The Work of Waiting

To my dear ones who are waiting…

“Let waiting be our work, as it is His. And, if His waiting is nothing but goodness and graciousness, let ours be nothing but a rejoicing in that goodness, and a confident expectancy of that grace. And, let every thought of waiting become to us the simple expression of unmingled and unutterable blessedness, because it brings us to a God who waits that He may make Himself known to us perfectly as the gracious One. My soul, wait thou only upon God!”- Andrew Murray

My first child was late. Due around Labor Day, she made her appearance into the world on September 11, about ten days late.

During the time between her due date and her actual arrival my husband got into the practice of answering the phone by shouting into it “No! We haven’t had the baby yet! Quit asking.” It all worked fine until his mother-in-law (yes – that would be my mother) called.

Any couple or individual who has gone through waiting for a baby’s arrival know that waiting is work.

I know well the waiting of babies.

I also know well the waiting that is an inevitable part of a life movement. Below is an essay I wrote for my book Between Worlds. During this season of worldwide waiting it felt right to post it. May it in someway comfort you in the waiting.


It’s 2am in the Mumbai Airport. I am in the domestic terminal and the airport is quiet. Outside the sky is dark and the open doors reveal small restaurants, some closed, others open with minimal food and one lone employee to serve customers who happen by at that hour.

We arrived here at midnight. It’s still three hours before our flight to Goa. We don’t yet know that we will miss that flight.

At the door the guard’s sleepy eyes belie his quick response. Some people in our group have already tested his reflexes. His high turban is immaculate, and a thick silver Sikh bracelet falls heavy on his arm.

Other passengers are scattered in the two seating areas, either in semi-sleep or randomly observing their surroundings with the resigned expressions of travelers in transit, travelers who are between worlds, in the limbo of the ‘not yet arrived.’

A group from the Emirates walks across the terminal, a gaggle of children lagging behind, weary with the weight traveling and the weight of bags, hanging heavy off their backs, luggage tags bearing the characteristic red and white emblem of the airline. Their moms are ahead of them, slender and tall in abayas, only their eyes showing through black niqabs.

I sit back and look around, fully at home. This waiting in terminals is a world I know well. I’ve never counted up the hours I have spent like this, just waiting, but they are many. It’s amazing how much waiting there is in a life of movement.

Surrounded by luggage, tired from crossing time zones, we just sit. We wait. We wait in transit, in the in-between, not always sure of the next piece of the journey. We wait for buses. We wait at train stations. We wait at airports.

And there’s another kind of waiting. We wait for visas, that legal stamp of permission to enter a country as a guest or live there as a resident. We wait for donors to fund projects. We wait for decisions over which we have no control. We wait for a doctor’s approval to continue this life overseas.

Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in and orchestrates our plans, our movements.We may never know the reason for the waiting. It may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity. For waiting is nothing new to the work of God.

In waiting we join hundreds of others who waited before us. Joseph, sold into slavery, waited years to be able to say the words “You meant it to harm me, but God used it for good.” Abraham and Sarah, waited for so many years to have a child that Sarah laughed cynically at the idea. Noah waited aboard a boat full of antsy animals, with no land in sight. Those are only a few in a long list of ‘waiters.’

He doesn’t assure us that we will learn why we wait. He gives no false promises. What he does is perhaps better – he assures us of his goodness.

And so I wait at two am in the Mumbai airport, thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love; a God who asks us to wait. I give thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable within the waiting; a God who knows all about the work if waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.

Babies and the Sovereignty of God

Sometimes we come to points in our lives where we seriously question the sovereignty and wisdom of God. While I know this is ill-mannered and audacious, I still do it.

I had one such moment 25 years ago when I found out that I was pregnant with our fifth child. Did God not know that I was seriously under qualified to raise 5 children? Did he not know that we were struggling with other things in our lives that made the idea of another child impossible? Did God not realize that I had two friends begging Him for children and they were being ignored, while my womb was like that of a teenager who merely had to stand downwind from a teenage boy to get pregnant? There I was, fertility personified, and to use Biblical language poised to become heavy with child.

We were living in Cairo and had just moved from one part of the city to another 1/2 hour away. The day I went to the doctor, we were expecting a group of 20 students to arrive from the United States for a study abroad program that my husband directed. It was a chaotic time and there was little chance to be alone and process the pregnancy, never mind the bigger issue of the sovereignty of God. I hid my growing stomach under Bill Cosby sweaters, all the rage at the time, and managed to go four months before having to let people around me know. At that point I was slowly becoming used to the idea and so could come up with clever quips to snap back at the insensitive words of not so well-meaning friends and acquaintances.

