David and Lisa looked down at the pregnancy test. A minus sign. Again.
David’s eyes filled with tears. Lisa didn’t have any tears left.
He went down in the basement, and she went to go sit on the porch swing by herself to collect her thoughts. They had tried for so long. They had spent so much time and energy and money in order to have a baby. For both of them, it seemed like every failed attempt moved them exponentially away from the happiness that they yearned for.
When they were first married, the question was not if but how many!
David had come from a large family and wanted to have a house filled with brothers and sisters climbing and jumping all over each other, like he had. Sharing clothes when they got older…giving each other rides…growing up with the love and support that he and his siblings shared. Now, as both of them got older, that dream seemed more and more unlikely.
Lisa was an only child, and so her family was a lot different – and quieter – growing up. But the fact that she didn’t have any siblings made her relationship with her parents all the more important to her. Long talks with her mother when she was young, continuing on the phone since she married and moved away, were such an important part of her life. And her father’s love for her was so deep and profound…she wrote an essay when she was in the ninth grade about her hero, and she chose her dad. By then, a lot of the other kids had started to be embarrassed by their parents, but not Lisa. He was a giant in her eyes. For years, she wondered if he always wanted a boy. He never would say it, but someone to carry on his name seemed important in their family. She had long since decided that she would name her first boy after him. But now….
She looked down at the table of books by the porch swing, and saw the curriculum from their Bible study group. Their small group had been studying famous couples in the Bible, and this week was Abraham and Sarah. They had begun their journey together with faith, following God’s command to leave their home and go to a new land. God would give them a family and a place to live, and make their descendants like the number of stars in the sky.
Lisa was amazed to learn that they were not the perfect couple. In fact, the curriculum took them to task for all of the ways that they struggled with their faith.
- They struggled with fear, afraid of the kings and kingdoms through which they travelled, that they might be struck down by their soldiers. That’s why Abraham lied to the king twice and told them that Sarah was his sister instead of his wife!
- They struggled with jealousy. That’s why Sarah lashed out at her servant Hagar, when Hagar got pregnant when Sarah could not. Sarah sent Hagar and her child into the wilderness to die.
- And, most troubling the book said, they struggled with doubt. God promised them that they would have a family, but they kept questioning and short-circuiting and doubting God. In Genesis 18, when God in full Trinitarian form showed up on their front door, they doubted. When God told them that Sarai would bear a child in her old age…she laughed! As soon as she did it, she regretted it. She tried to hide it. “I didn’t laugh!” But everyone had heard it. And besides, this is God here! It’s a little tough to pull one over on the fullness of deity incarnate on earth. But laugh she did. So did Abraham. But it was God who would get the last laugh.
The curriculum made it pretty clear…Abraham and Sarah had no reason to doubt. God took care of them and gave them a baby! God fulfilled his promise, and so there is never reason to doubt God’s providential care! It even had a little jingle in the book: “Have a doubt in God today? Trust him now, NQA!” NQA…No Questions Asked. The book pointed out Abraham’s question: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” was a symbol of his doubt. You didn’t need to ask questions or doubt God – he would take care of you!
Of course, all of this was incredibly difficult for David and Lisa to handle. During the Bible study, they had put on a brave face. They didn’t want to share how much they identified with Sarah and Abraham. They didn’t want to share their fear that they would never have any children, their pain in the pregnancies that ended after doctors concluded that they were not viable, their anger and jealousy every time someone else posted new baby pictures on Facebook. And, of course, they didn’t want to share their doubt. Instead, they came home ready to try again, assured that God would answer their prayer this time! NQA!
But then another minus sign. The tears finally began to fall for Lisa again, enough for David to hear her down in the basement and come up. He silently sat on the porch swing next to her. When they had moved in, they dreamed of sitting on this swing watching their kids play in the lawn. Now, the yard seemed eerily silent.
Until they heard the sound of garden tools clinking together and their neighbor dragging a hose across the yard. They smiled weakly as their neighbor Alice dropped her armful of tools and tossed out a “howdy neighbor!” over the fence.
Alice was actually the new pastor at David and Lisa’s church, though the young couple wasn’t completely happy about it. The bishop had moved out their beloved young pastor to the big church in the suburbs, and replaced him and his dynamism with an older, single clergywoman nearing the end of her career. She was always saying things like “howdy!” and “shuck-ee-dern” and using sermon illustrations that seemed more than a little dated. But it felt like her heart was in the right place. So, they smiled back with a “howdy” of their own.
To which Alice replied, “Forgive me for being forward, but is everything okay? I heard some serious crying a few minutes ago.”
David started to make an excuse, but before he could get it out, there was something in Lisa that broke. Like a dam that had been holding back too much spring runoff finally creaking to a burst. Before she knew it, she had told Alice everything. The difficulty conceiving, the lost pregnancies, her father wanting a boy, the Bible study, Abraham and Sarah, and even this morning’s minus sign. Over the porch rail and the fence and the hydrangeas, she exploded in a full torrent of emotion. David, not embarrassed or unwilling to share but surprised, mostly just nodded and sat there with his eyes pretty wide.
