When Mother’s Day Hurts

10 05 2015

I love my mum. I have that going for me. To add blessing to blessing, I love my mum-in-law as well. They are both strong, caring, fun women who seek adventure, who pursue Christ wholeheartedly, and who never fail to be practical and emotional supports in difficulty and avid cheerleaders in times of triumph.

I also have many other mums in my life that I love and admire more than I can manage to put into words. Some dear friends who have mothered me at key moments in my life. Some dear friends who I watch in amazement as they pour goodness and strength into their creative, confident, and kind children.

And yet… Mother’s Day can still sting.

infertilityI think I have always wanted to be a mother. But, for me, the traditional route to motherhood was simply not available. 5 years of trying culminated in 2 surgeries… neither of which resulted in the ability for me to bear a child. And, without going into a myriad of details, after examining the complex and varied options to adopt–we realized God wasn’t calling us in that direction. So here I am. A mother without children on this day–a day on which facebook and twitter and commercials and TV and every possible form of technology and entertainment turns toward mothering. Even NHL players are interviewed before their playoff games about what they have learned from their mothers. It’s inescapable.

Hear me when I say… absolutely we should celebrate parents. It is a hard and sometimes thankless job that makes a huge difference in our world. We need good parents. We need to be their cheerleaders when there is reason to celebrate (even if it’s “just” a dry diaper, or a hard-won C+, or a slightly cleaner room), and their comforters when things don’t go so well, and their encouragers when there is too little sleep–or too much sass–or just, simply, too much. Parents are worth celebrating and supporting. Absolutely.

But there is real hurt here too. Women, like me, who will never fulfill a felt calling to mothering (at least not in the traditional way). Women who grieve not only childlessness on this day, but singleness as well. People who have complex or fraught relationships with their own mothers. Women who have lost children. Anyone who has lost their mother. There are many types of grief that this particular day presses on.

What I find most sad is that those of us who are struggling/grieving/hurting on this day will feel like staying home from church today. Will feel unsafe with their pain in the very community that should provide comfort and encouragement. Many of us will give in to the temptation to “turtle”–to curl up in a blanket at home and try to forget what day it is. Because sometimes the church gets it wrong. Sometimes the church makes an idol out of mothers and fathers. Sometimes the church comes dangerously close to defining humanity (and human worth) in terms of the nuclear family. Sometimes the church mistakenly weaves cultural days and seasons into the sacred rhythms of faith in a way that is unhealthy.

See we are called together, each week, to worship the Living God. That worship can include thanks for parents. It can include joy in and support of parents in our congregation. But when we begin to place all focus there, I think we have a theological problem that warps our worship away from God and toward people. When we worship, we make a profound statement about what matters–what is worth our attention, our time, our commitment, our whole selves. Parents do hard work, do good work–but they are not worthy of worship (nor are children, for that matter, wonderful as they are). While we should celebrate and support parents, our focus should remain on the Triune God. There should be no such thing as a “Mother’s Day service“.

I went to church this morning. I admit that I was a bit apprehensive. But, thankfully, blessedly, my church got it right.  I received a delightfully squished carnation from a small child who didn’t really want to let it go. I prayed, along with our church leadership, for mothers in our congregation. I shed a few tears in the midst, as I think I always will. But the focus of the service was the Triune God. I sang my heart out to Jesus–along with my fellow mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts and sisters and brothers. Our whole delightfully mixed-up and diverse family heard the word of God and responded together. Because our family is so much bigger than we realize. So much deeper and broader. So much more messed-up and beautiful. And today I was reminded that–in that family–I have countless opportunities to be a mother, and a sister, and an aunt, and a daughter. And it was good. Happy Mother’s Day.





Holy Saturday – Facing the Darkness: Chapter 24 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

7 04 2012

Holy Saturday is one of the least observed days in the liturgical year – mostly because nothing happens. “There are no public ceremonies, no particular liturgies to interrupt the sense of waiting and vacuity that mark the day” (p. 152). It’s a day for growing – an activity we don’t usually take the time to notice, or consciously engage in. “Holy Saturday faith” says Joan Chittister, “is not about counting our blessings; it is about dealing with darkness and growing in hope” (p. 153).

Once again, I find that I cannot engage with the liturgical year, or write about it, without delving into the personal. How can I speak about facing the darkness unless I’m willing to bring my own darkness into the light? So let me tell you first that the surgery I had three weeks ago (for severe endometriosis) was unsuccessful, and now we wait – again – this time to see if funding goes through for me to travel to Oregon for another surgery (which may or may not be successful). There is a very real chance that my husband and I will never be able to have kids.

