Midwifing Love – Luke 1:39-55

There’s a story that has stuck with me – interesting how some stories do that – from Tim Costello’s Streets of Hope about the birth of his and Merridie’s first child (while he was studying at Rueschlikon in Switzerland under Dr Thorwald Lorenzen). How they were a little underprepared for the birth. All the local birth classes had been in German, Tim says, and his German only stretched to theological language. Merridie had read a few books. But nothing prepared them for eight long hours of painful labour, labour that was not assisted by the Swiss doctor shouting at Merridie – not, “Push” when the time came – but, “Pull! Pull!”

It’s makes for an amusing story afterwards. Not so much at the time! I think this story has stayed with me, however, because at points in our lives, when we are going through difficult times, when we are in times of transition, when we are labouring to give birth to love there are often well-meaning (and occasionally not well-meaning) people around us, shouting, “Pull! Pull!” when we need someone to come alongside and wisely and gently – and sometimes strongly – tell us to “Push!”; to act as a midwife to what God is doing in our lives.

A few years ago, as a church, we studied a book on Christian spirituality, Soul Feast by Marjorie Thompson, which outlined practices and disciplines Christians have used over the centuries to consciously deepen their spiritual life. One of these practices was spiritual direction, spending time with someone who can help us, “grow up,” as Ephesians 4:15 says, “in every way…into Christ.” Or as Eugene Peterson writes, calls attention to God in us, our circumstances, or situation.… “Notices the Invisibilities in and beneath and around the Visibilities.” It might be a formal arrangement. Ministers, for example, are strongly encouraged to have a spiritual director. Or it might be informal. Someone you pray with or talk about your faith with… “someone you turn to for comfort and assurance in times of perplexity and doubt.” Spiritual direction is as much the role of laypeople (people who are not ministers!) who are mature in their faith as it is the role of ministers, As Thompson writes, “The Christian church trusts that the Holy Spirit is active within the community of believers.”

And this is what we see in our passage this morning. Mary having heard from the angel that God is going to do this incredible thing in her life, goes, we are told, “with haste” to seek the company and counsel of her relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth acts as a spiritual director for Mary – or to use my analogy – as a midwife to what God is doing in Mary’s life.

In Thompson’s chapter on Spiritual Direction, she lists the characteristics of people from whom she would seek spiritual guidance, people with the skills to help bring love to birth.

The first of these is that they are attentive listeners, able to listen to God as well as to the person they are with, and the second is that they are understanding. Look for Christians, Thompson says, “with a wide-ranging experience of life and faith…who are knowledgeable about the ways of the human heart; and…have an eye for discerning the ‘footprints of God’”. Elizabeth had a wide ranging experience of life and faith – from long years of being said to be barren, bearing that public shame, to being with child; and she is able to discern God’s footprints – ironically, intimately – from the kicking of the child in her womb; and she discerns what is in Mary’s heart, speaking to her the words of hope and faith she needs to hear, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Twenty years ago, Kristine Morrison, who many of you know, was Elizabeth for me. I was perplexed by what God was doing, afraid that what had been spoken into my life would not be fulfilled, and she told me that God’s activity in my life was like the actual pregnancy I had just announced. At that time there was very little visible sign of the child (Grace) who would emerge, but that did not mean that nothing was happening! In the same way, she said, God is at work in your life now even though you feel there is no visible sign. She is an actual midwife, but she helped to give birth to further ministry in my life. To borrow Peterson’s phrase, she “noticed the Invisibilities in and beneath and around the Visibilities.”

A third quality Thompson lists is, “someone who knows human suffering and frailty from personal experience; who is honest about her or his limitations and not afraid to be vulnerable.”

Some time ago I read a book about new metaphors for relationship with God, that included a section on childbirth and midwifery. It spoke of the moment in almost every birth where the woman in labour does not believe she can keep going. (I clearly remember this in my first birth, telling Aron and the midwives that I just didn’t want to do this anymore. I didn’t care. I didn’t need to have this baby. I just wanted the pain to end.) What is spoken to the labouring woman in the moment when she feels she cannot continue is crucial, the book said. In the same way we need spiritual guides who understand human frailty, who can look us in the eye and remind us, also, of our strength and of the value of what is being born in us, who can tell us to hold on, to keep going. We need people who give us courage.

Finally, Thompson says a spiritual director or spiritual friend is someone who places their trust in God. Their real strength is not their competence or ability, but that they are waiting expectantly for the Holy Spirit, for what the Spirit will do, and they nurture this expectation in others; they bless others so they can be a blessing; they midwife love so others can do the same. “God is,” she writes, “the true director of every spiritual encounter.”

Rebecca Hilton showed me a wonderful picture this week. Some of you have already seen it. It is of Tash, her daughter, who many of you know is a midwife, with the woman who gave birth to her. Here is the birth record to prove it! The skills of birthing life being handed on from one generation to another.

Mary, we’re told, stayed with Elizabeth for three months. Many scholars say that she stayed until the birth of John the Baptist; that having had hope and courage and faith midwifed in her by Elizabeth, she in turn helps midwife actual Elizabeth’s birth, the birth of John. In the same way, we are enabled by good spiritual direction to assist and help others.

Who are the women (or men!) who are Elizabeth in your life? Who are the women (or men) for whom you will be Elizabeth? Perhaps this is a moment to give thanks for them. Or if you cannot think of someone, can I encourage you to pray about this, to pray about this over the summer, and ask God who that person might be – that Elizabeth – that Mary.

The great promise of Christmas is that God has come to be with us and called us to be with each other. None of us are called to do the work of bringing love into our world alone. We need spiritual directors, spiritual friends, spiritual companions so we can know when to “push”, so we can have courage, so we can nurture others in faith, and so we can sing songs, as Mary does, of a world that is being reborn. Let’s sing together…