he is one

When you are the third child, especially the third of three boys, nothing comes new. Clothes, books, toys – all are gently loved or well-worn-out by the time they reach your hands.

When you are still tiny, you accept this, of course. You don’t know the world to be any other way.

Your firsts are not earth-moving milestones. Your every move is not captured on video or preserved in photo albums. From day one your needs and wants cannot command complete attention.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For you and your parents.

You are not simply a special snowflake. You are one among many. 

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One year ago we met for the first time. My memories of birth are fast and foggy, snapshots of scenes. The first flash of him, wet and purple, his radiant heat in my shaking arms. His wavy dark hair and deep eyes squinting to see. My astonishment at his existence, the breathing weight of him on my chest, still startling after I carried him for nine long months below my heart.

Twelve months later, he crawls, claps, chuckles at every silly dance his brothers perform to earn a smile. The tantalizing prospect of walking awakens as he reaches to pull himself up and learns to steady uncertain legs. Words slowly take shape within the babbles of his voice.

He is one for the first time. He has never been here.

. . .

Last week I crossed my legs on church basement carpet and watched his brother celebrate his summer birthday three months early.

He placed the Montessori mat carefully on the small table, set the candle for the sun in the center, and opened his hands to hold the small globe as his teacher told the story of seasons. How we are always moving around the sun, how we would never know time was passing if we didn’t stop to notice the changes around us.

As his classmates counted, he took almost-four trips around the table, circling the sun with the world in his hands. His teacher read the short story of his birth that I had written, a rainbow of markers telling his first day of life. Everyone sang the song he chose and listened to the book he brought as a gift. His face was squinched in a strange smile, equal parts proud and embarrassed to be at the center of attention.

Then he walked quietly around the circle again, tapping each child on their bowed head to send them off for the rush of shoes and jackets and lunch boxes.

A simple celebration, ended as soon as it began. Perfect for preschool. Maybe enough for all of us: to celebrate another whirl around this spinning sun, to remember our place in the world, to let light shine on us for an instant.

One among many. He could not have been happier.

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Christianity teaches these twinned doctrines of identity. Imago Dei: we are created in the image of God, each of us unique and unrepeatable, worthy and beloved in our own right. The Body of Christ: we are part of a larger whole, all of us interdependent and intrinsically connected, bound up in each other for the common good.

These two beliefs – that we are one and we are many – braid together to become two essential practices for my parenting. I want to teach these children that they are loved beyond measure for the individuals that they are, created and called by God to do their own particular good in the world. And I want to teach them that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, that their own joys and struggles are put in humble perspective within a world of seven billion others.

Let your light shine, but remember Who you reflect.

Build your life into worthy service, but remember you cannot do alone.

Trust that you are one and we are many.

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Last night we celebrated the baby’s first birthday. In such ordinary ways that I felt almost disappointed. Shouldn’t I have done more to make a fuss? Spread a feast or lavished him with bright bows? Would he know how wondrous his life has been in ours if we didn’t preserve perfect memories for posterity?

No. I see in the crumbs of this morning that all the love he needed was there.

Homemade carrot cake, the work of his brothers’ helping hands. Lilacs dripping out of the blue glass vase, picked proud by those same siblings. Hand-scribbled cards, a new CD, one book to replace the favorite he tore in half.

He loved the party hats, lunged for the candle as we sang, smashed handfuls of cake in his mouth. I stretched back to that exhausted, euphoric new mother I was one year ago that night, holding him and learning him and wanting nothing more than for him to be safe, loved, here with us.

And now he is: right here. This is exactly what we wanted.

It was what a birthday should be. A celebration of the blessing of a life, still fresh and unfolding before our eyes. And a reminder that all of ours are intertwined, that we are – thankfully – not the sun center of the universe.

I have to practice this truth each new morning, as I ready myself for another day. To remember that I am beloved but also beholden to others. To believe that I am called by the One who calls the many. To hold fast in the knowledge that my life is one small part of a much bigger story.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For all of us, maybe.

He is one. We are, too.

in which we are all – begrudgingly – images of God

I do not like the experience of pregnancy. There. I said it.

I like the fact of being pregnant. I love the gift of life, the sheer blessedness of getting to bring a child into this world. I love the answer to prayer brought by pregnancy after infertility and miscarriage, the undeserved grace that this is how our story turned out. I love the overwhelming abundance of a healthy pregnancy, knowing that – for now – everything looks good with the baby growing within me.

But I hate the way I feel and think and act while pregnant.

I hate morning sickness that drags months beyond what every expert tells you is “normal.” I hate taking medicine merely to function beyond the overwhelming nausea. I hate the exhaustion that sends me to bed at 8:30 most nights. I hate the nagging back pain and the chronic discomfort and the unmentionable side effects. I hate how big I get so quickly, how eyebrows raise when I tell my due date because it doesn’t fit anyone’s mental math of how I must be packing my hospital bag already.

