Preaching To the Choir

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“Why is the “e” word (evangelism) so hard? How can the Christian faith be something you keep to yourself … or keep for yourself?” – Tweeted by @lensweet 3/16/11

“What we want is not more books about Christianity, but more books by Christians on other subjects.” – C.S. Lewis

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"Faith and Reason United," Ludwig Seitz (1844–1908), via wiki commons

Sometimes I wonder if what I’m doing here, on this blog, is what I’m supposed to be doing.

I do a lot of religious writing. You might not know it, based on the topics covered here, but basically that’s what I do. It’s refreshing to write about the things I believe without feeling like I have to justify—or worse, explain—them. On the other hand, when I do religious writing, I’m essentially preaching to the choir.

Now, being a church choir director, I’m fully aware that choirs need just as much preaching as everyone else. Still, I wonder if I’m using my gift of gab in the way God really wants me to. Am I supposed to use this blog, for instance, as a platform to talk matters of faith more overtly?

The trouble is that I really don’t think people would read it. (Except for the proverbial choir.) If you start talking faith outside of a church, people hunch their shoulders and back away. That sounds terrible, but I don’t think it really is. Here’s the thing. Talking about matters of faith doesn’t really do anything. But when you act, people notice. This is why I think it’s so shortsighted to fixate on the idea that faith alone saves. Faith is expressed in the body, by what we do—in works.

 “Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing.
It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
Rich Mullins

I always try to speak from the standpoint of reason, because I think faith unguided by reason gets corrupted too easily. Reason can also corrupt faith, but I think it’s less likely. Those who shy away from religion often do so because they think faith stands opposed to reason—a viewpoint, I’m sorry to say, that people who profess to be Christian often reinforce. But it’s not true.

Two quick examples.

1. The Israelites were told to circumcise as a visible sign of their belonging to the people of God. But it turns out that circumcision helped, in less sanitary times at least, to reduce disease and infection. There was a practical reason/benefit behind an ancient religious teaching.

2.  For a more modern example: people fume at the Catholic Church for holding the line on birth control and insisting only on natural family planning. But if you look objectively at the world, you see that the benefit of unlimited, supposedly consequence-free sex comes at a high price: hormones in the water supply causing who knows what effects on total fertility, and strokes, to name a couple. Not to mention, since contraception became widely available, the divorce rate has skyrocketed (Janet Smith addresses this issue here, beginning at the bottom of page 6). To me, it seems clear that even though the teaching is religious, it’s based on an entirely practical, reasonable view of the world.

Reason, formed by faith. Faith, founded on reason.

I don’t fill my corner of the e-universe with religious platitudes because I’d like to think that if I live my whole life by faith, it will come through in what I write. And isn’t that, ultimately, what’s most likely to make someone sit up and take notice?

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An Infertility Story, Part 4–Conclusion

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pregnant Mary

Image by aka_lusi via Flickr

For part 1, click here.
For part 2, click here.
For part 3, click here.

Surgery recovery is ugly: me and anesthesia don’t get along. But the news is: definitely PCO; definitely mild to moderate endometriosis (now burned out and out of the equation); no blockage of the fallopian tubes or scarring. Dr. Stegman prescribes glucophage, because PCO is an insulin-resistance condition. I resist the idea of starting long-term medicine—by now I have a screaming antipathy to pharmaceuticals for anything related to fertility. But he convinces me that the end, in this case, is worth the drug. And he’s right, because almost immediately my irregular cycles settle into a reasonable pattern of length.

My college roommate emails to announce her first pregnancy. It’s a big moment for me, because weeping is my second reaction; first, I feel joy on her behalf.

We are feeling hopeful for the first time since it all began. Christian uncovers some research which reveals that the water in our region is filled with alachlor, diazanon and atrazine, which adversely impact male fertility. We go to Lowe’s and pick up a PUR water filter, because we drink a lot of water.

Thanksgiving Day, the priest talks about the Gospel passage “Seek and you shall find.” In Greek, he says, it actually says keep seeking and you shall find; keep knocking, and it shall be opened to you. It seems particularly apt.

