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Pregnant Woman

From Death to Life

Pregnant WomanEditor’s Note:  This may be difficult to read if you have pain around not being able to have a child or to breastfeed.

Holy Week is a powerful time.  It is a time to tell a powerful story.  It is a time to tell stories of death turning to life. My body has often felt like a place of death.  It seems like every few years it finds another new way to let me down, put me in the hospital, delay my life, or torture me.

 In eighth grade, when I was thirteen years old, I developed before many of my classmates.  I experienced significant sexual harassment.  Boys would shove me up against lockers, or would “accidentally” bump into me to touch my chest. Classmates of all genders would snap my bra strap.  Girls would whisper and snicker in the bathroom about how I must have been padding or stuffing my bra. I hated my breasts, because they were a source of torture and emotional death for me. And so I hated my body.

Eighth grade was also a year when I spent significant time on crutches because of severe tendonitis in my ankles.  I had to give up almost everything I was good at or enjoyed.  Because of the harassment and the physical pain involved in walking, I became clinically depressed. And so I hated my body.  

 The ways that my body let me down and caused pain continued for years.  In my first year of seminary, at age twenty-four, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  Five years later, after a five-month leave of absence from my pastoral internship and a hospitalization, I was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a rare stomach condition that causes slowing of the digestive system. Then it took my husband and me three years, including six months of fertility treatments, to get pregnant.  Again and again, my body let me down. And so I hated my body.

 During my pregnancy, I lived with hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy complication that brings severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration, for which I was hospitalized twice. My body was torturing me. And so I hated my body.

 Hating my body wasn’t helpful.  It felt like death – sometimes like something close to physical death, and other times like emotional or spiritual death. There were years when I never expected to know anything other than hatred for my body. I believe that God can take anything that feels like death and transform it.

 And then I gave birth to my son.  And then I nursed him past the age of two.  And then I found that the death-dealing hatred I had known had turned into respect, and sometimes even love for my broken body.

 I never expected to find joy in my body.  I never expected to understand that death can turn into life because I was able to nurse my child.  And yet I do. My body could grow an entire human being!  My body could feed and nourish that human being for the first two years of his life!  I am beginning not to hate my body, but to respect and even appreciate it.  The movement from hating my body to finding ways to love my whole being is my story of death into life.  My body still causes significant pain and exhaustion. But, those things rarely lead to true hate now, because I also have things I like about my body.  This body, I tell myself, grew a human and fed him – created him, nourished him.

 God can and does bring new life.  God can bring new life to our bodies, even if they are painful, broken, exhausted, hated.  The story that we tell in church this week is a story of death and life.  It is a story of joy coming in the midst of the pain. It is a story where Jesus hurts, and dies, but rises again.

 I wonder if Jesus felt like his body let him down on the cross, or when he was being tortured.  I wonder if he hated his body because of the pain that was being inflicted on it.  Is it possible that Jesus understands my physical torture because of the torture he endured in his last days?  His torture even led to physical death.

 And he was able to overcome that death.  On Easter, we celebrate that Jesus created new life in the midst of the painful death of his body, and so I find hope for the life of my body, too. Because of Jesus’ Resurrection, because Jesus brought new life through the physical dying and rising of his body, I am able to know life in my body, too: Life that gets me through the painful days;  Life that gives me the freedom not to hate my body – because it can do amazing things;  Life that even allows me to love my body for what it can do and not only to hate it for what it can’t do.

 Even though this life doesn’t come as perfection, Jesus still offers it to me imperfectly now, and perfectly in the future.  If Jesus can take my breasts, my instruments of such pain and torture, and use them to nourish and grow new life in the world – what other kinds of new life do I have to look forward to?   Jesus can bring new life into anything, even my breasts.  Even my painful and broken body.

 I did not think that this would happen to me.  I did not think it possible that I would know such transformation in this lifetime.  I thought that I might stay inside my pain forever.  And so I hated my body.  And now I don’t because I know that Jesus can transform anything.

 Jessica Harren is the solo Pastor at Capron Lutheran Church.  When she is not making life complicated by thinking about theology and her body, you can find her managing her health and playing with her two year old, cats, or husband.  She is also on the Editorial Board of the Young Clergy Women Project.

