Holy Three in One: Womanhood, Motherhood, and Priesthood

I’ll never forget the look on Patty’s face. What stays with me over a decade later is how embarrassed she looked. Was she embarrassed on my behalf?

Yes, I was her pastor. Yes, I was in my church office on a Sunday morning after preaching and leading worship. Yes, my office door was propped open. Yes, I was nursing my baby.

That’s when Patty walked right to the entrance of my office and stood in the doorway with something to tell me.

As I sat on the black leather loveseat nursing my baby, Patty excitedly began telling me about her sister-in-law’s pacemaker procedure. “You know, they didn’t even tell Silvia when she would be able to get back to water aerobics,” she exclaimed.

Then suddenly Patty stopped talking. Her hands, once energetically moving up and down with her jeweled bracelets catching the morning light, fell to the side of her pleated floral skirt.

Patty’s mouth froze in an oval shape, her bright red lips rounded like a plastic red capital letter “O” refrigerator magnet.

Patty gasped and said, “Oh my God! I am so sorry Pastor Sarah.”

What was she sorry for? Patty was a mother and grandmother. She said, “I didn’t see the baby there! I didn’t know what you were doing. I’m so embarrassed. I’m so sorry Pastor Sarah.”

Patty quickly spun around on her red high heels and clicked back down the hallway.

During my son’s first year of life, he came with me to work all of the time. Sunday mornings and weekday evenings the baby came with me so he could nurse. Pumping breast milk never worked for me. Being a pastor allowed me extra grace to work with my baby swaddled next to my body. He came with me to the office until he started walking.

At church council meetings, I remember moving my chair so my baby and I could sit off to the side. I was prepared to nurse my baby during the meeting. I wasn’t going to miss out on discussing the budget or planning the fundraising dinner.

During the council meeting when my baby woke up hungry, I fed him. I didn’t want to nurse him right there at the meeting table, although I could have. I felt more comfortable putting a little space between my body, my baby’s body, and the church’s elected leaders of Christ’s body. I wasn’t ashamed to be a breastfeeding pastor.

I never once thought that in order to mother I needed to stop pastoring. I knew I could both nurse my baby and oversee a church council meeting at the same time.

As a girl, I’d seen another woman do it before. I’d seen another woman standing at the altar administering the Lord’s Supper, her swollen belly filled with the life of her second child. Her body taken over, her body given over with the intimate knowledge of our Lord’s broken body and blood poured out. I’d seen a church pastor embody womanhood, embody motherhood, and embody God’s love all at once.

As a woman, my body was not broken by motherhood, but given over to it. As a woman, my blood was poured out for new life. To give birth to a baby is to embody and join with God’s new creation.

I was the first woman pastor of the church who was young enough to experience within my pastorate, starting at age 28, both holy matrimony and childbirth. I experienced a honeymoon, maternity leave, and a sabbatical with this church. My son was baptized with and by these good people. They showed me it is possible for the church to embrace the holy trinity of womanhood, motherhood, and priesthood.

During my pregnancy, as my feet began to swell, the church leaders (all women) said, “Why don’t you put your feet up? Why don’t you work more from home?”

As my belly began to swell they said, “Here’s a casserole and a pie for later. Let’s give Pastor Sarah a baby shower.”

I still have half a dozen hand quilted baby blankets the women of the church gave to me, smelling like rose water and lilacs. I have the little silver cup with my son’s name engraved in cursive sitting on my dresser. I have the silver baby spoon resting on my closet shelf. At her best, the church showered me and my family with affirmation, support, and love.

Despite the challenges of patriarchy and sexism in church systems, being a woman, a mother, and a pastor is a sacred gift. The moments when I nursed my child are among the holiest moments I’ve come to know. Breastfeeding, too, is an experience of sacrament, an embodiment of God’s divine presence breaking into ordinary time.

My body is no longer needed to produce milk for my child. Over time, the journey of motherhood is one of discovery, finding meaningful ways to produce comfort for our children at every stage of development. Mothering, like pastoring, is a journey of opening oneself to love.

As I continue on this journey of womanhood, motherhood, and priesthood, I follow the way of the mothering God. In quiet moments I find myself seeking Her wisdom, Her counsel, and Her encouragement.

Like a child, I want to climb up into Her broad and soft lap. I want to come close to Her. I want to make my home in God’s mothering heart.

Held in the arms of our mothering God, I receive the blessing of the too often unspoken sacred gift of the three in one: womanhood, motherhood, and priesthood.

Yes, I am a daughter of God. Yes, I am my child’s mother. Yes, I am a mother to the church.

Yes, I am three in one.

*****

This post is part of the book launch blog tour for Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God. Embodied includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to instigate conversations that lead to support and new perspectives. The book is available this September.

The Good News About Online School

This school year begins like no other in human history. It is August of 2020, and in the United States students are going back to school amidst a global pandemic. My child starts fifth grade on Monday as part of the Indianapolis public school district going 100% online. Thankfully, we are a 1:1 district where every student gets a digital learning device and internet assistance.

At home today we opened the brown cardboard box containing the school issued brand-new chrome laptop computer. I assembled the device, hooking up the power cord and plugged this school year into the outlet in the wall. The laptop is pristine, no finger prints, no sticky jelly spots, no dust. I set the laptop on the table ready for my child to power it up, log on, and connect to the internet.

