Wednesday, December 25, 2013

when Christmas makes you stressed out and crazy (and the God who still comes, anyway)


The air is cool for Australia in late December, the rain falls gently on skylights, my three next-of-kin sleep in a darkened room together with white noise lullaby.  It's Christmas, this morning we opened some gifts with Nana and Papa visiting from Canada, had a late breakfast and the over-sugared children needed a sleep to make it through the rest of the day.  So did their dad.

It's been a difficult few weeks for me, with nothing and nobody to blame.  I had high hopes for December, for Advent, for the memories we would create and the traditions we would begin with our toddlers, but only a few of them happened and were definitely not "pinnable".  (My homemade advent calender was pretty much the worst - I couldn't wait for the last paper to be torn off so I could throw it in the bin today - Merry Christmas!)  I appreciated D.L. Mayfield's writing this week on what is actually sustainable at Christmas time, and for me the trouble hasn't been financial; my expectations on myself are what I can't keep up with.  I didn't "do" nearly what I had hoped to accomplish and I still ended up a crying, stressed out, less than festive mess on too many occasions in the past few weeks.  If you don't believe me, just ask my husband.  Seriously, ask him - he could probably use some support.

The few things that have felt deeply meaningful had very little to do with me at all.  I saw some friends give anonymously and generously to some other friends of mine whom they had never met; inviting someone to our home for Christmas who didn't come but hopefully at least felt cared for and included; enjoying the hospitality of others, having meals in homes or sharing drinks outside while children play barefoot.

The line in the carol 'O Holy Night' has been rolling around in my heart for the past few days.  "Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared, and the soul felt it's worth."  I've spent so much of this month (and maybe my whole life) trying to prove my worth, and mostly just to myself.  Do I deserve to be a friend to circles of beautiful people, a mama to bright and crazy kids, a wife to the gentlest man?  I try to answer this question by packing my days fuller than I can handle, full of such good things and people I want to be with, it's not the doing that's the problem, it's the questions my heart is asking, the things that I don't believe true about my most secret self. 

It's not in our doing that our souls will feel their deepest sense of worth - it's in His Coming.  And like I wrote two years ago, very pregnant but not ready for our new baby to arrive yet, I feel it now.  "God came because it was time.  Not because we were ready, but because we were in need.  The beauty of Advent is in God's willingness to come to us, not our readiness for Him to come."

The kitchen doesn't have to tidy, nor the Christmas cards in the mail (or even on your mind).  Maybe you just shouted at your children or your spouse, or cried over an oven full of burnt baking; the gifts might be few or hurried, loved ones too far away, exhaustion holding you hostage for a good, long time.  You might feel disappointed with yourself.  It's okay.  Advent isn't about us preparing beautifully, lighting candles or creating the perfect family memories.  It's about recognizing our deep, deep need for a God who still comes, anyway.

As much as I despise all of this seasonal stress I've experienced this month, maybe it's been good for me.  Maybe not feeling like I measured up is exactly where I need to be.



Merry Christmas.  May your soul today feel it's worth, no matter what.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

things are messy, we are loved


 
Theotokos, from House for All Sinners & Saints


I live in the kind of place where you get to know your neighbours, maybe you do too.  They remind your kids to wear hats outside and gift them their first cricket set, you chat while hanging laundry in the Australian sun, or you overhear a (sometimes very loud) dispute. We live in an interesting place and our neighbourhood isn't just the people who live next door or around the corner.  There's also the people who come in and out of our street, often in need of cash or desperate for some kind of fix.  I've written before about how honest my neighburhood is about the power of addictions.

Sometimes I want to meet people, like other moms at the park who become your really dear friends over a couple of years; sometimes I don't want to meet people, like the men coming in and out of our neighbourhood for a drink or to watch topless women dance.  But my kids don't know any better, they don't know how I quietly classify people - my son asks men their names as we walk past a pub; I try to smile nicely while also slightly glaring at them.  I'm working on it, but it's still a reflex, that smile/glare.  I wish I could see like my kids do, like they know how the world is meant to be.

They have fallen in love with this one lady who is at the corner every day, they give cuddles and kisses, my daughter says her name all the time, even when waking from a nap as if maybe she has just been with her in a dream.   I used to be scared of her boyfriend until we started to chat regularly - their relationship is complicated and they are trying to care for each other despite themselves, and aren't we all limited in our capacity to love and be loved?  I was scared of him until I met his kids, until he introduced us as his friends.  

I just finished "Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint" by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tattoo covered Lutheran pastor who lived in bondage to her own addictions for many years after leaving her childhood, fundamentalist church.  Her use of coarse language is plentiful (just a warning in case you were planning to gift it the book to a great aunt or something) and her understanding of life as continual death and resurrection has opened up my eyes.  Rather than be ashamed of ourselves, we can trust in a God who delights to scoop us up from our graves over and over again.  She writes freely of her own failings and need for resurrection, how God requires nothing of us in order to be loved.

I can be so ashamed of myself sometimes, I fall back into my grave and just want to stay there, want to let myself be covered over by disappointment, tiredness, hopelessness.  Rather than ask for help I'd choose to stay buried until I can slowly collect the will power to dig myself out.  But there's no self-digging required; God is proud to have dirt under His fingernails, unfatigued by another rescue, overjoyed by a child in Her arms.  My friend was telling me recently about a difficult situation she's in, "I'm a troubled person, but I don't need this."  And she's right.  If only I could take on that same language for myself, when I'm laying in my grave again: I'm a troubled person, but I don't need this.  I don't need to stay here, ashamed in my grave.

What if I can start to truly see other people as God's beloved, hear it sung loud over their heads, louder than anything else that has ever been spoken over them.  Imagine how I will think and feel about my neighbours then, not even judging their potential, but just believing who they already are at the center of it all.  My longing this Advent season, like Nadia Bolz-Weber, is for my heart of stone to (again and again and again) become a heart of flesh.

Things are messy in our neighbourhood and Lord knows they are sketchy sometimes, but it's a place filled with God's beloved children and it's still a beautiful day.
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Sunday, November 24, 2013

slow growing compassion


I spent the morning with a friend from Libya who lives in our area.  She and her husband did studies here, coming before the war began in her nation, and now it isn't safe to return.  They've applied for a protection visa and are desperate to stay.  She had her second baby a few weeks ago, the sweetest little girl, and she stays in her tiny flat caring for babies while her engineer husband collects shopping carts at the grocery store six days a week.  She has no complaints, she shows me pictures from home of coffins draped in flags lined up for ages, her sister will give birth there soon.  I love having her in my life - I need her to remind me of realities I quickly forget.  To have your children and your husband safe and with you, with food to eat on the table every single day - these are privileges, this is cause to celebrate and be relieved.  I examine my heart when we kiss goodbye at the door, I scan my small list of woes and let a few of them go.

