On Becoming Real

I truly love the crayon-drawn cards, decorative coasters, macaroni jewelry, and other gifts my daughter has given me on Mother’s Day. I had not anticipated such joy from these sweet gestures.

Still, Mother’s Day is fraught with grief for some, dashed expectations for others, and complicated emotions for many. Each of us comes from a woman who was very good or, in some way, less than good to us.

But for moms themselves, the day can be just as thorny.

In the early years of our marriage, I remember feeling like a misfit for not having children, especially in church. One Mother’s Day Sunday as I walked toward the sanctuary, a greeter held out a pink carnation to me, then took it back with a panicked Oops! Sorry, moms only. It was awkward. Even stranger, though, I didn’t want a flower until I was told I couldn’t have one.

Same idea, a few years later: I didn’t know how badly I wanted a baby until I couldn’t have one. In the meantime, I decided if I ever did have a child, I would be the best mom I could possibly be. I mean, like, Mother of the Year every single year. And when I finally had our daughter, I did my best with what I knew. There were no medals or trophies, but I did my best.

Infertile women, I think, harbor a particular kind of inferiority complex when it comes to mothering. At least I do. Those voices in your head that say you don’t deserve to have children do not necessarily shut up the moment you give birth or adopt or move on. They just keep on chattering their barely plausible lies.

The voices told me I wasn’t a real mom, having wrestled my child out of God’s fist rather than receiving her from his open hand. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I was drawn into the comparison game and found myself “very insignificant and commonplace” compared to other, more effortless mothers.

But even if I wasn’t a real mother, as the voices said, I had a very real baby whom I loved and taught to love. And, like the Velveteen Rabbit’s little boy, she loved me into realness. Little by little, I became real.

While I’m the real mom of one precious child, I’ve come to hold loosely that identity of mom. When I had my daughter and set out to make mothering my lifestyle, the mom identity fit. Well, maybe not perfectly, but I was sure I’d grow into it, or have it hemmed, or something. Darn it, I’d make it fit—by having more children! But this wasn’t possible.

Even if it were possible, human biology does not permit such maternal cottage industries to go on indefinitely. Like the Velveteen Rabbit toward the story’s end, I’m rather on my way to growing “old and shabby.”

As I look ahead a couple decades, Mother’s Day will no longer be fraught with disparaging inner voices but filled with the voices (perhaps) of grandchildren—not begged from God’s table (perhaps) but given freely—if that’s (perhaps) what she wants in life.

Whether my daughter someday becomes a mother or not, I hope her Mother’s Days and other days are uncomplicated, free from questions of realness, and spent with me. For I love her, for real.

(Macaroni necklaces optional.)

mothers day card

Surface Tension (A Baptism Story)

Phil and I stood beside our daughter as she was baptized last weekend. With grandparents and aunts and one beloved uncle in the pews, it was a momentous occasion.

Once a year the week after Easter, our church offers the option of full immersion baptism. They spread out a large plastic tarp and borrow horse troughs from a farm supply store to serve as baptisteries. Part of me thinks “Horse Trough Sunday” isn’t the most dignified name, but I suppose Baby Jesus’ manger was from the farm supply store. If it was good enough for him, . . .

My husband was baptized by sprinkling as an infant, and I was immersed just after I turned seven years old, so we weren’t too picky about how Caroline would be baptized, only that it would be her decision. Last year, she wanted to be baptized but later chickened out. This year, she overcame her apprehension and took the leap, an outward sign of an inward grace.

Caroline wore butterfly-print capri pants and a t-shirt with a cat wearing glasses. The cat and butterflies corresponded whimsically to Jesus, Lamb of God, and the dove that descended at his baptism in the Jordan. (Truth be told, I’d fallen behind on laundry. There weren’t many clean outfits to choose from.)

She shivered as she stepped over the side into the water, brave and nervous in equal parts. Our pastor kneeled and told her how happy he was to baptize her—that he remembered when she came into the world and was thrilled to know that Jesus lives in her heart.

As instructed, she held her nose as Rev. Shane invoked the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then, with her dad on one side and me at her head, she took the modified Nestea Plunge. I heard my sister’s loud whoop! from the congregation and smiled.

In a split second, water closed over her face, pale gray light reflecting off its smooth surface. Then, as quickly as she’d gone under, she emerged from the water as I clumsily lifted her by the shoulder.

