Last year I had the joy of hearing Rowan Williams speak at my seminary. My partner had introduced me to his work years ago, and it was incredible to hear him in person, lecturing on Bonhoeffer’s Christology. After the first lecture, a listener posed a question to Williams about the sadism of the incarnation, God sending God’s child to pain, and how we can contend with the portrayal of divine willingness to suffer. Williams owned that this was a weak place in his theology, and moved on to address other questions. I was sitting with S slung on my chest, next to a friend and mentor who is a priest and mama. I grabbed her arm tight and whispered, “A mother can answer that question!”
What else could I do but split my mind, spirit, and body wide open and send him out into the world? What else could I do but feed him, again and again, sometimes easily and sometimes painfully? What else could I have done? And I would–and God willing, hope to–do it again in an instant.
How much more must our Mother in Heaven know that nothing else could be done but to send a piece of herself out into the world, to nourish and watch him grow, to then feed us, her people, in Christ, again and again?
The oils used at the very end of pregnancy to support healthy labor and delivery are the same ones that can be used to slow milk supply. Over the last couple of months I would lay on my side at night, soaked in peppermint and clary sage. Drifting off to sleep I would remember the discomfort of those last heavy pregnancy days and feel empty and light as the herbs slowly work to untether our last bodily lifeline.
We were lucky. Nursing was good for us. After a rough first few weeks and a tongue-tie procedure we were on track. S was a good eater and I had good supply. I nourished him and we bonded easily, deeply. I was only apart from him one or two days a week in his first year. The connection was the same and different each time. It changed from the early weeks where I did so much of the work, to the end where the toothy toddler would crawl over and sign for milk, pulling on the hem of my shirt, practically helping himself. First every two hours, then three, then four, then morning and evening, then once in the afternoon when we reunited from work and daycare.
We were lucky, too, that weaning was good for us. We were both ready. He wasn’t distressed, and I wasn’t engorged or infected. Nursing just faded away.
I’m a firm believer that some knowledge is embodied–cellular, behavioral, and elusively unspeakable. Those wild pregnancy cravings that were supplying nuanced nutrients to grow a body; the milk coming in and letting down on its own accord when it was time for S to eat; and those first days, nursing through lingering contractions as my womb worked to resume its size and place in the pelvis; my body waking up, feet hitting the floor and moving to his crib before he had finished the first cry. All unconscious, unarticulated. A growing and refining but fundamentally innate knowing.
What have I been knowing in my body about the heart of God, about incarnation, about Eucharist, that is now unknown?
Here’s the sermon I preached yesterday at my sponsoring parish. Please excuse the jump-in start—I began with a brief introduction of myself to new parishioners that’s not needed here.
Things were intense for our family about this time last year, when I was just beginning at Sewanee with a five week old baby. In case you haven’t heard, new motherhood is not for the faint of heart. Your body is wrecked, you don’t get more than an hour or two of sleep at a time, and you’re doing this incredibly high stakes work with no previous experience. It’s complete bliss, complete terror, and complete exhaustion.
And there we went, heading up the mountain. While everyone at the School of Theology was incredibly kind, I was so spent and frazzled. I didn’t really know what I was doing—neither as a mom nor as a seminarian, bringing my newborn to new student orientation. I had the distinct feeling that my brain got misplaced somewhere in that last month of pregnancy. It seemed that I’d made a tremendous mistake.
So on my first day of class we’d gotten up at 5 to make it there with plenty of time for morning prayer in the Chapel of the Apostles. There are all my new classmates, other new seminarians that are distinctly more bright eyed than I am. I have my son in a sling carrier on my chest, a book of common prayer in one hand and an Anglican chant psalter in the other. Of course, halfway the scripture lessons, Sylvan starts to fuss. I’m not talking about chatting or whining. He was gearing up for the big one. And let me tell you—the only thing louder than a screaming baby in a church are the voices of shame and inadequacy shouting in a new mom’s head.
