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.

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.

believing for rest

Christ is holding all things together and He is keeping my bones revived. It’s an active keeping that continually breathes salvation into my bones. And today, I am realizing that His keeping me revived is what allows me to rest.

I’m studying Galatians right now and my soul is sick with the tension of belief. For all the hundreds of ways I believe God is faithful and true and just, there are hundreds of other ways I doubt Him. For every little obstacle I believe Him able to overcome, there is another obstacle I doubt He can conquer.

“I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” Mark 9:24

I believe in the historical event of the crucifixion and in the power of the resurrection and that Christ completed the work of my salvation. I believe. But the gospel is also about believing now – belief is happening as God breathes breath into my bones and as God breathes rest into my soul.

“The Spirits works as Christians don’t rely on their own works, but rather consciously and continuously rest in Christ alone for their acceptability and completeness.” Tim Keller in Galatians for You

When Christ said, “It is finished,” he accomplished a salvation that makes me complete and acceptable – and I remember it like the rhythm of my breathing. Always acceptable and always complete – what else is there to work for, to worry for, to weary for?

Every grace-empowered, believing action in the Christian life begins and ends in a place of rest.

We have not been saved in order to work for more salvation. We have been saved and are being saved by the power of the Spirit and the grace of the gospel in order to proclaim His glory.

Fret and frenzy do not proclaim that His finished work meant my acceptance and completeness. Rest does. Fret and frenzy are what you do when you are convinced something else will make you complete and accepted – that Christ’s work wasn’t finished enough.

“I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” Mark 9:24

preach it [to yourself]

We hear a lot of words throughout the day – our morning to midnight is filled with them. Words to wake up to, to sing to, to argue with, to persuade, entice, battle, and play.

So many words.

But even if you didn’t have a single conversation, your day would still be full of words. Even if you were a hermit, words would wiggle inside. Because we’re all listening to sermons in our heads – words that motivate and teach and correct and guide.

My soul is speaking constantly and sometimes it sounds like a worldly sermon. It sounds like more questions than statements, more fear than courage, and more pride than humility. Sometimes it sounds like sin. But it is not a matter of making my soul mute, because that’s not possible. We are created with eternity in our hearts and my soul’s constant conversation is evidence of that. 

In conversations with friends and in reflection about my own inner conversations lately, I’m reminded again that if the message coming from our souls is not Truth, we need to find a different preacher (and I don’t mean at church).

A few years back, I read The Silent Seduction of Self-Talk by Shelly Beach and (in addition to the title’s brilliant alliteration) it brought a new awareness of the words my soul speaks constantly to my heart. More recently, after reading Joe Thorn’s book Note to Self (heavily influenced and inspired by Martin Lloyd Jones) I became even more intentional about using Scripture to guide those conversations.

My scripture memory verse this week is speaking the right words to my soul. I love reading the statement, “Hope in God” right after the psalmist has just probed for answers for his depression. That statement, “Hope in God” is an affirmation of who God is, a declaration of His worthiness, and a pronouncement of His grace to give such hope. I love that.

Psalm 42:11, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.”

This morning, I had an interview for a job in NYC and before/during/afterward my soul heard those words: Hope in God. Though I don’t have a downcast soul right now, I do often ask my soul about worry and fear and worth. And to these questions this morning, I preached: Hope in God.

He is trustworthy.
He is good.
He is faithful.

And I am satisfied in Him. I shall again praise Him – with or without a job. He is my hope!

have you ever seen a tree dance?

Psalm 1 is one of my favorite word pictures in the Bible. Trees are a reminder of what happens when the Lord provides – the deep roots, lush leaves, and sprawling canopy flourish because of the Lord’s care.

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1, ESV)

But every analogy has something in common: a limit.

A tree is inadequate to describe what we are completely “like” as we follow the Lord. As we move from one degree of holy to the next, we are not just rooted deep in the ground and stretched out to bear fruit. A tree as a picture of our sanctification is limited, even if it is a tree that prospers in and out of season and whose leaf does not wither.