It struck me, this nearly palpable surface tension of the water—temporary, breaking, parting, making way for a little girl’s face. For a moment she stood dripping at the foot of the trough, shocked by the cold water, shocked by the translation.

I held her hand as she stepped out onto dry tarp and wrapped herself in a towel. That’s what it is, I half-realized, this sacrament of baptism: an act of translation.

From what language to what? I’m still not sure.

To translate—derived from a Latin word meaning to carry across—is to bear something from one place to another.

Answered prayers and high-tech medicine had borne this child to life, and I had borne her to the point of birth and lung-breathing. Now this baptism bore her across an invisible chasm into the country of God’s native languages: Spirit and Truth. Perhaps just for a moment, a glance, a glimpse.

It may seem silly—and it’s surely inconvenient—to get soaking wet in front of the church. But signs and symbols are the best we can do when it comes to expressing things beyond words.

I’m not saying the water is salvific. It’s not that there’s something in the water. But there was something on the water’s surface, a mystery I can’t quite make out—like seeing through a glass, darkly.

baptism page

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The Ending That’s Not the End

As a writer, I feel a great deal of sympathy toward my pastor at Easter. Imagine the pressure of writing a sermon for the biggest day of the Christian year—one that will make an impact on regulars and C&E visitors alike.

I write essays, not sermons, but this Lent season I wrote a short essay for each of Jesus’ seven last words. Now that Easter’s here, I really wanted to write something remarkable about Jesus’ words to reflect the astonishing miracle of Resurrection Day. Didn’t happen.

In contrast to Jesus’ seven last words from the cross, Jesus said a lot of things after the resurrection but before his ascension. He spoke to Mary Magdalene, “doubting” Thomas, Cleopas, Peter, and many others.

Essay-wise, I was coming up empty, so I resorted to poetry, with deference and apologies to George Herbert (1593-1633). Unlike Herbert, I’m not a lyric poet—I’m more an arranger of words. Finding it hard to wrangle Jesus’ post-resurrection words into a short essay, I pieced them into this collage. (Click on the links to read the source text.)

Easter Wings (Red-Letter Remix)

Who is it you are looking for?

Do not hold on to me.

Why are you crying?

I am ascending

to my Father

your Father

Mary.

As the Father

sent me I am sending

you. Peace be with you!

Receive the Holy Spirit. Reach

out your hand. Stop doubting and believe.

Because you have seen me you have believed.

Blessed are those who’ve not seen and yet believe.

Throw your net on the right side of the boat.

Friends, haven’t you any fish?

Do you love me more?

Feed my lambs.

Peter.

Feed my sheep.

Do you love me?

Peter, do you love me?

Follow me. You must follow me.

When you are old you will stretch out your hands.

A ghost does not have flesh and bones.

Look at my hands and my feet.

Do you have anything to eat?

Peace be with you.

Stay in the city

stay until

Peace.

Therefore

go and make

disciples, baptizing them

in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And to obey everything I’ve commanded.

Surely I am with you always, even to the end.

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Out of My Hands (VII)

Whenever we can, Phil and I walk our daughter to school. It’s a half-mile walk down streets of ranch-style and split-level houses and apartments. Most of the homes belong to strangers, but over the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to meet some of these neighbors.

One morning, a woman in a housecoat and slippers popped open her screen door and yelled, “Excuse me! What day is it?” Unsure if I’d heard her right, I ventured, “Friday?” She nodded and retreated behind the screen door.

Just last week, my daughter and I met an elderly woman scooting her metal walker down the street, tennis balls dragging dead leaves with each step. We said hello, then she whispered the reason for her walk: people trying to kill her. She squinted warily at each passing car. I offered to call the police, but she explained that the police were in on it. Trust no one.

(I called the police. The officer who came was already acquainted with her.)

Most recently a woman stopped me and asked whether I go to church. When I answered yes, she told me a tale of woe, from health problems to being exploited by her landlords, Tina and Steve. She then asked me to pray for her by name—and to pray against her landlords.

(I agreed to pray for her but made no promises regarding Tina or Steve.)

I don’t know why strangers have been approaching me lately, but I feel helpless in the face of confusion and woe. And while I’m willing to give someone the day of the week when asked, I tend to be wary and stingy with my time. Still, Jesus’ words ring in my ears: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?

