On this day…: An Open Letter to My Son

(the following is an altered version of the letter to my son last year; i’m reposting it because today is his birthday and, once again, it’s one of the ways I can say “I do love you so much” and I really want to shout it to the world!)

To My Dearest Son,

On this day, 8 years ago, you were born. You were not the first child and, as time would demonstrate, you were not the last one either. You hold the middle, sandwiched between an older brother who is always doing everything first and a younger sister who is doing everything last. Without a doubt, I’m sure you’ve felt ignored or bypassed or skipped, assuming that our attention is too split between first and last to be observant of you, the steadfast middle.

But we see you. see you.

And, today, I celebrate you.  Because you need to know you are celebrated. And we’re going big! Like mountain peak big…Like Get Air big!

You are my strong vibrant young man that burst into our lives on an hot August evening.  Though, you tried your best to come earlier that day, my body failed to bring you forth naturally. I remember walking to the OR, so that we could finally have you in our arms. I remember that the feeling of my body’s failure was eclipsed by the love I had for you. My failure faded to the background, and my love for you–my then pterodactyl sounding ball of flesh– came surging forward, sending failure and weakness, and fear for the hills. You, my dear son, showed me that love trumps failure, strengthens the weak, and silences fear.

You still teach me those things every day these past eight wonderful years.

I see the way you get up again: whether it’s physically falling off of your bike or pogo-stick or failing to do something right for school; love trumps failure. I see the way you boldly go beyond your comfort level being confident when you’d rather slink away: telling the truth when you’d rather lie; love strengthens the weak. I see the way you face head on things that you are terrified of: speaking in front of your class when you’d rather just sit in the back, entering a new class room with new students when you’d rather just have your old friends back; love silences fear.

You are my compassionate little guy who has shed tears over not only his own sorrow and loss, but over others’. You are that brave little guy who boldly marched over to our neighbor’s house and gave her one of the heart Valentines’ day magnets you had made in preschool; the heart read: love your neighbor, and on that day, Jackson, you did. I love the way your eyes light up when I suggest bringing cookies to neighbors or meals to people who need one; and I love how your brow furrows when we talk about injustice in the world; and how your eyes tear up when we talk about Christ’s resurrection as surety of our resurrection, that death isn’t the final word. I love the way you care for younger kids and stand by some amazing there-since-the-day-you-were-born principle that you won’t stand for someone being picked on or bullied. I love the way nearly everything around you has untapped possibility.

Everyday you’ve occupied my life, you’ve encourage me to be more compassionate and loving.

You amaze me by your thoughts and statements. You are my wandering and wondering sage. Bouncing on the couch a couple of years ago, you had a thought; you stopped bouncing, sat down, and looked at me with all seriousness, “Mama, everything about war is just wrong.” You burst with questions and brim with ideas and hypotheses even if it means you get out of bed way past your bedtime to ask, “What was before God was?” You love the abstract and the absurd. You, at the young age of 8, are not afraid of being in metaphorical darkness. You are in touch with the brokenness and sadness of humanity’s plight, you are unafraid to be with those who are sad.  You question the rules and grab the law by it’s horns; you are my budding rebel and radical but not as an end for yourself but for others. You are skeptical of the “flow” Why are we all going in the same direction here? You challenge existing structures and the status quo; you have no room for “the box.” What box?

Everyday since you were born you’ve shown me that life is breathtaking, brilliant, and beyond anything that we can comprehend. You remind me that the status quo is often unacceptable and you rekindle my own rebel affinities when I’ve become too complacent with the way things are.

You, my dearest child, are adored, are loved, and are celebrated today this day of your birth. You are seen and not just on this day, but every day…every day that has gone before and everyday that will come.

Happy Birthday, Jackson.

A View of the Image of God from Motherhood (musings) Part II

This past Sunday was Mother’s day. I love Mother’s day. I love it even though I know how much of a “Hallmark” holiday it is. I just love it. I love the way my children bounce into our bed, bearing their school-made gifts. I (expletive + ing) LOVE gifts, especially from my boys. I love seeing what they have to say, and at 8 and 6, they say crazy awesome stuff. This year I got a Pokemon card from my 8 year old, and from my 6 year old, a laminated picture and written paragraph about the things he loves about me.

My 6 year old writes some pretty amazing and fairly deep statements; no surprise really, since he’s always been that deep thinker. By 2, we dubbed him the “Wandering Sage” because he would randomly spout off wise advice or deep thoughts. One day he woke up and while rubbing his eyes, said, “No one should run with scissors.” One day he was doing his gymnastic stunts off a big, over-stuffed chair, stopped mid tumble, sat upright, and said, “Mama, everything about war is wrong.” One day he explained to me how the seed and the egg formed the baby I was carrying in my womb; he was eerily close and only 4.  Last year he wrote me this: I love you because you love me! It’s like he was reading 1 John 4 the night before.

