Ashes and Mercy

Lovely Maya Love,

You’ve been with me now just as long in my arms as in my womb.

This morning as I shuffled forward to receive the sign of ashes on my head for the first time as a Catholic, I noticed it was also the first time in a decade to make that pilgrimage alone without my kids. I remember Joshua’s first ashen cross six years ago and the stark and painful reality I allowed my maternal mind to submit to: this tiny babe too—dust, and to dust we shall return. This morning I am consoling myself with the beauty that daddy gets to carry you to the altar today even though I’m not there. There is goodness in my occasional separation from motherhood, and I am thankful for God’s leading me into my vocation these past few years. But I miss you. I feel a sense of horror at being separate from you as your forehead is first marked with ashes. I feel a sense of horror at allowing again the reality that we are so fragile. My heart is wrestling.

The whole world is wrestling. Russia invaded Ukraine last week and all our weariness as the pandemic wanes is braced yet longer for whatever comes of this. At home, I cook three meals a day from dried grains and legumes, doing my best to stretch our grocery budget as inflation presses on us even before we’ve recovered from last year’s house-buying. It’s a tired time to be alive and it’s a tired time to be a Powell.

There’s more than tired and wrestling though. I want to claim more, believe more, practice more. You are our more—our Ebenezer: magic is real too, and love. You’ve brought us there, and not just to magic but to redemption specifically. I slipped Zoë’s ring onto my right middle finger this morning before I left home, and as I drove to work I thought how the gift of Zoë made the soil of our hearts fertile to receive you, to receive the love God wants for us. The winter of death we experienced in that loss is somehow bearing fruit in the spring you’ve brought.

But today the change of seasons feels like mud, like stubborn ice, like tender shoots so susceptible to being crushed. I remember when we were given Zoë my meditations were full of the wonder of life’s fierceness: resurrection and resilience. Grass sprouting through concrete sidewalks. Lately I think of life’s tenderness: dust to dust.

Maybe Lent is just what I’ve been waiting for as I ache for a respite from the wrestling. Our family’s happiness feels rusted over and for the life of me I can’t restore it. We’re stressed and weary and short tempered, all of us. It’s been this way for so many months that it’s years now. It was only a couple nights ago that you heard me lose my temper (again) and scream ugly words at precious, disobedient children. Again. Your sweet new ears, already exposed to this dark world. It crushes me every time. I’ve brooded in my more anxious moments that the reason you love Daddy so much is that you don’t feel safe with me. Ridiculous, I realize. For one thing, he’s not all sunshine either.

We ache over our dark parts, cowering sometimes in the full view of what ruin we humans are capable of. And yet we are promised not only life but redemption. Reconciliation. We come broken and Christ heals us. Ruin gives way to restoration. Often it’s such a powerful phenomenon that we shudder to realize we wouldn’t have wanted it another way in retrospect.

So here I am today at the outset Lent—our first Lent since its practices have become a matter of corporate submission for us instead of only private choice. I’ve been feeling desperate week after week and month after month for our brokenness to be cast and mended while at the same time feeling conflicted and uncomfortable with the grace of confession, so tangled in the web of toxic and abusive spirituality that I want to leave behind. I don’t know how to confess. Or what.

Home is a reflection for a later date, but it is a factor here too, or actually the whole solution. So here’s a preface. We’ve been meditating on John O’Donohue’s Blessing for a New Home this winter: “May it be a house of welcome for the broken and diminished.” That final line resonates most with me right now, making room for me to embrace the rest of the poem, too, in hopefulness and faith.

As the Mass ends we have sung “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” In the line “Oh for the wonderful love he has promised” I recall the sacred moment of sight I had two weeks ago in Chicago. A choir of inner city youth sang a composite anthem that gave my soul words. “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.” “Put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.” “I’ve Got a Robe.” I realized so viscerally and with such newness that it felt like a birth: I belong. Immediately, my mind is brought back to the present moment, here with ashes on my head, as I sing the second line of this old gospel tune. “Though we have sinned he has mercy upon us, mercy for you and for me.”

“Oh sinner, come home.”

It took us months to move from Bloomington to Indianapolis and we’re all still feeling stunned and drained. I’ve tried time after time to create space and open our hearts for the life we want, the way of being in the world that is love. But all my intentions and attempts feel too ambitious, premature. Always I am left just more aware that we are broken and diminished.

