Choosing Life

Choosing Life

{A NOTE FROM KATHERINE:Though we rarely dip our toes in the public discourse, the recently revived conversation on abortion coupled with our current status as parents of a newborn baby makes it hard to stay silent. This post is the embodiment of weeks of conversations we’ve had on the topic, the overflow of my heart and Jay's heart, all expressed through Jay Wolf's brilliant writing skills (honestly, breastfeeding and sleepless nights are making it hard for me to string together a full sentence at the moment!) Our prayer is that these words would be grace-filled and life-giving to all who read. We love you, friends.}

In my early college years, my naturally strong female persona began to empathize with a woman’s right to make choices, choices about her body and about her future. I never found myself as a proponent of abortion, but like many who find themselves on the “pro-choice” side of this issue, I felt that a woman’s right to be able to choose should, at least in theory, be protected. After centuries of women being taken advantage of and repressed in a multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it only seemed fair to give us the reigns of choice in something as intimate as child-bearing.

Suffice it to say, our theories often fade quickly when brought to the light of real-life experience. Our early adult years have been wrought with stories we never could have imagined, from an unexpected pregnancy with James in our early marriage, to my own near-death and re-birth of sorts following my stroke, to our most recent reminder of the miraculous in the birth and life of John. From all these moments, it seems clear…this life is grace, and this grace is life. And when we have eyes to see grace and hearts to acknowledge that this is all a gift, then we begin to see and acknowledge life in a new way too, and it changes everything.

Though my personal story has not intersected abortion, a third of the stories of women do—not to mention fathers, siblings, grandparents, and medical professionals—maybe yours has or it will. Yet I do speak from experience to those of you in the shadows of loss, despair, shame, and brokenness (which is all of us, I suppose), there is restoration, there is hope, there is freedom and there is healing. And the sweet words of James, the brother of Jesus, flood the dead places of our souls…“but he gives more grace.” (James 4:6) And new life won’t be far behind.

If it is life, not death, which motivates us to flourish, and if love and sacrifice are at the heart of our humanity, rather than choice, then we must desire life, pray for life, manifest life and choose life for every other human on this planet, and in so doing, we all might know grace more.

We're not apologists or even deeply analytical thinkers, but it seems this issue--one which involves 50 million lives a year worldwide, not to mention an untold ripple effect on millions of others involved--like so many issues that we confront as a society, is less about where to draw the line or the hypothetical situations or the government’s involvement as it is about how we define the terms--“life” in this case--and how we understand God in the midst of our pain.

Our society’s inconsistency in defining the very words and ideas that make it up reflects our own challenges as individuals to objectively define the world around us, yet in the context of this conversation about life and death the stakes are immeasurably higher than semantics or legalese, and some glaring duplicity exists in this societal narrative. For instance, if a celebrity announces a pregnancy, such news would never be lauded as “she’s got a bundle of tissue growing in her”, or even “she’s expecting a fetus”, categorically, the celebration of life in such a context would be announced with warm expectancy as “she’s going to have a baby, it’s a girl, and they’ve even got a name picked out, and you can see the full photo spread of the nursery, the soon-to-be-home for this not-even-born-yet little one”. We’re quick to allow such aspirational stories of humanity to be put in a different category than the millions of women experiencing something no less miraculous, no less stunning than the spark of new life inside their own bodies.

Further, if a space probe were to land on a distant planet and come across some infinitesimally small speck of organic matter or even just the right combination of life-sustaining elements, scientific journals would explode with the headlines “Possible signs of LIFE found on the surface of Mars!” And yet we often allow terms more befitting the periodic table of our junior high science classes to be bestowed on those yet unnamed, those yet to be born, rather than dignifying this quotidian wonder by categorizing it most obviously as life--and life we don’t have to go to space to find but rather life that finds us.

Not only do we selectively define life based on the situation, but legally, life is tied to the medical technology which allows a baby to survive outside of the womb, so currently, a baby is considered viable, and thus a life, at about 22 weeks. This line is already a rather blurred one, yet, if medical technology continues on its upward trajectory, it stands to reason that this much-depended upon definition will continue to be a moving target, perhaps moving all the way to a viability outside of the womb (thus a definition of life) that is not so far past the moment of conception itself. Should the fate of the very youngest souls on the planet be dependent on our fickle, subjective, and evolving definition of how, when, and what life is?

