Monday, December 12, 2016

The people who walk in darkness

Upper Chesapeake Medical Center has restarted a perinatal bereavement support group. I was the first speaker, and the group ended up being relaxed and informal, but this is what I had prepared to say.

In the last year, I have had two miscarriages. The last one was only a few weeks ago. We have been trying to have children for over two years. And I should tell you I am a pastor, so this is a busy time of year for me. It is Advent, the season of preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ by remembering and even reenacting the birth of a baby. It's also a season of waiting.

Does this sound like a super fun time of year for a person dealing with the death of babies and wondering when, if ever, she will ever get pregnant again?

Hint: it's not.

One of the scriptures we read during Advent that I usually open Christmas Eve services with is from the prophet Isaiah. He writes, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2). He writes about the Israelites, desperately hoping for a new reign of peace and prosperity after life under the oppression of the Assyrian Empire. Christians read it as the anticipation of Jesus's birth. And it is a scripture that has been sticking with me in this season. Because I feel like those people who walked in darkness--- not (necessarily) because of politics, but because of grief.

I knew I was going to have a miscarriage my first pregnancy. We had conceived on Christmas day last year, which is probably more information than you need to know, but this was after over a year of trying and my desperation was so strong that I basically missed a day of work every month when I got my period because all I could do was sit around and cry. When we learned we were going to have a Christmas baby, it seemed too perfect. I didn't trust it. Perhaps that says something about my faith, you can analyze that later, but this moment should have felt like dawn after a long night. Instead it just felt like more darkness. That is until just before the eighth week, when I finally started picking out baby names and researching potential Halloween costumes. Finally, that light seemed to be shining! And then I had a miscarriage. I remember sitting in the car on the way to the emergency room on my husband's twenty-ninth birthday while he prayed for us and he was still praying that our baby would be okay. I had no such hope. I already knew our baby was gone.

Now the days after our miscarriage were not as dark as that day. I could feel hope again. After all, we hadn't been sure we could get pregnant naturally but we did. And when it started to get dark again, after not getting pregnant for seven months on our own and with some help, the day of the baby's due date ended up being another experience of renewal that let some light seep in. And then I got pregnant again, a week after my first due date, and, even though I was cautious, I allowed myself to hope this time. To hold my belly and talk to the baby. To again try and decide on a middle name for a boy. But I only allowed myself to hope a little bit. I had grown accustomed to the dark.

I miscarried again. And this time I saw no light. And when people reminded me that God was still with me, and that I have a wonderful supportive husband and church, and that I have so much to be thankful for, I just got more bitter. I wanted to be left alone in my grief. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and my heart adjusted to hopelessness.

But I don't think hopelessness is all the darkness of pregnancy and infant loss can teach me, and maybe teach us. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again...”1
One of those things I have learned is the power of community. I have always believed that community is beautiful, but it was not until I was stumbling in this darkness myself that I actually experienced it saving me. Like just his past Tuesday, when I was exhausted and ran into a family acquaintance in a hospital waiting room while looking for one of my parishioners. She asked me which of my sisters had lost the baby. I burst into tears when I told her it was me, not one of my sisters, even though I thought I was doing so well with not crying in public. But while I tried to blink back tears, she took my hand and told me about how between her two children, she lost five pregnancies. She told me about how her son was a twin, but his twin died at seventeen weeks. She had to carry the dead baby within her as she carried the living one. And she told me this story not with triumph, not with the smile and “See, one day you will have a beautiful baby too just like I did,” end to the story. She told me her story just to let me know I was not alone, and she had cried too, so many times.

I want to run the show. I want to be able to plan my pregnancies the way my mother did, when she decided she never wanted to be pregnant in the summer again, so my sisters' birthdays are June 1 and June 3. I want my doctor to tell me the next IUI will work. I want to know when I get that positive on the pregnancy stick that I will be pregnant for forty weeks, not seven or eight. But we don't run the show. We don't have control over our ovulation or the quality of our eggs. We don't have control over crying in the middle of a hospital waiting room with an almost stranger. But when I stop trying to control the outcome, I might start to see beauty and goodness in the light there is, even if it isn't the kind of light I wanted or expected. Like the beauty and goodness there was in sitting with a woman, listening to her story and not feeling so alone anymore.