By Christmas of 2002, we’ve decided it’s time to start the adoption process. We tell our families. Mostly, there is support, both loud and quiet…but one family member can’t accept that there’s more to this than the fact that we’re stressing out about it. Christian blows up, and I get a rare glimpse of just how deeply this affects him emotionally, even though he doesn’t talk about it. 

In January 2003, we begin collecting paperwork for our “dossier” to send to Russia. We don’t stop trying to conceive, and we consult via phone with Dr. Stegman, who prescribes various things to try to help improve the quality of my signs…but it’s time to move on. “I love my Russian adopted children already,” I write, “but I still ache for the fulfillment of womanhood.”

On Holy Saturday of 2003, I have a dream. In it, I’m sitting on the floor, holding my adopted children. I wake up feeling completely at peace for the first time in as long as I can remember.

Late spring, we finish the dossier and head to the Secretary of State’s office to have it “apostiled” (think notary on steroids), and mid-June 2003, the paperwork heads to Russia. We are officially expecting. And it’s a good thing, too, because a few weeks later, Dr. Stegman announces he’s moving, and his partner, Dr. Dixon, is too overbooked to take on new patients. I go on his waiting list. In July, we have our fingerprints taken by BCIS, and we receive travel visas. It feels real—even more so when my sister gets The Call in August, and starts making plans for travel to China. At last, my Journal begins to fill up with normal life again, without the pain and angst of unfulfilled dreams.

At first, we expect the wait to be about the length of a pregnancy. But specifics are hard to come by. We call the agency every so often to keep a finger on the pulse of our wait. By the time the 9-month mark comes along, the wait is still 9 months long. I fill the time by learning some rudimentary Russian.

In the meantime, I get a call in November 2003: Dr. Dixon’s practice has opened up enough to offer me a spot. I take it, promising that I won’t crunch their schedule with infertility appointments right now, as we’re expecting to adopt shortly; we’ll get back to infertility treatments after we bring our Russian kiddos home.

The “infertility moments,” as I come to call them, still pop up every so often, but mostly 2004 is a study in frustration as the process in Russia slows to a standstill…for months. In November of 03, we are #8 on the list; by February, we’ve crept to #7. Putin has fired the entire cabinet, and the entire Ministry of Education, which oversees adoptions, is in chaos. It’s been a whole year since we finished the paperwork, and we’re still waiting. And waiting. And waiting. But now, instead of yelling at God, I yell at the Russian government.

At Dr. Dixon’s suggestion, Christian gets re-tested and we discover that the water treatment has done its job. Hallelujah! The first of April, we move to #5. We’re actually getting close enough to taste it. For one cycle, we go back to using NFP to avoid pregnancy, and then we realize how ridiculous that is, after 2 ½ years. We actually give notice at my job, telling my pastor it’s time to find a new liturgy director.

I’ve always given blood regularly, but this summer I keep getting deferred for iron. Every time, it’s lower, even though I’m taking supplements. It’s driving me nuts. The first of August, I’m officially unemployed, waiting to be a stay-at-home-mom to two little ones born around the world. I prepare for two weeks of traveling: one weekend to my cousin’s wedding in Michigan, the next to a composers’ retreat in Minnesota. And in the week between the two trips, something happened that has never happened in the three long years we’ve been trying to conceive: My temperatures stay up for 16 days. And 17. And 18.

On the Feast of the Assumption, I go to church, where I hear Mary giving praise for the life within her womb. I tremble at the edge of incredulity. File:Pregnancy test result.jpgAfter all this time, is it possible? The next morning, I wake impossibly early. Heart pounding, I take a pregnancy test. The results are supposed to show up within two minutes, but it only takes about fifteen seconds for a little stick to rock my world.

