photo (8)

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.

photo-2

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.

1165479522_7d710840d4-1

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.

 

Baby hands

Should I Stay, or Should I Go?

Baby handsThe first church I served didn’t have a parental leave policy in place when I was called.  As a seminarian, the congregation supported me through marriage and ordination; then they called me as the associate minister with a focus on serving families, youth and children.  Anticipating that some day, my husband and I would decide to have a child, I asked the board to consider passing a parental leave policy.  My denomination provided no general guidelines, so we did lots of research, and I contacted my clergy friends throughout the country to see how their churches had responded when they had children.

When the board initially discussed this topic, I was disappointed with the results of the meeting.  I was so mad actually, that I thought that I might as well quit as soon as I gave birth.  And I drove the 35 minutes home crying all the way.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the last of the discussion, and I soon found out that I was already pregnant when the conversation began.  My congregation embraced my growing body and me.  They threw a glorious shower for us, and the other associate minister encouraged the senior to exclude me from the 8:30am Sunday service because fatigue was my worst side effect from pregnancy.

I continued to do my job, and I even took kids on mission trip when I was seven months pregnant.  It was hot, and I was tired, but I made it through.  I had to back out, though, when I was supposed to counsel camp six weeks prior to my due date.  My “cankles” prevented me from being on my feet all day.

The board approved a policy that would allow for four weeks paid maternity leave, and I could take the rest of my vacation time, as well.  So, I was out for almost eight weeks before returning to work.

The congregation was so happy for me, and they wanted to see my girl grow up in the church.  That was my hope, too.  I brought her to work with me my first day back, which was a Sunday.  This is not something I recommend, but we made it through that day.

My mom had already told me she would give up all of her volunteer activities in order to keep my daughter while I worked, but first I wanted to see what kind of schedule I could make for myself.  That first week back, I intended to ask if I could work from home one day a week or so, and if I could bring my daughter to work with me some, too.  I had already been given a crib to set up in my office.  In addition, as the Associate Minister of Families, Youth & Children, I was the liaison to the day care at the church.  I thought I had it made.

I never got to have that conversation, though.  After only three days back at work, the senior minister called me in for a meeting.  He, a middle-aged man who doesn’t have children, began by “disciplining” me for things that had not gone well while I was away.  He spoke to me as a parent would speak to a child, and then he asked, “How has motherhood changed your call to ministry?”  Wow.  I was not prepared for this question.  I had no words.  I had only been a mother for eight and a half weeks, and back to work three days.  I was exhausted and exhilarated.  I thought being a mother would enhance my ministry with families, youth, and children.  But when first confronted with the question, especially by a non-parent, I was stunned.  Again, I drove home crying and held my baby for hours.

I was going to quit the next day.  But with some good counseling, I persevered as I “discerned” if and how motherhood had “changed my call to ministry.”

Driving 35 minutes one way to work with the odd schedules of youth group and evening programs and meetings, I did the best I could.  I hated pumping milk for my baby, and more than once I forgot an attachment and had to drive all the way home and back with painful breasts.

I was fortunate enough to have my mom take care of my baby everyday, as well as a loving husband, good friends, and a supportive Pastoral Relations Committee.  Still, I was asked almost weekly if I had made a decision about staying or going.  Full-time ministry at this particular congregation was not for me.  My resignation took effect when my daughter was almost seven months old.

It was a painful decision, as I loved the church, and I loved serving as a minister. But I loved my girl and my mental well being more.

I gave up full-time pay and a professional expense account in order to be a full-time mom.  But rarely did a Sunday go by when I wasn’t in the pulpit supply preaching.  My call to ministry hadn’t gone away.  But I guess it had changed, not all on my own, of course.

Now I am serving a lovely small congregation full of people who love seeing my daughter grow up and sit on my hip when I pray.  With a family of ministers, she doesn’t come to church with me all that often, but I am better pastor because I am a mother.  And I am happier than I have ever been, even when economic times are tough.  I am able to work on my body image ministry and writing.  I know this is what I am called to do.  And now I say that I am living the dream.

It took quite a painful process for me to realize what a blessing this life is, “a blessing in disguise,” as they say.  I do not wish the pain of having to choose between motherhood and ministry upon anyone.  Perhaps if my former congregation had had clear and supportive leave policies in place before I got pregnant, my situation would be different.  Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way . . . now.  Ministry is hard, no matter the circumstance.  Serving as a full-time associate in youth ministry is challenging in the best of times, and it requires a lot of time.  If I had stayed, I wouldn’t have seen my girl accomplish off all her first developmental milestones, or so many other things.  But this is my life.  I pray that my colleagues in ministry have the opportunity to choose what works for them and their families and ministries.

