This Is My Body

Have I got a recommendation for y’all.
A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to read an upcoming book from Upper Room Books, This Is My Body: Embracing The Messiness of Faith and Motherhood by Hannah E. Shanks.
Oh my goodness. That’s only all I ever seem to talk about.
In her book, Big Magic, Liz Gilbert shares her theory on Creativity, who comes along and taps you on the shoulder with an idea. If you won’t or can’t give life to the idea, Creativity moves along to another soul who is willing or able to make the Creative Idea come into the world. When I read This Is My Body, I thought of this theory immediately, as Hannah Shanks has put to the page so many of the prayers and conversations my mama friends and I have been having. This Is My Body is the absolute book of my heart, and of so many other mama/theologian hearts. It’s the story of my past two and a half years, of so much of coming into motherhood. It’s a book as universal and exceptional as the experience of motherhood itself.
Hannah is a brave theologian. She wades into nitty-gritty, concrete, gross and glorious embodiment. Incarnational theology, ironically, is so often approached as an abstraction. But grounded in the minutia of physical changes in pregnancy and birth, this Christology can’t help but keep its skin and blood, its placenta and colostrum and sweat and mucus. This courage reminds me to muster my own, to remember that I, too–my life and motherhood and ministry and theological reflection–I am united with Jesus in all my bodiliness. Her theology roams beyond the initial topic of motherhood, dealing with fundamental feminist questions of belonging and equality, asking, “How, in a religion where God incarnate was physically borne, supported, and raised by a woman, did we come to a place where women were seen as secondary to men in carrying the gospel?”
And Hannah is a brave mama. She names conflicting emotions and the gut-wrenching mind/body connection of pregnancy pains and fears, postpartum struggles, and the mind-numbing exhaustion of life with a newborn. This courage reminds me that I, too, felt those things and hid them, worried about my solitude in my worry and ambivalence. The connections between pregnancy and postpartum with prayer practice and faith also connected with my experience. To be sure, breastfeeding all night felt like a vigil of hours, but that prayer was offered with unapologetic tiredness and sometimes, frustration. Hannah describes with so much grace and honesty how all of these feelings and experiences are bound up together.
Reading this, I found myself thrown into body memories, brought to tears and belly aches in recollection of the body immediacy of pregnancy, of labor and delivery, of nursing. My body was just so loud to me then, so demanding and strong. What’s more, as I read, I suddenly became aware of what I no longer know about God, aware of insights about Eucharist, even about myself and my son that are no longer known and lived in my flesh. That knowledge of “this is my body,” so acute, so sacred and earthy and bloody, has faded. I knew because my body knew. Now, “this is my body” means something else. The book left me with an invitation to discern what this life stage and embodiment, so different that the last, might have to teach me about God with us.
Thoughtful of her audience, Hannah Shanks acknowledges her social location and particularity as a cisgendered and reproductively able-bodied woman. She acknowledges the limits of her story. But a story told well, in its particularity, is a story that points beyond its teller to connect with many. She writes, “The parts of myself that I don’t want to reconcile aren’t left out of God’s radical work…Turns out, being made one with Christ means being made one with ourselves, too.” This good, hard news of grace and bodiliness and integration into God is good, hard news for us all, not just for the mamas. This book casts a vision for all of us to have space to say, “This is my body.”
The book will be out from Upper Room in May (preorder here) and I’ll be clamoring about it on facebook and instagram with links to buy. Get it for yourselves, for baby shower gifts, for your midwife, for anyone who likes to talk about bodies. There’s even a discussion guide in the back if you decide to go wild and make it a book club. Hmm… that’s a thought.

EEK!

In my graduate studies and practice as a minister, I teach spiritual practices that connect the Christian tradition of scripture, prayer, and worship to emotional intelligence, embodiment, and mindfulness. As a mom, I hope to ground my young son’s faith in this as well.

