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Unwrapping Grace

8312957837_be66258dfa-1It was her first Christmas, or, perhaps more accurately, it was her sixth Christmas, but the first one we would celebrate as a family. Fifty-one days earlier, she had shown up on my front porch, a piece of pizza in one hand, a very small suitcase in the other and a foster care caseworker standing behind her, ushering her up my steps. She wanted to know where she would sleep, and was easily won over by warm chocolate chips cookies, fresh from the oven.

The fifty days that followed were full – enrolling in a new school, buying a new wardrobe, appointment after appointment, discovering which foods we both liked and which ones we didn’t, meeting her new extended family on Thanksgiving, and generally learning to live together. We both told lots of stories that Advent season – mine about family and traditions and presents under the tree, hers about Santa who left presents for everyone but her, and the family traditions that she watched from the outside.

In those fifty days, she became a well-loved child. My feelings for her rivaled the growing of the Grinch’s heart. She had her new grandfather twisted around her little finger practically before they met. The school and her foster agency ensured that she had Christmas gifts. My church hosted a party for her and gave enough toys and books to fill her entire new play room. Gifts and trinkets and well-wishes with her name on them appeared in my church office daily.

Her first Christmas Eve morning with my family dawned at my parents’ home, where we baked cookies, wrapped gifts and dressed her in her fancy dress with angel wings for the church’s Christmas pageant. Christmas Eve evening brought new pajamas, treats left for Santa, and a bedtime rendition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, read from the same book I had loved as a child.

My dad is fond of saying that that Santa makes a huge mess when he dumps his sleigh over under the Christmas tree, and judging by the huge pile of presents, Santa must have employed his biggest sleigh to carry all those gifts. From the ripping of wrapping paper and the cries of delight when she found the perfect presents, to the drive to Christmas dinner with my extended family and then back home, she was clearly having a wonderful day. This was the Christmas she always dreamed of having.

Then bedtime arrived. Everything was quiet. We had eaten the last Christmas cookie, she had taken her bath, and it was time to cozy up in warm pajamas. Only then, did the abundance of the day begin to sink in.

In the quiet, it became too much–too much love, too many gifts given in joy, too many treats for her tiny tummy, too many people who embraced her as family, just too much. She cried. For an hour and a half she cried, because she just couldn’t take it all in. She couldn’t comprehend that she was so loved. She didn’t know how to reconcile her own feelings of being unwanted for so long with a family who wanted nothing more than to welcome her home.

It was a hard night, hard to see her tears, hard to hear her declarations that she didn’t deserve this, hard to watch her struggle with her old, unlovable identity when a new identity, rooted in abundant love, was within arm’s reach.

Yet, hers was the perfect response. As we hear that story of the tiny Christ child, who came because we’re not good enough, because we don’t deserve his love, because we don’t know who we are, maybe we, too, should be overwhelmed to the point of sobbing. Maybe we need to stand in the hard gap between the identity we put on ourselves and the love that Jesus offers. Maybe, instead of fearing that there will never be enough for us, we need to open our hands to the abundance of grace that comes on Christmas morning.

 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.                                                                                                                                     John 1:14, 16

 

I do not know what this Christmas will bring. There will be gifts. There will be Christmas dinner and more pie than anyone should eat. There will be grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with whom to play and to celebrate. How my daughter responds will wait to be seen. But I hope, as we take a moment to gaze at the little Jesus in the manger, she and I will hold onto the lessons of last Christmas, remembering the feeling that we have been given more than we deserve, that grace is bigger than we can imagine, that love is deeper than we can absorb, all because of the incarnation of that small God child, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying the in manger.

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Gratitude for a Life Saved

During the month of November, Fidelia’s Sisters will be exploring the theme of gratitude and what it means to live out of a sense of abundance. Please enjoy these reflections on the goodness of life and ministry and follow our #thanksliving14 media project.

2478097503_3d6dd9d7c8“Why are you so quiet this morning?” my husband asked me as we drove to church one morning with our 19 month-old daughter in the back seat.

“I’m worried about the baby,” I said quietly. “I haven’t felt him move all morning.”

I was 36 weeks pregnant.  At the end of my first trimester I had discovered that my body had developed a rare condition in which my immune system created antibodies against blood types different from my own. At any point during the pregnancy, those antibodies could cross the placenta and start destroying the baby’s red blood cells, causing anemia. The big unknown with this condition was exactly when that would happen. For the rest of the pregnancy, doctors specializing in high-risk pregnancy monitored me constantly, conducting weekly ultrasounds to measure the blood flow through the baby’s brain, which was an indirect way of measuring anemia. One doctor warned me to pay close attention to lack of movement, because that was also a sign of anemia.

My husband was concerned. “You’d better call the hospital.”

I called, and the nurses instructed me to spend the next hour drinking something cold and sugary and poking at my belly to try to encourage the baby to move. We continued on to church, and I sat in the back of the sanctuary drinking a cold root beer and poking my belly. During that hour-long service, I did feel one sluggish movement from the baby, which assured me that the baby was still alive, but also confirmed that something was wrong. Fortunately, my parents-in-law happened to be at that church service, so we were able to send our daughter home with them while my husband and I went to the hospital.

