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the author and her chicken in a bathtub

A Chicken in My Bathtub

the author and her chicken in a bathtub

The author reading to Caroline Radesky, the chicken, soon after the accident.

At four in the morning on a Sunday, I woke up to infernal screeching. I threw on the lights, ran outside, scared the assailant away, and saw my favorite chicken, a golden fluffball named Caroline Radesky (after one of my roommates in college), shell shocked and bleeding standing over the tunnel that was dug into her home. We have three chickens in a coop behind our house. My spouse built the coop, complete with a roost up off the ground and chicken wire surrounding it. Only, a fox dug underneath that night and got to Caroline.

She was not dead, but I was sure she would be soon. My spouse is a pilot, and he was away on rotation for the week, so I was alone, unsure of what to do and not knowing who to call to help. So I just breathed deeply and moved Caroline into the roost, shutting the door so nothing could get in. Then I went back to bed. (Or tried to.) In the morning, Caroline was still alive, so I separated her from her sisters so they wouldn’t peck at her wounds and she could have some peace, and I went to church. I thought she would be dead when I got home. It was All Saints Sunday and I considered whispering her name under my breath when we lit candles for the departed saints. Laughing about a chicken with a halo helped me keep the panic at bay long enough to get through the service.

I grew up with cats and dogs. We got chickens at the urging of my spouse who grew up with chickens and ducks and horses. These chickens were three years old, and not the best egg layers, but Caroline was super friendly and sweet. I would let her and her sisters out after a long day at church and they would follow me and the dog around the yard, running away when I tried to get them back in the coop for the night unless they heard the sweet music of a Dorito bag opening, luring them back home. I love the sound of chickens cooing and the way they sometimes squat down to let you pick them up. These were simple pleasures of God’s creation; pleasures I was grateful for after the difficulty of years of three miscarriages and numerous failed fertility treatments that have frayed my relationship with God. And now my favorite chicken was dying and I had to lead worship as though nothing was wrong. Read more

woman in silhouette with arms raised standing in grass in front of a sunset or sunrise

The Attempted Intimidation of Mary Magdalene

This is a poem based on Matthew 28:4, 11-15, reminding us that if the resurrection is for real, we have to #believewomen.

woman in silhouette with arms raised standing in grass in front of a sunset or sunriseYou didn’t see what you saw.
You think anyone is gonna believe you stayed on your feet when the big strong men didn’t?
You think anyone is gonna believe you saw a dead man alive again?
Everyone knows women start crying and lose their minds.
Everyone knows women make stuff up.
We can pay the soldiers to tell a lie and everyone will believe them:
Dead men stay dead.
It was all in that pretty little head of yours.
So sit down, shut up, don’t make waves.
You know what happened to Jesus.

stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

We are Three

stone cross on ball with spiderwebs

The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français?

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

-from “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth

 

This year, 2019, National Siblings Day occurred the week before Holy Week. National Siblings Day is, many suspect, a holiday completely made up by social media companies in order for people to get on whatever profile they use and post more photos of users who happen to be related. It’s like the 21st century equivalent of a “Hallmark Holiday” – made for the purpose of a company proliferating itself; some people find it meaningful or fun, others let it pass by unnoticed.

To be honest, I don’t take much notice of it. I see other people posting about it throughout the day, and I realize what’s being celebrated.

I live 1500 miles from my immediate family, in my first church call, which I share with my spouse. In this digital age, I have not been at my parents’ house long enough in the last few years to scan the thousands of pictures of me and my brother and sister when we were young: big glasses whose glare hides eyes from the camera, graphic T-shirts that are entirely too big, hair that is untidily coifed in strange hairdos from a bygone era.

For many the connection between Siblings Day and Holy Week are coincidental.
For me, they are building toward a painful, hopeful climax.
You see, we buried my brother on Good Friday.

As a theologically-minded person from a young age, I marked my springtime by Holy Week and Easter usually involving a huge church play each Holy Weekend. At college, there were different traditions, and I was looking forward to entering them.

