A Sermon: Dandelions in Concrete

I am honored to preach on occasion at various churches in the Nashville area. I delivered this sermon at Brookmeade Congregational Church on March 17, 2019.  My texts were Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:31-35.

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I want to tell you about my good friend Josh. Josh was living a successful life with his wife and two beautiful children in Los Angeles. He was on the brink of a big breakthrough in his work as a Gospel music composer—he was close to releasing an album. And then he heard God call him to move, of all places, to Nashville, to launch a church that would bring together people of difference races to worship God. He’d gotten this idea from Jesus’ prayer right before his death in the Gospel of John—Jesus prays that his disciples may be as one as he and the Father are one…and so Josh imagined planting a church in Nashville where people of all races would become one body in ministry. It was a beautiful vision.
Well, Josh acted on faith and moved his whole family to Nashville. Unfortunately, that’s when things started to go awry. His wife just didn’t like Nashville as much as California. His kids were teased in their new school. And to make things even worse, well, his church launch didn’t go exactly the way he planned for it to go. He just couldn’t find enough people to keep the church going. Less that two years after Josh planted the church, it shut its doors for the last time.

“What in the world, God?” Josh wondered. “Why did I have to move all the way out here from California, to a city my family doesn’t even like that much, away from the place that I loved and where I was successful, to plant a church that ultimately turned out to be kind of an embarrassing flop? Why was I faithful to the word I heard you say to me when you weren’t faithful to me in return?”

Josh’s story reminds of Abram’s. Abram has already acted on faith to leave his home and go to a land that God has promised him. What’s more, God has promised Abram to fill this land with Abram’s own descendants. In Genesis 13, God promised Abram, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring can also be counted.” In other words, Abram’s descendants will be plentiful enough to fill the entire land of Canaan; they’ll be innumerable. I can’t even count all the specks of dust on top of my ceiling fan…forget the dust of the earth! Abram has taken God’s promise seriously and has set out. He faithfully builds an altar and worships God, trusting that God’s promises will come true.

But there’s just one problem: Abram remains childless. Like he says in 15:2, if things don’t change, a slave in his house, who isn’t even related to him, will end up inheriting Abram’s land and everything else that belongs to him.

We know from later in the narrative that Abram will have to be reminded of God’s reliability. Abram will end up impregnating his wife’s slave, Hagar, and Hagar will bear a son, Ishmael, so Abram has a backup plan in case God doesn’t follow through. As a side note, I believe that it’s irresponsible to read these texts without a critical eye to the history of race relations in our country, from the Transatlantic slave trade until today. We have to be cognizant both of how slavery was part of the ideology of biblical writers and how more recent interpreters have shaped our own prejudices using biblical texts.
But for today, my point is that even after receiving God’s promise to him, Abram doubts. He tries to wrest control of his future from God. Honestly, I don’t blame him for doubting. Abram had to wait a long time for God’s promise that he would become a father by Sarah to be fulfilled—25 long years, in fact. I have trouble waiting at the DMV for 25 minutes…I can’t imagine having the patience to wait 25 years for God to fulfill a promise.
And I can empathize with the pain Abram must have experienced while he was waiting. I imagine he asked, much like my friend Josh, “Why God? Why did you bring me here to this strange land and tell me that I’d fill it with children, only to still be childless all these years later? Are you really a God who keeps promises? If you weren’t going to follow through, why did you get my hopes up in the first place? Do you care about me at all?”
Have you ever walked through a season like that, when you acted in faith in response to God’s promises, but God’s faithfulness didn’t seem to live up to your expectations? I know I have, and it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Lost jobs, empty bank accounts, broken relationships, dashed dreams, debilitating illnesses, death too soon—I’m sure that every one of us has stared down at least one of these.
Sometimes I wish that God were like a vending machine. I would insert my prayers in the slot, and out my desires would come, fully formed, like a cold lemonade on a hot summer day. But we know that life often doesn’t go like that. God’s promises take time to unfold and often manifest themselves in ways quite different from what we could have imagined. Instead of dispensing our vending machine order, God gives us something else: God give us the Divine presence in every aspect of our lives. God shows up in ways different than we could possibly have imagined…in ways that we could never have chosen for ourselves.
I think that’s what’s going on in the weird scene that closes our Genesis reading. Now, I’m a recovering vegetarian, and frankly, the imagery of the animals sliced in half disturbs me. However, in ancient Israelite religion, this slicing of the animals came to be synonymous with God’s commitment to fulfill promises to us. In fact, while English Bibles usually say that God “makes” a covenant, a more literal translation of the Hebrew is that God “cuts” a covenant. This is the first instance in the Hebrew Bible where such a cutting of a covenant takes place. God meets Abram in his doubt, in this awkward season between promise and fulfillment. The text says that a “great fear” comes upon Abram. God’s very presence, the theophany, comes in this moment of deepest fear. Fire, synonymous with the spirit of God, rushes down the aisle of sliced animals to confirm for Abram that God will do as he has promised.
dandelion-729693_960_720The awkward, uncomfortable place between promise and fulfillment might be where we bloom this Lent season. When I was a small child, riding my tricycle up and down the driveway of our house, I used to stop and stare at the dandelions growing in the cracks of the cement. While everything else around it was hard and stagnant, somehow a little seed had the audacity to grow and bloom into a flower, and even make the cracks in the driveway even bigger by pressing out with its roots. Those dandelions used to drive my dad crazy. He’d recruit my three siblings and me to come to the driveway with him to pull up the weeds from the cracks. Frankly, I thought then and I still think today that he was fighting a losing battle. Because dandelions don’t give up easily. They find ways to thrive. They array themselves with such a majestic white puff for their seeds, that children can’t resist blowing them on the wind. “DON’T BLOW THE DANDELION SEEDS!” my dad would tell us every spring. “Then we’ll have dandelions all over our driveway again!” But, as children do, we didn’t listen to him.
We’re in the second Sunday of Lent, which also coincides this year with the transition from winter to spring. Flowers are just starting to embolden themselves enough to bloom, even while we’re still having some chilly days. This season of Lent, this time of self-searching, feels a lot to me like my parents’ old, cracked driveway. It’s a spiritual wilderness. It’s a time when we’re not yet sure if God’s promises to us are going to come true, in spite of how we feel we’ve planted all our faith in God’s mercies. I want to be like the dandelions that bloom in the driveway, but I don’t always know how. How do we bloom in this awkward desert season?

