Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bellies, Babies, and Christmas

And Mary said,
  "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me; and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.He has shown strength with his arm;he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

      ~ Luke 1:46-55

I love this scripture. I love its context and what it signifies. As we enter the Christmas season, I can’t help but be drawn into this verse. It sends my thoughts wandering, contemplating Mary’s experience with pregnancy and childbirth. Christmas does this to me now. At this time last year, I was preparing for Abi Kate’s arrival. As I began spiritually preparing myself for childbirth, I kept coming back to this verse. This verse is, in fact, one of the reasons Tommy & I decided to trust birth, to trust the perfect design of an omnipotent and sovereign Creator.  As we considered what our culture says about birth and compared that to the way that our Holy God chose to bring His own perfect, unblemished Son into the world, we found ourselves at a crossroads because we saw two very different pictures. This image of Christ’s birth was so purposeful and compelling that I even had Christmas worship songs on my labor playlist.

If you know me, you know it doesn’t take much to get me talking about birth. Mention just about anything pregnancy or birth related and we can sit down and chat for a reaaaaallllyyy long time, so it’s really not a stretch that this verse would bring my thoughts back around to this. If you knew me a few years ago, you’d know that I would never have considered a natural delivery. Much less would I have thought of it as a sanctifying process. If you’d told me I’d be joining together with a group of precious women to inform others about Christ’s great plan for birth, I probably would’ve laughed in your face. In fact, I used to say, “I want to enjoy giving birth to my child and remember it. Why would I ever want to have that awful experience?!” I hate that I looked at birth like that, and I really hate that I spoke those words because they were wrapped up in so much ignorance.  They were ideas engrained by a culture that perceives birth as a sickness, as a risk, as something that we need to keep under control and manage by our own standards (standards that we humans came up with).  Ideas founded in fear-- fear of pain and fear that results because we have willingly adopted the idea that we have to handle the pain alone, that there’s no help or relief from that pain outside of a human created narcotic. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m NOT a pain medicine Nazi. I know the pain of labor, I have felt it and lived it, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I have some anxiety about experiencing that pain again (though I know that I will choose to do it the same way). But what I normally hear when discussing birth is, “I could never do that. I don’t like pain.” But the truth is-- who likes pain!? I’m no masochist. A sinus headache can just about do me in. I’ve also heard the idea that natural birth is only for feminists or is a form of “feminist machoism” which is just not true and is completely insulting. I’m not a feminist and I’m definitely not macho. I dropped a bottle of vitamins on my foot this morning and almost cried because it hurt so bad.  But labor pain is different because it is purposeful. And while I’d be the first to toss you a bottle of Advil for a headache, I just can’t apply that to birth. We live in a world that automatically assumes that you have to have pain medicine to have a memorable, positive birth--that you are foolish to attempt to do it without. But I am completely convinced that this picture of birth can look so different in the life of a believer. I know this because I know that the pain of birth is manageable when you look to the Creator of birth.

One of my friends labored for 26 hours and gave birth after hours of pushing-- no pain meds. That’s right, friends-- 26. She did it again two years later saying, “Thank you, Jesus” through contractions. Another friend labored and delivered with no intervention after 3 hours starting with a water break (Don’t be confused here…. If you know much about birth, you know that short labors don’t mean less pain. There’s no gradual shift over time of increasing pain-- it just starts off extremely intense and moves on from there, especially when there’s no water bag as a cushion). And still another friend labored and delivered without pain medication in an extra room in the hospital because there was no room in the regular rooms (Um, stable in Bethlehem anyone?!). Each one of them waited those long days for labor to begin on its own, when pregnancy was hard and trying. And they didn’t do this because they’re feminists or because they like pain. They didn’t wait for labor because they’re laid back and schedule-less girls. It’s not because they are so strong and impressive. And while I am certainly impressed and terribly proud of them, I know that they managed that pain, waited on Christ’s timing, because they let their fear be replaced with faith. Even though I cried from sheer excitement when I got the messages that their babies were here and they’d done it without intervention, I know they didn’t do it in their own strength. They looked to the cross, to the Creator of their child and of the process of birth, and they pulled their strength from the Ultimate Source. They didn’t create peace in their own power, they let the author of peace fill their hearts and draw them close to His. And oh, how He made good on His promises! He sustained them in childbirth (1 Tim. 2:15), He did not leave them or forsake them while they were in need (Deut 31:8), and in the midst of pain and uncertainty about how long it would take and how they could keep going, He quieted them with His love (Zeph. 3:17). This is the beautiful picture of childbirth. It is not a screaming chaos where everyone’s life hangs in the balance. This is the sanctifying process that He will bring us to if we will let Him-- if we will let The Creator call our child from the womb at the time that He has prepared for them instead of forcing them to come in our time, if we will trust that His grace is enough to surpass any amount of worldly pain, if we believe that our light and momentary troubles are nothing compared to the surpassing knowledge of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

There’s plenty of reasons people choose to deliver naturally. There were a lot of reasons for me, personally. I could tell you about the risks of interventions, but honestly, you don’t have to look far at all to find those on your own.(And as a tangent, if you have a care provider who tells you there are no risks from induction, pain medicine, episiotomy, IV fluids, etc. they have just lied to your face. Do not walk out of their office. Run. That or they are not practicing evidence-based medicine and they haven’t read a medical journal published in the last 10 years. Which is another really good reason to run.) I’m not saying one reason is better than the other, but I want to look at it from a Christ-centered perspective, not from the other reasons. I’m also not suggesting that you can’t have a Christ-centered birth unless you have an intervention-free delivery. That’s not true either. And yes, I am completely, 100% aware that there are true medical reasons for intervention, and I do believe that some of them are completely warranted and necessary. I’m a believer in birth choices, not just one way. I may one day arrive at a place where the benefits of an intervention outweigh the risks. It’s a definite possibility. And I know that Christ’s power in birth is not lessened because of an intervention by any means. But what does break my heart is the way that birth is viewed by so many women, what they’re missing out on because of fear or a culturally centered perspective. That so many women look back and speak of their experiences as awful, terrifying, chaotic, and the worst thing they’ve ever gone through.

