Book News!

I have been sitting on some news for a while now, and I am so jazzed to be finally going public.


Short version: I am writing a book for InterVarsity Press! The tentative title is Blessed are the Agnostics: My Life with Nuns and Nones.

Long version: The story goes like this: Josh and I bought a house in a new part of Minneapolis in August, we stumbled into a monastery of urban nuns while trick-or-treating with our kids in October, and the phrase "spiritual singleness" dropped into my brain (by the Holy Spirit?) while on retreat in November. This phrase was an epiphany of sorts and got me thinking about the nuns (who are a few blocks away), who embrace singleness, and my own struggle to connect with God after Josh left Christianity. Could I learn about spiritual singleness from them, even though I am a thoroughly Protestant married woman with small children? In December, I joined a group of lay people who gather monthly to learn more about the spirituality of the monastic order (Salesian spirituality) and to partner with the Sisters in ministry.

This book, then, will be a spiritual memoir about my journey with the Sisters and the weird, wonderful world of Catholic saints. It's also a story about my interfaith marriage and how Josh and I are working through the particular challenges of a Christian-to-None union. I hope it speaks to all religious seekers, whether doubters, Christian, nuns, or nones.

I am thrilled to be working with the good folks at InterVarsity Press and will be spending the next year writing and journeying with the Sisters. Publishing is a long process, so it will be two years before you can pick up a copy to read. In the meantime, I will be sending out a more regular newsletter as I work on the book (if you aren't already signed up, you can do so here). Thanks for following along on this journey! 

How a 400-Year-Old Prayer is Changing My Life

I am typing at my kitchen table in the house my husband and I bought just over a week ago. We're still in Minneapolis, but in a new part of town that makes it feel like an entirely different city. There are moving boxes piled high in our living room, my eldest's kindergarten (whaat!? she was born yesterday I swear) backpack lies slumped in a corner, and I am downing lukewarm coffee to make it through this late summer afternoon. It has been a whirlwind of transition and that is why I am only now posting about the Examen, that 400-year-old prayer that is changing my life, which I wrote about this month for Off the Page in my latest Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices column. It starts like this:


"When I was growing up, my family took a summer road trip out west. My parents, who were former experiential educators, always made good use of each “teachable moment.” We stopped at historical markers where Conestoga wagons left ruts in the prairie or where people made dangerous ferry crossings along the Oregon Trail. After my older sister and I endured a history lesson, we went into the tourist-trap stores that had sprung up around these sites. We begged for rock candy and little drawstring bags filled with “fool’s gold”—the garish, shiny crumbles of this gold look-alike, which tricked many a pioneer eager to strike it rich in the great American West.

These stores would invariably have small sieves we could borrow to use in the nearby creek, an object lesson in searching for our own gold in the wilderness. My big sister and I, our cheeks and fingers sticky from rock candy, would pull on our baseball hats and carry the sieves to the banks of the Deschutes River, squatting in the easy manner of children, our stork-like legs folding neatly underneath us. Back and forth, back and forth, I would move my sieve through the sand and water. Each time the sand would filter right through, leaving behind the occasional snail shell or stubby stick, but no gold.

The movement was meditative, soothing; back and forth, back and forth. And though we never found any gold—not even fool’s gold—we kept trying, kept hoping that some shiny nugget would land in our sieve.

Sifting for gold is a good metaphor for a spiritual discipline that has, in the smallest of ways, been transforming my life. For the last six months, my husband and I have been practicing the Examen together. It’s the last thing we do before dropping off to sleep. The four-hundred-year-old practice is straightforward; otherwise, we’d never manage it while tired and ready for bed, our teeth brushed and eyes heavy. As we face each other, our heads resting on side-by-side pillows, we ask each other about the most joyful and least joyful part of our day. Easy, right?

Even though it’s simple, Saint Ignatius of Loyola said the daily Examen is the most important of all prayer; that if his monks had to forgo his other spiritual exercises, they should not forgo the Examen. This is good news for someone like me who has struggled with prayer. It’s even good news for my husband, who doesn’t believe in God at all, but knows the power of regular, reflective practices."

Read the rest here.

Marilla Cuthbert, Teach Me to Pray

Hello and happy summer! Have you watched the Netflix series Anne with an E? My sister and I were HUGE fans of the 1980s Anne of Green Gables mini-series, which we watched every time one of us was home from school sick. I think Gilbert Blyth was my first literary crush.

Anyhow, I started watching the first episode and I had to stop halfway through to scribble out this essay on Marilla Cuthbert, Kathleen Norris, and my devotion to a Catholic prayer book called Give Us This Day. You can read all about it here in my Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices column. 

It starts like this:

"Last week I started watching Netflix’s new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. I was skeptical. Having been raised on the 1980s version starring Megan Follows, I couldn’t fathom another actress embodying the iconic role of Anne Shirley in quite the same way. But as I watched the first episode of the new, grittier series, I felt a rush of fondness for actress Amybeth McNulty as she delivered Anne’s lines with passion. Who wouldn’t love a child quoting Jane Eyre on the train ride to Avonlea, her lonely carpetbag folded on her lap?

