Our Mother, the Church

What a day to enter into our churches again. I can’t speak to the liturgical name for this fourth Sunday of Easter. It remains too far outside of my limited layperson’s church calendar knowledge. It is past the pre-Lent gesima weeks; past the regular rhythms of the somber, forty-day penitential season; past Holy Week when services can be marked by hours, let alone days; past the bright white glory of Easter Sunday; past the Doubting Thomas Sunday—my name for it; past Good Shepherd Sunday. Now we believers are still in the Easter season, but we are past the renewness of our annual celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Birds have been singing for weeks, daffodils and tulips pushing their stubborn green buds up through soil despite cold and late snow, green erupting across our brown and gray landscapes, the warmth of the sun returning to our days. We are hopeful again, and we are glad to see the reassuringly familiar signs of spring, just as we are glad to know that some things, however few, have not changed.

So today we returned to church. On Mother’s Day, a well-intentioned but kind of silly commemoration good for commercialization and few, debatable widespread merits. But the secular day fit our Christian longing for timeless truths. We went to the Bride of Christ, the church, our mother.

We returned with social distancing, some people with masks, many with fresh disinfectant on their hands, all with care for our neighbors on our minds. The exterior doors to our church were open today, in part because the fresh air and breeze allowed for it, and in part to prevent many hands from touching handles and spreading germs. Despite the strange additions in such a familiar place, we were home. We followed liturgies we have sung many times before and sang beloved hymns with the voices of our church family and organ ringing in our ears—rarely has such music sounded so lovely. We heard the Word that has long fed us and received in our mouths the Body and Blood that sustains us. None of it was new, and yet, it was all new. We were made whole, miraculously, again.

Mothers understand their children’s needs for order and predictability. They sacrifice themselves to provide care that children and society take for granted, assuming that such care will always happen smoothly and practically invisibly. When it doesn’t, life shifts. We have seen this in the last two months, with our jobs upended, our schools closed, our everyday routines suddenly shrunken to small, uncertain quarters. Normalcy seems far away, and perhaps impossible. So can God.

And yet He has given us His Church, the one place to receive Him physically and in time through our bodies. Just as a mother with child bears and carries the little one wherever she goes, literally wrapped around her helpless child, so the Church bears us to Him who gives us all things. She carries us to the only food that will last for eternity, to our Father and Lord who gently reassures us, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me” (John 14:1). We have no greater riches. We have received no greater love. We have everything.

Jupiter's great red spot

A Great Red Spot

Last week, our school’s headmaster, Rev. Andy Richard, shared a recording of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets. (You can watch and listen to it here and check out Mount Hope Lutheran School here.) It’s a lovely, lively, moving piece, and the powerful canticle “We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God” in our Lutheran Service Book takes its tune from “Jupiter,” making it yet more poignant for me.

In an interesting coincidence, I found the above picture of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot a day or so after listening to the music. I don’t know much about our planets, though I find them fascinating, and I wondered about this picturesque yet subtly menacing spot that stands out in so many pictures of Jupiter.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from New Old Stock Photo

It turns out that the Great Red Spot, as it’s known, has been around for at least 150 years, but it’s probably older–even much older–than that. Its wind speeds range between 270 to 425 miles per hour, horrifically faster than the winds of Earth’s worst hurricanes and tornadoes. This storm is also twice the size of our planet (yes, you read that right). Suffice it to say, the great red spot is a storm beyond our comprehension, even with science and technology enabling us to study it. (You can read more about it here.)

And this brings me to the great change Earth has experienced in the last few weeks, with shutdowns and stay-at-home orders emptying our streets and schools and social lives. We’re not sure what to do with the giant pandemic storm that is COVID-19, beyond the protocols recommended by infectious disease and public health specialists. At least in America, we didn’t have living memory of quarantine up until about yesterday. And because we’re human, we inevitably thought that because we had no memory of something, and because we have science and technology, whatever those terms imply, we no longer had a communal fear of deadly plagues.

Our illusion has been shattered. It as though we awoke to find ourselves looking at a picture of a planet, mesmerized by a great red spot, one that we’d forgotten existed and suddenly noticed again. For the threat has always been with us, though we have mostly seen it in small and individual circumstances–a hospice bed, a coffin by a fresh-dug hole. Yet this threat is real, and it will never disappear until the world ends. I don’t mean coronavirus specifically, though who knows? Maybe this particular pestilence is a sign of the end times. What I do mean are the threats, the signs of death, that come for us all. We have become so talented at ignoring these, and removing them from our daily lives, that now confronted with death on a massive scale, we hardly know what to do.

Thankfully, we as Christians know just what to do. We turn to the only One who can help us in our illnesses and fear, our anxieties and our deathbeds. “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” says the One who created the world. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). God is not afraid of storms. He has already weathered the worst. He whose hands and side and feet bear great red spots turns them to us not to frighten us, but to comfort us. “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). As Lent wanes, we look forward yet again to commemorating the greatest sacrifice ever made and the hope it brought us–Christ’s death and resurrection. “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again,” we repeat with the Psalmist. “From the depths of the earth You will bring me up again” (Psalm 71:20). No spot, or storm, will triumph in the end.

You, Christ, are King of glory, the everlasting Son,

Yet You, with boundless love, sought to rescue ev’ry one:

You laid aside Your glory, were born of virgin’s womb,

Were crucified for us and were placed into a tomb;

Then by Your resurrection You won for us reprieve–

You opened heaven’s kingdom to all who would believe.

You sit in splendid glory, enthroned at God’s right hand,

Upholding earth and heaven by forces You command.

We know that You will come as our Judge that final day,

So help Your servants You have redeemed by blood, we pray;

May we with saints be numbered where praises never end,

In glory everlasting. Amen, O Lord, amen!

“We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God” LSB v.3 & 4.
Crucifix and hand sanitizer

Here We Stand: Lutheran Words on COVID-19

Hello, fellow mortals. Our lives have changed drastically in the last week with the coronavirus pandemic spreading to the US. Between fear, hand washing guidelines, social distancing, school closings, quarantine, and more—toilet paper shortage, anyone?—I think we all need some thoughtful, sane, and specifically Lutheran words to allay (and even lighten) our collective panic. So without further ado, here are some Lutheran words, grouped by category, to help us as we live with COVID-19.

1. Practical Help for Churches — Lyman Stone on Witness in the Plague: A Simple Tip Sheet for Churches to Manage Infectious Diseases Like COVID-19

Many churches in the US, Lutheran included, have cancelled services due to COVID-19 concerns. Others are grappling with how to possibly hold services in the midst of a pandemic. This resources is for the grapplers, as well as for the churches who will eventually reopen their doors with new considerations to this new, virus-sensitive world we’re entering.

Lyman Stone is an economist and demographic analyst. He’s also currently an LCMS missionary in Hong Kong with his wife, Ruth, and their infant daughter. At the beginning of March, as Hong Kong was already dealing with the threat of the coronavirus, he wrote what he called “a tip sheet for how churches can prepare for and respond to a COVID outbreak in their community” and posted it on Twitter. Rod Dreher, an Orthodox writer, linked the tip sheet over at The American Conservative, too. Full of practical, common-sense guidelines, and even some humor, the tip sheet can help all of us–pastors, elders, concerned laity–think about COVID in regards to our churches. A week ago, Stone also wrote how Christianity has been handling pandemics for 2,000 years and how churches must be a refuge in a time of fear. These are good reminders for our churches, and for us, in these uncertain times.

2. Spiritual Comfort for Concerned Lutherans — Rev. Brian Flamme on A Christian Attitude in Times of Widespread Sickness and Rumor of Death

Rev. Brian Flamme of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Roswell, New Mexico, wrote this brief article to console and encourage Lutherans and other Christians in the face of COVID. “When sickness and death test the foundation of Christian trust in God’s mercy, the the Scriptures teach a four-fold attitude of faith, prayer, compassion, and mercy,” Pastor Flamme wrote, citing many Scriptures for each category and pointing us back to our greatest comfort: the Word. “As rumors of the COVID-19 virus continues to spread, the anxiety gripping the hearts of our neighbors can threaten to overcome our own. Rather than submitting ourselves to extreme measures for the sake of emergency, we should examine our hearts, be instructed by God’s Word, and fulfill our obligations to one another in love.” In the midst of a wilderness that is scary, this is comforting. Amen, Pastor.

