Monday, January 31, 2011

Stories Told and Untold

Several days ago, a friend sidled up to me and said she wanted to show me something. It was the bulletin from her church’s Sunday worship the previous week. She had circled a responsive reading, which was all about “life” and abortion. I know this woman is pro-choice, and she was visibly upset. She proceeded to tell me that the whole service was on this theme, that her community’s crisis pregnancy center has moved into the church, and that the minister had said during the service that she’d hoped the church would step up and volunteer with this organization.

I listened to this woman share her anger and frustration. I listened as she shared sorrowful family history – a few generations back – that helped to form her pro-choice convictions to this day. In the midst of my anger and frustration, I began to think.

I thought, of course, of the many people who affirmed the message at this church service. They probably felt pleased that their pastor was taking a stand. They probably were challenged by her words that "all life is precious." I hope they heard in that the idea that it is not just the lives of the unborn that are precious, but that drug addicts and rapists and racists and other ne'er-do-wells are precious in God's eyes (though I'm a little skeptical that that happened, though there could be perfectly innocent reasons for that.)

But I also thought about the other women in this church who’d been present. I thought about how many of them had had abortions. I especially thought about a couple I know, who are largely pro-life but who had made the heart-wrenching decision to end a much-hoped-for pregnancy when they learned their son would never develop more than a brain stem before living for a few months in constant, excruciating pain. What would this service have been like for them?

And I began to think of some of the women I counsel. Those who have gotten pregnant after marital rape; those who have cheated on partners only to find themselves pregnant from that one-night stand; those who feel as though abortion is the only choice for them in their circumstance, but who also believe they should be sterilized at the same time because they will never be “worthy” to be parents again; those who have never heard a person of the cloth say that not all Christians oppose abortion, and who, upon hearing my voice, are just grateful that a minister is not judging them or telling them what to do, but simply affirming their journey with God and their heartfelt decision.

I wondered, Was there room in this worship service for these women? Was there a place for their experiences? Were these stories also told in the midst of all this “choosing life” and “abortion is murder”? And if not, why not?

It is not my place to tell my colleagues what to preach, when or how. For many, including me, this is an issue of justice (though my colleagues in this community do not agree with me on the nature of this justice), and I respect their right and duty to speak out as they feel called to do, just as I do.

But I still wonder. How many of the women in the pews, and their partners or children or friends, will be unable to share these burdens with their pastor for fear that they will be condemned? How many people will erect barriers between themselves and their communities of faith because they now believe it is unsafe to bring this part of their lives in the doors of the church? How many people will, like my friend and her husband, simply stew in their anger at the injustice of their church opposing abortion while also failing to support efforts that PREVENT the need for abortion? How many women will be shamed into silence, lest they be judged by the one person who is supposed to represent the love and grace of Christ to them?

I don’t always know the outcome of the stories these women tell me, and I have made my peace with that lack of knowledge. But their stories have become a part of me. Their grappling with competing needs, fears, and desires mirrors my own faith-wrestling. I do not want any of these stories to become “tokens” or two-dimensional images upon which we can project our own morality or judgment. So I cannot bear to see this issue reduced to an oversimplified choice between “good” (that is, continuing a pregnancy) and “evil” (that is, ending a pregnancy). These women and their families are very real to me, and I carry their stories inside of me. Their burdens have, in some small way, become my own, and I stand with them in the muck and the mess of our lives and together we wonder where and how God is at work, and to what ends. These lives matter, too. They are precious in God's sight.

Why, then, when there is so much talk of "life being precious," are these stories left untold?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Friend of the Blog

I keep forgetting to add my dear friend to my blogroll. She's a fellow UCC solo pastor, a wise woman, wife and mother, and just all around awesome. Go check out her blog here.

Unexpected Gifts of Pregnancy

When I announced to the church my pregnancy, I expected a variety of reactions. Almost everyone was excited and enthusiastic. I knew that for some, however, this joy was tempered. Some in this church have faced infertility. Some have chosen not to have children. Some have lost children, both in infancy and beyond.

I know the families who’ve lost children in this church. Some have lost them to suicide, to accidents, or to medical issues. Those stories have been shared with me tenderly and sorrowfully by the mothers and fathers. They have been shared with my by others in the church, who need for me to know why we can’t chop down that tree (it is a memorial tree).

I also know the stories of the couples who had tried for years to have children, only to make peace with their childlessness. Some of those wounds are decades old, but they still sting a little whenever a pregnancy is announced or a new baby brought to church. Their joy for others is often tempered with their own private sorrows.

And I know the stories of parents estranged from their children – and of children who’ve chosen estrangement from their parents. Sometimes I know the reasons behind these decisions, but sometimes the whole situation just seems like a sorrowful mystery to me, as it often is to the people involved. I am grateful for all these stories, even as my heart breaks for them.
But it wasn’t until I announced my pregnancy and began to talk freely about my fears of miscarriage that I began to hear those stories. Women told me about miscarriages they’d had, of the “successful” pregnancies they went on to have, and of how the latter did not cancel out the former, but did help provide a larger framework for their parenting. They spoke with a tinge of sadness for what they had lost, as well as thanksgiving for what they had. I quickly noticed that they only told these stories around other women who’d had children.

It has been a strange initiation into motherhood. These stories are seldom told outside of the church kitchen – if indeed, they make it into the doors of the church at all. Even though I’m an advocate for reproductive justice, and even though I’ve spoken of miscarriage, the loss of children, and childlessness in the past, and even though I’ve sat in these people’s homes for more than seven years, listening to their lives and praying with them, it has only been in the past few months that many people have chosen to share these stories with me.

It isn’t because they don’t feel the stories are important. And it isn’t because they are finally releasing a torrent of information now that I can relate. Somehow, in some mysterious way, my pregnancy has opened up a door to these conversations. Was it something I’ve said?

I don’t think so. If I could have planned it, it would not have turned out this way. If I had wanted to be strategic about all this, I can tell you absolutely that I would have failed miserably. This is a great mystery to me. But the stories are here, now, for us and for God to see, and my call is to touch those stories lovingly and with great grace, as if I were handling a small, delicate child who needs my love, my softness, and my attention.

It is the deepest privilege I know to have access to the hearts of others. May God grant us grace to hold those hearts and their contents tenderly, weeping and laughing and finding redemption and hope in every unfolding.