When I was 20 years old, the Monday of Holy Week my brother was killed in a car accident. I wonder if Jesus felt like I did, going toward Good Friday: that it was simultaneously the longest and shortest week of my life. Everything was askew, my feelings dulled and heightened. I missed both Holy Week rituals: the Easter play at my childhood church, AND the Tenebrae that was taking place at my college. The question of “how many siblings do you have” became complicated in French class: how do you say, “I have one living sibling” en français? Read more

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the background

Fear Not: A Letter to a Young Clergy Woman

silhouette of a woman with long hair leaping from a large rock to another large rock with water and a horizon of low hills in the backgroundDear Friend,

I was recently thinking back to my third date with Daniel. He reached across the table for my hand and asked, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The question caught me off guard, so I paused before sharing a wild and intimate dream, feeling half embarrassed and half thrilled by voicing this fervent hope.

I’m not as exciting a date, but I’d like to pose a similar question: what would your church be doing if you knew you could not fail? I know you’re plagued with fear about how the church is going to pledge the budget. I know the ceiling in the back of the sanctuary is still leaking when it rains. I know that there continue to be arguments in your congregation about whether or not the church can be open and affirming to LGBTQ+ folks. I know that your church bully came to the office this week. And I know that you are exhausted with what the poet John Blase refers to as “the sheer unimaginativity of what passes for wrestling with angels or walking on water.”[1] I know because I feel the exact same way.

My friend, I think you need reminding that the Church cannot fail. This beautiful, bedraggled Bride has a future more glorious than we could ever figure out in a planning retreat with our Elders. I think you have temporarily forgotten that all will be well.

I was talking with Zada recently. (Can you believe I have a ten year old now?)

“People are getting impatient,” she explained, in response to my question about why she thinks people don’t engage in churches in the same way they may have in the past.

“How so?”

“Well, if churches aren’t treating all people with kindness and respect, other people aren’t going to put up with it anymore, so they stop believing in God or at least stop going to that church.”

We are up against a truth that a ten-year-old can plainly see. Our churches have become apathetic and lethargic. I’m not sure that the scholars talking about the decline of church as we have known it use the word “impatient,” but it actually feels really accurate. Our congregations are impatient with a world that has left them behind. The world is impatient with a church that seems increasingly irrelevant and wrongheaded. The impatience is frustrating, hard, and sad, but it is not insurmountable. Read more

Dying or Rising? A Review of Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church: Freedom beyond Survival by Anna Olson

Abandoned Church Hall

Abandoned Church Hall

During divinity school, I encountered the late medieval ars moriendi, handbooks on dying with grace. The entire concept of dying well seemed incredibly, uncomfortably foreign to my 22 year-old spirit: dying from the bubonic plague sounded, well, awful, and it was hard for me to imagine any grace in such a death. Staring at death and acknowledging that all things shall pass away seemed ghoulish or un-holy, contrary to the Easter God of life. Then, I served for five-and-a-half years in an urban parish that faced both the physical deaths of many parishioners and neighborhood youth, and battled against the death of its beloved Christian day school. We stared at the death of a ministry while trusting in the resurrection of the dead.

My experience at this faithful and brave church convinced me of the need for resources for our institutional life on how to die with grace and faith. The Rev. Anna B. Olson’s book, Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church: Freedom beyond Survival, is one of these resources.

Olson’s book includes both practical wisdom on the death of a church’s ministries and its preparations for new life and a bold theology of trust in the resurrection. In nine concise, readable chapters, the Rev. Olson describes how she and her congregation, St. Mary’s Mariposa in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, have practiced dying with grace. Olson shares how deaths of ministries have opened the way for the resurrection and for new life. Read more

black and white image of a winter night - snowy road, tree and house

While It Was Still Dark

black and white image of a winter night - snowy road, tree and houseEarly in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

My father died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. He was relatively young, only 58. The night before he died, I kept watch with him. His body started shutting down. I had sat at the bedside of enough dying people to know that when people die after a long illness, their feet and lower legs seem like they’re dying first. His feet turned purple and cold. It would not be long. I sat with my dad in the dark of the night. The rest of the house was quiet. So quiet. I could hear every gasp, every rattle.

It was the middle of January, and a blizzard raged outside. My husband drove through the night to be with me, but the snow piled up along the shore of Lake Michigan, delaying his arrival. Pain wracked my dad’s body. The hospice nurse couldn’t make it out in the storm, and I had already given all of the narcotics in the emergency comfort pack that she had left earlier that day. My dad was anxious, not about dying, but about what was happening to his body, and about the pain.

I could do so little to make him comfortable. 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.  

Learning to be a Daughter, Mother, and a Pastor . . . with Hope

Mother & DaughterThe first month was the hardest.  The time spent wondering—wondering what the future would hold, the next hour, the next day, and hopefully even the next year.  The time spent waiting—waiting to hear what the next medical professional would have to say.  I was exhausted and emotional and trying to hold everything together.