 

Church door

Where Everybody Knows your Name

Church doorOur family lost a beautiful, perfect, planned, wanted, beloved baby on July 4. Since then, lots of things have been helping me make it through each day, while other things ping a deep, visceral response that is less than helpful. A lot of days, I find that the things that I rely on to help me cope are art of one kind or another.

One piece of “art” that was in my head in the days following Brennan’s birth and death was the Cheers theme song. Don’t ask me why.

     Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
    Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
    Wouldn’t you like to get away?
    Sometimes you want to go
    where everybody knows your name,
    and they’re always glad you came.
    You wanna be where you can see,
    our troubles are all the same
    You wanna be where everybody knows
    your name.
 

I definitely wanted to get away, but I wanted to go where nobody knew my name. I’m a pretty public person; I don’t mind being vulnerable and open about things, and folks who know me in real life will tell you that I’m a huge extrovert. So, finding a place to get away means going somewhere where nobody knows me, nobody expects anything of me, nobody thinks it’s weird or unprofessional if I’m weepy, and nobody does the sympathetic head tilt and asks how I am.

The Saturday after the birth was my first full day home, and I was really thinking about being at my church the following morning. Physically, I was fine, so why shouldn’t I be there? And then it dawned on me – I couldn’t go because everybody there knows my name. I needed somewhere I could be anonymous and alone to work through the first bit of grief. As a pastor, I had nothing to give, since I was needing so much. When I talked to my lead pastor to let him know I wouldn’t be there, he was surprised that I had even considered showing up.

But where else would I be on a Sunday morning but in church? While I knew I couldn’t face my own wonderful, loving congregation, I decided I needed to be with my brothers and sisters in Christ somewhere else. I looked up the service time for the United Methodist Church closest to my house and made the plan to go.  Andy, my husband, didn’t want to go, which is fine with me. We all cope differently. He honored God by taking our son, James, to play in the park.

I got up that morning with grief on my face, and tried to put myself together for my first real public outing. Ugh. It was not fun. Part of the nice thing of being a pastor, most of the time at my church, is that I never really worry about what to wear in church because I wear a robe in worship. This was compounded by the fact that my body was still all rounded from pregnancy, and I couldn’t bear to wear maternity clothes.

I drove to the church, avoided parking in a visitor spot, and tried to go directly to the worship space without drawing any attention. Silly me. Part of the beauty of our connectional church, especially for an extrovert like me, is that lots of people really do know my name. I didn’t realize that at this church, the entryway was also the gathering space prior to worship. So there were so many people. And the new pastor, a sweet colleague of mine, saw me almost immediately. Yikes! I really didn’t mean to shove my grief in his face on his first Sunday in his new church. So, I gave him the briefest of hugs and practically ran into the worship space, claiming a spot in the very back row.

But I wasn’t fast enough. Their lay leader came by to give me a hug. Another lay person, who leads their church’s mission team for the Sunday morning feeding ministry that takes place at my church, came by and wordlessly dropped a box of tissues off in the seat next to me. Then, as worship started, I saw the pastor’s wife go by, being directed to her special spot by one of the ushers. I smiled despite my circumstances; worship was exceptionally full, probably because it was a “check out the new guy” kind of Sunday.

Then the pastor’s wife saw me. I know their story, which includes the loss of a child. It is not the same as our story, because every story is distinctive and unique, but it is close enough for us to resonate. She came back to the very back row where I was sitting, where I was desperately trying to draw an invisible screen of anonymity around myself, and asked to sit with me. I said, “But you’re an important person, you should sit up front.” She shrugged and sat down beside me. She worshiped with me. She didn’t say anything after she sat down, besides the responses and singing the hymns. She didn’t judge the tears streaming down my face. She was the best friend to me in that moment that I could have asked for. Like Job’s friends before they mess up, she just came and sat with me in my pain.

It is an uncomfortable place to sit. I admire the people who can do it because, honest to God, I want to flee this place myself most of the time. But this is my life, so I can’t run from it. And I realized later, that even though I really thought I wanted to be alone, there was a reason I felt the need to worship that day. I needed the connection with God and community to be reaffirmed because grief can feel awfully lonely. So praise be to God for the grace I found that day. I pray you find the grace you need this day and every day.

