Letter to My Daughters: The Vulnerability of Our Bodies

Dear Baby Girls,

I never thought I would be so blessed as to be the mother of two beautiful, strong, smart daughters.  I thought that I would bear all boys, like your daddy’s mother before me, and continue the Larry family tradition.  But your daddy apparently has a talent for sharing his X-chromosomes, and so here we are, and I could not be any happier.Image result for body outline

I admit, though, that the knowledge that I am raising not one, but two girls to be self-confident women also gives me a certain level of anxiety.  I know how strong women are, but I also know that in our society, our bodies are vulnerable at times.  I can anticipate some of the experiences you’re likely to have because you are female-bodied.  I know what it’s like to get nervous at night walking from CVS Pharmacy to my car, clutching my keys in my right hand like they’re going to save me from an attacker. I know what it’s like to have to feel like I must justify my belonging in certain male-occupied spaces of Church and academy.  I know what it’s like to watch news of an election with tears streaming down my face because America put a sexual predator into office. And while I can relate to certain experiences you may have by virtue of the fact that I’m also a woman, I know you’ll have yet more experiences of marginalization particular to the discrimination you’ll face as women of color.

Recently, for the first time, I made a police report about an inappropriate action against my person. Making that report was the hardest thing I have ever done.  I was afraid of not being believed, of being mocked. I did it not because I wanted to press charges, not because I wanted revenge, but because I was thinking of you girls.  I was thinking about the mother I want to be for you and the example I want to set for you. In all I do, I want to live in a way that makes manifest these things:

I want you to know that I will always believe you.

I want you to know that your bodies belong only to you.

I want you to know that no one is entitled to touch you or speak about you in a way that disregards the indisputable fact that you are created in the image of God.

I want you to know that your instincts are good and right.

I want you to know that your bodies are not the problem.  The problem is the brokenness of systems and the sinfulness in human hearts—however you cast it—that abuses what is beautiful, good, and holy.

I want you to know you are beautiful, not because you have the right make-up or clothes or hair but because God made you and said, “She is good.

I want you to know that I will always love you, regardless of whether the choices you make of what to do with your body or with whom you share it are the same or different from the ones I have made.

I love you both so much. My heart breaks for the pain I know you’ll experience at some time or other, but it swells with joy for the life that you’ve already shared with me.

Love,

Your Mama

 

 

 

 

Why I Love Pregnancy

I write this post in awareness of the range of experiences people have concerning pregnancy and parenthood in general. I know that there are many ways of becoming parents, not all pregnancies are joyful, and that infertility and pregnancy/child loss are incredibly difficult paths that many friends of mine have walked.  In addition, many of my friends have found that parenthood is not part of their path to meaning and fulfillment!  This post merely represents my reflections on my own journey.

Recently a friend asked me to share why I love being pregnant.  4 months into my second pregnancy, I know definitively that the months of my life that I’ve spent pregnant have been some of those that I’ve felt most physically whole. While, to be honest, natural childbirth itself is something I’m still learning to appreciate (I don’t envy anyone who was in the room with me last time…), I’ve found deep meaning from the journey of pregnancy itself.

My pregnancy reminds me daily of the love and passion my husband and I have shared uniquely with each other. Our love isn’t always easy, and sometimes, in fact, it has been very difficult. Even with a relatively sound understanding of the biological processes involved, it remains the greatest miracle I’ve ever known that our love for each other can make a life.  I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Song of Songs, which is basically a love song between two people with no clear mention of God at all. Many people have speculated about its place in the Christian canon—especially because some of the imagery is pretty darn explicit.  But I think the canonizers of Scripture were really onto something.  The love between people—even eros–is a reflection, albeit sometimes a pale one, of the power of God’s love to give life abundant, life overflowing into more life, life that perseveres through death and darkness and begins sometimes with a baby’s cry.

The way my baby is cradled in my womb right now echoes the way God has always cradled the world from the moment of creation. In Genesis 1:2, at the very beginning of everything, the spirit of God “broods” over the world like a mother bird broods over her young. The first nine months of my child’s existence, all s/he knows is the feeling of being perfectly held within a life that provides everything for him/her.  Whatever I eat feeds my child.  Every breath I take gives life not only to me, but to him/her as well.  My body knows that it has to hold the little life within me until my baby is ready to survive on its own.