Even greater than my love for Anne, though, is my attachment to Marilla Cuthbert’s character. Marilla is the strict yet tender spinster who becomes Anne’s adoptive mother. In the ’80s version, she had a twinkle in her eye, a roundness to her face, and a quick retort (“What a fine kettle of fish this is, Matthew!” and “For heaven’s sake child, hold your tongue”) delivered in just the right tone—firm, yet goodhearted. Growing up, I wanted her to be my adoptive mother; I wanted to bury my face in her ample calico-ed bosom after a good cry. This new Marilla, however, has a thin face and a meanness I don’t recall from the original. (“Did you steal anything?” she asks Anne, grabbing her bag to search its contents. When she finds a twig with live blossoming white flowers from the nearby cherry tree Anne took as a memento, she takes it out and shoves it into the cooking stove fire.)

But Marilla won me over in a scene where Anne reveals that she never says prayers before bed or anytime."

Read the rest here.

On Finding Lament

Happy Lent, everyone. Oh, wait. Maybe dour Lenten greetings is more appropriate?

I love the season of Lent, these 40 days set apart for fasting, prayer, and remembering our mortality. There is a delicious melancholy to Lenten liturgies, where we abstain from "Alleluias" and spend extra time in silence. Journeying with Jesus in the desert for 40 days is the best set-up before revisiting the Gospel stories of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and - finally - Easter. I love being tied to the church calendar, knowing that Christians around the world are reading these stories with me.


I didn't always love Lent, probably because I didn't understand the role of lament in Christianity. In fact, I am still learning what it means to sit uncomfortably with pain and sorrow. I wrote a little about what it has meant for me to discover the Biblical practice of lament for the Stories from Exile blog. 

Here's how it starts: 

"When I was in middle school, I went on a summer wilderness trip at Bible camp. At the end of the two weeks of canoeing and backpacking through the buggy Wisconsin woods, I spent 24-hours on a “solo” - a time of prayer, fasting, and Bible reading on my own, equipped with a tarp, some twine, my sleeping bag, a flashlight, water bottle, Bible, journal, and a pen. As I sat in the woods under a pine tree, my laced up hiking boots folded beneath me, I wrote in my journal: When I go back home, I will have a quiet time every day. I will read the Bible. I will pray.

When I got home to my comfortable bed with the striped comforter, I sprawled out on my stomach with my Bible in my hands. I didn’t have a particular devotional to help guide my scripture reading, so I ran my thumbs along the page edges, sticking my thumbnail into a spot at random, opening the page and blindly pointing at a verse. It’s kind of like the Christian’s version of the Magic 8-ball. You swirl it around while asking a question, waiting for the triangle to appear with an answer: “It is certain,” “Ask again later,” “My reply is no.”

My finger landed on the first page of the book of Lamentations. This was a book of the Bible that I had never read before. I had never heard a sermon preached on it or a verse shared in devotions during youth group. It started like this:


“How deserted lies the city,
    once so full of people!

How like a widow is she,
   who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
   has now become a slave.”

It only got more dour from there, describing the exile of the daughter of Zion, the filthiness of her skirts, her torment. Lots of tears and groaning.

It wasn’t the answer I was looking for when I opened the Bible willy-nilly. It didn’t tell me how to deal with my insecurities or how to find a boyfriend or whether I would ever run Varsity cross-country. There was nothing motivational about it. I slammed the Bible shut, declared myself a failed Bible reader, and proceeded to feel guilty about breaking my summer camp pledge for the rest of the year."

Read the rest here.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat

Happy Advent! It's time for another installment of my column "The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices" for Off The Page. This month, I wrote about the discipline of retreat. I have to say, this was a tricky one to write. My year-long experiment of implementing new spiritual disciplines has gotten off to a rocky start, and it's hard to admit when things are not going as planned. But, I figure I am just embodying Wendell Berry's words in the poem "Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front:"

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Here is how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Retreat, starts:

"Last month I arrived puffy-eyed and haggard at a writers’ workshop on Whidbey Island, just north of Seattle, Washington. The emotional whiplash from the presidential election a week prior, combined with work and at-home stress, had left me feeling crunched and shriveled and no good. The first day of the workshop I nursed a low-grade headache that would not let up. Even my sleep was restless; the retreat center’s silence was unsettling and I missed the sound of city traffic.

The first morning I took a walk through the Legacy Forest on the island, which towered with slender Douglas firs. The sky was gray, with a classic Pacific Northwest drizzle, and my boots squelched through puddles and mossy earth along the lush, green trail. I tried to listen for the voice of God as the wind moved through the trees, but all I could hear was chattering within myself. It sounded like a trapped squirrel, a noisy and unrelenting voice that bounced from worry to worry—intrusions left and right.

As I walked, my mind jumped to items on my to-do list; my thoughts scrambling and scratching. So used to stimuli at home—children asking for breakfast, dishes to be washed, emails to answer, the dinging of my smartphone—that my spirit no longer had the capacity to enter the quiet. The silence of the forest was lost on me. I might as well have been walking in the middle of a city street."

Keep reading here.

The Skeptic's Guide to Spiritual Practices: Introduction

I am starting a new series for Off the Page about doubt, skepticism, and reclaiming spiritual practices. These actions - tangible expressions of our faith - seem especially important these days. Right now I am in deep lament after the outcome of the presidential election, but soon I am going to start looking for sprouts of hope. We have so much work to do.

Here's how my essay, The Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices: Introduction, starts:

"This spring marked ten years since I graduated from a conservative evangelical college. It is where I met my husband back when he still believed in God. Friends I haven’t seen since graduation, the ones whose faces I remember only from their profile pictures on Facebook, have been asking if we will make the trip to suburban Chicago for our ten-year reunion this month. The event is over Homecoming weekend, but my husband and I haven’t made plans to go back. I can’t garner up much sadness; I never attended a college football game when I was an undergraduate, anyway.