Photo Credit: “Pregnant Woman” by Franck Nieto, https://flic.kr/p/iWmAQX, April 12, 2014, Used by Creative Commons Licence. Copyright by Franck Nieto.  

Dec 2013 Empty Manger and Cross

Wanting the Manger to Stay Empty

Editor’s Note: This Advent, join us for a series of articles that reflect on journeys and travel in our lives. Advent reminds us that we’re not quite there yet, that getting from point A to point B is a form of waiting. We hope this series of articles will help you find a few moments for quiet respite in the middle of the busy-ness of church life in December.

Dec 2013 Empty Manger and CrossOn December 19, 2012, I woke up early, went to the bathroom and crawled back into my warm bed in my dark bedroom. Then I realized that I was bleeding. This normally wouldn’t be a shock to a woman of my age – menstrual bleeding is to be expected once every 28 days or so. But several days before that, I had also awakened early and taken a pregnancy test, which showed that coveted “second line”. I was pregnant. Having already suffered a miscarriage two and a half years earlier, I greet a positive pregnancy test with a kind of dread. While it’s exactly what I want, I also know that unlike the commercials I see on TV, I am not bathed in bright lighting sharing the news that we’re going to be new parents in nine months. I am bathed in fear and the real knowledge that I might lose this pregnancy, too. So on December 19, right before celebrating the birth of Jesus, I was crying in my bed next to my husband wondering why this pregnancy would not result in a joyous birth like Mary’s did.

I am one half of a clergy couple.  As I was headed to the doctor later that morning, my husband was traveling to another town over an hour away to conduct a funeral for a couple from his church. My partner did not go to the doctor with me. He wasn’t home in the evening to help get our 19 month old fed and to sleep so that I could cry and curl up with heating pad. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lonely. I could see Christmas lights twinkling in the house across the street, but didn’t want to turn my own tree on. We celebrate light coming into darkness at Christmas and all I could focus on was the darkness. I called another young clergywoman serving a town nearby to ask her to come be with me. Perhaps it’s ironic, but she was leading a Longest Night service at her church that night. This service is offered around the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, to provide a worship space for those who are grieving or struggling during a season where joy is the usual narrative. She asked what I needed and I said that what I really needed was to go to that worship service. Obviously, with a 19 month old sleeping upstairs, I couldn’t go. But that clergywoman brought the service to me. When she was done at her church, she came to my home. She brought the bulletin, a candle, and leftovers from the reception they had afterward. She fed me spiritually and physically. While my partner was doing ministry elsewhere, she was doing ministry for me.

That night was the longest night. I was, for the first time, jealous of Mary who had to give birth in a smelly and dirty stable surrounded by animals. When I was in labor with my daughter, I hated every smell. Dealing with the pain was challenging, and I had my own room surrounded with the support of not only my partner but my parents, nurses, and doctors. After 26 hours of pitocin-controlled labor, I ended up with a c-section. After that, whenever I thought of Mary, I thought about how terrifying it must have been to give birth the way she did. But last year, as Advent was coming to its completion, I had never felt so empty in my uterus and my heart. At least Mary got to keep her baby, at least for 33 years anyway.  But the hardest part about the longest night is that the next night is only slightly shorter.

The next day we had a clergy Advent worship for the clergy people in my denomination in the area surrounding me. The worship leader was our district superintendent, who had no idea about our very recent loss.  She was, however, gifted with worship. What normally would have been a lovely Advent worship focused on anticipation, expectation, and hope focused on a baby sent me out the door of the sanctuary in tears. How does one make it through Advent and Christmas in church having lost a(nother) pregnancy? I don’t really have an answer. As we drew ever closer to Bethlehem, I just wanted to put the brakes on. Does a donkey have those? I didn’t want to celebrate a birth when I was being denied the one for which I had really been praying.

