Rutherford in Paris

Rutherford in Paris

I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop. This morning’s flavor of music here is not my jam, so I’m glad I brought my headphones. I’m listening to jazz from Paris, dutifully caring for myself. Cliché, but here it is: when Louis Armstrong starts singing about chestnuts in blossom I smile. And I’m sitting beside the window on purpose so I can see the sky. I thought about not getting a latte, but this morning it was a wise choice.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Samuel Rutherford’s ebullient reflections on the loveliness of Christ and browsing essays by Marilynne Robinson, a decidedly Calvinist Christian, a dauntingly brilliant thinker, and a major literary figure of this generation. Rutherford says “Rest, with Christ, will say more than heart can think or tongue can utter,” and if that isn’t the truest thing I don’t know what is.

Lately when I get time to myself I spend it on maximum-strength rest. I need space in my head and my heart. Sometimes I can’t find it, and most of the time I can’t even look for it. I start to feel like I’m drowning. “Rest, with Christ” is oxygen. Yesterday I met my pastor at this same coffee shop and he reminded me of another Calvinist writer, John Newton, who wrote of the cordials Christ bestows on an infant heart hungering for the gospel. That’s why Rutherford went into my bag this morning.

On a morning when I wake up fighting my darkest sorts of feelings, which is it? Is it April in Paris, or is it the Loveliness of Christ? I’ve learned to listen to a lot of secular voices in my adulthood after a thoroughly Calvinist and Puritan childhood. I use these two descriptors rather unfairly, as anyone who lives within them will insist, but I use them in their stereotype-meanings. The poster I made in Sunday school, which my mom probably still has on her bedroom wall, reads “If heaven is our homeland, what else is this earth but our place of exile? –John Calvin.”

After I finish typing this I’ll drive across town to the behavioral health offices at the hospital in an ongoing, uphill attempt to be whole and happy. Christ, unmediated by common grace, simply could not effect this important aspect of wholeness no matter how much I were to devote myself to him. There, I said it: the Bible is not all you need.

But reading Rutherford reminds me that there are less secular methods of self care, and I know them too well to forget or reject them, even if they (like everything else) have potential pitfalls. Couldn’t I care for myself in no other way than “Christ’s cordials”? Rutherford’s sentences make me nod and wince in alternation. A poetic rejection of the world for the sake of love’s expression is good and even true. A life that doesn’t avail itself of April in Paris in this “place of exile” is foolish.

When I criticize myself via internal childhood voices for running to sources besides Christ for wholeness, joy, and rest, what I’m remembering this morning is that all those sources can be oriented within a Gerard Manley Hopkins-esque theology of creation that is as ebullient as are Rutherford’s love letters. Oriented this way, every little thing is valuable to my soul on a morning like this, from orange leather shoes and orange Italian latte cups to Newton, Rutherford, and Marilynne Robinson. It just isn’t either/or.

Ultimately, I can attest to the all-surpassing loveliness of Christ right along with Rutherford, because there is a place my heart goes that nothing else can cure, and Christ can cure it, oh! yes, he can. The best Christian spirituality is learning what it means to belong to him, and this is a school I try to attend, however distractable I may be.

The reality for Rutherford’s original audience was very different from my own. He was writing to friends in deep affliction and even persecution, sometimes writing from prison. Perhaps this is where his modern disciples risk mistranslating him: by reading him out of context. I could have all that I need if I had nothing but Christ, unmediated through Sacrament or sacrament, but that is not my context.

I, for one, will not entertain my own doubts about my faithfulness to Christ when I answer my hunger for creature comforts. This world is his and it is not evil or even unlovely. Everything is beautiful.

 

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Holy Audacity: The Church as Christ’s Vice-Regents

Last Saturday morning I jumped in my van and pulled out of my driveway. Lately I’ve been introducing my kids to the tunes-of-choice of my college days, so Steven Curtis Chapman was cued up in our CD player. Track 4 started playing when I got in the car.

It’s all yours, God! Yours, God! Everything is yours!

I was driving toward a local shelter where I was to meet a desperate mother and her four young girls. Through Safe Families for Children, I had agreed to host two of them for a night.

I have my doubts in these moments. I am keenly aware of my privilege and my naivety. I am comparatively young, comparatively wealthy, and comparatively whole. My story reads like a fairy tale compared to the brokenness and devastation survived by many of the parents I meet through Safe Families. I imagine they must find me irritating. Maybe they groan to themselves about yet another Well-Intentioned Well-To-Do who thinks she holds the keys to hope. “As if she has a clue. As if she’ll care enough to go the distance.”

As I drove I wondered out loud: “Who do I think I am, going to get these girls like it’s just a regular Saturday morning? How is this my business? What gives me the right to waltz in offering my remedy? My relief?”

But Steven Curtis Chapman was still singing, and his worship reminded me of another lyric I sing to my kids often: “This is my Father’s world.”

This is my Father’s world.

Suddenly my heart was flooded with confidence. It wouldn’t be putting it too strongly to say I felt a sense of entitlement in that moment. “Holy audacity,” I heard myself say to the empty passenger seat beside me.

So I parked my van just a mile from my own house and walked to meet these struggling strangers. On behalf of my Father in heaven, I had work to do. In some sense, these girls belonged to me. Their mom belonged to me.

