Abortion, Adoption, Lent 5B, Personal History, Psalm 51, Sex, The Inner Landscape

Twenty Years Later

I was 30, married, the mom of two little boys, 14 months and almost 6. It was Christmas, and I had bronchitis, and the doctor prescribed antibiotics, and they made me sick to my stomach, but even after ten days had gone by, I still felt sick.

You’d think I would have known by then, after two children and two first trimester miscarriages in between.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1, NRSV)

You’d think.

But it didn’t seem real, quite, until yet another week went by and I still felt nauseated.

This is the year it’s been twenty years since then, and in some ways it feels like it all never happened, and in others it feels like five minutes ago.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Ps 51:2-3)

I was a funny bird in those days. I had lived a very clean, straight life. Really, I was a professional good girl. I put being good ahead of most everything else. I had two or three college stories about drinking a little too much, had only smelled pot from a distance and had absolutely no sexual history outside of marriage, which believe me was unusual for someone who graduated from college in 1982, all of it, even among “nice” and “Christian” young people.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. (Ps 51:4)

I worked hard at being good to compensate for feeling I was bad in every way.

It’s possible we can blame Calvinism for this, or Southern Baptists, or Southern culture and its emphasis on feminine purity, or my mom, or just my innate personality. I’m not sure where the fault actually lies; I only know I was conditioned or wired to take the responsibility on myself, whatever befell.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Ps 51:5)

Ah, well there’s the key, perhaps. I had two mothers, the one who conceived me, and the one who raised me, and that’s where it gets complicated, which is to say, right from the beginning. Because the mother who raised me never seemed to be able to forgive me for coming from somewhere else, from someone else, from a mysterious past that could not be controlled or known. I went into my teenage years terrified of repeating what my birth mother had done, even though I had no idea of her circumstances, the underlying understanding being that if she couldn’t keep me she must have been some kind of a slut, and that wasn’t what I was going to be, even if and maybe especially because the mother who raised me was so afraid I would.

I realize this is a charged word, especially now, but it is the word I had in my mind then, and it shows the kind of world in which I lived, full of judgment of women and their sexual behavior in particular. It’s different in my mind now, but the world hasn’t changed as much as one might hope.

I was determined to overcome that expectation. I had to overcome it. It seemed like the only chance I had to live the life my mother taught me I ought to want: to achieve the successful marriage, which was the only validation any woman needed to have.

(Brutal. It was brutal. I hope no one taught you these lessons. I do everything I can to teach my daughter something different.)

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Ps 51:6)

I was in high school and started college in the 1970s. Young people were having sex, lots of it, in those days before we knew about AIDS, and girls were getting pregnant. Nice girls, Christian girls, all sorts of young women were having sex and getting pregnant. In my neighborhood outside Williamsburg, Virginia, we whispered about the family that paid for three abortions in the same year: one for their daughter and two for girls their son had gotten pregnant. I took the unsurprising attitude for an adoptee that this had to be a bad thing. After all, would I even be here if abortion had been so readily available in the year I was born?

I took that attitude, but when my friend, S, needed a ride to the clinic in college, I took her. She was afraid a pregnancy would crush her parents, who were already having a tough year because her father had been laid off.

And when my friend, P, who was if anything a good-er good girl than I, more pious — she even became a charismatic at college!! — when she told me about her multiple abortions, which she had because she never planned to have sex and therefore never had protection available, she told me her mother said to think of it as making a blood sacrifice.

Some mothers will tell us anything to get the story to turn out the way they want it.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps 51:6-7)

Wash me clean.

Well, if you don’t get dirty, you won’t need to be washed clean. That seemed to make more sense. If I could only be good enough, truly good, more good than P or S or the family down the street in the upscale suburb, no one would have to talk me into anything.

But in 1992, no matter how good a wife and mother I tried to be, nothing about the pregnancy felt real to me, except that something felt wrong. We couldn’t figure out when the baby was conceived; the predicted due date was a shock. Then prenatal tests pointed to a problem and more tests confirmed a genetic abnormality. I didn’t expect to be talking to my trusted doctor and hearing him say I had a choice about whether to carry to term.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Ps 51:8-9)

I believe we made the best choice at the time. That does not mean I felt good about it, or that I regarded the life lost casually, as some people think women who terminate pregnancies must.

Most everyone close to me (parents, in-laws, spouse) felt ready to move on, relieved that the procedure was safe and legal, that it could take place in a fine hospital in my own city, that I received high-quality medical care.