The reality was that my other four children were over the moon. They couldn’t have been happier and wise friends of mine reminded me that I would far rather have 5 children than just one or two, but I thought I had told God that four was perfect.

I gave birth two weeks ahead of schedule in a hospital on the banks of the Nile River to Jonathan Brown Gardner. The moment I looked at him my questions to God dissolved in his soft baby skin. He was perfect in every way. Never had I been more aware of the glory and wonder of 10 fingers and 10 toes, a suck reflex, and eyes with perfect vision that slowly took in the world around them after first fixating on the face of a mother, and that mother was me.

At 22 inches long and 6 lbs 12 ounces, he was put into my arms and in an instant I was overwhelmed with love for this child and the wisdom of God. I knew a love for this child that was infinitely bigger and stronger than my circumstances – he was perfect.

Today that baby turns 25. He is a wise 25-year old with an old soul. Fluent in Greek, he is getting his masters degree at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I am just one of a number of women who through the years has had babies and pregnancy give them life lessons on the sovereignty and deep love of God. I join the ranks of Sarah, wife of Abraham who had the opposite problem and tried to take things into her own hands; Hannah, who begged for a child with agony too deep for words; Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah who in her old age conceived, much to the surprise and gossip of those around her. And Mary, the blessed Theotokos, who said the words “How can this be?” to an angel who told her she would have a child, only to come to know her beloved son as the author of salvation.

As the months go by what confuses and confounds ultimately allows us to bear witness to God’s sovereignty in the form of a baby. Happy Birthday to Jonathan Brown Gardner. You are an extraordinary gift from God and I can’t imagine life in our family without you!

Merry Christmas Eve from Thessaloniki

The wind is rattling the door shutters in the apartment, but inside it is cozy and calm. It’s what I’ve always wanted Christmas Eve to be, yet what it rarely is. Thessaloniki itself is a bustling commotion of people, strolling in plazas and stopping at cafes and shops along the way. There is a festive sense of waiting, evoking childhood memories anticipating the joy and surprises of Christmas.

Thessaloniki is not a new city for us, so we drink in the familiarity even as we explore new places and sights. It’s a special city – a city of miracles and churches, of children caroling out of tune on Christmas Eve, pocketing money and chocolates, and priests coversing with strangers in coffee shops. Time stops as you sit in cafes or tavernas, in churches or apartments.


Being Orthodox we feel at home in these churches, the saints guiding us through every icon, an urgency and expectancy in their gaze, as if to say “Watch and wait – you’ll see. These things you worry over, the cares you hold tight, the burdens you bear – lay them down for a moment. Stop for a moment. Be enveloped in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” This faith is like this city – familiar yet new; timeless, enduring, ageless yet ever-available.

It is good to stop. It is a gift to be still. My life has taken on the familiar urgency of a large American city and I find myself longing for the time we had last year, longing to stop and reflect. We try and set aside time, and yet the endless tasks, scrolling, time-wasting, and real work creep in making us believe that we are trapped.

As I stop this afternoon, I can’t help but think about birthing babies. It’s something I know well, my earned fact as it were. Each birth was unique – seemingly the only commonality being myself and my husband. But there was one other thing that was common in my births, and that is that time stopped. Nothing mattered but the birth of that baby. Nothing. Each labor pain was separated by what felt like an eternity. And then, with the “I can’t take it any more” pain of transition, the work of pushing began until a cry broke time, and a baby was born. Time stopped, a baby born, a miracle.

The mystery of birth and the mystery of the incarnation – both invite us into a timeless miracle. A baby born, a world changed.

This afternoon, in the quiet of a rented apartment in a city in Greece I will myself to enter into the timelessness that I entered into during those long hours of labor. I will myself to enter the timelessness that believing the mystery of incarnation requires, the timelessness that this city, this season, and my faith urge me toward. The timelessness that birthing babies necessitates. The timelessness of a “long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.”

Merry Christmas Eve! May you too enter the timelessness of the miracle of Christmas.

A Baby and the Cold Slush of Winter

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I slog my way through dirty, melting snow as I walk to work. The pristine fluffy white of one week ago is replaced by the dirt and grime of the city, coupled with slush caused by rising temperatures.

