Some Imperfect Thoughts on an Imperfect Faith

I pray for others daily, even though I don’t know how prayer works. Does it “move the hand of God,” as a former pastor used to say, prompting me to visualize an arcade game, a claw crane grasping at tiny rubber ducks? Is it more about the person praying, an engagement with the Holy Spirit that changes our own internal state, so that we become God’s hands and feet in the world? Is prayer an act of connecting to an energetic force, something already at work, and allowing ourselves to feel our participation in something huge and real, something that definitely impacts our hearts and others’ lives? All of these feel true to me on some level, and I don’t need to know definitively to believe in prayer, or to pray.

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My prayers are flimsy sometimes. Little half-sentences tossed up to God as I drive the car, brush my teeth, chop carrots. Other times they are long conversations that blend into that middle zone of consciousness, between alertness and sleep. Sometimes writing feels like prayer. Sometimes looking at a sunset or into a baby’s eyes, feeling music fall deeply into my chest, putting my hands into dirt feels like prayer. Maybe prayer is a bridge, something that can take many shapes, that leads us from one place to another, even if at first it’s just one step.

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A perennial worry: That I’m not doing enough to nurture my children’s faith. That my own faith is still forming, still blurred around the edges, so what is it I’m imparting?

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As a family, we pray sporadically before dinner– short, simple prayers of gratitude for our home, a hot meal, our health, and each other. Sometimes my daughter asks specifically to pray, and surprises me with things I didn’t know she was thinking about. Please help the people who don’t have homes. Please make the virus go away.

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My husband isn’t Christian, but he’s come along with me to different churches over the past decade or more, as I’ve returned to the faith of my childhood after long absence. He’s sat beside me during sermons, in small groups in people’s homes. He’s helped move couches and tables and loads of compost for parishioners, taken our kids to church events, watched me get baptized for the second time. He’s made me beautiful crosses– a small wooden one for prayer, a metal one I’ve hung near my bed, a tiny silver one on a chain. Sometimes I think he is more of a Christian than I am, in the way he loves. Sometimes I think Christianity is a kind of remedial course for stubborn souls like mine, the ones that keep cycling through lifetimes without shedding the sticky sap of pride, jealousy, arrogance.

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I believe in angels, and have a strange fear of them. It’s getting better. I mean I feel like I’m closer to entertaining the thought of connecting with them. A friend tells me our angels are waiting for us to ask them for help. They can’t help us unless we ask. I love thinking of this. I used to think of angels like the heavenly version of busy state representatives. I have no idea what they do, and it’s better to just thank them and stay out of their way, lest I disturb their work. But what if they’re actually bored, waiting to hear from us?

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A related fear: That angels are for people in the bible, not regular people like me, with static cling and a habit of spending just-earned money on tarot cards. That angels, like tarot cards, are a type of spiritually-suspect accessory it’s best not to mention to your Real Christian friends.

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My daughter draws pictures of angels in long gowns with fairy wings. They always look joyful, and breathless from dancing. One of my favorite memories with my husband is of dancing like fools to 70s funk, at a wedding where we knew only the bride and groom. How much freer you can move in a space like that, where there’s neither a past nor a future, just a feast. That’s how I imagine the hereafter feels. I hope there’s still a specificity to us. I want to dance with Lyle there, and know I’m dancing with him.

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Last night I dreamt about the industrial areas in our city and the people trying to survive there. Concrete, shadow, graffiti, tarps, tents. Places where the housed and the privileged, like me, don’t go, or where we drive past in sealed, air-conditioned cars. In the dream I could see the beauty possible there, resistance like a hand brake, making a space even for a short time where people are fed, listened to, their wounds cleaned, their clothing washed. I’m afraid to do those things. I’m afraid not to. In the dream they were connected, the places and people abandoned, and the things and images pursued instead. Then the city became my soul, the abandoned places became the parts of me that I choose to neglect and ignore. This is the location of the work I think Jesus does in us, and where God calls us to seek Them. That’s about as close as I get to defining my faith.

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It’s only partially true that I’ve returned to the faith of my childhood. It’s more like I’ve returned to the address, but the house that was there is gone. Maybe I am rebuilding, or maybe I’m sitting on the bruised foundations, wishing I could remember to seek God with the simplicity of the child I was.

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Theology overwhelms me, like Costco. So many options, each item massive, containing much more than I feel is necessary, but at the same time not containing all I need. The closest I get to a theological home is Liberation Theology, but even there I hover, unsure if I’m welcome. Does a white, middle class, cisgender woman, living on the unceded lands of the Clackamas, Cowlitz and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, belong there? Could I ever be anything more than a hypocrite? Is that sort of a given within Christianity anyway?