Alice, who had been around long enough to not be shaken too easily, smiled, “I’ve been looking for a reason to avoid weeding this flowerbed. Mind if I wash up and come over?”
She was over with raspberry lemonade and a plate-full of Little Debbies within a few minutes. Lisa and David had sworn off sugar for the summer, in order for both of their bodies to be as healthy as possible. But this morning, they didn’t care. They looked at each other for a split second, and then both reached for a Star Crunch at the same time.
Through the crackling of wrappers and the clinking of ice, they told their story to Alice…with more details and less explosion of emotion this time. But there were still plenty of tears and vulnerability to go around. All three of them had faces streaked with tears before long.
And Alice mostly just listened. Once it felt like both had had their say, she began.
“First of all, give me that small group curriculum. I am going to bury it under my hydrangeas with the rest of the manure. I know the guy who wrote it and he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. He is some snot-nosed golden boy that the denomination worships and lets him write whatever crap he wants to. He’s never had a hard thing happen in his perfect little life, and as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t get to tell people who are hurting and afraid that they just need to stop doubting and believe! He doesn’t have a clue what Abraham and Sarah were dealing with. I’ll bet everything he’s asked for, he gets. Tell him to come see me when something real happens in his life. NQA? That’s bull-honky!”
“I’m going to give you a real book. I just finished this book by a guy by the name of Gregory Boyd called Benefit of the Doubt. He writes that doubt is beneficial – that it gives us strength and vibrancy. Those of us who just accept the answers that we are given aren’t usually going to get anywhere. Sure, we’ll have some measure of success…and apparently a book deal…but at the end of the day, when the going gets tough, all that self-righteous stuff will go out the window.”
She ran back to her house to read a passage that she had dog-eared and underlined: “the self-serving, doubt-quenching, certainty-seeking faith that these folks are choosing to pursue is not faith as it’s taught in Scripture….the faith that God’s people are called to embrace is one that encourages people to wrestle with God, to not be afraid of questions, and to act faithfully in the face of uncertainty.”
Alice continued: “Abraham and Sarah. Now that was a couple of people to pattern your life after! Sure, they messed up. But they tried. They lived their life out there on the edge, and they relied on God and relied on each other and left all of their dreams and hopes out there in the sand. I mean, tell me what kind of guts it would take to laugh at God…and then lie to his face about it right afterwards! You have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit sitting on your front porch, snacking on yogurt and a charcuterie plate, and she has the guts to laugh at them! That’s the kind of woman I want to be! And I’ll bet your fancy Bible study book doesn’t say that by the end of the chapter, Abraham has an all-out argument with God…and wins! It always seems like God chooses people for his work who question, who push back, who doubt, who wrestle, who laugh in his face.”
“Abraham and Sarah gutted through the doubt. They put one foot in front of another into the sand. They scratched and clawed through their grief and their pain and their anger and their jealousy. And it was only on the back end of the wilderness that they found what they were looking for.”
“I pray that you find what you are looking for. I hope and pray that you get a plus sign tomorrow. Heck, this afternoon if I could get out of your hair and off your front porch! But my deepest prayer is that your deepest prayers will be answered. Your prayers for identity and companionship and laugher and joy. Maybe it will be with a plus sign and your own child. Or a child you adopt. Or some other way that God only knows. In my book, that’s the only way that God answers our prayers – not by filling out the items in the prayer checklist that we give him – but by answering our needs that lie behind those prayers.”
“You might have figured out by now that I never had any kids. My husband and I struggled early in our marriage to have children, and then one day he decided he didn’t want to be married to a preacher who couldn’t have any kids for him. No one knew how much it hurt…one well-meaning church lady actually told me, ‘at least you all didn’t have any kids that you have to raise alone.’ And by then, the dating market for 40-something women who happen to be preachers was pretty thin. And so I never had children of my own, and it hurt so much. I remember praying “Is everything possible for God?” I remember praying like Hannah or Sarah or Elizabeth from the Bible. I wanted that identity and companionship and laughter and joy that they all got.”
“And then, slowly, I realized that God had been answering my prayers. I found that my ministry gave me a chance to have an identity. And companionship – with a congregation with whom I could share their and my joys and tears. And laughter – God has let me hang onto my irreverent sense of humor, and my doubt, and hasn’t struck me down yet when I laugh in his face. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt sometimes. But alongside the hurt is a God who gives me the answers that I have been looking for. So that is my prayer for you. Don’t stop living. Don’t stop laughing. Don’t stop doubting. And don’t stop eating sugar all together…life’s too short.”
And with that, she took back the lemonade glasses, but left the rest of the plate of Little Debbies. “There’s a lot more where that came from!” she roared as she laughed down the path to the sidewalk and up to her porch. As her screen door slapped against the door jam, David and Lisa put their tear-stained cheeks against each other and held each other. They shared a wordless prayer…and they breathed more deeply than they had in a long time.