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This is my metaphor

Birth is my metaphor

Birth has been the hardest work of my life and the best work of my life.

In these final days, I’ve realised afresh that experiencing birth has been – and continues to be – the greatest altar of my life for encountering God. This is my thin place between the Spirit and my reality, it’s my favourite metaphor. The more I experience pregnancy and birth in all its mess and glory, loss and life, the more I uncover the devout links between how we as women experience birth and how the Holy Spirit often “gives birth” in our souls.

Sometimes when I was preaching here and there, I would use the metaphors of birth to explain what happens when we are growing or developing or evolving in our journey of faith. But then I realised something a few months ago that ticked me off: I was apologising for my metaphor. “I’m sorry, here’s another story about having babies to explain what I mean.”

This bothered me. Why was I apologising for my metaphor, for my experience, for the place where I met God so clearly? I know my metaphors don’t belong to everyone, that’s kind of the point. My situation and learning is unique to me, just as a football player’s metaphors are unique to his experiences or a business-woman’s metaphors are unique to her experiences. We each have our own metaphors for how we understand our faith journey. Some people find theirs in literature – I do that, too. Others find them in nature or in great acts like climbing mountains. I’ve heard many a sermon using sports or war as metaphors for the journey of a soul. And more, every mother’s experience with birth is unique because her situation is unique, her body is unique, her story is hers.

What was it that made talking about birth so taboo from the pulpit? It is too much, perhaps, too uniquely feminine to others, too messy, too real. The  braiding together of pain and joy and love is too powerful, perhaps.

But I believe right in my marrow that the voices and experiences of us regular mamas, having babies, are just as valuable, just as real, just as spirit-filled as any other metaphor.

I’m nearly 38 weeks pregnant right this blessed moment: God is very near to me right now. In my fear and exhaustion, in my waiting and my hoping, in my swollen ankles and my interrupted sleep cycles, in my preparations and my dreams, in the disappearance of any protective armour between me and the rest of the world, Emmanuel.

So I won’t apologise for my metaphors anymore. 

This is where I find God and this is where God continues to somehow find me, too.

I’ll write about how the Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle of labour mirrors the fear-tension-pain cycles of our transformations. I’ll talk about leaning into the pain, however counter-intuitive that may seem, because it’s in trusting our pain, letting our pain teach us, that we find life waiting and a trust-worthy path to release. We fight against the very thing that will free us.

I’ll write about how transition is identified by the feeling that you can’t go on, it’s too hard, you need to quit. And it’s transition because it’s in that moment, right when you want to give up in defeat, that you are nearing birth at last. My desire to give up is the very signal I am longing for that it’s almost over.

I’ll write about how the Industrial Revolution and modernism gave rise to a techno-medical method of birth that treated women like machines to manage, problems to solve, and how we forget that the very work of birth is the the thing that makes life after birth richer and healthier. And then let me draw the parallels for how we’ve techno-medicalized our souls, we treat our spirits like machines, full of shortcomings and defects, patiently awaiting the formulas to make it quick, make it easy, make it painless, make it simple. We deny each other the precious struggle which often makes healing, bonding, nourishment happen.

I’ll write about how the professionalization of bringing babies moved traditional wisdom away from us, collective story-telling disappeared, how we bench our wise women because what could they possibly have to teach us? I’ll question, oh, yes, I’ll push back a bit on authority, I don’t mind. I can’t surrender my soul or my body to the ones who want to make a buck off of me anymore. I’ll be wary of the slick promises and the easy roads, I’ll be suspicious of the ones who promise too much and cover the fine print with their jocular assurances.

I’ll even write about miscarriages and loss, about how it feels to labour only to end up with death and longing, sorrow staining backwards and forwards, changing everything.

I’ll write about how I withdraw when I’m labour, about how I need my safe place, my home, my smallest circle around me. How I crave silence and darkness, about how my very self goes deep deep deep within to draw the strength for the work ahead. And I’ll connect it to the ways that when we are in the struggle of our new births how we often withdraw from the strangers, from the bright lights, from the noise, from the unfamiliar or untrusted or untried, how the Spirit hovers over our darkness and causes new life to begin to rise from that place of silence and darkness, relentless, inexorably holy. I’ll probably think too much about how I love to give birth in water, how baptism and water pull me into relief like nothing else.

