Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: religion

A Response to the “Heartbeat Bill”: My Letter to Governor John Kasich

heartbeat

December 8, 2016

Governor John Kasich:

I am writing you in regard to House Bill 493, the “Heartbeat Bill”, which would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks of gestation. There are no provisions for cases of incest, rape, or medical complications that put the mother’s life at risk. If this bill becomes law, once there is a heartbeat, no medical facility or clinic could perform an abortion.

I am truly shocked that this bill has passed both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate. But when I learned that this bill was tacked on to a larger bill that addressed child abuse, I just shook my head.

Politics.

I am currently 33 weeks pregnant with my second child. I’m due in January 2017. Our first child turned three years old this past August.

I’m telling you this because I know what it means to carry the life of a child.

I grew up in a conservative Christian household. We attended a Southern Baptist Church. I went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I memorized Bible verses in the AWANA program. I was quite good at that. When I was finally able to vote in 2000, I proudly voted a straight Republican ticket.

I was pro-life. I thought abortion was abhorrent. Women who had abortions must have been heartless, soulless, and godless. They needed to be saved from making the most dreadful, horrifying mistake of their lives. I believed that the U.S. Supreme Court needed to overturn Roe v. Wade. Only then would we be able to stamp out the evil of abortion across this country.

Abortion is murder. Plain and simple. And murder is a crime.

If she gets pregnant, she should suffer the consequences. If she wanted to have sex, she should have at least been responsible.

If she was raped, she shouldn’t make the child suffer. And are we even really sure that she was raped? Getting pregnant from a rape hardly ever happens.

Yes. I had those thoughts.

It was easy to hold these beliefs because they went unchallenged. I socialized mostly with other conservative Christians. At school, I viewed my classmates who weren’t Christians as “the lost.” They didn’t truly have a working moral compass. They needed to be saved.

And as an evangelical Christian, I should be the person who saved them.

I began my college career at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in 2000. During my four years there, I met a lot of different people who did not grow up in the same conservative circles that I did. In conversations, I began to realize that some of my beliefs about social issues (same-sex marriage, poverty, race, abortion) were not automatically echoed and supported by others. I was challenged to think critically about my opinions. I was challenged to support what I believed.

I’m so very grateful for having been challenged.

Because I began to realize that the foundation upon which I was basing my beliefs on many issues was flimsy at best. What I had to support my opinions were soundbites that crumbled under the power of even the simplest of questions. Jesus never talked about abortion. But he sure talked a lot about caring for the poor and loving others. Especially those who were on the margins of society.

And then a thought occurred to me.

Why did I think it was my responsibility to restrict someone else’s choices?

Who was I to decide how someone else lived their life?

Was I so inherently right in my beliefs that what I thought about the world should be imposed on everyone else?

Once I posed those questions to myself, I was ashamed of how arrogant I sounded.

However, I have to admit that all of my changed beliefs about abortion were still vague abstractions that didn’t directly impact my life. I had never been pregnant. Privately, I wondered if being pregnant and giving birth would change my opinion yet again. Maybe I would revert to my pro-life stance of years past?

But I didn’t.

In fact, I am more pro-choice now than I have ever been.

Because now, I understand what it means to become a mother.

Becoming a mother is not strictly a physical test of endurance. It’s a mental and emotional marathon that not only requires sufficient financial resources, but also a social support network. Otherwise, you will completely implode.

My husband and I are firmly established in the middle class, yet we still found the costs of having a child to be quite burdensome. It cost us $3500 just to give birth in a hospital—and we had health insurance. We spent another $12,000 on car seats, furniture, diapers, formula, clothing, medicine, and other supplies. Because I wanted to return to work, it cost us another $11,000 per year for our child to be in daycare.

There were days in that first year of motherhood when I wasn’t sure that I could go on—and I wasn’t worried about the financial aspect. There were days when I wanted to be free of the constant 24/7 responsibility—and my husband and I had wanted this child.

Now, can you imagine being a 20-some-year-old single woman with a high school diploma, taking some college classes part-time while you work a job that might bring in $20,000 per year? That’s the most common portrait of a woman who gets an abortion in Ohio that emerges from the Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions (p. 9).

Becoming a mother is a huge responsibility and it’s not one that we should force women to take on if they are not prepared to do so. At a time when Republicans want to slash spending on social programs, outlawing nearly all abortions would not only force unprepared, single women into motherhood, it would drive them into years of poverty as they struggle to not only provide for their children, but to do so with increasingly shrinking assistance from the government.

As I review the Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions, what strikes me most is that the abortion restrictions in House Bill 493 do not seem to respond to the reality of abortion statistics in the state of Ohio. Here are some interesting facts that I gathered from this report:

  • In 1976, there were roughly 10,000 more abortions in the state of Ohio than there are today (Figure 1, p. 2).
  • Since 2001, the rate of abortions per live births has steadily decreased (Figure 4, p. 5).
  • Since 2001, abortion rates have fallen among women aged 15-34. The sharpest decline in abortion rates occurred among women aged 18-19 (15 fewer abortions per 1,000 births) and aged 20-24 (13 fewer abortions per 1,000 births) (Figure 5, p. 6).
  • Of the 21,186 abortions performed in 2014, there were only 36 instances of post-abortion complications (Table 10a, p. 26). That means 99.8% of abortions were performed with no medical complications.
  • Of all abortions performed in 2014, 53% were performed before 9 weeks of gestation. 31% were performed from 9-12 weeks of gestation. 13% were performed from 13-18 weeks of gestation. Only 2.1% of all abortions were performed after 19 weeks of gestation (Figure 3, p. 2).
  • In 2014, 510 abortions were performed after 19 weeks. Of those abortions, only 1 abortion was performed on a viable fetus. The other 509 abortions were performed on non-viable fetuses. (Table 18, p. 39).

In short, in the state of Ohio…

  • the number of abortions have decreased
  • the rate of abortions has decreased
  • complications of abortion procedures are extremely rare
  • 97% of abortions are performed before 20 weeks
  • after 20 weeks, abortions are almost always performed because the fetus cannot survive outside of the womb.

All of this information makes me question the purpose of the Heartbeat Bill, which now awaits your signature in order to become law.

Is it to decrease abortions?

I doubt it. They’re already decreasing.

Is it to protect women’s health?

Clearly not. Abortions are incredibly safe.

Perhaps passing this law is a moral endeavor?

We should not impose one group’s definition of morality over all residents of this state.

The best conclusion that I can draw is that this bill is purely political. It is a means to appease a vocal and staunchly pro-life segment of Ohio’s population at an opportune moment, presumably to give the U.S. Supreme Court a reason to revisit their decision on Roe v. Wade.

But let’s be honest here.

Many of the people who express such disgust for abortion will never, ever face a reality in which the Heartbeat Bill will ever affect them.

They are men. They are women who would never have an abortion because of their moral opposition. They are women past the age of childbearing. These groups of people can vociferously support anti-abortion laws with no consequence to themselves.

But I am a woman who is affected by this law. I’ve got skin in this game.

As I mentioned before, my husband and I wanted to have a child. We were responsible. We got married, started our professional careers, paid off debt, and made plans for when to have our first child. The importance of my right to have an abortion never occurred to me. After all, we were trying to get pregnant.