This year, written at the tail end of the list of things that he loves about me, he wrote, “Your smile makes me loved and feel happy.”

My eyes have reread those words everyday since I taped that laminated picture and paragraph up in my “office” (aka: The Kitchen).  In my skeptical adult wounded state, I would’ve said, “Your smile makes me feel loved…” Leaving room for the doubt that you don’t really love me, because I know smiles can sometimes be fake. So, there’s a difference between feeling loved and belovedness. To this child, though, my smile declares to him: beloved.

The power of a mother’s smile.

My smile…the smile that comes across my face when they come in from being at school all day; the smile that cuts through the tension filled bedroom because someone was being a total grumpy pants; the smile that can’t contain itself when they do ridiculous things during a tantrum; the smile that–often–ushers them off to dreamland and awaits for the dawn to greet them again; the smile that assures them that even right in the midst of their crap, they are loved, they are the beloved.

And this leads me to discuss what conclusion I’m drawing about the image of God from the view of motherhood.  It’s the power of the mother’s smile–from the moment that baby is born to the moment that mother stops walking upon the earth–that declares belovedness to the child. And I believe that the power is there, in the mother’s smile, because it’s she who has been most intimate with the child (she knows him), the one who has provided comfort from day one (she is the voice and the smell that brings her comfort). It’s her smile that conveys not just “I am happy with you” or “I have learned you and find you amusing” but sustains the original love, the state of belovedness.  The very one who bore you, who handed herself over for you, who stared death in the face to get you here smiles upon you  and you are loved.

Am I still the beloved? Yes, dear child, you are.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26).

God has smiled upon us; and it’s a smile that will never stop. Through His son, our saviour Jesus Christ, he has declared to the entire world that He loves us so much and that He desires us so much to know that we are the beloved. His face, through His son, is shining upon us and is gracious to us; His countenance is upon us and gives us peace because of Jesus. And while my smile stops many times a day, His never stops. Because His smile upon you and upon me is based on His perfect love for us apart from our deeds (both good and bad) because of the totality of the work of Christ. God’s smile is forever upon you, right here, right now, right where you are–clean or dirty, put together or falling apart, sober or drunk, pure or defiled.  The very One who created you, the very One who handed himself over for you, the very One who reckoned with death and won to silence death once and for all and to bring you to Himself, smiles upon you and you are loved.

Am I still the beloved?  Yes, dear child you are and always will be.

Absolved Motherhood

A few weeks ago there was a study* that concluded that mothers who work shouldn’t feel guilty because their children turn out just as well as children whose mothers did stay home with them. This is good news. I hate that my friends feel guilty who work and feel bad for working and not being home with their children. I’ve long held the belief that if you want to work then work, if you have to work then work, if you want to stay home and can, do it. You any of those very things.  I’ve never believed that because I stay home with my three children that they’ll be some sort of super-humans; but then again, my theology prevents me from believing such lies about motherhood and parenting.

Lies that have come into existence because the axiom has shifted from God to humans and when that shift occurred there was a vacuum and like any good vacuum something was sucked into the void: parenting. If we no longer look to God, then we default to looking to ourselves (I think therefore I am (Descartes) and I have no need for that hypothesis (Leplace about God)).  And, if it’s up to us then we must get to the core of human society and how to keep it going and even evolve it and that is how we end up with the idolatry of parent-hood and parenting. If you don’t want your child to grow up to be a  sociopath/psychopath then you should _____!  For your child to be truly compassionate and intelligent you must never____! I’ve seen this line of thought coming from both traditional and attachment parenting blogs and websites (my husband and I fall in the weird conundrum of both traditional and attachment parenting techniques).  The onus of a productive and good society falls heavy on the fleshy, bony shoulders of weak men and women: if you do this parenting thing right, we’ll not only keep society running, we’ll improve it!

Lies. Horrible horrendous lies.

But what bothered me most about this study and the hype about it was that there was this implicit conclusion that I, as a stay at home mom, somehow feel less guilty because I stay at home.


I feel guilty day in and day out. I feel guilty just as much as my friends who work (it might be different, but I doubt the level is any different). I feel guilty because I fail my children daily. I feel guilty because I’m aware that I’m not treating these three human beings, who God has placed in my hands to care for, perfectly.  The reality is that I don’t need a parenting manual to tell me I’m failing, because as soon as my voice raises and that anger over-comes me and I grit my teeth, I know I’m failing.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, first and foremost those who are quite literally bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh and this command I fail daily.  From my experience, motherhood (parenthood at large) is naturally inclined toward guilt. I could search every town in every state looking for that one non-guilt-ridden mother, and I’d come up empty. Facade or not, parents are guilt ridden.

