Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sunday morning pastor-momma

One of my greatest hesitations about pursing my desire to pastor in a congregation was the fear that doing that work well would preclude having children. When I was first discerning this call, I didn’t know any pastor-mommas who I could watch in action, and never having done either, it was hard for me to imagine how I might do both. It was the stories of other pastor-mommas on the Fidelio’s Sisters blog that first gave me courage to hope that I could do both. 

And now, nearly a decade later, I am so grateful for a life full to the brim with both vocations, often mixed and intermingled in ways I never would have foreseen. But the honest truth is that, like most things worth doing, it isn’t easy. And sometimes it’s really, really hard.

I wrote this reflection when my son was five. He’s six and a half now, and although Sunday mornings are still our most challenging time of the week, they have gotten much easier. So for all you pastor parents who are weary, sleep-deprived, and overwhelmed – take hope. It does get easier.

On Sunday morning, I wake before dawn, check email for last minute announcements and prayer requests to be shared during the worship service, finish up a lesson plan for an adult Sunday school class on some thorny topic like sex or death, pick out clothes – suitably modest, not too uncomfortable, nothing too flashy or trendy. I double-check in the full-length mirror that I have the right underwear to avoid slipping straps, underwear lines, or the too-visible outline of my curves.

I wake up my sweet sleeping boy. He smells like a little animal in the morning – familiar, warm, slightly sour, sometimes with a sharp edge of urine. He’s sleepy and doesn’t want to wake up, so it takes several tries. I attempt to induce him by mentioning Sunday school, which he loves, and his best buddy from church, with whom he often shares a pew and loudly whispered conversations about superheroes and dinosaurs and the secrets of Disneyland. In the end, I set a timer and threaten to take away his video time if he’s not dressed when it rings. That works. He picks his own clothes – Angry Birds underpants, his favorite Batman T-shirt in honor of Sunday, a pair of too-short jeans that he’s pulled on backwards. I let it be.

After three tries, he decides on breakfast. I take a fast shower, dry my hair, put on make-up – enough to look fresher and more alert, but nothing too bright, not my favorite berry lipstick. No perfume in deference to the people who are allergic to scents. Shoes that are dressy enough for preaching, but comfortable enough for the church playground. Feminine, but not sexy.

I pack his bag to the brim – plastic dinosaurs, a Tupperware box of snacks, coloring books and markers, a soft animal to ward off meltdowns, a water bottle, DVD player and his latest video picks from the kids’ section of the library.

I load all the bags – his and mine – heavy with my laptop, planner, folders, books. Chase him into his shoes and out the door. I “race” him to the gravel driveway, being careful to let his foot touch the gravel before mine, lest I trigger tears of frustration. Buckle him in.

We listen to a Hank the Cow Dog audio book on the car CD player while we drive the mile to church. 

He races me to the door, races shouting to my office, is ready with his shoes off and his stuffed animal in hand before I even get all the bags through the door. I set up his video player and push play – the sounds of Care Bears talking and laughing and fussing fill the room. I get a bulletin, gather my supplies for teaching Sunday school, write down the list of announcements that I will need to make during worship.

Church hasn’t begun yet, but I already desperately need a nap.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Mothering after death

When my firstborn son, Ethan, died at birth, I was plunged into a long tunnel of grief that I wasn’t sure would ever end.  Because of the attentive presence of friends and family who were able to share in my grief, I never doubted God’s presence with me.  I knew that God, like my friends, was grieving over the empty space in my body and my life that had once been filled with Ethan’s life.  But I did struggle with what it meant to be a woman whose only child had died.  How could I still be a mother if I didn’t have a child to hold?  

For a few months, I found the presence of pregnant women almost unbearable.  Baby showers were excruciating. I went out of my way to avoid the infant section at stores and angrily tore up the junk mail that appeared in my mailbox, hawking life insurance for my newborn.  

And when conversation in groups of women turned to childbirth and mothering, I sometimes hovered awkwardly on the edges of the conversation, not certain how to join in as a childless woman who had both given birth to and buried a child.  Some days I wanted to wear a shirt printed with the slogan “I’m a mother, too, you know!”

