A Lament and a Metaphor

Here is a lament for the second morning of home schooling.

I meant to juggle two students during lesson time – a new milestone for us – but we came in for such a rough landing this summer that I wasn’t prepared yesterday, so neither of them “accomplished” much, and this morning my free time has to be allocated to lesson plans that should’ve happened in July.

I hoped my second grader would have time for piano practice in the morning, but he’s still struggling with buttons and I knew I shouldn’t help him so his shirt took him fifteen minutes.

I wanted to bask in our hour of Morning Time, but we sat on the brown couch (Rookie Mistake!) and they were all elbows and knees, and the three-year-old’s head makes a very poor window onto a page of text.

I planned us a calm afternoon routine, but I had to devote five hours to a doctor’s appointment 50 miles away, so my kids had to camp out at a friend’s house and I spent the entire day in a state of urgency.

I envisioned evenings being times of quiet togetherness, but I skated into town from that appointment just in time to eat the dinner my friend dropped off and run everyone out the door because baseball isn’t over yet.

I made my baby girl cry on her first day of kindergarten because she wouldn’t be straight with me about the Magical Disappearing Loom. She wouldn’t be straight with me about it because she was stressed. She was stressed because I was stressed. Multiple reports have it dangling from her backpack when she got home from her friend’s house. Three searches have yet to discover where it fell, somewhere within the tidy, five-foot-square mud room. We are all baffled by the mystery, like a twisted First Day of School Miracle.

I get Monday nights to myself for free time after my husband goes to bed early, but last night I had to spend it on cleaning the kitchen and then I went to bed and had a parade of stress dreams.

I mean to plant radishes today as our main school activity, but I haven’t had time to pull the first crops out yet so I’m going to sacrifice pace for getting work done that should’ve happened two weeks ago.

I’m serving tacos for dinner tonight, but that means attending to the four pounds of chicken that need to be prepped for the freezer.


Saturday as I triaged the remaining work to be done before our rough landing into this school year I recounted to my friend how I’d settled for Scotch Tape and Wite-Out on Friday night when my inclination, as always, was a freshly-typed revision with no trace of imperfection. Scotch Tape and Wite-Out may become my metaphor for this season. My friend wasn’t off the mark when she suggested perhaps Scotch Tape could be a spiritual discipline.

I’m just your average home educator, trying to gracefully walk somewhere between the lofty visions and the accompanying realities. Falling in love with baseball through library books sounds rather idyllic for a first week of school, until you factor in the dinosaur of a three-year-old sitting on your lap. He doesn’t understand how words get read.

So this morning I’m showing up for Day 2 with my metaphorical Scotch Tape in hand, ready to practice acceptance and presence, hoping to take more steps forward than back, wishing life could be as simple as I mean it to be. But it’s not: the reality behind that doctor’s appointment is that I’m scheduled for thyroid surgery next weekend, and your guess is as good as mine what that’s going to do my Teacher Voice. I’ve wrestled hard this summer with this lump in my throat, with this bump in the road, with all the implications of incapacity, both practical and spiritual.

I could’ve changed our school calendar to start after my surgery and recovery, but not only would it have sabotaged the gracious pace of No School Weeks I depend on, I think it might’ve missed the point. We’re not here to do a perfect dance, but to muddle through virtue practices while they slowly shape us. The math and French and baseball and weaving we learn along the way are incidentals by comparison, and any day is a good day to practice humility, honor, curiosity, attention, diligence.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s this simple line from my morning Psalm which jumped off the page at me just now:

“The Lord is my helper.”

OK, then.

The Cost of Celebrating: Part I

[Originally published April 8, 2013]

Sometimes when Christians talk about walking by faith we mean choosing to take a step when we have no idea where we’re planting our foot or what’s going to happen when we try to pull the next foot out of the muck behind us and move it forward–except that we’ll probably have mud in our shoes.

This messy faith I know, and I got to thinking about it as we prepared for Easter, that most spectacular day of the Church’s calendar. This particular year Easter included a gorgeous feast of roast lamb for ourselves and six guests, complete with a 10:00 p.m. Saturday trip to the grocery store for a just-in-case-we-run-out bottle of wine and a new bouquet of tulips to replace the wilted ones I’d bought a day too early.

