Word of the Week

Love That Groans: Day 1- Joe Hensley

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:4-6

Today, many churches in their worship services will hear this passage from Romans in which Paul encourages his audience to live in harmony and with one voice glorify God. Yay Church! Crank up the alleluias. What if, though, the one voice glorifying God is not sweet and happy-clappy? What if the voice is more like the groaning mentioned in Romans 8:22, the moaning of labor pains, as we wait for the revealing of the children of God?

It was with such groaning that my wife, Sarah, and I waited for the revealing of our unborn son. This was our fourth and final pregnancy (see December 5th post) and things were going well. Our previous three pregnancies had been relatively smooth, so we felt confident. Then came our mid-term ultrasound, two days after Easter Sunday.

We knew something was wrong. The doctor and technician were giving each other intense looks. Finally they showed us into a consult room and gave us the news: spina bifida. Our unborn son had a neural tube defect. His spine was partially open, resulting in a dangling, vulnerable skin sack of fluid and nerves. They told us he might not walk. He might not be able to control his bowel and bladder functions. He might need a shunt placed in his brain to divert fluid. Our confidence vanished. We had lost our second child in infancy to a heart defect. Now it felt like lightning had struck us twice. Ironically, I had just preached about moving from loss to new life. That gospel was easy to proclaim on Easter morning. Now the idea of new life emerging from this loss seemed like a cruel joke.

They tried to encourage us. 1500 children are born with spina bifida each year. It is not fatal. Doctors routinely perform spinal closures right after birth. In the last decade or so, surgeons have also developed a procedure before birth. They cut open the uterus (like a C-section), close the opening in the baby’s back, and restore the baby to the womb for another three months (although premature delivery is a significant risk). It sounded like science fiction. The whole thing felt unreal.

The short version of what happened is that we traveled from North Carolina to Philadelphia to have the fetal surgery. There were potential benefits that we hoped would make our son’s life better down the road. There were also significant risks for baby and mother. As I waited during the surgery, I took deep breaths. I held it together but was ready to fall apart. Thankfully, the surgery went well. The next three months were very difficult waiting, because there was always the chance something else would go wrong. Yet this “defect,” this weakness in our unborn child actually revealed some unknown strengths in us. We were not really ready to shout “Praise the Lord!” but we were deeply thankful.

Paul’s letter to the Romans addressed a community in which the weak and the strong may have been struggling to live in harmony. They were waiting for the return of Christ, waiting for the powerful empire to finally fall, waiting for Paul to visit with an encouraging word. They were holding it together but perhaps on the verge of falling apart. The defects in their common life were visible and difficult, thus making it hard to praise God together. He encourages them, though, to have hope, to stay in struggle together. In our Advent waiting, we are aware of so many defects turning our worlds upside down. It is a time to groan but not alone. Can we groan in harmony? Groan together like parents who are told their unborn child has a problem, that lots of things could go wrong, but that there is reason to hope and risk. Groan together as we prepare for the best and the worst case, also learning that strength can dance with weakness. Can we, this Advent, groan in unison, weak and strong, wondering whether God is ever going to come and remembering that God has always been.

Let us pray:

O God of steadfastness and encouragement, grant us to groan with one another, as we wait for Christ Jesus, so that together we may with one voice, in agony and relief, in weakness and strength, glorify you.    

JoeHensleyThe Reverend Joseph (Joe) H. Hensley, Jr. works as a full-time priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and three children (ages 11, 6, and 2). This Advent he is waiting for God to help him laugh (again!).