It’s not that we are opposed; it would be fun to see old friends, to revisit old landmarks around campus. We might go to the student center, walking into the cozy fireside room where I used to do my morning devotions, reading My Utmost for His Highest. We might walk through the Stupe, a coffee shop with old diner-style booths, where I once interviewed my husband for the student paper. We might walk over to the mailroom, the one with all the tiny post office boxes, where I would check mine after chapel, the walls lined with colorful flyers for prayer meetings and spring-break mission trips.

My husband and I met at this school when we were just twenty years old. Babies, I think now. We have changed so much.

Milestones like this always bring up my reflective side. College, I realize now, was a time of intense spiritual saturation. It was easy to be a Christian then, when Bible studies were conducted on every dorm floor, when we held “mocktail” parties (orange juice with seltzer, anyone?) because we all signed a college-wide pledge not to drink alcohol, when we prayed before each class. I would go to chapel three times a week, to church on Sunday, and again on Sunday evenings for World Christian Fellowship. Spiritual disciplines didn’t take much discipline—the school structured them for me. Anywhere on campus I felt as though I could stretch out my arms and smack into Jesus.

Life after college, by contrast, has felt like windmilling my arms into the wide open air. After the legalism of Christian college—the proverbial checklist of Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and worship, to name a few—the freedom and disillusionment I experienced after college had me slowly shedding these spiritual practices, one by one. While I still attend church, I haven’t cracked open my Bible in ages. I often feel as though my faith is limping along; it doesn’t help that my husband’s is gone completely. I struggle with cynicism, with heartache over how different my life is from what I expected it to be.

All I know is that I want to find Jesus again, but I don’t know how to find my way back to what Richard Rohr describes as a “second simplicity”—a faith that embraces mystery, that names its doubts, that transcends legalism, that soars in the wide open air.

Keep reading here.

Drishti Prayer

Hey everyone. It has been like crickets over on this blog, and I am sorry about that! I just started working for my dream organization, the Collegeville Institute, and the transition from stay-at-home mom to works-part-time mom has been stretching.

I am pleased that my first piece for Off the Page is up today. It's about how I started praying again after a long, silent period.

It starts like this:

March 15

I was running on the treadmill, my legs struggling to keep up with the fast moving belt, when I looked up and saw a plane through the window. My eyes tracked the thumb-sized aircraft as it climbed slowly across the sky until – poof – it was gone, swallowed by a cloud. I let out a small gasp, my eyes scanning to where the plane might exit the clouds, hoping to see it emerge again. There it is, still visible but partially cloaked in haze, there it goes again, vanished into the white and grey.

It kept happening, plane after plane, ascending, passing in front of the clouds, then disappearing, then reemerging, then disappearing again. They all made the same journey, and something about it stirred me uncomfortably. I felt sadness when they vanished; I kept returning my eyes to the same place, hoping for another sighting.

Read the rest here.

Birth Story, Part Two

It was around 4 PM when they started, the achy pains that swept across my abdomen, down my thighs and around to my lower back. I am not someone who welcomes pain. I don't push my body to do CrossFit or regularly run long distances. In high school, I was on the cross-country team but was notorious for starting out really fast then getting winded and pained halfway through the race. But, with every 30 second contraction, I found myself smiling. There was ample time in between to send a few text messages (I am having some contractions, mom!), to throw my toothbrush into the bag I had packed for the birth center. After so many days of anxious waiting, I hardly dared to let myself believe this was finally it.

If you’ve never been in labor, imagine that you are running hill intervals. You start at a slow jog, then kick up the intensity as you sprint up the hill – your legs and abdomen cramping underneath you, your breath shallow - until, at last, you crest the top, and plod down the hill to the other side. Now picture yourself doing those intervals once every 10 minutes for a few hours, then every 7 minutes for a couple more, and so on. Imagine that the hills get gradually higher and longer while your rest time in between gets shorter. Imagine not knowing if you have one more hour of hill intervals or 10 more hours until you can finally stop. No, wait. Not stop. Until you can PUSH A HUMAN out of a very small hole in your body. It's crazy.

When the contractions started, Josh ran out to get pizza while I puttered around at home. I remember thinking: I better get some calories in now, I might have another 54 hours (the length of my first labor) ahead of me. When he got back, we ate pizza right out of the box, grinning like fools, daring to hope we would have our baby soon.

A few days earlier, we brought home a $10 live Christmas tree from Menards. It was lopsided and spray-painted green. We propped it up in the corner of our kitchen, though it still crashed over onto the kitchen table a few times. As the hours of early labor went on into the evening, I laid down on the couch with the overhead lights off, staring at the crooked strand of twinkly lights on our tree. It was calming, watching the soft glow. Josh lit candles. The contractions were becoming more intense, but there was plenty of time to recover in between.

But they kept coming and, at around 9 PM, we called Melanie. She said she would come over in an hour.

Labor. Looking back now, it’s hard for me to really remember it. I know that it got more painful, that I needed Josh and Melanie to rub my legs and lower back during contractions. I took a bath. I tried to rest by lying on the couch upstairs. I sat on the birthing ball; Melanie gave me a foot massage.

The contractions hurt, they did. But they weren’t getting any closer together, still just 5 to 7 minutes apart. Because my first labor was so painfully long, I began to anticipate hours and hours ahead. I was anxious and tired. At 2 AM, Melanie suggested that we go to the birth center. "Maybe," she said, "once you're in the place where you know you will give birth, your labor will pick up."

