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, #343vs. 3.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Jon and I celebrated a milestone last week. On August 14, 2019, like a bashful but happy, coming-into-her-own teenager, our marriage reached a gangly, blooming, and substantial fifteen years together in Christ.
It feels substantial, this anniversary. In part, that substance is circumstantial. Numbers ending in zero or five get more attention from us, for better or for arbitrary reasons, and this one is no different. Why does fifteen seems more special than, say, thirteen or sixteen? Because it does. So there. (Hey, I said like a teenager, right?)
And, of course, the other substance that makes us cherish this anniversary is truly weighty and special.
That substance is a priceless combination of time, experience, and God-given perseverance.
In fifteen years together, we’ve moved seven times and lived in Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We’ve studied and completed graduate degrees. We’ve rented apartments and houses. We’ve bought and torn up a house and remodeled it over ten years. (Well, Jon remodeled. I watched and cleaned up drywall dust.) We’ve lived in another house that has needed little fixing, thank God. We won’t even count the cars we’ve gone through. Suffice it to say that we have fought and cried and kissed and made up, over moves and renovations and many other things.
We’ve grown together from husband and wife to father and mother, together. We’ve been blessed with six living children, their rambunctious energy and delight matched only–maybe–by our exhaustion. We’ve learned a lot from these gifts. We’ve learned humility and patience and stamina and frustration and unimaginable joy.
We’ve also learned suffering.
We lost our first child early in my pregnancy, just a few weeks after we learned we were parents, and only eight months after we said our vows. We learned to mourn together and to hope together. Three years passed before our now oldest son was born.
We have said goodbye to a mother, grandparents and other relatives and friends. Earlier in August, we said goodbye to our tiny son, Christian. We have learned, and are learning, what it means to live with pain and grief that, though it might subside, will never fully disappear in this life.
We have learned to appreciate God’s amazingly good gifts. Five churches have been homes to us, with scores of others offering us Jesus through the Word and Sacraments. There is no counting all of the blessings we have received through Christ’s Church and faithful believers in Him from all over this country and the world. We have learned how little we are, and yet how bountifully and thoughtfully God loves us. Our cup has truly runneth over.
We have gained gray hair and wrinkles, laugh lines and tear stains, heartaches and heart swells. We have most decidedly relished some silly moments.
Last Friday, we attended the wedding of a young couple. I choked and wiped away tears as we chanted Psalm 127 during the service. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. … Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Jon and I exchanged glances numerous times from opposite ends of the pew, me with the inquisitive and antsy two-year-old, he acting as pillow to a sleeping boy, with children in between us. We cherished the reminders of God’s faithfulness to us and to so many others, as He carries the crosses we bear.
Then we attended the reception, where Jon dealt with voracious and relatively mannerless children at the buffet while I recovered from our four-year-old’s missed aim in the bathroom and discovering he was wearing no underwear (there was no good explanation for this). 2004 Us would have huffed and puffed and resented the kids for cutting in on the party. 2019 Us laughed and knew that all of it, the poignant and the petty, the beauty and the mess, was the party.
As I sat and waited for Jon to return to the table, I admired my wedding ring. Such a small, really valueless token, in the whole scheme of things. But the fidelity and blessing it symbolizes is precious beyond price. With Christ’s guidance, the newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson, will learn how impossible their union is without their Savior and how glorious it is with Him. We’re still students at these marriage lessons, too. But after 5,482 days together, Jon and I are getting there. And God willing, we will share many, many more awkward, flourishing, and meaningful days, and years, together.
Tomorrow, my vocation of mother will include a task that no loving mother ever wants to complete.
Tomorrow, we will bury Christian. Our son. My son.
I know our children are not ours in the sense of proprietary ownership. We are merely temporary guardians of these precious souls whom God has created for His good purposes. But we never expect to see them die before us. We expect that they will bury us, not that we will bury them.
Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery, Jon and I, and our six living children; my parents; two dear pastors and their wives. We will commend our son’s body to Christ, confessing that on the last day, Christian will rise again, he and all the dead. And we will see him, and them, again, and live forever together with Christ in heaven.
I don’t want to do this. But I know this is what God has given us to do. As long as he lived, Jon and I strove to feed and nourish Christian; to take him to church so he could hear the Word and receive Christ; to care for him by acknowledging that God made him a unique individual placed in our family for a short time. We did this imperfectly, of course. Yet God gave us these tasks to love and serve our little Christian.
I got to hold Christian late Monday night, after he was born. He was so small, and his body was swollen from all the fluid that had been growing in him. But he was beautiful. Every cell on his head was intricate and flawlessly connected. The fine cuticles and nails on his tiny fingers were so detailed and immaculate. His wide-topped head was like his five-year-old brother’s. His deep brows were like his Dad’s, his long fingers like his mine. His button nose was just like his biggest sister’s.
I don’t know how God could have ever chosen us over His Son. When Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden, asking for His Father to take His cup away from Him; when He staggered up Golgatha, beaten beyond belief; when He hung gasping on the cross–I cannot fathom the love of God who would see and know His Son’s excruciating suffering and allow Him to die because He loved and loves the world so much. As a mother, if I had to choose between saving my son Christian and saving the rest of the world, God help me, I would choose Christian.
And God knows that, and He has given us this glimpse into His unfathomable love in this: that when we lay Christian’s body down to sleep in the earth tomorrow, when my hopes and dreams as a mother to love and to see my son grow up and thrive in this world are buried, I will still yet have hope. I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I will have this: Christ has made all things new. He choose us. He will raise our son from the dead, and He will raise us if He does not come again to the earth first. And we will hug our Christian, and bow before the pierced hands of Christ, and He will embrace us all forever.
Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home, That I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace, Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend, And I will praise Thee without end.
~”Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” Lutheran Service Book #708, vs. 3.
Flanking the sidewalk down the steps from our front porch are two giant daylily patches. They’ve been there for years–we’re not sure how long, as they predated our arrival to this house several years ago. They’re hearty and require next to no care, and in the last week or so, their bright yellow buds have begun opening, revealing spectacularly vivid, sunny flowers. Our daylilies don’t last long. “How long?” you ask. I’ll let Wikipedia explain.
Daylilies are perennial plants, whose name alludes to the flowers which typically last no more than 24 hours (about a day or so). The flowers of most species open in early morning and wither during the following night, possibly replaced by another one on the same scape (flower stalk) the next day. Some species are night-blooming. Daylilies are not commonly used as cut flowers for formal flower arranging, yet they make good cut flowers otherwise as new flowers continue to open on cut stems over several days. … The daylily is generally referred to as “the perfect perennial” by gardeners, due to its brilliant colors, ability to tolerate drought and frost and to thrive in many different climate zones, and generally low maintenance. It is a vigorous perennial that lasts for many years in a garden, with very little care and adapts to many different soil and light conditions. Daylilies have a relatively short blooming period, depending on the type. Some will bloom in early spring while others wait until the summer or even autumn. Most daylily plants bloom for 1 through 5 weeks, although some bloom twice in one season (“rebloomers)”.
As I read about these plants whose flowers I love for the brief time they bloom, I can’t help but think about our son, Christian. He, too, is blooming for as much time as God gives him.
This morning, Jon and I went again for an ultrasound to see if he was still with us. Dr. S, filling in for Dr. M for a week, dimmed the lights and we watched the ultrasound screen glow. Christian’s heart beat steadily, if a little more weakly. It slowed, almost to a crawl. Then it sped up again. “Some of these little guys are really tough,” she said. We talked about the weekend, and what would happen if I needed some piece of mind, or if my symptoms pointed to labor. We left and came home, bringing the bag I’d packed just in case we’d needed to go to the hospital instead–for an induction, and for a final physical goodbye to our little boy. But here we were again, coming home from yet another appointment, and Christian was still with us.
Jon and I walked up the front walk, and I saw the daylilies, blooming away, heedless of the cloudy sky. Seeing them comforted me, and they reminded me of Jesus’ words.