I enter this season of Lent mostly cynical and incredibly tired of wrestling. This morning I find I’m curious, too, even hopeful. Perhaps these Lenten disciplines could be a path of restoration for us. Mostly, I’m grateful for the invitation to come home. To mark dust on my brow and yours. To enter this liminal time between winter and spring—the tender, fragile, messy time when life awakens. To take the penitential path. To let redemption do its work. To receive mercy.

Perhaps next time I write to you you’ll be turning one and we’ll have come to Easter. Come through penitence, confessing our nature, confessing our brokenness, to find mercy. Mercy for you and for me. Mercy, yes, but belonging too. Home for us sinners.

“Children and Art”

August 30, 2021

My Dear Ones,

Now we are six. And what a six! Maya has burst onto our scene in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a move. She’s changed the game for sure. It’s your first day of school for the fall (and I expect it’s our last first day of homeschool for several years) and I’ve arrived in a state of complete disarray. I want to feel excited. I want to care enough to make it magical. But I have no energy left.

Energy is something I’ve got in spades, isn’t it? Energy and grit and capacity and good ideas. Behind us are ten years as a family full-to-bursting of beauty and growth. They’re full of folly too, and when I came here to write I found the Christmas letter from 2017. It’s the same tale I was coming to tell you here: I love you, I want to lay it all down, I can’t make it all perfect, Please forgive me for trying.

These four years have been worse than puppet theaters, vespers recitals, and generational anxiety. Sweet babies, these four years have made me crave those simpler challenges. It’s all been quite literally too much. But this is the mercy I’ve needed, because I can no longer haul my way through current demands to arrive at moments of crafted happiness with you. The current demands aren’t going away. They haven’t, no matter how I’ve tried to shoulder them, to lift them off of us like a boulder.

Instead it’s time to choose to stop. To sit. To rest. To love. This is what I’m learning in the school of sheer exhaustion. As I’m coming to understand Seurat’s problem as my own–“Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat”–coming to recognize that I’m balancing “Children & Art” even though They advise against it–I’m beginning to see the visionary strengths I possess are in tension with love. They are even a danger to it.

I do not love the ideals of you. I do not love the images in my head of us homeschooling. I do not love the dreams I have of being with you. I will not love these: I will love you. Mary has patterned submission for us; I was learning that four years ago. But the submission she has patterned is a submission to love, and this is what I’m learning now. I’m learning it through Maya, because never has there been such a bumper-crop of love amongst us. The way you dote on her is stupifying. I just never knew there could be so much love. The way I feel as I lay her back in bed after a fifth night waking is stupifying. She’s my hard baby. Her needs and demands are unpredictable and frustrating, and I’m exhausted. But I never knew there could be so much love. And there was nothing else in the world our family needed to welcome amongst us but love.

Today as we begin, I pray love for us. I pray you feel my love in my presence. I pray you feel my love in acquiescence and acceptance. In my leaving the goals. In the unhung prayer wall artwork. In the way I accept this unfinished house we are still trying to fit ourselves into. I pray you find love, too: love for your work and love for yourselves. I see you needing both those things and I hope to keep my eyes on those objectives rather than becoming distracted by the scenes from my imagination which I feel an urge to conjure. Conjuring my imagination: this is a good description for how I live, and for how I’ve made the world for you. I’m proud of this, truly, and the proof has been in your delight. But the dark side of that moon is your stress and mine. And now at the end of two years of adrenaline, I cannot subject us to stress any longer. I cannot, I cannot, I cannot.

So I am choosing to stop. To be present to moments of utterly uncomplicated reality–to books and lessons and smiles and struggles however we encounter them. I am so desperate to be in your company and to be at rest. For me, this fall, love is shutting my ears every day to the song of the hat. Sure, I am forever an artist, and I will make beauty this fall. But I will not make myself or you wait for love while the beauty is unfinished.

I love you.



(The literary references are to Sondheim’s musical “Sunday in the Park with George” and that beloved-if-overly-optimistic little piece of children’s literature called “The Little Engine That Could.”)

Please Don’t Ruin America

I am psychologically exhausted from the position I stand in. I have close and deep connections to Americans on both edges of the political spectrum in our country. As with any spectrum, it’s likely that most people are near the middle. I know plenty of those, but because of my roots in extremely conservative Christianity, my college years spent at an institution that is part of a far-left Christian denomination, and my professional sphere of the arts, I’ve got mostly extremes in my personal collection of people I know and hear and love. And y’all are wearing me out.