Well, there are some loose ends to tie up. What about our Russian babies? Apparently it’s feast or famine time for parenthood; just as we find out I’m pregnant, we find ourselves at the top of the wait list. At first we think we’ll keep the pregnancy under wraps and go ahead and bring home the kids as planned. Then we start thinking about the sheer insanity of going from zero to three kids in less than a year—and not babies, either, mind you; we would have had a 3 year old and an 18 month old from Russia, plus a newborn. We decide that’s not fair to the adopted kids, who are going to have a big enough transition as it is, so we opt to get pulled laterally off the list, meaning when we’re ready to adopt they’ll stick us back in at the top. Of course, as pregnancies #2 and 3 come along, the paperwork expires, and we realize that we have to let go of that dream.

What was it that caused my infertility? Stress? Certainly, I was in a stressful job. But as my friend Alison noted on her blog yesterday, stress is a short-term factor, not a long-term one. Water had something to do with it; PCO had something to do with it. But I’m afraid nothing quite accounts for our infertility. Nothing was severe enough to justify it, and thus we just have to thank God that it finally ended.

Which brings up the question why? For a long time, I thought I was going to have to accept that I’d never know the answer to that one. But then Julianna came along, and I realized that all our suffering had prepared us for her arrival.

Well, there you have it. My thanks to all who stuck with us through this long, extremely personal, often “TMI” story. I share it because I think it’s important that we stop treating this subject as taboo, as “too personal.” Infertility is an isolating experience, and the more off-limits the subject is, the more isolating the experience becomes.

An Infertility Story, Part 3

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Causes of infertility, data compiled in the Un...

Image via Wikipedia

If you’re just joining us, click here for  part 1 and part 2 of the series.

By June of 2003, we’re well into a familiar pattern: I get emotional, Christian gets frustrated. He feels that I won’t allow him to get excited when we see signs that might mean pregnancy, but I counter that I just want to keep our feet on the ground in anticipation of the fall. Trouble is, it doesn’t really help. Every time we discover that we’re not pregnant, it’s like a big pit opens and we fall right in, and spend two days crawling back out of it. He can’t stand seeing me weeping every time I leave the doctor’s office.

2002 is a rough year all the way around. But there are moments of incredible beauty, too. Like the day when I stand in my parents’ kitchen with my mom and her mom. Up till now we’ve shared our struggles with parents and siblings and a few close friends, but we haven’t gone public. As we stand in the kitchen that afternoon, Grandma tells me about her two miscarriages; and before I know it, we are crying together for the pain of the past and the pain of the present, and it’s a moment of connection I realize I would never have had were it not for this cross I’ve been asked to bear.

Cycles continue to be long, with ambiguous signs. The pain of every failure does not dull, but I begin to understand that God’s will for me is not yes or no, but wait. And as I wait, I find my heart changing. I think that perhaps this is one of those testing times. Not a test to see if we pass or fail, but a chance for us to learn our own strength—to decide between abandoning our principles or accepting the unknown. And all of a sudden, one day, I find myself able to let go. I call my older sister, who is on the wait list to adopt from China, and for the first time I really consider the adoption option.

Finally we decide to do something we’ve been avoiding because of distance: namely, go see the NFP doctors, two hours away. At the end of June, we have our first appointment with Dr. Mark Stegman. He speaks our language. He asks questions, looks at our charts, tells me that treatment regimens can only be determined after we know what the problems are; we have some in-depth diagnostics to do first. It’s a moment of incredible hope.

A week later, we have a huge fight. Christian’s sick to death of infertility ruling our entire existence. He wants to quit treatment altogether. I nearly hyperventilate, and eventually we work out a compromise: we’ll keep going, but I have to be more positive about life.

I learn to chart Creighton NFP, a much more detailed record of secretions than what we learned through CCL, though it lacks the temperature cross-check. Certain types of observations point to certain diagnoses, and this helps trained doctors dig down past the symptom (infertility) to the cause behind it. The advantage of NaPro technology is that once you know the problem and address it, your body can do its job properly, not just for this time, but the next and the next. It’s a more holistic way of addressing infertility.