In a day and age when we understand more of the microscopic processes of conception and can chart the daily development of life in utero, the words of David in Psalm 139 ring even more true, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

We should call life, life, perhaps most simplistically at the moment when God does, at the moment when the two unlikely elements combine into something altogether greater than their sum, at the moment when we are known and loved by God, and it should lead us to awe, to praise, to worship.

The question remains, the much harder one, for this conversation and most any one that really matters…who do we believe God to be, not just in theory and not just in the light but in the darkness?

Few people can wholeheartedly support the procedure of abortion. We’ve had our share of medical procedures following the stroke, 11 total, all with varying degrees of stomach-turning details, yet abortion stands in a category all its own. Something in the heart won’t allow it to be counted as just another medical procedure, a removal of cells and tissues. Yet many people still support the organizations and the arguments that effectively permit such a procedure to end millions and millions of lives in ways that haunt our dreams. This is because they believe in the power of choice, one which promises a re-write to the not-so-happy endings and a reversal to the unexpected detours which an unplanned pregnancy so often creates.

An even deeper contention for keeping this door open revolves around the most horrific worst-case scenarios, such as severe disabilities in the child, rape and incest, or saving the life of the mother. Naturally, such scenarios nearly rival the dreadfulness of the abortion procedure itself. The personal and profound nature of such tragedies prevents simplistic answers or recommendations, but here is my experience. We often wonder if I had been conceived in a not-so-distant future where in utero medical screenings could have shown the AVM (the brain abnormality that caused my stroke) already prominent in my cerebellum, abutting my brain stem. What if such medical information had been presented to my parents with an opinion of the high likelihood of a rupture in my lifetime, one which would likely lead to death or some other worse forms of suffering? What if my parents had chosen to mercifully spare me and themselves such pain? What ripple effects from my life and the lives of my children would be lost in the history of the world as a result of such a seemingly-compassionate choice?

Similarly, what if we had known about my AVM during my pregnancy with James? It was later recounted to be the largest my neuro-surgeon had ever seen, with four aneurysms on top of it, and so close to my brainstem that any rupture would most assuredly affect my most basic functions of breathing, heartbeat, and bodily movement. Would a well-intentioned doctor have informed us that my very life was at stake in continuing the pregnancy? It’s quite likely they would have if we had known, and yet to think of our lives without James is to think of more loss than we can imagine.

We pray wisdom and an abundance of love and grace over all who are faced with such horrifying realities. Honestly, we're so grateful that neither we nor my parents were placed in the position of having to make such a decision. Yet we know, not just in theory, but in hard-won reality, that through our fears, tears, and pain, through the great seasons of suffering in our lives, we have seen God alchemize our despair into a golden hope. Even those who don’t know Him, we ask you, can your heart be vulnerable to even the slightest possibility that on the far side of your worst pain you might find some unexpected goodness? If there is a chance for goodness, then hold on to it.

In John 9, a blind man’s life-long struggles with disabilities are a picture of our own pain and the questions that come with it, “surely this man is being punished, surely his parents did something wrong for which he is having to suffering his whole life”. And yet Jesus gives the man physical healing but more importantly healing of his soul. His words of hope can heal us too, those disabled on the outside or the inside, the not-yet-born who will suffer through lives very different than their parents ever imagined, Jesus says, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.” (John 9:3, MSG)

In the mysterious economy of God, we’ve seen that He wastes nothing, not one joy, not one tear. His works are revealed through our great triumphs and perhaps more profoundly through our great losses.

In this specific conversation on abortion but in every conversation that matters, when we willingly give up ourselves, we can’t help but feel like we’ve lost something huge. In an age where personal fulfillment and independence trump sacrifice and the greater good, laying down our ability to choose may feel like the greatest loss of all.  And yet when we live lives born of grace, when we seek the goodness in the midst of the pain, we will find we have gained more than we could have ever lost. And we will find that in losing one choice, we have been given a far greater choice, one to choose life, every day, in every way, for every one. May it be so.


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God in the Details: The Birth Story of John Wolf

God in the Details: The Birth Story of John Wolf

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion

This story is the story of John Nestor Wolf and the day he arrived in the world. This is his story, our story, but it’s your story too. And ultimately, it’s God’s story—the one where new life is birthed from near death, where hope overflows from broken vessels. We are still pondering this profound revelation in our hearts as we hold him in our arms.

