A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table

Sunday, September 1 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Clifton Heights, PA

Good morning!

I’m so happy to be here with all of you this morning. My name is Mary Button and I’m a student at United Lutheran Seminary here in Philadelphia where I’m in my last year of coursework. I’m so very thankful for the opportunity to be with you this Sunday. Pastor Ness reached out to me around a month ago about preaching and when I saw our Scripture readings for this morning I was thrilled because our passage from Hebrews has been deeply important to my own spiritual journey. 

Preparing to be with you this morning has been an opportunity for me to reflect on one of the most formative summers of my life, the summer of 2011when I first began working with incarcerated women. I had just finished a Master of Theological Studies and I was hired to be a member of the summer faculty in a prison theology program at Lee Arrendale State Prison for Women in Alto, Georgia -- a rural town about an hour-and-a-half from Atlanta. It’s an incredible program in which incarcerated students are able to take any number of courses designed and taught by graduate students and professors from a consortium of seminaries in Atlanta, including the Candler School of Theology at Emory University where I had just finished my studies. 

The prison theology program is a two year commitment for students, it’s still in existence almost a decade later. It has many of the same course requirements that seminaries have, students take a balance of coursework in systematics,  pastoral theology, Biblical studies, homiletics, and more. The class that I taught was on liturgical art, a particular area of interest for me, which meant that my class was less papers and systematics and more finger-painting and poetry.

In Georgia -- and many other states -- inmates can only take continuing education or vocational classes while in prison if they’re within a certain number of years before their release. This means that people facing life sentences without the possibility of parole are often unable to access the already limited opportunities for education while in prison. Because the prison theology program is part of the ministry of the chaplain’s office those rules didn’t apply to us. Which meant that many of my students were women serving life sentences, women who were considered the highest of security risks in a high security state prison that has a reputation as a place of incredible violence. 

Entering Lee Arrendale on that first day was a somewhat terrifying experience. The prison campus itself looks enough like a depressed, grey and aging, military school for wayward teenagers to not be all that menacing. Except for all of the razor wire. Everywhere. Before the prison dormitories are even in sight, there is razor wire. Razor wire and heavy chain-link fences around every building. Guards are everywhere and inmates are marched from one building to another with their heads down. Entering the prison for the first time was an anxiety-producing experience to say the least.

But whatever ideas I might have had about who my students were evaporated the second they walked into our shared classroom. In spite of the very rigid rules laid out by the Department of Corrections that stipulate that there must not be physical contact between teachers and inmates, one after another of my students hugged me by way of greeting and thanked me for teaching the class. With each embrace, I was forced to confront preconceived ideas about my students that I had been unwilling to admit to myself. In spite of the fact that I started my work at the prison, convinced of the structural injustices of the justice system, I had not yet fully accepted my students for who they are: my siblings, bound to me in the kinship of the family of Christ.

My experiences teaching at Lee Arrendale and, later, in the Shelby County jail system in Memphis, TN made our reading in Hebrews a mandate on my life: 

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.  Heb 13:1-3

What Hebrews implore us to do -- to visit the incarcerated -- is something that transforms the life of our communities. It expands our understanding of God’s presence in the world because to visit the imprisoned is to be reminded that just as nothing can separate us as individuals from the love of God in Christ, nothing -- not even the highest razor wire -- can separate anyone else from the love of God in Christ. We are bound to one another by Christ’s love for us. We are loved by Christ and the people we find the least loveable are just as beloved.

At the time the Letter to the Hebrews was written, the realities and attendant fears of imprisonment were immediate in the community and great importance was placed on visiting the imprisoned. Prisoners of the Roman Empire often died of starvation, relying as they did on food being brought to them by outsiders. In his Baptismal Instructions, the early church father John Chrysostom characterized the Christian practice of visiting the imprisoned as one of the ‘sweetest tasks’ of Christian devotion. Chrystotom laid out his instructions for visiting the imprisoned in a text titled Baptismal Instructions because for him, and for the early church, caring for people in prison was a part of our baptismal covenant, a covenant that reminds us that in the waters of baptism we are each of us claimed by Christ just as we are, wherever we are.

 And Chrystotom is clear that Christians must not visit only fellow Christians, but also ‘murderers, and grave-robbers, and purse snatchers, and adulterers, and libertines, and men weighed down by many crimes.’ Expounding on this directive, he writes, “For we have not been bidden to show mercy to the good, and to punish the wicked, but to show this kindness to all.”

