Three years ago my wife, Sara, and I left our then two-year-old daughter Lily at home with her grandmother to go to the hospital--feeling like our lives were about to change forever--again.
There was a difference between two kids and one kid, or so we'd heard. And perfectly happy with our lives as three, Sara and I would often talk about the change to four--how with two kids and two parents you can plan on man-on-man coverage; but when one of us is gone, there are two kids to keep safe and only one parent to do it.
What if they plotted against us?
How on earth would one of us ever make it to and from the grocery store?
How would one of us feed them both lunch?
How would one of us console them both if they needed arms to hold them?
But then there wasn't much of a point to this speculation--it was too late for that; you get to a certain point and there is no going back--the baby is coming.
I remember when the contractions started. It was about 4:00 a.m. and I was supposed to lead a Bible study at 6:00, I remember thinking. And then I foolishly said what I was thinking out loud--"So, I have Bible study in a couple hours; do you think I can make it?"
I don't remember what she said, but I do remember how she looked at me.
There was a baby coming, and when a mother knows that her baby is coming, there's generally a singular focus. There are no more decisions to be made, and nothing matters as much as this new life that is about to come into existence whether you have Bible study or not.
But--for a foolish father, that's not necessarily the case.
On the popular television show, Breaking Bad, I'll never forget the episode when the main character, Walter White, who in the eyes of most is a high school chemistry teacher, mild mannered, predictable, responsible, decides to deliver pounds of crystal meth while his wife, Skylar, gives birth to their second child. Even as his wife calls to tell him that the baby is on her way, his mind is on money, finding a way to pay for his chemotherapy without insurance and providing for his family, attempting to make enough money while he has the time so that if he dies from this cancer, they will be provided for. In his wife's mind, however, nothing is so real, nothing occupies her thoughts, so much as the little girl about to be born. She labors at the hospital whether her husband is present at her side or not.
Fortunately for me the Presbyterian Church provides for these needs--we are blessed with health insurance, retirement, and life insurance--but still on that momentous morning when our second daughter was born, for Sara there was nothing else in the world but the inevitability of her contractions and the promise that something good would come from them, while for me there were responsibilities to be considered, distractions to be distracted by, and decisions to be made.
The same was true in the Roman Empire that the Apostle Paul lived in. Labor was women's work, and while mothers labored, men deliberated; and finally, when the child was born, he or she was handed to the patriarch who had a decision to make. Whether the baby lived or whether the baby was set outside to die, that was up to the decision of a man in many households in the Roman world--as though a human's will governed the world.
Certainly the conditions were better at the hospital we drove to that morning than they would have been had we lived in Paul's world. Sara and our daughter Cecelia benefited from the care of a doctor who has delivered half of the city of Columbia where we live, and a nationally ranked hospital where mothers have access to sanitary conditions, epidurals, even television and popsicles. We benefited from a system of health care unavailable to many, certainly unimaginable compared to the conditions in the Roman Empire, but what was the same, the thing that for a mother cannot change, was the urgency of the moment--when everything else falls away.
It is my wife's singular focus that I remember when I hear Paul's words: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."
Surely there were women in his congregation who knew exactly what he was talking about, just as there are women in every congregation who know the sensation of obligation, fear, responsibilities, and the need to decide all falling away to nothing in this moment where there is only one thing--the pain of childbirth and the promise of new life.
However, then and now, for fathers, that may not be the case. There are stories told by clergy of fathers, pastors still on the clock, who go to visit the sick while their wives labor away.
Paul focuses on the mother then, using the pain of labor as a divine image to explain how God is at work in the world.
Creation labors as the promise of the Kingdom of God comes closer with every contraction. Christ's promises come closer to fulfillment with every surge of pain, and there is nothing left for you to do, there is nothing left for you decide, but still--even ministers of the Gospel focus on canceling the day's appointments, anxiously focusing on managing work and bills and Facebook, as though anything else mattered so much as the birth of something new, or though the kingdom coming depended on our capacity to work for it.
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," but what has your attention--your present sufferings, today's anxiety, or the promise of something miraculous that will be revealed?
"The creation waits in eager expectation," like a laboring mother who knows that nothing deserves her attention so much as the work that her body is doing; but like a distracted father, are you more anxious than eager? Are you worried about what you have gotten done or what you have left undone?
That's how I would describe myself that miraculous morning three years ago, and that's how I would describe the church for most of the time that I have been paying attention.
Paul proclaims that this morning has even more in store than the morning of my second daughter's birth--"We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies."
The creation labors, but where is my focus?
I still anxiously worry over Bible studies--and not just over what I will say and how I will prepare, I worry over who else will show up.
The church doesn't seem so different from me now. We have been managing our schedules, counting up our attendance numbers, anxiously pouring over budgets, while creation has been looking at us the same way Sara looked at me three years ago saying, "Don't you see what is happening? That our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us?"
Pay attention then--not to responding to the emails or posting your status--pay attention to the promise.
Focus--not on the deficit of money or worship attendees--but on the glory that will be revealed in you.
And listen--not to the voice in your head telling you that you should be working harder or seeing better results--listen to creation, who like the mother of us all is groaning as in the pains of childbirth, bringing forth the Kingdom of God, and she needs you by her side, not with your nose in your phone or a spreadsheet.
Do not forget what is happening. Do not be distracted. And do not stop rejoicing for nothing matters so much as this.
Be a father, ready to drop everything, at the words, "Honey, it's time."
Be a father who holds fast the hand of his wife, nothing else as important as this moment, with a mind unclouded and unshaken.
Be like a father overjoyed, pacing in the waiting room with nothing else on his mind, ready to hand out a box of cigars as though he were the richest man alive.
The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up until the present time--so do not miss her birth.
For the kingdom of God is in your midst. Amen.
Let us pray. Almighty God, I have tabulated the day's accomplishments again to prove my worth while losing sight of the truth. I am worthy, not because of what I have done but because of what you are doing. The kingdom is dawning, Almighty God, it is as inevitable as the delivery of a newborn baby and her birth will wait for no one. So open my eyes to her now; make me a witness to what you are doing. I pray it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.