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

Wedding Season

The author’s wedding cake, 2008

It’s that time of year once again: Wedding Season! Young clergy women are here to offer some helpful advice and words of wisdom to the happy couples and their family and friends. Let the wedding bells ring!

Planning:

  • If you want to get married in a church and/or by a clergy person, contact the church and clergy person before finalizing the date! Make sure you have read and agree to comply with any policies of the church and the officiant. Make sure your vendors (photographer/videographer, wedding coordinators, etc.) have also read and agree to comply with the church and officiant policies.
  • Do not assume that you can simply rent a church and bring in your own officiant. Most churches have policies about this. If it isn’t clear in the wedding policies, ask.
  • Know that most clergy require some kind of premarital sessions with the couple, so plan accordingly.
  • Research local and state laws regarding wedding licenses. It is the COUPLE’S responsibility to secure the wedding license, and you will need to do this within a certain time period before the wedding. Don’t come to the wedding rehearsal without it! Make a clear plan for how the license will be filed. Will you or a family member be mailing it? The clergy person?
  • It’s a big day, but it’s not the only day. Be mindful of your budget. Starting off a marriage with a huge debt for wedding festivities is not advised! Also remember that just as your photographer, cake baker, and musicians are professionals paid for services they provide, so is the clergy person. For many weddings, clergy will put in 10-20 hours of additional work, often on days and at times where they would otherwise be off. If the clergy person is required to travel, all expenses should be paid, including a hotel room if overnight accommodations are needed. Clergy might have set fees, which will be communicated clearly, or they might have sliding scales or leave it to the discretion of the couple. Remember that the clergy person has at least one advanced professional degree, and is putting significant time and energy into your big day, and compensate accordingly.
  • We know, we know – online ordination is a thing, and your best friend, your cousin’s uncle, or any Joe Schmo off the street can become credentialed to officiate. That’s not really equivalent to having an ordained, trained, and experienced clergy person as an officiant. If you do choose to go that route, please don’t ask a clergy person to lend expertise.

That “religious” thing:

Read more

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her daughter’s birth

Mary, Full of Grace

“And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
~ Luke 2:19

the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her  daughter’s birth

Mama’s Hope: the author’s hand with her daughter’s on the day of her
daughter’s birth

From the age of three I knew that I wanted to be a mother when I grew up. I would play house with my sister and my friends for hours upon hours, gently cradling baby dolls in my arms, singing sweet lullabies to them as I pulled out my briefcase, planner, and cellphone and pretended to be a successful business woman like Melanie Griffith in the film Working Girl. In my world, women grew up to be everything and anything they wanted to be – mother, wife, business woman, president, and captain of the soccer team.

So when I “grew up” and became an adult, I was certain that I could and would fulfill all of those vocational calls God had imprinted upon my heart at a young age, especially those calls I felt most strongly: to be a wife, mother, and pastor.

With determination, risk, luck, and grace I entered seminary and fell in love with a man who was perfect for me. Together we decided to wait to have children until I was ordained and employed in a congregational call. After a whirlwind trip to Europe for our delayed honeymoon, we excitedly took the big leap of tossing out my birth control pills and opening ourselves to the anticipation of pregnancy and the birth of a child.

As months went by and my periods came like clockwork, we kept reminding ourselves of the statistic that seems so hopeful and promising: over 80% of couples conceive within a year. Probability was on our side. And then a year went by, and then a year and a half.

I had been pregnant once before and had a miscarriage, during my congregational internship, when I was on birth control. So why was it so hard to get pregnant now?

We saw a fertility specialist. We went through myriad tests. Just as we were set to begin fertility treatments, I discovered I was pregnant. It was such joyful news! We were ecstatic and began to dream of our child. Several weeks later, I laid in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove the ectopic pregnancy that had caused my body to go into shock. I was in deep grief at this loss and in a haze at the thought that my life had been in severe jeopardy from what was supposed to be the most joyous of news. The hospital chaplain visited and tried to console me, but instead triggered my anger as she declared that my baby was in heaven with God. I told her to go hell, and that I wanted my baby with me.

