Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Midwife and the Minister

During these next few months I am taking some intentional time to do some vocational discernment before I graduate from seminary. As a part of my process I'm going through some of my old writings... This is a paper I wrote for my pastoral care course- which I took in the summer of 2010... it is long and deeply personal- maybe you have some extra time on break and want to read? If so-I ask that you hold me in grace while you read some of my deepest experiences :)

The Midwife and the Minister

I got out of the large jacuzzi tub feeling cold, shaky, and exhausted. I was between contractions and I was doubting my ability to keep going. The pain was unbearable. Without speaking, my midwife, Sheila, brought a warm, white blanket and wrapped it around my swollen naked body. Standing behind me, Sheila looked to Kyle and smiled with calm, loving assurance as he stood feeling helpless and overwhelmed. With the warm blanket wrapped around my body, Sheila shimmied her hands up and down my back, as you would a child fresh out of the bathtub. I instantly relaxed, feeling comforted and nurtured. Though there was much more pain ahead, I was not alone. As my labor progressed Sheila remained present. She listened to my cues, watched my physical, emotional, and spiritual response to the impending birth of my first child. She assured me that we were ‘almost there’, with out giving me absolute answers to the mystery of labor and life. She sat with my mother, and my sister. She explained to them some of the physiological changes happening, while encouraging them to hold me in grace through my snips for them to ‘be quiet!’.

As the birth of our baby was immanent, Sheila prepared the space, and gathered the team of nurses for the coming baby. Though my awareness was focused solely on my goal of ‘getting the baby out!’, Sheila asked me if I wanted to see the baby as she came into the world. Her actions reminded me of the holy sacredness of this moment as she held a mirror so I could see the head of this baby causing me so much pain. She encouraged me to touch her head, and as she came roaring through the birth-canal, she guided my hands down so that I may be the one to actually carry my child into this world. She gave me the gift of being the first to see my baby’s face by putting the baby directly onto my body. She let me be the one to speak the words, ‘it’s a girl!’. While constantly present, guiding with skill, knowledge, and compassion, Sheila ensured that our birth story was our own to experience and to define.

Somehow I have had the privilege to attended eleven births over the past seventeen years. I believe the moment of birth and of death are of the holiest moments we can encounter. Each birth and death is in itself unique, beautiful, messy, painful, and liberating. Perhaps this is why I was so moved by the imagery of pastor as midwife spoken of by Karen R. Hanson in Robert Dykstra’s book, Images of Pastoral Care. Through Hanson’s words I was able to reflect not only upon my birth experiences, but also on my experience of the wholeness of humanity, and on my call to ministry. I appreciate Hansen’s identification of chaplaincy and midwifery as parallel professions, primarily in the common call to be with people, and to attend people in a process. Hanson says, “In both midwifery and in chaplaincy the focus is not so much on doing, but on being with people in travail. On using our skills and personhood to focus on the unique context and process of the patients and families we are privileged to attend. God does the miraculous work of delivering new life in its myriad forms.” This speaks to my experience in my own labor, the labors I have witnessed, and in the transformative life experiences of others I have been fortunate enough to be a part of. As a woman, friend, and minister, I believe I am called to stand by, to witness, create space, support others, and name the creative and powerful energy of our God who brings new life out of death.

Perhaps my favorite part of this metaphor is the messiness that is innate in the process of birth and midwifery. In spite of the vast medical knowledge we may have about the birthing process, every birth includes risk, is full of mystery, and has inherent death. Hanson speaks to the death of a woman’s former identity, as well as to the possibility of death for both baby and mother. I vividly remember Sheila’s blood covered hands as she worked to remove the now un-needed placenta from my womb. The sights, sounds, and smells of a labor room are all together messy. The new baby often looks more like a purple screaming lump than the clean infant we see in movies. And further, the death of a baby brings unspeakable pain, anger, and sorrow. I walked with a friend who discovered her baby had died in her belly four days before her due date, and have experienced miscarriages with several close friends. The realities of postpartum depression, shifting identity, and changing relationships all accompany this radical experience of life. Just as the role of midwife is full of mystery, risk and messiness, so too is the role of minister.

I have always been drawn to scriptural metaphors which evoke images of motherhood, labor, and midwifery. This is clearly due to my experiences with these aspects of life, but is also due to my appreciation for feminine metaphors for God which challenge the dominant patriarchal language. I greatly appreciated Hanson’s scriptural references to the acts of delivering, bathing, clothing, and connecting mother and child. I appreciate images of God which emphasize our call to be in relationship and to move toward wholeness. As Hanson says, through reading midwife imagery in the scriptures we see that, “The Spirit of God travails with us and the whole creation now, awaiting God’s final act of deliverance, when the fullness of God’s reign is birthed in history.”

