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Woman praying alone in church

How to Talk About Abortion in Church

Woman praying alone in churchAbortion. Does the word stir up emotions? Does it cause you unease, even anger? You’re not alone. Say “abortion” in a public setting, and undoubtedly the reaction will be strong and visceral. Say it in the pulpit? The idea is enough to make even the most prophetic among us quake and quiver.

Our discomfort with discussing abortion, privately or publicly, leads many of us to avoid the topic completely. On the issue of abortion we resort to silence in our sacred spaces. But the truth is abortion is a reality in our congregations. Regardless of our political leanings or personal beliefs, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime. Women of all races, economic backgrounds, political parties, and religious affiliations have abortions. That means there are people in our congregations who have had abortions. There are partners and family members of people who have had abortions. And there are those who will seek abortion care in the future.

Given this reality, what are we to say about abortion? How are we to respond to requests from congregants to “pray for the unborn?” What do we do when our colleagues are spreading misinformation on social media about legislation that regulates abortion? How do we speak with truth and compassion about serious and complex moral issues that are deeply personal, often politicized, and almost always hidden? 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

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

Sometimes I Really Hate This Time of Year

pregnancy test – negative

We are in the thick of Advent. Inside the church, we are quick to turn our focus to Elizabeth, to Mary, to drawing parallels between the waiting time of pregnancy and the waiting time of Advent. Outside the church, Christmas cards show up in our mailboxes each day with pictures of smiling families dressed to the nines for Christmas portraits, or religious cards with silhouettes of pregnant Mary riding on the donkey, led by Joseph, down the road toward Bethlehem. Singers on the radio remind us that it is “the most wonderful time of year.”

Except when it isn’t.

“Sometimes I hate this time of year,” one colleague admits.

Because for those who long for children that they cannot conceive, for those who know the loss of a pregnancy or the loss of a child, for those who are childless beyond their choice or power, this intensely child-focused time of year is anything but wonderful. Hear the voices of young clergy women colleagues as they reflect on the tension of this season: Read more

Commended to God: A Service for Embryos

A few years ago, a couple came to me, because they had to make the difficult decision of what do with the leftover embryos that were created as part of the process of conceiving their twin children. They were so grateful for these embryos—and the beautiful children that had come from the two used embryos. They wanted a liturgy to honor those embryos and the potential life with in them. Together, we adapted the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer’s funeral service for a child and created the following liturgy.

Embryo

A Service of Thanksgiving for Embryos

Gather in the Name of God

All stand while the following is said

Jesus said, Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it
is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.
(Matthew 19:14)

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he
will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away
every tear from their eyes.
(Revelation 7:17)

The Lord be with you

People And also with you

MinisterLet us pray.

Creator God, we thank you for the gift of children. We thank you for name(s)—their joy, curiosity, kindness, boldness and infinite appetite for life. We thank you for the embryos and science that gave us the gift of name(s). Your beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them. We entrust these embryos to you and pray you will care for and bless them. Amen.

The Lessons

Romans 8:31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Prayers of the People

In the peace of God, let us pray, responding, “Oh, God, have mercy.”

Loving God, we thank you for your faithfulness to parent’s name and parent’s name as they journeyed through the wilderness of infertility. You remained faithful to them along their entire journey, and strengthened their faith and love in You and in each other.

Oh God, have mercy.

Creator God, we thank you for the gift of science and technology. We thank you that it can be used to help create life. Lord, this presents us with many difficult decisions to make. Your Holy Word does not speak of these choices. We pray your grace and mercy upon all choices parent’s name and parent’s name have made and make today.

Oh God, have mercy.

Gracious God, we thank you for the longed-for gift of name(s). We pray that they will always feel loved and cherished—by you and by those around them. We pray that in their relationship with their parents they could experience a taste of the kind of love you have for them.

Oh God, have mercy.

Embracing God, we pray for these embryos. However you acknowledge them to be—as a life or as the hope of a life—they were created through love and prayer. Welcome them into your kingdom, Lord.

Oh God, have mercy.

Bless parent’s name and parent’s name, Lord, as they complete this journey. Help them know your love and peace.

Oh God, have mercy.

The minister concludes the prayers with this Collect:

Compassionate God, your ways are beyond our understanding and your love for those whom you create is greater by far than ours; comfort all who grieve. Give them the faith to endure the mystery of life and the mystery of faith and bring them in the fullness of time to share the light and joy of your eternal presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The Commendation

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of all mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

We commend these embryos to the mercy of God, our maker; redeemer, and comforter.

We entrust you to God. Go forth from this world in the love of God who created you, in the mercy of Jesus who died for you, in the power of the Holy Spirit who receives and protects you. May you rest in peace Amen.

The Holy Communion

The blessing and dismissal follow.

Adult hand holding a child's hand

Grieving Infertility at the Wailing Wall

Adult hand holding a child's hand

holding hands

In the midst of our darkest days of navigating our way through miscarriage, failed IVF treatments, and trying to decide how we felt about adoption, an opportunity arose for my husband and me to travel to Israel on an interfaith delegation of peace with three other Northern Virginian clergy. One of the first stops on our trip was the Western Wall. We’d visit one of the most sacred sites in Jewish history. The following, an excerpt from my upcoming book from Chalice Press entitled Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility, is the tear-stained prayer I placed in a crumbled piece of paper in the Wall and an account of what transpired afterwards. I wrote:

I am a Mother. Read more

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.