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Flutters and faith

Faith and Flutters

I have three tinies and this is my eighth pregnancy. Those kinds of odds can mess with a woman.

As I said a few weeks ago when I first told you about this baby, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. I spent the first four months of this pregnancy convinced that it wasn’t viable, unable to muster up any hope that Tiny #4 would actually be in my arms in February.

I spent those days waiting for a sign, just one sign, to demonstrate to me that this baby had half a chance. I prayed for it. (I never had a single sign.) Then came no heartbeat and then another non-heartbeat and then finally, crazily, 173 beats a minute and the assurance that so far, so good.

I had a heartbeat confirmation. And that was it.

You name the pregnancy “symptom” of your choice – morning sickness, sore breasts, exhaustion, mood swings, food sensitivities or aversions, whatever – and I had it with the three babies I carried to term. More tellingly, I did not experience them with all of my losses. That was always my first indicator that something wasn’t quite right with the pregnancy – my body quietly returned to normal and so I quietly began to grieve.

Tiny #4 continues to defy my script.

I have longed for morning sickness in a way that must baffle and offend women who are severely struck down during pregnancy. I don’t mean to make light of those who suffer in this way. But I went through my days perfectly fine, bright and energetic – and I hated every minute of it. My body still felt, well, not pregnant.

Come on, I would bargain with my body. Let me be sick today. It would sure help my anxiety.

When I carried Anne and Joe and Evelynn, I leaned heavily on those little indicators like morning sickness or migraines, swollen feet and exhaustion because they meant that something was still happening. Someone was still there. Someone was taking up space in my body and making their presence known. With Tiny #4, I have not had those reassurances.

My last rung of the hope ladder was this one: feeling the baby move. I always feel my babies moving very early, perhaps because I’m paying such close attention. As I passed day after day of this pregnancy without a single indicator to justify any hope, I waited expectantly for week 14. (I felt Anne at 16 weeks, both Joe and Evelynn as early as 14 weeks. This is uncommonly early but it’s usual for me.) This is a sure one, I thought, soon I’ll know I can relax and just enjoy this pregnancy instead of always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Surely, surely, surely with a fourth baby, I would be feeling this one move at the same time, possibly even earlier. Then I would know what to expect, then I would be bold enough to pray with assurance.

Week 14 passed, no movement.

Week 15, then 16. I voiced some concern to my family.

Then we passed week 17, then 18, then 19 weeks.

Still no movement within me, still no flutters, still no someone making their presence known.

As Week 20 drew near, it seemed that I was even being denied this milestone. The books and my midwife all said it wasn’t time to panic yet and so I waited (not-so) patiently for my next ultrasound appointment, this deviation from my expected script sent me reeling. Even if it wasn’t a big deal to anyone else, to me it meant everything.

Every small thing that I have used to justify my faith and confidence and hope during a pregnancy has been denied to me during this pregnancy. I don’t know why.

The days are a bit long when you’re waiting without assurance.  I think I used to confuse faith with my longing for control, particularly of outcomes. Even now, it’s a lame sort of faith, mine, the kind that waits for a sign before taking the risk. Faith feels like a release to me, it’s safer to put my confidence in my abilities or in hard work or proper behaviours or whatever new thing I’m using to wrest control in my life.

Like so many aspects of my spirituality, I am still a bit in-between, figuring out what I reclaim and what I relinquish, living with a few unanswered questions while relying heavily on the few things I do know – and almost all of those can be summed up in my complete and utter confidence in Love. God is for us, who can be against us?

Over these weeks, I felt like a fragmented woman, believing and unbelieving all at once.

One old-school part of me was going all word-of-faith on this baby: praying Scripture, declaring the Word, binding and loosing all sorts of things, declaring life and not death, you name it, I’d claim it. Another part of me was already grieving and giving up. Another part of me prayed for belief even while acknowledging my own unbelief. One part of me wondered how I even dared to pray and expect God to move for me when I already had three beautiful children and there are far more important things in the world about which I should be praying, how selfish could I be? Another part of me relinquished outcomes, trusting God implicitly no matter the outcome while simultaneously raging against that very thing.

I am a woman of prayer. It sounds bold-faced to write it down, but there it is. I write it anyway. Prayer comes easily to my spirit – perhaps it is because a former pastor of ours once told us that the same part of us that worries is the part of us that prays. I knew I could worry constantly, so that meant I could pray constantly.

And so I do. I always have. I move through my day with an awareness of my companionship with the Spirit and we talk always, sometimes even with words. I pray, this is what I do. It feels small, so small, in the face of great pain or sorrow or injustice or uncertainty or even joy, but I pray anyway. I carry people and movements, requests and hearts within me like candlelight that I revisit often to hold in my hands and breathe over in prayer.

