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We could have even done more repair work on Marie's home which sorely needs it. But our wise treasurer thought building Marie a chicken coop was the best thing to do and she was right.
Our community met Marie in the summer of 2012 when our team insulated and replaced a ceiling in her home. We all feel instantly in love. It was easy to do. We were quickly encircled in her gratitude and hospitality.
There are objects all over Marie’s home that reveal her nature: bird feeders, pictures of children, grandchildren, great nieces, handmade objects, baby dolls, and the most telling—a toy once enjoyed by a grandson who died. Marie has lived a life full of great sadness and great love. She has raised a gaggle of children, not all biologically hers, and with such love has come sorrow. She is honest about her heart break and free with her love. Her husbands have disappointed her, but she continues to live in the world as one who trusts love is the only answer.
How could we not have fallen in love with Marie?
Last year after installing a skirt around her trailer and painting the back of her home we had a lazy afternoon before us, talking with Marie about her farm. She had lost her coop in a fire and now only had a few chickens strolling around her yard. One of these chickens, a rooster, had a comb splattered with white paint from our children’s wild painting job. Marie was tickled pink at the sight. She enjoyed even more watching our children play in her field, exploring the nooks and crannies of her beautiful farm.
Not too long after I was called aside by the treasurer in our community. Knowing the numbers, she was happy to report we had a surplus in our mission trip account. What if we hired someone to build a coop for Marie to house her chickens? It didn’t take long for the “official” leaders in our community (note: that is pretty much all the adults) to agree that this would be the best way to spend our surplus. By October, Marie had a coop. Last winter she wrote us twice to report on her snug chickens and the joy they brought her was evident on the lined page.
I once read an article entitled Bread and Roses. Although I cannot remember the details of the article, the title has forever informed my thinking about those who Jesus calls the least among us. The author of the article argued (more articulately than I ever can) that the poor need both bread and roses. We could have made sure Marie’s oil tank was full for the winter, paid her electric bill, or filled her pantry. We could have even done more repair work on Marie’s home which sorely needs it. But our wise treasurer thought building Marie a chicken coop was the best thing to do and she was right. Marie, like all of us, needs bread and roses. Her new chicken coop is, I am sure, more beautiful to her than a vase of long stem roses. And there is no question that is has brought her great joy.
We’re going to see Marie in a few short days. We are eager to see her new coop and meet her new chickens. Hopefully her roosters white painted comb has worn off. I am sure Marie will encircle us in love and her natural hospitality. But I wonder what roses we might offer her this year. I wonder what roses we all need in our lives, beyond daily bread, that remind us that love is always worth the risk of heartache.
This blog is for my sister-in-law Lisa, a great woman of faith, and a woman who records it all!
It is the moment in my life during which I was certain I had arrived into the life I had dreamed of. And I am positive if I were to watch a recorded clip of this moment it would not be half as wonderful as it is in my memory.
At the end of the wedding over which I recently presided, the groom took out his cell phone and snapped a selfie of himself, his bride, and me right before they walked down the aisle. The new norm is to capture every unfolding moment with our cell phones. When my youngest learned how to ride her bike just a few weeks ago, my middle son filmed her pedaling away while I ran beside her (note: it was a small miracle that I actually had my phone). Afterwards, my three kids gathered around me and watched the 10 second clip. And what did we do next? Uploaded it to facebook, of course. Even more telling of the new cultural norm, we texted the clip to my husband in India so he could watch his girl’s determined cycling.
I wonder if this obsession with visually recording every life moment will eventually lose its luster? Or maybe in the future my children will be disappointed when they discover I did not record every moment of their lives with my phone.
My mother was a picture taker back in the 70s. I love to find envelopes of pictures hidden away in my childhood home. The pictures are a window into my very happy childhood. But certainly my mother did not record every adorable moment. Her snap shots are predictable: my grandmothers and me after my dance recital, blowing out the candles on my ten year old birthday cake, 4th grade field day. Pictures were expensive to develop and parents couldn’t live their lives with large cameras dangling from their necks.