7 daysGod has used pregnancy to show me this dimension of the Spirit. If my body can care completely for a baby, giving him/her whatever is needed with little intentional input on my part, how much more does the God of the universe–perfect, wise, and loving–care for all of us, held within the divine embrace!  And while after nine months my body will send my little one into the world, we never need leave the enfolding of God’s own being.  In life, in death, and in life beyond death, we are still God’s children, lulled to peace by the sound of our divine parent singing over us with thanksgiving (Zephaniah 3:17).

Pregnancy, in which my body is not wholly or even primarily my own, is my first way to say to my child, “This is my body, broken for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24).  As I’ve found while parenting my first daughter from birth to toddlerhood, there are nearly infinite other moments in parenthood that demand a relinquishing of selfhood.  Pregnancy takes over my body and prepares me to give up the self-centeredness that has largely ruled my life.  It isn’t the same kind of bodily overtaking as power-based personal violence, even though both involve loss of control.  Pregnancy is an invitation to expand my body, heart, and soul.  Though it takes from me, it gives back to me. It offers freedom to love more than I ever thought I could.

I know that pregnancy matters. I walk through this journey for a second time knowingthat I give my body so that my child can have his/hers.  Moreover, I give my body in hopes that, by offering myself wholly, even wholly broken, I can prepare my child to live into the gift that Christ has already offered his body for all of us.

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Daughter: 1 Year

Dear Baby Girl,

I’m not often at a loss for words to write, but today, on the eve of your first birthday, the fullness of my heart isn’t easily confined to paper. It seems like yesterday when I was feeling those first contractions with excitement, wondering if this was the long-awaited kairos when you and I would meet face to face. It seems like yesterday that I was immobilized in the pain of active labor, unable to believe that life could come from something that felt so much like death. It seems like yesterday when I experienced the absolute joy and perfect relief of holding you for the first time, when I believed fully, maybe for the first time, that miracles are real.

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1 week old

But a year it has been. As I watch you now, fluffing your hair with your brush and tipsily standing by yourself, all while yelling, “HI, BABY!” to me, it’s hard to believe that it’s just been a year since you were a helpless bundle of poopy joy.   It’s hard to believe that it’s just been a year since we met, and I knew you were the one I’d been awaiting for 9 months. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since you’ve been the first and last waking thought of my day.

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One year old

Baby Girl, I could write all day long about all the ways you are fearfully and wonderfully made, created by God for good works. I could tell endlessly how proud I am of your every accomplishment. But for now, in this last letter to commemorate your first year of life, I simply want to say, “Thank you.”

Thank you for putting up with my parental incompetence (even though your seeming patience may be a function of your inexperience and relatively limited verbal skills).

Thank you for showing me that, as imperfect as I am, I have more patience, kindness, and strength than I knew.

Thank for you for awakening in me a love that could only reflect the nature of God’s parental love.

Thank you for reminding me the wonder of the ordinary, everyday miracles that I had forgotten or overlooked.

Thank you for making me into a mother.

Part of me may be a little wistful and weepy as you exit babyhood and rocket towards toddlerhood, but mostly, I’m just joyful today. I can’t wait to see the woman that every day leads you towards becoming.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter: “Is that baby yours?”

Dear Baby Girl,

On a random Saturday last month, your daddy and I visited Goodwill with you to donate the floor lamps that you’d nearly been toppling on yourself. While I browsed the linens section, your daddy headed off to look at the outdated VCRs (I bet you don’t know what those are).

And then a stranger stopped me and asked, “Is that baby yours?”

“Yes,” I responded simply.

But the stranger continued to give me a skeptical look until your daddy came over, providing the missing link to explain the hue of your skin.

“Oh,” the stranger said, satisfied at last.