This particular year Easter also included a week of utter chaos and exhaustion, one I am still struggling to recover from as I rest at my sister’s peaceful home for a few days. On Palm Sunday the kids and I came down with yet another bug. I was stuffy and miserable and achy all week long. Miserable or not, I spent nearly 20 hours over the week, mostly during early mornings and late nights, cleaning an empty house for my landlord.

I had this nagging urge to serve spaghetti and brownies for Easter and be done with it. Neither was it only the exhaustion and preposterous schedule that enticed me to scrap all the elaborate plans. The grocery receipts I rang up for that meal were ridiculous and full of foods I never buy: fine fresh cheeses and meat way over $4/lb. And so much butter.

It felt like foolish extravagance of time and money to mark Christ’s most glorious work in this way, to surround ourselves with our friends and to feed them like royalty to boot. But I couldn’t put the words of Moses out of my head as I argued with myself over all this absurdity. In Deuteronomy 14, he conveys God’s instructions to His people regarding the tithe, requiring them to spend the money (if they weren’t able to travel to celebrate at the tabernacle) on “whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves.”

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God’s people are called to be a celebrating people. No doubt in lean years and among the poor, they faced the temptation to hoard that tithe for their emergency fund or health savings account; to do the prudent thing. I found myself thankful for God’s gracious, explicit commandment to throw that prudence to the wind when the occasion is right and to celebrate before Him.

So I rolled up my sleeves and mustered all the faith and joy I could find. I laughed off the $200 grocery receipt. I ironed the white linen napkins. I burned the midnight oil and I dragged my babies to church at 7:00 a.m. on Easter Sunday.

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And now I am recovering, on one hand, and so is my credit card. On the other hand, I am refreshed: filled up by that joy and faith and hubbub; that week when we worked as hard as we could so we’d have something to celebrate with, to see heaven intruding on earth just a little.

In this hard world it’s not effortless and it doesn’t usually seem sensible, but it is good, so good. And in the next world it will be all that’s left.

Christ Has Died.

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Christ Is Risen.

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Christ Will Come Again.

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Dancing a Duet with Bojan Cicik

Dear Jacob,

I’ve got ten minutes here as I wait for the second half of our dress rehearsal in Auer Hall. I love this space. Some of my moments of deepest emotion over the last few years have begun here–times when I’ve wished I might’ve been on the stage instead of in the audience.

As I watched the viola da gamba player a moment ago I could picture your fingers. In that moment I remembered my friend Kevin practicing cello on a Saturday morning as a young college student boarding with my family when I was a kid. He was so inspiring to me. Twenty years later you’re inspiring to me, too. You sit at the piano generating fierce improvisations that are painful to listen to but pregnant with understanding. You practice every morning, working through your scale and your exercise and your songs before eagerly degenerating into the chaos of a six year old’s experiments. I realized just now that it won’t be long before my kids develop skills I don’t have–how I’ll be inspired and delighted just to get to be the one who sees your fingers on the strings, or your feet on the court, or your head bent over a drafting board, fluent like a native language.

Not being a student or even an active professional these days, the opportunity to sing Bach’s St. John Passion with the Historical Performance Institute here at the Jacobs School was not one I ever would’ve seen coming. But one day a couple months ago Dad got word that they were looking for extra voices for a performance led by the incomparable John Butt. When word like that comes, there’s only one response that makes sense to people like me and Daddy, so here we are. It’s been a season of wonder and joy for me. I feel like myself.

I feel like the self I’ve never been; the self I’ll never be. But today, unlikely as it is, I am that self. I think how glamorous I consider the lives pictured in the videos we’ve watched together of Alison Balsom working on a new album: professionals at the top of their field. I could be that. I wish I could be that. My next thought is always reluctant: I will never be quite that. For me, that ship has sailed. But then I realize that’s the view I have today from the risers in the chorus. Sure, I’m only in the chorus, but nevermind that for now.

