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The swirling magnificence of the icons, the ornately decorated sepulcher, prayers recited in a foreign language, and the soaring, magnificent chants of the choir transported me to a wholly other place.
A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to attend a Greek Orthodox Good Friday service. Raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, this particular service holds great meaning for my friend; I was honored by the invitation. On the way there she apologized: the church she had chosen (St. John the Baptist) for proximity and beauty, also only spoke Greek.
The beauty of the church was overwhelming for a Protestant who was reared to think stain glass windows were ornate. The swirling magnificence of the icons, the ornately decorated sepulcher, prayers recited in a foreign language, and the soaring, magnificent chants of the choir transported me to a wholly other place. Yes, I knew well the story they were remembering that night. Yes, like them, I called myself a Christian. Yet their religious practice was as different to me as if I had entered a mosque, synagogue, or Hindu temple.
I am not the only one who understands my religious practice at utterly different from the Orthodox Church. When my friend dutifully checked in with her mother earlier to tell her she would be attending the Good Friday service, she mentioned I was going with her. “Who is going with you?” her mother asked. “My Protestant friend, Abby.” Later in the conversation her mother asked, “So just what religion is Abby?” Her mother had no idea that a Protestant was a Christian.
I have a master’s degree in religion. I could bore you with all of the theological and historical differences between the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. I could even use really big words like theotokos (although I would have to google it to make sure I was using it correctly.) But I will spare you. Instead I want to share the very simple observations I had as a Jesus follower sitting (well mostly standing) in a pew beside other Jesus followers on a holy night. Because I could not understand their language, I was forced to notice things I would not have otherwise. A beautiful world opened up before me through my other, often ignored, senses.
1) Those Greeks love images! It seems like too often the only image we love in the Western Church is the cross, either empty or dripping with blood. If you were forced to choose three images (Greeks also love the number three) that you would paint center stage in your place of worship, what would they be? I would choose Jacob wrestling with the angel, the woman at the well talking with Jesus, and the father of the Prodigal Son running out to greet him.
2) Greeks love mystery! It seems sprinkled into every aspect of worship. There are secret doors, and rituals that acknowledge the unknowable, and very little explanation (or exegetical sermons) of the mysterious stories we have received. No one spoke on and on about how crazy it was that Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, there seemed an overarching acceptance that the story was unknowable and mysterious. Shouldn’t we make more room for mystery in the Western Church? Perhaps next time I preach on the feeding of the 5,000 I will singularly tell the story as truth, period, and not try and make any sense of the radically mysterious event that was recorded so long ago.
3) Greeks are talkers! The service was quite long and the congregation, it seems knowing this, did not show up at a set time. Instead, people came when they could. And when they would arrive, even though a formal, ritualized service was taking place before them, they would greet friends and family in pews, chat, kiss, mill, and lead children upfront to the sepulcher. The WASP in me was getting a little nervous by such informality in the midst of formality! At another moment in the service a bunch of youth disappeared behind a secret door and reappeared robbed in formal “religious-greek-wear.” In was clear that another boy who was developmentally disabled wanted to be a part of the group. He got a priests attention (right in the middle of the service!). The priest gently led the boy behind the secret door and he reappeared, dressed to match the group. I watched the boy and priest the rest of the service with great interest. The boy’s pride was evident and the priest’s compassion even more evident as he kindly responded to the boy’s off and on questions. I learned there is room in formality for compassion and informality, even chatter. How can the Western Church’s formal worship make more room for life (like kissing your family and children)?
4) Greeks love all their senses! Have you ever smelled myrrh? It’s as divine and holy as the lilies of the valley blooming in my garden right now. The fragrance of those small flowers signals a sensory memory for me: spring is here. For those from the Eastern Church myrrh signals as powerful sensory memory: Good Friday. Traditionally the dead were washed in the ancient world with myrrh. This part of the story is remembered not through words or scriptural reading, but through the actual smell. A priest walks up and down the aisles spraying the worshippers (with a very ornate and ancient version of a spritz bottle) with myrrh. Why do we non-Catholics in the Western church ignore all the senses?
We all have so much to learn from one another. The Greek Orthodox could learn a bit about the ordination of women from me and even about how to include people who aren’t Greek into their religious practices with a bit more hospitality. Yet on this morning, as the smell of lilies of the valley waft into my house, and I listen to the chants of the Greek Orthodox church on my computer, I don’t feel like teaching them anything. Instead, I am grateful they helped me pay attention to my other religious senses.
"Every mother’s day, I remember with clarity what it was like to yearn desperately to be a mother. Every mother’s day I relish the homemade gifts and earnest attempts at breakfast in bed. And every mother’s day I remember there are many women who feel locked out of the “club” as I smell my children’s hair as they climb into bed with me. "
The vast majority of my sexual education focused on how to keep from getting pregnant, so much so that I naively assumed that to get pregnant you need only to have unprotected sex once. Without revealing any embarrassing details, my husband and I truly thought I would be pregnant in a month’s time the summer after I received my graduate degree. We calculated on our hands more than once that our baby would be arriving sometime in March. But my period came after that first month of trying; I cried and immediately alleged that there was something wrong in our technique. Then the next period came; I sobbed and assured my husband with my typical dramatic flair that I was ready to adopt.
