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Our Bodies, Our Selves: Women’s Bodies in the Pulpit

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

I was just one year past the anniversary of my ordination and ten weeks pregnant with my first child when my partner and I sent out the invitations to the annual Holiday Party at the Manse. We were waiting until after Christmas to tell the church about my pregnancy, so we hadn’t told a soul. But that didn’t stop Melvin. We were standing in the dining room when Melvin sidled right up to my husband and me with a drink in his hand and, in the casual manner of many an octogenarian, commented, “Pastor, I can’t imagine why, but it seems like your husband keeps getting thinner and thinner, and you just keep getting bigger and bigger!”

What does one say in a moment like this? I cannot remember what I did, but I suspect I laughed it off. On the other hand, I am still telling that story today. My family laughs about it now—about how Melvin’s adult grandson collapsed in laughter behind me in the aftermath, and about how Melvin showed up to church the next Sunday and sheepishly asked my husband if he needed to find a new place to worship—but as I reflect on my ministry, on the ways in which it has been changed by the growth of my family and the confidence that comes from experience, I am reminded that, as a woman who is a pastor, my body presents a particular challenge to those with whom I serve.

I am not alone. We all have stories (or maybe the better term is battle scars) that reveal the ways in which the people with whom we minister have invaded our personal space, have invited themselves into personal decisions about what is appropriate for us and what is not, or have defined the terms for us of what it means to be a minister in a woman’s body. We know what it is like to be told, like one minister, that our clothes are too revealing, without any context or explanation about what “revealing” means. Or to find ourselves on the receiving end of comments and judgments that evaluate our weight, our relationships, even our hairstyles with the same level of concern as the content of our preaching and teaching.

And then there is parenthood. As women who minister, it is inevitable that our personal choices around childbearing will, at some point, become a point of public discussion in the churches where we serve. And because the church as an institution tends to glorify traditional, heteronormative definitions of what it means to parent successfully, our very real lives as women can become a battleground over cultural ideals of parenting, motherhood, childbearing, and the work-family balance.

Amanda was already married and a new mother when she was ordained as a UCC minister. She entered ministry with a strong and healthy sense of identity as a parent, a minister, and a queer woman. But she quickly discovered that even in her progressive UCC congregation, assumptions around her body and parenting were inevitable. And because she is a parent, “there was a level of assumption that I have given birth. And no matter what, the fact that I had children meant that I must be sexually active. People went there. I didn’t expect that.”

For Amanda, being a parent thrust into the public sphere all kinds of assumptions about her health, her marriage, and her body. And, as a queer mother, she found herself working against her congregation’s attempts to “typecast” her. “Because I had a wife, I was put into this sort of ‘dad’ role, so guys around me treated me as one of the guys.” She shared that it caused her to start consciously dressing in a more feminine way at work while also pushing back against the sexualization of her body in the church.

For other young clergywomen, becoming a parent can threaten one’s job security. Bethany shared that, when she found out she was pregnant in her first call, she was immediately informed that it would cost her. “I was told not to expect an allowance for anything. I was to be a mom separately.” Implicit was the assumption that she needed to make a choice—she could either be a good parent, or a good pastor, but she could not be both, at least not at church. “They wanted kids,” she shared, “just not mine. They wanted him, but not with me.”

If there is a common theme in the experience of clergywomen who parent, it seems to be that their identity as a parent becomes a crucial part of how they evaluate the terms of their ministry. For Bethany, her congregation’s negative attitudes towards her identity as a mother ultimately led her to seek out a more supportive pastoral environment.

And she is not alone. When Cordelia became a single parent through adoption, it revealed real prejudices about parenting in her upper-middle class ministry setting. She found that leaders within her church seemed to resent her child. “I was told she was not welcome in worship (even with someone else holding her) or at any event or group where I was working. I was told by one parent that they were paying me to watch their kids, not my own.” In that environment, her identity as a single parent was treated as a problem that she had to solve on her own. At one point, the experience let her to seriously questioning her call to ministry.

Ultimately, Cordelia left her call and chose to focus on her child, who was “the most important thing to me.” That decision—to honor her identity as a parent over a ministry context that viewed parenting as a liability—ultimately gave her the time and space to seek out opportunities for ministry that would honor both identities. Today, she happily serves a small church in a small town, where her child is embraced and her ministry is valued.