I’ll write about learning to think positively about my body, to honour the strength of my thighs and my hips, to let myself make the noise I need to make, to be unashamed about my own strength, how our bodies can hold the truth if we learn to follow. I’ll tell you about trusting our souls and our bodies, about believing in the inherent goodness of our physicality, about the lie of dualism separating our spirits and our bodies. I’ll tell you about how learning to let my body lead me gave me beautiful experiences in birth.

And I’ll write about how much I love the midwives of my life, how it feels so right and holistic to work in partnership with someone who trusts me and my body, my capacity and my spirit. I’ll echo Brene Brown who admits that she thought faith would be like an epidural, taking away the pain, but instead there she found a midwife, whispering in her ears, “push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit, you’re almost there.” I’ll write about how tenderly they cared for me, like a daughter or a sister, how they ministered with their hands and their wisdom, with their strong leadership, and then with tea and toast and clean sheets.

I’ll write about how the Apostle Paul himself never shied away from the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, finding rich parallels in our stories for life in Christ.

I’ll be honest about the ways that birth slows me down because I’m no longer afraid to be slower, to be out of step with the evangelical hero complex anymore. I’m not afraid of taking time to heal, of taking time to nourish both baby and soul. I’m done with proving myself, with acting like having a baby doesn’t affect me or change me. It does change me, it will change me, I am different already. I practice rest and healing, slowness and sleep after birth like resistance. I’ll write about how important maternity leave is and how important it is to give ourselves space to heal and mother after we do something so momentous.

I’ll tell my stories because, as Ina May Gaskin tells us, “stories teach us in ways we can remember. They teach us that each woman responds to birth in her unique way and how very wide-ranging that way can be. Sometimes they teach us about silly practices once widely held that were finally discarded. They teach us the occasional difference between accepted medical knowledge and the real bodily experiences that women have – including those that are never reported in medical textbooks nor admitted as possibilities in the medical world. They also demonstrate the mind/body connection in a way that medical studies cannot. Birth stories told by women who were active participants in giving birth often express a good deal of practical wisdom, inspiration, and information for other women. Positive stories shared by women who have had wonderful childbirth experiences are an irreplaceable way to transmit knowledge of a woman’s true capacities in pregnancy and birth.”

And our stories do that, don’t they? When we are active participants in the transitions of our soul, we emerge from the experience with practical wisdom, information, inspiration. We have tremendous capacities for hearing from God, for wrestling with our past, for leaning into the pain, for finding truth in the darkness, for discovering our true selves there in the blood and the pain and the beauty and the joy.

And then, then, we see that the struggle, the very thing we had been trying to avoid, is the very thing that sets us free, gives us life, helps us heal, restores our joy.

You have your hard-won and unique metaphor, I know.

This is mine.

 

 Photo by Rachel Barkman back in 2011 (38 weeks pregnant with Evelynn)

 

Continue Reading · baby, faith, giving birth, journey, Uncategorized · 52

A complicated peace

complicated peace

This surprise pregnancy arrived with more complicated feelings than I expected. I don’t think it makes me a bad mum or a bad woman to admit to that complexity, to confess the squirrelly, overwhelmed, and terrified feelings of a complete reorientation of my life.

Once we knew that the baby was healthy and all was well, the reality of the changes ahead hit me.

Whoa. We are having a baby. An actual baby.

Aren’t I too old for this? We were done having babies for very good reasons – not the least of which is my history of miscarriages. I thought my life was going in one direction and now it’s going in a completely new direction. I had thought I was starting one particular chapter of my life, one that brought me a lot of joy – tinies growing into marvellous big kids, finally emerging from the fog of babies-toddlers mothering, and a strong sense of purpose around my own vocation, for instance – but when I flipped the page, there was unprecedented change for us. A baby. Wow.