So, I was thinking: what if Jesus had avoided strangers? There’d be fewer stories of healing, no account of the woman touching the hem of his garment, no record of noisy Bartimaeus regaining sight, no pesky children to bless. Yet Jesus had no qualms about strangers—maybe because he was one.

Some people are powerless and desperate; some of us hold our precious illusions of control in a death-grip. Some people live life; some people have life done to them. Jesus not only aligned himself with the powerless—“he made himself nothing.

Father Henri Nouwen writes, “The mystery of Jesus’ life is that he fulfilled his mission not in action but in passion, not through what he did, but through what was done to him” (from Love, Henri).

Jesus had lived his earthly life in deference to God; most things were out of his hands—willingly. In his seventh Last Word, Jesus musters his last bit of energy to pray one final prayer: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

I imagine Jesus’ body collapsing into deathly stillness, his spirit tumbling into the waiting hands of God.

I envision Jesus—dazed and exhausted and relieved—asking: “Father, what day is it?”

“Friday. Not long until Sunday.” And with that, God shuts the screen door.

seventh word

Finished (VI)

When Phil and I went through the medical procedure of conceiving our children, the doctor handed us a packet of photocopies with ART terminology, diagrams, and illustrations of human embryogenesis. The page I remember best had a drawing of the morula, a 16-cell, early-stage embryo. I remember it well because it looks like a blackberry (and gets its name from the mulberry).

grays anatomy

From Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body. The morula stage is letter e.

After our first IVF attempt, we counted ourselves extremely lucky to have an extra handful of those berries to put on ice. (The correct terms are embryos and cryopreservation, but the image of berries in a freezer is more pleasing to my non-scientific imagination.)

It had taken some time, but we’d finally crossed the starting line to become parents. Grateful and thrilled, we had a baby girl several months later, born on her due date. Then, after a few years of getting the hang of parenting one child, it seemed like the right time to revisit our frozen berries.

As we’d hoped, most of the embryos survived the deep freeze. However, by the day of the scheduled procedure, only two were alive—still a pretty great number. The doctor implanted those last two survivors, and we waited.

Neither one lived.

We were abruptly done having kids. It was suddenly time to face reality: we had one miraculous child, and probably would have no more. Dazed and disappointed, we were finished.

Father James Martin writes, “So one day you say to yourself, with infinite sadness, ‘It’s over,’ or, ‘It is finished.’ Jesus is with you on this. We cannot be sure, but it’s reasonable to think that as he hung on the cross—abandoned, bereft, and in pain—he may have wondered what was going to happen to his disciples after his death. . . . Almost as difficult as the physical and spiritual pain is the pain of lost possibilities.” From Seven Last Words

How well I understand this phrase, the pain of lost possibilities. When we had embryos waiting, I held out hope. When it was suddenly over, I grieved their loss–as well as their lost potential. And for too long, I dwelled on what I couldn’t have.

It is finished”: the sixth Last Word from the cross is so simple yet loaded with significance. Just the night before, Jesus had prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me,” not at all eager to endure the suffering that awaited him.

He might have said, “It’s not fair,” or “It’s not what I wanted,” or even “It’s not worth it.” Instead, he said, Father, it’s not my will but your will that I came to do.

Notably, Jesus’ statement can also be translated, “It is accomplished.” That is, at his last breath he’d finished his tasks. He must have felt both relieved and totally vulnerable. His arrest, the trial, the crucifixion—it all happened so fast. And now, it was over.

For Jesus, it was finished—already. (Let’s not rush to the sequel just yet.)

You and I–as long as we’re still breathing–we’re not finished. Don’t let anyone tell you the pain of lost possibilities is not real, but recognize that life has other possibilities in store. As long as we’re alive, God has work for us: loving, giving, helping, all the while burning off our despair as fuel for the mission.

Even when it seems to be over, it’s not over.

sixth word

The Fifth Word is Thirsty (V)

Time moves faster than ever, I’ve noticed. Until a decade ago, my life moved to the rhythm of the academic calendar: work hard until spring or fall break, then work hard until the end of the semester.

When I had my daughter, life took on a less predictable rhythm. No longer was time divided into fall, spring, and summer terms. Raising a child doesn’t come with a handy end-point every four months; she was not a stack of papers to be graded. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night, just trying to remember what month it was. Since she’s in elementary school, I’m back to the predictable comfort of a school calendar again.