Just now what I watched was the incredible rehearsal of the Erwäge aria. What caught my imagination was the two graduate students who were performing alongside John Butt at the harpischord, Bojan Cicic on the violin, and a tenor brought in from New York for this performance. Just the five of them.

What must this moment be for that young woman dancing a duet with Bojan Cicik looking right at her across his bow!? It must be one of the most significant moments of her life. Their music was exquisite. Immaculate. Incredible.

I can’t begin to guess whether you’ll be a musician or an engineer, a historian or a writer or an architect or a fireman. But whatever you become, I hope you have a moment like this someday, and I hope you know that, if you show up with wonder and passion, it’s a win whether you’re in the chorus, or you’re playing with Bojan Cicic, or you’re Bojan Cicic himself.

And I hope I’ll be there to see it, whatever it is.

I love you.

Love,

Mommy

My Life for Yours

I worry to my priest friend occasionally that perhaps I’m letting myself off the hook too easily when it comes to the spiritual life. I can’t think now what makes this occur to me, but it’s happened more than once.

Always his answer has been the same, and when he gives it I swear behind his compassion and wisdom he’s almost laughing at me: “You are a mother. That will sanctify you. You don’t even have to try.”

I was glad to get to share this encouragement last week with a weary friend of mine who is adjusting to life with two kids, and yesterday it came back to me again. It’s comfort for a class of us who don’t get much of it.

Yesterday morning found me simultaneously studying Bach’s St. John Passion and nursing my daughter through an unrelenting stomach flu. I’d woken before dawn in a fog typical for me lately. My first thought was gladness that it was Sunday because I am particularly in need of the re-orientation of the Liturgy.

With the house still silent I took up my score and my colored pens again, tracing themes through the St. John Passion in preparation for a performance I’m involved in a week from now.

It was less than thirty minutes before I heard her begin to cry. I knew exactly what kind of cry it was. There wasn’t even room for questioning how the day would play out: My daughter was throwing up; I was not going to church.

This is motherhood, and this is what my priest friend meant.

I have another dear friend who remarked to me one day that he could never do what I do. He does precisely what he wants to do at every moment of his day, he observed. Sure, he’s a responsible adult and faithfully fulfills a whole realm of duties. But he does it in his own way, on his own time. Relatively speaking, he is autonomous. Then he comes over to my house and sees what I do around the clock. There are very few moments of my day that aren’t given to someone else. Even the sandwich I was eating yesterday got partially reallocated to the ravenous stomach of a child who’s finished throwing up.

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Yesterday motherhood meant sharing the sandwich I really didn’t want to share. It meant relinquishing my intention to be strengthened by the sacrament and cleaning up puke instead. It meant exchanging the sound of Bach chorales for Princess Sophia on Netflix. It meant pausing a dozen times in the midst of writing a letter to console a two-year-old who thinks he’s a kitty, to coach a six-year-old through big feelings regarding the laws of physics, to hold the sick one again whenever she threw up.

This is motherhood, and this is what my priest friend meant.

It’s not necessarily automatic, and this is where love comes in again. The same set of relinquished intentions can rot a heart as easily as sanctify it, and I’m familiar with this, too. Love is hard and it is costly.

But the gospel story was working on me yesterday, and the themes Bach drew from it in the St. John Passion were my sanctifying filter for the day.

The chorus of the Passion serves to connect the present to the past, not only as the voice of the people in the narrative but as the voice of the congregation now. Bach inserts familiar stanzas from his own tradition’s repertoire into the flow of the story.

The first of these follows Jesus’ courageous love expressed in his demand that, since he was the one the soldiers were seeking, they ought to let his friends go free. The chorus sings “O great love! O love beyond all measure! I lived with delight and joy and you had to suffer.”

Immediately following the betrayal and arrest in the garden, after Jesus heals the soldier whose ear met Peter’s sword, the chorus sings a stanza from Martin Luther’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

The centerpiece of the whole work is another stanza from the incredible hymn literature of the early Lutheran tradition: “Through your prison, Son of God, must freedom come to us; your jail cell is our throne of grace: the freedom of the faithful.”