3. Blast from the Deadly Past — Martin Luther on Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague

The Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, killed between 75 and 200 million people in the 1500s. Something like 80% of people who contracted the disease died within eight days. In terms of infection rate, horrific suffering, and extremely high death rates, our COVID seems positively tame in comparison. Nevertheless, our feelings and fears right now echo those of our forebears, and Luther’s letter, written when the plague approached Wittenberg in 1527, is highly relevant (it’s linked here at the Lutheran Reporter and LCMS blog). Luther’s short answer on whether you should run or lose your head? Um, no. “[We] admonish and plead with you in Christ’s name to help us with your prayers to God so that we may do battle with word and precept against the real and spiritual pestilence of Satan in his wickedness with which he now poisons and defiles the world.” If Luther could say this in the face of the Bubonic Plague, we should listen.

A recent service at Redeemer, Fort Wayne, posted on the Redeemer Facebook page.

4. Church When You’re at Home — Streamed Services from Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Matins at Kramer Chapel through Issues, Etc. and Daily Chapel podcasts from KFUO Radio

What to do when you can’t go to church? Most Lutherans have to spend at least some time at home missing church in this best of times, and now this quandary has only intensified with government recommendations on how many people can gather together publicly, along with those straight-up church closures mentioned above. For years, when I or my kids have been sick and had to miss church, I’ve tuned in to the YouTube channel of Redeemer Lutheran. My husband and I attended there years ago when he studied at Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne, and it’s a beautiful, confessional congregation. You can access years of services and even subscribe to the channel.

For those who would like to listen but not necessarily watch services, I also like the audio-streamed Matins services from Kramer Chapel at CTS-FW that Issues, Etc. shares (a resource all on its own I highly recommend, and one Rev. David Peterson from Redeemer speaks and teaches on frequently). Another good podcast for services are the Daily Chapel archives from the LCMS International Center broadcast by KFUO Radio. Many individual congregations are also putting services on YouTube or somehow making the Word accessible from home, and if that’s the case for you and your home congregation, please use those resources. But if you’d like to supplement them, or you don’t have local congregation online options, these are good online family altar resources.

5. Teaching at Home during School Closure — Rev. Andy Richard on Intermissio Coronae and Joy Pullmann on a 6-Step Quick-Start for Sudden Homeschoolers

We’ve had a good, if somewhat rough, start to our sudden homeschooling gig here this week (we’re on Day 2). Since we’ve done it in the past, it doesn’t seem quite as intimidating as it does to parents who are diving in. But we’re also rusty–I last homeschooled in 2016–so extra resources always help.

Rev. Andy Richard, the headmaster of Mount Hope Lutheran School, the classical Lutheran school where our kids attend, has been amazing at providing a daily newsletter, the Intermissio Coronae (that’s “Crown Break” in Latin, fairly obviously named) that includes beautiful artwork, a devotion from Steadfast Lutherans (which you can also link directly here), a musical selection, a poem, a proposition from Alcuin (old and hard riddles), and more. They’re already a highlight to our day–we like to read and share them at mealtimes. The Intermission Coronae issues for this week can be read here (March 17), here (March 18), here (March 19), and here (March 20). You can also subscribe to receive them in email form.

Another good Lutheran guide for sudden homeschooling is from Joy Pullmann, a Lutheran writer, wife, and mom. Her article for The Federalist contains some practical, reasonable how-tos for teaching and learning with your kids. While challenging, your emergency homeschooling can actually be fun, and these resources can help!

Photo by Elly Fairytale from Pexels

6. Family Bonding during Quarantine — Holly Scheer on How to Keep Yourself and the Kids Happy Through Quarantine

Everyone has to adjust to being home, together, all day, in a culture where that’s just not common. It could be a recipe for stress and frustration, but Holly Scheer, also for The Federalist, taps into our hyper-lawn-mower-parenting angst and gives us some calm. “I know this is strange, that the idea of schools shutting down feels bizarre, and having the faces of your children looking to you, expecting answers, highlights that those kids expect you to have an instant plan. You can do this. Jump into this unexpected homeschooling and you and the children will be okay, and may even deeply enjoy this time together.” I know we’ve discovered this in our home so far. Some structure is good, and so is some flexibility. We’ve now got the time to cherish our home life. That’s actually a blessing.

Coronavirus support ribbon with toilet paper
From a friend’s Facebook page. Thanks, Jeff!

7. Humor in the Unknown — Rev. Hans Fiene on Interviewing the Coronavirus

The old adage says that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and there’s some truth to that. We’re all anxious, treading into unknown waters for who knows how long, and this can make us crazy if we have no reprieve. God’s Word is the best reprieve, for sure. But God also gives us humor. Rev. Hans Fiene, a parish pastor and creator of Lutheran Satire, gives us some COVID-19 funnies with his, ahem, interview with the coronavirus. Fiene asks some hard-hitting questions and gets honest answers from the virus.

FIENE: In his address to the nation last Wednesday night, President Trump urged us not to politicize you. But the next day, he and Joe Biden were attacking each other over the crisis. What do you think? As you’re becoming a bigger problem, should people put aside partisan squabbling?

VIRUS: No, people should definitely fight over me.

FIENE: In what way?

VIRUS: Preferably hand-to-hand combat. With spitting.

We’re all in this together–the good, the bad, and the ugly. So we might as well pray and laugh. Stay well, friends.

I kind of feel nailed right now, even though I’m laughing.

What are some good Lutheran words on COVID-19 that you’ve found? Please leave them in the comments, with links, if possible!

Not Feeling Lent

All of us have experienced the incongruity of mismatched feelings to particular experiences. This happens when you know the social expectations or “normal” feelings that typically align with milestones or events, but yours just don’t. Like the wedding that prompts you to worry instead of rejoice. Or the baby shower that births frustration and sadness instead of gratitude and affection. Or the birthday party that makes you mad instead of cheerful. Or the funeral that brings you relief instead of sorrow. Even the church service that depresses instead of encourages.

It doesn’t keep us up at night, having most of these feelings. This is because we tend to be experienced and honest enough to acknowledge that feelings aren’t always clear. They certainly aren’t always predictable. And sometimes, they’re not even controllable.

But we can doubt what’s true or right when our feelings don’t match. It can be hard to do the things we ought when our feelings clash with our responsibilities or vocations. In our culture which touts individual, personal feelings as the sole key to our direction and purpose, it can feel, well, downright cruel and ruthless to push past or ignore our feelings in order to do what’s in front of us, let alone to do what’s right.

Yet as Christians, we can rest in the knowledge that God doesn’t expect us to have the right feelings. We should repent of sinful feelings, yes, and when we allow them to move us to reject Him and our neighbors, but we don’t have to worry about having the right amount of joy, say, to come to His house or His table. We don’t idolize our emotional experiences above the Truth He gives us. Christ says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He knew the temptations of bodily, emotional, and spiritual need and fatigue (Matthew 4:1-11). He knew hunger in the wilderness–and probably the force of hangryness, too, let’s be honest–and want and sorrow and all of the hard feelings humans experience. And He calls us to trust Him, not pull ourselves up by our emotional bootstraps to have a good face to put on before Him.

This is a relief to me, this Ash Wednesday and this Lent. I know I’m a sinner, and my only Savior is Christ. The last thing I need is the burden of the “right” emotional state as a sign of my salvation. The only thing I need is outside of my feelings–a Savior who felt for me and fulfilled the Law for my sake.

So I will go to church tonight and receive ashes on my forehead, a reminder that from dust I am formed, and to dust I shall return. And if I’m not feeling the weight of my sins, or the joy of knowing they no longer condemn me, that’s okay. Even as black soot crosses my unfeeling or weak-feeling forehead, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus bore my sins’ weight. I just receive what He has given me to know in my baptism, through His Word, and in His sacrament, and confess the Truth.

Surely he has borne our griefs

    and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

    smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

    he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

    and with his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

    we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6, ESV.

Blessed Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Connecting with Lutherans: Decluttering and Remembering the One Thing Needful with Laura Henry

A Good Wilderness seeks to help Lutherans and others cultivate community and learn how to live in lonely places. One of the ways we can do this is by hearing from faithful Lutherans who share life experiences, write and publish, pursue hobbies, or own businesses that can give us all insights and encouragement. You can find interviews with some of these people here at “Over My Neighbor’s Fence.”   