I read about Syria regularly, I'm eager and terrified to know what life is like for the two million people who have fled across borders with little in their arms but the children they've bore.  I occasionally feel unsafe in my neighbourhood but those moments are fleeting and there's so much help available if I actually needed it.  I really cannot imagine feeling perpetually unsafe, and even worse, to know that my children weren't safe.  I can't imagine having to risk everything, leave the trees my family had tended for hundreds of years and travel under the cover of darkness.  I can't imagine how living in a tent in the desert in a foreign place could some how be safer than the house in which I was born.

Imagining these things is hard.  But I think it's part of caring, it's part of slow growing compassion, it's part of quiet prayer.  It's part of joining our thoughts into the collective longing for deliverance: from violence, from hatred, from power and division and suffering.

//

'I believe that Christ came not to dispel the darkness but to teach us
to dwell with integrity, compassion, and love in the midst of
ambiguity.  The one who grew in the fertile darkness of Mary's womb
knew that darkness is not evil of itself.  Rather, it can become the
tending place in which our longings for healing, justice and peace
grow and come to birth.' - Jan L. Richardson

//

City of the Lost - David Remnick for The New Yorker
 - an intense article about the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which has quickly become the second largest camp in the world



Sunday, November 17, 2013

"where you are is holy and you are welcome here."


I am writing this to say that I want to start writing again.  Writing is one of those things that when I limit myself to the fuel of 'inspiration' and the demands of perfectionism, I lose momentum, I lose my words.  These months of quiet in this little space have been beyond full in the rest of my life.  I have some dusty dreams that seem to be rousing themselves when my mind wanders, I've had a regular teaching opportunity that's stretched and enlivened me, and there's thirteen weeks of precious baby growing inside of me. (I have had so many thoughts and feelings surrounding expectancy, grief and community, much of which has kept me from this blog - but I want to go there soon.) I'm very tired, but in the best possible way.  I thought that if I let this space idle for a while then I would have more energy; I don't think it has worked.  I met a woman last night who reads my writing, and her encouragement was hopefully enough to push me back over the edge, to where I need to be.  Thanks, Linda.


Jan L. Richardson is a woman who's work breathes life into my bones.  I thought I'd share a poem of hers, in hopes that I can again find that star that blazes inside of me.


The Map You Make Yourself - Jan L. Richardson

You have looked
at so many doors
with longing,
wondering if your life
lay on the other side.

For today,
choose the door
that opens
to the inside.

Travel the most ancient way
of all:
the path that leads you
to the center
of your life.

No map
but the one
you make yourself.

No provision
but what you already carry
and the grace that comes
to those who walk
the pilgrim’s way.

Speak this blessing
as you set out
and watch how
your rhythm slows,
the cadence of the road
drawing you into the pace
that is your own.

Eat when hungry.
Rest when tired.
Listen to your dreaming.
Welcome detours
as doors deeper in.

Pray for protection.
Ask for the guidance you need.
Offer gladness
for the gifts that come
and then
let them go.

Do not expect
to return
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you

but by the star
that blazes inside you
telling you
where you are
is holy
and you are welcome
here.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Liberation from the Beauty Myth: A Call for Transformation

Hi!

It's been a while, but I wrote something over at my friend Adriel's blog


Adriel has been doing a very cool month-long series on empowering women through so many different avenues.  She invited me to write about a few of my favorite topics: The Beauty Myth ala Naomi Wolf, the Liberian Women's Peace Movement ala Leymah Gbowee, the power of non-violence and how our own liberation from the myth frees us to 'pray the devil back to hell.'

Here's an excerpt:

"Advertisers want our money but there are spiritual forces at work that desperately want our female power to be wasted.  You know why?  Because so much can happen when women gather and call for change. 

My history education growing up in an American public school was largely based around how violence brings change; the heroes we learned about were those who won the wars they fought (and then wrote the history from their perspective, of course).  Rarely was a non-violent movement given much time in our classroom until we hit the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960′s and Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership (and a brief shout out to Rosa Parks).  Otherwise, it was all about war.  My imagination was never given a chance to grow and I’m pretty sure it’s stunted.  (Fortunately there is hope for my kids!)

When my husband was still a boy I had never met he spent a few weeks in Liberia, in 2004.  He was doing some recording in a local dialect for a project and had little knowledge of the history that was in the making.  He knew that civil war ended the year before, he saw the bullet ridden buildings and spent time with a man who lost his wife to violence, but it otherwise seemed very … peaceful.  Shortly after we were married he bought a documentary called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” on the Liberian Woman’s Peace Movement, which was the major player in ending the fourteen-year conflict.  We watched it together and everything changed for me.  I’ve seen it over a dozen times now and every time I hear these women speak I learn something new and I’m challenged by how I spend my own time, money and energy."

Read the rest over at Adriel's blog where we'd always love to hear YOUR thoughts!

Leymah Gbowee

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syria: memories and imagination


In April 2002 I spent a few days in Syria.  It was part of the semester abroad program I was doing in my second year of college, based mostly in Cairo, Egypt but with short trips to Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and then a three week excursion by land from Cairo to Istanbul, Turkey via Jordan and Syria.  I spent a few days in Damascus, staying in a monastery and exploring the immensely beautiful streets of that city - where you could knock on a door in the wall of the old city and then be immediately invited in, where street vendors with greying hair and wise faces joked that we were Egyptians because of our accents, where we had a lecture followed by dinner and dancing with young Syrian musicians.  It hurts to even begin wondering where those people are now.  On our way up to Aleppo we stopped at the oldest church building in the world, built into a mountainside in an Aramaic speaking village.  Then we had the incredible experience of visiting the extended family of one of the students in our program - Bethany's father was Syrian and almost all of his family still lived in a village there, although he had spent his adult life in the US.  When Bethany arrived - their American granddaughter and niece, there was so much weeping and laughing and hugging and kissing - a sacred place to bear witness to family in the quiet green of village life and apricot trees.  They set a massive meal before us and we sat on the floor laughing, feasting and drinking tea enjoying all the beauty of their lives.  It was a moment of sacrificial hospitality that marked me.  In May, Bethany's Syrian family had their homes destroyed and were forced to flee to neighbouring Lebanon as refugees.  They are doing alright there, she says, there are marriages and babies, they are a resilient people taking it one day at a time.

Bethany's Aunt and Uncle in more peaceful days


That semester in the Middle East was my most intense experience of culture shock (my first time outside of the US) and community and worlds colliding in the most untidy of ways.  It's when my "personal relationship with Jesus" met  "Jesus died on the cross so that the United States would not have to drop bombs on Iraq", which met an understanding of God's love for people groups and nations like never before.  Everything that I had thought was only spiritual and future in God's kingdom was finding urgency in our present physical reality.  It's when rhetoric and ideology was dismantled slowly and painfully on many life levels and I was confused, disillusioned but so incredibly alive.  Studying Arabic, Islam and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ripped my small-town Pennsylvania world wide open for me and I spent the next decade trying to live in the tension of so many questions: what does it mean to be a privileged American who is also a follower of the crucified Jesus?  What does it mean to be a good neighbour, a global neighbour?  What is really going on in the Middle East beyond what the media is telling us?  What voices are being ignored?  How do I stay connected to suffering people when my own life can be so easy sometimes?  These questions still burn in my heart.

