Friday, May 12, 2017

A thanksgiving for the gifts of motherhood

* A bittersweet reflection

The three most influential women in my life are my mom and my two grandmothers.  They not only passed down genes and habits, some good and some challenging, they also set an example for how a woman can flourish, lead and encourage the flourishing of others.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the storms they survived many years before I was born, and how their sorrow and pain would one day develop the love, faith and joy which nurtured me in my youth. Everyone who knows or has seen a photo of Vera Salmons, knows I have her grin. When my eyes are sometimes a grayish blue and other times an olive brown, I remember Rosie Benton’s caring eyes. I know I have her hips, if only I had her waist! And for anyone who knows Ann Salmons, there is no doubt I am my mother’s daughter, from our love of wonderful music, to our zealous love of crafting, we love to give our entire beings to our passions. I had hoped to share their joy in holding my own child this mother’s day, and instead I am holding the grief we share in the loss of a child. 

Over the last several months, many mothers have shared their stories of miscarriage and child loss with me in the wake of our loss.  Sometimes it is all a blur, because no matter how many months or years we knew our child, the grief is still raw and painful.  We all yearn to love, be loved, and experience that mysterious connection of body and heart. 

As we look towards Mother’s day, I am choosing to be thankful. I am thankful for the joys of motherhood I have felt for a short while. I am thankful for the many women who comforted me and walked with me through shadows and light during these past several months. I am thankful for my mother and my grandmothers.  I am thankful for their love.  I am thankful for their faith. Most of all, I am thankful for the strength I feel in my very being that they passed on to me. I am thankful that my parents can remind me of Granny and Mama’s stories, and I am thankful for the hope that I will one day share their stories with our children. Glory be to God, Alleluia. Amen.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Prayerful Meditation

Lately I have been spending time in meditation before bed and/or in the morning.  I find myself asking how I might view this time as prayer, or rather how I might restructure my prayer to learn from meditation. Here's my most recent exploration in a session of Christian Prayerful Meditation. May it inspire you to write your own.

Start by brining your awareness to the creation around you. Invite the Great I Am, God with us, to be present with you now.  Notice how God has been here already waiting for you, smiling at you.  See with your minds eye the beautiful and beloved created beings around you.

Turn your mind's eye to see the beautiful created and beloved creature that is you.
Visualize God looking at you with love and grace.
And as you see the loving eyes of God smiling on you, begin to notice the sound or your breath
Feel the air coming in and going out from your lungs.
Visualize the Breath of God, the Ruach of God, entering your lungs on the inhale, and on the exhale feel that Breath pass through your whole body. And on the inhale feel the Ruach breathe life into your bones and on the exhale visualize a fire being lit in the center of your being. Visualize you breath as gently tending to that flame, and allow your breath to soften. Now bring your awareness to the ground. Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return. Feel your connectedness to the earth. Feel your connectedness to all of humanity. Visualize your connection to those who have lived and then entered the ground. Say a prayer of gratitude for how their experiences have impacted your present moment. Remember the one who entered this world as a one of us, a fellow groundling. Remember how God came to have earthly breath and life, born into this world as a little boy. That little boy grew into a toddler, a young kid, a teenager, and eventually a young man. Remember how he wept with those who had sorrow, remember how he fed the hungry. Remember how he healed the sick and gave sight to those who could not see. What do you need from Jesus in this moment? 

Listen for the voice of the Great I Am present with you here in this moment.

Close your prayer with a word of gratitude and open your eyes to continue seeing the world through God’s loving eyes. Glory be to God. Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A different kind of Holy Week

This Easter is a unique one for us. Maybe you've had one like this too, where Easter comes at a time when your grief and suffering has been heavier during Lent, and the declaration that Christ has conquered the grave comes with weight. Over the past several months, Robbie and I have literally experienced some of the hardest moments in our lives, God has brought us through the troubled waters and here we stand. 

Last night we celebrated a small portion of the Jewish Seder meal during our Maundy Thursday celebrations.  As we read through the blessings and declared the truth of God's deliverance, I heard echoes of our experience.  Earlier in the day, as I was preparing the saltwater, I was tasting it to be sure the balance was right, and the warm drops on my fingers tasted like my own tears.  A few weeks back, a friend of mine had reminded me of the beautiful children's book Tear Soup.  She brought it to me a few months into my grief and recovery, and I told her, I had already made several batches of "Tear Soup" this spring.  That friend was busily helping prepare communion as I looked at the pot I had selected to make the saltwater, and I realized I had literally made a pot of tear soup!  I couldn't wait to dip my greens and celebrate the blessings of God with the taste of the bitterherb and tears on my lips.  When we finally did begin the Seder portion of our meal, I felt the joy in my bones as we read the blessing of the first cup, glasses raised: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who have kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this season of joy! As I broke the bread of affliction, I felt the strength of God's people who have endured affliction after affliction and still found a voice to sing of God's deliverance.

