Friday, April 03, 2009

Some Context for the Tempest

So, let’s talk about context. I delivered the speech that’s getting so much attention, “Our Work is Not Done”, for a rally in support of clinic defenders in Birmingham, AL. Protesters had staged a week-long siege of a clinic – a clinic that had, not so very long before, been shot up. The owner still had the bullet-ridden door. Protestors had, once again, surrounded the clinic, screaming, threatening, and otherwise harassing and terrorizing the staff and patients. Defenders had stood in the hot sun, providing a buffer and absorbing the vitriol spewed at them. At the end of the week we rallied for speeches, encouragement, and celebration of our success at keeping the clinic open, safe, and available to the women using it – for all sorts of family planning services. The speech worked well for that audience and that occasion. It spoke to those who had put their comfort and safety on the line to care for others.

It works less well as a sermon. Actually, it doesn’t work at all as a sermon and I wouldn’t preach it as one. It works less well as a blog read by people who may still be struggling with the aftermath of difficult decisions and thinking they were going to find a sermon. I apologize for the mischaracterization. It was entered on my sermon blog site because that’s the holding spot I have for things I’ve written. If I were more technologically sophisticated I might have avoided the problem with a more clear division of genres. And I do apologize to anyone who was hurt when looking for a pastoral word and encountering a political one, instead.

So, there’s my format disclaimer and apology. Now let’s talk about substance.

I would certainly never suggest (and I didn’t, actually – read it) that decisions about abortion are never morally complex and difficult. They often are. But that’s part of being made in the image of God, created to be God’s stewards on earth. We are called to be moral decision-makers – and moral decision-making rarely involves choosing between unmitigated good and unmitigated bad. Rather, it means weighing competing goods, needs, and costs and making the best decisions we can – confident not that we will always be right but that God will always be with us. To be created in the image of God, entrusted with such responsibility, is often difficult, sometimes painful, but always a blessing.

The power to conceive, nurture, and sustain new life is an awesome one. It is a profound blessing – even though a daunting responsibility (whether we ever exercise that power or not). When a woman’s exercise of that power is constrained – by violence, deprivation, lack of information…; when she is unable to choose to bear children because she lacks health care, child care, a living wage, or a supportive community – that is a tragedy. When she is unable to prevent an unwanted or unsupportable pregnancy because of violence, inadequate sex education, lack or access to contraception (or its failure – or to an abortion, when she determines that she needs one) … that is a tragedy. When modern science and moral theology and social supports allow her to embrace her sexuality and manage her generative power and responsibility -- that is a blessing.

I think we venture into faithlessness and ungratefulness when we decline to name something a blessing just because it is painful or difficult for us. Someone I love recently had heart surgery. I wish he hadn’t had to. The arterial blockage I could happily have done without. Given that he had a blockage though, the heart surgery was, indeed, a blessing. A messy, uncomfortable, scary … blessing.

I realize that this becomes more complex if you believe that a fertilized egg is a full human being (a fairly new idea in history but one that some people do hold and to which they are entitled). To have to weigh the needs and the rights of such a full “person” against those of another person – one on whose sacrifices (sacrifices sometimes embraced with delight and other times deemed untenable) the first is utterly dependent for at least 9 months – to have to weigh such competing needs is hugely complex.

If, on the other hand, one views a fertilized egg, a blastocyst, an embryo, or even a fetus as not yet an ensouled, full person but rather as potential, – on its way to personhood if the person in whose body it resides is willing and able to embrace and nurture it (proleptic personhood) – then the decision becomes less, or differently, complex although it may, or may not, become less difficult or painful.

The responsibility to wrestle with these decisions, regardless of their level of complexity or pain, goes hand in hand with being one of God’s people. The ability to act on our decisions, to fulfill our responsibilities, is a blessing.

We get to choose the lens through which we view the trials we encounter. We get to choose how we tell (and understand) the stories of our lives. Right now, I’m going through the pain of leaving a congregation I have served for 14 years. My mind races and my heart rejoices as I contemplate the new challenges and opportunities, the new responsibilities, before me. Even so, every time I pull into the parking lot of the church my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach. As each person comes through the door, meets my eyes, and starts to cry – again – my heart breaks. And yet, my breaking heart, too, is a blessing. As my companion continues to remind me, “it’s all about love; you have to allow yourself to feel it.” It has been a blessing to serve these people for 14 years. It is a blessing to love, and be loved by, them. It is a blessing that my heart is breaking, for it is love that breaks it.

We get to choose the lens, the story we tell. We can tell the story of our pain and the ways we’ve been broken. Or we can tell the story of God’s blessings and redemption seen in our lives. Both are present – real and true; but which is the focus – the point?

We can focus on our sorrows or on our joy – on crucifixions or on resurrection power. I believe God invites us to be whole, to live in joy. In every season, through every trial, we are blessed, called to joy, and called to name all our lives as grace.


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