In the moments of the miraculous, God takes our faces in his hands, and invites us to look into his eyes, to see him as if for the first time. Yet it is in the telling and the re-telling of those moments, to ourselves, to our children and their children, to the world, that we begin to not only see God but to remember Him. And in that remembrance, a new hope is birthed in us that calls us through the night until we find ourselves face to face with Him once again.

John’s due date was July 9, though he was scheduled to come into this world via C-section on July 2—a welcomed gift to his plan-loving parents. Though the recovery from what would be Katherine’s 12th surgery would likely be very intense as she disproportionately uses her ab muscles to walk, given her many brain issues, the C-section seemed a more prudent path than a traditional birth with all the pushing and straining. Our high-risk OB/GYN at UCLA had prepped us during the rather non-eventful pregnancy, and though we were ready, we were perhaps a bit weary at the thought of yet another surgery, yet another hospital stay, yet another unknown series of risks. Thankfully though, the reward on the other side of this one would be great and that motivated us.

On the night of Thursday, June 25, James and I walked to get food for Katherine, who had been feeling especially tired. With a week until the baby would come, my internal stream of conscious checklist inexplicably bounced to baby middle names, which we had not yet settled on. Katherine’s neuro-surgeon, Dr. Nestor Gonzalez, came to mind. He had performed two life-saving brain surgeries on Katherine, without which she would not be here, not to mention, John, and last October, he had given us his blessing to try to have a baby. I searched the name “Nestor” on my phone and was amazed at the different possible meanings in Greek and Hebrew--“wise counselor”, “one who remembers”, “homecoming”, and “seeker of miracles”. I tucked this surprising information away as I grabbed our to-go order and my mind bounced to the next item of pre-baby business, feeding mama.

As we all settled to bed later that night, Katherine grabbed my hand and I felt her stomach grow taut as a freshly pumped basketball. She had been having Braxton-Hicks contractions over the past few weeks, and it was hard to discern if these were any different. Yet for some reason, we felt compelled to call on old Dr. Google for some distinguishing factors to ease our minds between real and false labor. James had been several days late, so surely, there was no way this baby would be two weeks early. We had strangely been prompted to finish up many nursery and household details that very day, even getting the car seat set up and washing all the baby clothes. Nonetheless, we weren’t ready yet. We would need another week, for sure.

About 5:30am Katherine woke me with a tone of voice that I had heard before but only a few other times. There was an urgency, a slightly quicker cadence in her words, and a weightiness to her breath. “Something feels different,” she said knowingly. Our dear friend and Hope Heals side kick, Sonya, had recently moved next door to us with her husband, Kanoa. They quickly came to our front door, pajama-clad but wide-eyed. During the course of the pregnancy, we heard of Sonya’s expertise in child birthing, not of her own, but literally, helping assist in the home births of her sister's kids. Their calming Hawaiian sensibilities soothed the growing unrest in our house. Kanoa stayed with sleeping James, who we didn’t want to unnecessarily rouse for what may well have been a false alarm trip to the hospital, while Sonya jumped in, helping us gather a bag, the contents of which were harder and harder to logically think through as Katherine called out things like “If these are contractions, I think they are five minutes apart”. Her pain tolerance was high, but surely this was just some last rumblings of the burger and fries she downed a few hours earlier for dinner. 

We hopped in the car for the short drive to UCLA Hospital, and the quiet, empty streets of early morning beckoned me to run a few unnecessary red lights. We called the Labor and Delivery team as we drove, and before long we found ourselves at the ER, per their recommendation, as Katherine declared a final, “It’s 6:29, and if these are contractions, they’re 2 minutes apart!”

Reality set in quickly as we were shuttled up the elevator to the Labor and Delivery hall on the 6th floor of the hospital. We were shown to a triage room where Katherine disrobed and sat on the bed awaiting her OB/GYN who just happened to be on call that morning. Another doctor quickly assessed Katherine and reported that she was in labor, dilated to 6cm, and our baby’s birthday would not be July 2, but rather, it would be that day, June 26. They also presented a last-minute, “choose-your-own-adventure” fork in the road, offering the natural delivery option instead of the planned C-section. After a momentary discussion, we decided to continue down the pre-determined C-section route, and the team left to prep for the surgery. Dana, the nurse assigned to our case that morning, was actually an acquaintance from our young marrieds group at church. She had already been assigned to do a split shift on the labor and post-partum floors that day, so amazingly, we would have her familiar face walking us through the next 12 hours of what was shaping up to be an very unexpected day.

