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author's baby

Provision

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus….Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her…“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

(Luke 1:28-40, selections)

author's baby

Luke does not record
what the neighbors say
but the comments are there,

crouching behind the text.
When the messenger says, “Favored One!”
we can almost hear the echoing

“You?”

Luke does not
mention it,
but, guaranteed: Mary knows

it’s there. She knows
when it’s known
that she’s been known,

the greetings will change.
The power of God will not stop
the side-eye. Yet, perhaps

when this babe
opens a tiny mouth
with a vast hunger

and she is able to fill it,
for the time being, a grace
so consuming, a provision

so merciful will bear her
through pain and recoil, this gift
that she agrees to give 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.

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

Hero

Everyone imagines themselves as the hero of their own story. Especially every child — and I was a child. They all imagine themselves as heroes. That’s not a new thing; it’s like that here in your twenty-first century American lives, but it was like that where I lived, in Nazareth two thousand years ago, as well. Your boys and girls have the heroes that they imagine: Wonder Woman, Iron Man, PJ Masks, Moana, GI Joe, Harry Potter. They’re inundated with them: hundreds of heroes, on television screens and in movie theaters, in newspaper comics and novels. Watch the children sometime, and see how they play: averting global disasters at the playground, setting up elaborate Lego battlefields, going on daring adventures through their back yards, covering themselves with temporary tattoos. They all want to be heroes.

So did I, but our heroes were a little bit different.

You have to understand that those Roman soldiers could do anything. There was no due process, no body cameras, no professional code of ethics — not that those things always make a difference for you, but even those flawed safeguards were not there for us. Rome had conquered my town and those soldiers could do anything they wanted.

So we would go to our religious services, passed off to the authorities as innocuous. They respected things that were ancient, and our faith was as ancient as they come: ancient stories, ancient scrolls, ancient traditions. They thought our religion kept us busy, kept us industrious, kept us docile. But every little child, boy or girl, wants to be a hero, and that’s what I was. So I learned the stories of our heroes. Moses, who led the people out of slavery in Egypt, who stood in the presence of God on Sinai. David, who as a boy stood fearless with his slingshot and felled the giant Goliath. Jeremiah, who heard the voice of God in his boyhood and fearlessly reprimanded the wicked and faithless. And there were other heroes, too: Ruth and Naomi, left widowed and making their way in the world. Jael, deceiving and impaling Siserah, Esther, risking everything to advocate for her people to the king.

Those were the stories that shaped me and formed me as a child. 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

“I Believe the Women”

With great understanding,
Wisdom is calling out
as she stands at the crossroads
and on every hill.
She stands by the city gate
where everyone enters the city,
and she shouts:
“I am calling out
to each one of you!
Good sense and sound judgment
can be yours.
Listen, because what I say
is worthwhile and right.
I always speak the truth
and refuse to tell a lie.
Every word I speak is honest,
not one is misleading
or deceptive.
-Proverbs 8:1-8 (CEB)

detail from Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, 1609

The allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct continue to mount in every sector of society. In response to the allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I believe the women.” These four words hold extraordinary power, and the fact that they are so extraordinary points to how necessary they are.

The word of a woman is often questioned – including by women themselves. In the wake of #metoo, one thing we’ve seen is just how much women have internalized our victim blaming culture. Many have been reluctant to name sexual misconduct for what it is, or have felt partially responsible for it because they had been flirting, too, or they had enjoyed a drink with a friend. There is an inner voice asking, “Was this somehow my fault?”

In a culture that prizes women who are nice, sweet, and submissive, calling out harassment is strongly discouraged. For many women, speaking out would be detrimental to their careers or advancement. There is a pressure in many industries for women to be able to keep up with the men, to prove that they aren’t too emotional, too difficult, or any number of negative stereotypes that would prevent them from fitting in to the dominant culture. Louis CK’s sexual misconduct opened up dialogue among female comedians, who find that “not being able to take a joke” when it comes to sexual misconduct is a real career killer. Where men continue overwhelmingly to dominate certain industries, where “locker room talk” is actually the talk in whatever rooms of power – board room, green room, Senate chamber – women are under pressure to prove that we can take it, that we can hang with the best of them, while allowing the dominant rape culture to define the “best.”

Certainly, there have been, at times, false accusations made. But the vast majority of allegations of abuse and harassment are not false. Women have very little to gain in accusing men – particularly the rich and powerful – of misconduct. When women do speak out, our word is doubted, our character maligned, or worse. Women who have spoken out against powerful men have received death threats and lawsuits. It’s no wonder so many keep silent. Read more

swarm of ancient stars

Minding the Gap: Luke 2:21-52

swarm of ancient stars

A swarm of ancient stars

Starlight dims,
newborn stirs;
the body that bore the child
throbs still.