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Eek! Said Amy by L.J. Zimmerman and Charles Long is one of the best tools I have found for this. The story explores body and emotions with a boy named Devon and Amy, his amygdala. They’re a great team, most of the time, but Amy sometimes gets in “red alert!” and Devon struggles with very big fear at some small things like a little bug, social anxiety, or stepping on a sidewalk crack. These worries are relatable for children, and so are the hopeful practices offered: a talk with mom, a simple breathing meditation, and some Bible verses to memorize and remember when things are scary.

I read this with my son who’s 20 months old, and while it’s aimed at older children, he was engaged with the book. He requested, “Amy?” “Emotions?” long after we put the book away. My five year old nephew connected more deeply, wondering if he has an amygdala, too, and practicing deep breaths full of God’s love along with Devon. This is a book to grow into, with layers of emotional intelligence, body awareness, and prayer for different developmental stages.

Also, it’s funny. The pictures and dialogue are clever, and I didn’t hate reading it five times in a row for a toddler. And let’s be real, mamas — that matters, too.

You can order Eek! Said Amy on Amazon or from Abingdon Press this week! I will definitely be buying a few copies for friends and family, and keep on revisiting it with my child. With the terrible twos around the corner, we can probably both use some deep breaths of God’s love and a gentle reminder that God can help us be brave through big emotions.

 

What's a spiritual practice?

In the Keep Watch With Me Advent Reader, a project I’m co-curating with my friend Michael, I’ve been creating a unique spiritual practice to accompany each contributor’s reflection. And I’ve heard the question, “What is spiritual practice?”

Spiritual practice, spiritual discipline, and prayer practice are all phrases I use interchangeably to talk about ways we connect to God.

Wiser saints who’ve come before me use that language of practice or discipline because a life of faith and prayer, and for that matter, a relationship, are not things that are mastered or completed as a one-off. We practice like a musician or an athlete, growing more at ease with the task yet never reaching a place of completion or arrival.

In her book, The Spiritual Activist, Claudia Horwitz says that a spiritual practice has three characteristics: 1) It connects us to the presence of the sacred, 2) It is something we do regularly, and 3) It grounds us in the present moment.

Spiritual practice is not a one-size-fits-all affair. It’s not even one-size-fits-you-forever. Different personalities and seasons of life call for different forms of connecting to God, and a practice might have different patterns or duration. The long walks I took with my son when he was a newborn, cradled in a wrap on my chest, don’t fly for a busy toddler who wants to get out of the stroller after 10 minutes. The appeal of daily scripture reading fades for the seminarian taking multiple biblical studies classes. Silence and solitude may be draining, not refreshing, for those who work alone, when you might be better nourished by meaningful conversation.

If you decide to try a new practice, but feels too uncomfortable or simply doesn’t resonate for you, you can feel free to let it go. It may not be for you, or you might revisit it later with surprising connection. Creative spiritual practice can be approached with confidence in the presence of God’s spirit and openness to the myriad ways that God loves and leads us to peace, as well as a good sense of humor and openness about the ways that we may or may not encounter God in a particular way.

Hopefully that’s a helpful intro, or offers you some new language and ideas to consider prayer and spirituality.

What kinds of things are you practicing these days? What regularly connects you to God and keeps you present and grounded?

If you’ve been enjoying the spiritual practices included in Keep Watch With Me or are looking for new opportunities to grow, experiment, and seek God in community, I invite you to join An Epiphany in the World, a Facebook-based book club and spiritual practice group I’ll be facilitating in this upcoming liturgical season of Epiphany. You can join the group and learn more here.

Struggle, balance, vocation, etc.

Can we chat for just a sec about the mama/minister struggle? (If you aren’t up for a struggle ramble this morning, move along and peace be with you: I’ll post a sermon tomorrow!)

I was scheduled to preach at my sponsoring parish yesterday, something that is always equal parts joy and challenge. I love preaching, and I love going home, and I love that St. Luke’s welcomes me to the pulpit a few times a year, but getting to Cleveland is hard sometimes — either to take S solo, or for the organizer hubs to make space in his hectic work to solo parent at home or come along with us.

