Another example of the mother-daughter bond. (Sorry, this one is longer...I didn't know where to cut!!)
December 12, 2004
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
This time of year, when we share in Mary’s joy, we anticipate with wonder and awe the miracle of Christmas in the birth of the Christ child. But I can’t help but recall another young woman who was pregnant and homeless and facing a difficult future.
I met Marshay at a shelter in St. Louis for homeless pregnant and parenting teens when I was a student at Eden Theological Seminary. I was doing my field education work there that semester. I would go to the shelter weekly and meet with the girls around their large dining room table. They ranged in age from 13 to 17. Some of the faces would change from week to week as girls moved in and out of the house. Some left because they were able to “graduate” to another level of care—moving closer to independent living with their babies. But some would run away, others were asked to leave because they couldn’t follow the rules…they would usually go to amore restrictive environment. A very, very few were able to go “home” and live with a relative.
When the girls came downstairs for our time together, most were not happy to be there. It seemed like just one more required meeting…and they had plenty. They met with social workers and case workers, counselors and healthcare workers. They had group meetings and individual meetings; they had classes, discussions and lectures. They also went to school, some held part-time jobs and they cared for the house, themselves and their babies. They certainly weren’t impressed with me with a bible in my hand, a carefully laid out plan in my head, and naïve idealism in my heart.
So, things didn’t always go the way I had envisioned…take the night I describe here in an email to a friend…
**Tough crowd at Olive Branch tonight...it felt so right to be there.
I started out with a plan, but soon realized it wasn't going to work, so I decided to get them to talk. I asked about their day--what was the worst, what was the best that happened today? Not much response. I stumbled around awhile longer. Finally I told them this was their time. I didn't want to do something they weren't interested in.
"What do you want?" I asked them. "What are your questions?"
They just poured out.
"Why are people so stupid?"
"Why are people mean to each other?"
"Why do people have to suffer?"
One asked, "Is the world going to end by fire? Did it begin with water and it's going to end by fire?"
We looked up the creation story in Genesis 1. Yep, the world began with water and wind.
"That means it will end with fire," she said, leaning back in her chair with confidence...no fear in evidence.
I said, "Some people think so," and began to explain that Revelations is a dream...but she went on before I could get two sentences out.
"What's judgment day?"
I began to explain, "...well, some people think..."
"So no one knows what he looks like?"
"God or Jesus?" I asked.
"No," I said.
She looked unimpressed when she asked, "Don't know if he's black or white?"
"What do you think?" I asked, in a moment of inspiration. "What do you think God looks like?"
"Like me," she said without hesitation.
"You're right," I said, looking unwaveringly into her eyes. I think I passed her test, because she nodded as I continued. "It says God made us in God's own image, so if we are the image of God, then God is black and white and..."
"...Everything else," she said with a nod of certainty.
There was another young woman there who was not so certain. She had a lot of anger and a lot of questions "for the man upstairs," as she called God. She's not sure she believes and she does not understand why people suffer without relief. Why did those people kill her cousin? She was a good person, and they just took advantage of her goodness.
The young woman says she had faith at one time, prayed every day. "But nothing changed...it just got worse...so I gave up."
I didn't have an answer for why good people suffer, just to say that I don't think God causes suffering. "Tragic things happen in our lives and we make bad choices," I said. "And God is there to help us through it, to give us strength."
But she would have none of it. "If that's a blessing, than I've got some stuff to say to him!" I didn't push it much further. It took a long time to build up such anger and disappointment. It's not going away quickly...and it's not mine to take away.
I told them they had good questions and that it's ok to ask them. I said a lot of people are wondering the same things. I told them I will not tell them I have the answers or try to make them believe a certain way. I said we'd wrestle with the questions together.
It was time to do an activity, and I returned to my original plans. I asked them if they would write down what they are thankful for, so that I can share it at the Olive Branch Thanksgiving dinner Monday night. I told them they didn't have to if they didn't want to. With the discussion going as it did, and few of them willing to share their blessings out loud, as I had invited them earlier, I wasn't sure they would want to.