Angels heavenward,
shepherds to their flocks,
a child and her child, dew-covered,
clumsily nurse.

Aching journey to the temple–
abiding Torah, dedicated.
Simeon and Anna:
salvation seen, dismissed in peace.

And then the gap–
silence flanked by temple steps,
a long twelve years, one for each tribe,
no story to behold.

A mother’s mind
wanders the expanse
between blessed babe
and temple stowaway–

Between infant warm and safely swaddled
and beloved gone missing among dusty sandals.
Between “glory of your people Israel”
and “Why were you searching for me?”

Blissfully unaware of fear-besieged parents,
immersed in the teachings
an almost-man, according to tradition–
no wonder he dismisses her concern, as teenagers do.

But what of the gap, the in-between?
Restless nights of weaning,
mornings awakened and evenings drawn with Shema
recited by her lips, heard by his ears.

What of the hands that fed and washed and held
the One that would feed and wash and hold us?
What of her gaze guiding his play and wonder,
treasuring all these things in her heart?

Blessed are you among women, dear Mary,
mother of God whose twelve years’ mothering
garnered paraphrase without attribution–as mothering does:
“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.”

Starlight dims.
Seen or unseen,
even in the noonday sun
it shines.

Taize Magnificat

There’s Something About Mary

Taize Magnificat

Magnificat Window at Taize Community (Photo by Diana Carroll)

Saint Mary the Brave

by Ann Bonner-Stewart

Since I have been serving at a community called Saint Mary’s for the past six years, I think about Mary a lot. When you factor in that this Saint Mary’s is an all-girls high school, I think about her even more. I am intrigued that most images of Mary show an obedient, calm-looking woman. I highly question and seriously doubt that image. I’ve come to think of Mary as curious, as she questions how this can be, and thoughtful, as she ponders in her heart. I’ve also come to think of her as extremely brave. Though Joseph chose not to put her aside, there is no way that what she went through was easy. In a world where girls and women are often evaluated by how likable we are, I find hope in the strong likelihood that Mary may not have been well-liked, and that later this was completely overshadowed and forgotten.

 

The Real Annunciation

by Katya Ouchakof

One of my ongoing projects is a Bible translation/paraphrase that portrays the mood of a scene, while translating the Greek into everyday English. The Annunciation is one of my favorite stories, because I don’t imagine Mary as the docile character portrayed by most Bible translations. Here’s a more realistic version of this defining scene, in my mind:

The angel said to Mary, “Peace, favored one, the Lord is with you!” And Mary was scared speechless. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, God will bless you by making you pregnant so you can bear a son, and you’ll name him Jesus.” And Mary was like, “WTF?” So the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will ‘come over’ you and impregnate you, so your son will be called ‘the holy child of God.’ Don’t you know what has happened with your cousin Elizabeth? They said she was barren, but now she is six months pregnant! Absolutely nothing is impossible for God.”

And Mary said, “Whatever, dude. Sounds like I don’t have much choice in the matter. So if you’re actually serious, and I’m going to be the mother of God, I guess that’s cool.” Then the angel departed from her.

 

Saying “Yes”

by Hilary Bogert-Winkler

Mary’s “yes” terrifies me.  It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with unexplained recurrent pregnancy loss that I really had to wrestle with what saying “yes” to God might mean. I pray it every day in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done.” But I know a part of me isn’t fully invested in that part of the prayer. I hold back. What if saying “yes” to God means I never get to be a parent? What if it means my community and I have been completely wrong in our discernment that my husband and I are called to be parents? It’s only in this space of incredible longing in the midst of infertility that I’ve come fully to appreciate Mary’s “yes.” Her courage is incredible, and I pray that I may find the courage to pray with my whole self, my soul and body, “let it be with me according to your will.”

 

Mary Statue

Statue at Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona (Photo by Sara Shisler)

Mary’s Blessing for Advent

by Sara Shisler Goff

 

Sit with me awhile,

here by the fire.

Feel the warmth

radiate

and cover you,

and envelope you,

from your toes up to your cheeks.

 

Accept its many blessings.

 

You did not kindle this fire,

but you will kindle it

one day.

 

We will kindle it together

as we wait.

Light shining in the darkness.

 

Flinching fire giving glimpses of

the angels sitting here

with us

as God grows among us

and within us

the Son of Life.

 

Inspired by the Carmina Gadelica and the Blessing of the Kindling.

 

A Truer Mary

by Anna Doherty

I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with Mary. Traditional church doctrine, liturgy, and devotional practices have turned Mary into someone or something unattainable for most women. A virgin and a mother. Meek, mild, and a divine intercessor. A girl and a goddess. I’ve never been able to successfully connect myself or any of my roles as a woman or a clergy person with the person of Mary.

