God & GMOs: An Introduction

Guess what? We’re going to turn a little corner and talk about GMO crops here for the next little bit.

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It’s not a secret that I am not much of a scientist. I’m more artsy and relational and feely; my gifts include teaching and communicating. In many ways it’s a powerful blend of gifts that I write and my husband Aaron is a scientist. For anyone who doesn’t know us, he’s a Christian plant biotechnologist (with a PhD in molecular biology) who firmly believes he develops crops using complicated biotechnology (sometimes “GMO” and sometimes not) for the glory of God. We’re both proud that he’s part of the production side of modern agriculture, including using biotech for GMO crops, and we gratefully eat “genetically modified” food all the time. He’s shared about this for The Gospel Coalition and I’ve written a longer think-piece-ish article for Christ and Pop Culture. We’ve also chatted with some of our friends about this on a Vernacular podcast episode and just finished recording an interview with our friend Abigail Murrish for her current podcast series Our Midwestern Life. But talking about science often feels like speaking another language. We have realized we spend a lot of time in our nerdy head-spaces about this, and that is not always helpful for most other people. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many scientists engaging this topic with Christian culture, and the misinformation fed by social media and “mommy bloggers” is deafeningly loud. We have both sensed an urgent need to open this discussion in more accessible ways that we’ve done before. 

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing this series for a very, very long time, but it’s a big topic and I find myself both overwhelmed by the material (which is out of my depth in the technical realm), and resenting the potential for social blowback. A new friend just asked me if I struggled with an unhealthy desire to please others and I had to chuckle a little bit. A Pew Study in 2015 reported that more than half of Christians think genetically modified foods (“GMOs”) are unsafe, and even more think scientists are unclear about the health effects of GM foods. Numbers for the general public’s opinions are similar, but if anything, I was surprised the disapproval rates weren’t higher. This means anytime I tell a new friend what my husband does for a living, I’m more likely to be talking to someone who thinks he’s harming the environment and our food supply than not. Personal responses to this news have ranged between supportive (which is rare, but appreciated), neutral, skeptical, and even hostile. Pleasing people? It usually feels like that ship has sailed. Still, as I prepare these posts, I wonder how this could impact relationships. I checked in with some staff at my church to find out if this might bring up any particular challenges within our congregation. When I close my eyes I can visualize the faces of people I dearly love, people I fear alienating because I know they disagree. Will Thanksgiving be weird if our GMO-skeptic family members don’t like what I say here? Is it possible to just remove some of my email followers for a while and add them back later? Should I block a few people on facebook so they don’t get an immediate notification about this? Would someone who really needs to hear what I shared about my miscarriages be turned off by my discussion about GMOs and food production?  

An important part of critical thinking is not just asking questions about a given topic, but knowing what kinds of questions to ask. It’s fair for me to wonder about those things, but I also have to consider a host of ideas from the other side. There are risks involved in not speaking plainly about this. The more that I read and discuss my numerous resulting questions with the Hummel family Scientist in Residence, I grow increasingly convinced that skepticism and hostility towards biotech in farming (even when it comes from well-meaning sources) feeds shame, anxiety, and conflict in communities around me. I’m even more concerned that this keeps lifesaving technology out of the hands (and hungry bellies) of people around the world who desperately need it to survive. If I serve the God who so loved the world that he offered up his only son, can I also love the world enough to risk opening challenging conversations with my community? Can I model gracious discussion so that Christians are equipped to make decisions about feeding themselves and their families with faith instead of fear? As science advances at a breakneck pace while we lack articulate voices explaining a Christian ethical framework for it all, will I look back at this time and wish I had spoken up sooner? I can’t help but face that the negative repercussions of anti-GMO sentiments, especially in churches around me, are not going to reverse until people like me are willing to turn the conversation around.

In sharing these upcoming posts, please know that I am pledging to offer the best information I can find, explaining it in ways that are clear and gracious. If you’re reading along, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions or if you have any topic or specific angle you’d like to see addressed. (You can reach me in the comment box on this site or through the email address I have listed in the “contact” field on the site menu.)

Thanks, friends. Whether you consider yourself pro-, neutral-, skeptical- or anti- GMO, I hope you’ll stick around!  

Sisu, sleeplessness, and the marriage supper

When my Grandma died last year, we experienced fully the forethought of grief, where you get to hang on to the tension and dread of a protracted, agonizing death. Sometimes it is like that. But sometimes death just happens, and all you can do is try to keep breathing when someone you love isn’t. The forethought of grief was not an option with my grandpa. The phone calls came quickly and suddenly this time: Falls. Heart murmurs. Bed sores. Hospice. Long naps. Soon. Maybe tomorrow? No, today.

And all of the sudden, Poppa is gone. This was expected because, of course, we’re mortals, and he’s an old man with heart defects and Alzheimer’s, ailed by who knows what host of other problems he couldn’t describe due to his memory problems. But it feels too fast, too soon, and too wrong. I suppose it never feels right to hear that news. Death is always a loss, always cutting against the grain of our eternity-bound hearts.

