Dark-haired. Dark-eyed. Stubborn and spunky. Middle child. All things I am, too.
But this sweet Thomas boy – he is full of surprises. Every day he keeps me on my toes, reminding me that he knows his way. And his way in this world will be bright, blazed all on his own.
1) Thomas taught me how God is Creator.
Thomas came into the world fast and furious. The way he’s done everything since.
I write in my book about how much he taught me by his birth – which was natural and powerful and even easy. The utter opposite of the overwhelming induction that brought Sam into the world.
While we were racing to the hospital, I freaked out that the baby would be born in the car en route, so intense was the speed at which everything was flying.
But suddenly I looked straight at the clock on the dashboard and knew that I would be fine. Because he would be born at 3:21 am. I have never known anything with such perfect clarity before or since.
Sure enough, he ended up arriving exactly on time – as soon as we flew into the birth center, as soon as the doctor rushed in to catch the baby, and as soon as that clock ticked to 3:21 am. Crazy but true. Now that I know our boy who always makes up his mind in a split second, I’m not surprised. Thomas has always been a boy on his own time.
His birth taught me that I was stronger than I realized. That my body and mind were created to do hard and worthy work. His birth taught me that so much of a child’s personality is revealed in the earliest moments. And these innate qualities are not of our own crafting.
Thomas reminds me that each of us was called into being by a Creator who knew our lives before we took our first breaths. The mystery and wonder of that truth is captured in his birth story that still surprises me every time I tell it.
Just like the boy himself.
2) Thomas taught me how God is Reconciler.
Another truth I write about in my book (can you tell I have it on the brain since I finished final edits this weekend?!) is that Thomas’ temperament is not far from mine. Which is a nice way of saying that he and I regularly practice reconciliation and forgiveness.
The stubborn Irish temper I share with my second-born? It teaches me time and time again how God is slow to anger, rich in mercy. I wish I could be like that, too. But until my edges (and his) soften over time, this is a lesson that both Thomas and I will have to keep learning over and over. Good things we’re in it together.
Quick to laugh, quick to snap. My prayer is that we will both be quick to love and forgive, too. Like the God who is always waiting to welcome and reconcile, running down the road to meet us with a father’s wild, prodigal joy.
3) Thomas taught me how God is Trust.
Since the day we chose our boy’s name, the expression “Doubting Thomas” rubs me the wrong way. Sure, I get the Scripture reference. But every time I return to the story with fresh eyes, it strikes me that Thomas was far from cynical or snarky about struggling with the idea of the resurrection. Quite the contrary.
His faith already dug so deep that he demanded to know. He wouldn’t hide behind false fronts or go along with the bewildered crowd. He wanted to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands.
Maybe he was the apostle who believed the deepest.
The story of Thomas’s name reminds me of doubt’s important role in the spiritual life. It is the stubborn twin brother of faith that keeps wrestling and probing. It is the hunger for understanding that refuses to give up and go quietly. It is the heart’s desire, strong enough to stay and search for truth.
So when I call Thomas’s name, I hear that invitation to Trust all over again. To keep wondering and wanting toward wisdom, asking to come close enough to press my fingers into the love of God.
What have you learned about God from those closest to you –
your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?
Blond-haired. Blue-eyed. Math-brained. First-born. All things I am not.
And yet this boy, this so-longed-for Samuel – he teaches me about the inner fabric of my own heart and the walls of my soul. By his pushes, by his pulls. Most of all by his tender heart.
1) Sam taught me that God is a faithful companion.
Waiting for Sam taught me about the mystery of prayer – that it is not about the answer, but about the asking.
Waiting for Sam taught me about growth through pain – that it is the paschal mystery of dying and rising to a changed way of being.
Waiting for Sam taught me about God’s stubborn companionship – that it is closest to our heart when it feels furthest from our lives.
Yes, we “got” a baby after our years of waiting. But that fact is not what taught me God’s companionship. It was the long Advent before parenthood when I felt God sitting with me, silent and steady in the dark.
I have never forgotten those days, and every time I look at my children – especially sweet Sam – I remember infertility and I remember God’s companionship.
By our waiting, he teaches me.
2) Sam taught me that God is a caller.
When it came time to choose our first boy’s name, we loved Samuel right away. Hannah’s story was one we held close to our hearts while we were waiting: her tears and her hope. And her child’s name – because I asked the Lord for him - fit our own gratitude perfectly.
