Word of the Week


This Advent, I’m thrilled to offer you the voices of some articulate storytellers— writers with wisdom to share about how their experiences of pain or loss is birthing in them something beautiful. Not in a Pollyanna sort of way of course, but in the spirit of what Leonard Cohen once wrote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”  

And isn’t Advent is all about light shinning in the darkness? 

If you missed Meredith's or Mary's story, check them out. Today, I’m glad to introduce to my friend, Anne Bruce, a fellow Disciples of Christ pastor and a mom. 


Advent. The time of year I get to say: “This season snuck up on me this year!”

When we think about it, when are we ever ready? When are we ever ready to wait…. ready to plan…prepare…. do all the things our hectic culture demands of us and then somehow dig around in our ridiculous schedules to find some time to be with God?

It seems a little bit odd to find myself in this state right now, especially during Advent.

My second child, Michael, was born on October 6th. The night of his birth was long, painful, and exhausting.

When he finally came into the world, it was clear that although it was his due date, he still was not ready to be here.

I barely had a chance to look at his little, slimy face before he was rushed off to the nursery. Four hours later my husband and I learned that our pediatrician wanted him admitted to a special children’s hospital in Louisville. And so nine hours after giving birth I found myself in the passenger’s seat of my husband’s Jeep driving an hour and a half to see my baby boy and to hold him – wires, cords, oxygen and all – for the first time.

I consider myself incredibly lucky. His lack of response at birth did not herald an illness or complication. It was simply precautionary reasons that he was in the NICU. So what happened? I guess, to put it bluntly, it took him much longer to wake up than it should have. It took him longer to adjust to the cold air and blinding light of life outside the darkness of the womb.

But he was supposed to ready! It was time for him to come! Lord knows I was ready. And he should have come easily and quickly and painlessly because all second babies do, right?!

And me – I am supposed to adjust to this new life with a toddler and newborn easily, quickly, and painlessly.

And Advent – it comes every year and we should expect it and be ready for it and be filled with joy because it is a joyous season!

We know the culmination of our waiting comes in the beauty of Christmas Eve candlelight.

We know the promise of God in a tiny baby is coming again to save this messed up world. Easily, quickly, painlessly.

Except that it doesn’t work that way. It never does. Not for any of us.

I fool myself every year thinking that this Advent will be different. And I fooled myself before Michael was born thinking there would be no pointless tears this time around.

I ran across one of Mary Oliver’s poems the other day titled, “The Uses of Sorrow.”
Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift.

I have walked in the darkness of postpartum depression once already.

And I know that the grateful joy that lives in my heart will once again register in my brain. I didn’t expect to be in this place for a second time. But I feel its ugly head rearing as, one by one, another candle is lit on the Advent wreath.

So once again, much like my sweet boy, I find myself struggling to adjust to the cold air and the blinding light of life. Life outside the darkness of depression.

I’m just not ready yet to be the person I know I am; to live the beautiful life I have been given; to smile without faking it.

And yet, because I’ve been here before….and because there are so many beautiful people in my life who will hold me up….and because I trust in the promise of “God with us”…..I will wait through this season that I’m not ready for, and I will live to see the light shining brighter than before. I will be better, stronger, and more giving because of it. And hopefully, so anne-and-kidswill my precious children.

Because it takes years to understand that darkness is a gift.

Anne is a co-pastor with her amazing husband, Jeff, at an awesome Disciples of Christ church in rural Kentucky.  Not only do they live together and work together, Anne & Jeff also parent together with their 2 year old daughter, Abbey, and 2 month old son, Michael….along with two dogs, Patch & Pepper, and a cat, Skeeter. 

Anne enjoys the relational side of ministry and has been exploring the spiritual practice of journaling and writing for a few years now.   Writing about her experience with postpartum depression is something that is new and a little bit frightening for her…. especially because she loves her children more than she could have ever imagined possible, and the gratitude she has for her life and family is deeper than the sea.

[If you missed Joe's previous two posts on "Waiting with Hope" and "Love That Groans" check them out!]

 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:17-19

 Hospitals are inherently disorienting places, even though the people who work in them try hard to offer “hospitality.” My wife, Sarah, and our unborn son spent five days in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia after fetal surgery to address my son’s spina bifida birth defect (see December 8th post). For a few minutes, our baby was exposed to the world then put back into the uterus for what we hoped would be another three months. I can only imagine that it was disorienting for him. It was definitely disorienting for Sarah to be so completely vulnerable. We had to trust a lot of extremely qualified and very nice strangers. We were totally out of our element.