The truth is that church folk have a tendency to forget that we are not their family. We are not their children, or their grandchildren either. But the intimacy that is inevitable in ministry tends to blur the lines between what is acceptable and what is not. In unhealthy churches, that boundary-crossing can feel intrusive and toxic to our identity as pastors and as parents. It can lead us to feel that our children are not welcome, that the fullness of who we are is not welcome. In these cases, perhaps the only answer is to walk away.

But in a healthy church setting, one that affirms the ministry of clergywomen in all of its uniqueness and its fullness, this same intimacy can become the life-force that sustains good ministry. In Kathleen’s case, the experience of becoming a mother was incredibly positive. She credited this to the fact that her church had eight members in the congregation who were also pregnant at the same time. For her, becoming a parent while also pastoring her church deepened her sense of intimacy with those around her. She found herself empowered to explore these connections more fully in liturgy, exploring the physically evocative language of Incarnation and the gritty realities of embodiment more explicitly in worship.

Amanda was surprised to discover that when members of her congregation learned that she had not physically birthed her children, some of them treated her as though this meant that she could not understand the female experience of giving birth. But her experiences of parenting without giving birth have enabled her to identify with and minister to women in the queer and trans community who wanted to parent, but weren’t able, or chose not to be pregnant.

At the end of the day, so much of our calling is wrapped up in our experience in the world.  And many of the experiences that are so often marginalized and silenced in an institutional environment are precisely the things that have the potential to make us better pastors. Our experiences have the potential to help us to find common ground with our neighbors in the pews and on the streets who experience oppression, victimization, silencing and policing from the dominant culture that is more interested in silencing opposition than in creating life. We have a unique opportunity as clergywomen to model another way, to break down the barriers that constrain those around us. To use our privilege in the pulpit to advocate for and stand alongside those whose voices are not heard.

Why? Because we know what is at stake. For we have been in the trenches. We bear the physical and spiritual scars on our person. We know how despairing it can feel to be limited, and how freeing it feels to find ourselves fully embraced. When we embrace the fullness of who we are, and enable others to do the same, the church is a stronger, healthier, more welcoming and faithful place.

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Taking Your (Maternity) Leave Edition

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Newborn feet – fearfully and wonderfully made!

Dear Askie,

I’m preparing for the arrival of my first child (a girl!) in September. My congregation is very excited about my pregnancy, but I’m not sure they really “get it” about maternity leave. I have six weeks of paid maternity leave, and am extending that by using two weeks of vacation time. The problem is that I keep hearing people mention things that they assume I’ll still do while I’m on maternity leave. Congregants say things like “Oh, you’ll be on maternity leave then, so I’ll just email you,” or that I’m welcome to bring the baby along to the Fall Festival (three weeks after my due date, so I’ll definitely be out). I’ve also heard a lot of comments about how great it is that the church is being so generous to give me maternity leave, and it’s hard to know how to respond. At the same time, these folks are so sweet and so kind, and so excited to have a new baby at our church – they’re knitting blankets, making sure that the nursery meets my needs, and I think they’re even planning a surprise baby shower (someone let the secret slip). How do I navigate this new phase of life and ministry?

Expectant Pastor

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Holy Ghost Grab Bag: Year-End Review

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Catching up on Fidelia’s during your summer downtime? The Fidelia’s editors have compiled a list of their favorite articles from this past year of publishing. Each editor shares what pieces published in her column that she most enjoyed, and why. If your reading has been sporadic, don’t miss these must-reads!

Kelsey Grissom, editor of Single Rev:
I’ve edited Single Rev for two years now, and As A Mother is probably my all-time favorite piece to publish. Yejide Peters is not a mother, but in the metaphor of motherhood she helped me to understand my role as a pastor in a way that still sustains me.

Another piece I love is The Liturgy of the Mandarin Orange, which is a divorce ceremony by Kyndall Rae Rothaus. I love this piece because it offers liturgy that compassionately tends to the profound pain present in the loss of a marriage, while at the same time demonstrating how to seek out priests (and be priests to ourselves) during times of crisis and transformation.