But it was the rest of Samuel’s story that has taught me more about God. That God is still speaking. That the tugs on our heart or the voices in the night may just be nudges from the divine.
When I hear or speak Sam’s name, I hear echoes of the story of Samuel and Eli: Here I am, Lord. I’m reminded to keep listening, to lean on the wisdom of mentors and elders, to trust that I will be led if I respond. And not to be afraid of where I am called.
By his name, he teaches me.
3) Sam taught me that God is ancient and ever-new.
What a blessing and a burden to be the first. (Writes a third-born.) Sam gets to try everything before the others and boast of his size and age, but he also has to break us into parenting every step along the way. I imagine he will delight and struggle with being the first, much like every other first-born I know.
But here’s the thing he teaches me by going first: God is always already there.
Each time Sam reaches a new milestone – and we too, as his parents – I find God in the newness. In this season of school, I am finding God in the widened circle of people who will care for him. I am finding God in Sam’s delight in what he is learning. I am finding God in the freedom of letting him take small steps into the world without me.
There is nothing tired or musty about God. That wild whirl of Spirit energy, born of life and love itself – it brings constant change and surprise.
Of course it can be painful to learn and grow. Of course I’ve stumbled plenty of times along the way, worrying about Sam when I should have been marveling in wonder, wrestling to control what was never mine to wrangle. But I am better for the stretching.
I keep finding God in the surprise of what Sam brings as our trailblazer.
By being the first, he teaches me.
What have you learned about God from those closest to you –
your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?
My husband and I went to college together. But we didn’t go to college together, you see. In retrospect we figured out that we met during freshman orientation. A failed, forced scavenger hunt mixer between our respective dorms, in which all I remember is lounging on the lawn with one of my budding best friends, laughing snarkily about how those guys over there were so weird but at least they didn’t care about the stupid scavenger hunt either.
But we didn’t start dating until senior year. And only halfway through that.
So whenever we wax nostalgic about college days, we each have our own memories, our own stories, our own epic escapades with our own groups of friends.
Last week we stood outside in the settling dark of a warm summer night. We’d let the dog out before turning to head to bed, all three boys already lost in slumber upstairs.
And as we stood there, barefoot on the edge of another lawn, August grass already curling into early autumn’s brown, I turned to him and asked -
Do you remember when every night was full of possibility?
When every weekend beckoned with the prospect of an unforgettable night out and unbelievable stories to share with our roommates the next morning. When promise hummed in the late-night air as our group headed for the bar or the party or the dance. When there was always the prospect that tonight might be a night we never forgot – that we’d meet someone, that we’d run into fun just around the next corner, that we’d end up with one of those classic college stories only hilarious to those who were there, who never forgot the mayhem or the nickname that ensued from the night’s events.
When the air was electric with anything possible.
When I think about what changes once college recedes in the rear-view mirror, it is this sense of wide-open prospect that seems farthest gone.
Not only that any evening could turn epic, that even a late-night run to the grocery store could prove entertaining, but that the next class or professor could be the one that changed an interest into a major. That the semester abroad could lead to a career. That the retreat or the alternative spring break or the service project could open up a whole new calling.
Our eyes were open wider than they had ever been before.
And we almost knew it while it was happening. We had a hunch that the alumni who reappeared faithfully for fall football weekends weren’t simply missing friends or classes or campus clubs. They were missing a way of life. The promise of possibility that opens briefly for those of us lucky enough to call a college education our own. The widening of four years in which the world becomes our proverbial oyster and we get giddy off the aphrodisiac.
But of course it cannot last forever.
The choices we all began to make – graduate school and cross-country moves and first jobs and engagements and marriages and babies and houses – they were good and necessary choices. The rest of our life was waiting to happen, beckoning to begin when we stood outside the convocation center, clutching our graduation caps while wild May wind whipped through our hair.
Is every night full of promise and possibility now? At first my instinct says no. These are our tired thirties, after all.
Now nights are full of dirty dishes and diaper changes and wrangling wiggling children into bath and bed, then turning to the disheveled house and the day’s to-dos left unfinished at work, and then how is it 11:30 again? We’re going to be wiped out when the baby wakes us at 5. Let’s get to bed – wait, did you take the dog out and is the dishwasher running and did anyone switch the laundry into the dryer and where did that stack of bills go?
