Labor Pains:Coming Out & Universal Stories

I’ve been thinking about how we tell stories. Or at least how I tell stories in a social media world. People on the other side of the coming out process have a tendency to rush quickly to hope, and to speak in platitudes like “It Gets Better.” We have a tendency to paint our rose colored lives and put them on display.

“Look, here we are. We’re here. We’re queer. We have lots of family and friends.”
“Look, here we are with our queer partners at Whole Foods buying the perfect fair trade, ethically sourced queer beer for a holiday party.”
“Look, here we are dressing our dogs in sweaters for the queer family Christmas photo that will go out in our new queer family newsletter.”

In my own life, I do a lot of this as an exercise in gratitude. Hope was hard won for me. And I will never forget that. I am so grateful for my life now. I am so grateful for the woman I love. For the life that we have together, for every day that we’re given. I never want to take this for granted. I want those that are in a bad place to know that there is also a really good place. No two journeys are the same. No two roads to get to the good place are the same. Sometimes showing people your destination inspires them to keep traveling down their road.

But sometimes when people are lost and lonely with no end destination in sight, they need to have an acknowledgement of their lostness, and their loneliness. Sometimes the rush to hope feels superficial and glib. So if you’re on the other side of your coming out process and you’re feeling fabulous, congratulations! High Five. Blessings. Happy holidays. Mistletoe. Egg Nog. Jesus and Joseph and Mary, I’m so happy for you. Also, this post isn’t really for you. For people who are lost. Welcome to the party. Grab a seat. Sit down and settle in. I want to tell you a few seemingly unrelated but connected stories–even as you are in the midst of writing your own life’s story.

Romans 8:18-30
Present Suffering and Future Glory

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit herself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And She who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God, who[i] have been called according to God’s purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

In the book of Romans chapter 8, Paul speaks to change. Both change on a micro level/human/internal level and change on a macro level/systems/world—all creation level. Everything is is striving, growing, laboring toward something utterly and profoundly beautiful. And the analogy that Paul uses is child birth.

Romans 8 is not usually invoked during the Advent season. There’s a good reason for this.  Contextually this passage is not part of the larger birth narrative, and truth be told, it has absolutely nothing to do with Advent & Christmas. Systematic theologians and scholars, I give you permission to stop reading and part ways with me here if you need to do so.

Metaphorically and poetically this passage has everything to do with a world in motion. It has everything to do with clinging to the certainty of God’s love for us. For the whole world. It has everything to do with God standing in solidarity with us, for us, holding all things together. It has everything to do with the intersecting space where past and present converge and point us toward our future hope. In this broad way, the threads connect. And I believe they hold.

These themes can also be found echoed in Advent. As we lean into Advent, I often read Mary’s prayer in Luke 1— I find that prayer emboldening, powerful, and courageous,  but I also find my own prayers anemic and flimsy and futile in response. It’s comforting for me to read the Christian narrative out of sequence sometimes. It’s comforting to break the rules, to skip around in the story, to know that the story holds me even when I can’t hold my place in the story. It’s comforting to find my way over here to Romans 8 and to ponder the possibility of a Spirit Interceding for me when I don’t even know what to pray for myself.  Holding me when I feel so thoroughly lost. Revealing to me that there is a larger story within the story.  Showing me not just a singular woman in labor, or a story about a family, but a cosmic macro level story unfolding in front of me.  Is it ok to do this? Can I skip pages, mix metaphors, connect threads and find meaning that ties together different Biblical stories. Well, I just did it. So apparently I can.

As we focus in on Mary’s pregnancy, this passage in Romans points to a whole world that is feeling the brunt of labor pains. A whole world is groaning on the road to growth and expansion toward something altogether beautiful and new. A future is foretold. God’s love for us is certain. Promised. Claimed. God is for us. With us. In solidarity. It’s echoed in the Christmas story.  It’s echoed and revealed here.

Advent is about waiting. Advent is about expectation. Advent is about pregnancy and toil and labor. Advent is the sacred passage that comes before the sacred birth. And passing through suffering is often part of that journey. In the birth narratives we get small glimpses of Mary and Joseph’s journey–their journey toward God and each other, toward their own destiny as characters in a story that will change the world. A story that would outlive them for its truth and beauty. A story that will surely outlive all of us.

This passage in Romans 8 draws back and offers a macro view of all of creation being liberated from bondage and brought into freedom. This promise is set into motion in new ways by these birth stories of Jesus.