I've had seasons of being extremely engaged and active, and  I've had seasons of tuning it all out and getting absorbed in my own stuff.  I've had moments of pregnant hope and long, long moments of despair.  I have, what one of my professors calls, "the luxury of irrelevance".  It's not my home that could be bombed at any moment, I'm not crossing international borders with my children in my arms and not much else.  I can very easily turn down the volume or unplug for a few days, even worse I can throw my hands up to fatalism and the gods and not engage because I feel hopeless and apathetic and scared. But when I open my heart up even a wee tiny bit to the suffering of families in Syria, (or Egypt, Palestine, Libya ...) I sense the tremendous grief of God, the divine pathos, the suffering of Jesus on the cross that continues as the children made in God's image suffer in these very moments.  And as a Christian I'm called to engage with God in that place of pain.

I believe that prayer matters, whether it's specific times of really engaging and interceding or it's just carrying a people on your heart throughout the day.  I think knowledge matters and as an American I care about the decisions my representatives make on my behalf, I acknowledge the blood on my hands as well with every drone and missile strike.  And I honestly believe that my capacity to imagine is extremely important.  Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination,
How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation?  That is not to ask, as Israel's prophets ever asked, if this freedom is realistic or politically practical or economically viable.  To begin with such questions is to concede everything to the royal consciousness even before we begin.  We nee to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.  We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.  
I want to take back my imagination and let God lead me to think the thoughts of someone who has been born into the new creation.  I want to hold on to those words in Scripture that make no sense, that seem like they are impossible or worse, impractical, and write them on my walls and tell them to my children.  I want to raise children who can see the evils of war and violence and can think in ways about conflict that I probably never will.  And just like I grew up pledging my allegiance daily to the American flag, I now pledge my allegiance daily to the Lamb who was slain, who took upon himself all of the bombs and missiles and hatred, racism and greed that fuels this violence again and again.     

Here are a few good links to read.  Regardless of how we think or whether or not we pray, let's all carry our neighbours in Syria close to our hearts.

9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask - Max Fisher @ The Washington Post

Syria: An Overview and A Call to Action - Joy @ Deeper Story

Greg Boyd's kingdom pacifist perspective on talking to Pres. Obama about Syria @ Reknew.org

Why Italian Trappist Nuns aren't leaving Syria.

Sweden leads the way in welcoming Syrian refugees.

Read Mennonite Central Committee's call to end violence in Syria and send it on to your representatives.

Subscribe to 25 Days of Prayer for Syria @ SheLoves Magazine

In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.  Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. ... He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, no longer shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.  For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.  (Micah 4: 1-5, NRSV)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

on epic fights and letting love win (for chris)

The kids were coughing and we were all sick so nobody slept well and doesn't that just show us who we really are underneath all the Instagram.  Our most epic discussion/argument/fight was boiling just beneath the baby soft skin of four years and a few months of well, we're married now and here's two new humans to take care of.

You scratched me and I bled all over us, a tirade brought to you by the letter S: sickness, sleep deprivation and stress, nothing too crazy or earth-shattering really.  Just doing life a bit tougher than normal.  I felt justified, you were defensive and we left the room so that babies wouldn't hear, but they always know what's going on.

I could hear Patty Griffin singing over us, but we were louder:

//we're calling for help tonight on a thin phone line/as usual we're having ourselves one hell of a time/ and the planes keep flying right over our heads no matter how loud we shout/ hey, hey, hey, hey/ and we keep waving and waving our arms in the air til we're all tired out//

I could see your mouth moving but couldn't hear anything you were saying, the planes were so loud.   I couldn't understand what was coming out of my own mouth either, I wasn't sure why I was so mad but I just kept going.

For being two fairly mature people we can still be a relational wasteland, can't we?  

It had to stop though, there were children to take care of and we were ashamed like 4 year olds ourselves, fuming but neither of us willing to say that other S-word, the one that could actually, possibly, somehow make things new.

I always start my apologies with something lame, like sorry I'm tired, sorry I didn't sleep well, sorry you aggravate me so easily, sorry for being grumpy - I tread around in the murky waters that look almost like I'm sorry but I'm not quite ready to be a grown up yet.  Just give me two more minutes.  It always takes me awhile to get desperate enough to own my stuff.

I probably told you to go first, but I can't remember.
I'm sorry for being selfish.
I'm sorry for not making my needs known.
I'm sorry for lashing out in anger,
for not practicing self-control.
I'm sorry for swearing.  At you.

By now the girl has dragged a chair to the glass-paned door and is trying to work out the handle.  But we lay in bed together still in the same spot where moments before I was crying and shouting and angrier than I ever thought I could be at the Canadian boy whom I dreamed of sharing this very bed with.  We are quiet, relieved.

//it's hard to give/ it's hard to get/ but everybody needs a little forgiveness.//

And when we go there, go low, against every instinct in our bodies, hearts and minds, that's when the sun breaks through and we can suddenly breathe again.  The planes are quiet, there's no need to yell.  The wind lifts our little home-made kite way up, where we can see and remember why we are even in this moment at all, why we are walking together towards a future, towards good and hope.
 
The kids were coughing so I put them in the shower at 6pm hoping steam would help their breathing and maybe the warm water would wash off some energy as well.  I sat listening to them giggle and splash.  You came in and joined me.  There were plenty of dishes and laundry to keep you busy but you slid down to the cold tile floor.  We talked of nothing very interesting, I can't even remember what, but it felt good that you wanted to be with me still, we basked in the warmth of friendship resurrection.

I could see dark stuff growing on the bottom of the shower door and I sprayed and scrubbed a bit while we talked.  The slow accumulation of dirt is washed off our bodies daily but finds it's way there, to the lowest place.  Most of the time we don't notice it but then we do and it takes some work, some elbow-grease and the willingness to go lower than is comfortable.  If we just ignore it, we will be overcome by it, at least eventually. 

We thought our intimacy began in emails, long gazes, maybe on our first night together, when we really saw each other.  But we really saw each other today.  And it was ugly.  But when we still chose to stay - to say sorry like the four year olds that we are, to release forgiveness and hold on tight to each other - that's more powerful than attraction or hormones or even our wedding vows.  Our conflict isn't a red flag, it's the only path we have to each other.   It's a sign that we're being vulnerable, that we're doing something right.  We're headed somewhere together and this is hard because it's real.  Those painful moments are an invitation to be exposed, to see anew, to be forgiven, and to let love win again, at least in us. 

//open your eyes boy, i think we are saved.  open your eyes boy, i think we are saved.//


 

Friday, August 16, 2013

How My Kids *Actually* Play Together (in photos) & a few links for the weekend.