The air around us starts to feel old and tired. The furthest thing from electric.
But sometimes when I try to look with wider eyes, eyes that used to spark at any possibility, eyes that still sense the shadows of what’s most important, even on a dark night under a cloudy sky, I see that maybe the promise of our nights is still there.
Muted tones, softened edges. But still so present.
Every night I get to slip into bed next to that boy I fell in love with when we were 21. Every night one of our children wakes needing something from us – milk or water or simply a snuggle back to sleep. Every night our house stands strong and safe around us. Every night we rest to ready ourselves for another day’s good work.
There’s so much promise brimming there.
Sure, the prospect of possibility looks different at 33 than it did at 22. I’m sure it will shift to change again at 44 and 55 and on and on. Our lives become limited by the choices we make, but these aren’t all harsh constraints. Simply sharper definitions. We become ourselves. Partly the selves we have chosen, partly the selves we have shaped in response to what life has given us.
So perhaps the better question is not where does promise lie but how sharply can our eyes see it?
Back then, footloose and fancy free, we never could have imagined what lay before us. Life’s never this way. Even those easy, eager conversations of oh, I definitely want kids, too that we must have had while first dating – we never dreamed that those breezy hopes would stumble over infertility or miscarriage.
But neither could we have grasped the depths of how all that was tough and hardened would bind us together, closer than we could have glimpsed when we were laughing on that loud dance floor, the night it all began.
. . .
Lately I’ve been mulling over that line from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus sitting on the shore in the gray light of dawn, staring at the water and telling Peter that when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.
But - and there is always a but, isn’t there? and you feel Peter cringe because he knows it, too – when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
And even though our end will never be as dramatic as Peter’s tale will twist, we still sense this truth about adulthood. The truth you cannot grasp when you are on its giddy brink.
You will be taken where you do not wish to go. Your heart will want things it cannot have, and your soul will struggle with truths it does not want. You will be pulled towards people and places you never imagined.
But there can still be promise there, enough possibility to keep you looking skyward even on the dragging days and the darker nights.
As long as your eyes can keep blinking open. Wide enough to see it.
. . .
The Lord, your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he acted with you before your very eyes in Egypt, as well as in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord, your God, carried you, as one carries his own child, all along your journey until you arrived at this place.
Notice your habits of holding your baby. Is your back arched? Are your shoulders slumped? Your wrists aching? Each time you pick up baby today, be mindful of the way you carry him or her. Make small adjustments to relieve the tension in your body.
Pray to God for the strength to carry your child throughout their life, not only when they are small enough to carry, but as they grow into adulthood.
Ask for the wisdom to know when and how to shift the way you hold your child, whether in your arms or in your heart.
. . .
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.
When your baby finally closes eyes to sleep today, let yourself lie down and rest for a few minutes.
Even if you have ten thousand other things you should be doing, even if the sink is overflowing with dishes, even if your older kids are running wild downstairs, even if you don’t have time for a real nap, simply let yourself rest and breathe deeply for several good minutes.
Take a Sabbath break in the middle of newborn time which follows no schedule. Allow your thoughts to settle and your love to rise.
Honor your body’s need to rest as a sign of strength, not weakness. Let yourself remember that it is not up to you to do it all. Delight in the truth that God’s ways, not yours, are ultimate.
. . .
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
Go outside on a clear night and look up at the stars. Remember how small your life is – your worries, your problems, and your fears – when seen against the vast universe above you. Give thanks to God who created the heavens and the earth.
Go inside and watch your baby sleep. Remember how big your life is – your joys, your loves, and your gifts – when compared to the tiny child before you. Give thanks to God who created this unique life and all its potential.
Continuing with the practical side of spiritual practices with newborns, here is the 2nd in this series of simple ways to pray while caring for a baby: all day long, up all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments.
. . .
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I put my hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before each watch of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise.
Psalm 119: 147-148
Next time you are up with baby at 2:00 am (or 3:00 am, or 4:00 am – or all 3!), think of all those who are also awake at this late hour: employees working the third shift, tired parents tending to sick children, monks and nuns praying the hours.
Pray in solidarity with those who work while others sleep. Pray in thanksgiving to God who is always present, watchful and waiting.
. . .