This baby was my cry-of-the-heart baby, absolutely. I longed for her life even as I made plans to move into our new chapters with gratitude. And a bit of disorientation is good for a person, I think.

The later-babies are a different sort of feeling, I’ve found, a bit more complicated and precious for that very thing. I was starry-eyed at the thought of one last little baby to treasure, one last time to experience pregnancy, birth, nursing, all of it. We’ve been washing impossibly tiny sleepers, reorganizing the house, borrowing my sister’s baby gear.

One of the best parts of this pregnancy so far has been sharing it with the tinies themselves. I had all three of them in four years so they were practically babies themselves as each one arrived. This time, they crowd around me on the couch, their hands spread all over my bump, shrieking in joy with each rewarding kick or push back from inside.

Me? I have full intentions of making an absolute fool of myself over this wee girl: now I know that it goes so fast, too fast.

And yet I believe that there is room for a bit of grief in the joy and gratitude. Throughout this pregnancy, I have felt disappointed in myself, too: disappointed that I wasn’t yay-happy-unicorns-and-rainbows-and-babies-forever at every single moment, disappointed that I felt both some disorientation and complication, even some grief, along with the joy.

I wanted uncomplicated pure joy, but instead I have spent this pregnancy grappling with faith and what it means to trust God, then with the realities of change coming our way, even with my own limitations. I can’t do it all. I can’t keep up the life that I had envisioned beginning and be the mother that I know I love to be, the mother I’m called to be, to this wee girl, let alone to the tinies as they grow up. I’ve heard it said that babies and toddlers are physically tiring but big kids are emotionally and spiritually tiring: so far that’s proven true to me. I’ve been admitting my weaknesses and limits, even my preferences and desires particularly if they are different than other people’s expectations.

I have been honest with my trusted ones over these months, confessing my complicated feelings and my occasional swings between sheer joy and sheer terror. I’ve also worked with my naturopath and midwife to make sure that I’m healthy and strong for birth and post-partum emotionally and physically. I’ve received a lot of encouragement and prayer, understanding and “you’re not alone” moments. The advice that almost every woman has given me, particularly from my friends who have experienced a surprise or unplanned pregnancy at any point in their life, has been this: just wait, let yourself feel what you feel, you get to be both happy and sad. Trust that the peace will come when it is time. Maybe not right away, maybe not at the moment you expect or want, but peace will come.

This pregnancy has become another altar for encountering God. For some reason, mothering is my place of surrender and trust, out of my control and yet such a sweet place of building trust and authenticity.

My friend, Wendy, who is an amazing seamstress presented us with a quilt she made for Tiny #4. I couldn’t even thank her, my voice was gone with gratitude, my eyes filled with tears. I already feel myself fighting for the little fourth baby, the one who gets the hand-me-downs and the seen-it-all-befores so this special and beautiful gift, just for our new wee girl, all hers and only hers, was powerful to me.

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Last week, we had another ultrasound. I have big babies and so our midwives always like to get a good idea of what’s ahead as we draw near to birth. I went to the appointment alone as we had the flu at our house last week so I didn’t want to risk bringing any germs. (And I just wanted a break from laundry and to breathe fresh air alone, can I get an amen?)

But as I lay there on the table for the procedure, the technician swiping across my belly with her wand, the images were flashing on the screen: here’s her spine, here’s her feet, here’s her heart beating, here’s her hands. She was sucking her thumb which is just incredible to me. Such a little person already.

And then she moved her hand and I caught a glimpse of her lower face. She was beautiful, she looked exactly like all of our babies, but especially like Evelynn to me. They have the same mouth, the big pout with impossibly chubby cheeks. My heart stilled.  I caught my breath at the sight of her.

Oh, I exhaled. Oh, there you are. There you are.

You belong, you’re ours, you’re beautiful, there you are. 

The peace flooded into my heart at the sight of her mouth, just her mouth. Peace that she was ours, she belonged with us, we longed for her, we need her, we love her, we cherish her, we are so privileged, so blessed.

The complicated feelings might still be real, still there, sometimes even primary, but it’s a complicated peace now, a trust that the disorientation is part of the gift. Her mouth was enough in that moment.