About 22% of the time my children play really, really well together.  But most of the time my children's play is some variation of this:

Sister, carefree with baby and pram in the winter sun.
Brother appears out of nowhere.
Sister is suspicious of his presence ...
...for good reason.  He takes her baby and runs.
Sister chases Brother,
but Brother is faster.
With Mom's help, the doll is returned to Sister's care.
But brother hands Sister the baby and takes off with the pram.


 Here's a few good reads to start off your weekend!  Enjoy!


“Beating AK47s into Shovels” - Red Letter Christians

“On peace [A guest post by Tonia Peckover]” - Deeper Story

“Breastfeeding and Following Jesus- uninviting “modesty” to the breastfeeding discussion” - The Leaky Boob

“You don’t hate me. You hate my brand.” - Rachel Held Evans

“Breaking News: Love No Longer Exists (And the World is Better Off)” - Dr. Kelly Flanagan @ Untangled

 "the ministry of funfetti" - DL Mayfield

"when your child has SMA: this is motherhood too" - Michaela Evanow

------

Thank you to everyone who read and shared my two posts based on Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth!


What was the best post that you read or wrote this week?  I'd love to hear!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Breaking the Beauty Myth (with 16 Girls in a Turkish Bath)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote what is by far my most widely read and shared post:  The Beauty Myth (And Why I'm Not Buying It Anymore), a quasi review of feminist and activist Naomi Wolf's 1991 book, "The Beauty Myth".  Can I just say that Naomi Wolf has actually read the post and tweeted it to her 36,000 followers?!? I was school-girl giddy to say the least.  I'm sure she does that for everyone who writes about her, but still.  I promptly retweeted her tweet to my 44 followers, I'm sure they were very happy for me.

we are going to frame this. ;)

When I first posted the blog I had a whole list of other topics I wanted to write about that related; so many more layers of openness I wanted to type out.  But then I got scared.  I suddenly felt shy and embarrassed and I haven't even written anything for two weeks.  So this is my attempt at continuing the conversation, at least for my own process, growth and healing.

My husand and son were walking in our neighbourhood shops recently when he noticed Saf was staring at a bigger than life-size poster of a woman (or maybe four women?  You can't say for sure because their faces aren't showing: a mark of objectification in advertising).  Chris asked him what he was looking at and he said, "Their private parts are showing!"  Maybe their "private parts" aren't technically showing but my son hasn't yet been desensitized to these types of images and that was his way of saying 'Something is wrong'.  Bless his little heart, I pray daily that he always sees women as people and not objects to be exploited and used as props to sell things.  I complained through a few different mediums (including unreturned phone calls to Cotton On) and the poster is still there.  I will continue to complain and also continue to withhold my business from their shop.


That evening my husband and I had a long conversation about how to protect out children, not even just from sexual abuse and pornography, but just the ill-effects of the every day media.  I don't want my daughter to think she can't be anything she dreams to be or to believe her greatest value lies in how she looks and whether or not boys are attracted to her.  (I recently watched the trailer for a documentary called "Miss Representation" which tackles this subject and looks pretty incredible, thanks for the tip Katie!). 

Where can we go to protect our children from the media, with their sponge-like hearts and minds?  I have a few Middle Eastern friends and they tell me that body image is just as bad for women in their communities, even though they are covered head to toe in loose black cloth in public.  I've traveled a bit, so tried to think about where in the world I've felt content and good about my body?  I remembered: rural South Sudan.

Over the course of three years I've spent 13 months in Sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, South Sudan, Cameroon–each a unique and diverse world of it's own).  While living in these places I felt remarkably good about my body, the same body I wore when the plane touched down in Australia, but almost immediately a sense of shame and inadequacy would return.

I was surrounded by women who appreciated their bodies in so many shades of brown:  women who helped their neighbours birth babies in mud huts, who dressed and walked like royalty in their bright form-fitting attire, women who knew the traumas of war and still chose hope and return and birth.  The Cameroonian midwives couldn't believe that white women wanted to hide their breasts when they nursed their babies in public.  Sudanese Miriam taught me to carry water on my head, wash clothes and shell groundnuts by the fire where she listened to my stories and told me her own.  And I'll never forget Mama Ruth in Capetown and her soliloquy of the day that God made her, how He made her body different than the rest of the mamas–with small hips and a round tummy–but it was good.  And then God reached down and wiped gorgeous dimples on each of her cheeks, smiled and placed a plentiful gap between her front teeth.  She processed her sense of inadequacy through this captivating monologue and had us all celebrating the ways we stand out from the crowd with Divine approval.  I began to appreciate my body's uniqueness, especially my diastema.  (Did you know that a gap in your front teeth often represents fertility and good fortune in many parts of the world?)



In rural Africa I was at my heaviest weight, but I felt good. I used my biceps to pump water under starry skies, my legs to walk dusty roads into town, my hands to palpate the promise of future and child, my voice to sing with loud strumming around camp fires, my ears to listen to mother-words tell the tales my babies need to know.  I had no more than six cm of mirror to my name.  Just enough to make sure I had nothing in my teeth.  I didn't watch TV, didn't look at magazines, didn't post selfies on Facebook, didn't see anyone else's faces there either.  In fact, the internet was usually a drive (or a 4 1/2 mile walk) away.  Modesty was confidence, humility and covering your knees.  Breasts were for babies:  let them be accessible if you've got a nurseling running around.  I was busy, heart-deep in the terrifying and resurrecting work of doing life in community, when it's all out on the table and there's nowhere to run.



The freedom I felt in Africa tells me this: The problem is not with my body. The problem is with my culture and all the lies that I've grown up with.  In no way do I romanticize the place of women in many African contexts.  There is much abuse, child marriage, FGM, systematic rape and heart-breaking oppression but African women still carry themselves like queens, without the self-loathing that many western women experience.  And there are some very powerful women there, changing the world.  Have you ever seen the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell?"  Leymah Gbowee is my hero.

The Beauty Myth is a power of it's own, like greed, violence, apathy and materialism.  It wants us to believe that we are simply individuals who are insecure about our bodies, but as I wrote last week, there is a much larger and more insidious force working against us.  It does it's best to hold us down, keep us consumed with ourselves and therefore consuming the stuff that advertisers want to sell us. But this power won't have the last word over our lives and our cultures.  I believe that Jesus' teachings, death and resurrection set us free from all of the powers that seek to enslave, steal, kill and destroy in God's good creation.  But it's still hard, isn't it? There's much work to do.   A whole lot of hard work.  Much un-learning that needs to happen, a lot of new thought patterns to adopt and maybe some deep healing–as deep as our collective wounds have gone.

