Reflections on Pregnancy and Vocation
“I believe that God has created me together with all that exists.” So begins Luther’s explanation of the first article of the Apostle’s Creed in his Small Catechism. The childlike simplicity of this explanation shouldn’t fool us into thinking it is only meant for confirmation students and those new to the Christian faith. Here is a sentence not meant for memorization but for meditation. Meditation, yes, as we seek to be conformed to Christ and his unworldly wisdom like the children we all are. With the simplicity of faith and trust in words just as these, the Kingdom of God opens to us. We see ourselves not as the world sees us—as isolated, as random, as “consumer”—but as created by a loving God as a bunch of “me-togethers.” These words can be liberating for those of us who inhabit an age of reckless consumerism, of get-ahead individualism, and of suicidal destruction of ecosystems.
Even if our minds have been taught to ignore it, we all know this truth of me-togetherness, because we are bodies, bodies that came from other human beings’ bodies, bodies that are sustained by eating other things once living. I have known this in a particular way as a twin, having emerged into the world together with John, having shared every birthday with him and many, many life experiences. I know it in my own body especially now, as I prepare to have a baby this coming June. God is creating another little me-together in my womb right now. We are me-togethers.
Indeed, I believe that giving birth and being born are intimate, powerful moments when this deep truth of me-togetherness is most manifest in its painful, emotional, bloody, screaming way. After that in the parent-child relationship, the me-togetherness is most intense, as a child continues to depend on the nurture of parents or other guardians and to be shaped profoundly by the environments, stories, questions, and concerns that the parents surround the child with for years to come.
As I find myself preparing to give birth, keenly aware of the child forming in my womb and the unpredictable ways it will change me and I will change it, I can’t help but reflect on vocation, to return to the perennial Schwehn dinnertime conversation topic. How is God calling me in the midst of pregnancy to be faithful to this other life, to this most intimate of neighbors? Early on in the pregnancy, I felt a growing pressure and impatience to have life figured out, to become more articulate, more of an activist, to be the best friend and pastor-in-training and partner ever, to eliminate my hypocrisies one by one. Of course, that isn’t possible. When I let go of perfectionistic fantasies, I recognized that the undergirding tug I feel is a good one; it is a tug to be more faithful, more committed, more loving, in other words, to listen to God and to be rooted and grounded there. It is a tug to push away the old familiar idols of money and self that certain pregnancy literatures lift up (just buy this thing for your baby and it will be perfect; just focus on yourself and your birth experience rather than the fuller mysterious truth of motherhood and your loss of control) and turn with humble terror, with trust, to God the Creator, who is bringing this life forth through me and who will equip me and accompany me for the task of motherhood.
So rather than reflecting narrowly on the vocation of a pregnant woman as unique from others, I instead have been thinking more about how the experience of pregnancy has given me an opportunity for new—and old—insight into what the Christian life means. This experience is an intensification of something all of us know and experience as bodies, this marvelous interconnectedness, this me-togetherness. And this is the first thing I have returned to. Too often, our conversation about vocation can be stunted by uncritical individualism. The question, “How is God calling me?” should be reframed more often as, “How is God calling us to be people of God together?” Particularly as we come face-to-face with larger systems of injustice and destruction in our world—or indeed, with cancer diagnoses and car accidents and other kinds of suffering—we need to be mindful of how action together as community is necessary. Sometimes I want to run and hide from facing things like climate change, because I feel absurdly alone and therefore despairing. The truth is, we find more power and hope than we thought possible when we hear and respond to the call of God together as people of God. New collaborations and practices and gifts are born then.
A second wondering I have had is about sensing vocation amid great vulnerability and amid great power. On the one hand, I have found myself very vulnerable in this season. When someone came into church recently and asked me to help get their car unstuck from a snowbank, I had to decline, to play it safe, and let others go. I can’t lift and move things and be independent like I want to; I can’t always “serve” in that way. Of course, all of this is minor compared to what many other people, suffering from illnesses or living with differing abilities, go through, but I have thought about the grace of accepting limitations and accepting the help of others as a Christian calling. Again, when we see ourselves as me-togethers, as part of a body of the people of God, we can dispense with the heroism and martyr complexes that sometimes arise when we think we need to act in a saving, decisive way alone.
As I embrace this vulnerability, I am also very cognizant of the power I will soon have. The power to name this child, to attach a certain cadence and narrative that the child will carry. The power of shaping environments, of saying “yes” and “no” to things and people who want to encounter this being. In all of this, I am aware that whatever power I think I have is still vulnerable power. Despite my best efforts as gatekeeper, influences will slip in, bad ones and godly ones. As biologist and activist Sandra Steingraber has written, breast milk is a site of toxic trespass (2001). Whether we like it or not, our babies are going to glean harmful toxins from us; they are going to have to reckon with our society’s gendered expectations; they are going to be exposed to sin, ours and theirs and others’. But along with that, greater than that, will be God’s grace working to shape this child and leading it to shape me in new ways as well as God’s promise to love this child to the end and beyond. This is the faith I cling to.
Finally, I have found myself wondering about vocation and liminality. So often, I think that many of us Lutherans, particularly those of us who read The Cresset and have a certain degree of institutional power and privilege, can tend to get stuck in what I’ll call an “establishment” sense of vocation. Our vocation, our calling, is equated with living out the responsibilities and roles of being a parent, citizen, scholar, churchgoer, and on and on. Our vocational questions are focused on discerning which role one is most fit to inhabit: doctor, or lawyer, or gardener? However, sometimes we find ourselves in the liminal places, in the not-yet or simply stuck in the not. Being pregnant is a not-yet place; I am a not-yet parent. And so living among us we have not-yet citizens (or just not citizens), and we have unemployed people and people looking to be employed. How does “vocation” as a concept speak to people in those places, in line, in waiting? What do we have to say to them, to ourselves? Again, I believe that a more communal sense of vocation can be helpful here.
From the vantage point of pregnancy, I mean to assert this critique of thinking too much in an establishment framework with an accompanying affirmation, that wherever we are, established or not, we are all in the process of becoming something else. This is a deeply Christian insight, one that Luther affirms in his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (1521):
This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.
We have less control over life than we wish, we me-togethers created by God. And that can be a blessed thing. May we all embrace the painful, emotional, bloody, screaming blessedness of new birth whenever and wherever it happens to us.
Martha Schwehn Bardwell is pastoral intern at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Luther, Martin. “Small Catechism,” . In The Book of Concord, Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
_____. “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” . In Luther’s Works, Vol. 32. George Forell and Helmut Lehmann, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1958.
Steingraber, Sandra. Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. Cambridge: Decapo, 2001.