We cross another milestone early this fall: we decide it’s time to go public. We break down in front of our church choirs (at that time, each of us had one) and tell them what’s been going on; we send an email to uncles, aunts, cousins and the large list of friends.

In one way, this is good; now we have a vast support network praying, cheering us on. But we also have many more people offering unsolicited advice and comments. “But you’re so young to be worrying about this!” they protest, even though I’m not—not for having children; I’m 28 at this point, hardly a vast age, but certainly not young to be having children.

People toss around the word “adoption,” as in: “Well, if you can’t get pregnant, you can always adopt. As soon as you adopt, you’ll get pregnant.” Perhaps they don’t realize that no agency in its right mind will let a couple adopt until they’re sure the parents have “resolved their infertility issues.”

And of course, there’s the doozie: some variation on, “You’ve got to relax! As soon as you stop stressing out, you’ll get pregnant!”

Nothing can provoke an infertile woman to near-violence more quickly than the words “relax” or “stress.” How am I supposed to respond to that helpful piece of advice? “Oh, silly me, how right you are; I think I’ll relax now, all better!” Rrrriiiight. Of course I’m stressed! Being told not to be ratchets the stress up a notch or two with every repetition. If you come away from this series of posts with nothing else, carry from it this lesson: NEVER mention the word “stress” to an infertile couple. True or not, it is absolutely the most counterproductive thing you can possibly say.

At my next visit to Dr. Stegman, he performs a physical examination. There’s another rectal exam, but he warns me first, and he’s very gentle. Nonetheless, I hiss with pain. He pauses. “Now, I need you to separate the discomfort of the invasion from actual—”

I’m already shaking my head. “No, it’s definitely pain, and it’s definitely inside.”

He nods. “There’s something there that shouldn’t be,” he says. He suspects that it’s endometriosis. The only way to know for sure is to do a laparoscopy. He also sees what he calls “cervical eversion,” which is when the cervix turns partially inside out, exposing the fluid-producing glands to the hostile environment of the vagina. This causes them to go crazy producing secretions, and that confuses the signs of fertility we’re trying to use to get pregnant.

I think: How did Doctor #1 miss this? But I know the answer: because Dr. #1 is too focused on his standard regimen and not enough on finding the problem.

I go in for surgery on the first anniversary of 9/11. Dr. Stegman comes into the pre-op room, perches beside my cot and prays with me, and I’m filled with gratitude that I’ve finally found a doctor I can trust.

Join me tomorrow for the last part of the story.

An Infertility Story, Part 2: Surely there must be a better way

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Originally uploaded by Daquella manera
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For part 1 of my infertility story click here

We embark on the journey to parenthood with a considerable leg up on most people: namely, we understand how the process works. We know, because of NFP, the hormonal shifts and the changes in my body they cause, and we’ve been tracking them for a couple of years already: cervical fluids and temperature shift. But we also know that my patterns are considerably less than ideal: long, ambiguous secretions without the clear pattern that you want when you’re trying to conceive. And polycystic ovaries run in our family; one sister has opted to adopt, and another has had medical complications. So we go into the process feeling nervous, but hopeful. After all, we also know how to target our efforts.

We start trying just after 9/11. Mired in the sense of history, I feel that this is one way in which we can respond to all the death and destruction: by bringing new life into the world. I’ve also already done a lot of research, which reveals that every 5 pounds lost by a woman with PCO yields some increased percentage of getting pregnant. Since I have some of the symptoms, it seems like a good idea to try. Late summer and early fall 2001, I lose almost ten pounds.

For the first couple of cycles, we take our failure to conceive in stride. Still, I can’t suppress a niggle of concern. When I express my fears to a couple of people, they joke, “Well, at least it’s really fun to practice!” I roll my eyes, because the experience these last two cycles has been anything but fun. It’s my first introduction to the reality that people have no idea how to react to infertility.