After two missed attempts, getting pregnant became something to accomplish. The process was not to be enjoyed. I peed on sticks, prayed, raised my feet over my head, talked to every recently pregnant woman I could find, and waited in fear. So it was with great joy and relief that after six months of trying I discovered I was pregnant the second week of my very first pastorate. We glowed with anticipation and again naively assumed that everything would be smooth sailing—we were pregnant now. All we had to do was wait nine months for the arrival of our baby.
A week before my ordination, while being questioned on the floor of presbytery, I knew I was miscarrying at ten weeks. The sight of blood before the presbytery meeting lead to a call to my midwives, yet I knew I could not miss that night’s meeting. My ordination depended on it. I stood before a group of elders and pastors who asked me highly controversial theological questions about my position on atonement and salvation, but I remember only thinking about where I could find a bathroom after so I could check if there was more blood spotting my underwear. The next day an ultrasound stole the promise of that sweet child from us. Our final innocence, as those who deeply yearned for children of our own, was over. Fear laced our life as parents from then on.
I have never forgotten our first baby, long forgotten by the world, nor the sheer uncomplicated joy accompanying the promise of that first positive pregnancy test. Almost eleven years later, I cannot bring myself to throw away the medical records that document my miscarriage; they are my only physical reminder of our first child.
Our first remains unnamed. I am not sure why we have been unable to name our child. Perhaps because it still feels like a dream, the medical records the only thing confirming that it did really happen. Or perhaps because we never had a strong sense whether our promised child was a boy or girl. Yet still, this child’s brief life has embedded itself deep into the fabric of our life together as parents.
Silent waiting ruled our lives in our four bedroom parsonage. We couldn’t bear to wait, yet we had no other alternative. Again we found ourselves consumed by the process of getting pregnant. Each month our waiting was laced with hope, but every period plunged us back into sorrow and mourning and despair. After dinner, with no children to tend to, with only work awaiting us, we would fill up the empty waiting with an ongoing game of gin rummy. We kept our grief and loneliness at bay by staying in constant motion. Then we got a dog. We needed something to love. And then the testing began—painful dyes injected into tubes, brown paper bags and dirty magazines, and results.
At twenty-six years of age I began IVF—in vitro fertilization. There were waiting rooms filled with silent women, waiting for blood work, waiting for consults with specialists in white coats, and waiting for the defining test result. Occasionally a stricken partner waited alongside us. There were needles and vials upon vials of hormones, delivered efficiently by Federal Express. There were the evenings my husband’s face, gripped with steely resolution, stuck a needle deep into my hip, I would sob in pain, only to run off to a deacons’ meeting after a band-aid was applied. We waited in silence, hoping, fearing the worst, and preparing for the unthinkable, another round of shots and harvesting and waiting.
But it worked. At five weeks gestation we saw the fluttering heart of our baby. Still we were forced to wait. We could not embrace the promise of that undulating muscle until the crucial marker of thirteen weeks. We had been deceived before. Thankfully, with time that tiny beating heart grew into the strong heart of a screaming ten pound baby boy.
I wish my painful story of conception and gestation ended here, but the joy of pregnancy has eluded me. My third pregnancy ended in miscarriage at thirteen weeks on Ash Wednesday, after announcing to my entire congregation the Sunday prior that I was pregnant. This time we named our baby—Kasia. On a warm Spring day we planted summer bulbs in her memory, our young son wading in the water nearby.
I spent my fourth pregnancy reeling in terror, holding my breath between each revealing gesture of my baby’s limbs within the womb, sure that the baby, even at twenty weeks, would die before I had a chance to hold it. This pregnancy, which produced another ten pound baby boy, is mostly lost to me. I can only remember the terror. I am not sure if I ever experienced any joy until my second son was six weeks old, nursing calmly and happily at my breast.
No one ever told me how difficult it would be. No one—not my mother, or my aunts, or my grandmothers, or the women whose children I cared for, no one. After I lost my third child, I awoke in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, a crushing weight on my chest, and the clear resolution that I could never have another child. I was certain in that still dark room that the pain of pregnancy would keep me—the teenager who watched a family of five and did their dishes without breaking a sweat, the college student who babysat every Friday night instead of going out, the young bride who had decided with her beloved mate that they would raise four children together—from ever having more than one child. The fear of conception and gestation suffocated all my confidence and all my hope.
I remember one evening in particular, after our first child was born: I hid away in our bedroom and wept. I was utterly exhausted by my dashed hopes and terrified by the chance of more loss. I thought if I wept alone I could ironically protect myself, as if in hiding my fear, no one, including myself would know how really bad it was. I understand now, that I was in essence rejecting the very vulnerability that parenthood entails.