We’re at the end of January, and maybe your decluttering resolutions are at a standstill–or never really got started. If so, you are in the right place, and I’ve got someone for you to meet!

Laura Henry is a wife, mother, and decluttering guru. And to be honest, she’s an acquaintance of mine who I now consider a friend! Laura works with clients to help them clean out and clean up their homes—and she loves sharing her wisdom and encouragement with others. We communicated recently about her personal experiences, how she began helping others declutter, what she’s learned, and how to practice realistic and loving Lutheran hospitality. You’ll also see “Laura’s Lines” here—some particular gems in this awesome interview that highlight her insights. The following is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Hi, Laura! Please tell us about yourself—your family, what church you attend, your vocations.

Sure thing! My husband John and I have four children: Johnny (10), Luke (8), Silas (6), and Molly (4). Just a few weeks ago, we moved from Indiana to rural Fairmont, Minnesota, where my husband serves as Pastor to a dual parish—Zion in Fairmont and St. James in Northrop. I graduated with a degree in English in 2008, but I’ve spent the majority of the last ten years at home with our children.

The Henry Family. From left: Johnny, John, Molly, Laura, Luke, and Silas. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

While being a mother is still my primary vocation, as my children have grown and begun attending school and preschool, I’ve found time in my life to pursue what has become a great passion of mine: decluttering and helping people gain control of their homes. My hobbies include doing all sorts of puzzles, jigsaw, crossword, etcetera. Basically, I love putting things in order!

Having just moved a family of six nearly 500 miles in the middle of January, I don’t feel particularly qualified at the moment to talk about organization. There are still boxes to be unpacked, my walls are bare, and to be honest, we had way more stuff than I thought we did!

Actually, I think it makes you the perfect person to talk to! You’re totally living a real-life organizational slog. 

Ha! Well, I can’t imagine how much more overwhelming of a project a big move like that would have been had I not gone through some major downsizing over the last years. Things just seem to multiply like rabbits!

So tell us how you got into decluttering. Did you have experiences that prompted it in your own life?

Believe it or not, I have not always been into living with less or decluttering—actually, quite the opposite. I spent a lot of time during young adulthood acquiring, storing, and collecting a wide variety of items. I never turned down anything that someone wanted to give me, and I rarely drove past a rummage sale without stopping and taking home something I found interesting. There was a long period in my young adulthood where I was very preoccupied with things. I wanted desperately to have everything in my house “just right,” and I spent a lot of time and money trying to achieve that.

The pendulum really began to swing in the other direction for me in 2013. That spring, my husband graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne and received his first Divine Call as a Pastor to a small, urban church in northwest Indiana. At that point, we were a family of four, but we had a full-length moving truck and two carloads full of stuff that we moved into an extremely large parsonage that was already fully furnished. It was insane! I remember thinking before unloading our moving truck, “Where is all our stuff going to go?”

I think this is a common experience, at least the realization in a move of exactly how much superfluous stuff our families can have! How did you manage all the stuff?

To make a long story short, the previous tenants had left a large amount of their possessions behind when they moved. The parsonage had also been vacant for quite awhile, and much of the space had been used as storage for decades’ worth of things no longer used at the church next door.

The exterior of the Henry’s parsonage in Indiana; some interior clutter; some of the many dumpsters they filled. Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

Wow. That sounds overwhelming!

It was at the beginning. I spent the next three years slowly and carefully wading my way through clearing out the three stories, a basement, and a garage belonging to that massive, beautiful, historic parsonage.

Laura writes: “The old altar, font, and paintings were buried in the parsonage basement. They were able to be given to an artist, but I don’t know their ultimate fate.” Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

Through the course of decluttering, we discovered the presence of some very serious health and safety risks to us. For instance, when we were in the middle of the process, the bathroom ceiling collapsed and revealed a major mold issue. So that was all stripped down to the studs, and even most of the studs were replaced.

Before and after pictures of the bathroom. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

At that point, our children’s health had been affected, and we needed to move out temporarily while those issues could be remediated. We actually ended up moving out twice over the course of six years. By the end of the process, I believe we had over two moving truck loads and I lost track of how many dumpsters of stuff removed from the house.

Before and after pictures of the kitchen. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

Due to the health concerns, not much could be saved or repurposed, and we lost most of our personal belongings, in addition to everything else that was left in the house by other parties.

That sounds like a nightmare! And you not only had to deal with all the physical problems and loss but with the mental and emotional ones that probably came along with it.

Yes. Those years were some of the most challenging of my life, and the stress from our living environment many times felt like it dominated our lives. While it was a challenge that I hadn’t asked for, nor fully understood walking into, it was truly one of the best things to ever happen to me. We witnessed an outpouring of love and mercy from other Christians and friends and even strangers. We got to see God’s people, and our church family, come together to try to rectify the situation.

The finished parsonage living room. Professional contractors did much of the rebuilding after the cleanout. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

I do wish I had more pictures of the “decluttering.” And I did not do the construction/remodeling, though I did pick the designs and paint colors. We had a good construction crew.

Outside help is crucial for some projects, right?

Absolutely! And as they say, hindsight is 20/20. The whole process ignited in me a purpose and passion for helping others who feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by their living conditions to take back control and find joy and peace in their homes. It was so empowering to be able to take a situation so utterly chaotic and work at it piece-by-piece to regain control. By the grace of God, we came out of that situation stronger as a family and as a church, not to mention the blessings in restoring a beautiful historic parsonage to its former glory.

Laura’s Lines

on Blessings in the Mess:

While [our extremely cluttered and dangerous parsonage] was a challenge that I hadn’t asked for, nor fully understood walking into, it was truly one of the best things to ever happen to me. We witnessed an outpouring of love and mercy from other Christians and friends and even strangers. We got to see God’s people, and our church family, come together … By the grace of God, we came out of that situation stronger as a family and as a church, not to mention the blessings in restoring a beautiful historic parsonage to its former glory.

What an inspirational story, Laura. I’m so glad you can see the blessings that resulted from such a literal mess.

I can definitely see the personal benefits now (and remember, this took years for me and us to get through!). And then the whole experience awakened a passion in me that I’ve never felt before. I get so much joy and energy out of walking beside my clients as they take back the control of their homes. I have really started to branch out and do work mostly via word of mouth references in the last two years. It’s been a complete joy and learning experience.

And you’re the perfect person to do this kind of work! You really get the challenges, the sweat, the tears, and the blessings! What’s something you’ve learned from helping others do what you had to do in your own home?

The experience changed me in many ways, but one of the greatest lessons I learned is not to judge a situation. It is what it is. How we got here is in the past, and how we are going to move towards a better future starts now with letting go of judgment, blame, shame, or embarrassment about “how bad it is.” Definitely, there is a time and a place for reflection and habit-changing to prevent falling back into old patterns, but to change and move forward, letting go of judgment and blame and working together is the first step.

Oftentimes in life, and in pursuit of a Christian life, we are asked to take responsibility for things that aren’t our fault. It’s the fault versus responsibility debate. I see that quite often with my clients. Many feel helpless and overwhelmed by their surroundings, and often, it wasn’t their sole fault that it got that bad. But them asking me into their personal lives and letting down their guard to ask for help is accepting responsibility for creating a life that better serves them and their loved ones. That’s a big deal!

I certainly stumbled through some intense and negative emotions through our journey. But letting go of the mental baggage allowed me to truly embrace all the lessons and be there as a support for others going through their own varying degrees of cleaning up.

And this leads into the next question: how do you understand the importance of order, or cleanliness, or minimalism—whatever words you want to use—in light of being a Lutheran?

This is a great question and one I think about a lot! Obviously, “tidying up” has been quite the trendy thing to do thanks to the meteoric rise of books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I loved that book, but it definitely wasn’t Lutheran in its spiritual perspective.

No, definitely not! Minimalism has become a bit of a lightning rod, with some even having a visceral reaction against it. As Lutherans, we do tend to recoil from anything that may present as legalistic or giving us expectations for how to live outside of what Christ has commanded. I get it! And I agree. Being overly concerned with minimalistic living is the other side of the coin of being materialistic and seeking out after wealth. I really emphasize that to my clients. Decluttering is not the means to end for a picture perfect home. It’s a process through which you can discover the balance of possessions in your home that leads to contentment and peace and manageability. This end result will look different for everyone, and truly, for very, very few it will look like anything that resembles a home design photo shoot or Pinterest board.

