Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Infertility and Miscarriage

Being confronted with various forms of infertility is a struggle that was recently brought to everyone’s attention as a secondary subject during some interesting blog debates about Birth Control. While the issue du jour appears to have cooled somewhat, those of us who live with infertility have continued to talk privately about our experiences. This is a constructive online discussion because many of us have difficulty expressing ourselves face to face about such a heart-wrenching and difficult matter. Here is a consolidation of the parts of my personal story that I have already shared with others:

Many of you now know that my wife and I carry this cross. In our first two years of marriage, we have seen many miscarriages. Many of these occurred after several months of desperately trying to hold on to the child, but ended in weeks of physically debilitating agony. Each miscarriage takes my wife one step closer to the threat of total sterility.

I have seen pictures of my children knowing that I will never meet them in this life. I have sat in ICU wards and desperately listened for heartbeats that no longer can be heard. I have seen the look on my wife’s face every time she gets a chance to be around someone else’s kid. I have to prayerfully fight the rage and envy that overcomes me whenever I come across someone who treats their child like an unwanted obligation or secondary concern. Children are a gift that not everyone receives. The opportunity to have children is an equally precious gift.

Miscarriage is a different kind of loss. Those of us who struggle with it have a heavier burden than even those who cannot conceive. There are the medical struggles of failed pregnancy and the funerary feelings that come with losing a child. These are added to the daunting difficulties that face all infertile couples. For me, this is a second generation of fertility issues for my family. I am adopted because my mother is sterile. My wife’s family has been struck hard by these problems as well. It seems that children do not come easily to this family. That is what makes them so precious.

For my wife and I this may be a doubly hard burden, but it is not too much. What I have shared so far sounds pretty bleak, but it is only part of the story. It is important for us to see the whole picture.

In the face of this suffering, our faith in Christ and our love for each other is as strong as it has ever been. We have a mutual dedication and resilience most couples never experience. After all that we have experienced and worked through during our marriage so far, what is there to shake us apart? What is there to face? We know that God will lead us through those problems just like He has through this one. It is very easy to walk off of the narrow path in times like this. It is easy to be tempted to embrace doubt, be crushed by grief, or fall into error. It is easy to be overwhelmed.

But God is faithful and good to us. We do not feel neglected or unduly punished by Him. We hold fast to the promises of Scripture when Paul writes:

"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." 1 Cor 10:12-13

The great witnesses who have gone before us (and experienced these same trials and temptations) have set the example of living through suffering. We can look to Job's patience and faithful resilience in the face of tragedy; Gideon's leadership and courage in the face of great physical danger and risk; St. Paul's dedication to the truth through affliction and imprisonment; St. Stephen's humility and forgiveness as the stones flew toward him. What a powerful testimony in times like this! Our struggles seem to pale in comparison, but we draw our strength from the same source: the life changing power of a living faith in Christ Jesus. In the Son, God has provided "the way of escape" from all temptation. We partake of that mercy every time we receive the Means of Grace through the Word and His sacraments. With such gifts, we can endure any burden.

Those who struggle with suffering should read the historical accounts of the proud saints of the early church who were put to death by Rome on account of Christ. We have much to learn from those who glorify God amid such agony and wear such burdens as badges of honor. They embraced all suffering as participation in the suffering of Christ [Mark 8:34-35]. Is not all torment and temptation really the weapon of our enemy? For a Christian, is not all suffering a tempering fire that shapes us and refines our faith?

Seeing the faithful witness of the saints and martyrs, we do not need to wait to see how we will be blessed by this experience at some future date. Sure future blessings await us all, but not all of the gifts of God are delayed ones. We always want to comfort people by saying that blessings come in God's timing. The truth is that God's timing is always now. God's nature is one of constant blessing. Sure it is nice to know when there will be light at the end of the tunnel, but don't forget that there is also light right here in the tunnel. Like all of God's people, we are blessed today: amid the darkness; during the suffering [Psalm 23:4-6]. All death directs our attention to eternal life. All loss reveals what we should truly value. I consider those lessons priceless heavenly treasures. Suffering shows us how truly blessed man is at all times.

By faith, Christians can praise God in foresight, not just hindsight. We can walk by faith in the moment because God is with us with His rod and staff as comfort. God has blessed us before this suffering, He blesses us now in this suffering, and He promises that He will continue to bless us long after the suffering has passed away. With an eternity of bliss ahead, when the passing of any one suffering will occur becomes irrelevant. For Reformation Sunday, we sang (along with the rest of the synod for sure) "A Mighty Fortress". I have always considered it a powerful Spiritual Warfare hymn, but it has taken on new meaning for me. As we sang it, what I can only call a direct reference to Job in the last several lines of the fourth verse jumped out at me:

The Word they still shall let remain
Nor any thanks have for it;
He's by our side upon the plain
With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child and wife,
Let these all be gone,
They yet have nothing won;
The Kingdom our remaineth.

Try as the devil may to shake this family, He is already doomed to fail. His persecutions achieve nothing. The things that he can take away do not touch my faith. They are just the temporal blessings, and not the eternal ones. He may scowl and rage and take my children from me in this life, but I will see them eventually despite his efforts. The devil may attempt to divide us and take our loved ones away, but what does that achieve? He cannot divide the body of Christ. Eventually, we will all join the Church Triumphant in the heaven. More importantly, these attempts by Satan to wrestle me out of God's grasp will not succeed. The Word stands on my side and His Kingdom remains. Christ shall triumph on my behalf. Even in times like this, we are not defeated.

The day of our first miscarriage, I left my wife at the hospital after she was admitted into surgery and drove straight to the church. I was enraged and crying inconsolably. Even now, more than a year later, my eyes still get red with tears when I think about it. The doors were unlocked but the members of the church staff were in other parts of the building. To be honest, I didn't want to talk to people anyway. I staggered up the isle and knelt at the rail and prayed as best I could. I don't have to tell you what that prayer was like because I am sure that you can imagine. It was filled with all of my why demands and my doubts. It was filled with pleading and complaining and petitions to convince God to start doing things the way I thought they should be done in this one situation... just this one situation. I cried and blubbered all over that communion rail. It was not my most dignified moment.

When I ran out of things to say, I found myself in one of those uncomfortable pauses and listened to the silence. I happened to look up and my eyes met the gold and silver crucifix on the alter where the Lord's Supper is prepared for me every week.

The irony of where I was kneeling hit me like a ton of bricks and it silenced all of the bargaining, pity, and doubt. As I looked at the broken body of my Savior hanging there, it dawned on me that I was praying to a God who knew just a little bit about losing a child. For whom did His Son hang there on that cross? Me. The Father willingly sent His Son to die for me and cleanse my transgressions. I was given an unending fountain of blessing and that was not enough for me? This sinful beggar had returned to the alter of blessing to complain and vent about a situation that carries no eternal consequence. How did that make any sense at all?

I suddenly felt like a self-centered jerk. I got up from the rail and knelt at the alter with a spirit that had been totally prostrated by how blessed I truly was. In the gravity of the situation, I had lost my heavenly perspective. By comparison, was I really suffering at all? No. Who was I to teach God about sacrifice and torment? Looking at God's plan of salvation that had existed from eternity, who was I to doubt God's will or timing?

I had cracked under pressure, but the Holy Spirit jerked me back to the cross where I belong. "Thy will be done," I declared. I got up and left. My suffering was in no way minimized. The situation was still just as fresh, but now the promises of God's goodness and mercy were so amplified that it drowned everything else out. I mourned every miscarriage after that, but with a grateful heart that holds fast to God's promises [Rom 8:28].

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