So much change needs to happen within the media, especially for the protection of our children in regards to the images they are regularly exposed to.  Collective Shout, Peace is Loud and A Mighty Girl are all organizations who raise awareness, sound the battle cry, encourage and inspire women to step into their powerfully equal place in the world.  And just as much of the battle is in our own minds.  Naomi Wolf closes The Beauty Myth by noting it's not about whether we like to dress up or shave our legs, whether we wear make up or dye our graying hair–what's important is the motivation behind what we do with our bodies.  When I get dressed in the morning is it because I'm wearing self-hatred and disappointment and need something to cover it?  Or do I know without a doubt that I'm beautiful and want to share the unique beauty that I carry with the world?  She writes,

How might women act beyond the myth?  Who can say?  Maybe we will let our bodies wax and wane, enjoying the variations on a theme, and avoid pain because when something hurts us it begins to look ugly to us.  Maybe we will adorn ourselves with real delight, with the sense that we are gilding the lily.  Maybe the less pain we inflict on our bodies, the more beautiful our bodies will look to us.  Perhaps we will forget to elicit admiration from strangers, and find we don't miss it; perhaps we will await our older faces with anticipation, and be unable to see our bodies as a mass of imperfections, since there is nothing on us that is not precious.  Maybe we won't want to be the "after" anymore. (291)

I think one of my most profound experiences of body acceptance happened in Damascus, Syria.  I was doing a Middle East study abroad program based in Cairo but we traveled all the way to Istanbul by land (and a bit of water).  It was an incredible experience and I owe so much of my life today to that program and the people who taught and studied alongside of me.  One of the program's many traditions is a visit to the Turkish bath.  I was shocked and horrified when I heard this and spent at least a week with a dull ache in my stomach.  The last thing I wanted was to be naked with a bunch of beautiful, thin girls.  It wasn't just the extra pounds I had put on because of the amazing food we ate (but what a great reason to gain weight, ohmygoodness), it was all the lies I believed about what women should look like and what I thought everyone else did look like.  I didn't back out though.  I went and it was so good.  Life changing in fact.  Two hours of humidity and exfoliation by old Syrian mamas, splashing water at each other and laughing in the way you only can when completely exposed.  It was amazing to see what all of these women actually looked like: while they were all gorgeous, none of them were air-brushed or photo-shopped to perfection.  We were all pre-pregnancy and young, but none of us looked like the women in magazines or on TV.  We were way more beautiful than that.  Wolf writes, "We need, especially for the anorexic/pornographic generations, a radical rapprochement with nakedness. Many women have describe the sweeping revelation that follows even one experience of communal all-female nakedness." (280)

This may be even more true following childbirth; your body has just brought a whole new human into the world and you should feel pretty damn good about yourself.  But the stories of actresses and models getting back in bikinis six weeks after giving birth are unavoidable.  I gave birth the same weekend as BeyoncĂ© and she was back on stage waaaay before me.  (I'm still waiting for my nanny and personal trainer to show up.)  And that Hollywood pressure trickles down to us regular women: to look like a hard labour was effortless for Facebook photos and then be back in jeans two weeks later.  I still looked pregnant following the births of my two babies (BECAUSE WE ALL DO) and then my body took most of that uniquely feminine fat and made it into some pretty sweet milk (literally).  I've lost the pregnancy weight but I still tell the secrets of growing babies -  stretch marks and lactating breasts, soft skin around my tummy always, my arms now more defined with a baby generally on my hip.  I have more freckles now and my hair is darker.   Wouldn't it be great to see more real life post-baby bodies where we can affirm and celebrate the miracles that have happened?  Wouldn't it be awesome if at a baby shower all the moms who have given birth got (at least semi-) naked and showed off their pregnancy badges?  We'd probably grow more realistic expectations for ourselves.

I have found people quick to compliment my shedding of weight.  I appreciate that but I really didn't do anything to make it happen other than breastfeed my kids and sometimes take them on walks and try to eat fairly healthy (although I'm known to pick up a double cheeseburger every week or so).  What is so much more meaningful is when someone says "Wow, I see how hard you work for your kids."  The mothering is something I have much more control of and exhaust myself over (don't we all?) and when someone does encourage me in that way it makes my whole day lighter.  What kinds of compliments do I give to other women?  Does it focus primarily on hair, body and clothes?  Or do I call out the kindness I see, the confidence and truth and grace evident in their lives?  

Since reading "The Beauty Myth" I've paid close attention to the words I think about myself and others.  Thoughts can come but I don't have to take ownership of them.  The need to compare myself to others is fairly ingrained in me and I am working hard to stop that.  When that begins to happen I've decided to look at each of the women at the park or in the room, to really look at their body and then say to myself, "This is what the body of a beautiful woman looks like."  Can we all be the beautiful one?  YES YES YES!!!  I'm stepping out from under the power of the beauty caste system because within those strangling confines we all suffer and we all lose.

I want to also be very cautious about what I spend my time viewing.  Whether it's ads in a magazine or style pinboards, if it's making me feel bad about my life then I stop looking.  I'm not a Pinterest user and I know it's a great resource and organizational tool for people (who, unlike me, like to be resourced and organized) but recently I was checking out a few style boards and afterwards I told Chris, "Wow.  I feel crappy right now."  He noted that I hadn't talked like that in a long time.  Media is powerful and we need to be aware of our weaknesses.  Use it for all the good that it can do in your life and the world but we needn't subject ourselves to even subtle discouragement about the way we look, how we decorate our homes or what crafts our kids make/destroy.  [By the way, did you watch The Sapphires?  Wasn't it great to see four talented, beautiful women in the lead roles who looked very different than most of the women we see in movies?  So good.]

So maybe I won't head to South Sudan anytime soon but I'm going to keep fighting The Beauty Myth right here, for myself, my friends and the children in my life.  Sometimes that means making complaints at the mall, signing off from social media, or using it to sign petitions, going deeper in conversation than I'm naturally comfortable with or calling out the lasting beauty that I see in the women around me.  We are free from the powers of Beauty Myth, they've been found out to be lies.  And the more we learn to love our own real life bodies, just as they are, the more we will be free to love the real life bodies of our neighbours and people 'round the other side of the earth.

Barbara Brown Taylor, who talks about praying naked in front of a full length mirror says it beautifully in "An Altar in Our World",
"The first thing I understood was that it was not possible to trust that God loved all of me, including my body, without also trusting that God loved all bodies everywhere.  God loved the bodies of hungry children and indentured women along with the bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking tycoons.  While we might not have one other thing in common, we all wore skin.  We all had breath and beating hearts....Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls.  It is what we most have in common with each other."
And if there's anything the world needs right now I think it's to realize how very much we have in common with each other.


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How do you feel the media affects your view of your body?  If you've given birth, did you feel pressure to lose the weight and hide any traces of that miraculous process as quickly as possible?  Do you know of any shows or movies that portray women in realistic and empowering ways?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Beauty Myth (and Why I'm not Buying it Anymore)

There was the moment I stepped on a scale when I was ten and saw that I weighed 92 pounds.  I didn't even know what that meant but it was too much.  There were the half-naked bikini models on glossy paper, common decor of boys' school lockers visible to me when I was twelve and everyday after that.  Or hiding in the library pouring over Seventeen magazine, trying to figure out how to be pretty and what sexuality was all about.  Exercising to punish my body for what I'd ingested the day before, weeks of eating very few carbs and letting numbers determine my value. Being sexually harassed while waiting tables at a family diner when I was 22 and always blaming myself, never speaking up.  Hating my body and being terrified of nakedness when I should have been over the moon with soon to be married bliss.