We piled into our car and drove the 10 minutes to the birth center. It was 2:30 AM, so there were hardly any cars on the road. The 35-W bridge took us over the Mississippi river; I remember looking out over to the historic Stone Arch Bridge, the old flour mill ruins cast in an orange haze from the street lights. I had one, maybe two, contractions in the car. Melanie leaned over the seat to help massage my legs while I concentrated on my breathing.

Josh drove into the alley behind the birth center. Martha, one of the midwives, was waiting for us at the back door, her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. It was a clear, cold, snow-muffled December night. There was no one else at the birth center.

We entered the birthing suite: a large room with a king-sized bed, a couch, a rocking chair, and a giant water-birth tub. I had decided earlier not to have my cervix checked to see how dilated I was during labor; I was afraid that if I wasn't making much progress I would be easily discouraged. (Women who have vaginal births must dilate to 10 centimeters before they can push the baby down and out. In my first birth, I was stuck at 6 centimeters for 9 hours.)

I got into the birthing tub for a while, then moved into the shower. Melanie and Josh took turns feeding me small bites of cheese, frozen blueberries, spoonfuls of yogurt. I sat on a stool in the shower for what felt like hours. Melanie encouraged me to relax my face and shoulders, to groan downward -- deep, low, out. Still, I was getting tired. My contractions were about a minute long and only 5 minutes apart.

I was sitting in the shower, naked, exhausted. I turned to Melanie and said, "I can't do this anymore. I just want it to stop, it's not working. Just take me to the hospital now."

Melanie looked at me closely, her brown eyes locking with mine. "I know," she said, carefully. "It's really fucking hard. It fucking hurts. But you just need to get through the next contraction."

I closed my eyes as I felt another contraction slowly coming on, I motioned to Melanie to rub my legs, I breathed down and low and deep.

I got back into the birthing tub; the water felt wonderful on my tired body. At one point I turned to Melanie, "My contractions don't hurt as much in here. Maybe they're not working?"

She encouraged me that it was okay if they were less painful, that I was doing great, that my contractions were doing the job they were supposed to do. All I needed to do was keep eating, keep resting in between contractions. I gradually started feeling stronger, fortified by the small bites of food and small sips of coconut water and gatorade that Josh and Melanie kept offering me.

The hours blur together now in my memory. I was in a trance-like state, my mind entirely present to the moment. I didn't make eye contact with anyone; I felt entirely folded inward. We had sounds of ocean waves playing on our ipod; crash, crash, crash.

After a particularly hard contraction, I vomited all over the bed. It was one of the most encouraging moments of my entire labor. Finally, I thought, I must be really working hard. I must be getting closer. I was desperate for any sign that my labor was productive.

Martha, the midwife, had mostly left us to ourselves. ("You guys are such a great team!") But after we had been at the birth center for 4 hours, she asked if she could check my cervix to see how things were going. She promised not to tell me how dilated I was. I agreed, and after the exam, she couldn't stop herself from smiling widely.

"Stina," she said. "You are so close. Your bag of waters is bulging, it should break during your next few contractions. After that happens, you can get back in the birth tub. You will be pushing this baby out soon."

I didn't really believe her at first. I was still having contractions at only 5 minutes apart, and I had it fixed in my mind that they needed to be coming every 1 or 2 minutes before I was fully dilated. But then I had a super painful contraction, one that wretched down my back, and I was forced back in the animal present of breathing down, low, out. After a few more like that, I felt a popping, then a rush of fluid. My water had broken.

Josh and Melanie helped me get up, supporting my arms as I climbed into the birth tub. After a few more contractions, there was a pause in my labor. Martha had alerted the labor nurse and midwife intern that we were close to pushing, so two more women joined us in the room wearing scrubs and long gloves.

Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to push. And by overwhelming, I mean absolutely uncontrollable. I would feel the beginnings of a contraction, then a crazy powerful rush of energy down, down, down. Josh climbed into the tub with me, he straddled my back and supported me as I pushed.

I distinctly remember thinking, in between pushes, I am having a baby right now. I am pushing a live human out of my body.

In the same pattern as before, I would push for a minute, then rest for 4 or 5 more.

"I can see the head! Reach down, you can feel it."

I pushed again and felt a huge burning move downward, and then back upwards inside. With each push, I bellowed a loud, terrifying yell. I couldn't have stopped it if I wanted to.

"That's good, just like that."

A few pushes later, and my son's head was born into the water. I waited like that for a few minutes: my son's head outside and under the water, the rest of his body still inside. He kept moving his head back and forth; apparently, babies have the instinct to move their heads to help navigate their way through the birth canal. It was the strangest sensation of my life.

One more giant push, and he was out. Born into water. Dark purple and mewling and slippery on my chest. I held his sweet head against my collarbone, barely seeing more than his sticky hair; Josh held me from behind, reaching around my body to touch his head.

My son, he was here, born at 8:43 AM. I had just finished the longest, hardest endurance race of my life.



This is Part Two of my birth story. Click here for Part One.


It's the first Sunday in Advent and I couldn't bear going to church this morning with my ten-days-overdue belly. Of course everyone understands that babies don’t follow any kind of schedule (at least mine don’t – inside or outside the womb, for that matter); of course, normal gestational length can vary by as much as six weeks. Still, when you pass that magical date that you’ve been spouting out to curious well-wishers for the past few months, everyone starts getting antsy. It's enough to make me want to hide forever. Hide from questions and small talk, hide from hope that he will be here soon.