But as I held the sonogram pictures from our 20-week ultrasound for our first child, a terrifying thought struck me.

What if we had found out that our child had no brain? Or no kidneys? Or some other fatal abnormality? Would we have been able to have an abortion?

20-week-ultrasound

Truthfully, I didn’t know at the time if the state of Ohio had any abortion restrictions.

The thought scared me. That if we had received devastating news at that ultrasound, that my choices about how to deal with that news might be limited depending on where I lived.

I began to realize that, for me, preserving the right to have an abortion isn’t about “killing babies.”

For me, it’s about offering options for the grieving process.

When you already know that your child will not survive, you fall into this quagmire of grief. The last thing that you need is the government telling you what you can and cannot do in order to move through that grief. Some women find comfort in giving birth and holding their child for however long their child lives. Other women find comfort in ending their pregnancies in the womb, so their child will not be born into a short life of pain.

In Christmas 2015, I had to walk through that path of grief. At nine weeks of pregnancy, I watched the doctor show me our silent, motionless baby, floating on the ultrasound screen. No heartbeat. I do not have the exact words for how I felt in that moment. It was an awful feeling of denial, anger, sadness, guilt, and frustration.

I had the choice to either miscarry naturally or to have a D & C.

I waited for my body to miscarry naturally. But it wouldn’t let go.

After a week of carrying death inside of me, I just could not take it anymore. I wanted to move on. I wanted to let go. I was ready to move through my grief. I called my doctor and scheduled the D & C. The procedure was quick and uneventful. I had no complications. In five months, I was pregnant again.

But under this new law, if my baby still had a heartbeat, even if the diagnosis was terminal, I would not have been allowed to choose that same path. I would be forced to bear that grief for as long as my body wanted. Only then would the government be satisfied.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that all women have a choice. And because of that ruling, no woman is forced to walk a path that she doesn’t want to. No one will make her have an abortion. No one will make her carry her child to term.

In the end, it’s the mother who bears the emotions of her choice. She is the one who cries the tears. Not the advocacy groups. Not the protesters. Not the government. She, alone, lives with her choice.

And with that in mind, I hope that you consider voices like mine above the voices of those who have no personal stake in this issue. Women like me are the ones who will be affected by this law.

I am not a baby killer. I don’t disrespect life. I don’t need to be taught a lesson in personal responsibility.

I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a Christian. I’m educated, thoughtful, responsible, and compassionate. I deserve to be trusted to make my own health decisions.

Please remember that as you make yours.

Respectfully,

Sharon Tjaden-Glass

Dayton, OH 45459

 

 

What I Know About Muslims

prayer

 

If you’ve never talked to a Muslim, I write this for you. Maybe you’d like to know more about what Muslims are like, but you’ve just never had the chance to talk to one.

Maybe you are a little afraid of Muslims.

Maybe you’re a lot afraid.

Wherever you are in your familiarity with Islam, I write this for you.

Not many Americans have had the opportunity to know and interact with as many Muslims as I have. And so, I consider it both my duty and my gift to share what I know and what I have seen.

***

I first started teaching university international students in 2006, which was one year after King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia allocated a boatload of money for Saudi citizens–both men and women–to study abroad. Indeed, for the past ten years, I have taught hundreds of Saudi citizens, not to mention students from Kuwait, UAE, and Libya. Nearly all of my students from these countries were Muslim, though it’s important to mention that not all of them were.

Before I started teaching Muslim students, my knowledge of the Middle East and Islam was relegated to what I had read in the news of my post-9/11 world. I was a sophomore in college when September 11th happened and it awoke in me a new desire to understand the Middle East and Islam.

Why do they hate us? I remember thinking. Why do they want to hurt us?

Most of what I pieced together included a bunch of disjointed ideas about the Middle East, gathered from the news.

  • Many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian.
  • The United States wanted to have a presence in the Middle East to get oil.
  • Women in the Middle East were oppressed, couldn’t drive, and were forced to wear veils.
  • Jihad meant “holy war” and it was required of all Muslims.
  • Criminals could be beheaded.

This fragmented understanding of Islam and the Middle East is what I took into my classroom at the beginning of my career.

Just as all Christians cannot be described in generalized terms, neither can Muslims. They have their Five Pillars of Islam. But referring to their Pillars of Islam didn’t show me their humanity in the same way that teaching them did.

Allow me to share some stories with you.

***

Zeanab

My first Saudi woman was named Zeanab. She was all smiles. Smiling. All the time. That is how I remember her. She was married to another student, Ali. They were newlyweds. Zeanab believed in destiny and God’s presence in her life. She told me that she had a dream of her husband before they met.

Zeanab was sharp and studious. She always, always, always did her homework. She talked in class. Frequently. She enjoyed working with other students. I loved having her in class.

I remember that another teacher had asked Zeanab if she had helped her husband with his essay. The teacher felt that Ali’s essay did not resemble his usual work and suspected that Zeanab had, probably unknowingly, committed academic dishonesty.

I remember that Zeanab came to me, in tears, at the beginning of one of my classes. She told me,

“I swear to you now that I am not helping Ali with his homework. But if you believe that I am, I will take the zero.”

I remember that.

***

Abdullah

Abdullah was like a lot of my young, 20-year-old Saudi men: single, humorous, and a bit clueless about general life skills, not to mention study skills. He lived with some cousins and friends, other young men just like him. They congregated outside of the building and smoked together during breaks. He was constantly coming to class late and not doing his homework. He fell further and further behind. His test grades were poor. He started acting out in class, and it was driving me nuts.

I scheduled a midterm conference with him, totally expecting him to be either defensive of his actions or combative. I was ready for chauvinism. I was ready to level this guy.

But when he walked through my door and sat down, I changed my mind. Instead of bringing the pain, I asked him what was going on in his life.

He stared at his shoes. He was silent.

“What’s going on, Abdullah?” I softened my voice. “Why aren’t you getting to class on time?”

Silence.

“Is something wrong?”

He looked away, but quietly said,

“This is the first time I live without my mother.”

With his profile facing me, I could see the tears. He pinched his eyes.

In that moment, I was ashamed at myself for assuming that he was just another tough guy who couldn’t stand having an American woman teaching him. Here was a boy trying to be a man, uprooted from his culture, and handed an armload of responsibilities that he never had before. It was like watching a novice swimmer trying to dog-paddle across a lake–with anchors attached to his feet.

***

Asma

Asma joined my class in 2008-2009. She and her husband came from Libya, just several years before the 2011 revolution and toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. They had a little boy, I think around 2-3 years old at the time. While she worked to finish her English language studies so she could start a Ph.D. in pharmacology, her husband stayed with their son at home.

And then she got pregnant.

We talked with her about how the pregnancy would impact her studies. She was determined to finish, but her due date was about one month before she would complete her English study.

It didn’t stop her.

In my morning writing and grammar classes, she was like a tiger feasting on a fresh pile of meat. She would devour everything that I said. While other students struggled to stay awake, she would take mountains of notes. She asked questions. She wrote my answers to her questions in her notebook. She reviewed her tests and asked about her mistakes. Then, she tried to learn from those mistakes.

But she was also putting her body under intense stress.