It is Thursday, my last day of the work week, and I am tired. In winter everything takes longer. It takes longer to get ready in the morning, longer to walk to the subway, longer for the subway to arrive, longer to get groceries.

Everything is longer. Everything is harder. It’s more difficult to see grace; more difficult to give grace.

Yesterday I visited a friend who has just had a baby girl. I held her little body in my arms, marveling at her perfection, struck by how this little miracle came to be.

In the midst of the cold slosh of winter, I got to hold this wonder in my arms. Outside may feel cold and heartless, but inside is warm with wonder and grace.

Outside the world is raging, unaware that inside is a six pound wonder. Outside people argue and push, morosely facing winter’s worst. Across the country fires and floods change people’s lives in moments.

But inside there is a baby, perfectly formed and known by a God who still believes that this world is worthy of being redeemed. She is entrusted to, and loved by, an imperfect family and friends; people who will hold her and teach her, love her and cry with her.

And as I hold her I am in awe – in awe of baby soft skin and six pounds of perfectly formed fingers and toes, in awe of the strength and fragility of life, in awe of my friend who waited so long and wanted this baby so very much. Mostly in awe that somehow God believes that we in our human frailty, born as helpless babes who grow to be imperfect children and adults, are worth redeeming.

It’s Thursday and I’m tired. But then I remember – there’s a baby and it’s all okay.

My Ramadan Baby

I remember the day like it was yesterday. The Islamabad sun, hot and bright, burned down on my mom and I as we walked to the hospital with my first-born – Annie – in a stroller.

It was May of 1987 and it was Ramadan, only a couple of days before the huge Eid celebration that would mark the end of this long month of fasting for Muslims around the world. We had been living and working in Islamabad since January and I was 9 months pregnant with our second child.

After a false start a couple of days earlier, my mom and I headed out to my  regularly scheduled prenatal appointment.  After examining me, my doctor said “Sometimes we need to push the horse and cart!” Which was code for “I’m going to give you something to speed up this delivery.” I was more than willing to oblige.

It was a text book induction and just after midnight on May 25th I gave birth to a gorgeous, blue-eyed, fuzzy-headed baby boy. I was smitten.

I wrote about my Ramadan baby 6 years ago, when I was a new blogger. As I reread the piece I wrote, I realized it communicates the story exactly as I remember it, so I have reposted it below in honor of my Ramadan “baby’s” 30th birthday!

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was toward the end of Ramadan and this showed significantly in the absence of staff in the hospital. Earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry aloud that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a pregnant woman in transition (me) and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered, we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

As the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came (and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night) two babies made their way into the world.  The last azaan, calling the faithful to prayer, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast. At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains.

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a good hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toed, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing me labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff in by two’s to see “the white lady who had her husband in with her during the delivery,” something that was unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebis, barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras. This ensured a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. 

We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy which, from a cultural perspective, was a huge thing to acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes – and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.

Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life.

To the One Who Got Pregnant too Soon

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I woke with a familiar pressure on my bladder. It was the middle of the night, and I needed to go to the bathroom. I came back to bed in tears.

“I think I’m pregnant.” I whispered to my sleepy husband as I shook his shoulder. “That’s ridiculous” he said as he turned over and fell back to sleep.

I, on the other hand, stayed awake. I knew I was pregnant. We had a toddler and a baby who was six months old. I was exclusively breast feeding and hadn’t yet gotten my period back after the pregnancy, so my husband’s response was completely reasonable.

But when you know your body, you know these things. Nine months later we had a beautiful baby boy, born two weeks earlier than his due date. He was 6 lbs and 10 oz of beauty and joy. But the inbetween time was not so much. People who saw me pregnant would look at me in astonishment and say “Haven’t you had that baby yet?” thinking it was the previous pregnancy gone on too long.

Yes – I actually had given birth to THAT baby. This one was a different one. This one was THIS baby. That one was THAT baby. Sheesh.

There were a few things that I discovered about myself and about other people during that time. I offer them here in this space, knowing that your situation may be different, but hoping that you will feel some nuggets of encouragement.

