I am in a church—my brother’s church. It is late November, the sky is white, and the people of Menomonee Falls are drinking coffee to ward off the cold. Thanksgiving has just passed, but I am still around, playing with my niblings and getting creative with leftover turkey.
I am skeptical of worshipping in a church where there are banners about missions and sepia-colored photos of artifact basins and fluffy white towels, as if service is something that we do on special occasions and the church is a place where we come to be inspired. The fact that it irks me does not mean it is bad. It means that somewhere in my journey, something went wrong.
I am tired of hearing that God is good while the world around me is falling to pieces. I’ve come from a coast where we are anxious and upset, but the people in Milwaukee do not seem to share our concern.
We stand to sing a praise song and my four-year-old nephew tugs at my sweater. “Hold me,” he says, his eyes dark as olives, hands reaching up in sure expectation, as if he knows that I cannot and will not say “no.”
I melt, open my arms and hoist him onto my hip, which is just the right size for a child his age. I breathe in the scent of his freshly-washed hair and tilt down my head to kiss his pink cheek.
I feel his body become heavy in my arms, as if he’s stopped feeling the need to hold his own weight, as if he knows and believes he is safe in my grasp.
I forget about the music and get lost in a pile of memories. I think of all the times that I have wanted to make this request, to have the assurance and confidence to ask someone to hold me.
I started dating my college boyfriend the summer between our freshman and sophomore year. In the cloister of time between May and September, we’d become more than friends and fallen into affection. It was exciting and new to go back to campus as an “us” and a “we,” when it had only ever been me and the rest of the world. One afternoon we were crossing the green, which is a large open lawn in the middle of campus. We sat down by a tree and started to talk. I leaned on his shoulder and looked for his eyes.
“Will you hold me?” I asked him.
“Here?” he replied.
“Well, yeah,” I said, thinking that this was the sort of thing you could ask from a boyfriend.
“I don’t think so, Amanda. I’m not really comfortable with that.”
Years and years later, when California was new and my heart was still bruised, I was wrapped up with a man in the corner of my love seat. He had been gentle with me since my first day of grad school, and exceedingly generous with his kindness and time, buying me bottles of sparkling water, which he’d seen that I loved, and putting up fliers when my laptop went missing. He took me for dinner to places I didn’t know that I needed to know, and then delighted in watching me relish my meal.
At the end of the evening he got up to go, and when we reached my front doorway, he turned back to hug me.
“Thank you for letting me hold you,” he whispered.
It was a notion I’d never quite put together—that you could offer a gift by offering your need.
I have not always had the emotional strength to hold another person.
I have at times been so weak and so broken that it was all I could do to keep myself standing. I’d fall onto my family through phone calls and check ins, be reminded of my resilience, and somehow I’d keep on.
It is a gift on both sides—to comfort and be comforted, to collapse and to support. We are quick to forget that we want to be needed and need to be wanted, and that neither is something we can satisfy on our own.
It is possible to to be too weak to support the life of another, but it is possible to be too strong as well—to be so certain and self-assured that you don’t see the people falling down all around you. You don’t think to offer yourself to those who are not always capable of asking.
There are times that I find shelter in silence or solace in sleep, curled up under covers in a fetal position that reminds me of those moments before I met the world. Sometimes I feel God is there in those moments, but often I long for a real incarnation. I crave the image of God to show up with biceps and fingers, and sometimes cologne. I want to be held, but there is not always someone who is willing to do that.
When my sister was a toddler, one of the first two-word phrases that she put together was “hold you.” She’d stand at our parents’ feet, lift her chubby little arms, and stare into faces with shiny blue eyes.
“Hold you,” she’d say.
Sometimes I think it was a question. Other times it sounded like a command. But mostly, it was stated rather matter-of-fact. This was a child who needed to be held.
We would chuckle at her infant error, as she swapped the preposition of “me” for “you.” It was humorous to think of a two-year-old girl offering to cradle the weight of her 30-something parents. But maybe there was something she knew that we didn’t.
Before I moved to California, I spent a summer in Kansas City, where I nannied for a four-year-old girl and her 12-month-old brother. I’d never changed a diaper, much less been a caregiver to a child who couldn’t speak in full sentences. I think that part may have been the hardest—that Owen and I didn’t have a shared language. He would try to form words, which I could rarely make out, and then groan at my failure to give him what he wanted.
Owen had also just started to walk, which was something that we all found exciting and frustrating. I have a lot of memories of Owen in a pile on the floor, his brow scrunched up and his arms reaching toward me. I could not understand. I could not make it easier. The one thing I could do was reach back and grab him, saddle him on my hip, and wrap my arms tight as we swayed in soft circles until both of us knew that it would all be okay.
Maybe that is the reason we want this so badly, across cultures and genders and regardless of age. It is a solution without words, an action that does not need an explanation. Active and passive, encircling and whole. There is no wrong way to hold or be held, to offer a space or to offer yourself.
Back in Milwaukee, I do this with my nephew, who is playing with my necklace and seems to be fine. I look over at my brother who is standing in front of the altar and I think of my sister with those pretty blue eyes, her two-year-old arms full of trust and expectation.
I think I do not need God to be good, if only God would be present. If only He would not disappear when I need to be loved. I think maybe the ministry of the church is not to bring people to Jesus, but to bring him to them, to be hands and arms without mouths and messages.
By the end of the service Josiah is crawling under pews on a quest for lost crayons, but before going home, I kneel beside him and whisper part of a lesson that I hope he will learn.
“Thank you for letting me hold you.”