What I want to say to all of you (and my mom) is that none of you are as evil as the other side has decided you are. So, whether you read National Review or The New Yorker, please breathe. And please make a friend on the opposite end of the spectrum–and I don’t mean someone just down the line from you; I mean someone you think is politically (maybe also theologically) INSANE. And please read Brené Brown’s 2017 book “Braving the Wilderness.” In fact, please read it with your insane friend and please talk to each other. Please talk knowing that you will passionately and permanently disagree but knowing that we are all seeking basic human flourishing.

Basic human flourishing is something we can seek together if we can be respectful. However, what I’m hearing (and I’ve heard it since eating childhood lunches with Rush Limbaugh on the boom box) is degrading, disrespectful, and frankly absurd. If you live exclusively in one niche, you might not realize that all the vitriol your tribe uses to refer to “the others” is the same vitriol they’re using to describe you. So it’s clear you have at least that in common.

I do not think the Republicans want to ruin America. I do not think the Democrats want to ruin America. Furthermore, I do not think the Republicans are capable of ruining America, and I do not think the Democrats can pull it off either. I do think that a polarized concept of each other and a willingness to engage in ridicule absolutely can ruin a whole lot more than America.

I’ll be in my hammock with my reading list. It would probably horrify you if you saw what it includes.

Empathy & Forgiveness: Quarantine Edition

One of the first stories in this week’s New Yorker magazine follows the experiences of married couples faced with quarantine. “Perhaps global pandemic and marital strife go together,” muses the author. This isn’t the first prediction I’ve seen this week that divorce rates are going to spike when quarantines are lifted. But I’m wondering along with this author: “Does every quarantine scenario have to resemble Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’?” He quotes a psychoanalyst who says what you’ll need in this case is empathy.

For what it’s worth, here’s a personal anecdote from the recent history of my rather complicated marriage. (I acknowledge there is no other kind.) Laying aside specifics, here’s the general landscape. You can supply your own specifics if the landscape looks familiar.

We had hit another point in our cycle where we didn’t know how to make each other happy. Attempting any conversation usually meant inviting frustration, and probably also a fight. In a stroke of what I’ll call luck for the moment, we each stumbled simultaneously into our own lines of new thought as we processed, in our own ways, our shared experience of this familiar mess. The result was an apocalyptic and unplanned kitchen counter conversation that lasted (give-or-take) six hours, not factoring in the pauses involved in parenting three kids late on a Saturday. The conversation spawned a dozen more conversations over the next few days, and this is what I’d like to report:

We both made a daring decision to step into empathy, creating a space for our partner to share their own experience. We set aside our usual mode of processing these things because it just wasn’t delivering the results we were looking for. I am a firm believer in statements like “But I did my best” and “I couldn’t have done that differently.” I think it’s essential to the healing of wounded relationships and wounded selves for us to understand and honor the basic needs that drive us and how they cause us to respond to life. But a few years of practicing these rubrics of self-awareness and boundary-setting (“I’m sorry you are upset, but this is as much as I’m willing and able to give.” “I realize you don’t agree with me, but this is what I believe I have to do.”) had helped us grow and brought us to a place of mutual respect…and distance. In so many ways I have my life and he has his. We have “our” life, too, because we’re lucky to share a lot in common: kids, community, general conception of the world, taste in TV shows, appreciation for life’s simple joys, even vocation/career path. But we were each feeling alone most of the time, and not in a good way.

So instead of the familiar “But I did my best” routine, we tried something risky: Forgiveness. Round after round, we listened to each other’s personal accounts of this marriage – all ten chaotic years of it. (Cross-country move, multiple churches, multiple jobs, years of graduate work, self-employment, home renovations, three children and a miscarriage, just to catalog the big things.) We met every story with empathy and compassion. It went something like this:

“I experienced that.”

“I see you. I hear you. I remember. That must’ve been hard. I would’ve hated being in your shoes.”

“You weren’t what I needed in that moment. That happened to me because of you.”

“Oh. I hadn’t looked at it that way yet….”

And then would come the hard part, and it felt positively formulaic:

“…but I’m looking at it that way now. And I’m sorry.”

And then, the even harder part – part of the formula but feeling remarkably less formulaic:

“I forgive you.”

Over and over and over, constantly swapping roles, we took off our armor, laid down our weapons, and talked to each other about the marriage we’ve had. The ground rules: Empathy and forgiveness.