Yes, life is changing. Yes, this is not what I expected at this point in my life.

And yes, that very thing is the greatest gift, the greatest joy, at the same time. She’s ours, we longed for her, and against all the odds, she’ll be here, real and alive and complicated herself, so very soon.

 

Continue Reading · baby, faith, family, journey · 57

Confessions

Pride is a tricky thing, it makes liars out of us. If we don’t ever admit to our stumbles or our failings, our weaknesses and struggles, then how will we know when we’ve found our people?

I limped back to my community this week. It’s been a long year filled with work and travel, unblogged challenges and changes. In the push to finish this book before the baby arrived and roughly seventeen other complications over the past year for us, we haven’t been as present or involved at our church as usual, particularly over the past couple of months.

I’ve been ashamed of this, feeling as if I’ve sacrificed my local life to just keep swimming. What use is all this thinking about church and community (or for that matter, any of it – justice, beauty, mercy, grace) if we’re not actively involved in living it out in our real lives?

I needed to sing out ahead of my exhaustion so I did. I’m interrupted a million times in church – three tinies will do that to a woman – but I keep circling back, keep jumping back into worship, refocusing again and again and again. I need to hear my own voice singing promises. And I need to be with the ones I’ve chosen as my people.

We hadn’t been at church since before Christmas. My friends met me with hugs and, of course, they asked, How are you doing?

And my pride wanted to say that I was fine! great! never better! living the dream! blessed and highly favoured! (<—old school Pentecostal)

Instead, it was the craziest thing. I cried every time they innocently asked how I was doing. And I made myself say it, out loud: I’m not fine. I’m not okay. Yes, you’re right, I’m exhausted. I’m just so so so tired. I miss my life sometimes. I could use your prayers.

Forget dignity, I need restoration.

Forget pride, I need the prayers of the people who like us.

Forget anonymity, I need to be known even in these moments of emptiness and need.

Church is one of my safe places now. I never would have imagined saying that a few years ago but it’s true. It’s the place I can go when I am the reluctantly needy one. My friends promised prayers, a few even checked on me during the week here and there. I was met with hugs and tenderness, with kindness. It wasn’t much really. Maybe my friends would say it wasn’t a big deal at all, but it was enough for me. I felt seen, I felt like someone who knows me actually cared, I felt their compassion. This is more than enough.

One friend talked to me about arranging for a few meals to brought to us after the baby is born. I wanted to say, No, no, we’re fine, we don’t need anything. I think she saw right through my need to be independent, and she looked me dead in the eye: Sarah, you need to do this. You need to let people bless you. So I said yes, that would be wonderful. Please put me down on the list, yes, bring me food when I have a baby. Why is it so hard to accept help?

And I felt the difference this week, the heaviness hanging over me began to break up above my head, my energy has been slowly returning.

I continue to lean on my community, on the Spirit, and on Scripture. It seems easier to walk away from community for me, easier to be autonomous and anonymous but I find I need the strong three-strand cord more and more.

I longed for this for many years. And yes, our church isn’t perfect and, in fact, it makes me a bit crazy sometimes just like all churches do for all people who show up and put their hearts on the line.

But now, to me, church should be the people I turn to when I am tired, too. My one word for 2015 is Hold Fast, based on Hebrews 10:23, but just a few lines down from my pet focus right now are these words: “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on…”

I don’t think we need a four-walls-and-a-non-profit-status to qualify as church but these people are mine and I am still learning to admit when I need something from them, too. I know Scripture commands us to confess our sins to one another, in order to be healed, but I am also learning to confess my needs, my struggles, even my true state of being. And restoration waits there, too.

So come all you who are weary and exhausted, all you who have poured out of your depths to fill another: be filled, be restored, receive for once. Wherever you find your church, let them be the ones you turn to when you are tired. Let us pray for one another, let us hold fast, let us confess.

