The part of the story we'd rather forget

Unless you are a part of a church that follows the liturgical calendar, you might not know that The Twelve Days of Christmas refers not only to a really annoying Christmas carol (FIVE GOOOLLLDDD RINGS!!), but also to the season of Christmas. That's right, Christmas is not just one day, it's twelve days, and it doesn't even start until December 25th. It ends the night before Epiphany, which is today, January 6th, the day the Magi finally show up. We usually crowd them into the stable with the shepherds and the bewildered Holy Family, but actually it takes them 12 days to find the baby Jesus. They were taking their directions from a star, which I guess takes longer.

Every year I really enjoy the memes about how if the three wise men had been women, they would have asked directions, shown up on time, and brought useful gifts like diapers and a casserole. But instead they brought gold and some spices, for which I'm sure Mary sent them a lovely thank you note, wishing all the while that they'd included a gift receipt.

Jan de Bray.  The Adoration of the Magi.  1674, oil on canvas, Historical Museum of Bamberg, Germany.

Jan de Bray. The Adoration of the Magi. 1674, oil on canvas, Historical Museum of Bamberg, Germany.

So Christmas ended yesterday, and today is Epiphany, and we celebrate the Magi finally finding Jesus by eating King Cake and starting to get excited about Mardi Gras. But for me, there is always a shadow to this day. As much as I love an excuse to eat cake, I can't think about the Three Kings without also thinking about the babies who were the tragic casualties of the Magi's trip to see the baby Jesus.

It turns out that the memes aren't entirely accurate, and the Magi actually had asked directions. Before finding their way to Bethlehem, they stopped in to see Herod, who was king of Judea at the time. In what had to be a pretty bonehead move, they asked him,

Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.' --Matthew 2:2-5

Super job, "Wise" Men. Which of you had the bright idea to ask the sitting, irascible king where the new rival to his throne had been born? Herod was scared, but he pulled it together enough to tell the Magi how to find Bethlehem and to ask would they please let him know when they had found this baby-king? Because he would love to go and honor him, too! No really! (Not really.)

But God sent an angel, who had already been very busy in the Christmas story, to fix things. This angel had already appeared separately to Mary and Joseph to explain how Mary was pregnant before the wedding, but that everything was going to work out. Now the angel tells the Magi not to go back to Herod and tells Joseph to hit the road to Egypt, because when Herod finds out he's gonna be sore. Then comes the part where Jesus became a refugee, and we stop reading because that's all there is to the Christmas story.

Only, that isn't all there is. There is more to the story. The worst, the absolute worst part, comes in the very next verse.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. --Matthew 2:16

All the babies. Murdered. No wonder we stop reading at verse 15.

Lucas Cranach the Elder.  The Massacre of the Innocents.  circa 1515, oil and tempera on lime, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Massacre of the Innocents. circa 1515, oil and tempera on lime, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

There is so much to see in this painting. In the upper left, the Holy Family escapes to safety. Top center: King Herod watches the spectacle. In the foreground, soldiers overpower distraught mothers. And in the center, a pile of murdered babies.

No one wants to look at this.

But we do need to know about it. We do need to acknowledge this part of the story. The part that makes us want to hide our eyes.

Because, this still happens. And not just in far-off, war-torn, poverty-stricken lands. Here. In the United States of America. Right here, a measure of protection is offered to one group, while the babies and mothers of another group suffer cruel injustice.

Today I read an article stating that black babies in Wisconsin face the same risk of death as babies in Syria. Things are pretty messed up in Syria right now, so you'd expect it to be rough on a vulnerable population like newborns. But why should black babies in Wisconsin face the same high risk of death? And it's not just in Wisconsin that's it's bad for black babies. The CDC report that the article was based on stated: "For infants of non-Hispanic black women, the lowest mortality rate of 8.27 in Massachusetts was higher than the highest state rates for infants of non-Hispanic white (7.04) and Hispanic (7.28) women." Why?

Because of racism. 

And, it's not just black babies that are dying at an alarming rate. As NPR and ProPublica have been reporting, mothers and babies of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in the US are not faring so well. But the CDC reports that black mothers are dying at 3 to 4 times the rate of white mothers in the United States. Regardless of income level, black mothers die more often. Why?

Because of racism. Because of our racism, black mothers and babies are dying at an incredibly high rate. 

I want to look away from this, just like I want to stop reading the Christmas story at verse 15. I don't want to face that this happens, that mothers and babies are dying. But we have to look.

Léon Cogniet.  Le Massacre des Innocents.  1824, Museum of Fine Arts, Rennes, France.

Léon Cogniet. Le Massacre des Innocents. 1824, Museum of Fine Arts, Rennes, France.


Women are afraid for their own lives, and for those of their babies. What are we going to do about it? 

As a birth advocate and as a person of faith, I feel an ethical obligation to speak up about the shameful lack of care that we as a society show to mothers and babies, particularly black mothers and babies. I plan to help organize a March for Moms this spring in my city. I vote for politicians who vow to address healthcare disparities and who support paid parental leave. I educate new parents on how to advocate for their rights in birth. I volunteer my time to support new mothers in my community who feel vulnerable and alone. This is a start, and what I can do.

What can you do?

You can support Improving Birth, a consumer advocacy organization in the US whose mission is to "inform, support, engage and empower consumers, community leaders and providers with powerful tools to improve birth." 

You could help organize and/or attend a March for Moms in your area.

And we could all work A LOT harder at examining ourselves and our communities and the inherent racism that continues to oppress people of color. This is exceptionally difficult to do. But it is what has to happen if we are going to make a difference in the lives of the babies and mothers most at risk.

It's time to figure out why black lives don't seem to matter as much. It's past time to do something about it.

Bravely Boldly Birthing a New Story

Last week I sat in church and cried. 