“Consider the lilies of the field , how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
While we wait for Christian’s death, we acknowledge the hard, exhausting toil of waiting. It is not easy to watch someone, even–or maybe especially–a little one, slip quietly toward death. But our anxieties are covered. “Who will help with the kids?” “Am I going into labor?” “What will we have for supper?” “Can we get a photographer from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to come when I’m in the hospital delivering Christian, even if he’s not twenty weeks yet?” “Do the boys have any clean clothes?” “What should we say to our kids about Christian?” “Where are your shoes? We need to leave for swimming lessons now!” “When will we know?”
All of our questions are answered. Sometimes immediately, sometimes not. It can be hard to wait. But our Heavenly Father knows what we need, when we need it. He already knows what will happen, and how. And He has taken care of the most important thing. He has arrayed us, and Christian, with His eternal glory. Even Solomon, that great and wise king, was not arrayed like our simple flowers. And how much more does God love us than these simple, sunny blooms? Infinitely more.
So as much as we can, we wait with trust and quiet thankfulness for the beauty He has given us in these extra days. May you be able to cherish His gifts to you, too.
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about – whenever the wind blows.”
We love to complain about the shocking, simply shocking turns of our fickle spring weather. Not just here in Wyoming, of course. Americans as a whole find the outlier climes of our natural world as disquieting at best and monstrous at worst. Coastal hurricanes in September, Midwest tornadoes in April, western mountain snowfall in May–these disturb us, scare us, and even horrify us, based upon the ferocity of their whirling winds and wrath and the destruction they can wreak upon us. We marvel at it, and talk and talk and talk about it, and shake our heads. “It’s not right,” we say.
What these storms don’t usually do is convict us of our willful pigheadedness of thinking weather to be some sort of predictable, and thus peaceable, component of our physical life. If the skies and sunlight and seasons are normal–that is, neat and tidy and comfortable–we wear them with a familiar and faintly condescending kind of neglect, a habitual ignoring in which we can safely box them in, quite like an ordinary old hat, and set them aside, like forgettable scenery to the more important parts of our lives. I’m reminded of any number of those lovely, neat, colorful children’s books about the seasons. There’s no way, really, to allow for the true wide-ranging orthodoxies of our weather patterns in a few pages of illustrations directed to the youngest among us (or if there is, I haven’t discovered such a book or books yet). But such texts invariably shape how we expect, and even emotionally demand, our seasons to be, even when we know they cannot be so cleanly understood.
I love books like these precisely because they present a cohesive and predictable view of the elements. They are gloriously comfortable, like homemade macaroni and cheese. But they play into our desire for a safe and easy world. For when spring, say, turns fickle, and mild temperatures plunge as ominously heavy grey clouds amass above us, the soft flakes that fall upon our upturned, wondering faces break our smug certainties. We are left cold, startled and shaken by the unexpected. No matter how gently the white powder caresses the newly-budded trees, we know, deep in our bones, just how little we comprehend the mysteries and depth of our creation, just how small and vulnerable we are under the vast expanse.
Or at least we should. Last week here, we watched as our freshly green locale was covered once again by wet, thick snow. For three days, the sun hid, the cold persisted, and frosted crystals swirled and stuck. My irritability over the snow, the dragging out of newly washed and stored snow pants and gloves, my shivering body which had grown used to sunny, pleasant breezes, all reminded me how I had fallen, once again, into thinking the outdoors was somehow a companionable canvas of my personal expectations. May means flowers, and short-sleeves, and bare feet soaking in the rays of a long-absent warmth, my childlike thinking went. The snow shattered my illusions.
And lest I sound bitter, let me acknowledge that such moments in time and in life are invaluable, precisely because they can yank us from the self-contented complacency that so often dulls our thoughts and senses. “You are not in control,” the swishing, soft snowflakes whisper. Unlike their work on Alice, they do not lull us into sleep. Instead, they hammer us again to turn back, to remember what will always be true. “You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm,” said an indignant Job. “For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living.”