Rev. Jessica Wright serves as Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Krum, Texas. She graduated from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in May 2009 and was ordained in June 2011. She is wife to Andy, mommy to James, and pastor to a great church where everybody seems to know her name.

“Where everybody knows your name” was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

A version of this article first appeared on the author’s blog, http://messy-grace.blogspot.com/

Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/48001773@N00/2141413543/”>Bitterjug</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

Baby

Diapering “Baby Jesus”

 BabyThe parish Christmas pageant took place today.  My nine-month-old son was slated to play the baby Jesus.  There was no competition for that role this year, despite my efforts to recruit a few of my not-so-churchy friends who had recently had babies.

Usually, the parents of the infant playing baby Jesus also play the roles of Mary and Joseph.  I opted out of this, as I am the church’s only priest, and had to preside at the Eucharist following the pageant.  Besides, my “Joseph” was thirty-five miles away at his own parish, leading the Eucharist there.  A nice graduate student couple, recently engaged, filled out the rest of the Holy Family.

On Sunday morning, we arrived early, a lot earlier than I am used to getting to church these days.  I thought I would feed my son and lay him down for a nap in the playpen in my office.  He had awakened an hour earlier than usual that morning and was in need of a nap by 8:30.  This, of course, was not to happen.  He does not spend a lot of time in my office.  He kept looking around, crazy stimulated.

I took him upstairs where the other kids were getting ready.  His eyes grew wide as he took in the sparkly angels, the rag-tag shepherds, the kings in their shimmery eight-year-old splendor, and the star swinging from a pole held by a five year old swathed in gold lamé.

A dad from the Sunday school walked around snapping pictures.  Another one held a video camera.  My son just took it all in, two fingers in his mouth, his sign for “I’m tired.”  It was going to be a long morning.

I went to change his diaper right before the service started.  A golden fountain erupted.  He peed all over his costume.  The zipper got stuck on the bunting that he was wearing.  And then he started to scream.  I am sure that I am not the only parent who has cursed while getting her child into a Christmas pageant costume, and I am sure that I will not be the last.

I cleaned up the pee, used the last of the wipes to mop off my son’s skin, dressed him in a clean onesie, handed him to a middle school student who was about to assume the role of an innkeeper, and rushed to the sacristy to put on my own vestments.

I returned to the parish hall to say a prayer with the pageant cast, the choir, and the acolytes before the service.  Right before I started the prayer, a rather precocious wise man pulled on my sleeve.  “I have a question for you.  Is it true that a donkey can also be called an ass?”  I glanced over at the kid playing the donkey.   “Yes, that is true,” I said, “but today we are going to use the term ‘donkey.’”

The pageant went off without a hitch.  God showed up once again.  People love to hear that story, especially when it is told by cute children wearing crazy get-ups.  My son sat there on a twenty-something philosophy student’s lap, bouncing up and down and sucking his two fingers.

I whispered a prayer, “You are some crazy God, to come in to all this.”

After church, we had a lovely lunch hosted by our hardworking kitchen crew who already volunteer for way too much stuff.   A bunch of dads sawed away at the Christmas trees, two of which go in the front of the church, and one of which goes in the parish hall.  The kids made ornaments.  Moms sorted costumes.  People ate and were generally merry.  About fifty people asked me questions about stuff.

I plopped my son in a highchair and spilled some Cheerios on the tray.  He started picking them up one by one.

One of my regulars showed up.  He is a man who struggles with severe mental illness who frequently stops by for help with his medication co-pays and other things.  I have been very clear with him, and with other people who regularly seek financial assistance from the church, that he is welcome to join us for worship, but that he has to come during business hours for help with other things.  Today, though, all bets were off.  His father had just died.  He could barely speak.  I looked at my son, picking up cereal off of his tray.  I grabbed a parishioner in passing and asked her to keep an eye on him, and I just left him there, sleepy and cranky and surrounded by the bustle.

I was so torn, torn between this man with his desperation and his sometimes deviousness and his sorrow, and my son, who was so tired, and sweet, and so mine.   And for a moment, I longed to have a normal day at church with my family just once, a day where we could sit together and sing and listen and I wouldn’t have to be in charge, where I could change my kid’s diaper without someone knocking at my door, where I could walk through the parish hall without ten people stopping me for this, that and the other thing.

