Shepherding you is getting trickier. I shudder to think how complex things will be ten years from now. (If I don’t come up with a new numbering system for these epistles we will be passing “Jacob: 150 Months” around that time. Seems a little silly even to me…) There have been so many hard moments lately, moments when your heart is the hardest thing around, when you just don’t seem to care. It makes me acutely aware of how impossible it is for me to change you on the level that matters most. I can train your behavior, which is important for sure, but I can’t make you love. Only the Holy Spirit can make you do that. So I’ve been reminded to pray for you a lot more.
You’ve been praying, too. Now when we come to a time for prayer during the day you often announce: “I pray then Mommy prays.” And then you bow your head and your little formula rolls off your tongue: “Dear God, take away my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness and have mercy on me Amen.” That middle clause is something you added, since you heard it on Sundays in church each week. It took me several days of hearing it to realize what you were saying, because the whole thing happens faster than the chanting at the Byzantine Catholic lamp-lighting service I sang at last weekend. Sometimes you’ll add something else, too, and you’re learning how to make it appropriate, like “Thank you for this food.” And in the morning when we ask God for things we need for the day, we talk about what to choose. Self control, a cheerful heart, a submissive heart, a generous heart toward Merry… When you are praying confession I have been trying to teach you to begin with specifically naming your sin, like “Dear God, I’m sorry for screaming at Merry, please take away my sins, etc…” And the “please” we’re working on, too. You rush in on heaven like you belong there. Of course, God doesn’t owe you a mite outside of Jesus and you don’t have much sense of that yet, but I’m glad you think you have a right to His ear. Many Christians struggle with that confidence their whole lives. Jesus loves you, boy, so yes: you belong there.
What else have you been doing? Screaming at Merry, as I mentioned… You are constantly on alert to make sure she is not about to threaten your stuff. Several times you’ve accused her of “stealing your fun,” you little stinker. We are dealing with lots of anger and sass to Mommy, and those are the big hard-heart moments. And there are big tears sometimes, over massive tragedy. One example: Merry climbed up to the table an hour after breakfast and gobbled up the half-dozen dry cheerios you’d left un-eaten at your place. You were bawling. You were so upset there was nothing I could do to comfort you and I eventually had to send you to your room because you wouldn’t listen to reason of any variety or even accept alternate cheerios. Then there is the beginning of less-than-truthfulness, whether it’s a point-blank: “No, I didn’t climb out of bed” when I catch you in the act during naptime or, from a couple weeks ago, “I ate some medicine!” after I’d left you alone for 3 minutes. (A thorough inspection and a frantic call to Doctor Papa brought me to the conclusion that you were fantasizing.) So yes, dealing with your little life issues is getting more and more complex.
The biggest one by far this month has been senseless destructive behavior, and there have been two particular incidents that have horrified me. One day I walked into my bedroom to get you up from your “nap,” which you’d spent goofing around. My cheap venetian window blind was in about two hundred pieces of varying sizes, some still attached to the strings hanging from the window, some on the floor, some in your pack-n-play. One, your first acquisition, had clearly been used to smash the rest into bits and to smack the frame of my beautiful antique mirror, which bore witness to your destruction in several little chips, fallen to the floor. There was your precious handmade stuffed penguin, too, the official sidekick to your lamb. All his stuffing was in bits on the floor. You haven’t seen him since. The other big destructive episode happened when I left you alone on a particularly Ugh morning. Five minutes later I found you standing by the couch, meticulously ripping pages of our favorite story books – the ones that live upstairs to stay nice. One page of the Big Red Truck was, and still is, in about nine pieces. This wasn’t random wild behavior. I could tell by your demeanor that it was calculated and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I sent you to your room and left you there for quite awhile. Meanwhile I gathered up every book in our house and put them all on the washing machine where they stayed for three days. No stories for boys who won’t be responsible with them. I’m pretty sure that was harder on me than you, though, because stories are how I pass these winter days with you.
You’re stir-crazy from the winter. I tell the locals this reminds me of my five winters in Minneapolis. I’ve scoffed at Indiana “winter” up to now. But it finally delivered us a good one. And here it is, March 3, with a fresh layer of snow and ice on everything. Yesterday was Sunday and, to our delight, we four stayed home all day while the world snuggled in for an ice storm. One day a week ago the snow melted all at once, and there’d been 8 or 9 inches of it. There were knee-deep puddles, and I let you and Merry go out without coats to race through them. It was like watching you come alive. During that warm snap I let you skip naps to play outside, and you were such a different person for it. You even look different: I gave you a haircut after more than 2 months. You were looking like a rocker from the ’70s and people were starting to say things. Not wanting to waste time cleaning hair off the floor of our house, or pay someone $10 to do a job worse than I’d have done, I held out. As soon as it hit 50 I grabbed the scissors and we had quite a fun time sitting outside together. I’d let you run and take a break every few minutes and by the end I was grabbing handfuls of hair to snip while you were walking around playing. You’ve been very proud of that haircut, and I’ll admit so have I.
