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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC and the Director of Consulting at Harrelson.Co. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book.

After the Rain

After the rain,

the early morning earth

sighs in relief.

 

Relief –

of having endured

the storm

the thirst

the lack

the absence

the waiting

the wondering,

 

Wondering –

how long it will be

until the next

refreshment

nourishment

taste.

 

The taste

of the cool, clear

rain.

Strolling

We went for a walk today.

It’s one of those days where Spring is creeping in and there’s just something about the weather that beckons you outside to see the bumblebees flying and flirting with each other and to notice the pollen accumulating everywhere. I found myself breathing deeply into the promise of a new season. When I looked back, I caught sight of the little hospital tag on our seven week’s old’s infant carrier.

I thought about last week when we went into the children’s hospital for a routine ultrasound following her breech position in utero and the good news that came back that all was normal and then I started thinking about all the kids and parents and families I saw in the children’s hospital. Because we needed an ultrasound, we were in the radiology department.

Although it wasn’t busy when we were there I thought about the way the newness of the waiting room took me off guard. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know where we were going after the waiting room. I didn’t know anything about the procedure other than the name of the procedure. I didn’t know who would be performing the procedure. I didn’t know what we were looking for or what we weren’t looking for. I thought about how many families spend so much time in this place where we were that there is nothing about the waiting room or procedures or places behind the double doors that are new. I thought about how many people are hurting and how amazing it is that after just seven weeks we were walking together outside in the Spring air with two dogs with their tongues hanging out. I thought about how much pain and hurt goes unspoken and unnoticed in my own city; how many stories go untold. I thought about how bright it was even though it was a cold day when we walked out of the children’s hospital.

Sometimes we get taken to places that are new and scary and uncertain and sometimes those new places open our eyes to a new set of needs just minutes away from our own families.

 

Into the Darkness

I’ve always found it a bit unsettling that the season of Lent coincides with beautiful Spring days like today in the South. While the physical world is beckoning for us to come out and see evidence of new life and the signs that Spring is coming, the spiritual world is calling for us to come within and see evidence of the darkness that resides in each of us.

Perhaps that is the beauty of the season. Perhaps that’s the reason that denominations who haven’t traditionally celebrated fasting and reminders that “we are dust and to dust, we shall return,” have taken on the spiritual practices and rituals of the Lenten Season. Perhaps that is why even cultural Christians can be heard making claims of giving something up during this season.

The paradox of light and dark resides within each of us, but this season especially allows us to acknowledge and live into that paradox. We rise in the morning to darkness awaiting the light. We find ourselves chasing the longer lingerings of light at the end of the day answering yes to our kids’ desire to play just a little longer outside. We crave the light because it gives us hope. We fear the dark because it reminds us of our dustiness. We walk this season with the memory of the cross etched on our foreheads marked as imperfect and mortal.

We walk into the darkness towards the revelation that it is in our imperfections that we become whole.

To Nurse or Not To Nurse: On Aching in the Bones

Oh this question is one that is riddled with mom guilt by too many people because the very nature of the question is binary as if there are only two choices in the quest to nourish and support your child. This is simply not true and the wrong premise. As I work with young mothers and first-time mothers, I often phrase the question, “Are you going to try to nurse?” I explain quickly that whichever they choose is completely fine and that I simply want them to know that I can help them find supplies, resource, and community for whatever choice they make.

If the women I work with tell me that they are going to try to nurse, then I try to point them to resources that will tell them what to expect. My response to this question when I was pregnant with our first child was, “I am hoping to,” understanding that there is no way to anticipate what the labor and delivery experience is going to be like and no way to know what is going to happen with your milk until your baby is actually here. Our firstborn came into the world in a scary and traumatic whirlwind that left me in an emergency c-section and Sam holding our son for close to two hours after he was born and stabilized. There was so much of the time after the surgery in recovery that I don’t remember, but I do remember Sam walking in with our son and saying, “He’s really hungry.” Not sure of how much time had passed since his arrival into the world, I was disoriented and very lost. I pulled him to me and was thankful that he latched immediately and began nursing. This was one thing that went as I had hoped in our labor and delivery story and I couldn’t stop the tears at that moment. That would serve to be the easiest time I fed our baby during the first night of his life full of heel pricks and glucose level reports and ultimately being told we had to give him formula because his blood sugar was too low. We tried to give him the tiny bottle the pediatrician resident gave us only to have him throw up all of it.