Our Christian life is “like a tree,” but it is also more than this. We are rooted and established in love (Ephesians 3:17-19) but we have also inside of us the brilliant excitement that caused David to dance with all his might (2 Samuel 6:14). We have access to abundant life (John 10:10) in Christ, the kind that makes us want to sing and praise and laugh and shout (Acts 16:25, Psalm 98:4, Psalm 47).

Yes, loving the Lord and growing in this love means being like a tree, but it also means being like the bride and groom at the wedding I went to yesterday.

His gleeful squeals with outstretched arms and smile-covered face looked nothing like a tree. He was not composed and stately. He was drowning in joy and his bride was radiant with expectation. They were both very un-tree like when they bounded down the aisle after the “Mr. and Mrs. Groves” announcement and jumped into the air under the cloudy sky.

Their joy spilled out… it got into our hearts as we watched them celebrate. The love that was rooted and established in their identity as children of God was now displayed in their commitment to one another as united by God.

I have never seen trees dance.

have seen the glory of the Lord spilling over our ability to describe it. Yesterday, watching Riley and Brooke get married, was one of those times.

 

all the million other reasons

My friend Nicole and I often recount the impossibility of our becoming friends. We love the silly madness of it – Nicole was looking to transfer schools during our first semester at Hope College and I was reveling in independent bliss with my new best friend Meghan.

Meghan and I were next door neighbors in the dorm and fast friends. It just so happened that we were assigned to the same Bible study group, where we learned that someone named Nicole wanted to transfer.

Meghan and I decided Nicole would be our friend, even though we knew very little about her. One day, we were biking from a football game and we spotted Nicole on the sidewalk. In our excitement, we fell over in front of her while trying to explain that we would all soon be friends. There are many surprising things – like that it was actually Nicole we saw (there weren’t many Asian students) and that she didn’t run in the other direction when we made a scene.

But we love that story because here we are in the present, remembering that first year of Bible study and the following years of friendship. Here we are, right now, playing phone tag because our friendship is the kindred kind.

And from such an unlikely beginning.

I have always recounted stories like these (it seems I collect them like kids collect seashells at the beach) and praised God for His sovereignty. How amazing that He cared about all the little details – all the punctuation in the writing of our beautiful story of friendship.

Recently, I rediscovered a friendship from childhood and I was praising God in the same way – expressing wonder that He would bless us in such an unlikely and surprising way. My new/old friend lost no time in being the iron that sharpens iron. She mentioned a Tim Keller sermon that had changed how she thought about unlikely circumstances in her life. Instead of thinking about all the reasons things happened for her benefit as God was writing her story, Keller challenged my friend to think about all the million little things He was doing in the stories of the people around her and in the greater and bigger story of Creation.

Think about that for a second.

God is, indeed, working out all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). But, I can only look back on my life and see the tiniest number of reasons why God might have worked the way He did. Naturally, we rush to explain that what we didn’t know then and do know now gives us a glimpse of His perfect plan. What about all the other hundreds of people who have stepped in and out of my little story… couldn’t some of the unlikely details and detours of my life play a part in their stories?

Most importantly, when we marvel at the way God is sovereignly writing the narrative of creation and holding it together in Christ, we must never be at the center.

Every unlikely detail of our lives followed by every unlikely consequence are sentences in a story about God’s grace and God’s love toward us.

His name and renown are always at the center of the story, even though we are the recipients. My unlikely friendship with Nicole might have started because our bikes tipped over by Holland Municipal Stadium, but there might be a million other reasons God started our story the way He did – for His name’s sake. I will never know all the reasons God blessed my life the way He has, but the little I do know has produced joy in overwhelming abundance. Maybe that’s why we don’t know all the million other reasons – the joy at His goodness would be too much.

Here are some reminders from Josh Etter at Desiring God that we are created, saved, and sanctified for God’s name’s sake.

We are created for God’s name’s sake:

Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory (Isaiah 43:6-7).

We are saved for God’s name’s sake:

I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out (Ezekiel 20:14).

We are sanctified for God’s name’s sake:

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; for how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another (Isaiah 48:10-11).