Andy Bates and Sarah Gulseth of KFUO’s The Coffee Hour invited me to chat with them today about the gifts God gives and withholds. If you are still feeling raw from Mother’s Day, I hope you’ll have a listen.
I know you are tempted not to go to church tomorrow, but please do. Jesus wants to give you the gifts of His Word and Holy Supper there, and His gifts are far better than any old carnation or corsage or greeting card.
Yes, you may have to endure the awkward, faltering “Happy Moth– Oh, I’m sorry” greeting at the door, but you will be fine. Just remember how many times you have misspoken to people, and thank God that He forgives both you and them.
You may grow red-cheeked before the tongue-tied usher handing out carnations, but red looks good on you. The man understandably doesn’t know what to say in the face of your childlessness, so rejoice in his recognition of your plight. Graciously give him a polite smile and nod of the head, and move on for both of your sakes.
You may very well be shamed and shunned by the pastor’s preservice announcements, children’s message, and sermon anecdotes, but there are worse things to endure in this life. You know it is true, for you, with God’s help, have already endured them. Mother’s Day shenanigans in the Divine Service are nothing compared to the death of your children. This too shall pass.
You also may cry during the service, but you will not be the first nor the last to do so. The Church is made up of cross-bearing criers, and you have nothing to hide. No one will begrudge a barren woman tears on Mother’s Day. Just be prepared to grab the tissues that are passed your way, and welcome them as the gift of love that they are.
By all means, go to church so that you may pray these words:
Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will.
Go to church so that you may sing with all the people of God:
Lord, have mercy.
Go to church so that you may confess:
I believe in Jesus Christ…who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Go to church so that you can hear the prophet promise:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from your idols I will cleanse you (Ezekiel 36:25).
Go to church so that you can be exhorted by the apostle:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10).
Go to church so that the evangelist may remind you of Christ’s command:
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12–13).
Go to church so that you may take and eat, take and drink:
For the forgiveness of your sins.
Go to church so that you may return thanks to the Lord for all His benefits to you:
He recalls His promises and leads His people forth in joy with shouts of thanksgiving. Alleluia, alleluia.
Go to church so that you may be blessed by God Himself through your pastor:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord look upon you with favor and + give you peace.
Go to church so that you do not miss out on what really matters: receiving Christ’s gifts. Being thus refreshed, I think you will find that you can celebrate your sisters’ joys, and they, in turn, will learn to bear your burdens. This is what we do. Together. Even tomorrow.
In what could be considered a mental exercise in futility, a personal question has been nagging me: How is the suffering of barrenness akin to the grief of losing a loved one?
I suppose it’s an unfair question since there are many nuances to each affliction, and everyone handles suffering and grief differently. But I’ll take a stab at it since I have been carrying both crosses — the death of my mother most recently, and secondary infertility seven years after my son’s birth — for awhile now. For those who know back-to-back trials like a well-worn shoe, this is my feeble attempt at processing it out loud.
As Christians who are given the life-giving Word which forgives, renews, and strengthens, far be it from us to despair when tragedy strikes or we endure years of longsuffering. Right?
Eesh. What an anvil of condemnation since, if we’re honest, we do despair. We also grieve and suffer along with any other human being on earth because of the Old Adam and Eve in us.
So when it comes to death and barrenness, it is natural that any and all feelings surface. And it is sadly normal that temptations to sin arise as we hold dear what relationship we had to our departed loved one and perhaps what relationships never will be, desperately looking into things where there are no promises. Both command soul-piercing attention, because there is a very real separation, divide (a hiddenness) between people who existed in this world and those who never may.
Such suffering beckons us to look at separation and spiritual hiddenness (and perhaps the anxiety and distress that naturally follow) through a Biblical lens. We know we are connected to all the saints in Christ, but far be it for us to deliver lofty comforts with verses such as “Be anxious about nothing” without compassion. We do well to allow God to put His Word together for us through His faithful under-shepherds, our family, and friends in Christ who can and do walk alongside us in our suffering.
Luther’s pastoral letters to several friends who suffered terrible losses are tender and convicting. He always starts by realizing the natural expression of grief, especially when it is so new. He recognizes and empathizes with the agonies. Luther then moves from his own empathy to confessing God’s inscrutable kindness in Christ’s ability to identify with our suffering, loss, grief, and loneliness by overcoming it all in His crucifixion. He concludes his letters with understanding our limitations and proclaiming that God gives us all that we need — namely faith — to sojourn this side of heaven.
“How should we conduct ourselves in such a situation? God has so ordered and limited our life here that we may learn and exercise the knowledge of His very good will so that we may test and discover whether we love and esteem His will more than ourselves and everything that He had given us to have and love on earth. And although the inscrutable goodness of the divine will is hidden (as is God himself) from the old Adam as something so great and profound that man finds no pleasure in it, but only grief and lamentation, we nevertheless have His holy and sure Word which reveals to us this hidden will of His and gladdens the heart of the believer.”1
So much to parse out here, but “finding no pleasure in God’s hidden will” stands out the most to me as such an honest testament in the midst of suffering. And still God delivers us. All to say that Luther as pastor is a beautiful example of all the faithful pastors, the family, and friends we have in our own midst now who empathize, gently encourage, and comfort us at the right times. It has certainly been what my family and I have experienced in coping with our own crosses. Thanks be to God.