Photo on 1-26-18 at 8.56 AMI have already lost count of the times in the last eleven months I’ve had this conversation. There are a few forms of it with varying levels of offensiveness—people asking the race of your daddy, wondering if you’re “Indian,” calling you “Moana,” or saying that biracial babies are the prettiest. I worry that, eventually, these nosy strangers will convince you that you are the strange one. Here’s the truth:

What is strange is the assumption that racial homogeneity makes a family. When your daddy and I laid eyes on each other almost five years ago, we knew full well that he’s black and I’m white. But primarily, we saw in each other a person we wanted to know and be known by more than anybody else in the whole world. We knew that our biracial kids would face ignorant questions from people who don’t understand the richness of life that we experience. But we weren’t afraid to become a family.

What is strange is the assumption inherent in the question that biology makes a person a mother. Right now, I know at least 3 families in our community who are currently in the adoption process. When the adopted children come home and the families are united, the adoptive parents will be parents, no less than parents who fuse sperm and egg to make a baby.

Here’s the thing, Baby Girl. Families aren’t made because their melanin glues them together or because a baby grows within a mother’s body. Families are made because somebody says, “No matter what happens, no matter what you do, how no matter how we change, I’ll still be there for you.” That’s how I’ve felt about you since the moment I knew you existed. So even though one day you’ll be all grown up, and you may not feel like my baby any more, I will always be your mother.

One day, when you’re old enough to talk and express your opinions even more than you do already, someone will probably walk up to you and say, “What are you?” You can say whatever feels right to you in response. It isn’t your job to explain your story to them, because it isn’t any of their business to ask. And more fundamentally, the phrasing of the question reflects a construct of race as far more static and determinative than we know it to be. Because here’s who you really “are”:

You are beautiful. You are beloved. You are the creation of the love of God and two parents who love each other deeply. You have been so very wanted since before you were even born.

That’s who you are. And yes, I am so very proud to be your mother.

Love,

Your Mama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Daughter: Home

Dear Baby Girl,

You just turned 10 months old. Earlier this week, we spent Christmas in one of the more unlikely places I’ve come to call home: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta that was overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, and I was unprepared for the neighborhood of inner city Milwaukee where your daddy grew up. One of the first times your daddy got really irritated with me was when I tried to pet a pit bull stationed at a neighboring house. “Don’t touch that dog!” he told me. “He hasn’t been raised to be a pet.” That neighborhood was the last place I thought I belonged.

But in your grandparents’ house at 30th and Hampton, I found a grace I hadn’t expected. When I met your grandparents, I encountered a welcome that astounded me.   “As long as you’re here, you’re our family,” they told me, back when your daddy and I were just dating. As soon as your daddy and I got married, they called me “Daughter.”   I didn’t regard my trips to Milwaukee as an exercise of spousal duty, but instead anticipated the return to the safe haven where I was fully known and fully loved.

Christmas day this year, I passed through the threshold of the house on 30th and Hampton not like a stranger, but like the prodigal returning. It felt like coming back to where I belonged after a long exile. “Welcome home,” your uncle said to me as I walked in. I realized that he was right—somehow, by the grace of God, that place had become my home, and yours too.

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There’s a lot of history there. The fireplace mantle roughly outlines the story of the lives that unfolded there—baby photos, triumphant graduates, prom dates, wedding, grandchild (that’s you!). There’s the wall where the tennis and wrestling trophies, musical awards, and team photos showcase the pride of two parents. There’s the poem about selfless marriage love that chronicles the forty years your grandparents spent together on this side of heaven.   There are the dents and scratches in the floor and the walls made by the brothers’ (mainly, I gather, your daddy’s) misdeeds. There are the semi-functional control pads with which your daddy and his brothers battled for Super Mario supremacy. There’s the weight of memory that this was the first house to which your daddy and his younger brother came home and also the place where your grandma died. It’s been one of my life’s greatest honors to be woven into the history of that house not only through marrying your daddy, but also through the love your grandparents and uncles have extended freely to me.

When I think about the home we want to make for you, I think about the house on 30th and Hampton. It’s not so much about the physical house, but about the capacity of a place and a people to brim with so much life. It’s about the potential of a family to stick fiercely together through hard times and good, and yet to welcome strangers like your mommy with hearts and arms wide open. It’s about faith that builds a foundation for everything else, so that when the unthinkable happens, the home may shudder for a moment, but it never falls down. It’s about a place where you are fully known and fully loved.

If we make a home like that for you, we will have done well.