You have this totally weird notion that your khaki cargo pants, the only pair of pants you have that aren’t jeans, are intrinsically connected to dancing. You refer to them as your Dancin’ Pants. Just weird. You still dance your little heart out to Riverdance, which you ask for every day. And yesterday you put the step stool in the middle of the kitchen floor and climbed up to conduct the CPE Bach concertos I was listening to. You love to sit and play an imaginary keyboard, and your hand position is frighteningly good since you learned this by watching your daddy. You beg to hang out with Daddy in his office after your naps, seeming uninterested in much else. Then you sit in his office chair and play your little imaginary organ on his desktop. You’ve been humming lines of a Bach fugue. You’re also obsessed with trumpet because of those Alison Balsom videos we’ve been watching, and you love to use random objects like a pencil or a cup or a stack of blocks to “play trumpet.” Your stubby little fingers dancing out imaginary music is a darling thing to see.
I want to write to you this month about Lent. You’ll probably grow up unaware that Lent isn’t observed all the world over like
Advent Christmas. We’re in the minority, and at least in our country we’re even in the Christian minority. But it’s something we’ve decided to do in our home. I’ve been trying to explain it to you and the best concise explanation I’ve come up with is that it’s a time to prepare our hearts to love Jesus. Ash Wednesday is in two days and I am so eager for this season, feeling my own need of it, body and soul. I’ve selected a couple dozen hymns for us to make our own during these forty days and a few activities for us to do. I’m choosing some Scripture readings to put flesh on these eight concepts: dust, journey, pilgrim, 40 days, repentance, fasting, love, cross. And we’re putting away the sugar as a family. No dessert for Lent this year. But why?
I’ve read a few good things myself on the subject lately and two of them have grown bright in my imagination. One: the idea of appetite. Ann Voscamp wrote it perfectly, describing her Grandma’s protection of dessert before dinner: “Barbara Ruth Morton, she knew pastry and pecan pies and turkey with stuffing and she knew that there is a consuming of sweet things that ruins your appetite for the main thing. I can still taste her glazed hams with scalloped potatoes. The bent woman might have had a one room school house education, but she knew if she could keep us from some things, she could give us an appetite for the real thing.” Appetites for some things can be appetite suppressants for other things, she suggests. We are not putting away the sugar as a duty or as a chore, but to make us look for other things to enjoy.
As you grow older we can think through other appetites together and you can join me in more of a fast. There are a lot of other things I’ll be fasting from, and at the end of forty days I’m not sure how many I’ll be returning to. I’m suspending my Netflix membership through Lent. It’s not that TV is bad or really even bad for you. I just know if I look into myself that my appetite for it has been suppressing my appetite for a million other better things lately, and I’m tired of how that diet makes me feel. It’s not just about reaching your full human potential, though, and processed sugar makes you sluggish. It’s that the more we can streamline life, the more grasp we will have on Christ, the more vision we will have for Christ. There are two sides to every coin, and come Easter we’ll talk feasting, and how that is a vehicle to Christ, too. I’m glad for the rhythm of the historic church year and how it gives us an invitation to all these different practices of loving Christ without needing to become a fanatic for any one thing. As Screwtape warned Wormwood: “All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy are to be encouraged.”
Two: The idea of cleaning up our mess. Kathleen Norris writes of it as repentance in an anthology for this season, and her words have been ringing loud in my ears. She writes:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster who was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’”
“My messy house” says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”
It’s that last sentence that got to your Mommy. Saturday I cleaned out our van, and in it were a handful of souvenirs from the second weekend in September, a weekend immediately preceding the shaking up of our lives and the lives of many dear to us. I was astonished to discover those remnants from September 6 and 7, like artifacts from another life. They testified to how little I’ve had my head in the game for half a year. My house is messy, and it’s not just the dust and the old wedding programs: it’s my heart. In January I spent long hours contemplating what it looks like for me (and by extension for our household) to thrive. I have implemented very little of the careful conclusions I came to besides the worship practices we’ve learned so well this winter, and I’ve been looking forward to this week as the appropriate time to start the rest – the time to train myself in new practices. Why not clean it up? Why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? This is what we are after with Lent, and this is what I mean when I tell you we are preparing our hearts to love Jesus.
But these two things aren’t even what I have had in my heart to explain to you in the last couple weeks. Daddy & I have found it necessary on several occasions lately to simply instruct you to stop talking. Sometimes this is because the words coming out are bubbling up from anger or selfishness or discontentment and we are trying to help you deal with sin. Sometimes it’s because you haven’t stopped with a running commentary on the world since you woke up and our blood pressure is way, way up. We are driving to church and you are an endless editorial, so Daddy says “Jacob, you need to stop talking and practice being quiet for church.” Sometimes it’s because Mommy & Daddy are talking and you need to wait your turn. Sometimes the talk is bubbling up from a heart completely caught up in its own petty demands, feeling a need to fill silence with acquiring good for yourself. You’ll ask for something, but you’ll repeat your request like an automatic weapon until we’ve responded: Six times in a row you’ll say “Can we sing the snow song?” Then you’ll ask for the music to be louder and softer and more milk and “Can I bring my am-zu-imp [ambulance] upstairs?” The other day this was happening and I heard myself say, “Jacob, you need to stop talking for awhile so you can practice being peaceful and calm.” I could tell that you had been so overtaken by your own desires that you were simply not capable of being happy. This is what a demanding heart does to us, and if we are wise we will choose practices like silence and thankfulness to restore us. So thank God for Lent. I am praying we will both learn a lot in the next forty days.
I love you.