New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 24, 2014
This is one of those weeks when speaking one’s truth does not feel the same as telling the truth. Crises like the death of Eric Garner in NY and the death of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, MO; Israel, Palestine, and Gaza; Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria; ISIS in Iraq; the death of journalist James Foley and the meaningless deaths of countless others demand that we tell the truth. From where I’m standing, my seemingly inexperienced, small truth doesn’t stack up against the truth of hatred, rage and violence, fear and injustice.
But if I was listening to a colleague or one of you saying those words, I’d tell you, “Speak your truth. You’ll get to the deeper truth eventually. If God is still speaking, God’s gotta start somewhere.” So.
We are often led to think that our individual lives and how we live them do not have much impact on global systems, national events, the human line. And yet I do believe that our smaller stories do have something to say about the larger human story. Our attitudes, beliefs, how we treat one another, even how we bring life into this world, do make a difference on a wider scale.
Almost 18 and 15 years ago, along with David, it was midwives who helped bring our daughters into this world. Years ago, one of my neighbors delivered her daughter at home, and it was her example that convinced me that we were made for this, for natural childbirth. It wasn’t until our society became more industrialized that birth became a medical event rather than a normal part of life. Over time, power and authority in the birth process migrated from the company of women to the medical profession. Within the last forty years or so, the pendulum has begun to swing back in the direction of nurse midwives and women with their partners directing the birth process.
In this morning’s reading from Genesis, the Egyptian king or Pharaoh tries to use his power to influence the midwives who attend the births of both Egyptian and Hebrew women. Midwives may have power in the birthing room, but the Pharaoh ably reminds them that he has power to take life as well as give it. Yet these midwives, called by name—Shiphrah and Puah—are wily creatures, shrewd in their obedience. Hebrew women are vigorous, Hebrew babies are slippery, like the truth these midwives tell. They fear God more than they fear Pharaoh, that is, they love life more than they fear death. And so these boy babies live and thrive, thus Pharaoh must resort to even more ruthless means of controlling these Hebrew slaves, this immigrant population.
Throughout human history, as populations of people have thrived, one group, tribe, or nation has sought to control, subjugate, forcibly remove another group, tribe, or nation, using violence to dehumanize them, based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, social class, ethnicity, religious belief, age, and so on. We feel as though we as a human race have never lived through a time as the one we are living through now, with climate changes not only in the environment but also between peoples and nations. Yet every generation cries out “How long, O God? How long must I bear pain in my soul?” (Psalm 13)
As sorrowful and painful these recent days may be, there is also a truth of another kind being born. The truth of equality and justice. The truth of the co-existence of differing beliefs. The truth of compassion, kindness, and generosity. Every day these ideals are emerging and striving to take hold amidst the chaos, violence, and terror that compete for our attention, our values, and our money. What if what we are hearing in these forces of evil are the death throes of the old order of domination? What if the pain we are feeling are the birth pangs of the new way, the truth of our interconnectedness?
Birth is birth, whether it is a woman’s body and a baby, or a community and a new way of being, or a whole world and its place in the creation. There is a point in labor called transition, when a woman’s body moves from the early stages of labor to active labor. On a pregnancy information website I found this little tidbit: “If you're laboring without an epidural, this [transition] is when you may begin to lose faith in your ability to handle the pain, so you'll need lots of extra encouragement and support from those around you.” Translation, if you’re doing this without drugs, what were you thinking?
Seriously, though, we have whole industries built around the belief that we do not have the ability to handle pain, that life should be painless. And yet we who follow Jesus are called to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and go wherever he goes. This calling also includes anyone who has ever loved someone, loved life, loved this world. If we choose to love this world, really love it, at some point it will hurt and we may lose faith in our ability to handle this pain. And there really is nothing for it, no escape. Henry David Thoreau once wrote that there is no remedy for love but to love more. We are going to need lots of extra encouragement and support if we’re going to love and give birth to this new world without numbing ourselves to the pain that comes with it.
This is why midwives ask families, not just the mother, but both parents and everyone involved, to have a birth plan: coping techniques such as visualization, massage, soaking in a tub, music, a movie, certain foods or drink; who is to be in the room; lighting and temperature of the room. It’s not necessarily about comfort so much as what will allow the mother and those helping her to focus her attention.
When I was laboring with Andrea, I can very clearly remember a point in the wee hours of the morning when I was ready to give up. I had been up since the day before, contractions beginning in the afternoon. I was so tired, I was done in, there was no way I could go on. But I had been forewarned by my nurse midwife that this might happen. So in my birth plan I had written “Isaiah 43: 1-3b”. The midwife asked me, “Would you like me to read that passage from Isaiah?” I nodded my head and closed my eyes.
“But now thus says the Lord, the One who created you, O Jacob, the One who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
As God is midwifing this new world, stretching her hands out to deliver us, as we are feeling the birth pangs, we need a birth plan that will help us not give up on ourselves and focus our attention. We need to be giving each other lots of extra encouragement and support. As a Body of Christ, worship is a major part of that birth plan: a time for us to receive and give support, to focus our attention on our relationship with God, to tell our story of faith, our slant on the truth of living, and to hear the same from others.
Each of us has our own birth plan and no one can write it or live it out for us. And collectively as a church we need to have a birth plan: ways of caring for each other, praying and celebrating and commiserating, times when we have everyone in the room and times when we are in small groups sharing with one another, and times when we leave the room to help others.
It’s also important to remember that sometimes the birth plan goes out the window. I had one for Olivia but she came so fast I didn’t get a chance to use any of it. I couldn’t even make it to the birthing chair in the other room. I’m sure that Moses’ mother couldn’t have foreseen she would need to place her baby boy in a small basket and set him afloat on a mighty river. Essentially, she gave him back to God. Through his older sister Miriam’s watchful eye and cagey dealing with the Pharaoh’s daughter, we can see the subtle hand of God giving Moses back to his mother. There will be times we will have to let go of the outcome, reach out and trust that God will deliver us.
But the most important thing to remember is that we were made for this. We were created with the right stuff for equality and justice, the co-existence of differing beliefs, the right stuff for compassion, kindness, and generosity. We were made to endure the pain of this transition, not alone, but together, with lots of extra encouragement and support. We can be like Miriam was for her brother; watching and listening, stepping in with courage and giving what we can to each other and to those outside these four walls.
What helps you keep your focus and keeps you grounded? How do you deal with pain, the pain of striving with people different from you, the pain of violence, loss, and hatred, the pain of loving and living? What are the words of encouragement that you need to hear, that you need to give? Who are the people you need in the room with you and what do you do when they can’t be there? What are some outcomes you need to let go of and trust that God will deliver?
Comedian Steven Wright joked that you really can’t tell he was born via Caesarean section, except when he leaves the house, he always goes out the window. We can’t yet tell how this new world of equality and justice is going to be born but we need to trust and trust hard that it will be. God has a birth plan for us, and God won’t throw it out the window. We were made for this. We are vigorous and slippery, and so is our God. We are wily and shrewd, and so is our God. We love life more than we fear death. We belong to God.
|(Some gallows humor.)|