Still, something strange happens every April. Things fall apart. Library books go unreturned, payments slip my mind, appointments are missed, laundry piles up, and my phone is misplaced even more than usual. April is the new May. So, as the calendar soon turns to April, I can only brace myself. Having buckled down since August, by late April, my ability to remember stuff is depleted.

Used up.

Drained.

Emptied out.

My word for the year is kenosis, a Greek word meaning “self-emptying.” Lately I feel fairly kenotic by 9:30 p.m. every night. But the only reason I know this word is from Paul using it to describe Jesus becoming human: “he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

From the cross, when Jesus says, “I’m thirsty,” his willing emptiness is dramatically manifest. Imagine, the source of living water dangerously dehydrated. When the soldier pierces his body with a spear, a stream of blood and water flow to the ground. Thus the self-emptying–a divine depletion that began with birth in a lowly manger–culminates here on a humble cross.

In “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” eighteenth-century psalmist Isaac Watts wrote:

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

This outpouring, Watts seems to say, isn’t just blood and water but sorrow and love, love and sorrow.

When Jesus says he is thirsty, he just needs a sip of water. Bystanders give him a sip of sour wine instead. In this self-emptying he gives up so much—water, lifeblood, glory—and dies with needs unmet.

While constraints and obligations of daily life can feel draining, Jesus’ self-emptying means much more. He relinquished his grandeur to become one of us, then poured out the rest in mingled love and sadness, blood and water. And though he did not die of thirst, he died thirsty.

the fifth wordNote from Em In January and February, I took a dive into a tradition that was, until recently, unfamiliar to me: Jesus’ Last Words from the cross, also known as the Sayings of Jesus on the cross. These seven phrases are taken from all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Woven together, they form a cohesive narrative of Jesus’ final hours. Books I read include Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas, Echoes from Calvary edited by Richard Young, Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe, In the Shadow of the Cross by Stephen C. Rowan, Seven Last Words by Fr. James Martin, and Friday Afternoon: Reflections on the Seven Last Words by Neville Ward. The seven posts I’m writing during Lent are my reflections on the Last Words. Enjoy.

Daffodils Know (IV)

Daffodils hang their heads, humbled by last week’s cold front. These were the first to bloom in my garden of not-knowing. Now I wonder if the other mystery bulbs will bloom, or if those bitter cold nights will bring only stillborn hyacinths and tulips.

Nonetheless, here we are smack in the middle of Jesus’s seven Last Words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As he lifts his head and shouts this Hebrew question, onlookers mistakenly guess he’s calling out to the prophet Elijah. But Jesus, who rode into town on a borrowed donkey and would be buried in a borrowed tomb, here borrows the words of David from Psalm 22.

Throughout the psalm David shifts back and forth between despair and praise. Just reading the first line of each stanza reveals a mind split in two: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”; “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One”; “But I am a worm and not a man”; “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” Back and forth, back and forth David vacillates until he lands on unequivocal praise for what he hopes God will do in the future, eclipsing both his past and present anguish.

When Jesus quotes David’s first line—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—I hear only desolation and distress. I’ve read that some say Jesus’ choice of quotation implies the opposite—that he wants his listeners (and readers) to remember the end of the psalm with its hopeful, exultant conclusion—that Jesus transcends suffering by looking ahead to resurrection, mind over matter. After all, how could he really be forsaken? I’m all for creativity, but this seems like a stretch.

I think Jesus borrowed another man’s words simply because they fit what he felt. Deserted. Abandoned. Forsaken.

Maybe Jesus also borrowed David’s words to validate them, as if to say: It’s okay to approach God when your feelings don’t shimmer with piety.

It’s okay to ask God why.

It’s okay to be present and real, to feel rejected and disappointed.

It’s okay to express hurt and pain, to hang your disgraced head. Really, it’s okay.

David knew it.

Jesus knew it.

Daffodils know it.

I’m still learning.

 

Note from Em In January and February, I took a dive into a tradition that was, until recently, unfamiliar to me: Jesus’ Last Words from the cross, also known as the Sayings of Jesus on the cross. These seven phrases are taken from all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Woven together, they form a cohesive narrative of Jesus’ final hours. Books I read include Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas, Echoes from Calvary edited by Richard Young, Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe, In the Shadow of the Cross by Stephen C. Rowan, Seven Last Words by Fr. James Martin, and Friday Afternoon: Reflections on the Seven Last Words by Neville Ward. These seven posts I am writing during Lent are my reflections on the Last Words. Enjoy.

fourth-word.jpg