This is not at all typical for me. I usually keep everything pretty buttoned up. There are lots of reasons why I am like this, not least of which is my "Spitzer upbringing", as my husband calls it. There was plenty of German stoicism to go around in my childhood, and so the free expression of emotion continues to be a growing edge for me as an adult.

But I've been contemplating a pretty big career change, which is always stressful. We've been going to a new-to-us church lately--Trinity Church of Austin. They are super welcoming of kids with differences, and since my boy definitely falls in that category of kid, finding a place where no one cares that he doesn't sit still and couldn't whisper if his life depended on it has been amazing and wonderful and life-giving. Another fun feature of Trinity is that the folks over there are Keepin' Austin Weird in a way only a holdout group of Hyde Park hippies could. 

Case in point: on the Sunday in question, we sang, as our responsive "hymn", Let It Be. Yes, the one by the Beatles.

Apparently, Paul McCartney wrote it in memory of his mother, who was named Mary, but loads of people think of Jesus' mother Mary when they hear the line, "speaking words of wisdom, 'Let it be.'" (And for the record, Paul did say that fans were welcome to interpret the song in whatever way they find meaningful.) What many Christians recall when they hear that song is the conclusion of this scene:

Robert Campin  's c. 1420s   Annunciation   panel, (   Mérode Altarpiece   ),   The Cloisters  , New York

Robert Campin's c. 1420s Annunciation panel, (Mérode Altarpiece), The Cloisters, New York

[As a total aside, I really love this version of the Annunciation. Gabriel is all, "Hail, thou that art--", and Mary cuts him off with a, "Just a sec, I'm in the middle of a paragraph here." And Gabriel is all, "Ok, well, I'll just wait over here then. Until you're ready. Take your time."]

According to Luke (1:26-38), once Gabriel gets Mary's attention, he gives her the astounding news that she is to become pregnant with a son, but not in the usual way. And even more amazing, this son "will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David." This is some pretty big news, but Mary, who is one fierce mama, and with a million times more grace and courage than anybody might have guessed she had in her, says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." This is Mary's call story, and she rises to that call.

As we were singing the Beatles song that echoes Mary's assent, I suddenly remembered the sermon that was preached at my ordination, and the tears started to fall.. The pastor (the inimitable Julie Pennington-Russell) had used Luke's text and asserted that this was "no Milquetoast Mary", but a strong and courageous woman who knew that what she was saying yes to was going to be no walk in the park. But yes is what she did say, and her faith in God was her guide.

In church that day, I knew the answer to the decision I was struggling with--whether it was time to leave the group doula practice I had helped found--was yes. I knew that leaving would be hard, and going back out on my own would be scary. But I also knew that God has something else for me to do, and I need to allow space for that something to happen. I have always thought of my work with birthing families as not just a job, but a calling. This is the work God means for me to do.

The preacher that morning at Trinity said, "We have to part of birthing a new story." I know that God calls Christians to do this on a large, society-wide scale. It certainly is the case for lots of folks in these waning days of 2016, hope is pretty thin on the ground. But I also know that in church that Sunday, God was calling me to birth a new story in my own life and work.

So, I gave notice at my group, and I am striking back out on my own as a childbirth educator, lactation counselor, and doula. I am doing my best to be courageous and strong, like Mary. I am updating my website and finding teaching space.

I am doing my best to remember to breathe and to pray, "Let it be."

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.
And though they may be parted there is
Still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be.
Let it be, let it be,
Let it be, let it be.
Yeah there will be an answer, let it be.

Let it be, let it be,
Let it be, let it be.
Yeah there will be an answer, let it be.

And though the night is cloudy,
There is still a light that shines on me,
Shine until tomorrow, let it be.
O, will I make up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be,
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be,
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

Songwriters: John Lennon / Paul Mccartney

Let It Be lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

The Day After The Election {heartbroken}

I went to bed last night in tears, having stayed up far too late watching election returns. I woke up when my 7 year old daughter came in to snuggle before breakfast. I hugged her warm little body next to me and burst into tears again when I told her that Hilary Clinton did not win the race to be our president. I had to tell my daughter that no, even though she was not born in this country, she would not be deported, and that since her parents are American citizens, she is one, too. She had heard from a classmate at school that if Donald Trump won, he would make everyone who wasn't born here leave, and she was scared.

I don't want to make this a post about politics. I am sick to death of politics, like just about everyone else.

I want to make this post about what do I do now? How do I move forward, how do I find hope?

I find hope in raising my children. Raising my daughter to be a strong, smart, capable woman who can truly be anything she wants to be. Raising my 5 year old son to be a sensitive, kind, empathetic man who would never use his power to abuse or degrade anyone. God, give me strength to guide my children through this world.

I find hope in my faith. My Facebook feed (which I promised myself last night I would not look at today, but misery loves company) has a number of Christians, (mostly liberal, but not all of them) who are trying to make sense of this outcome in light of their faith. The ones who are making the most sense to me right now are the ones who are noting that this too shall pass, and that we are still the light, and that we are commanded to love and serve one another, no matter who our elected leader is. This world is not my home, but I do care an awful lot about it and the people in it, so onward I must go, serving the least among us, and in so doing, serving Christ himself.

I find hope in my work. My work is to comfort and to encourage and to advocate for and with new and expecting parents. Both my faith and my politics help motivate me to do this work. Every time I see a new baby and mother and father born, I am in awe of the power of God to bring life and to create the bond of family. And every time I see a woman empowered to speak up for herself and her body and her choices, I am inspired to help another woman to do the same. I have to believe that every mother I help to tap into her strength and find her voice, means another baby who can and will grow up to be peace-bearers and change-makers in this world.

I mean, just look at the power in the photo below:

That baby is learning from that mama what it is to be loved and what it is to be strong.