I believe that my identity in Christ (and more to the point, my identity as part of the Church, His Body) includes a right to ownership of the whole world. If “everything is Yours,” as Chapman sings, then it must be true that everything is mine, too. God has called His people to love the world on His behalf. He has called us to practice His kingdom.

I’m not saying we can achieve world peace and end world hunger by our efforts. We believe the Kingdom of Heaven is coming. Someday. But today, while we wait with hope, we enact that vision. Today we are Christ’s vice-regents, commissioned for the flourishing of His world.

I stood waiting to meet the little girls I was to take home and Meghan (our local director) began to wonder where the second host family could be. When they still hadn’t shown up fifteen minutes later Meghan called them, only to discover there’d been a mix-up and they were out of town, thinking their hosting was to be the following weekend.

Suddenly we had a situation on our hands, and any minute this mom was going to be walking through her doors with four little girls to hand off.

Steven Curtis Chapman must have gotten into my bloodstream in college, because I buckled all four of those little girls into my van twenty minutes later. I turned the key in the ignition and Track 5 began on cue:

It’s crazy when love gets ahold of you
It’s crazy things that love will make you do

I laughed.

I knew I could do anything for 30 hours, and I knew I would have support.

My husband was in the middle of painting our bathroom so I was on my own for the first few minutes as he finished up. I don’t remember much from that mayhem, but I remember playdoh on the bottom of shoes, mass-production of snacks, and six little people coloring at my dining room table. Suddenly I had seven kids, and my 5yo son was the oldest.

The other thing I remember distinctly is the number of attempts I made to send a single text message. After an hour of sheer pandemonium, I finally got it typed and sent.

And so began the unfolding of a most amazing day. The text was to Brad & Caroline Tubbesing, the directors of Reformed University Fellowship at Indiana University. I knew when I agreed to take all four girls home that I’d need help, and by the time I heard from Caroline I had little more to say than “Send back up.” I asked her to connect me with college students, and I told her I didn’t want their phone numbers, I wanted them on my doorstep ASAP.

Mike finished painting and we started suiting up to walk everyone to the park. At one point the door to the garage got opened and kids started escaping. Mike picked up one tiny person after another and set them back inside until he realized that no sooner would he reach for the next escape artist than the one he’d just retrieved would head back out the door. He called for help. “Babe, we’re hemorrhaging babies over here!”

By the time we’d set out with two kids on bikes, three kids in strollers, and a baby strapped to each of us, I’d started to get text messages from our College Student Fairies.

Elizabeth was the first responder. She was at Kroger and decided to pick up groceries for lunch. Just as we returned from the park she showed up at our door with fried chicken, watermelon, juice, cookies, and even flowers.

Brad himself showed up with his preschool-aged son to lend a hand while I escaped with my own daughter for our long-awaited ballet matinee.

At 4:00 Xinzhu showed up and helped while I started giving everyone baths. At 5:00 Matthias walked in and found me up to my elbows in shampoo. Xinzhu made rice. Matthias read stories. Luke arrived in time to help set the table. We all sat down to lentils and rice at 6:00 with four kids bathed and jammied and only three to go.

The kitchen was in quite a state. After dinner Luke ran Xinzhu home and returned to read stories, color, and generally offset the average household age. Matthias rolled up his sleeves and attacked the kitchen. He didn’t quit till it was sparkling. There wasn’t even rice under the table, and that’s saying something.

Around 9:00 Matthias and Luke left, promising to return in the morning to help caravan us to church since we’d be short on seatbelts. It was 10:00 before I’d finished settling the four sisters into our guest room. The 3yo fell asleep on my arm. The 2yo went from whirling dirvish to snoring angel in mere seconds. The baby wiggled around quietly in her crib. I told kitty stories with the 4yo in the dark and then escaped to attend to the laundry and set out seven church outfits, raiding my stash of outgrown girl clothes.

By this time three of our closest friends had gathered in our living room. This is not unusual in our house and I don’t know what their excuses were for showing up on that particular evening. But at midnight – as Tyler, Nicole, and Fr. Raymond stood in our basement folding a mountain of laundry – it was obvious to me that God hadn’t been finished chasing me down with the love of His people.

Sundays are always an ordeal for my family. My husband works as the organist at a local church. My kids and I worship with a different congregation. Mike leaves by 7:00 a.m. most Sundays and it’s my job to get the family out the door on my own. This particular week was no exception.

I have it down to a science after several years of practice. Still, it isn’t easy. And Sunday mornings are excruciating when I’m sleep-deprived.

After about three good hours of sleep I was standing in my kitchen slicing a very large collection of strawberries when it occurred to me that I was neither anxious nor stressed. If I’d had to make those breakfasts and pack those bags and dress those babies in a filthy kitchen and a house full of chaos I would’ve been a basket case. Instead I was at peace and there was only one explanation: Matthias.

Matthias cleaned my kitchen like it belonged to him. He had the holy audacity to step into my world and enact his vision of the Kingdom. While I was giving myself for the flourishing of these girls and their mom, he gave himself for my flourishing.

And it worked. I flourished.

We say often that it takes a village; but I think it’s more accurate to say it takes a church – an audacious community of vice-regents, working on Christ’s behalf for the flourishing of our Father’s world.

I understand Safe Families more now than I did before last weekend. It’s common for people in Safe Families to tag social media posts with #bethechurch. My understanding of our mission deepened as I found myself surrounded by Jesus’ hands and feet, held up by an audacious church as I ventured into My Father’s World with my own audacity.

