Nicholas’s Birth Story

It took a lot longer to sit down and write this out than last time… and it’s sat in my drafts for two years now.

After Nicholas was born, we had a bit of a whirlwind – my Grandma Klemm passed away and we flew down to say goodbye, Hirav started having his own medical challenges, we decided to buy a house 400 miles away, and we moved into that house alongside my Grandma Monge who decided to leave her retirement home to join us.

The day before Nicholas was born, I was sure I was in labor already. It was actually his due date. I went to run some errands while the contractions started and texted the midwives. It felt exactly like the first part of Lucia’s labor (the part where I wasn’t so sure it was happening). Slow contractions, the muscles tightening, but no discernible pain or even real discomfort.

At nighttime they completely petered out.

The midwives attributed it to Braxton Hicks contractions, but I suspect it was something more like prodromal labor. The differences are subtle. But where Braxton Hicks is more like practice to get the uterus ready, prodromal labor is actual labor that simply doesn’t progress to a baby. It’s more like a precursor to labor. Prodromal labor often involves more consistent contractions than Braxton Hicks and also doesn’t dissipate as easily.

The timing makes me lean toward prodromal, because the next morning the contractions were back. They began as Lucia nursed in the morning. Everyone made me swear up and down that I wouldn’t wait until the last minute to go in (since we were in the hospital for just 40 or so minutes with Lucia). Everyone was nervous that this second baby would come faster.

I called the midwife. She agreed to come in to the birth center, but she wouldn’t rush it. Not to worry, I said, we would go there early and just walk around the neighborhood for a bit. Walking can sometimes help speed things along, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to be close by. Plus contractions in the car feel worse than ones on the ground where you can move or shake it out.

So Hirav and I started walking around the birth center, just touring the neighborhood in San Mateo. We talked to some of the neighbors. Some of them joked that I’d go into labor hiking up those hills! “I’m already in it!” we laughed as I explained there was a birth center nearby. None of them had heard of it. After about two hours, the contractions were coming closer together and the midwife arrived so we walked to the birth center. We got there around noon.

The birth center had this lovely little side patio, so I began walking over there instead. Side to side. This time I had Hirav push on my backside during the contractions. Sometimes he was doing such a great job, I felt no pain at all during the contraction. I could labor like this for days, I thought! It was heavenly. I’m sure Hirav didn’t think that though – it was getting tiring for him. During this time, it seemed like labor had slowed down a bit. It was still happening, but on its own time frame.

What I hadn’t realized was that the midwives didn’t want to be there all day if I wasn’t progressing. I understand that in retrospect, but I wish maybe I had known that sooner. It’s hard to be playing a guessing game – how much faster will this baby be vs the last one? How do we time our arrival as well as the midwife who was coming from farther away? I felt very safe in the hands of the midwives at the birth center. The main one overseeing my labor was a registered nurse as well, who had helped through thousands of births. Still, the experience made me appreciate why some women choose home births. It would have been nice to worry less about the timing of things and to just let it come as it did.

Eventually, the midwife made me lie on my side to try and speed up the labor. It felt much worse, but it was progressing more. We put on my labor music throughout this process – it was a playlist of songs from the Benedictine sisters of Ephesus, whose music is angelic. We overheard the midwives chatting (the RN Judi and the student in training), who were noting that the center had attracted a certain type of unusual clientele – the devoutly religious Christians. Hirav and I laughed and wondered if the music had given us away. The last midwife came, the one who owned the center.

Finally, the active labor began at some point past 3. I started wanting to push. This time, though, I was having a hard time finding the right angle. Hirav and I were lying in the bed together at first, and I went into a position on my hands and knees on the bed once I wanted to push. But it was easy to brace myself on the hospital bed with Lucia, and I couldn’t get the bracing right on this softer bed. Poor Hirav became my brace and my pillow. I clung to him as I pushed. The contractions were shorter together. I felt less focused than I had at this stage with Lucia. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted.

In retrospect, I probably should have found a different location in the room to labor. They had a variety of other things to help with labor including a ladder that would have been great to brace against. But the still calm between contractions was shorter than last time, and the clarity less as well.

Finally, I felt the telltale ring of fire. “The baby is crowning!” I declared. Judi raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?” she asked. I consented to an examination, the first during the entire labor, which felt like even more fire. “You’re not crowning yet,” she insisted.

I was dejected. Nothing made sense anymore. The time from when I had felt the ring of fire to Lucia’s birth was under 40 minutes. This time it was supposed to be faster. But if I hadn’t felt that, then how long would this really be? A friend had recently confided to me that her second labor had been much less smooth than the first – she had ended up pushing for 2.5 hours. I began to feel afraid, that maybe I would be in similar shows.

I didn’t think I could make it that far. And I felt so confused because I wasn’t even crowning but the pain felt like I WAS crowning. Then I remembered – the gas! I asked for laughing gas. They said that they could offer it if we asked. Although I was opposed to other forms of pain relief, I wasn’t opposed to gas. The midwives seemed surprised, and the Judi started working on it. But she wasn’t able to finish, because then I started pushing more and there was no time.

I felt it – the baby started coming for real. And it felt different. There was a smoothness to the shoulders, the neck, the arms as they slid through the birth canal. But I had been right – it was just a few minutes after I asked for the gas.

And as the baby slipped out, Judi told me to not push. Not push?! My brain didn’t know how to not push. Every fiber of my being wanted to push. I managed a half-hearted softer push. It’s very hard when every TV show only shows women being told to push, push, PUSH! It’s hard to process in the moment what it means to slow down. My failure to slow down is likely why I ended up with a second degree tear, which they noted is unusual for second time mothers in the hands and knee position.

Despite my failure to follow directions, the midwives seemed delighted and surprised. It turns out that Nicholas was born en caul! My water had never broken. That’s why it felt so different. There was a gushing sound as they opened the amniotic sac. The cord was short and small.

I released Hirav from his being-a-pillow-duties but it was hard to turn over. The cord was so short that Nicholas couldn’t lay on my chest so he rested on my stomach for a few minutes before Hirav cut the cord. We were both bummed that we had missed Nicholas being in the sac; the midwives were rightfully more concerned with ensuring Nicholas was breathing than with snapping a photo even if we all regretted it a little bit later.

Within a few minutes, the midwives were getting nervous that I hadn’t delivered more of the placenta. “If you don’t deliver the rest, we’ll have to take you to the hospital” the head midwife threatened. Judi helped me get up and squat. I delivered the rest of the placenta and breathed a sigh of relief.

Then I lay down and nursed my lovely little baby boy. We finished up the paperwork and got the baby ready to go home. Nicholas was born around 4:30pm and we left around 8:30pm.

We made it home just in time for Lucia to meet her little brother Nick-las before she went to bed. She was so excited and sweet and kept repeating hi over and over. My heart was so overjoyed. It was lovely to get to recover at home so soon as well.

The midwives said no two births are alike. But it is very hard to avoid comparing, to think “I was this far along and it went this quickly and it felt like that.” I’ll have to see with my next labor – Lord willing – how similar things feel along the way. In retrospect, Judi and I agreed that I probably had felt the sac coming through, which is why I felt crowning that she couldn’t detect during her examination. It was interesting to me that I only felt like I needed medication when I was so very close to the end, and so afraid that I wasn’t close at all.