A robin flies into my window the next day, and the thump against my house drops it back dead on the porch. Seizing the opportunity to practice a hard teaching moment, I point out the front window and explain the bird’s death to my little daughter. She can’t understand it yet, can she? Still shy of her second birthday, she proudly tells her baby brother Thomas about this as soon as his nap ends: “Tho’as! Bird. Nap. S’eepy outside. No wake up. Dead. Icky. ‘ook, Tho’as.”

We need to walk past the bird to get in the van, to get to the mall for new black funeral shoes. Old shovel in hand, I swallow hard and can’t get the edge under the bird; I don’t really have the gumption to take control of the dead bird situation. When my scooping efforts fail, I let the bird slide off the porch into the flower bed. It lands between two overgrown boxwood, right next to a new bush Aaron planted. He’s so much like Poppa, with curious joy in watching new life spring forth from the earth. He can move the bird away later, and it won’t hurt us in the meantime. Still disconcerted by the sight of this poor robin in the bushes, I take the children around the back door anyway.

That night Aaron says he’s glad to hear the bird landed in the mulch. He needs to fertilize the new bush soon anyway. The best thing to do, he says, is just leave it. We go about our evening: My grandpa is dead, the bird is dead, and my children are miraculously full of even more life than usual after our trip to the mall. We sing cheerful songs before they sleep at night, because that dead bird monologue didn’t translate into actual understanding of my (and our) loss. Cheer and grief: what do I do with this dissonance?

The Lord liveth — though Poppa is dead.
Blessed be the Rock — since we are dust. 
Let the God of our salvation be exalted —
…while we lay someone low in the ground. 

The funeral, exactly a week before my sister’s wedding, finds me preparing to share a eulogy about Poppa’s humble beginnings, his love for the creation and the Creator, and his determined spirit. That sanctuary holds many special memories: My mom’s and aunt’s wedding pictures, my cousins’ baptisms, late Christmas Eve services, Grandma’s funeral last year. Poppa was there for all of these. We sing some of his favorite songs, like How Great Thou Art, and it’s hard to believe he’s not sitting in his row, belting it out alongside us. Since the minister’s homily covered most of my main points, I begin with a joke that my speech “got scooped.” Thankfully, a story as good as Poppa’s is worth telling twice. 

The tales of Poppa growing up as the child of unassimilated Finnish immigrants yet earning advanced degrees, serving in the Air Force, establishing elementary schools in Alaska and colleges in Michigan, traveling the world, and always, always gardening might seem disjointed, but their common thread is found in a little knowledge about his Finnish roots. My Poppa started elementary school speaking only Finnish and knowing just a few English words. I’m the opposite, because I just speak English, but the one Finnish word I know is sisu. It doesn’t fully translate to English, but it means grit, determination, valor, fortitude, sustained courage, and fighting with the will to win. Sisu is considered the true Spirit of Finland, and with this tenacity, Poppa’s life demonstrated that he kept the best of his Finnish heritage with a sisu drive for faithful effort in carefully chosen pursuits.

After talking about his life and the resurrection  – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again, Alleluia – we scoop potato salad onto our plates in the fellowship hall before moving outside to stand in the blazing sun, scooping earth over ashes. Grandma and Poppa are set there together, dust over dust. By their quiet faithfulness to the gospel and each other, my grandparents were, in so many ways, like trees planted by streams of water, like great Oaks of righteousness. We sow in tears, grieving that this is so final and awful and wrong. We sow in faith, believing boldly that God will reap them as His glorious harvest following the raising of Christ, the firstfruit of all who sleep.

When we have laid them to rest, we return to a full house since so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings stay for the week until Naomi’s wedding. We do not rest ourselves. No one ever wants to go to bed, and this is not just the kids cajoling for 5 more minutes. We’re adults who know we are dangerously exhausted, but still we turn on the movies and make snacks to procrastinate on our necessary wedding projects until the wee hours every day. Is it because we want to try keeping today long enough for a little more joy? Or because we know sleep is a mini-death? Maybe it’s because we want more time with Poppa, which we cannot have, so we hang on to every moment with these people who gives us a little bit of him and his memory.

Grief is exhausting because you just want to keep it at bay; if you keep busy, keep fighting to embrace what you have, maybe the memories of your loss will stay away longer. And you stay up late so you aren’t trying to will yourself to sleep with fewer defenses against the pain. You want to be too tired to pay attention to how bad it feels. If you lay there with any energy left, you will remember. It’s easier, in the short term, to fall apart from exhaustion than to be alert to what you have lost.

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Bill Niemi and Thomas Hummel. Poppa kept saying, “You can tell he really likes me!”

The Apostle Paul says that in death and resurrection, what is sown does not come to life unless it dies, planted like a bare kernel. Everyone who watched Poppa’s remains go into the earth (we who are now folding bulletins and altering bridesmaid dresses and spray painting table decor) also watched this happen in Poppa’s garden every summer. Just like we joyfully tasted the firstfruits of his garden labors, in ripe red tomatoes and long green beans and crisp cucumbers, we see the joyful fruit of his life among us. To say nothing of blessings among my cousins and the wider community of family and friends, my sisters and I all celebrate our new boys: I have Thomas, Beth is roundly pregnant with Ellis, Naomi is marrying Matt.  We live in the tension of loss and exponential increase this week especially, somehow starting to make peace with what we have heard and spoken about the resurrection: What God raises up out of death is greater than what existed naturally in the first place.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead:
what is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.

Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is never in vain.
– 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 58.

It makes a lot of sense that we spend our initial grief for Poppa in wedding coordinations, moving from funeral grief to marriage joy in that same church the next Saturday. We celebrate the seamless call of the gospel and the example of Poppa’s Finnish sisu, to abound and labor for good fruit by the finished work of Jesus. We persevere in preparations while Naomi and Matt open their hearts and arms to each other, in the shadow of Poppa’s life of diligence and devotion. We prepare to rejoice and feast in celebration of their new life together, echoing the eternal life Poppa revels in at the marriage supper of the lamb.

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wedding photos via  hello rose photography 

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb! -Revelation 9:9

William Jacob Niemi, Jr., passed away on July 17, 2016, surrounded by family. 

Sharing Elsewhere: Risen Motherhood

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I’m really excited to be sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned through my miscarriages on the Risen Motherhood podcast this week! Hosts Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler discuss the way the gospel transforms a mom’s everyday life on this quick weekly show. Since neither of them have suffered miscarriage themselves, they asked if I would be willing to share a little bit from my journey as part of a back-to-back interview episode about miscarriage and the gospel. Most of what I shared won’t be completely new to friends or readers here, but I think you’ll enjoy hearing the complementary stories of God’s grace during the episode. This is a fabulous resource for women seeking hope and healing after losing a baby, and I’m grateful for the chance to be part of this beautiful ministry!

[ If you’re not already a faithful Risen Motherhood listener, you can always listen in on their website (www.RisenMotherhood.com). I also suggest connecting with them on Facebook and subscribing with your favorite podcast streaming site (maybe iTunes?) or app so you don’t miss an episode! ]

Strengthen Me According To Your Word

STRENGTHEN ME ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD: Scriptures to Read After Miscarriage. 

“My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.” – Psalm 119:28

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I’ve been very humbled to walk in grief next to many friends after they have miscarried a baby, and I think the most common question they bring up has been, “Did you have any particular scriptures I should read? What does the Bible say to me about this?” (And others want to know how to help someone else, what they can say after their friend loses a baby, too.) While I’ve already written about the journey I took discovering [how the topic of miscarriage fits into the “big picture” of scripture] after my losses, the Bible does provide some additional encouragement here as well. Scripture is words of life for those in the midst of death. We don’t have to fumble for random and theologically troubling explanations outside of this!

On Grief & Broken Hearts

Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 
Psalm 31: 9 “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted with grief.” 

It is okay to be honest in prayer about the difficulty of grief; God never asks us to get our emotions under control or pretend like everything is fine before coming to him.

Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

It’s a gift that this doesn’t say:“Blessed are those who have bad things happen to them, for they shall be stronger than everyone else.” Everyone has difficulty in life, but not everyone actually mourns or allows themselves to grieve. God’s comfort comes to us while we’re working through difficulty, not by avoiding it or pretending something wasn’t a big deal.

On Hurtful Words & Difficult Relationships 

Psalm 31: 20 “You store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues.” 

The Lord offers refuge and healing in himself when other people’s words cut deeply.  When facing difficult conversation and remembering painful comments from others, rest in the shelter that God offers in himself. We can always keep running to him instead of reopening the wounds made by others’ thoughtless words.

Isaiah 53:3-4 “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hid their faces, he was despised… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” 

[One of the most common responses to news of a miscarriage is “At least you weren’t further along, like my friend’s stillbirth,” or “At least you hadn’t been trying long,” or “At least you know you can get pregnant.” The message this sends: ‘Grief is a competition and lots of other people have it worse than you. You don’t deserve to grieve.’ That is a lie.] There is a time to empathize with others and get some perspective, of course. I wouldn’t approach someone whose children were killed by terrorists and say “You know, I had miscarriages so I know just what this is like.” No way! But when you are stricken with a personal tragedy, that grief is real and it matters.  Being dismissed by people who should have known better doesn’t make this less true: For a Christian, the only real “competition” for grief is Jesus. While bearing the weight of all sin and sorrow, he also felt the pain of messed up relationships. He was abandoned and misunderstood. He was hurt by people he trusted. His suffering was the worst because he took all our grief and sorrow to the cross, and in the resurrection he is victorious over all of it, too. Sin and suffering (which sometimes correlate, and sometimes do not) are not ultimate for us because of this.

On Weariness & Strength 

Psalm 31:7 “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul.”
Psalm 119:50 “My comfort in my affliction is this: your promise preserves my life.” 

For a Christian, the remedy for sorrow and weariness is found in the Lord. Not in a future earthly good (for example, having another baby after a miscarriage) or “moving past” the difficulty in question. When other people aren’t walking alongside you in ways you need, and those relationships feel very disappointing? You can rejoice in the steadfast love of God, who has known the distress of your soul. When you are afflicted and sorrowful? You can trust that God’s promise of salvation preserves your life.