I just read "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf and all these memories have been coming up, I've scribbled them into the margins of my thrift shop purchase.  I don't agree with all of her conclusions but something has been torn open in my mind, some paradigm is shifting, some hope is being sparked.  I was raised with a good amount of self-esteem for a girl growing up in small town America, attending a public school.  I made pretty good choices, did well in academics and sports, got a four year degree from a liberal arts college and have traveled to a few amazing places.  At 25 I met a boy and married him when I was 27; I have two children and my husband sees me as his equal in all ways.  I have a community of people, across oceans and down the street, who love and care for me.  I'm a privileged person and a confident, passionate, "liberated" woman.  I wrote a love letter to my body which is one of my most widely read postsAnd yet I am astounded by how I still have lived under the power of the Beauty Myth.

The premise of Wolf's book is that the more women break through historical hindrances, whether that be legal or material (the right to vote, the right to work outside of the home, positions of leadership) the more images of female beauty are used to constrict and control them.  She writes this in 1990, when I was only a child, but I think many of these problems have only gotten worse:
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical speciality.  During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American woman told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal.  More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. (10)  
Are most women individually neurotic and insecure about their bodies?  Or is there a greater force at work that seeks to undermine women collectively, a violent backlash against the corporate power of women to bring change in the world?

Wolf points to advertisers as the biggest players in determining what women think about themselves, because our economy is fairly dependent on their buying power.  In the 1950s the "Feminine Mystique" told women that their value was in being a good wife, good mother and good homemaker and then sold them home products to help them achieve that mythical status.  When women left homemaking for the workplace in the 60s, a new force was needed to compel 'insecure consumerism':  if women were no longer buying more things for their house, could they be convinced to buy more things for their body? "Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring "beauties." ... The Beauty Myth, in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women's revolution."(66)

Women's magazines that often featured pro-women content and had the potential to unite women for a common cause would lose large amounts of money from advertisers if they didn't also propogate the mythical ideal woman.  The focus on beauty in magazines is primarily an economic one, where "what editors are obliged to appear to say that men want from women is actually what their advertisers want from women."(73)  Wolf goes on to say that it's not sex that sells in advertising as much as discontentmentThe more dissatisfied a woman is with her body or her sexuality, the more estranged she is in relationships, the more stuff she will buy.  Hello, retail therapy?  It's a real thing and much more insidious than we think.

Wolf's chapter entitled "Sex" is fascinating.  I underlined about half of it and then read it all out loud to my husband.  The images of women that we see in, what Wolf calls, "beauty pornography" shapes our understandings (and mostly lack of understanding) of women's bodies.  It's relatively new for our culture to believe that beauty = thinness; impossible perfection = sexuality/sexiness.  Women are told that losing weight will make them feel sexier but it often has the reverse effect.  A healthy amount of fat is a female characteristic contributing to stable hormones, fertility and sexual desire; becoming thinner through hunger and dieting can decrease a woman's libido, especially when the motivation is self-deprecation, something never satisfied no matter what the scale reads.

We agree that violent pornography and violence against women in the media has devastating affects on how we understand sex, rape and our own self-worth as humans, increasing violence and abuse in our families and relationships.  But what about images of naked or near naked women who are not having any harm done to them?  Why does this bother us so much?  Wolf writes,
For the woman who cannot locate in her worldview a reasonable objection to images of naked, "beautiful" women to whom nothing bad is visibly being done, what is it that can explain the damage she feels within?  Her silence itself comes from the myth: If women feel ugly, it is our fault, and we have no inalienable right to feel sexually beautiful.  A woman must not admit it if she objects to beauty pornography because it strikes to the root of her sexuality by making her feel sexually unlovely. (148)
"Beauty pornography", the stuff we see daily in magazines, billboards and posters in the mall, makes women feel inadequate.  We will never look like her and therefore we will never reach the mythical status of 'beautiful'.  The objectification and comparison of women's bodies publicly is such a normal part of our culture (while it is very different for male bodies) that we are trained as little girls to do this to ourselves.  Women are asked to measure up to a hybrid ideal that, especially today, is computer generated (but we are convinced is real and possible even when we know better).  The Beauty Myth operates in a way that says, "You too can be beautiful like her if you just wear this, eat this, put this on your face, have your hair coloured like this; if you are not like her it is your own fault."  But models portrayed in beauty pornography will never look like real women because if they did then we would realize we don't need to buy the stuff they're paid to sell.

This public and private comparison robs women of their own innate dignity and it robs women in relationships from receiving love from their partners.  Early in our marriage I really struggled with the fact that I didn't suddenly feel beautiful and attractive all the time.  I blamed Chris because if he would just say it more or say it in public or say it at the right moments, when my eyes are asking him what he thinks, THEN I would finally know that I was beautiful.  We had quite a few arguments rooted in this and it was painful to feel forced to say "I want to know that you think I'm beautiful".   It quickly turned to anger because why in the world did I so badly want him to judge me at all?  Why wasn't this going both ways?  Why did he seem so secure that I loved him and didn't desire anyone else?  Why was I wanting to be measured and validated and he wasn't?

That's the power of the beauty myth.  It makes us be crazy and obsessive and fearful and competitive and it's not just our problem and it's not just "a mysterious hormonal woman thing"; it's a force that is trying to stop women from reaching their full potential.  The busier we are criticizing our bodies and measuring ourselves against other (real and not real) women, the more disengaged we will be in the world: we'll be less likely to speak up and take hold of  our rightful place in family, government, media, business and the church; we will be less likely to use our gifts and talents to seek justice and do mercy in the world.  We will keep buying the stuff they are selling.

What is the path out of the beauty myth?  Wolf closes her book with the question, "What will we see?" (291)  So much of the beauty myth's power will be broken as we challenge ourselves to see anew, to redefine beauty as something that all women carry, that is non-hierarchical and non-competitive.  We are enough and other women are too. We already are beautiful, we don't need to diet or get new clothes or cover up our acne or make love with the lights dim and we don't need to rank ourselves among other real or mythical women.  Wolf writes, "The 'beautiful' woman does not win under the myth; neither does anyone else... You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all.  The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her." (290)

Changing our habitual thought patterns takes time, maybe it takes years, but we must do it for our own selves and our communities but also for our daughters and sons.  Sarah Bessey wrote over two years ago, "In which I promise not to call myself fat" and it's really resonated with me now that my children are growing and listening and telling our family's story with their own words.  It may be a struggle throughout my whole life but I have so much hope that the next generation will have eyes to see what is truly there.




How has the Beauty Myth affected your view of yourself or other women?  Does any of this resonate with you? What have you done to walk out of the beauty myth's power? As always I would love to hear your thoughts!