In one of our follow-ups, Judi said she felt my labor slowed because I was resisting the pain instead of embracing it. I’m not entirely sure what that means. I am going to meditate more on this before the next birth, and also on what it would mean to not push while the baby exits the birth canal. I tried hypnobirthing meditations beforehand and they were honestly no help to me; they made me feel less relaxed. Still, I’m not sure how to embrace the labor more. I am also going to try and figure out how to feel supported in labor without making Hirav my personal body pillow. He has now basically missed the baby coming out twice, so hopefully third time’s the charm! In exchange, I’ll ask him to work out more so he has the upper body stamina to give more massages during labor.

On the subject of en caul deliveries, the midwives also reported that they had seen several en caul deliveries between them. (Ours was the first for the student, and the first at this particular center.) I found this fascinating because studies suggest that it occurs 1 in 80,000 births. However, it is unlikely that they have seen more than a fraction of that between them (probably closer to 5,000 total). Judi said it was more likely to happen with midwives because they use less interventions to begin with (like the membrane sweep), which I believe.

We are very glad that we worked with a certified birth center this time around. It was a lot more relaxed than the hospital would have been, and my mind was much more at ease knowing that I didn’t have to resist potential interventions as I did with my first birth. In retrospect, some of the clarity I felt during Lucia’s birth was because I knew exactly what I wanted to reject. I see now as well why people choose at home births, too. There is a part of me that wonders what the labor would have felt like if we had let things go more slowly and I had more painless contractions with Hirav’s support. I’m not entirely sure what we’ll do next time around. In either case, I’m so grateful for the midwives and their support.

Other random odds and ends:

Nicholas’ eyes slowly changed from blue to violet to steel to brown in the first few months.

With Lucia, I tested positive for Group B strep at 36 weeks. This time I pre-emptively tried Rephresh probiotics that have been found to reduce incidence of Group B strep and it seems like they actually worked!

During one follow up, Judi informed me that I have an efficient uterus. I pushed the baby out quickly and the womb went back into place quickly. Sounds like me!

The dress I wore home was a wrap dress which is basically like a comfy robe. 10/10 would wear again postpartum.

Book Discussion on The Vanishing American Adult

This summer, I led a book discussion group for the Harvard Christian Alumni Society on Senator Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult. We thoroughly enjoyed the book and are hoping to run another book group in the future, perhaps in January. It was a nice change to read a book and be able to process it with others.

Below are the discussion questions I wrote up. We didn’t make it through all of them each week, but it was helpful to have some guide to our conversation.

Chapter 1

  1. Ancient Roman law broke up youth into three stages: infantia, pueritia, and pubertas. Pubertas (ages 14-20) was the “launching point” for adulthood, and has been marked by various “rites of passage” across many cultures. Sasse contends that our coming-of-age rituals “have become more automatic, and less purposeful, than achievement-based rituals” (16). Do you agree with his assessment?
  2. Sasse argues that there are 5 post-WWII developments that affected the development of Baby Boomers and subsequent generations (material surplus, age-segregated environments, the disintegration of the family, institutionalized secondary schooling increasing peer culture, and the protest era causing polarization on moral issues). Which of these developments do you believe has played the largest role in changing how Americans become adults?
  3. Sasse suggests that there was a debate at the turn of the 20th century about what children should learn in school between the traditionalists (who viewed education’s purpose as moral instruction for the souls of students, with an eye toward character- and virtue-building) and pragmatists (who viewed education’s purpose as churning out workers with basic competencies for productive living in an industrial economy). What do you view as the purpose of education?

Chapter 2

  1. Tocqueville said that Americans seem to need no adolescence at all, in contrast to the French in the 1800s (36). Last week, Alastair pointed out that Americans work more hours per week than most other countries. Is the trend toward a longer adolescence a matter of American decline or just returning to a more global norm?
  2. Do we agree with the 8 markers Sasse outlines for adulthood? Are these reasonable markers or should we consider other markers? (Sasse, for example, notes a difference in “intentional multigenerational living” vs the phenomenon of boomerang kids.)
  3. Sasse suggests mass schooling shaped the rise of toxic teen culture and consumerism thanks to teen marketing. If teen culture is part of the problem, can any school system really avoid prolonging adolescence?
  4. Overall Sasse suggests that there are a lot of cultural changes – from the “childish” adults due to the influence of TV to the poor civic education of American children. Do you buy these arguments or do you think we should find a more objective measurement to judge quality over time?

Chapter 3

  1. Do you agree with Sasse’s distinction between formal schooling and “an education”?
  2. Do we agree that the current school system is heavily influenced by Dewey’s amoralism and view that public education is primarily in service of society? Is that so different from Sasse’s arguments for educating children as citizens (presumably in service of American society)?
  3. Former public school teacher Gatto argues that students leave schools with “a poor sense of time past and time to come” (72). A lack of appreciation for time seems to be behind much of the problems Sasse cites (high school emerging as a way of keeping “idle” teens busy during the Depression, the many years spent on video games, the extended adolescent period through the end of one’s 20s). How can we better value the time God has given us on this earth – both in our own lives and the lives of our families and communities?
  4. Sasse says that Sayers is his inspiration and explains that “there is almost something perverse about wanting to teach everyone to read but not to teach them to think clearly – leaving ‘them at the mercy of the printed word'” (79). One can look at some of today’s controversial issues and polarization and see how people are “at the mercy of the printed word,” especially on social media. Do we think this is a new phenomenon or rather a perennial problem?
  5. Sasse quotes Sayers again to say “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain” (82). Do we agree that this is the end of education? This is a fairly secular definition. Would we, as Christians, modify this statement to include reference to our Creator?

Chapter 4


  1. Sasse highlights the problem of generational segregation and suggests that we should do more to combat it by visiting our elders in retirement homes. Of course, retirement homes are a relatively new innovation; in prior generations, the elderly were more likely to live with their younger relatives. Do you think Sasse’s limited proposal (visiting them in a system that’s inherently segregated) makes sense or is our society due for a more thorough overhaul (discouraging the practice of having retirement homes and communities all together)?
  2. Sasse’s elders seem to be very respectable, life-giving, stoical, eye-opening people. What if you find that the older people in your life often give bad or wrong-headed advice? What if you are the stoic and they are the emotional ones?
  3. Sasse cites an example of his grandmother Elda jerry-rigging her baby’s bassinet onto the John Deere tractor as she attempted to farm her land while her husband was serving in WWII, which he praises as an example of ingenuity and “get-it-done” attitude (120). I’m pretty sure if a mother attempted this today, she would have CPS called and that baby taken away. Is our aversion to risk contributing to our failure to persist in the face of challenges?
  4. Sasse distinguishes between valuing freedom from something and freedom to do something, and suggests that the younger generation values the former but not the latter (124). When considering compliance with mask regulations during this pandemic, one wonders whether this is a problem only among younger Americans… How, as a society, can we encourage people to think more in freedom to categories?