But even deeper was the pain of wondering what to do with all the love that had grown in me during my pregnancy.  I had an urgent need to nurture life, but no life to nurture.  And I walked through my days with an open rawness to the pain of others, especially the pain of grieving mothers.  Mothers whose children died of prenatal conditions, like my son, but also mothers whose children died in combat, in the cross-fire of the drug wars, in car crashes and train wrecks.  Mothers whose children were separated from them by prison or war or brutal immigration laws.  I felt such a kinship with these mothers and yet was at a loss of how to channel this longing to connect my grief to something larger.

In 2009, I was helping to organize a gathering of East African Christian leaders committed to peace-making.  Just days before our team was scheduled to leave for Africa, someone told our director that we absolutely must invite a woman named Maggie, from Burundi.  Armed with nothing more than her first name and her country, we turned to Google.  And there she was - a tall, elegant, resplendently dressed woman who, in the face of terrible poverty and unspeakable genocide, declared with her words and her life that God’s love is limitless.

One year later, just months after Ethan’s birth, I joined a group who traveled for hours through the back country of Burundi to the village of Ruyigi, where Mama Maggie, as she is known throughout Burundi, has built a home for an extended family made up of thousands of orphans.

In Ruyigi, Maggie led our group through the church compound where she took refuge in October of 1993, along with many other people from the surrounding village, as the threat of ethnic violence grew.  Those seeking shelter were Hutu, and Maggie is Tutsi, but she refused to abandon her friends and neighbors.  When an armed group descended on the compound, Maggie’s adopted children, who were both Hutu and Tutsi, hid in the church sacristy.  Maggie helped to hide other children in the rafters of the church.

As the mob broke into the compound, Maggie stood with her friends, expecting to die with them.  The attackers stripped her naked, tied her to a chair, and told her that her punishment for trying to protect her Hutu friends was that she must watch them all be killed.  Maggie watched helplessly as, one by one, seventy-two people, including her best friend, Juliet, were hacked to death in front of her.  As the attackers set the building on fire, Maggie managed to bribe them with money in exchange for sparing the lives of the twenty-five children hiding in the building.  

For days afterward, Maggie stayed in the church courtyard, weeping over her dead friends.  She and the children who had survived carried the bodies to the cemetery across the road from the church and dug graves for their friends and family members.  

After the massacre, Maggie took in the children who had survived.  Over the months and years that followed, in a country full of children separated from their families by illness, poverty, death, and war, she began to take in more children who needed a home, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, until they numbered in the tens of thousands.  She set the children up in child-headed households that intentionally crossed boundaries of ethnicity, nationality, and faith so that they could live into a new identity as one undivided human family.  She taught the older children to care for the younger ones, paid their school fees, and started businesses where they could learn employment skills.  Her dream is to raise a new generation without hatred and bitterness, who know that they are all God’s beloved children.

Unmarried adult women are uncommon in Burundian culture, but Maggie has never married or had biological children.  But Maggie claims the vocation of motherhood as a calling that encompasses all of her work of peacemaking.  

The vocation of women, she says, is to give birth, to protect life.  And that’s a calling that goes far beyond the work of labor and delivery or of raising one’s own biological children. After the genocide, she says, the children have rebuilt her heart and her calling is to help them to shine like a light in the darkness of violence and hatred.  

On International Women’s Day, I am grateful for Maggie Barankitse, a spiritual midwife who taught me that out of the darkest grief and loss can come a calling to nurture life, and that a calling to the work of motherhood is one any woman can claim, regardless of whether she has a biological child to hold.  

For more stories of spiritual midwives and patron saints in honor of International Women's Day, see Sarah Bessey's synchroblog.

Monday, October 15, 2012


“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;”

This past August, Eric and I celebrated Ethan’s third birthday.  We have a second son now, another little boy.  At nearly 20 months, he’s bursting with new words, with more physical energy than the two of us put together, and with insatiable curiosity about the world around him.  His name is Noah – a name that reminds us of the shelter that carried the last remaining life on earth, like a flickering flame held in cupped hands, through the overwhelming darkness and waters of death until it reached a place where it could burn brightly again.

