white bokeh lights

My body is heavy this Advent

white bokeh lights

My body is heavy this Advent.

 

Mary of Nazareth’s body was heavy

too, or so we imagine in Advent.

She is often shown so

young and beautiful, demure and obedient,

glowing

though that may be the halo more than the pregnancy.

If we have ever met a real live pregnant woman, we might more realistically imagine

the lumbered steps,

swollen ankles,

short fuses

In the spring, this is how I imagined my Advent: the glowing, the beauty,

and too

the weight,

the exhaustion.

 

but with my hand to my belly

I feel no movement, no kicking or dancing or shifting

I am empty

 

not empty like the tired tropes of Mary the empty vessel waiting to be filled by God

I am empty of life

so empty of the baby that was due this month but

was lost

early

 

still I am heavy,

and instead of a

baby,

the grief kicks at me

 

All around me parishioners and family go get Christmas trees, listen to Christmas music

            A few lone voices cry out for waiting, for settling into Advent,

            slowing down.

 

I resist

Avoid

 

except

to set up an outdoor light machine in our living room just to say we decorated.

The world prepares for a baby

the way Mary herself could not on the road to Bethlehem:

scurrying, nesting, cooking, sharing glimpses of new life, celebrating with loved ones.

 

My baby would be coming this month.

I would be singing her Christmas carols and arguing with my spouse about

if we will teach her about Santa Claus,

but instead I am empty

 

my baby is dead.

 

I should have been heavy with something besides grief;

I should have been nesting and celebrating

or maybe binge watching Netflix with my ankles propped up

but instead I am out of touch with time

instead I sit on the floor

crying

these stupid lights playing across my skin

I wonder how I can preach good news on Christmas Eve

how I can treasure words of scripture and ponder them in my heart

when my baby isn’t laying even in some makeshift crib like Jesus did

my baby is dead

and I am so empty

 

Comfort, oh comfort, my people, says your God.

Every valley shall be lifted up…

 

I may not spend this Advent or Christmas as Mary did.

I may not be able to gaze into a manger or read of wise men bringing gifts,

But there is

still

still

something in this time of waiting for me still

Hope.

 

Maybe not hope for a baby.

But hope that God interrupts our pain to speak tenderly to us,

sit on the floor with us without even turning off the outdoor light display that shouldn’t be on indoors

that when God put on flesh,  

God felt grief kicking inside, God was weighed down by the heaviness of grief

too

 

If God is in a body like mine, a failed body,

 

maybe God is in me too.

One Can’t Rush The Process of Forgiveness: A Personal Story of Sexual Trauma

A picture of the author in front of a large rock

The author

Sexual trauma. Two uncomfortable words to see in print and to write about, particularly in the church. Sex is still a taboo subject in the church in the year 2018, although church folks are having quite a bit of it – whether it is wrong or right, single or married, ethical or unethical, or even scandalous. The point I am making is this: not talking about sex in the church does not mean the church is avoiding the trauma that is continuously happening with its members, congregants, guests, visitors, and so on.

Unfortunately, sexual trauma happens too often to too many girls and boys every day in various homes, church spaces, schools, parks, and more. It doesn’t care what race, gender, ethnicity, religion, denomination, time of the day or week nor time of the month. All it cares about is what it needs at the time when it is ready to feast on the innocent and unconsenting bodies.

The needs of sexual trauma are to control, manipulate, and distort the minds of both the perpetrator and victims. Many do not survive its wrath.

I lived to tell my story of how I wrestled this evil spirit of sexual trauma, although I wish it could have been for only one night like Jacob. I have spent years purging the damage and residue of its grips from the depths of my mind, spirit, and soul.

Even now, it is difficult to write about my experience; toiling over this piece thinking of a way how I can tell my story. Where do I start? How much should I tell? Do I even want to remember those events of my life? This is a part of my narrative. Sexual trauma had its tentacles in shaping the woman I am today, unfortunately. But, no glory will be given to sexual trauma for no good thing it has done in my life, but all good things come from God.

Due to the invasion of sexual trauma I had no choice but to desperately search for wells in dry places in my adulthood, particularly when I was pressed to forgive and love my perpetrator by church folks. I know that Scriptures teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and to be kind and forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). Throughout my young adulthood, other believers urged me to forgive and love my perpetrator. This request seemed to be in support of the perpetrator rather than in my best interest of getting healed.

It seemed unimaginably unfair to me. It was so disheartening that my body was violated. My trust had been broken. My mind had suffered from flashbacks and the entrapments of withdrawals as I navigated my altered life. Too many burdens for anyone to bear alone.