Hopefully that single mom felt as much of Jesus on that weekend as I did while slicing strawberries in my clean kitchen. Hopefully she felt the embrace of our Heavenly Father, a whisper of the reality that (as Steven Curtis Chapman sings) He’s the Maker and Keeper, Father and Ruler of everything.

It’s all Yours.

There Is No Crisis Here. Everything Is Fine.

I’m here to reason all this stuff out.

In a pause of the vacuum cleaner just now I spoke my mind:

“Will you drink with me tonight?”

It didn’t need an answer, really.

Tonight we get to see each other, my husband and I, for the first time in over a week. I mean, we sleep in the same bed and we greet each other and we are present, but never alone together lately. There wasn’t a single night this week that we kissed the kids goodnight together. We spent date night working.

But before we get to sit down together we vacuum most of a large bottle of glitter out of our carpet.

I drove to the pharmacy for my daughter’s antibiotic (she has an ear infection) while he tucked them in, and I thought to myself “‘My life for yours’ is only fun until there’s glitter on the carpet.”

The pharmacy was closed.

As a highly sensitive person I find myself reciting this mantra to myself often these days:

“There is no crisis here.”

My body feels crisis in too many situations. My vision of the good life is clean, minimalist, tidy, calm. Things move slowly and in an orderly and sophisticated way.

What I’m learning – what “There is no crisis here” means – is that I can still allow myself to feel those slow feelings when there is glitter on the carpet and everyone is talking at once. When my house is still full of people over an hour after I thought my kids would have their jammies on. It means that even when I am busy and I know I haven’t paid those bills that were due on Monday I still have time to listen to what my kids are saying and say yes about the Dr. Seuss book. There is no crisis here.

There was crisis most of the time last year. But noise and glitter are not a crisis.

I also breathe “Everything is fine” a lot because often I feel like it’s not fine. But everything is going according to plan. Glitter on my carpet means everything is going according to plan.

We believe in “My life for yours.” We believe in a porous household (except for when it’s time to close up shop for a week or a month or a year) because we believe in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I’m part of a team supporting a single mom these days, so every other Saturday crazy things happen in my house while we women sit and share our hearts and our Jesus. On this particular day the craziness was glitter. We only discovered it as we walked down the stairs to tuck in the kids, ready for that “finally” moment when we’d see each other for the first time in a week.

There is no crisis here. We believe in vacuuming up glitter. We believe in welcoming a tiny newborn into our family for a week or two , especially when it’s Lent and we’re asking our children to recite Isaiah: “Is this not the fast that I choose? To take the homeless poor into your house.”

Back in our college dorm hallway conversation days we envisioned this. We didn’t realize that what we believed in looks like glitter and chaotic Saturday nights at the end of a brutal week, but we just weren’t there yet.

Redemption is found in the specifics, my friend said.

There is no crisis here. Everything is fine. I believe in all of this.

Apparently I believe in glitter.

Thoughts on Spring and Standing Still

or Thoughts on Broken Bones and the Power of God

I’m not good at sitting still. I mean that. When I sit down, I get up again. It’s a compulsion, but more than that: It’s a desire and a delight. I like doing All The Things.

Sunday morning my pastor was talking about healed lepers as I was looking at the boot on my foot, aware that all I’ve been told to do is stay off it. Stay off it and it will heal.

This weekend was spring. It’s still February. But it was spring. The birds and I were euphoric for no reason but how the sky looked and how the air felt. There in my front yard, barely an inch tall, a bunch of purple crocuses opened. All I had to do to make that happen was nothing.

I’ve been thinking about life-force a lot these days. Paul writes to Timothy about “the power with which God raised Christ from the dead.” I’ve been thinking about how that power is in the warp and woof of our whole existence. Not only for the whole world: bones and bodies that heal, crocuses that didn’t need any help, and the first warm day of February when even the bare trees and brown grass magically look like Aslan has been here. But doubly for us, children of the resurrection: We belong to God. Spring is inevitable even for souls marked by death with more than annual ashes. Mine, my children’s, my husband’s. Yours.

The conjunction of spring and the X-ray that revealed that my foot has been broken for four months, not strained for two weeks as I’d assumed, was loudly incongruous for me. Every year when spring comes my eager spirit comes out of hibernation. My inability to sit still reaches fever pitch. I do more things, think more thoughts, and feel more feelings in the first weeks of spring than in an entire Minnesota winter.

But not this time. This time I watched my kids at the park from a picnic blanket and I read most of a book and dozed on the couch, because I know that the only way my foot will heal – the only hope I have for my next run – is stillness.

Sit still and let it happen. Sit still and it will heal.

Perhaps second to the story for which this blog is named, my favorite Old Testament story is in 2 Chronicles 20, when Jehoshaphat is king and the people of Judah are facing disaster at the hands of their enemies. The people cry out God: “We are powerless against this! We do not know what to do! But our eyes are on you.” And God’s answer comes, perfect:

Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them….You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.

I thought of this moment in history again yesterday as I sat listening to the story of healed lepers and looking at my broken foot. Sometimes we do not need to fight the battle. Sometimes our work is to stand still and hold our position and see: The world is hard-wired for life and for spring. For resurrection and for the victory of Christ the King.

Things I Thought in the Now Yesterday

I’m thinking Switchfoot this morning:

Hello, good-morning, how you been? Yesterday left my head kicked in.