Laura’s Lines on Decluttering:

Decluttering is not the means to end for a picture-perfect home. It’s a process through which you can discover the balance of possessions in your home that leads to contentment and peace and manageability.

One of Laura’s jobs for a client. Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

It seems like every week there are studies and articles popping up declaring the benefits of less clutter and how kids and adults thrive with fewer, and less stimulating, toys. Life is chaotic enough and we all are constantly under assault with comparisons to people who seemingly have it together.

Well, I think most of know that media is deceptive, but it still doesn’t stop the pervasiveness of “you aren’t doing enough.” So, while I do believe pretty much everyone would reap benefits from owning less, I don’t believe in guilting or shaming over it. Having major illness or surgery, having a baby, losing a loved one, or just not feeling like going through stuff are all signs to relax and let the nagging voice go that you missed the bus on tidying up. It’s ok. Minimizing can be a very long, exhausting process, so if you aren’t in the right frame of mind, then just don’t worry about it at the moment. The time will come. It does take preparation and the right frame of mind. So plant the seed and dwell on it. If and when the time is right, you’ll be ready. The mess will still be there.

Laura’s finally-at-long-last empty basement. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

Laura’s Lines on Timing:

Minimizing can be a very long, exhausting process, so if you aren’t in the right frame of mind, then just don’t worry about it at the moment. The time will come. It does take preparation and the right frame of mind. So plant the seed and dwell on it. If and when the time is right, you’ll be ready. The mess will still be there.

I love this. I think so often we get hung up on made-up timelines. Like, what, are we still in school with a cleaning deadline for third period next Tuesday? Deadlines can be helpful, but they can also be overwhelming. I appreciate that you acknowledge very common obstacles to the process of minimizing.

There are so many obstacles! But they can, truly, be overcome.

And as Lutherans, we’re trying to find a balance between what God says is good—like order—and our sinful proclivities—including loving wealth and stuff to being lazy to being pietists over what our homes look like. We try not to be legalists or Gnostics; that is, we understand and, I hope, cherish rather than hate the material gifts God gives us to us. But in appreciating our stuff, we don’t want to idolize it or mistake our stewardship of those gifts as meriting our salvation. This is a balance I feel like I swing back and forth on constantly, both trying to understand it rightly as a Christian, and also just doing the actual balancing in my own household.

Absolutely. I’ve been on the more neurotic end of the spectrum with being obsessed with having as little as possible and having everything in its perfect place. I’ve also been in depressive states where I’m behind on everything in my house from laundry to dishes and not a thing is where it belongs. Both are miserable places to be! I’m more relaxed now. I listen to my body and rest when I need to; I ask for help when I need to and pay attention to what needs to be paid attention to. Sometimes that is simply surviving life with four young kids! I don’t let myself feel guilty for that! I just feel it and know that eventually I will feel up to getting things in order again.

Over the years, I’ve come to see more clearly than ever the importance of boundaries. It’s so easy to become overcommitted and overscheduled. When my home life feels out of control, I often need to look no further than my schedule.

A garage clean-out and cleanup for a client. Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

Nothing is more important than having time as a family, time to go to church together, time to prayer and study God’s Word together and sing hymns. We all need time to read as a family and eat dinner together. When the schedule is so crazy that those things aren’t even happening, how can I expect to have my home in order or have chores done? I’ve found it to be true for myself that keeping strong personal boundaries, being extremely careful about taking on external commitments, and learning how to say a confident “No” has been at the absolute core of being able to maintain a more orderly home. When I hear myself repeatedly saying “I’m so busy,” I know it’s time to stop and look at what can be delegated, rearranged, or dropped altogether from the schedule.

Laura’s Lines on Personal Boundaries:

I’ve found it to be true for myself that keeping strong personal boundaries, being extremely careful about taking on external commitments, and learning how to say a confident “No!” has been at the absolute core of being able to maintain a more orderly home.

Laura, you are pointing out something that I’ve been realizing this new year! With four kids at school and lots of extracurricular running around, two littles at home, and a very busy husband, I literally have started to schedule Home Days—days where I know I can just be home and catch up with cleaning, laundry, budgeting and finance, and keeping order. That means I have to say no to stuff, or only schedule certain things. My sanity, and the lives of my husband and children, depend upon the order we have at home. Saying “no” is absolutely key to that.

And it doesn’t just have to do with managing time. Saying no includes saying no to the question, “Do you want Great Aunt Sylvia’s china?” No! It’s okay to say no. It truly is. Many of my clients have houses full of guilt. They’ve accepted things because they don’t want to reject family heirlooms or the remnants of a deceased relative’s belongings. Sometimes they’ve gone to direct sales parties and bought things they don’t want or need in efforts to support their friends.

But there are so many genuine ways to love and support our family and friends that don’t involve us buying or accepting unwanted things that cause us stress and maybe even resentment. I also have developed those boundaries with myself. I’m only human. I get the same dopamine hit as any other woman when I walk into Target.

Ha ha! That’s totally true! It’s funny and not funny at the same time!

It’s the joke that’s on us! Understanding that the process of decluttering and minimizing starts with stopping the influx into our homes has been a big light bulb for me. If you are committing to living with less, you have to know that it does involve behavior changes. So stopping the impulse shopping is a big one! A very helpful question that I ask people is, “Where do you see this fitting into your vision of your ideal home?” If you don’t see a spot for it, put it back. I also really find the prompt, “Would you buy this a month from now?” Usually people would say, “No.” It’s just an impulse, and it will pass!

I rework that same question when going through the decluttering process. If people are really struggling with whether to keep an item asking, “If I didn’t own this today, would I go out and buy it?” The answer is oftentimes no, and knowing that frees the person to let it go.

Strategizes for evaluating what stays and goes are so helpful! What else should we consider when we look at our stuff?

Some other common obstacles for getting rid of items are our fears of them going into a landfill. There’s also the sunken cost factor. That means people see only the money they spent on the item and not whether it brings meaning to their lives currently. To get rid of it feels wasteful or like a loss. I work with people on reframing their mindset from reactive to proactive. To truly change, we need to focus on contentment. The money was spent when the item was purchased. The waste was created when it was manufactured. Holding onto these things to prevent the waste that was already created is faulty logic. The answer to too much isn’t too little; it’s enough. And most of us will find that we possess enough. We can let go of the security blanket of excess, and in turn, we gain contentment.

Laura’s Lines on Fighting Guilt

and Finding Contentment:

Instead of letting people live under guilt], I work with [them] on reframing their mindset from reactive to proactive. To truly change, we need to focus on contentment. … The answer to too much isn’t too little; it’s enough. And most of us will find that we possess enough. We can let go of the security blanket of excess, and in turn, we gain contentment.

One of my favorite parts of my job is getting the things that others are discarding into the hands of people who really need and can use it. There are typically dozens of organizations in most counties that will take donations to either give directly or resell to those in need. This can ease the nagging feeling of waste by letting items go. Someone else can use those things, and they can use them now!

Tell us about a particular project that meant a lot to you, and how you go about getting started with a client in the process of decluttering.

A special one was a whole house overhaul I did. (I don’t share names or identifying information to protect my clients’ privacy.) It was the woman’s childhood home, and she had never lived anywhere else. She was in her mid-50s when I helped her out.

A client’s before and after pictures. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

Once we were all finished, this client told me she was able to bake Christmas cookies with her niece and nephew in her kitchen for the first time ever. That’s what it’s all about!

That is so special and inspiring! So have most of your projects involved certain rooms or areas? Or have most been whole house jobs?

Most of my jobs start as one specific area and turn into whole house decluttering!   

I do a lot of garages, basements, attics—those are more obvious clutter and catch-all areas. Oftentimes, people catch the fever and want to keep going. I’ve done two jobs where the clients started right off the bat knowing they wanted to do the entire house. In other instances, we started small with a specific area to get a feel for the process, but as often as not it led into other spaces. It’s very liberating and even addicting when you get in the zone.

That makes total sense! When have you known that someone “catches the fever”? Is it a comment? Just a general “now I can see what it can be and I don’t want to stop” vibe?

I think decluttering is a totally overwhelming prospect for many people. They don’t know where to start. But once we get through a smaller area like a closet, pantry, or garage, for instance, they “catch the fever”—and that is just a saying I used in the moment. By that I mean clients get excited about the progress, and it begins to snowball. The more they get done, the easier it is to for them to take on bigger projects. So we can start with one closet, and before you know it, we are doing an 800-square-foot attic. You have start small sometimes to see what you can manage and how good it feels. And starting small also helps you to realize that it’s not that hard! Once your mind starts working in decision mode and gets into that mode of letting go, it gets much easier. By far, the hardest part is starting!

