This year, Ash Wednesday was spent in the hospital talking with doctors and undergoing tests.
Neither my wife nor I were ill — we were trying to get pregnant. And it just so happened that Ash Wednesday was the day when everything would begin. Of course, the timing wasn’t ideal. I was part of a service with three other churches that evening, and I had more than enough work to fill a 12-hour-day (I always do in Lent). It really wasn’tthe perfect time to spend most of the day with medical professionals. But we made the time because we had to, because having a family was the most important thing to us.
I thought it would get better after the first time-consuming day. I thought that the rest of Lent would basically be a breeze (at least personal-life-wise), with perhaps only a couple of interruptions. I was wrong. For two women like us, the process of trying to get pregnant is very similar to that of couples who are having fertility challenges. There are regular diagnostic screenings and blood draws and office visits to ensure that one has the very best chances of conceiving.
Our first office visit came the second week of Lent, during the time when I usually write my sermon, causing a seismic shift in my entire week’s schedule. And let me be honest here: I’m not really good with schedule shake-ups, especially when it comes to my writing. I like order and predictability. It helps me stay sane.
So I was already feeling out of sorts because of the changes in my day when our doctor’s words further subverted my sense of normalcy. “You need to start taking a prenatal vitamin,” she told us, “and we recommend that you start to cut back on caffeine and alcohol just to make the transition easier. If you can do the rest of it – no deli meats, no sushi, no rare steaks, no sprouts, lots of whole grains and produce – that’s even better.” I wasn’t anywhere near pregnant yet. It felt a little absurd.
On the way home from the appointment, my wife, Lauren, looked at me. “Do you want me to cut out caffeine and alcohol, too — and do the rest?”
I couldn’t imagine her without her tea — her strong, black, Irish tea. I was certain she would implode. But the alcohol wouldn’t be a big deal for either of us. I wasn’t ready to think about the rest. “Definitely not the caffeine. Maybe just the drinking?”
She nodded readily, “Of course, hon, anything. I’m just so grateful you’re willing to be the pregnant one.”
As we continued our drive, I found myself thinking about Lent. I’d never really been one to give something up. Trying to go without chocolate or coffee or ice cream for a season didn’t feel particularly meaningful to me, so my discipline had usually been to add something — a prayer practice, a healthy habit or a Sabbath ritual. I hadn’t had a chance to come up with a Lenten practice this year, though, so I found myself realizing with a bit of humor that I was essentially going to be giving up caffeine and alcohol and lunch meat for Lent.
We bought decaf coffee on the way home from the appointment. It didn’t feel daunting not to drink soda, but forsaking my morning coffee ritual felt like sacrilege. But I wasn’t satisfied the next morning at 6 a.m. Two cups in, I was still tired, I was still a little foggy and I realized I’d chosen the wrong (aka weak) brand of decaf. The temptation to give up and go back to the regular that was still in the cabinet was strong. I had to keep reminding myself that I was doing this for our family. I was doing this for our family. I was doing this for our family.
That would become my mantra over the next couple of weeks when the monitoring and blood tests started. Neither of us had realized when we started this process that monitoring happened at 7 o’clock in the morning — and that people started lining up at 6, which meant we had to wake up at 5. The first morning – in the third week of Lent – Lauren rolled over with the alarm and said, “It’s good practice for when we actually have a baby.”
“So I guess we’re giving up sleep for Lent too.”
A week later, it certainly felt like that’s what we’d done. By the middle of the fourth week of Lent, we were exhausted and irritable. We had to keep reminding each other that we were doing this for our family.
But the real kicker for me came at the end of week four. Our first attempt at actual pregnancy would have to be on Sunday morning — at 9. Just an hour an a half before worship starts, on a Sunday when I was not only supposed to lead the service and preach, but on a Sunday when I was also supposed to be part of an aerial arts piece as our prayers of the people, and on a Sunday when all of our after-school kids were supposed to be with us from worship through to mid-afternoon. But if we didn’t do it on thisSunday, we’d have wasted everything that went into the weeks before, and we’d have to start all over the next month.
Remember how I said I’m not really good with schedule shake-ups? Well, I’m even worse with anything that might interfere with my care for the congregation. Immediately, I felt guilty for the fact that I might miss part of the service, even though a colleague had alreadyagreed to help out. I even asked Lauren if we should wait. She looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “We’re doing this for our family,” she said. “The congregation will understand. Trust them on this.”
As odd as it might sound, it was uncomfortable to prioritize a not-yet-existent baby before the very real congregation that morning. I was told that I should avoid strenuous activity, so the aerial piece was out. I made it to church just before worship, but really just preached. And I sat out for most of the games with our after-school kids. I felt like I was slacking — and I’m definitely not a slacker. That was tantamount to a four-letter-word in my house growing up.
The next two weeks were spent waiting. I guess I felt lucky to have Holy Week to distract me, because otherwise I might have gone mad speculating about whether the process had worked or not.
Early on Easter Sunday we would have our answer. We had our expectations — after all, how perfect would it be to get a positive pregnancy test on Easter? We were almost positive that’s what would happen. After all, it seemed like divine theological timing. First try or not, this had to be it!
We waited with anxious excitement for the home pregnancy test to give us a result. It was negative. I was notpregnant. Having put so much energy into the process over the previous weeks, it was hard news to swallow. Especially on a morning when we were going to be celebrating new life, there was grief that we weren’t experiencing it in the way that we’d hoped. And we had to remind ourselves that, in spite of the seemingly perfect timing, that really wasn’t the way that God worked.
But getting the news on Easter morning also forced me to think theologically about the journey that had started on Ash Wednesday. Honestly, how could I not? I kept going back to our mantra – we’re doing this for our family– and to the Easter promise of new and unexpected life. We had given up a lot during Lent – caffeine, alcohol, Italian hoagies, sleep, our schedules, even our priorities around our jobs – all to make space so that a new life would have room to grow in our family. Doing redevelopment work with the congregation I serve, I’ve learned the same thing: You have to make space for new life to take root. And I began to think what many of you probably already know (what can I say, sometimes Jesus needs to make things really obvious for me before I catch on): that Lent especially, and indeed much of Christian discipleship in general, is the act of making space for the new life of the resurrection to blossom. For us, in the months and years ahead, that’s going to mean shifting our work-life balance — and seeing it as a spiritual discipline. But the hope and the promise that we cling to is that, even if it doesn’t happen how we expect, new life will grow in the space that we make.
JENNIFER BARCHI is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland.