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I often wonder what kind of humor God has calling someone to the ministry who always fails at prayer no matter what she’s tried. Prayer is the least of it. Spiritual journaling bores me. Being quiet and still is not possible. And don’t ask me about reading the Bible. That would take an entirely other blog. Yet I am committed to the *idea* that Lent is a time to get serious about spiritual practices. So every year I try. In the last decade I’ve had moderate success, but nothing that has transported me to a greater mindfulness.
This year I had my first Lenten Epiphany (and I am positive my last): letter writing. I am going to write forty letters of thanksgiving and love (I’ve already written 5) during Lent. 40 letters, one each day, sent in the mail with a beautiful stamp, to those who would not expect it or maybe haven’t heard from me in quite some time.
I love writing letters. I love receiving letters. I love stationary. I love plain white paper and a crisp envelope. I love stamps. I love waiting for the mail. And I love it all even more since the art of letter writing has almost been lost to quick texts, emails, and wedding invitations that come via paperless post.
My love affair with letters began when I met my lifelong friend at sleep over church camp. We met at the end of the week in the girl’s bathroom of all places. I loved her immediately. When I spoke of how disappointed I was that we met at the end, she quickly suggested becoming pen pails. We wrote letters nearly every week from 6th grade through our senior year in high school. Those letters document my adolescences: drama, boys, real overwhelming feelings and questions. Every single one of her letters is bundled and boxed in my attic. Those letters cemented a lifelong friendship. With paper and pen, Sara and I discovered who we were and the transformative love of friendship.
Something magical happens when writing a letter. The recorded words are for only one person. The grammar and spelling is less consequential. Instead the meaning and feeling behind the words is what matters most. The words are authentic and often raw. The unpolished imperfection has its own beauty.
My 40 letters will undoubtedly hold misspellings and cross outs. They will not express perfectly the deep well of thanksgiving from which they have emerged. Yet, I am trusting, that somehow between the time the letter is placed in my mail box and it arrives in someone else’s, God will have transformed that simple letter. I am trusting the intention of love will be articulated far beyond my limited language. And I am trusting that God will be working on my heart as I write these letters, searching for authenticity, not perfection.
My last name is Henrich. My husband’s last name is Sydnor. He never asked me to take his last name. He knew better. He knew that if he even brought up the conversation my feminist views would express themselves as rage. So Henrich I remained after we were married. Then we had children. I vaguely remember talking about how we would handle our children’s last names before we were married, but I was so in love, I probably ignored his cave man desire to have all his children bear his name. To this day, I am pissed that every one of my children are alphabetically listed under “S” instead of toward the beginning of the alphabet under “H.”
Somehow I compromised. All of our children’s middle names are Henrich. All of their last names are Sydnor. I wanted to hyphenate, but my beloved wasn’t for it. Hence my children ended up at the end of the alphabet and I remain pissed about it. Why does it matter so deeply to me? I have come to understand my answer has everything to do with identity, connection, and future.
Genetics are astounding. Sometimes when I look at my eldest boy, I wonder if he has any of my genetic code. His coloring, deep set eyes, long legs, and lean hips mimic every aspect of his father. Yet it is not only his appearance. Like his father his mind is a steel trap which also becomes overwhelmed when he has to pack a bag. Like his father he thinks deeply, broods, and is slow to express himself. Like his father he can hear something once and then play it on the piano. I am amazed by his gifts because they are so foreign to me.
Whereas my eldest is a cookie cutter of his father, my middle’s mannerisms, mind, bright eyes, freckles, and dimples are deeply familiar to me. When he melts down in frustration, I understand his inability to hold it together. As he struggles over words, I remember viscerally how difficult it was to learn to read. When his face beams with joy and compassion, I know he has inherited my fragile heart.
My children know it makes me crazy their last names are Sydnor. They good-naturedly tease me about it. We also have open conversations about their gifts and challenges. My middle knows he inherited his dyslexia from me. My eldest knows that, like his daddy, he packs away his emotions deep inside. We also celebrate the genetic gifts with which they have been blessed. Recently, my middle declared that his older brother’s last name should be Sydnor and his last name should be Henrich. “It makes sense! Josiah is just like dad, and I’m a Henrich,” he declared proudly. I beamed at his sense of belonging. Then I wondered what I had done[AR1] .
Both my husband and I are deeply connected to both my boys regardless of names and dominant genes. Neither of us feels more connected to one because we share similar genetic codes. In fact there are times we are more successful parents for the child least like us. Yet more significantly, our children’s identities move beyond genetic code and name. When I look in on their sweet sleeping bodies Isaiah’s words play in my memory, Look, I am doing a new thing! (Isaiah 43). They are none other than who God created them to be.
I am not a Sydnor. I am radically different from my husband’s family, whom I love dearly. And there are many aspects about my children that are utterly un-Sydnor like (thank God for her tender mercies!). In the same way there are many things about my children that are utterly un-Henrich like (thank God for his tender mercies!).
I wonder if this is what Paul was trying to articulate when he wrote to the Galatians, There is neither Jew not Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3). The Galatian house church represented more differing identities than my sleepy home in Massachusetts. Paul was urging the Galatians to rid themselves of identities that divided them and instead embrace a new common identity, as followers of Jesus.