… I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
As you rock back and forth with your baby, let the rhythm set the pace for your prayer.
Meditate on a two-part prayer that matches your movement forward and back.
A-men. Je-sus. Yah-weh.
Or choose the four-part cadence of the ancient Jesus Prayer:
Jesus Christ / Son of God / Have mercy on me / A sinner.
As you connect with your rhythm and breath and baby, let yourself be lulled and comforted as you quiet your own soul within you.
. . .
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Whenever you wrap your baby in soft blankets to keep her warm or tight swaddlers to help him sleep, think of Mary wrapping her newborn child in love and warmth. Ask for Mary’s guidance to love, protect, and care for your child.
. . .
But I will sing of your might;
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been a fortress for me
and a refuge on the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
for you, O God, are my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.
Psalm 59: 16-17
When you sing to your baby, think of someone who sang favorite lullabies to you as a child: a parent, grandparent, older sibling or baby sitter.
Hold their love in mind as you repeat verse after verse. Give thanks to God for the small, simple ways we share love with each other.
And when you run out of ideas for songs to keep you awake while you help baby fall asleep, try a church hymn – an old classic from growing up or a new favorite from today.
Add your voice to the church’s song of praise to God, who is faithful in the morning, all day, and at night.
. . .
Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – in fussy moments!
First: a confession. The series on spiritual practices with newborns? Turned out nothing the way I expected. What I thought would be a practical guide turned into my philosophical wanderings as I processed this summer. Great for me, maybe less for all you new parents who told me you were excited for the series. Thanks for reading along anyway!
Second: an inspiration. All those practices I wrote (and rambled) about? Still wonderful ways to pray when you have a new baby in your life. For those of you drowning in diapers and midnight feedings, I’ve compiled a list of short Scripture verses and quick prayer practices that you can do while caring for baby.
All day long. Up all night. For fussy moments. For peaceful moments.
. . .
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The next time you’re tempted to check the clock when feeding the baby – how long has it been since he last took a bottle? how long have I been sitting here nursing her? – close your eyes instead and give thanks for all the good meals you have enjoyed in your life. Thanksgivings, Christmases, date nights, nights out with friends, family dinners at home.
Pray for someone with whom you shared a memorable meal. Pray for you and your child to nurture generous hearts to share with those who are hungry. Pray in gratitude to God who feeds you.
. . .
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Each time you clean up after your child today – diaper change, bath-time, spit-up, wet crib sheets or worse! – offer up a petition for their future.
May they always know love. May they always be surrounded by people who care for them. May they always grow in the ways they care for others.
. . .
Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.
When your baby gets hurt – from shots or diaper rashes or bug bites or scratches – remember that your role as a parent is not always to protect them from every harm, but to help them handle life’s bumps and heal from life’s wounds. Humbly ask God for the strength and wisdom to love like this.
Each time you try to soothe your screaming newborn, hold in mind one way that they may need to heal from hurts as they grow: rejections by cliques and crushes, disappointments in sports or extracurriculars, academic failures, high school heartbreaks, challenges in college, professional and personal setbacks.
Ask God to guide your child through the journeys of hurting and healing that lead into adulthood. Pray for resilience and forgiveness for both you and your baby.
. . .
Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – up all night!
Mommy, I just want to hug you around your scars!
His sky blue eyes flash. His brows furrow. The cheerful animals plastered across his summer pajamas – a grinning monkey and laughing elephant atop a fire engine – smile up at me in stark contrast to the glare on his face.
For weeks he’s been told not to fling his arms around my waist. He can’t plop down into my lap when we read stories. I can’t carry him down the stairs. And he’s just plain sick of it. Tired of dealing with the aftermath of my surgery. I am, too.
But the scars are still healing. We have to keep waiting.
I thought I had postpartum healing figured out the third time around. Lots of rest. Lots of help. Hot baths. Healthy meals. Slow walking. No lifting.
And it turned out that my recovery from birth was even easier this time than in the past. Four days after Joseph arrived, I honestly felt like my old self. No pain, no soreness, no need for Tylenol. Of course I took it easy for a few more weeks, having learned the hard way how quickly a new mom can overdo it and end up paying the price. But I felt amazing, and I was grateful.
We kept remarking on it, astonished, in the few moments of adult conversation we’d steal after all the kids were tucked into bed at night. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, “but you seem to be feeling great.”