Then, on Saturday, S woke up from his afternoon nap sick. Like, grouchy, feverish, and not his normal self. I called the pediatrician, but they couldn’t get us in until Sunday morning. Thank God for a weekend appointment at all! I took the appointment, Austin came home early from a community event, and I loaded up and got on the road to my parents’ house to stay over before getting up bright and early to make to the 8:00 Rite I.

Y’all. Sunday was so great.

It was a sermon that was a “good enough” sermon, a sermon written with intention and prayer, but also a lot of time constraints and without the benefit of the Saturday afternoon polish.

But! But! The service was one of those when you get to a peaceful Spirit place right before the processional; when your body actually lets go of the shaky tight nervousness; when the presiding priest just casually reminds everyone that we’re here and Jesus is here and so it’s all good, really, and you believe it; when God is speaking in you and through your work but also in spite of you. I even had a meaningful conversation about theology and discipleship during coffee hour — basically the bigfoot sighting of parish ministry.

Afterward, I got in the car and checked my phone, called my partner to see how things were going.

Y’all. Sunday was so bad. Double-ear-infection-hundred-degree-fever-crying-all-night bad. I broke the speed limit so, so hard all the way back up I-24. My poor boys, one so sick and helpless, and the other handling the hardest kind of solo parenting and not calling to tell me, so that I could have that good ministry morning.

Sometimes it feels like you can’t win — and I know this is all working mamas, not just the pastor ones. Usually the ache of time away isn’t so obvious: so guilt ridden, so geographically separated, so feverish.

I was finishing up my MDiv at Vanderbilt when I was pregnant, and met weekly for a seminar group to debrief our field placements. Bless those folks, they got a much bigger dose of pregnancy angst than ministerial reflection from me. I remember saying something about knowing that I would have to protect my child from my vocation–saying no to a work that will sometimes take everything you offer and more–and protect my vocation from my child–in a culture that still has many voices denouncing my call as a woman and is more comfortable with a mama than a lady priest (much less a combo of the two).

I had no idea. No idea. 

I didn’t realize how distressing and complicated that would be, what it would mean to do that dual protecting.

Thankfully, I also didn’t realize what an ally I have in my partner, and how quickly I’d learn grace for myself when I can’t nail it.

So, readers — especially my priests, pastors, preachers, parents — when has this happened to you? What mantra and faith got you through? How do you have grace for yourself when you get the balance wrong? Who are your allies who get you through intact?

 

P.S. Baby is on the mend. Our pediatrician is great. Coffee is great. So is Elmo’s World in a time of trial.

P.P.S. In case this needs saying, I use essential oils on my kid to support his health. Sometimes I also use antibiotics and ibuprofen. Plants are good. Science is good. You do you, mamas.

Faithful and Perfect, Yes and No

A few years ago, I started to recognize and work on my perfectionist and achievement tendencies, thanks in no small part to encountering the Enneagram and learning about the gifts and troubles of my 3 type (you can learn more here and here). I read and meditated on being honest about my failures and limits, of working to be “faithful” instead of perfect. The idea here is that I can be faithful in my work and habits, plugging away and doing my best with grace for myself, open to the possibility that life can be good without being The Best. It’s the freedom to respond to one more invitation to responsibility with a “no,” when a “yes” for perfect’s sake would throw off balance, or rob emotional and spiritual well being.

Of course, if you adopt an idea and fail to re-examine it for a few years, guess what? “Faithful” is just a new name for “perfect,” a word well intended now hijacked by that addiction to have my shit together all the time and with excellence.

Suddenly this week I found myself in that manic frame of mind, thinking that a job change, moving into a new home, being our child’s primary caretaker, and adding a full-time summer intensive at Sewanee would be fine.

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But it’s not fine. I’m a human being and need to do things like eat and sleep and play with my baby and talk to my partner. If this formation to be priest is going to be more than just hammering out course credits, there needs to be adequate space to actually learn, not just regurgitate.

What dramatic life shift have I chosen, you wonder?

