Thursday, April 24, 2014

April 24th

On Easter Sunday I kept waking up early, thinking of how the women left for the tomb before dawn, conscious of the bird song and the warmth of Keith sleeping beside me and of the quiet communion of the inner place.

"It seems strange that I should be with You like this when I should be meditating on Your death," I confessed to Jesus. "But I can't bear to think of it."

He only smiled and didn't mind that I put my ear to His heart, to listen to it beating.

"After all, the angels are very close to You," I said, thinking of how they had ministered to Jesus in Gethsemane and were there again in the garden tomb.

Not so close as you, He said.

It was a rainy morning and so I didn't get the chance to watch the sunrise, but I stood at the back door with Merissa, listening to the birds. It's all green out there now.

We left for church a half hour early, in order to practice the baptism. There were trumpets blaring from the balcony where the choir sings and Merissa looked at me with wide eyes. She was entering nap time territory with no prospect for a nap in the near future. Keith and I felt much apprehension on this account.

The practice went well, though I found it hard to concentrate on anything, lost in the words. I had felt anxiety about many different prospects- a watery poop running up the back of Merissa's flowered and flounced dress or her wailing with abandon throughout the entire service, but I was sunk down too deep in some internal place for the anxiety to impact me.

As I have no ability to control the things I am anxious about, I have to leave them in the hands of God and merely do the one thing that is for me to do in that moment, and then to do the next thing when that comes- doing each thing like a secret language of love for God- and if there is nothing to do, to rest and to love Him in rest. This has been my practice of late.

Sometimes I forget this practice, but when I remember, I just take it up again. Sometimes I feel wearied by this practice and then I remember it's not my strength and faithfulness I'm counting on, and it's not about feeling some emotion or feeling some sense of His presence, it's about the simple faith that God is present and offering Him the exact thing that I am doing as an act of love.

As the time for the service drew near, we waited in the lobby to take our part in the procession, informed by a black robed lady that she was our vesper and would tell us where to take our place. Merissa flirted charmingly over my shoulder with some of the ladies of the choir.

People streamed in and chairs had to be brought at last minute and set up at the back and sides of the church. I kept stepping to the side as my husband and various other volunteers brought the chairs through the crowd.

Eventually the organ struck up some thunderous music and the procession began to disappear through the doors into the heart of the sound and eventually, our red-haired, bright-eyed vesper was waving to us and we took our place behind her.

The church was floating in a sea of white lilies and alleluias. We took our place at the very front and after us came a stream of children carrying bright flowers that they placed in the cross of evergreens placed up front. This took some time and children were spilling up and to the sides and wandering around curiously. There was the fresh smell of crushed carnations and lilies and the bitter, ancient scent of the incense.

I had lost my program and so could not follow the liturgy; I could not have done it anyway, with the baby in my arms, so it took me completely by surprise when the song, Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, rose up it seemed from under my feet and swept me away. The Rector saw my face and smiled.

I remembered that to seek the Kingdom of God is to seek and follow Christ and the power of those words and that thought rose up all through me- it seemed to me both a great necessity and a great pleasure, whereas before, I'd always been confused about this seeking. How should I seek this Kingdom? Where is this Kingdom? What does the seeking look like?

This anxiety is all but gone now, and I could sing those words without reservation and the next part of the song was in my mouth and I was singing and I was trying not to cry, because I was singing with my daughter in my arms.

I remembered the day after she was born, sitting with her in my arms in the newborn nursery and talking with her birthparents. As they were talking about their difficult journey toward choosing adoption, and the peace they felt with the decision now, Jesus spoke right into my heart. This is the child you asked Me for; I'm giving her to you, He had said.

On Easter morning, as soon as I'd started singing, Merissa looked up at me with joy and what my husband calls, "pure love" and reached her hand to my face and didn't take her eyes off me for a moment and tried to sing along softly, off tune. This is a regular occurrence, but one that happens in the nursery in the evening, without an audience.