And that brings me to my main point. The hard news we don’t want to hear is this: we are all failing as parents. Failure is failure is failure. Working or staying home, we are all failing our kids because we’re broken human beings. At night, when I lay my head on my pillow, my shoulders are no less burdened by guilt and regret than a mother who works.

Guilt is guilt is guilt.

And it doesn’t matter how many studies are published that say or y about parenting and guilt and that I shouldn’t have it; none of it alleviates my guilty feelings, my guilty conscience, cleans my blood stained hands. At the end of the day, the only thing–and I mean: The. Only. Thing.–that takes that guilt from me is the absolution proclaimed to me from the Gospel, which is the gospel of the justification of sinners. Jesus Christ died for all of my failures as a mother, all of your failures as a mother or father, and he was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). By faith in Christ we are united to Christ and what is His (righteousness, not guilty, beloved) becomes ours (it is imputed to us) to such an extent that we are indistinguishable from it; just as, on the cross, what is ours (sin, guilt, unbelovedness) became His–Jesus became sin (it was imputed to Him) to such an extent that He was indistinguishable from it. And this entire event (or exchange) is ours by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works of the law; we are entirely justified by faith in Jesus Christ apart from works.  All of me–all of you–now is determined by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.

In the event of justification by faith in Christ, your guilty status is revoked for good and replaced with the status of not guilty. In the event of justification by faith in Christ, in His word of absolution to you, your guilt (all of it) is actually taken from you because in the word of absolution you are recreated not guilty, you are recreated forgiven, you are recreated beloved. In the event of justification and by the word of absolution you stand as one who is not guilty, who is forgiven, and who is beloved.

It is this word of absolution, and only this word of absolution, that will ever take away our guilt for real.

*There were some holes poked in the research supporting the study. On a podcast I listen to produced by Slate, Mom and Dad are Fighting, I heard that the comparisons were drawn between stay at home mothers in the 70’s and working moms of today. I mention this not to discredit the conclusion (mothers who want to/have to work shouldn’t be burdened by guilt of some abstracted idealistic version of motherhood that is fairyland) but to say that I’m aware of the errors.

A View of the Image of God from Motherhood (musings) Part I

I’m a mom. I think about being a mom a lot. It makes sense. I’m also a theologian (budding). Thus, I think about God a lot. And, that makes a lot of sense, too. Often, these two realms overlap and I find myself holding my toddler, nursing her, and thinking about aspects of God and His work toward us, specifically (as of late) the image of God as it is manifested by both man and woman in unity. And I often find my thoughts wondering in this direction: what unique thing does woman bring to the image of God (keeping in mind that there’s a reason for making humanity in the image of God both male and female)? And–as radical as it may sound, as liberal as it may sound–what can I know about God by being a mother? What about motherhood uniquely represents the image of God? For part of my woman-ness is the ability to carry life within me, to birth that life, to sustain that life, so I wonder, what of those experiences points me to a unique aspect of the image of God?

And this is what I want to ponder over a few posts: The view of the image of God from motherhood.

Before I begin, I want to stress that the image of God is fully represented by the man and the woman (neither one carries more of the image than the other, both, together, carry the image of God uniquely and generally). And, I also want to stress that the image is fully represented by a man and a woman who do not have children. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something in motherhood and in fatherhood (though, I’m only speaking of motherhood here because I’m not a father) that can be the environment where the image gets pushed to the surface, visibly so; like, the difference between being 8 weeks pregnant and 38 weeks pregnant. This doesn’t make motherhood and fatherhood the end all and be all of Christian/Human achievements in life; they’re not. I am not a better Christian woman because I am a wife and a mother. I’m merely a Christian woman who is a wife and a mother and that’s the platform from which I’m speaking, that’s the lens I’m using now to peer into, to understand more of the image of God.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin…

Something occurred to me recently, when I was dealing with my daughter. She was screaming at me. I mean, screaming and shoving me (she’s very strong for 18 mos) and it was pure anger on her part because she was not getting something she wanted. Now, if I were screaming at you and shoving you you’re reaction, rightly, would be to walk away. Now, sometimes I do walk away, catch my breath, check my rage. But, oddly, I come back. I come back to her, mid tantrum and I bend low and pick her up in my arms and hold her (still full tantrum).  Vocal chords at full impact and limbs flailing wildly, I go to her and bring her closer to me. Not farther, but closer. This is what most mothers do in many circumstances. They go toward the child that is hating them.