Now I'm trying to muster up the strength for Good Friday, trying not to think about Holy Saturday.  I'm incredibly excited for the different kind of "good" Good Friday service we have set before us. Back in January our youth choir director and I decided that we would pull together singers and orchestra players to perform John Rutter's Gloria. I had no idea how that would shape the formation of a worship which usually accents the frailty and horrible nature of humanity. Our service tonight is a testimony of Christ's faithful and unwavering, passionate love for us.  This is the "good news" about Good Friday: God has already chosen us for this life, and God continues to choose to be connected to us, despite our mistakes, all so that we can find true wholeness, all to discover true goodness in this life and the next.

The prelude and postlude for tonight's service is a playlist of New Orleans Jazz funeral music. We will walk the stations of the cross, to the beat of he drum which knows the end of the story. May the beautiful blend of joy and sorrow fill my feet to carry me through the silence of Holy Saturday, so that we might find light and life at that sunrise service Sunday morning. Jesus was with me in my suffering, and he will lead me into wholeness, where sadness and joy make one another complete. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Today we will sing

I’ve been journeying through Christine Paintner’s The Way of the Pilgrim.  Her books have given me space to connect my creative energies and spiritual yearnings.  This book does a phenomenal job of accompanying any kind of journey, whether it be a pilgrimage of discernment or renewal.  For me, the chapters have acted as a general leading on the road to physical and spiritual healing during my journey of grief and recovery.  One of the exercises was especially meaningful for me and I wanted to share it with you.  I had read her blog posts which introduced the sacredness of crossing a threshold, and her chapter gave even more depth to the encouragement to take that step from the known into the unknown, walking with hope for what is to come. We were invited to write a reflection as Miriam after praying with the following scripture.  I felt her somber cry of Alleluia, filled with tears of sorrow and joy.  May God continue to give me a song to sing, and a voice to speak for hope in the darkness.

When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and charioteers rushed into the sea, the LORD brought the water crashing down on them. But the people of Israel had walked through the middle of the sea on dry ground!
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine and led all the women as they played their tambourines and danced. And Miriam sang this song:

    “Sing to the LORD,
      for he has triumphed gloriously;
    he has hurled both horse and rider
      into the sea.”
New Living Translation (Ex 15:19–21)

Miriam: My brother led the walkout. We knew it was coming, but all of a sudden, we were packing up everything and leaving the only home we ever knew.  We headed out towards the desert and found ourselves at an impasse. Do we cross the river or go around?  Before we could decide, Pharoah’s henchmen were gaining on us and Moses was forced to take a chance and lead us through the River bank. We made it through, everyone of us, as if on dry ground.  When we reached the other river bank the waters roared behind us and threw Pharoah’s men into the sea.  I couldn’t believe it.  The sight was horrifying and tremendous all at the same time.  We were saved, others dead, everything behind us and nothing but an empty freedom before us.  I picked up my tamborine and sang.  We sang alleluia. Suffering behind us and suffering before, but today, we will sing Alleluia, Amen.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding a meaning for Alleluia

Since I am a book nerd (whose memory has been very weak, trauma+life changes = sore memory), I turned to some of my resources to find a definition for Alleluia and begin with a more literary approach. They reminded me that Alleluia is the English version of the Hebrew Hallelujah, which translates as Praise the Lord, Praise be to Yahweh, the one who is, the Great I Am.  The word shows up mostly in the Psalms, and especially in 113-118, which the Jewish tradition refers to as the Hallel.  The Great Hallel is psalm 136. Scanning through these psalms you see phrases of favorite hymns and contemporary Christian songs. These are literally hymns of praise. "What a better starting point?" I thought.

So, I began with the first one, Psalm 113.

1 Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord.
    Praise the name of the Lord!
2 Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever.
3 Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord.
4 For the Lord is high above the nations;
    his glory is higher than the heavens.
5 Who can be compared with the Lord our God,
    who is enthroned on high?
6 He stoops to look down on heaven and on earth.
7 He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.
8 He sets them among princes, even the princes of his own people!
9 He gives the childless woman a family, making her a happy mother.
Praise the Lord!

Tears streamed down my face.  I couldn’t believe it. Did this Psalm that I read as a background study for my art exploration of grief just speak directly to me by name?  These were psalms written by men weren’t they? Could this have been written by a woman like me?  Could this have been written by her husband? her child? her parent?  Part of me searched for some message from the Holy Spirit, as if the phrase, “he gives the childless woman a family, making her a happy mother,” somehow meant I would be with child any day now.  Part of me wanted to point to this coincidence and see it as a promise that I wouldn’t be childless forever.  And yet part of me recognized that this woman still receives both names, and I already have had both of them too…and my whole goal with this is to find some happiness, some joy left within me.