Today, Christian communities concerned with the growing number of Americans imprisoned in county jails, and state and federal prisons and detention centers live in a state of paradox: the fear of incarceration and detention is immediate in many of these communities, yet there is a clear and palpable disconnect with the realities of the day to day lives of the incarcerated. The American prison system is a world unto itself, deliberately and intentionally designed to strip its inhabitants of their humanity by removing them from what my former students call “free world.”

During my summer teaching at Lee Arrendale, I was allowed glimpses into what the daily realities of life in prison are for many women. To a person, each of my students experienced violence during their incarceration. For my students who are parents, separation from their children devastated them and their families on the outside, where their children are more likely to face incarceration and experience violence themselves. 

My classroom in the vocational building at Lee Arrendale was across the hall from where one of the parenting classes was taught. In the mornings as I prepared my lessons, laying out paints and brushes, markers and construction paper, I heard the chaplain lead classes for new moms. Women who had given birth in jail awaiting trial, or after arriving at Lee Arrendale. I taught Friday mornings and Saturdays were often visitation days at the prison. I’ll never forget one morning as I was carefully laying out my bright and colorful supplies, planning in my head what I hoped would be an afternoon of art-making that could take my students away -- for just a few hours -- from the grimness of life inside an American prison.

As I did all of this, I could hear -- even as I willed my ears to stop listening -- the lesson being taught across the hall by the chaplain in the parenting class: “It’s difficult,” she said, “But, you must prepare yourself, those of you with babies. Prepare yourself for the chance that your baby won’t recognize you tomorrow. Your baby might not want to be held by you. They might cry for the person who holds them in your absence.”

Then there was a shuffle and an angry shout and a woman in her prison jumpsuit running out of the parenting class with hot tears pouring down her face. Those tears, of a frantic and scared young mother separated from her baby, humbled me that morning. They taught me something about the type of humility that Jesus preaches about in our story from Luke. It’s a humility that reminds us that we are, each and every one of us, beloved by God and that the love we have for each other, binds us to one another as much as it binds us to God, whose love follows us even behind prison bars.

It’s not a humility that says, “let me humble myself so that I can get what I want -- that place of honor at the banquet table,” but rather the humility that teaches us that the banquet table is big enough for all of us. It’s so big, in fact, that there’s room for each and every one of us in all of our trauma and our triumph. Room enough for our feelings, even the ones we want to run away from. Room enough for our resentments, room enough for our relationships, even the broken ones. God claims each and every one of us and invites us to a table where there is room for all people because the force of God’s abounding grace makes room for all people. Even you. Even me.

Matriarchs and Messiness


Matriarchs and Messiness: Theological Reflections on being an Abortion Doula

Sunday, July 23, 2017 at Evergreen Presbyterian Church, Memphis, TN

1 Samuel 1: 1-28

The story of Hannah is a familiar one. A devout woman and a faithful wife, Hannah yearns and yearns for a child and at the very moment that she gives up hope entirely, God intervenes and blesses her with a pregnancy. It’s such a familiar story that we can easily lose sight of the particulars of Hannah’s experience.

Hannah is one of two wives married to a man named Elkanah. The “other” wife – and that’s exactly how this wife is introduced in the story, as “other” – is named Penninah and she has given Elkanah children, making Hannah subservient to her in the household. This conflict is the very first thing that we learn about Hannah’s life and is meant to recall earlier stories of infertility and domestic conflict.

The story of Hannah echoes the stories of the three Jewish matriarchs that preceded her: Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. We’ve told the stories of their sons these past few weeks – Sarah is the mother of Isaac, Rebecca is the mother to the rival twins Jacob and Esau, and Rachel is wife of Jacob and mother to Joseph and Benjamin. We tell the story of the founding of Israel through the perspectives and experiences of the Patriarchs and their stories have common themes: honor, betrayal, division, reconciliation, and restoration. But, we can also tell this story – our story – through the experience of childlessness and the ways in which the narrative of the Matriarchs, in the words of Lillian Klein “takes a woman’s pain and places it in her personal failure and draws it out in a communal context.”

At the start of Hannah’s story, the one it most closely resembles is that of Sarah, who becomes pregnant with Isaac at the age of ninety (Abraham is 100). Sarah also has a woman rival in her household – Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, who has a son Ishmael with Abraham. Hagar is banished by Sarah after the birth of Isaac. The relationship between Hannah and Penninah is meant to recall that of Sarah and Hagar. In both stories, it’s the birth of a son that raises the status of one woman over another. When Sarah gives birth to Isaac she acquires power over Hagar and wields it with brutality. Entire fields of study within Christian ethics are dedicated to telling the story of Israel from the perspective of Hagar and women like her, the “other” women populating the margins of the Matriarch’s stories.