Sunday my pastor preached about normal. About small. About reveling in it. About being here. Now.

Apparently I wasn’t the only mom who went home and scrawled “Revel in your smallness. –Dan” over the top of her weekly planner page.

Yesterday I was in the middle of smallness.

I can’t say I reveled, but at least I didn’t self-destruct, and I’m calling that a win.

In fact, I’m thinking being in the middle and not self-destructing is the whole goal. (For now.) It’s like holding a yoga pose. There’s nowhere you’re going, you’re just there and that is the whole goal. I think sometimes that’s what grace means. I mean the kind of grace that strengthens and equips. Living in the middle of grace means accepting things as they are, reveling in the reality that you are not necessarily doing it right but at least you’re aware of that.

I’m thinking that living in the middle of grace means submitting to the awareness that you (and everyone else) are in a jam, in a hard place, maybe even dancing around your freshly-minted golden calf (we read about that with our kids last night). Somehow in the middle of that dance you are still opening your heart to God: letting him tinge – temper – your mess with His love.

I’m thinking that’s better than trying to control it, anyway. Trying to fix it so it’s not broken anymore. And it’s better than accepting it, letting go and living – really mucking around – in the mess of your garbage and everyone else’s.

I’m thinking that it’s better than visualizing tomorrow, when you will no doubt be able to keep things a little more pulled together so you can feel better about yourself, or maybe a year from tomorrow, when you will all no doubt be so much more sanctified and wise that there won’t be a mess in the first place. THEN you can revel. THEN you can claim grace.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when your 4yo son quietly crawls across the floor and throws two tiny dirty socks at your legs with all the strength he can muster, instead of shutting him down, telling him that he can’t be angry, means figuring out the anger instead. “Are you angry at me?” “Yes.” “Listen. It’s OK to be angry. We need to figure out what to do about it. Throwing socks at mommy is unkind and disrespectful. You may not be angry in ways that are unkind and disrespectful. If you are angry you can say that, and I will listen. I will listen to you. You can tell me that you’re angry and I will listen. And I will help you figure it out and I will try to comfort you. But you may not be unkind and disrespectful.”

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when your preschoolers fail a half-dozen times in a simple task that you know they need to muddle through without help (you know, so they can move past preschool) is entering their foolishness-zone a half-dozen times (and not less) to discipline and re-assign without giving up on them. Without indulging that sarcastic cynic in your head telling you that they will not get it, ever. After all, this is their now. If they are bad it, so are you. Grace and hope, not despair. Be here. Now.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you are spitting mad at your kids for not listening to you is going to your room with an explanation over your shoulder: “I can’t hang out with you right now because you are being rude to me and I feel really mad. So when you are ready to tell Mommy you are sorry for treating me like that, you can come find me.” And then when they do come to find you, claiming grace (and hope) means recalling how much you love them and how lovely they are instead of handing over forgiveness like a compulsory tax.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you recognize that your kids are up to their eyeballs in their own foolishness and sin patterns means recognizing, too, that what is needed is not so much training for them as patience for you. Being here, now, today, means that today I need to choose (and ask for) patience instead of coercing (and expecting) altered behavior. They will always be up to their eyeballs in this and so will I. This is now, after all. So yes, my 3yo needs to learn to mentally check in when she hears the sound of my voice and at least twitch a hint of acknowledgement. And yes, my 4yo needs to learn that he cannot respond “But” or “What!!?!” or “Why?” to every instruction. But today that is where they are so today what they need is for their earthly mother to see them as their heavenly Father sees her: “He remembers our frame.” He is nothing if not patient. My kids will discover that by its reflection in me. That my own need for patience even occurred to me above the noise of my “righteous” anger in the face of their shortcomings means I’m calling this a win.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you are spitting mad at your kids for going ape-sh*t in the doctor’s office, for sassing you when you say simple things like “Can you push the door open for us?” is to decline to chat with them. “Mommy, what does that sign say?” Instead of bitterly engaging in casual conversation as if there isn’t disaster afoot, “Mommy is really angry right now and I know if I talk I’m going to say rude things, so instead I’m not going to say anything. You need to leave me alone. We can talk later.” I’m calling this one a huge win, because it kept me from saying something stupid and it modeled for them a way to acknowledge (and live in the middle of) their anger without using it as a weapon.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you are in the middle of self-imposed silence on the drive home from the doctor’s office and your 3yo calls out “Mommy, look!” means making room in your heart for your second thought when your first thought is “OMG I SAID SHUT UP” but your second thought is “I bet she just saw the mums in front of that store and she’s excited to share that special moment with me.”

I’m calling this a win because in the instant she interrupted the silence I was mad and wanted to shut her down: “Do you not care that I said not to talk to me?” I wanted to show her only the angry side, as if I wanted her to believe (perhaps as if I believed myself) that there was no other side. For an instant I labeled myself and my forever-relationship with my daughter: “She is going to learn not to risk intimacy with me for fear of what she’ll find. If I’m going to have angry days like this we’re doomed to live a life shaped by my sin.” But in the next instant I knew I had a better option, and I’m thinking this is claiming grace: (Caged, a little grumpy. Terse): “What, Merry?” “Look! Those are mums over there!” (As fully cheerful and enthusiastic as sharing my love of horticulture with my kids makes me): “Yeah! That’s so cool! Thanks, baby. I’m so glad you showed that to me.” That was all and then we were silent again, and I was still angry. But I knew that the silence held not only their sin and mine, but our best attempt to hold that pose with grace and a tinge of confident hope, too:

I’m thinking claiming grace means recognizing that sin, in Christ’s economy, does not mean despair. You can be angry and still love each other truly, wholly. My kids can feel the weight of my angry refusal to talk to them without concluding that our future is doomed to vengeful distance and cautious calculations. In other words, sin, tempered with grace (and hope), doesn’t have to be poisonous. There is an antidote. This is big news for me.