I can’t help it. Even when it’s bad–and my toddler can get bad, we’ve nicknamed her “The Fury”–even when I do have to walk away, I can’t walk away completely. My heart is still turned toward her, desires her, loves her, craves her. And I will return to her within minutes.  There’s an actual chemical change that occurs in the woman’s brain the moment she becomes pregnant that forever changes her brain chemistry (she’ll never be the same again) that causes her to go toward her screaming child. This is something naturally unique to women, though men can experience the same change but only by “practice”, by being proactive in childcare, hands on with baby and their brains will begin to change too. But ours change the moment (or the moments before) we see that + on the pregnancy test. We are, from that moment on, hard wired to go toward our children. (Not all women have this chemical change, but it is very common.)

[Like] a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem (Isa. 66:13).

This movement towards my child who is hating me is something I marvel at because it so much a part of God’s character. God, unyielding, moves toward those who hate him, toward his enemies. Like a mother, hard wired to move toward his children, the ones he loves, the ones he desires, the ones he craves even when they are yelling at him and thrusting angry fists into the sky. Like a mother, he pulls us in close to him, holds us, comforts us, and soothes us with His tender voice–the voice we’ve known since conception–and his warm words: I love you, I love you, I love you.

Just Plain Ol’ Lauren

I’m not mommy Lauren and theologian Lauren.

Just plain ol’ Lauren.

A mom who reads theology; a theologian who is a mom. The two shes are just the one me; I don’t wear a lot of different hats, I wear one hat with a lot of different names/relations on it: daughter, sister, wife, mother, theologian etc. And these names and these relations impact me but not in an isolated compartmentalized way–as if mom never impacts sister or theologian; I’m impacted as me as a whole.

I know I can be heady…but I don’t live there, I live here, on earth, with everyone else. My goal is to always take the heady “stuff” and bring it low, to my eye level, see if it “plays well with others”…I read something and then ask–and dwell on for long periods of time–does this work here in my motherhood? Here, in my wifery? Here, as a daughter and sister? How ’bout here, as a friend?

So, anytime I hear someone make a distinction between mommy Lauren over theologian Lauren my mind is blown because I can’t tell the difference between those two persons. Theologian Lauren is deeply impacted by mommy Lauren and mommy Lauren by theologian Lauren. In fact, all of my preaching/teaching/writing examples about justification and absolution, the distinction between Law and Gospel, Command and Promise, Life and Death will come from my life as a mom and a wife, as a daughter and a sister. I’m one– albeit messy–integration of all my different names and relations. I’m just Lauren; and it’s me–the messy heap of me–you get every time on paper, in a blog post, in a sermon, and  a teaching.

I can’t write about mothering to the extent that the theologian is deprived her voice; I won’t write about theology to the extent that my others names/roles are deprived their voice. I won’t forgo my inclination toward the head just to make you cry; nor will I forget about your heart by only speaking to your head. I will just write as just plain ol’ Lauren–as unpopular as that may be.

Death to Life in Fertility to Birth: Infertility and Loss

And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” … [Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam 1:8-11)

Affliction; this is the word Hannah uses to describe her childless state, her barren state, as she prays to God (actually, it’s more like pleading and begging). Hannah is afflicted with grief and sorrow. She is distressed and she weeps bitterly. She can’t eat, she laments (the deeper connotation of the word translated as “weep”), and she is not merely “sad” as a “feeling of blueness” as we would casually say, “I’m sad today.” It would be better to render the question from her husband, “why is your heart sad?,” as “why is your heart broken?”  Anyone reading who has suffered a broken heart knows that this feeling breaks through the floor of sadness into a realm that effects both the mind and the body in painful ways. A broken heart is described as such because the heart actually feels broken; there’s an ache or a piercing pain that seems to ricochet through the fleshiness of the heart muscle–it’s not merely metaphorical.  Hanna experiences this depth of broken-heartedness.

Over what?

A longing and a desire gone unmet.