Abram bloomed because he encountered God in a way he wasn’t expecting. Maybe the same can be true of us too. Maybe we can encounter God in ways we’re not used to or we hadn’t imagined. One of the many things I love about the Bible is the wide range of names and titles and images it gives us for God… Alpha and Omega, Creator, Healer, Potter, Lover, King, Shepherd, Father…just to name a few. We probably gravitate to a few images of God that make us feel safe and loved, metaphors that mend us in the places that we’re broken. Those metaphors are good and worthy and right…and yet they don’t sum up God all the way. As 1 Corinthians 13 says, “We know only in part.” Genesis tells us that we are all made “in the image of God”…but just as God created us, we create our own images of God as well. In those desert seasons when we’re struggling to bloom, we often bump against the edges, the limits of our metaphors. It may turn out that the concrete that’s limiting our growth is actually an image of God that we’ve allowed to turn into stone.
Sometimes, when we’re stuck in a spiritual slab of concrete, it might take some re-working of our images of God to start blooming again. We need something to help us broaden the crack in the concrete, so there’s space for us to stretch our roots and come to terms with a God who transcends all limits. It’s just such an image that Jesus offers in Luke 13. This passage is often called “Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem,” because in it, he’s looking at a city he loves so deeply but that is experiencing so much brokenness. Many scholars think that at the time of Luke’s writing, the Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish practice, had only recently been destroyed by the Romans. So the words of Jesus’ lament would have resonated deeply with his contemporary audience.

Jesus picks a strange self-characterization in the passage. Let’s listen to what he says one more time: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Excuse me, what did you say? Jesus is comparing himself to a CHICKEN? Like a Chick-Fil-A, “eat more chicken” chicken? A mother hen, who pecks and scolds and keeps eggs warm under her posterior?

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Yes, he is. A chicken. A mother hen. The Son of God, the light of the world, the Messiah, Immanuel, the Alpha and Omega, is like a mother hen. How’s that for an image to shake up your understanding of the Divine?

This isn’t the first time in the Bible that God is characterized in avian or maternal terms. Consider Genesis 1, right when God is starting to create the world. The story, translated into English, reads that the spirit of God is “hovering” or “brooding” over the waters. The word in Hebrew, merahefet, is the same word that’s used of the activities of mother birds! So from the beginning of the God-story all the way to Jesus’ ministry, we’re invited to think about God, and then God-in Christ, as a mother hen who pecks, scolds, and keeps eggs warm under her posterior.

Now, I’m not a mother hen, but I am a mother. I have two daughters. I was trying so hard to break the preacher stereotype and not talk about them today, but here it’s coming anyway. Two years ago, my older daughter Debbie was born. There I was, holding this helpless little bundle of joy that I had no idea what to do with. I told my husband, “WILL. I THINK WE’VE MADE A MISTAKE. WE’RE NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT.” But make it we have, so far…at least through two years and the addition of another baby. Here’s the crazy thing about motherhood: I will be the first to tell you that I don’t have my life all together and that I am an imperfect mother. Case in point: last Friday, I thought I’d lost my keys for good, until my daughter finally said, “MOMMY. YOUR KEYS ARE STILL IN THE CAR.” But in spite of that, the way I have managed to be reliable for my children frankly amazes me. My toddler has always gotten her dinner, taken her bath, put on PJs, and gone to bed. When I drop her off at preschool, I ask her, “Debbie, when will Mommy come get you?” and she confidently responds, “AFTER NAP!” When she falls down on the playground, loses her stuffed pig, or gets an imaginary boo-boo on her finger, her declaration is always the same, “MOMMY, I NEED TO HOLD YOU!” Somehow, even being the imperfect, scatter-brained, impatient human mother that I am, I have inspired confidence in my daughter that I will take care of her, no matter what. I often think of Matthew 7:11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” I’m no perfect mother—but if even a mother as flawed as I am can show up for her babies—how much more will God show up for us?