Oh, it pleased my mother!  (I believe she feared her impaired grandchild would survive. This, too, was brutal.)

Meanwhile, my milk came in.

I grieved. 

I felt guilty, though I did not regret the decision, and I wondered, unsurprisingly, why this terrible choice had to be part of my life, why God’s eye had been off the ball when I was clearly such a good, good, good girl and such an unlikely candidate for an abortion.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
(Ps 51:10-11)

When you’re hoping to go to seminary, and you end up in the hospital to have a pregnancy terminated on Good Friday, it’s a dark place to be.

For me, it remained dark for a long time. I felt cast away from God’s presence, and I hated that. Later I was angry. My pastor assured me that God was big enough to handle my anger, but that made me madder! Surely there had to be a better way for God to run things than to let misery occur and then be receptive to our anger?!?!!

I concluded, eventually (and this is good news for everyone to whom I ever have or ever will be a pastor), that sometimes bad things happen and those bad things are not a judgment on the people who suffer them. And where God is at those moments remains a mystery, although I will say that when I have been at my lowest, God has reliably provided the help that I needed to get from one day to the next until I could do it by myself again.

In 1992, that help took the form of an older friend whose own history contained abortions she didn’t really want to have. She sympathized with the complex nature of my situation, and instead of trying to redirect me to the relief felt by my family, she said, “Why don’t you pray Psalm 51?”

I remember reading it for the first time — well, it probably wasn’t the first time ever, but it felt new — and thinking, “This is not me! I didn’t do anything wrong!” Holding that thought was making it possible to get up and get my boys ready for the day. Holding that thought was crucial.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Ps 51:12)

I kept going, barely, but I was still bone-crushingly sad. It really didn’t get better until I was able to hold both the relief and the sorrow together, to know in my marrow that I could feel both at the same time. Then I began to feel restored.

God did not do this thing to me. God did not condemn me for making the best choice I could knowing what I knew then, and although my life has been personally complicated and not even close to what my mother would have deemed successful, I do not feel punished by God.

And I am grateful for and to the friend who knew, from her own hard experiences, how much a psalm could mean, those old words forming a ritual expression intended to bring us back into relationship with the God we blame when the fault is really in the frailty of humankind, in our complicated bodies that don’t always work perfectly, and in our striving minds that don’t always reach the right conclusions, and in our broken and breaking hearts that don’t always give the love we want to receive.

I continue to struggle with taking the blame for, well, almost everything, but twenty years later, I don’t feel I was at fault for what happened in my life that winter and spring, and I willingly take responsibility for the choice I made, and although I still feel sad about it most every Lent, I do not regret it.

And if there are parts of the story for which I needed to be forgiven, rest assured, it has all been asked and answered, long ago.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Adoption, Family History, Genesis 17:1-7 and 15-16, Lent 2B

Suppose God Named You

I’m not sure why God felt the need to give new names to Abram and Sarai. I sometimes wonder if it’s just that there were two sets of stories about them, with two sets of names, and someone clever made the difference in names a shift in names instead, and connected that difference to the change in circumstances that led to a new reality for Abraham and Sarah.

God remade their future. So I suppose it’s possible God named them for it.

This doesn’t begin to answer the question “What’s my excuse?” It’s almost comical how many names I’ve had. Marriage and divorce and return to my maiden name. Lather, rinse, repeat. But even before I had that “maiden” name, I had another one, the name given to me by my birth mother.

Martha is … Martha. Plain. Simple. Maybe she bakes, or is a competent needlewoman. You trust her with the silver, or to make sure the children stay out of trouble.

Surely she is neither dashing nor intriguing.

Read about her. Amazing.

Or she’s awful. I just read an article saying pastors shouldn’t make out-of-date cultural references, but honestly, growing up when and where I did, I couldn’t help hearing stories about Martha Mitchell, a “political prisoner” of Watergate. That voice, that hair, that name…yes, I was a Washingtonian political child, if not prisoner, and I hated sharing her name.


She was a Republican, to boot.

This isn’t really about me, of course, although it’s certainly true that in childhood I found my name dull. Someone once thought my name was Nancy, and that was probably the only time I preferred Martha over every other possibility in the world. Not that there’s anything wrong with being called Nancy. (Please, no letters to the author.) It’s just that every now and then I identify with my name, and that’s a relief.

