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Joy in Creation

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By Claire Bischoff

My best friend growing up was not into the usual play date fare; no Barbie dolls or playing school for her. What she really loved was art, so when we knew she was coming over, my mom would let me pick out an art kit at the local toy store. A go-to favorite was a pin making kit. We would pour the clay into the molds the night before, so that when my friend arrived the next day we could get right to painting our new jewelry. Try as I might, my pin never turned out as cool as the box made it look like it should be.

Unfortunately, “try as I might, but never” became the refrain I associated with most of my arfile000276834555tistic endeavors. Try as I might, my coloring never looked as beautiful as my mother’s, who outlined each part of her picture with a firm bold stroke before coloring in the space in between in a gentler hue. Try as I might, my construction paper snowman was never as cute as the model the teacher had taped to the board for us to copy. While other students struggled with reading and multiplication tables, I inwardly stressed out about art class, since I could never make the product match the vision in my head. By the time I got to high school, I had given up on artistic creation completely, electing to take art history and art appreciation courses rather than studio arts to fulfill that portion of the graduation requirements.

Despite my own uneasiness with producing art, when I had my first son seven years ago, I anxiously awaited the moment he would be old enough to grasp a crayon or run his pudgy fingers through finger paint. This felt like a second chance to get good at art, and in my impatience to recapture (or maybe experience for the first time) a child-like joy at creating, I picked out projects that were wildly beyond his ability level and then felt frustrated and disappointed when they did not hold his attention for more than thirty seconds or when the final product was not aesthetically pleasing enough to hang on the fridge for all the world to see. Fortunately, I had wiser friends around me, and from them I learned some crucial lessons about doing art with children, namely, to follow my children’s lead in terms of their artistic interests and to focus on the process more so than the product.

It is with great joy that I have watched my two sons blossom into artistic creators as they have grown. This past weekend, as we were getting ready to leave a restaurant, my four-year old leaned over to ask if he might bring the discarded pull-tabs and drink coasters from our table home for an art project. Where most people would see material destined for the garbage, he envisioned a new pig he could make for the live-action Angry Birds game he plays constantly. With a piggy nose drawn on it and googly eyes glued in place, the coaster became the pigs’ face, and taped to the back of the coaster with green washi tape, the pull tabs became ears and a hat. With a huge smile of pride and satisfaction on his face, he emerged from the basement art room, saying, “Mom, look at what I made!”

When I see the joy that my sons take in making something new, I can better understand what it means to affirm God as Creator, not just at the beginning but as an ongoing force in the universe. Rather than being hemmed in by fear and uncertainly, as I was growing up, God (and my sons) create with excitement, with hope, with an eye toward possibility,  and out of the desire to see what might be and with the trust that what might be will be good because the Creator wills it to be good. Like my son gathering up the waste from our table and making something new, God nudges us to remember the parts of ourselves that we would rather forget and empowers us to use them to make the world new. God is present with us in the times of the deepest sorrow and biggest regret and finds a way to make something beautiful out of the tears and ashes, because that is what Creators do.

In an effile0001089343368fort to tap into the joy that comes with creation, last week I met a good friend at a craft store, and she helped me pick out yarn and needles. This weekend she is going to give me my first knitting lesson. It is my fervent prayer that I can learn from my sons, focus on the process of creating something with my hands rather than harshly judging the product as not quite good enough, and connect with the Creator who knit all of us together in our mother’s wombs and who continues to fashion us in Her image.

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You can’t outgrow hope

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by Annie Hardison-Moody

For a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking this week about hope. Key among those reasons is a piece that Monica Coleman posted on her beautiful mind blog, Ordinary Saints.  There, she writes about pregnancy loss and the trenches of grief that often surround us when we try to find hope or joy or life in the midst of loss.  It’s difficult (and feels, at times, impossible) to see life where you only know death.  But, she writes, there are saints among us who show us that hope is possible, even when we can’t find it.

With my colleague, Dara Bloom, I’m working on a project with the women’s committee at the Islamic Association of Raleigh (IAR). Maryam Funmilayo, a gifted and passionate nutrition educator, has been holding classes with immigrant and refugee women there through our Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More program (which I direct), to connect spiritual and physical health in an effort to help faith communities have access to healthier foods and physical activity.  Through that project, we learned that the women at the IAR wanted greater access to fruits and vegetables that they grew or ate in their home countries. We started out with Maryam offering tours at the local farmer’s market, but the project has evolved into working on a community and school garden, and doing some container garden workshops so that women can grow food from their home countries here in the U.S.  Dara and I have loved working with this group of women – when we show up on a Friday night for a meeting, the room is always filled with smiles, good food, hugs, and such care and concern for us.  The project has been a model, for me, of what academic and community partnerships should look like.