They didn't hesitate. They all participated, writing each word carefully, some of them decorating their pages in bright colors. They are thankful for their families, their babies--born and unborn--their lives, going to sleep safely and waking up.
One wrote, "When I wake up and look at all the times I could have been killed, shooted or even raped, I thank God I didn't." She's a 13-year-old with a two-month-old baby.
One wrote, "I am also thankful for myself. In other words, thankful cause God gives me the strength to care for myself when no one else does." She did not share out loud during the whole meeting.
The one who isn't sure she believes? She's thankful that her grandmother "is still alive, and whenever I am down, I can always talk to her." And she's thankful for brothers and sisters who look up to her and love her.
The one who knows she looks like God? Among other things (she wrote three pages), she's thankful for Olive Branch because "They brung me off the streets with nothing to look back on. Now I have myself and my life to attend to."
Me? I'm just thankful I was there to be in the presence of Christ. I sure don't know what I'm doing, but I'm even more sure that he does. Praise God from whom all blessings flow...**
Marshay was the one who wanted to have a talk with the “Man upstairs.” At the time, she was pregnant with a little girl. She came to class each week and wore the same chip on her shoulder, expressed the same wariness in her voice and kept the same suspicious look in her eyes whenever I spoke. But she always participated. I had decided that the best way to get them to talk and share was to bring a different craft project each week. I didn’t have to have a specific plan for what they would make with the materials I provided, because their creativity was always greater than mine anyway. Marshay made some of the most beautiful artwork and wrote some of the most profound poetry and prose.
Marshay delivered way too early and her little girl, Kyra, wasn’t able to leave the hospital. She would visit the neo-natal ICU as often as she could and continued to attend our gatherings whenever she was in the house. I made a couple of trips to the hospital myself. It was the first time I had seen such tiny sick babies. Here is how I described one visit to friends.
**Just wanted to share my experience this afternoon with you. Thanks to Gayle's encouragement, I went to Children's Hospital and visited Kyra, Marshay's baby after church. I had to face some anxieties about going--hospitals in general, children's units, ICU. I was going to wait until I knew Marshay would be there. Anyway, it was easier to get in than I thought, and the nursing staff was very kind.
When I went in, there were all these tiny babies in beds hooked up to lines and tubes. There were families at many of them. They all had the same look in there eyes--a mixture of fear and hope. No one was visiting Kyra at the time, but a nurse was feeding her. She trembled when she put the dropper in her mouth and the nurse held her hands to help stop the trembling. There were things on and around her bed that made me think of Marshay keeping vigil as much as she can...a valentine with Kyra's name, a teddy bear...
She's so tiny. She weighs about 3 pounds, now. She's stable, but the nurse said the long-term prognosis is not good. They want Marshay to sign a no-code agreement, but she won't. I asked about the blindness, and the nurse said she was to have laser surgery on her eyes, but she didn't know the results.
She was still in one of those beds with the protective glass that has those circles on the side where you can put your hands through (I don't know what they are called, and, truthfully, I've only seen them on TV). While I was there, they moved her to a bigger bed without that protective thing, so I am hoping that's a sign that she's doing better. The nurse let me touch her (after I washed my hands), and I stroked her fuzzy hair, her tiny feet, her little balled up fist...and I prayed for her and Marshay.
Normally, I pray for whatever happens to be the best thing for the person and the person's family. But this time, I just prayed for Kyra to live. Marshay needs to know that God does not take everything away that you hold dear. That's been her life experience. She is struggling so much with why do bad things happen to good people and why doesn't God answer my prayers. I just wanted her to have a reason to believe...
But on the way home, I realized it was my own faith that is in question. I want a miracle. I want to know that there is something more to this baby's life than living in that hospital bed. I admitted that to God, but I haven't changed my prayer. I still want Kyra to live. I still want Marshay to believe. And, as unrealistic as it sounds, I still want to see a miracle happen.
I left a card and a tiny stuffed lamb toy with the nurse. In the card, I told Marshay I had been there and would be back to see her and the baby. I told her that the lamb is a symbol of Jesus and that I am praying that Jesus watch over them both.