Hannah is barren; she is without a child.  Hannah isn’t over-reacting about her childless state. The way the story is told seems more like a snapshot of her life at this one moment of her distress over being barren rather than a wholistic picture of what Hannah has been suffering–Hannah’s story practically opens the book of 1 Samuel. In v. 5 there is the mention that the Lord had closed her womb. And then from there, we jump right into her peaking distress and broken heart. In this way–the way the story is told–we miss out on the beauty that is the climactic point of Hannah’s distress and weeping. She is wholly consumed by hope deferred; hope deferred doesn’t merely occur because hope has been deferred once…but over and over and over again. Hannah has been pushed to the brink of the cliff that leads to despair, to death.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Prov. 13:12)

Hope deferred makes the heart sick and this sickness steals life from the victim. Hannah has spent who knows how long longing and yearning for a child. Think of the numerous months coming and going, each one delivering it’s “no” and “not this time” to Hannah’s heart–hope sprung, hope dashed.  And the deferral of her hope has made her sick: she can’t eat, she can’t stop weeping bitterly, she is inconsolable.  This is a picture of a woman who is not well, who is suffering intimately with the brokenness of a very fallen world. When hope has been deferred for so long and dashed against the rocks so many times, one begins to long for not-hope. The deferral of hope can make one so sick that they wish for hope to take flight and to vanish, never again to alight on the heart–for, to the suffering soul, to live a life vanquished of hope seems better than to have hope yet once again only to have it dashed…yet once again.

And so it is with those of us who have suffered with infertility or loss or both. In both infertility and loss there is a hope, a real, tangible, hope that blossoms and the real hope that is shattered into what seems like shards upon shards. And each time this hope is dashed, there is a death. And it is this death that leaves the woman a different creation the next day. Out of all the experiences surrounding fertility and birth, it is those who suffer from infertility and loss who get the one two punch of Gen 3–the curse rears it’s head both in the inability to get or to stay pregnant (pain increased) and the all to alert awareness that death still marches about the earth creating casualties, leaving scars. These are the women who will enter into the battle that wages to bring forth life (my life for this one), who will face death, and who will exit the battlefield marred.

And yet, out of this real encounter with death, with “no,” with “not this time,” there is life: for she is a new creation out of this death–never to be the same again. For it is she who has suffered death that knows what life is; it is she who has not born new life who understands–on a deep and visceral level–just how miraculous new life is; it is she who has wept bitterly and cried out for relief who knows from Whom joy and comfort come; it is she who knows the failure of the very thing she was uniquely gifted to do who finds her very person not in the sum of her working or not-working parts, but in the totality of The One who has born the brokenness of the world (and of her body) in His body and who has dealt death a death-dealing blow. And while she has not brought forth new life quantified in onsies and diapers, she is the epitome of new life, for it is she who declares even in this darkness: life.


The Death and Life in Fertility to Birth: Labor and Delivery

O Lord, in distress they sought you;
they poured out a whispered prayer
when your discipline was upon them.
 Like a pregnant woman
who writhes and cries out in her pangs
when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
     we were pregnant, we writhed,
but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:17-19)

Femininity is often defined in terms more associated with a church mouse than that of a living, breathing, human being. Meek and mild are the boundary markers for interpretations on what is feminine: soft, smooth, gentile, maternal, quiet, proper, etc. It will be no surprise to you then that I would disagree with any definition of femininity that is based on such words/terms. In defining femininity, we must consider the very thing that biologically defines a woman: birthing. Thus, redefine femininity. Rather than meek and mild, it is strength, fortitude, and even fierceness that defines femininity. A woman in labor is completely feminine. A woman in labor is confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And she confronts death alone. No person (apart from the Holy Spirit) takes her hand and guides her through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; she will (speaking in terms of an un-medicated labor and delivery) moan, grunt, even growl at death, bring it, Death! She’ll stare it down. My life for this one! A proper definition of femininity must incorporate this imagery.

Labor and delivery is earthy and visceral. I’ve yet to meet a husband, having witnessed his wife giving birth, who has not walked away completely changed in his opinion of what this woman can do and even is. Many male comedians have joked–in truth to a great degree–that if God came down and changed the roles (men now being child-bearers) that the human race would cease to exist. Men who have stood by, next to, or even those who have have held their wife during labor (my husband), and witnessed this process are forever changed in their own way–at the least his view of her is radically altered. Thus, in the process of creating a definition of femininity that incorporates the imagery of the woman in labor, the definition of masculinity is redefined. Chivalry become less about protecting her from danger and more about protecting her space to enter into this danger. His inherent ability and desire to protect (a generalization I’m willing to make having seen this “protector” spirit in my young sons) will be turned outward, toward the world, keeping the world at bay; in his presence she is safe, he becomes the source of comfort and soothing–he becomes the homestead–while she enters into this event and while she works and battles. He is not holding her, but holding everyone back. In light of modern birthing techniques, the husband often loses his role in this process, being relegated to the side and designated unhelpful or useless–a problem that needs a correction. Husbands are crucial to the process and the event this woman, his wife, will go through, for he is her first source of comfort, the one who knows her intimately, and his presence can represent to her that she is free to enter into this battle, to face death.

So, let us speak in terms of the theme of these posts, and let us look on the death and life in labor and delivery.

From the onset of labor to the completion of pushing, the woman submits to the event happening to them. The woman gives herself up (has to) to bring this other life into the world.  A woman who is laboring (naturally) will often look almost lifeless during the highpoint of contractions–slumped and limp held up only by the strength of her husband’s arms or still, inexpressive,  curled up on her side. Even delivery (pushing), the most primal of the process and invoking the totality of the activity of the woman–activity surfacing beyond all reason, in spite of all exhaustion–in itself, represents her total submission to the event–she has to push. She is face to face with death (her death), she will give the whole of herself to the process and afterwards is forever different.  She does not choose when labor begins, but it seizes her, and she can do nothing but die to herself to bring this child into the world. When you see her child, you see the death she went through in labor and delivery to move this child from her body in to the world. It is impossible to go through this process, this event and remain the same.  There is a new woman at the end of the event and not merely a new title to add to the others.

But let me not forget those of us who endure a different labor and delivery process; for those of us who endure Cesarian sections (a major surgery to extract the baby from the very lowest part of the abdomen) also go through the death into new life process. Having had three C-Sections, the imagery of being laid out on an operating table in a cruciform position does not escape my attention. My arms are stretched out to the side, and strapped (albeit loosely) down. My legs pulled straight on a narrow (and I mean NARROW) table. It is in this position, cruciform, that I will give birth. I don’t want to make a too-big of a deal about this nor draw a one-to-one comparison between her and Jesus’ death. But the imagery is there. During our last (and final) delivery, I walked (without Daniel) to the OR; everything about this small trek to have our daughter felt like dead woman walking. Each step down the cold hallway, barely covered by my gown, led me toward my confrontation with death. Without the lead-up that is the transition between early stage labor to a stage referred to as “transition”, you feel catapulted to deaths door in the event of a c-section.  As she is laid out, strapped, prepped, and as the curtain is raised–separating her from the gruesome scene below–she will close her eyes, breathe out, and say, “My life, for this one.” She will never be the same when the last suture is in place, and she will bare the scar of this confrontation, it will be the symbol of her new, of her different self, forever marked.

Labor Pains

I am sick today,
sick in my body,
eyes wide open, silent,
I lie on the bed of childbirth.

Why do I, so used to the nearness of death,
to pain and blood and screaming,
now uncontrollably tremble with dread?

A nice young doctor tried to comfort me,
and talked about the joy of giving birth.
Since I know better than he about this matter,
what good purpose can his prattle serve?

Knowledge is not reality.
Experience belongs to the past.
Let those who lack immediacy be silent.
Let observers be content to observe.

I am all alone,
totally, utterly, entirely on my own,
gnawing my lips, holding my body rigid,
waiting on inexorable fate.

There is only one truth.
I shall give birth to a child,
truth driving outward from my inwardness.
Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it.

With the first labor pains,
suddenly the sun goes pale.
The indifferent world goes strangely calm.
I am alone.
It is alone I am.

Akiko Yosano

The Death and Life in Fertility to Birth: Pregnancy

“To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children'” (Gen 3:16a,b)

When Martin Luther translates this verse from Hebrew into German, the first two parts of the verse read like this, “Und zur Frau sprach er: Ich will dir viel Mühsal schaffen, wenn du schwanger wirst; unter Mühen sollst du Kinder gebären.” Or, in English, “And to the woman he said: ‘I will create/make many toil/distress/difficulty when you are pregnant; under troubles/pains/toils you are supposed to give birth to children.'” The Hebrew supports Luther’s translation choices. The Hebrew word w’heronekh’ incorporates not only the idea of child-bearing, but, more specifically, the whole of the event from beginning to end:  including pregnancy and conception. If this were not so and if the word only referred to the act of child-bearing (the labor and delivery part, which is often the focus for many people), then the second of the first two statements to the woman would be redundant–the second being nearly unnecessary. In what God says to the woman as part of her curse to bear is that from beginning to end the event of bringing forth a child will be toilsome, hard, filled with sorrow, pain, difficulty, and distress; there is no part that goes unscathed by the curse. Bringing forth a child, in simple terms, will not be easy in any stretch of the imagination. Part of the battle ground between life and death will be her very body; as fast as she can rejoice, she will be able to weep.  All of it happening to her and in her and apart from her control–and there in lies her death, her pain, her toil–it’s not merely physical but also emotional and intellectual.