And then, I thought to myself, my son will be okay.  These people will take care of him.  He is mine, but they will look out for him.

My son came home smelling like other people, as he often does on Sunday mornings.  I’m guessing that the real Baby Jesus, once he grew up, often smelled like other people at the end of the day, too.  He was always touching and being touched.  He was just that kind of guy.  He was just that kind of God.

I tucked my son into bed, his eyes dark in the dim light of his bedroom.  He is so small, so dependent, and yet so beautiful.  As I set him down in his crib, he slipped those two fingers back into his mouth and gazed back at me while I sang him to sleep.  “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…”

April Berends serves as pastor to the vibrant community of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and two little boys.  When she arrives at church in the morning, she sometimes finds Cheerios stuck to her clothes.

Photo by Paul Hocksenar, http://www.flickr.com/photos/71038389@N00/2807927059/, December 25, 2013, Used by Creative Commons License.

 

 

Pumpkin hands

Thanks and Giving

Pumpkin handsI teach my son thankfulness and the practices of gratitude.  I teach him to say “thank you” when someone gives him something.  As soon as he learns his letters I will teach him to write thank you notes.  We say prayers before bed every night (Okay, most nights; bedtime is hard) and that includes thanks to God for the good things in our lives.

I teach my congregation the same things: we say prayers of thanks throughout our Sunday services.   We send thank you cards to those who help us in ministry.  We say “grace,” which usually amounts to a prayer of gratitude to God, before all our church-wide meals.

Yet, there’s something about all of these thanks-giving practices that bothers me a little bit.  Yes, when my heart feels ready to burst with gratitude because of something good in my life, I want to pray to God to say thanks, and I do.  And yes, I believe that even when we are struggling, even when things are difficult, there is still much to be thankful for and we should express that gratitude.  But even though I live and teach these ideas about thankfulness, I have always had an undeniable bit of discomfort with this giving of thanks.

The discomfort became overwhelming this November, when my Facebook news feed began filling up with “I’m thankful for…” posts.  Maybe you’ve seen this exercise among your Facebook friends, too: Participants post every day of the month with something in their lives for which they are thankful.  Examples might be, “I’m thankful for the best job ever,” or, “Today I’m thankful that I get to stay home with my adorable kids every day!” On about November 2nd, as these thankful posts flooded my feed whenever I logged into Facebook, I realized that I was annoyed and uncomfortable every time I read them.

Rather than resigning myself to live in that irritated state (I check Facebook a lot), I decided to just take a break and avoid the Thankful Posts altogether.  I put up a brief message on my profile page letting people know that I would be back once Advent started, and signed off for the month.

Once I was off Facebook, I had a lot of time to reflect on why I had such a problem with the Thankful Posts.  Shouldn’t any act of gratitude be a joy?  As a pastor, should I not be happy that people are taking time to reflect on their blessings?  Why was I experiencing such misgivings about the Thankful Posts?  What if there is no good reason?  What if I am just a Thanksgiving Grinch?

Then something happened. I was walking my son to his day school class when I passed a bulletin board in the hallway.  The board showed the traditional Thanksgiving image of pilgrims and Indians sharing an overflowing table of food.  I stopped and stared.  They were sharing an overflowing table of food.

None of us really knows what happened on that first Thanksgiving and the version we share with our kids is probably fairly sanitized.  But as I stood looking at that bulletin board, my son tugging at my sleeve, I realized that even the legend of Thanksgiving holds an important message for me.  When the pilgrims arrived in the New World they did not know how to live there.  But (I was taught) a couple of Native Americans took the risk and the time to teach them how to plant crops that would thrive in North America.  When the harvest was returned, the pilgrims and Native Americans shared the feast together, all contributing what they had.

So the first Thanksgiving happened not because the pilgrims and the Native Americans sat at separate tables and yelled across a meadow, “Hey we have fowl! We’re so blessed!” or “We have squash! So thankful!”  The first Thanksgiving happened because Native Americans shared what they had (the skills to plant and harvest) with the pilgrims. Thanksgiving, then, happened not because each side reveled in its bounty, but because in sharing what they each had, all were fed.

Thanksgiving means “giving thanks.”  But staring at that bulletin board, I started to think that maybe a better interpretation of the word for Christians is “Thanks and giving.”  Maybe a better way to think of Thanksgiving is not as an opportunity to bask in the blessedness of every corner of our lives, but to reflect on how much we have, and then find a way to share.  Maybe we give thanks and in recognizing the gifts in our lives, we then give them away.