  1. You owe nobody, I mean nobody, an explanation. When people say things, when they comment about your pregnancy you don’t have to tell them anything that you don’t want to. When they ask if you were planning this, if it was a surprise, if you’re happy …. those are intimate questions, and you don’t have to let people know the answer.There will be people that you can share with and cry with, but the average bystander and acquaintance is not worthy of your explanations. Whether you used birth control or not – it’s none of their business. Whether you were planning this or not – none of their business. Don’t feel any pressure to give people a response.
  2. Your baby is not a mistake. Your baby may be unexpected; your baby may be a surprise — but your baby is absolutely NOT a mistake. Mistakes are supposed to be erased, they are supposed to be corrected. Surprises are unexpected and take some rethinking and adjusting, but ultimately you do adjust. There is a massive difference between a mistake and a surprise.
  3. You need safe people. You need people who will listen to you, judgment free as you rant and rave about your body, your mother-in-law, your oversexed husband, your life in ruins, all of it. You need to be able to say that you want to run away to safe people who know that these feelings will pass. Safe friends who will love you and protect you from a world that feels overwhelming are a gift.
  4. Be okay with asking for help. I made a vow that hurt me for years when I got pregnant unexpectedly. That vow was that no one would ever see me out of control. It was such a mistake. I carried such a heavy burden of having to keep it together. People who knew and loved me knew that I wasn’t keeping it together, but I tried to hide it under the vow that I had foolishly made. When I finally broke free of that, I cried and cried, ending the crying session with a soul-deep sigh.I was finally free to admit my need for others, my need for help. Don’t be like me. Ask for help.
  5. Routine could be your best friend. When you find yourself pregnant and you have a toddler in the house, routine is a wonderful gift. Routine means you can say “No, I’m sorry – I can’t do that. It’s nap time.” Routine builds security in you and your children. Routine gives you time to recharge and drink tea. Routine is not binding – it’s freeing.
  6. Be okay saying “No.” “No – I can’t make a dessert for the women’s brunch.” “No, I can’t chaperone the preschool field trip.” “No, I can’t baby sit your kids.” “No, I can’t work those extra hours.” “No, I can’t fill in for a sick nurse, or a sick Sunday school teacher, or a sick anyone anytime anywhere.” No. No. No. For some reason, I was an easy yes. I remember one time sitting at someone’s house helping her fold her clothes and make apple crisp. Suddenly I thought “This is ridiculous! I’m the one with five kids! I’m the one who needs to fold clothes and make apple crisp – AT HOME! I realized that I needed to put healthy boundaries around my time.
  7. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t need everything that western society says they do. They don’t need hundreds of outings, they don’t need a bunch of different play groups. They need you. They need Grandma if she’s around. They need security and safety. Self-actualization is way far away on Maslow’s hierarchy. Don’t worry about it. If play groups help you – well then, have at it. But if they don’t – then don’t worry about “socializing” your child. Believe me, there is a lot of socialization that your kid can do without.
  8. On days when you are so tired, and you just can’t do it anymore, there’s always tea and reading time. Put quiet music on in the background and read to your little ones. Then, put them in their happy places while you read yourself.
  9. One day you will get your body and your sleep back. It won’t be the same, it can never be the same. That’s the price we pay for having these little humanoids who grab our hearts with their vice-like grips and create a gap in our well-oiled shiny armor. But there will come a day when you put on a little-maybe-big(ger) black dress and go out with your true love again. There will come a day when you have a full night sleep. There will come a day when all of your children – even the surprise ones – are potty trained. There will come a time when you watch your own television shows and movies. There will come a time when you miss your kids. But it won’t be for awhile.
  10. Allow people to celebrate for you. You may think this is the worst thing ever, the timing is all wrong, you were going to go back to school to get a masters degree, you had finally lost all your baby weight, your husband is looking for a new job, you just started back to work — there may be all kinds of reasons that you have for not being able to celebrate. But others can celebrate for you. When I arrived in London, unexpectedly pregnant with my fifth child, no one in Cairo knew. I hadn’t told anyone. I arrived in London and my best friend met me at the airport. I hugged her and then burst into tears. “I’m pregnant!” “You’re so lucky!” she said. She had had a couple of miscarriages and she knew what it was to be gratefully pregnant. It was perfect. No – I didn’t feel lucky. No – I felt totally overwhelmed. But her reaction was so wonderfully spontaneous and lovely that I began to feel a measure of hope with her response.

You could still be wondering why you are pregnant when you are in labor and about to deliver the baby – but once you see that tiny, little person, you will be in utter awe and the heartburn will be gone.