I don’t believe I can control God through prayer or through faith, I don’t believe God is waiting for me to “prove” that I have enough faith or know enough Bible verses to argue the points. In fact, I don’t believe in praying with an agenda most of the time. Yet as the days of my waiting for this baby to just move already went by, I prayed to or wondered at God, grappling with my questions and my doubt, with my beliefs about the nature and character and heart of our God and the very real reality of our fallen world.

Fearlessly, fearfully, I prayed for life.

And I prayed for faith. I prayed for faith to believe for life and for health for a small person. I prayed because who else was going to keep praying? who else was going to stand guard over this small one and hang on for dear life, who else but her mother? this is what we do, we stay even when it would make more sense to give up. I prayed because I wasn’t going to give up. I wasn’t going to be the one to back down from a fight over my child.

I felt more like the annoying woman of persistence from one of Jesus’ parables, she who stood outside the door of a judge pestering his life out until he gave in with bad grace. Jesus called her a woman of great faith, I call her my only hope.

I couldn’t muster up my old definitions of faith but I could keep relentlessly hope-knocking as my radical act of faith.

Two weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I was laying in bed alone (a rarity) when the baby finally made her presence known: I’m here. She shifted and moved within my womb with a small whoosh, and my heart throbbed. There you are, I breathed. There you are. I’ve been waiting for you.

Then she moved like a fish in water, a rolling and a stretching with natural ease that seemed to say, what? you were worried?

I stayed in bed, silent, feeling her move within me, like faith, a flutter of a presence, growing. There was plenty of time to tell my husband, my mother, my sister, my friends. Right then, it was time to pray and every word in my mind and mouth, every flutter was thank you thank you thank you thankyouthankyouthankyou.

Still I wonder about faith and the nature of prayer, I still hold my understandings loosely. Faith isn’t certainty, I know that by now. If I was certain, I wouldn’t need faith. I think it’s a gift and a choice, sometimes at the same time. I think it’s a confidence in the midst of doubt, it’s work and it’s rest. Faith is a risk and it’s gorgeous to let go into the free fall.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her book, Animal Dreams, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

These days, that sounds a lot like Hebrews 11 to me. So right now I think faith is figuring out what I hope for – redemption, wholeness, shalom, justice, love, life, one small baby to live and not die, all of it – and then fearlessly living under that roof.

It’s been a couple of weeks since that Saturday. As I write these words, this baby within me moves and kicks and pokes mercilessly, stretching and growing, I still nearly exhale with relief every time. Our baby is alive and well and growing stronger still – I take no credit and I am still wary of proclaiming anything definitive.

After all, if I say that God performed a miracle this time, what does that mean for my other babies, the ones I never got to hold except in my folded-up tea towels? I can’t forget them. Yet if I say that it’s just a happy coincidence, am I taking away from the miracle and the glory for God’s mighty act for a seemingly small and ordinary woman and her unborn child? It’s both and it’s neither, it’s holy ground for that very reason, for the uncertainty and the praise, one in each hand. I can only say that fearless prayer did what it always does: it changed me.

I still pray and will always pray like that one thing is true: God is for us. And it’s worthwhile to keep knocking.

That’s about all I know about faith for sure.

Just a couple of days later, we had our ultrasounds. It confirmed what I already knew well by now: our wee one is healthy and whole, all is well. The technician might as well have hung a big neon sign up that said: Chill Out, Sarah. And Congratulations.

Because, didn’t I mention? …. we’re having a girl.

photo by Rachel Barkman Photography (from back when I was VERY pregnant with Evelynn) 

Continue Reading · baby, faith, fearless, journey · 46

More than metaphors: on bearing witness to baptism

On Sunday, four people climbed the ladder into the tiny plastic six-foot wide tank set up for our sacred purposes at the school gym. Standing in waist-deep warm water, our pastor stood with an arm around each person in turn: tell us your story, he said. And they did.

Someone had typed up a few pages to read aloud, another two spoke from the heart, another had written out her story long-hand onto lined papers that she dropped one after another onto the gym floor as she finished another page, a fluttering of falling, stained with tears.

And every time after they had finished speaking their truth and their journey, they wept at the ways that Jesus had met him in their darkness, at how he had given them friends and community to walk alongside of them, at how even the most lost moments or people of their lives had been restored.

They cried and we cried right along with them: we know, we know, we know, our hearts sang. It was that way for us, too. We remember.

We were dead and now we are alive.