Thanks and giving–this lesson is all over the Bible.  In Genesis God tells Abram, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2, emphasis added).  Elsewhere, God’s people are instructed to leave portions of their harvests so that the poor may eat (Exodus 22:10, Leviticus 23:22).  Mordecai teaches Esther that perhaps her rise to power is “for just such a time as this,” so that she can save an entire people from genocide (Esther 4:14).  The five barley loaves and two fish of a little boy were not hoarded, but brought to Jesus and multiplied into enough—more than enough—for five thousand (John 6:9-14).  Paul writes to the Corinthians, “by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

When I think about these passages, my discomfort with my very-Christian practice of giving thanks begins to make sense.  I have been giving thanks for a long time without ever giving anything else.  A blessing over the food is only half of the Christian practice of gratitude; the other half is sharing that overflowing table with those in need.  A Facebook post about all the ways that I have far more than I need is an expression of thanks, yes, but it can’t stop there.  When we have been given much, much is asked in return.

You and I have been blessed.  But as followers of Christ we understand that our blessings are not intended to settle into our homes and lives and Facebook statuses; our blessings are intended to flow through us to others.  I will continue to teach my son and my parishioners that gratitude is the appropriate response to God’s good blessings, but I will add that it is only part of the response.  The other half is the giving.

What would it look like to say thanks and give?  What would it look like to celebrate Thanks-and-Giving?  Maybe we make a budget for our Thanksgiving meals, and then cut it by two-thirds, spending the smaller portion on our own Thanksgiving and giving the rest to a food bank.  Maybe we thank God for the ability to be a stay-at-home mom, and then offer to check in on the home-bound man next door while his daughter goes to work each day.  Maybe we keep our Facebook status, “I am so thankful for my amazing husband!” but then add, “He does so much for us around the house and he’s great at it.  If any of my elderly friends need a helping hand, message me.” You might want to check with your husband first about this, I don’t know.  I don’t have a husband.  Husbands might get testy about being left out of such a decision.

Whatever it looks like, let’s not stop at thank-you notes or prayers of thanks or Facebook posts.  Let’s not stop at celebrating Thanksgiving with more food than we need and nowhere for it to go but our expanding waists.  Instead, let’s think ahead and find ways to express our gratitude through sharing and giving.  Let’s celebrate Thanks-and-Giving this year.

Kelsey Grissom Johnson is the associate pastor at Cahaba Heights United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  She and her three-year-old son Houston share their apartment with Nicky the dog, Alice the cat, and Dinosaur the goldfish. Given the demographics represented in her home, Kelsey gives thanks daily for Scotchgard, Clorox wipes, and Anne Lamott.

Photo Credit: Gabriela Pinto, licensed under Creative Commons, <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/45642240@N05/6209099803/”>GabrielaP93</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a.

Twin Feet

Choosing to Serve

Twin Feet“Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”         Joshua 24:15

Every choice we make to do one thing is a choice not to do another. One of the choices I made earlier on was to devote my life to serving God’s church.  By choosing this I chose not to go to medical school or pursue an engineering or management degree, but to major in religion and classics.  I spent my time learning Greek and Latin instead of molecules or physics.  Could I have served God while having a secular career? Of course, but God was calling me to serve full-time as an ordained clergy person.

I began ordained ministry single without even a houseplant to care for.  Throughout the last ten years as a priest, my life has changed dramatically. After adopting two plants and a dog, I entered a serious relationship that eventually led to marriage and children.  I know God has led me through these transitions and called me to the vocation of both spouse and mother, as surely as to the priesthood. Yet, I keep realizing how my vocation as a parent is a choice to follow God one way and to not follow God in another.

About a month ago, the implications of this choice became very clear to me.  I had a day designated to spend with my kids (twins, now 15 months old) enjoying them and caring for them.  In the middle of this day I received a call that a wonderful, elderly member of my parish was in the last hours of her life.  After speaking with her granddaughter, I immediately called my children’s daycare, only to discover that they didn’t have room that day for two infants. My husband, also a clergyperson, was in the midst of caring for his parish an hour away and could not come home.

That day, which had begun as a joyful day with my children, brought my vocation as a mother and my vocation as a priest up against one another.  I have heard of many stories of ordained mothers taking their infants to visit those who are dying.  Before I became a parent, I dreamed of visitations with a cooing baby and how much the elderly parishioners would smile to see a tiny face.  The surprise of my life, I found out one February day, was that God had chosen to give me the gift of twins!  The idea of my two toddlers running around the house as this grandmother lay dying did not seem like it would be a welcome visit.