She went into labor early. I can’t remember how early she gave birth, but her daughter was born just under six pounds. Tiny. But perfectly healthy.

She missed Thursday and Friday classes.

She was back in class on Monday.

She finished our program on time and started her Ph.D. program.

There are few students in the past ten years that I can remember being as driven as Asma. But what made her truly unique was that she always, always, always asked how everyone else was before she talked about herself. She would periodically bring in Libyan snacks and sweets to share with the whole class, including a carafe of Arabic coffee.

She did not complain. She would privately talk to me about the stress that she was experiencing, but she never outsourced her frustration to external factors.

She always saw herself as the one who had control over her life.

***

Hathim

Hathim was in my Fall 2011 class. He was a brilliant student. He was one of the few students in my career who asked me to explain the past perfect tense to him–and then immediately got it. And immediately used it correctly in his writing. Hathim was preparing to enter the Master’s program in electrical engineering.

One day, Hathim was talking excitedly to another student in Arabic before we got started.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

“You know what King Abdullah just did?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“He’s going to allow women to vote in local elections soon.”

His eyes shone.

***

Fahad

My father passed away on a Thursday night in June 2014. I found out the following Friday morning. We drove to Minnesota over Father’s Day weekend to attend the funeral. I was gone from class for a whole week.

When I checked my email after returning home, I saw email after email from students, most of them from my Muslim students. All expressing their condolences.

Then Fahad came to my office.

“Teacher, we just wanted you to know that we are so sorry about your father. Be patient, Teacher. God is with you.”

***

Here is what I want to say about Muslims:

When I was in my early 20s, I used to think that Islam somehow convinced its followers to hate Americans and Christianity.

But after just a few interactions with my Muslim students, I knew that could not be the whole story.

I could not simplify terrorism’s origins to strictly religion. My students followed a different religion, but I could still see myself in them. I could see their humanity. Their vulnerability. Their generosity. Their love. If they followed a religion that necessarily espoused hatred, how could their hearts be so tender to someone like me?

It just didn’t make sense.

The jihadist terrorists that we so often hear about in the news are sacrificing themselves for a distorted, extreme version of Islam–but the people who are nurturing and training those terrorists are doing so for much more complex political and economic reasons. Islam doesn’t teach Muslims to be terrorists and jihad doesn’t call all Muslims to strap on suicide vests.

Islam is being used as a tool of terrorism, but the roots of terrorism are economic and political.

But blaming the whole religion of Islam is much easier to explain.

It’s more convenient.

Even though it’s completely misinformed. Even though it’s devoid of context. Even though it’s devoid of humanity.

So when I hear that the idea of establishing a registry of Muslims in America is being floated as an idea that the Trump administration is considering, I smell opportunism ready to reap the harvest of fear.

I can see plenty of Americans–many who have never personally interacted with someone who is Muslim–nodding their heads along with the idea.

Jihadists terrorists need to be stopped! Look what they did to Paris and Brussels! We’re next! Find out who’s here and vet them! Give them tests! Find out who supports Shari’a law! We’ve got to know what they believe and what their values are! They’re anti-American! They’re the next Trojan horse!

To those Americans, I offer you not only my stories of teaching my Muslim students, but also my stories of learning from them what the heart of Islam is.

It’s their intense love and devotion to their family. They cannot understand how Americans could support the idea of nursing homes.

It’s their generosity and hospitality. I cannot tell you how many plates of dates I have been offered and how many cups of Arabic coffee have been poured for me.

It’s their devotion to their faith. To witness all of your Muslim students, faithfully fasting every day in the month of Ramadan. To hear them fall collectively to their knees during Jummah, their Friday prayer. To see them stop in the middle of the day to pray.

These are values and behaviors that I have witnessed over and over again across a range of students from many countries over ten years. To be sure, there is a great range across all of those I have known. Some are more conservative and some are more progressive. Some are a little more hesitant about participating in American culture and others throw themselves headfirst into the American life. Some were amazing students whom I enjoyed teaching every day and others were a pain in the neck and teaching them was a struggle.

But even across the wide range of my experiences, I could see the values and behaviors that were shared among all of them.

I am humbled by my Muslim students.

Because in the beginning, they were more accepting of my religion than I was of theirs.

Week 30: Sitting in the Discomfort

I wish I were talking about the physical discomfort of pregnancy. The concrete discomfort that grows heavier and heavier as these third trimester days pass one after another.

But I’m not.

***

I was struggling with the idea of going to church on this first Sunday after the election. I knew that I would be worshipping God alongside people who had voted for this man. I knew the anger and frustration that I would feel. I knew someone would say something that would send my blood pressure soaring.

But I went.

Because I needed healing. I needed to hear, Help,  save, comfort, and defend us, Gracious Lord.

I sat in an adult Sunday School classroom in which, at nearly 35 years old, I was the youngest person in the room.

We listened to an episode of a DVD series by Max Lucado called You Will Get Through This. Before the election, those words had comforted me through the difficult moments of pregnancy. Now, those words address a completely new range of emotions.

I told myself, No. You will not bring up the pain of the election. You will not be the one to instigate a conversation. You are not here to argue. You are here for healing.

But it didn’t matter. It was on everyone’s mind.

I mean, look at this last election, an older man said. And now people are protesting like this? What has happened in the last twenty years? How did we get here?

I think it’s an erosion of values. Look at the young people of today. They have 1,000 “friends” on Facebook, and they think that’s connection. When I was a kid, we talked to each other. Young people today aren’t really connected to each other.

Yes, I’ve noticed that too. When I was a kid, there was more expectation of looking out for your neighbor. We’ve lost that neighborliness. And we need to bring that back.

It’s Christian values specifically that are being eroded. I mean, I can’t speak to what Muslims are teaching, I don’t have an understanding of it, but we’re starting to see a real decline in Christian values among our young people.

Right! Young people aren’t going to church the way they used to. And why? Where did they go? Why aren’t they coming?

Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, ones that I don’t know that we can get into now, but it’s having an effect for sure. We see those values falling away more and more.

It was at this point that I thought about leaving. My heart was racing. I was fuming.

Geez, I have no idea why Millenials are leaving the church, I sarcastically mused. Could it be because they don’t think there’s a place for their opinions? Could it be because they are being labeled and dismissed as whiny and disconnected? Erosion of values? What about the values that more Millenials have than Baby Boomers? Values like respect for sexual orientation and differing religious views?

I am a regular contributor to this class. I don’t just sit there and say nothing. I open up. I offer personal stories from my life. I allow myself to be vulnerable in this classroom because, usually, I feel surrounded by supportive fellow Christians. But the next words out of my mouth were going to be full of hurtful, angry words.

So I shut up that morning. Because my words would have only fueled the fire already ablaze in that room. Because there was only enough time to really get pissed off at each other. Not enough time to actually talk through an issue.

Not that morning. That morning, I needed to calm down and think.

I needed to sit in the discomfort of being generalized and labeled and dismissed. I needed to feel the way that millions of working class Americans have been feeling for years. I needed to shut up and listen.

I haven’t been doing enough of that lately.

I let this room full of Baby Boomers talk and I listened to their concerns. I listened with the intention of understanding how they were drawing conclusions.

