Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Father's Birth Story

Usually it's the mothers who tell the birth stories.  This is one of mine.

Ninteen years ago today was a sunny, snowy, cold January day.  Ellen and I were awaiting the Next Big Event in our life: the birth of our next child.  It was, especially for our culture, a "late pregnancy" - Ellen was just a month shy of her 42nd birthday.  Ellen had been experiencing - something - from the evening before, but it never settled into a pattern that resembled her earlier labors, so we didn't call the midwife.  However, as the day progressed, it became clear that things were indeed happening, so we called our friends who were to assist at the birth, and I prepped the requisite materials, as I'd done for our three prior home births.

We called the midwife twice - once earlier in the day just to give her warning that something was probably imminent, and again in the early afternoon.  Ellen's contractions weren't settling down into a pattern, so she didn't want to sound a false alarm.  But after talking to Ellen the second time, the midwife told us she was on her way.  But by then it was midafternoon, and the midwife was driving from a neighboring county over country roads thick with schoolbuses, so her trip took longer than she expected.

As it turned out, it was too long - at least for Kelson's purposes.  Perhaps the knowledge that the midwife was coming gave Ellen "permission" to get on with labor - we'll never know - but shortly after hearing that she was on her way, Ellen's labor progressed rapidly.  She went through a very quick and mild transition, and before we knew it was struggling against the urge to push.  The midwife hadn't yet arrived, and our friends were rather alarmed, but Ellen and I had both been through three home births and knew that if the baby was coming quickly, the odds were that it was a problem-free delivery (most delivery problems are related to overly long, not overly swift, labors.)  So when, after panting through one serious contraction, Ellen gasped, "baby's coming!", I was much less alarmed than the assistants.  I gave them orders about what they should have ready while I got Ellen into position for delivery.  Suddenly a little head was not just crowning, but emerging.  I'd seen it before, but this one looked different.  I realized that I was seeing that very rare occurrence: a baby born under a caul.  Because this birth had been too swift for interventions of any kind, even rupturing the amniotic sac, Kelson came out wrapped in his.  There was no problem - it was the work of a moment to sweep it aside and welcome him out.  He opened his eyes and started breathing without any trouble.  As with all of our births, there was no howling or crying.  Our friends swept in to wipe him clean and wrap  him in a warm blanket, then Ellen took him in her arms.

About 15 minutes later the midwife arrived.  She gave mama and baby a look-over and affirmed what we knew: everyone was all right.  We had the siblings in to see their new brother, and Ellen at last got her wish: having a "party" after the birth.  Not a real party, of course, but welcoming visitors and celebrating the new arrival.  All our prior births had been in the night or early morning, and everyone had assumed Ellen wanted to go right to sleep after the rigors of labor, but she insisted that she was so "up" from the experience that her real desire was to have lots of friends around to celebrate. (She slept a lot in the weeks that followed.)

Now, nineteen years later, that hasty baby who couldn't wait to show up is getting ready to embark on the next major phase of his life.  He's done well and made us proud in so many ways, and he's making us even prouder - not just because he's going into the service, but because he's continuing to take responsibility for his own life, make his own decisions, and accept the burden of maturity with grace and dignity.  In this he's following the superb example of his elder siblings, but it's not just out of imitation of them.  Sure he's building on their example, but he's also doing things his way in a manner that honors God, respects his family, and is true to his own vocation as a man.  We're proud of all our children, but on this, his birthday, I wanted to specially honor him.

God bless you, Kelson Reuel Thomas.  May His grace follow you every step of your life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A life worth staying in

I don't often quote “experts”, particularly medical experts.  This isn't because of disdain for medicine per se, but rather out of suspicion of those who pretend that expertise (or advanced education) in one field makes them automatic experts beyond that field.  Thus when some MD weighs in attempting to provide a medical answer to a moral problem, or a psychological solution to a spiritual struggle, I take their statements with large helpings of salt.

But once in a while one of these experts comes up with a statement that's spot on, even if it's strictly outside his area of training.  Such was this column by Dr. Keith Ablow of the Fox News Medical A-Team (whatever that is.)  As a doctor, Dr. Ablow does a good job of explaining some recent statistics published by the CDC and unpacking their implications.  But as a man, he goes further and discusses the dire significance of these developments, painting a somber picture of our culture.  He's not scaremongering or doomsaying, but he is gravely concerned about what it means when “A significant portion of our population wants to not be present for significant portions of every single week.”  He sees what so many of us have been ringing the alarm bell about for some time: that a culture whose members want to regularly check out is a culture in trouble.  As he puts it, “The fact that we are doing this as a culture is the single most ominous psychological trend we have ever faced. I am not exaggerating.”  For the sake of those of us who (fortunately) have never had to deal with chronic drunkenness up close, he goes on to detail just how it saps the will and guts the character of those who do it, with dire consequences for individuals, families, and society.

The best prescription Dr. Ablow can offer is “decisiveness” - that people should just choose well and “be present” for the critical decisions in their lives.  Granted and fully agreed.  The problem is that most of those who are drugging themselves senseless on a regular basis have heard some variation on that argument, but can't for the life of them find a good reason to follow it.  It reminds me of a comment once made by a priest when he heard of a campaign urging youth not to take drugs because it was slow suicide. “First,” the priest explained, “you have to convince them that they shouldn't commit suicide.”  I think Dr. Ablow succinctly summarizes the dangers we face and even prescribes a correct solution, so far as it goes.  Where it falls short is providing an incentive to those who need it to follow the prescription.

This week in our parish Bible Study we're covering chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, which contains Jesus' explicit statement of one of the reasons He came to us: “I have come so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” (v. 10)  Think of that: abundant life.  That's what's really lacking here.  People who have an abundant life don't gut their way through the week so they can drink (or smoke, or snort) themselves insensible on the weekend.  How can it be surprising that when so many in a culture have “gotten beyond” God Himself, they find themselves with something-short-of-abundant lives?  And this in the most generally affluent culture in known history.  If security, freedom, and material wealth could provide abundant life, then surely the modern West would have more than enough.  Instead we find ourselves in a bind that even the secular world recognizes as dire.

All the likes of Dr. Ablow can tell us is that we need to take charge of our lives.  But we need an incentive to be decisive.  Jesus provides the incentive: love.  Absenting ourselves from our lives and the lives of those who care for us is not a loving thing to do.  We should be present because we love those around us and want to help them.  When we don't love enough to care for those around us, or when we don't think anyone does love us, then we suffer deep loneliness and alienation.  That's just the sort of pain that calls for an anesthetic of some sort, and so the cycle continues.

For any who acknowledge the accuracy of Dr. Ablow's prognosis but despair of implementing his prescription, permit me to direct you to the One who can not only help you accomplish it, but give you a good reason to do so: Jesus Christ, author of abundant life.  The life He gives is so rich that you won't feel the need to escape from it.