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The Moms’ Group

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Let’s talk about babies. For the last five years of my life, something has been happening in the background.

I’ve already shared on my blog about my journey through seminary and internship, and my first years of being a pastor. I’ve shared about my family and some of my vacations, my love for baseball and knitting, my thoughts on dialogue and division, and my crazy idealism for the world we live in. Recently, because I’ve been busy, I’ve shared more sermon transcripts than life reflections.

But behind all of this, for the last five years, Matt and I have been on a long journey to try to start a family.

It has been quite a journey. A journey that has included frustration and tears, losses and medical interventions, countless needle-stabs and blood draws, surgeries (major and minor), and through it all, enough peace in our hearts to keep stepping forward, one day at a time, without counting up our fears or losses or heartbreaks. Which is not to say that there weren’t bad days (there were plenty), or that we had the strength or gumption to keep pressing ahead indefinitely (there comes a point when you have to start thinking about stopping, for the sake of your sanity).

I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone. And yet, as I have come to learn, this journey is so very common, and nobody really knows it.

There have been lots of blessings to come out of this journey that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I have made new friends and built new relationships with others who have struggled, just like we have. Friends of mine have come out of the woodwork to share with me their own stories of infertility and pregnancy loss. I have been forced to think – deeply! – about what I hope my life will look like, and what pieces of my body and soul I am willing to make vulnerable in order to pursue those hopes and dreams. I would venture a guess that Matt and I are closer and better because of all of this, and that our relationship is in a deeper place than we could ever have expected it to be after 8.5 years of marriage. I’ve been forced to be emotionally vulnerable (in a good way), and to learn to ask for/accept help (which I’m terrible at). Spiritually, I’ve run the gamut from praying fervently with hope to shouting at God in absolute anger. I’ve connected to Bible stories in far different ways, especially stories of barren women, but also stories of finding peace in trial, and finding kindred spirits in all those in the Bible who felt they had no other option but to cry out to God and put themselves out there, because they had no other choice.

But don’t be mistaken. These beautiful and unforeseen blessings do not, in any way, make this path easier. They don’t make this journey “better.” They don’t redeem the pain and frustration of spending so much time, money, and energy trying to accomplish something that should be simple; something that biology has been making happen since the start of the human race. Infertility and pregnancy loss are HARD.

As we crossed over into 2013, there were lots of transitions on the horizon. I had just accepted a new call, which meant leaving a church I loved in order to follow God’s call to a new church that I was excited to love. Goodbyes and hellos are hard. Even (especially!) the good ones. Also, this new church was in a new town in a new state…putting me five hours from most of my family and from the Chicagoland that is a HUGE part of who I am. Moving is my least favorite thing ever, because it involves packing, and so there was plenty of stress on the horizon as I packed both our apartment and my office, and as we went house-hunting in Decorah, and as we tried to make the most of our last weeks in Chicago before moving.

During this time of crazy transitions, we also decided to take one more (last?) shot at a round of IVF. We’d done a few cycles before, and still had a couple embryos frozen, and we decided (with the encouragement and blessing of my doctor), to try one last round before we moved away (and out of his care).

My official start date here at First Lutheran was March 1. I preached my first sermon here on Sunday, March 3. I spent Monday and Tuesday of that week trying to get my office unpacked and set up. And then on Wednesday, we drove back to Chicago, because that Thursday was my embryo transfer (the culmination of a month-plus cycle of medications and monitoring). The timing of the cycle and the transfer was certainly not ideal. It was just another thing to add to all the madness of moving and starting a new job and closing on a house.

But for some crazy reason, the absolute wrong time turned out to be the absolute right time. And so two weeks after starting my new job, we found out that one of those little embryos had stuck around, and we were pregnant. Thrilling news, and terrifying. Because once you’ve experienced a loss, it takes a long time for you to actually believe that the pregnancy is going to last. Between then and now, there have been plenty of anxious days. Plenty of worry and wonder. Plenty of huge sighs of relief every time blood draws showed my hormone levels going up, and every time my doctor has been able to easily find a heartbeat at our monthly appointments.

It took us until week 13 to start telling close family and friends. It took us until week 16 to share the news with the congregation. And it took us until week 17 to go public. For as much as your head knows that, statistically, chances of loss after 13, 16, 17 weeks are incredibly low, your heart still worries that you will (continue to) be the exception to the rule, the person who keeps defying the odds in the wrong way.