 

Diana Carrol‪l, editor of Our Cloud of Witnesses:
My favorite article was the Interview with our Founder, Susan Olson. It was fascinating for me to find out more about how The Young Clergy Women Project began. Every member (and supporter) of TYCWP should read this to understand our history.

 

Amy Loving, editor of Holy Ghost Grab Bag:
I liked Bread by Kelly Boubel Shriver and A Companion for the Journey by Kelsey Grissom. The testimonies that were shared were simple and beautiful, making me think about sometimes overlooked things in a different way.

 

Emily Brown, editor of Ask a YCW:
“Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holiday Drama Edition” was a favorite this year. It addressed the reality that most clergy are not able to spend Christmas with their families, and offered some suggestions of how families might readjust their traditions.

“Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Cosmetic Quandary Edition” was another favorite, generating righteous outrage from YCWs and non-YCWs alike, as Askie addressed a male pastor seeking guidance on how to handle the Ladies’ Fellowship’s demand that the church’s secretary wear makeup.

 

Erica Schemper, editor of The Jesus Review:
I loved What’s in Your Earbuds? Pastors were such a fascinating group to ask about podcasts (beyond the theologically/preaching oriented obvious ones) because we are professionals who are into the spoken word and people’s everyday lives. It gave me a new appreciation for how younger clergy are connecting to some of the new (-ish) media in the world.

And Tired Shoulders by Amy Wiegert. Such a beautiful example of an everyday moment inspiring theological reflection on current events. And I am so grateful to the author for letting us into that intimate moment with her daughter and giving us her perspective as a lens for looking at race relations in America.

 

Brenda Lovick, editor of Here I Stand:
One of my favorites was Holy Sexuality. The author really pushes the church—including her bishop—to consider a new paradigm for understanding sexuality and sexual activity in the church.

Another favorite was Eviction Monologues by Sarah Gladstone. This is no easy business: a pastor holds a family in reverence even though they did not obey the congregation’s wishes to leave the parsonage.

 

Kelly Shriver, general editor:
I loved Meg Jenista’s take on grace in her article “The Break-Up Flowers.” I think we’re so used to giving all of ourselves as pastors we need the reminder that it’s ok to take time, space, and matter (in this case, flowers) for ourselves. That’s holy work in its own way.

A few weeks ago my third son was born and went to the NICU with jaundice and a few related complications. Thankfully his story wasn’t nearly as complicated or severe as the tale shared by Kristen Corr Rod in “Gratitude for a Life Saved.” However, rereading her story felt so familiar to my last few weeks; it was a tender reminder that I am not alone…not just professionally, but in the life my family is living, as well.

 

April Berends, editor of Moms in Ministry:
One of my favorite articles was Unwrapping Grace. This piece describes an adopted daughter’s first Christmas with her new mom and extended family. I love how it juxtaposes the abundance of gifts with the experience of a young girl who is trying to put the pieces of her new life together. The story ends with the deeply incarnational image of a mother and daughter, lying beside one another at the end of Christmas day, pondering the richness and the vastness of the love that has been shown them.

I also liked Generation to Generation. Grace Pritchard Burson, an Episcopal priest describes her new vocation as a doula. She compares her doula work to that of being a priest and pastor, and eloquently describes the holy gift of being being present both at birth and at death.

 

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Search & Call Edition

3288235207_959eebbf7d_zDear Askie,

I’m a UCC laywoman serving on my church’s search committee as we try to discern who God is calling to be our next pastor. I’m also a working mom of two kids (ages 9 and 13), so I’ve been through some of the difficulties that face working moms. I think that’s why I’ve been particularly concerned that our search process be fair and appropriate to female candidates, especially female candidates who have young children, or might become mothers during their pastorate here. We haven’t had a woman as a settled pastor here yet, but we did have a wonderful sabbatical interim who was a woman whose children were grown and “out of the nest.” I think that the congregation would be open to calling a female pastor, but I’m a little worried about some of the things other members of the search committee have said about young female candidates as we’ve read through their information: “I wonder if she’d be able to give this work her full attention?” “Does she mention whether she has children?” “I don’t know if she’d make the kind of commitment to a long-term pastorate that we’re looking for.” It sounds to me like thinly-veiled assumptions that a young clergy mom would be less committed or less available than a man or an older woman, and it rubs me the wrong way. What can I do to make sure we give young clergy women a fair shake?