Technicians and nurses hooked me up to monitors, and then gave me an ultrasound. The ultrasound techs called the high-risk pregnancy doctor, who declared, “That baby is sick. He needs a blood transfusion right away. I would guess that he only has half of his red blood cells. We have to do an emergency C-section because he’s too sick to survive labor.”

I got ready for the surgery and was taken to the operating room, where a team from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit was waiting. The OB doctors got to work, while my husband sat by my head. After several minutes I asked, “Has the baby come out yet?”

“Oh, yeah, we forgot to tell you,” one doctor replied. “He’s been out for a while, he’s over with the NICU team.”

Our son was very sick.  His little body revealed the stress of his severe anemia, and he was so jaundiced from all the dead red blood cells that his umbilical cord was neon yellow. He had aspirated meconium and the NICU team was suctioning his lungs trying to get him to breathe. Once he was breathing okay, they wheeled him over to where I was, still getting stitched back up, and I saw him for about 10 seconds before they whisked him away to the NICU, with my husband following.

While I was in a recovery room, still loopy from the drugs, the NICU doctor came in and told me that our son needed an exchanged transfusion, in which, bit by bit, they would take out all his blood and replace it with all new blood. This procedure would take over four hours, and I would not be able to see him until after it was over.

At 1:30 in the morning the NICU doctor came into my hospital room and announced, “The procedure is over, you can go see him now.” My husband wheeled me into the section of the NICU reserved for the sickest babies, and we beheld our son.

He was hooked up to all kinds of things, a breathing tube and a feeding tube and an IV and all kinds of sensors. Tubes from the blood transfusion stuck out from his belly button. He was laying on a light-up warmer bed, with six lights shining on him to treat his jaundice and special goggles covering his eyes, making him look like a baby beach bum trying to get a tan.

The doctor explained that my son had made it through the transfusion very well. He still had several things wrong with him, including jaundice, and they didn’t know how long he’d need to be under those lights. We wouldn’t be able to hold him until they were sure that he wouldn’t need another blood transfusion and could take the tubes out of his belly button. His body had been so stressed that its systems hadn’t regulated themselves, so he was also struggling with both hypertension and pulmonary hypertension. I was relieved to learn that now that he’d made it through that exchange transfusion, everything else he had was treatable.

I spent the next few days in the hospital, swimming in various emotions. It had been a very stressful pregnancy, and many nights I had been nearly sleepless with worry. Now I was exhausted, awash in all the pregnancy and birth hormones that were coursing through my body, recovering from the pain of the C-section and still worried about my son. I felt jealous of all the normal pregnancies and births that happen, and I felt guilty that my son wasn’t getting any of the skin-to-skin contact that we’d learned was so important for newborns. I was able to pump milk for the nurses to give him through his feeding tube, and I took some comfort in giving him that gift.

When it was time for me to be discharged, I didn’t want to leave the hospital. It was so difficult, so sad, to leave our son there in the hospital. I fell asleep that night praying for our son, and feeling grumpy and lonely and worried sad.

But in the morning my outlook changed. I suddenly felt gratitude wash over me. All I could think about was all of the things we had to be thankful for. I was incredibly grateful for all the people who had been praying for us. I was thankful for our attentiveness to the baby’s movements, to my parents-in-law and my parents for taking care of our daughter on short notice. I was thankful for the folks at the Labor and Delivery unit who took my situation seriously, including the high-risk obstetrician who came in on her day off to make the call for an emergency C-section, and for the NICU team who gave our boy the immediate care he needed. I was thankful for all the NICU staff, who were taking such good care of our sick baby. And I was moved to tears when I thought about the person who donated the blood for the transfusion that saved our son’s life.

Our son is now a happy, healthy two year-old, and his sister is nearly four. As I watch them play, I thank God for them. I thank God for giving us the strength and courage and support to make it through that stressful time. I thank God for all of the knowledge and expertise of the high-risk OB clinic and the NICU staff. And I thank God for all blood donors. I have been able to donate my red blood cells a few times since my son’s birth, knowing that blood donors may never know what lives their gift might save.

I Chose to Share Our Grief

4360741172_036237b080Unsuccessful pregnancy… fetal demise… no heartbeat… dilation & curettage… miscarriage.  These ugly words brought with them painful thoughts, grief, loss and disappointment.  “It feels very surreal,” I told my friend.  “Maybe when we hear the heartbeat, then it will feel real.  I have wanted this for so long, that I have a hard time believing I’m actually pregnant.”

Perhaps this is one way that we protect ourselves from the potential disappointment and pain of miscarriage. I have heard that in certain tribes in Africa, mothers wait to give their babies a name until they are a year old, a practice that corresponds to high infant mortality rates; however, these mothers do give their babies a secret name which no one else knows about. I suppose as a mother, you can’t help it.  You are going to be attached.  Even for a short time.  Even if it’s only for nine weeks.

Maybe God was protecting us from disaster.  Most miscarriages are a natural form of eliminating genetic abnormalities.  It feels like punishment, though.  I hear the friends of Job in my head as I wish I knew what we did to deserve this.

