Embodying Liturgical Seasons: Thoughts on Motherhood & Church

Post author Beth Honeycutt is a home economist living in Mars Hill, NC.  After divinity school, she served for four years as Minister of Christian Education at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC.  She is now a full-time caregiver to her 7-year-old son and 3-year-old boy-girl twins.   She feels blessed to be parenting in partnership with her husband.  Beth is a Sunday School teacher at her church, Circle of Mercy, in Asheville, NC.

I love my church.  I am profoundly grateful for the ways they have supported me as a person and a mother.  Circle of Mercy shares the values of Equity for Women in the Church, as two women and one man founded the church in 2001.  We currently have two female co-pastors, whose lives as daughters, sisters, spouses, mothers, aunts, and grandmother strengthen their authenticity and authority.

I love that my children see collaborative leadership in preaching, worship, and decision making among men and women, old and young, lay and clergy, gay and straight.  I love how those who serve communion weekly always stoop over to share the bread and cup with my children.  I love how sometimes children are the communion servers, and others must stoop over to them.  I love that each staff person, from pastor to child care worker, is paid the same hourly rate.  Some staff are paid more than others because they need more time to carry out more duties, but the work roles have equal value.  We are by no means a perfect church, but it feels like home to me and my family.

World Communion Sunday at Circle of Mercy (photo by Marc Mullinax)

World Communion Sunday at Circle of Mercy (photo by Marc Mullinax)

In light of my gratitude for my pastors and congregation, this blog invitation gives me an opportunity to put in writing some ideas I have been busy living.  Here at the edge of Eastertide, I find myself thinking how we can experience the rhythms of the church year in our bodies. Let me give you an example from my own life of early, biological motherhood: Lent, Eastertide, and Pentecost resonate with pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.

Lent and pregnancy are periods of Waiting.  Preparation.  Expectancy.  Lent comes from a word that means “lengthen.”  Before Easter, the days lengthen (in the Northern Hemisphere).  The baby makes the pregnant mother’s belly lengthen, widen, and round: past a certain point, I couldn’t see my feet while standing!

Lent is traditionally a season of repentance, of setting aside certain things to make room for spiritual growth, of reordering priorities.  Pregnancy is a period of setting aside and reordering, too. The mother’s organs literally shift to make room for the womb.  I felt new priorities because of the new life inside, like the craving to have a specific food right-here-right-now or the sudden need to rest when I wasn’t planning a nap.  I declared a fast of sorts, abstaining from and limiting certain foods, even as my protein, calcium, and water intake skyrocketed.  I bonded with the toilet to respond to nausea in the beginning and a pancake-shaped bladder in the end.  I redefined “accomplishment” as my feet were propped after merely folding a load of laundry and checking the mail.  

Just as Lent is a time to develop new ways of being and moving in the world, the pregnant woman walks differently, sits differently, stands differently.  Belly grows, breasts grow, ankles grow, feet widen, head to toe bears weight gain. In the weeks nearing birth, I turned sideways in order to access the kitchen sink or the cutting board of vegetables.  St. Paul admonishes the Colossians to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience…love” (3:12, 14).  As the pregnant woman embodies these values, she must literally wear different clothes!  I had new priorities because of the new life inside. 

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are traditional Lenten practices that shape our intentions and flesh out our desire to draw close to God.  Today, we may interpret fasting as promise-making, either by giving something up, or by vowing to do something important, all with God’s help.  Preparing for a baby has the fast-like quality of vowing to love, care for and cherish.  It involves child birth classes.  Car seat wrangling.  Diaper acquisition.  Baby care plans.  Name deliberation.  All with God’s help.

Almsgiving is generous concern for others.  In pregnancy, the “other” is both part of you and separate from you.  Because all nutrition goes first to the fetus, the woman’s very bones will cry out and surrender the calcium stores it had for her if she doesn’t eat enough of what the baby takes.  It is all too easy for women to give to others before we give to ourselves.  We must guard against depletion, anemia, burnout.  Through mothering and ministering, many women find it easy to be generous to and concerned for others.  Let us include our needs in this too!