Thanks,
Searching for a (YCW) Pastor

 

Dear Searching,

Thank God for you. This question makes Askie’s heart sing because it is so encouraging to know that thoughtful, faithful Christian moms (and others) are out there on search committees, trying to make sure we young clergy women get a chance to do the work we’re called to.

First of all, Searching, I hope you get some support from your denomination. Since you’re UCC, it’s likely that you have an Associate Conference Minister or someone similar who is available to help with your search process. Part of that person’s job is to be attentive to the overt and subtle ways that prejudices can influence your search process. I would draw their attention to what you’ve heard, and ask them to work with you to make sure that young female candidates aren’t discriminated against.

I’d also encourage you to start challenging some of those assumptions about young female candidates as soon and often as possible, so that your committee has given these issues some thought before interviewing candidates. Many incredibly gifted YCWs have said “thanks but no thanks” to churches because they sat down to talk about God and ministry, but ended up answering questions about their reproductive plans or childcare arrangements. A church that telegraphs “no moms in the pulpit” throws up red flags that may cause a pastor who would be a great match for your church to end the interview process.

When another member of the search committee makes a remark or asks a question you find troubling, try asking them to elaborate. Aim for a tone that is curious rather than combative, as you invite them to explore the assumptions underlying their words. You might ask, “What do you think might prevent her from giving her work her full attention?” or, “Why wouldn’t she make a long-term commitment?” or simply, “I’m not sure I understand. Can you say more?”

As you help guide your committee toward openness to God’s best fit for your congregation, here are a few thoughts that might help the more “old school” members rethink their assumptions about clergy moms:

  • We are all whole people: Mothers of young children are not the only ones who struggle with work/life balance. All of us—young and old, male and female, parents and non-parents, pastors and laypeople—have other parts of our life beyond our work. And that is a very good thing! God creates us as multi-faceted, multi-dimensional people, and we are called to live fully and richly. That means that there should be things that your pastor loves and devotes time and attention to beyond the church. Perhaps she is a mom to young children; perhaps he is caring for an aging parent; perhaps she runs marathons and trains every day, rain or shine; perhaps his deepest joy is volunteering at a Malawian orphanage he travels to twice a year. These are not “distractions” from pastoral ministry. Rather, our commitments outside the church broaden our perspective. They inform our ministry. And they allow us to model a life guided not by the demands of an employer, but by our desire to live fully into the gifts and passions God has entrusted to us.
  • Familial roles are shifting: While search committees sometimes wonder whether a pastor who is also a mom will be able to give the church her full attention, they tend to assume that a pastor who is also a dad won’t face the same challenges. These assumptions rely on dated cultural norms of families with a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and a division of labor based on traditional gender roles. Even fifty or sixty years ago, not every family conformed to that image. These days, few families do. Most two-parent families are also two-income families, and many clergy dads take a more active co-parenting role than your average sitcom dad. Long story short, a clergy dad might prioritize his family more than you would expect (and good for him!), and a clergy mom might have more support from her spouse or her family than your search committee is envisioning.
  • Pastor-mothers offer unique gifts: It’s easy to imagine the drawbacks of having a pastor who is a mom, or who might become one: she might have to take maternity leave. There might be days when her child is sick or childcare has fallen through, and her work may be affected. She might be reluctant to attend as many weekend and evening events as the church would like. It can be harder to picture how motherhood might enrich her ministry to your church, but I promise it will! Maybe bringing an infant with her on nursing home visits will brighten the days of elderly women and men. Maybe her conflict resolution skills are sharper because she uses them daily to mediate disputes between her five-year-old and her six-year-old. Maybe she will be able to pastor more effectively to parents and families in your congregation because of their shared experiences.
  • The Kingdom of God: Secular employers tend to see working and parenting as conflicting roles, and to stake out their claims on employees’ time and attention. But the church is called to model a better way. By being the kind of church that embraces and celebrates your pastor’s family and commitments, whatever they are, your congregation can do just that. You can be the kind of community that shows what it looks like to value people for all their gifts, talents, roles, and responsibilities, in all seasons of life. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a church like that?

Best of luck, Searching. Prayers for you, your search committee, and your congregation.

