“Children, you are not too young. Pray for me as I go on my journey, and as I go I will cover you in prayer.” Vonnia stood at the front of the church, more than eight months pregnant, and addressed the youth of the congregation as she led praise songs. It would be her last Sunday leading worship for some time.
At the beginning of the service, the worship leader had reminded the congregation that “Mrs. Pierce is going to Nassau to deliver. We trust you will bring back a healthy bouncing baby.” It was a curious custom here on the island of Eleuthera, but one that made sense after a little thought. Once a mother is a month away from her due date, the doctor sends her off the island to Nassau. The clinics on Eleuthera cannot handle delivery complications, and so all expectant mothers are sent to deliver at the hospital in Nassau. As the story goes, if you drag your feet and don’t get off the island, the doctor will send his nurses to your house to strongly remind you.
As Vonnia stood in front of the church, encouraging the young people that God had a plan for their generation and they were a part of that plan, the scene was thrillingly fraught with Advent imagery. Vonnia, praising God and giving her speech of thanks, almost the image of Mary mid-Canticle. A woman preparing to leave her home and family, to go on a journey, during which she would deliver a son. Just over a week until Christmas and here it was playing out in front of us.
Giving space for an expectant mother to prophesy seemed to bring the past forward with dramatic reenactment, while simultaneously revealing how far we had come from that past as a woman’s voice addressed the congregation. Vonnia was bringing the word, humbling me with her energy and her vision for my generation. And she was bringing the truth home in song as well, “If it had not been… for The Lord on my side… tell me where would I be, where would I be.” Where would I be indeed. I had been plucked up once again from miry clay and had my feet planted on solid ground. And there were a lot of people that I was grateful to for that. Abe and Brenda for inviting me to stay on Eleuthera. Pauline and Maxine for simply loving me. Manex and Leroy and TJ for befriending me. But as Vonnia led the congregation in song, and I stood, arms reaching heavenward, not fighting the tears, I realized that my gratitude, although warranted, had been misplaced. Psalm 56 once again came to mind, “This I know, that God is for me.”
God, as usual, was intent on me understanding that though there were many who might love me and support me, it was God’s hand that was on me to protect and to lead. The moment, pardon the phrase, was pregnant with meaning and spiritual intensity.
I was looking forward to reflecting on all this powerful Advent imagery when I got home, but was somewhat shocked to find words and meaning eluded me. Yes, it was remarkable and beautiful to see Mary’s story reflected by Vonnia’s leadership. But I felt like there was something deeper, below the surface of the beauty, that I needed to grasp.
Sunday passed into Monday, and still I wrestled; which could mean only one thing, it was time to return to the garden. After a week’s absence due to illness, my body was grateful to feel full of strength and life again and my mind was grateful for the solitude in which to wrestle.
I was plagued throughout the morning with painful thoughts and memories, this had happened before, but for the first time, I thought to ask God, why? Why is all this pain and regret and hurt coming to mind? ‘Because I am trying to show you something. These are walls and distractions.’ Knowing that they were distractions to my attention, and not meant to be the focus of my attention, they began to lose their power and dissipate as I continued to open myself up to hear.
About halfway through the day, up to my elbows in tomato plants, it came to me; or it seemed to at least. The canticle was what my mind latched onto, the similarity between Vonnia’s song and Mary’s. But the delivery of the song was what intrigued me. Whereas Mary delivered her song more privately; Vonnia delivered hers publicly as a woman given a voice in front of the congregation. Whereas Mary delivered hers while an object of suspicion in the community; Vonnia delivered hers while being honored by the community.
It made me ponder how we send people off; how we transition in the church. I wondered what it would have been like if Mary had lived during a time when she could have been honored, when she could have told her story, when she could have been sent forth on her journey lifted up by the people around her. Maybe it struck a chord because it was something I longed for in every transition – support and connection from my community.
