Our Mother, the Church

What a day to enter into our churches again. I can’t speak to the liturgical name for this fourth Sunday of Easter. It remains too far outside of my limited layperson’s church calendar knowledge. It is past the pre-Lent gesima weeks; past the regular rhythms of the somber, forty-day penitential season; past Holy Week when services can be marked by hours, let alone days; past the bright white glory of Easter Sunday; past the Doubting Thomas Sunday—my name for it; past Good Shepherd Sunday. Now we believers are still in the Easter season, but we are past the renewness of our annual celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Birds have been singing for weeks, daffodils and tulips pushing their stubborn green buds up through soil despite cold and late snow, green erupting across our brown and gray landscapes, the warmth of the sun returning to our days. We are hopeful again, and we are glad to see the reassuringly familiar signs of spring, just as we are glad to know that some things, however few, have not changed.

So today we returned to church. On Mother’s Day, a well-intentioned but kind of silly commemoration good for commercialization and few, debatable widespread merits. But the secular day fit our Christian longing for timeless truths. We went to the Bride of Christ, the church, our mother.

We returned with social distancing, some people with masks, many with fresh disinfectant on their hands, all with care for our neighbors on our minds. The exterior doors to our church were open today, in part because the fresh air and breeze allowed for it, and in part to prevent many hands from touching handles and spreading germs. Despite the strange additions in such a familiar place, we were home. We followed liturgies we have sung many times before and sang beloved hymns with the voices of our church family and organ ringing in our ears—rarely has such music sounded so lovely. We heard the Word that has long fed us and received in our mouths the Body and Blood that sustains us. None of it was new, and yet, it was all new. We were made whole, miraculously, again.

Mothers understand their children’s needs for order and predictability. They sacrifice themselves to provide care that children and society take for granted, assuming that such care will always happen smoothly and practically invisibly. When it doesn’t, life shifts. We have seen this in the last two months, with our jobs upended, our schools closed, our everyday routines suddenly shrunken to small, uncertain quarters. Normalcy seems far away, and perhaps impossible. So can God.

And yet He has given us His Church, the one place to receive Him physically and in time through our bodies. Just as a mother with child bears and carries the little one wherever she goes, literally wrapped around her helpless child, so the Church bears us to Him who gives us all things. She carries us to the only food that will last for eternity, to our Father and Lord who gently reassures us, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me” (John 14:1). We have no greater riches. We have received no greater love. We have everything.

Each One and Only Face

We’ve passed another March for Life, another hopeful milestone in the woefully long, dark, despicable history and practice that is abortion in America. I’m left thinking about fear, and choices, and money, and the priceless uniqueness that is every human being.

First, the money. Rhett Butler put it brutally but accurately in Gone With The Wind, when he explained that when civilizations die, there’s “fast money in the crack-up.” No one can see the abortion industry in our country without seeing the vast money-making behemoth that is Planned Parenthood. It is our modern-day Confederate speculator, exploiting the desperate to build untold wealth, culpable and guilty of the death of innocents, while cultural destruction goes on all around.

But it’s not quite fair to highlight the pecuniary focus of Planned Parenthood without noticing all of the other organizations that turn a profit off of abortion. There are pharmaceutical companies that make abortifacient drugs and contraceptives. Then there are all the clinics and schools–oh, the schools!–that parrot the mantra of sexual “freedom” without responsibility. Responsibility, most notably, to any human being that might result from all the “liberating” trysts that individuals are “entitled” to. Just like our entertainment industry trumpets, “real” life is about career–oh, the schools!–and travel and fun! And to miss this self-indulgent life, or to jeopardize the illusion of its appeal it by having to deal with pregnancy, child-bearing and child-rearing, is unutterably terrifying to many in our culture.

Fear and money go together. Christians know that life and stability and dreams lie not in financial transactions or material comfort, but boy, even we fall prey to the allure of dough’s promise when we get stressed. It’s like that tongue-in-cheek old phrase: “Money isn’t everything, but it sure does help.” And we see children as burdens, as ciphoners of our treasure, as unbearable weights on our personal autonomy, or at the very least as killers of our ability to survive a harsh world. Yes, we can turn even helpless, microscopically or less-than-ruler-sized small children into killers–of our dreams, of our relationships, of our idolized futures. We have so feared that abominable fate, the idea that what we have desired might be thwarted by a child, and we grasp at the promises of money that will free us from that horror.