The failures continue. Every morning from Day 10 of temperature rise on, we hold our breath, hoping the temperatures will stay up, as if breathing might knock us over the edge and make them fall. But always, the temperature falls anyway. We begin to ask, “Why?” I start to question what exactly faith requires in situations like these. And I start to see the world through new eyes. All of a sudden, I see money thrown around, and I begin to find it repulsive, a sign of people who don’t get what’s really important.

Christian anchors me in these months. He has a gift for living in the moment, the ability to clear his mind and simply be, and for the first time I recognize the strength of that attribute.

Early in 2002, I write in my Journal, “I know God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, but right now I think he’s really pushing the limit.” We’re mired in family conflicts; angry parishioners are complaining about the Lenten décor; and sex abuse is rearing its ugly head in the Church, which touches us on multiple fronts, as I work full-time in the Church.

I see myself changing in these pages of the Journal. For the first time I’m really coming face to face with my own physical weaknesses, and their emotional mirrors, and it teaches me that I can’t go around passing judgment as if I am God. Perhaps it’s suffering that leads to that kind of growth.

As we approach the critical 6-month mark, my cycles get wildly erratic, with long, long patches of less-than-ideal secretions that don’t hold much promise for conception; yet all we can do is barrel through it. “The problem with trying to get pregnant on delayed ovulation,” I write, “is that you get tired of having sex every 36 hours.”

My sister and her husband are preparing paperwork to adopt from China, a process we’re beginning to watch more closely. People are getting pregnant all around us. People who don’t want to be pregnant. And are complaining about it. To us. I want to murder them. Really. I envision my hands on their throats. Every time I hear about another pregnancy, I close the door and weep. And hurl some choice words Heaven-ward.

On March 9, 2002, we hit 6 months of trying, and we go to local specialist for the first time. He flips through my NFP charts without pausing long enough to read my name, much less look at the data, and tosses them aside. He does this horrific exam—I have never had a rectal exam; I have no idea it’s coming. Talk about a feeling of violation! I cringe and stifle a shriek. He tells me I have polycystic ovaries (PCO) and there’s nothing we can do outside of infertility treatment. “If you weren’t trying to get pregnant, I’d put you on the Pill right now,” he says, telling me I’m recklessly risking cervical cancer and endometriosis by refusing to manipulate my body with hormones.

What about glucophage? I ask, bringing up what I’ve read online. “Glucophage treatment is based on faulty research. “I should have such healthy patients,” he rails. “These women have 10 cycles a year, they’re within 10 pounds of their ideal weight range.” Hello! I want to say. You’re describing ME! Don’t you think it’s worth a try?

Image by joost j. bakker, via Flickr

Instead, he prescribes his standard, one-size-fits-all regimen: 5 days of clomid, followed by an HCG shot and insemination on Day 14 and a couple weeks of progesterone. No, we say. We aren’t doing insemination.

He looks at us like we’ve lost our minds. “This isn’t high-tech, you know,” he says witheringly, and I feel my emotions shrivel. But I have my husband by my side, and we hold firm. We are not doing insemination.

He lets it go for the time being. I get my regimen of clomid, I come in for a shot, I get my pack of 14 suppositories. Yes, I said suppositories. Yes, it’s every bit as bad as it sounds. Worse, in fact. Those two weeks redefine “hormonal.” Take everything you’ve ever heard about PMS, and double it. Three times. Somewhere deep inside, I am horrified by what is coming out of my mouth, but I don’t seem to have any control over it. Christian is an angel; he puts up with hatefulness that no one should have to listen to in a spouse. But even so, his instinct as a man is to fix it, and he can’t. He doesn’t want to dwell on our infertility with the maudlin focus he sees in me, but I can’t seem to think about anything else. So there’s conflict. We both breathe a sigh of relief when the last day of progesterone arrives. And the next day, I bleed.

Three times we go through this: clomid, shot, progesterone/marriage-damaging-nastiness. Christian gets tested; the results are mixed. The doctor’s staff starts pushing for insemination, and under their pushing, I question the certainty of my beliefs. I see the doctor several times a month, and every time, I leave the office in tears. I went to him for hope and instead I find myself more wounded than ever.

Surely there must be a better way.

