When Nothing Else Could Help…

Earlier this week, my mother celebrated her 88th birthday. Mom has survived more than most people can imagine. She was born in 1933, during the worst years of the Great Depression. She survived hunger and poverty, near-homelessness, and insecurity in her earliest years, despite my grandparents’ best efforts to provide for their family. She survived the upheaval of World War 2, when her father left to serve in the Navy and her mother worked long hours in a factory. She and her sister had to take on most of the housework.

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As a teenager, mom fell madly in love with a young man who convinced her to drop out of high school and become his wife. Her romantic dream quickly turned into a nightmare of abuse, heartbreak, fear, and starvation. Though he loved her, her husband could not control his own inner torments. He drank heavily and was very controlling. He insulted her, isolated her from family and friends, forbad her from going to church, and he sometimes punched her. By the age of 19, she was anemic, weighed less than 100 pounds, and had just miscarried twins– partly because she had been denied access to pre-natal care; partly because she had been beaten and malnourished. But she survived, and went on to have a healthy pregnancy, mostly because her husband was drafted and sent to Korea.

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Mom survived divorce, something to which she had always been opposed, for the sake of her son. She survived the threats against herself and her young boy. She survived all the court dates and new responsibilities. She survived working 10-hours days, six days a week, at a butcher shop, cutting, grinding, and packing up meat, so she could provide for her young son.

Mom remarried at age 30. Shortly before her marriage, she had found a better job; one with better pay and shorter hours. Shortly after her marriage, on her way home from work, she was involved in a horrible accident. She had a head injury, broken ribs, and a broken collarbone. She began suffering from headaches. She suffered another miscarriage. But she survived, and went on to have me and my sister, both healthy deliveries. She had stopped working to be home with us, but she was involved in multiply volunteer opportunities through church and in the community. But her headaches were debilitating, and with them came depression.

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Mom survived many dark days of pain and doubt. Though she was socially active, it took a great deal of energy and will to force herself to get out and keep going. Her doctor gave her medication for depression, and, thankfully, he carefully monitored what she took and whether it was effective. The headaches did not diminish, and mom treated them with massive doses of Anacin and other pain relievers.

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In her 50s, mom developed more health problems. She developed arthritis. She had a hysterectomy, and had to have her gall bladder removed. In her 60s, mom had cataract surgery. Then she had to watch as her husband’s health deteriorated, and she lost him just after their 35th anniversary. She survived, and had to adjust to widowhood. In her 70s, she had more surgeries– she lost part of her thyroid, and nearly died. She had surgery to “undo” some of the damage from her earlier hysterectomy. She was diagnosed with bone density issues, which caused a curvature in her spine. In her 80s, she developed a heart condition. She had to undergo heart surgery and have a pacemaker. She could have died, but she didn’t. She developed a series of infections from one of her earlier surgeries, and had to use a cane to walk because of the bone density and spine curvature. She was diagnosed with macular degeneration, meaning that she is slowly going blind.

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Last fall, during the height of the COVID crisis, Mom fell and broke her hip. She was in a hospital where there were COVID cases, and she was transported to a rehab facility that had 4 COVID cases. By the time she left to come home, she was one of only 4 who had NOT developed COVID at that facility! She continues to go to outpatient rehab twice a week, and now has to use a walker, instead of just a cane, to provide balance and stability when she walks. She no longer drives, and has trouble reading, due to the macular degeneration. But she survives.

I say all of this, not because my mom is tougher, or luckier than other folks; not because she is more worthy of life than those who have not survived such struggles, and not because her life is more tragic than anyone else’s. I say this because my mother is a woman of prayer.

Last week, for Mother’s Day, we took my mom to her local church. She no longer drives, and she rarely gets out because of her health issues. But she wanted to be in church that Sunday. The very first hymn they sang that day was “Love Lifted Me.” And I cried. That was the song she had used, fifty years ago, to rock me to sleep as a child. Sometimes, she would sing it out. Sometimes she would just hum the tune as she rocked me. She was often crying as she sang– exhausted, depressed, worried, or haunted–but those words imprinted themselves in my young mind:
Love lifted me.
Love lifted me.
When nothing else could help–
Love lifted me.

My mother wasn’t just singing those words, she was praying.

Mom has lived out those words. Crying out to “the Master of the Sea,” Mom has been lifted up time and again. She has been a prayer warrior, knowing that her prayers rise to the One who loves her best of all; the One who holds her destiny and her redemption in His hands. No matter her circumstances, she can sing, knowing that love will continue to lift her, and carry her through.