We’re not finished, but we’re getting good at the formula, and we feel safer with each other than we have in years. Our ten-year anniversary celebration was scheduled for last weekend and we had to swap out our travel plans for a cheeseboard on the living room rug. It was absurdly simple but incredibly beautiful to share a bottle of wine with this person who’s stuck with me for ten years of almost-constant drama, and to know that we are actually together: known, understood, accepted, safe, chosen. Loved.

Life is a genuine sh*t-storm, often. If you’re married to someone who loves you, it’s probably safer than you expect to acknowledge that you’re not perfect; to acknowledge that your finitude, your boundaries, your mistakes, your choices, your preferences, do in fact cost the people you love dearly. It’s safe to be curious about their experiences and to be the empathetic listener they need, even if they’re talking about you. It’s safe to agree with someone who is saying “You hurt me” if you’ve already agreed that the protocol in place is: “I’m sorry / I forgive you.”

I have shuddered a few times in the last week to wonder what our experience of this quarantine would’ve been if we hadn’t stumbled into that conversation when we did. So I’m telling our story, placing it among the myriad of “You may as well try this at home” offerings the almighty Internet is presenting us with as we sit alone wondering how to make it through this quarantine.

Transformed by Love

This post was originally given as a speech for the annual gala event of a local chapter of Safe Families for Children. 

There are plenty of voices telling us why we do the work that we do to care for our community–to reach out with hope and compassion to those in crisis. But I would like to reflect with you about how we do it.

Whether or not you have stories of your own yet, I’d like to paint a picture for you so you can imagine yourself in these scenarios, and then I’m going to have the audacity to suggest that I have a magic formula for making it work.

Imagine you agree to host a sweet six year old and then you trip on the stairs and break your foot the first night. Imagine you are keeping a one year old with full-time daycare but then the daycare is unexpectedly closed two Mondays in a row. Your daughter throws up. Your heater stops working. You wind up in bed with the flu. The basement toilet quits. Oh, and the back door handle is broken.

My point is that Safe Families is ordinary, and it happens in the middle of our ordinary lives. Sometimes our ordinary lives feel really, really messy.

I wasn’t the mom with the broken foot, but all the rest of that was my life last month. I had just finished a major grad school audition to boot. After months of exhausting preparations, I just wanted to relax.

But we’d said yes to a few weeks with a precious little guy who needed shelter during a short-term crisis. It was a Sunday morning and he was fussing on a changing table in my guest room as I slathered his eczema with cream. I was bleary-eyed and grumpy and didn’t really want to help. I was basically The Grinch.

I’m telling you this because I want to make a point that not only does ordinary life get messy, but our hearts are sinful and bent towards selfishness.

Years ago I nannied a child who I did not love. I’m not proud of this. I’m here to tell you from experience that simple tasks are a drag when you don’t want to do them. If you don’t know what I mean, ask your kid to clean her room when she had plans to play. Being the caretaker for a child I resented was hard. Making lunch and wiping noses was joyless and annoying and draining without love.

Exhausted as I was on that Sunday morning last month, I thought back to those nannying memories. I had enough experience under my belt to realize that I could not afford to be the Grinch. Sharing our life with this baby would be way too hard unless I loved him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about love over the past year. How the love of God shapes what we do. How we’re designed for love because we’re designed by God. How we’re designed for connection and for attachment, to God and to each other.

I’ve been thinking about how I’m made to be with Jesus and to love Jesus.

Why is it that it’s valuable for a child to attach to you even for a few weeks if that’s all you have? Why will you look into his eyes and tell him he’s beautiful? Tell her you’re glad she’s here? Why will you care about her if you won’t ever see her again after this month? I think it’s because we’re designed to be connected, and when you give a child the gift of connection you are giving her the gift of her inherent design and dignity. You are giving him the chance to Be With. To know that he’s not alone.

All of us need that. We crave connection with those we love. I think most of all that’s because we crave connection with Jesus.

So here’s my magic formula. I looked down at that little guy on the changing table and I thought of that verse we like to quote, “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” We get a lot of mileage out of the “least of these” phrase in our circles of mission and service work. But what jumped out at me that morning was the other half.

“You did it to me.”

For just a moment I saw Jesus covered with sores. If Jesus were covered with sores wouldn’t you want your name to be on that list of caretakers? Wouldn’t that be the opportunity of a lifetime? And wouldn’t it be embarrassing to show up grumpy for that assignment?