I’m just going to take one class instead of two, and try to remember to drink more water. That’s pretty much it. Because, frankly, I don’t trust myself to keep a good heart with a lofty goal plan—it’s too easy to slip into measuring and grading how well I’m doing… on letting go of accomplishment. And for someone whose identity is wrapped up in being turbo all the time, it’s harder than you’d think to say “no” to efficient, to closer graduation dates, to career advancement. Instead, this summer I’m going to say “yes” to a glass of wine in the evening with A., “yes” to good sleep, “yes” to painting my new bathroom and meeting our neighbors, “yes” to actually reading for class. Maybe even “yes” to potting herbs on the balcony or doing more little yoga videos.

How about you? What are you saying “no” to this summer? What gets a resounding “yes”?

This week in Lent

Matthew 11:28–30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

From A Room Called Remember by Frederick Buechner
To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness — especially in the wilderness — you shall love [God].

I recently told a friend, “Nothing will make you pray to Jesus like having a baby.” And it’s true. Not always in some profound way, but often like “Dear God make him sleep” and “Lord have mercy, I don’t know if I can keep nursing him with all these teeth,” and “Keep me kind, keep me sane.”

In these weeks of teething, rocky sleep, and small but strong opinions, parenthood is breaking me, sapping me of what I thought I had to offer, what I knew, what version of self there was before, what capacities for accomplishment were wrapped up in my life and work. I’m deep down in my bones and deep down in my spirit tired. I haven’t done laundry, much less checked in with God beyond those stretched-thin mama pleas for present grace.

In the above passages, two of this week’s readings for Wednesday Eucharist, there was so much deep acceptance for those stretched-thin mama pleas for present grace. The difference between my tired efforts and the efforts of God in me is blurred, brokenness and wholeness together all at once. In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are reminded, “to dust you shall return,” and I am dust and dirt, all broken up and low, and at once rich and full of life, more promising and complex than meets the eye, nurturing the next things in myself and in S.

The Refugee God and the Work of Christmas

New Year’s Day Sermon
Isaiah 63:7–9; P
salm 148; Matthew 2:13–23
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville

Howard Thurman: “The Work of Christmas”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Well, here we are, soaking in the Christmas season and bringing in the new year together in worship, looking ahead to our resolutions and hopes, the return of school calendars and normal work schedules. We don’t get to stay in the stable with the heavenly host and the mind-blown shepherds, the gift bearing magi, and the blissed out new parents. The sweet scene of the nativity that we so love to see enacted by our children in the pageant and maybe adorning our mantles through the holiday season is brought to a sudden stop—no, not by New Year’s Eve parties—but as Matthew’s gospel continues the story with a dark turn. Quick, we move to the next chapter after the magi leave, the angel appears again in a dream.

Pause. Breathe. Hear. Let us listen to these verses in a fresh way. Let us sit and be mindful of how quickly life shifts from birth to death, from joyous to horrifying.

Imagine waking up in the night in a cold sweat, mamas and daddies, from a nightmare that a tyrant was coming for your baby.  Doesn’t it make your chest hurt and your pulse quicken? Imagine that this nightmare is so vivid that you can’t get back to sleep, that you have to get up to look at your boy and see that he’s ok. Imagine that your partner is disturbed by your tears and your restless tossing and turning, and now, both awake and terrified, you stay up talking till morning and finally decide, “We have to go.”

Matthew puts this story in the legacy of the Exodus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” God has always been showing up in the brutal journey of the refugee, the tired eyes of parents leading their children to an unknown future.  And this story is also connected to the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke to the destroyed and occupied Jerusalem. God has always been showing up in the aftermath of human violence.

Over the holidays, I took some time to catch up on books, tv shows, boardgames, and movies with my partner, friends, and family. One thing on my list was the documentary short released on Netflix earlier this year, “The White Helmets,” which portrays the work of civilian rescue workers on the ground in Syria. I watched the film. Then I did some research.