Switchfoot: I’m learning to breathe. Learning to crawl. Learning that you and you alone can break my fall.

Last night I let him break my fall. After we got home from the doctor I called on my husband to speak some sanity: “You guys have had a terrible day. That is done. We are going to have a happy day together starting now.” (Talk about hope.) And then I parked my kids for quiet time and I retreated to their 100% filthy room with some good music and a spray bottle of Murphy’s. All alone with a little sanity spoken by JJ Heller I cleaned and organized, not to enact my anger – “What a mess my kids are” (I’ve done that) – but to say “I love them.” I didn’t run away and shut them out. I didn’t despair. I didn’t change the subject. I chose hope and claimed grace and made something in our world for us to delight in together.

I doubt they’ll be much better at listening to me today than they were yesterday but I am remembering that I love them and that happiness (like, for example, a tidy room) is our grace-earned privilege anyway.

I call this reveling in smallness.

Joshua: 4 Months

Dear Joshua,

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As I write you are lying just a few feet from me, pumping your arms and legs as you enjoy your activity mat. It is definitely your favorite place these days, though you are becoming a huge mama’s boy so every time you catch me in the act of actually putting you down you scream. It only takes a minute before you realize you’re in a good place and then you are agreeable enough.

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You’re growing fast and you are solid weight – so heavy. In the last month the way your face seems to be a perfect clone of Meredith’s is being tempered a little by bits of Jacob’s features emerging. It’s fascinating, having a third child. Often I find myself reasoning that of course you’ll either be like Jacob or like Meredith, or somewhere in between, and then I realize that they do not define a spectrum onto which you fit, rather, you are wholly other: a point on a triangle full of mysterious little ways and quirks and personalities and looks. You are you, not them. Of course, you are them too, and it is fun to see the mash-up that a third is.

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These days you’re sleeping a lot in your crib but impressing me with your flexibility by sleeping out of it, too. All it seems you need to make your eyes go heavy is your yellow blankie rubbed up against your face. It’s pure magic. You don’t want to have your arms swaddled down anymore and you’re developing a love for two or three fingers stuck in your mouth. Sometimes if we’ve swaddled you I’ll come to find the swaddle loosened and sopping with slobber from your fist reaching your face through it. In your crib you are happy awake, too, and I love to catch those quiet moments where I’ve put you to rest and find you staring up at those birdies I made. Somehow they got the name Stupid Birdies this summer, but now that you are serenading them with stories of your own woes and escapades, there’s a new name emerging: Bitchin’ Birdies. I just can’t help it.

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There’s a lot of cranky going on the last week or so. I’m trying to be patient with it, knowing that in large part I have created it by our travels and several other disrupted nights, like the night I should’ve been writing your journal over the weekend that I spent on a midnight trip to the ER instead because of a migraine. You came with us since we didn’t know how long we’d be, and you were pretty pleased with the expedition, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We were not entertained despite your best efforts.

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Speaking of cranky, there you go again…

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And now here you are next to my desk feasting your eyes on my face, you stinker. Your smile is BEYOND. People always comment on it, and especially on your amazing eyebrows, and how you can smile with one half of your face at a time if you want. That, combined with your big, big ears and the way you grasp your hands together in front of you – that’s a pretty good verbal snapshot of your not-crying self. It’s hard to look away.

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This month was pretty wonderful, even if it was punctuated over and over with sickness. You had another big cold a few weeks ago, and then on Sunday you had a low fever and a very bad attitude. Now that you’re exactly the age Jacob was in our first days in Indiana all kinds of memories are returning of how he was at that stage, so it’s making me feel that your thrice-nightly wakings and all your grumping is probably just a normal phase. I recall a desperate conversation with some new mom friends about that very thing four years ago.

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So I’m trying to ride it out patiently, but I’m also trying to shepherd you into some sane practices, like sleeping at night. Basically just that. You’ve been waking over and over at night and putting up a huge bedtime fuss and while I love you dearly, it is very much time for me to catch up on sleep since you are a generous 16-17 pounds and I am experiencing things like migraines that send me to the hospital. So you’ll forgive me if I let you cry it out a couple nights this week until we get some healthier patterns going. I am not going to be much good to you if I don’t get a few hours off every night.

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Unless you want to smile all the time, in which case, I’m all in.

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I didn’t think so.

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As I was saying, this month was wonderful. There’s been so much simplicity and space to enjoy each other and there’s been so much adventure and good company, starting with the day after you were 3 months, when Auntie Becks arrived for a week of unending fun. She brought with her the most stunning handmade quilt, just for you. Your name is even hand-printed on a tag. It is blues and yellows like your nursery and just as happy as could possibly be. Appliquéd onto it are fishies, sunshine, a sailboat… It couldn’t be more darling.

