In a preaching class, I was once told that a number of historic pulpits have a verse from John 12 carved into them: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” This was meant as a reminder that, when you’re the preacher, it’s not about you. It’s about Jesus.
While I mostly agree with that idea, I also hold it in tension with the idea that ministry is incarnational. As pastors, we live out our faith in the community of our churches. Our presence as pastors is not just spiritual or intellectual. It is physical, as well: the sound of the voice; the handshake at the door; the gentle touch when visiting the sick. And sometimes, even the protrusion of a growing belly into your ministry.
This is where Katherine Willis Pershey’s book, Any Day A Beautiful Change, begins: the reality of being a pregnant pastor, a wife and a mother, alongside, and intertwined with her life in ministry.
The catalyst for the book is Pershey’s entrance into motherhood: the arrival of her first child, Juliette. One of the brilliant things that Pershey does is weave together honest, vulnerable accounts of the beauty, difficulty, and humor of mothering, along side of profound theological reflection. She doesn’t shy away from the physicality of having a baby. Take, for instance, a section on nursing. There’s open admission that nursing wasn’t easy; a hilarious account of a trip to a breastfeeding clinic accompanied by the chair of the church board; and solid theological reflection on the connection between breastfeeding an infant and serving communion to a congregation.
This is not just a book about a mother and a baby, though. It’s about a family. Katherine (and her husband, Benjamin) are brave for laying open their relationship and revealing that marriage is hard work. And they ought to be called blessed by pastors and their partners everywhere for giving an account that is honest, but also hopeful, about how becoming a family can heal a relationship.
Juliette’s arrival in their lives forces Katherine and Benjamin to confront parts of their marriage that were easier to ignore when there were just two of them. A new baby means a new kind of togetherness for them when Benjamin becomes the part time church administrative assistant. It seems like a perfect set up: two parents working together in a place where the baby can be cared for by both. It lands them in a therapist’s office. And without being self-indulgent, Katherine manages to figure out just how wide a crack of that office door to leave open so that we can witness what’s gone wrong in their marriage and how they make it right.
The struggles Pershey reveals, both in becoming a mother and in repairing a marriage, could come off as sensational, but instead are the backdrop for a good story about God acting in people’s lives. It’s not a tell-all book. It’s not a confession. It’s testimony.
And while it’s a very personal story, it is also universal. This is a book for ministers, and for church people. For married people, partnered people, and single people. Sometimes memoirs resonate with us because of some way in which we identify with the author. Sometimes we are fascinated because the story and experience are so unique. The strength of this memoir is in it’s place as testimony, though. It’s a model of incarnational Christian living. As Pershey writes in the introduction:
“Ultimately, I am not merely telling my story. I am participating in the timeworn tradition of testimony, pointing to God’s work in the world, starting with God’s work in my life.”
Our lives mirror the redemptive move God made by becoming human in Jesus Christ. That mind-boggling theological idea is at the core of our faith. Jesus came to get involved in the messy details. We need to remind ourselves and our congregations that testimony means telling the story, even when it’s messy. Any Day a Beautiful Change gives us a model, and permission, to tell the story.