Why do have to be the responsible one to love him and forgive him in order to receive my healing? Why are people quoting these Scriptures to me in the midst of my trauma without even asking me how am I doing? I believe people sometimes rush the process of forgiveness and place unwarranted pressure on victims of trauma to forgive their perpetrators. Read more

baby asleep being held by adult

Real Family Values

baby asleep being held by adultI am sitting in my office at the Seminary where I teach on the second day of a new semester. Last year at this time, I was home on maternity leave, finishing out the summer with my three kids, including my two-month-old infant. One year later, I’m better able to process the importance of the maternity leave I received from my then-new employer.

I remember my mother, who is a pediatrician, telling me how she took as little maternity leave as possible. When she started having babies she was a resident, and would have to make up any hours she missed at the hospital, adding them to an already grueling and sleep-deprived schedule. I was shocked by this, until I faced the same reality thirty years later in a Christian organization.

When I was pregnant with my last baby, I found out that if I missed teaching courses, I’d have to make those hours up in subsequent terms. This would have meant teaching an overloaded schedule for two terms while pumping every three hours, not sleeping well, and adjusting to life with a new baby. I would have done it, because it was my job and my vocation. I would have done it because I have a partner at home who could help and because we had childcare for which we would have to pay. I would have done it. It would have been awful. I would have suffered. My children and husband would have suffered.

This was not the reason I left that institution, yet I am so very grateful that my current institution did not ask me to make up those hours I missed while I was getting to know my new baby, nursing round the clock, and trying to figure out how our family of five was going to function in a new location with both parents starting new jobs. I was able to take my maternity leave and come back to work ready to teach. I jumped into a team-taught class mid-semester and taught a regular load the following semester. No, my baby was not yet sleeping through the night, but I was able to think and function fully in my job. My body had healed. And I knew I had the support of my institution in my calling not just as a professor, but as a mother.

I know that in the United States, I am in a small minority of women who have had such a good experience with maternity leave. According to Pew Research, the United States trails the world in paid parental leave even though we have increasingly more two-working-parent households, and many where the mother is sole or primary breadwinner.[1]

For comparison, my brother lives in Norway. Here’s the parental leave policy there: “After every birth, the parents[2] both benefit from a two-week leave and then divide up the 46-week parental leave paid at 100%, or alternatively, 56 weeks paid at 80%. In this way, Norwegian babies spend their first year with both their parents. To encourage men to take care of their children, a special 10-week quota is reserved for them. If they are reluctant to take pappapermisjon [paternity leave], they lose the 10 weeks, since the time can’t be transferred to the mother and the whole family loses out. The results have been spectacular. In Norway, 90% of fathers take at least 12 weeks’ paternity leave.”[3] Read more

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

10 Things I Wish All Clergy Understood About Pregnancy Loss

4 white cut tulips lying on a table

Doctors estimate that one in four of all pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

In the years since my own experience of pregnancy loss, something amazing has happened. An entire world has opened up to me—a world filled with women and men and families who have gone through similar experiences. I’ve heard stories from strangers, friends, even family members.

And because I am a woman who has gone through this experience as well as a priest, I hear a lot from people about the ways the church has handled their loss. I have, of course, heard stories of (and been a part of) faith communities who have lovingly cared for families in their time of loss. And these are beautiful stories of compassion in times of sorrow.

Unfortunately, I have also heard heart-wrenching stories of ways the church has made this impossible experience even more painful.

Clergy have an important role in this because they will learn about the loss of pregnancies that no one else even knew existed. Clergy also have privileged positions in pulpits and behind microphones that can be used to form communities with greater compassion for the women and families suffering in their midst, often in silence.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. And so this month, even more than usual, these are the things I wish all clergy understood:

Not all pregnancy losses are alike.

My loss was very early. It was an entirely different experience from someone who loses a pregnancy several months in, and yet it came with its own challenges and confusion that were unique to my circumstances. It’s important to let the person tell you what happened and what that meant to them. So few people want to hear all the details, but as clergy you can create space for those going through loss to tell the whole story and what it was like for them to experience it.

This may not be a one-time event.

Families struggling with infertility may experience recurrent losses as they try to conceive. This requires enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual strength. Be willing to support them for the long haul.

Don’t assume you know how they are feeling.