Loving that little boy was an opportunity to love Jesus. That is what we are doing when we love each other. When you bring a pizza to a host family you are feeding Jesus. When you spend your Saturday at the park with a six-year-old you didn’t know last week, you are spending your Saturday with Jesus.

You can see it another way if you’re not careful. I know this from experience. You can see the cost and the mess, because it is costly and messy and really exhausting. But if we look carefully we can see Jesus in each other and all this work can become an opportunity to be with him and to love him.

This is what we’re designed for: to be with Jesus and to love Jesus.

I want to encourage you to look beyond the broken foot and the broken door handle and open your heart to the friends of Jesus.

I believe when we do that our work is transformed into joy, and that joy will transform you. You won’t see another task added to your load. You’ll see Jesus, and you’ll see people he loves being loved by him (through you!), and you’ll see yourself caught up in his love as your heart opens and grows and you add to your family one more time: one more person: one more pizza: one Grinchy heart-size bigger than you were before.

That is my prayer for each of us as we give generously from our own lives in our various ways, as we bring hope and love to our community. Let’s be a team of eager love-bringers. Let’s connect to each other and connect to those we serve. Let’s see Jesus in each other and be transformed by love.


Third Culture Kid

Several weeks ago on a Saturday I retreated with a friend of mine to one of her favorite places, a Catholic community deep in the rural farmland of southern Indiana. I cried and wrestled with my own unfolding and confusing and frustrating journey as I sat in a smoky Latin mass surrounded by those who belonged there, filing forward to cross my Protestant arms over my chest while others received the sacrament.

Then I came home to join my husband in the chaos of caring for a toddler who doesn’t belong to us, whose severe eczema was bleeding in places. We occasionally join hands with an organization called Safe Families for Children. It’s predominantly made up of conservative evangelical upper-middle-class white Americans. I’d like to say, as a sometimes-card-carrying member of this demographic, that these folks drive me crazy.

Less than 24 hours after the rural Latin mass, I dropped my children off for their Sunday school classes at our current place of worship–a progressive, liberal congregation of the ELCA. With the one-year-old in my care for the morning, I had to forego my quiet hour of reading and writing, opting for a neighborhood walk with the stroller. I listened to the birds, appreciating the sunshine and the crisp fresh air and the headspace.

I was thinking about a friend’s suggestion that I’m a Third Culture Kid. A couple days earlier as we lifted weights together at the gym, she’d remarked that I’m good at making anyone and everyone feel at home, but that I don’t seem to ever feel at home anywhere myself. Her perception of me resonated. I don’t feel that I belong in any of these three places despite the fact that I exist in them day in and day out. I don’t belong in them, but I understand them.

The perspective of the modestly-dressed, dour-faced women chanting Hail Marys makes sense to me. Their shrine for the unborn children murdered by abortion makes sense to me. The perspective of the conservative Protestants concerned with their best understanding of historic, orthodox Christian theology makes sense to me. Their determination to broaden their “pro-life” politics, putting their money where their mouth is, being tangible hands and feet of Jesus makes sense to me. The perspective of the progressive liberal Protestants with their wide-open arms and their sociologically-driven concept of religion makes sense to me. Their shape-shifting, contextual theology makes sense to me.

Yes, I feel like a Third Culture Kid. Nowhere feels comfortable, but all of it makes sense to me. And while I love being able to understand and appreciate so many different perspectives, the hard part is that I’m tired almost all the time. It’s exhausting to live without a firm grasp on home.

As I reflect on all this, I have two emerging thoughts I want to explore. First, how do I take care of this Third Culture Kid? How do I stay healthy? How do I find rest? How do I keep my head in the game? Second, how do I be myself? How do I find the courage to be honest about who I am? How do I tell the Safe Families crowd that I’m becoming Catholic? How do I tell the Catholics that joining them is going to be the greatest loss I ever accrue? How do I tell the progressive liberals that I believe gender is binary, even though I applaud their approach to the surrounding issues, even though I’ve learned so much from them about the dignity of humanity and the difficulty of it all?

I have very little by way of answers to all of this, except a suspicion that the answers to the first set of questions are probably found in the second set. This, and another thing, given to me this week by a wise pastor: Spiritual maturity is coming to a place where your immutable belovedness is a filter that protects you from everything. Anything anyone says is only an opportunity to listen to who they are. It can’t hurt you: you are immutably beloved.

