Monday, July 8, 2013

Of spiritual support on the cusp between new life and death

July 8, 2013
A year ago today July 8, 2012, I really began to appreciate prayer in a new way.  And over the next few months, that appreciation would only grow. It seemed that representatives from most of Christendom had me and my little baby upheld with their prayers.

My brother's in-law in Bulgaria was lighting candles in the Orthodox church.  My Catholic friends shared our story with their parish, and we were prayed for. At least one Coptic Christian had us on his prayer list.  Our old and new protestant churches were praying. We had representatives in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and (strangely enough) an African in India all asking for updates and praying for us.

That's a little intimidating. And awesome. We coveted those prayers.

My son had made it through the weekend.  I was still pregnant.  Things had not "presented themselves" as the doctor had thought they might. Indeed, since things had been so quiet, a week ago today I was given wheelchair privileges.

A few Sunday afternoons a month, we would go to eat with friends of ours after church. I hadn't been able to see them for a few weeks, so, a year ago today, with my new privileges, I went downstairs to the food court and they joined me with all our kids.  The lunch didn't last more than half an hour.  I had a contraction and so I couldn't linger, but the outing was nice.  I'd missed my pastor's last sermon. He was leaving for Canada in a few days to start pastoring another church. They caught me up on what I'd missed.  Sounds like the sermon was a good one.

I was now 22 weeks 1 day pregnant.  Still too early to deliver, still two weeks until viability, but we had made it through the weekend and I had great hope I'd be pregnant for a lot longer. I was mentally preparing for long-term bedrest. Despite how bad things had looked just a few days ago, now it looked like I'd be pregnant for a while. I was optimistic.

This would not be the first time when things looked really bad for JAM, and then somehow we squeaked by. Just watch. It happens again about a half a dozen times over the next few months.

I appreciated the prayers so much. I appreciated the notes and cards and well-wishes. I loved the phone-calls.


There was something that didn't sit well, though, with about a fifth of the cards or instant messages I'd receive.  I couldn't name it, so I couldn't explain it. I gathered it was my fault. No one said anything wrong or off color. But I knew I wasn't seeing their words, the bible verse references they sent, the way they wanted me to see them. And I felt a little bad about that.

That afternoon about a year ago another friend from graduate school stopped by.  Brian had an MDiv and a gift for speaking truth in no-nonsense terms. He and his wife had moved to our area the same time as us, which was a blessing that went both ways. Our families had stayed good friends. He was in the hospital visiting someone who had had recent heart issues as part of his pastoral duties to his church.  He dropped by my room to say "hi."

"Why does this bother me?" I asked him, "Why am I upset when people quote verses out of context about how everything will be okay? I know they're trying to help lift my spirits."

"They are spiritual incantations" he said, "it's what people want for you, so they 'claim' it hoping that will make it be so."  And thus, I had a word, a phrase, for what bothered me so much. Spiritual incantations. Wave a wand, things will have to be okay, right? That's what it felt like. 

But it might not be so, and what then? What if my spirits weren't lifted by the verses they claimed for me, and furthermore, what if they claimed the wrong verses?

Brian assured me that I wasn't completely off my rocker, which was good, because I was pretty sure my soul was as hard as a rock for not rejoicing with every one of God's good promises.

Now, before I go any further, I want to say something to those of you thinking, "Oh no, she's talking about me!  I did this a year ago! I sent her a hopeful Bible verse. But I was just trying to help."

First, I actually have no recollection about who did this, just a general memory of hearing and reading lots of Bible verses that were meant to encourage and having them fall on the hard concrete of my heart. Second, I recognized even in the moment that this was not the intent, that the verses were from people trying desperately to hold out some light in a dark situation. Third, it probably wasn't you. Most verses and well-wishes fell on a softer part of my soul. This was especially when they came from people who were trying their hardest to walk with me on this path.

"Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:20) If I have faith I can move mountains. Jesus said it, and looking back now, it's an inspiration, because He also did it.

But a year ago -- a year ago I'd worked so hard to give up my desires on this one and follow God's lead on this one. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5-6). I wanted Him to direct the path, even if it didn't make sense to me. So I had a hard time getting that mountain to move. "Keep me pregnant for a month longer -- or maybe until I'm full term" was the desire of my heart.  But what if it wasn't His plan? (Actually, turns out that wasn't how things turned out.)

By His grace, I wanted my son to live. I had wrestled with him on this one. I knew that he knew my son. I knew that he knew my son before I was even pregnant. I didn't know if that meant that my son would live, though. But God was with us in this, and God was good. At that point, that's all I could cling to. I wasn't ready to think beyond that to specifics. That seemed risky territory.

Besides, what would happen when he didn't live?  What would I say to those who had hoped so hard? What did that say about me and my faith?  My faith was about as small as a mustard seed most days. Maybe they'd look at me and say that a mustard-seed faith just wasn't enough, that I should have faithed harder. How do you faith, anyway?  It's not a verb.

While things were looking up, while I was truly optimistic and thought I might even carry this baby to term, he wasn't viable yet. Maybe the days ahead would be harder than I could manage. (They would.) We were walking a fine line between new life and death.  Turns out we'd be on that tightrope for another two months, in one form or another, and I needed friends who would be with me in that, who were open to the possibility of death.

By God's grace my child would live. I'll take all the verses, the ones that fell on the soft soil of my heart and the ones that fell on the concrete edges, now, because we're in a different spot. Слава Богу.

Thank you for walking with me back then. Thanks for sending your notes of encouragement and your phone calls. Thanks for dropping by unexpectedly and telling me I wasn't insane to hold strangely to a mix of hope and fear. Even if I tossed your note aside at that time, even the notes that fell on concrete showed me that I wasn't alone. Even then they encouraged.

So, I guess what I'm saying a year out is not only thank you for sustaining us, but also forgive my hard heart. Thank you for journeying with us, despite ourselves. It is a hard road, walking between possible life and possible death. Knowing what words to say -- it's almost impossible. To those who sat with us and encouraged us with your presence, thank you. Looking back, I'd rather have words that felt like spiritual incantations than no words at all. The words said that you were holding out hope. And that's what I needed.

P.S. To those who somehow always had the right words (your initials are S.S., R.M., B.M., & V.L., among others -- there are quite a few wordsmiths among you), thank you. Thank you so much. Words are such powerful gifts.

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