From the archives: What Happens When You Don’t Know?

I blogged for a long time before I switched to WordPress. I did an incomplete job of moving my writing from one platform (Livejournal) to another – partially because it was very manual. But a friend asked about my beliefs regarding the soul the other day, and I was reminded of this sermon I gave. I was surprised, checking the archives, that this one fell in the gap between platforms. Rereading it, I feel like it stands the test of time. This was originally published on 7/17/2007 after the first of two miscarriages, and before my second son was successfully brought into this world.

Job 39:1-4
Mark 4:35-41

The Book of Job is a story about people trying to understand God’s actions. In the story, the righteous man Job has horrible things happen to him for reasons he doesn’t understand. His friends spend several chapters claiming that they understand how God works, and that Job’s bad luck must be his own fault. Job complains to God, asking why he had such a tough time of it. God never answers that question for Job. Instead, God’s reply (in some of the most beautiful and poetic language that can be found anywhere in the Bible) is to talk about all the things that God understands, has done, and had witnessed that are far beyond Job’s ability to comprehend. Finally, Job accepts that while he might not understand why he was so miserable now, it was ok not to understand as long as his relationship with God was intact.

There is a lot to talk about in the story of Job. Right now I want to point out that it is possible for good people to misunderstand God’s nature, and believe the wrong thing about him.

Christianity has spent a lot of time and energy trying to decide what we believe about God’s nature. Some of the most divisive questions in the Christian church have been about that: Is Jesus both fully human and fully divine? What is the trinity? Is it three different people, or three aspects of the same person?

Belief is important. It can change how we act and what we try to do. If we believe that Jesus died and gave us grace for our sins, we act in hope and try to encourage others to do likewise, instead of falling into the inaction of despair.

But how we believe doesn’t actually change the nature of God. Job’s friends truly and sincerely believed that God was punishing Job for some sin Job had committed. God wasn’t – he had another reason. The conviction of Job’s friends didn’t change God’s nature.

Why is that important?

Sometimes I think that we’ve fallen into the habit of thinking that what we believe makes it true. This is easy to observe in a toddler, and fortunately I have one handy to watch. Grey is convinced that if he says that we are outside at the park often enough, then we actually will be outside at the park. A child can think that believing something makes it true. Adults fall into this sort of trap in much subtler ways. (Author’s note: I didn’t say, but one could argue a certain president of ours is doing this by claiming we’re winning in Iraq.) In some theological questions, where the Bible might not have much to say and there’s no way for us to test to find the answer, perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that whatever we decide is true is actually true.

But God’s true nature doesn’t change based on what we think, and for that I am grateful.


Well, what happens when we don’t know what to think?

Most of you know I recently had a miscarriage. I’m hardly unique in this. I was stunned at how many of my sisters in these pews had gone through one or even many miscarriages. (Author’s note: I got three more miscarriage stories after this sermon.) Anyway, in the course of my recovery from this, one of the questions I was asked was whether I had any theological doubts or uncertainties that had been raised by the miscarriage.

There are certainly lots of questions to which I do not know the answer. When does a pregnancy turn into a person with a soul? Was my pregnancy even at that stage? What happens to the souls of children who are never born, if they have souls? When does a person accumulate enough actions and intentions to be judged and forgiven by God? For that matter, just what is heaven really like? On some of these issues, such as the miscarriages, the Bible is nearly silent. On others, such as what heaven is like, it is very mysterious and hard to translate to a concrete vision.

So when I look at my own experience and wonder: was there a child, and if so, what happened to them? It’s a question to which I will never have a concrete answer on this side of salvation. I don’t even know what I believe.

And that’s when I realized the beauty of the unchanging nature of God. I don’t HAVE to know what happened, in order for the right thing to have occurred. This possible child isn’t waiting in some limbo, pending me making up my mind as to what God does with early miscarriages. God has already acted, and if there was a baby with a soul, it is in God’s loving hands. I do not need understand, agree, believe, or consent for God to fulfill his covenant and relationship with this other person. I do not need to understand for the right and proper thing to have happened.

That raises another uncomfortable question, though. What if I don’t like what happened? What if it was something bad instead of something good?

I am at peace there, too, because I have faith. That’s where our other Bible story of the day comes into play. The disciples are in a tight spot, with a boat that may at any moment break apart and drown them all. Jesus is sleeping through what they fear might be his last moments alive. They wake him up. “Hey!” they say. “Don’t you care that we’re all about to die!” I imagine that they’re not saying he should do something, they’re waking him up to tell him to prepare himself for the worst. What can anyone do in the middle of the sea, in a horrible storm? I mean, there are miracles of returning sight to people with milky eyes, and then there’s commanding the very weather to act unnaturally. Doctors can return sight or it might come back on it’s own, but no one can command the weather. But Jesus does, and he comments on their lack of faith.

Well, I do have faith. I believe that God is good, and kind, and loving. If there was a soul in place, I believe that he holds my unborn child in his hands and has carried that child to a good end. I trust in that not only for this Schroedinger’s baby, who may or may not have ever existed as a person, but I also trust it for myself. I believe, in the end, that God loves us and cares for us. And so, when theology goes dark and God’s plan is unknown and unknowable, and we do not know what the right thing is to believe, then have faith friends. For we do know that God is good, and his steadfast love for us endures forever.

Me, then

Old miscarriages, years later

I have this mental list of topics that I will write about here someday. You know, that day when I don’t have anything else to say, when I have time to write and think, and when I’m feeling particularly emotionally strong. Shockingly, that particular combination of events comes up less often than you’d think (although the “don’t have much to say” is a less unusual phenomenon).