On Sin & Shame 

Psalm 103:10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

A miscarriage is not punishment for sin, and a living baby is not a reward for righteousness. No one “deserves” a miscarriage for any reason, just like no one “deserves” a child. 

The Baby’s Life & Purpose 

Psalm 139:13-14 “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

When you really consider all that’s involved with conception and fetal development, it’s a wonder the human race has sustained this long. A 1st-trimester baby, even one with profound genetic deformities, is a pure miracle. Whether we have a “reason” for a miscarriage like that (which is supposed to be about 50% of losses) or not, we can praise God for his marvelous creation in the baby’s life. I’m still surprised by how many people told me, “There was probably something wrong with the baby,” as if that was supposed to lessen my grief or explain God’s purpose. My specific medical history indicates this was probably not the case anyway, but no matter what: God’s image was placed in the baby just as much as it was with any of us. Even the shortest of lives is a praiseworthy and mysterious marvel. 

Psalm 138:8 “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
Psalm 139:16 “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

I’ll admit, I’ve thought these verses were kind of unfair – why would God create a baby with a life only in the womb, even life measured by days more than weeks? What is the point of that? Why even create the baby in the first place?  Yet we can be comforted that God is not limited by time or human frailty; we are all like helpless children before God. That God can use my 30-year-old life and reasonably well-trained mind to fulfill his purpose is not less astounding than that he could do the same in the MUCH shorter life of a baby who died in the womb.

On God’s Love

Psalm 103:13-14 “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”  

God’s love and desire for his children is even more powerful than the difficulty of a miscarriage or other loss. He isn’t surprised by weakness or failure, and he doesn’t expect us to summon supernatural strength apart from himself.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

NOT: “For God so loved the miscarrying woman that he gave her a new baby of her own, that whoever believes in him will no longer miscarry, but have a pro-creative life.” We know God loves us because he gave us his son; we do not measure or prove God’s love for us by anything else.

Romans 8:38-39 “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

That “…nor anything else in all creation” includes your baby. Their life or death does not separate us from God’s love.

On Hope & The Resurrection 

1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 27 “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. …The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The true message of hope and encouragement in grief is in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and return. (And if this feels weird, it is. Y’all, Christianity definitely requires a little weirdness. There’s no Jesus Lite version to opt out of this stuff.)  Grief is one of the many places where the rubber of Christianity hits the road of real life. In many ways this is where you actually need the weirdness of Christianity most!

The poet John Donne, who grieved many profound losses (father, siblings, children, wife) reflected on these verses and wrote the sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud,” with an ending that says this better than anyone else: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!” The pain and loss of a miscarriage find their final remedy in the Resurrection, which destroys destruction and kills death.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ” But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 

This scripture is a particular treasure after a miscarriage because it doesn’t tell us not to grieve, it says we grieve differently than other people.
It doesn’t tell us that hope replaces grief, it shows that hope transforms our grief.
It doesn’t tell us we’ll be happy when we can “get over” the difficulty we face, it points to Jesus overcoming the difficulty in our place.
And it doesn’t tell us we will stop grieving at some arbitrary point in life, or even when we see our loved ones in heaven. It offers a better promise: that we will always be with the Lord.

Present Joy & Past Sorrow

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Though I’ve shared before that [having kids isn’t “the key to healing” from the grief of a miscarriage], the present joys of raising my children do offer some perspective on those past sorrows. While it doesn’t erase previous hardship, mothering my living children has helped me understand even more about the miscarriages I had before they were born.