***

My epiphany didn’t happen in that moment. It didn’t even come to me on that day.

The next day, as I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition, I heard a segment on interviews with working class voters in New Hampshire. Then, a light bulb.

The way that I felt in that Sunday School classroom was the same way that many of the rural, working class of America has felt for years. They have felt that their ideas and concerns have been too often generalized, labeled, and dismissed. They have felt forgotten and unimportant. And in Donald Trump, they saw a person who has pledged to not forget them.

The racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, the lying, the bad business practices… All of that just comes along with Trump’s package. But for many of these voters, all of those vices are not horrible enough to deny Trump their vote. And as disturbing as I find that dismissive attitude, I have to acknowledge that their decision is coming from a need for self-preservation.

He’s going to make America great again.

He’s going to bring back our jobs.

He’s going to bring life back into our dying towns.

Even if he doesn’t accomplish all that he says, at least we’ll get something.

And what about racism and xenophobia? When everyone in your immediate social circles is white and native-born Americans, these vices tend to not rank high on the list of disqualifying characteristics in a candidate.

After all, it doesn’t affect you.

It doesn’t affect your family.

Sure, it will probably affect someone. But that someone is probably a “bad person.” They probably deserve it. And it won’t affect your life.

Perhaps it’s quite telling that the people who have been downright mourning this election for the past week are people who have family, friends, and coworkers who belong to the targeted groups that Trump has scapegoated for the past year and a half.

For them, this election has hurt those they love. They have real fear and anxiety over the future and those fears aren’t completely groundless. Overt racism and hate crimes have jumped since this election. At my own university, faculty and students of color have reported racial bullying on our campus.

***

It used to be that tensions were higher between different cultural groups. Now, tensions are high even between generations of the same cultural group. Our realities are wildly different.

In talking with my own mom, I saw it.

Why are people just now acting racist like this? She wondered aloud. What makes them think they can act like this?

Mom, the racism was always there. It was just under the surface. Now, it’s coming out.

I just can’t believe that.

Of course she has trouble believing that.

Because she grew up in white Christian America. She doesn’t have a non-white friend who was flipped off by white men in a pick-up truck sporting proud Confederate flags. She doesn’t have students who were denied entrance onto a public bus, “unless they took their burqas off” (they were wearing hijabs, but I’m sure the driver didn’t know the difference).

For my mother, it is incredibly difficult to see this racism–because she doesn’t have much interaction with people who aren’t white and aren’t Christian.

But I have to admit that I am also blind.

Because I have benefited from globalization, I don’t have to live in a world where I can’t find a job. A world in which I have been outskilled by a younger, more educated workforce. I don’t have to face that everyday.

Believe it or not, I have empathy for this situation. Because it happened to my father.

He was a working class man with a high school education who was left further and further behind by the increasing technological demands of his job. The burden became so great, he had to retire early. For a man who relied on his work to define his identity, the blow of leaving his job was so crushing that he never truly recovered from it.

***

We have to start recognizing our blind spots.

We have to start trying to understand why many of us view this election as another example of how racism and sexism continue to go unchecked, overlooked, or downright condoned.

At the same time, we have to start trying to understand why many of us view the ability to consider racism and sexism in this election as an absolute privilege.

I can just hear the working class voices right now: Wow, must be nice to be able to be upset about racism and sexism. I’m furious that I can’t pay my rent every month. That I can afford even Obamacare. But, you know, sucks to be you.

When we say “let’s come together,” God, I hope we mean, let’s compromise.

God, I hope “let’s come together,” doesn’t mean, “Just accept that you’re wrong already and come over to the good side. The ‘American’ side.”

But we can only hope to recognize the importance of compromise if we find those spaces in our lives where we connect with people who are different from us. Different in education, race, religion, social class, and on and on. We need to hear different voices. Many different voices. And if we can’t hear them in our immediate communities, we need to seek them out.

***

The other day, I went to seek out how some of my more conservative family members–aunts, uncles, and cousins–were responding to the election. I looked up a few on Facebook and read through their recent posts.

When I got to my uncle, I did a double-take.

Do you know this person? Facebook asked me. Then it showed me a green button to Add Friend.

My uncle had unfriended me on Facebook.

I thought it was a mistake.

But no. He had definitely unfriended me.

Did I say anything to him to offend him? Did I like or react to something that he didn’t like? What did I do?

I still don’t know. Other than being a left-leaning family member.

My heart ached.

To be fair, I didn’t grow up with regular contact with this uncle. We lived in different states. We might have met a few times at family reunions. But just two years ago, he drew close to me and my siblings when my father, his brother, passed away.

He started sending me and my siblings weekly remembrances of my father, who had just then died. Every week or so, he would email some thoughts and memories that he had of my dad. He opened a window into who my father was as a young man. In time, he fell out of the practice of sending us those stories. I didn’t begrudge him of that. We’re all busy. Grief remains, but time marches on.

Our connection to each other became his occasional pictures in my Facebook feed. Fishing and flowers, lakes and his shadow on the ground. Picture of his wife, my aunt.

Now: Gone.

No more window into my father’s life.

What this election is doing to families is sad. Just plain sad. Politics shouldn’t override family relationships. Family should be sacred. We might disagree with each other, but families shouldn’t decide to cut each other off because of political disagreements. Just because what we say to each other makes us uncomfortable.

So I will sit in this discomfort.

I won’t walk away from the table.

I’ll keep going to church.

Even though we are a divided country, I will continue to show up. I will continue to represent the groups to which I belong.

Millenial. Mother. Liberal. Academic. Lutheran.

I’ll keep showing up. I’ll listen to you.

I hope you’ll keep showing up. And that you’ll listen to me.

 

When Pro-Life is Anti-Health

I’m an avid watcher of Samantha Bee.

I love her so much.

In a recent episode of Full Frontal, she dives into the murky intersection of women’s health, abortion, and miscarriage. While the media prefers the clear-cut terms of “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” Samantha Bee has brought together a collection of women’s interviews that demonstrate just how complicated these issues are.

Especially when those issues are governed by a specific set of religious views.

In these interviews, women describe how and why they were denied care by Catholic hospitals that were required to follow a Catholic health care directive that forbade doctors from providing birth control, performing tubal ligations, or performing abortions.

Even if the life of the mother was at risk.

I’ll let these women speak for themselves.

***

Mindy Swank: Forced by a Catholic hospital to continue an unviable pregnancy after her water broke.

“…he tried to breathe, he was turning blue… he wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t a magical time, like people think.”

Dr. Rupa Natarajan: Describes how the directives restricted her ability to care for her patients at the Catholic hospital where she worked.

“…to save her life, I needed to terminate the pregnancy. But because of this religious directive, I had to transfer her to another facility when she was medically unstable.”

Jennafer Norris: Denied a tubal ligation by a Catholic hospital during emergency c-section, even though her life would be at risk if she were to get pregnant again.

“I had to make a choice to survive and to give my child the best option.”

Melanie Jones: Spent two weeks bleeding and in unnecessary pain after a physician at a Catholic facility refused to remove her dislodged IUD.

“…Because my IUD was a non-hormonal type of birth control… (the doctor told me that) the sole purpose of your IUD is to prevent pregnancy, so we can’t help you.”

***

Take a good look at these women.

I hope that you remember them the next time you think that anyone–religion or government–should come between a woman and her health care.

I believe and will always believe that women deserve to be trusted to make the best decision. As Mindy Swank said,

“I was the only person in the world who loved my baby… and yet people who don’t know me and don’t care about us, who never have to live with the repercussions, were making decisions for us. And that just feels very wrong.”

Week 21: Streeetch

I forgot this feeling.

The feeling of a weight underneath my skin, pulling at my sides and stretching me forward.

It makes me do that “pregnant stance.” The one you see women doing, hand on the hip, rubbing the sides of their bellies.

Yeah, that.

pregnant-belly

It makes me sore.

I totally forgot about the soreness of being stretched like this. Last time, I swear I didn’t start feeling like this until I was about 7 1/2 months pregnant. But, like I’ve said in previous posts, everything is happening earlier this time.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that my daughter is also being stretched right now.

***

This Sunday, she began Sunday School.

Revise that: She tried to begin Sunday School.

Until now, her concept of church has been the thin path between the front doors and the wonder that is the nursery, full of wall-to-wall toys. Not one, but two dollhouses. A Lego table. Blocks, blocks, blocks. Books and puzzles. It’s a veritable playground of fun. We started taking her regularly to the church nursery when she was about 14 months old. After the first few weeks of newness, she began to love it. The church nursery entered the category of “familiar things” in her life, just like our home and daycare.

But this past Sunday, I think I overwhelmed her. I took her into the church sanctuary and introduced her to a new concept of church.

Singing. Listening.

Streeetch.

More singing. More listening.

Streeetch.

Prayers.

Streeetch.

The pastor called all the kids to the front of the church and I led her squirming, protesting body to the front of the church.

Streeetch.

She sat in my lap, pressed against my ribs. We listened to the pastor’s children’s message.

Then it was time for Sunday School.

Streeetch.

SNAP!

Let’s just say, we tried.

I managed to wrangle her squirming, protesting body down the stairs to where the other kids were gathered.

But she was just. Not. Going. In.

No amount of consoling or explaining helped.

It was just too much for one day.

We went back to service, took communion, and then I took her back to “home base.”

The church nursery.

She hugged the nursery workers and settled in with her favorite toys. We talked about how hard change and adjustment can be on kids.

But who am I kidding? It’s hard on me, too.

It hurts to see your kid stretched way beyond what they can handle. It hurts to see them curl into themselves to protect themselves from the uncertainty of the unfamiliar.

But that is part of our responsibility as parents. To reassure our kids that change is part of life. That the unfamiliar is scary because it’s new–but that doesn’t mean that the unfamiliar is bad.

“Sometimes, new things are scary,” I told her. “But when you do them again, they’re not new anymore. And you might even like them.”

She hugged me.

Streeetch.

***

Last Thursday morning, my husband and I watched the image of our next child take shape on the screen as the sonographer moved the wand across my belly.

20-week-ultrasound

It’s funny.

I don’t really remember much about my first pregnancy prior to 20 weeks. It was all a blur of nausea, indigestion, and fatigue. Most of what I remember happened from 20 weeks to 40 weeks.

Childbirth education classes. Hospital tour. Baby showers. Key conversations with my doctor. And all the weight gain and discomfort. It was a continual ramping up of events, week by week.

So I know that we have a long way to go.

We still have no idea how the second half of this pregnancy will go. And then there’s labor. Birth. And the hell that is recovery and the postpartum period.

But in the face of all this uncertainty, it helped to hear the sonographer’s words, “Everything looks great.”

So I, too, will work on adjusting. This pregnancy and birth will be entirely different, no matter how similar they may feel now.

This is a new life.

A new path.

Streeetch.

What I Used to Believe

cross

I used to think that a spiritual life was carefully lived

Flawless, or close to it

I learned about The Box

I learned how to crawl inside and close The Lid

How to feel comfortable inside it

The Box was for my own good

The Box would keep me safe

But the waters flowed in anyway.

And when I ran out of air, I pushed The Lid off.

***

I thought that was the end

That there would be no room left from someone like me

Someone who hated the Box

Someone who wanted to understand the Lid and the Walls and why the Box has four of them.

***

But then a truth: That to be Christian

is to believe that the sacred can become profane.

And the profane can become sacred.

To believe that life is full of these moments

When the two sides blend seamlessly from one to another

Life does not progress at an even slope, rising ever into our American horizon

No.

Life takes you away and brings you back.

Like a good song, life moves in circles, in waves

Return and repetition

Sometimes, we call them breakdowns or failures

But we are made for this

We are made to

return

relive

perfect

***

So if you’re carrying the cross, thinking there is a finish line

Lay it down, already

If you carry it to prove your struggle to be holy

Lay it down, already

Don’t carry the cross to prove your sacrifice

Carry it because you must

Carry it now because someday you won’t be able to

Carry it for someone else

***

I am belief and despair, strength and weakness.

I am tension and struggle and doubt and hope.

I am happiness and grief, delight and disgust.

I am handshakes and cold shoulders, warm hugs and hot sex.

I am Christian. I am worldly.

I am sacred. I am profane.

I am perfectly unholy.

I am rising above my humanity and succumbing to it.

I am what makes God smile.

I am what makes God cry.

I am all of these now

But I may be none of these tomorrow

But no matter what shape I take

I am always Loved.

Book of Life and Death: A Book Review

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few weeks ago. Two middle-schoolers handed me a grocery sack and said that I could fill it with as many books as I wanted for $5.00. This was one of the books that I grabbed.

Signs of Life

I’m so glad that I did.

***

Signs of Life is a cogent blend of journalistic investigation and memoir that explores hospice, palliative care, and our modern preference for treating the human body as a battle field and death as failure. But it’s so much more than that.

Brookes shares stunning observations and insight about the dying process and the grief that follows it. He does more than gather facts. He narrates his mother’s last six months as she slowly dies from pancreatic cancer. This bittersweet combination of history, science, and human experience provide a multi-layered approach toward understanding this topic.

I was first struck by one of Brookes’ first arguments:

The more we try to avoid death, the more likely we are to end up with exactly the death that we fear the most: helpless, afraid, in pain, alone. (p. 24)

Brookes combines interviews with doctors and hospice nurses along with his own experience with observing the dissection of a human cadaver to show us the absurdity of treating death as failure even though death is absolutely certain.

Who knows whether our panic and hand-wringing in the hospital corridor are at the thought that someone is dying, or that someone is dying the wrong death, in the wrong place? (p. 205)

This observation, I feel, is key to unlocking some of our modern discourse around death. We all know that we’re going to die. But when our moment has come, we’re encouraged to deny that it’s happening. This isn’t my time. This isn’t the way.

***

We typically view the concept of living in physical terms: breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity. But this is limited, as those of us who have watched our loved ones fade away piece by piece can attest. In an especially insightful passage, Brooks defines living in terms of our ability to be creative, even in the most mundane sense. As his mother’s health declines to the point that she struggles to continue her silversmithing, Brookes explains how losing this ability to create is a kind of death.

Any action is an act of knitting the past with the present to create the future, of making things that will exist that will have consequences, that, like earrings, will still be there to be given away or shown off. Inaction, the stricture of a sterile environment, severs the connection through time and thus suspends life, as if death had soaked like a beet stain backwards through time and saturated the fabric of life still left. (p. 168)

Our ability to create, then, becomes the vehicle that connects our past, present, and future selves. As Brookes narrates his mother’s dying, we see her selves slowly detach from one another: first, from her future self, and then from her present self. What remains in her final days is a self that digresses further and further from the present world until she is nearly completely engulfed in her past.

It makes me think of what my mother told me about my father in his last days. Suffering already from Parkinson’s and depression, my father died of complications after he fell and broke his C-2 vertebrae. Several days before he passed away, my mother walked into his room in the nursing home and he asked her if she had “his whites washed.” She asked him what he meant. He said that he needed his whites washed so he could get ready for his shift at the bakery. In his mind, he was living in a moment that had happened thirty years earlier.

***

Brookes also expresses the experience of grief in words that resonated deeply with me. Here are several quotes that need no explanation. They are just pure, simple truth. I underlined them. I starred them. I nodded ferociously.

I had thought that grief was a sign of lack of completeness, a wailing for the piece of the self that is missing, and as such, bereavement is necessary for us to individuate, to be whole. Now I saw that individuation is a machine’s notion of humanity: we pour into each other like inks in water. To be complete is not to be unaffected, or if we are separate, we are also part of something else, something we have in common, that infiltrates us at every cell. (p. 210)

Somehow grief had given me an exquisite awareness of the difference between the things that were suffused with life and those that lacked life energy, or abused it. (p. 211)

I felt as if I were breaking myself into little pieces and feeding them to vultures… The difficulty comes in the crossover between the inner and the outer worlds, having to deal with the pressures of the material world at a time when we have just been somewhere else. (p. 247)

I didn’t have the energy—and perhaps above all I didn’t want to have to be the one to spell it all out: I was wounded, and I wanted someone else to take care of me, someone who understood it already. (p. 248)

***

About a year ago, I opened up about my own experience with connecting birth and death in a blog post called “What Labor and Death Have in Common.” In summary, I feel strongly that experiencing the pain of childbirth pushed me into a space where death came up alongside me—and I allowed it to stay. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear it, simply because there was no time to fear it. I was consumed by the waves of contractions. And so I entered a space where my body and mind went to mute and all I could sense was… quite frankly, God.

This experience was so profound that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wished that there were some way to fully convey what I had sensed during these hours, but language couldn’t fully articulate it. I felt that I had grown a new pair of eyes that could see a whole new view of the world, as if I had learned how to bend light to hit objects in a new way.

I wrote about this in my book, Becoming Mother, but I placed it in a separate appendix at the end of the book, not totally sure that all readers would truly understand what I was talking about, or perhaps be turned off by too much “woo-woo.”

So imagine my surprise when I read Brookes’ account of how he felt after had said good-bye to his ailing mother and accepted her impending death. His description of walking alongside the inevitability of death mirrors perfectly my own experience in childbirth and the first few days that followed.

I was of this world, but not affected by it, my mind unencumbered by gravity. Remarkable thoughts kept occurring to me… It was as if I had burrowed through all the rubble of tedious necessity in my life and found myself in a chamber lit by some unknown source, walls covered with pictures and hieroglyphics… I felt immune to trouble or hardship; I couldn’t imagine anything that could defeat my spirit. It was as if I had an umbilicus to God… The euphoria lasted about five days… (but then) I felt like I had lost my soul: I simply couldn’t think myself back to the state of grace I had known… Being so close to death, it seemed, was offering me wisdoms that I wasn’t using. (pp. 193-195)

I could have written these exact words about my own encounter with experiencing and witnessing life’s beginning.

In fact, in my own book, I write these words:

I felt the presence of God for the first time in the darkness of a shower, hours past sleep deprivation, and in the hardest hours of labor. In those sacred moments, punctuated with pain, I was finally truly aware of a portion of the self that is beyond the body and beyond the mind. My spirit soared into the foreground. And there, in the quiet darkness, as water spilled over me, I was connected to the Divine. Its energy flowed into me, took control, and pushed me forward. It stayed with me for days. It caused me to glow. (p. 274)

After such a profound experience, I also went through an opposing wave of emotion, feeling that I had lost my center. I kept trying to get back to those moments of clarity and spiritual connection, but it just wasn’t possible.

I had a similar experience when my father passed away, though not nearly as profound. And it truly made me a believer that those who draw near those moments of birth and death also enter sacred spaces. Life coming in. Life going out. Life all around.

***

After I finished this book, I flipped to the front matter to check its year of publication and noticed a stamp from the library on the inside cover. Discard, it read.

I laughed. The irony was too much.

Then I flipped back to this passage:

To talk only of death makes death triumphant. The best thing we can do for the dead and for ourselves is to give them back their lives. It’s a kind of resurrection. (p. 232)

I feel that this is what I’ve done for Signs of Life today, as I retell its story, hoping that it finds even more readers 20 years later.

To the Syrian mother of triplets, fleeing from ISIS

GREECE-EU-MIGRANTS

(LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Dear Syrian Mother,

I saw this picture of your two-month-old triplets this morning.

I thought so many things when I saw this picture, and probably in the same order as the concerns that you currently have.

Are they eating enough?

Is their mother eating enough?

Do they have diapers? Diaper cream? 

Where do they go if they need a doctor? Medicine?

Where do they sleep? Are they safe? Are they dry? Are they warm?

Then, my thoughts shift to the emotional.

How is their mother able to sleep when she doesn’t know where they will be tomorrow?

Is their father falling apart because his ability to “be the strong one” is wearing thin?

Syrian Mother, my heart bleeds for you.

I remember having JUST ONE two-month-old baby. I remember that she used 9 or 10 diapers per day. She ate about 25 ounces (about .7 liters) of formula per day. She needed routine to help her sleep well.

She needed me. All of me. There was no room for me to be anything else besides a mother.

And then I think of you. Doing all of this for three newborns. While fleeing from war.

My heart bleeds for you.

Because of this war, you cannot be only a mother.

You are not only divided by three children, but you are divided by competing roles. 

You need to be a fighter. You need to be a doctor, an advocate, a peacemaker, and sometimes a beggar. You cannot nurture when you are looking for food. You cannot soothe when you are trying to secure shelter. You cannot be who you want to be as a mother because you are investing all of your strength into survival.

Thank God, you have family. Thank God, you have friends. This network of humanity is keeping you from falling beneath the pounding waves.

Syrian Mother, I don’t know if you are Muslim or Christian.

BUT THIS DOES NOT MATTER.

Please forgive the insensitive, decontextualized comments of American governors and presidential candidates, all of them fighting to make a name as politicians who are “tough on terrorists.” They are the loudest voices that are heard across the world, and it is embarrassing.

Please forgive the indifference of many Americans who don’t see your struggles as their problem. Many Americans are so busy with providing for their own families that they allow their opinions to be formed by their favorite “flavor” of media, or worse, by the opinions of everyone around them.

But not all Americans are like this. Some of us see these horrific pictures of what has happened to your life and we see our common humanity.

I felt this way especially after I saw this photo.

 

Syrian_boy

When I saw this photo, I cried.

