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blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

blank book laying open on copper-tinted plant with small blue flowers

Wordless

For Anneliese and Luke

 

I am a pray-er and writer

a speaker and singer

I am a word weaver and warrior

but you

have taken my words away.

 

From the breath and keen of labor

to the fog and ache of nursing

from the midnight

three

and five a.m.

giving myself

to the smile and sigh

and wet and messy

I have lost my words,

lost their place and purpose

their rhyme and rhythm.

I have barely enough presence

to play and read with you,

clean and dress you,

feed and comfort you,

rock and carry you

in my arms

in my heart

in my mind

every waking

and dreaming

and worrying

moment.

 

So these are my prayers, now,

these are my poems:

the kiss on your cheek

the light in my eyes

the fullness in my breasts

the cushion in my belly

the tightness in my back

the warmth in my skin

the love that swells my heart

to bursting.

 

These are the Words made Flesh

that I write, speak, preach, pray, sing

for you, my children,

fruit of my body,

beloved of my soul.

 

I am wordless

with wonder

erased

and re-written

by love.

A Prayer for the End of Nursing

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

O Lord, you have searched me
and known me.

You knew the moment when that sweet baby skin
first touched my chest
when that sweet little mouth
gaped like a fish
when that shocking moment of connection was made:
Mother. Child. One.
You knew.

You knew the struggles, and the pain.
The mostly sleepless nights
The one- (two-) (three-) (three-thirty-) a.m. wake-up calls.
The disconcerting, disorientating, barely-functioning
delirium/delusion/hallucination/exasperation/rage…
And still
the sweet baby skin and the gaping little mouth
the instant peace and the murmuring suckling.
You knew.

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From Death to Life

Pregnant WomanEditor’s Note:  This may be difficult to read if you have pain around not being able to have a child or to breastfeed.

Holy Week is a powerful time.  It is a time to tell a powerful story.  It is a time to tell stories of death turning to life. My body has often felt like a place of death.  It seems like every few years it finds another new way to let me down, put me in the hospital, delay my life, or torture me.

 In eighth grade, when I was thirteen years old, I developed before many of my classmates.  I experienced significant sexual harassment.  Boys would shove me up against lockers, or would “accidentally” bump into me to touch my chest. Classmates of all genders would snap my bra strap.  Girls would whisper and snicker in the bathroom about how I must have been padding or stuffing my bra. I hated my breasts, because they were a source of torture and emotional death for me. And so I hated my body.

Eighth grade was also a year when I spent significant time on crutches because of severe tendonitis in my ankles.  I had to give up almost everything I was good at or enjoyed.  Because of the harassment and the physical pain involved in walking, I became clinically depressed. And so I hated my body.  

 The ways that my body let me down and caused pain continued for years.  In my first year of seminary, at age twenty-four, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  Five years later, after a five-month leave of absence from my pastoral internship and a hospitalization, I was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a rare stomach condition that causes slowing of the digestive system. Then it took my husband and me three years, including six months of fertility treatments, to get pregnant.  Again and again, my body let me down. And so I hated my body.

 During my pregnancy, I lived with hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy complication that brings severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration, for which I was hospitalized twice. My body was torturing me. And so I hated my body.

 Hating my body wasn’t helpful.  It felt like death – sometimes like something close to physical death, and other times like emotional or spiritual death. There were years when I never expected to know anything other than hatred for my body. I believe that God can take anything that feels like death and transform it.

 And then I gave birth to my son.  And then I nursed him past the age of two.  And then I found that the death-dealing hatred I had known had turned into respect, and sometimes even love for my broken body.

 I never expected to find joy in my body.  I never expected to understand that death can turn into life because I was able to nurse my child.  And yet I do. My body could grow an entire human being!  My body could feed and nourish that human being for the first two years of his life!  I am beginning not to hate my body, but to respect and even appreciate it.  The movement from hating my body to finding ways to love my whole being is my story of death into life.  My body still causes significant pain and exhaustion. But, those things rarely lead to true hate now, because I also have things I like about my body.  This body, I tell myself, grew a human and fed him – created him, nourished him.

 God can and does bring new life.  God can bring new life to our bodies, even if they are painful, broken, exhausted, hated.  The story that we tell in church this week is a story of death and life.  It is a story of joy coming in the midst of the pain. It is a story where Jesus hurts, and dies, but rises again.

 I wonder if Jesus felt like his body let him down on the cross, or when he was being tortured.  I wonder if he hated his body because of the pain that was being inflicted on it.  Is it possible that Jesus understands my physical torture because of the torture he endured in his last days?  His torture even led to physical death.

 And he was able to overcome that death.  On Easter, we celebrate that Jesus created new life in the midst of the painful death of his body, and so I find hope for the life of my body, too. Because of Jesus’ Resurrection, because Jesus brought new life through the physical dying and rising of his body, I am able to know life in my body, too: Life that gets me through the painful days;  Life that gives me the freedom not to hate my body – because it can do amazing things;  Life that even allows me to love my body for what it can do and not only to hate it for what it can’t do.

 Even though this life doesn’t come as perfection, Jesus still offers it to me imperfectly now, and perfectly in the future.  If Jesus can take my breasts, my instruments of such pain and torture, and use them to nourish and grow new life in the world – what other kinds of new life do I have to look forward to?   Jesus can bring new life into anything, even my breasts.  Even my painful and broken body.

 I did not think that this would happen to me.  I did not think it possible that I would know such transformation in this lifetime.  I thought that I might stay inside my pain forever.  And so I hated my body.  And now I don’t because I know that Jesus can transform anything.