So you can imagine how we felt when we learned that the three students who were killed in Chapel Hill this week were members at the IAR, and they grew up going to the Al-Iman school, where we are working with Cooperative Extension to revitalize the garden.  The funeral was yesterday.  It was across the street from the school, the site where soon we hope to watch the garden come alive again.

Yesterday at the service, Monica’s post kept coming back to me.  Her words echoed as I saw them carry the three coffins away: “I want my babies back.”

I feel like all I write about on this blog is loss.  But it is so hard to talk about, and so I write, hoping that in doing so I can better understand grief.  But it’s incomprehensible.  I try to imagine what might be going through the minds of the parents of these young people – Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.  I hear Monica’s words again: “I want my babies back.”

The father of the two women who died, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, spoke at the funeral, encouraging all of us who were there to learn about Deah, Yusor, and Razan.  He urged us to learn about the example that they set for others in the world – the way they cared for their communities, the way they honored God with their works.

The hope they had for a better world, where does (did) it go?

Their former teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, spoke to NPR this week, to follow-up on the beautiful Story Corps piece she recorded with Yusor in 2014.  In it, Jabeen recalls their bright smiles, their caring hearts, and the hope that Yusor had for a world where we could show love instead of hate:

Jabeen remembers when Deah was growing up, he was getting so tall that he started to outgrow her.

“And because I’m a short person, he would stand behind me and put his hand over my head,” she said. “And I just told him, ‘Deah, you can never outgrow my heart.’ “

“You can never outgrow my heart.”  Is that hope?  If so, it’s still here, even if we can’t feel it right now.

 

 

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Life and Loss

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by Annie Hardison-Moody

October 15, 2014

the new babies 527_peWhen I found out I was pregnant after over a year of waiting for an adoption, coupled with seven previous miscarriages, I wasn’t very excited.  Instead, I was a nervous wreck.  When I started bleeding early on, I was sure this – like every other time – was the beginning of the end.  So at eight weeks pregnant, I dragged myself into the doctor’s office, eyes already red from crying, and sat down on the ultrasound table ready to hear the words we had heard so many times before, “Hm. The growth isn’t normal, and your bloodwork is inconclusive. Let’s bring you back again next week for more tests.” 

Instead, we heard a heartbeat.

For the first time in four years, a sign of life.

By the end of my appointment, the news about my story had spread throughout the doctor’s office (EIGHT pregnancies?!), so much so that even the woman who checked me out was offering me sweet words of encouragement and excitement. I was shocked. How did this happen? What would happen later? When, I wondered, would the other shoe drop?

As it turns out, the other shoe didn’t drop, but my experiences of loss did affect my pregnancy and delivery.  I didn’t allow anyone to buy Christmas gifts for the baby, because we were still shy of the end of the first trimester.  I didn’t allow our friends to host a shower until after 28 weeks (the so-called “safe zone”).  I put the word nursery in air quotation marks when I talked about converting my office to the baby’s room.  I often didn’t know how to be cheerful, when everyone around me was thrilled and so excited.  I worried.  A lot.

Loss was always at the edge of any joy I felt with this pregnancy.  My own losses, of course, were always present, but I also thought about dear friends who lost their children during pregnancy or in childbirth.  I felt, at times, like I was keeping my distance from this little one – so that if I couldn’t meet her at the end of this journey, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so badly.  What a foolish deception I was trying to pull.  

I met my sweet girl around 8pm, the night after my birthday, just three months ago last week.  As my husband brought her in to see me (I had a c-section, and she had to go to the nursery right away), I could barely see her through the haze of tears.  She was so tiny, just a little face peeking out of a giant bundle of blanket.  Because another woman lost her baby the same night, I was sent to the general recovery room without her, since the other family was (of course) recuperating in the birth center recovery room.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the other mother who came to the hospital just like me that day, only to leave without her little one.  I asked the nurses about her that night and the nights following (they, of course, couldn’t tell me much), and knowing about her loss made me constantly ask after my baby while I was in the recovery room, peppering the nurse with questions: “You would tell me if something happened with her, right?” Although the nurse assured me she would, I worried I was going to lose my girl – still.  A few minutes later, my husband started texting me pictures of her (thank goodness for technology! and come to think of it, how did I have my phone?) – screaming, red, and full of life.  