In my work as an Evidence Based Birth® Instructor, I teach families how to access evidence based care in their births. This is one of ways that I bring peace to the world. Birthing women are definitely among the least of these, and if you don't know that, then you aren't paying any attention at all to the shameful state of our maternity care system today. I'm doing my bit to change the world, one baby, one family at a time. That's where I find hope. That's what I am going to do now, heartbroken as I am, to move forward and be the light. 

God, help us all. Amen.

When birth meets death

Usually there is not a lot of overlap in the two halves of my professional life. 

Well, in a sense there always is: the skills I use as a chaplain are nearly identical to those I use as a doula. I support not just the person, but the whole family as they adjust to a major life transition. I help people navigate the complicated and overwhelming experience of being in a hospital. I listen, sometimes I cry, often I laugh. I carve out space in a hectic time and place for people to identify and express their feelings. I once described to a chaplain colleague what it looks like for me to support a family in birth, and she said, with comprehension and amazement dawning on her face, "Oh! So, it's like a 13 hour patient visit!" Yes. It is exactly like that.

The skills I use are the same whether it is a birth, or a death. Usually there is a clear line dividing the two events. But not always.

Last year I went to the funeral of a mom whom I had supported in giving birth. This woman had been a delightful combination of fierce warrior mama and tender-hearted girl. She brought her beloved teddy bear to the hospital to cuddle in labor, and then pushed her baby out without an epidural in front of a gaggle of nursing students who had never seen anything so beautiful and raw. Several months later, she died suddenly and unexpectedly. I sat in the pew and looked at her baby sitting in her uncle's lap and cried my heart out.

Last week one of our doula clients let us know that there was nothing more that could be done to save her baby's life, and they sang their baby to sleep later that day. Her baby had lived for just a month. The mother told me that day by day, week by week, she had held out hope that her baby could somehow thrive. She also said that her own physical recovery from birth has been very easy, with her body quickly returning to its pre-pregnancy state, and now she finds herself wondering, "Did I really have a baby?" Sometimes she goes into her baby's nursery to remind herself that her baby existed, that it all really happened.

I offered, and she gladly accepted, to facilitate the celebration of life they will host in their home for close family and friends on Sunday. That is how I have come to be here, pondering, wondering how to strike the balance between the deep joy the parents feel over having been gifted with their baby's life, however brief, and the deep sadness they feel, knowing that their baby is now gone from their arms. Because there was so little time and the parents wanted to soak in every precious moment of their baby's life, their extended family never met the baby. For them, this will be both hello and goodbye.

I am so honored to be able to cross over from supporting this family in birth to supporting them in death. But this is some of the heaviest work I have ever done.

For thus says the Lord:
As a mother comforts her child,
   so I will comfort you;
   you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
   your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants.

-Isaiah 66:12a, 13-14a

Rest in peace, Lisa and Chloe. You are loved and remembered. <3

The (Metaphorical) Birth of Israel

A while back I packed my kids up and went to visit my folks over a weekend, which meant I got to visit the church I grew up in. That week the pastor preached on Genesis 32, the story of Jacob wrestling in the night with a mysterious figure. I have to admit that I do not recall the point the preacher was trying to make. I am particularly bad at listening to sermons--something I do feel guilty about, considering I once was a preacher and know the frustration of working hard on a sermon, only to look out at a congregation full of fidgeting and glazed eyes. But I remain a terrible listener.

I do recall that the preacher spent a good bit of time telling the backstory of Jacob--how he came to be staying up late by a stream in the middle of nowhere. And I do like a good story, so I listened to that part. And also I listened when he retold the strange episode of a "man" appearing and wrestling with Jacob through the night. Even the most apathetic listener would be hard put not to be drawn to this story. Who is this "man"? God? An angel? A demon? Jacob's own inner demons personified? It's anybody's guess, really, as the text doesn't say. What is clear is that this being was well matched in strength with Jacob: they wrestled through the night up to dawn, it had the power to dislocate Jacob's hip with a single touch, and it conferred upon Jacob a new name as a result of their striving.

Jose Alain Austria,&nbsp; Jacob Wrestling with God ,&nbsp;mixed media on canvas, 2008

Jose Alain Austria, Jacob Wrestling with God, mixed media on canvas, 2008

Halfway through this incredible story it hit me: this is a birth story.

It begins with the setting: the dead of night. Ask any woman who experienced a spontaneous labor (as opposed to being induced), and I'd guess 9 out of 10 would tell you her labor began at night. This is when the mother's hormones get reset, and some tipping point is reached in the dance between the mother's body and the baby she's been carrying all these months, and the contractions begin. The relentless contractions, which are a sort of wrestling that continues through the night, and does not cease until the baby is born.

In this story and in birth there are waters flowing (so, so, so much water and other fluids flow freely in birth).  Jacob has shunted all of his wives and children and possessions just across the river before nightfall, and so in the story and in birth, there are people nearby. But those people are only incidental to the drama unfolding between Jacob and his foe, and between a woman in labor and the force of her contractions. I am a doula, and it is my job to support women in labor. I am usually one of many support people: her partner, her midwife or doctor, nurses, other family and friends. We are all there to try to keep her safe and as comfortable as possible, but in labor, it is really all up to the mother to find a means of coping, of not giving up. I can bring her a cool cloth or a sip of water, I can assure her that what she is experiencing is normal, I can talk with her about her fears. But she must find her own way to conquer her fears, to cope with the intensity of her contractions, and ultimately to give in to the process, to let her body wrest the blessing from what can seem to be a stronger foe. But this is a crucial point that many people do not realize: the process of labor is not stronger than the laboring woman. It is her body that is doing this. She is as strong as her contractions. She is well matched to this labor with which she wrestles, just as Jacob in the end is well matched to his adversary.

