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

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.