Ever since I can remember, “The Little Drummer Boy” has been a Christmas favorite. When I was a kid, the fantasy of a cute boy drumming for Jesus made my pre-teen heart go rum-pum-pum-pum. I’ve always had a thing for musicians and he was just the sort of heartthrob Tiger Beat would have covered and collaged if it had existed at the time (possible headline: Would LDB Ever Date a Fan?). As an adult, “The Little Drummer Boy” has come to hit me on a much deeper level. Originally recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers, there’s a reason just about everyone from Ashlee Simpson to Bob Seger to Stevie Wonder has covered it. The song touches on something not often harkened upon in mainline Christianity — something we all feel at the cellular level but don’t like to stare too closely in the face — weakness.

I was sure of my own strength and self-made hutzpah until, at some point in college, my knees buckled from all the running and tap-dancing (figuratively speaking of course). I was tired, sweaty, out of breath, and out of distractions. God had been gently calling after me, inviting me to take a break, to towel off, to sip some water from his cup, to rest in him. And at last, after expending all of my own pitiful resources, I took him up on it: [Pant pant] “Okay,” [pant], “fine,” [pant], “but just for a second while I regain my strength…”

That was fifteen years ago. Recovery is a process.

Since then, I have always felt the compulsion to serve God, to give back, like some sort of Biblical Marvel character. I’d like to think that impulse is pure, the fruit of gratitude I have for the enormous love, grace, and relief I’ve received from the gift of the crucified Jesus, but let’s be honest, it’s complicated. There’s obviously more at play than just altruistic servitude or gift-giving (hah!) — law and grace, striving and peace, self-glory and God-glory, tap-dancing — but that’s more than I care to unpack in one short essay. And while this all makes me sound like either a saint or a boob, it is nonetheless an inexplicable, given urge that courses through me almost always. It just does. Maybe a little like the magi: my finest gifts to bring / to lay before the King.

The older and more sharply attuned to my weakness I’ve become, however, it is not a servant or a magi or a Wise Woman but the Little Drummer Girl I see written throughout the pages of my life. She is poor. She is needy. The bulk of what she might have to give is primarily tied up in things like “busyness” and “doctor’s appointments” and “HBO” and “responsibilities.” And yet she still — sinner or saint, boob or self-righteous ninny — longs to honor her King.

This December, a wave of basic life-stuff (as well as continued creative blockage) has me grieving my weakness anew. There is not enough time or energy. I am parenting from a place of frustration and exhaustion, and I haven’t had a thought compelling enough to write down in months (which is probably most perplexing because it is also most tied to the delicious spiritual identity I’ve created for myself). Sweet baby Jesus, HOW CAN I HONOR YOU WITH ALL THIS GARBAGE? Or, more elegantly:

 “I have no gift to bring / that’s fit to give our King.”

It’s tempting to keep the meaning of “The Little Drummer Boy” as something like, “Just give Jesus what you got, even if all you got is a little drum.” But I think there’s more to it. There has to be. Because what if you don’t even got a drum?

If you listen to the song, the repeating “rum-pum-pum-pum’s” begin before we ever know the LDB has a drum. Immediately after the quiet and mysterious first line, “Come they told me — pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” — the deep thumping sounds less like a snare drum and more like the quickening of a heartbeat after being invited to witness something miraculous. “…a newborn King to see — pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.”

I have come to adopt a theory that the LDB’s “drum” is really just his heart.

If this is true, then what a relief for those of us who have nothing left to give, not even a child’s musical instrument. If drum = heart in this carol, the lyrics take on renewed meaning. For instance, the Little Drummer Boy timidly asks, “Shall I play for you?” and again, before we ever know the instrument, before he even begins to play, the song says that “the ox and lamb kept time — pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.” Lamb and ox are two Scriptural qualities of Jesus, the baby himself, both our sacrifice and our strength. If the LDB’s gift is truly only the beat of his heart, then when ox and lamb keep time it means that Jesus himself keeps the time to our songs, whether melody or lamentation; Jesus himself forms the shape and rhythm of our offerings, our gifts — even when our gifts are intended for him. That is how weak we really are.

To this point, Acts 17:24-25 says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

This means the service and gifts we long to bring to Jesus are engendered, given both by us and to us from the very One we long to give them to. Whoa.

The first thing out of the Little Drummer Boy’s mouth is not a description of all he has to offer, musical prowess and whatnot, it is a confession of weakness, “I am a poor boy too — pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.” And there, in the depth of his weakness, something beautiful pours out of him. When I really sit with it, I think that’s all Jesus wants from us anyway — this Jesus who is easy and light — nothing but our drumming hearts, playing a song he himself created and composed. “Then he smiled at me — pa-rum-pum-pum-pum — me and my drum.”

Before singing her own rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” (Twelve Soulful Nights of Christmas), Alicia Keys said this:

…the illest thing to me about the little drummer boy
Or the little drummer girl, in my case, I mean,
Is that all that shorty had was her drum, that’s it.
And through her drum, she gave Jesus her soul
There ain’t no amount of riches that could ever amount to that
Y’know what I’m sayin’?

It’s true, Alicia. But this particular shorty (me) comes with nothing to give. Not even a little drum in tow. All she has to give is a heart, set to an elaborate rhythm by a baby, the King Himself. More often than not, its tempo is average, andante, and still “he smiles at her.” Even the most average heart is still the illest before a King like Jesus.

But every now and again, on a rare day, this heart is allegro, which is also ill. The fluctuating rhythm pounds quick and strong and daring like the ringing in of a great adventure; it is a bright refrain unbelonging to her; resounding such that it moves her hands to open a Word document, or to extend unlikely grace to her children. Spiritual margins open wide. And divine strength pulses through human weakness to translate this heartbeat into words — from either her mouth, or in the rum-pum-pum-pum of keys on a keyboard, typing onto a page that has been waiting and watchful for lo these many months; a gift given to and from the Giver Himself.