Perhaps today the idea of Jesus as a mother, at least as a parent, is an image that can help us bloom. Like a mother, Jesus weeps over the hurts of those he loves. Like a mother, Jesus gathers us at the table. Like a mother, Jesus breaks his body to give us life. Like a mother, Jesus promises, “I will be with you, come what may.” Like a mother, blood and water flow out of Jesus as a he births us into new life at the cross.

I offer this image of God in Christ today—as a mother who births, sustains, and advocates for her children—in hopes that it may help some of us to bloom in the desert season of Lent. Perhaps for some of us, the image of Christ as a mother can remind of us of God’s great faithfulness to us. Perhaps it can remind of us of God’s gentleness towards us, and thus encourage us to be more gentle towards ourselves. Perhaps it can remind us, that, like a mother, Christ will spare no pain to give us life.

But maybe that image of God is painful or irrelevant for you. If that’s the case, I still invite you to consider the many images of God present in the Bible. If you are in a season of spiritual wilderness, ask God to reveal holy presence to you in new ways. Pray for the eyes to experience God-with-us, as you wait in the awkward season between promise and fulfillment.
Have you ever seen the cross-stitch patterns—or, for any millennials in the room, memes—that say, “Bloom where you’re planted?” It’s a cliché, but jaded millennial though I may be, I’m here today just to say, sometimes clichés have a point. This desert of Lent might be the time when we find out that even before the promise comes true, even before we get that breakthrough, that good news we’ve been waiting for, that relationship that brings us companionship, that scan that the cancer is in remission, we can still bloom. We can bloom because we can experience the presence of God in our lives…in new ways, in unexpected ways, in ways we hadn’t ever thought to ask. We can bloom like Abram, who is still waiting to be a father, but who can stumble along in faith until then. We can bloom in the knowledge that Jesus, that loving mother hen, is gathering us together under the shelter of God’s wings. When we bloom in this season, it’ll feel like we’re dandelions in concrete. We’re sending out roots and pushing against the cold hard walls of concrete instead of the warm, rich embrace of soil, but gosh darn it, we’re going to bloom in this season.

Letter to My Daughter: Debbie’s 2nd Birthday

Dear Debbie Joy,
Tomorrow is your second birthday. Over the weekend, I found myself crying in a Dollar Tree, of all places, as I selected unicorn-themed decorations for your birthday party. I wondered why those tears were falling.
It was not because I’m mourning the passing of your infancy as you now are truly a little girl. I have treasured the years you’ve been completely and utterly dependent on me for everything, but I don’t believe I was weeping because they’re over. I love the fact that now we can have real conversations and verbally share what’s most important with each other.
Debbie birthdayIt was not because I fear the future and the steps that you’ll take away from me as you start kindergarten, graduate from high school, go to college, find a life partner, and so on. I trust that the love cultivated between us will hold.
It was not even from the pure exhaustion of having two children under the age of two, who can’t yet understand that Mommy needs boundaries and rest as well. On most days, I’ve come to a fairly tranquil acceptance that this is a season that will pass, and that one day soon, I’ll miss the grubby little hands banging on the door as I sit on the potty.
I was crying because I can begin to imagine how far your journey can take you. At the age of two, your intellect and charisma are evident to everyone you meet. I truly believe that the possibilities for you are limitless. What you set your mind on, you can do. The dreams you’ll dream can become your realities, and I will support you whatever road you choose.
I was crying in Dollar Tree because I can already tell you’ll follow a path of compassion and justice. Already, right and wrong really matter to you. You make sure ones who are littler than you get their fair turn at whatever game you’re playing. When your friends are hurt or sad, you stop and pay attention to them, asking gently, “Gabby, are you OK? What happened? What’s the matter?”
I was crying in Dollar Tree because I know you will proclaim and embody the Gospel of God’s grace and mercy whatever you do in your life, whether you are a midwife or a teacher or a physicist or the governor of the state of Tennessee. I believe you’ll witness chains being broken and lives being touched profoundly as the Spirit works in and through you as you walk this God-filled road.
I was crying in Dollar Tree because of God’s goodness in allowing me to be part of your journey. I had never known love this deep, this fierce, or this transforming until I held you in my arms. I thank God ever day that he made me a mama by entrusting you to me.
There are so many adjectives I could honestly ascribe to you: Brilliant. Gorgeous. Kind. Funny. Affectionate. Brave. Honest. Observant.
But sweet Debbie Joy, even if you forget all of those words…which I doubt you will…know you are this:
Beloved.
Your Mama

Mary, the Mommy of Jesus and Anxiety

My husband Will and I are trying something new.  He is a mental health counselor, and some of you have watched his pop culture/psychoanalysis videos on his YouTube channel Willarious. Today we’re collaborating on a blog (mine) and a video (his) on the shared theme of “Mental Health and the Holidays.” My blog is a spiritual reflection, while his video takes a clinical, psychological approach. Check out his video at the end of this blog, and follow him on FB at Willarious!