So to you who got pregnant too soon – I hear you. I’m with you. You join the multitudes of us around the world in that special “I got pregnant too soon and I realize I can’t control my life club.” It’s a club that humbles you and grows you up quickly. No one intends to join the club, but once you’re in it, you realize that it’s a pretty great club after all.

Get a Life

“Oh, for God’s sake…get a life, will you?”–William Shatner

 

Connor left nearly a month ago to return to the University of British Columbia. As he and Lowell pulled away from the house I felt the bottle of grief shaken within me lose its scarcely screwed on lid. Before I knew it I was drenched, inside and out, with sadness. I came into the house, sat in my chair, gently held my coffee cup and cried.

In my sad spot I remembered that this is our Adelaide’s last year of high school too and a fresh wave of grief dragged me under. It felt like my heart would break.

I wondered at the strangeness of parenting. We wrap our lives and our hearts around these miniature people. We tend, nurture, guide, direct. We attend concerts and games, plays and competitions. We give up our rights to complete thoughts, finished sentences, sleeping in on Saturdays, uninterrupted conversations, Sunday afternoon naps, free time, long showers, the late show. We trade it all in for diapers, runny noses, giggles, knock knock jokes, princesses, pirate ships, play dough, lego towers, swing pushing, nail painting, homework helping, eye rolling, door slamming, curfew pushing kids! And if we get a minute we’d admit that it was a fair trade. For the most part we’ve loved it—!

In that sad moment in my chair I wanted those days back again. I wanted another turn at it all. I wanted to hold fiercely on to the childhood of my children. They said it would go fast and for the longest time I thought they were mocking me…but now I realized with horror at how right they had been. It was over with my kids before it had really begun in me.

As I sat sipping my coffee, which now oddly tasted like nostalgia and sorrow, I thought to myself, “Robynn, You need to get a life”! I suppose it was a mild rebuke from my more sensible self to my emoting sobbing self. Even as I thought it another thought quickly jumped up in defense of me. Wait a minute…I do have a life!

I do. I have purpose. I’m a spiritual director in training. My brain is being stretched and stimulated by the program I’m enrolled in. I have a broad worldview. I’ve had the humbling privilege of travel and crossing cultures in varying places around the globe. I’m a part of an Environmental Missions effort. I’m passionate about climate change and its effects on the world. I care deeply about the oppressed and long for justice. I have deep friendships with interesting people who expand my world in significant ways. My thoughts are often outside of my inside domestic duties. I read books, I engage in conversation, I watch the occasional documentary, I listen to intellectually stimulating podcasts.

Honestly I think that’s one of the best gifts I’ve given my children. They’ve seen my heart for others. They know I have a wide circle. They’ve heard me rant about racial injustice, about welcoming the immigrant, about caring for the poor. They’ve seen my eyes fill with tears with concern for friends that are hurting. They know I have dreams and goals and longings outside of our home.

I attended an international boarding school in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan. Multiple times a year we’d have to say goodbye to our parents. It was devastatingly difficult. But I’m convinced it was made marginally easier because we knew my parents had purpose. We knew they loved each other well. Their marriage was solid. We knew they’d be ok without us.

Kids need to know that their parents are going to be all right when they’re not around. It’s too much pressure for a child to believe that his mother’s or his father’s emotional well-being is connected to him. He needs to know they have a life without him.

There are ways we interpret our obsession with our kids that sound noble and self-sacrificing. But I wonder if we scraped those notions back down to the frame if we’d find something more self-serving than we originally thought? Does it give us a sense of importance? Are we tethering our identity solely to our role as caregiver?

I’m not saying that being a parent is not an important vital job. By all means it is! But the goal is to work yourself out of a job. We want to raise adults that are independent, that no longer need us for their daily cares. We want to train up people that know what it means to contribute in valuable ways to the world around them. They will not know about that unless we show them. It will be important to your health and the health of your progeny that you have some other meaningful thing to give yourself to.

I suppose there’s no real easy way to say this….but moms and dads –you have got to get a life! I don’t care what age your kids are now, begin, even today to imagine a little life outside of your children. Start researching ideas of what you might want to do. Pray it through. Take up a hobby that energizes you. Are there distance education classes you could enroll in even now? Are there places you could meaningfully volunteer? Are there courses offered in your community that might spark your imagination? Do you have dormant dreams that you used to think about? What would it look like to fan some of those back into flame? The little people won’t be little for long. Start now and get a life!