I agreed. I joked about waiting for the other shoe to drop.
. . .
Healing became the theme of our summer, by no wish of our own.
First was recovering from the aches of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, of course. I expected that.
But then there was this awful appendicitis that landed me back in the hospital six weeks after giving birth.
And then we suffered a shocking death in our family.
And now people we love are waiting for test results and prepping for surgery.
In short, we’re surrounded by a lot of pain. Personal and communal, physical and emotional.
It will take a long time to heal.
. . .
Do pleas for healing get flung up towards heaven more than any other prayer?
All my life it seems I’ve been praying for someone to get better. Brother. Grandparents. Relatives. Friends. Teachers. Neighbors. Co-workers. Acquaintances. Strangers.
Many of those people stayed sick. Or got worse. Or died.
What exactly do I believe about healing anyway? Is it the reward of the lucky few? The result of the right treatment? The randomness of sheer luck?
And what does God have to do with it? Everything? Or nothing? I’m still not sure.
There are a few things I know. You need the right people to help you heal. People with expertise or experience or compassion or love. (Sometimes even all four.)
You need plenty of time. At least as much as experts advise. Sometimes much longer.
And things will never be exactly as they were before. Like the childhood scars that tried to teach us this truth. Pale pink ridges over once-smooth knees.
. . .
At first it seemed strange to see healing as a spiritual practice. After all, I had no choice in the matter: the baby and the appendix both had to come out. My body had to deal with the aftermath of each.
But when surgery shoved me back to bed after I thought recovery days were behind me, I started thinking about the cycle of suffering and healing. Is it an illusion whenever we think ourselves to be whole, as if healed were a past participle, tidy and complete?
I look around me and I see one family mourning a brother, another mourning a mother, another dealing with an awful divorce, another dealing with a terminal illness.
Around each of those wounds are circles rippling outward: relatives and friends and co-workers and neighbors who are affected by each of these losses. And the world writ large is groaning with pain, too. Russia and Iraq and Palestine and Israel. Too much.
Maybe the post-partum period is a microcosm of how suffering and healing shape all our lives. Some mothers have easy deliveries, some have traumatic births. Some of us have blissful babymoons, some have wretched recoveries. We do nothing to merit these experiences, but we must live through them as they come. We must try to heal as best we can.
To help our broken hearts to stay open, not bitter.
. . .
Three thin lines trace across my skin. Scars from the surgery. Still rosy red, still new enough to remind me daily of the difference between before and after.
This summer will be folded into my story just like soft new scars. This was the summer that Joseph was born and Uncle Jim was killed. (And my appendix failed in the middle of it all.)
But isn’t this the way our stories always wind? The physical and the emotional woven together. The personal and the communal weathered together. The beauty born of pain and the anger born of grief.
Eventually our skin will stretch to cover and accept the scar. We will be changed.
This is surely where God is found in healing. In our carrying of each other’s stories. And in our trusting that something good might be born of pain.
My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
. . .
Where in your life are you healing? How have you been changed?
Be still and know that I am God.
Your hands have held things that terrified you. Your first set of car keys. A boy’s sweaty palm. The college admission letter. Cold cans of beer. A brand-new passport.
All gripped by fingers that trembled, knowing the weight of what might come next, the thrill as well as the terror.
God was there somewhere, in what you held.
Be still and know that I am.
Your hips have carried things that taught you. Armfuls of books down high school hallways, then grad school library stacks. Piles of file folders from one job, then another. A niece, then a nephew, then three more.
All slung on one hip, shifted to the side as you walked, aware that what you now held was changing the way you moved, subtly but for good.
God was there somewhere, in what you cradled.
Be still and know.
Your arms have embraced things that overwhelmed you. Sobbing friends after break-ups. Exhausted relatives after funerals. A brand-new family of in-laws. Your first child. Your second son.
All wrapped round with arms that wondered if they could stretch wider, if they were strong enough not to shake even as they tired.
God was there somewhere, in what you accepted.
But maybe nothing else you’ve held has mattered as much as what you hold now, all day and all night, upstairs and down, inside and out, while you soothe and sing and stave off sleep, while you make breakfast and eat lunch and cook dinner.
One small baby, who squeaks and squawks into your neck, who aches your shoulders and slows your steps to heart’s pace.