Our medical team insisted we stay in the area for at least a few weeks for monitoring before traveling back to North Carolina. After leaving the hospital, we had planned to stay in the local Ronald McDonald House (www.rmhc.org), but there was no room in the inn. Our backup plan was not a barn out back, thankfully, but another nonprofit, “Hosts for Hospitals.” (www.hostsforhospitals.org) This organization finds hosts in the Philly area for people who have to travel there for medical treatment. Our hosts, Steven and Ellyn, were in their sixties, empty nesters with a lovely spare room in their suburban home. They were devout Jews and fascinated to be hosting Sarah and her Episcopal priest husband. Their trust was amazing, as we only spoke to them twice by phone before showing up on their doorstep. We planned to stay maybe a few nights until Ronald McDonald House had room.

A few nights became three weeks. Steven and Ellyn encouraged us to stay, and Ronald McDonald stayed full. Although HfH had told us to be responsible for our own food, Ellyn insisted on cooking. She said it was because they kept kosher and did not want us to have to worry about using the right dishes. I think she just enjoyed hosting. Sarah was on bed rest, and Ellyn prepared a tray for her. The second night we were there, Sarah had some disconcerting pains during dinner, and Ellyn calmly wrapped up our bagels so we could take them to the hospital. When we came home a few hours later, they were waiting up to make sure we were okay.

I told Steven and Ellyn they had taken literally the Torah’s commandment to care for and love the stranger. Sarah and I were sojourners who had left our home and other children to visit this foreign place. In the midst of waiting, we discovered the joy of receiving literal “hospital-ity.” In contrast to the disorientation of the hospital, the care and healing we experienced in a stranger’s home was re-orienting. The welcome we received helped us get our bearings. It became a sabbath time, even sharing Shabbat dinner with our hosts each Friday night. In between my care giving tasks for Sarah, I delighted in finding flowers at the farmer’s market for the dinner table. During those weeks, we finally took some deep breaths after weeks of anxiousness. We were never totally at rest (Sarah was recovering from major surgery after all) but we were comfortably uncomfortable.

Advent is a season of disorientation and hospitality. Joseph and the pregnant Mary wander to Bethlehem, even as Mary offers room in her body for the baby Jesus. We open our doors to family and friends, maybe even strangers (the new significant other of an old relative perhaps), who have traveled far from home. Their presence is an occasion for joy but also makes us a bit uneasy. As we anticipate the birth of Christ in us, we encounter our own inner needy folk, asking for directions and care. We are both strangers and hosts, vulnerable and welcoming, disoriented and grounded. One of Advent’s gifts is a sense of Sabbath comfort that reorients us as we uncomfortably wait.

Let us pray:

O God, as we wait for Christ this Advent season, help us to open the doors of our hearts to welcome you. Give us the grace to joyfully accept the welcome of others, that together we might find rest in each other’s hospitality. Help us to love the needy ones within us as well as the strangers we meet as we try to find the way. Amen.

JoeHensleyThe Reverend Joseph (Joe) H. Hensley, Jr. works as a full-time priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and three children (ages 11, 6, and 2). This Advent he is waiting for God to help him laugh (again!

Third Sunday of Advent

[If you missed Susan's two previous posts, read about "Waiting with Hope" and "Love That Groans" from this midwife]

You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. Isaiah 26:19b

As a midwife, I adore the sound of a newborn’s first cry cracking through the silence of the birth room with all the majesty and promise of new creation, all the power of God in one frail, squirming, wet body.  Each time, I am humbled.  Each time, I am inspired.  I see mothers and fathers reach new heights of joy and new depths of love in an instant, experiencing a glimmer of God’s love for them in the crashing wave of their own love for this newly born child.  The unspeakable joy of this moment is more magical and miraculous that any other I’ve seen, but it would be a great loss to see only the monumental joy of birth and to miss the joys of preparation.

Waiting and preparing offer the gifts of heightened senses, tuned in, zoomed in awareness of the good graces in daily living: food, companionship, home.  The ritual of “nesting” at the end of pregnancy can be a neurotic frenzy of angst and impatience, or a joyful preparation, an act of loving invitation for the beloved child one awaits.  Waiting for labor as mother or midwife, surrendering to complete lack of control, inclines one to alternately live on one’s toes, primed and ready, and then to rest and shore up, preparing for work.  I notice in this rhythm, when counting days, that hours crawl by, but life passes in a flash, so we must relish what is now.  Joy’s invitation is to embrace the liminal space, the in-between, to be present to this exact moment, this exact gift, and to be grateful.  Joy is born out of gratitude, and is a choice, an attitude, a muscle that must be exercised.  Thus each chance we have to practice pausing and offering thanks in the midst of anxiety is an opportunity to grow our joy.