But still the memory of my childhood, with or without my mother’s pictures, comes flooding back to me likes stills in an old movie. I am afraid that if I were to come across thousands of pictures of every growing up moment, my childhood would seem less sublime and much more ordinary.
Recently my three children and I met my husband at the airport after his three week trip to India. As we waited for him to walk through the security gate my children were overwhelmed with anticipation. They could not contain their excitement, sure every man slightly taller than 5 feet qualified as their father.
When my husband finally did walk through the gate my three children rushed to him screaming. They threw themselves upon him and would not let go. I have no snap shot. No family selfie. No clip. I did not post it to Facebook or text my mother-in-law with the picture of her grandchildren greeting her baby boy. Instead my children’s greeting will forever remain in my memory and my husband’s and hopefully theirs.
There are no words to describe what it feels like to watch your beloved children greet your beloved husband with such exuberant love. And there is no snapshot, no selfie, no clip that could capture such a moment. Nothing could record the beating of my heart as I watched my children love the man I married. No recording was necessary. It is the moment in my life during which I was certain I had arrived into the life I had dreamed of. And I am positive if I were to watch a recorded clip of this moment it would not be half as wonderful as it is in my memory.
If the disciples had cell phones would we bother following Jesus today? If the stories we have been told about the man from Nazareth were not stories passed through generations and changed by time, but instead forever frozen in a clip, would they carry the same poignancy? If I could watch with one tap Jesus’ healing of the paraplegic, would I be moved to tears or despair?
Some might argue that such clips would substantiate Jesus’ life and ministry, offer proof to doubters. I, on the other hand, am utterly disinterested in proof. I am drawn to Jesus because of the way his life intersects with mine and the mysterious emotions that intersection gives birth to. If what is recorded about Jesus actually happened exactly as said is of little concern to me. I am more moved that the stories of his life have been told, and told, and told, again and again, with the same intensity of emotion, the same strengthening of community, the same blossoming of meaning and purpose. This telling, and its fruits, has fed my faith.
I am certain my grandchildren will rather hear of the June afternoon their parents raced to greet their grandfather after his three week trip. I am certain my telling, years after it happened, will convey with greater depth the power of that moment upon my life, than if I had recorded it with my phone. I am certain that my telling will change, but one truth will remain: it is a moment that will forever shape me.
In the same way, I am certain that many of the stories about Jesus have changed over the years. But I am also certain that these stories remain because something so powerful and beautiful occurred that demand that they be told. The preacher Tex Sample begins every Bible story by saying, “I don’t know if things happened this way or not. But I know this story is true.”
Don’t stop taking pictures. Or even selfies or clips. They are a new and beautiful way to tell the human story. But please do more than use your cell phones. Be present to the moments unfolding before you in such a way that they are lodged in your heart forever. Please share them with the next generation. And remember—truth is more important than accuracy. All of our stories are true.
I have been challenged this past year to be more creative instead of reactionary. In other words: turn my critical thinking into creative opportunity. As a result, instead of ranting to everyone about the flawed hallmark-philosophy of mother’s day (see my other blogs on motherhood to learn just why I hate mother’s day) this year I decided to create an alternative holiday: International Great Women’s Day. On this day (which I think should coincide with my birthday—yes, I clearly have delusional ideas of self-importance) I, along with the women at Grace Community, invited the great women in our lives to a gathering.
This gathering of great women on the very first international great women’s day was life-giving to a hater of mother’s day such as myself. To have that many remarkable women in one place, whose journey’s were varied and beautiful, invited the Spirit to move among us in unexpected and powerful ways.
During the gathering, I spoke a litany. Although it is specific to the women gathered that evening, I believe it is also universal.
Happy International Great Women’s Day.
Litany Shared at the First International Great Women’s Day
May 2014, Walpole, Massachusetts
The women gathered here this night are diverse:
We are gay, straight, trans, sworn off relationships, and one has sworn she is a-sexual.
Some of us have bought a vibrator for the first time and other’s us of have discovered a sexual intimacy we did not know possible.