I know there are many parallels to entering the season of Advent with being "overdue" with child -- but frankly they make me grouchy, even if they are apt. Yes, waiting for this birth reflects the greater waiting we are doing for Jesus' birth, for the Kingdom to come, for peace to reign on earth. But in the actual calendar season of Advent, I know Christmas is coming on December 25. It will come on time. I already know that story; I can make plans.

This physical knowing I will give birth but not knowing when? This is different. With Advent, I can intellectualize its meaning. I can check out emotionally and passively move through the season until Christmas morning. I can even skip ahead to joy by playing Christmas music early and setting up our tree. But there is no sneaking in snuggles with my baby before labor; this is a wait in utter darkness.

Up until this weekend, I have felt okay waiting. I’m not physically uncomfortable or roiling in pain. Sure, it has been wearying -- the not knowing, the wondering if I should do a big grocery shop or make play-dates for my toddler, the pressure to be doing things to go into labor (primrose oil, walking, doing stairs, eating spicy food, castor oil, acupuncture, squats and lunges to name a few). I have known that, no matter what I try, there is always the underlying reality that nothing that I “do” will push me into labor until my body is ready.

But the past two mornings I woke up at 4 AM with panic so thick in my throat that I thought I would choke. Somehow I had it in my mind that the baby would come this weekend; that the baby would be born before December 1. Instead of waking to labor pains or to the rush of my water breaking, I blinked awake to hope unmet and stomach acid. Nothing was happening.

I’ve been surprised by the anger that I have felt at having my hopes misplaced.

The unease I feel now is more of an agitated readiness, a frantic desire to meet this being who is sharing my body, to endure and be done with labor, to finally have the anticipation put to rest. It’s a thirst to move forward, not remain stuck here in limbo, in wondering.

For so many days now, I’ve been on top of everything house related – all the dishes done immediately, the toys always picked up, the manic check-things-off-the-list mentality driving me forward, lest we go into labor. Ask my husband; he will tell you about how we dusted the tops of every kitchen cabinet this morning.

I had been so hopeful that my baby would be born by today. Every Braxton Hicks contraction pain has stirred anticipation -- is this it? But nothing real has happened, nothing tangible. I feel despondent, uncertain whether to keep preparing or sink into hopeless grief.

December is nearly here; my baby is not. And, though the parallels make me grouchy, I wonder if this is exactly what Advent is supposed to feel like: an angry anticipation for the thing we most long for, a discontent with the ways of this world, a bitter hope teetering on despair for wrongs to be righted, a desperation for light to overcome all this darkness.

It’s this restless hope that is forcing me to pace the hallways of my apartment building, to do circuits of stairs wherever I can find them. It’s forcing me into a more active wait, not a passive one. It’s forcing me to try small things to get labor started, though I have no ultimate control in this process.

I keep going through the motions, though the oil in my lamp is burning low. Draw your flame a little closer, wait with me.


Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here

When The Waves Overwhelm You

Florida Memory “You’re still at six centimeters,” the nurse midwife said after checking my cervix for dilation.

I turned to my husband with wild eyes.

“We’re still at six centimeters,” I repeated.

Despite the medical interventions I already had undergone – the synthetic Pitocin pumping into my blood stream through an IV, the manual breaking of my bag of waters – I wasn’t even one centimeter closer to delivering my baby than I had been nine hours earlier.

I closed my eyes, absorbing the news. My breathing grew shallow; I could feel the panic in my throat like a hard knob. The past nine hours of contractions didn’t “do” anything.


Some women experience textbook labors where everything progresses in timely, ordered stages. Pre-labor, active labor, transition, pushing. But many women I have talked with describe how unpredictable their labor was, how unprepared they were for the slow, hard work it is, unaware of how labor can stall and stop all together, for hours or even days.

In almost every birth story, there comes a time when the excitement of meeting the new baby has vanished, when the overwhelming, pounding, spiting, relentless contractions crash down like waves. That is the moment when the mother needs her doula to encourage, uplift, and bolster her. Look in my eyes, the doula might say. You can do this; your body was made to do this.

Some women turn inward and zone-out, they find a place deep within themselves. There is a sense of letting go, of first kicking to swim to the surface and then floating, letting the waves do the work, but staying above the water, not allowing the waves to drown you in their all-powerful, relentless movement.

Other women get lost under the surf, they panic, and they lose all control. Maybe they don’t have a supportive medical team, maybe they are beyond exhausted, maybe they hear discouraging news about their labor’s progress and they can’t see any other way forward.


“I just need to get through this!” I said, crying between contractions. “I need this to be over.”

We were entering our third night of labor, our eyes bloodshot and our limbs heavy, as though filled with sand. My husband squeezed my hand as the midwife explained that I might need an epidural to help my cervix relax. Extreme fatigue can cause women to tense their muscles and prevent dilation, rendering hours and hours of contractions as ineffective.

This wasn’t in the birth plan; this wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I had high hopes for an unmedicated birth.

“Yes,” I said. “Do it.”

After waiting for an excruciatingly long time for the anesthesiologist, I had a needle inserted into my spine. My body relaxed. The contractions continued, but I couldn’t feel them. And in just 30 minutes, I had dilated from 6 to 10 centimeters. I was able to vaginally birth a 9 pound 11 ounces healthy baby girl.


Does God ever feel that discouragement, that exhaustion? Does God feel the pain of a non-progressing labor? Does God ever look around wildly for rest, for pain relief, for a break in the relentless, ineffectual pain? Does God ever look at the world – with its vast inequalities, its senseless suffering – and wonder if these labor contractions are really working to bring God's kingdom?