And then she came home and we started a new journey, shaped by new realities—a new future that didn’t look like the one we had planned to embark upon.

It sounds very much like a birth story, doesn’t it?  It sounds like I welcomed a precious baby girl into my life.  I have, twice.  But not in this story.

This story is about learning to mother my mother, all while trying to mother my children and pastor a congregation.  This story is about learning to mother my mother, all while still being her daughter.

My life has been shaped by cancer.  My dad died of cancer when I was nine.  He died six months after his diagnosis.  I don’t remember many details from those six months, but I do know that they worked their way into my soul.  And I remember the many, many, moments of dealing with the realities of grief, loss, death—and even resurrection.  These are the moments that still take place as I continually face life without my dad’s physical presence.

So when one of the two surgeons came out to talk with me in the waiting room this past March, I was calm and self-assured as I asked questions and waited for answers.  And yet, I heard the word “cancer” and the words “much more extensive than we anticipated”.    The inner nine year old me fell apart; the thirty-five year old me held it together.  The last time I heard a parent had cancer resulted in my world collapsing.  I wasn’t ready to face that again.  As a daughter, I cried.  As a daughter, I questioned God.  As a daughter, I struggled.

As a pastor, I continued to plan midweek Lenten services.  As a pastor, I continued to shape Holy Week and Easter worship services.  As a pastor, I prepared to celebrate death and resurrection.

And I did things that needed to be done.  I visited my mom nearly daily for the weeks of hospitalizations and the weeks of rehab.  I stopped by her apartment regularly for months after.  I did her laundry and dishes for four months.  I am going on six months of grocery shopping.  I am her transportation to doctor’s appointments, CT scans, and chemo.  I am the one who drops everything to take her to the ER when something is not right.  I am the one who listens along with her to what the doctor has to say about her prognosis.  I ask questions and write down answers.  I log into her medical records to make sure I understand.

Sometimes I feel like now I have to be the mother.  I was relieved when my sister who lives across the country came to visit for two weeks.  For two weeks, I didn’t have to be my mom’s mother.   Mostly, though, it’s new territory we are navigating.  As she gets stronger and looks to an end date for chemo with a very good prognosis, I have to mother her less and less.  I will still care for her, in many of the ways in which she cared for me over the years.  I know the day will come when I’ll have to mother her some more, but I’ll be ready because she taught me to be a mother.

And because I’m a pastor who journeyed a very personal Lenten journey this past Lent, God opened me up to experience a very Easter message.  When my mom dies, be it from this cancer—though that doesn’t look likely—or somewhere down the road, I will be okay.  Resurrection is real; that will get me through.

In the meantime though, I’ll keep learning—how to be…a mother, a daughter, and a pastor.

 

A daughter for 36 years, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 10 years, a mother for 5, Jodi continues to learn how to be all three (at once) thanks to the lovely people of Shepherd of the Cross Lutheran Church in Muscatine, Iowa and two precious little girls (Alexa, 5 and Mackenzie, 2).

Photo by Colin Cook, http://www.flickr.com/photos/colin_cook/9384667831/, October 14, 2013, Used by Permission of the Photographer, All Rights Reserved.  For more of Colin’s photos, check out his Flikr Page at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/colin_cook/.

Triumph

Bankstown Hospital Emergency RoomThe first copy of the soundtrack I owned was a cassette tape that contained most of the major songs from the musical. I wore it out. I handed it to the MRI technician every time I had to have a scan because the powerful beat of its music was almost as loud as that of the MRI machine. I played it in my walkman as I lay in my hospital bed on the bad days of my chemotherapy treatments – too tired and nauseous to do anything else. But then I graduated to the fully symphonic recording of Les Miserables. Three compact discs – the whole entire musical. Not a single word or note missing. It was magical. Partly because I loved the musical and partly because that CD set had been a gift from the cast and crew of the Broadway theater. As a part of my “wish” granted by the Make-A-Wish foundation (an organization that grants wishes to children with life threatening illnesses), I got to see Les Miserables, live, on stage in New York. And I got to go backstage, where I met the cast and crew and was given a number of production souvenirs, including the symphonic recording.

Read more

Embodying Resurrection

My resurrection moment came, as I suppose they most often do, unexpectedly and unimagined.