In the church, Keith turned and looked down at us in awe. The people behind us started to film us. I was really having a hard time singing at this point, because it was taking all my concentration not to cry.

The song dissolved into the chorus of alleluias and then the next verse rose up, and I was doing okay until the part where I was singing, knock and the door shall be opened unto you, and I could barely say those words, it was so strong in me, the wonder of this open door that Christ has put before me.

I felt His love washing through me, reminding me and insisting that I remember this gift through the words of the song. I felt that and I felt His presence as though He were standing behind me, His hands on my shoulders, steadying me.

"I love You," I said, directing this thought as though to the cross at the center of the church.

I'm right here, He whispered into my ear, as though I were standing in the circle of His arms.

It was all very much. I was very glad to sit down when it was time to sit down. I knew Merissa would be hungry by then, so Keith fixed her a bottle and I offered it to her, wondering if she would take it in that strange environment. She wound her hand around one of my fingers and drank the entire bottle while the readings from Scripture were said. Merissa spent the Rector's short sermon bouncing on her father's knees and waving her hands in the air and being charming to the people behind us.

Then it was time to go up and then my anxiety struck hard. I kept my head down and thought about one thing at a time, first to take that step and then the next and then to look up and find the Rector's face so I would know which direction to head toward, then to look up toward Keith to be sure he was there and that he had the seven page booklet outlining the Sacrament. He was; he did.

It was a full church. I tried not to think about it. Two good people from the congregation stood beside as, as sponsors in place of Merissa's godparent who couldn't be there.

The Rector had said that any time they celebrated the sacrament of baptism, everyone renewed their vows with the person being baptized; that the sacrament was a communal act, a joining of the community, a common celebration and joy.

So when I said the vows with Keith and the sponsors, and in Merissa's stead, for her and with her until the time comes for her to confirm them for herself or not as she is free to do, I was also renewing them myself. This knowledge was being pressed on me, as I stood there, leaning against Keith, trying to read the words on the page.

The words we were reading were centuries old. When we were practicing, the first time we all spoke together, we unconsciously choose the word "we," instead of "I," and the Rector had to correct us. She said that although we were speaking in harmony, it was for each of us an individual declaration.

The Rector asked, "Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?"

And I looked up and declared, "I renounce them."

The Rector asked, "Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?"

"I renounce them."

The Rector asked, "Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?"

"I renounce them."

"Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?"

And looking up into the space of air between the seats and the choir, I said, "I do."

"Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?"

And looking up, I said to Him, "I do."

The Rector asked, "Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?"

And we all said together, and I said to Him then, and again, and for all my life and for our daughter: I do.

Merissa loves water, so she was not upset when she was baptized, only very much surprised and then she waved her hands around excitedly, sometimes laughing and sometimes smiling. She was calm and interested in the Chrism, the holy oil that was marked in a cross on her forehead.

"Merissa," the Rector said, tenderly, "you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever."

I heard those words with a feeling of awe, and then the Rector presented her to the congregation by carrying her down into the central isle.

"Meet the newest little Christian," she announced.

As I watched her being carried away from me and into a crowd of interested people, I realized that Merissa is not just a gift to Keith and myself, but to the world, in the way each child is. I had a glimpse of what it will feel like when she is grown and walking away into her own life.

When we went down to our pew with Merissa, the woman behind us was in tears, her mascara pooling under her eyes. "I'm crying!" she said, a little helplessly, stretching her hands out. "I'm crying, it was so moving!"

When it was time for Eucharist, we were invited up. By that time Merissa, very much nap deprived, had fallen limply asleep in my arms, her face buried in my neck. Keith and I both wanted to go and so I simply carried Merissa with me; by this time, my right arm was about numb with the strain of holding her.

