Word of the Week

I am not one to throw around religious cliques. It irritates me in fact when folks in positions of religious leadership use such statements as "Everything happens for a reason" or "I guess God needed an angel" or "God helps those who help themselves."

Gross, really.

But I am reconsidering my use of the phrase "___ (loved one) must be smiling down on you now" after the miracle that came to this earth four days ago.image

My most long-term sister friend, Kristina was on baby watch on bed rest with her second cutie until early Monday morning. Her water broke and I got a text message before 6 am that  said, "I think we are having a baby today!"

Such would be exciting enough but then there was consideration of the date on the calendar itself, January 6th . . . a date that caused all of us waiting on this birth to pause in awe.

Nine years ago on January 6th (long before the days of texting) I got a phone call from Kristina-- the kind of phone call NO ONE wants to get. "We've lost Daddy," she said in between sobs.

Though only a few days earlier joy burst into this household as Kristina had gotten engaged to Richard, a car accident changed everything for her, her mother, two brothers and in a matter of seconds. The joy of wedding planning was no more. Her daddy's heart stopped beating. The rock of their family was gone.

Over these past nine years so much healing has taken place. Weddings have occurred. Babies have been born. Kristina's mom even got re-married. (And I was the wedding minister!)

But the fact that the dad, Larry never got to see or touch or hold any of his grand babies brought forth ache. (There are five of them now!) He was a great dad. He would have been an even more amazing granddad. I could just see the vision of Larry bouncing several of them on his knee and making up some silly song as he did it. Or baking chocolate chip cookies and sneaking an extra one to his oldest grandson. Or playing hide and go seek in his wooded backyard for hours on end.

image So when, January 6th came-- the awful anniversary day that all of us have on our calendars-- and Kristina was in labor with baby girl, it was hard not to say that Larry had some role in the whole thing.

Somewhere up from the world beyond he was smiling and asking God to help him show up in this special way as Xara Elgie Rose came into the world.

And what a beautiful day it was and a beautiful baby she is.

I am thankful to God for the thin places in this world that remind us that we are more than just bodies, but souls that live on through eternity with connection to the ultimate Creator.

I am thankful for the sweetness of friendship that I have with this family and the joy that is my new niece, Xara.

But most of all I am thankful for Larry and the knowing that his legacy lives on in Xara and the rest of the family.

[If you missed Dayna's first post on "Waiting with Hope" check it out here]

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!

Luke 1:41- 45

The story of God’s redemption is full of babies - longed for babies, unexpected babies, babies born to women long past the age of fertility, babies that no one could ever have predicted. These babies are almost always a source of delight and joy. Their births are a sign to their parents and their community of God’s presence among them, making something out of nothing. Over and over again God creates ex nihilo – out of nothing – in the wombs of Israel’s women.

And yet, the lives of these babies are not charmed – or even protected – in the ways we would hope or expect. John the Baptist, who leapt in Elizabeth’s womb in response to Mary’s greeting, grew up to be a prophet who was imprisoned and then beheaded by Herod. Jesus’ birth forced Mary and Joseph to become refugees in Egypt. His life ended with torture and execution, while his mother looked on helplessly. Many of the boys born at the same time as these cousins were slaughtered by Herod before their second birthdays.

It’s a story filled with joy, but also a story of some of the deepest pain imaginable, a story almost too horrible in places to tell.  It’s a story of desperate parents, of shattering grief, of empty arms. Each of those lives was a gift, a delight, a blessing, a sign of God’s miraculous power to breathe life into human flesh over and over again. And yet, each child was radically vulnerable to the life-crushing powers of suffering and death.

Soon after my husband and I learned that the baby we were expecting had a fatal birth defect (See Dec 6 Post), I discovered a website devoted to telling the stories of families who had welcomed a child with a poor prenatal diagnosis (BeNotAfraid.net). The diagnoses and stories of these families were all different – some children fared far better than expected, while others died before or shortly after birth. Some have thrived and flourished, while others live with disabilities that cause them pain or that will eventually take their lives. But the thread that ran through all the stories was the joy these parents found in their children’s lives. Despite the pain of loving a child with a severe disability, every parent was deeply grateful for the gift of their child’s life.

It seemed very strange to find joy in the life of a child who was not yet born and already dying. How could the life of a dying child be a sign of God’s presence and blessing? How could a child whose body was so profoundly disfigured and disabled be a gift from God? How could we find joy in welcoming a child who would never gain consciousness?

Over the remaining months of my pregnancy with Ethan, I learned this: in order to receive the joy of Ethan’s life, of being his parents, we had to open ourselves to the grief of lamenting his loss. The deeper the joy we took in his life, the deeper the pain of losing him. The more we embraced the hard work of grieving his coming loss, the more we were able to receive the gifts of being his parents and taking joy in his life.

Knowing that his life would be short caused us to slow down and pay attention in ways that we might otherwise never have done. My husband and I spent time each day listening to our son’s heartbeat on a fetal Doppler. We read to him and sang to him and told him the story of our love for him. Even as I grieved, I paused to enjoy my son’s kicks and thumps inside my womb.

What I learned from welcoming Ethan into my life is this: joy is different from happiness.  Joy can see and celebrate what is a gift from God in the midst of what is almost unbearable. Joy doesn’t deny or overlook what is painful and grief-filled, but it refuses to let the pain cancel out what is good and beautiful. Joy insists that God is present even in the midst of darkness and death.

Let us pray:

Come Lord Jesus.  Give us the strength to welcome your life-giving presence in the midst of darkness and grief. Amen.

olsongettyDayna is a member of Durham Mennonite Church (Mennonite Church USA) and part of the Rutba House new monastic community. She and her husband Eric live in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC and are parents of one living son, Noah.  Their firstborn son, Ethan, was born and died in 2009. Dayna is hoping this Advent for a heart open to God’s longings for the most vulnerable among us.