The Stories We Tell: Abortion and the 23rd Psalm

         I love the 23rd Psalm. They went from a pretty poem to words I could feel in my soul the night I read it by my aunt’s bedside moments after she died in 2000. I’ve read it to several people from their bedsides, and also at several funerals. I’ve even preached on it a few times.

         It resonates deeply with so many of us, I think, because we have so many deeply held memories around these words. And, I think it tells a story, and it tells the story in the way we want the story to be true. It tells the story of our faith in the way we want it to be.

         We want life to be great, to flow easily, to have enough of everything to make it through the difficult times, and for our faith never to waiver.

         We like it when the story makes it seem like God is in control, handling all the things, navigating the troubled waters for us.

         But that way of reading it takes away our agency; our role within navigating the troubled waters. Our role in creating the troubled waters.

         The 23rd Psalm is, for me, the story we tell as Christians, even though the 23rd Psalm was written long before there was a Jesus. It’s the story we want to be true, or a snippet of the story that is true, rather than the entire story of what it means to be a person of faith. Leaving out the details of what it takes to get beside those still waters, of how difficult it is to get into, be in, and get out of the valley of the shadow of death; of what it means to need to have your faith be revived.

         I ruminate, quite a lot, actually, on the stories we tell, and the way the stories we tell show a carefully curated story to the world. But that the carefully curated story isn’t always the real story.

         In the story of my family, for example, a family that arrived in the “new world” in the 1600’s, there are things we don’t talk about. A lot of things, really. We don’t talk about family fortunes made and lost, nor the reality that at some, or several points, we “owned” enslaved people. We don’t talk about the way previous generations have impacted who we are today, and how we continue to live in the paths cut by the most recent generations.

         It’s because my family has a great hurt caused from a great shame. My family has carried this shame for nearly a century, and today is the day I am going to share that shame, and attempt to reframe, reshape, maybe even set free, my family’s story.

         Because, we must name the evil in order to defeat it.

         The evil I call out today is that the stories we tell trap us. They trap us within their walls and force us to keep living into the lies they create. Even when we know they are lies.

         This week, the evil that has dictated my family’s story for nearly a century, the dark shame we have hidden for 90 years, was thrust abruptly and starkly into the spotlight.

         This story, the turning point in my family’s narrative, is really just a brief moment in time. A moment that happened somewhere between 1930 and 1935, when my Grandmother was 12.

         The story, the moment, that defined my Grandmother’s life, and deeply impacts my family to this day; the story as it was told to me was that my great-grandmother died in her mid 30’s following open heart surgery. That my grandmother was right outside the door as her mother died, begging, sobbing, and unable to go in to see her as she bled out; held back by the nuns carrying for my great-grandmother, Behne.

         My Grandmother told me this story when I was 12, and it was clearly still painful for her. I had questions, but I didn’t ask them. A picture was painted in my head, and I accepted it.

         My Mother was told that Behne died following an appendectomy. I don’t know exactly when she found out the truth from my Grandmother. But at some point, from the depths of the alcoholism where my Grandmother unsuccessfully sought refuge for several decades, my Mom learned the truth of what happened to Behne. And 3 or 4 years ago she told me that my great-grandmother didn’t die in heart surgery in her mid 30’s. Behne bled out in the moments after having had an illegal abortion.

         My great-grandfather, a man who’s first name I didn’t even know until Thursday, was an abusive, often absent, alcoholic who, during the great depression, drank nearly everything he earned, leaving my great grandmother to fend for herself and her 3 young children. At some point, when my grandmother was 12, Behne got pregnant.

         For reasons that must have been impossibly difficult to navigate in the context of the great depression and 1930’s Richmond, Virginia; reasons that must have been agonizing to come to terms with, my great-grandmother knew she couldn’t have that child.

         Knowing and weighing all of the factors, Behne knew she must end her pregnancy, and as a result, lost her life.

         Everything since has been impacted by that moment. That’s the real story of my family.

         I think it’s important to say that it’s not just my great-grandmother’s story I carry with me, 90 years later. I carry my great-grandmothers blood in my veins; I carry her DNA in my DNA. I carry her trauma in my heart and mind. And on Monday night, I cried her tears. I cried my Grandmother’s tears. I cried my Mom’s tears. I cried my tears.

         My story, my family’s story, would be remarkably different if my great-grandmother had been able to safely get an abortion.

         She made a choice, an agonizingly difficult choice, a choice that it was not her right to make at that point. But she made the best choice that she could in the circumstances she was in.

         She was poor. Alone. Abandoned. With 3 children, the oldest, my grandmother, was 12.

         Choices have consequences. And those consequences are felt for generations. They become the DNA of a family, or an institution, or a society.

         The still waters of the 23rd Psalm, the waters we convince ourselves we are walking next to, we don’t look at them. If we did, we would see how troubled those waters are. We would see the ripples, the waves, the storm clouds building over them.

         We would see that there is no banquet prepared in this life unless we prepare it; no one is anointed as God’s own unless we do the anointing. God doesn’t promise us to keep the waters calm.

         God promises to walk with us in the storm.