Mary has the penultimate birth narrative. She has birthed the Christ-child. And nothing will ever hold a candle to this story or rival it in human history. It is a central mystery in our tradition.  And she survived her suffering to claim her unique place in history as the mother of God. Here is what I know about suffering and surviving. When you come into contact with the razor thin margins between life and death, when you stare down death—you will forever look at life differently. Your life. Other people’s lives. You will become acutely aware that you are alive in a way that you previously weren’t aware.  This newfound sense of presence is a grace. It’s a gift.

If childbirth is at the heart of the Christmas, then the deepest, thriving, thumping bleeding part of the  heart– is the beating heart of the Christ child himself. We are reminded in Sunday school that by way of mystery and spiritual metaphysics, Jesus somehow indwells and incarnates our own hearts too. We are brothers and sisters to Christ. We are kin. If not by blood relations, then by adoption, and by spirit. We are kin to Mary and Joseph too. We are all connected. The big human family.

And we too birth sacred things in our own lives. Birth is a trustworthy analogy for major life change. Major life transition. For queer folks, the coming out process brings the death of an old self, and the invitation to live into a new self.  We birth something new. As a Rev,  I’ve never endured the physical labor of child birth, but I have come out and endured the labors of that process.  Furthermore, I have been on the business end of other people’s physical birthing experiences.  I’ve been in the Labor & Delivery room playing spiritual midwife and catching feelings and holding sacred moments. I’ve seen the physical birthing process up close and personal several times. I’ve seen people traverse thin spaces between life and death. I’ve seen it close enough to declare unequivocally that women who endure the physical birthing process are heroes. I’ve seen it close enough to declare that I will never intentionally subject my own body to such an arduous process.

I’ve seen women splayed naked in a room as professionals dart in and out with no regard to the fact that they are bearing witness to sacred space. If you see something often enough I guess there is a tendency to become numb to its mysteries. I’ve seen professionals behave more clinically than humanely without contemplating the fact that these women are physically, emotionally, and spiritually laid bare.  I’ve seen women feeling the height of everything— fear, pain, ecstasy, hope, joy and exhaustion as they are surrounded in a room by close family members holding sacred space.  I’ve seen women in more physical pain than they’ve ever known in their life at the same time as they are paradoxically experiencing more joy than they’ve ever known in their life. I’ve never had the gumption to ask a woman in the full throes of labor if she would choose to get pregnant all over again, because I’m not an idiot. I’m sure I wouldn’t survive asking a woman in labor such a question. Sex is often sexy and we sometimes feel unspeakable pleasure which is why we’re prone to groan or scream. The labor process isn’t sexy. Women in labor also feel unspeakable things (mostly the pain of the process) which is why they pant, and groan, and scream. Pain comes before joy comes.

Here’s the thing. For all our modern hospitals, and modern medicine, and 21st century innovations, childbirth is still a huge risk. It’s dangerous. You subject your body to a wild ride of transformation, growth, and expansion over a 9 month period. It expands and contracts. It’s possible that you will put your own life at risk to usher in  new life. Your body can’t unknow, undo, or unexperience the birthing process. Your body becomes something new in light of this process and forever you will bear the stretch marks and maybe also the scars. This is what it costs to bring beautiful new life into the world.

As we strive to “self-actualize” or to become “new creations”—to grow into the person God made us to be—we die to our selves—false selves—to uncover or recover our true selves. Like childbirth, the process to recover our true selves is risky business. There are no guarantees of what you’ll experience along this road. What you’ll lose. What you’ll gain. What you will suffer. The way your body will shift and grow and change. There is no shortcut or easy road through this.  Sometimes the gestation period goes smoothly. And sometimes the gestation and subsequent labor nearly kill us. That’s not hyperbole.  Ask anyone who has ever been rushed into an emergency C-section to recap their experience of “before” and “after” the process.  The aftermath of the process (if it goes well) is hallmark cards and facebook posts, and people in the waiting room embracing you and kissing your new baby. The before part is a series of intimate questions–Will I survive this? Will my baby  survive this? Will we survive this together?

I was recently talking to a friend about another sacred story–another ancient myth. The myth of Pandora, and she reminded me how the story ends. Somewhere along the way, I had lost the plot. I remembered this story as a Greek tragedy.  It isn’t. I had remembered that Pandora had opened her box and all hell broke loose. I had remembered that all manner of suffering and pain came flying out of that damn box.  And I remarked to her that the initial stages of coming out are like this. Upon unleashing death and destruction, Pandora was devastated by her initial curiosity. She regretted opening the box. I remembered the part of the story in which she sat helpless as she cried with despair at her decision to open the box and follow it all the way down where it led. In our pop culture renderings of this story, that’s often where the story ends. It ends as a cautionary tale.