For this post, I’ll focus primarily on pregnancy (and not conception, I’ll save that for a later post), which makes sense because I’m 38.5 weeks pregnant. Pregnancy is, if you will, sort of on my mind. So what does death and life look like as a woman progresses through pregnancy? A perpetual (or what feels like a perpetual) loss of self, a handing over of one’s self to the event. Physically, this is somewhat more obvious. The pregnancy, and by this I really mean the growing life within the womb, takes over. A glass of milk is no longer merely some Vit D for the mom, it will go first to the child. Our bodies, literally, re-prioritize who is important; and the important person is the new life, the child. If we don’t ingest enough vitamins to cover both baby and mom, we, ourselves in our body, will suffer. Then there’s the ever present aversions (both smell and taste and touch) that pop up in an otherwise normally unaffected mother. With my second son I couldn’t tolerate the smell of Ham. Ham. It’s completely innocuous; it has no danger to it whatsoever, but I reacted to it like I would rotten eggs or rotten meat. There’s the nauseous hailing in “morning sickness”, which, by the way, is typically more of an all-day sickness that can fluctuate in correlation to, well, nothing really. It sort of does what it wants. Personally, I would be nauseous both full or hungry, both rested or tired. And speaking of rest, what’s that?? In the beginning, in those first few weeks, there is, typically, extreme exhaustion, no matter what you do. You could sleep all day and wake up and feel exhausted.  Physically, the woman is taken over. She is no longer in control of her body, and this is the beginning of the death of herself.

But it doesn’t end with the completion of the first tri-mester; no. way. As the pregnancy progresses so will her weight, her hips will spread, her belly will expand, her breasts will enlarge, her feet will change, her ligaments (all of them) will loosen and the once graceful and deft will quickly become, shall we say, a bull in a china shop. On a confessional note, I bump into more walls, door frames, and banisters than I care to admit. My large belly has actually turned on and ignited gas burners on our stove. My husband got nervous one night, because he was certain I’d burn my belly reaching up over the stove to get something down from the cabinet above. At this stage in the game I can’t actually just sit up from a lying down position, but have to sort of do this roll thing and throw in a grunt or two. And that’s just what I’m willing to share.  Every month that progresses by, she will lose more and more of herself and who she was. Every turn through out the pregnancy changes her, for good–there’s truly no going back to what was.

While the physical symptoms present themselves in such tangible ways, there are yet more concerns for the pregnant woman that lie just under the surface of the physical in the emotional and intellectual. Fear.  I am not only losing control of my body as it seems to completely hand itself over to this process of growing this life, but I am in the midst of a deep, spiritual awareness that I’m not in control and that awareness brings with it fear.  Humanity in general does not like to be out of control; we’d rather be God than confess that we need Him.  This truth is ever present in the life of the pregnant woman. What do you mean there’s, technically, nothing I can do to guarantee a successful result?! Fear (and anxiety, it’s sister) is the tantamount emotional and intellectual response to the realization that one is not in control. And fear is the exact emotion she will feel (some of us more and some of us less) during the entire pregnancy, for there is no definite to lay hold of; confidence is pure illusion.

For me, fear rears it’s head frequently. I remember remarking to a friend when I was pregnant with my first that I wish I had a window that I could look through to see if everything was okay with my baby. I want there to be something that I can do to ensure a good result: I won’t drink coffee or alcohol, I’ll avoid noxious odors and certain foods with old-wives tales linking them with miscarriage (from any culture), I’ll happily stop running and other activities that could result in loss or damage to the baby. But still, even if I do all of those things, there’s no guarantee. Even currently being 38weeks (almost 39) pregnant, I still have that lingering concern about whether or not everything is okay, and I have it everyday. Throughout the first trimester, I was concerned about miscarriage; then through the second trimester, concerned about late term miscarriage, still birth, the results of tests; and, now, as I approach the end of the third trimester, my concern lie in her movements throughout the day, what the outcome of labor and delivery will be, is she really healthy (mentally and physically), and will we be okay through the c-section/recovery. As I go through my day without taking hold of the concrete answers I desire, and made aware of my inability to do anything, I am thrust to my knees (sometimes very literally) at the foot of the Cross, asking for help to make it one more day, to take one more step through what seems to be a thick fog. Each breath accompanied by honest confessions of fear and weakness and heartfelt pleas for His mercy.  The more I progress through this pregnancy I made more and more aware that while the end will hopefully result in the bringing forth a new life into this world, there is something between here and there and that something is death.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

From conception to birth, the woman is thrown to the foot of the Creator’s throne, dependent on His will, His mercy, and His strength through her weakness. Everyday for nine months, she will make this journey; everyday she will hand herself over to the death of herself; everyday she will be much more different than the day before; everyday she will join her voice with Mary’s, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Everyday she will die, only to be raised up anew.

The Death and Life in Fertility to Birth

“’Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.'”