The darkness of pregnancy and infant loss is horrible. I would give up this journey in exchange for a baby in a heartbeat. But there is still goodness in the midst of the horribleness, still light in the darkness, even if it is a just faint glow. And I believe that is because the darkness is not dark to God, as Psalm 139 tells us. To God, the night is as bright as day. God can work the good from even terrible situations. God can help us see beauty by that faint starlight even when the sun isn't shining.

So though even today I do not expect to see a great light, to feel the warmth of a smile on my face when I get to hold my baby for the first time, I know that this darkness we walk in the meantime is not just a place of death and hopelessness. That we can learn to walk in the dark, and to reach out to our siblings in this journey and help them walk too. And maybe together we will find that even the night can be bright.

1Barabara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 5.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Joy Happens In Relationship

This is  a sermon from Presbury United Methodist Church's Mismatched Nativity series. 

Scripture: Luke 1:39-58 (NRSV)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. 

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 

Let us pray:  
Patient teacher, we probably don't all feel very joyful this morning. Maybe we are worried about a loved one in the hospital. Maybe we saw our credit card bill and are trying to figure out how long it will take to pay it off. Maybe we just got a bad night's sleep. There are so many things that keep us from rejoicing in you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts show us how near you are today. For that is good news indeed. Amen.      

We are continuing our sermon series on a Mismatched Nativity. You can come up after worship, or just see from your seats that this Nativity is composed of many different sets, and many from places like Haiti and South Africa. Of course, there are also gnome and Snoopy nativities represented, so it is a bit of a strange concoction here. But it serves as a visual reminder for what we have been talking about--- these characters from the story of Jesus' birth were not so different from us. Their lives are not perfect. They had problems like we do. They messed up once or twice in their lives--- but, even if you aren't convinced they did mess up, everyone around them thought they did and judged them for it, made their lives harder for it. Zechariah prayed but really didn’t have hope. Mary was less pure and holy than spunky and courageous. Today, we are talking about Elizabeth, a person of faith who experienced joy but also still felt fear and anxiety, just like many of us do.    

Our scripture today is about joy pure and simple, from Mary to Elizabeth and back again. But remember that joy and happiness are not the same thing. We are not talking about a sense of contentment, like after a long day when you finally get to put your feet up and relax. We are not talking about the feeling of pleasure we experience when eating our favorite food. We are not talking about the warm fluttery feeling like the kind you get in your stomach when you realize the next Star Wars movie is out next week. Or maybe you don't get that feeling, but I do! Joy is a deeper feeling than those even though it is sometimes fleeting. Joy is a kind of resistance and resilience. Joy transforms us, and shows us possibilities we once thought impossible.     

Let's just look more carefully at Mary and Elizabeth's story. If we picture these women at all, which, let's face it, Elizabeth and Zechariah are left out of the Nativity so often we don't think of them as being a part of the story--- but if we picture these women, we picture halos and light, big smiles and big bellies. Scripture doesn't exactly tell us otherwise, though it does suggest that Mary probably did not have a big belly yet, but I wonder if the halos and smiles put us off from the part of the story we can best relate to--- that Mary and Elizabeth were afraid.     

We aren't really sure why Mary set out and went with haste to see Elizabeth. Yes, the angel had given her the good news, but it wasn't like she had a car and could just run over with cake and balloons. Rev. Adam Hamilton in his bible study about the geography of the story of Jesus' birth says that the journey by foot between Mary's and Elizabeth's homes could have taken nine days. He writes, “The fact that Mary was willing to travel nine days across three mountain ranges [hill country, the scripture tell us, remember] to see Elizabeth speaks volumes about how she was feeling. She longed for someone who might believe her and who could help her make sense of what was happening.”1     