We are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Post-Christian, Jewish, Hindu-Christian, Buddhist-Christian, Atheist, Neither, allergic to organized religion, still searching, and more.
We are single, married, partnered, living in homes, apartments and with friends.
We have finished PhDs, GEDs, research projects, and written college essays for the first time.
We have followed the corporate flow and refused to do something conventional.
Some of us have closed our studio spaces and others us of have taken out business loans.
We have new exciting jobs, old jobs we love, and jobs we hate, but must work.
We have applied for new jobs, been rejected, hired, received tenure, and failed by other’s standards.
Some of us are more financially secure than we have ever been in our lives and some of us are broke. But we have all been generous.
Always we have weathered the joys and storms of relationships.
It has been a year of broken relationships and a year of healing: we have filed for divorced and discovered new love. We have made new lifelong friends and ended other friendships. We have refused to be anyone but who we are and at other times caved to make peace.
Through it all we have been grateful for all those who love us because we are exactly who we are.
We have survived: cancer, abuse, rounds of IVF treatments, depression, broken ankles and broken hearts.
Some of us have cared for aging parents and some of our parents have cared for us.
We have all gained weight and lost weight. And some of us have lost over 100 pounds.
Some of us have conquered addiction while others of us have confronted those with an addiction.
We have organized fundraisers, walked, biked, written our political leaders, donated organs and platelets and blood and volunteered everywhere.
We have buried parents and best friends.
Some of us have mothered full time and some of us have mothered from afar.
We are mothers of children with special needs, autism, dyslexia, and depression and mothers to children who do not live in our homes.
Some of us have chosen to remain childless and while others have wept over the children we have not born.
We have birthed and sent our children to prom and watched them graduate from college.
Some of our children have gotten engaged and others have failed physics.
We have changed diapers and dressings, nursed concussions and yelled at our children for coming home drunk.
Some of our adult children have disappointed us with their immature behavior and some have left us speechless with their acts of kindness and wisdom. Others of us have been shocked by how disappointing motherhood has been, while others of us have been thankful for our role as Aunts.
We have sewed, laughed, prayers, cried.
We have fed, grocery shopped, washed dishes, folded laundry, and some of us have quit and invited someone else to do it for a change. Others of us have folded laundry for our friends while still others of us are hired to clean up after families that are not our own.
We are all powerful in our quiet or loud ways.
And we have all loved to all our hearts have ached.
We have held on.
We are great women.
As her grey heart rhythmically pulsed on the monitor it was as if all of life rushed before me—all that it is to be human contained within the walls of a pumping muscle.
Today I took my daughter to the cardiologist to make sure her heart murmur was “innocent” as preliminarily diagnosed. While there, my sweet girl had an ultra sound of her heart. She lay down on the sterile table with a deepening dimple, heart socks, and ribboned pig tails peeking out of her medical gown. The lights were turned down and the medical technician soon had my daughter’s beating heart, twisting and fluttering in various shades of grey, on the monitor before us.
Without any warning my eyes filled with tears as I watched my daughter’s heart beating. My tears were not related to worry. Taking my daughter to the cardiologist did not even register as scary; both my son and I have innocent murmurs. “Why the tears?” I wondered as they continued to fill my eyes.
I had multiple miscarriages. When I became pregnant with my final child—my daughter—I was monitored closely. In the first thirteen weeks of her gestation I had three ultra sounds. I waited desperately to see my tiny thumb sized baby’s flickering heart appear on the monitor. I had seen too many of my babies still, suspended in the black of the monitor, no flickering heart to be seen. When I was fifteen weeks pregnant with my daughter, I had a panic attack. I was sure my child had died inside of me like the others. My midwife confirmed my fear when she could not find the baby’s heart beat with her portable monitor. My husband and I sank into sobbing despair as we waited for an ultrasound to confirm the worst. Thirty minutes later my 14 week old baby’s heart flickered on the screen, beating with life. She was fine. It’s just that she had found a place to rest out of reach of the midwife’s monitor. I watched that heart flickering for a long time before I decided finally, maybe, I could allow myself to fall in love with this child I was carrying.