Life and loss, intermingled again that night at the hospital.  Is that what motherhood is, I wonder?  Or just being human?  As Judith Butler writes in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence:

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.

This seems so clearly the case with grief, but it can be so only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. One may want to, or manage to for a while, but despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.

That’s how I felt that night of my daughter’s birth – undone.  Undone by my worry about whether she (or I for that matter) would survive the delivery.  Undone by the love I felt for her, knowing the magnitude of this love and joy mirrored the pain that was felt by the woman who labored with me that night.  Undone by the love we felt from everyone around us who was rooting for this baby, and our family.  Undone by the recollection of previous losses and the knowledge that loss will come again (it’s life, right?).

The fact that we are undone makes us human.  These connections are what make motherhood both bearable and unbearable.  This undoing, although fraught with pain, is the stuff of life.

 

 

Advocating for Others, Ministering to Myself

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by Katey Zeh

scotuszeh11Ever since I moved away from Washington, D.C. nearly three years ago, I find myself in the midst of some strange weather event whenever I return. The day that I was scheduled to speak in front of the Supreme Court was no exception. Nearly a week after the official start of spring, our capitol city welcomed me with freezing temperatures and a heavy, wet snow, but the weather couldn’t put a damper on the rally, attended by hundreds of advocates defending access to contraception under the Affordable Care Act. As I spoke from the podium about my faith and my commitment to advocating for contraception access, the crowd whooped and hollered at all the right moments. It was a true highlight of my advocacy career.

What I wanted to say at the rally but felt like I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) was that I was ten weeks pregnant—and that thanks to my access to contraception, my husband and I had been able to plan our pregnancy. I can’t even imagine what the response would have been! But the idea of displaying that much vulnerability was too much. I wasn’t ready to make my pregnancy quite so public.

Therein lies the tension of my life as an advocate. Where does the self fit into advocating for others?

For the last four years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for global maternal health and universal access to contraception from a faith-based perspective. As a woman of childbearing age but with no experience of pregnancy up until this year, I could relate to the need for contraceptive care, but the world of safe motherhood was another story. I leaned on others—biblical mothers like Rachel and Mary, advocates from Kenya and Sierra Leone, statisticians with solid facts—to fill in my perceived gaps. Finding out I was pregnant abruptly shifted my perspective on the work I was doing because I could start to weave my own experience into the tapestry of stories of women past, present, and future. But I struggled over when would I make that apparent to the outside world.

Would I ever feel ready for this work to become more intimate and personal than it already was? I felt my call to advocacy when I was in seminary and saw how few faith voices there were in the world that affirmed the dignity of women and girls. God broke my heart through the stories of women’s suffering and pieced it back together with the hope that I could partner with the divine in creating a more just world.

Each day I approach my work as a holy practice, as ministry. The times when I feel most connected to the church have not been during traditional worship, but rather in the midst of teaching and learning with fellow advocates who share my commitment to the least of these. With these brothers and sisters I have experienced the beloved community I always longed for. I pour myself into the work and do so gladly. But soon after I become pregnant, I realized that suddenly, I was no longer in a position to give in the same way. In fact, I was the one who was in need of ministry.

Truthfully, the first trimester of pregnancy was anything but a spiritually deep time. I spent most of it tending to what felt like an unrelenting case of the flu—nausea, debilitating fatigue, and dizzy spills. I hardly had the energy to shower, much less engage in thoughtful theological reflection about maternal health or brainstorm new advocacy strategies for my project. I resented how my days had been reduced to just getting by until I could crawl into bed again. What was worse than the physical discomfort was how miserable I felt about my lack of productivity. My self-esteem took a massive hit when I realized I could not push through the pregnancy fatigue and had to put nearly everything in my life on the back burner. Worst of all, I was suffering internally and not allowing others in to provide the support I needed.

As I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court, nausea and fatigue in full swing, I somehow mustered up the energy to advocate for the millions of women whose access to health care was at stake. Suddenly it hit me—I wasn’t just advocating for other women; I was advocating for me! I had to ask myself, why is self-advocacy so difficult for me personally? How can I speak passionately about the need for others to experience health, abundant life, and well being when at the same time, I have trouble listening to my own needs for the very same things?