No, I sobbed.

For a horrific moment, he was my daughter.

He lay lifeless in the sand in the same way that my daughter does in her crib when I sneak into her room at night to watch her sleep.

For a horrific moment, I was his mother.

I imagined how desperate and horrible life would have to be for me to get into a boat with my two children and hope for the best. I imagined that I would have to feel like there were no other options than to risk the danger of crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece on a boat packed with other people.

I imagined telling my children that we would be okay. That they should hold my hand and stay close to me as we got in the boat.

I imagined my last living moments on this earth, my children torn from my hands, their screams, their calling for mama, as I would desperately try to swim to them.

I imagined screaming out to God to save them.

If not me, then please save them. I’ll do anything.

I imagined all of this.

It made me sick.

And it made me desperately care about what I could do to help.

It made me wonder exactly what was happening in Syria so I could help other Americans understand your plight. It made me read. It made me question. It made me think, and think, and think.

I am saddened and disappointed in myself that it took this photo to make me truly have compassion for what you are experiencing.

***

Syrian Mother, I am a Christian.

I am a Christian who not only accepts the religion of Islam, but also respects your religious beliefs.

I don’t think you need to change. I don’t think your religion makes you less valuable as a human being. I don’t think you’re going to hell or that God loves me more because I follow the “right religion.” I don’t think you’re misguided or that you believe in a lesser God than I do.

I believe you are a child of God. Just as I am.

As a Christian, it is my duty to love. It is my duty to have compassion and to care for you as I would care for myself. It is my duty to care for your children as I would my own children.

But I realize that I am only able to publicly share these thoughts because I’m not afraid of being murdered by extreme Christians who believe that such proclamations amount to heresy and are worthy of execution, which is exactly what ISIS is doing to other Muslims.

Syrian Mother, if you are Muslim, I can sympathize with you about this movement of extremism within your religion. We don’t have a Christian equivalent of ISIS, but we have radical, extreme, fundamental Christians who speak loudly and seek to bend American laws and policies in favor of their personal beliefs. They feel justified for these actions because they believe they are acting on behalf of God.

Something strange is going on in modern American Christianity. There is a culture of fear and xenophobia that is fueled by a lack of understanding and familiarity with Muslims. Conservative Christians are reading the Bible literally, word-for-word. They have completely decontextualized the words in the Bible from the times and the people who wrote them. Even though we live in a modern, educated era when people should be able to critically think about the issues that face us, many Christians choose to view science and rationality with skepticism.

But perhaps the bigger problem in American Christianity is that many Christians don’t understand Islam. And they don’t think they need to because they already have “the truth.”

So they don’t know Islam.

And we are afraid of what we don’t know.

Many Christians don’t know Muslims. Muslims mostly exist on TV and in news reports. The word “Muslim” is often used in the same line as “terrorism” and “bombing,” and these associations are hard to break.

But I have been blessed to have these associations broken by my Muslim students, many of whom come from Arab countries and who are learning English to earn college degrees. It is through my teaching of Muslim students that I have come to be familiar with the faith of Islam and the lives of my Muslim students.

When we returned to our class after the horrific attacks in Paris on November 13th, one of my Muslim students said,

“Americans don’t understand that ISIS wants to kill other Muslims more than Christians. They want to kill Muslims who aren’t following Islam the way that they think Islam should be followed. Americans don’t hear the news about all the bombings and killings that are happening in mosques. They only hear about the attacks that happen in Western countries.”

Syrian Mother, I am blessed to be able to hear the voices of my Muslim students. They put a face on this war that is happening thousands of miles from where I live. They establish that common humanity between all of us.

Because of that, I am not afraid of you.

I am afraid for you.

I am afraid that fear will paralyze countries from taking action to help. That the possibilities of all that can go wrong will stop us from doing what is right and good and humane.

But more importantly…

I don’t want you and your children to suffer any more.

I don’t want you and your children to feel unwanted and worthless.

***

I know that we live worlds apart. We don’t share a culture, or a language, or a religion. But we share a common humanity.

And so I believe that in our hearts, we want the same things.

I believe that…

we both want to live in a world where everyone feels accepted and valued for who they are.

we both want to live in peace.

we both want enough food and shelter for our families.

we both want good education for our children.

we both want to know that God has not abandoned us in our desperate times.

Syrian Mother, I pray for you.

But I hope that you will pray for me, too.

I hope that you will pray for all Americans who need to remember that we are a country was built by the hands of immigrants who were once as desperate as you now are.

I hope that you will pray for all Christians who need to remember that they are called to live in love, not fear.

With deepest respect and compassion,

Your American Sister

God, the Mother

God, the Father. God, the Son. God, the Holy Spirit.

“God the Father” Gottvater Veronese, Paolo. 1528-1588.

 

Adam, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Moses, Samson, Saul, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, John the Baptist, Jesus, Saul/Paul, Peter, James, Philip, Simon, Jude, Andrew, Bartholomew…

jesus-washes-feet-of-disciples-02

 

And then there was Eve, Sarah, Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Mary, Mary Magadalene… These are the ones I can remember.

Looks like I left out three of them...

Looks like I left out three of them…

***

How we imagine God makes a difference.

How we imagine God’s followers makes a difference.

***

For man did not come from the woman, but woman from man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but woman for the man.” 1 Corinthians 11:8

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed and the Eve. Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” 1 Timothy 2: 11-14

***

I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, where such verses were summoned forth as rationale for explaining the subjugation of women according to the Bible. But I always had a problem with these verses.

Man did not come from woman?

It was clearly a reference to the creation story in Genesis. I understood that. And at the time, I believed in that story. I was taught to read the words of the Bible literally and not get lost in the sticky web of interpretation.

Read the words. Believe the words.

But I could not understand why the apostle Paul was so adamant to throw the creation story in the face of the reader. Man did not come from woman? Give me a break. Men come from women all the time. It’s called birth.

But Eve was deceived, not Adam.

Who cares? I’m not Eve. Hadn’t I been taught that I was responsible for my own actions, not the actions of my ancestors?

I just didn’t get it. Why was it so important to blame women for the fall of all creation?

***

During my senior year of college, I was reading some chapter in a linguistics textbook about the “rhetorical situation”: speaker/writer, message, audience, and context. Then, it struck me.

Women were not the authors of the Bible.

The authors were all men. The people who got to make the decisions about what to put down on paper–they were all men. Men got to decide which women would be mentioned and how they would be represented.

But then, new questions opened up: Why were women left out of Bible stories? Why were their stories less worthy of telling? How had women ended up so powerless in societies throughout the world? Had it always been this way? Were men just naturally stronger and better at organizing political and economic systems?

***

When I wasn’t studying and reading for my other classes, I spent a lot of time in the stacks at the library. Not kidding. I was on a quest to learn more about the origins of Christianity, and I was determined to come away from college with some answers. The more I read, the more I added to my reading list.

And I came across this book:

When God was a woman

This book rocked my world.

The author, Merlin Stone, pieces together archaeological evidence and primary texts from a number of ancient civilizations to present a narrative of a grand shift in how people imagined God. In 25,000-15,000 BCE, many civilizations all created similar religions, ones in which the chief divine figure was a Goddess. She was called different names, but in all of these societies, she was revered for her powers of fertility.