But it’s getting harder and harder to worry, and easier and easier to believe that THIS IS HAPPENING. FOR REAL. We crossed the 20-week mark over the weekend (halfway there!), and had our big mid-pregnancy ultrasound yesterday. And yes. There’s a baby in there. A baby with arms and legs that move and kick, a baby with a little heart beating away in its chest, a baby with teensy toes and little lips, who is just starting to get big enough for me to feel it when it tumbles and flips and kicks.

This article originally posted at Melissa’s blog on July 10, 2013 and is reprinted here in revised form with her permission. Currently, her little hedgehog is a bouncing happy baby named Sam.

Illness and Identity

My identity as a clergy gal has changed substantially over the years. I’ve been the reluctant seminarian, the slightly-less-reluctant-but-still-unsure new minister, the energetic still-single-and-happy-that-way rev, the newly-married-second-time-seminarian youth minister, the youngish-married-associate minister. Each phase of this calling has had its ups and downs, and each change in identity has had its awkward adjustments – but for the most part it has been fairly easy to slip into new roles, new ways of being and doing.

But now there is this.

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Wearing the Robe

Next month we will start a new feature in Christ and Creativity, an intermittent series of interviews with YCW’s who also practice art, writing or other creative pursuits. We want to hear what drives them to create, who and what their creative inspirations are, and any advice they have for others who want to undertake a creative practice.

And now, “Wearing the Robe” by Jessica Rivera.

Wearing the Robe

Who am I…?
I wonder this sometimes
Mostly on Sunday mornings
As I sit uncomfortably in the high backed chair; looking at red-painted toes in my favorite high heels
Poking out from underneath the white-robe of my position

I wonder at this when eyes travel to wonder at my earrings
As I speak earnestly of faith
When I am introduced as the “girl Pastor” to visitors who shake my hand and say “wow, I’ve never had a girl Pastor before– you’re pretty good”
As if this was surprising because I was born with different parts than they expected
To be wearing this white-robe

In my secret chats with God I ask the question
And wonder about dating and children
“I am a woman” I say to God “can I be a lover and a pastor too?”
Or does love require a quiet and demure woman instead of a preacher?
And does the white robe fit over 9 month’s pregnant belly?

God answers the question
Not always on Sunday morning
But always quietly, almost mischievously
When whispered conversations with teenagers in camping-tents lead to thoughts of Jesus
When babies cry at warm water embrace of faith
When harmony breaks loose in wooden pews, lifting faith song
And call comes clear in bright colors
You are my chosen one, God says
And white robe becomes swaddling cloth of becoming; instead of the bondage
Of my position.

Never Not the Minister

It can be difficult to receive care when you are called to be a care-giver.

It was scary and stressful, and I’m still not over the shock of realizing he and I might not be invincible after all. It was also the first time that I have been on the receiving end of my congregation’s big-hearted approach to pastoral care. I’m still reeling over how strange and wonderful that felt.

See, I’m the minister–right. I’m the giver of pastoral care, not the receiver. I am the font of comfort and the number one resource in my congregation for compassionate nods-of-the-head and hugs-only-when-appropriate. I am the pastor, and since I never remember my local priest comforting my family very much when I was a kid, I’ve seldom (if ever) really known what it was to be pastored to in a time of trauma, which is why I was confused this week, if honored and grateful at the same time.

When hubby was in surgery, I was sitting on the floor of the only place in the hospital with reception grasping a cell phone in each hand while talking to our parents and family members, giving them updates and generally just trying to hold it together. As I sat on the floor juggling these cell phones and wondering if I even had it in me to cry, one of my more wonderful congregants walked up to me.

Here’s where the story gets surprising. When I saw her, my first thought was not “Oh, how lovely that she’s come to see me,” but rather, “oh crap there’s one of my congregants and I haven’t showered in a couple of days and am not really able to talk to her like a minister right now and I’m sitting on the floor in the pajama shirt I was wearing when we fled the house at three am and she’s probably got some relative in surgery and I didn’t even know about it and I hope she’s ok and, deep breath I need to get off of these two phones and talk to my congregant.” Read more

Verve, Faith, Chocolate, and Really Great Shoes

For a long time, in my mind, pointe shoes were the only shoes that mattered. In high school, I tried brand after brand, make after make, looking for something that would flatter my woefully flat arches. I
finally found Freeds of London. I religiously ordered shoes from a particular cobbler, whose mark was
stamped on the bottom of my sole. That brand and make of shoes accompanied me through hours of class, rehearsals, and performances. I spent a lot of time breaking them in and keeping them in good shape.