Chapter 5

  1. Sasse describes work as a “vocation” (136) – that is, “something God ‘calls’ you to do.” In the older Western tradition, a “vocation” was more understood to be a calling to the religious life. Do we consider any particular job something that God has called us to, or is our calling rather to do some form of work (with a good work ethic)?
  2. Sasse’s daughter Corrie was sent to work on a cattle ranch for one month, and some lawyers contacted Sasse after seeing his related tweets to inform him that they might have broken child labor laws. Sasse says that he’s not in favor of repealing child labor laws, but it does seem troublesome if the course he’s advocating is fundamentally incompatible with our current laws. Should we repeal or revise our child labor laws?
  3. Sasse praises the value of a work ethic and of good work done to the glory of God, of learning how to suffer in part through one’s labor. One of the differences that struck me between Sasse’s experience and my own is that his first jobs were much more physical. I didn’t really experience “suffering” from working behind an ice cream counter at my first job. Do you think the type of labor affects the work ethic and lessons we learn from work?
  4. Brooks and Murray suggest that it’s important to find work that “matters” to satisfy (rather than being fun or well-compensated) (153). In a world where consumption is the rule, how how do we find work that “matters”? Murray also suggests that it’s important to feel “personal responsibility for the outcome.” How do we best feel personally responsible in corporate environments where success is truly dependent on many contributors?

Chapter 6

  1. When our wealth exceeds our basic needs and we venture into the realms of wants, how do we as Christians limit our consumption? What boundaries do we set for ourselves? Are there any boundaries that we think God has set for us?
  2. Do you agree with Sasse’s assessment that overconsumption is not essential to capitalism or do you agree with the marketing consultants that “our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life” (167)?

Chapter 7

  1. Chapter Seven discusses the value of solo travel in particular as a means of “escape” – partly from one’s own parents. This contrasts quite strongly with his encouragement in the previous chapters of desegregating the generations. It seems that in both cases what motivates him is the desire to break oneself out of the “norms” one is used to – the norms of one’s peers and one’s geographical area. What value do you see in breaking out of norms and how does it contribute to our sense of adulthood?
  2. Sasse gives some suggestions for how to “travel” rather than just “tour” at the end of the chapter, but there are still some open questions in my mind as to what makes for the difference between these two things (besides hopping on a cruise ship where everything is preplanned – obviously that’s firmly in the tourism camp). What is the difference? Less scheduling? More time spent? An openness to serendipitous encounters?

Chapter 8

  1. What books would you include on your 5 ft bookshelf? Are there any that you strongly agree with Sasse about? Any that would surprise us?
  2. How do you cope with the feeling of lacking the “buns of steel” (219) to complete some of the books considered classics? (e.g. those in Jefferson’s list or the Harvard Classics list)

Chapter 9 / Postscript

  1. Do you agree with Sasse that Americans are “made” through our collective ideals of governance (351)?
  2. One of Sasse’s central arguments for our “civic miseducation” is that students are largely ignorant of the basics of how our government functions and of the rights our Constitution protects. However all the research he cited is quite recent. Surely for much of American history, many Americans wouldn’t have been able to name all the rights protected by the first amendment. Do you think our current situation is unique or might this be a perpetual problem within our republic?
  3. Which view of American exceptionalism is more compelling to you – Obama’s implication that citizens of every nation will patriotically find their country exceptional or Sasse’s proposal that America was founded in an exceptionally unique way?
  4. Sasse concludes by explaining why this wasn’t a policy book. Do you agree with his approach?



Lucia’s Birth Story

It has been three weeks since I gave birth, and I think I can say that the recovery has been harder than the labor. This may seem counterintuitive, as everybody says giving birth is one of the most painful things a person can experience. Yet the defining quality of labor for me was not pain, but strength.

Like many others, I assumed that childbirth has always been thought of as painful. After all, the curse of God in Genesis is that woman will have “pain” in childbirth. When reading Natural Childbirth, I encountered an argument I had never heard before. I later checked the Hebrew myself. The word translated as “pain” can also mean simply labor or toil. In fact, the same word is used one verse later to describe how Adam will obtain food from the ground. We do not think of performing agricultural functions as painful, but rather as laborious. This is what Genesis promises of childbirth. We know that farmers are strong; we should expect the same of mothers.

After labor, I came across an incredible quote in a review of Jonathan Haidt’s latest book on the Mere Orthodoxy blog:

Many of the important systems in our economic and political life are like our immune systems: they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow. Systems that are anti-fragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously. . . . [Taleb] notes that wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire. He advises us not to be like candles and not to turn our children into candles: “You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”

So much of our medical system approaches pain as something to be avoided. You have a headache, so you take a pill to get rid of it. You’re going into labor, so you get an epidural. My own medical journey has convinced me that pain is meant to be a sign. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” He was referring to spiritual deafness, but it is apt with respect to our physical health as well. I’ve had many doctors suggest various means to manage the symptoms I was experiencing, but none of them had a means to address the root cause. It was only when I addressed the root cause that the pain went away; the pain prompted me to search for deeper healing, and trying to shortcut that process would have convenient in the short term but ultimately worse in the long run. I realized whatever pain I would experience in labor must have a purpose as well. It may be easier to avoid pain, but by leaning into it, we can increase our tolerance of it.

With this philosophy, I approached pregnancy. I was striving for a natural labor with no epidural.1 I didn’t know the phrase at the time, but I wanted to be the fire and I wished for the wind.

The morning of October 5, I woke up early so that I could drive with Hirav up to his office. Based on a family history of later labors, I had suspected that we would go past 40 weeks. So I wasn’t too worried about planning a dinner in the city with Hirav’s cousins. I had felt a few contractions on the ride up, but they were incredibly mild. I had experienced Braxton Hicks contractions (i.e. the fake ones) both times we had long flights during pregnancy, and these contractions weren’t nearly as bad as those ones. Around 10:30, I started realizing the contractions were coming more consistently. There were happening every 5-10 minutes and lasting 15-30 seconds. But it wasn’t super consistent – sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 6. They also didn’t feel very strong at all. Hirav came to meet me for lunch and saw these numbers on my laptop. “What are you doing?” he asked, but his eyes said he knew exactly what I was doing. I texted our doula Lauren, who advised waiting a few hours and timing again.

So we went about our day. I went to the Yelp Christian Fellowship meeting with Hirav over lunch where we did lectio divina. John 3:1-21 felt particularly relevant, with its discussion of being born again. Little did I know that Lucia was getting ready to be born for the first time! Then I went and ran some errands. I returned an item to my old friend George who works in the city. I went over to East Bay to return some leftover eco-friendly stain to the hardware store. I stopped in a Starbucks to do some GRE studying. In the Starbucks, I realized I should start timing again. The contractions were closer to four minutes apart, still 15-30 seconds in length until there was a 20 min gap. Definitely Braxton Hicks, I told myself! I picked up Hirav’s cousin Meghviben from the Bart station and we headed back into the city.


T – 4 hours or so.

On the way, I mentioned that I had been timing the contractions to see if they were real or not. She offered to drive, but the contractions were still barely noticeable. We picked up Hirav and then headed to Dosa to get dinner with Hirav’s other cousin Nikhilbhai, who was visiting from the Dallas area. After about 15 minutes, I noticed the contractions were starting to feel stronger. I began timing again, and Meghviben noticed. After another half hour, I still wasn’t sure. The contractions were sometimes 4 minutes apart, sometimes 8, varying 40-60 seconds in length. I showed my timing to Nikhilbhai, the doctor, and Meghviben, the mother of three, to see if they thought it was consistent enough. They looked at each other and said we should wrap things up quickly. Of course, we paused to take a photo before hopping in the car.

So we started driving home. I was texting Lauren to let her know we might need her tonight. My OB had said to come to the hospital when contractions were 5 minutes apart, 1 minute in length, for 1 hour. There was a short time where the contractions were 5 min apart and 1 min in length, but it didn’t last an hour. In the car, they became 4 minutes apart, 45 seconds in length, and around the same intensity. By the time, we were home, they were more like 3 minutes apart and 30 seconds in length. I never exactly hit the 5-1-1 I was looking for, so I didn’t fully realize how close I really was.