There is neither Henrich nor Sydnor, speller nor non-speller, expressive nor brooding, dimpled nor non-dimpled. I believe this is why I rail against my children’s last names being simply “Sydnor.” I want a name that connects my children to the new family my husband and I have created together instead of families from the past. I also realize that I don’t want my children’s name to be hyphenated. I want a new name for all of us.
The only name I can come up with is the name that God has given to all of us, that Jesus gave to his disciples, and that God gave to Jesus in the waters of his baptism: Beloved. Maybe next year I will sign our Christmas cards, the Beloved Family.
I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life collecting, carrying, loading, changing, and folding laundry. I am the mother of three. One of my boys stills wipes his face with his shirt. I am also the partner of a man who sweats profusely while working out. I am strident enough in my beliefs that my children wore cloth diapers and we rarely use paper towels or napkins. Laundry is not a chore in my home, rather it is a lifestyle.
Over the years my attitude toward the laundry that spills over in each bedroom’s hamper has changed. Early on in motherhood, I was eager to separate out the sweet onesies of my new born, making sure they were washed separately in special soap (yes, Dreft marketing successfully campaigned to me). Then when my second son arrived, and it was clear that he needed at least three to four outfits a day, I created a simple laundry shoot: I would open the basement door and throw the soiled mess down the stairs. It would hit the concrete floor with a satisfying thud if I did my work well. There was a period, so large with my third pregnancy, that I could barely make it up and down the two flights of stairs. The laundry was exponentially increasing (imagine just how much cloth it takes to cover a large, and I mean large, pregnant woman). Then, my five year old and I would manage the laundry basket up and down the stairs together.
My life dramatically changed when we left our first home, a parsonage, and our first pastorate. We moved into our own home and I, with others, began an emergent church. The laundry also changed. I proudly became the owner of a front loader squeezed into the upstairs bathroom. When our friends came over for the new home tour, I would take them to our washing machine, hug it lovingly, and tell them it was the best thing about the house. I estimated gleefully that I would gain years back of my life no longer trudging laundry up and down flights of stairs. I would probably gain some pounds too.
Now my youngest’s chore is to gather the laundry every morning and load the washer. Some mornings she does this willingly. Other’s my request is followed by a dramatic falling on the ground. While I brush my teeth I can watch a few suds gather on the spaceship like door as clothes tumble around and around. I can pick out my eldest’s favorite sweatshirt, my daughter’s heart sock. As I sit down to conquer the ever changing demands of my vocation, the sound of laundry spinning over my head can be heard. While on one of my many phone calls, I move the damp clothing into the drier, waiting to turn it on until after I am finished with the phone call (I wouldn’t want anyone to know that if you are to actually survive as a mother-pastor you must multi task). After the swarm of children arrive at my house in the late afternoon, I can be found folding laundry on my bed, desperately trying to order the evolving sermon in my head as I order the folded laundry.
My theology has been fashioned by laundry. In fact, I like to call my pastoral theological approach (that is the last time you will read that phrase) as spin cycle theology. If I am to be truthful, however, my spin cycle theology began in Ms. Thomas 10th grade AP European History class.
Ms. Thomas was that teacher who profoundly influenced the way I thought in high school. It began with the words both and in my European history notebooks. The world could no longer be divided into simple categories. The industrial revolution in Europe both created a growing middle class and trapped more people in poverty. Soon this learning spread to my other classes: the Genesis creation story both casts Eve as the cause of the fall and as the seekers of wisdom. Hydrogen bonds both effect individual water molecules and the connection between multiple water molecules. These simple words shaped my thought and soon were to be found throughout the margins of my books. I searched for the both and in every dusty corner of my mind and have never stopped.
Early on in my laundry career I use to sort everything. I would wash whites separately from darks. I would even sort out the darks into lighter colored clothing and darker colored clothing. What foolishness! These days everything is washed together: the dirty kitchen rag, the heart socks, the favorite sweatshirt, the button down lecture shirt, the useless sports bra, and the bathroom towel. I pack them in, turn the knob, and watch as every aspect of my life tumbles chaotically.
I have tried in earnest to manage my life into neatly sorted categories. Work from family. Time for myself without the distractions of children. Conversations with my beloved that do not involve the children we are rearing or the recycling that needs to be put out. Occasionally, my earnest attempts have succeeded, but usually I have failed. My life, more often than not, looks like the urgent care visit on the night before Easter for a child screaming in pain with an ear infection, waking early in the morning to write, only to have a child nestled in your lap, sitting at a restaurant with my husband only to talk about the child whom we are deeply worried. In short, my life is the spin cycle. Nothing can be sorted. The challenge and freedom of work, the heart break and utter beauty of life, the joy and frustration of parenting, the abiding assurance and questions of faith, and the familiar love and work of marriage, these parts of my life are like clothes I watch spinning through the sudded glass door. They are unsorted and tangled as they spin in the washing machine of my life.
I live a both and life—a life saturated in blessing and heart ache, contentment and yearning, awe and worry.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.