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I remember it like it was yesterday. In one of the darkest moments of my life, I remember standing in church on a Sunday morning, tears running down my face, experiencing deep pain and shame in the sanctuary during worship. The congregation was ascribing worth to the God who created us and loves us, and there I was, seemingly invisible to the 400-500 other people in the space, unable to mutter a word.
A vow was made in that moment. The promise I made to myself was this: If and when I see someone visibly shaken or seemingly struggling in a public space, I will lean in and be curious with them no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
It was on that Sunday morning, some 20 years ago, that God made me a midwife.
I’ve committed my life to create brave spaces where people can take one step beyond their normal level of comfort to pursue the transformation they desire. In Christian circles, we often hear the phrase “create a safe space,” but I’ve come to believe that few spaces are really safe because there are usually people there!
Thus our need for midwives.
What is a midwife? I can hear you asking. “A midwife is someone, most often a woman, trained to assist mothers in the process of labor, delivery and postpartum care,” writes Michael Frost in his book, To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities. The impetus for the book is the mental model Frost believes, noting that God is giving birth to new creation all around humanity and humanity is invited to join God in this process.
If you’ll recall with me, midwives have been around for centuries. In Exodus 1, we are introduced to the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah. Shiphrah and Puah feared God, disobeyed the Egyptian King, and assisted the Hebrew women in giving birth to their babies and kept the boys alive.
As we think about the role of the midwife today, it is important to note that the midwife doesn’t give birth to the baby; rather, the midwife creates the environment in which labor may happen. The midwife is “the opener of doors, the one who releases, the nurturer. She is the strong anchor when there is fear and pain; the skilled friend who is in tune with the rhythms of birth,” Sheila Kitzinger explains. Another role the midwife has is to help the one giving birth realize that everything needed to birth the child is already at her disposal. It’s already within.
There is an Augustinian feel to this concept…God is nearer to us than our own breath.
Jesus once paid a visit to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. This is a familiar encounter in Scripture where Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ understanding of the way to inherit life. Confused by the revelation from Jesus that no one can see the kingdom of God “without being born from above,” Nicodemus asks the all-important question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)
Jesus replied to this question similar to the ways Jesus often answered questions. Jesus doesn’t allow Nicodemus to hear the answer and simply move on. Rather, Jesus makes Nicodemus think. “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life,” Jesus says. (John 3:5-6, NLT)
Can you feel any of the tension that Nicodemus felt?
For those of us who are in Christ, who have been baptized into the visible membership of the Church, the Spirit is alive and well in us. As midwives we have the power of the Holy Spirit – “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:20) – in us to create braves spaces that are ripe with hope and opportunities for transformation for us and those we have been called to love.
Frost seems to believe that God supplies the power, and we have agency to engage. “We join the story, not as bystanders or even as recipients, but as companions, giving out of what we’ve been given. Just as the midwife comes alongside a laboring mother, so we are invited to come alongside God in the miracle of birthing new life for the world around us,” Frost writes.
Our task, if you wish to join the work of the midwife, is to pay attention to where God is at work in the world and to invite others to join God and us in this work. Our task is to be there when pain and fear are present, to open the door, and to nurture people in order that environments where transformation might be possible are created.
This is my dream for the church! My dream includes the church being full of midwives who are present to the pain around them. My dream includes the church being a place where the broken, hurt and marginalized souls among us are seen.
Last Sunday, I introduced the idea of the window of tolerance (WOT), this space between two poles where I am able to be curious, relaxed, balanced, and engage both my heart and mind. It is when I find myself in my WOT that I am a less reactive person, am more thoughtful because I can access the thinking part of my brain, and I am more inclined to open the door for another and to nurture them in ways that create the space for transformation. It is when I find myself in my WOT that I see those around me and am able to remind them that they have all they need in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be transformed.
As humans created in the image of God, one of our God-given desires is to know and to be known — to see and be seen. Some have a natural proclivity to this work; others are less inclined to lean in for one reason or another. This is a place of curiosity for me.
What keeps us from seeing the broken, hurt and marginalized among us? What keeps us from engaging?
I wonder if it is fear? “I don’t know what to say?” “I don’t want to make matters worse for another, so I will just keep quiet.”
Is it selfishness? “Do I have enough margin in my own life to spend the time necessary to create a hospitable space for another? No! In fact, I don’t have time for myself.” Or, “maybe Jesus wasn’t really talking to me when he said ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did it also me?’”
The list can go on and on and on. It is possible that there is a very good reason that we don’t engage. It’s possible we have work to do in our own lives; and if that’s true, what keeps us from doing that work? These are just some of the questions that come to mind for me. I wonder what questions surface for you?
And I wonder if maybe, just maybe, you might ask the Holy Spirit to give you eyes to see and ears to hear those around you in need of a good midwife?
What a beautiful dream for our churches… as places full of midwives who are present to the pain around them! Thanks for your post and introducing the much needed idea of WOTs last week too.
This is wonderful, Chris. Very perceptive. There is so much power in the story of the midwives. Thank you.