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“At the point where hope would otherwise become hopelessness, it becomes faith.”
My Ethics & Character class this week featured a guest lecturer, addressing the subject of bioethics. As part of the class, he played a video that featured brief profiles of two couples. Each couple – during their first pregnancy – had learned through routine ultrasound that their developing fetus had “abnormalities.” One couple – whose developing female child had heart defects – chose to terminate their pregnancy. The other couple – whose developing male child had severe physical deformities – allowed their pregnancy to proceed to term.
I’ve been reflecting on their stories all week. Both couples spoke of anguish. The couple that chose abortion expressed anguish over the difficulty of making their decision to abort – and continuing emotional pain even years later. The couple that gave birth to their son spoke of the gift they feel he has been to their lives – even as they admitted to the daily anguish of being witness to his suffering and caring for his special needs.
The topic of abortion has been much in the media this week, and with every story and opinion piece I’ve read, my mind has gone back to those two couples – and to a time when my husband and I also received uncertain news in the form of results from a routine ultrasound.
And as I’ve mulled this subject over, I’ve found it sadly ironic that the Canadian Medical Association Journal notes it is “Canada’s deep-rooted respect for diversity” that is leading to ethically questionable choices about “the kinds of people we want as children and the kinds of people we feel should be born.”
Sixteen years ago, I was 35, and pregnant with our third child. Shortly after our routine ultrasound at 18-weeks, my doctor delivered the news that the sonogram had revealed choroid plexus cysts on our baby’s brain. He explained the possible connection with Trisomy 18 and Down Syndrome, and said that the only way to rule out any chromosome abnormality would be through amniocentesis.
I knew there was a higher risk of miscarriage associated with amniocentesis and so declined the test. My husband and I considered the child I carried as a gift from God, and we trusted that God would enable us to parent this little one well – no matter what the challenges – when the time came.
I won’t pretend we didn’t worry. The next 14 weeks of the pregnancy were emotionally and physically challenging; in addition to our concerns over the ultrasound’s findings, I also developed gestational diabetes, which necessitated injecting insulin several times a day. But my overwhelming recollection of that time is of being sustained by the belief that if God gave us a child with special needs, it was for a reason, and He would somehow enable us to meet those needs, whatever they might turn out to be.
The 32-week ultrasound revealed the cysts had disappeared. And we rejoiced.
Our healthy baby girl was born 8 weeks later. We named her Jenna.
I’ve seen many different meanings for her name, but the one I like best is “God’s grace.”
“Such things come from God and from Him alone, and … before Him there can only be subjection, perseverance, patience – and gratitude. So every question ‘Why?’ falls silent, because it has found its answer.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (writing in a letter to Hans von Dohnanyi, from Tegel prison, 1943
There have been seasons in my life when God has seemed very, very quiet. I have found such seasons difficult. Life feels dry, and faith plods. Spiritual disciplines become more about the discipline than the spiritual, a matter of going through the motions. The worst part of such periods is not knowing when they will end. Wondering if maybe this time – they won’t.
But there have also been times when I’ve seen God everywhere and in everything. Fool that I am – even such seasons as these are not without concern – for I find myself worrying that reveling in them too much might bring them to an end.
And then there are moments when God seems to intervene. Intervenes so obviously, so directly, it knocks the wind right out of me, leaving me breathless, gasping and on my knees, thankful for God’s mercy and grace.
Such was my experience today.
Our youngest, Jenna, was diagnosed with idiopathic adolescent scoliosis in the spring of 2010. Her first X-ray – in July of that year – revealed a curve of 19 degrees. Six months later, another X-ray indicated the curve had progressed to 25 degrees. At that point, our doctor referred her to the scoliosis specialists at Sick Kids hospital. It took until June, 2011 to get an appointment. By then, the X-rays revealed her curve had progressed to 35 degrees – but, they told us, Jenna had stopped growing so there was nothing that would be done.
Seeking another opinion, our doctor arranged for Jenna to be seen by the specialists at McMaster Children’s Hospital. They agreed with the conclusions of the doctors at Sick Kids, but arranged for Jenna to have an MRI to ensure there were no underlying medical conditions which might have caused the rapid progression of her curve. A follow-up appointment with a neurosurgeon assured us there were none – and the minor degeneration and bulging in a couple of her discs was no cause for serious concern, but the specialists said they would continue to track with Jenna for a while to ensure there was no further worsening of her condition.