This is not to say that bearing children trumps all other experiences. Or that parenting’s importance makes other callings pale in comparison. Or that everything up to now has been mere practice. You know none of this is true.
But the weight of what you carry now is no longer your own life. It is possibility within your hands. It is a brand-new person unfolding. With all the beauty and terror and wonder that offers. You know this is true.
Everything is changing because of what you are learning to hold.
Watch the world shift as you pick him up. As you cradle him to your heart. As you hum in his small curl of an ear.
Watch your life stretch, then settle to embrace what you’ve been asked to hold.
Watch yourself becoming someone new because of what you carry.
Watch God find you there. Again and always.
Be still and know that I am God.
I thought I knew something about accepting help when a newborn arrives.
But then last Sunday’s I wonder why my stomach hurts… turned into maybe we should go to urgent care? to that appendix needs to come out stat and the surgeon is waiting for you in the operating room.
Nothing like an emergency appendectomy to land a postpartum mom right back where her summer started. Recovering, recuperating, resting in bed.
For five days straight I didn’t change a diaper. Didn’t run a single load of laundry. Didn’t read a single book to my big kids, cook a single meal for our family, or even brave the painful walk downstairs.
I needed help to do everything.
And I had to learn the practice of acceptance all over again.
. . .
Since the moment of his birth, we’ve been blessed with help. Friends and neighbors brought dinners to share and offers to babysit. My sainted mom came to stay with us for three weeks, cooking and cleaning and baby-whispering and big-kid-entertaining as only a grandma can do. And my in-laws snuck the boys away for afternoons or mornings so I could catch up on sleep or simply tend to the baby.
But it took a serious setback – a week where everything fell apart, not just mama’s health – for me to remember my utter reliance on others.
What a tough lesson it is to remember.
. . .
Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set.
(Exodus 17: 11-12)
What I love about this story isn’t the magical power of Moses to win battles.
It’s the sweaty, aching, all-day-long reminder that to do the work we’re called to do, we need others to hold us up.
. . .
When I was still in the hospital, groggy from pain meds and aching all over, I tried to nurse the baby again, for the first time. But with incisions all over my stomach, I couldn’t even cradle him across my lap.
So my husband had to cup the baby’s head in one hand and wrangle his wriggling feet in the other hand, to keep him from kicking my tender scars.
All I could do was sit there. With tears streaming down my face. And let him help me, ironically, do the thing that only a mother can do.
(And to think that I thought accepting help was about getting over my guilt of hiring child care while I’m on maternity leave.)
. . .
The truth is that I always need help to do this work well.
Take the case of the summer babysitter. Our family’s routine runs on a rhythm that has always involved help with child care, and now is no exception. When the sitter is here, I can clean, cook, write, run errands, nap or simply tend to a needy newborn. All of which is good and necessary for our family.
I’m learning to be a mom of three, and this cheerful college sophomore is helping me do that, two mornings a week. Thank God for her help.
But interdependence is never the easiest lesson for us to learn, is it? We independent Americans. We people-pleasers. We do-it-all multi-taskers.
And isn’t it ironic that for women who have just given birth, we run ourselves ragged trying to care for the baby and clean the house and write the thank-yous and entertain the relatives and show off the baby? (Hasn’t every first-time mom learned this one the hard way?)
In a time when you give so much – when you have given everything, in fact, yourself, your sleep, your blood, your milk, your sweat, your time, your energy – the hardest part can be accepting that you cannot give it all. That you depend on help from others.
And that this might be exactly the way God created things to be.
. . .
This time around the newborn bend, I have to accept help as a spiritual practice. Even when I had an easy recovery from birth, I still needed my midwives, an amazing lactation consultant, our rock-star pediatrician, and our peppy babysitter to make life with baby possible.
And now that I’m back to healing mode – forced to put my feet up and climb stairs slowly and ask someone else to lug around that bulky car seat – I’m relearning how to embrace humility. To surrender to the truth that I can’t do it all. Because it was never all mine to do.
God whispers, nudges, nods and reminds me – through the triage nurse and the ER doctor and the next-door neighbor and the smiling grandma – that we get through this world by the help of others.
Again and again, my hands grow weary with this work I’m called to do. Thank God there are so many others to help hold them, steady at my side until the sun sets.
Such a gift, to have armfuls of help, even when we hurt.
If I only have the grace to accept it.
