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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.

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

The Myths and Mystery of Fertility

“So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”– Genesis 1:27-28

a pile of books about fertility and mothering on a side table in a room with a chair with a pillow

Both myth-debunking research and deep spiritual truths from powerful authors created space for the author’s journey; and shared space in her basement meditation corner.

From the very first time the concept of sex entered my understanding, I was made to believe that having sex = getting pregnant. I couldn’t tell you exactly where that myth came from. Maybe it was my own culturally-informed reading of the Genesis passage (Sex was for procreation and maybe for pleasure if I was married), but don’t think I’m alone in having held this myth close to my heart for so long.

Even as I became an adult, went to seminary, and reconciled my understanding and respect for good science with my deeply held beliefs and faith-life: this poorly researched and inadequately thought-through myth persisted. When my husband and I met, and were planning our wedding, I was incredibly concerned with accidental pregnancy; I thought missing a single birth control pill was going to lead to pregnancy and I was going to screw up my whole candidacy and potential ordination process.

Given the enormity of this myth built up in my insides, I was understandably surprised when I went off birth control on purpose during our second year of marriage and… nothing happened. Then, something happened, but it wasn’t what my fertility-myth-laden heart expected. Just before my first early-OB appointment the first time I finally got pregnant, I miscarried. I felt totally alone, like something was wrong with me, as though somehow my body wasn’t doing its God-given job. This potential reality pissed off my little perfectionist over-achiever brain, and made me feel totally ashamed that something in me was broken and not normal.

That’s when my OB/GYN recommended a healthy dose of Brené Brown (seriously, my OB is that awesome) and pointed me toward the book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, for some good, contextually-researched science on my situation. I was 32 years old. I had considered myself a feminist for much of my young adult life. And yet this was the first time in my life that I was reading information about the science of my biology that matched the lived patterns of my flesh and bones. It turns out, my 26-30-day fluctuating cycle with an overly heavy 7-day period was not something “wrong” with me at all.

“The belief that cycles are 28 days and ovulation occurs on Day 14 is so entrenched in the medical profession that when a woman’s cycles vary from that standard, the variation is often presumed to be a potential concern. “Irregular” cycles are seen as problematic….”  – from Taking Charge of your Fertility

These words felt like Gospel to me. After all, when have I EVER believed that God created with normativity as the goal? As I let these words that felt like God’s YES sink into my bones, my broken heart began to heal around trusting what I already knew to be true but was now unexpectedly embodying in my fertility journey: that God is a God of mystery, a God of change, and a God of detail beyond my human understanding. Read more

God Grew Bigger: A Review of This Is My Body

cover of This is My BodyHannah Shanks’ This is My Body came out the same week that I learned I was pregnant. I had already been planning to buy and read the book – the author is a friend – but that pee-saturated stick gave special urgency to my reading. On the first page the author finds out that she is pregnant and immediately “freaks out at life changes.“ This is familiar!

But don’t assume that this book is only for pregnant people or people who have given birth. My college self, for example, could have used the steady insistence that this is my body, holy and good, revealer of God’s image. Anyone who struggles with body image will find this book life-giving. And it would be an extraordinary mistake — a mistake born out of patriarchal assumptions — for men to skip this book. The final chapter encapsulates why: “When we are made one [in Christ], our stories are no longer relegated to a genre or niche of ‘women’s issues’… Though our experiences have been resigned to a market segment… Jesus’ story is our story — a birth story” (126-127).

This Is My Body weaves one particular human story into God’s unfolding story. Read more

A Conference Story

As young clergy women gathered in Vancouver, Canada, for YCWI’s tenth anniversary conference earlier this July, the scenery was gorgeous and the weather was spectacular. The conference was uplifting, invigorating, challenging, and exciting. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Casey Fitzgerald, inspired us with her biblical storytelling and challenged us to consider where our stories intersect with God’s stories.

