This is My Body: Embracing the Messiness of Faith and Motherhood

Guest blog post by Hannah Shanks, author of This is My Body: Embracing the Messiness of Faith and Motherhood.  She writes about the intersections of faith, church history, social justice and personal experience at hannaheshanks.com.

It was 3am. I was 3 days postpartum, awake, and alone. My son, born 34 weeks premature, was still in the NICU. It was my first night home without him and, instead of experiencing the small hours with a child at my side, I was nursing a large, hospital grade breast pump I’d had to rent and carry home on my lap. Earlier that day, on the way out of the hospital, I’d watched other women be wheeled out with kiddos in car seats safely on their laps. I rolled out with a massive hospital beige box with a conspicuous clasp on the top. No balloons, no flowers. Just what felt like the world’s saddest consolation prize.

Hannah Shanks, author of This is My Body

After my third wake-up of the evening, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I washed the many pump pieces in the sink. Bleary-eyed, exhausted, swollen from preeclampsia and the slowly dissipating IV fluids, I struggled to recognize myself. My face was wider than I’d ever seen it, my breasts swollen hard from the milk that had just come in, my belly rigid under my nightgown from the binder that let me feel as though my insides might not fall out of me after all.

I chuckled and thought, “This is my body now, I guess.” But in that instant, I heard the echo of every pastor at every communion I’d ever participated in.
This is my body, broken for you…this is my blood, shed for you.

In that moment, I realized those words—always framed with respect to Christ’s death—were an accurate descriptor of every birth that’s ever happened in all of human history.  And that opened a window into a new way of seeing what God is up to in the world, and how we—how I—can be about that kind of work.

While my particular postpartum experience is not one that all of us will share, I think many of us have had that moment at one time or another where we see ourselves in the mirror and think, “I don’t know who that person is.” Perhaps it’s because we so suddenly resemble an older relative, or we’ve suffered an accident, or have reached a point in a struggle where our body registers the toll of what we’ve been through.

I’ve now come to know—through years of pouring through ancient and modern theology, church history, and writings of Christians across the centuries—that all of us (all of us!) are caught up in the Gospel proclamation of Jesus’ words at the table. The parts of us that we want to leave behind, the scars, the struggle, the inner critics—nothing is left out when it comes to Jesus’ table.

We never stop belonging to each other. And we never stop belonging to ourselves. And we never, ever, ever stop belonging to God.

And that means that the work of God, including the work of communion, is to learn to recognize ourselves and each other, fully embodied as we are, as God’s body and work in the world.
And this is the work of birth: breaking open in order for a new life to come into the world.

We have to break open in order to let ourselves be seen.
We have to break down, sometimes, in order to be seen by others.
And we have to learn to recognize ourselves and each other in the same way the disciples recognized Jesus  in his Resurrection: by his wounds.

When we can do that, I believe we can find ourselves—even if only for a moment—feasting at God’s heavenly banquet. This is where we can see ourselves and others and say “This is my body,” and know we are one.

Your turn:

To start your own work of proclaiming God’s incarnation within you, consider what messages you have heard about your body, either from the Church, your family, or other sources.

What parts of yourself do you struggle to claim?

What parts of yourself or your identity have not felt welcome in church spaces?

For a prayerful or meditative practice, try taking a pen and writing “This is My Body” on the parts of yourself you struggle with: self-harm scars, parts you dislike, or a symbolic place such as over your heart or lungs. During your next communion, imagine those words being spoken over the parts of you that have felt unwelcome in the church.

Hannah Shanks is the author of This is My Body: Embracing the Messiness of Faith and MotherhoodShe is a speaker, storyteller, professor & social worker from St. Louis, Missouri. She holds a Bachelor’s in Religion: Urban/Cross-Cultural Ministries from Greenville University and a Master’s of Social Work from Saint Louis University.

In addition to her work life, Hannah is a self-described “accidental clergy spouse,” a member of a new monastic community named Anam Cara St. Louis, and an occasional runner.

If you need to find her, just listen for the person laughing too loud in the back of the room and head in that direction. Or on Twitter @hannahdelight, or on Instagram @hannah_shanks.

Nurturing Your Creativity Is The Key To Helping Heal Your Trauma and Live a Joyful Life

Guest post by Dr. Julia W. Burns, author and psychiatrist. Learn more about Julia’s work at juliaburns.org.