Often, women’s very bodies become a site of conflict between the expectations of culture and the most intimate desires of the heart. No matriarch better exemplifies this than Sarah’s daughter-in-law Rebecca, who spends twenty years praying for a child with Isaac. Unlike Sarah and Hannah, Rebecca is not locked in conflict with another wife. Rather, as soon as she becomes pregnant, her very body becomes the site of conflict between her twin sons: Jacob and Esau. According to Midrash, during this difficult pregnancy, whenever Rebecca would walk past a house of Torah, Jacob would struggle to come out. When she walked past a house of idolatry, Esau would struggle to come out. This makes for a terrifying experience for Rebecca who initially believes herself to be pregnant with one very disturbed child, as opposed to two sons so alive they’re practically killing her. Sick with worry and exhausted from the grueling experience of her pregnancy Rebecca goes into temple and asks the Lord, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

And the Lord says to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

The twins are born and their struggle continues well into adulthood. When Isaac decides that it is time to give the blessing of the first born to Esau. Rebecca helps to disguise Jacob so that he can steal the blessing meant for his brother. Later, Rebecca sends Jacob to her brother Laban where he falls in love with his daughter Rachel and eventually marries both Rachel and her sister Leah. And the familiar story begins again, this time taking to even greater extremes the hostilities that erupt between women in households where worthiness is determined by how many sons they bear.

Rachel finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite child. A fact that will wreak great havoc and calamity in a family already deeply fractured by the grief of women. Rachel’s story isn’t a happy one. She becomes pregnant a second time, again after a long period of prayerful devotion, and dies giving birth to Benjamin.

According to many Biblical scholars, the infertility of the Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel – is meant to heighten the drama surrounding the eventual birth of their sons, setting Isaac, Jacob and Joseph apart as special in the history of Israel. It also teaches that pregnancy is an act of God. The story of Hannah is important because it simultaneously echoes the stories of the Jewish Matriarchs while also pointing toward the stories of Mary and Elizabeth in the New Testament, for whom motherhood is an act of devastating sacrifice. Like the Matriarchs, Hannah years for a child. And like Elizabeth, Hannah’s experience of motherhood is inseparable from the sacrifice of the much yearned for child.

The story of Hannah occupies a meeting place between Judaism and early Protestantism. In both traditions, Hannah exemplifies the importance of private, personal prayer with God. In Judaism, the Song of Hannah, the prayer she sings when she gives her son Samuel over to God, is the haftarah reading on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. And in Christianity, if you google “Hannah children’s sermon” you’ll gain some painful insight into how Hannah’s story has been distilled over time in our teaching. There are hundreds of results with titles like God Gives Hannah a Baby. It starts early, even in children’s sermon titles, our Christian teaching that if a woman just prays hard enough, God will give her a baby. The church has been hurting women for millennia with teachings like that, adding shame to the feelings of personal failure that accompany many people’s experience of childlessness. I want to say that that is not the God I know, nor is it the church that I know we can be.

Each of the women in the stories I’ve told today lived in deep, dissonant conflict with a culture that tied their status and worthiness to motherhood. Hannah exemplifies this tension, she wants motherhood so terribly that she decides the path to motherhood for her will mean giving away the very child her heart desires. Hannah’s story resonates across millennia because women continue to live in the tension between cultural expectations and personal desires. Nowhere has this become more apparent to me than in my work at Planned Parenthood where I volunteer as an abortion doula.

An abortion doula provides emotional support to patients immediately before, during, and after an abortion procedure. On a typical two and a half hour shift, this means that I walk into the procedure room a few minutes before the doctor and introduce myself and let the patient know that I’m there to support them during the procedure. Whether they’d like a hand to hold, distracting chit chat, or simply quiet, I am there to hold space for them.

That’s what we call what we try to do for patients at Planned Parenthood, and what we can all strive to do in our relationships. We hold space for a person whenever we are willing to be present with them without judgment, without trying to “fix” something (or someone), but by opening our hearts and offering support in a way that allows people space to trust themselves and their own intuition. Holding space is a type of compassionate care that recognizes that people know their own truth best.

