This afternoon I had the honour of being the featured speaker at the annual general meeting of the Prayer Book Society of Canada. Here is the basic content of the talk I delivered. I'm sure there are typos, missing sentences, and errors of a more substantial nature which you may feel free to bring to my attention. There was a Q&A afterward, some of which I'll add later. Some of my readers will have heard bits and pieces of our story elsewhere; some has appeared here, other bits are public for the first time.
Here is part one. Part two will follow in a few days, or when I have time.
Tomorrow is mother's day...
Thanksgiving After Childbirth: Choosing Sarah Joy in an Age of Options
A Starting Point:
O lord open thou our lips,
And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
We are blessed with 4 children – 2 girls and 2 boys –. They range in age from 10 years to 3 years. Needless to say, our fridge is awash with artwork, our yard is littered with various signs of the small armies passing through, and we have over the past number of years come up with our own “Liturgy for the Blessing of A Minivan” to commemorate this particular stage of parenthood. I consider myself an accomplished liturgist, and so I thought I would treat the PBSC to a small sample of my work:
The Community gathers around the BMV. All should be dressed appropriately; children should be wearing freshly laundered items, preferably white or light colours. At no time are the responses to be said or sung in unison: a random senseless chattering is preferred.
The presider (“One”) begins with the ancient latin three-fold form of the “Itemus”.
One: Here we go, here we go, here we go.
All: Are we there yet?
The procession leading into the BMV begins, led by the pater familias, children are strapped into various seats, but not in such a way as to imply that their auto-nomous freedom is in any way compromised. Such an act of contraint by the pater familias is a remnant of patriarchal power imbalance, and must be recognized as such.
The Prayer of Transport:
We come before you, and indeed even enter into your most inward self, O blessed mode of travel. We come in the weakness of our commute, our pilgrim journey amidst the busy rush of life. It is you, O Mini Van, who carry us beyond our present places of indifference and solitude. In you alone many may gather and vacation as one; it is through you that all are invited to come and share in the One Ride.
Now we rejoice in the provision you have made for the perpetuation of middle class lifestyle, through the marketing of the domestic and the union made vehicle. For it is not the destination, but the consumption along the journey, that gives us meaning.
Beneath your hood is mystery; for in the days of our youth we took an arts degree. And so we abandon all reason as we enter your sanctuary.
The Great Snack:
At this point the elements of the Great Snack are distributed to the Occupants. The meal must have a chocolate layer which melts on contact with human flesh. The drink must be of a deep hue, preferably grape or raspberry.
The Great Snack is distributed, after which follows:
The Breaking of the Peace.
Here all assault their neighbours.
Accusations, Confession, & Counter-Accusations.
One: May One greater than I help you, if I have to stop this van.
All: It was his/her/their/its fault.
Chaos ensues; night descends.
There are times when I have come to appreciate the circumstances under which the ancient Canaanites sacrificed their children.
PBSC talk: what is it not about: it is not about public policy, or the culture war, although doubtless it has implication for such things.
It is, rather, about a person, it is about coming to see the image of God, looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. It is about being shaped by a particular kind of Christian Discipleship, and learning, by grace, to grow into that discipleship – not that I have already achieved or am already there, as St Paul would say, but rather to invite and pray that one’s self might be shaped by such a thing.
In the winter of 2001 I was attending a clergy retreat with my colleagues from the Diocese of Edmonton. The retreat leader (I forget who it was), finished one of his addresses with reference to one of his favourite Henri Nouwen books; “Adam”. “Adam” is the tale of Nouwen’s encounter with a young man who lived with profound disabilities, and how Christ used Adam to tranform Nouwen’s heart in many ways.
I thought it interesting enough: I had read some of Nouwen’s work, but not that particular book; maybe I should pick it up someday when I have the time. I was scheduled to assist with the Communion service to follow the address, and so I sauntered off to see about robes and bread and wine. On my way I was approached by one of the staff of the retreat center, handing me a message to call home.