  • Motherhood (of any sort) is emotionally intense. My love for my children is overwhelmingly fierce and surprising. Every so often I’m overcome by the burst of affection for the kids I have, which is saying a lot for me because I generally just have lots of feelings all the time anyway. Compared to the way I felt after the miscarriages, it’s a little like Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion in my heart: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  My grief and sadness about the miscarriages was equally intense, surprising, and often unpredictable  – and it makes more sense to me now. It would be extremely concerning if I didn’t experience such joy with the kids now, and these “highs” helps me reconcile the emotional lows from the miscarriages.
  • The unknown potential of what “could have been” from the other babies is still a little haunting sometimes. Due to gracious doctors who knew how comforting this would be, I have very early ultrasound pictures from both of my kids. I occasionally marvel that the little 6-week-old pulsing sweetpea (the baby is basically all beating heart at that point) we saw in December 2013 is now exploring and babbling and making herself known throughout my home every day. I witnessed a miracle then, just as I do now: all the potential in the world, wrapped up as a bundle of flesh and blood and water. I also have ultrasound pictures of little babies before this, whose potential will remain unknown. The possible beauty and joy of the other babies’ lives before that was just as significant. What sorts of delights and needs would those babies have brought? Who would they have grown up to be? We’ll never know here what would have been. It doesn’t steal the happiness we have now, but I’ll probably always wonder about this.
  • … Equally haunting is the frailty of the ones who made it. What if I hadn’t take that exact cocktail of medicines to keep hormones doing their jobs at the beginning? Would my daughter be here if that paranoid doctor hadn’t ordered the extra “unnecessary” ultrasound that diagnosed a treatable-but-concerning problem? Would I have survived my son’s birth if he had been born in the car instead of right after we got to the hospital? The number of things that have to work just right to bring a child from conception to birth is staggering, and I marvel at how it all worked for these kids. I know a child is not something to take for granted.
  • Miscarriage really is a mini-birth in so many ways. I’m the opposite of a birth-junkie. Other people get really excited and enjoy talking or writing about private body parts with all the sensations and whatnot that brought their child into the world, and it’s legitimately meaningful for them. I am not like that. I thought maybe I was grossed out by this because the topic of having a living baby was so tender for me; I usually felt like people around me got way too personally invested in the details of their birth plans, or were overly spiritualizing and competitive about their natural deliveries. I would have cut off my right leg to have had a c-section and a formula-fed baby myself. Then I actually had a baby and … I still don’t think it’s that exciting to talk about the nitty-gritty details of birth most of the time! But, on this topic, I did find that all but 5 minutes of my son’s (unmedicated and nonsurgical) labor and delivery was actually the same or easier than one of my miscarriages, which validated my shock at how painful and difficult the physical experiences were. My post-partum hormonal fluctuations and heightened awareness/anxiety after birth and miscarriage were nearly identical, as well. 
  • Sometimes it is still better not to know. It’s amazing how many people have said, “It’s too bad you didn’t know you’d have these two kids back when you were having all those struggles!” In some ways, this is true. It was painful to wonder if I would ever get to have a baby and experience all this joy, and maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard if I had just known that it was really coming. But [sometimes not-knowing is a gift,] and the all-knowing God met me in my unknowns in ways that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. We hope and pray for more good to come, with these kids and maybe with more in the future. Yet plenty of bad things (including, but absolutely not limited to, more miscarriages) could be ahead for our life. We can rest in the truth that God is in control and works everything for his purposes, but it really is a measure of mercy that we don’t know what’s coming before that. 
  • Every baby is part of me forever. There’s no way to make me “stop” being a mom to any of my kids. My home now is bursting with laughter and diapers and coffee; the particular love and delight of each child changes me in new ways every day. Their blue eyes and belly laughs are etched into me; no matter what happens to any of us, we’re bound to each other for life. But there is still a bit of frustrated maternal instinct from before. I’m not “just” the mom of these two, because my miscarriages gave me a little baggage and a lot of perspective that spill into life now, too.
  • Being a child of God is more important than being a mom. The mother-identity that comes from my children is overwhelmingly huge. Going too far in one direction, this identity quickly becomes an idol for many women. On the other side, we rightly assess a woman who does not connect with her baby as suffering post-partum depression or anxiety. The identity balance can be tricky, but it’s necessary. Wrestling with motherhood (am I a mom? am I not? why is this so hard?) was a big part of recovering from the miscarriages, too. Situations or relationships where my lost babies were not acknowledged or where mentioning anything was awkward became an overly-personal rejection to me… but I also worked hard to make my life about other things, too: teaching piano, reading, writing, DIY projects, and other things like that. I’m not sure anyone ever strikes the identity balance perfectly. I certainly didn’t (and still don’t!), but God graciously provides all that we really need, by creating us in his own image and saving us by his own son. 

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[You can check out more posts & my recommended resources about miscarriage here!]

On Miscarriages & Reading the Bible

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Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” – Matthew 22:29

My miscarriages revealed that I didn’t understand how the Bible really works. Even after 12 years of earnestly studying it, leading numerous devotional groups, writing Bible Study leaders’ training curriculum, and earning a college degree in Christian Studies! Me, of all people, not knowing how to read my Bible! The first thing that clued me in? You don’t get many responses from a Bible word search for verses about miscarriage. There’s a few small references, but on their own they were kind of confusing. For being the book that’s supposed to be the source of all life and sufficient for guiding you through any situation, I found this extremely disconcerting. Women were having miscarriages in Bible times, too, so if the Bible doesn’t talk about them… is it even relevant right now? Was it EVER relevant?

My Scripture-Reading Pedigree is reasonably impressive. I already knew you couldn’t just use one phrase of the Bible to “claim as a promise” without considering the context (knowing the culture or life story of the author and original audience). And I knew my feelings were not an interpretive tool, but I still felt lost to figure out how the Bible spoke to me after a miscarriage. 

Since I couldn’t find chapter-and-verse to give me a solid explanation, I sought out what other people were saying about miscarriages and the Bible. Maybe I was just missing it and someone else had already figured it out? I looked at all the blogs written and ordered whatever books I could find. Pickings were slim and unhelpful. (Thankfully, much has been said since about miscarriage from a Christian perspective and I do have a list of my favorite articles and books I recommend on the menu of this website.) Blogs and books are useful, but they are only a tool; they do not replace the living and active word of scripture. What I needed was not just “a book about miscarriage from a Christian perspective,” but a more cohesive understanding of how the Bible fit together to speak a better word to my sorrow than any online concordance could supply.