 

Continue Reading · church, community, faith, Hold Fast, journey · 24

Being Brave Together

In the moments when we wonder why we bother, when we feel futile and small and ridiculous, when we feel misunderstood and mischaracterized, when we are paying a price, it’s in those moments that we learn the truth about being brave: it doesn’t always feel good.

If, as Aristotle supposedly posited, the only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing, well, then that’s certainly an option. And sometimes a very alluring option. Be nothing, do nothing, say nothing, watch more television, buy more stuff.

Everyone likes to talk about being fearless, about owning your truth, about standing up and being counted. We sing songs in church about being brave, we blast music in the minivan and shake shake shake it off, we hang prints up in our homes about courage, we talk about brave people or follow them on social media until we somehow make ourselves believe that we ourselves are somehow brave.

I think we like to talk a lot about being brave because the actual doing of it is so freaking terrifying. And tiring. And ordinary.

It’s my belief that true fearlessness comes from living loved. When we find our worth and our value in Christ, then, as the Psalmist wrote, what can man do to us? I don’t think we can be a people-pleaser or an approval-addict AND be brave with our lives. Perhaps that’s why fearlessness or bravery starts with our identity first, it’s the deep well from which we draw living water, enough for today.

I believe that bravery is born in the quiet and ordinary moments long before it’s seen by anyone else. Sometimes it’s as simple and devastating as the moments no one else will ever see – the moments of daring to be honest with our own self, of laying down our excuses or justifications or disguises, of asking ourselves what we really want, of forgiveness, of honesty, of choosing the hard daily work of restoration, of staying resolutely alive when every one else is just numbing themselves against life. These are why our friends matter so deeply: they are witness to the sacred secrets. Not all secrets are terrifying things, some of them are beautiful and transformative.

But then come moments – those turning point moments, when you know it matters more than anyone else would know from the outside. The “yes” you need to say, the “no” you need to enforce, the truth you need to speak, the life you dare to imagine, the risk you take, the art you create, the establishment you defy, the danger you face, the living out of what you profess, whatever. Those moments are our turning points because when we look back on them, we say and then something changed.

That is true. Usually it’s us, we’re the ones who change. We take another tentative step out onto the water, a bit further away from the boat of our safety. And we do it alongside of each other, hand in hand, never alone.

I have learned the hard way that we usually can’t be brave on our own.

The ways we connect with each other might be quite typical – Sunday morning services or school pick-ups or bible studies at church or school or work or afternoon walks. Or more typical to our generation – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, texting. Either way, we don’t feel quite so alone in our moments of choosing brave. We feel seen, we feel heard, we feel prayer at our back and a sisterhood waiting up ahead of us on the path.

Together makes us braver.

I am surrounded by interesting and dangerous women. Sometimes this is wonderful, other times it’s exhausting, it is always challenging. Because they push me. They push me to think harder, to be more honest, to read more widely, to listen more broadly, to get my hands dirty, to stop compartmentalizing my life, to live more seamlessly. They make me examine my choices and my priorities. They question me, they pray for me. When I grow weary, they hold my arms up and growl “don’t you dare sit down.” These women have stretched my opinions, my theology, my mind, and my heart until I hardly know my own shape anymore.  The funny thing is that they do this just by getting on with it – no sermons, no programs, no big manifestos, just a company of women being brave in ordinary ways, each so different from the other.

They are being brave with their own lives and so, because I am alongside of them, I am learning to be brave, too.

Their lives are a cadence I want to carry: others first, pay attention, open heart, work well, rest radically, open doors, live prophetically, make room in your life to be inconvenienced, challenge, love well. I stumble so often, I get cranky and melodramatic and self-important. March, they say. Pick up your one small stone, they say, we’ve got a mountain to move.

It’s a risk. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. There is a price to pay, a cost to be counted. Reorienting your life around what you believe about God and what it means to be truly human and believing every small life or act of justice matters comes with a cost. We are counting that cost. And it’s worth it. Every time. Even when we’re wrong, even when we screw up, even when we sink beneath the waves and find ourselves scrambling back to the boat, licking our wounds, being brave together is worth it. It means we get to try again. Together.

Continue Reading · faith, fearless, journey · 71