At times I feel like the medical term “failed pregnancy” overlaps in my brain to name me a “failed mother.” You or I can try to console my heart by saying this isn’t true, and yet as sure as the term is written on my physical history, it is also written on my spiritual record.  Ironically, I wonder if all mothers don’t feel this way from time to time when they see the hopes they had for their children fall apart.  How many of us feel like failures every day at other things which we care so deeply about and seem to have trouble seeing results. Does joy come from success only? Do we have to find success to find joy?

Where does the "happy mother’s" joy come from? Does it come from her children? Does it come from a joy in her daily tasks? Does it come from the balance of family and career? How does a childless mother find happiness when there is nothing to balance?

My favorite part of painting is in the mixing and discovering of pigments.  When I can’t seem to decide what to paint, I start with the colors and then go from there.  My logical brain says this is backwards, but my explorer brain enjoys the process.  When I’m finished, I always feel refreshed and rested, and today I had some thoughts on why that might be.  When I look at the colors in wonder, I am amazed by their beauty.  The best way to describe this sense of awe is to say that I take joy in seeing the colors form on the page.  I take even greater joy seeing them change and develop into something with character and meaning.  

Could this be where joy comes from? the moments of pause when we wonder and appreciate beauty?  Is that why a mother gazing at her child looks so happy? It’s not pride or success, but true awe and enjoyment in beauty.

This is a definition of Alleluia I can do.  I can look for beauty and hold on to the promise that there is still goodness and beauty present with us here and awaiting us in the moments, days and years to come.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Holding on to an Alleluia

In some communities they bury the alleluia’s at the beginning of Lent or just before. I’ve never done it, but I know people who have. They’ve told about how they “fast” from celebrating during this season as a way of lamenting the injustice and pain in the world. Essentially it’s like a season of constant confession without jumping to the assurance of forgiveness and good news.  The music is droll and the prayers are full of cries for mercy.  On Easter Morning as they tell of Jesus' resurrection, they pull out the Alleluia’s and celebrate, now with a renewed exuberance. 

I’ve always been fascinated with this tradition, but somehow I forget about it until the week before Lent and then it’s too late to institute the burying of the Alleluia’s.  So it never seems to happen.  This year I was choosing hymns for our first Sunday of Lent and as I thumbed through the hymns for preparation for Communion, I came across “Come, Behold, the Feast of Heaven,” which ends each phrase with an Alleluia, with the same tune as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I paused to think how these two hymns could act as book ends holding up Lent as a space in between, seeing our practice of communion as both looking towards the meal to come on Maundy Thursday as well as the meal to come in the end of this life and the beginning of the next.

I had a very different theme and sermon already prepared at that point.  It was one of those times that I felt like the sermon had already been given to me, and I felt like the message was complete in what the Spirit was calling me to say...and yet I felt this tug to say something separate that wasn’t quite completed in my soul, like an ember that was starting to burn, but hadn’t quite caught fire yet.  So, I kept thinking about the Alleluia as I prepared for worship in the coming days.  Several weeks prior I had purchased a coloring sheet from Illustrated Children’s Ministry which had the word Alleluia and a beautiful butterfly.  They encouraged providing two versions of the coloring sheet to your congregants, one with pictures in the wings and another with blank spaces for those who felt called to draw their own images of alleluia.  You could color it and then bury them until Easter or you could just color them on Easter.  So, here I stood.  I had the hymn, I had the physical Alleluias, I had the time to prepare and put directions and an explanation in the bulletin which we print in a crazy amount of time in advance.  And yet, there was something holding me back.  Something within me felt like I could not bury the Alleluia.

Instead, I felt this incredible yearning inside to pick it up.  I wanted to pick up the image of the Alleluia and hold onto it for dear life. So, that’s what I did. 

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I had a tragic loss in my life and traumatic physical complications about a month prior to Ash Wednesday.  I could tell you the story of my loss and my medical condition again, the story of my endurance and recovery process, but that’s another story unto itself. For now, I want to begin sharing with you about this current journey of picking up the Alleluia. I did not end up changing the sermon or introducing this idea with my congregation that Sunday, I had to start working through it first.  I’m starting to write about this process now, and I wanted to share it with you.  