We swayed in the back row, and I desperately tried to calm and comfort him.
Oh, but then, the organist begins to play that refrain and just like that my tiny son goes calm and bright eyed. We felt the music from the organ and voices ring through our bodies, and the wind of pipes and throats was like the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing away my anxiety fear. There was enough stillness that for a moment, I noticed the way the morning light was coming through walls of windows in the Chapel, noticed the hint of incense and the feel of stone under my feet, notice that maybe my neighbors don’t mind the fuss as much as I think. Maybe we can do this! Maybe there is space for us here! Maybe I can just show up and be present to God in this space. It was a little revelation of the presence of God, up on the mountain.
This morning we heard the good, good news of Jesus transfigured on another holy mountain, shining the divine glory and affirmed of God’s presence. We see the law and the prophets, represented in Moses and Elijah, all come together in the perfect revelation of God’s heart, Jesus Christ. With the disciples we see the fire and cloud and hear the voice of the Father proclaiming that God is with us in Jesus Christ.
And this divine revelation is seen in the midst of messy, faithful work. In the surrounding stories of Luke, we can read about Jesus’ healing of the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman, taking time for everyone from the social elite to the desperate and destitute. Then he’s sending out the disciples to heal and preach, with that terrifying instruction to go without money, provisions, not even a change of clothes. And after their apprenticeship, the disciples return, the crowds congregate, and we have the feeding of 5,000 people from 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. What exhausting work! Then Jesus is having the toughest conversations with the disciples, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” and telling them that faithfulness will mean carrying a cross.
To see the bigger picture of who God is, we have to take the story of the Transfiguration in its context. To know Jesus as fully God and fully human, we have to see the glory and the struggle, we have to see the toil and valleys on either side of this sacred mountain. If we want to journey on with Christ, we have to remember that even in the middle of the glory, Jesus talks to the prophet and the liberator about the hard road ahead. We have to remember what Peter, in his enthusiasm to put up a shrine, forgot—that the retreat to prayer and glory is only for a moment.
When the organ stops playing, the baby will fuss again.
When the cloud dissipates and the heavenly voice quiets, the disciples have to walk back down the mountain, and they walk toward Jerusalem, where Jesus will be arrested and abused.
It is hard to leave the mountain and show up for the messy, faithful work.
Brene Brown, a professor and researcher of social work, has done incredible work on courage, shame, and vulnerability. In her research, she identified a category of people who seem to be resilient, present, open, honest. A good Episcopalian, Brown calls them the “whole-hearted,” pulling this concept from our prayer of confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart,” and turning it on its head to ask what a life of whole-heartedness might look like.
Brene Brown’s research identifies one main thing as a whole-heartedness killer, a shame trigger that will keep us from fully loving God. It’s perfectionism, the desire to get things right, or appear as if we have gotten things right. Perfectionism is wanting not just a change of clothes and a walking stick for our mission, but also maybe some decent hotel reservations, a game plan, and a buddy system, and Siri. Perfectionism is sending the hungry crowd away, because we can’t try the hard new thing if we think we might fail. Perfectionism, God help us, is trying to interrupt the epiphany and put a shrine around it so that we can control what’s happening or document it to show our friends later.
Think about the last really brave thing you did. Think about the last time you prayed, “God help me!” and really put yourself out there. I hate to tell you, and you might already know, that courage and openness usually feels excruciating, exposed, anything but brave. It might feel like showing up in a strange town doing strange things, like preaching and healing, when you don’t know how you’ll be received. Wholehearted may in fact be like stopping on your way, like Jesus did, to say, “Who touched me?” “Who needs help?” when you aren’t sure what will be asked of you. What looks like glory, fire, and Spirit on the outside, might have felt very different to Jesus, who stood in a place of reckoning with the hard choices and suffering that lay ahead of him. If we want to be in a place to experience transfiguration, we have to embrace the difficult daily work and deny our impulse to control. We have to receive the good and maybe uncomfortable news that we don’t have be perfect, just present.
