FROM CHAOS TO COMMUNITY: Birth
When I start laughing really, really hard, I shed tears. I find this very embarrassing, but some people in my life, especially my two sons, absolutely LIVE to make me laugh so hard that I cry. I’ve always been this way—easy to shed tears, whether from laughing too hard or crying.
So, when I read the story of Abraham discovering at the ripe old age of one hundred, and his wife Sarah at ninety, receiving the news that Sarah is pregnant, and the writer of the story says, “Sarah laughed to herself,” I wonder if she also shed a few tears.
LAUGHTER AND CRYING
by Dawn Chesser
Laughter and crying are similar emotions when it comes to the body. According to Robert R. Provine, PhD, “Both occur during states of high emotional arousal, involve lingering effects, and don’t cleanly turn on and off.” Shedding tears, whether from laughter or from crying, releases cortisol and adrenaline into the body. Both hormones are normally released in response to stress. When these hormones start flowing, the heart beats faster and stronger, and the bronchial tubes open up, all of which is good for us, because it helps ease our stress. Scientists also theorize that very hard laughter puts pressure on the tear ducts, similar to the way being in strong winds or bright sunlight or other irritants bothers our eyes, causing tears to fall. This response is called “reflex tears.”
After all, news of a baby coming, even if it is long-anticipated and expected, throws us into a state of chaos. I remember well when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. It was not a planned pregnancy. I felt an incredible mix of wonder and joy, shock, fear, and whatever else a person may experience when confronted with a life-changing event. Having a child changes things. It changes the relationship between spouses. It changes the household. It changes how we feel about ourselves.
My mom had a baby when she was forty years old. That means that when she was the age I am now, she had a lower-elementary aged child. She and my dad still had many years of parenting left. It changed not just her life, but the lives of all the members of our family.
And today, I can’t help but think of all the mothers around the world who learn of their pregnancies while living in war zones, or refugee camps, or residing as undocumented people in foreign countries. I think of young women who become pregnant by accident and whose choices over their reproductive health are increasingly being limited, not only in the United States but around the world. It must be an incredibly difficult mixture of emotions to bring a new life into a very unsafe and broken environment. Perhaps it is the ultimate act of courage and hope.
To complicate matters even further for Sarah, Abraham already had a son, Ishmael, born to Sarah’s slave, Hagar. We know that the birth of Isaac greatly affected how Sarah felt about her husband’s other son and that son’s mother. We will confront that painful story next week.
Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that Ishmael’s very existence was the result of Sarah’s problems with infertility. I can’t imagine how this story falls on the ears of people in our congregations who want to bear a child as desperately as Sarah must have, but whose dreams are crushed by the inability to conceive or carry a baby to term.
So this is a very difficult situation, for Sarah and Abraham, and for all of us as we consider issues of pregnancy and childbirth in our own lifetime. At the very least, the pregnancy throws the household of Sarah and Abraham into chaos. They must face their deepest fears. They must renegotiate their relationship with each other and with other members of the household. They must prepare to support their child well into their... what?...mid-100s?
But let us recall that last week I wrote about how it is often in our most chaotic, jumbled-up, messy moments that God shows up most profoundly.
So in this little scene, there are at least three distinct incidents of God being actively present in the midst of this chaotic, transitional moment for Abraham and Sarah and their household.
The first one comes when God speaks to Abraham and orders him to change what he calls his wife from Sarai to Sarah, because something big is about to happen. Something so big, in fact, that it requires a name change.
Giving a name or changing a name is a mark of major life transition. In many cultures around the world, giving a baby a name signals an event that is so profound that is marked by a ritual action. For example, in Hinduism, naming a baby is a sacred action that occurs on the twelfth day of life in an elaborate ceremony involving friends and family members. And in the Jewish tradition, boys are named on the eighth day of life, in a ritual circumcision called a brit milah.
Changing names also involves ritual action. The most obvious example, of course, is the tradition of women changing their last names to their husband’s surname after the ritual act of a marriage ceremony. (When I married my husband, I chose not to change my last name. But I did invite Scot to change his last name to mine! He politely declined.) And for women who have been divorced, reclaiming one’s maiden name may signal an important step in the path to recovery, whether it is marked by a ceremony or not.