Ready or not, Christmas comes. Advent never has felt long enough to me, anyway. Especially given the busyness of our lives as clergywomen: annual Christmas Open Parsonage, Christmas pageant, Lessons & Carols, extra sermons, hanging of the greens, finding people to light the Advent wreath, and on and on. And that doesn’t even take into account decorating the house, baking, wrapping gifts, and trying to have some way to mark the season in our personal and familial lives in addition to our church lives. So on December 24, 5 days after losing a pregnancy, I was in a candlelit Christmas Eve worship service, smiling what I feel must have been an obviously fake smile. I tried my best to welcome Christ while secretly resenting his birth. I also knew that I wasn’t alone in my suffering while others were gleefully belting out Joy to the World. In a nearby town, a clergywoman colleague was thinking about me. In my husband’s pulpit, he nurtured thoughts of me while sharing the words of Christ’s birth with his congregation.

By Epiphany, my doctor had discovered that my pregnancy loss wasn’t a miscarriage, but an ectopic pregnancy. The baby had implanted and started to develop on one of my fallopian tubes. It wasn’t until mid-February that the pregnancy was completely gone and I could breathe easier knowing my tube wasn’t going to burst. It wasn’t until after that that I really felt ready to celebrate Christmas; just in time for Lent.  I was ready to celebrate that I was healthy and had been given the go ahead to try to get pregnant again. I was ready to make space in my broken heart for the hope of a baby. I was ready to face the anticipation of taking a pregnancy test again. I was ready to be joyful with Mary in that dirty stable. The liturgical year doesn’t always match up with our personal calendars.

This year, as I journey toward the pulpit on Christmas Eve, I do so as a pregnant woman. I am due in May, and holding my breath that this baby will make it and be healthy. I approach worship knowing that in my longest night, which ended up lasting for about two months a year ago, I was not alone. The people in my congregation, too, need to know they are not alone. I approach Christmas with new sensitivity to the pain of the people in the pews who may be faking their way through the joy of the season. But isn’t that really the way it is for all of us who observe the Christian year? Even as our Advent journey comes to a close at Christmas, we know that right around the corner is Lent. Our journey is beyond the stable and toward the cross. Joy tinged with pain, but also always surrounded above and beneath, behind and before, completely hemmed in by hope.

Emily Peck-McClain is an ordained United Methodist pastor serving in the New York Annual Conference. She is also a doctoral student at Duke Divinity School in Christian Education and New Testament. When not writing her dissertation or a sermon, Emily enjoys time with her husband, daughter, and dog, especially if it gets to be time playing outside in the snow.

Photo by Pastor John, http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtsofan/2146696283/, December 13, 2013, Used by Creative Commons License.

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Hopeful Signs: An Advent Sermon on John 1:6-28

We expect some of the same things around Christmas: the same message, the same songs, the familiar traditions of it all.  We still have to work to prepare the way of the Lord.  For my family, this Christmas is different.  Advent is different.  Pregnancy has made it so, and I have come to understand that Advent is very much like pregnancy.  Let me explain.

First, Advent is pregnant with hope.  I am a visual representation.  A baby is full of potential and possibilities. There is so much hope for the future, as we dream about what this child will be like and realizing that she may be nothing like what we are thinking she will be. What are you hoping for this Christmas?  If you’re hoping for presents under the tree, it might not be the same as last year?  Hoping for perfection, probably be disappointed?  Hoping for something different?  A Christmas miracle of healing?  Meaning?

Even as we are full of hope this Advent, we have to manage our expectations to know what is realistic so that we are not disappointed.  It did not take too long after we learned about this baby for me to learn that pregnancy is not all fun and games.  It is a painful, annoying, stressful, fun, exciting, awesome, amazing experience.  Some pregnancies are happier than others…too many involve sickness, complications, relationship issues, etc.  People have been overwhelmingly joyful at our news.  Strangers come up and talk to me.  It monopolizes many everyday conversations.  It is a common experience that binds us together.  Pregnancy is a long time, for others not long enough.  It provides a range of emotions:  fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, illness, and tiredness.  Advent offers a range of emotions too.  There’s the joy, excitement, and nervousness about how it will all come together, and tiredness from doing it all.  I think Advent can be summed up by that line in the Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” from O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The waiting gives us time to experience all the hopes and fears of both pregnancy and Advent.