At home, there were a few things I wanted resolved. We had some boxes that hadn’t been taken down to be recycled yet. I had taken out some kitchen supplies I was planning to have Hirav put on a top shelf over the weekend. Normally I don’t boss Hirav around, but he knew this was one of those times when he should just do what I was asking. When we first got home, I put on my labor playlist full of relaxing movement. But I quickly realized that wasn’t what I wanted. Instead, we began singing.

I pulled out the hymnal that JoPo gave me in college and we sang as we picked up the apartment. We sang “Sanctuary” and recalled all of Damaris’s beautiful solos during Doxa. We sang “Take My Life” and I remembered Abigail’s beautiful renditions – of which my singing was a poor imitation. I sang “Our God, He is Alive” and thought of Allie Wunderlich and my time in the churches of Christ. With every note and every step, I was reminded of the beauty of God and the incredible journey he had taken me on.

I was content to keep going on, but Hirav began to notice subtle changes. At first, I couldn’t sing through the contractions. Then I stopped being able to walk through the contractions. “Do you think we should call Lauren?” he asked. I wasn’t sure. We never hit that 5-1-1 pattern. The pain, though getting worse, was still pretty manageable. But it seemed like this was the real deal by now, so we decided to call. I was bent over the couch, on my hands and knees. Hirav began stroking my back through the contractions, which helped a lot.

Then, I felt something that I had never felt before but that I knew immediately from every description of it: the urge to push. I realized I had perhaps waited too long. I ran the numbers in my head – this phase of labor would probably last 30 minutes minimum. The hospital was 5 minutes away. Based on her location I suspected Lauren was just a few minutes away. One contraction later, Lauren had arrived. Emily, a new doula who was shadowing her, arrived as well. After two more contractions I looked at Lauren and said we needed to go to the hospital. Hirav grabbed our bag, but there were a couple of things that we couldn’t pack up until the day we needed it (like my portable speaker or his CPAP machine to sleep).

“We’ll just wait for Hirav to pack up and then we’ll go,” Lauren said. “Could you drive me instead? Hirav can follow when he’s done,” I suggested. She immediately knew this was serious. We headed out the door as the contractions grew stronger.

We stopped in the hallway. HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. I grunted loudly as the wave of a contraction hit. Lauren bent over. “Lean on me” she said. The wave passed and we kept going. Down the elevator. Down the street.

I paused. HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. I leaned on Lauren. I wondered what the neighbors must be thinking. We got into the car and sped off. Fortunately, our hospital was just 5 minutes away. We hopped out and began walking to the labor and delivery elevator. The security guard asked if we wanted a wheelchair. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted less.

HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. We paused again. I leaned on Lauren. We made it to the elevator. HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR in the elevator. We were at L&D.

The nurse said, “before we take you in, we need you to fill this out quickly.” It was a half-sheet form. I looked at her with an “are you kidding?” expression and she said, “your doula can do it.” “That’s OK” I said and began filling it out. I made it through my name and social security number, but gave up at the address. “You have the rest,” I said. She complied and we headed down the hallway.

HRRRRRRUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGNRRRRRRRRRRRR. We paused. I whispered to Lauren that I felt the burning. In the descriptions of natural labor, women describe feeling “a ring of fire.” Again, I knew immediately from the description that this is what was happening. We were very close.

We made it to the room, but the hospital was so busy it wasn’t ready. A slew of nurses filed in and began arranging things. They hadn’t closed the door or the privacy screen, but I dropped my pants and hopped on the bed. I faced the wall and stayed on my hands and knees. I’m normally a modest person, but instincts took over. I knew what I needed to do.

The order here is a little fuzzy.

“Can we check you?” they asked. They wanted to know how far dilated I was. They started to check, but it hurt worse than the contractions did. “That hurts, can you please stop?” I asked. So they did. I didn’t need them to tell me I was 10 cm and ready to push. I knew I was ready to push.

“Did you test positive for Group B Strep?” another nurse asked.2 “Yes,” I said. “We need to do antibiotics,” she replied. “No.” I knew in that moment that we had less than the 4 hours needed for antibiotics to be most effective, and I couldn’t even imagine processing them trying to put an IV in at that moment.

“Did your water break?” they asked. “I’m not really sure,” I replied. I knew that water breaking can take the form of a slower leak, and I felt like that might have happened.

Another nurse tried to strap the fetal monitors around my belly, but that also felt weird and a little painful. “That’s uncomfortable. Can you not do that?” I asked. The nurse was clearly uncomfortable, but agreed. She held the monitors to my belly instead.

My water broke. It was very clear. I felt a big gush and it running down my legs. Now I knew what that felt like as well.

Meanwhile, with each contraction, Lauren was rubbing my back like Hirav had been. In the pauses between contractions, she wiped my face with a cold damp cloth. Each contraction was certainly painful, but I didn’t realize that the moments in between contractions would be basically pain free. It was bizarre to go from totally immersed in a contraction – the urge to push, the burning feeling, sensing the head dropping lower and lower – to feeling total normal and like nothing was happening.

At some point, Hirav arrived and put on my labor playlist. The angelic melodies of the Benedictines of Mary filled the room in between my grunts. In the pauses, I appreciated the calming music. A nurse would pull him aside to have him complete the intake. Fortunately, Lauren had given us a list of questions in advance so we were well-prepared.

Dr. Hoff arrived. “Can I check you?” he asked. “Sure.” But again, it was too painful. “That hurts. Could you please stop?” I asked. So he stopped. “How far along is she?” the nurse asked. “You know, I’m not used to this position. I’m not really sure…” he said. “Great…” I thought to myself. At least he would be getting more experience with a woman in this position, I realized.

So it went on for a little while. Pushing hard. Having a calm, cool moment. Pushing hard again. It was a confusing feeling, as I could sense the head coming down with the contraction and then getting pulled up again with the pause. As we neared the end, I was getting tired. I didn’t want the head to keep going back in again. I just wanted the baby out! Finally there was a pause where the head didn’t pull back again. I didn’t quite know what to do with that. So the head was held there, and with another contraction or two, the head finally came out all the way. Once the head was out, the rest of the baby – the shoulders, the belly, the feet – slide right out. I could feel all the different parts pass through: the pointy width of the shoulders, the softness of the belly, the legs long and together like a fin. Lucia was born at 11:51 am on October 5, 2018.

Hirav cut the cord.

Hirav said she burst out. He saw the head, turned away for a moment, and the entire baby was there. I tore off my shirt as they wiped the baby off quickly. When they placed her on my chest for skin to skin, I couldn’t believe she was mine. She seemed too big to fit inside me. But I saw the umbilical cord was still attached so I knew she was mine. We had opted for delayed cord clamping so they waited a few minutes before clamping the umbilical cord. Then they handed Hirav a pair of scissors.

Lucia, just minutes after birth.

After cutting the cord, they turned their attention to me. I had a third degree tear which required a lot of stitches. They were also worried I was losing too much blood. Dr. Hoff wanted me to take pitocin to reduce the bleeding. All the facts about pitocin and hospital procedures began running through my head. I had no serious concerns about pitocin after labor, but I had just come off a run of saying no to pretty much everything except pushing. Hirav looked at my face, and then looked at the blood. “You’re losing a lot of blood,” he said. I agreed to the pitocin. I was grateful to have such a good husband there in that moment. He knew what I wanted, what we both wanted, and he knew I was just feeling indecisive in that moment. He urged me to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. I lost almost a liter of blood, but I thankfully didn’t require a transfusion.