One of the things I love about YCWI is that my colleagues already know so much of my story. Indeed, they know much of it without me even having to say a word, because it is our shared story. It is the story of being a young woman ordained to ministry, and all the joys and struggles that go with that – the frustrations of receiving more comments on your hair or shoes than your sermon; the anger of coming up against the stained glass ceiling; the challenges of balancing dating and ministry, or motherhood and ministry. All of that, is held in the knowledge that we are called and gifted by God to serve the church in all that we embody as young women.

These are my people, my village, my church. And they are part of my story. Read more

a red chasuble with dove detail

If the Chasuble Fits: Reflections on the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Anglican Church of Canada

a red chasuble with dove detail

Red chasuble with dove detail

I spent the last two months leading up to maternity leave serving at All Saints’ Cathedral. It was a short interim, just enough to bridge their staffing gap, that allowed me to work a little longer after my previous parish was filled. Two other women in a row – both under the age of thirty – had held the same position. Down the hall, the first woman ordained bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada had her office. If my gender was an issue for anyone, I never heard it. I have benefited from much progress since the first ordinations of women forty years ago. Most of the controversy that raged through the church in 1976 has died down.

On the other hand, being female and nine months pregnant in that early parish was more of a stretch. Trying to arrange the chasuble when I sat down so it wouldn’t get wet in case my water broke was only a young clergywoman problem! I will never forget the Sunday a young parishioner brought her Roman Catholic boyfriend to church. Imagine how it threw him to see someone preside at the Eucharist who was dressed as an ordinary priest and praying using familiar words – but sporting a very large baby bump. We had a good laugh about it afterward. I never saw him again because I welcomed a healthy baby girl four days later. For much of the global church, I’m an oddity. But most of the time, in a diocese that has been led by female bishops for coming up on twenty years, I hardly notice.

No, my femininity isn’t the main challenge I see to the traditional view of priesthood. I stand on the shoulders of women who fought those battles in their own generations and so paved the way for me to serve God and the church in this way in mine. In this culture, people are put off more by a church that does not have women in leadership. At least in my part of the world, at least on the surface, we have progressed. Most congregations in my denomination accept me as a priest without question. Even my youthfulness, perhaps worn down by a decade of motherhood, no longer attracts the kind of dismissive comments it did when I was twenty-three and trying to fill my first clergy collar. I have grown into it. I have learned better to speak the language that people expect of leaders. I know more of how to attend to the liturgies, committees, and community rhythms that keep the institution of the church humming along. I can preach the life of Jesus in a way that is inspiring with just the right amount of challenge, and listen with the right blend of pastoral concern. In short, I fit.

But though a woman wears the vestments, how much difference has that really made?

The dignified, authoritative country parson still inhabits our institutional memory. I have seen him live on in a church whose drive to spiritual maturity and collective imagination was crushed by a particularly harsh version of Reverend-knows-best. Stodgy women’s groups fill our caricatures and, whether or not they are real, they limit women in the church to bake sales and gossip. We second- and third-generation ordained women find ourselves – still – with the task of gently and intentionally laying down what has held us back from fully following the call of God. As we do, we find that the only church most of us has ever known is still deeply burdened, still stumbling through an incomplete story, still fallen so far short of reflecting the life of Christ. I and my daughters have the privilege of being educated and of choosing to pursue any vocation, but deeper sin-bound patterns still affect us.

I sat in a gathering of our national church in 2001, as Archbishop Michael Peers offered an apology on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada to those who had been devastated by the Indian Residential Schools and their terrible aftermath. He had first spoken those words eight years earlier to an indigenous council, and now it was time to renew them before the whole church. As I heard the Rt. Rev. Gordon Beardy, our first Indigenous diocesan bishop, receive the apology and embrace him as a brother, I did not understand that we were watching an empire crumble. I didn’t realize that this was the mighty falling and the wealthy being brought low. I couldn’t know how much this marked the church beginning to turn aright.