My friend reminded me that my memory was faulty. Here’s how this myth really ends. As she sat there tending to her despair, the last thing to fly out of Pandora’s box was hope. In fact, at the end of all things, hope was really the only thing left in Pandora’s box. After suffering, hope was unleashed and released to the world. And beauty too. Hope and beauty sat at the bottom of Pandora’s box.  Let me repeat this. It deserves repeating. The only things left in Pandora’s box after suffering and destruction were hope and beauty. Clearing the contents of  suffering and pain became absolutely necessary in order to clear space for beauty and hope to be released. Suffering paved the way for hope to be released into the world.

What does this have to do with Jesus and the Christmas story? Absolutely nothing. And also, absolutely everything.  Whether you are exclusively Christian, pluralistic in your religious affections, or a-religious, the moral of these stories across traditions is that all roads lead us back to hope. This is the truth. The penultimate truth. This is a truth that echos and reverberates throughout world traditions using so many different ancient narratives to focus us.

For those who are Christian, we are a peculiar people, we cling to an unseen hope in the most hopeless of circumstances. We are a tenacious people. We fight for hope. We pray for hope. We contend with suffering. We wait with baited breath for hope even when it’s counterintuitive for us to do so. We risk and wager everything we have on the paradox of hope as our first promise and our last word. Hope hangs pregnant in the air this time of year, and really hope is there quietly at work behind the scenes all year. But this part of the year we see the baby bump forming–and we know the baby is coming. The Christ child. We mark our calendars with the birthdate, and we await the birth with baited breath. The world unleashes chaos, we still await this birth. Our own lives unleash chaos, we still await this birth. We follow in the footsteps of a sacred journey that we’ve followed a thousand times before. We follow it all the way down into the heart of the story. We await the incarnation of our world. Of ourselves. That Christ came to dwell in our world. In us. The Christ child makes us kin to God by Spirit. The Christ child makes us kin to each other by Spirit.

In the face of birth, I find myself filled with hope. Whether the labor process was hard and hope was hard won. Whether the labor process was easy and hope came easily too. At the end of the day all roads lead to hope. Even when we can’t see it. Even when we’re sidelined by obstacles. Even when hope seems to speak another language or enter as a foreign story or a foreign tradition. Even when our stories take place out of sequence. All roads lead to hope.

For those of you who have had the curiosity to open Pandora’s box and peek further into some aspect of your life–to follow it all the way down—whether you are losing faith, finding faith, whether your life is falling apart or coming together–there’s something in the air this time of year. The world is birthing something new. You are birthing something new.  For those of you who are pregnant and bearing the brunt of labor pains right now–what sits on the other side of all this is new life.  As you groan in expectation, as you long for transformation—no matter how painful or perilous your journey is, after all the contents of Pandora’s box have been released, the only thing left in your box is hope. No matter how harrowing or hard or frightening the road to Bethlehem was–Christmas morning comes to us every year. Sacred. Raw. Powerful. Transformative. For you. For all of us. Together we find our way home.

There are ancient sacred stories here to guide us. You have the mother of God as your guide. And the Christ child too. And also the stars. And also so many other ancient stories which echo this paradox. There are pilgrim travelers on a journey across all the earth, across all traditions.  After all, the magi weren’t Christian travelers. They were just travelers. They were seekers and stumblers and pilgrims besotted by the magic and mystery of the stars. Practitioners of astrology and likely Zoroastrians. They were practitioners of a foreign faith. They spoke a foreign language. But hope came as revelation. Hope painted itself across the sky and revealed itself in the stars. And they were wise enough to trust the revelation. They kept company with twilight and let stars guide them on the lonely road to Bethlehem. Standing in a foreign home at the foot of a manger. At the scene of incarnation. They followed the breadcrumbs of poetry and  prophecy. They clung to snippets of stories foretold,  and people who would companion them along the way and reveal clues, point them in the right direction. They opened pandora’s box and they trusted their gut to follow it all the way down. It lead them to a place where they would bear witness to word becoming flesh. To  hope meeting bone.   You may feel lonely, but you are never traveling alone. Together we’ll link arms. Together we’ll all find our way home. All roads lead to hope. It’s written in the stars. It’s foretold. It’s etched upon the human heart. It’s echoed throughout the world in foreign languages and foreign stories and familiar ones too.

I’ll hope for you. I’ll hope with you.  And next year, I’ll await your queer holiday card with your new queer life. I’ll await your queer family newsletter telling the story of the lonely road you traveled and your unique journey to find your way home. All roads lead to hope. Your road leads to hope too.

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