For me pregnancy has been an exercise of constantly letting go of any semblance of control I thought I had. I’ve had to learn and re-learn daily how to turn inward in order to listen to my body, mind, and spirit without resistance. Sometimes it’s about stepping aside to let others lead in my place, canceling speaking engagements, or taking longer to finish writing pieces (like this one). But, I am learning that this is part of self-care. Learning to advocate for myself is part of my ministry.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, and Feminist Studies in Religion. Her essay “A Pregnant Silence” was published last year in the book Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. She was recently named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with her husband Matt and their dog Lucy.  

Not Just An Other Mother, A Guest Post By Kate Lassiter, Ph.D.

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by Kate Lassiter

I started to feel the white hot flames coming off the top of my head as I read Abby Rosmarin’s article thanking women who choose not to have children and the comments from friends on Facebook who lauded this post for its forthrightness and thanked their own friends—me, I assume—for not having children.  Rosmarin writes, “To the women who choose not to have kids, I have one thing to say: thank you….Thank you for recognizing that childrearing isn’t for you and being true to who you are. It doesn’t mean you hate kids. It just means that raising one is not part of your path in life.”

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While the sentiment came from a place of gratitude on Rosmarin’s part, the academic in me wanted to cite the numerous reasons that many women do not have children, whether their own or adopted. I wanted to ask why the conversation centered only on women having children and not larger social issues of equity between partners, or support of single women having children.  Most of all, I wanted Rosmarin to carefully define how she understands the word ‘choose.’

I have never been pregnant or subsequently given birth vaginally or by Caesarian, but I have been a mom.  My sister lived in South America during the time of my niece’s conception and birth.  I flew down within that first month of her birth and stayed with them for 2 months.  As they returned to the United States, they came to live with me during the year that I was finishing my dissertation and applying for teaching jobs.  From the outside, it is easy for me to see how this makes me an “other mother” in the eyes of many—or no mother at all.  But I saw myself as a mom to my niece.  I held her when she cried in the middle of the night and made decisions that were in the best interest of all of us, not just me alone.  I watched and taught how to roll onto her stomach, crawl, eat solids, play with sundry toys, and walk.

Rosmarin’s article falsely assumes that a woman without child equals choice to not raise children.  Choice, however, is a delimiting concept.  As a theologian, being true to who I am has nothing to do with whether I have chosen to have children or not.  I think here about all the abbesses—mothers—in Roman Catholicism, the tradition I know best.  Abbesses mothered small children and adult children in multiple contexts—physical, emotional, and spiritual.  Some of their children were only with them for a brief period of time; some, much longer.

For me, I became a mom for a brief and intense time during my niece’s first year of life; I continue to be part of her life in a mother-like role, as my voicemail attests when I miss a call where she announces that she’s gone “pee pee in the potty.”  Raising a child is not just childrearing and it is not always a free choice.  Like many choices that we assume to be free choice, but are actually constrained, becoming a mother is a constrained choice, and sometimes made under less than ideal conditions.  Still, constrained choices do not lack the capacity for incredible personal spiritual growth.  Perhaps we could even say that the constraint makes possible the conditions for that growth.  I may not have freely chosen to become a mom, but it changed me in a way that revealed to me more of who I am, not less.  That’s something that all theologians, ministers, and faithful people should consider when we ask a woman if she is a mom.

Dr. Lassiter is an assistant professor in Religious and Pastoral Studies at the College of Mount St. Joseph.  She graduated from Vanderbilt University with her Ph.D. in Religion and from the University of Dayton with her M.A. in Theology.  Her primary research and teaching interests lie in the critical investigation of theological practices of ministry and faith, formation of the self, and advancement of social justice with marginalized and excluded persons.