There’s a wide range of emotions that can be stirred by the loss of a pregnancy, and can vary depending on the feelings about the pregnancy itself. Grief over the loss. Relief over the loss of an unwanted pregnancy. Guilt about feeling relieved. Feelings of guilt for having caused it somehow. Fear that this means it will never be possible to have a baby. Despair. Ask open questions. Be ready for anything. Read more

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

All I Really Need to Know About Ministry I Learned from Daniel Tiger

two young girls sitting in car seats in the back seat of a car, smiling and watching a program on a screen mounted on the back of the front seats

Sofia and Nadia, daughters of the Rev. Angela Flanagan, enjoy educational programming on a long car ride.

One day in the preschool carpool, the kids asked to listen to Daniel Tiger. I found myself listening to the familiar tunes with new ears. I thought of the classic book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and wondered if perhaps we could say something like this for ministry. Perhaps those songs could apply to ministry and life in the Church too? So, dear fellow Christians, particularly those in positions of Church leadership, I invite you to consider some lessons from Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger to enrich our life together:

What Do You Do with the Mad that you Feel?

Feelings. They come. Sometimes in the Church we try to deny that they are there, but then those big feelings rear their heads in ugly ways. When that happens, we have a tendency in Church to think that we just have to tolerate it, even when big feelings are expressed in inappropriate, hurtful, and harmful ways. Being Church does not mean we have to tolerate unjust or inappropriate behavior. It means that we speak truth in love and call each other to be our best selves. We need to learn how to recognize our feelings and then express them appropriately. This is where Daniel Tiger can help. When we’re facing challenging conversations or situations – when we feel like we’re about to roar – wouldn’t it help to take a deep breath and count to four?

Friends Help Each Other

No matter our age, our ordination status, or our place in the hierarchy, we are all in this together. We all want to have happy lives. We want to thrive. We want our children’s future to be better. How do we live this out? We realize that we are all in this together. Working together in Church isn’t always easy. When conflicts arise, do we assume the best of each other? How can we be even more generous, and build each other up, rather than fighting over resources, or affirmation? As the body of Christ, we have to recognize our reliance on each member, and Daniel reminds us that friends help each other.

Look a Little Closer . . .

It is a widely held principle among Sociologists and Psychologists that the way to undo stereotypes is to get to know someone in that group. When we are afraid, it is so tempting to back away and distance ourselves. What if instead we followed Daniel’s advice and engaged? What if we looked a little closer? Just like turning the light on to discover that the “monster” under the bed is just a stuffed animal, we can learn more about those things that initially make us fearful. What if we did this as a Church? Read more

Not Just the Future but the Present

people sitting on benches on a hill facing away from camera and toward three wooden crosses with another wooden cross and flowers in the foreground

Morning devotions at Henderson Settlement

An eleven-year-old stood behind a rough wooden podium on the side of a mountain at Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist mission site in Kentucky. Her back was straight, her face calm and fierce, and she called us to our morning devotion first with a song. She looked to an adult who was with her to help lead the songs, but she did not invite him to stand with her. She didn’t need him to: she filled the space with a powerful presence all alone. After singing, she opened her Bible and began to read from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”

She opened her journal, set it on top of the open Bible, and looked at us before beginning to preach. Because that’s what it was: preaching. She challenged us with the Good News, reminding us why we were there on a mission trip and pointing not to our service, but to God. Her reading was not particularly new, but it was her confidence, her assurance that struck us and inspired us. “Here I am; send me!” she read, closing her devotion by repeating the scripture. Then she closed her journal and looked at us. “Here we are; send us,” she said in benediction.

This summer, there has been an article floating around young clergywomen circles detailing how important it is for young girls to see women in leadership in churches. The article is based on a book by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin called She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America.[1] They argue that seeing women in leadership in churches has a positive impact on girls and young women in those churches later in life. I wondered who the role models were for the eleven-year-old who led us in our devotion. But I also began to wonder – why don’t I have more eleven-year-olds as my own role models?

I spent most of the summer doing mission work and working with children and youth, and over and over again I would watch adults volunteer to pray, instead of waiting for young people to volunteer. I would watch adults ignore or question youth leaders. These older adults did not deny leadership to young people maliciously, but they seemed to be so keen on modeling discipleship that they forgot that they have much to learn about discipleship themselves. I have spent so much energy in my own ministry proving that I, as a young clergy woman, actually can lead, saying, “Here I am!” I realized that I still need to make a more conscious effort to allow myself to be led by young people, to make space for those eleven-year-old preachers and teachers in my life.