Blessings,
Askie

Daily Graces: A Review of Everyday Sacrament by Laura Kelly Fanucci

My spouse and I rarely touch when we sleep. Before we drift off, we lie close together, holding hands, or with our limbs entwined. He wraps his arms around me while we talk, or I hold him. When it is time to go to sleep, however, we inch away, still close enough to feel one another’s warmth, but occupying our own real estate on the bed.

As someone who has always required a bit of space in order to be comfortable, I was surprised by how quickly this fact about myself changed when I became a mother. Suddenly, I was completely joyful with my baby asleep in a carrier, snuggled up close to my body. My husband would spend hours napping with a baby on his chest. Now that my children are toddlers, they come to me frequently to be held or comforted. When I am home with them, it is difficult to go even a few minutes without one of them pressing against my body or tugging on my arm. When I am away from them for overnights, I long to have their small bodies nestled close.

One of the things that I appreciate most about Laura Kelly Fanucci’s new book, Everyday Sacrament, is that it approaches parenting and the life of faith in a completely embodied way. She ties the matter of the sacraments, those holy things which we can taste and touch and see, to the matter of life—mealtime, bath time, time spent tending wounds and holding children close. She speaks vividly about the changes that happen to one’s body when one becomes a mother, and helps readers to see God at work in something as simple as tousling a child’s hair or bandaging a cut.

Becoming a parent changed the way I thought about God, and it also changed the way I thought about church. As a parish priest, too, I have often seen parents returning to church when they want to have their children baptized. In many ways, there is no better time than recent parenthood to reconnect with one’s faith traditions, to consider what it means to raise a child in that tradition, to ask oneself what these rites and rituals mean. Here is where a book like Everyday Sacrament can help. Fanucci asks parents to consider the question of “what I ask of God’s church for my child, and what I believe about what I am undertaking.”

Fanucci writes as a Roman Catholic, addressing the seven sacraments of baptism, communion, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders. As a priest of the Episcopal Church, I found myself asking questions about how my own faith tradition views each of the sacramental rites that she addresses. I found much truth and wisdom in her reflections, and I suspect that other types of Protestants will also find common ground, as well as encouragement for the daily work of faithful parenting.

The book begins with baptism, about which Fanucci says, “We are welcomed into a community that has great hopes for us. We are called by God who dreams of all that we might become. But this first sacrament also celebrates the simple fact of being beloved. Of knowing that we do not need to achieve to be worthy or succeed to be faithful.”   What a refreshing thing to hear in a book about being a parent. What a wonderful thing for parents to teach their children—before you are anything, dear child, you are held and named and loved by God.

So many books about parenting focus on methods—sleep training, discipline, feeding. Those kinds of books often make me feel as though I’m not completely adequate as a parent. They may contain good advice, but I often lack the will to overhaul family life in order to accommodate new patterns that don’t work in every situation. Fanucci’s book is not a parenting manual. It is designed to help new parents see God at work in the world, at work in this new thing that has begun. She speaks of both the sacraments and about parenting as acts of becoming. As I read Everyday Sacrament, I thought of all the parents, young and old, whom I have encountered over the course of my ministry. If I have learned anything from serving among these parents, it is that the work of parenting is never finished. It is a love and a life and a struggle that unfolds moment after moment, year after year.   Fanucci treats parenting as a vocation into which we continue to grow, honoring this truth.

I began reading the chapters on marriage and ordination with a bit of trepidation, as these are the areas in which the Roman Catholic Church seems most different from my own. I needn’t have worried, though, as the author graciously addresses both of these sacraments within the broader context of calling.   She talks about how the commitments that we enter into transform us, how our relationships present ongoing invitations to listen to God’s call.

I found myself especially moved by Fanucci’s writing about ordination. I became a priest long before I became a parent, but growing into each of these vocations has taught me something about the other. I wasn’t absolutely certain that I was called to sacramental ministry until the first time that I actually stepped behind an altar. I know that our ordination processes are supposed to help people discern this before ordination, but how can anyone be sure of such a thing?  While I was standing there, letting God do God’s thing through me, I had an overwhelming sense that for that moment, I was standing exactly in the place where I was supposed to be.

