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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

A Sacred Window

OnesWeLoveImageNothing can really prepare you for the death of a friend. It doesn’t matter how many pastoral care classes you took in seminary. It makes no difference how many funeral services you prepare and lead on a regular basis. The books on your shelves and the articles in your files do not mean a thing when it comes to losing someone you hold dear.

When I first met my friend (I’ll call her “D”), I was interviewing with the churches I now serve. D was serving as a Committee On Ministry liaison to the search committee. She was fun and feisty and full of energy. She was a strong woman with a clear, strong voice. She was, perhaps, one of the most dedicated Elders I had ever met. She spoke fluent sarcasm and had a wicked sense of humor that matched well with my own. We were fast friends and colleagues.

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Etched in Stone

13934149385_697e2ac089_bIn the first year of serving my first church, I decided to wander through the village cemetery for the first time. I was on a mission to find a famous person’s headstone. After I had found Jane Addams’ burial place (she founded Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house, in 1889), I wandered around the rest of the cemetery. I don’t remember whether or not I had officiated a funeral yet, but I recall walking down a new row and being jarred to a complete stop. There, in front of me, was a stone that had a couple’s names etched on it. The wife had died already; the husband was a man I visited in the nursing home. I stood there, stunned, for minutes, knowing that I would be the pastor who laid the husband to rest behind that stone.

I had never faced that surety before. It was one of those moments when I knew I was a pastor. The man was frail in body, but passionate in mind. He loved to chat about what was happening in his church and retelling the history of the village. Upon meeting him, I quickly learned that my congregation would lose a huge knowledge base when he left this world. (He had been in town when Jane Addams’ body was returned for burial, he had heard Helen Keller speak, and he had touched Abraham Lincoln’s nose – the one on Mount Rushmore!). In this moment, I grieved that his body would give out long before his mind did. Two years after my moment in the cemetery, I did bury this man. I was honored and privileged to be able to be a part of his life.

Now, I am eleven years into my ministry. My mind flashes back to this today when I am in a different cemetery, looking for the plot where I will bury another faithful saint tomorrow. It’s my first year in this current church, and as I drive around the cemetery I see three headstones with familiar names of living people I have already come to love. I get out of my car and stand at the stone for each name, observing the final resting places of the people my parishioners and I love. Read more

Wanting the Manger to Stay Empty

Dec 2013 Empty Manger and CrossOn December 19, 2012, I woke up early, went to the bathroom and crawled back into my warm bed in my dark bedroom. Then I realized that I was bleeding. This normally wouldn’t be a shock to a woman of my age – menstrual bleeding is to be expected once every 28 days or so. But several days before that, I had also awakened early and taken a pregnancy test, which showed that coveted “second line.” I was pregnant. Having already suffered a miscarriage two and a half years earlier, I greet a positive pregnancy test with a kind of dread. While it’s exactly what I want, I also know that unlike the commercials I see on TV, I am not bathed in bright lighting sharing the news that we’re going to be new parents in nine months. I am bathed in fear and the real knowledge that I might lose this pregnancy, too. So, on December 19, right before celebrating the birth of Jesus, I was crying in my bed next to my husband wondering why this pregnancy would not result in a joyous birth like Mary’s did.

I am one half of a clergy couple. As I was headed to the doctor later that morning, my husband was traveling to another town over an hour away to conduct a funeral for a couple from his church. My partner did not go to the doctor with me. He wasn’t home in the evening to help get our 19 month old fed and to sleep so that I could cry and curl up with heating pad. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lonely. I could see Christmas lights twinkling in the house across the street, but didn’t want to turn my own tree on. We celebrate light coming into darkness at Christmas and all I could focus on was the darkness. Read more

My Real Grandmother

Twisted-pine

As we head into the holiday season, I always remember my grandmother.  She was a Rev. She was a Dr.  She had all the credentials.  But more importantly, she had a lot of love.   In my journey to ordained ministry, from the earliest whispers of a call to my ordination day, I always knew she was there.  Her love and support were like spiritual life rafts that held me up, kept me going- a safety net that I always knew was there.  She devoted so much of her life to loving people better, not just me.  She wrote her dissertation, and later a book, on the nature of love.  I, and everyone who knew her, kept her atop a pedestal, and it seemed as if nobody doubted that is where she belonged.

She should be a top candidate to be in my female clergy cloud of witnesses.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1-3

But my grandmother also had some other qualities that affected her calling to live a life of love.   She had a drive to be “perfect.”  She wanted everything to be “lovely.”  As a child, I thought of this trait as an asset, an outward expression of her wonderful love.  She loved to make things beautiful and wonderful- for others as well as for herself.   I remember her especially during the holidays because her search for perfect beauty really came out then.  She always had a stunning Christmas tree with perfectly matched ornaments and wrapping paper.  She even ordered fresh flowers to put on the tree.  There were no tacky colored lights or ornaments made of popsicle sticks.  It was “perfect.”  And she did that for all of us to enjoy right?  Who couldn’t admire that?

But after she died, three weeks after my ordination, I was left to face the cold reality that life and love really aren’t perfect.  In my grief I began to see that they should never be perfect.   You can’t decorate your life like a beautiful tree.  I was now facing the rest of my life without my role model.  I was without her love that I had sought to emulate, a love that had inspired me and carried me to this point.  I felt lost for a while.  I tried to tell myself, that her love could still support me, that she had become one of the great “cloud of witnesses” in my life.  But it’s much harder to tap into the great cloud once they have passed.  You can’t give them a hug or go to them for advice.

In her absence, I also began to face a challenging truth: my grandmother made mistakes.  In her desire to make everything “perfect” and even in her quest to express love, she often limited the freedom we had in our relationships with her.  She limited our ability to love her back in our own ways.  Most importantly, she missed that part of God’s love that is unpredictable, messy and working through flawed people.   Like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree with one small ornament, sometimes it is the imperfect that reflects God’s love and beauty best.   Grandma had largely missed out on God moving through ordinary things and ordinary people.

How could my saint, the largest in my cloud, have gotten it so wrong sometimes?  What do I do with that now?  I felt like I had lost her again.

Thankfully, God was not finished with me either.   All around me, I was embracing imperfection, in my ministry and in my role as a spouse and as a mother.  I was decorating my own tree in a very different way.  But I couldn’t seem to embrace my grandmother’s mistakes.  In my mind, she was a saint and she couldn’t have made mistakes.  And since she did make mistakes, I guess she wasn’t a saint.  I couldn’t reconcile her in my mind.

I think my answer lies in the “cloud of witnesses” text from Hebrews .  The author doesn’t promise perfection in the great cloud of witnesses.   The text seems to know that nobody is perfect.  It assumes that we are prone to growing weary and losing heart.  I had lost heart with my grandmother and there was only one way forward: to cherish her strengths and flaws together, counting them all in my great cloud.  It is both the perfections and imperfections of our saints that shape and strengthen us.   Their assets motivate us and their lacks challenge us.   As we embrace the fullness of who they really were, we can push ourselves forward in our own great races.   The failings of the saints point us even more to Jesus, who is, as the author rightly notes, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  Because of Jesus, I can “lay aside every weight.”  Because of Jesus, I can look at my wonderful cloud, sometimes dark, sometimes whispy and happy, and I can run.

So I am back to cherishing my grandmother and her memory- cherishing it even more so now that it is more real.  I feel her love and support again.  I feel challenged to go beyond her limits.  I can run my race with confidence, standing on the perfections and imperfections of my great cloud of witnesses, picking up the torch where they left off and trusting in “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”