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Everyone, meet Will.  Collaboration is hot!

This is my second Christmas in a row celebrating a “first Christmas” with a baby. And so it’s maybe unsurprising that this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary, the mommy of Jesus. My greatest pet peeve with Christmas music is the song, “Mary, Did You Know.”  In my (probably not so humble) opinion, this song is profoundly unbiblical.  For one thing, Gabriel gave her some pretty good clues about Jesus’ identity. But also, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary is a prophetess, speaking profound words of truth over Jesus’ life in a beautiful song of praise traditionally known as the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55).Grumpy Orthodox Cat - Mary, did you know? Yes! she did. now stop asking.

One of Mary’s titles, used especially in the Greek Orthodox tradition, is theotokos, literally, “God-bearer.”  I realize this title has some theological connotations that don’t align completely with Protestant theology, but for the moment, I’d just like to use the term to consider the Mary as the mother who carried Jesus in her womb and birthed him into the world.  Knowing what I know now about how darn hard motherhood is, I’ve pondered how much harder it must have been for Mary; the “favor” that Gabriel declared over her may have sometimes felt more like a curse.

How could she handle the anxiety?   The anxiety that before her baby boy was two years old, he would be an asylum-seeker, pursued by a genocidal ruler?  That he would be run out of his own hometown, despised and rejected?  That he would know the heartache of intimate friends’ denial and betrayal? That he would be sadistically stripped and tortured? How did Mary carry the anxiety of the knowledge that her son would go all the way to the cross?

In my first year of motherhood, I became much better acquainted with anxiety.  I suspect anxiety has always been there to an extent, lurking beneath the surface and even working in my favor most of the time, spurring me to achieve just a little more.  But as a new mother, things started to spiral. As much as I wanted to be home with my first baby girl, I felt like I was losing the intellectual, creative parts of myself.   Yet I trapped myself with the terror of leaving Debbie with anyone, even her daddy. This fear peaked when I began a new job 90 minutes out of town and had to leave Debbie for 10 hour days once a week.

I wasn’t afraid of anything happening to her, per se.  I feared witnessing and experiencing the big feelings that she and I have in common—big happiness, big grief, big frustration.  I dreaded both of us crying when I walked out the door, fat tears dripping down her apple-plump cheeks, chunky arms stretched out to hold me even as I was already 10 minutes late. I was afraid that, by not being home all the time like my mom was for me, I was failing, being a selfish mother for following my dreams in addition to motherhood.  Pretty soon, any kind of separation from my baby triggered my anxiety—even if it was just the 10 to 11 hour stretch of sleep she’d started consistently sleeping at night in her own room.  Anxiety was tearing my heart apart.

Those experiences of anxiety have led me to wonder at Mary’s strength. Mary was theotokosfirst because she bore Jesus in her womb.  But as a mother, I also know she was still bearing him when he was hanging on the cross. While the pain my children will experience can’t equal those of the “man of all sorrows,” when they’re in trouble, I sometimes feel the emotional equivalent of the physical pain I felt during labor. But I aspire to emulate Mary, to stand by the crosses in my children’s lives, knowing that my inability to take their struggles away doesn’t negate my love.

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Now, with an almost 2-year-old and a new baby as well, I think I’m making progress.  It’s been a long journey with anxiety for me, and I would never prescribe exclusively spiritual answers to biochemical, psychological problems like anxiety.  I’ve sought support from many sources. However, as trite as it sounds, the biggest factor in confronting my anxiety has been a seemingly naïve trust in God. I’m searching for the courage of Mary, who says, “Let it be with me as you have said” (Lk. 1:38) to the news that she’s the mommy of the Lamb who was slain.

Each and every night, I pray, surrendering my children to the power and love of the God who created them. I ask for the serenity to accept that even good parenting cannot preserve my children from the raw emotions and real dangers of this world. I’m slowly becoming able to believe that when my children walk through dark valleys, the grace of God will touch them and hold them.

This Christmas, like Mary, I’m still bearing the babies I already birthed.  And I also pray, “Let it be with us as you have said”…no matter what.

Now, check out this video from Will:

The Three Psychological Ghosts of Christmas

 

 

 

Letter to My Younger Daughter: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Bump

Dear Gabby,

When I was in middle school, Anne Brashares published The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  I read it, and loved it, and hoped my mom never found out too much about the content. In it, four mama-friends have four daughters who are all born in September, and when the girls grow up, they are BFFs as well. They find a pair of “magical” pants that fits them all, and as they go their separate ways for summer and have adventures (many of them involve boys—please don’t have adventures with boys until you’re at least 25), the pants keep them united in spirit.  I have no idea if the books will still be in print by the time you read this letter, but regardless, you have your own secret sisterhood, minus the pants. Let me tell you why.

