stay awake. Invite enough shoulders around your table that elbows touch your side. And when you get sleepy, soul, light a candle. When your eyes droop, soul, read Scripture. When you have no ceremony, soul, raise a toast. Stay awake, soul, because there is a song after the song you are singing and you will want to hear.

God, please help me stay awake.

a psalm for grief

What is this low, deep darkness –
where only apparitions play?
My hands grasp and find nothing;
my voice cries and the sound is soaked up.
Here I am! Inside the furthest dark,
and where are You?

O, be strong and steady –
do not disappear when I reach out
or go silent when I plea.
Be ever with me in this dark-
ever present in this death,
Be with me.

Restore to me the hope of resurrection
and the peace of a seated King.

You will not be shaken,
and You are keeping me.
There is no dark where your love is not light;
There is no light that is not yours.

I am found in You, my light
my home.


It’s been a while, but here are some writings as my family lives out the grief and sorrow of losing William. I do not usually write poetry, but this was an assignment when I was in grief counseling last year. I dug it up to help as I sit with sadness today.

It sounds too easy, too light and defined.

If I was a better poet, I would make it messy. I would make it say things like “wring the numbness out of me / and never forget to feel the pain of death” and “break morning light on this dark day to vanish the chills of night” and “wrestle and make my mind submit to a glory bigger, better and outside this pain”… or something. I would make it tangled and I would make it have the harsh sound of typing keys. click click clackety CLACK clack CLACK. The meter would feel staccato with something like a long cello line running through it. And the edges – the space around the words – would move in close to hug the anger out.

And still it would read wrong.

 

hot pressure heartburn

It felt like heartburn, but I am sure it wasn’t.

The hot pressure pushing against my rib cage on Monday might be as close as I have ever felt to groaning with creation for the coming of the Lord (Romans 8:19). My body craves Jesus’ return as much as my spirit, and together (I think) they press up against my bones to remind me of my true home.

This week is about death.

Even in the triumphal entry on Sunday, we know it is death toward which we process. Even as we sing “Hosanna!” on the road into Jerusalem with the redeemed, we save our breath for the “Crucify!” in the center of the city with the masses. The true drama of the scene churns up this hot pressure heartburn behind my rib cage.

It is frightening, unless you believe in the God who keeps promises. This God, who loved the world so much that He threw His seed to the earth to be sown in death. The evidence is in the palms of His hands and the scars on His sides.

The resurrection is waiting on the other side like the buds breaking through dead branches and the sprouts peeking out from dry ground. Resurrection is hiding, buried safe in God’s plan for redemption.

This week is about death, but it was always about life to God.

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called  children of God; and so we are. In this the love of God was made manifest  among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live  through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us  and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 3:1, 4:9-10).

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For  one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person  one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we  were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be  slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Passages from the Journey to the Cross devotional.

our striving would be losing

If there ever was someone who deserved the distinction of being absolute, that someone is Jesus. He declared himself the absolute, only way to enter into the kingdom of heaven (John 14:6). In this question, there is no grey area – not a single drop of ying yang to dilute what He has spelled out explicitly in His word.

Christ is salvation for those who believe, but salvation is bigger than we think. It is not just a salvation from judgment. Christ’s salvation is also salvation into righteousness. In the same moment that He freed us from the bloody (literal) cycle of sacrifices, He freed us into obedience by way of His righteousness. We are no longer ruled by the destruction of our secret hearts and the destruction of our sinful humanity. We are not ruled by the darkness that seems to rule the world.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are freed from judgment by Christ’s atoning sacrifice and freed into obedience by Christ’s imputing righteousness.

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because our lives could never stand up to God’s righteous judgment. My sin goes before me and follows close behind. The good I want to do gets muddled up in my own schemes and I am daily reminded of my sin that leads to death. I am weak against greed and pride and lust and fear and faithlessness. There is not a day I could stand upright in the face of God’s righteous judgment.

But God, being rich in mercy called His children before the foundations of the world into freedom from the judgment that is due our dead bones.

I need for Christ to offer a salvation that is more than just a courtroom scene where He takes my guilty sentence. I need for Him to be the justice I act and the mercy I show and the love I share. I need for Him to be the righteousness that roots out my fear and greed and lust and pride and I need Him as replacement. I need for Christ to be who God sees when I stand before the throne of judgment. AND HE IS, dear friends!

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because His sacrifice both atones for our sin (receiving the judgment we are due) AND imputes our righteousness (replacing ours with the perfect life Christ lived).

He is the perfect heart condition when I try to muster compassion. He is the perfect generosity when I scrounge for change. He is the perfect host when I frenzy about with overlapping plans. He is the perfect listener, counselor, and encourager when I am trying very hard and very imperfectly to be all those things.

Yesterday, I sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with a group of strangers in a beautiful church near Union Square. This second verse really tore apart my spirit.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

I do a lot of striving – a lot of confiding in my own strength – and none of it gets me closer to a better salvation. Absolutely not one single attempt (or many) at righteousness will be the reason Christ invites or denies me into His kingdom. Because there is only one right Man, a Man of God’s own choosing, who has the power and perfection to be condemned in my guilty place so that I can become the righteousness of God. Salvation doesn’t get any better than that.

No matter how many hungry folks we feed or naked people we clothe or strangers we invite in, we would never do it perfectly and we would never do it enough. I would never do righteousness enough and (if I could be so bold) you wouldn’t either. We are always striving and our striving is always losing, but God made a way for us to be free of judgment and freed to righteousness. And that way is Jesus.

What we believe about Him is the most pressing, most prominent, most permanent thing today. He makes perfect all our imperfect attempts because He gave us His righteousness. We are freed from striving for perfection and freed from losing at that game. We are freed into obedience because salvation doesn’t depend on our righteous performance. Salvation depends on the cross and Christ performed that perfectly… so that we could enter into His joy and invite others to the banquet table to meet the Man of God’s own choosing.

As I click at my keyboard, wet and sloppy tears are tracking through the blush on my cheeks. Everything is snot-messy because salvation will always be a mystery. I don’t understand why I get to know Christ. I don’t understand why my sin does not banish me forever from His presence. I don’t understand why I never have a better response. I don’t understand why my daily song doesn’t sound like worship. I don’t understand why my heart can be so resistant to miracles.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-31 ESV)