Love,

Your Mommy

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Daughter: Pain

Dear Baby Girl,

You’re 9 months old now, and you are nothing but a joy.  You babble constantly, interspersing a few words intelligible to me in the midst of your own private language.  You crawl and try to stand up.  You enchant everyone you meet with your vivacious personality and cuteness.

I wish I could say that in this season, all I’m doing is relishing in your adorableness.  The truth is, Baby Girl, that I’m in a season of unexpected pain.  I wake up in the morning feeling its heaviness descend on me before I even remember what caused it.  I go to bed wondering if the next day will be the same.

I’m learning how to be a parent in this season.  I never meant to let you see me cry.  Of course, when you were born and I held you while the midwives repaired the carnage, crying was pretty much the first thing you ever saw me do.  At first, I didn’t mind crying in front of you, because I realized that you didn’t notice the difference. But now, as I see the glimmers of empathy emerging in your character, I worry.  Will letting you see me cry scar you?  Will it make you feel like I don’t love you enough?

The other day, you and I were sitting at the table, eating our lunch, and I started crying.  You looked at me curiously, as if to say, “What’s the matter, Mommy?” I said to you, “Mommy’s fine, Baby Girl.  Nothing’s wrong.”

Then I realized that was complete bull#$%@.  I was lying to you about my feelings. The last thing I want to teach you is that you have to pretend everything is okay.  I don’t want you to think that the only acceptable feelings are those that are social media-worthy.  I study biblical lament, after all…what was I thinking?

So here’s what I want you to learn from me, for those moments of your life when you, too, will climb emotional mountains you never thought you’d face.

I want you to know that there’s no shame in your tears.  I’m guessing that you, like me, carry big emotions.  While not every moment may be the most opportune for their expression, your feelings are worthy.  Empower yourself to find the space in your life to let them run their course.

I want you to know that we worship a God with whom we can entrust the totality of our beings, who does not wince in fear or disgust at the sight of our most jagged places of brokenness.  God does not reject our grief, but holds it and shares it in his own being.  In taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, God committed to sharing fully in an existence marred by pain of all kinds.  We can trust the Christ who cried, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” not only to accept our deepest hurts but also to weep along with us.

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I want you to know that no matter how long or painful the night is, morning is coming. Sometimes the movement of our God is almost imperceptible, like that moment when the world hovers between winter and spring–winter’s chill is still in the air even while the first flowers of spring are blossoming.  But even now, I believe the final victory over all that breaks us is already won, and the full unfolding of God’s restoration will come upon us.

Next time you see me crying, I’ll say to you, “I’m not okay right now, Baby Girl. But one day, all will be well.”  And I’ll hold you in my arms until the tears pass.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter: Brave

Dear Baby Girl,

You’re now 8 months old. You do so many things now—use the baby signs for “more,” say words like “Daddy” and “dog,” scoot your way around the kitchen, and, my personal favorite, eat Cheerios.

Everybody can see the transformation in you. But the transformation in me has been less obvious to outsiders. It’s mainly just something that I feel and know within myself.

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Courage has never been one of my foremost characteristics; I’ve tended towards anxiety and over-caution. I have also been avoidant, as I hate conflict, especially with people whom I perceive as being more powerful than I.

I may be a nervous wreck sometimes where you’re concerned (by the way—I need you to stop trying to crawl into the dishwasher), but on the whole, I approach my interactions with people differently because of you. When I think back to people who, quite frankly, used to terrify me, the idea of them doesn’t intimidate me any more. Honestly, I’d like to see them try to get in my way when you’re with me.

While you’re in my arms, I feel like Superwoman.

It started when I was in labor with you. While your daddy and I were at the birth center getting ready to meet you, I was scared. I kept telling everyone who would listen that I couldn’t give birth to you, that I was afraid that it would hurt. (Ha.) But then the midwife told me that I could push, and suddenly I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew that I had the power to bring you into the world, and I was determined to give you life right then and there. So I did.

Knowing that you are with me makes me so much braver than I’ve ever been on my own. I can make harder decisions, have more honest conversations, and be brutally aware of who I really am. Thank you for helping me be brave.