Perhaps for me the climactic moment comes once Jesus bows his head and dies. Bach weaves an aria and a chorale together. Arias are highly decorative, soloistic art songs). They are the sacred poetry that draws the audience even deeper and more personally into the narrative than the hymns sung by the chorus. The soloist sings this audacious question and then supplies the answer: “My precious Savior, let me ask (now that you have been nailed to the cross and have said yourself ‘It is finished’): Am I made free from death? Can I, through your pain and death, inherit the kingdom of heaven? Has the redemption of the whole world arrived? You cannot, from pain, say anything; yet you bow your head and say silently: Yes!'”

Finally, when the work is all but concluded, the chorus sings again: “The grave which is yours and encloses no more suffering, opens heaven for me and closes off hell.”

Laying aside for the present the whole subject of Christ’s crucifixion and redemption, Bach’s masterpiece is an exploration of “My life for yours.” If motherhood isn’t the most convenient way of being held to the practice of the image of Christ, I don’t know what is.

These were the resources I needed yesterday: submission to God’s will, self-giving love, and most of all a recognition of my participation in the way of the cross.

Fr. Raymond may be on to something…

Love and Loneliness

This week I took an all-too-rare opportunity to slow to a halt and do nothing but be in my daughter’s space without distraction. In a moment of clarity I noticed her feeling lonely and knew my own culpability in that. It got me thinking.

Kids need connection. They need to be noticed, engaged, worshiped. While I won’t say they need this more than basic provisions, I will say they probably need it just as much–certainly more than they need the world given them on a silver platter.

Affluence can conjure a whole set of problems for us as parents. We can find ourselves awash in a sea of opportunities, layering guilt on ourselves even as we layer gifts on our children. I can provide her new toys and dance classes at the same time I’m chiding myself for being less generous with the paints than I meant to be.

My friend worried to me the other day about her unwillingness to let her kids get muddy. In the next breath she reported that her Lyme disease has flared up from stress this winter. Meanwhile I sat on her sofa and admired her as she connected with her kids. The last thing she needs right now is another load of laundry, and those kids are getting so much love that they’re going to be OK without the mud.

There is no substitute for love–no way around the essential gift of another person’s affection and attention. Our loving presence as parents is so much more important for our kids than mud or paints or even building good habits.

My sweet daughter has a sweet little five year old soul and body that needs a mommy to watch while it rides a bike in circles as fast as its legs can go. She needs me to watch and keep watching, not just so she’ll feel noticed. So she’ll be noticed. So that she is actually being loved. She is made for this.

And as her mom, I am made to be the person who loves her. It’s my job to make it true that she is loved. I’m fortunate that our family is whole and safe. We don’t struggle for basic survival, so there’s no reason that my children should have to experience loneliness. No reason, that is, outside of my own sin-broken nature.

At the very end of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is dying, blissful to be finally in the presence of Marius & his beloved Cosette. His last words to them are “Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.”

The Apostle Paul says as much to the Corinthians: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

I will confess I am not good at real love. My heart is too much given to itself, bent in on itself. I need Christ to remake me, resurrect me, teach me, show me. I need to be formed in his image. I need love to be given to me as a divine gift.

John’s assertion “God is love” is bafflingly simple. Love is the whole point because it is the essence of the tri-unity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Community of Self-Giving; the Community of Mutual Delight. And as if that weren’t enough, love is the very project of Creation: More love!

The opposite of love, then? Self-absorption, self-interest, self-protection. Satan invites us to be like him in the hideous, agonizing, lonely comfort of ultimate lovelessness. That lovelessness is not just a failure to see the world outside yourself for all its beauty. It’s a failure to enjoy that world. A failure to be present in it. A failure to give yourself to it in self-forgetful worship. It’s isolation.

What do I become when I fail to see my daughter’s beauty and be present with her in love? I am choosing loneliness for myself. What becomes of her in the process? I am choosing loneliness for her, too. To be given someone to love is a sacred trust and a deep mystery. It is no small thing.