Our pastor asked them a few of the important questions, just to make it official perhaps. Marriages require certain words in the church tradition, baptism is another sort of wedding so we need to hear you say it out loud: Yes, I profess Jesus Christ as my Saviour and I will spend my days following him wherever he leads me.

And into their lives and over their lives, the spoken words: In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, I baptize you. A gentle hand at your back, your eyes screwed shut, and you sink backwards in trust, here it all goes. Then with the hand of your pastor or your friends, sometimes both, at your back your face breaks the surface of the water and you breathe in new life.

Watching ordinary people sink into an ordinary plastic tub in an ordinary school gym in an ordinary small city in western Canada is one of the most extraordinary and sacred moments of my life.

Witness it: dying to the old life, raised in the newness of life. What once was dead, now lives. What once was has passed away and the new creation has come.

I stood on my feet and howled with praise. We all clapped and cheered, this is a moment for celebration! We cry and we clasp our hands over our hearts, our smiles are impossible to wipe off. Look! It still happens! Miracles! Imperfect, a bit of a mess, stumbling and so regular but here we are transcendent.

I don’t even know entirely what I believe or think actually happens when we’re baptized. I don’t think it’s required to be part of the family of God at all yet it’s beautiful and prophetic and holy. I don’t think this act is a simple metaphor or even a public declaration or a personal decision but I don’t think it’s a moment of salvation either. I think it’s a foretaste of one thing and a throw-back to another and a miracle besides. An act of obedience and a declaration, absolutely, a joining to a community, and a glimpse of resurrection all at once.

Really, what I’m saying is that I have no systematic theological step-by-step delineation about baptism but I know I love the very mystery of it, the resurrection of it, the belonging of it, and yes, wait for it, the power of it.  The sheer gob smacking dead-raising power of God, uprooting and planting together. The very air is charged with the the Spirit, snapping and electrifying, separating and renewing.

Baptism has always been the sacrament that I hold most gingerly, the one I understand too little and yet love most ferociously. These days there is a lot reclaiming of Eucharist or Communion for which I’m glad. But the sopping wet part of me still clings to baptism as my sacrament of transformation, it’s my own place of both mystery and equality, of welcome and embrace. I feel most like the mystic I might have been a thousand years ago at those moments of bearing witness to baptism.

Let me draw close and put my hands on you, let me pray for you quietly even if you never know. Today you saved something in us all. We remembered that it’s real – it’s all real – today. The Spirit met us here at a metaphorical River Jordan, this is the border land, the place of transition.

Whenever I feel restless about Church – both the universal Church and my own local church – and most particularly my place in her, whenever I feel wander-y and misfit-ish and even just plain tired of trying, when I wonder why even bother, I remember these exact moments. From the outside, it’s a rather stripped down version of a baptism perhaps but still a thin place between earth and heaven, rich in depth and marked as holy ground. I remember my own baptism and the power of it. Sinking and rising, metaphors for all.

And this life we live locks back into place again: we were dead and now we’re alive. We’re climbing a ladder while people cheer, we’re being wrapped in worn-out bath towels and we’re weeping with the biggest smile on our faces we’ve ever worn, sopping wet and alive as birth.

 Photo courtesy of Lightstock, used with permission

Continue Reading · faith · 13

A Memory of our True Home

Once I read a book about a child who was kidnapped (I can’t read those kinds of books anymore, so this must have been many years ago). The boy was kidnapped as a toddler, and they brainwashed him. They gave him a new name, they called themselves his Mum and Dad, they created an entire life for him. From the outside, it was so normal – school, baseball, family suppers – and they were satisfied that he had forgotten his old life and that this was their happily ever after.

But there was still something there, buried deep in his heart, he knew that something wasn’t right. He had dreams of his old life, recurring dreams of his mother and his father, his old room. And even though he was happy and his kidnappers were rather good to him, he wasn’t surprised, not one bit, to eventually discover that he had been kidnapped and that his entire life was a lie. When he finally was restored to his real home, every one worried about how it would go because, really, they were all strangers to him. But he saw his real mother, his real father, and he saw his home and he wept and simply said that he always knew, he always knew, the truth was there in his heart the whole time.

I sometimes feel that way about us and God. I feel like maybe we’re all exiles. 

We think we’re in our regular life, our real life, but there is this thing, this sense, this memory of something better, something more, something that is everything good and perfect still stuck in our hearts.

And even when everything is good or we’ve achieved everything we ever wrote on our Bucket List or pinned onto Pinterest boards or we accomplish some long list of the world’s version of success and we achieve celebrity or money or the house with the kids and the dog, we still know, deep in our hearts, we’re exiles and something, something isn’t right here.