Long before the invention of pitocin, epidurals, spinal blocks, and Cytotec; before the weekly doctor appointments and cervical checks (which by the way are not good indicators of when labor will begin), before we took what we as humans studied and learned and applied those ideas to birth, there was a design by a far more intelligent Creator whose “ways are not our ways” who thoughts “are much higher than our own” (Is. 55:8-9) And in this time, He brought forth His own perfect child in the way that HE deemed best. Mary didn’t need medicine to bring Jesus at 40 weeks gestation. Jesus came when it was the right time, called out by the Father. She labored in pain, no doubt, and her child was born. There was nothing extra strong about Mary, just like there’s nothing extra strong about women in our generation who long for a natural birth. She was a sinner in need of a Savior in the same way that we are. And the power of the Heavenly Father was magnified in her, in a stable, not surrounded by doctors and nurses but by her husband. I have no doubt that Mary experienced many spiritual truths and growth through that birth-- that she saw the faithful hand of God once again in her life, that she saw His perfect plan that was hard but purposeful, that she found humility in her position as the creation and not the Creator.  

When I looked at the Magnificat, I couldn’t escape what it pictured- Mary’s willingness to accept God’s plan in pregnancy & birth and declare Him holy in hardship. It was so powerful to me that it was one of the scriptures I wrote on an index card that Tommy read to me in labor. And after birth, it is even more applicable to me.  God truly looked upon the “humble estate of His servant” (v.48) on January 27. He did “great things for me” because of His “holy name” (v. 49) not because of my strength.  He scattered the pride found “in the thoughts of my heart” (v. 51). The first hour of labor, I let fear grip me. My water broke, I felt that first contraction, and thought, “What have you gotten yourself into?!” I made it through each contraction in my own prideful strength, and it was hard. So hard. But around 4:30 am, when I let go and let the pain take me where it needed to, when I embraced the idea of surrender and found myself in a place of complete humility, aware that I was in no way capable of completing the task ahead in and of myself, when I whispered that prayer, “I can’t. Please help me,” He was there in an instant. There was unspeakable peace and intimacy with my Savior. And though the pain intensified quickly and greatly, the ability to cope was stronger than the pain. And when Satan tried to pull me down in that last hour and I felt like I might not be able to endure, I was surrounded by two people who reminded me that Christ’s power rested on me and dwelled within me, and because of His great love and faithfulness, yes I could and would do it. And His mercy that was for each generation (v .50), reached all the way down through time, even to me.  He beautifully displayed the “strength of His arm” (v. 51) in Abi Kate’s birth. I am reminded of that regularly. He didn’t just do this for me or the women I know or for the mother of Jesus, He has done this for countless women before me and after me. When I’ve shared her birth story, I’ve shared and love Spurgeon’s statement, “We are welcome guests at the table of promises.” And oh, how we are- even in birth we are welcome to take part and feast on the kindness that He has wrapped us in. It is truly magnificent. After Abi Kate’s birth my doula/childbirth educator/friend told me, “You chose faith instead of fear and Jesus instead of drugs. And you were blessed by the choices.”  These blessings, they are free for the taking for us as believers.

To me, birth is like any other aspect of life for the believer-- it is faith in action. We make faith applicable in dealing with work, school, people, sickness, big things, small things-- why not this, too? And just like many aspects of Christianity, our culture looks at that, shudders and says, “Why?! That’s ridiculous.” The truth is, you can have a natural delivery and not experience the great blessings and lessons that Christ longs to teach. You can go through it completely unchanged and just have “made it through” and be proud in yourself that you were “strong enough.” But that’s not what I’m talking about. Likewise, you could have a birth that ends in a C-section and still be taught and have walked the path of sanctification, allowing God to have His rightful place in your pregnancy and in your child’s arrival. The exact circumstances & conditions aren’t specific. The attitude of the heart, embracing God’s strength and plan, letting go of what’s culturally “right, safe, and acceptable,” the surrender-- that’s what is vital.   
I was talking with a fellow birth-obsessed friend (Sorry, sister! You know I love you!) recently about the goodness God shows us. We talked about how amazing it is that the pain that was brought about as a punishment for sin so long ago in the Garden could be used to create such precious moments of strengthened faith and communion with the Savior now. Only God would do that. Only He would give that to us, turning a punishment for something we deserved into something beautiful.  It is the ideal picture of the character of God, of His mercy for His children, of freedom from the burden of sin. My prayer is that as we enter the Christmas season, we would remember the beauty of a holy God’s design. I pray that we would allow that design to completely rewrite what we have previously thought about birth, that we would have faith in Him and His capable plans; and that we, as believers, would be changed in more ways than one by the high privilege and calling of birth and parenthood. 

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