That’s a radical notion for those of us who live in the tension between our culture’s expectations of us and the most intimate desires of our hearts. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes in the moments after a procedure, when I’m alone again with a patient, words will start tumbling out of her mouth. We’ve held hands. I’ve looked into her eyes and wiped her tears. And now, as I’m helping her to put herself back together, she starts to tell a story. Sometimes telling me their story is an intimate act of catharsis, of letting go of the hoped-for and being present in the messiness of the everyday. In those moments, the procedure room at Planned Parenthood becomes the holiest of holy ground. But, often, the stories I hear, I’m only privy to because even in the midst of their grief and sadness, a patient thinks that they have to explain their decision to me. No amount of absolutely amazing space holding can un-teach a woman a lifetime of being told that they must justify their most personal decisions to strangers.

Over the past half-century, American Christianity has become more and more obsessed with the individual over and against the communal. Our theology has come to emphasize personal and private decisions rather than the cultural contexts in which those decisions are made. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we treat people seeking abortion care in the United States. Every time I walk into the clinic at Planned Parenthood I walk past posters that the state require be posted in the waiting room: It is against the law in Tennessee to coerce a woman against her will into an abortion, they declare in bold type.

Yet, everyday women in Tennessee and across the United States end dearly wanted pregnancies out of fears for their family’s financial security. Capitalism, the ultimate religion of the individual, often forces people into decisions that otherwise go against their most intimate hopes and dreams. That is a sin of social structure and institutional oppression. I said earlier that the most important part of being an abortion doula is being a non-judgmental presence. I work hard to be that for the people I’m privileged to care for at Planned Parenthood. But, being called to be unjudging in a personal relationship, to be a supportive and affirming presence in the midst of pain and grief, bears responsibility outside of the clinic walls and behind pulpits like this one. This work is two-fold for me. I believe that we must trust and support people as they make hard decisions in a world that makes those decisions even harder. And we must work to change the society that limits a person’s ability to live out their most intimate dreams.

I feel called to this work as an abortion doula not in spite of the fact that I’m a Christian woman, but precisely because I am a Christian woman. My faith affirms the power of women to make their own decisions and it strengthens me in the necessary work of holding space for women to trust themselves. I know that what I’ve talked about likely seems life-draining work. It isn’t, it’s life-affirming. Life affirming in the most ordinary and extraordinary ways. Every person I meet on one of my doula shifts is the bravest person I’ve ever met. It’s a miracle that happens on every shift, every person I meet is doing the very best they can in what are often the very scariest of circumstances.

I haven’t talked to many people about the work that I’ve been doing over the past year. Outside of the prayers that I’ve often woken in the middle of the night to write for women I dearly wish I could see again, but know I won’t, this sermon is the most theological reflection that I’ve been able to do. I’ve been hesitant to try to bring theological language to the experiences I’ve had precisely because it’s theological language – the stories we tell, the expectations we place – that has wrecked so much havoc in the lives of many of the patients that I see. But, becoming an abortion doula has made me a more compassionate person. The intimate moments of bravery that I see in my work at Planned Parenthood have helped me to see resilience and beauty everywhere, and that has brought me extraordinary comfort in these scary times we find ourselves living in.

My hope in sharing this work that I’m doing with you, my faith community, is that you might join me in holding space and help me in finding new theological language in the midst of all this messiness. Some of you have already engaged in this work. As part of our spring dinner church season, we made bags for patients at Planned Parenthood. We filled them with granola bars, tissues, and cards with messages like “You deserve to take care of yourself. The world needs you, remember that you are strong and brave.”

I believe that simple words of kindness can heal, especially when those words come from the heart. In the coming weeks, I’m going to be working to discern how we can continue this work, how we can improve it, and how we can build better relationships in the messiness. So, let us begin this work by being in prayer together.

The prayer that I’d like to share with you is one that I adapted from a poem by Julia Cameron. Take a deep breath, relax your body, close your eyes and join me:

Heavenly, space holder,

Creator God, Mother of Matriachs,

I pray I could take language

And fold it like cool, moist rags.

I would lay words on your forehead.

I would wrap words on your wrists.

“There, there,” my words would say —

Or something better.

I would ask them to murmur,

“Hush” and “Shh, shhh, it’s all right.”

I would ask them to hold you all night.

I pray I could take language

And daub and soothe and cool

Where fever blisters and burns,

Where fever turns yourself against you.

I pray I could take language

And heal the words that were the wounds

You have no names for.