I do not glow. Mostly I glower.

And then – because of the infertility and the miscarriage and the awareness of how pregnancy and parenthood have brought unexpected suffering to so many people I love – I feel guilty on top of everything else.

No wonder the baby’s estimated arrival date is circled and highlighted and exclamation-pointed on every calendar I can find.

  . . .

When I started reading Sarah Jobe’s Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy, I was wary. Of course I love a good practical theology as much as the next girl with a Master of Divinity degree, but I could not bear a feel-good tribute to pregnancy’s bountiful blessings.

Thank God, the author felt the same:

Pregnancy is at the heart of God’s work in the world. Pregnant women are the image of God among us. But those truths are sometimes hard to see…I still can’t bring myself to say that I love pregnancy. But deep down, I really do. Pregnancy is a place where heaven and earth meet and constipation takes on cosmic significance. What’s not to love?

I decided I could stomach this spiritual spin on What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Over the past few weeks, Jobe’s book has made me think about pregnancy in a different light.

When I threw up in the kitchen sink on the morning of week 22.

When I admitted to my husband that the maternity coat that was supposed to last the long Minnesota winter was perhaps getting a teensy bit snug.

When my chiropractor whistled and said, “Wow, you’re one tough cookie,” at the last adjustment to relieve my throbbing low back pain.

None of this was what I wanted. But this is simply the reality of pregnancy in my life.

So where is God in all that mess?

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Jobe’s book reminded me to look at the flip side of pregnancy’s suffering. To see the grueling work of creation, the giving work of laying down your self for another, the groaning work of birthing new life into the world.

All of it is shot through with God. But not the doe-eyed Precious Moments God plastered across Hallmark cards and nursery decorations.

The God I meet in pregnancy and the work I do in pregnancy are nothing like I expected. But I’m realizing that they might reveal even more about God’s truth than I want to admit.

God’s work in the world is nauseating. Feed the poor? Care for the sick? Visit the imprisoned? Most of what that demands makes my stomach churn.

God’s work in the world is uncomfortable. Love your enemy? Give all you have to the poor? Forgive 70 times 7? I’m already squirming just thinking about it.

God’s work in the world is unpredictable. Set my people free? Come and follow me? Go and make disciples of all nations? None of those detours were in my plans.

God’s work in the world can be peaceful and glowing, joyful and thrilling. But it can also be tumultuous and dark, unsettling and disruptive.

And if the work we’re called to do in the world is God’s work, and if the image we’re called to bring to the world is God’s image, then I don’t get a nine-month reprieve from this deepest calling of the Christian life.

If I’m trying to see the God-image in other people, I have to try to find it in the mirror, too.

. . .

So maybe it’s ok if strangers stare when they see me pregnant.

Maybe it’s fine if I look bigger or feel sicker than everyone thinks I should.

Maybe if we all bear the mystery and likeness of God to each other – and I believe we do – then pregnant moi is a visual reminder that the image of God stretches far beyond our expectations.

Whether we feel beautiful or broken, sick or strong, there is still God behind our eyes and in our bones.

Even tired mama eyes and aching pregnant bones.

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God at work (and the rest of us, too)

Growing up, I never imagined God sweeping.

Or baking. Or gardening. Or helping deliver a baby.

For the past few months I’ve been writing a new program on work and calling for small groups in congregations. Since we keep learning that people’s challenges with vocation often stem from a lack of understanding about how God calls, I’ve been weaving in lots of Scriptural passages that broaden our image of who God is. So lately I’ve been living and working closely with God as worker: farmer, potter, metalworker, baker and midwife, to name a few. 

These biblical images of God at work are so rich and so relevant that I’m amazed to realize how easily we skip over them, so stuck is the white-bearded Father in flowing robes in our minds and in our churches.

Had it not been for graduate studies in theology, I might have missed many of these facets of Scripture’s portrait of God, too. I grew up with loving images of God – a tender shepherd, a caring father – but no one told me till I was much older that Scripture held more pictures of the divine than what I saw in my children’s Bible or the stained glass windows at church.

I love these images now: God as artist, molding us like clay. God as blacksmith, forging us in fire. God as gardener, planting and watering and waiting to harvest.

These are images of God that fire my imagination and make me believe differently – with depth, with creativity, with fresh eyes.

So now that I’m nearing the end of this writing project, I want to explore in a new way what I’ve learned and loved about these images of God at work. Especially as we begin bustling around the house, hurrying into the holidays, preparing for guests and feasts, I want to slow down and ponder images of God we often overlook.

The domestic ones. The feminine ones. The everyday ones.  

(And because I’m mentally preparing for Advent, my favorite season of the year for soaking in poems and psalms, I’m inching out on a limb and playing with poetry in this space, too.)

So till tomorrow, I’ll borrow a line from Lake Wobegon country:

Be well and do good work.