Sometimes, almsgiving means that we are the poor and needy.  We may need to receive the almsgiving-generosity of others.  Church people are ever so generous to expectant and new parents, but only if I let it be my turn to receive, my turn to be vulnerable, my turn to rest.  From my own church community, I love that I asked for and received a blessingway in the weeks prior to my final pregnancy and delivery.  I love how people came to our apartment to help us with infant babies and a preschooler.  I love how even more came to help us move from apartment to house three years ago; we call ourselves “Mercy Movers” and help each other as needed. 

Conversation, bargaining, blessing, pleading with the divine….in other words, prayer…..comes naturally to most pregnant women.  In a single moment, I felt intense gratitude, desperation, humility and wonder.   My need for God and delight in God reached new heights.  I rediscovered Psalm 16 when I was pregnant: “…I keep the Lord always before me…my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure…”

And then. And Then!  The moment we’ve all been waiting for—Easter and birth!  Easter–a high, holy, feast day for the Church—celebrates Christ delivered unto life.  Birth delivers the child into air and light.  Birth delivers the mother from sciatica, gestational diabetes, heartburn, preeclampsia.  Birth fulfills the waiting to meet the little one face to face.  Birth is an incredibly definitive moment for mothers, a holy ground of opposites.  The travail of labor renders her weak and suffering, yet also strong and capable.  She may feel afraid and shy, and then totally uninhibited as the baby is placed in her arms!  Aware of both her mortality and power, the mother feels exhausted and elated, drained and triumphant.  Jesus dwelled in opposites too: he was dead, but is risen.  Risen indeed!

The miracle is irrepressible—neither controlled nor contained, but embraced.  The mother’s body stretches, the stone is rolled away.  I may not know how I gave birth; I may not know how God raised Jesus from the dead.  But I do know the miracles: the womb and tomb are empty!

People gather for Easter and for births.  There is much to celebrate as our joy is made complete.  The days are accomplished after 40 days in Lent and 40 weeks of pregnancy.  In awe of new life, we welcome the new baby and the resurrected Jesus.   

We also see that even a gorgeous, healthy, “normal” baby may have a misshapen head from passing through the mother’s pelvis.  We realize that Jesus was resurrected with his wounds.  The Eastertide stories show us that those closest to Jesus didn’t even recognize him.  Sometimes birth stories are complicated or traumatic.  The joy may be accompanied by regret; both are real, both are true.  With thanksgiving, we understand our need for God even more deeply.

After the birth, with God’s help, we incorporate the miracles into our everyday lives.  Breastfeeding and Pentecost bring us into seasons of discovery and growth, as new life in community takes root.  The resurrected Jesus appears to his friends, ascends to heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends on the people.  They see fire, they speak with different tongues, they share their wealth, they provide for the widows, they struggle through conflicts.  Their new community takes shape.

Breastfeeding was my favorite aspect of the early motherhood cycle.  Nursing was not such a demanding, head-to-toe-altering experience as pregnancy was; it was certainly less demanding than the hardest work of my life in labor.  Breastfeeding was a season of bonding on the outside, and getting to completely fill the need of the little one.  A desperate baby makes the mother dripplingly desperate too.  The breastfeeding hormones relax the twosome, then both are relieved and satisfied…the baby blissfully full, the mother blissfully empty.  I nursed my sons, and pumped and bottle fed my daughter; I feel the bonding and closeness is comparable…and must salute the added family workload tending bottles!

In the economics of nursing, mom and baby can trust one another to take and produce enough.  All that is needed can be found through sitting and eating together, praying and learning one another’s cues.…especially if the partner comes with frequent glasses of water, grandma changes a diaper, the church brings a meal, and grandpa folds the laundry.  This resonates with the shared common life of the First Church.  As the mother traces her stretch marks, as the disciples trace the marks in the risen Jesus’ hands, feet, and side—the miracle changes the whole community as it welcomes and provides for new life.

In my own church community, I love how from 9-18 months of age, my babies sat in high chairs and ate all through worship.  I love that an 85-year-old widower always asks how I’m doing: “Are your children running you ragged, or are you having a ball, or both?”  I love how my honorary grandmother in the church blesses the noise and shuffle of children in worship: “It means we have a hope and future!” she declares. 

Of course, not all of us know so intimately the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, but how might each of us recognize the rhythms of preparation, labor, new life, and bonding?  What if it is through fostering or adopting children?  Or through any relationship we build?  Through work and ministries?  And is our awareness of these rhythms heightened when women are our pastors?