At the end of his long night of wrestling, Jacob wrested a blessing from his mysterious opponent. In birth, it is obvious that there is a blessing. It might be that our first thought is that a baby is a blessing, and of course, that is true. But in the Genesis story, it is Jacob who is reborn, and, though we often overlook it in our excitement over the new baby, when a child is born, a mother also is born. At the end of his ordeal, Jacob receives his new name: Israel. Just as a woman who gives birth is still June or Stephanie or Katie, she is now also known as Mother. And just as Israel is not only one man's name, but also the name of a people, so are women who give birth now part of something larger than themselves. We are Mothers, we span time and space, not bound by nationality or era. We belong to a new tribe.

And when we recognize our strength, we are fierce.

As day breaks, Jacob limps onward. Though it goes without saying that he has been psychically altered by this experience, he has been permanently, physically altered as well. Once a woman has carried a baby in her belly--stretching her skin and squishing her internal organs beyond what she could have imagined was possible--and then she has birthed that baby, her body will also be permanently, physically altered. Nothing she can do will bring her body back to what it was. She has lasting scars, battle wounds. Ones I believe she should wear with pride.

photo by Jade Beall, creator of  A Beautiful Body Project

photo by Jade Beall, creator of A Beautiful Body Project

For Valentine’s Day: A Love Story Between a Boy and a Tree

{This is the sermon I gave on Sunday at my church, while filling in for my not-quite-here-yet pastor. It had been a while (about 5 years, in fact) since I had full-on led a worship service. I enjoyed it tremendously, but I am also not itching to do it every Sunday again. I’m happily sticking to my doula/chaplain/mom job for the now.}

In case you haven’t seen a commercial, or set foot in a store in the past month, Valentine’s Day is coming up.

I spent too many years single (I didn’t get married until I was 33, and most of my life up until then I had not been in a serious romantic relationship) to really care about Valentine’s Day, but I thought it might be a good excuse to tell you a different kind of love story.  A love story about a boy…and a tree.

{At this point I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to the congregation.  In case you do not have a copy handy, you can read the text here. If you want to go seriously nostalgic, you can watch the recording of the filmstrip from the 70’s (!!) below.}

There’s a lot that could be said about this simple little book.  It is a love story, but what kind of love story?  How do you interpret this story?

I think for as many of us who are here today, there are as many opinions and interpretations on this book, which is what makes it so awesome.  Some of you may love it, and remember it fondly from your own childhood or from your children’s or grandchildren’s.  Some of you may hate it and think it is in no way appropriate for children.

The problem for many people is the way in which the tree “loves” the boy, giving and giving and giving of herself until she is all used up.  Some people see this as codependence, or as bordering on abusive behavior on the part of the boy.  Did you notice that the boy not only never once says “thank you”, but also doesn’t seem to have a problem with essentially destroying this being who loves him, just to serve his own whims?

I have to admit that I do not find the boy to be a likeable character.  And that the tree’s way of giving beyond what seems rational or healthy makes me uncomfortable.

But, what can we make of this story from a theological point of view?  Does this story have anything to teach us about God, and if so, what?

I think that the way the tree loves the boy is the way God loves us.  I also think, perhaps more often than any of us would like to admit, even to ourselves, we are the boy.  Ok, I’ll say it: I am the boy.  I take the gifts which God so freely and abundantly offers me, and I use them to serve my own ends, often not even saying thank you to God, or spending any more time with Her than is needed to get what I want.  It’s uncomfortable for me to say it, but it is true.

And God is the tree.  She gives and gives, and loves without considering the cost, and according to Christian belief: God gives even to the point of the ultimate self-sacrifice, that is, submitting to death, as Christ did on the cross.

This is how God loves us, but is this how God wants it to be?  Well, no.  Remember in the story, after the boy cut down the tree’s trunk to make a boat, it says, “And the tree was happy….but not really.”

I think this is what the Old Testament passage for today is getting at:

Isaiah chapter 58 tells us that the people have been calling it in, not really trying, not really taking the time and energy necessary to maintain a relationship with God.  They were taking one day to fast, and then going back to their exploitative ways the other six.  God says to them through the prophet that one day out of six is not enough, that putting on sackcloth on the Sabbath is not going to erase a week’s worth of greed.  God speaks these words to the people:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

I don’t care about your going through the motions of religious piety, says God.  I care about your giving, and giving, and giving some more.  And only when you give without limit, only then will I hear your voice calling to me, and only then will I bless you with abundance.

Ack. That’s hard to hear.

Does this mean that God only loves us when we are doing right?  No.  But God can still love us and not be too happy with us, at the same time.

It’s like how I remind my daughter often that I love her always, even when I am angry with her, even when she makes terrible decisions.  I will always love her.  And I want her to hear and remember that, even through my anger.

The boy makes some rotten decisions, but the tree always loves him, and is always overjoyed to see him when he returns.  That bit kind of reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son, which is also a difficult parable to hear, particularly from the older brother’s point of view.

I think that what is really, really troubling about hearing The Giving Tree as parable for divine love, is not only that it gives us a window into how unconditionally God loves us, no matter how bratty and greedy and self-centered we are, but it also illustrates for us the way in which God asks US to love one another.

God expects US to loose the bonds of injustice, the oppression that we enact on one another.  God expect US to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our own houses, to clothe the naked, and to take responsibility for others–even (and perhaps especially?) those with whom we are related.

In short, God expects US to be the tree.

I gotta tell you, I do not want to be the tree.

I do not want to give and give and give without limit.  I do not want to expend myself in service to others to the point of being completely used up.

So, what’s a person who wants to be faithful, but who would like to continue living through life, and still have some working parts left over by the end, to do?

Sometimes we’re the tree.
Sometimes we’re the boy.

One strategy comes to mind, that of a former pastor of mine, the lovely Julie Pennington-Russell, who once explained to me her system of calendar-keeping.  Next to every person’s name in her datebook, she would write either an F or a D.  F was for “fills me” and D was for “drains me”, and she said that she would try to have more or less a balance of each in any given week.  It was her way of avoiding burnout as a pastor of a large and thriving congregation.