We wanted to celebrate Ethan’s life in a way that would begin to help Noah understand as he grows up that he has a brother, to know his story and the story of our family. We spent the evening celebrating with birthday candles, looking at Ethan’s birth photos, and listening to recordings of his heartbeat.  Noah loves pictures of babies (candles, sweets, and heartbeat sounds, too), so although we didn’t expect him to understand something as abstract as a brother who he can’t see or touch, he did understand that we were doing something special.

“Oh.  Are you still doing that?!”  It was not the response I expected to get when I mentioned our celebration of Ethan’s birthday to a family member. 

Yes, we are still remembering our son.  

We will be remembering our son for the rest of our lives, as long as our brains and our bodies have the capacity to remember.   I will remember the joy and sheer terror of that blue plus sign on the pregnancy test.  I will remember our first glimpse of him on the ultrasound – a little kidney bean with a steady pulsing heartbeat.  I will remember the delicate flutter of his first movements deep in the shelter of my pelvis and later, the way he made us laugh out loud with his wild kicks and punches in my belly.  I will remember the stunned grief of the day we learned that he wouldn’t live past birth.  I will remember the power and magnificence of my body at work, the labor pains washing over me like waves, every cell of my body straining to give him life.  I will remember the weight of his tiny body in my arms, his eyelashes, his beautiful hands and feet, the miracle of his heart beating inside the delicate arc of his ribs.  I will remember.

I will remember the way his little life – so fragile and vulnerable – called me to a fierce strength that I didn’t know could contain.  I will remember that my love for Ethan, my firstborn, cracked my heart wide open to the pain of this world so that for months after his death I couldn’t bear to listen to the news because every story of suffering led me back, instantly, to the anguish of a grieving mother.  I knew that, even if I never had another child, I would always walk through the world with the wide open eyes and the raw heart of a mother.  I couldn’t forget if I tried.  

When Eric and I began to spread the word about Ethan’s diagnosis, I found that I was a part of a vast and silent sisterhood of grief.  Women everywhere – in my office building, at my church, in the grocery store, through letters sent from across the country – began to tell me their own stories of the children they carry in their hearts.  

We had three miscarriages before our first living child.

My oldest son died as a toddler.  

My son was stillborn twenty years ago this May.  The nurses left me to labor alone, as if I should be shunned for giving birth to a child who had already died.  They wouldn’t even let me hold him.

Our daughter is a twin, but her sibling died in the first trimester.

Our youngest was stillborn.  My priest refused to baptize her or give her a Catholic funeral because she never took a breath. I baptized her myself and the sisters let me bury her in their cemetery.

What astounded me was that I had never heard these stories before.  All around me were men and women who had been changed forever by their love and grief for a child.  And I had no idea.  

Today is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.   It seems strange that we need an official day (declared so by the President, no less) to remember our children.  There is no question that parents who have lost children remember them.  We remember them every day, in every cell of our bodies.  We are different people for having loved them.

The question is whether or not we will remember them out loud and whether the people who love us will remember them with us.  Will their names be mentioned with gratitude in the pastoral prayer at our churches on Sunday?  Will our extended family include them when they name our children?  Will we dare to tell our firstborn’s story when a new acquaintance asks if the lively little toddler running around the room at a neighborhood potluck is our only child?  Will we send a note to friend, remembering the due date of the babies she grieves?  And will we let the fierce love and compassion that grew in us through the pain of losing a child move us to act for other children who are vulnerable and suffering?

Remembering out loud, remembering with our lives is a revolutionary act.  

When we remember out loud, we are declaring that our children’s lives were not a sad mistake or a brief tragedy, but a gift from God that can still bear fruit in our lives and in our communities.  That the dark waters of death have not extinguished the beauty we found in sheltering their lives.  That the names that we carry in our hearts are also engraved on the palms of God’s hands, who has not forgotten, but holds them now, and has promised that their bodies will once again be filled with the breath of life.