Probably top on my list of things I think about but don’t discuss are the two miscarriages I had between the boys. I thought about them and — unusually — talked about them at the time. But then as soon as I was out of the throes of emotional convulsion, it didn’t seem like quite the thing to talk about anymore. Really, nothing kills a conversation like the following:

Me) Yeah, that week my husband got a new job, we placed an offer on a house, the Sox clinched a World Series berth and I found out I was pregnant! It was crazy!
Them) Really? I thought Thane was only ____ old!
Me) Yeah, the house, job and World Series worked out, but the pregnancy? Not so much.

So, like millions of women before me, I just don’t mention it.

I had two miscarriages, and they were both appallingly hard in their own unique ways. The first one took me completely by surprise. I got pregnant easily enough. It was a second pregnancy, so I thought I knew the drill. I was feeling a little better than I had the last time, so in my optimism I decided I was carrying a girl. She became Kitty, in my mind, after Schroedinger’s cat. (I had made a joke about how I was Schroedinger’s pregnant in that interim period when you know you might be pregnant but you don’t know if you are, and the moniker stuck. I found it highly ironic, later.) I was a low-risk pregnancy, so we didn’t do a 6 week ultrasound or any fancy-schmancy monitoring.

At about 10 weeks, I saw a tiny amount of spotting. Sure I was being paranoid over nothing, I called my midwife and went in for an “of course everything’s ok” ultrasound. I laid down, and told the tech that I wanted to see the heartbeat. She did standard ultrasoundy stuff. Then she moved the screen away so I couldn’t see it. Lying there on the ultrasound table the back of my brain processed. She was super quiet — usually the ultrasound techs are chatty and informative. Finally she said, “I need to call your doctor. Wait here.” And I knew. I knew I knew I knew. By the time my midwife was on the line with the “I’m sorry but” I was already into the shock and grief and it seemed like I’d always known. I went home and called my parents, pacing the sunny back yard. I gamed that night, and laughed and cried.

But. I was still pregnant.

They didn’t want to “take care of it” right away because there was a tiny chance (I knew there was no chance based on my home pregnancy tests) that the dates were off and it was just too early to see a heartbeat. So, we waited a week. The second ultrasound showed the same thing: no heartbeat. No growth. Nothing. My doctor told me to schedule a D&C. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted it to happen that way. Unconscious in a sterile room with people I didn’t know, having something done TO me? Did. Not. Want. I asked if I could have the chemical versions. They didn’t have experience with them or confidence in them. I put my foot down, refused the scheduled surgery time, and found a study that was investigating how the drugs work in women with missed miscarriages. I had to wait a while longer before I could get that, though. In the interim, I attended my brother’s college graduation, praying the whole time that the issue would just take care if itself. I felt like a ticking timebomb, pregnant with a child who was, to put it quite bluntly, dead. God, that was the hardest part. By the time I actually got the drugs to induce the miscarriage, I was so ready to be done. I was 12 weeks pregnant by the time it took affect.

It had, of course, a huge impact on me. It took me a few months to feel like I was ready to try again. My previous cavalier attitude vanished. There were almost two traumas — the fact that I had already crafted this child in my imagination, my Kitty, and she was gone and would never be. And then the ordeal of enduring and arranging to no longer be pregnant — to have to be so intentional! — was a second layer of hard.

Then came that weekend in late October when I found out I was pregnant again. There was no reason to believe I would have any further trouble. In fact, my problem seemed to be staying pregnant when I shouldn’t, not an inability to carry a viable pregnancy. But I’d gotten myself put in a higher risk pool. So when I showed up at my midwife’s office right after the first positive, we immediately started doing bloodwork and ultrasounds. The entire pregnancy was like a “That’s good. No that’s bad” joke. The second blood test came back with levels of hormones that were lower than they should’ve been. The ultrasound showed an embryo smaller than it should’ve been. But then the hormones would go up and the embryo would be still grow. After a week where it didn’t, I went in for the “confirming” ultrasound that I had another missed miscarriage and…. there was a heartbeat. Half the speed it should’ve been, but there was a heartbeat. I have, somewhere in a box, the CD that has pictures of that heartbeat. None of us expected it, but there it was, bright blue and red.

I miscarried the next day, on my own this time. It sucked too. I never named that one, and I actually regret it. It’s as though without a name, I didn’t acknowledge the existence, and there WAS for a flicker of a moment, a heartbeat.

There is, of course, a happy ending to my saga. Two months after that miscarriage, I got pregnant again. This pregnancy was text-book (except for some placental excitement we didn’t find out about until after a safe and healthy birth) and Thane is a thriving happy boy. I am not overwashed with sorrow for the children I did not bear. The grooves of sorrow are being washed away by the waters of time.

So why do I share this? Why interrupt my happy mommy blog and talk about this ancient sorrow and risk nasty comments (which will, by the way, be deleted if you make them)?

After my first miscarriage, I actually gave a sermon on the topic. I was never shy about talking about what was going on with me. And the number of women who came up to me, confessed their own past sorrows and their relief at knowing they weren’t alone, shocked me. The statistics vary, but I’ve read that one in four or five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. So every other woman you know who has two kids likely also had a miscarriage. I think that in this century of oversharing, the stigma and loneliness is diminished, but I still wanted to offer my story, and my support, to the other women out there who might be going through the same thing.

You are not alone.