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Now that quilt hangs on our stair banister along with the two belonging to Jacob and Merry, which had been on a dusty shelf before the arrival of yours inspired me to revisit them. Together they complete our “gallery wall” complete with gallery lighting. I never tire of looking at the scene in the evenings when things are quiet: above the banister on the back wall, my mom’s oil paintings of Africa, scenes from just before Daddy & I were married. Now along with them, in the foreground and at a child’s height, the child-artwork – heirlooms no less than the paintings. I love this because it rounds out the identity of our home: You three live here, too. Full citizens. Our gallery wall gives that away.

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More about citizenship in a little while. For now, the rest of those aforementioned wonderful things:

The discovery of your very own hands and feet (you’re talking to your fingers earnestly right now) and the coming-of-age day when you first joined dinner sitting atop the table in your big yellow bumbo chair, filling in the circle of us. Jacob and I sometimes hold your feet at prayers, finishing the chain begun by all our hands.

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There are noisy, squeaky, hilarious giggles now. There’s been lots of quiet and snuggles, too, and lots of napping on people (you pampered thing), and even one nap on your tummy that you pretended to like just long enough for a couple adorable photos before you raised hell about it. And your vision is developing and you can watch me from across the room.

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You’re learning to love the attention of Jacob & Meredith, and you get plenty of it, though Meredith’s attention almost always comes with a side of “Sorry, Joshua” when we notice just how hard she’s yanking on your arm or drumming on your belly.

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You’re getting more and more baths these days (read: more than once every two weeks) and this week I am trying to implement a strategy another mom friend related to me: household bedtime is a single number on the clock, but the big kids go see to themselves in their space for awhile while the baby gets Mommy (and Daddy if you’re lucky) to himself. I have high hopes for you in this regard, and delusional visions fueled by my nostalgia from Jacob’s infancy, when, after his nightly bath, Daddy & I held him between us and rocked him back and forth, back and forth, while we sang a quiet hymn, prayed, and gave him our last kisses. We’re a long way from there, but at least we’re trying?

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Someday when you think you have Jacob to be jealous of we can talk about how he didn’t get an ounce of attention out of me between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. starting when he was barely three months old. You’re not doing half-bad for yourself, you third child you.

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You went on your first road trip this month and met all kinds of aunties and uncles. It was the celebration of Uncle Peter & Auntie Lyssi’s marriage, and we loaded up the van and, along with Auntie Becks, drove the 11 hours to Minneapolis. Did I say 11? That didn’t include stops. We left at 4:15 a.m., lost an hour to time zones, and arrived in time for a 6:30 p.m. dinner at the home of our honorary Grandma Lynne & Grandpa Al. You did so much better than I thought you would spending the whole day in the carseat, but even still, your limit was 90 minutes before you would tell us all very frankly just how disgusted you were with this new way of life. We tried to make it up to you with the lavish affection of an actual grownup sitting beside you, and once you even got to take the steering wheel for a few boring minutes in a parking lot.

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Over the course of our short-but-sweet visit to the place that was home for Daddy & me, one very monumental moment took place: you got to meet your namesake. How we looked forward to that moment with eager anticipation! We’ve imagined it since long before you were born. And it did not disappoint. It felt almost too good to be true, but there it was: real; so much realer even than our daydreams five years ago that maybe we’d have a son someday and maybe we’d name him Joshua. Well, we did, and that is why: because you share that name with one of the best friends we’ve ever known, one of the truest Jesus-disciples we’ve had the honor and pleasure of witnessing. Truth be told, you need to know we did this almost as much for him as we did for you, because he is a man worthy of honor, and we wanted him and anyone else who cared to notice to know we thought so: And there you are. That meeting was a deeper joy than we could’ve imagined it. There were some pretty great smiles.

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What I mostly want to tell you about is something I alluded to before: citizenship. But let me begin with the gift you received from Josh & his family. It is a beautifully illustrated collection of poetry, but not just any poetry. It is poetry for Easter. This is significant simply because it is the heart – the very life-blood – of the Christian story and identity. But it’s doubly significant because every year near Easter we have been in the practice of honoring the memory of our dear friend’s precious children, “awaiting the resurrection.” That story is theirs and not mine, so I will keep my story moving, but the point is that the resurrection is not a small concept in our world or theirs. Or yours.

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Resurrection. As my friend Hannah reminded me the other night, Gandalf speaks of this time and place where “everything bad becomes untrue.” I hardly know a better way to explain what resurrection means; to capture the enormous scope of its power. Like tender grass growing with enough determination to break thick concrete, resurrection is nothing if not life-force. It is God’s currency: It is his identity. Our God is the author of and Chief celebrator of Life. Nothing is truer than life. Nothing is stronger. Because of the resurrection, the curse reversed, nothing can stop this force. Not concrete and not deep evil. I’ve been reflecting on this daily for weeks now, not only contemplating it abstractly but recognizing it all over the death-marked terrain of my own world. I feel it in my bones, and some days it erupts right out of my face and I can feel myself smiling for no other reason than Life. And somehow, my son, you – your life, your presence, your name, your timing – is taking all this on as meaning.