Here’s a prime example. This montage of me-first messaging for the contraceptive Beyaz unironically intones, “You know what you want today. But you never know what you might want tomorrow.” And what do the smiling models “want”? They want to shop–for grad school, for travel, for all kinds of modern goals. But they all skip over the stork. Their wants are invariably presented as neat and tidy market options. Babies aren’t in these girls’ presents, or even their futures (remember the opening line? I guess babies don’t even make the “I didn’t know I wanted that” list for Tomorrow.) They’re the one priceless gift actively–and in the case of hormonal contraceptives–specifically, even vehemently, avoided.

Even more, it is a strange, infinitely sad time we live in that so many of our leadership class discuss openly and even proudly shout their own abortions. Only a people that has denied God and is still shackled with shocking, unavoidable decay can embrace Death as though it is a friend and a savior. Death becomes the only meaning and the only answer when fear hits.

And when Death is the answer, life itself is flat and uninspiring. The revelatory images of prenatal ultrasounds, among many other examples of humanity, must be rejected and ignored. How can we possibly look at a wholly unique face, one that cannot be replicated, and deny her worth?

Caitlin Flanagan recognizes this. In “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate,” she writes:

A picture of a 12-week fetus is a Rorschach test. Some people say that such an image doesn’t trouble them, that the fetus suggests the possibility of a developed baby but is far too removed from one to give them pause. I envy them. When I see that image, I have the opposite reaction. I think: Here is one of us; here is a baby. She has fingers and toes by now, eyelids and ears. She can hiccup—that tiny, chest-quaking motion that all parents know. Most fearfully, she is starting to get a distinct profile, her one and only face emerging. Each of these 12-week fetuses bears its own particular code: this one bound to be good at music; that one destined for a life of impatience, of tap, tap, tapping his pencil on the desk, waiting for recess.

Such a beautiful recognition of irreplaceable humanity, this. And yet Flanagan, in trying to show the true and crippling fear that motivates many women to abort, fails to remember the truth of each baby, the distinct profile of each one and only face. In her article, she stays in that gray area of fear instead of telling the truth: that we cannot let fears dictate our choices, especially our power to kill our own children.

I wish Flanagan and those like her would read pieces like this one by my friend Aubri, who writes in “Did God Really Say Children are a Blessing?”: “It’s hard not to want to make decisions based on the whims of my feelings, based on whether or not I think children are worth it or whether or not I can prove to anyone that my life as a mother to many children is good. 

The fact is God says children are worth it and that they are good gifts” (emphasis Aubri’s). Fear is real, as Aubri knows. But it is not the end, and it does not dictate what is good.

Screenshot of photo by Jeff Malet of the Daily Signal.

I was so heartened to see all of these signs at the 2020 March for Life. The ones of people who could have been aborted, but whose mothers backed out at the last minute, saving their lives. The ones, like the one above, that remind us that fear can’t drive us to destroy each other. The ones of honest and brave post-abortive moms and dads. The ones that testify to the pricelessness of life. All of the people whose faces we can see and appreciate as unique.

I have been so blessed to see my children grow, both via ultrasound and in the flesh. I love the picture above, of our oldest living child, kicking his foot up at just the right time to be captured in an ultrasound photo. He was 22 weeks old when that picture was taken. And now, at nearly twelve years old, he continues to surprise us. He, and each of our sons and daughters, have their own faces and bodies and souls, just as every person does. The ones that are still with us here sing and tap their pencils. They change every day, even a little. They are themselves, and they are miracles. We should see all children and people this way, and we must remember this as our days pass by. We must remember this to love each other as Christ has loved us.

Tomorrow and Forever

Tomorrow, my vocation of mother will include a task that no loving mother ever wants to complete.

Tomorrow, we will bury Christian. Our son. My son.