You don’t have to geek out on complicated words or reading dead theologians to figure this out. I liked those things long before I had any miscarriages, and they hadn’t brought this to light for me. Plenty of my college classes and personal reading had circled around this topic. For some reason, reading scripture as part of a “meta-narrative” (where all the parts serve to ultimately fit into an “ultimate story” of the gospel) had seemed dry and unwelcoming to me. This sounds crazy now, because nothing seems relevant or approachable about flipping back and forth between random passages of the Bible when you’re looking for help or hope. Reading the Bible with the full lens of the gospel (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) proves it is rich with encouragement and sufficient for difficulty, even the hardships of our lives that it barely mentions by name.

CREATION
From the beginning of the Creation narrative we read that God created all people in perfection and gave the first command: “Be fruitful and multiply.” It doesn’t say “Be fruitful and miscarry!” We were originally created to have bodies and relationships that worked the right way, which would mean a baby wouldn’t die before it was even born. Other passages celebrate God’s special work in forming and developing every child in the womb of a woman.
See: Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1, Ecclesiastes 11:5

FALL
The earth and the animal kingdom experience the curse of sin right away, in broken fellowship with God and woman’s increased pain in childbearing. This is not limited just to labor and delivery, but encompasses trouble in all facets of maternity: debilitating cycles or hormone shifts, infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, post-partum depression, birth injuries, and the ongoing difficulties of motherhood. Every woman, even one who is happily childless, battles some bit of this in some way.

This same curse later meets mankind in the worst possible way: the death of an innocent son. It strikes me that when humans experience death, it’s Abel who gets killed, not Adam or Eve (who have no earthly parents). Knowing that we have to read the Bible in terms of the “big picture,” this points us clearly to the death of Jesus, the innocent Son of God. Knowing that the Bible speaks to all sadness, this also validates the particular grief of parents. Now, I know people who have held full-term babies that never drew breath, or who trace their child’s name in the cold, hard etchings on a gravestone. I certainly imagine (in brief, horrible moments) that losing one of my living children would be a new, more awful devastation than the miscarriages I had before, but miscarriage is still the death of a child in it’s very earliest stages. At the core of the gospel, the Fall shows us that death is, indeed, a really big deal. 
See: Genesis 3-4, Hebrews 11:4, Hebrews 12:18-24.

REDEMPTION
At the crucifixion, Jesus faces death, carrying the full weight of everything that is wrong and broken upon himself. Beyond our individual sin and the sin of the world, our sorrows and grief were laid upon Jesus as well. This is where some of the overly-simple talk about “Jesus dying for our sins” in childhood altar calls becomes less helpful for understanding the gospel in real life. At the resurrection, Jesus physically rises from the dead AND makes the pathway for the resurrection of all the dead, which is why Paul calls Jesus “the firstfruits of all who sleep.” As Christians, we know this means we will be restored to eternal life. It also promises us that all who “sleep” (are dead) will rise, including babies lost in miscarriage.
See: Isaiah 53, Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24, John 13-21, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

RESTORATION
Do you know where you actually find the word “miscarry” in the Bible? The Old Testament. Moses’ writings about how miscarriages and barrenness will not exist in the Promised Land are actually the most explicit places the Bible talks about it, and these passages are pointing beyond Israel to an ultimate fulfillment in heaven. Unfortunately most of the discussion about miscarriages and heaven twists this a little bit, focusing on finding hope in “seeing your babies in heaven someday.” A faith that is held up primarily by the desire to see your baby (which is, of course, entirely appropriate) does not follow the pattern revealed in scripture. Whether those babies we lost are in heaven or not, focusing on that point alone is small comfort compared the profound hope in the gospel: Christ promises that in the Resurrection, everything will be made new. It’s eternal life, perfection, without sorrow or tears or death. It’s a life where God fully satisfies every question, longing, and emptiness with his love. Christian hope in the wake of a miscarriage or other loss is not about having another child on earth or reuniting with a child in heaven. It’s about experiencing full, unending communion with God himself.
See: Exodus 23:26, Isaiah 25, Isaiah 40, Isaiah 61, Isaiah 65:20, Matthew 22:29-33, Revelation 21:4-8

 

“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
…All flesh is like grass…
The grass withers,
the flowers fade,
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
– Isaiah 40:5,7,8

ordained beauty

…Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

The past two years have been… a little crazy. I think we are still coming to terms with our Minnesota stint and, while Aaron really likes his job and Thomas arrived safely, we have been managing a never-ending parade of crises ever since moving here and the paperwork burden of registering vehicles, buying a house, and having a baby the day before insurance activates is gargantuan. Despite the tough aspects of moving, we’re excited to have another house we really like with a very short commute for Aaron. (It has come in very handy when I have needed him to meet me at Urgent Care ASAP. Like I said – there have been lots of crises.) The best part of this third house is the huge backyard, which has a pond and lots of trees that just hit their autumn color peak. I think we are really going to enjoy living here.

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anne toddles around the new house, taking in the majestic views. (14 months)

There are things about Minnesota that I will really miss, but Aaron’s research position was really tough on us. If we had to move away eventually, it was good to rip off the bandaid and get it over with. Even though this new job is going really well and I’m excited about the educational options for the kids here, coming to St. Louis with the intention to stick around for good brought some hard realities to light:

Leaving Minnesota means we have to start all over on everything again. 
We don’t live close to our families in Michigan.
We’re not moving back to Iowa.