By the time the lactation consultant came in the next morning, I was in tears because we had been told that they were going to have to take our son away and keep him for up to 2-3 days. The lactation consultant was the first person I saw after they had taken our baby to the special care nursery. Everything we had experienced all the fear and pain and trauma came out in our conversation, but especially my hope to do the one thing I had left to hope for: to nurse my child. She was wonderfully patient and explained that we could pump and take it to him and that she would do whatever she could to limit the amount of formula he had to get. I was so grateful and relieved.

It turns out that our son only needed one bag of fluids to get his blood sugar back on track and that we were able to nurse from that point on, but there was so much about the actual process of nursing I didn’t know. I didn’t know about the 2-day cluster feeding, but our night nurse was wonderfully supportive and told me each time she came to check his and my vitals what a good job I was doing and how hard she knew it was having had a c-section to reach over and get him to feed him. No one told me about the 2-3 week cluster feeding or how you will suddenly understand the phrase “aching in your bones” in a real and deep way after a night of cluster feeding. No one tells you how physically demanding nursing is or how frequent growth spurts are because your baby needs for more and more milk increases during those first six weeks. And although you may hear a funny anecdote here and there, no one will tell you how frequently you end up in the position where you need to feed your baby and you don’t have the right top on or you don’t have a nursing cover or a blanket and you end up in the bathroom stall trying to feed your baby while not touching anything.

Friends and family may tell you with good intention that “breast is best,” but not how difficult it is to keep your milk supply up if you have to return to the hospital for any reason or return to work or how pumping is not intuitive, but a process with lots of parts and planning. And no one tells you how messy nursing and how many times you will put on a new shirt only to have to change your shirt fifteen minutes later.

I’m thinking about all of these things I didn’t know with our first as we walk this nursing journey again. That lactation consultant who listened so compassionately to our story and told me she would help me learn how to pump and that she would personally go and check on our baby to see what was going came walking through the pre-op curtain the morning of January 22. She told us that she would be the nurse in with us during our c-section and she would be the one who was in charge of watching our daughter and getting us skin to skin as quickly as possible and helping us nurse if that’s what we wanted to do. My partner was the one who recognized her and told her that she was the shining light after our traumatic first night with our son. She smiled and said, “I thought I recognized you.” I don’t know how our nursing journey would have gone if we hadn’t had this woman and the nurse who supported and encouraged me during that first cluster feeding session and if I didn’t have really close friends who sent me articles and sent me stories about their own experiences and told me it was good no matter how long our nursing journey was.

This time I got to be skin to skin with our daughter in the operating room and got to nurse her within thirty minutes of her birth. And although I know so much more this time around, what I ultimately learned is you never truly know how this parenthood journey is going to go and that the most important thing is to feed your child and to seek support from medical professionals, experienced parents, and parents who are right there in the middle of the journey with you. We need community, we need sanctuary to ask questions and to express exhaustion and frustration, we need real stories of real journey and not binary options or easy catchphrases. We cannot do this parenting alone.

Developing Critical Literacy

One of the aspects of our current cultural conversation, especially in regards to a digital presence, is the observation that many, many, too many people don’t know how to distinguish between a reliable source and an unreliable source. Many, many, too many people don’t know how to search and find multiple perspectives. This is something that impacts our ability to make compassionate connections and conversations with each other as well as our ability to make informed and educated decisions.

For me as a reading professional, this is a heartbreaking reality because this is what my graduate work focused on: how to develop critical literacy. This was a bit of a revolutionary goal for me as a teacher in high poverty schools because there was so emphasis of developing grade-level literacy BEFORE developing critical literacy. But are they really different? I would argue that critical literacy, digital literacy, and researching skills like distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources are all a part of literacy. If that is the case, then what we have is a literacy crisis.

I appreciate and support parents, teachers, and indeed ministers who are making efforts to include diverse voices into their own personal reading as well as in their instruction and curriculum. While including authors and voices from different perspectives and backgrounds certainly is important, it is not the only tactic we can take to develop critical literacy.

One of the best books, I’ve ever encountered and that is powerful no matter the age of the audience is Voices in the Wind by Anthony Brown. Buy this book. You will see how one day in the park can look so different because of the person who is experiencing that trip to the park.

We love Sandra Boynton books because they are fun and silly, but there are two books that ask readers to look at a story from multiple perspectives by having almost the exact same page in both books.

