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stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

We are Three

stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français?

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

-from “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth

 

This year, 2019, National Siblings Day occurred the week before Holy Week. National Siblings Day is, many suspect, a holiday completely made up by social media companies in order for people to get on whatever profile they use and post more photos of users who happen to be related. It’s like the 21st century equivalent of a “Hallmark Holiday” – made for the purpose of a company proliferating itself; some people find it meaningful or fun, others let it pass by unnoticed.

To be honest, I don’t take much notice of it. I see other people posting about it throughout the day, and I realize what’s being celebrated.

I live 1500 miles from my immediate family, in my first church call, which I share with my spouse. In this digital age, I have not been at my parents’ house long enough in the last few years to scan the thousands of pictures of me and my brother and sister when we were young: big glasses whose glare hides eyes from the camera, graphic T-shirts that are entirely too big, hair that is untidily coifed in strange hairdos from a bygone era.

For many the connection between Siblings Day and Holy Week are coincidental.
For me, they are building toward a painful, hopeful climax.
You see, we buried my brother on Good Friday.

As a theologically-minded person from a young age, I marked my springtime by Holy Week and Easter usually involving a huge church play each Holy Weekend. At college, there were different traditions, and I was looking forward to entering them.

When I was 20 years old, the Monday of Holy Week my brother was killed in a car accident. I wonder if Jesus felt like I did, going toward Good Friday: that it was simultaneously the longest and shortest week of my life. Everything was askew, my feelings dulled and heightened. I missed both Holy Week rituals: the Easter play at my childhood church, AND the Tenebrae that was taking place at my college. The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français? Read more

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

Letting the Church Be the Church for their Pastor

shepherd's staff and shell-shaped metal bowl

From when the author and her congregation remembered their baptisms and belovedness.

One of my favorite images of a pastor is that of shepherd. As a shepherd, I take care of my flock, making sure they are fed in belly and spirit, trying to keep them on the path, and jumping in to offer care and support when they are sick or hurting. When they are facing a health crisis I often remind them that they are not alone: God is with them, yes, but so are the other members of our flock. Letting the church be the church can be difficult when you’re on the receiving end of the help and support, but caring for one another is one of the ways we live out our faith and discipleship. Sometimes it’s not a church member who needs the church the most – sometimes it’s the shepherd that needs the flock.

On Epiphany Sunday, my husband began to complain of back pain. We both chalked the back pain up to restless nights spent tossing and turning and coughing after he picked up a bug of some sort visiting family at Christmas. By Tuesday, he could barely walk, and on Wednesday he finally went to Urgent Care, where they guessed that he had a pinched nerve. The next morning he woke up with the left side of his face looking like he had a stroke. When he drank his coffee, it spilled back out. When he tried to stand, his knees buckled and he fell. This was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

After his mother arrived to watch our four-and-a-half-year-old twin girls, we went to the Emergency Room. Waiting in the hallway on a gurney for hours as they ran different tests, his legs became weaker to the point that he could no longer walk. The nurse practitioner kept a close eye on us, his eyes betraying his concern as test after test came back normal. As evening drew closer with still no answers, he called a neurologist who within minutes gave a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).

GBS is a rare autoimmune disorder triggered by a virus in which the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking the myelin sheath of one’s peripheral nerves. It can progress incredibly quickly, and for some it’s a matter of hours before they are paralyzed and on a ventilator. My husband’s had progressed very slowly and they began treatment immediately. Once he was in a room I went into crisis mode: I messaged our family members to tell them what we knew; I asked one of my sisters to come up from Maryland to help watch our daughters while I was at the hospital; I called our District Superintendent; I alerted my Staff-Parish Relations chairs; I tried to explain to our daughters what was happening, kissed them goodnight, and went back to the hospital.

Everyone was quick to respond with offers of help. “Anything you need,” they said, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I needed. Read more

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.

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

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

Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. 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

A Liturgy for Leaving

Like many 21st-century churches, the church I serve is a “nested” congregation: it has no building of its own, and rents space from another congregation. Some churches arrive at this kind of arrangement after selling their existing buildings. Others are new church starts, building a congregation from scratch.

Worshiping communities sharing space can be a wonderful thing. It can also be complicated. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. My congregation recently ended its relationship with its host congregation, and transitioned to a different space. The transition was challenging, marked with conflict, grief, and resentment. Although “the church is not the building… the church is the people,” as the old Sunday school song goes, it is difficult for the people to say goodbye to the place where their children were baptized, where they were married, where they grew in faith and discipleship.

This liturgy concluded our final worship service in our old space. It would be appropriate for congregations in a similar situation, and also can be adapted for other situations, such as moving out of a house or decommissioning a ministry.

One: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
All: May we go with the God who calls us to new adventures!
One: When Rachel departed from her home and family to make her home with Jacob, she took with her the teraphim, the household gods of her childhood.
All: May we carry with us what has been good, holy, and true from our time in this place.
One: God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
All: May we go with the God of liberation!
One: The Israelites were taken from their homes into exile.
All: May we go with the God who consoles the displaced.
One: Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Good News to all creation.
All: May we be inspired and imbued with purpose and joy.
One: Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you, shake off the dust from your feet.
All: May we leave behind us all bitterness and disillusionment.
One: Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
All: May we thank God every time we remember this place.
One: Go forth to be God’s church in this time and place, as the Holy Spirit may direct.
All: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more