It’s not enough. All of the stuff, all of the things, all of the experiences, all of the good or the thrilling or sexy stuff in the world is a smokescreen of goodness. It’s an approximation of something real to convince every one else that we’re fine, we’re normal but really we’re walking around and we know the whole time that we don’t quite fit, we know something is off, we know we’re not where we belong.

The memory of God’s kingdom is there. 

It’s there in the stuff of the soul, the tendrils of the spirit. Like the Psalmist sang, we’re like those that dream of home. It’s submerged somewhere in our brain or our soul perhaps, but we know, we know, the truth is there, in your heart, the whole time.

We see glimpses of it, we’re reminded, we have a hunch or a memory we can’t quite grasp if we try to look at it full on. It drifts like smoke or storms in like flashes of lightening-insight or takes our breath: we make love, we learn, we sing, we watch the stars come out, we care, we connect, we labour, we carry, we nurse, we cry, we dance, we witness restoration in a million tiny ways.

We have these moments of transcendence, like the veil between heaven and earth is fluttering, we can’t breathe for the loveliness of the world and each other, and just like that, we remember something. 

Our skin is made of dust and we often catch the perfumed scent of the Garden in the cool of the evening, and we know, somewhere inside, we’re supposed to be walking with God, unashamed still.

I wonder if that’s really what happens when we meet Jesus. It’s not that we meet him, or that we believe in him, or that we “invite him into our hearts” or that we mentally assent to some non-negotiable truths that will govern your best life now.

No, I think it’s that we recognise him. 

I think that part of soul, our spirit, our bodies, our minds, locks into focus. It wasn’t a dream, no, that is what is real. When we cross the threshold of faith, we enter into an awareness that the Kingdom of God has already come.

And we realise, Oh, my God, I always knew, I always knew, the truth was there, in my heart, the whole time. We couldn’t articulate it, if we tried to say it out loud it sounded foolish. So instead the inexplicable longing resides until it is fulfilled: the Kingdom of God. Love, hope, joy, peace, kindness, all of it. This is what God intended for us. This is what we are moving towards, every day, the restoration of this beautiful home, the redemption of all of us, the rescue of all of us from the false life that we think is real. We were made for this life instead. We’re home.

edited from the archives

 

Continue Reading · faith · 30

Pronouns: Or, why I still use masculine pronouns for God

Pronouns - or, Why I Use Masculine Pronouns for God

Occasionally, fellow feminists or egalitarians will get in touch to critique my use the masculine pronouns for God when I write or speak publicly. Critique is often hard to hear, of course, but it has often made me a better writer and sometimes even a better follower of Jesus. And in this case, I think that’s a fair critique and question, worthy of a thoughtful response. This is my attempt.

It’s not because I believe God is a man or exclusively masculine. Far from it, in fact.

And it’s not because I believe that’s the best or right or “most biblical” thing to do. In truth, I always feel elated when another writer or preacher avoids gender-specific pronouns or employs both male and female pronouns interchangeably when speaking of God (or, in the case of Anne Lamott, her way of getting around it is to occasionally call God “Howard” which delights me).

I think we limit our understanding of God by only referring to God as “he” or even “she.”

After all, both male and female are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Calling God “Mother” or ascribing to God characteristics that we have traditionally considered more feminine is not only scriptural, but completely within line of our Church history. God is described in scripture as a midwife, as a mother, as a nurse. God is referred to by Jesus as “Father” or “Abba” (a tender word for father, similar to our “Daddy”) and yet the Holy Spirit is often described using a feminine noun in Hebrew. The Apostle Paul himself often employed feminine metaphors or experiences to explain the work of the Spirit – pregnancy, labour, birth, and breastfeeding.

As my dear friend, Rachel Held Evans wrote on the topic back in May:

Finally, the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM”—a name without gender. I suspect that’s because, though God is a person, God is not a human being like us. The people of Israel received a strong warning from God about this in Deuteronomy 4:15-17: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…”

There’s no good scriptural or theological or even church-historical argument for exclusively requiring or using male pronouns for God. God is neither male nor female.

I’ve used both male and female pronouns for God occasionally in my work. You wouldn’t have too look very far into my book or my blog to find those metaphors or phrases or pronouns, not at all. But it is true: I often default to male pronouns. 

When I hear from people who are hurt or surprised by my use of pronouns in preaching or prayer, I think it’s a legit critique. But I don’t use those masculine pronouns or call God “Father” in prayer without purpose. Some might find my reasoning flawed. (I think that’s fair, too.) To me, this is simply a matter of personal conviction. There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, not really.

So here’s my big secret reason: I want to serve the Church in love. This is my small way of trying to build bridges and create pipelines for people to move towards freedom and justice. This is me walking a few steps into their familiar territory instead of waiting for everyone to line up where I think we should line up before the conversation even begins.