I know our children are not ours in the sense of proprietary ownership. We are merely temporary guardians of these precious souls whom God has created for His good purposes. But we never expect to see them die before us. We expect that they will bury us, not that we will bury them.

Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery, Jon and I, and our six living children; my parents; two dear pastors and their wives. We will commend our son’s body to Christ, confessing that on the last day, Christian will rise again, he and all the dead. And we will see him, and them, again, and live forever together with Christ in heaven.

I don’t want to do this. But I know this is what God has given us to do. As long as he lived, Jon and I strove to feed and nourish Christian; to take him to church so he could hear the Word and receive Christ; to care for him by acknowledging that God made him a unique individual placed in our family for a short time. We did this imperfectly, of course. Yet God gave us these tasks to love and serve our little Christian.

I got to hold Christian late Monday night, after he was born. He was so small, and his body was swollen from all the fluid that had been growing in him. But he was beautiful. Every cell on his head was intricate and flawlessly connected. The fine cuticles and nails on his tiny fingers were so detailed and immaculate. His wide-topped head was like his five-year-old brother’s. His deep brows were like his Dad’s, his long fingers like his mine. His button nose was just like his biggest sister’s.

I don’t know how God could have ever chosen us over His Son. When Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden, asking for His Father to take His cup away from Him; when He staggered up Golgatha, beaten beyond belief; when He hung gasping on the cross–I cannot fathom the love of God who would see and know His Son’s excruciating suffering and allow Him to die because He loved and loves the world so much. As a mother, if I had to choose between saving my son Christian and saving the rest of the world, God help me, I would choose Christian.

And God knows that, and He has given us this glimpse into His unfathomable love in this: that when we lay Christian’s body down to sleep in the earth tomorrow, when my hopes and dreams as a mother to love and to see my son grow up and thrive in this world are buried, I will still yet have hope. I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I will have this: Christ has made all things new. He choose us. He will raise our son from the dead, and He will raise us if He does not come again to the earth first. And we will hug our Christian, and bow before the pierced hands of Christ, and He will embrace us all forever.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

~”Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” Lutheran Service Book #708, vs. 3.

The Magnitude of Motherhood

A week or so before the birth of our first child, I suddenly realized that I no longer feared labor. Let me clarify: while I held apprehensions about the intense birthing I’d never experienced, my thoughts had turned less to that one-time event and more to what came after. In short, I realized that the birth of our child would only last hours, perhaps days at the most. But our child would be ours to cherish and support for the rest of his or her life. While labor approached, so did lives—my life as a mother, my husband’s life as a father, our life together as a family, all wrapped up in our very needy, physical, helpless child, whose own life ex utero would begin shortly.  The dwarfing, sobering reality of what would soon happen—the beginning of the rest of all of our lives—and the all-consuming magnitude of motherhood made my previously fraught ruminations on labor and delivery seem short-sighted and small.

Nearly eleven years later, and five more babies later, motherhood is no less gigantic to me. If anything, the frivolous has become smaller and the significant weightier. My clueless confidence has long since been refined, over and over again, to humility at the sheer ridiculous responsibility motherhood requires of women. It is ridiculous responsibility not because it is silly, but because it is impossible. There’s no possible way I can mother my children well, and in just the right ways, all the days of their childhood lives, or even, God willing, into their adult years.  

G.K. Chesterton, the famous British commentarian, understood this. In What’s Wrong with the World, he spoke to the baffling characterization of motherhood as trivial. Instead, Chesterton articulated, in words we can still appreciate, the immeasurable magnitude of motherhood.

Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean.

When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Yes, indeed. Pity us mothers. Have mercy and compassion and empathy for the magnitude of our roles. Forgive our pride and self-importance and negligence and whining, understanding our sinful responses to motherhood and our sins within our vocations with the best possible construction: on our hearts are written the searing, impossible, gigantic responsibilities of lives, lives which we know we don’t and can’t maintain or keep perfectly. We are both exalted by our gifts and flattened by their hugeness. Remember us in your prayers, and commend us to the only One who ever did, does, and can handle giving us worlds, both created and spiritual, and making them well and perfect for us.