Tag Archives: Faith

Overdue

It’s the first Sunday in Advent and I couldn’t bear going to church this morning with my ten-days-overdue belly. Of course everyone understands that babies don’t follow any kind of schedule (at least mine don’t – inside or outside the womb, for that matter); of course, normal gestational length can vary by as much as six weeks. Still, when you pass that magical date that you’ve been spouting out to curious well-wishers for the past few months, everyone starts getting antsy. It’s enough to make me want to hide forever. Hide from questions and small talk, hide from hope that he will be here soon.

I know there are many parallels to entering the season of Advent with being “overdue” with child — but frankly they make me grouchy, even if they are apt. Yes, waiting for this birth reflects the greater waiting we are doing for Jesus’ birth, for the Kingdom to come, for peace to reign on earth. But in the actual calendar season of Advent, I know Christmas is coming on December 25. It will come on time. I already know that story; I can make plans.

This physical knowing I will give birth but not knowing when? This is different. With Advent, I can intellectualize its meaning. I can check out emotionally and passively move through the season until Christmas morning. I can even skip ahead to joy by playing Christmas music early and setting up our tree. But there is no sneaking in snuggles with my baby before labor; this is a wait in utter darkness.

Up until this weekend, I have felt okay waiting. I’m not physically uncomfortable or roiling in pain. Sure, it has been wearying — the not knowing, the wondering if I should do a big grocery shop or make play-dates for my toddler, the pressure to be doing things to go into labor (primrose oil, walking, doing stairs, eating spicy food, castor oil, acupuncture, squats and lunges to name a few). I have known that, no matter what I try, there is always the underlying reality that nothing that I “do” will push me into labor until my body is ready.

But the past two mornings I woke up at 4 AM with panic so thick in my throat that I thought I would choke. Somehow I had it in my mind that the baby would come this weekend; that the baby would be born before December 1. Instead of waking to labor pains or to the rush of my water breaking, I blinked awake to hope unmet and stomach acid. Nothing was happening.

I’ve been surprised by the anger that I have felt at having my hopes misplaced.

The unease I feel now is more of an agitated readiness, a frantic desire to meet this being who is sharing my body, to endure and be done with labor, to finally have the anticipation put to rest. It’s a thirst to move forward, not remain stuck here in limbo, in wondering.

For so many days now, I’ve been on top of everything house related – all the dishes done immediately, the toys always picked up, the manic check-things-off-the-list mentality driving me forward, lest we go into labor. Ask my husband; he will tell you about how we dusted the tops of every kitchen cabinet this morning.

I had been so hopeful that my baby would be born by today. Every Braxton Hicks contraction pain has stirred anticipation — is this it? But nothing real has happened, nothing tangible. I feel despondent, uncertain whether to keep preparing or sink into hopeless grief.

December is nearly here; my baby is not. And, though the parallels make me grouchy, I wonder if this is exactly what Advent is supposed to feel like: an angry anticipation for the thing we most long for, a discontent with the ways of this world, a bitter hope teetering on despair for wrongs to be righted, a desperation for light to overcome all this darkness.

It’s this restless hope that is forcing me to pace the hallways of my apartment building, to do circuits of stairs wherever I can find them. It’s forcing me into a more active wait, not a passive one. It’s forcing me to try small things to get labor started, though I have no ultimate control in this process.

I keep going through the motions, though the oil in my lamp is burning low. Draw your flame a little closer, wait with me.

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Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here

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Birth Plans

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
— Wendell Berry, from the poem The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front

Pregnant Profile

When I took childbirth classes the first time I was pregnant, the instructor – an impossibly peppy woman named Missy – encouraged us to write a birth plan. A birth plan is a set of hopes, preferences, and goals for birth that are typically shared with the labor and delivery staff. Missy assured us that writing a birth plan would help us prepare for all the big and small decisions we might encounter during our hospital stay.

It has been three years since I wrote that birth plan. I finally reread it for the first time last week, smiling and cringing to myself all the way through. No to pain medication and immodest hospital gowns. Yes to dimmed lights, water-birth, and my own nightgown. Oh, and if possible, we want my husband to catch the baby.

These were all good aspirations, all good goals for birth. And they seemed reasonable enough. After all, I read only positive birth stories, about how labors progressed quickly, how laboring mothers overcame their fears with support of their doulas and midwives, how women’s bodies are built for labor. The books I read encouraged me to shut down negative conversations about birth before they had the power to instill fear or doubt.

Intellectually, I knew that things could go wrong. I had friends who experienced dangerous complications and emergency C-sections despite their plans for a natural birth. Still, I chose to write a birth plan for myself that assumed the best, that only skimmed the possibility that I might need medical interventions.

But there is a problem with only hearing positive birth stories. There is a danger in writing exquisite birth plans that do not take into account potential complications that may arise. The laboring mother is left completely unprepared if things veer off course.

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I wonder if reading your birth plan after the fact is a little how the disciples felt when they realized that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus, this rabbi scorned by the religious elite? Jesus, born in a barn? This was the long awaited Savior of Israel?