Two months ago, I was preparing to accompany my sister to Uganda any day.  She is adopting a baby boy and has been waiting for a court date since late August.  I’d had a full summer of work and travel and was ready to put my head down and plow through another several weeks away from my home and husband.  Instead of unpacking from my previous trip, I just started packing for Uganda.  But my bag sat open for one week, then another.  I gradually pulled things out as I needed them and realized that I was languishing in a sort of no-man’s-land of time.

How could I settle in, get comfortable, and invest here and now when I might get called away any day?  What should I do with these days, weeks, months that I didn’t expect to have at home?

I had somehow managed to forget all of the tools I’ve honed for living on call as a midwife: waiting for births, sticking to my rhythms and rituals as I wait, and picking them up as soon as I return.  Cooking good food, exercising, and waking early in the morning all help me to stay oriented despite the unpredictability of my work.  And when I’m at my best, loyal to my rhythms and rituals, I find deep joy in daily life and deep joy in the exciting interruption of birth.

Waiting for my sister’s adoption is no different.  This is an invitation to be present to my home and my husband even as I wait for the exciting interruption of adventure.  I have begun to embrace this in between time, gone for hikes and watched the leaves turn as seasons change, and still I wait.  I am preparing a place for this child in my heart, and I relish the gifts of daily life, trusting that the time will come.

Let us pray:

God, please heighten my senses and tune me in to the small miracles of every day living, to the joys of preparation for that which I await.  Teach me to grow my own joy through gratitude and presence in each moment of every day.

SusanSmarttCookSusan currently lives with her dear husband and black lab in Edmond, OK where they attend St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. On any given day you will find Susan nurturing her small midwifery practice, her kitchen, and next year’s garden. Her hope for this advent is to be quiet, to reach deep into the soil of her soul with the tangled roots of her faith, and to find there the living water that nourishes new hope, love, joy, and peace into bloom.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to this present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. Romans 8:22-25

Learning to wait for a baby means learning how to groan…and waiting for a baby savior is no different. This Advent, as we wait with Mary for her child to come to term, I find myself wondering why groaning must be a part of the holiday season?

Why ruin a perfectly good Advent with talk of groaning?

For one thing, bringing babies into the world is hard work. We all associate labor with groaning, but mothers don’t just groan during labor. The nine months of pregnancy offered more opportunity than I wanted to practice the work of moaning and groaning. Between low back pain, sciatic nerves, constipation, and “fatigued stomach muscles,” I learned to groan like a champ -- and my pregnancies were “uncomplicated”!

Another reason that learning to wait for babies means learning to groan is that every pregnancy doesn’t make it to term. Even in this scientific age, when we embark on the journey of bringing new life into the world, we embark knowing that we might lose the life we are trying so hard to create. Parents embark on the journey of creating new life knowing that it might end in a groan of loss.

In that first Advent season, Mary didn’t know if Jesus would make it to term. She didn’t have an ultrasound; she couldn’t hear his heartbeat. Mary didn’t know if Jesus would make it through the process of labor. She didn’t know if he would be born whole. She didn’t know if she herself would make it through the delivery alive. For those very real reasons, that first Advent was a season of groaning. That first Advent was a season of awesome wonder and trepidatious hope...because Mary wasn’t sure that Jesus would make it into the world alive.

It is tempting to think that we know better in Advent 2013. It is tempting to think that with our Christmas pageants and live-nativities we are just re-enacting a drama whose end is sure. But the truth is, as we look around us, there are plenty of reasons to fear that Jesus isn’t coming. There are plenty of reasons to groan.

What if December 25 comes, and Jesus doesn’t get born? What if Mary “fails to progress” and Jesus’ entry into the world isn’t smooth? What if Jesus is born…but all of his parts aren’t there?

These questions matter because on December 25, 2013 we have real reason to fear that the Body of Christ will not be whole. The whole Body of Christ will not be swaddled. The whole Body of Christ will not be nursed or held. And if we have not learned to groan about that, our hymns and presents and cinnamon rolls will not reflect what actually happened when Jesus was born into the world.

We don’t already have Jesus…at least, not in his fullness. Waiting with Mary means learning how to groan about the ways in which Jesus has not yet come. Advent is about groaning inwardly as we wait eagerly… hoping for what we do not yet have.

Let us pray:

SarahJobeHoly Spirit, help us learn to groan with you for the ways in which life is not breaking into our world. Teach us how to be grateful for the first fruits while we long for the full redemption of our bodies and your world. Show us how groaning and rejoicing came together in Mary, come together in every mother, come together in you. Amen.

Sarah Jobe is an ordained Baptist minister, prison chaplain, teacher, and mother of two. She lives with her family at the Rutba House, a Christian house of hospitality in Durham, NC. She is the author of Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy. As a prison chaplain, she is hoping for the reconciliation of mothers and their children this Advent.