Staying put or going to a more familiar place would have been welcome adventures, and it’s a little sad to let those hopes go. Even though so much of St. Louis is like “the first day of the rest of our lives,” it’s also closing the door on other beautiful dreams, and that’s hard.

I’ve been thinking about how the colors during the fall we left Iowa seemed particularly idyllic to me, and I remember watching those leaves out of the windows during piano lessons, trying not to dwell on how badly I wished everything about our life could be different. Those vibrant trees stood in silent declaration that God ordains a lot of beauty in seasons of endings and loss. There was a lot of sadness in losing another baby and leaving so many people we loved that fall, and that pain certainly sharpens my perspective on the good things going on right now.

I never imagined how much would happen in the following two years, but it is really fabulous to look out at a new backyard full of more vibrant colors through a sliding glass door covered in prints of Max’s nose and Annie’s darling toddler hands while cuddling Thomas. There are going to be hard things here, of course, and this fall has really been a knockout in many ways, but it’s encouraging to know that this beauty has been established for the griefs and “endings” of moving, and it gives hope for the good things here, too.

Be still, my soul; Thy Jesus can repay
From his own fullness all he takes away.

— Be Still, My Soul, Catharina von Schlegel

under the shadow (mother’s day 2015)

This year’s avoidance of any Mother’s Day greeting card displays has been due mostly to having a little more to juggle while I’m at the store these days, and less to do with feeling like everything inside me was shriveling up every time I thought about children or the idea of being a mom. I definitely like it better this way.

annie at store

 

The past nine months of real-life mothering have been so dear. I wouldn’t wish the journey I had before this on my worst enemy, but I wouldn’t trade the lessons coming from that and my sweet girl for anything, either. It’s also a little pointless to think about what I would trade because I can’t go back and change anything, anyway. My initiation to motherhood was not at all what I expected, and this means so many of my attitudes and perspectives about life as a parent are different than they would have been otherwise. Sometimes that is still hard, and today I still come in to relationships with the shadow of past grief, carrying a lot more baggage on the topic of children and pregnancy than I would have liked. I have been profoundly blessed by the example of Mary, who was also decidedly shocked by the way she became a mom, too. I take comfort to know that she saw clearly how the purpose of her role as a mother was not primarily that she would have a baby, but that she would encounter the Messiah and the fulfillment of God’s promise, even when it happened in ways that confused her and seemed so different from how she might have planned it.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you; and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” – Luke 1:35.

While I was pregnant with Annie, I wondered how mothering a child would differ from the sort of “mothering” that came out of my miscarriages. There is everyday stuff to sort through, yes, and more to juggle than before, but at the core I think these things have been mostly the same. The everyday acts of raising my daughter are hard work. They require sacrifice: of my time, my pride, my selfishness. I am diligent to read and pray and make decisions we deem best on every topic imaginable, like medical care during pregnancy and delivery, how to feed the baby, where she sleeps, what kind of structure we have to our days and nights, consoling her or letting her cry, vaccinations, education, spiritual formation, etc., and then continue carrying on relationships where other people have also thought long and hard in making those same choices for their kids and somehow come to the wrong conclusions. I know. But the demands I experienced before: sacrificing so much without a choice in the matter, battling so much insecurity and uncertainty about the future, and navigating awkwardness in some relationships because I was so tender? That was also incredibly difficult, and it happened without the obvious joy of a child to bring such delight! Parenting now is difficult because I feel the weight of responsibility so heavily. A child is a real person; the stakes are high. But I take great comfort to know that parenting Annie — and the new baby coming this fall! — is supposed to be overwhelming, and the strength needed for this task comes under the protective shadow of the Holy Spirit. The difficulties of life before and after the arrival of a baby are both satisfied by the same faithful promises of help and joy. Even with the reality of parenthood, the true satisfaction of life is not found in relation to a human child but a heavenly father.

Several people have asked me if motherhood has provided any “healing” from the losses and heartache of the last few years, and it has been interesting to think about. There is so much joy and delight in the very places I was so sorrowful, yes. Maybe even more happiness than I might have experienced otherwise? Who knows. It is not difficult in any way to look at my beautiful girl or my again-expanding midsection and wonder how this could be a blessing, like I had to do with the babies I lost before this. But “healing”? I don’t want to think of it in those terms. The answer to the true problems posed by those miscarriages, the wrestling with death and grief and what it meant to be a mother? Those questions are met with the same gifts I find for the troubles of today: The presence of the Holy Spirit now, and the coming full understanding in the resurrection, when the shadow of death is removed completely.

Many people are burdened with desire for many things — having a baby was not the lone thing I longed for — and the beauty of any wait is that it is not a waste when it clarifies the source of true fulfillment. I look back and say the grief-shadowed wait was beautiful not because it led to children, but because it led me closer to the everlasting shadow of God’s love and protection.

There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. – Isaiah 25:7

My soul will be satisfied… for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. – Psalm 63:4-7

knitting and kneading: the forethought of grief.