I’ve been hearing about the air raids in Aleppo, the ceasefires that fall apart, the children and civilians who are being targeted, and felt that wave of despair, practically palpable through the radio news. And unfortunately, reading up on the history of the current civil war didn’t bring much political clarity or a sense of how to do my part to change or improve anything. The civil war is a hot mess, with local conflict becoming a proxy for foreign governments, continued destruction of civilian homes and hospitals, and more than 11 million people have been killed or displaced.

Not much has changed about war and empire over two thousand years. King Herod presided over a system that benefited a few elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Wars and empires, then and now, privilege the comfort of a few over the lives and safety of many.

Each morning, the volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense gather at their center, and then suddenly, as they sit chatting over breakfast, the sound of a jet rushes in, slicing through the calm morning, and the men abandon their plates and rush out. They discern the direction of the next bombs, and head to the site in a cargo van. They leap into action, pulling the wounded and incapacitated out of bombed out homes and alleys, before the next overhead pass ends hope of rescue. They carefully remove the dead from piles rubble, treating bodies with the tenderness fitting someone’s child, parent, dear sibling, closest friend. One man said that he tries to rescue every last one when they’re called to a scene, because it truly might be his family one day. There is a deep personal urgency to what is happening—there’s no space to distance themselves from the work.

And there’s not much space to distance yourself as a viewer of this short film. It was hard for me to watch. I could only take it in 5 and 10 minute segments, taking a break to breathe and gaze at my healthy, safe family. But turning it off wasn’t an option. The white helmets, these dedicated, devoutly Muslim, family men, blue collar workers turned everyday heroes, drew me in. They save the vulnerable, clear bombed neighborhoods, bury the dead, comfort the suffering, console the grieving, inviting me to witness as they proclaim gospel: “All lives are precious.”

And this is the gospel, the work of Christmas. We see God born to peasants, lying in a feed trough, recognized by all sorts of folks, and then on the run from a violent system, far from home and familiarity.

Matthew shows “God with us,” God’s saving presence, at the peak of human vulnerability, right in the crosshairs of violent power structures. And Jesus doesn’t affirm what is happening—his very presence as a prince of peace, made known to shepherds and magi alike, is a threat to the powers that be.

We have a working class, unhoused, refugee savior who calls us to notice Emmanuel, God with us, in and among the people we understand to be the “least of these.” We have a story of God made like us, but not all of us—God dwelling in a particular way that signals to us that in a profoundly practical way, brown skinned politically marginalized lives matter.

And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, how do we now live into the work of Christmas and set our eager new-year-resolved hearts to the task? How do we put ourselves in fellowship with the refugee who bears the image of God, with our weeping mother Rachel?

When we think about the refugee, I want to be careful that we don’t over-spiritualize this in a way that turns our attention from the real refugee crisis happening right now.

But it can be overwhelming—Where do we go from here? What can be done a world away?

We lament. We pray. We contribute to global relief and new social enterprise to help the displaced. We make our city and neighborhoods and homes places of sanctuary for those in need of home and safety, whether displaced from Nashville or Aleppo. We keep our eyes peeled for the toxic self-preservation of Herod at work in our communities and in our own hearts. And like our brothers at work in Syria, we keep the faith, keep showing up one day at a time.

In the midst of stories of suffering, the white helmets share the story of Mahmoud, a baby who at one week old, was rescued after 16 hours under the rubble. The men in the film follow up with him, now a chubby, active toddler. He is perfectly clueless of the grace and hope he holds in his life, in his very body. But the white helmets talked about him again and again, the sign that their work is meaningful. The story of this life spared, this possibility of a proper future beyond the death of the civil war, keeps them moving.

So like the prophet Isaiah, may we  keep telling the story, recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord. Keep telling the story of how God brought us into freedom, and stay mindful of those who are still fleeing, still wandering, still in need of safe refuge. May we be transformed from discouragement to resolution, from despair to engagement, from apathy to intentionality, from helplessness to creative courage. And may the strength of the knowledge of the God’s redeeming work and the rise and fall of those beautiful words, telling the story of Word made flesh, become the steady rhythm of the Spirit leading our steps into the work of Christmas:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Amen.