The spry Summer sun was already illuminating the waking world a few minutes before 7am, and just outside the window, I glimpsed a familiar faded red brick structure, the old hospital building where Katherine survived 16 hours of brain surgery, lay on life-support for 40 days in ICU, and picked up the broken pieces of her life in the neuro-rehab unit. To be given this vantage point, this reminder, this 8 story high ebenzer stone on this day, broke my collected composure under the sheer weight of grace, and I began to weep at the ways in which our invisible God makes Himself as plain as day, so we might remember, so we might not be afraid.

Suddenly, Katherine asked, “did you hear that pop?” “No,” I said, looking around for the remnants of a stray balloon or bubble gum blowing nurse. “I think my water broke!” she excitedly stammered, patting the sheets. I better go get a professional, I thought. It was the morning shift change, so it took a minute to find the nurses. I arrived back in the room shortly after alerting the team, and no sooner did I pull back the privacy curtain than Katherine pulled back the bedsheet like it was on fire and offered me a shockingly unexpected first view of my son’s head crowning. I popped back in the hall, and yelled, “we’re gonna need everyone here, NOW!” The team scrambled in, dragging a birthing table attachment to put in the non-delivery room in which Katherine lay trying to hold in her baby.

Katherine’s doctor, a petite firecracker of a woman, ran in wearing pearls and a huge smile. “Only you, Katherine. This would only happen to you! No C-section today! No time for an epidural even.” she cheered giddily knowing this forced Plan B was actually the unexpected answer to months of prayers. “What about my brain? Will my brain be OK?” Katherine offered to the room, to God. “You’re going to be just fine, now push when you feel the next contraction.”

In a stunning moment, an out-of-body experience, cheek to cheek, I held my wife as her body performed its most unnaturally natural function. It seemed her years of post-stroke therapies and free pilates training had been the perfect preparation for this moment. She released her fear, released her life, as mothers always must do. With no pushing or straining, it was as if God’s hand itself gently cradled John from the womb, and in one fluid motion, he slipped from the dark to the light, from the inside to the outside of his mother's body, where he suddenly lay skin to skin on her beating chest. We both gasped at this black and white sonogram abstraction made manifest in living color, this long-awaited hope embodied in flesh and blood and cries. It was 7:07am. Seven is the number of completion. It had been seven years after the stroke, seven years into our own re-birth. One season was finished, and a new one had begun.

We sat in shock and awe at what had transpired. The day before we had begun a digital call to prayer—“7 prayers for 7 days”—and it seemed the prayers had not only worked but the answers had come in a way we had never even thought to pray for but one that was better than we could have asked or imagined.

Our nurse friend, Dana, helped us narrate this unbelievable series of events. “If you guys had come even 15 minutes earlier, you would have had the C-section, but if you had come in 15 minutes later, you would have your baby in the car on the 405!” She continued, “you guys also just saved yourself A LOT of money!” Katherine is on Medicare due to her disabilities, but an unfortunate confluence of health care reform factors left us in an inescapable gray area where she was not fully covered, a fate we frustratedly accepted as we looked toward an expensive C-section and recovery. Now, it seemed there would be no major hospital bills this time, a welcomed reprieve after 7 years of medical bills, 11 surgeries, and 13 different hospital specialties.

One of the day’s sweetest “God winks” involved some of our dearest friends in the world, the Hensleys, who had been pregnant with their first child, our due dates only 3 weeks apart. However, it seemed both our non-conformist babies preferred their birthdays be only one day apart, born in the same hospital, recovering on the same floor, three rooms from each other. The gals only had to walk a few short feet in their hospital gowns to sit on each other’s beds, slumber party style, and hold their miracle boys, astonished at God’s goodness.