Amid those voices, I also hear the voice of God, “I am with you always.”

“Come to me, all who are weak and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

“Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.”  Not even miscarriage.

The anesthesiologist recommended a book called, I’ll Hug You in Heaven.  Does a 9 week-old fetus have a soul?  When does a person become a person?  I don’t know.  I cried thinking that if indeed there is a little person in heaven now, daddy and grandma would be there to welcome him, or her.  That made me feel a little bit better.

I’ve always cried easily.  This situation is no different in that respect. Even things I normally love seem to make me cry.  Yesterday we listened to Don Williams sing, “You’re My Best Friend,” a song which really speaks to my marriage with Jamey.  It is more our song than anything else that I can call to mind.  I completely fell apart when he sang, “You gave life to our children.”  What if I can’t?  We know we can get pregnant, but we don’t know if I can carry a healthy baby to term.  I sure hope that we can.  I don’t want to have to go through this again.  It’s awful.  And yet I’m not alone in this journey.  A lot of women have gone through this before, some of them many times.  How much suffering do we women go through alone in this life?

I chose to share our grief with my congregation.  This is a tricky thing to do.  Often, when a pastor goes through pain and suffering, and tells the congregation, she ends up taking care of them and helping them through their own feelings about the situation, rather than receiving genuine help and support for her own grief.  Sometimes it’s just easier to keep it to yourself and deal with it alone.  This is a special place, though, filled with good people.  They are taking good care of us.  I am blessed and thankful for that.  I told the session about my loss and asked them to pray for me.  They did.  I asked the personnel committee to give me an extra Sunday off this year so that I could heal emotionally and return in two weeks ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together with joy and thanksgiving.  They all said yes.  The congregation sent flowers and cards.  They sent lasagna and chocolate.  They gave us time to be alone as a family and heal together.  I am thankful.

Perhaps in sharing this grief with my congregation and with my friends and family, they, too can experience a deeper level of healing and God’s presence.  Hearing our story may bring up painful feelings and past grief, but my prayer is that as we journey through the valley of the shadow of death together, we also see the Shepherd walking alongside us, guiding and providing, leading us to green pastures and quiet waters, protecting us.

This liturgy from the Iona community, adapted from The Pattern of Our Days, is helping me to heal.

 As one whom a mother comforts I will comfort you, says the Lord.

We come here to thank God for this baby.  To thank God for conception, to thank God for the moments this baby was carried in Hanna’s womb, and in Jamey’s heart.

To thank God that in this short life, this child brought joy and laughter, anticipation and hope for the future.

We gather to share our grief and our anger that a life promised has been taken, that hope seems to have been cut off and joy destroyed.

We are here as parents, grandparents, friends and family to lay our questions, our sadness, and our hope at the feet of Christ, who opened his arms to receive all who were wounded and distressed.

We have come to acknowledge our feelings of guilt and failure, and to affirm our conviction that death is not the end but a new beginning.

Jesus says: Those who come to me, I will not cast out.

O God, as this child was cradled in the womb, cradle and hold this child so that as we let this baby go, we may know that this baby has gone from our loving presence into yours forever.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  AMEN.

Kate McIlhagga, “Liturgy for a Stillborn Child,” in The Pattern of Our Days: Worship in the Celtic Tradition from the Iona Community, ed. Kathy Galloway (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1996), 6-7.

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Life-giving Transition

IMG_6596My daughter’s face popped up on The Today Show’s fourth hour on July 22, 2014. Co-host Hoda Kotb said, “And Happy Birthday to little Lydia Davis.” Of course, I knew it was going to happen, but it was still shocking to see it when it did. A little prince was also celebrating his first birthday across the pond and because of that, there was a call to submit pictures of other “royal” babies born that same day in 2013.

As Lydia’s 15 seconds of fame played out on The Today Show while a birthday party for the prince was staged in the background, I started thinking about the fishbowl world that the royals live in day in and day out. And now that we know the Duchess is pregnant and living with hyperemesis gravidarum, we see the media scrutiny yet again.

The fishbowl for ministers does not often draw international attention as it does for the royals, but we all know what it looks like to be watched. I am learning what has been traditionally expected of a minister’s child. I happen to worship in a church where none of these traditional pressures are real, and I am incredibly grateful for that. My daughter’s first year of life has come with a supportive, warm and loving faith community that cares deeply about her all-around development. The fact that her mom is a minister doesn’t seem to faze anyone or put any type of pressure on her.

After my daughter was born I switched jobs, moving from a pastoral ministry to a denominational one, where I now work from a virtual office. I remember the feeling of my keychain as I made this transition. On that last day of pastoral work, I handed my colleague my office key, my church-wide key and the fob that let us in and out of the building. After a few tears (Saying goodbye from a beloved place is so hard!), I took the keychain back and I was struck by its lightness. My car key and my house key clinked together. I stood there for a second and realized this ending and new beginning was opening up space for me to carry less and be more present to my daughter while still doing the good work of ministry.