Next they needed to stitch me up. But even getting the shot of local anesthetic hurt. “Could we wait a little bit?” I asked Dr. Hoff. He had a concerned look, but agreed and disappeared for a bit while the nurses hung out. After 10 or 15 minutes, I asked for him to come back to finish the stitches. Even though you can’t feel the threading because of the anesthetic, you can still feel the string getting pulled through your skin like a piece of cloth. It’s a very weird and uncomfortable feeling. I had Hirav and Lauren squeezing my shoulders through the procedure, which lasted a frustratingly long half hour. The counter pressure helped take the focus off the pain.

I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point, I turned to Hirav and said, “You know, I could do that again.” The nurses looked a bit agape, like “Can you believe this lady?” The doulas also gave one another a look that more resembled amusement. “Maybe I should wait for after the recovery to say that…” I paused.

The nurses left and baby Lucia chilled on my chest for a while. Although some babies actually manage to latch and start breastfeeding in the first hour or two of skin to skin, Lucia didn’t. After a half hour, I realized that her skin was a bit clammy and cold. Lauren went out to go get a nurse. There ended up being 6 births in the hospital that night, so there were no nurses outside. We pressed the call button and a nurse came in. They put Lucia under a warmer in our room. We later realized that the AC had been turned up in the room during labor and this had made both her and I very chilly. She also was such a big baby that she had low blood sugar. She ended up being 9 lbs, 4 oz and 20 inches long. They gave her some formula to help get her blood sugar up, and encouraged me to continue feeding her at the breast and to pump as well.

After we were settled in, the doulas Lauren and Emily went home for the night. They advised that I get some rest. I was concerned, however, that the nurses weren’t coming in to check on us as regularly because things were so busy. Because we hadn’t gotten the antibiotics, I was nervous that no one would be checking her enough for the signs of Group B Strep. So I ended up staying awake most of the night watching her, making sure she was comfortable and checking her temperature every hour or so. She was totally fine.

That afternoon, she was ready for her first family visitors. The next afternoon, we headed home.

In retrospect, I couldn’t have asked for a much better birth. Not everything went according to plan, but most of it was pretty close. I wanted to feel everything and to be able to follow my instincts, and they kicked in just as I had hoped. I wanted to know whether labor was really as painful as everyone said, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. (Until the last hour or two, the pain was about as intense as my last worst bout of IBS-C related abdominal pain. So I think men can probably experience things more painful than labor.) Being able to do something about the pain makes the entire experience more manageable. Knowing that it won’t last forever also helps.

Most of all, I’m grateful for the team of support that I had. I’m grateful for Hirav’s strong hands that massaged me and sound mind that guided me through the labor process. I’m grateful for Lauren and all her wisdom and help, and for Emily’s extra assistance. I’m grateful for Dr. Hoff living so close to the hospital that he still managed to make it to our whirlwind birth. I’m grateful for the Benedictines and their angelic voices, for our friends who were with me in song, for those who wrote such powerful words that granted me peace throughout the labor. I’m grateful to God who created Lucia, and who used my suffering over the past few years to teach me to manage pain rather than to simply avoid it. I’m grateful that God made childbirth a process of labor – that it might manifest my strength as a woman just as tilling the fields may show a man’s power.

In the past few weeks as I’ve been recovering, we watched the movie A Quiet Place. I have concluded that Emily Blunt is my new favorite icon. Many movies are deemed feminist because they show women fighting like men. To me, this is rather anti-feminine because it is forcing women into men’s roles even if they don’t fit. I won’t pretend the average woman can wield a sword with the upper arm force of the average man. I admired Blunt’s performance because she managed to convey the incredible strength and majesty of being a woman with a feminine grace and a calm control. Hers is a quiet strength, no less powerful than her husband’s, but nevertheless different from his as well. Both genders must labor, but in their own unique way.

After giving birth, I emerged feeling that I could do anything. Labor was a strong wind to ignite the fire within. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his cousin John the Baptist, saying, “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (Jn 5:35). I share this testimony of Lucia’s birth that I may be a burning lamp as well, giving witness to the grace and power of God.

It is fitting, then, that we named her Lucia which means light in Latin. We chose the name for St. Lucia and for Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Her middle name is Amantia means loving and was chosen to honor my maternal grandmother. We hadn’t been certain of the middle name, but Hirav felt in the hospital that she was a Lucia Amantia. I like to think it’s because she looked like a grumpy hedgehog just like my ornery grandma. In these few short weeks, Lucia Amantia has already brought much light and love into our world.

[1] Why I Wanted to Avoid an Epidural

My medical history made me very concerned about the prospect of an epidural. For one, I have had a pretty severe aversion to needles since childhood. Although it has gotten much better in recent years, I nevertheless have a history of fainting and even seizing around needles. In recent years, the fainting has been confined to blood draws while fasting and with larger draws, but I was still apprehensive about the epidural because it would require being hooked up to an IV during labor. Secondly, I have been on medical journey the past three years that has made me feel a reasonable amount of anxiety about being in the hands of medical professionals. I have been misdiagnosed, had symptoms patronizingly dismissed, and been given bad advice from a number of different specialists.

One moment that particularly stood out was the first time I had a severe allergic reaction that required hospitalization. I had passed out in the street on the walk home with my roommate Amy. She called an ambulance and on the ride to the hospital, I was passing in and out of consciousness. There are three distinct memories I have from that day. First, in the ambulance, I specifically told the EMT that I wanted to go to Cambridge Hospital. I made this choice because it was closer to my apartment so it would be easier to get home afterward. The EMT told me “Mass Gen is really better for this kind of stuff.” Highly suggestible in that state, I said “fine” before conking out again. One thing worth noting is that Mass Gen is also more expensive than Cambridge Hospital. Although I had decent insurance, that single trip to the ER ended up wiping out a good chunk of my savings that year (almost 10% of my salary post tax).

I woke up again in the hospital and overheard the doctor asking my roommate questions. On the walk, we had been discussing why I was feeling so itchy and my medical history. She was the doctor’s best source of information at that point, but the doctor didn’t seem to listen to her. The doctor asked her whether there was any possibility I was pregnant. My roommate said “no, absolutely not” since she knew I was not sexually active. The doctor seemed disinclined to believe her. I mumbled back “immaculate conception” – which I seemed to find much funnier than the doctor did. [I’m sorry, theologian friends. I know I should have said virgin birth for utmost accuracy, but I wasn’t exactly myself.] The doctor asked me what I had eaten that day and I told her. She said “it must be the almonds” that were in my salad. I told her that didn’t make any sense as I ate a lot of almonds in my office almost every day.  By my admittedly hazy recollection, she didn’t respond to this or offer any other suggestions.

I was afraid of an epidural because I was concerned that I would be more suggestible in that state. As I thought more about the birth, I realized that I no longer feel safe in the hands of doctors. That’s not to say that I don’t trust doctors – Hirav and I know so many physicians that we respect greatly. It’s just that I’ve come to learn very intimately how fallible doctors can be and I like asking questions because doing so can help an expert reach better conclusions. Ultimately, I felt that a birth without pain medication would leave me in better control of my medical decisions and less susceptible to suggestion.