S., D., and I knew each other from church before our pregnancies, but we bonded much more closely over the fact that our due dates were within a month of each other’s and that we were all having baby girls.  We started chatting on Messenger all the time and commiserating in the back during worship about how uncomfortable our third trimester bellies made us.   We prepped freezer meals together to enjoy after our babies were born. We were among the first people to know when each other went into labor, and to know when the babies were born.  Most importantly, we bore one another’s burdens as sisters.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  Galatians 6:2

Our sisterhood has entailed a reciprocity of burden-bearing, a safe place to be our authentic selves, with the understanding that our authentic selves are sometimes not okay. Our pregnancies, labors and postpartums have all had different burdens.  One of us had the anxiety of carrying a baby after a pregnancy loss.  One of us was going through a family crisis.  One of us temporarily needed breastmilk from the other two.  One of us failed the 1-hour gestational diabetes screen.  Two of us had scary 20-week ultrasounds.  One of us had a forceps delivery.  We’ve carried these burdens together.

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The sisterhood we’ve shared has made all the difference between my first and second postpartum seasons. After your older sister was born, I was terribly lonely.  I didn’t have any close friends with newborns.  While most of my friends my age seemed to be off having adventures in Whoville and winning The Prestigious Fellowship of Fabulousness, I was trying to figure out how to get my baby to sleep and changing millions of cloth diapers.

This time, the burdens I carry seem much lighter because I know of at least two other women who are there for me, walking a similar path as I am right now. S. is there with her older-sisterly wisdom, as this isn’t her first time through the parenting rodeo (she is on her 7thchild, 4thbirth), and though life has thrown many challenges her way, she’s emerged tougher and yet also somehow kinder.  D. is there with her indefatigable sense of humor in the face of adversity and her willingness to be a friend to everyone (she’s the quintessential extravert).  And I’m there with…I’m not always sure what…but the intention to be an empathetic listener and a loyal friend.

The burdens we carry are all made worthwhile by the beauty of three exquisite little girls born in this season of our lives.  I’m not sure how long all three of our families will live in Nashville. But know that out there in the world, there are two others girls, two future strong, lovely women, who are your sisters because your mamas carried the burdens of pregnancy, labor, and postpartum together.

Care for your sisters like we’ve cared for each other.  I feel reassured believing they’ll be there for you, too.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Younger Daughter: My Second Postpartum

Dear Gabby,

The first weeks of my second postpartum have come and gone so fast.  Last time around, I remember thinking, “Dear God, will this ever end?”while this time, I find myself praying, “Dear God, please don’t let this end.” There are many aspects of this newborn season that are precious to me: the long naps you and I have taken together, the adoring kisses your sister bestows on you, and yes, even the 3 AM wake ups.

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I’ve been revisiting Genesis to consider my own postpartum theology. In Genesis 1, YHWH forms the world from chaos over six days.  After each day of creation, God says that creation is tov, good.  After all the creation is completed, God says that everything tov meod, “VERY good” (1:31).  And then God rests on the seventh day, because why would one keep laboring when the finished product is so very good?

Just as I thought about my pregnancy and birth as one way I bear God’s image and participate in his redemptive creation story, I’ve come to understand my postpartum period as a time of rest reflecting God’s sabbath as well.  Instead of continuing to labor and exhaust myself after giving birth, I’ve taken this time to pause, rest, and heal.  I think this time of rest honors the goodness and beauty of the tiny, perfect baby (that’s you!) for whom I labored to give life.  I’ve held you close for most of these weeks, God’s words from Genesis resounding in my ears as I cradle you in my arms: “She is good.  She is so, so, so good.” Why should I continue to labor now, if rest was sufficient for God after he created a world so wonderful?

While to an outside observer (and probably to my faculty advisors…), I look foolishly unproductive, I’ve been reflecting on the wisdom of Qohelet (a Hebrew word for “teacher/preacher,” which Christians generally refer to as the book of Ecclesiastes) about the balance and beauty of the seasons of life.  In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Qohelet lists the various seasons of life: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (3:1).  Then at the end of that list, Qohelet observes, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11).

This is a season when milk-crusted burp cloths lie, carelessly strewn on the coffee table and over the armchair, when spit-up stains linger sometimes for weeks on our sheets. And it was good.

This is a season when someone, or multiple someones, is frequently—usually?—crying in our apartment, sometimes me.  And it was good.

This is a season when other vocational goals I have are set aside, temporarily, while my colleagues without children move ahead faster than I.  And it was good.

This is a season when your daddy and have not a moment of privacy, day or night, because we can’t afford a babysitter and you sleep in our room. And it was good.

This is a season when the number on the scale alarms me and my pre-pregnancy clothes taunt me, but I’m focusing instead on the strong work my body has done to give you life.  And it was good.

This is a season when I choose to rest whenever I can, letting our apartment remain a disaster zone, prioritizing healing, bonding, and enjoyment over perfection.  And it was good.