I made a what I thought was going to be a casual phone call: Alisa was pregnant with our second child, and I was now a veteran of what husbands around the world know as the pregnant lady condition: perhaps I needed to pick up some ice cream and skor bars on the way home.
Alisa told me that she had just come back from what was supposed to be a “routine ultrasound” (I suppose on reflection there is no such thing), and that our second child was showing signs of congestive heart failure in the womb. It was unclear at that point what the cause was, or if there were other, additional complications and conditions.
I listened, we prayed. And as I made my way to prepare for Communion, I was struck by a thought which entered my mind, or my heart, or both: this child will be your “Adam”.
As we made our way through the medical system over the next several weeks, we discovered that there was a great likelihood that this unborn child also had Down Syndrome – a genetic condition.
We live in an age of options: one which was very quickly presented to us was that of “terminating the pregnancy”, as they say. The scientific literature on the topic tells us that upwards of 85% of prenatal diagnoses of Down Syndrome result in that option. In recent years advocacy organizations for persons with Down Syndrome have noted that all too often, information provided to prospective parents by the medical community has been less than adequate.
Love and Fear:
I suppose looking back now there are several things which informed and shaped and moved us to make the decision we did.
In an age where the gift of sexuality is often seen as a means of “personal fulfillment only”, we understood that gift to be exercised for a purpose other than the self, and indeed, other than the immediate other - the beloved. It is a gift that, in itself, begets a gift.
Our decision to become parents is the first means of learning what that elusive phrase “unconditional love” really means in the flesh – incarnated. Indeed, when it comes to prenatal diagnosis, how can one learn of unconditional love if one begins to select the conditions upon which a child’s place in the family and community must depend.? The Age of Designer babies is almost upon us. Exercising the gift of sexuality is an invitation to commit to a great unknown in faith. Most of us do not consider that unknown at the time; at least I know I did not. But I knew this: my responsibility as a parent begins with the exercise of the gift of sexuality.
We had no romantic illusions about what parenting this child would mean. It would mean sacrifices – physically, emotionally, perhaps financially. What would this child’s future be? Would be caregivers for the rest of our lives? How would this impact our marriage, our family, our careers?
As we look back, a big part of the choice had to do with the difference between love and fear. I worked in a major Canadian university with a large teaching hospital. I have many friends in professional fields of health care, education and counseling. As we became more educated about Down Syndrome, and got in contact with people in all of those fields, we began to ease the fear that can easily overwhelm parents of children with disabilities.
As we look back on that choice between love and fear, we recall the saying from the Scriptures that “perfect love casts out fear”. We believe that God is on to something there: that so many of our important decisions in life have to do with the choice between love and fear. We could choose to love this child (no matter what), or choose to be afraid of the future, of how this person would change and affect our lives. In choosing to have the baby, we did not think God would magically “rescue” us from difficulties now or in the future, but that he would give us the grace to learn how to love more deeply through whatever the future may hold.
There are two prayers side by side in the service of Thanksgiving after Childbirth: Evidently it has been the custom to pray one or the other, but not both:
O GOD, our heavenly Father, we thank thee and praise thy glorious Name, that thou hast been pleased to bless this thy servant, and to bestow upon her the gift of a child: Grant, we beseech thee, most merciful Father, that she and her husband may diligently lead this child In the way of righteousness, to their own great blessing and the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Or the Minister may say:
O GOD whose ways are hidden and thy works most wonderful, who makest nothing in vain and lovest all that thou hast made: Comfort thou thy servants, whose hearts are sore smitten and oppressed; and grant that they may so love and serve thee in this life, that they may obtain the fulness of thy promises in the world to come; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most, if not all, of parents who discover a very difficult prenatal diagnosis experience some kind of grief. I am not comparing that grief with the experience of those who have suffered through the death of child, but it is a grief nonetheless. It is the kind of grief which is renewed at various stages: upon birth - a mixture of joy and trembling; it is a grief which shows itself again when other children are learning their first words, taking their first steps; it is a grief which is renewed on the first day of school, and it is a grief renewed with the first instance of name calling and bullying.