So when Chittister says “Someday we will all know the power of overwhelming loss when life as we know it changes, when all hope dies in midflight” (p. 153) – I know what she’s talking about. This Holy Saturday I will wait in the darkness, cradling a broken womb.

You see, Holy Saturday places us in the position of the disciples, who watched as their dreams were strung up on a cross – and buried. “No doubt about it: this is the day of going down into the tomb – our own as well as Jesus’” (p. 155). This is the day that all the dreams that have died, and all the losses we have experienced, rise to the surface and shake our faith.

But, as Chittister says, it is also a day for “growing in hope.”  “The important thing about Easter Saturday” she says, “is that it is precisely when its emptiness sets in that we begin to understand there is as much voice of God in emptiness as there is in anticipation. It is now, when we feel the absence of Jesus most keenly, that we can find ourselves listening to Him most intensely” (p. 155).

Now, more than any other time in my life, I find myself in constant dialogue with God. I always thought that a “life of prayer” was a complicated and difficult thing reserved for the spiritual greats among us, but this constant internal voice calling “help, help, help” is effortless. When a friend asked me what my relationship with God looks like in the midst of everything, I found myself using a somewhat cheesy, but very apt image. I’m like a tree in a wind storm. I can feel my branches whipping around my head – and I can feel myself bending (sometimes it’s almost unbearably painful) – but I know that I won’t be uprooted. And I know that the storm will eventually pass.

And that’s what hope is. It’s not being miraculously lifted out of your circumstances – it’s knowing you can get through them. It’s knowing that God’s faithfulness is not shaken by circumstance. That the all-powerful God of everything is willing to sit with you in the silence of a tomb. “There is hope that we can begin, finally, to see the world as God sees the world and so trust that God is indeed everywhere in everything at all times – in the abstruse as well as the luminous, whether we ourselves can see the hand of God in this moment or not. To be able to come to that point before the beginning of the Easter Vigil, before the cantor sings the Exultet into the darkness, is what Holy Saturday is really all about. Then loss is gain, and silence is a very clear message from God” (p. 157, emphasis mine).

How have you experienced God’s presence in the darkness?





Joy Is Not the Opposite of Pain

26 01 2012

Have you ever wondered what the opposite of pain is? If you type the question in to the wonderful world of Google, you will read a variety of answers including: pleasure, getting high, bliss, good health, wellbeing, and joy. I’m not going to harp on most of these definitions, but I do want to query the idea that opposite of pain is joy – not because it is likely driven by the Rob Base song “Joy and Pain” (sunshine and rain), but because I think this idea sets up two different concepts as opposites: lament and praise.

While lament seems to be a difficult concept for the modern church, it was a common Hebrew expression of faith. We see this in the proliferation of lament psalms used in Hebrew worship.  Most modern psalters and hymnbooks, however, use only pieces of these psalms. The tendency is to neglect the honest portrayal of pain, confusion, and struggle in favour of what is all too often called the “praise resolution.”

Psalms of lament generally have four parts (they can be broken down further, but these are the basic components): an address, in which the author names the person he is speaking to; the complaint, in which the author honestly, and often vividly, describes his painful circumstance; a request, in which the author asks for specific assistance from the person whom he is addressing; and an expression of trust, in which the author states his confidence in the one he addresses. What we so often do is skip over the more difficult bits, chop off the “expression of trust,” and use that as a song of praise.

This approach, however, does not really result in praise. The psalmist reaches that “expression of trust” through his circumstances – whether or not they are changed. When we divorce praise from the real contexts in which we live, we foster a weak, circumstance-based, superstitious religion in which our praise is dependent on whether or not things are going well. That is a façade – not a faith.

Allow me to use a personal example. I am currently, as mentioned in a previous post, struggling with the possibility of infertility. Viewing lament and praise as opposites would lead me to believe that because I am currently in a state of lament, I am therefore unable to praise. Viewing praise as part of lament, however, allows me to lay my soul bare before God (i.e. yell at him for a while), and also to rest in my confidence in his goodness and power. If I didn’t believe that praise is a part of lament, I would fall in one of two directions: I would sink into despair; or I would feel unable to express the depth of my anguish, and end up wearing a mask. Instead, my lament draws me into the presence of God (because that is who I am addressing); it allows me to express the full extent of my suffering; it prompts me to ask God to change my circumstance, knowing that he is able to do so; and it allows me to push past my circumstance and into praise as I focus instead on the character of God, and his presence in my life. My heart breaks at the thought of not being able to bear a child – but no matter what happens, I know that God is good. I know he will help me to work out my calling toward motherhood in one way or another. That is the basis of my praise: not whether or not he does what I want him to do. And I could not honestly reach that place of praise, unless it was an integral part of the lament my heart is currently singing.