I know that even if the baby dies, there has been a purpose to her life and that God is present in our lives. I know in time that Marshay could still believe in a compassionate God. I also know that if the baby lives, she and Marshay will have a lot more struggles to go through...I know that this is hard, and I believe it's hard on God, too. I just hope that I and others in Marshay's life can convey the compassion and all encompassing love of God to her and that she can feel it and see it in her own life.
That, finally, after all my fears, doubts and anger are set aside, is my prayer.**
Kyra weighed one pound at birth. Nearly three months later, she weighed a little over three pounds. She still couldn’t breath without assistance. In my mind, I knew the nurses were right—she wasn’t going to live. But my heart was with Marshay—wanting and waiting for a miracle. Any time I asked about the baby, Marshay would give a weak smile and say, “She’s doing better.” But eventually, even she realized that Kyra’s frail little body wasn’t strong enough to sustain her soul. A few weeks after that first visit to the neo-natal unit, I went back to be with Marshay as she stayed with Kyra the night before medical personnel were to take the baby off the machines. To tell you the truth, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do that night but be present. We exchanged very few words, but Marshay asked if I would conduct the funeral. The next morning, Marshay held Kyra in her arms as the machines were turned off. The baby died a few minutes later.
At the funeral, Kyra looked like a perfect china doll in the tiny white coffin. Marshay looked up at me the same suspicion in her eyes as I delivered the eulogy. Although the room was filled, my words were just for her. I told her about the hope we have in Christ, that death does not win…that Kyra’s life, brief as it was, was not lived in vain. “God is grieving, too,” I said. “God did not want this, God does not enjoy seeing you in pain, but he is right here with you, sharing the pain. “You did nothing to cause this,” I told her. “You were a good mother.” I told her I hoped my words would make sense to her one day, some day when the pain is less sharp, the memory more a comfort than a loss.
Then I read her own words of hope in the form of a poem written about Kyra. It was an exercise from one of our weekly gatherings, a formula poem that is designed to lead the writer to better self-understanding. She wrote the first one for herself:
Kind, caring, smart, pretty
Lover of Kyra, God and my grandmother
Who dreams of happiness, Kyra getting better and to go to college
Who needs love, family and God
Who gives love, kindness and laughter
Who fears sadness, death and my mother
Who would like to see people getting better, people being happy
and kind people all the time
Then she wrote one for Kyra:
Strong, pretty, sweet, bless
Lover of Mom and God
Who dreams of happiness, love
Who needs attention, God and Mom
Who gives love, happiness
Who fears nothing
Who would like to se home with family
“Isn’t it wonderful,” I said, “that Kyra will never have to fear anything? Isn’t it a sign of divine love that Kyra is home with her family in God?”
Yes, when I think about Mary and her hymn of thanksgiving and joy to the Lord, I can’t help but think of Marshay. I don’t know where she is right now. I imagine that this time of year, she thinks about her little girl, her first born, Kyra. She would be about six years old, now. These poems were her own unique Magnificat, although she would never have seen them that way. I hope when Marshay looks back, she can feel a little bit of the hope that Mary expresses…that she can say with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” I hope she can see with Mary that God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” I hope her life is blessed.
How would your own unique Magnificat develop? What are the blessings in your life? If they do not come to mind right away, look deeper. They may appear at first as burdens, as sorrows, as anything but hopeful. Keep looking, where’s the joy in those places of despair? Where’s the presence of God in those times of fear? Look closely—is God holding you up? Nudging you forward onto an unknown path? Cautioning you from running headlong into a deadly path?
In this season of hope and love, this season of joy and peace…as we wait expectantly with Mary for the miraculous birth of the Christ child, let us each write our own Magnificat on our hearts. Let our own souls magnify the Lord and seek out new ways to express just how grateful we are for the life we have in Christ. And one more thing, share the blessings, the good news…don’t keep it a secret, tell everyone…a child will be born to us, and through him, we will be born again.