Now in those days, women would often journey to family member's homes to help with pregnancy, delivery, and taking care of the newborn baby. It was probably not out of the ordinary for Mary to go on such a journey, or at least women Mary's age. But I have a friend who has another theory. She believes that Mary was kicked out by angry and frightened parents. We really have no idea, but think about it--- how many of you would believe a teenager, even the sweetest, most innocent teenager you know, if they told you that the Holy Spirit impregnated them with God? Maybe they got angry and sent Mary away, to wait until her delusion had passed or to negotiate with Joseph's family so no violence would befall Mary, since the law at that time, whether or not it was enforced, was to stone a woman who had committed adultery, even against her betrothed. Whatever you believe, I think these possibilities tell us that this journey to Elizabeth's house was not taken by Mary while she was skipping and singing to woodland animals like a Disney princess. She was afraid and uncertain. Her courage in agreeing to serve God was waning in the face of very real fears and anxieties.     

And Elizabeth, she was also full of fear and anxiety, despite the faith she exhibited when we read about Zechariah a few weeks ago. Of course, I could be projecting my own experiences onto Elizabeth, but two different people I talked to this week who had multiple losses and struggled with infertility agreed with me, so this is not isolated. As much as Elizabeth wanted to become pregnant, as much as she realized our God is a God of miracles, for those who experience pregnancy loss and infertility, pregnancy is scary. Every time I told someone I was pregnant this last time--- which was only a few people because I was so scared--- I burst into tears. And not happy tears. Every time someone responded with congratulations, I didn't feel like I could accept it yet. I felt like I was holding my breath--- and I could tell Aaron was too. I remembered seeing people post pictures not of 12 week sonograms but of the actual pregnancy test just weeks after conception and could not fathom how you could share something that was so uncertain.     

Elizabeth, you may remember from the beginning of chapter one of Luke's Gospel, went into seclusion for the five months after she conceived. Even though she was a woman of deep faith, a woman who proclaimed, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Elizabeth felt like she was holding her breath. Did Zechariah really have a vision? Did God really mean this baby would be the one, or maybe she would miscarry and have another? God's time isn't our time after all. Even though she had faith, she was afraid. Rev. Hamilton points out that, “It seems to have been Mary's visit that drew Elizabeth out of her seclusion. Mary needed Elizabeth, but perhaps Elizabeth also needed Mary.”2     

Mary and Elizabeth were not these majestic superwomen who could do anything and everything easily and without any fear or worry just because God called them to do it. They were people full of faith, people seeking to love God more. And as people of faith, when their belief waned, when their fear reared it's head, they reached out to one another. And that reaching out made their faith even stronger. That reaching out gave them joy, true joy, based on the knowledge that they were not alone. That God was with them, helping them to see beauty and goodness even in the difficult things.3     

“Joy happens in relationship.”4 There isn't some magic formula for joy, some specific prayer or action that only haloed people with big smiles can experience. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child that would become John the Baptist leaped in her womb. But her heart leaped too. And she finally felt the presence of the Lord again stronger than her fear and anxiety over her pregnancy. She blessed Mary, crying out to her in joy, which then prompted the most joyful song in all of scripture, at least to me. The Magnificat. With Elizabeth's blessing, Mary was able to let joy fill her again after over a week of walking and worrying, seeking a friend. She knew God had remembered her because Elizabeth did--- not as a teenage mom, but as a person blessed by God.     

Do you have a person like Elizabeth and Mary had? A friend who is there to help you find God when it is hard, a friend who can help you hear God's voice when you can't? That is what this week was for me, from church people to life-long friends, to Muslim women, to a virtual stranger in a hospital waiting room, I encountered people like like Elizabeth, who emerged from their own pain to speak a word of blessing upon me.     

This is a congregation full of Elizabeths and Marys who need to take the journey to reach out to one another in love and let God transform them. So let us open our hearts to the joy God already has in store for us. In the spirit of reaching out, I invite you to turn to your neighbor and rejoice together, as Elizabeth and Mary did together. Offer one another signs of God's joy!    

1Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2011), 63.     
2Ibid., 65.     
3I thought about this following a comment on The Young Clergy Women Project Facebook Group, posted 1 December 2016, accessed 10 December 2016.   
4Another comment this time on the YCWs Preach the Narrative Lectionary Facebook Group, posted 10 December 2016, accessed 10 December 2016.