(My husband and son, enjoying our church’s Palm Sunday worship.)
I missed Palm Sunday this year. I wasn’t at church on Palm Sunday for I what I truly think was the first time ever. From my days of little girl jelly shoes to high school years in the church’s youth group trailer (yeah, we kept it classy) to college days at nondenominational and then Anglican and then Presbyterian churches, to entering the pastorate back in 2011, I haven’t missed one. Until this year.
My maternity leave was slated to begin yesterday and my due date is this coming (Easter!) Sunday, so I was only scheduled for the simplest of tasks on Palm Sunday, during only one of our three worship services. I was slated to pray. I even typed the prayer out ahead of time to guard against pregnancy brain (which is a real thing, people).
Our church has been unbelievably gracious in terms of giving my husband and son and me space to welcome this new baby. We have loads of young moms and families who just get it – pregnancy is tough, and the last couple of weeks are a bear, even if you have a relatively healthy, easy pregnancy. We have lots of older women who remember well what these last weeks feel like. In my last month at the office it was rare for me to go a day without discovering a teddy bear in a gift bag outside my door or meeting a well-wisher dropping in for a word of blessing.
Palm Sunday was to be both my temporary farewell to pastoring as I began maternity leave, and my preparatory hello to welcoming our new little baby. It would be a chance to worship with the people of God on one of the church’s most holy days. I couldn’t wait.
But then the night before Palm Sunday I was sure I was in early labor. We sent our son to sleep over at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and then I timed my contractions at five minutes apart for hours. Hours upon hours. They were too painful for me to sleep, but they weren’t getting stronger. I texted our doula, who offered to come to the house.
“Not yet,” I said. “I don’t feel like I’m in labor-labor. Just early stuff.” Daryl and I agreed that he should sleep – he had a full slate of preaching and a baptism the next morning, so he needed to be rested. If early labor turned to active labor, I’d wake him up and he’d alert our head of staff to cover the preaching.
With Daryl snoozing, I paced. I walked the stairs. I drank water. I tried to watch a movie. I laid down to sleep. Not happening. I got up again.
Finally, at 4:30am, everything stopped. Just like that. And I fell into bed exhausted.
Daryl’s alarm went off at 6:30.
“Rough night?” he asked. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“I really don’t think I can go today,” I said.
“Everyone will understand,” he said. He left out an hour later, and I stayed home and cried.
I love Palm Sunday. The children’s choir sings. Our children’s ministry director teaches the kids about Jesus’ triumphal entry. There are palm branches and hosannahs, and later in the service, a somber turn toward the events of Holy Week. My parents would be there, and dozens and dozens of dear friends.
Instead, while they worshipped, I laid in bed and felt the little person inside kick and roll and push. While they worshipped, I took a shower and the Braxton-Hicks contractions started up again, stronger than before, and I sighed.
This was so not my plan for Holy Week 2016.
I felt like a failure. Sure, church goes on without me just fine. But I’m the one who prides herself on toughing it out. Pulling herself up by her bootstraps. Heck, I once walked on a broken ankle for months because it was probably just a sprain. I don’t let my body keep me from doing what I want to do.
The fact that this baby is already calling the shots is a hard, hard thing for me.
I felt like it’d all be worth it if I ended up going into active labor on Palm Sunday. That somehow I could forgive myself for missing worship if I had a baby by the day’s end. But, of course, that didn’t happen. A couple more hours of increasingly strong Braxton-Hicks, some back pain, and then, by late afternoon, nothing. No Palm Sunday worship, and no birth either.
Frustration. Anger. Tears.
I knew God must have some lesson for me in the midst of all the waiting and uncertainty. It took me a few days to discern what that lesson might be. A few more long, sleepless nights.
I’m a doer. Descended from good Midwestern Germans who, by golly, got things done, I often equate my worth with what I’ve accomplished in a day. Most of us do, don’t we? I would have felt proud to lead those prayers while nine months pregnant. I would have felt euphoric delivering our baby a week early on Palm Sunday. But just… staying home? Come on!
The Book of Common Prayer offers this Collect for the Tuesday of Holy Week:
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an
instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life:
Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly
suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior
Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Lo and behold, it took until Tuesday for me to begin to understand that maybe my Palm Sunday lesson is that Palm Sunday isn’t about my experience, my prayers, or my worship. It’s about entering into the week with Jesus, however he leads. Most years for me, this has been by worshiping in the pew. Lately it’s been by leading worship. This year, it was by staying home where Jesus had other lessons for me.
What does it mean to enter into Holy Week by gladly suffering shame, even the small shames of the physical exertion, frustration, and pain of late pregnancy? Entering into Holy Week by willingly suffering loss, even the loss of worshiping with the people of God as I so wanted to do? What would it mean for me to suffering these small angsts not so that I could feel proud or accomplished or important but so that I could, in some small motherly way, walk with Jesus on his road of suffering?
There was brutality for Jesus in the first Holy Week, to be certain, but there was also inconvenience, frustration, anger, and fear. These lesser things can be turned into worship, solidarity with Jesus, if we let them. We can meet Jesus in a long checkout line, a leaky pipe, and a flat tire just as surely as we can at the hour of our death. Small sufferings can be borne gladly, or at least prayerfully, for his glory and for our good.
And so. Here I am on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The Braxton-Hicks contractions ramp up and down. Each night I think it will be the night. Each day I dread the hours of discomfort to come. Nothing much helps – I get short hours of respite and then long hours of discomfort no matter how much water I drink, how many walks I take, or how long I spend soaking in the tub.
But it’s somehow fitting that these last days of physical angst fall during Holy Week. Pregnancy is certainly teaching me things seminary never could.
What’s God teaching you this Holy Week?
Come on, baby.
Come, Lord Jesus.