I wonder if they looked back on their Hebrew Bible, on the predictions and prophesies about the coming Messiah with a hint of embarrassment, or distance, or wonder at how far off they had been.

You see, the Messiah was supposed to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, the Messiah was supposed to restore honor and dignity to the Jewish people. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be crucified like a common criminal. He wasn’t supposed to be whipped or have a crown of thorns crushed upon his head. No, the kingdom was supposed to come with trumpets and fanfare. The kingdom was supposed to come through military triumph.

But instead here is Jesus, this strange teacher with his strange teachings about “turning the other cheek” and “losing your life so you can find it.” Jesus, the Messiah who didn’t expel the Romans or restore the temple. Jesus, the Messiah who suffered and died.

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When I imagine God as a laboring mother, I wonder if she had expectations for how her birth should go. I wonder if she felt thrown off by how labor was actually progressing (or not progressing), I wonder if she felt weak while enduring incredible pain at waiting for the Kingdom to finally come.

Do I trust a God in labor, who feels painful contractions, who wonders if she can make it through? I’d rather imagine a God who is strong, steadfast, a pillar, a rock. But God as a woman in labor feels wild, it feels scary, it feels out of control.

Maybe that’s part of why I’ve never heard a sermon about God as a laboring mother. It’s not an image that makes us feel confident. It makes us wonder if God knows what God is doing in this supposed big plan for the world.

//

“Alright class,” Missy said, clapping her hands in excitement. “I want you to take the index cards in your folder and write “healthy baby” on one card and “healthy mom” on the other card. Now, take the remaining stack of six and write one hope for your birth on each card.”

Women in flowing maternity shirts and yoga pants turned to face their uncomfortable-looking husbands, taking out pens, placing the cards awkwardly on their knees or backs of the thick childbirth prep folders to begin writing. I sipped my ever-present bottle of water while we wrote out our hopes like the good students we were: no pain medication, quick labor, vaginal birth, no interventions, and so on.

“Now, I want you to look at your cards and pick two cards to throw out,” Missy said. “Sometimes labor doesn’t go the way you want it to, so imagine you have no choice in the matter.”

My husband and I looked at each other. We debated the cards we had, deciding we could give up the short hospital stay and labor under eight hours.

When the murmuring from the room died down, Missy spoke again. “Now, I want you to pick two more.”

We looked through our stack of cards again, weighing inducement and episiotomies against each other. Missy spoke again. “Now pick two more cards to throw out.” At the end of the exercise, we had two cards left in our hands: “healthy baby” and “healthy mom.”

“Birth can be different than what you imagine or expect,” Missy said. “And I don’t think you will have to throw out your entire stack of cards. But, if at the end of the day you have a healthy baby and a healthy mom, then that’s all that really matters.”

Later, in the car, my husband and I had a heated conversation about some of the choices we elevated differently. Somehow Missy’s words about the most important thing, the healthy mom and healthy baby, were lost on me.

//

God is a laboring mother, the book of Isaiah tells us. God has many hopes for the world God created; God wants the Kingdom to come, to wipe every tear from every eye.

When I look at the terrible beautiful world around me, it helps me to imagine that God feels pain at how this labor is going, it helps to know that God expects more for humanity than war, disease, and poverty. When I rub up against the inequality in the public schools where I tutor, when I hear a story about burned villages, when I read about another shooting in my city, I know this isn’t what God wants for this world.

It’s not what I expect, it’s not what I hope. But I have to remind myself that, despite this confusing labor, God will birth a healthy baby in the end. Though it comes in ways I don’t understand, God is bringing new life into the world.

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This is the second post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. To read the first post in the series, click here.

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God is a Laboring Mother

Birth

Moments after my first child was born.

I am seven months pregnant and it only recently occurred to me that I will have to push this baby out.

The details of my first labor are murky in my mind, like sludge at the bottom of an undisturbed pond. I haven’t stirred around in the muck since my daughter’s birth, but I know some of what it contains: fear of pain, lack of confidence in my body’s ability to progress through the stages of labor, an overall feeling of dread.

My first labor was nothing like I had expected. I had pumped myself up with natural birth literature: I was ready to enter labor like a woman warrior; a strong mama who knew her body was built for this. But at the end of my 54-hour labor, I felt broken down by the whole process. Wildly out of control. Weak.

When I finally held my newborn daughter in my arms, I felt like a failure for not meeting my own expectations. Those thoughts eventually flitted down to the bottoms as I rejoiced in a healthy, squishy baby girl. Praise God, we made it through.

But now I am facing down another birth and it’s time to dip back into the pond. There is a lot of mud I have to deal with, a lot of rocks. Because whether I like it or not, this baby has got to come out.

//

When people ask me why I am a Christian, one of the first answers I give is, “Because of the incarnation.” For those of you who are unfamiliar, the incarnation is the belief that God became a human in the form of Jesus and, thus, knows the ins and outs of being a person. It means God understands what it’s like to walk this earth, to feel hunger, to experience physical pain, to have mixed emotions. It makes God relatable to me in a way that the omniscient, omnipresent God somewhere in the sky can never be.