The top spread is from But Not the Hippopotamus and the bottom spread is from But Not the Armadillo. We can’t read one book without reading the other book now with our three-year-old and then lining up the books just like this to compare and contrast the two pages. This is an amazing critical literacy experience in a fun and non-threatening way.

Our other favorite is We Are in a Book by Mo Williems. This book invites the characters to break the third wall and realize that they are characters in a book. What a powerful way to illustrate that there is a greater story and that it is not only about us.

The best way we can overcome the literacy crisis we have is to work within ourselves to ask good questions and to work with the people in our lives: children, parents, congregants to look at a story from multiple perspectives and different voices with a calm and understanding presence. Sometimes using children’s literature makes practicing that just a little easier and more fun.

On Due Dates and Expectations

It’s been one week since Baby Girl’s due date and yet we are celebrating three weeks of having her as part of our family. We knew when we were given her due date that we wouldn’t make it all the way to that date because of our labor and delivery experience with our three-year-old, but we didn’t know that she would be a January baby instead of a February baby. As I walked through her due date day, I thought about how due dates really just give us an idea of when a baby might come and not a hard and fast rule.

I was shocked to learn while talking to some of my clergy colleagues that many of them looked at due dates on papers and projects as just that, a guideline. That isn’t me. A due date has always been a hard and fast rule about when something must be done. It would never be acceptable to turn something in after the due date. The only option would be to turn something in early.

But these conversations got me thinking. Why did I hold this perspective while there were many people who held a different perspective and understanding of due dates? To be certain, my place as a white female who grew up in a conservative upbringing plays a role in my understanding and perspective as does my family of origin, but even more so my perspective is tied to my desire for events to go by the calendar and by a plan. It makes me feel safe and indeed in control when I know what’s coming, but more importantly when something is coming. It makes me feel prepared and successful and productive to get something in by the due date. All of this whispers of my desire to have a handle on things.

In just three short weeks, that’s been challenged. Baby girl didn’t come on her due date and that’s exactly when she was supposed to come and when she needed to come. I didn’t get to make the decision on that but had to trust my doctors and their expertise and their experience. I had to depend on them to offer important guidance and I had to let go of my own expectations for when she would join our family. All of this whispers of what we are called to do as disciples. We are called not to be in control, but to depend, trust, and let go of our own expectations in order to be open and ready for what God is calling us to do and how God is inviting us to participate in bringing the kingdom of God here on earth.

Thanks be to God for missed due dates and upset expectations!

On Being an “Experienced” Mom

The last two weeks have been filled with the awe and wonder of new life. Memories of the first days of our three-year old’s life have flooded back in as we get into a routine of feeding and sleeping and being a family all together. Yesterday I took our two-week-old for her two weeks check up and the doctor said, “Do you have any questions?” and I only had one. I can remember that appointment with our son being filled with questions. Is he ok? Is this normal? Am I doing this right?

As the pediatrician was dictating notes to her nurse to go into our daughter’s chart, she said something that struck me: “Mom, is an experienced mom and nurser.” I was caught off guard. I immediately thought: Mom, whose mom, her mom? I hadn’t thought about the fact that I am no longer a first-time mom, at least not of a newborn. I’ve done this before. This idea still hasn’t sunk in.

This week was also marked with the arrival of a parenting book compilation in which I have a short piece. As I reread my own words and my reflections about when I first became a mom five years ago, I realized that five years is a significant amount of time. Five years does mark a threshold that is often called experienced or is listed as a time interval for having experience in a field or profession.

If that’s the marker, then I am also an experienced preacher, an experienced pastor, and an experienced puppy mom. How in the world did that happen?

I guess it happened somewhere in the minutes that made up the 1,825 days of the past five years. The interactions, the challenges, the conversations, the sleepless nights, the minuscule decisions and the time in silence and solitude reflecting, seeking, and wondering if I was doing any of it right.

And all I can think about is all the times that I wish I had been fully present in those moments rather than lost in what ifs and maybes. Because really the challenge no matter how long we’ve been at this parenting thing or this pastoring thing is just that: to be present and to be aware of where we are. To understand, at least in part, that this moment, this conversation, this interaction won’t happen again in the same form or the same place or the same time.

I don’t really think I am experienced at any of this because our daughter is different than our son and our older two girls. This church is different than the other churches I’ve pastored and perhaps that’s where you get labeled as experienced. When you know that you don’t really know and can fully and freely admit that you need all the help you can get from parenting books, from pediatricians, and most importantly, for me, from a partner who is right there beside you traveling the road full of moments with you.