This is one more thing Jesus knew when he said “Come to me all of you who are weary and I will give you rest.”

Baptismal Identity

There are times when my human inclinations and my Christian identity come into conflict with each other. All my spirituality cannot carry me unscathed through the fires of hurt or anger, disappointment or discomfort, loss or loneliness.

Yet a Christian is one who has been marked with the cross of Christ, gathered into his identity as the beloved Son of God. With this identity comes a mission, and it is a simple one: love, grace, peace – words that are so ubiquitous as to be easily overlooked. But hidden underneath their surface is an inexhaustible treasury of the very nature of God. It is this treasury that I am called into; that I am literally immersed in as I go through the waters of baptism.

Christ’s prophetic call to those who would follow him that they must die makes sense to me this winter. It has been a season of tears. I am faced with a task that is so opposed to my human nature that it feels like dying to confront it. It is, in fact, a death of sorts: a death of ego and a death (at least for a time) of some of my deepest desires. But it is a situation outside my control. As in all things, my approach to it is determined by my Christian identity, a reality that I believe supremely transcends all things.

I bring myself to worship each week because I am never immersed enough in this identity. Sunday after Sunday I mark myself with the baptismal water. Sunday after Sunday I hear the proclamation of forgiveness and the call of discipleship; I revel in the unity of all the saints near and far who gather to receive Christ’s body and blood; I open my hands to receive a divine blessing: to re-claim my identity: to remember that God dwells in me. When all has been said and done I am sent out. I enter into the Church’s mission again of living out of the treasury of God’s love, grace, and peace.

Today is observed as “The Baptism of Our Lord” for many Christian traditions. This morning our preacher asked us to catalog for ourselves all our different hats: the roles we fill from one day to another. The imagery was beautiful, made vivid for me as I had just shown my three-year-old son the picture on the cover of the bulletin of a dove descending on Jesus’ head at his baptism. The reality of the Christian gospel is this: that Dove is the hat over all hats. Unlike the roles I move in and out of, my baptism into Christ is an unalterable identity.

I came to worship this morning feeling the weight of my humanity. I came because I needed to hear the story again. Here and nowhere else I knew I would find the strength to approach my mission, which my grandpa articulated for me so many times when I was a kid: “Susan,” he would say, affection lighting up his eyes, “Always let God’s love flow through you to others.”

As we gathered around the Table the most familiar words struck me in a new way. “On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread.” What could be a fiercer fire of humanity than the experience of betrayal? With what strength did Christ’s humanity wrestle in that moment against his mission to bring divine love to the world? And yet he stayed. I wonder if he thought of that Dove again – rehearsed for his human self his true identity. I wonder if he felt what I’ve been feeling: the relief of centering myself here.

This morning I don’t know how to better characterize the life I’m participating in than to say it is a relief. It is certainly hard, too. Hard because my human inclinations are in conflict with it. A relief because the gospel is just that: gospel. Good news! I am a beloved child of God. I am, and so are you. Nothing could be better. Nothing could be truer.

While I am wrestling through my human experience and even doing my best to honor it (It is I, after all, and not some ethereal abstraction, who am a beloved child of God), I am taking up my mission with courage and joy, charting my course according to the very nature of God, strengthened with the knowledge that it is not my love, but God’s love flowing through me, as my grandpa said; comforted with the recognition that what my baptism brings me, along with a share in Christ’s death, is a share in his Spirit of power, peace, freedom, wholeness, and joy.

Come, Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make;
this very day invade us, and every bondage break.
Come, give our lives direction, the gift we covet most:
to share the resurrection that leads to Pentecost.
–Fred Pratt Green, 1903-2000

Baptize us with your Spirit, Lord; your cross on us be signed,
that likewise in God’s service we may perfect freedom find.
–F. Bland Tucker, 1895-1984

“Go, my children, with my blessing, never alone.
Waking, sleeping, I am with you, you are my own.
In my love’s baptismal river I have made you mine forever.
Go, my children, with my blessing, you are my own.

Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.
Here you learned how much I love you, what I can cure.
Here you heard my dear Son’s story, here you touched him, saw his glory.
Go, my children, sins forgiven, at peace and pure.

“Go, my children, fed and nourished, closer to me.
Grow in love and love by serving, joyful and free.
Here my Spirit’s power filled you, here my tender comfort stilled you.
Go, my children, fed and nourished, joyful and free.”
    –Jaroslav J. Vajda, b. 1919


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.

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.


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)