I also wanted to avoid a C-section unless it was absolutely necessary. The C-section rate in California is over 30%: the World Health Organization recommends a rate of 10 to 15%. I worried that nudge factors in the hospital would make me more likely have a C-section, especially if I had a bad reaction to the epidural needle. Hirav and I hope to have many more children, so it seemed particularly prudent to have a vaginal birth to kick things off. If I had a C-section this time, I would have to fight harder to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) for the next 3+ pregnancies. After much consideration, we decided to hire a doula to help reduce our risk of C-section and to help play the role of slowing down the decision making process (i.e. helping us question the experts to reach optimal decisions).

[2] Group B Strep and Birth Plans

We’ve mentioned having a birth plan to a few friends. The common reaction is “birth doesn’t go according to plan!” That reaction makes sense if you think a birth plan is something like “and then labor will last 10 hours and I’ll get the epidural when I’m exactly 7 cm dilated” and so forth. But a birth plan is more like a contingency plan where you think through your priorities and goals. For us, the birth plan included some medical decisions that were certain – such as skipping the erythromycin ointment since we had zero risk of siphyllitic or gonherral blindness. (As a public health decision, this makes more sense because patients may be engaging in risky behavior and not reporting it.)

Another part of the plan that was nearly guaranteed to happen was Hirav cutting the cord. Other parts of the plan were more like values that we had: we only want a c-section if it is medically necessary. We would prefer intermittent monitoring over constant monitoring. Because I tested positive for Group B Strep, we would be getting antibiotics for sure if I gave birth before 39 weeks. By thinking through these questions in advance, we weren’t surprised by anything that happened in the labor and delivery room. We weren’t making major decisions on the fly, but had considered what circumstances would cause our priorities to shift.

Of course, the labor process didn’t go exactly as planned. For example, Hirav had planned during the early part of labor to take a break to get animal fries from In-N-Out, but we weren’t sure if I really was in labor until we had already eaten dinner and Hirav had no room for animal fries. (Don’t worry, he got them on the ride home from the hospital!) We had planned to get the antibiotics, but I was already pushing when I arrived at the hospital. I knew this meant we had less than 2 hours before baby would be born. In that moment, I felt I wouldn’t be able to handle the insertion of an IV for antibiotics. I knew I needed to focus on pushing. But because I had done my research, I also knew that the antibiotics wouldn’t be as effective with less than 4 hours. That gave me a greater confidence in asking them to not administer the antibiotics as planned. We would just have to do closer monitoring post-labor, which is recommended for women who get less than 4 hours of antibiotics. I had also been taking probiotics that were found in one study in Taiwan to reduce Group B Strep in pregnant women before labor. We were hoping to retest at the 39 week appointment to see if I could avoid the antibiotics. I’m grateful now that we had this plan in place, even if I can’t be sure the probiotics really helped.

After our experience, I would recommend that every pregnant woman write up a birth plan. The greatest plans of mice and men may oft go awry, but you can plan to adapt as well. You outline what your options and preferences are in advance so you aren’t shocked or making as big of decisions during one of the biggest moments of your life.

Life Update

As you can see, I haven’t written much in a while. There were three big reasons for this:

  1. About 2 months ago, I got married!
  2. About 3 months ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, a thyroid disorder with symptoms that include fatigue, depression, anxiety, and a host of other unfortunate things (like dry skin, feeling cold all the time, and being a grumpy wife on occasion).
  3. Six months ago, I started taking classes at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Since I’ve been so tired, it’s been hard to write as much for anything that isn’t graded. Plus, with the general craziness of planning a wedding, there wasn’t as much time as I would have liked for anything else.

I’ve begun figuring out how to manage my thyroid, but it’s hard to make any judgments as there are sometimes easier weeks and sometimes harder weeks. It’s been immensely humbling in addition to making me very aware of the fact that we are embodied creatures. So for now, I won’t write much except to ask for your prayers – both for my marriage and my health.


Weddings are exhausting! Especially after taking 3 straight hours of photos with all of our family and friends.



Statistics and Peacemaking

Talking today about race is polarizing, to say the least. And I enter the fray with caution. There have been many valid points, from over-criminalization to the over-militarization of police, from the high rates of lead poisoning in Baltimore to the meditations on dreams deferred.

But there’s one point that I haven’t heard, that I think could help explain part of the chasm between the two sides on this issue, and I hope that highlighting its role can help explain why our perceptions differ so much. This could then serve as a starting point for agreement in a place where compromise seems difficult.*

If racism is a poison, it is more like nuclear radiation than lead: even a small dose of it causes serious, immediate harm, and its effects last generations. Or, to use a more old-fashioned metaphor, a little bit of leaven leavens the whole lump.

Take an incident at Harvard in 2007 in which police came to check on an activity hosted by black students during reading period. They had been called – whether because of a “noise disturbance complaint” or because some residents thought that certain “students looked like they didn’t belong” – and left after the organizers showed them their permit to host the event. There was an email thread – to which I am not privy – that shared similar concerns. I honestly don’t know enough to say whether it was racially-motivated or not, but that’s not my point in this post.

Let’s assume it was racially motivated. It takes just 1 call to the police (maybe 5 emails from students) for dozens of black students to experience racism. There are over 360 people in Cabot House. Even if less than 2% of those people are racist, dozens of people will experience racism.

That’s not to justify the racism, or to suggest that it’s not a problem. Take another problem facing a smaller portion of our society: homelessness. A lot of people think that homelessness works like a bell curve. Most people might be homeless for a few weeks, but most will find a home within a week or within a few months. This perception is totally wrong. The real graph looks more like this**:

Days of Homelessness

The actual curve is actually more like a hockey stick. Most people who are homeless are homeless for a very short period of time, with a small but significant portion staying homeless for a long time. The cost of homelessness actually looks like a hockey stick in the opposite direction. Under a bell curve, you would expect that most costs would go toward paying for people near the mean. Instead, most costs go toward paying for the small number of chronically homeless people.

Cost to the State

Even though the area under the curves is similar (meaning they would cost the state approximately the same), the source of the cost is totally different. Under a bell curve, most of the cost comes from individuals equally distributed. Under a hockey stick curve, most of the cost comes from a few chronically homeless individuals. This is why solutions like the one proposed in Utah, which seek to house the chronically homeless, have proven cost-effective: it’s cheaper to give each one a caseworker and an apartment than to keep shuttling them in and out of the hospital.

Saying that the source of the cost is actually a smaller number of people is not to minimize the very real cost of homelessness to our society, but it is to come one step closer to finding a solution.

I suspect people are so polarized because when they think about problems like this, they imagine that they follow a typical bell curve. We think that if 50% of black people assert that they’ve had a racist experience with a cop, then they’re saying roughly 50% of cops are racist. This doesn’t match with the white experience, so we’re inclined to reject it out of hand. But if it’s a hockey stick instead of a bell, that means that it could take only 2% of cops being racist for 50% of blacks to experience racism first or second-hand at the hands of the police. A small number of bad cops cause a disproportionate number of racist incidents.

Imagine that the curve is like this instead:

Disproportionate ImpactThe areas under the curve are similar: a large number of people experience racism. But in one, the racism is widespread and equally distributed. In the other, a small percentage of bad cops have a hugely disproportionate impact in creating lots of racist encounters.

Malcolm Gladwell says that research discovered the same thing in investigations of the LAPD after Rodney King: “People thought it was a kind of institution-wide problem. Until you look very closely at the incidents of complaints against officers. And what you discover is a small number of officers account for an overwhelming percentage of the complaints against the LAPD. The average cop in the LAPD is fine.”