         I’d thought today that I would read to you a letter written to my unborn children, about why I decided not to bring them into the world; it seemed right for a Mother’s Day sermon less than a week after discovering that the reproductive right’s of childbearing people in this nation are about to be stripped, again. But the planet is dying, and every day our society becomes closer to the dystopian fiction of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” so there are a lot of reasons that don’t have to do with my great-grandmothers’ abortion for why I don’t want to bring a life into this world.

         Instead, today, I would like to remind everyone that there is often a difference between the stories we tell, even the stories we tell ourselves, and the truth. And until we acknowledge the truth and bring it to light, we will not be able to see the way those moments of time, be them yesterday or hundreds of years ago, we will not be able to see the way those moments dictate where and who we are today.

         The trauma carried by my family, the trauma my grandmother endured as her mother lay dying a closed door away, and how that impacted every moment for the rest of her life, I assure you, named aloud or not, that trauma impacts the definition of who I am and the decisions I make today.

         When we read the 23rd Psalm and say, hey! Everything is great! Look at how God has gotten us through this; everything is great and calm; when we read the 23rd Psalm that way we make it seem like everything is fine, history is fine, we don’t have to do anything to make things be more or less fine. We don’t have to acknowledge mistakes of the past in order to allow ourselves to move beyond the limitations those mistakes place on us.

         We leave out the realities of how awful and traumatic it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or darkness, which is the more literal translation.

         When we tell stories this way, it allows for the legal reasoning used to overturn Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, the same legal standard for overturning segregation, and treating people of color as 2/3rds of a human, telling stories in one particular way allows us to use that same reasoning to say that impregnated people should not have the right to decide what happens to them and their bodies simply because they are pregnant.

         Justice Alito can honestly write sentences like “[u]ntil the later part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None.” He can write those words because the story as it was passed down to him is that there was no support for the right to reproductive choice.

         But there was. And there is. He just doesn’t have to look at it because it wasn’t true for him that there was support, that there is support, for the constitutional right to make decisions for our own bodies.

         Just because it is convenient to ignore the truth, doesn’t mean we should ignore the truth. In fact, we must NOT ignore the truth, especially when it is convenient.

         If we ignore the truth, we make it seem like this valley we are walking in has been lovely and great the entire time. Forgetting that we had to hike down a mountain to get there. That the wind HOWLS through a valley, the weather is unpredictable, and we have to hike up a mountain in order to get out.

         In my family, not naming, owning, nor dealing with the realities of the trauma of my great-grandmother’s death and what her death did to my grandmother, left in its wake a multi-generation tidal wave of alcohol and substance abuse, of failed marriages often to abusive and neglectful people, or of not marrying at all, and of waiting until very late in life to have children, if they are had at all.

         That’s the valley of the shadow of death that we are still walking through, because of the preventable death of a woman who was given no choice.

         We stand in a moment in time, where some among us are shouting to be heard. They are begging to have the realities of their life, which are the logical and reasonable consequences of decisions that were made long ago, they are crying out just to have these things be acknowledged as true. The voices of our neighbors who have been pushed to the margins, our neighbors of color, our queer neighbors, our indigenous neighbors, our poor neighbors, our disabled neighbors; their voices are ringing out, and still, usually, being ignored. Because it is easy and convenient to ignore them.

         The Episcopal Church has a long history of ignoring the voices it doesn’t want to hear; and of not choosing sides even when there was clearly a way of following what Jesus taught, or not. We didn’t choose a side on slavery, saying it was a political issue not an issue of faith, even though Christianity was used as a justification for enslaving other humans. We didn’t choose a side in segregation, saying it was also a political issue rather than an issue of faith, even though Christianity was used to justify segregation.

         The Episcopal church is even walking a fine line on abortion, saying that health care, including reproductive health care, is an integral part of asserting worth as a human being, but not outright saying childbearing people have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies.

         Today I wish to remind everyone that silence is not neutrality. Silence is assent to the loudest voice. Silence is a betrayal to the very people we think we are helping by being silent. The status quo does not need to be preserved at the expense of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed.

         By not choosing a side we can tell the story in the Episcopal Church that we managed to stay united in the Civil War. But that’s not the truth; the church splintered, right along the Mason Dixon line. By telling the story that we didn’t choose sides in segregation means we as a denomination can look beyond the balconies constructed in so many churches by the enslaved, to ensure they were segregated from the White people, so that we didn’t have to see or interact with them.

         The truth is, we can tell the story however we like, or, we can look at the truth. We can own the truth. We can see and admit how that truth impacts us and our neighbors to this day.

         The 23rd Psalm is a story, in and of itself. But my friends, we cannot ignore that something happened, even in this Psalm, that left the writer feeling as though their soul needed to be revived. That the author walked through the valley of the shadow of death. That evil surrounded and pressed in on them from all sides.

         The time to be polite, to politely listen, sit back, and not choose sides, that time is over. It is time to tell the real story of who we are, and how we got to where we are. As individuals, as families, as a church, as a nation, as a faith.

         Only then, only when the truth echoes as loudly as my grandmother’s screams as her mother lay dying a closed door away, only then, can we be set free, and can we set others free.

         Truth hurts. But we can no longer deny what is true in favor of what is comfortable.


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