Three years ago, I traveled to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which is built on top of the traditional site where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. The church is a big, gorgeously decorated, Catholic cathedral. It is filled with paintings, sculpture, and stained glass depicting Mary and the infant Jesus. Though beautiful, most of the artwork and decoration didn’t resonate with me.

Church of the Annunciation

The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (Photo by Anna Doherty)

Then I descended the stairs and went underneath the magnificent sanctuary to the site where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. As I looked at that tiny, meager room—the remains of a first century Palestine cottage—Mary became more real to me. I realized that she was poor, she was young, and she was also incredibly courageous. She said yes to things she didn’t fully understand. She challenged many of the confines for women of her status. If you look at the words of the Magnificat, then Mary was also a social radical. Someone once said to me that Mary was the first person to truly offer the Eucharist, in that her very body, her very blood, made the first home for Jesus Christ in this world. These are all things that I can connect to as a woman and as a clergy person.

Like the church built atop the shrine of Mary, we pile things onto this Palestine girl, Mary, the mother of our Savior. Some of it may rightfully belong to her; a lot of it doesn’t. We have the power, as women of faith, to sort through all of it and find for ourselves a truer Mary. A Mary we can adore, and emulate, in the spirit of who we are.

I am Mary and Martha

origin_2497257724

I worry about stuff. I wonder if I’m forgetting something. I get tiny palpitations when the phone rings (“Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?”). I sometimes get stressed as early as 3 sips into my morning coffee about whether or not I’ll be able to “get everything done” in a given day.

This morning, about 3 sips into my morning coffee, I read in Luke 10 about Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha. It’s a great and short story, and I recommend reading it really quickly.  I have read this little story a number of times but this morning, for some reason, it was real to me. Jesus comes to their house, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching while Martha is stuck with all the work, Martha asks Jesus to make Mary get back in the kitchen and help, and Jesus in a nutshell says no.

It was real to me this morning because I felt like I was in the story. First, when Jesus responds to Martha. True to form, Jesus answers the question beneath the question. He speaks to her anxious heart, hiding behind concerns about Mary helping with housework. In other words, she comes to Him about Mary and he responds to her about Martha. And instead of chiding her for tattling and not minding her own business, He comforts her. He says her name twice, which my husband just told me was an especially affectionate and tender way of addressing someone in their culture. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better share, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus comforts her, calls out her sin, and instructs her all in one sentence. This morning, I felt like Martha in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from your expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me take care of the details. That is all that’s really necessary.”

Jesus doesn’t dialogue with Mary in this story, which might be why there haven’t been as many “Chicken Soup for the Soul” reflections on her. But this morning, I felt like Mary in the story, as well. See, I’ve written a lot on my blog about my anxiety concerning budgets, grocery lists, and to-do lists, but I haven’t written a lot about my anxiety as a seminary student. A female seminary student.

I didn’t start school expecting to feel this way, but in the last few years I’ve begun to notice that in many ways, I am in a man’s world. Often I am the only woman in the room or seated at the table. Being fairly loud and obnoxious, most of the time I can be brave about it. But every now and then, I find myself thinking, “Jesus, am I just elbowing my way to Your table, inviting myself to sit in and listen in on something that’s not really “for” me? Do you just tolerate my presence like I’m the kid sister in the corner, listening in?” Every now and then, I feel like the third (or twenty-third) wheel in the world of Christian ministry and theology.

But then I read this story and realize Mary probably had it even worse. I read recently that the most shocking part of this whole scenario is not Martha being left to work alone, but Mary having the audacity to enter the “man’s domain” of her culture and sit at the Rabbi’s (teacher’s) feet with the men. Imagine the eyes burning a hole in her back. Imagine the courage she must have had to sit there anyway, and the desperation she must have had to hear more of Jesus’ words, no matter the cost. That is how I feel about being in seminary. It may be awkward at times, and I may feel uncomfortable or even feel eyes burning a hole in my back at times, but I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I must. Even if it means being the twenty-third wheel, it’s worth it to me if it means I can get closer to Jesus.

But then I see how Jesus handled Mary’s situation, “It will not be taken away from her.”  I see that Jesus – Jesus — defended Mary’s spot at his feet next to all his male disciples, and I realize that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The Rabbi says I have a right to be here. I realize that He has called me to Himself, He invites me to sit at His feet, and He declares it won’t be taken away from me. I realize, “He doesn’t see me as a third-wheel. I’m not an outsider to Him.”

This morning, I felt like Mary in the story, and I felt the powerful freedom Jesus’ words brought to her. I heard, “Hannah, Hannah, I know you. I know what’s really eating you alive and causing you to gnaw your fingers to the bone. But don’t you know, you don’t have to live that way? The heavy burden you carry is not one I’ve given you. I release you from others’ expectations and invite you just to sit and enjoy Me. Let Me defend your right to do so. That is all that’s really necessary.”

 

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