One day, too soon, life will look different, and I won’t spend all my days snuggling a newborn. There will be seasons where my academic work moves forward faster and when you are old enough to play with your sister for a few minutes so I can take a shower. That too will be beautiful. But for today, I’m embracing this season, to take the time to honor the holy labor I’ve done, your goodness and beauty, and the divine image that we bear.

And it was good.  It was very good.

Letter to My Younger Daughter: Your Birth

sDuring my pregnancy with Gabby, I read Holy Labor by Aubry G. Smith. Smith’s book introduced me to the concept of co-laboring with Christ as an inspirational understanding of childbirth.

 Dear Gabby Jane,

Like every aspect of my pregnancy with you, the onset of my labor was unexpected. Although I’d been having false labor for about two weeks, I certainly didn’t expect my water to break at 10:30 PM on September 8th.  Honestly, when I suspected that my water had broken, I was a bit panicked. As I was Group B Strep positive, I knew that if my water had truly broken, I’d have to be admitted to the hospital right away, before my labor had a good chance to get rolling on its own.  In fact, when I talked to the midwife on call, she actually told me that I’d need to be induced, which, I was sure, would be the end of my natural birth plan.

I half-convinced myself that my water hadn’t broken at all, and that I’d arrive at Vanderbilt University Medical Center only to be told that I’d peed in my pants.  This thought was potentially so embarrassing that I almost stayed at home. However, after a few phone calls with your nana, my experienced mom-friend Mary, and my doula, Jenna, your daddy and I trundled ourselves off to the hospital at about midnight.  I kissed your big sister Debbie Joy goodbye, crying a little because I didn’t have the chance to explain to her where Mommy was going.  My mom-friend Rachel settled down on the futon for the night to stay with Debbie until your Nana came in the morning.

Despite my trepidation, my excitement grew as I checked in at the emergency room at Vandy.  I laughed as I saw Jenna arrive at the hospital with all her birth doula supplies, completely confounding the security guard with her bulky bags.  As soon as we were admitted to triage, I could no longer be in doubt that my water had really broken…there was a flood of biblical proportions that let me know that you were really on your way!  The midwife on call showed up to evaluate the situation, once again suggesting that induction would be the way to go.  However, I insisted that the mild contractions I was having would be sufficient to propel me into full labor. I was at 3 cm already, and, the midwife compromised, if I continued to progress, she would continue to let me labor naturally.

hospital roomAs soon as we got set up in our labor and delivery room, Jenna and I went to work trying to get the contractions rolling.  Jenna prepared the room in such a way that I felt immediately at peace.  Birth affirmations written by my friends papered the walls and tables, and string lights softened the florescent setting of the room.  Photos of Debbie reminded me of the beautiful outcome of the difficult experience of labor. The contractions flowed in gently as Jenna and I walked and swayed around the room and out in the halls of the L&D unit.  For a hospital that was, I know, full of laboring women, the halls were so quiet and peaceful; Jenna and I seemed something of an oddity to the observing nursing staff.  I opted to let your daddy get some rest before the intense part of labor started, and before I knew it, he was snoring in the chair in the corner.

During this early period of labor, I felt bathed in the hope and love of God.  Every time a stronger contraction hit, I smiled and told Jenna, “This is a really good one!”  “That’s so great, Susannah!” she told me. “You’re doing this! You’re in labor.” Even as the contractions started to strengthen, I reminded myself of the words of Isaiah 43:2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…”  I felt the power of God flowing through me to enable me to bring you into the world.

That feeling of hope and power dissipated somewhat after the midwives came in to check me.  I was hopeful that after hours of labor that I would be further along, but I was just dilated to 4 cm at about 4:15 AM, and you were still floating at -2 station.  While this progress was enough to prevent me from having to be induced, it was little enough to make me dissolve into tears for the first time (of many) that night.  It was also just then that active labor really kicked up.  The increase of pain coupled with the relatively small progress made me feel discouraged enough that I needed to wake up your daddy to join the labor party.

There’s no nice way for me to describe the next ninety minutes of labor.  I’d like to frame it as “pressure” or “waves,” like many of the natural birth advocates I know do, but I can’t represent it honestly except by saying that I’ve never been in more pain in my life.  There were moments of peace even during contractions to be sure…moments when I swayed and groaned in your father’s arms, moments when I heard Jenna whispering Scripture in my ear.  But for most of the contractions during those ninety minutes, coming on the heels of each other with just a short breath of rest between, I felt utterly out of control.  The water of the shower, and, when I finally received it, self-given doses of nitrous oxide did not seem to help at all.  My groans often escalated to screams, and I begged everyone in the room, over and over again, “Make it stop! Please, help me! Make it stop! I can’t do this anymore! HELP ME!” 

transition
I’m pretty sure this student midwife was praying for me…I needed it!