The transfiguration is an important moment, but only one moment in a lot of work, work that took a lot of risks and a lot of guts.
In the revelation of the Transfiguration, and in the ministries surrounding it, Jesus invites the disciples into a moment of pure presence—to God, showing up in the world in all its need and beauty, in the magnificent moments of epiphany, in the interior prayers and the serious conversations, in the hard every day work of dying to the self. To be present to God and to our lives, in both the glory and the work, takes a lot of courage. When asked to be present to our lives, we might be overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, or so busy that we miss the opportunity for miracles. When asked to be present to God, we might fear that glory and intimacy, and like the disciples, try to build a shrine, a box for God.
But God knows we are only dust, God knows we struggle with this. And so Spirit offers invitations to be present, again and again, invitations to take notice of all kinds of epiphanies taking place all around us. Every invitation is a chance for our faces to blaze with the light of God. Every invitation is a chance to let that blaze of glory light a fire underneath us to go forth into the hard and beautiful work of proclaiming love, feeding the hungry, taking up crosses, and being present to the presence of God.
So, what is the last brave, hard thing you did? What’s the next brave, hard thing on your horizon? How can you find the glory of God’s presence in the middle of it?
Diffusing Release all day every day.
We’ve moved into Easter season, but I only just had time to edit and organize these jotted thoughts from Good Friday. Please excuse my disconnect from the liturgical calendar!
During the last two seasons of Advent and Christmas, I felt connected to Jesus in a profound way. Not too surprising that I could meet Jesus as son—I was pregnant along with Mary through Advent, and the following year, supplied my own baby to be Jesus in the manger. What I didn’t expect was to see Jesus as my son this week, Holy Week. In church I sat with S. listened to the trial, the beating, the execution, the burial. An astounding sermon by a friend colleague who also did chaplaincy work in the pediatric ICU, bravely speaking about the dying children.
The beloved child is being killed. He didn’t outlive his mother the way he was supposed to.
The precious roly-poly manger baby grew up. He listened to your lessons and corrections, he paid attention in synagogue. All grown up. He took all the law and the prophets to heart, listened more than you anticipated, and gave up everything to go around, healing and loving and listening and preaching. You spent the last few years loving his loving heart, sending your prayers, shaking your head at his strange ways, worrying that he might be stirring up trouble with his strange friends.
The stakes were high. Too high. If it weren’t all so horrifying, you’d be proud, so proud and astonished that the little speck of cells in your womb, the toddler you spanked, the teen you grounded, is this grown, beautiful, brave man.
There is no resurrection today. No hope. There is only the echoes of pain in your own body as you watch his broken. That pulling knot deep in your belly—you haven’t felt that since those first days after you birthed your last baby, that painful jerk of womb and breasts at their little cries—it’s back and stronger and bringing you to your knees.
Last weekend, I preached 3 back-to-back services in a congregation where I’d never preached before. S. and I had gone to stay with my parents in Georgia and he refused to sleep more than 45 minutes at a time for two nights in a row.
On Saturday night I had a weepy meltdown—maybe the system is just too hard. It would be easier not to do this work, not to keep fighting over and over for space for myself as a mother, to justify the beauty of my embodied roles that weave into my priestly roles.
Sunday morning after the first round of my sermon (Father Óscar Romero as one who, like the man born blind in John 9, had his physical and spiritual vision transformed and followed a risk taking God into costly grace—Amen?), I stood dutifully by the door of the church between the priest and deacon, shaking hands. “Thank you, beautiful day, happy to be here.” A woman, probably in her 70’s, grasped my shoulders and leaned to my ear. My stomach plummeted in the half second of waiting. What on earth had I said to warrant this? Am I in trouble?
“Did I hear you say that the Holy Spirit is a ‘she'”? she asked in a loud whisper. “Yes ma’am you did,” I whispered back. And she hugged me tight then let me go again to clap her hands and exclaim, now loudly, “I always thought so too!”