So no, praise and lament are not opposites. And neither are joy and pain. No, the opposite of pain is comfort. We are not called, as Christians, to live a comfortable life. Not in this world – not if we are called to participate in the transformation and redemption that Christ began and finished and will finish. We are not called to a life of comfort, a life free from pain, but we are called to a life of joy. We are called to a life of deep painful joy in which we see the truth of God’s character alongside the suffering of the world.





Christmas Is Not A Children’s Story

3 01 2012

This post comes a bit late (although still within the liturgical season of Christmas) because my husband Andrew and I received some bad news during the Christmas season that has set us back on our heels. We have been trying for a baby for three years. This Christmas we discovered that not only do I have endometriosis, but I have a severe case requiring complex surgery. My gynecologist gravely informed us that he may not be able to save my ovaries.

We have been grieving, we are grieving and, to be honest, the season of Christmas is a crappy time to contemplate childlessness. Christmas is about a pregnancy. A miraculous pregnancy. Christmas is about a baby. Not only that, but our society has made Christmas into a season that is directed primarily at children. Almost every Christmas commercial contains a wide-eyed child waiting for Santa, or an excited child ripping into a gift. Christmas movies inevitably contain cute kids oozing “Christmas Spirit.” Believe me. I know. TV is no place to turn for distraction at Christmas – not if your problem is infertility. Nor is facebook a place of refuge these days. I have so many friends who are pregnant, or who have recently had babies, that sometimes all my news feed seems to contain is baby news. I’m happy for my friends. I really and sincerely am. And I want to hear their baby news. But for now, just for a time, I’m taking a bit of a break from their joy.

I can’t, however, take a break from the joy of Christmas. From the celebration of the Christ child. Not if I want to continue my journey through the Christian calendar. So my question this Christmas has been: “how do I celebrate the baby Jesus in the midst of potential barrenness?”

As I began to wrestle with this question (and believe me, although it sounds nice and clear and cold at this point – it started out as an emotional mess… and continues that way), I realized that there is something very wrong about the way in which we celebrate Christmas. It’s not actually about kids at all. Or, at least, not to the degree that we make it about them. Just because Christ came first as a child does not mean that Christmas is only for children. In fact, I think our focus on kids at this time of year has led us to sentimentalize Christmas. To make it less than it is. We somehow feel that, because the story contains a baby, it must be a simple one. A story easily explained to a child.

Don’t get me wrong – you should tell your children about baby Jesus in the manger every single Christmas. You should see your kids glow in anticipation of their favourite day of the year. But Christmas is not primarily about kids, and it’s not primarily for kids.

On the surface, it may seem like a simple thing to conceive a child. (Girl meets boy. Girl “lays with” boy. Girl gets pregnant. Girl has a baby.) But if we delve below that surface, something we tend to do only when we have difficulties, we find unimaginable complexity. There are hundreds of little bodily functions that need to fall in line for an egg to be fertilized and implant on a uterine wall. If even one of those functions fails, conception (let alone the birth of a healthy child) becomes unlikely, maybe even impossible.

On the surface, the Christmas story might seem like a simple thing. (Mary meets Joseph. Mary and Joseph become engaged but don’t “lay together.” Mary becomes pregnant. Wait. What?) It’s funny how we’ve learned to read this story by rote – skipping blandly over miracle after miracle, and seeing it as primarily a story for kids. Really? Try to explain the virgin birth to a three year old!

This story is anything but simple.

Mary is not representative of all other mothers. She alone had the experience of bearing a child that would also be her Saviour. King of kings. Lord of lords. God with his people at last. For the Christmas story, in its full telling, explains to us that God, the baby Jesus, is Friend to the weak and oppressed (the shepherds); that he is Messiah to those who have waited (Simeon and Anna); that he is King to the excluded (the wise men); that he is Trouble to the comfortable (Herod); and that he is Glory to the unremarkable (Mary). This baby is, in fact, God. God reaching out from his internal Trinitarian relationship, and welcoming the whole of the human race into that unity.

We rejoice, not just in the birth of a baby, but in God becoming part of his creation. We rejoice, not just at the swaying of a tiny fist in an animal’s feed trough, but at the chorus of angels proclaiming – at last – peace to humanity. We rejoice, not merely at the tiny stirrings and noises that a baby makes, but at the song of God that shakes creation. The song that will, one day, make all things new.

This is something I can celebrate. This is a reason to lift up my pain and rejoice.