As I’ve reflected on my birth in the week since, I’ve sometimes felt shame for the desperation and panic I felt during those 90 minutes.  I wish that I’d been able to present myself with the stoicism that our culture typically associates with strength instead of the tears, screaming, and pleading that I actually showed.  But here’s the thing that God has shown me, sweet Gabby, so evident in your very name, which in the Hebrew means “God is my strength”:  In my weakness, God was strong.  In my weakness, God filled me with a supernatural strength to finish the task before me.  I’m reminded of the words of 2 Cor. 12:

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

In the end, God displayed his power and presence through filling me with the steadfastness to endure, even through my protestations that I could not.

And it was through those 90 minutes of incredible pain that I felt myself joined with the Passion of Christ. In the midst of contractions, I found myself tuned into the voice of Christ crying from the cross—himself desperate, himself out of control,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Christ was not impassive. Christ was not stoic.  The Christ who labored for the redemption of the world was sharing in my labor of giving you life.  The ugliness of Christ’s agony, just like the ugliness of my labor, could be made beautiful by the life it selflessly gave to others.

Just when I felt I could take it no more, just when I finally screamed to the nurse to get me an epidural NOW, the midwife told me that my dilation was complete.  I didn’t believe it.  I told the midwife I had no intention of pushing you out, that I was too scared, that I needed the epidural.  “Push,” the nurse urged me. “It’ll relieve your pain.”

I did push.  And, believe it or not, I felt no pain from then on, although I was receiving no medication.  I realized that I was pushing out your head, your shoulders, your whole body—and I was so present and aware of the labor I was doing to give you life.  My fear and agony were gone, replaced by the determination to meet the beautiful miracle that God was giving me.

birth

When I held you in my arms at 5:52 A.M., all I could say was, “We did it, Baby Girl.  You and me together, we did it, we did it.”  Hearing your first cry, looking into your wide-open eyes, I saw the life that made everything I’d been through that night more than worthwhile.  I knew when I saw you that, as terrible as my pain had been, I would suffer the same a thousand times just to hold you a single moment in my arms.

In the background, perfectly (though unwittingly) timed, played “Alive,” by All Sons and Daughters:

We’re alive, alive, alive we’re singing;
We’re alive, alive, alive and we’re shaken;
We’re alive, alive, alive, alive in you.

“Alive,” All Sons and Daughters

That night, and truly, throughout my pregnancy, I joined in God’s labor to make life.  I walked with God from the glory and ecstasy of creation at your conception, through the pain and ugliness of the cross during my labor, and to the joy of new creation at your birth, the new creation that awaits us at the end of all other things. Although I will never forget that night’s pain, I will recall it as the window through which God showed me the drama of his redemption of the world, that births us all into whole and new life.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Older Daughter: My First Baby

Dear Debbie Joy,

Last Sunday morning, we met your precious little sister, Gabby Jane.  Perhaps it’s a bit of a surprise that the first letter I’m writing after her birth is to you, not to her. But as I launch into the journey of parenting another little human, I realize how much you’ve given me.  You made me a mother.  Your birth broke open my heart to love, hope for, and grieve this world more than I ever thought I could.  Moreover, before your birth, my biggest fear was that my child wouldn’t love me. Once you were born I realized that worry was silly; my love for you was enough to hold us both long before you first uttered that sweet sentence, “I love you.”

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First photo of Debbie and me

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In the months leading up to Gabby’s birth, you became obsessed with babies. You carry your baby doll everywhere—to church, to the grocery store, in the car.  When we’re home, you bring her to me and request, “Cozy?” That’s my cue to swaddle her in one of your old flannel blankets.  You gently rock her to sleep and then place her in bed.  You cook baked beans for her in your play kitchen while carrying her adroitly on your hip.  You softly stroke her head and murmur, “Sweet baby, sweet baby, I love you.”

BIRTH BALLS
Last photo Debbie and me with her as my only child…bouncing on our birth balls!

I wasn’t sure what to make of all this until your daddy told me, “What she wants most is just to be you.”  I tried to deny it, but I realized there’s no mistaking the resemblance between the phrases of comfort and affirmation you offer her and those I give to you, and between your busy multitasking of holding your baby and doing your “chores” and my constant balancing act of motherhood.  In your playful mimicking of my behavior, I see something that I never expected to see or believe: For all my faults, for all the times I’ve failed, I am a good mother.

This knowledge changes everything as I become a mother to baby Gabby.  Though I know we’ll face many struggles as we go from one child to two, both under the age of two, I know this time that, through God’s grace, I can become the mother God has called me to be.

Watching you become an older sister this week has been one of the greatest joys I’ve known as a mother. You showed your nurturing nature yet again as you met your sister, declaring, “My baby!  Us hug.” While some of your “pats,” “hugs,” and “kisses” may be a little rougher than I’d like, the tenderness you hold for her is obvious.  Gabby will grow up looking to you as an example of strength, courage, and compassion.

Thank you for turning me into a mother.  And always remember, though you are currently more than three times the size of your sister, you will always be a baby of mine.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughters: The (Other) Work I Do

Dear Baby Girls,

Yesterday in the grocery store, the kind cashier asked me, “When are you due?” But I misheard her and thought she asked, “What do you do?” When she corrected me, I was briefly annoyed that, once again, my voluminous pregnant belly is the first (and often, it seems, the only) thing people notice about me.  But then I thought again.