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Still at the center of all my questioning, there is someone. A presence, a pulse, a ground. I get annoyed with myself, my whining, my disappointing way of repeating mistakes, but this is what I know to be true: God still calls me Beloved. Has always called me– called all of us, incredibly– Beloved. And that’s reason enough for me to press on, to keep trying to know God and do the work God has for me today.


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “True”.

And Saturday

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photo: lyle poulin

Like a lot of families, we have been starting seeds indoors. Delicate lettuce and nettle on the windowsill, sturdier basil, squash, and sunflowers on the back porch. With the quieter, slower pace of life during the pandemic, we have time to witness their growth. After very minimal effort on our part, after a week of watering and no sign of change, we start to notice the first movements of the first seeds, a barely perceptible shift from darkness into light.

It is the Saturday before Easter. In the chronology of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection, Saturday is the and. Limbo time. Liminal. It is the day between two starkly different days. Between the painful, terrible truth of the death of a controversial, radically loving man, at the hands of the people he came to liberate, and the impossible, mysterious transformation of that death into supernatural forgiveness, into eternal life for him, and the promise of the same for everyone who chooses to take on the work of loving bravely and sacrificially.

On Good Friday, the man Jesus is put to death– his body hung on a cross, murdered, and buried in a cave, with a heavy stone rolled over the entrance. On Easter Sunday, his body is mysteriously absent from that tomb, and all kinds of strange, inexplicable things happen. He appears to his followers, not as an apparition but in his body– a changed body, but human flesh and blood nonetheless– to tell them to get up, to celebrate, because he is not dead but more alive than ever. And it just gets weirder and better from there. The whole story of Christianity begins there, on Easter Sunday when Christ rose from the dead.

But Saturday? Saturday is dark. Saturday is the heavy dark silence of the tomb, the feeling of no escape, no exit. Saturday is an eternity without Easter. Saturday is the finality of death, is death as the last word.

It strikes me that we are living in Saturday times. The pandemic feels like Holy Saturday on repeat. A Groundhog Day of in-between, of and, where death is the only thing that feels certain. It feels even more necessary, and even more difficult, to hope for Easter this year.

I think of my church, where I haven’t been since Christmas. In the Episcopal tradition, the cross is covered with cloth during Holy Week. We try to suspend our knowledge of the rest of the story. Having sung our last Alleluia the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and with the Lenten season almost behind us, our mouths are parched with its absence. In years past, on Sunday after Sunday before Easter, I have had to stop myself from sliding easily into that familiar word, and so by Holy Saturday my whole body feels like it is leaning forward, at the edge of my seat, waiting for the word to flower on all of our tongues. At midnight, the Easter vigil marks the transition from death to new life, and with sunrise, Easter’s promise breaks through with light in the darkness. Alleluia: Praise the Lord. Joy and triumph.

Christians living after the crucifixion have the benefit of knowing this promise. We know the whole story at the outset: that inside of darkness there is light, inside of despair there is joy. This is the human story, the paradox of great suffering existing alongside great love, that Jesus came to offer us. But on Saturday, in Jesus’s time, his friends and followers didn’t yet know this.

So on Holy Saturday, we practice that not-knowing. And it is terrible. For me, it’s really hard to sink into that knowing, to allow myself to feel that bleakness, that absence of escape from the tomb. This year, it feels less like an intellectual exercise, and more of a reckoning with what I feel all around me.

What is the faith of the follower who does not know, has not yet experienced the return of Jesus, Love’s triumph over death? What did it feel like to be Mary Magdalene in the hours before sunrise? She does not yet know that when she goes to the tomb, she will find the huge stone moved from the entrance, the whole cave flooded with light, empty.

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photo: lyle poulin

So it is called Black Saturday, Joyful Saturday, Holy Saturday, Great Sabbath. And, and, and. All of these in one.

I feel like I am always, despite my meager prayers and my best efforts, the follower who does not yet know. Only in my most private moments of despair have I felt what I think of as Love breaking through, something I don’t think even approaches what I imagine Mary Magdalene must have felt when she saw the empty tomb and later her beloved teacher again. The certainty she must have felt with her body, canceling out her mind’s disbelief. I feel like most of the time I live my life inside of and, in limbo. My mind constantly fighting my body’s knowing that Love is alive and waits for me.