Jesus was a baby, a toddler and a teenager, a budding rabbi. He loved his friends, he partied with them and he wept with them. I pray to God knowing that he lived in skin just like mine, he yawned and had muscle cramps and drooled in his sleep.

But there is one point where the incarnation fails me: Jesus was a man. Sure, he was a marginalized man – from Nazareth, born to peasants, takes up wandering, is homeless – but still, Jesus will never fully understand my experiences as a woman. Most Biblical scholars would agree that God is neither male nor female, that God transcends gender. And there are depictions of God as female in the Bible: God is a mother hen gathering her chicks, God is a nursing mother, God is a nurturer.

Yet, when a friend recently shared a Bible verse with me, the one where God is compared to a laboring mother, I struggled. (“But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14)

Imagine though I tried, I fought this idea. God? Moaning and clenching and relaxing? Breathing as pain soars, as muscles seize, as fears rise? God, birthing a live, screaming baby?

//

As I stare down my third trimester of pregnancy, I know I need to get back into the pond and sift through the mud and rocks in the muck: the feelings of failure from my first birth, the fear, the dread.

Over the next few weeks, I will share reflections on God as a laboring mother in hopes of preparing for my second birth. I invite you to imagine with me, to embrace this image of God sweating in labor, to let yourself feel a little uncomfortable.

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On Spiritual Abuse

Hey everyone. I wrote a guest-post about my experience with spiritual abuse over at my friend Amy Peterson’s blog for her series on finding a second simplicity in faith. It’s a personal story, one that I continue to wrestle with.

 

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There was a time when I didn’t know if God was good. 

It was the summer I fell in with a group of fire-breathing Pentecostals and the summer I questioned the salvation of nearly every Christian I had ever met. It was the summer I interviewed migrants in a Kenyan refugee camp as an intern with the United Nations and the summer I nearly lost my mind from secondary trauma.

It was the summer when everything unraveled. My ideas of good and bad, true and untrue blurred into a swirling mess, a cyclone that ripped through the faith that had been growing steadily since childhood.

Some days I peer at the landscape of my faith and see the devastation that lingers even now, nine years later. It looks like the path a windstorm can wrack through an old-growth forest. It looks like a trail of downed trees. Sure, I can see regrowth among the broken limbs on the forest floor; I can see new saplings poking upward in sunlight. But I can’t help staring at all those snapped trunks and exposed roots, wondering at all that I lost in that storm.

Read the rest here.

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Ash Wednesday

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You were unprepared.

Chagrined, you look up the local Episcopal church website and discover the evening service is at 5:30 PM. Call your husband to see if he can stay home with your two-year-old daughter. You want to go alone.

Drive through the snow-packed streets to the stately stone building. You swing open the heavy oak doors and slip into the church. An elderly gentleman in the foyer hands you a bulletin as you enter the dark sanctuary, the stained glass glowing like a lit lantern. Your body slides onto a hard pew towards the back, the floorboards creaking under your feet. Tasteful mandolin and guitar chords strum the first lines of “What Wondrous Love is This.” The congregation sings heartily, the familiar notes soaring then falling.

It has been years since you last attended a liturgical service. Stand up, sit down. You stumble through the “Thanks be to God”s and “Glory to you Lord Christ”s, yet it feels good to be here.

The scriptures are read. Raving mad prophets, gentle Psalms. Everyone stands when the Gospel is carried to the center of the church. The priest reads the voice of Jesus, his Sermon on the Mount. You listen, believing and unbelieving. You are so thirsty.

She preaches a homily, words on ashes and death, about reconciliation to God and our neighbors. The person next to you pulls down the red velvety kneeler with a loud thwack and together you confess your sins. When it’s your turn, you come forward to receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sight of dark smudged foreheads in the congregation startles you when you turn around. You, too, bear that sign.

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Nothing stirs you, but you are glad you came. You rifle through the bulletin and check the time, wondering about what is happening at home. Communion is next.

You can’t remember the last time you took Communion. The tiny Mennonite church you attend now rarely offers the sacrament. In your high church days it was the service’s climax, the one thing required of you each and every Sunday. Can I take this cup? Can I eat this bread?

The priest prepares the table and launches into the familiar liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving: The Lord be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them to the Lord.

Your attention drifts during the long liturgy describing the Last Supper. But you snap back to present when the priest invites you back to the table, saying:

This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
 It is to be made ready for those who love God
 and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
 you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time, 
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
 Come, not because I invite you: it is God, and it is God’s will 
that you who want God should meet God here.

And that’s when it all hits you, the burning behind your eyes and sharp twinges in your nose. You give in and let the hot tears fall. You who have little, you who have failed, you who are woefully unprepared.

You walk forward and take what is yours, that bread dipped in wine.

*Photos by LifeCreations and  The Cleveland Kid, Creative Commons via Flickr

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