Countering Consumerism

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by Elizabeth Gandolfo

Consumerism has been a topic of great concern in my teaching, research and parenting practices over the course of the Fall, and especially now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us.  (I actually had to tear myself away from shopping on Amazon to write this post!)  I am currently teaching a course on Religion and the Environment, which culminates this week with an exploration of religious resources for subverting the culture of overconsumption that is destroying not only the planet, but also human bodies and spirits.   This culture, which has been manufactured to meet the profit motives of market capitalism, consumes its subjects with dissatisfaction, anxiety, and insatiable desire.  It cannibalizes the lives of other human beings who pay the price (in low wages, poor working conditions, environmental injustice, etc.) for privileged communities’ access to cheap and convenient consumer goods.  And it devours the planetary ecosystems and atmospheric conditions on which our lives and well-being depend.  In her most recent book, Blessed Are the Consumers, Sallie McFague argues that “we are living in la-la land, a place that has no relationship to the finitude of our actual home, planet earth.  We are living beyond our means, both financially and ecologically.  We are consuming with an insatiable, and unsustainable, appetite” (18).  If we are to face this reality honestly and create a world in which other human beings and the planet as a whole can survive and thrive, posits McFague, then we the relentless over-consumers of the Global North must practice restraint in our personal and public consumptive practices and learn to share the world’s limited resources fairly.  It is in this process of kenosis, or compassionate self-emptying, that we might overcome the dissatisfaction and anxiety of consumer culture and find true self-fulfillment.  As a Christian theologian with liberationist, feminist, and ecological commitments to justice and sustainability, I couldn’t agree with McFague more.  As a suburban, middle-class mother of three young children, I am struggling with how to incorporate the practice of consumer kenosis into my family’s everyday life.

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Over the past half-century or so, middle-class parents in the United States have become excessively anxious about the health, safety, comfort, and future academic, social and professional success of our offspring.  In an attempt to protect, enrich, and entertain our children, we implicate ourselves in whole markets of vastly unjust and unnecessary systems of production and consumption that exploit other human beings and contribute to ecological destruction.  Most middle-class parents like myself are a long way from even imagining a world in which the material comfort and entertainment of our own children are relativized, let alone sacrificed, for the sake of children across the world and the health of the planet as a whole.  Parenting, it turns out, poses a unique and troubling obstacle to the kenosis of consumer culture.

I have found that my gendered role as a mother also plays into this challenge in very unsettling ways.  Since I have made the choice to stay at home to care for my young children, I am responsible for acquiring, organizing, storing, cleaning up, throwing out and giving away most of the consumer goods that enter our household.  When I first became pregnant, I found it surprisingly easy to get sucked into the massive and manipulative marketplace of baby registries, birthing balls, bella bands, nursing nightgowns, and parenting books.  After the birth of our first child, my husband and I began to accumulate (by choice and by chance, and mostly under my maternal direction) inordinate amounts of ‘stuff’: baby equipment, clothing, stuffed animals, toys, books, DVDs, arts and craft supplies, play dough, and much much more.   Even when we don’t do the shopping, it all just keeps coming as gifts, hand-me-downs, preschool-made crafts, and so on.  Rather than spending quality time with my children, I dedicate precious hours of each day to the frustrating and spiritually deadening task of maintaining all of their stuff.  When and how will it end!?

My acute academic awareness of social location tells me that I should tag this post #firstworldproblems.  Obviously my life is not threatened by the mountains of consumer goods that overcrowd our home.  But this is part of the whole point—however exhausting and spiritually deadening I find it to keep up with my family’s consumer lifestyle, it is not my well-being or that of my family that is most urgently at stake here.  Rather, it is the life of the planet and the well-being of human communities all over the world that suffer the adverse economic, social, cultural and ecological effects of our culture’s chronic problem with “affluenza.”

As Christmas approaches, I am finding it immensely difficult to restrain (and re-train) my consumer desires vis-à-vis my children.  I know what I should do—I  should go delete all (or at least most!) of the items I just placed in my Amazon shopping cart in the 15 minutes prior to writing this post.  I should spend time studying and implementing some of the counter-consumerist resources offered through organizations like Center for a New American Dream (which sponsors a “Simplify the Holidays” page) and Advent Conspiracy.  I should take the time to purge my household of at least half of our stuff (as suggested by Kim John Payne in Simplicity Parenting).

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And, finally, I should take a spiritual step back from the frenzy and contemplate, really contemplate, what it means that the infinite power of Divine Love became human flesh in the womb of a peasant woman, was born in a cold stall in the occupied territory of ancient Palestine, and was laid in a manger far from his parents’ home, all for the sake of compassionate solidarity with a suffering world.  I suspect that all the practical tips in the world will not help me to counter consumerism without the practical transformation that can come from this (or some other form of) liberating contemplative practice.

Do you hope to counter your own complicity in consumer culture this Christmas?  If so, what helps you to restrain your consumerist desires and how do you find the freedom to focus your time, energy, and resources on what really matters?