Love,

Your Mama

Sermon: When There’s No Comfort

I had the great honor of preaching today at Glencliff Presbyterian Church.  The texts were Lamentations 1:11-22 and John 11:33-37.  Here’s what I said, more or less…

A few weeks ago, my husband Will, my baby, and I all got a cold at the same time. I sent Will on an emergency Kleenex run to Wal-Mart, and he brought back a three-pack of boxes, which turned out to be just barely enough to go ‘round. The three boxes were wrapped in plastic coating that read, charmingly, “Hard Times Call for a Soft Touch.”

And that got me thinking. I’ve noticed a strange thing about many people. The second you start crying, they press a Kleenex box into your hands. I’m sure they have the best intentions. They want to spare you the embarrassment of having actual tears drop and potentially running your mascara while also offering you the pretense that you’re not actually crying.

Now, me, I’m not a Kleenex girl. The only reason Kleenexes enter the picture when I’m crying is if my nose gets involved, because nothing is less cute than crying that causes leakage from all facial orifices at the same time. And well-intentioned as it is, when a spectator hands me a Kleenex box, I just want to shove it right back to them.

Here’s my theory. Most of the time, when somebody’s crying, they’re past the point when Kleenexes are really helpful. No, we press Kleenexes into the hands of our weeping neighbors because tears make us uncomfortable.

Our discomfort with tears helps explain why the book of Lamentations doesn’t show up much in church. Sometimes we read it a little bit on Good Friday. But many people primarily encounter Lamentations in the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” which sums up the most hopeful verses of the book. That hymn is one of my favorites, but there’s yet more to Lamentations that we need to explore. In the first chapter of Lamentations, the poet repeats some variation of the phrase “there is no comforter” several times. There are situations in life when comfort is unthinkable in the short-term. Sometimes being inconsolable is the appropriate response to tragedy. These are the moments when we need to lament.

I can’t choose just one example. 58 people die of gunshot wounds at a Las Vegas music festival and around 500 more are wounded. Two teenagers lose their mother in a church shooting in our own backyard. Rallies in Charlottesville celebrate white supremacy. And in our individual lives, deadly disease, pregnancy loss, divorce, bereavement, or other personal tragedy strike each one of us at some point. In those moments, a comforter is far from us.

But sometimes we simply don’t know how to lament, and that’s not really our fault. Our predecessors haven’t done a great job teaching us how. For instance, in classical Athens, the great statesman Solon outlawed the practice of lament in the city. That classical suspicion of lament carried over into Christian culture. Basil of Caesarea, one of the great fathers of the Church, called lament “an indecency practiced among the ungodly.” Our own John Calvin warned against “men being carried away into excesses in their mourning, as frequently happens.” And get this—John Chrysostom, another church father, called lament “this disease of women.” Not a vote of confidence.

Even though many of our forbearers were skeptical of the concept, Lamentations still made its way into our canon. Lamentations is a book of the bible that consists of 5 chapters, each one of which is a poem. These poems are responses to Jerusalem’s sacking by the Babylonian empire in the 6th century BCE. When the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, they not only took over the city, but they also destroyed the temple of God. That was the temple that Solomon had built during better times in the Israelite monarchy. And to make things even worse, the Babylonians took many people from Judah into exile. There had never been such a great national catastrophe before.

That’s why the first line of Lamentations is just a single word: “How?” Lamentations wrestles with the question of how God could let the destruction happen, and of how people are supposed to piece their lives back together. Large sections of the first two chapters of Lamentations, including the part we just read, are put in the mouth of a woman named Zion. She is the personification of the city of Jerusalem. Zion represents both the physical city of Jerusalem that had recently been destroyed and its people, who had been forced into exile. She’s portrayed as a bereaved mother, whose children have died from starvation or violence, and as a survivor of sexual assault, who experienced the Babylonian invasion as a violation of her own body.

Zion is determined to make God understand exactly how catastrophe has shattered her. From Zion’s perspective, God is at fault for the death of her children and the pain she is experiencing. And that’s why Lamentations fascinates me. Even though Zion directly accuses God of attacking her and killing her children, the book still belongs in the sacred canon of Scripture. And furthermore, we can understand Zion’s complaints against God as a prayer. Even though it hurts to put language to the terrible situation she’s going experiencing, Zion bravely stays in relationship with God.