I have often told family members who were not able to by a loved one’s bedside in their time of need that God heard their prayers and was with their loved one even when they were not.  Today, I had to believe these words could be true in my own life and ministry.  My heart was torn by my desire to be the physical presence of God’s love in the room – there when no one else wanted to be to say one last, final blessing on this woman in her earthly pilgrimage.  I had visited her just days before and shared both communion and prayers, but it just didn’t seem the same.  However, that day God called me to share my presence with two growing toddlers.  I found myself in almost constant prayer for this woman at the end of her life, and my prayers for her joined with prayers for my children, that they might be at the beginning of equally long God-filled lives.

I have read so many articles that imply or outwardly state that current generations who choose not to have children are self-centered that individuals who make that choice just want to have fun while they are young, but I realized that if I had chosen not to have children I would have been at that woman’s bedside and that many women whose vocation is to not have children of their own serve in ways that I can not at this stage in my life.

I love my twins in a way that I love no other and I would not give them up for the world. They have opened up new ways for me to share God’s love in the world and a greater understanding of God as our amazing creator.  Our call to parenthood shapes all other parts of our life, including our call to the priesthood.

The inward struggle comes when one vocation butts heads with another.  It is then when we realize the manifold consequences of following two calls from God.  I take to heart the words of the apostle Paul, though my prayers could go forth, I could not be all things to all people at this moment (1 Corinthians 9:22). Both my vocation as a priest and as a mother are callings from God, and I am learning how to trust that God will find new ways to work through me in sharing love with the world. These two callings often complement and strengthen each other, but balancing the two is not without its challenges.

Are you a clergywoman balancing the dual vocations of parenting and ordained ministry?  Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.

The Rev. Heather Hill is an Episcopal priest serving as Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Parma, Ohio.  She and her husband, also an Episcopal priest, are currently learning how to live out two vocations (priesthood and parenthood) with their sixteen month old twins.  In her spare time…just kidding, what spare time?

Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/65903766@N00/2703829973/”>surlygirl</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

Communication board

What is Most Important

Communication boardI lost it twice. I broke down crying, wondering what has happened to me and my life and how in the world I could be both a mom and a minister.  I had two weeks until the start of school, and then things would change, but this summer turned out to be harder than I thought it would be.

After a morning in which my son would not sit still, running and yelling in the house and outside of the house, I paused to make myself some lunch, because when I made his lunch he would not sit down.  Two minutes later, I discovered him naked from the waist down, running around and covered in dirt from head to toe. Abandoning my half-made sandwich, I got him into the bath, and I broke down crying. I was supposed to be prepping for a church board meeting, doing the bulletin insert, updating my blog and writing my sermon, and instead I was scrubbing dirt out of my child’s skin. Earlier that day, it had taken a while to calm him down because he had a runny nose. A runny nose will cause him to scream, and even bang his head at times, but dirt—he loves it.

The second time I cried was when we received the long-awaited phone call to schedule AJ’s dual surgical procedure. He is going to be put under to treat a cavity and do other dental care (It takes both my husband and I, holding him down, to brush his teeth.) and the audiology department at Children’s is going to do a test they can only do when he is under anesthesia.  We have needed to schedule the audiology appointment for a while, but I did not want to subject my son to anesthesia for one test, when we are fairly certain his hearing is all right, he just won’t participate in a standard hearing test. So we are going to have both procedures at the same time. The earliest we could get him in for the anesthesia, however, is near the end of November. The dental appointment that revealed the cavity was at the beginning of July. I couldn’t believe that they would put him off that long, but that was the earliest available appointment. I cried. I couldn’t believe they didn’t have anything available sooner, especially for a child with autism and a cavity, but I have to live with it.

After I calmed down from that call and just after I finished making notes for my board meeting that evening, my son started crying. Big time. He couldn’t stop. From what I could tell, it wasn’t his nose this time. I brought him his communication board, and he pointed to “eat.” Good, he wanted to eat, even though he’d had a snack a half-hour earlier. I gave him choices, and he pointed to “fruit,” so I gave him some grapes. He cried more and pushed the bowl of grapes away. I gave him back the board; he pointed to crackers. I gave him some crackers, the same snack that he had finished a half-hour before, but he threw his head back and started screaming, and then pushed the communication board at me. I put down the board and grabbed a cereal bar, which we call “cookies” in our house, and offered him a cookie. He pushed it away. I went to put the bar away and AJ started screaming—a full out meltdown. I brought back the cookie on a hunch and opened it, and he immediately stopped crying and screaming and began to eat.