Why fertility?

Because we worship what is important to us in our time and in our place.

And fertility was a power so great at that time that it was worth worshipping.

At this time, people didn’t recognize the relationship between sex and reproduction. The idea of paternity was non-existent. Therefore, women were seen as powerful because they had the greatest power of all: the power to give life.

Because paternity was non-existent, children were raised both by their mothers and the community. Mesopotamian societies at this time had mostly matrilineal descent patterns, with children tracing their origins through their mothers. Inheritances were passed from mother to offspring.

In addition, societies that worshipped a Goddess were typically relatively peaceful agrarian communities. Labor was not spent on making weaponry, but rather on growing food, care-taking, and leisure. In short, the Goddess of these communities mirrored what they people valued: the ability to produce and reproduce.

But things shifted.

Stones states that a group of “northern invaders”, also known as the Indo-Europeans, entered into Mesopotamia in wave after wave of invasions for 1,000 to 3,000 years. The timeline is not completely clear since writing systems were not used until about 2400 BCE. This is why we don’t know as much about the Goddess religions. No one was writing it down. The most prevalent and convincing evidence of this time period are the statues of the Goddess found in numerous civilizations.

Ishtar, goddess of Bablyon, 19th century BCE – 18th century BCE

Indus Valley Terracotta Figurine of a Fertility Goddess, Pakistan/Western India Circa: 3000 BC to 2500 BCE

Indus Valley Terracotta Figurine of a Fertility Goddess, Pakistan/Western India Circa: 3000 BCE to 2500 BCE

Venus Fertility Goddess from Falkenstein Austria 6000 BP

Venus Fertility Goddess from Falkenstein Austria 6000 BCE

Mother goddess Nammu, snake head Goddess figure, feeding her baby - terracotta, about 5000-4000 BC, Ubaid period before the Sumerians

Mother goddess Nammu, snake head Goddess figure, feeding her baby – terracotta, about 5000-4000 BCE, Ubaid period before the Sumerians

However, the Indo-European invaders enter the historical record around 2000 BCE, when they established the Hittite civilization in modern day Turkey. Historical accounts of these invaders call these groups of people, “aggressive warriors, accompanied by a priestly caste of high standing, who initially invaded and conquered and then ruled the indigenous population of each land they entered” (p. 64).

Among these warriors were the ancestors of Judaism, which explains a lot of the imagery used in the Old Testament to depict God. (trembling mountains, lighting, fire, etc.) Just as the Goddess mirrored the lives of the people in Mesopotamia, the God of the Indo-Europeans mirrored the lives of the Indo-Europeans. Their God was a young, war-like god. He was a “storm god, high on a mountain, blazing with the light of fire and lighting” (p. 65). Because these people originated from mountainous areas in Europe, they had probably interpreted volcanic activity as supernatural events. Therefore, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to see how and why the Indo-European God was seen as a god of fire and lightning.

And because the Indo-Europeans were engaged in constant invasions of occupied lands (i.e. what was important to them was conquest), it’s not difficult to understand why the God of Indo-Europeans was a war-like God.

As the Indo-Europeans moved into the area of Mesopotamia, they brought with them their war-like practices, their religion of the storm god, and their patrilineal social organization (if their God was a man, didn’t patrilineal descent seem natural?). As they fought against the societies that worshipped the Goddess, they won. They crushed the previous civilizations with their advanced weaponry.

But it took longer to crush the religion.

***

I won’t go into all of the details of When God was a Woman (it’s far too detailed to do it justice in this single post), but I will summarize Stone’s account of how the Goddess religions were crushed and the new Indo-European God was revered.

As I mentioned before, the idea of paternity in societies that worshipped a Goddess was non-existent. Eventually, people figured out the connection between sex and reproduction. As the Indo-Europeans won more and more land and power, they sought ways to destroy the old religions that stood in their way.

One specific practice of the Goddess-worshipping societies that especially bothered the Indo-Europeans was their sacred sexual customs. In some Goddess religions, temples offered space to people to have sex, which was a form of worship to the Goddess of fertility. Some women lived their whole lives in these temples and were considered holy women. Although the paternity of their children was unknown, their children were not considered illegitimate. They simply took their mother’s name and acquired her status.

This drove the Indo-Europeans nuts. It was completely incompatible with a patrilineal descent system.

After all, how could a patrilineal system be maintained unless the paternity of children could be certain?

And in order to determine paternity…

you have to control women.

More specifically, you have to control their bodies.

Stone suggests, “it was upon the attempt to establish this certain knowledge of paternity, which would then make patrilineal reckoning possible, that these ancient sexual customs were finally denounced as wicked and depraved and that it was for this reason that the Levite priests devised the concept of sexual ‘morality,’: premarital virginity for women, marital fidelity for women, in other words total control over the knowledge of paternity” (emphasis in the original, p. 161).

So the challenge of the Indo-Europeans was to end the sacred sexual customs. And they did so through demonizing the worship practices of the Goddess religions, which then gave birth to taboos and shame surrounding women and sexuality.

***

It’s not hard to see that the Indo-Europeans were successful. The thought of women freely having sex with whomever they choose elicits words of shame like, whore, slut, prostitute, while men who engage in the same behavior are called studs. Women can’t enjoy sex too much (or risk being labeled nymphos). Women are more judged for having sex before marriage (girls should be virgins at their weddings, but boys are expected “to sow their wild oats”) and outside of marriage (cheating men can be forgiven, but cheating women will be forever shamed.)

***

Hearing this narrative of the predominant religions that once existed and comparing them to the major religions of today helped me understand that there is nothing natural about seeing God as a father. Seeing God as a father makes sense when we see the world through the lens of a patriarchal society. This view of the world is further upheld through religious texts that were written at a time when the Indo-Europeans sought to assert their superiority over the older Goddess religions.

Understanding this helped me to read the Old Testament with different eyes. The authors of the Old Testament were writing from a place of inadequacy. The religion that they were offering people of Goddess-worshipping societies did not appeal to them. Although the Goddess-worshipping civilizations were conquered, their hearts remained true to the religions that had shaped their world for several thousands years.

The writers of the Old Testament were writing for the purpose of redefining their current reality–a reality in which other, more established religions around them conflicted with their long-range goals of asserting widespread domination.

They were writing to redefine “normal” and “natural.”

And they succeeded.

 

***

As a Christian, I say “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit” in the liturgy.

But in my mind, I add, “God the Mother, God the Daughter, God the Holy Spirit.”

And when I say “God the Mother” to myself, I feel differently about my relationship with God. When I imagine God as a mother, I feel nurtured, accepted, and loved, regardless of my actions. When I imagine God as a father, I feel fearful and judged, like I must be on my best behavior. That I must put on a good show and not disappoint. (I should add here that my own father was nothing like this. I think my psyche hearkens to archetypal portrayal of fathers in our culture.)

Of course, God is neither man nor woman.

But how we imagine God makes a difference.

***

 

Other reading if this topic interests you:

  • Armstrong, Karen. (2004). A history of God: The 4,000 year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 2nd ed. Gramercy Books: New York.
  • Stone, Merlin. (1976). When God was a woman. Harcourt Brace & Company: Orlando.
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