My interpretation of Zion’s role is different from many scholars’ I’ve studied. Many commentators conclude that Lamentations condemns Zion for her sinful behavior. I disagree, or at least think that the situation is more complicated. While Zion is on the hot seat at times, mostly, the poet approaches Zion with compassion. She’s shown as a sympathetic figure, much like you or me, who may well have done nothing to cause her suffering. Lamentations struggles to understand why Zion is in pain. And the book affords Zion the chance to speak for herself.

When Zion speaks, she says that she has rebelled. I want to suggest that the rebellion to which Zion admits is a rebellion against the idea of a God who uses war crimes, children’s innocent suffering, assault, and starvation as fair punishment. No matter what sin Zion could have committed, a just and loving God would not use those atrocities in judgment against her.

The notions of God rejected by Zion are ones that I deeply believe constitute a barrier to healthy relationship with God. They wound people and distort the character of God’s heart. Like Zion, we need to rebel against ideas of God that are like that. Sometimes, people say things like, “God took your baby because he needed another angel,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” People who say those things usually mean well, but when we’re honest, why would a God who is all-powerful need a mother’s baby? Isn’t a mother’s need to hold her child in her arms far greater? And how could God possibly expect anyone to “handle” a tragedy like the death of a child? Those kinds of statements idolize a false god who is less than the perfectly loving and mighty parent that we know God to be. Rebellion against those kinds of ideas about God is not just okay—it’s theologically imperative.

Zion rebels against broken theologies so she can move towards healthy relationship with the true God of the universe, who can give her what she really needs. Now, in my experience of relationships, I’ve found it can be challenging to ask for what we really need. My husband Will and I have been married for two-and-a-half years, and as much as we are besottedly in love with each other, our relationship has had its challenging moments. When I was pregnant with our daughter, we learned the true meaning of “hanger”: that is, hunger plus anger. I kept finding myself bating Will into pointless arguments. On one of the many occasions I regret, I remember criticizing Will’s kitchen-cleaning ability, and ending my tirade with the exclamation, “AND I’m hungry!” Will responded, “Well, why didn’t you say that first? How am I supposed to know what you really need?” Truth be told, all I needed was Chinese vegetable fried rice. But often in relationships, it’s often hard to articulate what we need to the ones we love the most.

Lamentations is spiritually powerful because in it, Zion shows us what kind of God we need in tragedy. Her lament is an unusual kind of prayer. For most of the lament, she doesn’t ask God for anything you’d expect—deliverance for herself or her children, the restoration of Jerusalem, or even food to eat. Instead, she asks God repeatedly to see her. In the short passage of Lamentations that we read, Zion asks for God to see her multiple times. In verse 11, two different Hebrew verbs command God to take notice. Zion says to God, “Look and see!” And then again in verse 20, she says, “See, Lord, how distressed I am!”

Zion’s plea for God to see her is something I think we can all relate to. When we’re suffering, it’s easy to feel invisible. The rest of the world keeps motoring along, just business as usual, and no one seems to notice that tragedy has us stopped in our tracks. When people ask us how we are, most of the time, we say, “Fine,” when inwardly, we wish more than anything that someone would dig just a little deeper and discover the truth that things are not okay. And when we’re a few degrees removed from tragedy, it’s so much easier to close ourselves off to the pain others are feeling than to truly see them and put ourselves in their shoes.

Unknown In 2016, the week after another mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, one of the most moving responses I saw was Anderson Cooper’s homage to victims on his CNN show. In the video, Cooper slowly read the names and ages of each of the 49 fatally shot victims while their faces played across the screen. That video made me feel personally connected to the shooting for the first time. By watching it, I saw the people who died, and that seeing transformed my abstract knowledge of their deaths into a personal reality. Seeing is powerful.

And though we want and need people to see us as we really are, we need God to see us even more. I’d contend that in moments of tragedy, what we need most is a God who sees us. For those of us who believe in God, it’s not so much that we need to see evidence of God’s existence; it’s that we need for God to acknowledge the realities of our existence. I’ll say that again: we need to see evidence of God’s existence less than we need for God to acknowledge the realities of our existence.