I now work part-time in the area of communications for my denomination. The work is life-giving and I love helping to tell the stories of God’s people. Now, when I visit congregations and preach, I do so, often without knowing the deep pain and great joys of their lives. I have the chance to engage, however on a broader vision of examining mission and the ways we connect all around the world.

The fishbowl looks different for us these days. On quiet days, I peer out of it wondering where everyone is. Working from home and in collaboration with fantastic colleagues around the country is a gift. My days, along with my keychain, feel a bit lighter.

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I’m a Fool for You

View More: http://erinbellphoto.pass.us/cassie-jacobLast year, late in the season of Lent, a full sanctuary of worshipers gathered with the lights dimmed to worship God, singing their beloved “Holden Evening Prayer.” A wide-eyed, dark-haired three-year-old from the congregation (She looked like a miniature version of me, bangs and all.) followed me to the front of the sanctuary as I prepared to sing the prayers. I asked her if she wanted to pray with me. She nodded her head. I scooped her up in my arms and held her while we sang with the congregation, “God of Mercy, hold us in love.”

It was a holy moment, beautiful, but also heartbreaking.

I had a deep yearning in me to be a mother. Some days I found it really sad to think about how far I was from seeing this yearning fulfilled, and even sadder to think that it might never happen. If anyone would have told me how much my life would change in a year, I would have laughed at them—not just any laugh, but a laugh like I imagine Sarah laughed after she overheard that she would have a son. I believe she laughed deep, a belly laugh, almost an over-laugh. You know this laugh, the kind that escapes your lips as an instinctual reaction to “absurd” news, while on another level it prevents you from crying. You laugh, as not to cry, at the sting your heart feels because you have been longing for the fulfillment of a promise such as the one the stranger gave.

***

Last night, I held a wide-eyed, dark-haired almost-three-year-old (She looks like a miniature version of me, our hair both in messy buns.), and we sang Alan Jackson together. “I’ll buy you tall, tall trees and all the waters in the seas… I’m a fool, fool, fool for you.” The words were not quite as poetic as “God of Mercy, hold us in love,” but it was just as holy a moment.

You see, this holy moment came at the end of a wonderful day. The little girl, her brother, their dad and I went out to dinner at a restaurant and spent a few hours at the coolest park (It had a wooden castle! And a dragon!). We ate a snack before putting on jammies, reading bedtime stories, and saying bedtime prayers.

That day in Lent when my heart broke as I prayed and swayed and sang “God of Mercy, hold us in love,” if anyone had told me that in a few weeks I would begin to date and fall in love with a man with two kids, I would have laughed a Sarah laugh. A deep, belly over-laugh. But that’s exactly what happened.

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A few weeks from now, another holy moment will take place. The little girl will wear pink, sparkly shoes and her brother will wear a suit with a bow tie. They tell people they are the Ring Bear and Sister Bear. I will wear white, sparkly shoes, and I will follow them down the aisle to meet their dad, who will wear a suit and necktie. He and I will make vows to each other. I will also promise to love his kids as if they are my kids, because in those holy moments of singing Alan Jackson and bedtime prayers, those holy moments of holding them and loving them, they have become my kids.

This last year has brought more changes than I ever could have imagined and those changes have come with a good share of tears and a good share of laughter. But my life feels framed in refrains. Like the prayer, “God of mercy, hold us in love,” I do feel held and loved. Like Sarah, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Like Alan Jackson, my heart sings a little song to my almost-husband and nearly-step-kids, “I’ll buy you tall, tall trees and all the waters in the seas, I’m a fool, fool, fool for you. “

The Rev. Cassandra M. Sauter is an ordained minister of the ELCA currently serving as interim pastor at a congregation in North Dakota. In June 2014, she moved 500 miles for a variety of reasons- the most important being to live into her calling as partner and parent. Cassie gets married in two weeks and cannot wait for her future of laughter and singing. She hopes to one day start a family band.​

Photo Credit: Erin Bell

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Bread and Blessing

3496817076_3832b24dd3“I wish I could receive at your church,” my stepson Ben said to me one Sunday as we all prepared for a busy day of worship, Sunday school, and meetings. It took me a minute to connect the dots and realize that he meant “receive Communion.”

Ben is being raised Roman Catholic by his mother and stepfather. While communion is certainly important in the faith and practice of my UCC church, in Ben’s religious life it forms the cornerstone of worship and devotion. Ben speaks of his First Communion as a pivotal moment in his life, and he makes a point of trying to receive Communion weekly at a Catholic church even when he is away from his home congregation, either spending time with his dad and me, or with other Protestant relatives.

Between the vagaries of family schedules and my congregation’s practice of celebrating communion once a month, Ben had never been at my church for a Communion Sunday. This day would be the first time that he would be present in church as I presided at the table, and Ben was struggling with his disappointment that he would not be partaking in the bread and cup.

I have a theological commitment to the Open Table. In the Bible, I see a Savior who broke bread with tax collectors, foreigners, outcasts, and even women. Jesus welcomed everyone to the table: the baptized and the unbaptized, the faithful and the doubting, saints and sinners. His willingness to eat at a table with the “unworthy” got him into a lot of trouble. If the table I preside over is really Jesus’s (and I believe it is), it is not mine to restrict.