My answer to the question, “What do you do?” would have been, “I’m a graduate student at Vanderbilt.” I probably wouldn’t have said that I’m a mother, because, honestly, people don’t put much stock into the real work of parenthood. Saying that I’m getting a PhD feels a lot more comfortable to my fragile ego than admitting that I spend the majority of the hours of my week chasing a toddler, while my “real [professional] work” gets squeezed into the limited hours I have help with childcare.

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This summer, you’re much more likely to find me in a park than a library carrel.

Here’s the truth, sweet daughters.  When I can put aside my hang-ups with social recognition, I know that raising you is the most important work I’ll ever do. And while the work I do as a mother certainly has slowed my progress on my dissertation, I will never regret the timing of my pregnancies.

Truth be told, being your mother has inspired my academic work like nothing else. I research and write about women’s voices in the Bible and how people of faith have heard or ignored those voices.  I write about how women’s lived experiences of suffering inform the shape of Scripture. I write about how birth, breastfeeding, sexual assault, and child loss are matters of theological import because they matter so much to God.

When I write about these things, I’m always thinking about you—what being your mother has taught me, and what I yearn for your experience of womanhood to be.  In some small way, by resuscitating biblical traditions of women who bravely “spill[ed] out [their] hearts like water in the presence of the Lord” (Lam. 2:19), I hope to take part in making a world where your voices are more readily respected as authoritative as well.  I’m certain the passion I have for the “other” work I do flows straight from the passion I have to see you grow into strong women of faith.

It may be awhile before strangers ask me what I do for a living again.  My pregnant belly is huge and distracting, after all. But when they do, I’ll say with pride, “I work at home raising my two daughters. And I’m getting my PhD in religion.”

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughters: What’s in Your Names?

Dear Baby Girls,

Last night, as I finally took the shower I’d wanted to take all day, I was thinking about the two of you. I was reflecting on the names that your daddy and I chose for you and about how those names reflect, in part, my own spiritual journey over the last two years.

***

Deborah

 We initially chose the name Deborah for you, sweet Debbie Joy, because it was the name that Grandma Janet had picked out for the daughter she didn’t have (that daughter turned out to be your daddy and Uncle Robert instead).  Your name is like the memorial stones of Joshua 4, placed there so you, your parents, and your children will remember the faithfulness of God manifested vividly in the life of your grandmother.  We see so much of her beautiful spirit in you.  You already have her contagious sense of humor and irrepressible laughter.  Your warmth when you meet strangers reminds me of the welcome she extended to me from my first moment in her house.

36519238_10157946207729896_9052421253163384832_nAs beautiful as your name would be simply as a memorial to your grandmother, it has come to mean even more to me than that.  In the Old Testament, Deborah is a judge, a leader of her people.  She holds God-given authority as a woman in a world where men rule and Israel is an insignificant entity among the nations. She fearlessly pursues her calling into waters where others—especially men—do not dare to tread.  That story resonates with me now because through the time of my pregnancy and your infancy, I feel I too have found my God-given strength and my calling as a mother and a teacher/scholar.  I had never felt as strong as I did when I brought you into the world, never so confident in my reflection of the imago dei as when I cradled your life inside of mine.

***

Gabrielle

Gabby Jane, you were a beautiful surprise during hardest season of my life.  During that time, while everything else in my life pointed to disintegration, your determination to keep thriving pointed to a God who makes all things new.  During my pregnancy with you, I realized that my strength never can be enough.  I couldn’t deliver myself or my family from the darkness that threatened to overtake us.  The difficulty of our lives seemed to manifest itself in my pregnancy with you.  While my pregnancy with your sister was smooth sailing, my pregnancy with you seemed fraught with anxiety from the start, when a doctor told me hours after I found out that I was pregnant that she “didn’t concern [herself]” with your embryonic form due to the likelihood of miscarriage (I’d just been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease  known to raise the odds of pregnancy loss). Even after you beat the odds and I exited the first trimester, pregnancy complications kept arising.

So we chose a name for you that reflected the God whose presence I had felt, no matter36580987_10157949382459896_6009871978364665856_n how faintly, during the months of my pregnancy.   I realized during my pregnancy that the strength I’d found within myself meant admitting my helplessness before the only One with whom it is perfectly safe to be vulnerable.  At the end of my strength, I found a God who has always been strong for me, and who pours his Spirit into me to allow me to do what I could never do alone. I started to walk with a faith that did not mean naively thinking everything would be perfect, but instead that God would be Immanuel even when things were wrong. Your name means, “God is my strength,” because through my pregnancy with you, I learned that I will lose the battles I fight alone, but “in all of these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

***

Sweet daughters, second only to the reality of how much you are loved, I want to teach you about the strength that will carry you. It will not fail you.

Love,

Your Mama

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