After resigning from my job as medical director of a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed children, I began making art. Listening to the children’s stories of abuse had taken its toll; I had secondary trauma, an affliction suffered by many therapists. I still wanted to help and asked God to show me how. After weeks of prayer, it came to me in the middle of the night. I awoke, crept into the closet with my journal, and wrote my first song — “I sing a song for the abused child, the song no one wants to hear…”

Writing was the first outlet I used to express my imagination and speak about my experiences. Three months later, I started painting. Creativity continues to carry me through so many wonderful avenues, I started painting healing meditations–one painting came to life when I wrote the 23rd Psalm over and over the collaged breast of a friend. Together, we visualized and drew the chemotherapy attacking her cancer cells but protecting her healthy tissue. We asked Christ to gain dominion over all her cellular functions. Her breast bloomed into a beautiful flower surrounded by the psalmist prayer, “yeah, though I walk through the valley, I will fear no evil,” which was covered by an acrylic painting of her sacred lake home.

Singing songs of my pediatric patient’s stories and painting them has contributed to my healing. After listening to a patient’s story, I release the trauma both for them and myself with energy work, prayer, writing and painting.

“How did you witness this abuse, God?” We question. After much soul searching, I realized a simple truth: It was humans who abused my patients, not God. God weeps with my patients, me, and all of us when we are wounded. I am now better able to honor our Creator instead of arguing and blaming.

As patients continue to tell me their life stories, the trauma doesn’t wound me, because I listen not with my ears but with the heart of Christ. And the blessings of wisdom, compassion and understanding are bestowed on both patient and doctor in the telling and believing in a benevolent Creator who knew about trauma before time began.

Gardening, cooking, dressing, painting, writing—these the kinds of creative ventures I treasure and hope you will, too. Never limit your creations just because you don’t have an audience, or your audience is small. God is  watching and applauding, loving how you spend time in artistic reverence.

Here’s what I learned from re-balancing my life with creativity:

  1. Make time each week for nurturing your creativity.Do the thing you’ve longed to do but haven’t—visit a museum, take a walk in the woods, immerse yourself in a bubble bath. Fifteen to thirty minutes a week is a must.
  2. Go to your creative space EVERY day. A wise friend once told me, “Julia, if you don’t have time to paint, then go to your studio for five minutes and sharpen your pencils.” Just do it! The hardest part about creativity is getting started, after that, it flows and you never want to stop.
  3. Pay attention to how it makes you feel and ignore the product. Remember with all the flaws in our universe, God stood back and said, “It is good.” Not, it is perfect or boy, is someone going to want to purchase planet earth for a great profit—but simply, “It is good.”

This is the last line of a song I wrote while looking out at the Grand Canyon, the year after I wrote one thousand songs.

“Stand at the edge of the abyss. Feel the wind, the water and the acid cut your soul and set you free. Celebrate the end of this life and your new beginning.”

Julia W. Burns, MD is an adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist who lives in Chapel Hill, NC, and specializes in the treatment of attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, anxiety, addiction and autism. Her work has been published in the Buddhist journal, The Mindfulness Bell, as well as abuse survivor journals. Her first book, Momma, Who’s Babygod? explores how prayer decreases tension and soothes at bedtime. She leads workshops on Moving Through Your Life Stories with Writing and Creativity for medical clinics, colleges and retreat centers. She is working on her second book, My Record is True, which chronicles her thirty-five years of work with abused and traumatized children. Learn more about her books, survivor, and healing resources on her website.

Sabbath as Resistance

Sojourners, a Christian publication focused on social justice, has published my latest article, Sabbath as Resistance. This article argues that Sabbath is an act of resistance against the systemic oppression and violence enabled by free markets and consumerism. Below is the editor’s note printed in the magazine, along with an excerpt from the article.

In this issue, Baptist minister J. Dana Trent uses the fourth commandment (“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”) to reframe our quandary. Through this commandment to practice “ritual rest from our labor,” writes Trent, “we opt out of tyranny and opt into care for one another.” At its heart, Sabbath rest isn’t a pause from justice work; it’s a way of disrupting a culture of what Walter Brueggemann describes as “endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness.”

Sabbath as resistance is nearly impossible to practice in isolation. We must opt out of mammon to create new systems of care for the marginalized in our communities. Like Gandhi’s satyagraha (“truth force”) movement, our positive duty is to create spaces that foster truth, love, nonviolence, fearlessness, tolerance, and the dissolution of the U.S. “caste” system. Read more…