I realized this need to make space post-March for Our Lives, the powerful visual reminder of all the work young people are doing in the wake of incredible violence in our schools. I had cheered Emma Gonzálezshared Naomi Wadler’s words on social media, and yet still I was surprised, sitting on the side of the mountain that day, at the way this girl was filled with the Holy Spirit. And so I knew, I had some work to do. And I suspect you do as well. Read more

A Sister Is A Sister

headshot of India Reaves

The author

November 9, 2005, is a day I will never forget! It was the day that I became a member of my illustrious sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. It was a day that I’d dreamed about for years and it was finally here! I was so excited that I was finally a part of this sisterhood. During the time leading up to becoming a sister of Zeta Phi Beta, I learned a sorority poem entitled, “A Sister Is A Sister.” Here I am almost thirteen years later, and that poem still means just as much to me now, if not more than it did in the fall of 2005.

The poem was very simple. It begins:

A sister is a sister
A sister loves a sister
A sister takes care of a sister

The final line of the poem is held in confidence by members of the sorority.

While I learned the poem in the context of a sorority, it speaks not only of my relationships with my sisters of Zeta, but of each one of my friendships that are much more like sisterhoods. Growing up as an only child, my friends have always played a crucial role in my life. At an early age, my mother taught me about choosing my friends wisely. We talked about what it meant to be loyal, trustworthy, honest, and what it really meant to have someone’s back. She told me to always be the friend that I wanted and needed and the universe would repay me…she was right!

Our society has such a focus on independence; many people feel as though they can do this thing called life by themselves. We often hear people use phrases such as, “I don’t need anybody else,” or “All I need is me.” That is a lie from the pit of Hell! We all need somebody. Life is much sweeter when you have people (especially sisters) that will help you navigate through the trying terrains of life.

Sisters are there to pick you up when you fall. They celebrate you when you succeed. They check you when you’re out of line. And, for me, they hold me accountable to my purpose and to my destiny. Sisterhood is by no means a walk in the park. Just like any other relationship, sisterhood has its challenges. From disagreements to fall-outs, to getting things back in order, sisterhood has it all. This is why it is imperative to make sure that we tend to and maintain these relationships.

The fact of the matter is that each one of my (your) sisters has their own life. We all are going through something, dealing with something, or just trying to figure out something in our own lives. And to be completely honest, those moments often take a toll on us, to the point where we forget to tend to our sisters, and that’s normal. However, at some point be sure to check on your sis. It’s usually these moments when my sisters and I need each other the most.

Whether we realize it or not, as sisters we can become mentors to one another. When we are intrigued by each other and have a desire to learn from each other, that’s the beginning of mentorship. The thing we must understand about mentorship is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be in it for the long haul. Mentoring is not an easy feat and isn’t something that should ever be taken lightly.

As someone who has and still is a mentor and a mentee, these are some of my most trying relationships on both sides of the spectrum. As a mentor it’s not always easy to chastise or correct someone you love. However, I think that it is the love that we have for mentees that causes us to say or do those things that are uncomfortable but are necessary. I’ve also been on the receiving end of this exact same scenario. It’s not always easy to take correction. The mentor and mentee both must be committed to the process of mentorship.

When the Bible speaks of “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17), I think of both sisterhood and mentorship. When you need to sharpen a knife you grab another knife to sharpen it. As you sharpen the knives, the sound is excruciating, it looks painful and it seems like it would be uncomfortable, but in the end the knives are able to do their best work and can be utilized to their full potential. Sisters and mentors do the same thing. We sharpen one another. Even though it may be painful and uncomfortable sometimes, the quality of our lives are better because of the presence and position in each other’s lives.

woman with head in hands

WTF, God? A Prayer after Pregnancy Loss

woman with head in hands

I was in a church meeting when I found out I was having a miscarriage. I had stepped out of the conference room at our diocesan offices when my phone rang, assuming it was the fertility clinic calling to give instructions for starting the next round of medications. We had been told that the last round had failed, and we were hoping to try again as soon as possible.

I went into a small meeting room for some privacy while I spoke with the nurse and, as she began to talk, her words made no sense. She didn’t give instructions for when to start the medication or the the dosage I should take. She explained that the blood work I’d had that morning showed I was pregnant. Or I had been pregnant. Well, I was technically still pregnant. But I wouldn’t be for much longer. I needed to return for more blood work to be sure.

So I got more blood work. The results were unclear. It might not be a miscarriage.

Maybe an ectopic pregnancy. I had to come back again immediately. My life and future childbearing at risk.

“Well we don’t see anything. So it’s not ectopic. Guess it’s ‘just,’ a miscarriage after all.”

I hadn’t even known I was pregnant.

I bled for eight weeks.