The legal settlements that followed required millions of dollars. The church sold buildings and drastically cut programs. Several dioceses were decimated. It did not make up for such a great evil, or begin to pay for our healing, but it forced us to sit and listen to those whose voices we had too long ignored. It forced us to be honest: we can no longer claim to be righteous, or even right. Though we have been given the hands of Christ, we have used them for violence. We may not now believe the lie that our empire is the hope of the world, or that divine favour will guarantee us material success, or that our sin does not matter. If we are honest, we cannot deny our need for grace and forgiveness, for Jesus.

When I stand at the altar with baby spit-up on my shoulder and wearing robes not made for my body, I hope that I will remember that I am not there to fill a mold that looms large with authoritative confidence, but to point to a life that leaves no wounds forgotten and untended. Jesus has always led away from our comfort and security. When I get comfortable with the church of the empire, I risk losing sight of him. Not with our power, but from the humble, forgotten edges, he will make all things new. I hope the church will remember this, too.

A friend took on holy orders this spring. Before the service started, as we always do, the mass of clergy, presenters, acolytes, and ordinands gathered outside the cathedral doors to pray. But this time, there was sweetgrass burning alongside the incense. Before the organ swelled, the surrogate grandmother to several clergy families’ children rose and offered blessings in an ancient language that most of us do not yet understand.

I can only bear witness to what has already begun.

Becoming a Grandparent

2 Timothy 1:5  I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

About a month ago, this amazing thing happened: I became a grandmother. In and of itself, that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; after all, people become grandparents every day. But these two facts make it amazing:

  • I only became a mother 4 years ago.
  • I am only 33.

Our family is a bit unconventional, in the loveliest way.  Read more

The author and her son, Luke, at home in Arizona

The Pregnant Pastor

The author and her son, Luke, at home in Arizona

The author and her son, Luke, at home in Arizona

It was my third time in the fetal nursery. That’s what I had taken to calling the evaluation room directly across the hallway from Labor and Delivery. Fetal heartbeats echoed loudly throughout the room like a person incessantly testing a hot microphone. These heartbeats were hampered only by the screeching of doctors’ and nurses’ pivoting sneakers and crocs, attentive to every sound and move of the babies within expectant and anxious mothers.

I felt like I had failed. Straight-A student. Multiple award winner at every major life stage and age group. Consistently affirmed throughout my burgeoning professional days. And here I lay on my left side, belly exposed with two straps monitoring contractions and my son’s heart rate. I had elevated blood pressure and was nervous. I was told to relax, but the curtain in front of me billowed, taunting my depth perception, as a nurse hustled back and forth caring for an expectant mother. Relax. Meanwhile, the light on the ceiling in my periphery blinked in accordance with an alarm that consistently sang a descending perfect 5th interval. Relax. I heard the woman behind me confessing that she was having regular contractions with a dilated cervix at only 30 weeks. Relax. The blood pressure cuff tightened as the nurse asked me if I had any bloody or significant water discharge. It kept tightening. “No,” I managed to croak. Relax. I took a deep breath, but all that seemed to come out was one slowly developing tear descending from my left eye to the pillow below.

Read more

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.  

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

Hopeful Signs: An Advent Sermon on John 1:6-28

We expect some of the same things around Christmas: the same message, the same songs, the familiar traditions of it all.  We still have to work to prepare the way of the Lord.  For my family, this Christmas is different.  Advent is different.  Pregnancy has made it so, and I have come to understand that Advent is very much like pregnancy.  Let me explain.

First, Advent is pregnant with hope.  I am a visual representation.  A baby is full of potential and possibilities. There is so much hope for the future, as we dream about what this child will be like and realizing that she may be nothing like what we are thinking she will be. What are you hoping for this Christmas?  If you’re hoping for presents under the tree, it might not be the same as last year?  Hoping for perfection, probably be disappointed?  Hoping for something different?  A Christmas miracle of healing?  Meaning?