Isaiah 49:15

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 10:39

It’s not surprising that the topic of life is first and foremost on my mind. At some time, in the next 3-4 weeks, I’ll give birth to our third child. It is an exciting event; a new life will exist in the world, creating her own ripple effect in the lives of her parents, her brothers, her grandparents, and those she will one day encounter. The whole event is, simply, miraculous; there is a lot of joy and celebration that should surround such an event.  From the moment of conception, through pregnancy, to the culmination in birth the common theme is new life, and not incorrectly so for it is in fact a new life in the world.

But what is less spoken of, but I believe to be inherent in the event, is the death involved in order for this new life to come forth. For, to be sure, there is a death, a real death to self from beginning to end. This death lies in the fact of the lack of control that is part of the fertility and child-bearing process. There is nothing guaranteed within the process. No matter how much a book may claim otherwise, encouraging that you can in fact plan when you will conceive based on some temperatures and fluids, the fact remains that not only are these very factors out of our control, but even if all the elements align perfectly, there is still some portion of control lacking in the acquisition of the final product: conception and implantation.  Conception and implantation have no guarantees attached to them, for the threat of miscarriage is very real in the first trimester and even in the second, not to mention tubal implantation. Graduating into post week 20, and you still aren’t guaranteed a successful outcome, as I’ve heard a number of stories about how everything was just fine and then…Even now, at nearly full term, there is no guarantee that everything will be fine; even now I have not complete and total control over what will happen.  And so it is, from the beginning to the end, I am radically changed through the event of death and not of life; in this event, at every turn, I am reminded of my place (at God’s mercy) and the futility of my capability.

But though it is death, it is not death for death’s sake; but for life, to bring forth new life and, typically, not only one new life, but two. I don’t mean to be callous in my math here but, yes, for the time being, I am excluding the man from the equation. While he participates in the beginning, the whole of the pregnancy is rather abstract for him, only becoming “more real” upon birth and at that moment the death he experiences–because of this new life–begins.  I say this as a woman who is married to a man who lovingly cooks for her during the first trimester when her stomach can’t handle it, understands as her expanding belly and increased number of pillows demands at least half of the bed, and cancels work trips and outings with friends because, “It’s just too close to the due date.” Not to mention a man who is as passionate about natural labor and childbirth as his wife is and knows his supporting role in labor. So I don’t mean to say that the man isn’t part of the process, but for what I’m talking about here, life out of death as it relates to fertility, pregnancy, and the birth of the child, I’m focusing on her, the woman; because it is this journey, which is her journey and during which he plays a supporting role (albeit the primary supporting role). He stands apart from the event, looking on, watching, providing support when and where he can, but ultimately this event is between her and God. She will suffer death over and over again, which will bring forth this new life of her own and that of her child. He will be impacted but later, subsequent to her death and new life.

Plus, to be honest, I can’t speak from the man’s point of view. The only information I’ve been able to garner about the whole event from his perspective is from my husband. He’s willingly admitted the abstractness of the whole thing and we laugh when he asks, “Is there really a baby in there?” To which I like to respond, “No. A litter of Kittens.” About which we both admit that that scenario (though creepy, loaded with questions were it to happen, and perfect fodder for a B rated sci-fi movie) would be significantly easier than a real baby.  He’s also admitted a feeling of helplessness during our miscarriages. During our last miscarriage, as I lay on the bathroom floor in the fetal position, enduring 3 hours of transition contractions to pass the sack (etc), all he could do was lay with me unable to take my pain, to alleviate it, to stop my tears. I know it was no “easy” task to witness the woman he loves he excruciating pain and discomfort and sorrow and I’m sure there was a death in that for him; the line I’m desiring to draw is between the one who goes through the event and the one who witnesses the event.

While I’ve attempted to appease the allegations that could be brought forth against me for not including Him in my discussion of Her, I’m sure I’ve not exhausted all possible appeals. With that said, I want to get back to why I’ve started this post in the first place: the death and life in fertility to birth. I plan to look at three primary areas as they relate to the themes of death and life: pregnancy, labor and delivery, and infertility and loss. As a woman, I will be able to speak from experience of having gone through the bulk of these events–the good and the bad, the joyful and the sorrowful.  As a theologian of the cross, I will see these events through the lens that God creates out of nothing (not just in the beginning but now); that these events participate in that death and (re)creation: and how, in the depths of the fear, the realization of the loss of control, and deep insecurity, Jesus Christ proves himself to be true and real and  present in that suffering with us, not to “test” us but to to whisper to us, “I know. Take my hand. Follow me” and to be our strength when we’ve got none left to walk on.

More to come…