  *(thanks for the pictures, Spiro)

Read Part 2 here: Breaking the Beauty Myth (with 16 Girls in a Turkish Bath)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

welcomed to the table (a lesson from Ramadan)

Have you ever experienced iftar, breaking the daily fast with friends during Ramadan, the month set aside for Muslims to fast, pray and focus on their families?  That's how we spent Saturday evening, in a park at sunset with hundreds of people, most of whom we didn't know.  The women sat together, babies in our laps and toddlers by our sides, waiting for the sun to dip down low so that we could fill hungry bellies with food, we waited together.  Dates first, fruits and juice, Arabic sweets, then a feast of saffron rice and lamb, a warm plate for hundreds of people.  The food kept coming, there was plenty for all.  I couldn't believe the number of women gathered and seated, a multitude of colours in skin and headscarves born from at least a dozen nations. 

My neighbour, who had invited us, was one of the hosts of the event.  My husband was passed along to a few different male hosts throughout the evening, was even asked if he was Lebanese, he was glad that I beg him not to shave.  My son swapped sides, occasionally joining the men when he wanted to be close to his dad.  The meal was interrupted only by prayer as people lined up, shoulder to shoulder, facing their holy city and whispering words to the God who spoke them into existence.

I was warmed by this community, even in the winter chill.  So many people, though different in culture and covering, even language and creed, still chose to break their fast in the presence of one another.  The women genuinely welcomed me and not just my personality and conversation but my body too was filled up with nourishing food.  My head was uncovered, my children noisy, my understandings of religious practices awkward and still I was welcomed to the table.

In ancient Bedouin hospitality codes, even your enemy should be given food and shelter if needed, for a number of days.  Sharing food and water in a desert climate is an act of vulnerability, a giving of oneself more than what most of the western world would deem necessary.  Having traveled to six Middle Eastern countries I know it's written on their hearts and cities, this way of welcome and surplus and "please, eat some more."  I will never out-give an Arab, and probably not a Muslim from any culture; that is why the surprising friendships in my neighourhood are such a gift, especially for me.

//

Can we come hungry to the table together to let our stomachs remind us our hearts' collective groan?  Can we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice together, crossing lines of religion and race?  Can we lay down the fear and violence that separates us and instead square ourselves to one another, face to face?  We must learn empathy and understanding on the road to peace, teaching our children that we all belong to God, are all innately bestowed with unsurpassable worth. 

We are all hungry for honest to goodness friendship, for acceptance at the table.  It's important to sit down with people who have experienced life differently than we have.  They might look different than us, might not speak our language well or know how we do things 'round these parts but as we reach out our hands in kindness we will be too busy caring for each other to hurt each other.  We must do this because things need to change.  Do it for Desmond Tutu, or Trayvon Martin, do it for Syria and Iraq or Los Angeles.  Do it because you need a friend and there's someone who needs a friend in you. 

Friendship is the first seeds of justice, a tree that will grow with healing shade for us all. 





“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings."

 Isaiah 58 6-12



 

Monday, July 8, 2013

The variables of miracles and other things I don't understand.

I love to hear stories of people being healed, of miracles happening.  I have a good friend who, after the birth of her first child, was diagnosed with a severe kidney disease requiring strong medication.  Always planning to have a large family she was told she could have only one more pregnancy.  She quickly became pregnant and gave birth to twin girls.  I love this story, it fills my heart with joy.  I'd call that a miracle. 

For every miraculous story of healing that I know first hand I also know someone who is in the painful place of grief, of longing, of waiting and trusting for change to come.  I have a friend who is in faith for her daughter's healing and it's a heartbreaking, life-giving gift to read her journey over the year since she received her diagnosis.  She writes courageously, so openly although I know there's so much more depth to the joy and pain than she publicly shares.  I've seen her change, I've seen her words change, I've seen her mama heart get ripped wide open and it's healing that way.  She is honest about her fears, her anger, the possibilities of loss in a world where bad things do happen, even to our people.  And somehow she always finds her way back to the goodness of God's character, to her hope in Jesus, to the promise of all things new. 

Greg Boyd, a pastor and theologian in the US, preached a sermon series on faith a good while ago that we watched with a group of friends.  He explored ideas about what faith is and what it is not.  He talked about the mythical 'faithometer' that we often think we need to have peaking at all times.  If you really have faith there will be no doubt in your heart, no questions, no talk of any other possibilities.  Any doubting or searching or grieving and the faithometer starts to plummet–quick let's think happy thoughts and get it back up!  This puts so much pressure on us and when healing isn't happening or change hasn't arrived, the fault is with us, isn't it?

Boyd talks about faith like covenant.  To be in faith isn't that we have our faithometer sky high at all times, it's about who we come back to.  It's a marriage covenant, God with God's people and we are faithful because we come back to Him.  The psalms give us permission (and mandate!) to be honest and open with ourselves and God and our community.  There is so much room for rage and anger, doubt and unbelief, for honestly about the disorientation we experience. But we keep coming back.  We allow God to, as Walter Brueggemmann writes, "surprisingly re-orientate us".  My marriage to Chris doesn't hinge on my feelings towards him at any given moment, it's based on the promise that I will keep coming back to him, and he will keep coming back to me.

I wrote about the variables of birth some months ago.  When childbirth goes well, people say we are amazing, we are strong, we must have handled the pain well.  Conversely, we blame ourselves and often experience great dissapointment when our births don't go as planned.  But the labour room ball is not completely in our court. As much as I believe education, prayer and positive thinking contribute to a natural birth, it's not all in our control.  That's frustrating and sometimes it's devastating depending on the outcome.  But that's reality.  

Variables, known in all their complexity to God, surround our desired outcomes for healing.  One of those variables the Bible speaks about is faith, and isn't that a mysterious thing?  Who of us can really understand it when Jesus talks of faith not as something we should be stockpiling but like the tiniest mustard seed, able to move trees or mountains.  It doesn't sound like it takes much faith at all, just the planting of it, just the space to receive it.   There are other variables:  there's prayer, free will, powers of darkness bent on destruction, there's the chaotic forces of gravity and nature and God's grace in the world.  And there's God's kingdom come, arriving like a screaming baby, always a surprise.  We live in the tension of the already and the not yet; we live in the reality of a long Holy Saturday, caught between death and, someday, all things new.

I believe God is always doing in every situation all that God can do With what I've understood to be in God's very character and nature I don't think God would hold back his love or healing or justice in the world.  Because God created beings with free will, creation (by nature) is not under God's micro-managerial control.  So sometimes God can't do because doing in a given situation would contradict the nature of God's creation, a world open to all the possibilities for Real Love, and so also open to all the possibilities for pain.  Our prayers are extremely important because they invite God into the domain he's released to us, to increasingly hold sway in bringing about his justice and joy-filled will on the earth.  There isn't a formula for prayers of 'faith' (ie. just say these three things and healing will happen).  There isn't a formula for an easy labour either, or a successful vaginal birth.  There are always many variables at play.

And yet, I do believe in miracles.  I just don't know why they happen when they do.