Today was our first follow-up appointment. Jenna had another X-ray of her spine and then we went in to see the doctor.
“I have good news for you!” she said. “I’ve looked at this X-ray every which way and the only way I can read it is 23 degrees.”
My jaw dropped. Scoliosis doesn’t reverse itself. How was this possible?
“The only thing I can think of is that the June X-ray was wrong,” said the doctor. “We’ll bring Jenna back for one more appointment – six months from now – just to be sure this miracle is what it seems. If everything’s ok you won’t need to come again,” she concluded, offering me the Kleenex box.
We fairly floated out of the hospital. The curve labelled “moderate” in the fall is now considered “minor.”
It was only once Jenna and I were in the car that I told her that a dear friend of mine – named Jana (the woman for whom Jenna was named) had prayed for her this summer, in the wake of that 35-degree result. My friend is a woman of stronger faith than mine, and when she prayed that God would straighten out Jenna’s spine I remember thinking, “I love my friend and I’m grateful for her prayers, but I don’t think God works like that.”
I never mentioned Jana’s prayers to my daughter until today. “I didn’t think God worked like that,” I explained.
“Apparently, He does,” Jenna said.
Apparently, God does.
You can attribute this experience of ours today to a mistake or a miracle. I find I don’t need to give it a label. I don’t need to know “Why?”
I just need to give thanks.
“Entropy means that everything in the world is in a state of decline and decay …”
- Jane Fonda
My mirror tells me the truth of this universal law, every single day.
But when Jane Fonda spoke these words in a public talk recently, she went further. “There’s only one exception to this universal law,” she added, “and that is the human spirit, which can continue to evolve upwards, bringing us into wholeness, authenticity and wisdom.”
I liked that thought, because it speaks to my own desire to finish this life well, and it touches on my reasons for heading back to school.
And now, it’s official: I’m a student again. I had my orientation (last week), and attended my first class (last night). Both were – in a word – wonderful. Neither event proved to be anything out of the ordinary. It was just being able to participate in them that felt like such a gift.
I arrived at the orientation lunch a half-hour early. The enrollment counsellor – a young woman who helped me through the admission process and who, by now, feels like a friend – invited me to take a seat in the otherwise empty room. So I sat, stared at the blank PowerPoint screen while waiting for others to arrive and surprised myself when, alone in that empty room, my eyes spontaneously filled with tears. When a dream is a dream for a very long time, you run the risk of ceasing to believe that it is also, in fact, a goal that might actually be achievable. And when the dream starts to become real, well, it can all feel a bit surreal. Orientation day definitely held a sense of the surreal for me.
Last night, I drove to Hamilton early to avoid rush hour traffic. Before heading to class, I had dinner out with my mom. It was her treat, she said, a celebration. I loved our time together but found it hard to eat much, I was so filled with anticipation. Mom emailed me this morning. “I was trying to remember what your going back to university was like,” she wrote. “Then I remembered: it was like your first day at kindergarten.
“You were so excited. You had waited so long – watching all your friends toddle off. Because your birthday was in January you had to wait an extra year.”
She remembers that extra year of waiting for school to begin as being a hard one for me. “When your friends departed you were depressed. When you finally got to go to school, you were filled with happiness. You were beaming from ear to ear - while others clung to to the railing, or to their mother’s skirts.
“Mothers are funny creatures. Like a typical woman I felt slightly guilty because you were so happy and independent.”
She needn’t have worried. I wasn’t happy because of what I was walking from – but because of what I was walking towards. It was finally my turn to learn. And now – more than four decades later, after watching my two oldest head off to university, I find to my great joy that it’s my turn to learn once again.
My first course is titled, “Ethics and Character.” I purchased the required text books before Christmas and read them over the holidays. And the rich experience of learning has already begun.
There’s a verse in the Gospel of Matthew I’ve never liked very much. It’s found in chapter 5, verse 48, and quotes Jesus as saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“Oh, sure!” my inner cynic responds every time I read that verse. “Easy for you to say!”
But one of my text books, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus In Contemporary Context by Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee reveals it’s incorrect to assume Jesus is teaching “about idealistic moral perfection.” He’s not calling his followers to an impossible standard at all. The meaning that the word “perfect” is trying to convey is of being complete, whole, all-inclusive or all-embracing.
And those are things I can journey toward with gratitude and confidence.