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But I said this is about citizenship, and I’m getting there. September 13 was a special day in our world. Daddy took one of his two annual Sundays off from his church job and we gathered with a group of believers that we’ve been growing with over the last year. In this weird season we’re in with two churches, they are becoming our Christian “family.” Usually I go alone with you kids while Daddy plays second service at his church-of-employment. This time Daddy came with us, too, a rare chance for us to be nothing but a family at worship together. We took membership vows at that church on that day, and that alone was monumental for us. But better still, we witnessed your baptism, and this is what I’ve been thinking about it in these last few days:

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Whatever stripe your theology happens to be, it’s easy to agree across Christendom that baptism is the rite of citizenship. “You belong here,” it says. I like the way Psalm 87 puts it: “This one was born there.” So what does it mean, this citizenship that we’ve claimed for you before you can even say your own name? It means we’ve claimed that resurrection life-force for you. I can’t help but think of Gandalf’s words about bad things coming untrue as I reflect on those words in the baptism liturgy:

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“I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, to reject sin, and to confess the faith of Christ’s church throughout all cultures and ages. Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”

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Claiming this citizenship means standing up and claiming that all the bad things will become untrue. That, at very least, they are not as true as the good things. We are not so much claiming for you a way of life as we are claiming for you Life. Unstoppable, unquenchable, grass-growing-through-concrete Life.

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So Pastor Dan prayed, “By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection, You set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live with You. Pour out your Holy Spirit, the power of Your Living Word, that those who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life, because of your everlasting covenant.”

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And we met this question with a sure and happy Yes: “Do you now unreservedly dedicate your children to God and promise in humble reliance upon divine grace that you will endeavor to teach them the doctrines of our holy religion and strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?” That same friend who reminded me of Gandalf the other day said there was a word that jumped out at her as she saw you baptized. It was that word “unreservedly.” That’s a big claim, and it makes you wonder – what are we getting into? What are we getting YOU into? Do we have any reservations?

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Again I say, what we’re claiming for you is life. What we’re renouncing is Satan and His power and the forces of evil and the things that draw us from God. No. I don’t have any reservations about this, because I have seen more than I care to see of all these evil things already in thirty years and, Yes. I renounce them. I renounce them for you. And I unreservedly claim this Life Force as true and as something to which you belong. Something which belongs to you.

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This is citizenship in God’s kingdom. The Life-Kingdom. Are there sweeter words than these? “Joshua Levi, child of the covenant, you’ve been given the sign of God’s promise of grace through Christ. We welcome you into the Body of Christ and the mission we share. Join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing the creative and redeeming gospel of Christ to the world.”

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My son, you have received the water of baptism and been marked with the sign of the cross forever. You belong to Jesus. Life is yours and you are His. Welcome to the party. It never ends. All the bad things become untrue. All the good things are unstoppably alive.

I love you, it’s true. But Jesus loves you. Oh, how He loves you! And nothing else is truer.

Love,
Mommy

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Jacob: 50 Months

Dear Jacob,

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For three weeks we’ve lived in our new house and a week from now our new baby is going to be born. Big stuff is happening in our world, and we are all feeling happier than we have in a long time. The dissipating stress is almost tangible at times. I’m noticing big growth in you and it’s an understatement to say that Daddy & I are enjoying that. In fact, it’s certainly contributing to our dissipating stress. And all our assumptions are being confirmed: you have been a stressed out, freaked out little man this spring. We see you unwinding in our new house. There is little I enjoy more these days than watching you deep in play with your trucks or your trains or your marbles on the big open, sunny, carpeted space beside our new kitchen. I haven’t seen you play like that maybe in a couple years. And like a little sub-creator, I am looking at it all and Seeing That It Is Good.

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And while it’s more than a stretch to say that you’re finally finally finally finally finally potty trained, you are actually actively potty trainING again and the fact that you are capable of conversing about the subject and feeling accomplishment and interest instead of fear and shame – well, I’m calling it a win. Meanwhile, you are well on your way to a successful career as a beat-boxer. Just before he left for South Bend, Patrick (with Nicole) taught you the song from the Lion King. But when your best buddies are professional musicians you have to expect that there will be multiple layers of counterpoint involved in a simple song, and so now you and your sister start with “Awimbowop awimbowop…” and then one of you brings in the words: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle…” But you really shine when it’s time for the third layer, and you start to splutter “Boots and cats and boots and cats and boots and cats” just like they taught you. At first you were laughably bad at this. Now you wander through your day spontaneously breaking out in vocal percussion under your breath at any juncture.

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This morning you are helping Daddy load up the splintered remains of the old basement into a fresh dumpster. Your sister is strolling through the house in her rain boots with her baby stroller, saying things like “Now I’m going to Lowes,” enjoying the expanse of this place. I’m at the kitchen counter finishing off a second breakfast and taking pills in hopes of whipping an awful cold before the baby is born. I’ve reheated my morning tea at least six times, so I’m feeling very stereotypical as a mom. In a little while we’ll go meet up with friends from our new church for some simple backyard summer fun and then stop on our way home to check out the brand new local market that just opened down the street from where we used to live. Word on the streets is they had mangoes for $0.17/each the other day and someone’s Facebook mentioned a sale on gelato. Tonight we’re hosting our first huge party, a reception for dear Mr. Neswick, back from his new post in Portland for his final Howells recital. You’ll already be asleep by the time the party starts, but there’s been much talk about the cake and I’ve promised to save you a piece.