What a Difference a Week Can Make

Maybe it’s just me, but after we found out we were pregnant, I had February 1 in my head and in my heart. This was the day I just knew we were going to have our baby. Because of Ben’s dramatic entrance into the world, we knew we were going to have another c-section and we knew that we would not be making it to her January 7 due date. Our hope was to make it to 39 weeks, which is the longest our doctors would let us go with a scheduled repeat c-section.

I was thrown off when I finally saw the doctor who delivered Ben. She explained because of the way things progressed last time, she really didn’t want to take any chances that I would go into labor and that we would get into an emergency situation. She gave us two dates to consider: one just before 37 weeks and one just after 37 weeks. Suddenly, I felt like I had lost a week. But when was I going to find the bottle warmer and the infant car insert? What about the events at work I had planned? What about that one more week of work I had wanted to squeeze in before her arrival?

What a difference a week can make! Suddenly none of those questions matter at all.

This week, I’ve walked around in wonder that our sweet daughter is already here, healthy and full of life, even though she was a bit early. Her arrival to this world was so much different than our three-year old’s. We knew when she was coming. We knew what time we needed to be at the hospital. We knew what floor we were going to. We knew the routine and patterns of the hospital. We knew what the operating room looked like and what it meant to have a c-section. We knew what it was like to have a newborn.

And yet all that knowing still didn’t prepare me for the awe and wonder when I looked at our sweet baby’s face and said, “Happy one week, baby girl!” What a difference a week can make! I can’t imagine spending this past week any other way than holding and caring for this baby.

This past week has been filled with the memories of becoming a mother, of learning to feed and change and care for a baby. This past week has reminded me how much else there is my own daily life and in my heart and mind that is distracting and really unimportant. This past week has made me stop and rest. This past week has made me marvel at the truly incredible gift that is new life.

And I can’t imagine this week being filled with anything more meaningful and more important than loving this newborn.

What a difference a week can make!

I’m so glad I was wrong about her birthday.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2018

For the last two years, I have participated in the reading challenge on Goodreads. I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books. In 2016, I read 23. In 2017, I read 34. This year, I read 47. I’ll also challenge myself to read 50 books this year. It’s good to recognize challenges often take longer than a year to achieve.

Here’s the list of books I read.

While I recommend almost everything I read this year, I wanted to think about the five books I read this year that most impacted me and why. Books change us and challenge us to see the world and our own realities differently. These five surely did.

  1. The Hate U Give by Angela Johnson: Part of my commitment this year was to read from a variety of different perspectives, concentrating especially on female voices and underrepresented voices in the publishing industry. The Hate U Give is by far one of the best books to offer a new perspective through a first-person lens.
  2. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd: I remember when I first encountered The Mermaid Chair and I thought to myself, “How did I not know this author existed?” I had this same experience when I discovered that she had theological writing I had never encountered. This book is especially significant and important for anyone who was raised with certain expectations of what it means to be female because it is her journey of finding the Divine Feminine. As she wrestles with who she has been and wrestles for who she will be, I found myself and my story again and again in her words.
  3. Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh: This year I started a certification program in Spiritual Direction. As part of that program, I read one book each month. With these requirements, I have encountered new authors and new ideas that have deepened my understanding and my connection to the Divine. This book in particular opened by eyes to just how noisy our lives are and how important silence is to balance out all the noise. Hanh points out how much we resist silence because of how noisy our world is and how we are missing something deep within because of all the noise.
  4. Blessed by Kate Bowler: Although most people know Kate Bowler for her book Everything Happens for a ReasonBlessed is her dissertation work. In this book, she recounts the history of the prosperity gospel and its influence in popular culture as well as religious institutions. As she makes her way through the story of this movement, so much about how our modern congregations view the world, giving, and involvement in the community becomes clear. If you think that this movement doesn’t impact you or your church, you’ll discover how much it actually does as you read this book.
  5. Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene: As our youngest has gained more and more independence throughout toddlerhood, it is important to us that we are fostering not only his physical and mental development but also his emotional development. This book is excellent if you are looking for ways to stretch those little daily decisions, interactions, and communications to a bigger philosophy of parenting.

Perhaps 2019 will finally be the year that I will reach that elusive 50 book goal, but regardless of whether I do or not, my commitment to read and to read as much as I can won’t change. Because it’s in reading other people’s words and seeing the world through other people’s eyes that our own view of the world expands to include other perspectives.