She taught me that we have got to have a balance between people who fill us and people who drain us, or we ourselves become unbalanced, and can no longer give and serve others as God calls us to do.

I suppose that we could adapt my pastor’s system, and put a T for Tree, next to people who give to us, and a B for Boy next to those who take from us.

Sometimes we’re the tree.
Sometimes we’re the boy.

In my lines of work, as a doula, and as a chaplain, I see both: the selfless giving of parents to their newborns, often to the point of utter exhaustion.  I also see the giving of children to their dying parents, also to the point of utter exhaustion.  And of course, there is a whole life in between, in which there is give and there is take, and hopefully, it all evens out in the end.

God is perfect, and loves perfectly.  God is always the tree.

We, on the other hand…well.

Sometimes we’re the tree.
Sometimes we’re the boy.

As we walk through this imperfect life, may we find ways to balance our giving and taking, our treeness and our boyness, as we seek to live and love faithfully in relationship with others.


Pregnant in Worship: Thoughts on Liturgy and Birth

I was SO going to post this week on the Curse of Eve (doesn’t that sound like a B-list horror film? spoiler: It’s not.), but then another idea came crashing in. Maybe next week I’ll take us back to the Garden of Eden, but today I want to go inside Christian worship and look for birtheology there.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

It seems to me that the church doesn’t offer much in the way of ritual or spiritual support for families in the childbearing year. It seems that most churches do a really good job of helping with the practical considerations of having a baby–chiefly, organizing a baby shower before birth and a care calendar afterward.  And when my church did these things for me, I felt loved and knew that this was a way for people to show that they care about me and my family. But, I wanted more. I wanted ritual–words and symbol used as a way for my church to acknowledge and support the spiritual journey my growing little family was on.

Of course, there is baptism (or baby dedication, depending on one’s tradition), but this happens well after the birth (and if you are like me, you don’t get around to doing this until your baby is a toddler (note the photos of my own family’s experiences) and MUCH less open to the idea of a semi-stranger coming at them with wet fingers). Plus, the baptism or baby dedication ritual is much more about starting the baby off on a solid theological grounding in life than about acknowledging what the parents and older siblings have just experienced.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White,&nbsp;the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White, the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Credit to  Barb Nunn , a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

Credit to Barb Nunn, a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

This kind of ritual acknowledgement of the incredibly transformative spiritual experience of pregnancy and birth was something I actively searched for when I was pregnant. There are two moments when I felt my pregnancy acknowledged in church that stand out in my memory. One was at my friend and colleague Chantel’s ordination. During the celebration of Communion, I walked up the aisle to her beaming face, and as she offered the bread to me she gestured to my belly and said, “May this nourish both you and your baby.”  I returned to my pew with tears in my eyes.

My other moment came a bit later in my first pregnancy, at Holy Trinity, the Anglican church I attended in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  They hold a healing service every few months in which people are invited to come forward to the altar rail and receive a blessing. I went forward as I approached the end of my pregnancy in order to have the minister pray over me and my baby for a healthy birth. That moment of having hands laid on my shoulders, oil anointing my forehead, and words of blessing spoken over me as I kneeled in church did much to allay some of my anxiety and to remind me that God would be with me in the physical act of delivering my child.

While I treasure both these memories, I did sort of happen upon them by accident. Neither communion nor a healing service are particularly designed to support pregnancy. So where are the rituals for pregnancy and birth? Why does the church, and its vast store of language and symbol regarding advent, and hope, and fear, and creation, and journey, and, well–LOTS of themes which easily relate to pregnancy and birth, remain silent?

I can’t answer that one. I have lots of thoughts, but of course no real answers.

But if the church, or even a church, (hey, what about your church?) wanted to start acknowledging and supporting the spiritual journey expecting families are on, here are some ideas:

  • A blessing for a pregnant woman, as well as for her partner and other children. What I’m suggesting is something that would happen within the context of worship, with the whole congregation present and participating. (As opposed to what is known as a “blessing way“, or “mother blessing”: a home-based ritual meant to provide emotional and spiritual support for a woman in her pregnancy. This is fodder for a whole other post entirely. Stay tuned.) This blessing could be short and simple, but the pledge of spiritual support from her congregation would be quite meaningful to a woman and her family journeying through pregnancy.
I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone.&nbsp;Where is her community?

I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone. Where is her community?

  • A blessing for the mother and her family after the birth. There used to be such a ritual, and it still survives in some Christian traditions. It is known as the “Churching of Women“, and for many people it carries negative connotations about the impurity of women following childbirth. However, I am proposing that we move beyond any such connotation, reformulating and reclaiming this ritual as needed in order to focus on welcoming a new mother back into worship, acknowledging the enormity of what she has just done, and lending support to her and her family as they move into a new way of being.
  • Always in the back of my mind when I am working with this concept of birtheology is the knowledge that pregnancy and birth are not always simple or even accessible to all. Of course, considerable discretion would need to be used, but I believe that offering a means of acknowledging the loss of a child through miscarriage or stillbirth and praying for and with the parents who have experienced this within the context of their community of faith could be a powerful means of supporting their grief.
  • Along these same lines, there are those in the pews who silently struggle with infertility.  I have no idea what this might look like, but perhaps there is a way to break the silence and shame on this subject as well. What is the church for, anyway, but to support one another in faith through life’s journey, whatever that journey might hold?

These are just preliminary ideas, and I could write a whole post on any of the points above. What I would really love is to hear your thoughts and experience. Is there a way in which you found spiritual support in the childbearing year within the context of worship, or do you have suggestions for how that could happen? Or have you felt excluded within worship as one who has struggled with fertility issues? How would you suggest the church address people in this situation?