There’s only one time in the Hebrew Bible that a person has the privilege of assigning a name to God. And that’s in Genesis, when Hagar, the shamed and banished concubine of Abraham, encounters God in the wilderness.  God saves the lives of Hagar and her young son Ishmael by pointing them to water. And in response, Hagar gives God a new name: El-Ro’i, “God who sees me.” When Hagar was invisible to Abraham and Sarah, so much so that they exiled her into the wilderness to die alongside her precious child, God still saw Hagar. God still cared to find out what Hagar really needed.

In Lamentations, Zion demands that God take a long look at her, because we so desperately need a God who sees us. We need a God who sees us as we truly are. We need a God who strips away the masks we put on when we say “I’m fine” but really our hearts are breaking. We need a God who recognizes just how devastating our reality is and who refuses to look away.

I don’t at all wish to suggest that the New Testament neatly ties up the loose ends of the questions that Zion raises in Lamentations. But I do believe that in Jesus Christ, we encounter a God who really sees us. In our passage from John for today, the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are dear friends of Jesus. And while Jesus is away traveling, Lazarus dies. When Jesus finally makes it to the scene, Lazarus has already been dead three days. Like Zion in Lamentations, Mary and Martha want Jesus to see the tragedy that has struck them. They say, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus does see. And when he sees, he weeps. Jesus’ weeping doesn’t solve the two sisters’ unanswered question of why Jesus delayed in coming to Lazarus’ side. It doesn’t erase Mary and Martha’s painful memory of their brother’s death. But Jesus’ weeping does show us what Immanuel, “God with us,” truly means. God sees our reality, no matter how terrible, and will not look away.

The book of Lamentations is structured like a conversation. Different characters speak at different points. And so today, I want to continue that conversation. If I could speak to Woman Zion today, I would say, “Sister, you don’t have to be comforted today. You don’t have to be okay today. You can be mad at God today. And all that is alright. You are so brave for naming aloud the truths of your life. Thank you for giving us permission to do the same thing. Thank you for insisting that God see you.”

And for all of us here today, I want us to remember that God is everything to us. We believe in a God…

who spoke the universe into being.

whose mighty hand and outstretched arm delivered God’s people from slavery.

who raised Jesus from the dead and whose power lives in us.

But I don’t think that’s all we need to hear about God today. We believe in a God made known…

in the grieving of mothers who have lost their children.

in the songs of protest of people who will no longer be silenced.

in the tears Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend.

and above all else, in Jesus’ broken body on a cross.

Friends, I wait in certain expectation of the day when the new creation will come upon us to comfort us, when every tear will wiped from our eyes. The story ends with the tombs of our broken lives as empty as the tomb of the risen Christ. But right now we’re on a journey through the Valley. And until that day of new creation comes, when the captives are released, the blind have their sight, and the oppressed go free, God sees us. God is lamenting with us.

Dear Baby Girl: Everything I Want

Dear Baby Girl,

On Friday, I took you and Arlo the dog for a stroll around the apartment complex. You were snuggled in your carrier, and you drifted off to sleep, resting your 99th percentile head on my chest.

We passed a woman and her partner going from their apartment to their car. I smiled and asked how they were, as I’m trying to program myself to do. As they got into their car, I heard the woman saying, “That girl has everything I want right there.”

I almost laughed. The woman couldn’t be serious. She was immaculately dressed and made up. I was wearing a ratty, 10-year-old T-shirt covered in the spinach you hypothetically ate for lunch, milk stains, and possibly other substances too terrible to mention. The woman looked well-rested. I look like someone who’s been conditioned to wake up at 3 A.M. every night, whether or not the baby is sleeping. Her car and accessories suggested relative affluence. Our bank account suggests that the next unexpected medical or auto bill would be very bad news indeed.

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But I think she was serious. She saw (or maybe imagined) a sliver of my life, and something about it resonated deeply with what she wants and hopes for herself. And when I took a telescopic view, I could understand. I think she saw a picture of love, family, and letting each other be enough.