. . .
For a new twist: the next time someone offers you help, don’t apologize or protest that you don’t need it. But simply accept, with deep gratitude.
How does it feel to accept when you cannot give back in return?
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you…
The poor babe is sick. Gift of a cold from his big brothers, generously passed along a week after they finished hacking and sniffling and crying for us all night long.
Neither of them were ever sick so small, and it breaks my mama heart to see his tiny newborn face turn beet-red as he struggles to breathe when he coughs. And when baby is only a month old, there are no cold meds to clear his congestion, no Tylenol to help him sleep. We can only watch and wait for the cold to run its course.
Life with a sick baby increases the yuck factor exponentially, too. He snarfs sticky trails on my shoulder, spits up sour milk puddles into my lap, sneezes a germy spray all over my face.
But all I want to do is comfort him. Every cell in my body screams out, hard-wired to cuddle and cradle him. To try and help what I cannot heal.
. . .
When we pick up a crying baby, we revert to the rhythms which comforted us as children, too. The most ancient rhythms – snuggle and rock, cuddle and coo. The body leads and the lullaby follows: knees soften, hips sway, arms cradle, hands rub, lips hum, eyes close.
There isn’t much to comforting a baby. There is only everything. The filling of the moment with the emptying of the self.
Has it been 10 minutes or 2 hours since we started rocking in this chair, or pacing the path of the upstairs hallway?
And who are we becoming in the process?
. . .
The thing about having a baby and older kids is that you realize how the same soothing rhythms stay with us. Sam wipes out on his older cousin’s bike, and he comes flying around the corner, wailing for a hug. Thomas’ nose runs like a leaky faucet, and he cries out in a most pathetic plea – I just want you to hold me!
I cradle them with the same sway that rocks their baby brother whenever he wakes. The same rub of the heaving back. The same murmurs whispered low. The same lingering kiss on the sweaty forehead. All the instincts that quiet the newborn give comfort to the big kids, too.
Perhaps deep down we are all always this small soft child. Crying out to be seen, soothed, loved.
Shouldn’t soothing be the simplest subject? Something about it is so instinctual that even our 4 year-old starting shushing in his baby brother’s ear the first time he held him.
But all week I’ve been struggling to write this. Not only to steal away enough time to fill the page, time away from rocking and holding and cuddling and nursing.
But also because it seems like a saccharine subject at first glance. The spirituality of soothing? It’s convenient to conjure up a God who comforts. Isn’t that the stuff of the opiate of the masses – creating the God we crave?
Yet I believe comforting is not simply some handy attribute of the divine. It’s an imperative at the heart of faith. The catch with Christianity is that we are called – even compelled by our very nature, created in God’s image – to comfort in turn. And there’s the rub indeed.
Because it’s hard work to comfort. It aches the back and tires the arms and rasps the throat and wearies the head. Comfort is not just about the calm, but the storm.
Sometimes when I’ve held an inconsolable newborn, on one of those crying jags that pound in your eardrums and pulse in your blood, I’ve wondered how God could possibly stay with us – all of us – through our own shrieks and screams and sobs. The only answer I can find is that this practice of love is about deep faithfulness – not some token pat on the back, not mere temporary relief.
Behold, I am with you always. As a mother comforts her child.
. . .
And it’s so sweet to soothe these small ones, too. So undeniably full of love and loveliness – to have the sleeping head finally loll onto your shoulder, to hear the smooth steady breath that once was ragged, to watch the peaceful eyes stay closed when you gently lay the baby back down.
Both sides of soothing – the challenge and the comfort – whisper something about who God is and who we are invited to be in turn. Consolers. Lovers. Peace-makers.
The ones who stop and stoop and scoop up to soothe. The ones who murmur quiet words over the wails and whimpers. The ones who keep watch over the sick, the weak, the wounded.
Come to me, all you who are weary. Christ like a father who crouches down and opens arms wide to embrace the sobbing child, the smallest who comes seeking only one thing, the desperate need in the painful moment.
So I will comfort you. God like a mother clasping her child to her chest, wrapped in the most intimate embrace, beating heart to heart.
This is love with skin on.
. . .
For a new twist: next time you’re comforting your children, remember who has comforted you through past hurts. Have you been blessed to know someone who comforts as God comforts?
Where do you need comfort in your life? What comfort are you called to give?