I found myself in the unexpected posture of praying both of these prayers at once – prayers both of thankfulness and rejoicing, and a sense of grief and sorrow at the way in which human brokenness, the effects of the old fault of Adam in the Garden of Eden, are still echoing through our world, and indeed, continue to echo through our very selves – our souls and bodies.
And there in the prayers are the things into which we must be shaped: faith in a God who ways are hidden, and yet whose works are most wonderful; who makest nothing in vain and lovest all that He has made. Such a “shaping” is not an easy thing.
Parents of children with disabilities get used to the parade of specialists who become a routine feature of family life. Some years ago, when SJ was probably about 2, we had a visit from an occupational therapist. It was a fascinating event. Apparently the natural position of the hand is clenched, closed. Opening the hand is actually a learned behavior. We make the mistake of thinking that it "comes naturally", but that is because for most of us, we do not realize how we are taught to do it.
With SJ, the process was intentional and long, and yes, difficult. This learning to "ungrasp", this letting go of things to which we cling so fiercely, is not merely a physical difficulty.
Sometimes people can be parables: Sarah Joy is one of them: she has become to us a living parable.
As the process continues, one discovers that the best way of teaching the proper motions, is the simple process of hand over hand. Most of us who are parents have done this in one form or another. Let me give you an example: In order to teach Sarah Joy a number of very basic hand movements, we engaged daily in the exercise of hand over hand: my hand over her hand, opening, closing, reaching, touching.
It is, for me, an image of a life of Christian discipleship lived under guidance. For in order to be truly shaped, we must allow the hand of Father to be over our hands, the life of Christ to be over our lives, the finger of the Spirit to over our fingers: And as we submit to that shaping, we become what we are meant to be.
It is a liturgical act, as are many things in life. It is the way of Discipleship of Common Prayer: we pray these things in order to have the hand of God shape our lives and our hearts.
Choosing Sarah Joy means choosing to be shaped under the hand of God, through a most unlikely messenger. It means choosing, as Jesus did, not to put out a smouldering wick, or to break a reed that is already bending and bruised. It is to understand that the Christian’s final hope of healing and redemption of both body and soul is the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Beyond Pro birth to Pro life
As I said at the beginning, this talk is not primarily about policies and culture wars, laws and proclamations, but one may find implications for the Christian in some of the things which I have said.
There is a wonderful American poet by the name of Craig Romkema. He lives with a number of disabilities. In one of his collections he writes:
whose ideas sparkle like wine on the tongue,
remember your gift
and use it well,
[From the collection "Embracing the Sky: Poems Beyond Disability"]
One of the things which separates the community of the intellectually disabled from other communities searching for rights is the great lack of self-advocacy. Unlike other oppressed minorities, they have few self-advocates. They do not stage demonstrations or run for parliament. They do not organize media campaigns or engineer public vocabulary. They do not file human rights complaints or challenge court cases.
Perhaps because of this, as a church we are woefully behind in bringing the Gospel to bear on the advances in technology. In an inclusive church where many are looking for "sacramental inclusion", we are perhaps called to speak for those who may not even make it to the baptismal font. – they cannot speak for themselves. Yet the final word cannot be mere silence, as some of the postmodernists or nihilists would have us believe. It must be praise:
O GOD, our heavenly Father, we thank thee and praise thy glorious Name, that thou hast been pleased to bless this thy servant, and to bestow upon her the gift of a child: Grant, we beseech thee, most merciful Father, that she and her husband may diligently lead this child In the way of righteousness, to their own great blessing and the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The answer, I submit, is not to be found in more law; it is to be found in more grace...
[Part Two to follow in a day or two or three..]