From The Attentive Life
As different as our personal family histories may be, they still are a good place to start paying attention.
Here is one question my family story leads me to ask: Was I “conceived in sin” as an old translation of Psalm 51:5 says? Or was it love? I believe the latter, for I have read enough of my biological mother’s journal to know how deeply she cared then for Tom, my father.
Further, I was chosen in love by my adoptive mother, Olive Ford, but I was twelve years old before I knew this. My mother took me for a walk in High Park in Toronto and told me, “We did not have to have you, we chose to have you.” Although I was fairly old to be learning of my adoption, so far as I remember I felt neither hurt nor resentment. Instead, I felt great love for her and my adoptive father, Charles.
Shortly after I was born, my mother Ford held me in her arms and presented me for dedication to Dr. Henry Frost, a veteran missionary of the China Inland Mission. “Mrs. Ford,” he told her, “I believe God has given you this child for a purpose.” And she, who had herself wanted to be a missionary, agreed. In a very real sense my life trajectory was set then.
Much later I would realize that her love, like all human love, had its flaws, with an obsessive side to it. Yet I think back and ask: What was God’s purpose, and how should I pay attention to it?
Whatever the story of our beginnings, we can all resonate with the words of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
What God said to Jeremiah is not just for prophets and preachers! Each of us is part of a larger, longer, eternal purpose. And the dreams and desires of our parents and grandparents play a part in shaping (and, sadly, often misshaping) our beginnings.
I asked our son-in-law Craig, who is an obstetrician, how much babies are aware of in the womb.
“We know that they can hear everything that is going on around them,” he told me. “For example, if a newborn baby is surrounded by a group of men, the baby will turn its head toward the father because it recognizes his voice.”
He told me also of a concert pianist who while she was pregnant rehearsed a certain piece over and over in preparation for a performance. After her child was born, whenever she played that particular piece the baby would stop crying!
And, he added, while there is no scientific proof that a baby can sense the emotions its mother is feeling during the pregnancy, anxiety and stress can affect her blood pressure and the flow of blood to the placenta. So he said, “We can imagine that in the womb we can well be affected in some ways by what is going on in the emotions and mind of our mother.”
The most dramatic example of a child’s sensing God’s presence before birth comes in the story of Mary, after she learns from an angel that she will give birth to Jesus. She hurries to share the news with the one person she can tell in confidence – her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with her own son, who will be John the Baptist. When Mary enters Elizabeth’s house, the baby John leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth exclaims, “Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy,” (Luke 1:43-44).
Your own entry and mine into the world may not have been so dramatic. But as Elizabeth and the baby within her greeted Mary, God greets each of us and calls us to be special persons who live purpose-drawn lives.
The “time before our own time” – Vigils – is the time for us to address our Creator with words of thanks and openness: