Saturday, November 26, 2016
In every marriage of childbearing age, this question will inevitably surface time and again: Do we have another child or not? And in some ways, "To have or not to have," is not so far from the original phrase, "To be or not to be?" We are considering something of such magnitude--do we bring a new life into the world that would not otherwise be? And close on it, follow feelings about our own capacity to be as we bring more life into the world!
Any discussion of this topic demands a certain level of sobriety. We are discussing the most fundamental issues of life. We are discussing whether we are to participate in the advent of another person in history, a person that without our participation would never be.
The only starting place for a conversation of this magnitude is surrender. God has chosen to be his most vulnerable with us by letting us participate in the decision about new life. He has given us a say as to whether or not a new person will be birthed for eternity. This is humbling: that God would allow me to have this voice in his creation.
Many of the questions surrounding family size and even contraception are centered around the self. How many children do I want? How many children can I handle? If I say "Yes" to another child, to what am I saying "No"? Questions around finances arise, "Can we afford another child?" "Another child could mean a larger vehicle, even the need for more space in our current house." "Do I really have to think about children every time I want to be intimate with my spouse?" These are questions that are centered in the limited perspective of the here and now and in the small sphere of two; so while they are important in our dialogue with God because we must be real and honest with him, they also must take their place in the greater conversation which has elements far beyond just the two of us. Being in God's kingdom requires that we move beyond the scope of our own lives and our own understanding of them.
It is hard for us to imagine beyond our limitations, but that is exactly why God calls us into the supernatural place where we have to trust his vision, not our own. This is why no decision about having children should be made without the direct communion with and guidance of the Lord. The Psalmist gives us a good guide, "Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain." We could spend our lives trying to strategize, control, manage our resources and miss the mystery God is calling us into--one which requires faith in a God who sees all.
This is why doing something permanent to one's body, male or female, to prevent the conception of children means one completely closes the door to this dialogue with God. I cannot predict when God might call on me to sacrifice my body for the sake of a new life, when he might call me into faith rather than leaning on my own understanding. Also, in the moment in which this decision is being made the facts and feelings (however powerful) are tied to a certain moment in history, facts and feelings that could change over the passage of time and shifting of circumstances. We do not expect God to tell us when we marry all the different places we will live and the jobs and friends we will have. We also cannot expect that he will tell us how many children we will have. This is something that unfolds in relationship over time.
If I had done something permanent to my body to avoid pregnancy, I would not have had my fifth and sixth children, and our family would be impoverished because of it. After my fourth child and difficult pregnancies and post partums, I said half in jest, "Only if the Angel Gabriel appears to me will I have another child." It took a little while, but slowly my feelings changed, and I knew our family was missing someone. Then Nathanael came. My hemorrhaging with him was so frightening, I fully believed God was saying we were finished. In fact, I believed God said that to me. Now I know God allowed me to believe that simply to give my mind, body, and imagination space to recover.
One night I was hovering between sleep and waking, and I felt the presence of a child that was not yet in our family, and I felt I heard God's voice saying, "You would not want to miss this one." I was shocked when I found out I was expecting a sixth and struggled throughout the pregnancy with fear for my life. But I knew that if God was giving me a gift, I would not want to miss it, and that perhaps my understanding of my own limitations needed to be challenged by a God who had an abundance of resources. (You can read that story in my blog post on "What is a Woman?")
I had not been able to engage God in the conscious place of my soul about another child. It was too overwhelming to me. But God knew that I was fighting to stay in a place of surrender and that if he asked of me to bring another child into the world, I would do it in his grace and strength. How glad I am that God overrode my own feelings, my genuine reservations, and my sense of limitations, and gave me the opportunity to go deeper with him into Mary's, "Yes. Be it done unto me according to your will." I could allow God to give me the supernatural capacity to receive another life that I in my own strength could not imagine. After all, God does not provide for the hypothetical child but for the real one resting in our arms. I will not say it has been easy, but I could not imagine my life without the children God chose for me.