I think about the moment in the garden, the moment when Jesus knows true fear, when he sweats blood and asks God, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me. Don’t lead me through the pain of crucifixion, the agony of nails in palms and soles, the terror of broken bones.”

Jesus asked even though he knew his death would mean the redemption of the world; he knew that all sin and sorrow would be washed away. He knew all these things, yet it didn’t stop him from asking God to take away the cup. Was some part of him afraid that resurrection wouldn’t come? Like a laboring mother, who fears her own death or the death or her child?

I relate to Jesus in the garden. In my own labor, I lost sight of the baby to be born and just wanted it over. I thought I couldn’t go on. It’s amazing to think of God in the same position, God who knows what important work God is doing through labor, but loses sight of the end goal.

It’s cathartic because reflecting on labor is a mixed experience for many women. Lots of us assumed we would be strong and have beautiful natural births. But labor is not something you can learn about from textbooks, it’s not something you control by writing a perfect birth plan. The expectations don’t often reflect the true experience of one’s birth.

In my case, I wasn’t “strong” in the way I thought I would be strong. But Jesus isn’t “strong” in the way I imagine God should be strong – he asks God for another way. He hits a wall of fear. He understands how hard it is to surrender, to trust God to make a way through.


It is now November, the month my baby should be arriving, and I am still aiming for un-medicated birth. I picked a freestanding birth center to deliver my child, one where I will be in a supportive environment and won’t have access to pain relief during my labor. My midwife has assured me that second labors are often easier: the mother knows what to expect and her body has muscle memories to propel the baby down more quickly.

Indeed, I know more this time. I know God as a struggling, birthing woman. I know a God who asked for the pain to stop, who sweated blood in the garden. I know that, even if I hit that wall of exhaustion and muscle fatigue, and even if all the support of my midwife and doula fail to propel me to have to birth I hope for, and even if I have to be transferred to the hospital across the street for pain relief or an emergency C-section – I know that God understands. I hope this knowledge will enable me to have more grace for myself, however the birth proceeds.

And, once I have my newborn son in my arms for the first time, I know how quickly I will forget my labor, how I will forgive the hours of contractions and pushing and pain. This is what I imagine heaven will be like: a relief at finally seeing the new creation, an immediate release of all sorrows that preceded it.



This is the final post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. Read the first post here and second post here.

Images via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here and here.

Birth Plans

Ask yourself: Will this satisfya woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth? -- Wendell Berry, from the poem The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front

Pregnant Profile

When I took childbirth classes the first time I was pregnant, the instructor – an impossibly peppy woman named Missy – encouraged us to write a birth plan. A birth plan is a set of hopes, preferences, and goals for birth that are typically shared with the labor and delivery staff. Missy assured us that writing a birth plan would help us prepare for all the big and small decisions we might encounter during our hospital stay.

It has been three years since I wrote that birth plan. I finally reread it for the first time last week, smiling and cringing to myself all the way through. No to pain medication and immodest hospital gowns. Yes to dimmed lights, water-birth, and my own nightgown. Oh, and if possible, we want my husband to catch the baby.

These were all good aspirations, all good goals for birth. And they seemed reasonable enough. After all, I read only positive birth stories, about how labors progressed quickly, how laboring mothers overcame their fears with support of their doulas and midwives, how women’s bodies are built for labor. The books I read encouraged me to shut down negative conversations about birth before they had the power to instill fear or doubt.

Intellectually, I knew that things could go wrong. I had friends who experienced dangerous complications and emergency C-sections despite their plans for a natural birth. Still, I chose to write a birth plan for myself that assumed the best, that only skimmed the possibility that I might need medical interventions.

But there is a problem with only hearing positive birth stories. There is a danger in writing exquisite birth plans that do not take into account potential complications that may arise. The laboring mother is left completely unprepared if things veer off course.


I wonder if reading your birth plan after the fact is a little how the disciples felt when they realized that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus, this rabbi scorned by the religious elite? Jesus, born in a barn? This was the long awaited Savior of Israel?

I wonder if they looked back on their Hebrew Bible, on the predictions and prophesies about the coming Messiah with a hint of embarrassment, or distance, or wonder at how far off they had been.

You see, the Messiah was supposed to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, the Messiah was supposed to restore honor and dignity to the Jewish people. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be crucified like a common criminal. He wasn’t supposed to be whipped or have a crown of thorns crushed upon his head. No, the kingdom was supposed to come with trumpets and fanfare. The kingdom was supposed to come through military triumph.

But instead here is Jesus, this strange teacher with his strange teachings about “turning the other cheek” and “losing your life so you can find it.” Jesus, the Messiah who didn’t expel the Romans or restore the temple. Jesus, the Messiah who suffered and died.


When I imagine God as a laboring mother, I wonder if she had expectations for how her birth should go. I wonder if she felt thrown off by how labor was actually progressing (or not progressing), I wonder if she felt weak while enduring incredible pain at waiting for the Kingdom to finally come.

Do I trust a God in labor, who feels painful contractions, who wonders if she can make it through? I’d rather imagine a God who is strong, steadfast, a pillar, a rock. But God as a woman in labor feels wild, it feels scary, it feels out of control.

Maybe that’s part of why I’ve never heard a sermon about God as a laboring mother. It’s not an image that makes us feel confident. It makes us wonder if God knows what God is doing in this supposed big plan for the world.


“Alright class,” Missy said, clapping her hands in excitement. “I want you to take the index cards in your folder and write “healthy baby” on one card and “healthy mom” on the other card. Now, take the remaining stack of six and write one hope for your birth on each card.”