Inside this dark, endless Saturday of the pandemic, I struggle to make any movements toward faith. My prayers are wordless. My doubt and fear take up most of the space; keeping my hands busy and being present for my kids fills in the rest. The most I can do is try to keep a small space open in my heart for the possibility of Love’s return. I want so much to believe that life triumphs over death, but it’s hard to do. As it must have eventually become, even for Mary, once the shock wore off. Even after you see it, feel it, know it, it remains difficult to hold onto, because we are human.

So even though we are always in need of Easter, always in need of God’s mercy for our failures and mistakes, and the reassurance that we belong in Love, I feel it more deeply this year. I’m not even sure what that means at the literal level of the mind. It just feels like my body is leaning more heavily toward Alleluia, like my eyes can’t get enough of the sight of seeds sending out green shocks of light, breaking loose through dark soil.

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When You See the Heartbeat at Coffee + Crumbs 

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In early June, my essay about waiting to miscarry appeared on Coffee + Crumbs.

“When You See The Heartbeat” is a short essay describing the two weeks between an unpromising first ultrasound just before Christmas, when the heartbeat was detectable but weak, and a second scan after the new year. Writing this essay helped me process the swirl of hope and fear I felt as I waited.

In January, we lost our hoped-for baby at 9.5 weeks, in the middle of one of the coldest, wettest, iciest winters in a city wholly unprepared for snow. It was a long and difficult winter. Spring’s arrival never filled me with as much hope and relief as this year.

On June 2nd, when this essay went up on the site, I had my first ultrasound for the baby I’m now carrying. This time, baby measured right on track with a strong heartbeat. I sobbed through that ultrasound, thinking of the baby we lost and this new little one we are so hopeful for. We are praising God that we’re at 14 weeks now, and praying this baby will be born healthy and full of life in early January of 2018.

I share this essay for anyone who is waiting, anyone who is grieving the loss of even the tiniest life. I share it in hope and with an outstretched hand if you are feeling alone in the middle of your own dark winter– even in high summer.

Photo via Coffee + Crumbs.

Miscarriage, Faith, and Self-Compassion

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I recently had a miscarriage, and moving through grief with God has taught me a lot about myself– especially how much I have to learn about self-compassion.

I’m excited to be a guest blogger at Voice of Courage today, sharing a short essay about trusting God through times of change.

Trust feels a lot different than I expected, and I’m thankful for the people God has placed in my life in the past several years who have helped me deepen my faith. I’m learning that there is room in faith for all kinds of emotions, including the heavy sadness and anger that come with loss. I’m learning that there is room in my relationship with God for feeling whatever I am feeling, and that when I choose to trust God, it actually means feeling everything a lot more deeply.

This dovetails with ideas about self-compassion from the Buddhist tradition and mindfulness practice. I believe God is Love, the ultimate ground of being. In Christ, God took on human form and knows our suffering intimately. Jesus tells us to Love one another even as you love yourself, and yet most of us– maybe especially in the Christian tradition– have a hard time loving ourselves. I know I do.

I have found a lot of help in learning how to do this through prayer and meditation, and through reading books by Buddhist authors and mindfulness practitioners. Since my daughter was born, I’ve found a mindfulness and self-compassion practice SO helpful in my mothering. A copy of Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers, a gift from my sister, sits dog-eared on my bedroom shelf. In addition to some basic information about Buddhist thought, it includes lots of practical ways to practice self-compassion and mindfulness as a mother. I don’t see this as a conflict with my Christian faith, because I believe God wants us to love ourselves– and mindfulness really works. I haven’t found many practical books on self-compassion in the Christian tradition. (If you have, let me know!)

If you are reading this post because you’ve miscarried, I am so sorry. I wrote this blog post for you. I hope you will find something helpful here, and just chuck anything you read here that doesn’t help. I am with you, sister, and I know this hurts.

Losing a baby is hard. Really, really hard. Because our culture throws a strange net of silence over miscarriage (though I think that it’s changing for the better), it can feel like there is no space where your grief is welcome. And yet miscarriage can bring on a huge, heavy grief that needs a lot of room.

So what do you do?

Self-compassion means taking care of yourself, but because grief doesn’t proceed logically or linearly, self-compassion doesn’t look the same from day to day. Sometimes you can barely pick yourself up off the floor. Sometimes you don’t eat well. Self-compassion means accepting ALL of it– and not beating yourself up because you’re not grieving or doing self-care “right.”

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Here are some things that have helped me take care of myself.