And yet, as a stepmom, I want to support Ben in living faithfully in his tradition. I have my theological quibbles with Roman Catholicism (women’s ordination, for instance), but I also have respect for its rich history and theology. I want to help Ben flourish in the faith his mom and stepfather have chosen for him, even if it is not what I would have chosen, even if it challenges and stretches me, even if it leads me into theological thickets. I could hear Ben’s longing to participate in communion that day, and I knew, as did he, that as a Roman Catholic he is only supposed to receive sacraments at Roman Catholic churches.

As a pastor, I am committed to giving communion to all who desire to eat and drink with Jesus. As a stepmom, though, I am committed to helping my stepson live within the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, which asks him not to commune at my church. Tripped up by conflicting roles, I was at a loss for answers. I explained that at my church, anyone could receive communion. I acknowledged that his church told him he wasn’t supposed to receive at my church, and that I hoped he would never do something that he felt was against his religion. I shared my sorrow that our churches were so divided that he and I could never participate at the same Communion table.

Finally, we realized that Ben’s tradition had a possibility that might work for both of us. He had seen non-Catholics come forward at his church to receive a blessing, and I suggested that at my church, he could do the same. We practiced together how he could cross his arms over his chest to ask for a blessing instead of the Communion elements. He said he would think about it.

I stood at the table that day, breaking the bread, pouring the cup, telling the story, praying for the presence of the Holy Spirit, acutely aware of the nine-year-old boy who had tucked himself into the far side pews with the other Sunday school students, arms already self-consciously crossed over his chest as I began the Eucharistic liturgy.

His arms stayed crossed over his chest as he maneuvered out of the pew and processed down the aisle. I placed pieces of pita bread in the hands of my congregants, saying to each the familiar words: “the body of Christ, given for you.” And then my stepson stood in front of me with folded arms and anxious face. I don’t remember what I said. I think I put my hand on his head. I think I prayed for him to know the love of God, to grow in faith, to follow Jesus. I do remember the way he walked away from the table, the sense of buoyancy, relief, accomplishment at having navigated an ecclesiastical obstacle course.

I had never given a blessing at communion before, because I believe and declare that the bread and cup are for everyone. I had never received a blessing at a closed Communion table; I was too stubborn to accept what I considered “crumbs” at a table where I believed the bread and cup should be for everyone. But next time I think I might. In crossed arms and blessing hands, we open the doors between our traditions. We acknowledge the disunity of Christ’s church, and at the same time declare that God’s love is bigger than my stepson’s faith, or my own. The bread is a blessing; the blessing, too, is a blessing.

I believe we will feast at a table with Jesus Christ someday, and I believe we will all be surprised by who eats at the table with us. But until that day, the Holy Spirit will move as she will, through bread and cup, through blessings given and received, reconciling us to each other and to God.


Rev. Emily M. Brown is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.  She is the Associate Pastor of Broadway United Church of Christ, and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City.  She was the recipient of the 2010 David H. C. Read Memorial Preacher/Scholar Award.  She blogs at feministpastor.blogspot.com.

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God in All the Things

“Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.” -St. Francis de Sales

740919711_633762f193A friend and fellow young clergy woman posted this quote on her Facebook page recently. I read it with mixed emotions.

I took a walk today to clear my head. The long winter and cold spring have finally given way to a temperate summer. Things have been piling up lately, little things, big things, a number of parishioners struggling with various sorts of illnesses, a gap in our parish staff, a lot of little details that need to be addressed, friends who are carrying more than they are equipped to carry, daycare transitions, just a whole pile of stuff. I needed some air. I needed a reminder that summer comes eventually. I needed to stretch my legs and practice gratitude.

Spiritual practices that require a sustained amount of time on a day to day basis have been a challenge for me lately. One of my parishioners organized a group to read the Bible over the course of the year. As the leader of this congregation, I was automatically signed up for the daily reminder emails. I tried following them. I didn’t even last two weeks. I discovered that plowing through scripture from Genesis to Revelation was not the way that I wanted to encounter these sacred texts, at least not at this point in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for biblical literacy. I’m glad that a number of my parishioners have committed themselves to this discipline.

As a lectionary preacher, I am given the gift of four scripture passages each week. My job in interpreting these texts is to read for depth and to draw connections. Often I find that probing those four texts in their narrative contexts, as well as the texts that I find cross-referenced in my reading and research, provides more than enough scripture on which to meditate. In my personal devotions, I almost always read toward Sundays.

I love meditating on scripture. I love that after 15 years of studying it as part of my vocation and 37 years of having it a part of my life nearly every day, I’m still learning new things about it.

I am a mom and a minister both, and I am still learning how to balance these roles while making sure that I seek the spiritual sustenance that I need in order to fulfill both of these roles well. I don’t, as many of my Episcopal colleagues do, pray the daily office each day in any organized sense. I pray while I’m driving to work, while I’m in the shower, while I’m drinking my coffee. I pray before I pick up the phone. I pray before I write. I pray before I preach. I pray before I walk into a hospital room, while I am in a hospital room, and when I’m leaving a hospital room. I pray when I tuck my kids in at night, and when I go to check on them before I go to bed. I don’t always use words. I pray when I stroke my baby’s head as he nuzzles close for his morning milk.