At the rail, I knelt down, still with her in my arms. I'm not sure how I managed this, as I was wearing an ankle length skirt and high heeled sandals, but in any case, down we went. The next thing I know, the black robed official next to me was bending down to talk to me.

"We don't kneel down at Easter," he told me, with such kindness.

Naturally speaking, due to my shyness, I should have been completely chagrined, because as it happened, the official, Keith, Merissa and myself were the only ones up there in front of the whole church- apparently that's another thing Episcopalians do that I wasn't aware of. But I wasn't embarrassed, I was full of some humble, willing joy.

"Oh, we don't?" I asked him, happily. We'd been kneeling down all during Lent and I'd just assumed it was the thing one did. Actually, I would have preferred to continue kneeling, but I was more than happy to follow the form.

He helped us up with one hand, otherwise, I'm not sure how I would have gotten back up.

"She did so well during the ceremony," he remarked, encouragingly, when I was standing, as though to comfort me for my small mishap.

"Yes, she did, didn't she," I agreed, joyfully.

When the Rector came to offer the host, she paused before stepping away. She turned back to place her hand on Merissa's head and began to pray. As she did, I felt the Spirit move over me so strongly that my eyes fluttered shut.

Merissa and I waited in the lobby until the rest of the service was over. While we were there, one of the black robed officials came by and paused. He was broad with a grizzled face and short, bristly grey hair and piercing eyes. He looked like a monk.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked, in his direct manner, eyes twinkling- before the service, he'd asked us if we were nervous and Keith and I had both heartily admitted to being just that.

"No, it was not so bad," I said, Merissa still fast asleep in my arms. "It was wonderful," I added, softly, attempting to put some words to the experience.

"Yes," said the man briefly, softly. He touched Merissa's head with his fingers before turning away quickly and striding back to whatever duties were calling him

On the way home, we stopped at Burger King for some lunch. I sat in the car with the warm paper bag on my lap, listening to the radio and lost in thought. I couldn't help remembering the song I had sung in front of another congregation twenty years ago, when I had been sixteen, the last stanza especially:

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
-How Firm a Foundation

It seemed to me that the song and the vows I had repeated just that day were like bookends to a particular period of my life- a period of life like a wilderness.

When I was a teenager, I used to draw as a hobby and I filled sketch pads with pictures. I've kept some of them and two in particular stand out to me; I keep them in my bedside drawer.

One is of myself sitting in a wing chair looking out the open window, a book fallen to my lap while a messenger leans over the back of the chair, whispering into my ear. There is a look of wonder on my face. Written around the pictures are words from this verse:

"Listen, oh daughter, and incline your ear, for so the King will desire your beauty; worship Him, for He is your Lord." (Psalm 45:10-11)

The second sketch is of myself leaning against a tall, robed person with sandals with the desert behind them and this verse is written across the bottom of the page:

"Who is this coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her Beloved?" (Songs 8:5)

Sometimes I pull out those sketches- poorly done and fading now after twenty years- and wonder how it was that I seemed to know the way my life was going to unfold.

I know my daughter's life is going to unfold with sorrow as well; the very circumstances of her birth plunged her into it. She will have losses to grieve and questions to ask. She will have her own kind of wilderness to walk through.

Sometimes I am gripped with intense fear of the future, wondering what lies in wait, what fearful events, what shameful failures, what loss?

That night, when I prayed with Merissa, I whispered to her all the things we were thankful for during the day.

"And we don't know what tomorrow will bring," I whispered to her, acknowledging this as I always do. "But we know that Jesus will be with us every step of the way like a Good Shepherd and His rod and staff, they comfort us, so we do not need to be afraid.

"And we know that all night you'll be held close in His arms, safe under His wings, close to His heart- all night long, safe and cozy, until in the morning light you wake to Jesus.

"And we know that we come from Him and we return to Him, because we live in Him, because He died for us, because He loves us," I whisper to her like a song, one I say each night. "And so we love Jesus and we belong to Him forever and ever."