Meeting the Theotokos in the Hospital

I was doin’ my chaplain thing this week, sitting with a patient’s family while they waited for news about their loved one, and I happened to mention to one of them (let’s call him Hank, which is not his real name) that I’m also a doula and a blogger on things birtheology-related. A couple of days later, I had a chance to swing by and check on this family, and Hank stopped me and said that he had googled my blog (“It’s an internet world,” he said), and he had a suggestion for me. Turns out Hank is Eastern Orthodox, and when he saw my blog, he immediately thought of this:

Or something a lot like this, as this is what I found when I googled what he described to me. It is an icon, which (put simply) is a religious work of art, often used in worship, but not as an object of worship. Eastern Orthodox Christians venerate (that is, regard with reverence or respect) icons, but this veneration, as Bishop Auxentios explains,

must be understood as a veneration rendered not to a thing (or person), in and of itself, but through the thing to that which sanctifies it—ultimately, of course, to God. We honor the Cross, therefore, because of the One crucified on it. We honor a Saint because of Him whose friend the Saint is.

This icon in particular is of Mary who is here depicted as the Theotokos, which is a Greek term most precisely translated as birth-giver of God.  In this rendering, Mary is pictured facing the viewer with her hands raised in a position that is both a posture of prayer and a reminder of the posture Christ took on the cross, here reflected by the tiny fully formed Jesus in her womb. This icon is meant to capture Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, when she gave her Great Yes to God, submitting to her role of God-bearer. Veneration of the Theotokos is a big part of Eastern Orthodox Christian practice. According to Dr. David J. Goa (who by the way, looks like THIS!!→)

When Orthodox Christians around the world enter the church, they bring a candle to this icon and, bowing in a prayer of gratitude to God who clothed them in flesh, ask that they, too, like the Theotokos, may be open to be a birth giver of divine love in a fractured and suffering world.

This is a prayer uttered by all Orthodox Christians regardless of gender or age, because this vocation to give birth to divine love is one that all Christians share. It’s like the good Dr. Goa says:

The mystery of the Incarnation of God in Christ is our mystery, a revelation of our created nature and a call to its fullness,...[thus] the Icon of the Virgin and Child is...the Icon of the Human Vocation. It reveals to us our capacity as persons, as women, men and children.

I believe that the Incarnation is not only something Jesus did once, but something that every Christian is called to do daily: to bring God into this world of flesh and blood. We are to say Yes to God, and allow Christ to be born in us, just like Mary did. This reminds me of the sermon Julie Pennington-Russell preached at my ordination, in which she stated that this woman who became the mother of Jesus was “no Milquetoast Mary,” but instead an incredibly brave and faithful person. Each of us who are serious about bearing Christ within us and bringing forth the light of God into the world ought to take her for a model of faith.

When Hank was telling me about the Theotokos and the significance this icon has for him and for his fellow Orthodox Christians, I lamented that Protestants lost so much when we decided to stop really paying any attention to Mary.  He replied that we “threw out the baby with the bath water–no pun intended!”

I couldn’t agree more.

A Liturgical Calendar Pop Quiz

What are the three main Christian feast days?

(hint: a feast day is a high point of religious observance and celebration in the life of the church)

Did you even know there are three? You can name two, anyway, even if you haven’t been to church in a while, or didn’t pay too much attention even when you were there.

There’s Christmas.

And Easter.

Those are the two everyone knows. But the third major feast day, the only one not completely co-opted by popular culture, and therefore known only to die-hard liturgical calendar fans (yes, we do exist) is: Pentecost. Now you know.

Pentecost was celebrated this past Sunday. It is observed 50 days (7 weeks) after Easter and commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ apostles. As my three-year-old learned in her Sunday school class, “It’s the Church’s birthday!”

That got me to thinking. ALL THREE of the main Christian feast days are about birth. No really. Christmas is obviously about birth. The actual, physical birth of Jesus, to be precise. The other two are metaphorically about birth. Easter commemorates Jesus’ return to life, or re-birth, you might say.  Plenty of people have already made connections between the tomb and the womb.(Though I think that is the stuff of another post entirely.) And now Pentecost is another metaphorical birth, this time of the church, as it begins to move from being a loose group of Jesus-followers to an organized religion.

So–if the three high points of Christian life are about birth, then it follows that birtheology is not just for mommies and babies (in case anyone out there was thinking that). Christmas, the actual birth of Jesus; Easter, the metaphorical rebirth of Jesus; and Pentecost, the metaphorical birth of the church: these three events are central to the Christian faith.

Birth is central to the Christian faith. 

And if birth is central to the faith, then we’ve got some work to do in uncovering a theology of birth. This means examining what birth is, how it affects those who participate in it (both women and men, both those actually giving birth and those who support them), what it teaches us about the life of the body, soul and spirit. This is true even if we are “only” regarding birth as a metaphor, since to understand a metaphor one must first thoroughly examine what it refers to.

For whatever reason, we as Christians have largely neglected to give serious thought to this central element of our own faith. But that’s all about to change, y’all. Keep reading, and keep commenting–there will be more birtheology to come!

Introducing: Birtheology

Here’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while: I’ve been frustrated, annoyed, even angry that though women often describe giving birth as a spiritual experience, there is not much out there in the way of connection between religious belief (specifically Christian, as that is my faith tradition) and childbirth.  I have searched and searched, throwing the weight of my considerable research skills (gleaned over the course of 11–yes ELEVEN–years of higher education) and have come up with…not so much.

A good part of what I have found has focused on submitting to one’s proper place as wife and now mother in “God’s plan” for the family and on praying hard enough (i.e., “Having fertility issues? You are just not praying hard enough. Experiencing pain in childbirth?  PRAY HARDER.”).  That’s pretty much all I’ve found in the way of popular literature/blogs, and honestly, I don’t find that these views accord with my own experience of how God works in the world, nor do I find them particularly empowering.  In scholarly literature, there have been a couple of voices over the past 30 years or so who have called for a theology of birth.  From what I can tell, that idea hasn’t made a lot of progress.  I’m not sure why that is, but perhaps it is because there are not many scholars who have both the ability and inclination  to reflect theologically on childbirth.