Could we say love and loneliness are opposites? Loneliness is such a painful experience because it is the opposite of our design in God’s image. We are made for love, and the absence of love is fatal. It dead-ends in misery. At its worst it becomes the rage, hatred, contempt, frustration of a young man who murders seventeen innocent people at a high school on Valentine’s Day.

My heart aches when I consider the epidemic proportions of acute loneliness in our society. I wonder why it’s so common until I look back into myself again and recognize the difficulty; the impossibility, really. Real love consumes the lover. It is not natural to expend yourself. It is not convenient or easy. It is costly.

There is a counterfeit love. But it is costly too. Counterfeit love has an agenda. It is self-oriented. It maximizes productivity, opportunity, and efficiency instead of connection and presence. It does not secure its object against loneliness.

I cannot love my daughter without investment and sacrifice. I cannot love her and spin all my plates in the same moment. I certainly can’t love her if I approach her as another plate to spin, because then I’m falling short of actually acknowledging her inherent worth as a creature.

I have a tendency toward this knock-off version of love. I turn my daughter into just another plate I’m spinning. Since I’m good at spinning plates, it’s easy to think she has all that she needs because she passes the hours of her days pleasantly and her life is full of good things. I often find myself looking at her as one of my Important Things To Invest In. Seeing her only as an aspect of my own life, I begin to prioritize efficiency. It’s easy to run out of energy and begin to resent the costliness of loving her.

My knock-off version of love is hard to sustain. Like any counterfeit, its source is different from the real thing. Not being divine, it has to be manufactured by my own energy, and this can be exhausting. Not being real, it leaves my daughter lonely.

Instead, if I look at my daughter as a creature made of love and entrusted to me in love, for love, investing in her isn’t exhausting. Yes, it is costly. Love lays aside itself for the good of the beloved. When I get caught up in her beauty–in how good it is to notice her; in how good it is for her to be noticed–then all the while it is costing me it is filling me up, too.

To lay aside self is unnatural. That is why love is so hard and loneliness so common. To lay aside self the heart must be turned toward the other, filled with the love which is the very essence of God. This is what Christ brought the world in his incarnation, bestowing himself on us in love; giving himself in order to be united with us. This is what Christ modeled for his disciples and what he commissioned them for. And this is what John wrote:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:7-12, 16)

Christ’s Companionship: Lenten Thoughts on Transfiguration Sunday

I remember a professor in seminary impressing on us over and over again “Heaven is wherever Jesus is.”

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration. How desperately we need that story! Nor do we want to come down the mountain at the end. If only we could secure ourselves in Jesus’ divine presence permanently!

Here is a glad wonder, though: our access to Christ is not, in a way, as limited as Peter, James, and John’s. We have the whole story unfolded. And yet they were allowed his earthly body, a fellowship of human friendship not so easily conjured up from our vantage point. We would not be wrong to crave what they had.

As Lent approaches this year, the need for healing has been foremost in my mind. Every one of us needs healing of some kind. But more than that, isn’t our greatest need simply Christ’s companionship? In fact, is it possible Christ’s companionship is the essence of healing? We need to be in his company.

In this posture of desire and dependence we are ready for the journey of Lent. We call on Christ to come and take up his throne in our hearts; we seek for him to be our teacher so that we might learn how our hearts can be a place he may more easily belong; so that we may more steadily apprehend his presence; so that we may offer him true hospitality–the kind that makes its guest comfortable. This is the project of Lenten discipline.

We do not presume that Christ is in need of this hospitality. But we are, because in that comfort–in that apprehension–every Lenten day of this earthly journey may be its own Transfiguration. And I suspect Christ will not answer us as he answered Peter if, in this transfiguration, we were to say, like Peter did on that mountain, that it is good for us to be here.

It is in Christ’s companionship that we may make our pilgrimage without being overwhelmed by the things which grieve or shake us. Indeed, this companionship is the only thing we need. Christ’s company is enough. To have his presence is life and health and peace.

It is strength, too; we can in fact journey through anything if Christ is our companion, no less surely than Peter could walk on water. Perhaps this is what Paul was trying to convey by his claim: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

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.