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The Lonesome Valley of Birthing this Holy Week

New life is coming into a sick and suffering world for me this Easter, just as it did that first Easter. As I sat reclined in the dim monitoring closet of my OBGYN’s office listening to the heartbeat of the new life growing inside me, I realized I was beginning to understand Holy Week in a deeper way. I feel my feet matching the footprints of Jesus as he made his way to the Holy city for the last time. My child is due to arrive just after Easter, and so this Holy Week I walk the lonesome valley of doctor’s visits, ultrasounds, and monitoring alone; even my husband is not permitted to join me. The virus has turned our world inside out and this joyous time into a time of great fear and sorrow.

Fetal heart monitoring

Last week, I felt resolved to let go of my visions for birth and instead just show up when it was time to do what I must. “We’ll just do what we have to do,” became my mantra every time a new worrying arose. But as I sat in a mostly deserted waiting room on Monday of Holy Week with my N95 mask on, I struggled to breathe and couldn’t help imagining what trying to breathe through contractions would be like with a mask on. Breathing got harder and by the time the nurse took my blood pressure things did not look good. As I reclined hooked up to the fetal heartbeat monitor, I wondered if Jesus had a similar resolve that he then lost. Palm Sunday’s mantra could have sounded like mine: “Just get to the city and do what you have to do.” But of course, just a few verses later in John 12:27, we hear Jesus is “deeply troubled.” Having defiantly removed my mask to breathe easier and hopefully lower my blood pressure, I feel some comfort at the thought that perhaps Jesus waffled a bit this week too. He showed such grace in getting in his last lectures and final blessings, and then in the garden he prays for any other way. I totally get it, Jesus. If there is any other way, I’d love to hear it too. But we both know there isn’t. The only way to new life is through death. The only way to bring this new life into the world is by entering the halls of death, risking, fearing, and hopefully, eventually trusting God will bring us out again. Knowing you’ve been through it already helps for sure, but I’m most appreciative to know you had moments of doubt and fear too.

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God Grew Bigger: A Review of This Is My Body

cover of This is My BodyHannah Shanks’ This is My Body came out the same week that I learned I was pregnant. I had already been planning to buy and read the book – the author is a friend – but that pee-saturated stick gave special urgency to my reading. On the first page the author finds out that she is pregnant and immediately “freaks out at life changes.“ This is familiar!

But don’t assume that this book is only for pregnant people or people who have given birth. My college self, for example, could have used the steady insistence that this is my body, holy and good, revealer of God’s image. Anyone who struggles with body image will find this book life-giving. And it would be an extraordinary mistake — a mistake born out of patriarchal assumptions — for men to skip this book. The final chapter encapsulates why: “When we are made one [in Christ], our stories are no longer relegated to a genre or niche of ‘women’s issues’… Though our experiences have been resigned to a market segment… Jesus’ story is our story — a birth story” (126-127).

This Is My Body weaves one particular human story into God’s unfolding story. Read more

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.

Becoming a Grandparent

2 Timothy 1:5  I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

About a month ago, this amazing thing happened: I became a grandmother. In and of itself, that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; after all, people become grandparents every day. But these two facts make it amazing:

  • I only became a mother 4 years ago.
  • I am only 33.

Our family is a bit unconventional, in the loveliest way.  Read more

Keep Calm and Carry on with Hope

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A little over a month ago a man named Thomas Eric Duncan was getting ready to leave Liberia for Dallas, Texas. Prior to departing he helped a neighbor get a sick pregnant woman into a car to go to the hospital for medical care. Or so is the story the media twisted, and spun out of control. (Since Duncan’s death, the Dallas News published a letter from Duncan’s nephew disputing that story.)

Whatever the truth, I resonate with that story: I’m in the last months of pregnancy, waiting to deliver my daughter at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, the same hospital where Duncan was quarantined, treated for Ebola, and eventually died.