They transformed me into Sleeping Beauty; they turned me into the Dew Drop Fairy. They were my most important material possession. Oddly, my attitude towards all other shoes was as indifferent as my attitude towards pointe shoes was obsessive. In high school and college, I wore the same old school vans day in and day out (Hey, it was the 90s; don’t judge me). The object was comfort and little else.

And then I moved from the stage to the pulpit. As part of that transition, I went to divinity school at Yale in Connecticut; inclement weather and walking everywhere meant practicality won out. I wore unremarkable tennis shoes and cheap penny loafers. I bought a pair of bejeweled aqua peep toe heels on a whim my senior year. I got them with no intention of wearing them in the pulpit; however, sometimes, what I intend is not what I actually end up doing. I wore the peep toes one summer Sunday morning soon after I was ordained to the diaconate, just for fun. I didn’t do it to get a reaction, but, boy, did I ever. It seems as if every single person in that church had something to say about my shoes that day. I wore them again. And again.

It didn’t take long before I had more new shoes – pink patent mary janes with a 3″ heel, white ballet flats, green pumas. I don’t have that many pairs of shoes, but the ones I do have are… interesting. It got to the point where my picture in the church’s monthly newsletter was of my shoes.

For me, my shoes signal that I’m human, something that I found to be incredibly important in a profession where you are sometimes in a different category than everyone else, which I refuse to be. The fact is, people often think they know you when you’re clergy, particularly in the Bible Belt, where I grew up and now live and serve. People sometimes assume they know how you vote (Republican), what you do in your spare time (you have none because you’re always tending the flock), what you will find funny (jokes that involve religion – nothing remotely risqué), not to mention what about you think about issues such as the war, abortion, and homosexuality. My shoes tip people off that maybe there’s more than a clerical collar here; they’re my visual question mark to a world that desperately wants to pigeonhole. Read more

Becoming the Church Mom

You could see the furrowed brows on her puzzled face. It was an amusing moment for me and for the handful of congregants who noticed her dilemma. I believe that in our role as pastors sometimes, our humanness is overshadowed by the ministry we do, especially for those of us from liturgical traditions that wear robes. The next Mother’s Day, I was expecting our first child. The congregation had already thrown a baby shower for us and included all the children. My robes billowed out around my growing belly. Amazingly, that year, all the little ones knew with certainty that I was a woman and raced to be the
first to give me a flower.

I learned in those moments that being a mom, in the children’s eyes, defined me as much as being their pastor. These same children asked every week if I knew whether the baby was a boy or a girl, though we were never able to discover the baby’s gender. The children wanted to help with our baby during church services, even though she came to church with a very protective and capable young woman as her babysitter. Our baby was the church baby, and I became the church mom.

I noticed a change once we had our little one. To the toddlers, I became a lap on which to sit. Children I met only a few times as visitors or at Vacation Bible School came up and hugged me as we went for a walk as a family. To the teens, I became more of an advice giver. While I will always be the pastor, I am also now a mom, to far more children than my husband and I will ever have on our own. Our daughter has been graced with an extended family that calls me pastor, though to her I am her “Momma Bear.”

Being Single, Being Me

At the time, I was puzzled by – and occasionally scornful of – my classmates’ partnering inclinations. “Get Married” has never made it to my life to-do list. It still hasn’t. Although I’m sure I’d make it
work if it happened, I can’t imagine doing ministry as a married person. I can’t imagine living as a married person. Still, doing ministry and living as a single person has brought my classmates’ fears
into sharp and sometimes painful clarity.

Of course I had heard the stories about well-meaning congregational matchmakers and the joys of navigating dating relationships while living in a parsonage. I had wondered how a congregation would react to a single female pastor in particular. I had wondered about the willingness of potential partners to date a minister – because, really, what sane person wishes for that?

It wasn’t the rockiness of dating as a young clergy woman that caught me by surprise.  As an extrovert who has lived in many places and developed a wide social network, it never occurred to me that it would
be so hard to simply make friends as a pastor. No one warned me that, without the built-in connections of academia or work colleagues, I’d have to work so much harder just to meet people.  I never anticipated that once I met people, so many of them would instantly react to my vocation with either suspicion or neediness. Read more