I was making progress, but I knew I was not there yet. There was something powerful about the way Vonnia spoke, especially to the children, and the way her community supported her as she departed for her journey. It was something I felt sure I would appreciate and ponder for years to come. But whatever God was trying to reveal, I knew I was not there quite yet.
That night, despite the day of hard labor, I did not find sleep to come as easily as it usually did. It finally did arrive in the midst of a four word conversation with God; my two words, “I’m scared.” God’s two words, “Trust me.” Back and forth until I fell into peaceful sleep on my tear dampened pillow.
The next morning the pain in my quads and biceps told the story of the price my body had paid to give my heart the space to wrestle there in the garden. The up – down, pull – push, reach – lift, rhythm of a full day’s work had left its mark. But I was only half-way through clearing the garden and, the irony not lost on me, only half-way through clearing my head. So on we must go.
I tore through the weeds with vigor, determined that my physical task would be accomplished that day even if my soul searching had not found its goal.
My mind wrestled as my hands fought with the weeds that seemed to become increasingly strong as I approached the edge of the beds where the advance of the deeply entrenched field weeds was the strongest.
I pondered the pain of leaving. How difficult it must have been for Mary to leave her home, her friends, her family to go and deliver in another city where she did not know anyone and there was not even any room in the inn. At least in Vonnia’s case, we knew she had a place to stay in Nassau until the birth. Yet in both cases, it still could not be easy to leave family and friends and deliver in a strange place. I knew I was getting closer.
Then, I received a hint, gratefully. ‘Don’t let gender distract you. Who else beside Mary and Vonnia had to leave family and friends and their own town in order to be faithful?’
Well, then it was suddenly easy, Abraham! And not the Eleutheran one, the Hebrew one.
When God is about to do something new, God often calls people into a journey. This clashes with our culture, and perhaps even our church culture, that tells us that long tenure is the sign of steadfast faithfulness and looks with suspicion upon the wanderer. But when God calls us apart, when God wants us for Godself, when God wants to calm the buzz and hum of chatter and rumor and pressure and conversation – then we go. There is no other choice.
I realized that I had been feeling a bit resentful towards God on Mary’s behalf. Sending her off to give birth alone rather than in the company of her women. But it was not an act of cruelty on God’s part to rip her out of her world; it was an act of faith on her part, and on Joseph’s, to journey first to Bethlehem and then to Egypt. They journeyed as they gestated, delivered, and protected new life.
“Mary pondered these things in her heart.” During her time of delivery, God took Mary on a journey away from the whispers and questions about where this baby came from, away from the daily concerns and gave her a space of greater intimacy with God. A space where she could ponder these things in her heart. Without the midwives of her town, God was her midwife. As the Psalms say more than once, “you took me from my mother’s womb.” Without the support of her family and friends around her, God encircled Mary and her Joseph; God was their mother, father, sister, midwife, friend.
God, who loves to draw us apart, and teach us that life is not always found in the midst of the crowd, must have a special affection for the introvert.
Sometimes a gestation of new life is physical, as in the case of Mary and Vonnia, and sometimes it is spiritual as in the case of Abraham. What a strange thing that God calls us to journey just at the moment when we want to stay, to be comfortable, to nest. But God does not lead us out because God wants us to be alone; God leads us out because we need this to understand that we are not alone.
The last bit of clarity I felt was just how early I still was in my spiritual gestation. Whatever God was building inside of me, we were just at the beginning. And now, just when I want to stay, just when I want to nest, I know that the journey continues. I know that in a week I will leave this island and I will find my way into whatever the next part of the journey is. This is not where I will deliver. But I was not ripped from my world when I chose to come here, and I am not being ripped from my world now. I am not ripped from my world any more than Mary was, any more than Abraham was. I am choosing to follow; I am choosing to leave just as I chose to come. ‘Take courage, I am forming something new. You are not alone.’ In that there is deep peace for this wandering soul.
“And Mary pondered these things in her heart.” May we all find the space in these remaining days of Advent to ponder deeply what God is gestating in each of us.