Similarly, I wasn’t one hundred percent certain about a call to parenthood until I became one. Again, it would seem wiser to discern this before becoming a parent, but I remember one night when I was bone tired, and up most of the night with a feverish toddler. It was an awful night, involving the clean-up of several different kinds of bodily fluids, but I knew with my whole heart that there in that bed next to my sick child, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. In reflecting on ordination, Fanucci finds grace in dirty work and responsibility, she looks for the holy amidst daily messes and frustration, and beautifully articulates what it means to serve others with a whole heart. She speaks of parenthood as vocation, as work that makes relationships possible.

This is a lovely book, filled with honest reflections on being a faithful person within the chaos of life with small children. As a parent, I spend a lot of energy figuring out how I’m going to raise my children to know Christ’s love. I have realized that this is all well and good, but that I also need to make sure to seek sustenance for my own soul, as well. Everyday Sacrament provides just such nourishment.

As A Mother

The sweetest part of my day is the sound of little voices calling “Mother, mother.” I have never given birth, nor have I adopted children. But most mornings, as I open the door to my church, I am greeted by the tiny denizens of my church’s preschool, and their chipper little hellos. They call me Mother; that’s the title I prefer as a parish priest. They say it with such confidence that it makes me want to be a better pastor, one worthy of the title “Mother.”

As a woman who has not had children, I have limited (mostly second-hand) knowledge of the work of mothering children. I have worked at a nursery school, assisted with younger siblings, and have done a great deal of babysitting. But I have never walked the floor with a colicky baby. I have never had to play the tooth fairy for a child too excited to sleep. I have never had a teenager sit at my kitchen table, her head hung in shame as I question her about blatantly violating her curfew.

I have, however, listened to the weekly frustrations of a parishioner with big dreams for the church. I have helped plan big surprises for parishioners in need of real cheering. I have spoken with community members about respecting our church and its values. I have even had to let someone know he was not welcome to participate in non-worship activities as long as his disruptive behavior continued.

In Christ, I am becoming a spiritual mother. That has more to do with the way I am called to love my parishioners than the ways in which they are called to treat me. That is the fundamental truth of parenting—it is a one-way street. You love for the sake of loving, not because of the love you hope to get at the end. And in doing so, however imperfectly, you hope to draw people more fully into relationship with the God who loves them endlessly and perfectly.

Our primary work as pastors is love. Everything we do: teaching, preaching, administrating, caring–all of it is the work of love. We shepherd people toward a deeper relationship with God, to preach and teach in a way that instructs, strengthens, and transforms. We help people grow (and grow up) into the fullness of Christ. We stand with people when they are heartbroken, we cheer them on when they feel discouraged. We love folks whether or not they are loving or loveable. We are called to love them whether they are A+ Jesus followers or D- community disrupters, and (mostly) we are called to love people who are both. We are called to remember that love isn’t always hugs, affirmations, and encouragements. Sometimes loving someone means asking a person to step back from leadership, or to stop behaving in a disrespectful or hurtful manner. Sometimes love means saying “no” or “not now.”

During Holy Week when the computer breaks, I have a frustrated parishioner on the phone, and my sermon feels like a wash, I still can’t think of anything I want to do more (except sleep). Doesn’t that sound like motherhood? Pastoring is day after day of nurture and patience, in a life that is by turns hope-filled and exasperating. Priesthood is the everyday ordinariness of serving others. And yes, it is also joy. Yeah. I’ll admit it. I love the people of God. Even when things are completely off kilter, I get up most mornings and can hardly believe God called me to this wacky, amazing, and wondrous work. Loving the people I serve is giving me (I hope) a mother’s heart.

 

On Hunger and Hagar

We are excited to introduce another new column to our line up at Fidelia’s Sisters!  “The Real Word” is a place where we can honestly and beautifully reflect on the intersection of scripture and life.  Sometimes the way we read scripture changes the way we view the world, and sometimes the way we view the world changes the way we read scripture!  Did your understanding of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel change after your own experience of infertility?  Maybe the honesty of Ruth helped you to see a foreigner as family?  Tell us your story about the places scripture has touched your life, and those places where your life has touched scripture.  Submissions may be sent to [email protected]

Some stories feel too big.  Too unwieldy.  Too complicated.  The story of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21 has always been a difficult story for me to wrap my head around.  It’s threaded through with issues of race and class, slavery and poverty, ownership over the female body, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  And in the midst of the human morass, God has some sort of role.  God is somehow a part of the story, blessing the child of Abraham and Sarah, allowing Sarah to act on her violent desires to do away with Hagar, meeting Hagar in the wilderness, sending her back into the abuse.  God is even named by Hagar, “El-Roi.”  She’s the only person in scripture to name God.  The story of Hagar is as rich as it is troubling and difficult to deal with.  There are a thousand different ways to speak about it.