As I invited my congregation to prepare for communion that Sunday, I did invite them to choose to pick up the Alleluia, “if like me, you need a little help singing today.”  I just let the idea hang in the air, and that afternoon, I started to paint.  I had been dreaming about filling a journal with alleluias as I tried to visualize what it might look like to “hold onto an Alleluia."  So, I ordered some carbon paper to trace the butterflies from Illustrated Children’s Ministry into my journal.  I figured even if I couldn’t think of what to put in the blank spaces, I could at least trace and paint the images already provided and hope to go from there.  

If you find yourself in a place where it’s hard to be joyful and even harder to sing for joy, I invite you to start dreaming of what it might look like to celebrate the goodness in our world, and then, if you can fathom it, begin to dream about what it might look like to celebrate the goodness in this moment, inside you, in the place of emptiness in your life.  Ok, maybe that’s too far too soon, but we’ll get there.  Even if you can’t fathom it, maybe you can dream it, and if the dreams only look like tears right now, you can start here with me.  May the Spirit which imagines Life for all things speak to your heart. Amen.

In case you can't read the scriptures around this first Alleluia, here they are:
Hebrews 12: 12
So take a new grip with your tired hands and your weak knees.
Hebrews 12: 1b, 2b
Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us...Because of the Joy awaiting him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Importance of Ashes

My reflections on the importance of wearing ashes this year.  I wrote this last week, but finally felt strong enough to share it today. Warning: Contains reflections on our pregnancy loss.

I am typically a cheerful person.  When I go through a dark time, I can always find that happiness and joy at my core. You might say I am seriously cheerful, not goofy cheerful, but I usually can find a way to see any glass as “capable” of being full. So, each year, Ash Wednesday is typically a sobering reminder of our humanity and capability of being empty, so that Christ might fill our hearts once again.

This year is different. Lately, I have been sad at my core.  Sure, there is the state of our country.  There is the state of our world.  This article is not about politics, but feel free to read it that way.  

We lost our baby in January, I developed severe preeclampsia, and I had to go through labor for a child who had already died.  It was the worst experience of my life.  I held tightly to my husband’s hand. I held tightly to Jesus, constantly seeing him on the cross suffering alongside me, and several times, I thought of Simeon’s words to Mary, the mother of Jesus, which were just too recent in my memory, “And a sword will pierce your soul.”  

More than ever, I became aware of my mortality in a very real and sobering way. If it were not for my talented Doctor and nurses and their use of modern medicine, and the grace of God, Robbie might have lost both of us that day.  And I know that possibility was ever present in our hearts throughout the night.  

In the coming days I clearly felt the emptiness of my womb which heightened the silence in the room.  The ironic and painful fullness of my breasts only more vividly illuminated the emptiness of my arms.  My overflowing tears clearly echoed the emptiness of my heart.

Now, I am standing a week away from Ash Wednesday and feeling like a simple cross on my forehead is not enough to show the real pain I feel inside. Where are the days of covering ourselves from head to toe in ashes and literally ripping our clothes.  I’d like to rip all of my maternity clothes in half, but my logical self stops me, because then I would have nothing to wear today and nothing to wear when I do become pregnant again.  My emotional self wants to do it anyway.  My emotional self says, “Good. Then everyone will see my nakedness and know how deeply sad I am.”

All of this pain, for a child I never met, a child whose laugh I never heard, a child whose cry I could never answer.

More than ever, I recognize that when I receive those ashes on Wednesday, they will be an outer reflection of a real pain that exists in this world, not just in my heart, but many others.

How many other mothers feel sorrow for the loss of their children, whether unborn, 8, 24, 45, 64 or more? What about the fathers, the grandparents, the aunts and uncles, the brothers and sisters, the children, the grandchildren and more.  Death separates us and has the capacity to keep us isolated in our grief, our blame, our shame, and our regret.  Sure, we could continue in our old tradition and cover ourselves with a vivid reflection of our singular pain.

Instead, we Christians choose to receive a mark of solidarity.  The ashes in the shape of a cross on our hand or our forehead do not symbolize our singular sin, or our singular grief. They do not mark us as better than others or separate from our fellow human beings. They symbolize the mortality of humanity, and Christ’s suffering for all of our pain.  Christ suffered for the pain we cause on one another and for the pain of living and dying in this world.  He suffered so that he would know our brokenness, and take on any punishment that we deserve, so that one day we could experience true wholeness and freedom from pain.

As sad as I am, those ashes will declare my recognition that I am not alone, you are not alone, and great pain exists in this world.

As defeated as I feel, the cross will declare my belief, that death does not have the final word. One day pain will end, and we will discover the wholeness of life and love.  If we are lucky enough, we will get to experience that in this life, not because we are lucky enough to have a glass that is always full or even half full, but because we have experienced how truly empty the glass can be, and we are brave enough to let someone else fill that cup, even if only for a moment.