As we journey into Advent, we must not allow ourselves the illusion that Mary's story was cozy, that somehow the renown she enjoys is enviable. Mary is our icon of the "Yes," because she said it even when it meant facing the suspicion of her parents, her betrothed, and indeed the whole village, in a time when stoning was the punishment for adultery. We know that Joseph didn't believe she had conceived as a virgin until God sent him a dream. Mary had no say in her circumstances, even the long trip away from home on a donkey while very pregnant into a place she did not know, to give birth in someone else's home without the people around her she knew and trusted. And she faced all the usual fears of any mother giving birth, and all the pain and the blood. Afterwards, she had to flee into Egypt, a most foreign culture, as a new bride and mother, while fearing for the life of her child. Mary in our day would be a great candidate for processing trauma in therapy sessions. She had no control over her life once she said, "Yes."
And yet, she gave us Jesus. God looked for a mother who was willing to share his sufferings. And now she shares his glory.
God allows himself the limitation of our "No." It is humbling and frightening to think that God puts himself in the position of allowing us to assent to a new life in the world. Is it possible that God might dream of a person in history of whom we could, even unknowingly, say, "No, that person will not be." Though we cannot begin to understand the mystery of the way God's will and our will work together, God does seem to allow us the power of refusal. How many blessings have we missed simply because we cannot stay in the place of trusting God's eternal and infinite view because we are overwhelmed by our small one?
Sometimes the barriers we feel in our own souls, even disequilibrium in our families, or those places where refreshment is needed, are answered by the child God is bringing. That little one actually becomes the missing puzzle piece. This one may bring much needed humor, joy, a dislodging of rivalries, a new thoughtfulness and care from other children, an expansion of love. This child could also mean that you have to be stretched and transformed in constant connection with Jesus because you can't parent this one in your own strength. You are thrown into the arms of God like never before. But isn't that the place we were made to be?
I must always be in dialogue with God about my participation in his vision. Ephesians 3:14 speaks of praying to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. The Father names our families. He shapes and forms; he knows the people that must be part of it. He can expand our vision from our small space and slice of time to something so much broader that can allow for the weaving of our own stories into the eternal story.
This is not to say that we cannot cooperate with God in spacing children for the purpose of catechizing, for seasons of family stress, and for times of health troubles or extreme trials. God has made a woman's body with rhythms that are predictable so that we can choose to wait. If he had wanted it to be totally out of our hands, he would have made women randomly fertile or constantly fertile, as men are. Even Pope Paul VI in "Humanae Vitae" encouraged discernment when having children, while still honoring the possibility of life in the conjugal relationship.
But I cannot decide that this request of God--to have another child--is not going to be an option in my walk with God. And that is what sterility surgery is. It is saying that this is not something I can be called on to do for the kingdom--ask me anything else, for money, time, any other sacrifice but not that I live through another pregnancy and raise another child. What greater gift can we give to God than to lay our bodies--our fertility and sexual drives included--on the altar as an offering?
If you are reading this and are someone who chose not to consider having more children, and you even wonder if maybe you foreclosed on God's work in your life, remember that the Lord is gentle with us. He is aware of the influences that were in our lives that we did not then know to challenge. I would encourage you to open and maintain a dialogue with God about your choices because even the hindsight God gives us can give us wisdom to share with others.
The Church is the most responsible for teaching a theology of family that has more impact than the cultural psychology of family, and it needs not just the clergy to do it, but the people of God, from empty nesters to families to celibates. I wish that I had been open to children earlier, but I did not have the teaching even to consider it. I regret the children I did not have, but I know I can write to encourage others.
Children embody the kingdom of God--Jesus said so. He also said for us to bring him the infants. Scripture also teaches us that children are a blessing and a reward. As we seek to live as Christians in a world shaped by the personal right to control birth and where children are our personal right and an extension of our own desires, let us keep in mind where we may need to have our minds renewed in our perspective on children and family. Let us ask God to build our houses and name our families and stretch our understanding of the supernatural provision we cannot see until we step out in faltering faith. May we not lean on our own understanding but submit our way to him.
After all, God may have a child he wants in history at a specific time, and he has chosen you to be the parents and shape this child for a kingdom work you could never do. You would not want to miss that one.
"Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth.
Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate." Psalm 127