I wake up each morning to cries or squeals. I feed the baby. I help my spouse get our kids dressed and feed them breakfast. We do our best to get out the door in a timely manner.

Recently, I spoke with a doctor about the challenges of following a regular exercise regimen. He gave me this “helpful” advice. “When my kids were little, I would get up an hour before they did so that I could exercise.” Really? I asked him, “Were you the one feeding the baby when he woke up twice during the night?”

I feel this way about spiritual exercise, too. I’m all for it, it just find it hard to fit it all in. I used to make a near daily discipline of praying and ruminating on scripture while walking with my firstborn son. I’d walk for an hour or more each day. This year, though, winter stretched on for months and months. Ice and cold temperatures made it dangerous to go outside. Now that it’s finally warm enough and dry enough to be outside, my sweet, quiet boy talks nonstop. I now have a second sweet, cheerful boy who shares the double stroller and yells at the top of his lungs, an effort to carve out auditory space for himself amidst all the words pouring out of his brother.

Instead of setting aside hours for meditation and quiet, I am learning to soak up the grace in my time with a talkative toddler, the delight in explaining to him how insects drink from flowers, why that little vein on his chest looks blue under his skin.  I marvel at the intricacies of creation when I attempt to answer the resulting question, “What is oxygen?” We talk about how tower cranes work, and why people who are blind need to hear “Walk sign is on” when they cross the street. I am learning to know God’s presence as I hold my baby close, when my heart fills with wonder at the things that he is learning, as I smell the skin behind his soft, perfect ears.

Meditation is a good thing. Taking time to pray, to worship and to reflect, these are all good things. But few of us, especially those of us who are parents, can give an hour at a stretch. Those of us who are moms in ministry know that hardly a waking hour goes by without someone needing something from us, and sometimes not a sleeping hour goes by either. We are not alone in this. A lot of our parishioners experience this too, in their families and in their vocations. Their attentions, like ours, are pulled in all sorts of directions.

Another friend responded to that quote from St. Francis de Sales about the necessity of meditation for an hour with this, “True, true… However I still have a hard time taking some of this advice from men who lived in a time period when they didn’t have to care for children.”

I loved her for saying that, because sometimes I really struggle to be spiritual.

I can’t set aside hours and hours of quiet time to pray and to read and to meditate each week. But I can do my best to look for God in all the things. I can help others look for God in all the things. A lot of days, this doesn’t seem enough, but am learning to come to terms with the fact that for this season, these are the gifts that I have to offer to my church, to myself, and to God.

April Berends serves as pastor to the community of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she and her spouse chase toddlers around the yard. She occasionally enjoys the luxury of taking a long walk by herself.

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On Bringing All of Yourself to Church

photo (8)I never take my children to church. I’m a priest and my husband is a priest, so our babysitter comes to our house at 7:00 am and takes the kids to church later. She is the one to handle trips to the bathroom, dropped crayons, and demands for snacks in the middle of prayers and hymns. I would be lying if I said there was no upside to this. While I love to have my children in church, I don’t always love to be there with them. Whenever we go to church together on vacation, I feel secretly lucky that I don’t have to do it all the time.

As part of my letter of agreement with my parish I have the week after Easter off, so on the Sunday after Easter, it fell to us to decide Where to Go to Church. My husband and I celebrate the Eucharist one weekday a month for a tiny convent in the next town over, so I got up early and took our daughter to their 7:30 am Sunday service. The sisters are all in their seventies and eighties and love, love, love children. When our son was born, the convent was the first place we brought him for church, at ten days old. It was Easter, 2007, and after we walked in the door the sisters traded him back and forth for the whole morning. The chapel is warm and cool at the same time, with stone and white and simple stained glass. Whenever I step behind the altar there, whatever I’m carrying with me goes away. It’s one of my happy places.

It’s much harder for church to be your happy place when you’re trying to entertain a four-year-old. In a crowd of fifteen, the whispered request to draw a picture is not subtle. I’m well aware of how the sound that seems like a thunderclap to a parent is barely a sneeze to everyone else, but you still assume everyone is staring. Whatever your kid is doing seems incredibly louder than what everyone else might be doing. We made it through okay though—no breakdowns, no tears, no mad dash for the bathroom. Having my kid in church was great! Wholeness, peace, integration, euphoria.   A holy time of actually parenting (as opposed to just being a parent) in church. Amen, Alleluia.

Until…

The custom at the chapel is for everyone to gather up at the altar steps, so you’re all standing together in a row, close together. Adah and I ended up on the end, next to an older woman I didn’t recognize (I did know most of the people gathered, from somewhere or another). We were pretty much fine—a few loud kisses, maybe—until Adah got down and put her face in the lilies (So delighted! So darling!), and then started driving her car up and down the steps. No vroom vroom, but not exactly silent, either.

