Monday, June 19, 2017

Fatherhood and Loss

Robert Berra
St. Matt’s Chandler
Year A, Proper 6

This past week was and is kind of complicated for me.

June 15th was the fourth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I’m pleased to report that—at four years in—I have no regrets about giving myself over to this vocation. I’m truly where God has called me to be.

But June 15th is also another anniversary. On June 15th, 2012, Laura and I lost our first pregnancy to miscarriage.

Despite the historic silence around miscarriage, in which it was talked about in whispers if at all, miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. “Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is roughly 10% to 20% while rates among all fertilization is around 30% to 50%.”[1] The most common summary of the data you’ll hear is that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss.

Slowly, more people are starting to talk openly about their experiences of pregnancy loss.

I am heartened by the number of resources that are being developed for women, men, and families who experience miscarriage. This includes a resource that the Episcopal Church has developed that has Liturgies and Prayers Related to Childbearing, Childbirth, and Loss. It helped me to incorporate some of those materials into my own private prayer life.

Still, I wish there were more out there for men and fathers.

You see, what I needed after the miscarriage was different from what Laura needed.

I was grateful that I had a small number of friends who had also experienced this kind of loss. One of them was a father who—with his spouse—had experienced three miscarriages in a row and knew what it meant that the husband and wife might grieve in very different ways. When I told him I needed to talk and why, he said, “okay, but we’ll do it my way.” He took me on a day-long road trip around the back roads of Connecticut where we talked about everything, miscarriage related and not. I needed that so much.

Something that is not often acknowledged is that fathers frequently suffer the same mental and spiritual wounds that women do after the loss of a pregnancy. And given that the 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss, there is a lot of pain fathers or potential fathers are carrying around. The manifestation of the wounds may be different. We all grieve differently. There might be anger, blaming, accusations, dealing with poorly thought-out words that are supposed to be comforting but they really aren’t. There could be depression or other forms of mental illness. I experienced periods of lost time where I just froze up, fuzziness of thinking and inability to concentrate, and I ended up needing to drop a course in seminary. In other words, I went through about six months of a few PTSD symptoms.

But the manifestations of grief may also be different since women and men have different expectations thrust upon them in our society. For instance, women might feel guilt, wondering what they may have done to cause the miscarriage even if there is nothing to fault—or shame or inadequacy because they think their body failed to do what it was supposed to do. Men, on the other hand, will be dealing with the expectation to support their partners (which, yes, they should), be strong and hold it all together—to not show weakness—whilst they cope with their own grief. And there is still a bit of a stigma surrounding men and emotions, which makes it difficult for many men to open up about their experiences following a miscarriage.

So much suffering surrounds pregnancy loss, and this on top of every other suffering in the world. And then we might think about the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans that we read today: that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Really? Is it that simple, Paul?

(How many times did you roll your eyes when your dad said something “builds character?”)

It may be that simple. Is it easy? Absolutely not.

An uncomfortable truth about the Christian faith is that we are not promised that we will suffer less for our belief. Our loyalty to God, and our faith in God, is not a type of currency that buys us an easy life. Approaching God as though our membership earns us easy living is an idea that will set us up for disappointment.

What Paul is getting at, however, is that God offers paths to the healing of memory and the redemption of suffering and circumstance.

What do I mean by redemption? Redemption means release or liberation from captivity or death by paying a price. By our desire to live separately from God, we took ourselves out of relationship and created for ourselves a world in which we experience death, decay, and refuse to live in perfect love of God, of ourselves, and of each other.

Jesus Christ was that price paid, and so we are redeemed from sin, death, and decay, and we live in the promise that God’s redemption will someday come to a perfect completion. But in this meantime, redemption means those moments when we are set free of the sins, the shames, the guilts, the diseases that afflict us. None of this makes those things go away—God does not make us forgetful—but we are able to look back at them free from their corrupting effects. We see God’s work in the midst of the terrible things that happen to us and to the world.

Further, through Christ, we now have the relationship to God by which God offers himself to us. This is what Paul means when he says that “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[2]

This isn’t just any type of love, and it certainly isn’t the sentimental Hallmark type love. This is an active love. There can be fierceness to this love. It’s the type of love that—when you find yourself up to your neck in the s***—it gives you the power and strength to start shoveling, knowing that you have help from beyond yourself. This fierce love is how God sends others to help you shovel the s*** with you.

Later, in this same letter to the Romans, Paul will assert that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”[3] God’s perfect work in the world is one in which God is actively bending our imperfections toward something worthwhile.

So when Paul says suffering produces endurance, he means that through God’s grace and power we are given the ability to get up and keep moving.

And when he says that endurance produces character, the translation is better rendered “tested Character.” He means that our capacity to endure creates a character forged by our trials. We learn what we can take and hopefully our capacity increases.

And when Paul says that tested character produces hope, he says it because by this point, we’ve probably seen those slivers of redemption and we know we serve a God who shovels the s*** with us.

But there is no set timeline to the redemption of a terrible situation, just as there is no set timeline to grieving. Redemption and healing are the promises of a loving God; the wait and the process, however, may feel interminable.

The six months following the miscarriage were terrible; and yet there were still moments of redemption in them. Early on I felt God’s presence, so I knew I wasn’t abandoned, but it wasn’t as though it took away all the pain. But there is another moment. A moment that taught me that a small measure of redemption, even in a sea of pain, makes a huge difference.

A month after the miscarriage, I got to meet my godson for the first time. He was about 7 months old then. Holding him was the first time that I can recall holding a baby. Before then I had been too scared; I thought I might break a baby.

Now I know that babies are kind of made of rubber. Thank God.

In those moments of holding my godson I came to peace with fatherhood and God and my grief showed me that I was more ready than I thought I was to have a child (as though one is ever really prepared). I felt like I had gone from “can I do this?” to “I can do this.” As such, I was better prepared for Colin when he came along.

This is one small instance of redemption.
Maybe yours look different.
Maybe you are still waiting.

Our lesson from Genesis is a small instance of redemption in a story of pain and waiting.

I wonder how much of the conversation around miscarriage and loss would have sounded familiar to Abraham and Sarah. The expectation of children to carry on the family line and inherit. How that desire gets heightened when God repeatedly visits Abraham to promise him he would be the father of an entire nation. Years after years of trying with no children.

Difficulty conceiving, like pregnancy loss, is the grieving of what could have been. The expectancy and potential of new life, evaporating as time passes. It also gets tied to shame in cultures that measure both masculinity and femininity by how many children you have. And so, here comes God with tidings of a child. New possibilities open, and Abraham and Sarah’s cynical laughter at the prospect of a child turns to a laugh of faith. It must have felt like hope. It must have felt like a redemption of the decades of waiting.

Today is Father’s Day. And hey if that is a surprise, Lowe’s and Sears are open today.

But today I have a few thoughts

1. If you have fathers or men in your life that mentored you in meaningful ways, let them know about it. Give thanks to God for such men as these.

2. If you know men who wish to be fathers but are not—or they have lost children—pray for them that they may be comforted in their disappointment or grief. If you think you can talk about it with them, let them know you are thinking of them.

3. Not all men who are fathers live up to the role they have been given. Pray for fathers who have messed up. Pray for those who have been hurt by their fathers.

4. And now, Fathers. This day may be for us, but today of all days let’s show love to our families. They helped to make us who we are, and let’s not for a second take advantage of the precious gifts we are given.


[1] The Johns Hopkins Manual of Gynecology and Obstetrics (4 ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2012. pp. 438–439. ISBN 9781451148015, as quoted in Wikipedia.
[2] Rom 5:5
[3] Rom 8:28

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