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I thought I’d take this chance to muse about the Holy Spirit a few moments. Pentecost Sunday was two weeks ago and we celebrated with our precious friends Robert & Liesl & Baby Peter before they transplanted themselves to Louisiana for a new life. We wanted to begin imparting to you and Meredith the sense that this day in the year is a big deal. It felt like it at our house: roast beef and a whole feast laid on the table, wine, an extravagant dessert, and bright red geraniums everywhere – they’d adorned the altar that morning and then been given as gifts to the musicians at Daddy’s church. In church I felt disappointed: there wasn’t much said about what the Holy Spirit actually does and is, just some poetic suggestions that maybe we don’t know and a cute stretch to suggest our orange chairs might remind us of the Holy Spirit. Since they’re almost red.

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Still, I was struck by the weight of this day and this season: the idea that the coming of the Holy Spirit marks the end of Church Year, the denouement of the whole Christian story… for now any way. And how fitting that this season which we call “Time after Pentecost” and “Ordinary Time” is so very long until we arrive at the true end: Christ the King, and then, again, Advent. For six months we’ll stay here, ordinary, and if we do well we’ll steep in it. We’ll dig ourselves deep into what it means that the Holy Spirit has come. Isn’t this the meat of the Christian life? For six months, the Christian story, but for these six months, the Christian life: all the things Paul and the rest told us about what it means to live, as we say in our house, as “Jesus-Disciples.”

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Wanting to pursue this further I opened a beautiful English hymnal from our shelves to the section on the Holy Spirit and began reading. What I found was more than faint hope of sensing the Spirit and cute words about wind on the seas and orange chairs. There was so much to say and it was concrete – enough to actually fill the space of these six months and commission us with identifiable work to do.

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Come, Holy Spirit, come,
Let thy bright beams arise;
dispel the sorrow from our minds,
the darkness from our eyes.

Cheer our desponding hearts,
thou heavenly Paraclete;
Give us to lie with humble hope
at our Redeemer’s feet.

Revive our drooping faith,
our doubts and fears remove,
and kindle in our breasts the flame
of never-dying love.

Convince us of our sin,
then lead to Jesus’ blood;
and to our wondering view reveal
the secret love of God.

‘Tis thine to cleanse the heart,
to sanctify the soul,
to pour fresh life in every part,
and new create the whole.

Dwell, therefore, in our hearts;
our minds from bondage free:
then shall we know, and praise, and love
the Father, Son, and Thee.

(Joseph Hart, 1712-68)

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Then there was another, which captured the message of John that Pastor Moon (he baptized you) preached five years ago on Pentecost before you were born. I’d listened to it in the kitchen as I’d made brownies before church that morning, and awed at the Spirit’s work of leading us to Christ, of showing us the glory of Christ.

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Come, Holy Spirit, like a dove descending,
rest thou upon us while we met to pray;
show us the Saviour, his great love revealing;
lead us to him, the Life, the Truth, the Way.

Come, Holy Spirit, every cloud dispelling;
fill us with gladness, through the Master’s Name:
Bring to our memory words that he hath spoken;
then shall our tongues his wondrous grace proclaim.

Come, Holy Spirit, sent from God the Father,
thou Friend and Teacher, Comforter and Guide;
our thoughts directing, keep us close to Jesus,
and in our hearts forevermore abide.

(Robert Bruce)

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I thought about these things a lot last week. I also noticed your changing disposition as you have eased into our new world here at home. I thought about this season where we are called by the Holy Spirit to the sober duty of putting on Christ. I thought how I can see already your growth into self control, and how much we need to cultivate and practice this not just as nature’s by-product of a stable life but as something we must choose (by command) by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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It’s not something we’re very good at as a family. Worn down, stressed, exhausted, Daddy & I feel so often that we don’t treat you guys kindly or patiently or gently enough. I find myself indulging my natural frustration borne from exhaustion and over-work and complete lack of margin. I take it out on you because I have power to do that. That’s the scariest part of parenting to me – the power you have by nature over your kids. I don’t think there was a single day last week that I didn’t see my own sin in how I treated you or spoke to you. Always I knew why, and the why is important, even if it doesn’t absolve. You weren’t listening (you were over tired) and I was in acute pain (over pregnant). It happens in this broken human world, but it doesn’t mean it’s not sin. Every day I felt resolve to treat you better, and I knew that could only come from the Holy Spirit, from being a Jesus-disciple instead of following myself and serving myself.

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Sermon #2 on Sunday (our Sunday thing is weird, go with it) was from Colossians. Our pastor talked about circumcision – about how God makes us weak in the place where we feel strong. That resonated with me – that one thing I wish I didn’t screw up that I screw up every single day. And then he talked about PF Changs. How he’d been in the Atlanta airport and he had money to spend and he knew he really really wanted PF Changs and he went to great lengths to get there and wouldn’t – couldn’t be distracted – by Chick Fil A or any other good-enough option he passed at every intervening gate because he wanted PF Changs. That, he said, is how we need to pursue Christ: wanting him enough to give us blinders to everything else.

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This is what the Holy Spirit does for us: shows us Christ and little by little teaches us blindness to other loves. But like the season of Pentecost and Ordinary time, it takes a lifetime. This is what I want for you, sweet boy, and for me. I see you growing, changing, becoming stronger and wiser every day. The things you’ve struggled with in the past year are gradually falling away and when you cry you can pull it together and when you sin you can talk about it and when you are feeling greedy or angry you can take control and choose something else. This is big. So very big. And I am proud of you, and eager for you, and hoping that somehow (by the Holy Spirit, that is) you and I will get there.

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I love you.

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Love,
Mommy

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