The woman next to me turned to me and whisper-demanded, “Can’t you stop it?”

By “it,” I assumed she meant the driving of the car. I whispered, “Is it bothering you?” and scooped up the girl and her truck and held her for a while.

And that was a downer, until I gave into my righteous indignation. Doesn’t she know who I am? Doesn’t she have any sense of respect for the f*king wonder of a child who is comfortable in a worship space? I also admit I felt a bit smug about my passive aggressive response.

So much for that sense of peace and wholeness. Suddenly “my space” was not so much mine anymore.

I’ve been in my parish for almost nine years and in that time our level of kid noise has increased a lot—I’m militantly tolerant of it. This has not always gone down so smoothly with some members, but the growth in vitality (and, frankly, human bodies) has convinced the doubters that it might at least be a necessary evil. I’ve had the conversations about how children “just need to learn to behave” and that church is “special,” and yes, absolutely.

Yes, absolutely, but liturgy works on us in so many more ways than we know—all of your distracted thoughts, all of your random word associations, all of it comes together in holy pieces only Jesus could try to figure out. For a four-year-old, that’s the markers and the plastic dinosaur. At seven, it’s begging permission to play Minecraft with seven other kids crowded around one tiny screen while scarfing five cookies at coffee hour. For a thirteen-year-old, maybe it’s the sullen expression, covering a secret joy at being able to help at the altar. At seventeen, it’s finding that something is the same: even when everything else is about to change you can still come and get fed. In the sacraments we bring what we have—bread, wine, water—and it’s transformed. The same goes for our own contributions as adults, whatever they are.

Here’s the other thing– the stakes are just too high to be strict about this kind of thing. If you’re already in church, perhaps you are sure that God loves you. Maybe you have had some experience of grace and acceptance that makes you come back. Maybe you actually are perfect. But if you’re on the edges, or coming for the first time, and somebody doesn’t want you? Game over. Let’s be clear—if you don’t want my kid, you probably don’t want me either. Sometimes I will forget to turn my phone off, and sometimes I’ll come late.   So let’s just agree that we all need “the Jesus bread” and go easy on each other, OK?

As for the unhappy lady, Adah and I were more respectful. Hospitality goes both ways. Those who are already in church can be welcoming by cutting some slack; those who are newer can be sensitive to their impact. So Adah put her face back in the flowers, which was just as distracting but quieter, and also cuter. Twenty years from now, she won’t remember this week. She’ll mostly remember her parents far away at an altar. Hopefully, though, part of her will remember that sense of security, of comfort, where prayers are said and pictures are drawn, and all of it goes toward (maybe meanderingly, but toward) the glory of God.

 

 The Rev. Sara Irwin is rector of Christ Church, the Episcopal parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, where children are free to wander and everyone takes communion whether they behave themselves or not. She shares parenting Adah (4) and Isaiah (7) with her husband Noah in Medford, where she also brews beer and writes poems, which show up occasionally on her blog, www.saraiwrites.blogspot.com,where this article originally appeared.  For fancified writing about liturgy and all of our different selves, a shorter version of Sara’s MDiv. thesis was published in Worship: The Religiophoneme: Liturgy and Some Uses of Deconstruction.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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A “Real” Family

photo-2Our real family started in the car that day, driving home from the doctor’s office. It all boiled down to one question: did we want to be pregnant or did we want to be parents?  At the red light we looked at each other.  “Parents,” we both said, “We want to be parents.”   I’m not really the sentimental type, but I can say without even blinking that this was the moment when my children started to grow in my heart.

We are a real family. Most days we’re just us– two parents who work—myself as a pastor, my husband as a non-profit manager, and our daughter, the stand-up comic and dancing queen.

Do we get noticed? Yes. Do we get questions? Absolutely.

Is that your real daughter? Yes, she’s an actual person.

Where does she live? Um, with us, her parents, in our house. 

Where’s she from? Does it matter?

Before we brought our daughter home, I wondered if we could be parental, if we could give love, clean clothes, food, and discipline. We can.  And we’re still learning how to be a family with two races and two cultures.  My husband and I decide at least once a month to move to Ghana.  And once a month, my daughter decides she’s African and American but not African-American. She’s also not sure how she will last one more week if we don’t buy her an iPod Touch.  She thinks it’s crazy that we won’t let her, a third-grader, take the car for a spin.  One day, she announced she was old enough to use the stove and the sharp knives by herself.  I said a table knife would be just fine to cut up berries and bananas.

We are who we are.  I am grateful for the family we have, but I am also impatient that we are not the family of four we’ve dreamed of being. I am angry at racial segregation and discrimination that still goes on in our city and our country.  I am amazed at how our family’s journey has been carried forward on prayers and hope.

We are a real family.  A family who tries to eat dinner together sometimes, who screams at football on TV, who talks about how we don’t match. A family who understands that grief and loss don’t have an expiration date.

Our daughter has been home about five years.  F came home from Ghana, West Africa, and she adopted us just as much we adopted her.  One day after she’d learned about us, but before we’d met, she walked up to a four-year-old playmate, looked her friend straight in the eye and said, “I have parents, they live abroad.  They are coming for me!”  She knew.  I first had the feeling that I was a mom after a friend helped me arrange F’s toys and clothes.  It was after lunch at the Mexican restaurant down the street, I said out loud for the first time, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be a mom!”