Hannah and Her Son

1 Samuel 1:11 New International Version (NIV)
11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Today, we get to the essence of Hannah’s prayer. And it is not a prayer that most of us would pray. Hannah asks for a son to take away her misery and show her God’s favor. But in the same breath, she promises to give her son back to the Lord forever. How many of us would ask for something so rare and precious just to turn around and give it away?

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As I write this, my country, my friends, and even my family are deeply divided over the issue of abortion. Much is being made about a woman’s “right” to decide whether and when she will have a child. “My body, My choice,” is a common cry among the pro-choice crowd, while the other side points fingers and yells, “baby killer” at those women who choose to end their pregnancy. But yelling and chanting don’t change hearts or facts. A woman cannot actually “choose” to become pregnant at will. In Hannah’s case, she was in anguish over her inability to “choose” to become pregnant. In the case of a modern woman, she may be in anguish over not being able to avoid an unwanted pregnancy or avoid unwanted complications resulting from her pregnancy. She may, like Hannah, be in anguish over her inability to conceive or to carry to full term. But in any case, the idea that pregnancy and birth are simply a matter of “choice” is based on a false reality. There is an illusion of “reproductive autonomy” because of modern medicine. We have birth control that makes claims of being “safe and effective”; we have methods to increase fertility, regulate menstruation, reduce the chances of conception, and even stop the fertilization process within a day or two. But no woman can simply “choose” to become pregnant (or stop being pregnant) at will. Women cannot choose the gender of their children; they cannot guarantee the date of birth; they cannot produce a future world leader or athletic prodigy just by force of will. They cannot guarantee their child perfect health, long life, wealth, or happiness. And reproduction among human beings is never “autonomous”!

Hannah’s story seems the antithesis of abortion– here we have a woman begging for a child; she is in anguish over her inability to conceive. And God hears her cry and blesses her with a son.

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But today, I want to look at Hannah in a slightly different light. I think Hannah would have a great deal of compassion for those women who suffer anguish because of their womb– women whose wombs are achingly empty; women whose wombs seem to betray them as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in a miscarriage; women who long for their womb to be home to a little girl, even as they have a house full of much-loved little boys (or vice versa); women whose wombs hold anger and bitterness because they have been the unwilling vessel of abuse, incest, and rape.

Infertility and “unwanted” pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. They are distant cousins–manifestations of a fallen world where none of us control even the circumstances of our own bodies. And it is in this context that Hannah makes an extraordinary vow.

Hannah gives birth to a son– the fulfillment of all her longings. Or is he? Hannah gets to carry him in her womb; she gets to wean him. But then she vows that she will give him up– relinquish all rights to be there when he scrapes his knee or loses his first tooth, when his voice begins to deepen and his hugs require her to stand on tiptoe. What kind of mother is Hannah? She will never have all those stories of the little “mom” moments; no memories of tucking him in after a long day, or watching him climb a tree, or run after his dad. She will never hold his hand on dark stormy nights, or ruffle his hair after it gets a new cut (in fact, she vows he will never GET a haircut).

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There are moms–unsung, living in the shadows– who have made the incredible sacrifice of “giving up” their children. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. Some have given them up for adoption at birth. Some have lost parental rights due to divorce, incarceration, or other life circumstances. Some have had their children stolen or taken from them in tragic circumstances. Hannah was given other children after she gave up Samuel, but she never “got over” the loss of her son. No one ever does.

Which brings me back to the debate about abortion. We do not have “reproductive autonomy.” Our wombs are not just another part of our bodies. They are designed to nurture and prepare for new life. To the extent that they fulfill that design, they bring joy and pain, hope and hurt. In denying that reality and embracing the false promise of “my body, my choice”, we don’t erase the lives lost to abortion– we just bury them. And for the women who are making that choice, we must offer compassion. The pain and anguish they suffer before and after an abortion are every bit as real as that suffered by Hannah in her quest to have a son, only to give him up.

When “Mother’s Day” Hurts

Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration.  But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year.  Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers.  There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.

I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.).  I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor.  So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.

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But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”

Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year.  My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”

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My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten.  God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died.  Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.”  Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children.  God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers.  He sees you too.  He hears you.  He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.

More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort.  He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace.  He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love.  God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.

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God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.

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