Women in flowing maternity shirts and yoga pants turned to face their uncomfortable-looking husbands, taking out pens, placing the cards awkwardly on their knees or backs of the thick childbirth prep folders to begin writing. I sipped my ever-present bottle of water while we wrote out our hopes like the good students we were: no pain medication, quick labor, vaginal birth, no interventions, and so on.

“Now, I want you to look at your cards and pick two cards to throw out,” Missy said. “Sometimes labor doesn’t go the way you want it to, so imagine you have no choice in the matter.”

My husband and I looked at each other. We debated the cards we had, deciding we could give up the short hospital stay and labor under eight hours.

When the murmuring from the room died down, Missy spoke again. “Now, I want you to pick two more.”

We looked through our stack of cards again, weighing inducement and episiotomies against each other. Missy spoke again. “Now pick two more cards to throw out.” At the end of the exercise, we had two cards left in our hands: “healthy baby” and “healthy mom.”

“Birth can be different than what you imagine or expect,” Missy said. “And I don’t think you will have to throw out your entire stack of cards. But, if at the end of the day you have a healthy baby and a healthy mom, then that’s all that really matters.”

Later, in the car, my husband and I had a heated conversation about some of the choices we elevated differently. Somehow Missy’s words about the most important thing, the healthy mom and healthy baby, were lost on me.


God is a laboring mother, the book of Isaiah tells us. God has many hopes for the world God created; God wants the Kingdom to come, to wipe every tear from every eye.

When I look at the terrible beautiful world around me, it helps me to imagine that God feels pain at how this labor is going, it helps to know that God expects more for humanity than war, disease, and poverty. When I rub up against the inequality in the public schools where I tutor, when I hear a story about burned villages, when I read about another shooting in my city, I know this isn’t what God wants for this world.

It’s not what I expect, it’s not what I hope. But I have to remind myself that, despite this confusing labor, God will birth a healthy baby in the end. Though it comes in ways I don’t understand, God is bringing new life into the world.


This is the second post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. To read the first post in the series, click here.

On Spiritual Abuse

Hey everyone. I wrote a guest-post about my experience with spiritual abuse over at my friend Amy Peterson's blog for her series on finding a second simplicity in faith. It's a personal story, one that I continue to wrestle with.  


There was a time when I didn’t know if God was good. 

It was the summer I fell in with a group of fire-breathing Pentecostals and the summer I questioned the salvation of nearly every Christian I had ever met. It was the summer I interviewed migrants in a Kenyan refugee camp as an intern with the United Nations and the summer I nearly lost my mind from secondary trauma.

It was the summer when everything unraveled. My ideas of good and bad, true and untrue blurred into a swirling mess, a cyclone that ripped through the faith that had been growing steadily since childhood.

Some days I peer at the landscape of my faith and see the devastation that lingers even now, nine years later. It looks like the path a windstorm can wrack through an old-growth forest. It looks like a trail of downed trees. Sure, I can see regrowth among the broken limbs on the forest floor; I can see new saplings poking upward in sunlight. But I can’t help staring at all those snapped trunks and exposed roots, wondering at all that I lost in that storm.

Read the rest here.

The Book That Changed My Life

I wrote an essay about The Irresistible Revolution over at D.L. Mayfield's blog. irresistiblerevolution

The Irresistible Revolution: The Book That Changed my Life

What was it about that book?

It was the gee whiz let’s do something. It was the stories of hope. It was the promise of a glittery but gritty revolution where the kingdom breaks through cracked concrete, mustard plant by mustard plant.

It was the acknowledgment that not all is well with the world, stop pretending. Instead, let’s move into the neighborhood and tithe our money relationally; let’s reject the investment in sprawling suburban church campuses when so many are scrounging for grocery money. Be a new kind of believer, a prophetic witness who takes Jesus at his word.

Shane Claiborne came to speak in chapel at my evangelical college in 2004, two years before The Irresistible Revolution was published. It was the week before finals and I skipped his talk to write a paper; I had never heard of him. But I saw the impact he had on my friends, how they came back from chapel pumped up by his words about authentic faith, by his dreadlocks and patched jeans. Some of my crowd looked a lot like Shane that way, and I have a faint recollection of a drum circle that he performed with students on campus.

Shane, it was decided, was very cool. The New Monasticism movement that he headlined buzzed with words like “intentional community” and “downward mobility,” setting my idealist heart ringing. It dovetailed with the “you can change the world” message I had long heard growing up. And I believed in my heart of hearts that I, too, would never settle for a stale and materialistic Christianity.

But, if you’re like me, the sounding gong of radicalism eventually faded into disillusionment.

Read the rest here.

How to get Young Adults to Church

Qualifier: No one person can write definitively on an entire swath of diverse people, I created this list out of my own experiences as a young adult (which I am defining here as ages 20 to 35) in the church. It reflects my own biases. Here we go.

  1. Be authentic, be yourself, be the church.

Are you an aging church that only uses hymns? Don’t try to reinvent yourself with a zippy new worship style just to attract young adults. We are cynical and have been going to church all our lives; we can smell fake a mile away.

Stay true to what God is doing in your church and trust God to draw the right people. Authenticity is a rare thing. Don’t abuse it by trying to be something that you’re not.

  1. Be friendly but not too friendly.

Young adults are used to church shopping, aka frittering away months and months jumping from service to service without any firm commitment. In most of my experiences church shopping, I would rarely be greeted by a member of that congregation.