It took F six months before she decided she’d call me “Mom.” She used to wonder if we were her last family, or would what it would be like if she had to go off and live with some other family.  She’d prefer it to be a celebrity.  “Beyoncé!”  She’d yell. Or, “Meee chelle O-ba-ma!”

It took us an awfully long time to get to know each other, my daughter and I, to understand the other’s looks, to anticipate the next move.  It took us time to become a family. The pain that ripped through me when she’d call me any other names but mom shriveled the first time she did call me mom.

Every day, we are a real family. We love, fight, laugh, do homework, get sick. We are not strangers to grief and sadness.  Every one of her birthdays, every Mother’s Day or Father’s Day comes lined with grief.  We understand that our family’s very existence is deeply connected to another family’s awful loss.

I was a mom before I ever saw F’s photo or learned about her, and I hope to be a mom to a second child soon. We’ve been working on that for about three years. Can you imagine the craving and weight gain that goes with that? Seriously.

We have names for this kid growing in our hearts:  the “other kid”, the “kid who is not named”, “Kid #2”.  Lately, it’s the “New Kid”.  We dream about when he might arrive or what she will look like. We imagine out loud together because that’s what a real family does.

Amy Wiegert lives with her family in Chicago, and does ministry alongside the folks of Zion Lutheran Church in Tinley Park, Illinois. She loves to practice math facts while writing sermons.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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Milk and Mother God

1165479522_7d710840d4-1“Can a woman forget her baby or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”    Isaiah 49:15

I have repeated this verse over and over again, arguing for inclusive language, expansive imagery for God beyond “Heavenly Father,” the primary image to which many in my Christian tradition still cling. I took comfort, during my college years in a God my campus minister called “Fat-Her.” I imagined God as a large, black mother who comforted her hurting children in the fat of her bosom, not unlike the figure in the children’s book, “Big Momma Makes the World.” Mother God is a source of strength for me, but until I, too, learned the role of mother, I never saw this image as one fraught with pain.

Six months ago, I welcomed little Olive Grace into the world in a most joyful way. We’d planned an unmedicated, hippy-dippy birth that by the grace of God and a midwife who can truly work miracles, came to pass. I planned to breastfeed, having attended La Leche League meetings while pregnant, and read every quality book on nursing ever circulated. I had a top of the line Medela breast pump (thank you Board of Pensions!), with bottles and parts washed and ready for my return to the workforce.

Everything went splendidly. I realize how fortunate I am that all the variables in establishing a positive breastfeeding experience were present: baby had a great latch, I was in good shape, and I had great postpartum support and nutrition following O’s birth. The lactation consultant commented on how “great” my nipples were (what a thing to say!). We were set. I was a natural. Nursing came very easily to me; I report with a bit of “survivor’s guilt,” as many of my peers have not had as positive an experience.

In the months since all of my reading, research and parental theorizing has been put into practice, Mother God has become a visceral truth, and I have known myself in no deeper way than to be made in her image. Yet, this discovery has not come with as much joy as I expected. In anguish, nursing through growth spurts, I have cried out to the Holy Mother asking, begging, pleading, “Why did you make women in this way? To do this thing?” Each day I pumped at work, I felt resentment towards my body and unfair anger towards Olive’s daycare providers (how dare they ask me to send more milk! Am I not enough?). My husband was often the recipient of the day’s frustration, and the angst that came with the fact that I never felt like I was enough.

In my misery, another verse from Isaiah came to mind, causing me to feel some need to repent for how I was behaving. Like a holy mirror, scripture revealed this truth to me: I could not, no matter how fully and totally I loved my child, share a love as perfect as that of the creator’s love for humanity. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13). In the face of my imperfection, in my anger and feelings of inadequacy, the image of Mother God was such a graceful comfort. I’m never going to “win” at this whole mothering thing. Whether I nurse exclusively, pump (which I’m convinced is the work of Satan), or formula feed, my love for Olive will never be as complete and wholesome as God’s love for us both.

Last week, Olive turned 6 months old. I’m still nursing her, with a promise of no judgment for when I decide I’ve had enough. In the shadow of Mother God, accepting the brokenness of human relationships has been a liberating experience for me. In a culture run amok with mommy-blogging and judgment spewing, I cling to the foundational grace poured out every morning, noon, night and middle-of-the-night by the Heavenly Mother.

As I journey in discipleship and continue to learn from the work of mothering, I am reminded of another scripture, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (1 Cor. 3:2-3). The Apostle Paul makes me wonder if God is working on weaning me too. Perhaps this experience of claiming grace for myself, a grace I know I would have offered to one of my congregants, is one small step toward learning to eat the “solid food” of faith.

Rev. Elaine Murray Dreeben is a 2012 graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is currently transitioning from serving as the Lilly Pastoral Resident at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church to a solo pastorate in the Texas hill country. She is married to Sam and mama to Olive Grace.