For Part 3 of the story, click here.
For Part 4, click here.

An Infertility Story, Part 1: Why NFP?

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I spent the month of December writing a huge article on infertility. In the process of contacting and interviewing couples, I realized something: I have never actually addressed infertility on this blog. So I am dedicating this week to a no-holds-barred, lay-it-out-there infertility story. So if this is something you don’t feel like reading about, come back Friday.

But before I describe our journey, I need to give you a little background on our philosophy of life and sexuality, so you can understand why we made the choices we made.

Christian comes from a family that simply took the kids as they came. My mother had a big chart on the back of her bedroom door, with color-coded stickers. But although she kept track of her fertility and taught me some rudimentary fertility awareness (she told me to put a star on my calendar at the beginning of every period), my parents never set out to avoid or achieve pregnancy.

Thus, my husband and I both grew up with an instinct that birth control was not in our future—yes, partly because “The Church says so.” But since we both agreed about it, we didn’t feel a need to dig farther. We just found a class and learned natural family planning.

But over time, that began to change. I’ve come to understand that for all the focus on sex in our culture, people are appallingly ignorant of the process. Having given over understanding our bodies in favor of suppressing a normal, healthy function of the body, modern people instead view fertility as a disease. Ovulation is not some mysterious event that comes out of nowhere, lying in wait to betray a woman from within. It is a result of a complex interplay of hormones that cause daily changes in a woman’s body—far more than “bleeding,” “ovulation” and “PMS,” our cycles follow a pattern that we can read. And that knowledge gives men and women alike a whole new appreciation for each other. Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and practicing NFP really shows it off—monthly, weekly, daily.

Knowing that there are surely skeptics in the house, let me go ahead and address the elephants in the e-room:

  1. NFP doesn’t work. Only it does. The reason most people carry around this humongous piece of bad information is that in most side-by-side comparisons, modern NFP is lumped together with calendar rhythm, which isn’t effective. Like all methods of controlling conception, modern NFP isn’t 100%, but its “perfect use” statistics are the same as hormonal birth control (pill, patch, shots). (Here’s a study from 2007.) Using a condom during the fertile time is what some NFP methods call “achieving-related behavior.” Cheating the rules by a day: ditto. In this day and age, having given over understanding our bodies, we tend to view anything that doesn’t involve direct physical intervention as suspicious, but the fact remains that NFP works. Its user effectiveness is directly proportional to the couple’s motivation to follow the rules. Which leads me to…
  2. NFP takes the spontaneity out sex, and why should we have to abstain anyway? OK, let’s be honest. How often do you have spontaneous sex, anyway? Especially in the post-kid era. Intimacy in family life tends to be planned. And moms who write with kids in the house can vouch that structure increases productivity. What I’m getting at is that the structure of periodic abstinence makes you think about sex in a different way. And because of this, for many couples using NFP leads to more sex, not less.

Okay, so with that out of the way, here’s what I learned in the practice and study of NFP:

Our bodies are the way that we are able to reflect God in the world. It is with our physical beings that we do good or evil, that we build up or tear down the Kingdom. This means that our bodies have an incredible dignity, and that we should use them to reflect God’s love for the world. A good place to start is by respecting the way we were made. In this quickly “green”-ing world, why do we accept that dumping chemicals into our bodies and, by extension, into the waterways, is a good way to plan our families?

And when as I started to see how so many of the world’s problems were interrelated, I realized that the choice to respect the body has far-reaching implications—far more than just the way we space our children and plan family size. But when we hit the topic of infertility, those implications go from high priority to off-the-chart. How many women and men find the infertility process demeaning, disrespectful, and demoralizing? And why do we just accept that this is the way it has to be?

I’m oversimplifying here; this series of insights unfolded over the course of our infertility journey—and there’s much more to it. But I include it here to lay the groundwork for the rest. And since I’m already far too wordy, I leave off until tomorrow, when I’ll actually start talking about what happened when we started trying to get pregnant.

For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.
For Part 4, click here.