“Any day now, any day…” The words we have been hearing every day for over a month are starting to sound like a broken record. Only it’s not a record that’s broken, it’s my grandma: a vibrant, beautiful, brave, eternal soul suffering a cancer that steals her strength, and will entirely devour her mortal flesh soon. Possibly even before I hit “publish” on this post.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry says there is freedom from worry in considering the animals, who “do not tax their life with forethought of grief.” Aaron calls this poem a modern retelling of Matthew 6: Do not worry about your life, look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies, God will take care of you, and all that.  When fear for what our lives and our children’s lives may become grips us, it is wise to, basically, get some perspective, chillax, and stop thinking about what bad things might happen. My dog doesn’t do much worrying (except for the whereabouts of that blasted tennis ball lost in a snowbank outside the local elementary school), and he is a much happier creature than I. Sometimes it is good to learn from animals and quell anxiety. But I am not an animal, I am a person, and someone I have loved my whole life is dying in long-drawn agony. I have forethought of this grief because I am human, and because I am fallen. I suffer because I know there is pain now, and because there will be a empty spot for my Grandma in the rest of my entire life.

This forethought of grief subconsciously works itself out in my domestic endeavors. I must finish the baby blanket for my new niece, Margaret Belle, so I steal a few moments to knit a row here and there. Watching the yarn turn into a blanket is soothing: A long string that would tangle without care can become something lovely, meaningful, and warm. We’ve had a steady stream of freshly-baked bread in the kitchen for weeks and have eaten more homemade pizza in the last month than we had in all of 2014. It is such a simple thing to watch yeast dough rise, sprinkle flour on my counter, feel the springy dough folding under my hands. When you know how this works it doesn’t require much thought, and maybe that’s why I like it right now. My grandma showed me how to do this the first time, and knowing that my family now eats bread because she taught me to bake seems like an everyday testimony to the Resurrection: Life is just a portion of eternity, and death is not really a permanent end. She is a soul and her life continues in eternity. And because she spent her earthly life loving and building up others, the beauty of her life does not end with her death, either.

The fact that my day is full of fore-thought-grief doesn’t change the simple routines that close it: Later than we both would like, Aaron comes home. The dog licks and wags his tail, and then lays under the table. Bread, fresh and hot, dips into soup. The baby passes back and forth between our laps. She keeps reaching for our plates, enjoying the mushed up carrot and bread we offer her. She is kissed, tickled, fed, wiped down from head to toe, diapered, and snugly wrapped for bed. We spent years praying for her before she arrived, and at bedtime we still pray, asking God to give her health, growth, strength, and siblings.

My name is Abigail Rebecca, and I sing my daughter, Anne Rebecca, to sleep:

Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me
Bless Thy little lamb tonight
Through the darkness, be Thou near me
Keep me safe ’til morning light. 

I listen to hear her breathing. She’s congested and sometimes she struggles a bit to inhale. So I hold my breath along with her and wonder if I should just sit on the big chair with her all night? She might sleep better if I hold her upright. Her well-being is more important than my comfort or desire to sleep well tonight.

A full day’s drive away, in another home I know well, my mother, Katrina Rebecca, leans over her mother, Rebecca Belle, performing duties much like mine. We are both tasked with keeping someone clean, comfortable, and freshly changed, while receiving only grunts and moans for direction. She also listens to labored breathing and wonders how to provide the best care. Maybe she sings lullabies, too. But where I pray that my daughter will be healthy and well when I pluck her out of the crib tomorrow, we all hope that maybe Grandma will reach the safety of the eternal light before morning. Is that wrong? How much of this can a person bear?

That question was heavy in the news lately, when a younger woman suffering (in the most appropriate use of that word) from cancer proudly took her own life, in a misplaced effort to take back the control cancer had stolen from her.  Every death is awful and ugly, but I certainly think this must be one of the kinds that tops them all. How much of this can a person bear? How great will the suffering be? How long, oh Lord?

The modern euthanasia movement proclaims they advocate for “death with dignity.” They are wrong. In the English language dignity means having a high sense of propriety, of self-respect, and appreciating the gravity of an occasion or situation. So dignity is not found in control or comfort, but in respect for what is given, and appreciating all that it can become when handled rightly. 
A strand of yarn knit into a blanket.
A scoop of flour kneaded into a loaf of bread.
A cancer diagnosis faced and fought until the end.
This means even in profound suffering, dignity is not about valuing personal comfort above what is right. Dignity does not eschew the pain and embarrassments fraught in the process of dying. Instead, it loudly proclaims that all life is a gift and that suffering, no matter how great, does not diminish an iota of it’s value and beauty.

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Becca Niemi holding Annie Hummel, five weeks. September 2014.

Cancer will soon take enough to kill this woman. It would not make her death more dignified to take even more from her before then. Instead, the most dignified thing to do is to sink in to this grief, both before and after she dies, and honor a life conducted well in health and in illness. Though grief does tax, the right kind of grief can only clarify and increase the blessing of knowing a beautiful woman who personified dignity, demonstrating in the most tangible way possible that weakness and dishonor in death serves to magnify the glory and power of the Resurrection.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. …Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15. 


Rebecca Niemi died at home on January 27, 2015, during the writing of this blog post. Her obituary can be read here, and the audio of her January 31 funeral service is here.