Life went on as I recovered. My husband and I committed to trying again on our own since I had conceived without any assistance. Another year went by. It seemed like everyone had a baby. I grew bitter, desperate, and I missed the joyfulness which had been a natural spring dwelling within me. Who was I to be if I couldn’t be a mother? Read more

When Love Blurs

Helms and her husband, Greg, lead weekly “devos” from their home for neighborhood youth at QC Family Tree.

I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but let me tell you about my favorite. I met her ten years ago. Her brother was an active member of our neighborhood youth group. He’d walk a few blocks from his house to ours to hang out or participate in an activity. Then, he moved. Their new house was only a mile away and it was important to us that we kept our connection, so one of us would volunteer regularly to go and pick him up for activities. I hadn’t before spent much time at his house, but now I was making several trips a week to his front door.

I wasn’t sure who’d answer the door when I knocked. There were six siblings, a parent, and often a friend of the family staying there. After a few visits, I learned to expect that she and her little sister would be the ones to greet me. I took this front door opportunity to introduce myself and strike up a conversation. Then, I simply asked, “Would you like to go with us?” The girls looked sheepishly back at their mother. Once they got the nod to go ahead, they bounded out the door with excitement and a tad bit of nervousness.

After a short time living away from the neighborhood, the family moved back. Ten years later and these girls have become family. Some seasons in our relationship, we have gone only a few hours between visits. They’ve gone on just about every youth trip, babysat my children, taken care of our dog and house when we were away, listened intently as I’ve preached sermons, gone with us on family vacations, and have nurtured me in some of my most tender moments.

You know the blurry line of being in ministry and being in relationship? Nature or nurture – we’re taught to set boundaries. We’re not supposed to fall in love with the ones to whom we minister. Some might advise refraining even from friendships with congregants. Yet, we’re called to a ministry of love and authenticity. Plus, we are humans who have a deep capacity and desire to love and be loved. This makes boundaries tricky to set and keep. Read more

blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

For Anneliese and Luke

 

I am a pray-er and writer

a speaker and singer

I am a word weaver and warrior

but you

have taken my words away.

 

From the breath and keen of labor

to the fog and ache of nursing

from the midnight

three

and five a.m.

giving myself

to the smile and sigh

and wet and messy

I have lost my words,

lost their place and purpose

their rhyme and rhythm.

I have barely enough presence

to play and read with you,

clean and dress you,

feed and comfort you,

rock and carry you

in my arms

in my heart

in my mind

every waking

and dreaming

and worrying

moment.

 

So these are my prayers, now,

these are my poems:

the kiss on your cheek

the light in my eyes

the fullness in my breasts

the cushion in my belly

the tightness in my back

the warmth in my skin

the love that swells my heart

to bursting.

 

These are the Words made Flesh

that I write, speak, preach, pray, sing

for you, my children,

fruit of my body,

beloved of my soul.

 

I am wordless

with wonder

erased

and re-written

by love.

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

The Twilight of Easter

One of the most complicated aspects of losing Lily has been proclaiming Good News in the midst of resounding darkness. In my anxiety over preaching on Easter, a Young Clergy Woman International colleague reached out and shared a sermon she had written in a dark time in her life. I leaned heavily on her words in finding my way to the truth of Easter. Thank you, Rev. Elizabeth Grasham, for your kindness and witness to the love of Jesus. Below, you’ll find the words I preached on Easter Sunday this year.

Mark 16:1-8

Will you pray with me?

Lord, we gather in this church to hear the Good News of your resurrection, that death has been swallowed up by your victory. Help our eyes adjust to the light of new life as we sit in this twilight. Give us courage to mirror your own vulnerability as we seek resurrection in our own lives. Amen.

dark storm clouds at night over a paved road without any structures or trees around

Twilight

I’ve lived in a twilight world for just over two months now.

Since Lily’s birth and death, I have existed somewhere between sleep and awake. As the tulips and daffodils push up through mounds of mulch and my crocuses bloom with abandon, I am just barely beginning to pull out of the haze and into the warmth of spring. Finally, splashes of color are returning to the world of gray tones in which I have dwelled now for nine weeks.