I approached my own experiences of giving birth by intentionally minimizing medical interventions in an effort to enhance my own physical, emotional and spiritual experience of the process.  So, I had these holistic birth experiences,  AND I am trained to think theologically.  There are not so many people who fit that description.  Thus, I find myself in a unique position: I am an ordained minister, a birth doula, a theological scholar, a mother.  I can write about this, I can make connections between theology and birth, and I can further the (so far) limited conversation on this topic.  So, I introduce to you, dear reader, my new venture in blogging, in theology, in life:

(credit for the catchy title goes to my incredibly creative, talented, and supportive husband, Thomas)

I hope to use this space to work out some thoughts as I prepare to lead a seminar on this topic at my church in the fall.  This seminar will be geared not just toward pregnant people, but also to the whole congregation.  Birtheology is not just for women having babies, and the church as a whole has essentially ignored this transformative event in the lives of the majority of its members for too long.  Ultimately, I would love to put together a childbirth education class for parents as well, with all the usual stuff about the stages of labor, medical interventions, pain management, etc., but also with a focus on the spiritual elements of giving birth.  Of course, publishing some of this good stuff in a journal, magazine, or book some day would be pretty awesome, too.

So, keep reading!  There will be lots more to come.  And of course, if you have thoughts/experiences to share, I would love to hear about them.  The more voices we can add to this void the better

Super Grover 2.0: Incarnational Theology for Doulas, Chaplains, and You

This morning over breakfast, while my kids were getting their dose of Sesame Street, I remembered an essay I wrote while I was doing my chaplain residency. For those of you who watch, oh, I don’t know–THE NEWS, or some such grownup programming while eating your cereal in the morning, I offer this by way of introduction to Super Grover 2.0:

Admit it. You were entertained.

Anyway, a big part of the chaplain residency I went through back in 2010/11 involved undergoing some pretty intense reflection on how to become a better pastoral caregiver. I have said all along that the skills I developed in the process of becoming a chaplain are the skills I find most useful as a doula: that of being fully present for the person I am serving, and trusting that I have within me what I need to be an emotional and spiritual support for my client/patient. I think that as a doula it can be awfully easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I won’t be fully prepared to serve  my clients unless I learn this physical comfort technique or read up on that medical intervention or acquire certification in [insert birth related field here].” And that’s not to say that I should not or am not continuing to sharpen those kinds of doula skills. I am. But I think the reason caregivers focus on that other stuff is because showing up–being fully, completely, totally present for the person whom you are serving–is actually really, really difficult to do. Gena Kirby, a doula who travels the world leading workshops on the use of the rebozo in labor, brought this idea up not too long ago in a Facebook group I follow:

I have noticed over the years that doulas who take my classes sign up to learn how to DO stuff to clients. They want to know how to augment, how to move baby, how to…you name it. These questions really put the DO in doula. I wish we were BE las instead.

Being a BE-la, being fully present for another person, particularly when that other person is doing something really intense, like giving birth, or preparing to die, is super hard to do. Which is why I wrote this essay, slightly modified below, in which I offer, by way of inspiration, a superhero unlike any other.

I bring you Super Grover 2.0.

Sesame Street has been on the air for 44 years, so I am assuming you all are familiar with the show. Super Grover has been around since the 70’s, but unless you have been watching in recent years, you may not be aware that, like most everything, Super Grover has had an upgrade. He is now Super Grover 2.0! Each of his sketches now begins with this intro:

He observes.          He questions.          He investigates.

Super Grover 2.0.

He shows up.

And each sketch follows a similar format: somewhere in the world, a muppet is in trouble. Super Grover 2.0 swoops in with the inevitable crash landing (flying is no problem, but apparently landing is not so simple). Then there follows a series of interactions in which Super Grover is of little to no help. He makes several attempts to solve the muppet’s problem, but these serve only to pass the time (in a comical way) while the muppet who originally had the problem discovers its own solution.

For example, there is the chicken stuck on one side of “The Pretty Good Wall of China” who cries out, “I just gotta get over this wall, I just gotta!”

Super Grover crash lands, and asks, “Why do you want to get over the wall?”

“To get to the other side! It’s a chicken thing.”

They try a couple of ideas out that are clearly doomed to fail, but Super Grover does not let the chicken fall into despair. He is sure that if they keep trying, they will find a solution. Finally the chicken takes the pole with which Super Grover has been ineffectually trying to poke a hole through the wall and uses it as a lever, successfully propelling herself over the wall.

In another sketch, a cactus has a prickly problem—he desperately wants to play with a ball, only his spines keep deflating the ball as soon as he picks it up. He calls out, “Help, help!” Super Grover crash lands, and the cactus cries, “Super Grover 2.0, you showed up!” To which Super Grover replies, “It is what I do!” Super Grover then suggests a series of alternative balls for the cactus to play with, such as a bowling ball (too heavy) and a snowball (too melty), before he decides to take a lunch break. He removes the foil that his sandwich is wrapped in, balls it up and tosses it aside. The cactus is overjoyed—this ball of foil is just the right kind of ball for a cactus to play with!

(Here is the video of that sketch, in case you want to watch.)

OK.  So maybe you are thinking right now, “Clearly this woman is sleep-deprived and her brain has been addled from watching too much children’s television. Where is she going with this?  Does she think she is making sense?”

Well, I will admit to being sleep deprived, but I maintain that this will all make sense. Because, dear reader, Super Grover 2.0 is, in fact, a wonderful model of pastoral care.

No, really.

Remember Super Grover’s voice-over intro?

He observes. He questions. He investigates.  Super Grover 2.0. He shows up.