We chatted a bit more and I told her what I’ll tell you: This isn’t some shock value contribution, a sneaky added pronoun to ruffle feathers. The female Spirit is part of the Christian tradition, moving from Lady Wisdom in Proverbs to a God experiencing labor pains in bringing new life in and from the world in Galatians. It matters that Spirit is comforter and counselor, roles of feminized association. That which is debased as women’s work is the divine person and work of God. And that matters a lot.
While God is beyond the social construction of gender, we have so far to go on our anthropologies and theologies of gender before that can be practically meaningful. As long as I have to retreat to my car to pump breastmilk between services, separated from my breast baby for hours in order to preach the gospel, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. As long as a guest can still assume that the two full-time women priests on staff at the chapel must be filling in for their part-time male counterpart like some sort of spiritual understudies, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. My little nieces and nephews and my son need Her, comforting and counseling. The seventy-some-year-old church ladies need Her, seeing themselves made in God’s image in their particularity. God knows, when I’m crying because I don’t know how to shoulder through one more sleepless night, doing the work that my female body must do, I need Her, nourishing and tirelessly keeping watch with me.
Yes ma’am, Spirit is a She!
What has the she-ness of God meant for you? When do you need Her?
In Nashville last weekend, there was a Friday inauguration day march, explicitly intersectional and put together by a conglomeration of groups whose concerns and members will be negatively affecting by the new president. Renters’ rights, refugee and immigration protection, and LGBT advocacy to name a few. S and I were running late (first we nap, then march) but caught up to the march as they walked across the downtown pedestrian bridge with signs, chants, drums, and even a small brass section. We were peaceful and law-abiding, with a significant number of marchers in reflective vests working to keep things moving and signal vehicles. We sang, “We Shall Overcome” and “Which Side Are You On?” We laughed and looked out for each other.
How many times that night was I called “bitch,” walking in my city with my baby, singing and chatting? Two times? Ten?
How many times have I been called “bitch?” From those first murmurs in junior high when I came back at a boy who touched me to now, leading meetings and challenging colleagues… how many times have I been called “bitch?” And why that, in particular? That word originally meant to describe a dog, used now to dismiss and dehumanize, to reduce me to animal property.
This week I came across this beautiful essay about the difference between a “nice girl” and a “kind woman.” This author was too gracious to offer the other term for a strong, kind woman: “bitch.”
Consider the (not unproblematic) white feminist embrace of “Nasty Woman,” our new president’s verbal attack on his debate opponent. I was not a wholehearted Clinton supporter, but this slur was not directed at a political rival, a debate opponent. It was an attempt to verbally diminish her right to be there. It was a slight to any woman with the nerve to question, resist, stand up, formulate independent thought, do the homework, and assert herself.
“Bitch” is for a woman with the gall to march and sing through the evening, bringing her baby and her anointing oils, all her vocations, into the public realm. “Bitch.” That one jarring, harsh syllable so discordant with the snaking line of determined and joyful people moving through the city like a stream, so wrong for a healer, so untrue of mother, partner, and friend.
“Bitch.” It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.
God, the loving Mother of all,
Thank you for this little incarnate grace entrusted to my care.
Grant me grace to show my boy deep tenderness, that he might show it to others in turn.
Sustain calmness and radical mindfulness in our home, that he might resist the temptation to prove himself by busyness and accomplishment.
Grant me the discipline and discernment to care for him and grant his desires without catering to his every whim, that he might appropriately deny his more destructive desires of body and power.
Bring clarity in my identity and persistence in my calling, that he would witness and respect the power and personhood of women.
Grant me empathy, that I might remember that he is but one beloved child among millions, all equally precious and deserving, and humility to recognize that even his precarious moments occur in privilege and safety.
Strengthen my resolve and attention in his formation, that we would both grow in the knowledge and practice of justice that takes place in the details.
Remind me that Jesus, your son, a brown skinned refugee child, killed by the state, calls me to divest myself of power and work for change, and raise this white son to do the same.