A warm welcome can make a huge difference. If you are greeting a young adult, ask them questions but don’t be too overwhelming. Back off if they look uncomfortable, especially if it’s their first time visiting. But, if they come back a few times, now is the time to invite them over to your home for dinner or out for coffee. Personal invitations versus a “sign up for this program” are always better.

  1. Intergenerational churches are a plus, not a minus.

Young adults are often in communities of their peers, especially if they’re recent college graduates. We crave interaction with the “older wisers” who have gone through the life phases we find ourselves in. Young adult groups are great, but don’t be afraid of encouraging intergenerational community. Mentoring programs, meal groups -- any way to match older folks with younger folks is a plus.

  1. Regularly ask young people to do something in church.

Many young adults are non-committal and kind of lazy. We’re used to being catered to, being programed for in church. But, if somebody asks us point-blank to read scripture in the service next Sunday or to write about our experience living in Guatemala for the church newsletter, we’ll do it. Find out what your young adults are passionate about and invite them to use their gifts in church. We’ll be grateful that someone thinks we have something to offer, we’ll be more invested in the church. And, we’ll have to show up the Sunday we have a job to do.

  1. Throw wedding showers and baby showers.

Young adults are in a season of transition, making big life decisions, some of us getting married and having babies. If a young adult in your church gets engaged or has a baby (even if they only come to church sporadically), throw them a shower!

There is nothing more beautiful than having the corporate church come around you during a season of major change.

  1. Create a safe space for doubters, for askers of hard questions, for disbelief.

If you have young adults attending your church, chances are good that they have struggled with unanswered faith questions and doubt. Chances are even greater that they’ve been wounded by a church in their past. Churches are notoriously bad at welcoming people who are on the fringes of faith, who are asking hard questions.

Creating safe space for doubters can look a lot of ways. The pastor can host a theology night, or an “Ask Anything” event. Even better, personally invite young adults out for coffee to talk about their faith. Whatever form it takes, it’s important to listen to and affirm the experiences of the young adults in your church. Having “the answers” isn’t as important to most young adults as feeling welcomed despite doubts.

  1. If you want parents with young children to participate, arrange for childcare.

Do you want young mothers and fathers to serve on worship team or speak during adult education hour? Providing childcare is a must. Ask the young parents in your church about their child’s nap schedule and plan meetings during times that they can make it.

  1. Have a web presence, but it doesn’t have to be fancy.

We do like the i-net. A lot. And most churches have a website these days. But you don’t have to invest lots of money into making a fancy new website or join twitter just to cater to young adults. We just need the address, the service time, and little blurb about the church. That’s it.

  1. Invite Young Adults into Leadership Roles.

Young adults can be a fickle bunch. But, if we’ve been attending for a while, it might be time to ask your young adults to serve in leadership roles in the congregation. Even better, offer to mentor a young adult in a certain role if they’re feeling non-committal. Ask, ask, ask.

10. Be a community.

Young adults are a transient bunch. We move a lot and might be new in town. Church is a great way to meet new people. And there is nothing so beautiful as a community that cares for one another in good times and bad.

So… be friendly! Have potlucks (and ask us to bring something)! Invite people over! Invest in relationship! You’ll never regret it.

Ash Wednesday


You were unprepared.

Chagrined, you look up the local Episcopal church website and discover the evening service is at 5:30 PM. Call your husband to see if he can stay home with your two-year-old daughter. You want to go alone.

Drive through the snow-packed streets to the stately stone building. You swing open the heavy oak doors and slip into the church. An elderly gentleman in the foyer hands you a bulletin as you enter the dark sanctuary, the stained glass glowing like a lit lantern. Your body slides onto a hard pew towards the back, the floorboards creaking under your feet. Tasteful mandolin and guitar chords strum the first lines of "What Wondrous Love is This." The congregation sings heartily, the familiar notes soaring then falling.

It has been years since you last attended a liturgical service. Stand up, sit down. You stumble through the "Thanks be to God"s and "Glory to you Lord Christ"s, yet it feels good to be here.

The scriptures are read. Raving mad prophets, gentle Psalms. Everyone stands when the Gospel is carried to the center of the church. The priest reads the voice of Jesus, his Sermon on the Mount. You listen, believing and unbelieving. You are so thirsty.

She preaches a homily, words on ashes and death, about reconciliation to God and our neighbors. The person next to you pulls down the red velvety kneeler with a loud thwack and together you confess your sins. When it’s your turn, you come forward to receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sight of dark smudged foreheads in the congregation startles you when you turn around. You, too, bear that sign.


Nothing stirs you, but you are glad you came. You rifle through the bulletin and check the time, wondering about what is happening at home. Communion is next.

You can’t remember the last time you took Communion. The tiny Mennonite church you attend now rarely offers the sacrament. In your high church days it was the service's climax, the one thing required of you each and every Sunday. Can I take this cup? Can I eat this bread?

The priest prepares the table and launches into the familiar liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving: The Lord be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them to the Lord.

Your attention drifts during the long liturgy describing the Last Supper. But you snap back to present when the priest invites you back to the table, saying:

This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
 It is to be made ready for those who love God
 and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
 you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time, 
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
 Come, not because I invite you: it is God, and it is God’s will 
that you who want God should meet God here.

And that’s when it all hits you, the burning behind your eyes and sharp twinges in your nose. You give in and let the hot tears fall. You who have little, you who have failed, you who are woefully unprepared.

You walk forward and take what is yours, that bread dipped in wine.

*Photos by LifeCreations and  The Cleveland Kid, Creative Commons via Flickr