Yet I did not grieve alone; I grieved in the presence of loving community. Grace encircled me with the stories of many gentle people, mostly women, but also men, who had lost children as well. Their stories were ones of pain and grief, but also of hope, survival, and eventually more children. They were the stories of twelve-week-old twin girls, a twenty-five- week old baby girl still referred to as an angel by her parents, a still birth boy, a still birth first, another set of twins, five miscarriages in a row before a healthy baby was born. These stories I laid beside mine. As I entangled my own grief, I came to understand that these stories were the unavoidable stories of conception, gestation, and birth. They are the stories of parenthood.
Sadly, my story continues. After my second son was two I miscarried for a third time. I was placed in the high-risk pregnancy category. They even performed an autopsy of sorts on our sweet 13 week in utero baby girl who we named Elise. I began a regiment of anti-depressants and weekly therapy because I could no longer fight the grief and fear on my own. The good news is that somehow, my call to motherhood was so undeniable, I found enough courage to try again. The trying was fraught with waiting and wondering if we would ever get pregnant again. And when finally I did get pregnant, my anxiety spiked and my anti-depressant prescription increased from 50 grams to 100 grams. At the end of that successful nine month gestation, I had a perfectly healthy baby girl. And three days later I was greeted with debilitating postpartum depression.
I do not want to make light of postpartum depression; it was horrible. Yet I was fortunate that I received medical help immediately and responded positively to medication. For me, more than anything, postpartum seemed a slap in the face after the exhausting effort I had put forward to have a third child. I remember very little of my daughter’s first six months of life. Now that she is three this seems to bother me less. Who remembers the blur of sleepless nursing anyhow?
My children are old now; their bodies stretch out, filling their beds, relaxed in sleep. Some days I barely remember how painfully I yearned for their presence. Some days I even desire a break from all the work that they generate —lunch boxes, laundry, speech therapy appointments, lacrosse games, snit fits, dishes.
Every mother’s day, I remember with clarity what it was like to yearn desperately to be a mother. Every mother’s day I relish the homemade gifts and earnest attempts at breakfast in bed. And every mother’s day I remember there are many women who feel locked out of the “club” as I smell my children’s hair as they climb into bed with me.
I have not one profound thing to say—not one thing that will make sense of any of this pain or longing or unfairness. Some of us end up as mothers, others wait, others mothers too many more children than ever desired, and still others long for someone with whom to share motherhood.
I pray for all and carry each woman in my heart.
I wonder, in a nation that loves to identify itself as Christian, why has immigration become so complicated?
My friend called me panicked: her husband was in a car accident.
Her husband does not speak English. He is an alien in and alien land. (Leviticus 19:33). As I drove my friend to the scene of the accident, she was on the phone with her husband. I could not understand what they were saying to one another, but I knew they were afraid. Had the Police arrived?
I had assumed that since my friend was speaking with her husband that he was standing beside his crushed car, unable to speak with the driver of the other car, needing our help to relay insurance information or call a tow truck. When we arrived at the scene, I quickly realized that was not the case.
We could see from a distance the flashing lights. There were fire trucks, ambulances, police cars. My friend’s husband was strapped to a back board desperately trying to use his cell phone with his restricted arms.
The fire fighters must have seen the fearful look on my face. They quickly assured us that everyone would be okay. The EMT’s were relieved that my friend could translate so they could understand the severity of her husband’s injuries. I offered my friend’s information to the police officers on the scene: name, phone number, address. Should I give them their real address or mine? Would they find out he was undocumented?
“When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33
My friend and her husband are fine. The feds have not arrived at their door. They’ve had to do all the normal things after a car accident: insurance claims, paying the tow company to take their car to the junk yard, and living as a one car family until they save enough money for an additonal car.
The emergency workers that arrived that night were excellent. Luiz’s lack of English was treated as an inconvenience, not as something that marked him as less that human. For that, I was and am deeply grateful.
Yet the sight of Luiz strapped into a stretcher, his head stabilized, emergency workers surrounding him, clutching his phone, desperately waiting for our arrival, lodged itself deep inside me.
I had never realized how much power I possess until I saw Luiz on that stretcher. I am white. I am educated. I speak English. I am American. I have credit cards, bank accounts, and investment funds. I have many connections with other powerful people like me. I have never once felt helpless. Emotionally vulnerable, yes. Unaware what to do next, yes. But never absolutely helpless.
Luiz is a very capable man. He can do anything with his hands and can make an enormous smile flash on the face of any child he meets. Yet that evening he could do nothing. He was utterly helpless, utterly dependent on the arrival of his wife.
We can treat undocumented, non-English speak immigrants anyway we want. Like Luiz, they are utterly helpless in many, if not most, situations. We hold all the power. This awareness has left me bereft for my friend and Luiz.
What protection does Luiz have as an alien in an alien land?
I am a Christian, long before I am an American. The man I follow spoke of a totally new world order where the first shall be last (Matthew 20) and the poor are blessed (Matthew 5). He reminded his followers that we could not act anyway we like, but instead the law of love, not power, governs us (John 13 & Matthew 22). And the God of the Hebrew Bible was very clear about how to treat aliens in an alien land who had no tribal protection: the same as a native. (Leviticus 19:33)
I wonder, in a nation that loves to identify itself as Christian, why is the immigration question so complicated?
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.