Laura’s Lines on Starting Small:

You have start small sometimes to see what you can manage and how good it feels. And starting small also helps you to realize that it’s not that hard! Once your mind starts working in decision mode and gets into that mode of letting go, it gets much easier. By far, the hardest part is starting!

That’s what I tell people all the time: starting is the hardest! Anyone can do this, but everyone can benefit from a neutral third party who is clear and can do the work part, like bagging, hauling, moving, or reorganizing what is left while the client focuses solely on making the decisions. It also helps to have a neutral party ask questions, like some I mentioned before, if someone is having a really hard time deciding about whether to keep an item.

I love your emphasis on decisions. That’s really what it is, whether it’s a small or big project, or even the daily grind. I joke sometimes that I just need someone else to make decisions! But I think pacing is key, like in long distance sports. One thousand decisions is just too much. But ten decisions? That’s much more doable. Breaking things to do, and maybe most tasks, into small pieces is so key, and it sounds like that’s what you help people do.

Yes. I try to keep people focused in the moment. Instead of thinking about how out-of-control the entire household is, let’s look at this one closet. That saying is true: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Don’t focus on the end goal. Just try to stay focused on the baby steps. Most people are shocked at how quickly they can get through everything. But often the fear of how long it will take and how hard the decisions are stops people from even starting. So just set a tiny goal of one small area and be amazed at how well you can do! Let the momentum of the small wins carry you forward.

I love this! It’s so much more doable to concentrate on little things first, then keep going.

That’s my advice to people. And get a friend or family member or professional to help. A third party and neutral opinion can help diffuse the emotion and decision fatigue. I have yet to walk into a home where it’s anywhere near as bad as the people who live there think it is. Anything can be tackled. It just takes the right attitude and support.

And now I’m thinking: do you think there is a difference between the overwhelmed person who doesn’t know where to start and the basically organized person who feels flattened by the sheer work involved in “keeping up”? Aren’t they both kind of in the same boat?

Yes, I do think overwhelm is at the root of both types of people. I’d classify myself as the latter some days. Maintaining a household with kids or pets or both is just hard work. Trying to keep up with everything is just plain exhausting. In my case, it definitely feels more manageable without the chaos of excess clutter. But the bottom line is that it’s still hard, and it requires mental and physical effort.

And teaching kids these skills is an investment of time and demonstration as well. I’m hopeful that it’s an investment that pays off, but it’s still a daily part of parenting that is draining! No way around that!

That connects to my next question! In recent years, writers like Anthony Esolen and Rod Dreher have advocated for the good—and, indeed, the need—for Christians to be deliberate and conscientious about edifying each other through shared catechesis, confession, worship, and community to help weather social and familial fragmentation. What does cleaning out and cleaning up have to do with this? And how would you like to see Lutherans build physical and spiritual places to help and encourage each other? I’m thinking of how families can practice hospitality without thinking our homes have to be HGTV-ready, but also to truly provide our neighbors with welcoming spaces. This is especially hard when you’ve got young children at home!

I think it’s so easy to overthink hospitality. Staying out of judgement, for ourselves and others, is a great place to start. People struggle with isolation and loneliness now more than ever. I support letting go of ideals in favor of opening our homes and offering hospitality. Guilt and shame are just not part of my process. I love to work with people who want support and are ready to walk through the process of decluttering. I do not believe in pressuring, shaming, or judging anyone for what their home looks like. That is the antithesis of Christian hospitality and generosity. It’s honestly a great honor to have friends who I can invite over when my house is a pit, and vice versa! The people I feel closest to in the world are the ones who have seen my kid’s bathroom in between cleanings and still love me!

Ha! I am totally with you there! It’s an awesome feeling to just have people over, no matter how long it’s been since, say, the floors were deep-cleaned.

Right! We don’t get hung up on benchmarks. Honestly, though, going through the process of decluttering can be a game changer for being more hospitable. The average home has over 300,000 possessions. Everything you own owns a tiny bit of you, your time, and your energy to maintain and store. That is a lot of responsibility that can be let go of to make way for more edifying things. Less stuff equals less cleaning, less organizing, and less to worry about getting out of the way for company. One big thing I do with my clients is ask them what they picture when they imagine their ideal home. It’s different for everyone, but it never involves piles of stuff and overflowing closets!

Home should be a sanctuary, so we start from what we imagine to be a relaxing, hospitable environment, and then work backward from that picture. It’s so much easier to quickly pull things together for an impromptu get-together when everything has a place and there is significantly less of everything.

Just one kind of hospitality: A friend dropping by with extra sugar cookies for a bunch of kids to decorate on a Saturday afternoon.

Laura’s Lines on Hospitality

and How Decluttering Can Help Us Welcome Others:

I do not believe in pressuring, shaming, or judging anyone for what their home looks like. That is the antithesis of Christian hospitality and generosity. …

Honestly, going through the process of decluttering can be a game changer for being more hospitable. The average home has over 300,000 possessions. Everything you own owns a tiny bit of you, your time, and your energy to maintain and store. Less stuff equals less cleaning, less organizing, and less to worry about getting out of the way for company.

Home should be a sanctuary, so we start from what we imagine to be a relaxing, hospitable environment, and then work backward from that picture. It’s so much easier to quickly pull things together for an impromptu get-together when everything has a place and there is significantly less of everything.

Welcoming starts with opening the door.

Your emphasis on the ideal home and the just plain ease of maintenance is critical, I think, to hospitality. And it’s more enjoyable for everyone who lives in the house, too, including kids!

I find my kids truly enjoy having their friends over, too. A lot of people criticize kids for being glued to their electronics, but when my ten-year-old had his classmates over for a goodbye party, not a single one was on his or her phone or playing video games. They played ghost hunters and hide-and-seek and other imaginative games in the basement that was pretty much completely empty! I was worried before they came that they’d have nothing to do. I almost went out and bought some extra toys or a video game. I’m totally glad I didn’t, because less is more for kids, too. When they are given space for imagination, there is no shortage of it!

I have friends that truly inspire me that host people for dinner almost every week. That is something I aspire to, but I’m not there yet. Hospitality is a gift I truly admire. I’ve been invited to dinner at some fine Lutherans’ home where there was lively, edifying conversation, prayer, hymn singing, and poetry recitations. It was a dream! One of my personal goals for 2020 as we adjust to living in a new community and getting to know our new church families is doing just that. Having people over to share a meal, talk, laugh, sing, and pray together: these are admirable pastimes. The importance of Christian community in an increasingly isolated world can’t be overstated.

I like how you point out the good in hospitality—the time together, the talking, singing hymns, even the kids being imaginative together—and notice that none of it references whether the décor is new or matching, or whether the house has been dusted recently, or anything like that. I’ve learned in having people over that just having something to offer—water, tea, the ever-popular coffee; and food from crackers and peanut butter to smoked elk—and having an open place to meet together is all you need. Seriously, people just want to hang out and share. And usually, they’re not starving when they show up. So if you only have water to offer, that’s fine. Only crackers, that’s fine. This does not have to be super fancy. In fact, it’s usually more enjoyable when it’s not! And having goals to reach out is good, too. I hope you can host new friends this year!

Me, too! And remember: a hospitable home doesn’t mean it’s spotless. Perfectionism has got to go, the same as judgment!

Absolutely! So my last questions: what have been some challenges that you’ve encountered as you’ve established or grown your business that have been learning opportunities for you? What are some goals that you have for your business?

The greatest challenges that I’ve experienced in my business are adapting the process to each individual. People are so different. Their circumstances, emotional processing, physical capabilities to help, and functional capabilities to make complicated decisions are on a wide spectrum. It’s helped me grow in empathy and learn that this business is not just about moving things out of people’s houses. It’s often working through grief, overwhelm, and complicated emotions, and yes, lots of laughter and fun mixed in as well! An underlying message that I try to remind myself and my clients all the time through the process is that God provides. He provides strength to do hard things, forgiveness when we make mistakes, and He provides for our daily needs. We take deep breaths, thank God for His goodness, and move on making progress!