ON CHANGING NAMES
by Taylor W. Burton Edwards
I was not born with the name Taylor Watson Burton Edwards. Burton was an addition made intentionally.
As my spouse and I were considering getting married, we thought carefully about what we would do with our names at marriage. I had been previously married (my first wife had died). and had simply kept my birth name. Grace and I were committed to equality and mutuality for our marriage, and we both wanted our marriage to be distinct from my previous one. After considering multiple options, we landed on both of us taking on a new last name: Burton Edwards. [continue reading]
So we know that changing a name signals something big in human life. In this case, the command from God to Abraham, that his wife is now to be known as Sarah, is accompanied by the news that after a lifetime of infertility, his ninety-year-old wife will soon be giving birth to a son. God will bless Abraham for generations through the birth of this child. Nations will come from her. Kings of nations will come from her.
What does Abraham do in response to this shocking news? He falls flat on his face and he LAUGHS. Might he have laughed so hard that he shed a few tears? Might he have needed a good shot of cortisol and adrenaline to relieve some of the stress of having to deliver this news to Sarah? Might he have needed that stress relief for himself???
In this case, however shocking and tear-producing the news might have been, the fact is that the first chaos brought by God in our series is a joyful chaos. It is celebrated with a meal: water, bread, cakes, meat, milk, curds. This is a lot of food! It is a feast of joy among Abraham and his three male visitors, strangers who just happen to land on their doorstep and who already know that Sarah is expecting a child. It’s a good thing that God-in-three-persons showed up a second time! Right there in this midst of this chaos, at the door to the tent, just at the right time to help Abraham deliver the news to Sarah.
And of course, God is present with Sarah when she overhears the news. And just like her husband, she laughs. We know this because God asks Abraham why Sarah laughed. All of which begs the question: Did Sarah laugh so hard that she cried?
All of this reminds me of my favorite lines from William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence (thanks, Fred Conger).
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
God is with us in our moments of greatest joy, and God is with us though the inevitable chaos and sorrow that life brings. God us with us in our friends and family, and God is with us in strangers who suddenly show up and bring us a word of hope and clarity in the midst of the jumbled, chaotic messes of life. God is with us in the familiar and God is with us in the unexpected.
The good news is, no matter what we must face, we don’t face it alone. We face life together, in community with Christ, and in community with one another, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
God is with us.
Praise be to the Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Praise be to Jesus Christ, our Lord, Emmanuel, God with us.
I was not born with the name Taylor Watson Burton Edwards. Burton was an addition made intentionally.
As my spouse and I were considering getting married, we thought carefully about what we would do with our names at marriage. I had been previously married (my first wife had died). and had simply kept my birth name. Grace and I were committed to equality and mutuality for our marriage, and we both wanted our marriage to be distinct from my previous one. After considering multiple options, we landed on both of us taking on a new last name: Burton Edwards.
Doing this required some legal work on our part. Both of us had to obtain legal name change rulings from a probate judge, change our social security cards, passports, and driver’s licenses, and then start notifying everyone else how to address us from now on. It was a lot of work, took some time, and still confuses some people and legal systems. When we moved to Georgia in 2014, for example, Grace had to produce both our marriage license and our legal name change orders (despite the fact that she had a legal Indiana license and a passport with her name listed correctly on it) to get a Georgia driver’s license. (I wasn’t asked to do any of this. Go figure.)
But it was worth it. And it is still worth it.
Today, more people are finding value in having their names legally changed for all kinds of reasons. Some choose different names when they become adults. Others choose new names as or after they move through a gender or sex transition. Always, the choice to change one’s name reflects a significant change in identity that one seeks to make, a new identity that may also create a variety of legal, personal, or economic challenges as the individual seeks to live into it.
Baptism had been a primary time of “new naming” for Christians in generations past, and still is in some cultures today. It was at baptism that one took on one’s “Christian name.” Truly, at baptism, we do all take on a new name and a new identity, one we did not inherit simply from birth: “Child of God.”
That name becomes indelible on us in ways even our birth name may not. Recently, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to help advise a person who had made a sex transition and who had legally changed the name walk through the process of getting the baptismal certificate changed as well. The first name on that certificate has now changed. But the name God gave never will.
I am grateful to be part of a church that recognizes the power in naming and that is ready to stand by people who come to place in their lives where they discover it is time to change their name.