Secondly, Advent, like pregnancy, is not all about you.  This pregnancy seems to be all about me right now.  I have never been asked how I’m feeling so often.  Never have so many strangers been interested in me, and in touching my belly, and sharing their good and bad pregnancy and delivery stories.  But it is not all about me; it is much more about this baby.  Even before we learned our good news, I had started taking folic acid to prevent birth defects and scaled back on caffeine.   Once we found out, I really worked on my diet and eating healthier and started taking prenatal vitamins.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was no longer in charge of my body.  This little baby has a lot to say about when I sleep or not, when I eat, and how much energy I have.  My life, my daily routine, has changed dramatically because it’s no longer all about me. With Advent, it is also easy to think it is all about us.  We have so much to do.  We have so many gifts left to buy and wrap.  We have to write our Christmas cards.  We focus on OUR waiting/preparations rather than on Christ’s coming.  We focus on our hopes rather than on the hope of Christ.

John the Baptist knew that it was not all about him.  He was clear on his identity, who he was and who he wasn’t.  In the Gospel reading, we hear that  John the Baptist did not give the answers that the leaders were hoping for.  They wanted him to be all these things, (Elijah, the Messiah) but all he would admit to being was a voice in the wilderness.  He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light himself.  In other Gospels we can read more about John’s own miraculous birth, what he wore and ate, and more about his ministry.  But here, the main point is John’s identity.   “I AM NOT” the Messiah….what he isn’t.  In Advent, we have to take care to not get a Messiah complex: so busy trying to be all things to all people.  Scurrying in Advent instead of waiting is dangerous.

John the Baptist came to testify to the light: Christmas is not about the tree and presents, but those are just a way to point to the gift of Jesus.  Or, maybe they become distractions so we don’t have to see the homeless, the hurting, the hungry.  We have to remember our identity as Christians, the reason for the season, to restore justice, and release the oppressed this Advent. This season is all about Jesus, and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.  We should be giving Jesus gifts by giving meaning to all his children by sharing the Good News of Christ.

Finally, Advent, like pregnancy, should not be rushed because it happens too quickly anyway.  We can’t skip ahead to Christmas, or we are missing out.  Similarly, those expecting have to enjoy the adventure and not wish it away.  As much as I want to meet this little girl, I also want enjoy the adventure of being pregnant.  It is a miracle, and an awesome experience to think that there is a baby in my tummy.  What a gift from God!  I receive a daily email from a site that gives me an update on the baby’s size, explaining what is going on with my body, and other hints and tips.  I love that email, each day and it reminds me of opening a little window in an Advent calendar.  It’s just another peek into what is coming, a hint at the whole picture.  Every day you get a little closer.

My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we experience it as a joyful journey. May we all keep our eyes open to hopeful signs this Advent season.   In the name of the one whose coming is worth waiting for, Amen.

Tiffany Jo McDonald is an Ordained Elder in the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is currently appointed to family leave, raising the preschool daughter who inspired this sermon and a 5 month old. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, ’04, and resides with her husband and daughters in Excelsior, Minnesota.

Photo by Esparta Palma, http://www.flickr.com/photos/esparta/4482887906/ March 27, 2010. Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.

“The Reverend Doctor”

I might be one of the first among my young clergywomen peers to become a doctor. Why did I do it?

  • My competitive nature.  I am the youngest of five children and three of my siblings are doctors (two medical and one academic).  The one without his doctorate is the smartest of all, but he didn’t finish college (though we all thought he had) and he just quit his job at Wal-Mart. My mom loves saying that four of her five children are doctors.
  • Why not organize all those continuing education credits (time and money that goes with said credits) so that they count towards something more tangible and goal oriented?

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“The Priest Said the C-Word!”

“Sarah, do you think I had sex last night?… I mean, I can't remember… He's left me money for the pill, so I guess we may have… I didn't shave my legs…”

I had this conversation while I was discerning my calling to be a parish priest in the Church of England. At the time, I was an undergraduate working as one of the hall wardens, who offered pastoral support to the students who lived in the halls of residence. As I waited with the student in the pharmacy and then took her home afterwards, I realized that I didn't want priesthood to interfere with how I related to people, and especially how I related to women facing crisis situations in their relationships.

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