My biggest goal is to get my own website up and running. I have many folders of photos of some really rewarding projects I’ve worked on that I’d love to share with the world. I also want to assemble a resource guide to help walk people through the process of decluttering from a balanced, Lutheran perspective.

Up until now, I’ve worked very selectively taking jobs by word of mouth only, but my youngest will begin attending school in the fall, so God willing, my business will be able to grow. I will definitely update once those things are put in place.

I am so excited for you, Laura, as you settle into a new home and hopefully continue to tackle helping others clean out and clean up. Thanks so much for your time and your wonderful insights! We look forward to hearing from you again and will pray that God opens doors for you.

Thank you, too! At the end of the day, there is truly one thing needful, and that is Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins offered for us through His death and resurrection. What an awesome opportunity to use our vocations and platforms to share that good news!

Laura’s Lines

on the One Thing Needful:

At the end of the day, there is truly one thing needful, and that is Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins offered for us through His death and resurrection. What an awesome opportunity to use our vocations and platforms to share that good news!

Each One and Only Face

We’ve passed another March for Life, another hopeful milestone in the woefully long, dark, despicable history and practice that is abortion in America. I’m left thinking about fear, and choices, and money, and the priceless uniqueness that is every human being.

First, the money. Rhett Butler put it brutally but accurately in Gone With The Wind, when he explained that when civilizations die, there’s “fast money in the crack-up.” No one can see the abortion industry in our country without seeing the vast money-making behemoth that is Planned Parenthood. It is our modern-day Confederate speculator, exploiting the desperate to build untold wealth, culpable and guilty of the death of innocents, while cultural destruction goes on all around.

But it’s not quite fair to highlight the pecuniary focus of Planned Parenthood without noticing all of the other organizations that turn a profit off of abortion. There are pharmaceutical companies that make abortifacient drugs and contraceptives. Then there are all the clinics and schools–oh, the schools!–that parrot the mantra of sexual “freedom” without responsibility. Responsibility, most notably, to any human being that might result from all the “liberating” trysts that individuals are “entitled” to. Just like our entertainment industry trumpets, “real” life is about career–oh, the schools!–and travel and fun! And to miss this self-indulgent life, or to jeopardize the illusion of its appeal it by having to deal with pregnancy, child-bearing and child-rearing, is unutterably terrifying to many in our culture.

Fear and money go together. Christians know that life and stability and dreams lie not in financial transactions or material comfort, but boy, even we fall prey to the allure of dough’s promise when we get stressed. It’s like that tongue-in-cheek old phrase: “Money isn’t everything, but it sure does help.” And we see children as burdens, as ciphoners of our treasure, as unbearable weights on our personal autonomy, or at the very least as killers of our ability to survive a harsh world. Yes, we can turn even helpless, microscopically or less-than-ruler-sized small children into killers–of our dreams, of our relationships, of our idolized futures. We have so feared that abominable fate, the idea that what we have desired might be thwarted by a child, and we grasp at the promises of money that will free us from that horror.

Here’s a prime example. This montage of me-first messaging for the contraceptive Beyaz unironically intones, “You know what you want today. But you never know what you might want tomorrow.” And what do the smiling models “want”? They want to shop–for grad school, for travel, for all kinds of modern goals. But they all skip over the stork. Their wants are invariably presented as neat and tidy market options. Babies aren’t in these girls’ presents, or even their futures (remember the opening line? I guess babies don’t even make the “I didn’t know I wanted that” list for Tomorrow.) They’re the one priceless gift actively–and in the case of hormonal contraceptives–specifically, even vehemently, avoided.

Even more, it is a strange, infinitely sad time we live in that so many of our leadership class discuss openly and even proudly shout their own abortions. Only a people that has denied God and is still shackled with shocking, unavoidable decay can embrace Death as though it is a friend and a savior. Death becomes the only meaning and the only answer when fear hits.

And when Death is the answer, life itself is flat and uninspiring. The revelatory images of prenatal ultrasounds, among many other examples of humanity, must be rejected and ignored. How can we possibly look at a wholly unique face, one that cannot be replicated, and deny her worth?

Caitlin Flanagan recognizes this. In “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate,” she writes:

A picture of a 12-week fetus is a Rorschach test. Some people say that such an image doesn’t trouble them, that the fetus suggests the possibility of a developed baby but is far too removed from one to give them pause. I envy them. When I see that image, I have the opposite reaction. I think: Here is one of us; here is a baby. She has fingers and toes by now, eyelids and ears. She can hiccup—that tiny, chest-quaking motion that all parents know. Most fearfully, she is starting to get a distinct profile, her one and only face emerging. Each of these 12-week fetuses bears its own particular code: this one bound to be good at music; that one destined for a life of impatience, of tap, tap, tapping his pencil on the desk, waiting for recess.

Such a beautiful recognition of irreplaceable humanity, this. And yet Flanagan, in trying to show the true and crippling fear that motivates many women to abort, fails to remember the truth of each baby, the distinct profile of each one and only face. In her article, she stays in that gray area of fear instead of telling the truth: that we cannot let fears dictate our choices, especially our power to kill our own children.

I wish Flanagan and those like her would read pieces like this one by my friend Aubri, who writes in “Did God Really Say Children are a Blessing?”: “It’s hard not to want to make decisions based on the whims of my feelings, based on whether or not I think children are worth it or whether or not I can prove to anyone that my life as a mother to many children is good. 

The fact is God says children are worth it and that they are good gifts” (emphasis Aubri’s). Fear is real, as Aubri knows. But it is not the end, and it does not dictate what is good.

Screenshot of photo by Jeff Malet of the Daily Signal.

I was so heartened to see all of these signs at the 2020 March for Life. The ones of people who could have been aborted, but whose mothers backed out at the last minute, saving their lives. The ones, like the one above, that remind us that fear can’t drive us to destroy each other. The ones of honest and brave post-abortive moms and dads. The ones that testify to the pricelessness of life. All of the people whose faces we can see and appreciate as unique.

I have been so blessed to see my children grow, both via ultrasound and in the flesh. I love the picture above, of our oldest living child, kicking his foot up at just the right time to be captured in an ultrasound photo. He was 22 weeks old when that picture was taken. And now, at nearly twelve years old, he continues to surprise us. He, and each of our sons and daughters, have their own faces and bodies and souls, just as every person does. The ones that are still with us here sing and tap their pencils. They change every day, even a little. They are themselves, and they are miracles. We should see all children and people this way, and we must remember this as our days pass by. We must remember this to love each other as Christ has loved us.

From Epiphany to You

Epiphany means “reveal.” It seems obvious but necessary to point out, then, on this Epiphany day of January 6, that a true epiphany involves the uncovering or exhibition or manifestation of something or someone other than the witness.

In our ego-centric culture, we hear constantly of our own inner value and majesty. In essence, many people have mistaken their uniquely, divinely created souls for the Divine itself.

And yet the law written upon our hearts knows the truth: for every narcissistic homo incurvatus in se, every self-laudatory “aha!” moment, every effort to lift and glorify oneself above our mortal dust turns right back into dust. The mortal new year shine reflects upon us not our own splendor. No, its dawn reveals the inexorable passing of time and our concomitant bondage to our inevitable decay.

This knowledge can cause us despair. Or we can learn from the great Epiphany again. “Arise, shine, for your Light has come,” wrote the prophet Isaiah,”and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1). He and the other true prophets pointed only and always to the great Light that saves us, Christ Jesus. In the child born to Mary, adopted by Joseph, we receive the only eternal life we can hope for. Like the kings from the East, we Christians also marvel at the Son of David’s coming for us and all the world. We blink in His light, bowing to the One whose pierced hands came to save us.

Now richly to my waiting heart, O Thou, my God, deign to impart The grace of love undying.

In Thy blest body let me be, E’en as the branch is in the tree, Thy life my life supplying.

Sighing, crying; For the savor of Thy favor; Resting never till I rest in Thee forever.

~ “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” The Lutheran Hymnal, #343 vs. 3.

Eighth Day Blood

We’re two weeks into this, the new year of our Lord 2020, and already the newness is fading. We creatures of immediacy who love the New, craving its veneer of possibilities, feel the shine becoming tarnished, our resolutions and hopes and dreams–at best, some of them, at worst, all of them–even now beginning to elude us. With 352 days left before the next New Year, 2020 is passing by, waiting for none of us.