And for some of our brothers and sisters, those who have not yet experienced freedom in this area, any other pronoun or name only distracts or offends.

I choose to use familiar pronouns in order to reach even more with the message of Christ’s freedom and love.

People and publishers don’t require it of me. Not all. In fact, if someone did, I’d probably be much more prone to take a big stand against such restrictions to the freedom that Christ has given us and become a bit more militant about it.

I do this only out of care and love for the ones who haven’t received this revelation yet.

I do it to create a pathway for those coming after us.

It’s not an easy choice but given the nature of my work and witness and audience, it is where I have felt lead to submit.

I want to build bridges. This is a concession that I make as an effort to build bridges and reach out to those who are still new to the idea that both men and women are made in the image of God.

For so many who read Jesus Feminist, it was a huge leap of bravery to read something with the “f-word” in the title. I honour their bravery. So my heart was, and continues to want to, make space for their legacy and experiences with my public language about God. I want to meet our brothers and sisters halfway with my hand outstretched.

Of course, I don’t believe God is exclusively or primarily male. And to be honest, in my personal journalling and prayer life, I either avoid pronouns or employ both in equal measure. Much like Anne Lamott’s “Howard,” these days, I find myself calling God “Love” as if it’s their name. But I don’t do so publicly because I don’t want that to serve as a distraction.

If I used female pronouns only to “prove a point” or to deliberately distract or anger or offend my brothers and sisters in Christ, then I think my reasons for doing so would be selfish and suspect, perhaps even filled with pride at the ways that I am “enlightened” compared to others. I appreciate those who feel called to blow these assumptions up and push back here with consistency – I don’t think that my way is the only right way, I’m simply sharing my convictions right now.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul warns us about how we walk in the freedom we enjoy in Christ: “But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. For if others see you—with your “superior knowledge”… won’t they be encouraged to violate their conscience… So because of your superior knowledge, a weak believer for whom Christ died will be destroyed. And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ. So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble.”

Now, granted, Paul was specifically talking about how some believers felt free to eat food that was sacrificed to idols while others were horrified at the idea. But the underlying truth of his words serves as a universal guide for us today – we live our lives not only for ourselves but for those with whom we are in community. And, yes, I do see myself as “in community” with those who read my work or come to hear me preach. I care deeply about their histories and legacies, about the bravery it often requires to step out in faith to their new convictions and the price they often pay.

It was for this same reason that my husband and I chose to have a “dry” wedding without any alcohol all those years ago – we did as a sign of respect for those among us who had strong feelings or experiences around alcohol, particularly our parents. Even though we personally feel okay with drinking wine, we don’t do so in front of those whom it would offend or if it would cause others to stumble. We make those choices, not out of shame, but out of love and respect.

So as an act of love and respect, I have chosen to submit myself to the preferences of others.

People can get so tripped up with a pronoun that they miss the truth that we preach about the Kingdom of God, about freedom, about our value, about calling and vocation, even about marriage. It’s not perfect, but it’s reality.

In some contexts, it would be the equivalent of setting up a road block to freedom for some of our brothers and sisters. And I won’t do that. I won’t set up that stumbling block.

Should it be a stumbling block? Absolutely not. Of course not. But do we make our decisions in our interactions with one another based on “what should be” or based on the reality of the situation? Perhaps I’m simply too much of a realist.

In a weird sort of way, it’s the same with cursing. I very rarely curse in my writing – and even when I do, it’s of a rather mild variety. Even though the situation may call for it, I know that there are a lot of people who will simply shut down and check out the second they see a curse word or an offensive word. They’ll miss the truth of what I’m writing because I’ve distracted them. It’s not the same thing at all, but it sort of is related to my mind.

Paul wrote often about the freedom we enjoy in Christ but he also wrote about our obligation to one another, particularly to those who are either weaker or not yet free; he exhorted us to choose the slavery of loving them over the freedom of our own expressions. He himself wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.

I have submitted myself to the familiar language of many in order to bring as many people along with me as possible.

So rather than derail the conversation or perhaps the work that the Holy Spirit is up to with the distraction of pronouns, sure, I’ll call God “Father” and I will use the word “he” while I pray to build bridges. Absolutely.

I will use the common pronouns of our church language in order to reach even more with the greater truth behind the pronouns. I figure we’ll get there on pronouns eventually and in the meantime, the bridge is open, the path is clear, and I’ll stand with arms wide open to welcome as many as possible to freedom.

I’ve made this imperfect choice out of love.

 

Continue Reading · faith, Jesus Feminist, Uncategorized · 61