John’s first day in this world included visits from his brother, James, who had wished and hoped and prayed and begged for a brother since he knew the words with which to ask. The delight, pure and lovely, poured from James’ face at the recognition of this life that was now a piece of him too. Katherine’s Mom, who was already in the air, flying in from Georgia on a plane ticket booked months ago, arrived soon after to receive this gift one day before her birthday, and Katherine’s sister, Grace, came with hot coffee and donuts from our favorite, nearby donut shop which we had frequented over the past seven years as a reward after doctors’ appointments. Then came Fil, the nurse who had painstakingly cared for Katherine, and us, in the months she spent recovering in neuro-rehab across the street. He marveled at the life that had so touched his, and his very presence reminded us just how far Katherine had come. And Dr. Gonzalez, who was scheduled to leave town later that day, came to the room and held his namesake within a few hours of his birth, as tears came to us all. His family, his children are his patients, to whom he has given his life, and now the fruits of his sacrifice lay cradled in his arms, and it reminded us that nothing we experience, nothing we give up for the sake of others is ever wasted, and in fact, it’s often in that place of loss, that concave spot in the ground, in our hearts, from which grows a new creation.

We stayed the obligatory two days, long enough to remind us of Katherine’s late, doctor grandfather’s words, “a hospital’s no place for a sick person” or a healthy one for that matter. So we gathered our new family, our wolfpack, as it were, and after a good half hour of searching Youtube videos to figure out our carseat’s straps, we headed home, down the familiar road that has carried us to and from that hospital and those doctors for years now, but this time we carried with us a new baby and a new story, coalescing all the hopes and fears and doctor visits and therapies and rehabs and graces, all bundled up in an astonishingly small package of delicious new life.

And when we arrived home, it had never felt more so. And we sank into our bed, with our boys not far away, and we slept…for about five minutes. And that first night included not only baby spit up, but 7 year old vomit, on us, while we slept, and James had clearly eaten blueberries. Then we remembered parenthood, the real and exhausting and messiest bits we had blocked out, and we smiled as we slept for five minutes more on top of our stripped mattress because new life is always earth-shattering in the best ways. And when the dust settles, we begin the process of learning to love and sacrifice and wait and live as we take all the shattered pieces and build something new with them, together. And we will…

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Welcoming Baby John

Welcoming Baby John

Friends, it seems after Day 1 of our "7 Days of Prayer" (see previous post), your prayers worked, REALLY WELL. Though Katherine was scheduled to undergo a C-section this coming Thursday, July 2, she went into labor early last Friday morning, June 26, shortly after which we welcomed Baby John into the world. We are actually home now and our family of four is doing great as we are re-learning the rhythm of life with a new baby. Thank you for cheering us on in every way, and it goes without saying that your prayers would still be so appreciated!

{We shared the pictures and text below on social media over the past few days. You can follow us on Instagram or Twitter at @hopeheals, or via our Facebook page.}

"Baby Wolf 2 made his unexpected arrival this morning! He came so quickly there was barely enough time to get to UCLA and no time for an epidural, let alone a C-section. It seems your prayers worked (maybe a little too well!) Mom and baby are doing great, and big brother is on his way. We love this picture of James kissing Katherine's belly with her feeding tube scar/second belly button just above him. Reminders of near death and new life miraculously all around us. God is so good." 

"John Nestor Wolf arrived Friday, 6/26/15, at 7:07am, weighing 6lbs 8oz, 19.5in long. He came early but just on time. Our love for him is overflowing! He is named for many Johns we love, including those in the Bible who bore witness to the gospel of Jesus as his new life already does, and for our beloved neuro-surgeon, Dr. Nestor Gonzalez, without whom John and his Mommy would not be here. Quite appropriately, this special middle name also means "wisdom", "remembrance", "homecoming" and "seeker of miracles". May John fully know how deeply He is loved by God and by us all."

" life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark." ~ Barbara Brown Taylor

"After giving birth early Friday morning, we looked in awe and wept as literally outside the delivery room's window stands the neuro-rehab building where we struggled to pick up the pieces of our lives in the months after my stroke, 7 years ago. What grace to be reminded that the vantage points from which we view our lives do change. This is our hope, that one day we can look upon the darkness of our past and see that God was working and look upon the dawn of our present and know that He is faithful. (PS. Jay takes 99% of the photos in our lives, but I took this one of he and John from my hospital bed 2 days ago!)"

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