I am reminded of this as I reflect upon our recent experiences on Casper Mountain. I have written before about the allure of cross-country skiing, being surrounded by the beauty of Casper Mountain adorned with blankets upon blankets of snow, and the humiliating, exhilarating experience of learning to ski. We are still learning here, now with five children in the highly-popular Mangus lessons, a five-week Sunday afternoon course of intensive lessons put on by the Casper Nordic Club. This is the third January we’ve participated, and while skiing itself, the trails, and the entire preparatory rigamarole of the gear is beginning to feel familiar and more comfortable, we are still a long way from proficiency.

People say it’s the pursuit and not the destination that matters, and at least in terms of skiing, the cliche holds true. A critical mass of Olsons are transitioning to skate skiing, the “zippy younger brother” of classic Nordic skiing, and suffice it to say that, yes, it’s hard. I’m in an adult skate skiing class right now, with students ranging in age from perhaps late 20s to late 50s or early 60s. We are at different life stages, from young child raisers to retirees, but we are all old enough to have experienced life and hardship. When we’re sucking wind after climbing long hills, we can groan about soreness and laugh together. The camaraderie is an ancillary benefit of the lessons.

Unlike our counterparts in the kids’ skate skiing class, we adults are not striving for an eventual spot on a school team, let alone junior nationals. As Rick, one of our patient instructors explains, “Our goal as [skate-skiing] adults is just to keep moving, to keep going.” There’s a kind of satisfaction and confidence that comes from this goal, actually. Even a few years ago, such an ambition would have struck me as weak, a sell-out to loftier aims. But I cherish that goal now. It means we are here, and we are still breathing and moving. And we are together.

It occurred to me this year that January 1, what our secular world knows as New Year’s Day, is also and always the eighth day of Christmas. On the eighth day of Christmas, Jesus was circumcised in a rite dating back to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. This covenant, a painful, bloody, physical mark, continued generation after generation, over hundreds and thousands of years. As the note in Genesis 17:10 in the Lutheran Study Bible explains, “By removal of the foreskin, males received a visible sign of God’s promise to send a Savior, born of the woman (Galatians 4:4-5). No Hebrew male could live a day without being reminded of the promise God had made long before, and every conjugal act between a husband and wife would illustrate the hope that God was working to restore creation and redeem all people.”

Aside from the inevitable squeamishness the above likely causes, it also explains the very routine visit to the temple Joseph, the guardian and adoptive father of Jesus, and Mary, His mother, make with Him eight days after His birth. One brief verse, Luke 2:21, squeezed after the well-known nativity account and visit of the shepherds tell us:

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Several Christian churches mark the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, an appropriate celebration of this first formal fulfillment of the Law in Jesus’ life on earth. It is no accident that Jesus, whose name means “He Shall Save His People From Their Sins,” was both formally given His name and circumcised into the covenant of God. The note on verse ten in Genesis also explains, “Finally, the shedding of blood pointed toward our final redemption by the shedding of Christ’s blood.”

What does all of this have to do with skate skiing? We know that when babies are injured, they cry, and we instinctively recoil. These small, helpless creatures should not be hurt–we know this in our bones. And yet any injury, any cut, any drop of blood they experience is merely a foretaste of the pain and suffering these little ones will inevitably experience. The first drops of blood portend the rest that will follow. This, I think, is partly why we hate to see newborns hurt.

Yet we know the hurts and the blood will come and are coming. In our heart of hearts, we know pain is coming, for all of us. The evanescence of the New Year glow, the excitement of new goals and activities and friends will diminish.

And it is also why some of us attempt new things like skiing, not because we are sadistic monsters out for self-harm, but because we know this is our lot. We will experience pain. We do not intentionally seek it out, but neither do we fearfully hide from it–if it means we learn something valuable and edifying, more small signs that our mortality is not the only end ahead of us. We must learn, during our life of shadows, to trust that Christ really has us, that He really meant what He said and what He says, that He has done it, that it is finished.

We need the blood. Not of ourselves, for that would be nothing to God. The best we can hope for, then, is in another’s blood. It is in One who put Himself into our mortal state and wasn’t content even there. As one pastor preached,

The Lord God, who needed no law, was not content to become flesh and blood.  He went beyond that and subordinated himself to the law, shedding his blood in obedience to the law, so that the whole world that was condemned by the law would be set free.  Jesus’ name tells us who he is: the Lord.  Jesus’ name tells us what he does: he saves sinners by taking their place under the law.  He is our substitute.  He alone met the requirements of Sinai.  He fulfilled man’s part of God’s covenant with Israel.  He alone could do it and he alone did it.

We do not crave suffering. And yet Christians endure it, knowing what is to come. We come together for skiing and falls, for companionship and empathy. We come together to receive Christ’s body and yes, His blood for us. Just as the eighth day of Christ’s life on earth marked out His path of redemption for us, we also step out each new day, looking in faith to the eighth day of the New Creation. The new fades, yes. But the New that will never end is ahead of us. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Happy New Year.

On Flickering, Real Hope

On May 4, 1917, crowds near Queenstown, Ireland, saw the thin masts of ships approaching on a calm sea from the west. Such sights weren’t unfamiliar on that popular seafaring lane. But these ships were special. They included six American destroyers, coming to aid their British allies in the first World War.

By most historical accounts, the ships themselves represented a modest, even small, American contribution to what was a dire naval situation in Britain. Thanks to the efficacy of German submarines like U-20, which nearly two years earlier and in the same waters had famously sunk the vast ocean liner Lusitania, the British fleet was on the brink of losing the seas and, in turn, the war. But here came the Mary Rose, a British destroyer, escorting the Americans into the harbor teeming with civilian boats. The Rose signaled, “Welcome to the American colors.” Bernard Gribble painted a portrait of the historic sight which was commissioned by the American Secretary of the Navy, a man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The portrait was entitled “The Return of the Mayflower.”

The Return of the Mayflower by Bernard Gribble.

Reading about this history recently got me thinking about hope and help and the most vital things for which we wait. Sometimes our hopes are ephemeral–wordless longings for things which we can’t articulate, or deep desires for things we know to be, in this mortal world, impossible. And yet hope is a beacon, a light to which we turn, a promise that change is coming, no matter how flickeringly small that promise might be.

We have just celebrated another Thanksgiving, a time in which we express our gratitude for the blessings in our lives and which links us to generations of other Americans who have gone before us. Our children read books on the voyage of the Mayflower, that fabled ship of Pilgrims, bravely seeking out a new world in which to practice their faith without fear of persecution. Such early American history is colored today by competing narratives of unrelenting persecution and loss versus truly positive historic precedents of liberty. The most accurate and true histories, even that which inspires, always includes nuance and, inevitably, sinners and sin.

Our forebears–and they include countless individuals and groups–in America were certainly not perfect, and yet we can learn from them. American involvement in World War I is colored by the still ongoing controversy of British intelligence knowledge of the threats to the Lusitania and other ships bearing American passengers, as written about so lucidly in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. A beautiful painting can’t change that. But paintings, and nuanced stories, can still show us examples of hope and help, inspiring events that remind us that even in dire situations, vehicles of real promise can exist.

Too much of our current culture believes individual desire itself to be an ultimate goal, whether that desire means self-harm in the form of changing genders to blasting apart families in the name of sexual or other self-fulfillment. This is not an endorsement of such self-obsessed destructive desires. These desires descend rabbit holes of hara-kiri fantasy, where wreckage is creation and self is all. Instead, real hope places trust in what is truly good for us. And what is good? What do we most need? We need to know who we are here in time and there in eternity, to know whom God has created us to be and how He saves us from the temporal death that awaits us all until His second coming. We need to know that we are real, broken people, and that He promises real help.

Tomorrow begins the season of Advent, in which we once again look away from ourselves to the hope, Christ, promised to us. The only God who speaks and fulfills His promises reminds us this in the beautiful opening passage of the book of John, which tells us who God is and what He promises us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

John 1:1-14, English Standard Version.

True hope is a vehicle to the real, tangible help that comes. And so we Christians look to see our special, only hope, Christ Jesus, Who comes and has come and will come, and to wait for His return.

Blessed Advent.

Labor Days, Or Learning to live as TP

Labor Day. What does it bring to mind? Work, sure. Also, ironically, play–how many people frolic or relax on a day off from paid employment today? Understandably, mothers might think of the unforgettable process of birthing their children. I think of that, and many other days like and unlike them, today.