Baby Girl, you are so wonderful. Arlo is so wonderful. Your daddy is so wonderful. When I’m honest, though, I have to admit that I’ve always looked ahead to the next thing, idealized what I didn’t have and underappreciated what I did. I’ve been in a season of wishing-away. I’ve wished for a time when your daddy and I aren’t both in graduate school and can earn salaries commensurate with our education, for a time when I can get more work done, for a time when you can walk and my shoulders are less sore.

At our wedding, we read 1 Corinthians 13, one verse of which says in part, “[Love] always protects.” I don’t remember much of what our pastor, Matt, preached in his homily, but I will always remember him saying,

Always protect what you’ve got right now.

Right now—not some fictional tomorrow when we’re less tired, less easily frustrated with each other, and less financially tenuous.

“Right now” is so precious. Your daddy and I have a strong and exciting relationship, a beautiful and smart child, and a dog who derpily loves us. We have a safe apartment and enough food to eat. We have $6 dates, Netflix marathons, and long talks on our porch. We are able to work towards fulfilling careers while also spending lots of time at home with you. And we have a community that treats us like its flesh and blood.

Forgive me when I forget the beauty of this moment. It’s everything I want.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter: Starting a Job

Dear Baby Girl,

Tomorrow is my first faculty orientation. I’ll learn how to enter grades, get my first ID that says “Faculty” on it, and probably hear a lot of school policies that I’ll forget in roughly 3 minutes. None of those things worry me. What worries me is that for the first time, I’ll miss your entire day. Your daddy will choose your outfit, make sure you get your “milkies” and apple puree, take you on errands, and deal with the requisite diaper blowouts. Meanwhile, I’ll be on 24-E driving to the seminary on the mountain.

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When I first heard about this job, I almost didn’t apply for it. And then I applied for it, but when I got the offer, I almost didn’t take it. I told myself I shouldn’t take the job because you need me too much. But let’s be real, Debbie Joy—we both know that isn’t totally true. We both know you have a daddy who will rearrange his schedule to meet your needs and to make my professional dreams come true.

The truth is that I will miss you so much that it scares me. For 39 weeks and 6 days, I carried you in my womb, and I loved every moment (okay, maybe I didn’t love the last few moments so much).  I knew exactly where you were and that I was doing exactly what you needed. Ever since you made your speedy exit, you’ve been inching away from me: You learned to take a bottle from your daddy when needed; you learned to sleep without me; you learned to roll away from me. One day soon, I think you’ll be on the move for real. And I’ll learn more and more to accept that you’re Debbie Joy all on your own—you don’t need me to do your living for you.

Sometimes I ask myself why I work outside the home, when I see so many mamas thriving while home full-time with their babies. I want to be like them. But I think the answer is that I’m not sure I’ll be 100% me if I am home 100% of the time. God made me your mama, and God also made me passionate about teaching, researching, and writing. While being your mama is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, I’m worried that if I feel like I’m only getting to be 80 or 90% myself, the other 20 or 10% might cause a whole heck of a lot of trouble. When I go away, it’s so I can come back and be more “there” for you than I was before.

And I also go away because the teaching, researching, and writing I do are to help make the world a better place for you and children like you. I want you to grow up in a world where Christians like your daddy and me use the Bible to build each other up, to create community, and to do justice and love kindness. I teach so people can understand how to use the Bible like that.

And I go away because I want you to see me and believe that you can do anything. I want you to know that you can grow up and have kids or not, and you can be a stay at home mom or not. I want you to know that you can be a philosopher or an engineer or a chef or President of the USA (although right now, that bar is set pretty low). You can be whatever God calls you to be. (Just please, please, please don’t decide you want to play in the NFL or be an MMA fighter. That would put my feminist convictions to the test.) When you look back on your childhood, I want you to remember me as an empowered woman and know that you can be empowered, too.

Here’s what I’ll do tomorrow. I’ll do my job, and I’ll do it in a way that I hope will make you proud of me one day when you’re bigger. I will look at pictures of you all day. I’ll check my classy flip phone to see if your daddy texts me any updates about you. I’ll worry and I’ll wonder and I’ll wait until I can press your round, smooth cheek against mine again. And I’ll trust that your daddy and God don’t need me to tell them how to care for you.

But I’ll miss you more than you can fathom.

Love,

Your Mama