Today as I watched that once tiny baby’s heart beat and beat and beat, I thought about all the life events that would break that heart wide open with love, compassion, grief, transformation. I thought of the many she would fall in love with and the many who would disappoint her. As her grey heart rhythmically pulsed on the monitor it was as if all of life rushed before me—all that it is to be human contained within the walls of a pumping muscle.
My academic husband makes our children watch educational documentaries (they are not allowed to watch TV on a regular basis so they happily will sit through any documentary, just to have a chance at screen time). Recently they watched the documentary I Am. My middle son was taken with the documentary and shared with me what he learned: the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. With earnest expression that only an eight year old can muster, he proclaimed, “You see, Mom, everyone thinks the brain controls everything, but it doesn’t. It’s the heart. That’s why it hurts all the time, Mom. That’s why I can feel it inside me when I cry. My brain isn’t telling me anything; it’s my heart!”
There you have it. I cried because I saw on a dim grey monitor my daughter’s very being, and for that matter the very essence of who we are as humans, why we ache, why we love, why we are so vulnerable to this beautiful and scary world.
When God makes a new covenant with the Israelites after their exile from the Promised Land, this new covenant is not written as a law code on paper. Instead God proclaims through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will write this promise upon your hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). And the promise is this: “You belong to me. You are my people.”
I did not see the words--you belong to me--on the ultra sound monitor today. But I am sure I could hear them whispered with each beat of my daughter’s heart. She belongs to me, I belong to her, all of us belong to each other. All of us belong to God.
But as a woman who survived that early journey, and in the meantime has had her heart filled beyond a capacity she knew possible, I can only pause and wonder how God can be so sneaky.
Tomorrow my firstborn turns ten. Make my heart ache double digits.
I was the high schooler who babysat five children without missing a beat, the college student who left campus to tutor elementary school children and babysit professor’s newborns, the young adult who thought of nothing else but when I could start my family. There was nothing shocking about the arrival of my first born; everyone was waiting for me to become a mother. What was shocking was how much I hated it.
Yes, I hated it. I spent the first ten weeks of my son’s life in a sleepless regret, wondering: what have I done? I had ruined my perfectly lovely and controlled life with a wholly dependent child who nursed around the clock, had no apparent emotional connection to me, and kept me from doing everything I had previously enjoyed, like sleeping. I now know many mothers and fathers experience the same exhausted disenchantment with new parenthood. I give permission to every expectant mother I meet to not love parenthood, or even their child, during those first weeks.
So why on the eve of my boy’s tenth birthday am I remembering those long first weeks?
I am the woman who craves another child, yet shudders at the thought of caring for a newborn. I am the woman whose heart longs for the baby who will be ten tomorrow, yet eagerly looks forward to the next ten years observing his life unfold. I am the woman who has discovered nothing more difficult, yet more life-giving and transformative than parenthood. I can find no explanation for these paradoxes other than God.
Remembering my rocky arrival to parenthood while my beloved ten-year-old boy sleeps upstairs speaks to the sacred journeys to which God calls us.
God called me to parenthood. Yet what I did not know as a babysitting teenager and pregnant 27 year old was that God was calling me to a knock you on your knees difficult journey that would transform how I saw the world and how I saw myself. If you had told me this as I nursed my four day old baby after three days of labor (that would be seven days without sleep for those of you who aren’t counting), I might have thrown my La Leche League book at you. But as a woman who survived that early journey, and in the meantime has had her heart filled beyond a capacity she knew possible, I can only pause and wonder how God can be so sneaky.
Yes sneaky. God is sneaky like a parent who washes your blanket behind your back and returns it before bed. Or like a high school teacher who you are dead set on hating due to their demanding work load, but ends up earning your life-long thanks. Or like a rainy day that ends with a brilliant sun set.
God called me to parenthood without letting me know how fully it would crack me open to the wonder, pain, and sheer difficulty of life. On the eve of my boy’s birthday I give thanks to God not just for my boy, but also for the difficult and utterly beautiful journey that has brought me here. I also give thanks to God for the sneaky ways we are called to the journeys before us.
"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.
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.