When the initial shock started to lift, and I gradually felt able to tell people what had happened, I was amazed by the stories that flooded out of others, of their own experiences of losing loved ones they’d never known. Several people spoke about their difficulty setting foot in church after this kind of loss. Certainly not at Christmas when church is all about expecting a baby, but other times too. It’s so easy to talk about God when pregnancy is going well. “What a blessing!” “A gift from God!” But when that gift, that blessing, is gone before it’s even visible to the people in the pews, the silence is staggering.

I felt this same silence. From the people who had no idea what I was losing as I led them in worship each of those long weeks. Week after week, I consecrated the body and blood of Christ, and I bled. Read more

We Really, Really Love You

The author, surrounded by love at her Valentine’s Day Installation service, 2016.

After what might have been my fifth phone call of the morning, the dichotomy hit me again: I was delivering very sad and difficult news about the death of a beloved church member, then quickly asking for logistical help. It had been less than a month since a shocking, terminal diagnosis, but for that month, I had been sitting with the grief, knowing that this was coming. We knew that the end was imminent, and the night before, I had the great gift of being present at the bedside, singing, praying, and anointing with oil.

The family wanted to hold the service soon, but I also knew that on a holiday weekend, with a number of our regular volunteers out of commission for one reason or another, it would be a bit more of a stretch to cover everything. Not impossible, but a stretch. So when I got the official word, and confirmation of the service time, I set to work making phone calls.

Actually, I started to do that. I was about to tell the secretary that the member had passed, and the funeral would be in a few days, but my throat closed up, and the tears returned. I had shed many tears in the past month, and would continue to shed many more. Grief is like that. It sideswipes you with no prior warning. It opens up like a flash summer downpour on what had been a brilliantly sunny day.

In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of our ordination vows is to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” When I was ordained, my pastor father gave the charge to me, which boiled down to this: love the people you serve. Seven years later, I was installed into my current call, very appropriately on Valentine’s Day.

I deeply love the people I have been called to serve. When they rejoice, I rejoice with them. When they weep, my heart weeps with them. That’s part of being one body of Christ. But being a pastor to that body also means that when they are weeping, I am also providing pastoral support, comfort, and care. They are not called to comfort me in my grief, even though I am grieving, too. That’s just the way this calling works. Read more

prayers written in a spiral on paper

Until You Know That I Know-And You Are Okay with That: Pastoral Confidence-Keeping

prayers written in a spiral on paper

All the confidences we keep, written with walnut ink.

Clergy do not all live by the same ethical standards—or even embrace them—but here is one we all aspire to keep, with some variance: unless I know that you know that I know that thing about you, and you’re okay with my knowing, I do not know it. I’m not going to bring it up with you. You do not have to talk about it with me, but you can if you want to.

Or, if I know something that few people know, you’re not going to hear about it from me.

And (this is the other side of the coin): at any given time, I might know more than you think I know.

I can offer an example, one of many curated from a group of clergy friends so as not to come from my context:

While serving lunch at the church’s soup-kitchen ministry, a congregant mentions to me that his great-niece, who is also a member of the community, has been diagnosed with endometriosis, or diabetes, or skin cancer. He indicates that this is not public knowledge (or he doesn’t—the next steps of the minister are really the same either way).

Now, I know something. I have been entrusted with a confidence of two different kinds. For one, the congregant has shared something that is important to him. The act of sharing with another person, particularly a pastor, offers that person a safe place to talk about it and a way to sort through something that indirectly affects him. The act of telling someone what you know is cathartic.

The second and most important layer of confidence, or confiding, is that I know something about the great-niece that she did not tell me herself, something very personal with long-term effects and possible heart-aches, that she may at some time want to sort through or may want to forever keep private. Now, when I offer a pastoral or priestly presence to that great-niece, I can be sensitive, but it is absolutely not cool for me to bring it up or let on that I know about her struggle with diabetes or skin cancer or endometriosis. I know more than I will or can let on.

This keeping of confidence is both a high-stakes issue for some congregants and a highly difficult task for the pastor. It is high-stakes because breaking either of those confidences can be tantamount to betrayal of trust by a minister, and by proxy, the church. Or they could not care at all. And one can seldom predict the difference with confidence. This is especially true in situations where reproductive issues, gender, or sexuality issues come into play. Mark my words, if the confidence has to do with the reproductive system, it is a high-stakes issue, a sacred confidence to keep, and not my story to tell. There is a high level of difficulty in this kind of pastoral confidence-keeping because often the information comes to me in a laundry basket of other information: “Sarah is out of the hospital, Josi is starting kindergarten in the fall, and my great-niece has endometriosis.”  Read more