It may seem callous in a time when so many are hurting, when thousands are marching and looting, to talk about statistics. Yet I think in these statistics could lie our hope for a form of reconciliation.

In these numbers, we see how both perspectives can be right at the same time. Blacks are right that they are disproportionately being singled out by police and are regularly experiencing racism. Yet whites are also right that many people are not racist and many police officers are respectable, upstanding members of society. Both sides are probably mis-estimating – either on the number of bad cops (or bad departments) or on the amount of racism actually experienced.

Many of my white peers are loathe to start prosecuting police more, because they recognize how difficult it is to be a police officer and they respect that imperfect decisions can be made in the heat of a life-threatening situation. If the situation in Baltimore and Ferguson is anything like the situation in Los Angeles, however, greater accountability of the police will not lead to significant changes for most police officers. It will simply mean a weeding out of the few bad apples who are causing most of the problems.


* I know from my friends that many will say that this doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t deal with the real forms of institutionalized racism, aesthetic stigma, or historical racism that can only have amends made via reparations. And I’m willing to listen to those conversations. But we’re so polarized that I doubt either side would simply consent to the demands of the other. I’m trying to stake out here something that I think both sides could easily agree on.

** I am not a statistician. If you have any suggestions for how to explain this better, or a better way to title the graphs, please let me know. If you are a statistician, I would encourage you to do real research on this! My numbers are, admittedly, a back of the envelope estimation. Getting real numbers here would help.

Today, I experimented on my kids…

After some great opening lessons at the start of the semester, I was trying to figure out what lesson I should do with my high school youth group on Sunday morning. I was going to teach them about an experiment that has taught me a great deal about how to best live out my faith, but then I realized: they’d learn the lesson better if they did it themselves. So today, I ran the experiment on them.

Back in 1973, Darley and Batson performed a psychology experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary, in which they asked a group of students to prepare a sermon on either the Parable of the Good Samaritan or on Christian vocation. These students were then instructed to deliver the sermon in another building across campus. They were put into three conditions: high hurry (in which they were told they were running late), medium hurry (in which they were told to get there quickly), and low hurry (in which they had plenty of time). Along the path to the other building, there was a “victim” lying in an alleyway. The real experiment was designed to see how many people would, like the Good Samaritan, stop to help the victim.


An illustration of the parable from the Chinese artist He Qi.

Interestingly, being primed by reading the Good Samaritan didn’t improve your odds. Nor did your level of religiosity. The most important factor was simply: were you in a rush? In low hurry situations, 63% helped, in medium hurry situations 45% helped, and in the high hurry situation only 10% helped. To me, it’s a lesson that no matter how much scripture we read (or ethical philosophy for that matter!), if we are always in a rush and consumed with our own tasks, we will fail to implement it. Since Irvine kids tend to be pretty consumed with their homework, extracurriculars, and test prep, I thought it would be an important lesson for them to grow as disciples of Jesus.

I gathered them all into the room, and told them we’d be doing a special activity today. Our church has a large Chinese ministry high school group, but I work with the English students. So I told them we were going to start a “penpal” group with the other ministry, in order to help teach them English. They were to write a letter on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then they would go one by one over to another room to deliver it to a student there, with whom they would chat. Interestingly, many of them were instantly reticent – what if my English isn’t good enough? What if I make a mistake? What if I make them worse. (This may suggest a whole different lesson on self-confidence, considering how genuinely talented and brilliant most of them are.) But I cajoled them into it, and left the room to place my “plants.” I borrowed a 2nd grader from the children’s ministry and put her along the path. She leaned against a wall, grabbed her stomach, coughed loudly, and generally looked sickly and in need of help.

After about ten minutes, I started taking students one by one. Each time, I told them either “We’re behind schedule! Please hurry over!” or “There’s no rush. Just meander on over.” The breakdown was better than the group in the original study: 100% of our non-rushed students stopped to offer help, and 40% of those in the rushed group stopped as well. But the 60% difference was striking to the students, as was the discussion afterward. (It was also interesting to watch the students from afar, as a number of them walked just a bit past her, and then double backed a few steps away to check on her when she kept coughing.)

The three students who didn’t stop all gave their reasons, which I think are actually illustrative of the reasons why we miss the needs of others when we’re always in a rush. One said that he didn’t even notice her as he passed by (let those who have eyes to see see!). Another said that he saw her, but that there was another woman in a wheel chair passing by, so he just didn’t pay much attention. The last one – the actual sister of the fake victim! – said that she saw her, but was distracted when our pastor walked by at the same time. (Whether it was pure distraction or that she thought he would help because he’s an authority figure who would help was unclear.) In all three cases, I emphasized that the lesson to take away is not that these three students are bad people, but rather that any of us can miss out on the needs of others when we’re too consumed by our own perceived needs.

Sometimes what we need is not simply to learn the scriptures better, but rather to not let our anxiety distract us from the world around us. Only then can we follow the model of the Samaritan and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.

Sermon – The Kingdom & All the Birds of the Air

I gave my first sermon this past Sunday. It was pretty exciting for me, and it was seemingly well-received. I wish that I had had a bit more time to practice it. (I find a speech is a bit like a shoe – it must be worn in a bit before it gets comfortable.) But I did feel that it was, at the very least, well-researched and thoughtful, which is the best I could do at this point.


I do wonder what my old pastor would have said about it. Actually, I don’t really. I suspect he would have said, as he did of the last talk I sent him, “this sounds more like a lesson and less like a sermon.” But fire and brimstone sermons have a way of rolling off hearts like raindrops on wax. I’d rather try to tell the truth, and tell it slant – to explain the word of God and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. I’m sure the kingdom needs both the preachers and the teachers.

I’m including the full text below.

Continue reading

Slavery, Christianity, and Religious Illiteracy

I have a piece up over at Fare Forward on slavery, Christianity, Jim Crow, and the President’s remarks at the Prayer Breakfast. In it, I discuss the distinction between a Christian (or a Muslim) using a religious justification for something and that justification actually being Christian or not.

Three additional thoughts that wouldn’t have fit with the flow of the FF piece:

  1. In case it wasn’t totally clear, I do believe that Jim Crow and slavery in the American south were unequivocally evil. I’m not in the business of whitewashing history or making Christians simply look good. But I also think it’s important to distinguish between what a religion actually teaches and what it’s adherents end up practicing. So I can condemn slavery as malicious, cruel, and evil, without thinking that Christianity is malicious, cruel, and evil. The problem is not with Christ’s teachings, the problem was with his supposed followers who seem to have missed the point.
  2. What this makes me wonder is where the church today has missed the point, where we might be unaware of the ways we oppress the poor and powerless or of the ways in which our entire economic structure is built on oppression. What would the Christians from 150 years from now look back and condemn us about? My first thoughts: probably the ways we let credit-card and other companies lure the poor into inescapable debt, probably the American criminal justice system which incarcerates people more than any other country in the world does and in which rape is simply a punchline to jokes rather than a problem to be solved, probably the consumeristic mentality which says that we can’t be satisfied until we have the latest gadget, the closet full of clothes, the nicest cars – even if that comes at the cost of quality of life for others around the world. I am powerless to erase the evils done under slavery, but I do have the power to think about and change the problems that do exist in our world today. And I think Christianity has the power to address some of those issues more than any other body or philosophy or idea.
  3. It’s an open-question whether groups like ISIS are relying on Islam itself or whether they are simply using religious reasons coached in the language of Islam. Answering that question would take more research than I can truly commit right now. But I will say this: it’s worth noting that once slavery was finally eradicated and condemned, the orthodox have almost universally stood opposed to it. The breakdown never became between literalists who support slavery and the liberals who condemn it. (Not like the breakdown in Judaism over bacon, for example.) That is, Christianity deployed its theological resources to reform orthodox opinion and practice almost universally. The question I have for Islam is this: does it have the internal resources to truly condemn and to reform the deplorable behavior of ISIS and the like? Or will its break down be between fundamentalists who interpret literally vs. reformers who interpret liberally?