But other times I wonder what it would have been like to go through life with a different name. This is probably the fantasy of most adopted children. What was my “real” name? Who gave it to me? What were those people like?

I’ve written about this before, I think. The name on my first birth certificate is Elizabeth, and in a strange set of coincidences, my adoptive mother was a former social worker and had been friends with the social worker named Elizabeth for whom my birth mother named me.

Tasha Tudor’s take on Martha (l.), The Secret Garden

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to go through life as Elizabeth instead of Martha. They’re both Biblical names, and both those ancient gals had important proclamations to make.

They’re both names you might hear in a British novel, although Martha is surely more likely to be the housemaid than the lady of the manor.

Elizabeth, Lizzie, Libby, Betsy, Beth — they all sound pretty, don’t they? Elizabeth is one of those women who can manage anything. Lizzie is fun and funny, with a wit that sometimes makes you want to take a step back. Libby attracts attention whenever she walks down the street. Betsy wears a ponytail and climbs trees. Beth is kind and quiet and plays the piano sweetly, and everyone who takes the trouble to listen loves her.

Some of those impressions come from literature, and some from the memories of girls I knew growing up. Some of them come from the fun of a name that has so many possibilities. (Eliza, Liz, Libba, I could keep going…)

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be one of those girls.

I can flirt sarcastically like Elizabeth Bennet (and on those Jane Austen quizzes, I always come out as Lizzie), and I have moments of being as sweet as Beth March, sometimes, and I used to climb trees just like Betsy Ray.

But that’s not me.

I’m Martha.

That’s the name I was given, a family name, the middle name of a treasured grandmother who was a political and religious leader in my hometown.

And it affiliates me with the woman — hear that! the woman!!! — who made the Christological confession in John’s gospel, the woman who said out loud who Jesus really was.

It affiliates me, too, with her bluntness and bossiness and short temper. (See Luke’s version.)

That’s okay.

Suppose God named me?

Maybe it wasn’t family heritage that mattered, really.

Maybe that’s the name I needed to be fierce and fabulous for Jesus.

Suppose God named you?

(It’s a bit of a walk around the block, but I did start somewhere in the neighborhood of Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.)



Growing up, I had a pretty clear idea of what it meant to be an orphan. You were a child, and your parents were dead. I'm not sure I differentiated between biological and adoptive parents. Certainly, had  something happened to my Mother and Daddy, I would have considered myself orphaned, despite the fact I occasionally day-dreamed about the other mother, the one who met up with me one block over, wearing a trench coat, just like a spy.

A great episode of This American Life from 2007, "Missing Parents Bureau," explored the attraction children feel to the idea of being an orphan. This may have been reinforced by the popularity of the musical, "Annie," or for the young boy actors in my house, by the appearance of one of them in "Oliver." Oliver lives in the workhouse because his mother is dead. That's clear. But Annie is a different kind of orphan, the kind dropped off by her parents, who never return.

An orphan is a child "deprived by death of one or usually both parents," according to Merriam-Webster.

Arrogant white people An orphan is not a child whose parents are still living, swindled out of their child by some "well-meaning" white Southern Baptist from Idaho. An orphan is not a child whose parents are still living.

It's easier to say orphan than some of the other words we might use, because it sounds pitiful and charming and even picturesque. And it disentangles a child from ties to adults, from heritage and habit, from possession by another.

It frees a child up to be what children are in the worst adoption stories, a commodity.

If families in Haiti need help, for Christ's sake, help the families stay together. Don't steal their children. Don't tear apart their families. Don't treat them like rescue dogs being moved north after Katrina.

For Christ's sake. In Christ's name. What right do we have to march in and claim to be rescuing children from their own parents, simply because there has been a natural disaster? 

Bentrott family  Sometimes an orphan is a child whose parents have surrendered him or her, because it seemed like the best thing to do. If those parents understand what's happening, if they consent to relinquish their children, God bless everyone involved. It's hard. It's hard whether you're an American college girl letting your baby go to a professional man and his wife or a poor woman entrusting your child to an established religious agency. I'm reading the continuing story of the Bentrotts, now in this country with the Haitian children placed with them after a long process–no cowboy adoption! As angry as I am about the Idaho Southern Baptists, I am glad to know there are Americans working for and with people in Haiti, who love people in Haiti, who are suffering over their (temporary?) absence from the country and people they want to serve, still. 

For Christ's sake. In Christ's name.