I lost it. I cried and cried. I hate that I cannot understand my son. I am so frustrated that a child who has known his alphabet since he was twenty months old, knows numbers and shapes and even tries to read, cannot understand communication and cannot tell me what he needs. I am so frustrated that at age five I am still changing his diapers and wiping his bottom and telling him to keep his hands out of his pants all the time because I’m afraid it will come back up with poop and it will be everywhere.  This has happened, more than once.

I serve in a part-time ministry position with no reliable childcare and am the primary parent home with AJ during the week.  This means that I cannot often go visit my church members on a regular basis.  It means I cannot sit in the office for more than an hour at a time to work.  It means I am often working with a DVD soundtrack on in the background or trying to keep an eye on him outside (in the beginning of the summer, working outside went well—I worked on the deck and could keep an eye on him—but now he just comes and gets me every few minutes to eat something or to go with him inside).  It means people come by the church office and always seem surprised to see me at home instead of the office and then make the assumption that I am not working.

I feel stressed out. All the time. I feel like I never give my best to the church and that I’ve failed as a mom to give my attention to him.

And then I realize that this day that I’ve just described is just one day, one bad day out of so many good days.  What will I remember most from that day? Probably not that I was frustrated and cried, or that AJ was frustrated and crying.  I won’t remember that I got organized for another church board meeting, or that I wrote a blog entry, or read theology, or finished a project, or cleaned the kitchen.  I will remember AJ running and laughing half naked.  I will remember that AJ had, overall, a very happy day, and that he used the word “Eat.”

Because in all that frustration and crying, I almost didn’t hear that not only did he point to the word, but he actually said it. “Eat.” He vocalized his need. And on that day, this was the most important thing that happened.

Mindi Welton-Mitchell is an American Baptist pastor in Burien, Washington and full-time mom to her 5-year-old son AJ who has autism. Mindi is married to a Disciples of Christ minister and together they are planting Open Gathering, a new church plant in Bellevue, WA geared towards including families that have children with special needs.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Changing talbe

Simple Things: On Welcoming Families with Children

Changing talbeI have attended almost every conference that The Young Clergy Women Project has hosted, but the conference in Nashville last month was the first one that offered childcare as part of the registration process.  The conference committee performed the amazing feat of transforming two Divinity school classrooms into kid and baby-friendly spaces.  They thought of everything: cribs, a changing station lined with disposable paper, a potty seat and step stool in the bathroom, a room with a comfortable chair and sofa so moms could pump milk or breastfeed their babies, a refrigerator for storing milk and snacks, and, of course, a number of caring, trained childcare workers.

I traveled to Nashville with my second child; he was so young that he hadn’t even started daycare yet.  I kept him with me most of the time, but I was so thankful that there was a comfortable place to feed him, a clean place to change him, and a place where I knew that he would be well cared for if he was fussy, or if I just needed a break.

On Monday evening, I entered the chapel for our opening worship service.  All along the perimeter of the room, moms with babies and young children sat comfortably, some nursing, some bouncing babies, some gratefully handing their children to friends who had offered to hold them.   My heart filled with gratitude for this place so full of life, for these women whose song was punctuated by squeals and screeches, and for the TYCWP conference committee, whose thoughtful planning allowed so many clergy moms to fully participate in the conference.    I am happy to report that the committee charged with planning The Young Clergy Women Project’s 2014 Conference (Minneapolis, early July) is working to line up childcare for next year, as well.

All of this got me thinking about ways that churches can make our spaces and communities friendlier for families with kids.  I tapped into the collective wisdom of my colleagues in The Young Clergy Women Project, and together, we came up with these (relatively) simple things.

Intentionally welcome children in worship.

Children’s programs such as Sunday School and nursery care are great, and will go a long way in attracting families, but it’s also important to make room for children during worship.  We are, after all, the whole body of Christ, young and old alike. Opportunities for multigenerational interaction are increasingly rare in the lives of many families. Even if the kids at your church are in programs for much of the year, make some time for everyone to worship together.   Offer a children’s sermon every few weeks, and you might just find that the adults listen better than they’ve ever listened. Put in some songs that children know.  Let kids lead readings or usher or serve as acolytes. Ask a Sunday School class to write the prayers of the people.  Invite children around the font to witness a baptism.  Let them help pour the water or splash around a bit.   Have a basket filled with shakers, tambourines or drums, and hand them to children for the closing hymn.  Watch the smiles spread across the faces of your parish elders as they hear this joyful noise.