But for me, I was reminded of a very simple aspect of the story, one I used to overlook.  Hunger and thirst.  It’s present throughout the story, and until a few years ago, I thought of it more as a plot device than a blood and bones issue.  In Genesis 21:14-21, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away by Abraham with a skin of water and loaf of bread.  When the water and bread run out, Hagar stashes Ishmael under a bush and walks away, so as not to witness the death of her son.  God hears the cries of the boy and shows up to save the day, offering a spring of water and a home in the wilderness, a future and a hope.  For quite some time I read this story and to my deaf ears thirst and hunger were merely present to push the story along, to incite God’s action.  Perhaps to add a little drama to the text.  Hagar and Ishmael, in my mind, were never at risk of truly dying to thirst or hunger; it wasn’t a real thing.  God would show up, of course!

And then I had a son of my own.

DSC_0009Almost three years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful little boy with a head much too large to fit through my body.  Thanks to the gift of a C-section, Enoch was born healthy and happy, 8 pounds 4 ounces.  Like most new mothers, I had come to the hospital fully prepared to breastfeed my little boy.  Oh, what joy we would share!  Awash in post-natal hormones!  He would latch and life would be a dream!  Of course, as many of you will already know, nursing is not easy.  It’s very, very difficult.  Especially with a first baby.  I tried to nurse, I tried so hard.  I tried different body positions for Enoch, I tried different latch techniques, I spoke with the lactation consultant and nurses.  But for those four days in the hospital, as I recovered from my C-section, I saw my little boy lose weight at an alarming rate.

I felt desperate.  All I wanted was to feed my baby, to offer him the food he needed from my breasts which were positively bursting with milk to give.  Everything began to feel hopeless.  It was that sort of post-baby crazy that really only comes about from a perfect cocktail of hormones, milk coming in, the anxiety of the hospital environment, and the very real fact of Enoch’s weight loss.  It felt like the world was coming to an end, because I couldn’t feed my hungry, thirsty little boy.  And I honestly don’t think that’s an exaggeration of how I felt in that moment.

A few months later, I was reading the story of Hagar for a class assignment, and I found myself overcome by the text.  Somewhere in the space of experiencing my own child’s hunger, I was changed.  The idea that a mother would leave her child under a bush, so that she didn’t have to experience his cries, it felt real to me.  I remembered feeling so powerless to care for my own son, so unable to tend to his most basic needs.  Hunger and thirst, they were issues I had known in my own bones, in my own breasts, in my own son.  They couldn’t be plot points for me anymore.  Not now that I had a son of my own, a child for whom I would do anything, a creature dependent upon me for food and water.

I started to see Hagar’s desperation, and I realized that my own experience was only a shadow of her own.  See, by the forth day in the hospital, the lactation consultant handed me a breast shield.   It’s this rubbery piece of silicon that kind of turns your boob into a bottle.  Enoch was able to latch like a champ, and he ate so much that first time he spit most of it back up again because his little belly wasn’t ready for such an onslaught of milk.  Enoch and I learned together how to make this feeding-thing work, and I was able to nurse him for well over a year.  Those first few days were terrifying and harrowing, but they weren’t an experience of real hunger.  There were OBGYNs and nurses, lactation consultants and pediatricians, there was formula and bottles.  Enoch was never in danger of truly going hungry.  But something about my own desperation in those days, it changed the way I saw Hagar.

I can’t read her story as flippantly as I used to.  Hunger and thirst, they aren’t just plot devices to me any longer.  On one hand, I feel almost silly telling this story.  My own privilege of giving birth in a beautiful hospital, filled with caring, competent professionals, it seems an odd and maybe even mocking place to compare to Hagar, alone in the wilderness with a child truly dying of thirst.  But at the same time, it was an honest moment in my life that changed the way I see Hagar.  It changed the way I read scripture, an intersection of the written and the lived word.  It was, in a sense, the Real Word.