---

When my son was born, nearly three years ago, his birth went bad very quickly in the second stage of labour and it was too late for an emergency cesarean.  He was severely deprived of oxygen and when resuscitated (after 6 1/2 minutes) he was prepared to be transferred to a large hospital in Sydney two hours away.  When the team came to take him I was able to see him for a few minutes.  The first thing I was told was: "Congratulations.  You need to know that he may never be alright.  He's not moving one side of his body, his oxygen level was extremely low at birth ..."  His body was cooled with ice to slow his metabolism and hopefully stop the presumed brain damage from continuing.

I had my own complications and stayed the night alone in the hospital while my husband went with Safran to Sydney.  A good friend came to stay with me a few hours and I don't remember much of what we talked about, though my general feeling was, "If he's a baby his whole life, he's my baby.  At least he is alive."  I was scared too, but I had pretty much accepted our situation as much as one could in the shock of a few life changing hours (maybe a survival mechanism).  My midwife thought he would live but would be in hospital for weeks.


our son, an hour old


Friends in our local community had gathered to pray earnestly, having walked with me through this pregnancy.  Chris sent an email to our family and friends far away to please pray, at that point we really had no idea what would happen or how long we would be in the hospital.  I remember getting a message back from some very dear friends telling me they spent the evening praying for him, asking that every breath taken from him would be given back even more.  It meant a lot to me, I was not there at all, not praying, not crying, just stunned and so sad that he wasn't sleeping in my arms.

Chris was given a small room right off of the NICU and eventually left Saf to get a few hours of sleep.  He told me that he has never cried as hard as he did that night, never felt the darkness so palpable.

The next morning I was transferred to the bigger Sydney hospital.  I was able to hold Saf within the hour and then a few more hours and I tried to nurse him, thirty hours after his birth.  He looked so beautiful and so vulnerable.  I hated that my husband was telling me how he liked to hold onto your finger and have you hold the pacifier in his mouth while he shivered in the cold.  I hated that his one-on-one nurses seemed to know him better than I did.  And yet I was so grateful for the care he was getting, so glad to be in Australia and not in so many other parts of the world.

The first brain scan came back clear.  Fingers crossed, they said, maybe there wasn't going to be the brain damage they had suspected.   Another day and his body was allowed to be warmed back to a normal temperature.  I heard a nurse handing over his case to another a few days later, explaining his situation. She followed up his stats at birth with "bless his heart" and then said, "But he seems to have made a spontaneous recovery."  After five days we were home.

We saw the head pediatrician a month later.  She was surprised by how closely he watched her as she spoke.  We were told to keep an eye on his milestones and come back if we suspect anything, to be prepared even for some learning delays later on but she thought he was probably fine.

And three years later it seems like she was right.

our son, oct 2012


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I've never known what to do with his story, how to talk about it with people.  There was a baby right next to him on that first day in the NICU, a baby born under similar circumstances with a very low APGAR score as well, a baby on ice with new parents worried.  She was not picking up in the way that our son already was.  I think about them, their baby also nearly three now, if she survived.  I don't think my son was simply a "spontaneous recovery" but I don't know why exactly the goodness and healing of God's kingdom broke into our situation in those desperate moments.  Did God love my baby more?  Did God have more important plans for my child's life than for their child?  I don't believe either of those things to be true, but I am still grateful every day for my son's life and health.

There were many variables at work.  Saf was born after 40 weeks gestation, he was a good weight, he was a strong little guy.  The Australian healthcare system served us, quick and important decisions by my midwife and doctors brought life to my child.  There were spiritual variables that I can't name or understand, I believe there is a battle over every new life coming into the world.  I know that the prayers of my family and friends were a powerful force.  I didn't personally have any strong belief that he would be healed, but he was. 

For whatever reason, the variables were alligned in those moments and it had nothing to do with God's special love or preference for my family.  I understand there are a myriad of things that cause evil to happen, my struggle is more with why good things do.  I struggle with talk about God's "blessings" knowing that there are people who labour for years or lifetimes to see things made right and whole. 

Greg Boyd's own son is autistic and he shares openly about their journey of engaging with God in that reality.  I have two siblings with special needs and parents who labour over their lives with prayer and with everything they have.  I have experienced the devastation that comes when people actually die much too early, friends of mine and parents of friends and babies born too soon.  I read the blog of a mother who lost her four year old son to brain cancer.  I've met many women in the world who have lost children to diarrhea or babies to unsafe birthing practices.  I read the news enough to know that the general safety I experience is a luxury and children grow up under the threat of drones and missiles and soldiers.  The world sometimes is really, really messed up; some of that is nature and chaos and some of that is because of greed, militarism and violence.

I think faith is less about moments and more about our orientation.  Our faith's power is not in the amount but in the One whom we hold faith towards: Jesus, the Prince of Shalom, whose radically subversive teachings show us what God looks like.  He redefined power as servanthood and went all the way to the cross choosing love over violence.  God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and all he taught us, giving us a taste of the new creation that is to come.  One day he will return again and make all things new; there will be no more mourning or weeping or fear.

One of the first posts I published on this blog was something I wrote in 2007 while volunteering for six months at a hospital in India.  I can't describe the daily glory and devastation there, the new babies screaming and the mothers weeping; in some moments the kingdom came with newborn cries of deliverance and in others it was deafening silence, only God's weeping could be heard.  I wrote about it here. 

But it was then that I started to think about faith in a new way, when truth seemed to only come in the imagery of expectant bellies and the groaning of all creation as we wait, for our King to come for all.

I just finished reading through Luke and was once again stunned by Jesus--a little bit terrified, but wanting to follow.  Halfway through the story his disciples ask him to increase their faith.  They want more.  They want to see His kingdom come.  But Jesus is gentle and troubled and picks up a seed and tells them that this is all they need to see even a massive tree uprooted and planted into the sea.  Just a seed of faith. 
When a sperm and an egg meet in a woman's body, its the smallest moment with the most eternal implications.  And as soon as it happens, as soon as that seed is planted the woman's body begins to prepare for this seed to grow and after some months, to be born.
Jesus said we just need a seed of faith.  Maybe it's the kind of seed that, like the first cells of an eternal spirit, kicks us into action.  We need faith that changes us and that we give room to grow in our lives--and to take over no matter what disappointments we have experienced before.  Like a mustard seed grows into a bush that is massive and invasive; like a seed of life planted in a mother's womb changes her body and her heart forever.  Her body does everything it can to make fertile space for him. Eventually when he is born the mother's life is conquered by commitment to this newborn until the end of her life.  That is a seed of faith that will change the world.
I want to be a person of faith ready for that smallest seed to be planted in my heart, ready to welcome God's kingdom as it arrives among us–surprising and even violating laws of culture and superseding our known laws of physics.  I want to be faithful to my friends and family who wait in the darkness of longing, for healing, for pregnancy, for comfort, for resurrection.  I want to be faithful to the mystery of how it all works, confessing that I don't understand, but I do believe.  I believe that God is good, always, and is coming soon.  And until He comes, I believe in miracles.

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What are your thoughts on faith and miracles?  What has your experience been? I would love to hear.