HORRIBLE AND WONDERFUL BIRTHING
I Samuel 1:4-20, Psalm 16, Mark 13:1-8
November 16, 1997 by Tad Mitsui
I learned the language living among the villagers for six months and lived in an old abandoned Mission station, in the mountains of South Africa. There was a cemetery for missionaries in the compound. There were many graves of babies, who died during the first year of their lives, and of mothers who died while giving births. One French missionary lost one infant every year and in the fifth year he lost his wife and the child. It made me realize how horrible birthing used to be only a century ago. Times are definitely better today for expectant mothers and new born babies. Though birth meant a big risk for women and children, it was always seen as a harbinger of great blessing. According to Mark”s Gospel, Jesus forbid us to despair, even as he predicted terrible disasters, "because they are only the beginning of birth pang."
When Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple, he meant more than a mere demolition of a nice big building. It is historically correct that the temple in Jerusalem was totally razed to the ground in 65 A.D. when the Romans crushed the last Jewish rebellion. But it meant more than a loss of a temple. It signalled a loss of the soul of a nation. The spiritual traditions and values of the Hebrew nation lay in the ruins. Times are likewise hard for us, because of changing values. What many people used to respect do not mean very much for them any more. Many people don”t go to church. Sex is a casual entertainment. The pattern of the family life is changing. People do not respect the institutions any more; they distrust people in the Government and the police . The mail services are no more sure things. Market is volatile. There are still earthquakes, floods, epidemics of deadly diseases, and wars. But those disasters are not as serious threats as they used to be, because we are more confident that they can be overcome someday in the advanced civilization. But when the values you used to hold dear seem discarded, you have lost the foundation of your life. You don”t know where you stand any more. That is hard.
We suffer from loss of jobs or money, because in our system it means loss of dignity and security. This is because our operating values are for the individualistic society. In a collective society, security comes from a sense of being connected with the family and community. Old people who have no financial security do not suffer in such a society. In the traditional African or Asian communities, for example, families and communities look after the elderly. The older people keep their dignity because they know they are respected. On the other hand, being dispossessed by the family or community means death in such a society.
I had my first spiritual crisis, when I found a stack of years of my letters to Santa Claus in the bottom drawer of my father”s desk. This confirmed my doubt about existence of the jolly old man in the funny red outfit. That did not bother me, because I was right after all. But, a sense of betrayal, "My dad has been lying to me all these years." was a real shock. Thus, a rebel was born. You may find this a cute little story. But when it comes to a serious attempt to challenge other people”s culture and values, it is no longer a laughing matter. When you deny someone”s customs, language and spiritual values, you reject the existence of that person. You are saying to another person, "You are not good enough. You have to become someone else." As an English speaking people in Quebec, you understand how difficult that is. But we must come to terms face to face with such hurt and pain, and grow. Then, you will appreciate a crisis as a catalyst.
We know how difficult changes are, just like loss of your home, your church, or your money and property. Earthquakes, fire, flood, and economy cause those losses. Conflicts and wars also destroy and kill. But they are much worse because they divide friends and cause hatred among brothers and sisters. Destruction of the temple is a metaphor for the change in the value system, which is more serious than any material and physical change. even then Jesus still says, "Do not despair." They are but birth pains.
After many years of infertility and humiliation, Hannah at last became pregnant and bore a son. She was so very happy. Even with a possible social stigma as an unmarried mother, when Mary was informed that she was pregnant, she was happy. How can such horrible experiences of pregnancy and birthing be so wonderful? Birthing is horrible but wonderful, because it is not just an experience of sickly symptoms and pain. It means not just a change, but it means life is being transformed. When a fetus begins to give a sickly sensation or kicks the stomach from inside, it signals transformation of a woman into a mother. A carefree woman becomes a caregiver who is totally responsible for another life. You are utterly changed into another category of human being. This is not just a change. It is called transformation. It is like a larva changing into a butterfly. When a change is transformative, pain that accompanies it is like birth pain. You can anticipate a joyful conclusion at the end of a birth channel.
Change is a crisis. But transformative change is a creative crisis. A matured person can turn a crisis into an opportunity. You think that security is found on a solid ground. That is not so. Life is fluid. Life is like a river. You can not stay on one spot in a river. The art of living is not knowing ”how to stay put”. An art of living is knowing how to navigate a current, that could be slow and easy; or could be rapid and dangerous. Life is about taking up a change and turning it into a creative transformative process.
The Gospel according to Mark was written in a Roman prison. Mark was waiting to be executed. Remember, at that time, merely being a Christian was a capital crime. Peter and Paul, and many other Apostles had already been executed. Seeing that many people who knew Jesus personally were dying, Mark felt that he had to write the life and sayings of Jesus Christ before he himself was killed. He hoped that the succeeding generations could read about Jesus after those who had known Jesus were long gone. Mark wrote his Gospel in such a desperately critical situation. Is it a book of despair? On the contrary, Mark knew that all that suffering was a passing phase. He was not in despair.
This is how Mark remembered Jesus speaking about birth pang. A mother knows how horribly painful but wonderful experience to give birth, just like Hannah who gave birth to Samuel, and Mary who gave birth to our Lord. Jesus came to introduce new values. They upset the Jews and Romans alike. That”s why they persecuted the followers of Jesus. But Christ”s kingdom was beginning its journey in the birth channel of the world. Mark knew that.