Sabbath is My Kryptonite

This month’s Moms in Ministry article is an excerpt from the third book in the Young Clergy Women Project’s imprint with Chalice Press.  More information about this partnership can be found here. MaryAnn brought so much joy to the project as our conference leader at our 2012 conference in Chicago.  Please visit our website regularly to learn more about YCW books and the plans for the 2013 YCW conference.

Sometimes, the so-called mommy wars are waged over breast- feeding versus bottle, or crib versus family bed. Sometimes, they begin over baked goods.

It all starts in a very silly way. I post an offhand comment on Facebook gushing about the glory that is Trader Joe’s pumpkin bread mix. It has provided spicy goodness, fresh from the oven, on many a sabbath day this winter (not to mention random Tuesdays and Fridays). You only need an egg and some oil, as opposed to canned pumpkin and a bevy of spices I don’t always have on hand.

A friend responds dismissively, asking why someone would need a mix in order to make pumpkin bread, which after all is so easy. I feel an angry flash of Who asked you? followed by the briefest tremor of shame—if I really loved my family, I’d make them something homemade. Then I decide not to take the bait. To each her own, right? I celebrate pumpkin bread in all its forms. Later though, I feel unsettled. Our kitchen feeds five people several times a day. What’s wrong with using a mix when the result is just as good?

“I don’t know,” I tell Robert later. “It’s so stupid, but it hit a nerve. I mean, I agree with her. I do value the handmade and home- made. We live in such a cut-corners society. But the thing is . . . it’s kinda fun to find a good shortcut.”

“Maximum impact, minimum effort,” he nods, sharing his father’s famous approach to cooking. Both Robert and my father-in- law are whizzes in the kitchen.

“Exactly! Do I have to be judged for my approach to breakfast food? Come on.”

“Hey, it’s pumpkin bread. Don’t overthink it.”

While I’m glad he doesn’t share my angst, I know that the issue of domestic chores runs down gender lines. There are entire indus- tries devoted to helping people save time and offload household tasks. At the same time, there’s still a view of motherhood that values the loving hands at home. Working mothers in particular can feel caught between the necessity of delegating certain domestic chores and a feeling of guilt because they “should” do those things.

Sabbath is not making this conflict easier; it’s complicating it. On the one hand, it’s robbing me of an entire day of labor each week, which makes the time-savers feel necessary. On the other hand, the unhurried nature of Sabbath makes me want to slow down for the rest of the week and not cut corners. It’s a curious irony: Sabbath reminds me that I don’t have to be Supermom, but it heightens my desire to try.

I feel this tension as I consider what it means to be a “host,” to provide gracious space not only for guests who might enter our home but also our own family. The biblical practice is hospitality, a word that’s almost as old-fashioned and foreign to our ears as Sabbath. Yet hospitality is a deep and vital spiritual practice in the Jewish and Christian faiths and in other traditions. Scripture is rife with examples of people welcoming friends and travelers alike into their homes and lives. We are called to greet strangers as friends and to share abundantly with them, and Jesus offers harsh words for people who fail to show adequate hospitality.

In recent decades, the picture has been complicated by Martha Stewart’s magazine and other resources that equate hospitality with handmade place cards and expensive flatware. These magazines miss the point of hospitality. I’ve sat at immaculate dinner tables and felt like an unwelcome afterthought, and I’ve been served wine in a plastic cup and felt like a treasured guest. A spirit of hospitality cannot be faked.

Still, there’s no denying that, all things being equal, a spirit of hospitality comes through when someone has taken the time to prepare for the presence of another—and not in a slapdash way.

Much of my life feels slapdash. I love finding ways to save time—a new route to the church, a quicker way to put away the groceries. (If I were a superhero, efficiency would be my power. Sad but true.) Sabbath has forced me to face the shadow side. Why am I trying to save all this time? For what purpose do I hurry? So that I can do more and more stuff? To feel useful and efficient?

Sabbath-keeping makes the idea of saving time feel ridiculous . . . like we’re trying to cheat at a game, but the joke’s on us: this game’s rules are unbendable.

Maybe Sabbath is my kryptonite.