West African countries have been battling Ebola for months, treating thousands of cases. Americans didn’t tune in to the magnitude of that story until one case popped up in one city in one western country. The media descended, and anxiety rose and infected the Dallas community and the country more quickly than Ebola could.

It became clear to clergy including myself that fear and anxiety were what we had to reframe and fight. We had to keep calm and carry on with hope.

At my church, my colleague and I preached, prayed, and tried to live out calm in the midst of crisis.

Living out calm meant I went about ministry as usual visiting parishioners who were hospitalized at Dallas Presbyterian, and going to my own obstetrician check-ups there. I didn’t think twice about continuing with my doctor and pushing forward with our plans to deliver our firstborn at Presbyterian Hospital.

I also continued to go about the parts of my ministry that took me to Vickery Meadows, the neighborhood where Duncan has lived with his fiancée, Louise Troh.

I attended a parent meeting at McShan Elementary School in the heart of Vickery Meadow to share information about the community garden our church started, and an upcoming event. The discussion came round to Ebola. As panic alarm bells were sounding and paranoia was setting in the principal said this, “We are all neighbors, and this is a multicultural community. You have nothing to fear. We encourage you to keep on supporting each other, and we will not tolerate bullying or isolation of others.”

She preached to me, and I’ve held her words in my head over the last month: “You have nothing to fear.”

Other ministers closer to the situation, like Rev. George Mason of Wilshire Baptist church spoke eloquently on national television putting out an alternative to the frenzied media story…one of love, care for our neighbor, and compassion as his congregation ministered to Louise Troh, a member of their congregation.

A few weeks ago another colleague, Rev. Brent Barry invited an ecumenical group of clergy to lead a prayer vigil for hope. The mayor came to speak, but also to find solace.

As the third case emerged and anxiety and fear became more widespread, the mayor held a conference call for faith leaders. He encouraged us to share a message of love and hope. He preached to me, reminding me that Jesus ministered to the lepers, and that the early church stood in the gaps when others were abandoned. Now, more than ever we were needed.

When I get a concerned call from a loved one or church member about plans to deliver my firstborn at Dallas Presbyterian, I’m not worried. I fight the fear with facts: I’ve not touched the fecal matter or bodily fluids of the 3 Ebola patients, and neither has my doctor. I’m fine, and the baby is fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

When I encounter a neighbor or friend who is concerned about us welcoming “those people” from Vickery Meadow into our neighborhood or houses of worship I ask them these questions: Why are you afraid? Have you come into contact with the fecal matter, bodily fluids, or urine of those 3 people? No? Then you’re just fine. Keep calm and carry on with hope.

Now, more than ever our neighbors in Vickery Meadow or West Africa need us to love them, to welcome them, and to embrace them. They need hope, and I pray that we can continue to remember those lessons once this Ebola story ends. Shunning, and living in fear is not our story as Christians nor is it the Gospel call to hope.

I can’t wait to tell that story of hope to my baby girl when she is born one of these days at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital. Maybe I’ll even get one of the coveted birthing tubs since so many other pregnant women have changed their hospital out of fear.

 

“Waters of Love” and “Birth Water”: New Poetry

Waters of Love

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11

Life begins in the waters of creation.
The void. The deep. And the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters –
first creating one-celled,
then multiple-celled,
and eventually the endless numbers of intricately-evolved organisms
that populate the earth today.
And God called it good, beloved.

Life begins in the waters of creation.
The womb. We’ve all been there. Floating in the watery sac of amniotic fluid,
we each grew from 2 cells,
to multiple organs,
to the wondrously complicated being that sits in the pew
next to your neighbor: you.
And God called you good, beloved.

Life begins in the waters of creation.
The Jordan River. The place where Jesus stepped out of the waves and into his mission and ministry.
Growing from one Word of love,
to multiple acts of justice,
into an infinite call for each person to follow… into new life.
And God called the baptism good, and God’s child beloved.

The Deep.
The Womb.
The Jordan.
New life begins in the waters of creation.
And the new life is good.
Beloved.

_______________

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