Hanson’s references to the role of midwifes through history was both informative and enlightening. I was moved by the story of the journal of Martha Ballard, a midwife who practiced in Maine in the 1920’s. Through journalling the everyday experiences of life as a midwife we see the power of our very dailiness. I was called to reflect on the importance of our daily work, and my belief in pastoring from a place which uses less words, and more presence. More physical and spiritual care, and less based on moral and legalistic directives. I appreciate the noting by Hanson that the women in the historical role of midwife were known for their knowledge, skill, and compassion as they acted as midwives for their neighbors and friends. Their stance of being “with women” is inspiring for all of us who aspire to heal or simply to give compassionate presence and help to our neighbor in need.

Most striking in my reading of this essay was my realization of the ways ‘midwifery’ has informed my call to ministry and my ideas of what it means to be a pastor. Though my experiences of birth and labor have not been in the front of my consciousness, they have informed my way of being in the world, and my way of being in ministry. Just over two years ago I had a series of images which came to me and I could not be rid of. The first was of an ‘inside-out heart’. I saw a crimson bloody mass covered in veins. The heart was pumping and healthy, yet torn apart and turned inside-out. Surrounding the heart was a charcoal blur that evoked sadness and pain. In sitting with this image I realized the pain I had been experiencing in the process of ‘loosing myself’ as I became a mother to three young children. Though motherhood is beautiful and life giving, it has also taught me of my own shortcomings, my anger, and inabilities to live up to my expectations for myself. This image allowed me to reflect on this and to invite God to continually ‘create in me a clean heart’.

Weeks later I received a second image of a developing fetus warm and nourished in God’s womb. I saw a sea of swirling turquoise-blue surrounding an alien-like fetus. From the blue sea I saw a bright, blinding yellow color shining outward. I sat in the space for a while. I spent weeks thinking of this as I lay in bed at night. I felt incredible comfort as though I were being fed and nurtured. During this time I returned to the home of my grandparents in the woods of Northern California where I had my first experiences of God as a child. I was overwhelmed with feelings of ‘being fed’ as an infant in its mother’s womb. I allowed myself to be in this space. To absorb the nutrients. To grow and develop.

Confusing as it is, I have discerned that the third vision I received is actually fourth in sequence, and I have yet to receive the third. The fourth vision is of a person holding hands with another. One of the people has fish scales covering their eyes. As the two people hold hands the scales are slowly falling from the eyes of the one. This vision has been the least clear for me and has brought me to wonder what it means. The third and fourth visions still hold mystery for me, two years later.

Two years ago, after receiving these visions over a period of four to six months I decided to attempt to paint them, though I have little artistic talent. I began my preparations by going for a hike and spending time in prayer. I laid on a rock in the woods and felt as though I was being held by God. I felt as though I was a newborn infant, just out of it’s mother’s womb being washed and cleaned. As I laid on the rock I felt as though God was scrubbing me. This was not the gentle, tentative way new parents bathe an infant, but the hard kind of scrubbing an experienced midwife does when she is cleaning the white greasy vernix off of a newborn. As I laid on the rock it was as if I could feel the cleansing waters removing the grime which had built up through my frustrations, resentment, guilt, and expectations. When I felt the time was right I stepped off the rock and headed to the space I had designated to attempt to express the images which had been hounding me. Through that day of rest, prayer and art I experienced a small piece of healing. Looking back I realize how God acted as both nurturer and midwife to me. This time period was the beginning of my call to ministry.

I believe I am still living in the space of the third image. Being held, fed and nurtured by God as an infant is by its loving parents. I am being filled with knowledge about the holy scriptures, about history, and theology, and how to care for a congregation of people in a church. In reading Hanson’s essay of minister as midwife I realized how much this metaphor speaks to both my experience of being ministered to, and to my understanding of what it means to be a minister. I believe in the importance of skill, knowledge and compassion as I walk with people. I identify with Hanson’s understanding of our call to be person-centered as we assist God in birthing new life in people and their relationships with self, God, and others. I appreciate the role of naming the holy and broken spaces when the people we walk with are too caught in the pain to notice.

Just as Sheila was physically and spiritually present in the birth of my children, I hope that I may move into a pastoral role of being physically and spiritually present to others. I hope that I can be aware of the physical and spiritual needs of another. I hope I can provide knowledge, skill and compassion as I point others toward the Holy. I hope that just as Shelia ensured my birth experience was my own, I can step back to honor and respect the story of another. Perhaps it will be in this messy process of being with others that the scales will fall from my eyes, and from the eyes of the ones I serve.


Hanson, Karen R. “The Midwife” in Images of Pastoral Care, Calssic Readings, ed. Robert C. Dykstra 200-208. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Pr, 2005.

Dear God,

Just as you knit me in my mother's womb,
Take these remnants and fragments which I have become,
And make them whole.
Sew me into a quilt of warmth, beauty, comfort, and grace.