Even as we are full of hope this Advent, we have to manage our expectations to know what is realistic so that we are not disappointed.  It did not take too long after we learned about this baby for me to learn that pregnancy is not all fun and games.  It is a painful, annoying, stressful, fun, exciting, awesome, amazing experience.  Some pregnancies are happier than others…too many involve sickness, complications, relationship issues, etc.  People have been overwhelmingly joyful at our news.  Strangers come up and talk to me.  It monopolizes many everyday conversations.  It is a common experience that binds us together.  Pregnancy is a long time, for others not long enough.  It provides a range of emotions:  fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, illness, and tiredness.  Advent offers a range of emotions too.  There’s the joy, excitement, and nervousness about how it will all come together, and tiredness from doing it all.  I think Advent can be summed up by that line in the Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” from O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The waiting gives us time to experience all the hopes and fears of both pregnancy and Advent.

Secondly, Advent, like pregnancy, is not all about you.  This pregnancy seems to be all about me right now.  I have never been asked how I’m feeling so often.  Never have so many strangers been interested in me, and in touching my belly, and sharing their good and bad pregnancy and delivery stories.  But it is not all about me; it is much more about this baby.  Even before we learned our good news, I had started taking folic acid to prevent birth defects and scaled back on caffeine.   Once we found out, I really worked on my diet and eating healthier and started taking prenatal vitamins.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was no longer in charge of my body.  This little baby has a lot to say about when I sleep or not, when I eat, and how much energy I have.  My life, my daily routine, has changed dramatically because it’s no longer all about me. With Advent, it is also easy to think it is all about us.  We have so much to do.  We have so many gifts left to buy and wrap.  We have to write our Christmas cards.  We focus on OUR waiting/preparations rather than on Christ’s coming.  We focus on our hopes rather than on the hope of Christ.

John the Baptist knew that it was not all about him.  He was clear on his identity, who he was and who he wasn’t.  In the Gospel reading, we hear that  John the Baptist did not give the answers that the leaders were hoping for.  They wanted him to be all these things, (Elijah, the Messiah) but all he would admit to being was a voice in the wilderness.  He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light himself.  In other Gospels we can read more about John’s own miraculous birth, what he wore and ate, and more about his ministry.  But here, the main point is John’s identity.   “I AM NOT” the Messiah….what he isn’t.  In Advent, we have to take care to not get a Messiah complex: so busy trying to be all things to all people.  Scurrying in Advent instead of waiting is dangerous.

John the Baptist came to testify to the light: Christmas is not about the tree and presents, but those are just a way to point to the gift of Jesus.  Or, maybe they become distractions so we don’t have to see the homeless, the hurting, the hungry.  We have to remember our identity as Christians, the reason for the season, to restore justice, and release the oppressed this Advent. This season is all about Jesus, and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.  We should be giving Jesus gifts by giving meaning to all his children by sharing the Good News of Christ.

Finally, Advent, like pregnancy, should not be rushed because it happens too quickly anyway.  We can’t skip ahead to Christmas, or we are missing out.  Similarly, those expecting have to enjoy the adventure and not wish it away.  As much as I want to meet this little girl, I also want enjoy the adventure of being pregnant.  It is a miracle, and an awesome experience to think that there is a baby in my tummy.  What a gift from God!  I receive a daily email from a site that gives me an update on the baby’s size, explaining what is going on with my body, and other hints and tips.  I love that email, each day and it reminds me of opening a little window in an Advent calendar.  It’s just another peek into what is coming, a hint at the whole picture.  Every day you get a little closer.

My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we experience it as a joyful journey. May we all keep our eyes open to hopeful signs this Advent season.   In the name of the one whose coming is worth waiting for, Amen.

Tiffany Jo McDonald is an Ordained Elder in the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is currently appointed to family leave, raising the preschool daughter who inspired this sermon and a 5 month old. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, ’04, and resides with her husband and daughters in Excelsior, Minnesota.

Photo by Esparta Palma, http://www.flickr.com/photos/esparta/4482887906/ March 27, 2010. Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.