 Jessica Harren is the solo Pastor at Capron Lutheran Church.  When she is not making life complicated by thinking about theology and her body, you can find her managing her health and playing with her two year old, cats, or husband.  She is also on the Editorial Board of the Young Clergy Women Project.

Photo Credit: “Pregnant Woman” by Franck Nieto, https://flic.kr/p/iWmAQX, April 12, 2014, Used by Creative Commons Licence. Copyright by Franck Nieto.  

On Hunger and Hagar

We are excited to introduce another new column to our line up at Fidelia’s Sisters!  “The Real Word” is a place where we can honestly and beautifully reflect on the intersection of scripture and life.  Sometimes the way we read scripture changes the way we view the world, and sometimes the way we view the world changes the way we read scripture!  Did your understanding of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel change after your own experience of infertility?  Maybe the honesty of Ruth helped you to see a foreigner as family?  Tell us your story about the places scripture has touched your life, and those places where your life has touched scripture.  Submissions may be sent to [email protected]

Some stories feel too big.  Too unwieldy.  Too complicated.  The story of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21 has always been a difficult story for me to wrap my head around.  It’s threaded through with issues of race and class, slavery and poverty, ownership over the female body, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  And in the midst of the human morass, God has some sort of role.  God is somehow a part of the story, blessing the child of Abraham and Sarah, allowing Sarah to act on her violent desires to do away with Hagar, meeting Hagar in the wilderness, sending her back into the abuse.  God is even named by Hagar, “El-Roi.”  She’s the only person in scripture to name God.  The story of Hagar is as rich as it is troubling and difficult to deal with.  There are a thousand different ways to speak about it.

But for me, I was reminded of a very simple aspect of the story, one I used to overlook.  Hunger and thirst.  It’s present throughout the story, and until a few years ago, I thought of it more as a plot device than a blood and bones issue.  In Genesis 21:14-21, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away by Abraham with a skin of water and loaf of bread.  When the water and bread run out, Hagar stashes Ishmael under a bush and walks away, so as not to witness the death of her son.  God hears the cries of the boy and shows up to save the day, offering a spring of water and a home in the wilderness, a future and a hope.  For quite some time I read this story and to my deaf ears thirst and hunger were merely present to push the story along, to incite God’s action.  Perhaps to add a little drama to the text.  Hagar and Ishmael, in my mind, were never at risk of truly dying to thirst or hunger; it wasn’t a real thing.  God would show up, of course!

And then I had a son of my own.

DSC_0009Almost three years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful little boy with a head much too large to fit through my body.  Thanks to the gift of a C-section, Enoch was born healthy and happy, 8 pounds 4 ounces.  Like most new mothers, I had come to the hospital fully prepared to breastfeed my little boy.  Oh, what joy we would share!  Awash in post-natal hormones!  He would latch and life would be a dream!  Of course, as many of you will already know, nursing is not easy.  It’s very, very difficult.  Especially with a first baby.  I tried to nurse, I tried so hard.  I tried different body positions for Enoch, I tried different latch techniques, I spoke with the lactation consultant and nurses.  But for those four days in the hospital, as I recovered from my C-section, I saw my little boy lose weight at an alarming rate.

I felt desperate.  All I wanted was to feed my baby, to offer him the food he needed from my breasts which were positively bursting with milk to give.  Everything began to feel hopeless.  It was that sort of post-baby crazy that really only comes about from a perfect cocktail of hormones, milk coming in, the anxiety of the hospital environment, and the very real fact of Enoch’s weight loss.  It felt like the world was coming to an end, because I couldn’t feed my hungry, thirsty little boy.  And I honestly don’t think that’s an exaggeration of how I felt in that moment.

A few months later, I was reading the story of Hagar for a class assignment, and I found myself overcome by the text.  Somewhere in the space of experiencing my own child’s hunger, I was changed.  The idea that a mother would leave her child under a bush, so that she didn’t have to experience his cries, it felt real to me.  I remembered feeling so powerless to care for my own son, so unable to tend to his most basic needs.  Hunger and thirst, they were issues I had known in my own bones, in my own breasts, in my own son.  They couldn’t be plot points for me anymore.  Not now that I had a son of my own, a child for whom I would do anything, a creature dependent upon me for food and water.

I started to see Hagar’s desperation, and I realized that my own experience was only a shadow of her own.  See, by the forth day in the hospital, the lactation consultant handed me a breast shield.   It’s this rubbery piece of silicon that kind of turns your boob into a bottle.  Enoch was able to latch like a champ, and he ate so much that first time he spit most of it back up again because his little belly wasn’t ready for such an onslaught of milk.  Enoch and I learned together how to make this feeding-thing work, and I was able to nurse him for well over a year.  Those first few days were terrifying and harrowing, but they weren’t an experience of real hunger.  There were OBGYNs and nurses, lactation consultants and pediatricians, there was formula and bottles.  Enoch was never in danger of truly going hungry.  But something about my own desperation in those days, it changed the way I saw Hagar.

I can’t read her story as flippantly as I used to.  Hunger and thirst, they aren’t just plot devices to me any longer.  On one hand, I feel almost silly telling this story.  My own privilege of giving birth in a beautiful hospital, filled with caring, competent professionals, it seems an odd and maybe even mocking place to compare to Hagar, alone in the wilderness with a child truly dying of thirst.  But at the same time, it was an honest moment in my life that changed the way I see Hagar.  It changed the way I read scripture, an intersection of the written and the lived word.  It was, in a sense, the Real Word.