  • Talking about the loss with people who feel safe, including a professional counselor specifically trained to counsel women through miscarriage.
  • Reading about miscarriage, especially stories of personal experience. Links below.
  • Praying through a set of liturgies the Episcopal Church developed specifically for reproduction, including stillbirth, abortion, and infertility. I LOVE my church.
  • Watching Netflix while eating ice cream/ drinking wine/ in the tub. Perhaps all of the above. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to laugh and have a good day, and then wake up depressed the next day. Grief moves in unpredictable directions, and I find it helpful to give myself permission to check out for an hour or so when I need to (and have childcare).
  • Writing. I am working on an essay about losing my baby. Writing this blog post, slowly, over the course of weeks, has also helped me direct my focus outside of myself and connect to the reality that I share this experience of suffering with all humans.
  • Acupuncture, swimming, yoga, walking, massage, and anything else that brings stress relief and relaxes my body.
  • Saying no, doing less, and being really careful about who I connect with. I’ve also checked out of social media for a while.
  • Practicing meditation, especially guided self-compassion meditations with Kristin Neff. (I found the audio book at my library, and the second link has a few free ones online.)

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When you miscarry, well-meaning people can say unhelpful things, like God has a plan, It just wasn’t time for this baby, or probably worst of all, I don’t believe it’s actually a person yet. (Yes, someone I love really said that in my presence.)

Some people won’t know how to support you, and it’s okay to be pissed off about that. After you’re done feeling pissed off, you can ask for what you need, and you can keep learning how to give yourself what you need.

I am INCREDIBLY grateful for the wealth of support I have received from my family and friends through this grief. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I wanted to write down some of what I learned while grieving, in part so that I can remember how to support others, too. And in part because it might be helpful for someone out there who wants to be there for a grieving friend. I know everyone grieves differently, so these are just observations drawn from my own personal experience.

Here are some ways you can support someone grieving a miscarriage.

  • Be there. Be there, be there, be there. Send a text, make a quick phone call, spend an hour sitting on the couch beside them, take them out for tea. Just say I’m here and I’m with you. That’s it.
  • Don’t try to fix it. You can’t fix it. Please don’t give advice that isn’t asked for.
  • Listen. Ask if the person needs to talk. Ask if it would help to talk about what happened. The details of miscarriage are murky in most of our minds, and it happens so differently for each woman. Personally, it really helped me to talk about what was actually going on in my body and it helped when someone was willing to listen calmly and empathically, without pity.
  • Send a card or flowers. It really does help. It’s what people do when someone dies, and miscarriage is no different.
  • Pray with them. If you are the praying type and they are, too, offer to pray with them over the phone or in person.
  • Offer (simple) help. Get groceries, bring a meal, watch their child. They might not take you up on it, but it will probably be meaningful to know you’re there.
  • Don’t forget. When it’s been a month, or when the would-have-been due date arrives, or a year later, you can bet that the date is sitting heavy on their heart. Reach out with a text or a call and tell them you’re thinking about them, and you haven’t forgotten.

Things to Read

“Hope is what my grief is held in.” From a beautiful essay on Coffee + Crumbs.

“Such a Thing.” By Kaitlin Barker Davis.

“I was pregnant, and then I wasn’t.” By Laura Ortberg Turner.

glow in the woods. This site is about baby loss of all kinds. Be cautious here if your grief is fresh, because many of these essays can be extremely hard to read.

Coming to Term.  A book about a couple’s experience with repeat miscarriages, including a lot of personal accounts from other people.

Come and Gone: A Miscarriage Remembrance.” An essay by the author of The Science of Mom.

ALL PHOTOS VIA UNSPLASH

I Am Malala

In the wake of the terrifying news about 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, I’m reflecting on education and freedom.

I’m a teacher and a writer. I have two degrees, and I co-own a small business with my husband. I can choose to have children, vote, go to college– or not. I am a woman who drives and shops and takes public transportation alone, and while I’m careful to lock doors and tell others when I go on solitary walks, I’m rarely afraid for my safety.

This was not the case for Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani woman shot by the Taliban in October 2012 while riding  a school bus filled with children. Her crime? A desire for an education for herself and every girl in her home valley of Swat, and the courage to speak out in a dangerous time.

I just got through reading her 2013 book I Am Malala, which is one of the most joyful, compassionate, honest autobiographies I’ve read. When she writes about her “second life”– the life she says God gave her when she survived the attack– Malala inspires me to live my own life in the service of love and freedom.

She inspires me to keep studying and learning, so that I can be a good teacher for my students, many of whom are Saudi women who have come to the US for better opportunities. She inspires me to write, speak, and stand up for women fighting oppression in my own community and in the global community. Most of all, she inspires me to live close to God, who is with us even in the midst of our anger and heartbreak for these missing girls. I am joining with her and everyone else in praying for their safe return.

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