MLK priests

Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with priests in the fight for equal civil rights. Religion played a key role in motivating these reformers.

The Atlantic has a fabulous article that addresses ISIS and its religious roots up right now. If you read it, you’ll probably have a good guess as to where my sympathies lie for the question above, based on what knowledge I do have. But I’m also open to changing my mind, if I heard a compelling case.

Teaching on the Trinity

Again, all of my attempts at writing are failing. (That’s false. I’m actually 50 pgs deep into my book project, and I just wrote something for Fare Forward to be published. But all of my regular attempts at blogging have been stymied again – by travel and illness and other projects.)

In January, I joined my high schoolers mid-way into a series on the Trinity. I decided that I wanted to do three things you probably won’t see in most youth groups:

1. Not dumbing down anything.

2. Actually asking them to analyze scripture thoroughly by themselves.

3. Giving them worksheets.

I’m not sure how they feel about the third one. Obviously it’s still much easier than a class in school, since much of it is fill-in-the-blank. But it’s more “work” than the standard listen-to-a-feel-good sermon. I’m making them actually write stuff down for two reasons (a) I’m trying to eliminate the fluff, so actually all of the ideas I want them to record are theologically significant / powerful and (b) they’ll remember better if they actually take notes and have to find the ideas in the text for themselves.

I’m including my two worksheets for anyone else seeking decent resources. (They aren’t perfect, but I found them personally more helpful than anything else I found. If you want to rework it for your own, I’m happy to send you the google doc directly if you email me or send me a message through this site.) There are answers in red included on the second set.

Here’s the one on the Holy Spirit. Here’s the one on the The Humanity of Christ. (Don’t worry! They covered his divinity already! I promise I’m not a heretic.)

They seemed to handle these two lessons well, and especially enjoyed the Narnia reference in the latter. There was also a very promising moment…

One of my students declared, during our sharing of how God has worked in our lives, that nothing had happened and God hadn’t worked at all. I gave him “a homework assignment” to try during the next week to live out his faith and to be more diligent in trying to see God at work. He reported back the following week that he decided to stand up when another kid was being picked on. To his frustration, this caused him to be punched. But – he didn’t fight back! He turned the other cheek! I prayed as we closed that we might all follow this student’s example of non-violence to become more like Christ. I said how proud I was of him, and I hope that more good stories like this will soon follow.

New Year, New Job

2014 was a very unusual year, and I neglected my blog as I adjusted to many big changes. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but one of my goals for this year is to start writing more reflections on this blog.

Life update: I had been working with the children’s group at a local church, but they caught on fairly quickly that my gifts might lie elsewhere. Last week, I started working with the Friday night college ministry, and with their afternoon Sunday school for their high school students.

One of the most challenging things for me is that I’m facing a group of students who, by and large, have grown up in the church. Given my background, I’m much better at talking to atheists. I get where they are coming from; I know how to talk to them about God. Most of the time, the God they don’t believe in is a God I don’t believe in either! They don’t believe in a God who delights in torture, who defies any logic, who allots salvation like Willy Wonka apportioned golden tickets – utterly at random – and neither do I. We have something in common.

Talking to Christian students is much more challenging, because instead of not believing in a bad God, they tend to believe the wrong things about the right God. And even if they believe the right things about God, those right things often get left at the church doors on the way out. I’m honestly a little intimidated by the prospective of figuring out how to help these students grow.

As I’ve gotten to know this church, I’ve learned a couple of things that worry me. First of all, it’s a church mostly of immigrants, which sometimes signals that members’ sense of belonging to the church may be less focused on faith in Christ and more on finding ways to preserve their culture. Secondly, I surveyed the middle schoolers and found that many (though not all) of the students do not feel God’s presence in the church. That is, for them, the primary experience they have at church is of a community revolving around a particular culture (Chinese) and obligation (my parents will be upset with me if I don’t come). Thirdly, the college students who had a connection to another Christian group (like Intervarsity) seemed on average more invested / spiritually mature than the ones who were only attached to the church. Of course, it was one of those Intervarsity guys who – when asked what book of the Bible he would like to discuss – chose Song of Songs. So maybe my judgments are entirely off-base.

One of the groups would sometimes do an activity called “highs” and “lows” in which they would share a high point and a low point of their week. I think all church groups should have moments like this – times in which we collectively share what’s going on in our lives so that we can stay in touch and offer support during more challenging periods. But after my first “high” and “low,” I realized that it’s a great exercise to build community generally, but not necessarily a great exercise to build a distinctly Christian community. (I think my high was that I started playing Clash of Clans with my family, which bought me street cred with the middle schoolers until they realized I was playing the old version. So I’ll be the first to admit that I failed at spiritualizing this exercise.)

I decided for both the college and high school groups, I’m going to replace “highs” and “lows” with something similar, but different. I’m asking each person to share something that God did in their lives in the previous week. I want to help them develop a sacramental vision to see that God lies beyond the doors of our church, that what they do in the daily rhythm of their lives matters to God, and that if they truly believe what they sing on Sunday mornings, it should offer them comfort and guidance throughout their week.

The first exercise with the high schoolers illuminated the variations in maturity. A couple of the older, more mature students were very insightful (God showed them the importance of helping their grandmother, inspired them with gratitude, or challenged them). One boy said frankly, “all I did last week was sleep, eat, and play video games.” About half the answers were a weekly recap without reference to God. But I hope as we practice this new exercise, they start to develop the vision that lets them see God’s fingerprints in the world around them.

As for me? Well, on the drive to church in the morning, I had settled that I would share about how a talk with two non-Christian friends reminded me that I need to (a) get over my obsession with being “right” about politics and listen better to move conversation to deeper things and (b) spend more time rethinking my political views in light of Christ. I had intended it to be a reminder that God works through everyone – even those who have different religious beliefs from us.

God had another plan. After the morning service, my church offered a morning class on marriage from an older couple I’d gotten to know on my first visit. They seem like a lovely family, and I seemed to get along with the wife as well as the husband (finally!). At the class, the wife shared some of the struggles they had gone through during their 39 years of marriage. She and I shared some uncanny similarities, and I talked to her afterward. It turns out that we processed in very similar ways, and she gave me some advice that will help me figure out how to resolve conflicts in my current relationship better. This came the morning after my boyfriend and I had gotten into an argument of sorts, and it was clear that something needed to change. It brought tears to my eyes to talk to this woman who shared my struggles but had persevered through them. She helped me to see the ways that I need to change, helped me to remain humble, and served as the sign I had prayed for the night before.


Some would say, of course, that it was mere coincidence. I can’t prove that it wasn’t. But with sacramental vision, we can see God’s handiwork in even the most ordinary of things. I pray that God will help grow in my students the eyes to see and the ears to hear.