One year ago, on Labor Day Monday, I crept into my bedroom where Jon was still sleeping. “Hey,” I said softly, touching his shoulder. “Want to come have coffee with me and the baby?” He murmured something indecipherable, his eyes still closed, and I repeated what I said. Then he opened his eyes, like I’d pricked him with a pinpoint. “The baby?” he said, with a searching look. I nodded. He got a huge smile on his face and wrapped me in a  hug.

That is a sweet memory. It’s all the more poignant because that pregnancy never resulted in a baby, and it began a year of days and weeks of contractions of grief, buoyed by hope and indescribable blessing, with yet more lessons of patience and suffering. It’s been a lot of labor, and there’s still more to come.

***

The day Christian was born, August 5, I labored in a quiet room. 

I hadn’t want to walk into the hospital. We’d gotten everything together, driven through the sunny morning to a coffee shop, then gone on to where our son would be born. As we approached the front door, I hesitated. I almost stopped. I had known about this moment for months. I knew Christian was dead and that he needed to be born. But I knew that once I walked through those doors, the end was near. I would walk out of them without my son. 

All through that quiet day, I watched clouds form and dissipate and reform outside the window. I saw the rocking chair, meant for laboring mothers, sit empty. It was sad, but it was simple. That chair was not meant for me that day. 

I was glad for the sunshine and the clouds. 

***

Grief is a funny, sneaky thing.

The pain of loss is mostly dull, like a quiet ache that one learns to accept because it doesn’t disappear. I expect it at certain times. At church, always at church. Driving past the cemetery. Reading a newly-arrived condolence card. These times make sense. They are direct reminders of Christian and of what we mourn.

Sometimes I can feel it coming, like a creeping storm. I received a call from a medical group, evaluating my stay at the hospital. I answered questions because I wanted there to be some formal record of the compassion we experienced–me, Jon, and Christian. But I wept when I got off the phone.

Jon stopped by our kids’ school, where another volunteer and I were cleaning and organizing in the library. We went by the stairwell to talk. He’d ordered the headstone, but after seeing more options–why is even death in our culture drowned by consumer choices?–wanted to see if I wanted something different. We spoke briefly, but I could feel the wave rising, the emotional wave threatening to crash. I couldn’t switch from school mode to grief mode. “I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this any more,” I said, abruptly. He nodded. He got it.

Sometimes grief flares up sharply, cutting my breath and choking my throat, at times I least expect it. On a hike with my daughter, after just marveling at the wonders of the view on the mountain, I see silvery-green leaves quivering in a soft breeze. Why should the shimmer of leaves, when a moment before I was alive and joyful to the wonders around us, make me want to weep?

Our girl walking down a mountain trail, while I try not to cry.

How do people live with this? I think. I know of harder cases, the ones that I think would be more difficult to bear. The parents who’ve buried three adult children, all of their children. The new friend who had a stillborn son this year. And yet how can anyone learn to live with this or any suffering except to slog through it, to labor and be carried?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Not “I will take your heavy burden.” But rest. The crosses are still there.

It is exhausting when it hits, this grief. I wrote this a few weeks ago after writing down some theological thoughts pertaining to grief: “I stand here, fully caffeinated in the morning, dishes washed, list getting checked off. I’m in my prime time. And after thinking about and writing these few words, all I want to do is crawl back into bed and sleep, deeply and without dreams.”

***

Yet I go on. What else can I do? People have been so incredibly kind. They are sympathetic and encouraging. “You are so strong.” “Thank you for your witness of Christ.” I am grateful, but my thoughts are garbled, struggling to reconcile the incongruity. I know hope during grief is good, but I do not feel good, or at least worthy of any special attention. This is gagging on a translucent, existential gnat to most people–most probably just mean to be sincerely supportive, while a small part of my brain hears them presupposing some herculean act of will on my part, Emily the Mighty Sufferer, standing athwart hopelessness and yelling, “Stop!” But I know that I am utterly powerless, and I can’t help feeling uncomfortable with the comments. What else can I do?

My choices seem woefully stark. Truly, all I can do is either reject God or surrender to His mercy. To definitively reject Him is to enter a darkness that frankly scares me more than it entices me, though the temptation to push away is real and angrily persistent. But I am so afraid of the hole that rejection presents that this means that it’s not an option. So I surrender to God’s mercy, to Christ’s bleeding hands. And even the surrender is weak and childlike, like a newborn mewing sibilant cries for food. He does not even reach for the nutrients he so desperately needs. He opens his mouth in helplessness and need. That’s all. Just as I lay, one day old, before a pastor in a hospital room, baptized into Christ in tiny weakness, I turn again into that premature babe. I am not yet grown. I do not yet understand.

Rev. Dr. Gregory P. Schulz knows this cognitive searching. In The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope, the pastor, philosopher, professor, and husband and father watched and wrestled as two of his children suffered and died. Kayleigh, his daughter, was almost one year old. Stephan, his son, was fourteen. “I often look at the crook of my right elbow and know it as a sacred place [the last place he held his son, Stephan]. Now I want to understand, if I can, what it means for me to feel the way I do, not just about Stephan’s suffering and death, but how I feel toward his God.”

I know how he feels now. I too confess the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Cognitively, I believe this. Theologically, I cling to this. Emotionally, I break under this necessity–that we die, that we need the hope of the resurrection. Death is awful.

Christian’s grave in August.

I visit Christian’s grave alone sometimes. They are quick stops to clear away fresh flowers that have withered–how incredibly fast they wither and brown–and to pray. I gaze at the mountain and take deep breaths in the quiet of the trees and wind-swept stones. I watch the antelope that quietly graze in the clear spaces between the dead.

I visit my son’s grave to place my hand over him. I can still see the place where men cut away the grass to turn it back before the hole, the hole that holds the small box in the earth where our son’s body lies. I grip the grass, and smooth it, and I can’t seem to stop wanting to touch it. Because, I realized, it’s the closest I have to touching my son in this life. I weep when I touch the grass, and I weep writing this. Weeping is part of my soul’s rejection that death was ever supposed to be a part of life.

Then I stop weeping, and I go on, resting on Christ, the only One who keeps me going.

***

Approximately 87% of the time, give or take, I’m in daily life mode. Pouring yogurt and milk, wiping bottoms, clearing and cleaning and sorting and planning. 15% of the time I’m thinking, or reading, and of course the times and the roles–and the percentages–overlap. Vocations don’t always neatly delineate labor. It just happens, and I do what’s in front of me. The 2% of grief hides much of the time, but when it emerges, it feels like 200%.

Jon and I visited with good friends one Friday night. Lisa sat with me at the table while our husbands smoked cigars outside and the kids ran amok and alternately watched a movie. “How are you?” she asked, reaching for my hand. It was a creeping storm grief moment, one I had seen coming. I shared and cried, and she cried, and then she suddenly jumped up and ran down the hall, emerging again with a roll of toilet paper that she unrolled slightly, tearing off some sheets. “I’m completely out of tissues,” she said, handing me the paper portion. “So you’ll have to use this.” She set the roll on the table in front of me. We spoke some more, and the tears rolled down my face.

Just then, her husband came in. He took in the moment in a glance, and then said, “I brought the beer in for you, Lisa, but I think Emily needs it more.” He said it gently and caringly. But it was funny. I laughed through tears. Lisa did, too. 

The beer and the TP.

I never wanted to be a part of Those People, the ones like Pastor Schulz and the church people who lost three children and my new friend Becca who lost her son this year. Before, I admired them and others, and I feared what they shared. I secretly hoped I’d never, ever, have to be where they are. It’s like an out of body experience sometimes, explaining to people who don’t know our story, and I’m listening to myself speak calmly about Christian, his life and his death, while the whole time I’m incredulous. I’m not actually the one talking, am I? Did this really happen to us? 

But I am one of Those People now. And sitting with Lisa, and looking at the toilet paper, I thought, “Yep, that’s what this is. The TP Project.” The Toilet-Paper-necessary-for-tears, the Time Project of living here while waiting for eternity, the Those People embrace. Because the fact is that unless I am one of Those People, hopelessly broken and in need, I don’t really need Jesus. No, I didn’t need Christian to die to believe that the Son of God dead, buried, and resurrected is true. But loving Christian, and living and laboring through my own helpless grief, continually points me to our Savior who labored mightily for me and for him. The grief will go on, but it will not last forever.

I’m a little TP. I giggle, and wipe away my tears, and drink a beer. And the labor goes on.