How is barrenness akin to the loss of a loved one? Both can cause us to isolate or scatter from the fellowship of believers that God creates for our benefit. Then again, both afflictions can and do also bring us together because God knows we need each other. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away from us, yes, but He never leaves or forsakes us — though His presence is hidden under means. And sending faithful, compassionate Christians is one of the ways He abides. Blessed be the name of the Lord!
God grant us all the tender mercies we are promised through His Word so that we might grieve without shame, while confessing the hope that is within us in Christ. God give us the strength to accept our afflictions and serve one another in love. Amen.
- To John Reineck, April 18, 1536: Letters, 69-70 (WA Br 7.399-400).
Emmanuel Press and I have been working hard on a little project the last few months. It brings me great pleasure to share with you — Finally! — that we are collaborating with a host of experienced female writers to bring you a new book, He Restores My Soul, set to release in October of 2018.
He Restores My Soul is primarily a book of empathy and encouragement for the cross-bearing Christian woman. Utilizing the timeless, rich comfort permeating Psalm 23, each chapter applies the theology of the cross to a particular kind of suffering, pointing the reader to a firm faith in God’s promises and a resounding joy in His mysterious work of conforming us “to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29).
Various topics addressed within the pages of He Restores My Soul include living the Christian faith in the public arena, carrying a child in the womb who is not expected to live, mothering while working, regretting an abortion, struggling against same-sex attraction, caring for aging parents, children leaving the faith, living with mental illness, suffering from depression and chronic diseases, and raising children apart from one’s own upbringing.
About Emmanuel Press
Established by Rev. Michael and Janet Frese in 2004, Emmanuel Press is a publishing house dedicated to producing works essential to confessional Lutheran theology, including theological books, liturgical and catechetical resources, and ecclesiastical greeting cards. Emmanuel Press brings together treasures of Christian literature, exceptional artwork, and a clear confession of faith. Learn more at www.emmanuelpress.us or contact directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was talking with my friend about adoption and the pain of not getting what you want and the guilt of not achieving what the world tells you others need and the sting of advanced maternal childlessness and the joy of knowing that God works all things for good and the peace of being forgiven in Christ Jesus of my covetousness and the blessed release that comes with trusting in God’s wise giving and not-giving of the gift of children when my friend put her hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said the most loving, encouraging thing:
“God is blessing you today.”
Not “your time is coming” or “it will soon work out for you” or “God will bless you someday with a child” or some other false promise or platitude.
No, my friend told me the truth from God’s Word that He is blessing me today, even in my barrenness.
And my faith, God’s precious gift to me, responded to that promise, and I rejoiced!
My mom does something really nice. She sits on the edge of the world with me, both literally and figuratively.
She, who is uncomfortable in high places, hikes to the cliff of my choice — usually the nearest, rough-hewn, dangerous place to which perpetual grief has pushed me — and shares my rock.
Those moments are un-rushed. We don’t talk much. We sit and look and listen and be. I sometimes meet a sob at the end of every breath, but other times my lungs are too busy handling the clean fragrance of juniper berries to bother with anything else.
But Barrenness, my tethered companion, is on that rock, too, and my mom knows it. She wisely never tries to push it over the ledge, for she knows it would take me with it. No, she let’s us both remain, and she stays with us for as long as we want to sit there.
My dad does something really nice, too. He sits with me until the pain goes away.
One summer afternoon my insides throbbed and twisted and turned with the force of a hurricane, and I sat doubled over in pain for hours. My dad led me out onto the front step — there was more privacy outside than in that day — and weathered every minute of the storm by my side. He never said a word but offered me his arm to squeeze through the violent gusts. He was my lighthouse and my harbor, a silent, unmoving, hopeful presence amidst the raging tempest.
My parents serve as masks of God to me in my suffering. They sit with me and wait with me and bear with me, preaching to me with their presence that God, indeed, sits with me and waits with me and bears with me in my suffering, too. They are icons of God’s promise never to leave me nor forsake me, beautiful illustrations of Emmanuel, “God with us.”
I try to remember this whenever I am given the opportunity to sit with someone else in her suffering.
Two years ago, my husband gave me this icon for my birthday. At the time, I thought it a sweet gift but highly unseasonal. I’m a summer baby, after all, and it would be a full four months before Christmas came around again.
Still, I displayed the gift on our dining room buffet all through autumn, and I am so glad I did. Because one blustery day, I glanced up from my supper plate and saw the icon with eyes afresh. I looked past the star of wonder and the Christmas red and the Marian blue and saw only the words,
Unto Us a Child Is Born.
I couldn’t swallow my food for the lump in my throat.
I have read those words a hundred times and not just on the icon. All my Baptized life, I have known Isaiah‘s prophecy, and I am blessed to believe it. But not always have I known the prophecy as a barren woman.
Not just unto Mary and Joseph and Bethlehem and Israel, but unto us — me and my husband. A Child is born unto us, the barren couple.
The thing we’ve never known — the happy news we’ve never been able to trumpet to our family and friends — has been ours to share all along: Unto us a child is born! It’s a boy, and His name is Jesus. And He is born unto you, as well.
I now proudly display our happy birth announcement all year round.