Speaking of joyful noises (and not-so-joyful ones, too), an encouraging word from a pastor or other parish leader goes a long way in easing the mortification that many parents feel when their child starts wailing or shouts something “inappropriate” during church.  If you truly want to welcome children in church, church is going to be a little bit noisy.  Keep a kind-spirited sense of humor about it.

Make space for kids within the worship space. 

Create a kid-friendly area within your worship space.  Take out a pew or two to make an area where kids can stretch out.  Include books, a rug and a few soft toys and make sure that they get cleaned regularly.   Consider the placement of this area.  It should be relatively close to an entrance to the worship space.  While a few families like to be close to the liturgical actions, many parents of busy-bodied kids prefer to be near the rear of the worship space, where their kids’ behavior isn’t on display for all to see.   Rocking chairs can be a blessing to nursing mothers and anyone else holding a fussy baby.   Make sure that the books that you select for your children’s area, if religiously themed, actually reflect the theology of your denomination or community.

 Be inviting, but flexible.

Even if you have a well-equipped nursery with wonderful staff and beautiful Sunday School classrooms with wonderful teachers, not all families will want to make use of these services.  For some families, that hour on Sunday mornings is one of the few times of the week that they can be together all in one place. Some children are shy and have a real struggle being separated from their parents, especially in a new place.  Train greeters and ushers to let parents know about activities and programs for children, but do not pressure families to make use of these services.

Install changing tables in convenient locations.

Whenever possible, changing tables should be located on the same floor as the worship space and in both men’s and women’s restrooms.  Better yet, designate a single-stall restroom as unisex and put a changing table in there.   Dads change diapers, too.  My husband, who is out around town with our kids a lot more than I am, is particularly sensitive to this.  If he is out at a restaurant and there is a table in the women’s restroom but not the men’s, he will ask the manager to stand guard outside the ladies’ room until he emerges with a freshly changed baby.  Equip bathrooms with a lidded diaper pail or trash can.  For extra-thoughtful hospitality, stock the changing area with wipes and a few sizes of diapers.

Be responsive to special needs.

Visiting a new church with a family of young children is enough to make any parent nervous.  For families with special needs kids, visiting a new congregation can be downright daunting.   On that first visit, you will almost certainly discover ways in which your church is not equipped to meet all of the needs of a family with a special needs child.  Please, please, please do not let that stop you from welcoming them. Ask the parents what would be helpful.  If challenges came up during their visit, ask what you might be able to do to make the next visit a better experience.   Caring for a child with special needs can be incredibly physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding. Instead of placing the burden of fitting into your community on families that are already stressed, show them that you are willing to change the way that you do things in order to fully welcome them.

Allow children to explore holy space.

Like so many things in the lives of young children, there’s a lot about church that is designated off limits.  Yet, many kids who go to church, even very young ones, have some understanding that there’s something special going on.  Invite children to participate in supervised exploration of your chancel or sanctuary.  Let them dip their hands in the baptismal font.  Let them touch the communion vessels.  Take them up to the organ console while the organist plays a demo.  Have the praise band teach the kids about their instruments.   Show them the colors of the liturgical seasons, and let them run their hands along the fabric.  Children know this is a special place.  Help them to know that they are fully a part of it.

How does your church provide welcome for families with young children?  We would love to hear your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

April Berends is the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the mother of two lively sons.  This is her first column as the new editor of “Moms in Ministry,” and she is grateful to Alex Hendrickson, the previous editor of this column for all the gifts she has shared in this space over these past five years.

Editor’s note: The Young Clergy Women Project, including all of the mamas who were able to attend our conference in Nashville because childcare was provided, extends our sincere gratitude to Vanderbilt Divinity School for so graciously accommodating us and our children.  We also thank Christ United Methodist in Franklin, TN, Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville and Katherine Hande Smith, the Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt Divinity School, for lending us nursery supplies and equipment.

Photo by Bob Page, http://www.flickr.com/photos/76775365@N00/145815282/ August 21, 2013, used under Creative Commons license.