As a doula and as a chaplain, I do all those things.

I observe—I listen carefully to what those whom I am serving are saying with both their bodies and their words.

I question—I ask really hard questions, ones that nobody else may be asking, like: how do you feel about that? and what is it that you really want?

I investigate—I ask (or even better, prompt my client to ask) questions of the nurse and the doctor to try to understand the situation, I ask the patient (or family member, whomever I am supporting in the moment) questions in an effort to get them to search deep within themselves for reserves of strength and hope that they didn’t know were there.

But most of all—by far the most important thing I do, beyond anything I say—I show up.

As a chaplain, I show up in the middle of the night, roused by the insistent beeping of the pager, throw on some clothes that I hope are within the realm of professional (I will admit to having shown up at the hospital with my shirt on inside out before), I make my way to the room where someone has just had a really intense experience, and I come alongside them in their pain and grief.

As a doula, I answer my cell phone at every hour of the day and night, no matter where I am or what I am doing, because my client has gone into labor, or thinks she may have, and anyway she needs to know that I am there for her and will be at her side as soon as I am able, and that I will not leave her until her baby is born, no matter how long that may take.

Just like Super Grover (but without the crash landing, hopefully) I show up. All it takes is for someone to call out in need. As a chaplain (and even sometimes as a doula when I am volunteering to support women giving birth alone), I often have never met this person before, nor will I ever see them again. But I show up, because, in that moment, they need somebody.

And, like Super Grover, I do my best to be helpful. I certainly hope that I don’t make such a muddle of it as he does, though there have been times when it seems that I say all the wrong things. But ultimately, just as in all the Super Grover sketches, the reality is that it is not anything I say or do that will solve this person’s problem. Really, it is my job to get out of the way and allow this person find their own way.

But showing up, that’s key. Sometimes all it takes for someone to believe they can move forward is for someone to show up and believe in them. There’s even a ten-dollar theological word for showing up: incarnation. Capital-I-Incarnation is how we describe God taking on flesh: what we see in the person of Jesus Christ. But there is also a lower case-i-incarnation: this term is used to describe a way of providing pastoral care for others: incarnational pastoral care is when God is embodied–-albeit in an imperfect way, as we are imperfect beings–-but God is embodied in our care for others. As a care provider listens and empathizes with one in need, God is present. In this relationship, God is incarnated (is borne in the flesh of) these two people in their interaction with one another. In that moment of truly showing up, the caregiver has made space for them both to experience the inbreaking of the reign of God.

And this incarnational ministry thing is not limited to chaplains, or pastors, or any sort of licensed or ordained minister. Certainly it is not limited to doulas. We can all relate to one another in a way that is incarnational. What it takes is a willingness to show up for someone, anyone, who calls out in need.

Jesus said (in Matthew 25) that those who reach out to others in need, are in fact reaching out to Christ himself. Christ is present, God is incarnate, when we welcome a stranger, when we visit the sick, when we feed the hungry, when we clothe the naked. That is not a message just for those in some kind of professional ministry. That is a message for us all.

And so we are all called to be like Super Grover. Christ commands us to hear the call of one in need, and to show up. And we can trust God to show up, as well, and to work through our efforts—even if sometimes they be bumbling, and include crash landings and totally unhelpful suggestions—yes, even then, God can work through each of us. We just have to be faithful and show up.

Remember what the cactus said, when Super Grover crashed into the desert beside him?

“Super Grover, you showed up!”

And Super Grover replied, “It is what I do!”

It is what I try to do, in my doula practice, in my chaplain ministry, in my everyday life.  By the grace of God, may we all be inspired to engage in this superheroic incarnational ministry, the ministry of showing up.

V is for Vagina

My 3 year old has begun doing representational art. I am so excited about this, as it means that she no longer simply fills a page with scribbles, but now her lines are drawn with more precision and are meant to represent something in particular. So far, her favorite things to draw are people. The other day V (the 3 year old) and her father (Thomas) and I were all sitting at the table while she was working, and she produced this:

And then she volunteered this description of her work:

  • (indicating the two large circles at the top) “These are the eyes.”
  • (pointing at the lines) “These are the arms and legs.”
  • (finally, indicating the small circle at the bottom of the page) “This is the vagina.  That’s what it looks like.”

Somehow, Thomas and I didn’t laugh (credit our years and years of experience working in child development centers) and instead made some sort of appropriate response to her work. But inwardly we both were cheering!–not so much at her artistic ability, but at her nonchalant use of the correct anatomical term for female genitalia. This is what we have been working toward.

This might seem strange to some people, but Thomas and I are giving our all toward our goal of helping our V have the best body image possible. And we figure that starts with her not only knowing what she’s got, but also knowing proper anatomical names for it and knowing that not one bit of her body is dirty or shameful or embarrassing to talk about in front of her parents.

Thomas and I just this past Sunday finished up leading a sex ed course for middle schoolers and their parents at our church (the wonderful, inclusive, progressive United Christian Church), and one of the things the author of the curriculum did which I particularly appreciated was to address what she called “the issue of female pride.” She wants every girl to know that God made every bit of her, including her reproductive system, and that every bit is “fabulous”. It reminded me of a passage in Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, in which Ina May Gaskin (author, midwife, and natural childbirth advocate) writes, “There is no other organ quite like the uterus. If men had such an organ, they would brag about it. So should we.” I am sure Ina May would agree that the same could be said for our vaginas.

But some women experience anxiety about whether their vaginas will ever return to normal after childbirth. Fear about this can be a real distraction from doing the work of labor and birth. My advice is this: give it time, do your kegels, and remember that your body was designed for this. Which reminds me of another classic quote from Ina May (also from Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth):

Remember this, for it is as true as true gets: Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth as well as aardvarks, lions, rhinoceri, elephants, moose, and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.

Can I get an amen?