The future that I’ve imagined, the reality I awaited is now gone. At first, days and nights flittered by. I remembered to eat because food showed up. I slept because the exhaustion of grief landed heavily on my eyelids. These days, I’m functioning much better, but one thing that hasn’t yet changed is my awareness of twilight. I am awake earlier these days, sitting in the not-yet morning light, surrounded by a blanket of hazy darkness.

This twilight is precisely where we meet Mary Magdalene. It was early on the first day of the week, scripture tells us it was still dark. Jesus’ death still hung heavily in the air; the trauma still so fresh it replayed itself any time she closed her eyes. She longed to be near him, her beloved teacher, to see once more that it wasn’t a bad dream, but that Jesus was, indeed, dead.

So she found herself on the path to his tomb in the twilight of that morning.

Because sometimes, new life doesn’t wait for the dawn.

Because sometimes, God acts powerfully in the darkness of our lives.

So often, we associate the Easter story with morning sun and cheer, with lilies and tulips, but when we take a closer look at John’s account of the resurrection story, we find that Easter— Easter begins in the dark of night. Read more

“I just don’t know how you do it all…”

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” – Romans 12:4-5

The author with her sons before worship

“I just don’t know how you do it all…” It’s a refrain I hear so often from the members of the congregation I serve that I thought I ought to share my great wisdom with a broader audience: I don’t.

Most mornings are a rush to get my two young boys ready to go for the day. The youngest eats breakfast once he gets to daycare, thanks to the kitchen staff and daycare providers who prepare, serve, and clean up for breakfast and lunch each day. Great thanks be to God for them. The oldest gets a choice of breakfast foods that can be taken in the car, and he’s usually still finishing it when we get to his preschool down the road. The other day his primary teacher and I watched him stuff 3/4 of a mini bagel in his mouth after I kissed him goodbye. Mom of the year.

Some days are harder than others, and sometimes there are tears at drop-off. I rely on the loving care of Ms. Jackie and Ms. Ginny who are ready to help improve his morning transition. I repeat my goodbye and head out of the door, knowing that all will be well. Sometimes I find myself in tears, and post in a facebook group of pastor mamas, “This pastor mama stuff is hard.” They quickly respond with love and affirmation, and I keep moving through my day.

I come to work in the context of a wonderful, active, and supportive congregation. I marvel at the volunteer leaders who give so freely of their time and talents in order to do the work of ministry together. Things get done, and often not by me, and yet I still hear, “I just don’t know how you do it all.” Read more

“Out of the Bathroom, Into the World”

The author (bottom left) and her youngest daughter (top right) pose with Board Members of Young Clergy Women International, 2017.

“You need to develop a pastoral identity. It comes with time. Don’t worry, it will come.”

One of my dearest seminary professors told us this over and over, and I believed him. It would come: I would be able to see myself as a pastor, the more time I spent learning, watching other pastors, performing pastoral tasks myself.

The problem was this: there were precious few pastors who looked like me. I went to the seminary of a denomination that was early in its process (lo, these many years ago, way back in 1999) of ordaining women to ecclesiastical office, a denomination that had resolved its differences for the time by allowing a provisional, regionally based version of women’s ordination. There were 55 students in my MDiv class. Only 5 were women. There was one woman on the faculty of my seminary, and she wasn’t ordained herself. By the time I finished seminary and was ordained, there were fewer than two dozen ordained women in my denomination, and precious few who had, like me, gone straight through college and seminary into ministry as their first career.

During those four years of seminary, the safest place to think about myself as a pastor was the women’s bathroom. The seminary building, designed mid-twentieth century with exclusively male seminarians in mind, had no women’s bathrooms in the area where the classrooms were located. But over by the administrative offices, there was a large women’s restroom with an attached women’s lounge, a holdover from a time when the only women in the building were secretaries. That was the safe place for the handful of us women who were students. I laughed and cried and hoped and dreamed with my classmates in that space. We were honest there, most honestly ourselves, but we had to put up a facade when we left the bathroom lounge.

And so the bathroom was really the only place at my seminary where I could work on my pastoral identity as a female.

I learned to be a woman pastor in that bathroom. But I still had a murky picture of my own identity, because I had precious few places to look for examples. Read more