It was early March and we had a beautiful weather one Sunday – a teasing taste of spring at the end of a cold and windy winter.

I did my normal Sunday morning thing – taught a class, led worship, had a meeting. Then, I went home.  Instead of just collapsing, taking a nap, doing chores, or the other things I usually do on a Sunday, I wanted to go outside to enjoy the sunshine. It was too beautiful a day to stay inside. However, I had too much energy to just go and sit or even walk the dog. No, my body was calling me to go for a run. So I did. And as I was running (actually alternating between jogging and walking) I realized that I was experiencing a moment of resurrection.

This thing of going for a run on a sunny day might not seem like resurrection for some people, but for me, it was. Because I had NEVER done this before and NEVER would have ever thought that I would want to do this. It was a new thing – a new moment in my life.

Easter 2012 2My resurrection began last April on a spiritual retreat. I am blessed to be a part of a group of young clergy from my denomination who gather twice a year for week-long spiritual retreats which feed our spirits and help us develop good spiritual practices early in our ministries.*

We had gathered in Malibu, California in April 2012.  As our accustomed practice, when we arrived on Monday had a check-in circle where we each had a few minutes to share with the group where we currently were in our lives and ministries. Usually we are asked a guiding question. This time we were asked to share what we needed from our week’s retreat. To aid us in this task, we are given several broad categories to help choose from including preparation, retreat, friendship, prayer, healing, delight, and blessing.

I went into that time thinking I knew exactly what I needed: I needed preparation to help me lead my congregation through the discerning and transformational process which we starting our journey through last year. And yet, as check-in went on, I began to feel God nudging my spirit to a different word: healing. Specifically, it was a healing from treating my body in damaging and harmful ways by not living a healthy lifestyle and taking care of my body.

Now, I kept resisting this nudging. I told myself:

“Well, I work out a few times a week.”

“Well, I try to eat fruits and vegetables.”

“Well, I do need to lose a few pounds but I can easily do that.”

“Well, I do sometimes eat when I’m upset, but not too often.”

 What I felt in my heart and spirit was the reply:

No. Stop fooling yourself. You know what you need to do. You need to stop abusing the body that you have been given by God – the beautiful gift of a body that can move so well and through which you experience the world. You have been called by God to serve as a minister, a sacred calling. And right now, you are not being faithful to that call because of how you are treating your body.

And when I checked-in, I shared that I needed healing and I began my journey of resurrection.

Over the course of that week, I wrestled with this new call on my life from God. And from that time last year, I began a process of eating more healthy food, watching my portions, working out more – which included starting a couch to 5K program which basically helps you alternate between walking and running to build up your stamina.

It has been a long process of transformation. Daily, hourly – choices must be made. Then, there are the times I don’t make the best choice and must forgive myself and try again. In the midst of the decisions, there are times where I have to look deep inside myself to see where the habit came from. Hardest of all are the times I have to face parts of myself and my life that I don’t want to face. It is a long hard process of transformation.

But then come the moments that shock and amaze me.

Running a mile for the first time EVER in my life.

Wearing a size of clothing that I have never worn as an adult.

Wanting to spend an afternoon in the sunshine running.

F Baker-5648These are moments of transformation. These are moments of new life that I never thought possible. These are the moments where I have experienced resurrection. And through these moments of resurrection, I have felt deep inside the power of God’s amazing, constant love, cheering me on, saying “You are a beloved child of God. Thank you for living fully into your call.”

In the past year, I feel as if I have embodied resurrection, deep inside of me. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye . . .” (1 Cor. 15:51 CEB) At times it doesn’t feel possible that we can be changed in a moment. At times, it feels as if those things that bind us will always do so.  And yet, resurrection means that change is possible and those things that once bound us can be cut away and we can be set free.

I am so grateful have started this resurrection journey . . . and I know it is not yet complete.

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “We do not know what resurrection will mean for us in the end. We cannot know how it will feel or work or look. But we do have evidence it is so. God has woven resurrection into our daily lives so that we can learn the shape of it and perhaps learn to trust the strength of it when our own times come.”

I have embodied resurrection this past year and I am beginning to learn its shape and to trust its strength in my life and also in the church’s life. As I continue to lead my congregation and indeed the wider church in journeys of transformation through the 21st century, my prayer is that all of us will come to embody the resurrection.

* I am honored to be a current member of the Bethany Fellows. You can learn more about this wonderful and amazing group at http://bethanyfellows.org/.