Instead of walking down the school hallway, he walks to the table and starts tapping on the keyboard. Everything works. We are ready for Monday. It’s still summer break, so I put the laptop away in a storage space right next to our DVD library, plastic cases filled with children’s movies, stories of adventure, freedom and heroism long forgotten.

My fifth grader is the first generation in my family to have a laptop before adulthood. My first laptop came with my first full-time job after graduate school. Growing up poor as the youngest of five children with a single parent earning a public school teacher’s salary meant we were left behind and fell into the cracks of the digital divide. I remember long nights in the undergraduate computer lab, with the buzzing fluorescent lights, humming computers, and the stench of the stale air. Like survivalists stuck on a deserted island, we had no water, no food, no showers, and lived in the same clothes until we got the paper finished. Yet this island had no sunshine and no tropical breezes. It was pretty depressing. Part of the motivation for getting the paper done was the thought of liberation and being free from the computer lab.

My partner also grew up poor, raised by a single parent. He got his first laptop after we were married. Our marriage counselor gave him an old, used laptop to help get my partner’s graphic design business off the ground. When we became parents, we chose to go low-tech and tried to limit our child’s screen time. It wasn’t until third grade that he started using my iPad.

During the early weeks of the pandemic when schools closed in March to in-person learning, we bought our fourth grader his first device, an iPad and he used the iPad for school everyday. We could afford to buy one, but what if we could not afford one?

One thing I want to remember about the pandemic of 2020, is how for some families, it propelled us towards closing the digital divide. One thing we got right during this pandemic in the 2020-2021 school year is equipping students with home learning devices. I am convinced that being fluent in their use will be a key factor in future success.

When we were considering private schools, we toured some of the best in the city. I’ll never forget my surprise walking through the school and seeing classroom after classroom where students were hunched over laptops or sitting in hallways with laptops on their laps. Prime hours of learning and education happening digitally inside the school building with other students and teachers present. It makes me wonder if we were heading in this direction all along. Let’s not pretend that online learning is new or even that disruptive. Why were private schools embracing this pedagogy years ago? In fact, what might be disturbing the status quo is that now everyone has access to what previously only was available to the elite.

As a mom, what I know is that kids in my child’s school are getting laptops and internet at home for the first time. Nobody wanted this pandemic and it can still go to hell. Yet one good thing to come from this disaster is a form of digital liberation and justice.

I know I’m not the only mom who felt pride in opening the brown cardboard box, and while removing the sleek laptop hoped, “for my child, things will be better.”

A Father’s Day Love Story

This is not an ordinary love story. We begin with death. My father is dead. He died homeless and disabled.

At first, my father’s death brought me comfort because his life made me uncomfortable. Months before his death, I traveled to the heart of Jerusalem and prayed for my father to find peace. I wanted God to bring an end to the psychological and physical suffering that haunted my father.

Selfishly, this prayer meant to save me, not him. To have a haunted father was to be a haunted daughter. I grew-up in the shadows of this peculiar haunting; every Father’s Day a manifestation of what never was and never could be.

One of the greatest hauntings happened at Denny’s. I met my father for lunch. Over greasy platters of food we discussed grandiose plans and plots of world domination. My father’s mania drove the conversation far away from ordinary life. Abruptly, he requested I serve him Holy Communion.

Angrily, I refused. This love story was not going well. God’s love comes to us in the breaking and sharing of bread. The pouring and sharing of the cup. Forgiveness of sin and new life. Yet, at that moment in time, the haunting is all I knew. God didn’t seem to care what happened at Denny’s.

My hatred of mental illness and its destruction of my family won out. I could not share this bread and cup with my father. The pain, anger and hatred were too great. I disappeared from the table. I shrunk back from this love. I denied him.

As time moves the living forward and leaves the dead behind, I think about this moment in time. Now I wonder, can you serve communion to the dead? Father, who art in heaven, will you share this bread with me? Will you take this cup from me?

Then, after twelve Father’s Days as a fatherless orphan, something happens. Last Friday night during an online church small group who read my book Blessed Are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church, the question comes. “What about the time when your father asked you for communion. Would you do anything differently if you could?” The question reawakens the haunting. Could the love story be saved after all?

I tell them the truth, which is the only way I know how to heal. “I was filled with anger. I resented his mental illness. I did not have compassion. I didn’t know then what I know now.”

My father’s symptoms of mental illness haunted his own knowing. His brain disorder didn’t allow him to acknowledge his own illness, preventing him from cooperating with treatment options. My father chose to believe in himself instead of believing in the mental illness. Now I understand this was the only choice he had.

“If I could do it all over, I would give him communion.” As I tell this small group of faithful followers of Jesus about my regret, I realize my heart is changed. The denial is gone. Instead there is repentance.

This is a love story about mental illness. When we are haunted it is hard to love. Yet sometimes the haunting is lifted and the shadows clear away just long enough for healing to deepen.

A question is asked. A chance at redemption. Would you show your father love if you could?

Yes. The answer is a million times yes. And in this deep desire and longing for unity with my father, an intimacy and closeness never known in this lifetime, there is holy communion.

In the dream of a second chance at breaking and sharing, I discover my father’s love. Life is broken and given for me. I take and eat of it. My father’s love is poured out. I take a drink of it.

In this holy communion, I am freed from the haunting. This is my Father’s Day love story.