Who can Job be speaking to? Who controls the natural world? We all know, surely. This is both the source and the answer to our deepest fears when the skies darken.
God replies that such disquiet in the air and on our skin, both Job’s and ours, is truly from His hand. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? … From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” Such power and threat are terrifying, if not for the One Man who like His Father commands the seasons, saying “Peace! Be still!” He has not left us alone. And the storms are not heretics. They rage an impotent orthodoxy of dying brokenness, and they portend the Day when they shall finally cease at the sound of that one perfect Voice breaking them forever.
I can’t pretend that from this point onward I will happily embrace the untidy, unruly, and unfathomable power of storms. But I can accept them as the signs they are, of time inching slowly toward its glorious, terrible end. That is a truth both formidable and hopeful. For then, like snow in May, we will one day dress in garments of white in a green and golden land, and dance.
A week or so before the birth of our first child, I suddenly realized that I no longer feared labor. Let me clarify: while I held apprehensions about the intense birthing I’d never experienced, my thoughts had turned less to that one-time event and more to what came after. In short, I realized that the birth of our child would only last hours, perhaps days at the most. But our child would be ours to cherish and support for the rest of his or her life. While labor approached, so did lives—my life as a mother, my husband’s life as a father, our life together as a family, all wrapped up in our very needy, physical, helpless child, whose own life ex utero would begin shortly. The dwarfing, sobering reality of what would soon happen—the beginning of the rest of all of our lives—and the all-consuming magnitude of motherhood made my previously fraught ruminations on labor and delivery seem short-sighted and small.
Nearly eleven years later, and five more babies later, motherhood is no less gigantic to me. If anything, the frivolous has become smaller and the significant weightier. My clueless confidence has long since been refined, over and over again, to humility at the sheer ridiculous responsibility motherhood requires of women. It is ridiculous responsibility not because it is silly, but because it is impossible. There’s no possible way I can mother my children well, and in just the right ways, all the days of their childhood lives, or even, God willing, into their adult years.
G.K. Chesterton, the famous British commentarian, understood this. In What’s Wrong with the World, he spoke to the baffling characterization of motherhood as trivial. Instead, Chesterton articulated, in words we can still appreciate, the immeasurable magnitude of motherhood.
Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean.
When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.
Yes, indeed. Pity us mothers. Have mercy and compassion and empathy for the magnitude of our roles. Forgive our pride and self-importance and negligence and whining, understanding our sinful responses to motherhood and our sins within our vocations with the best possible construction: on our hearts are written the searing, impossible, gigantic responsibilities of lives, lives which we know we don’t and can’t maintain or keep perfectly. We are both exalted by our gifts and flattened by their hugeness. Remember us in your prayers, and commend us to the only One who ever did, does, and can handle giving us worlds, both created and spiritual, and making them well and perfect for us.
A Good Wilderness seeks to help Lutherans and other Christians cultivate faithful community and learn how to live in lonely places. One of the ways we can do this is by hearing from other Christians who own businesses, write and publish, or share life experiences that can give us insights, encouragement, and hope. You can find these interviews here at “Over My Neighbor’s Fence.”
We were horrified. Faithful Christians had been maimed and slaughtered as they celebrated our Lord’s resurrection. And we also feared for our good friends, Edward and Monica and their children, who live in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Edward is a missionary. Over the next days, they communicated with family and friends about their experiences, and I asked Monica to share them here. Below is a lightly edited email interview.
Give us a brief description of who you are and why you’re in Sri Lanka.
My husband, Rev. Dr. Edward Naumann, is a called Theological Educator of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In this capacity he has been teaching seminary courses, managing a small publishing house, and mentoring some colloquy students, among many other things. I get to stay at home and care for our six children. Formerly, I spent eight years working as a Family Nurse Practitioner in charity clinics around the United States.
What was your experience on Easter Sunday?
Our home congregation in Sri Lanka is about a twenty minute drive from our home across the city of Colombo. However, this Easter my husband wanted to visit a pastor he is currently colloquizing or mentoring, Father Ariarathane. Father Ariarathane’s congregation is in a small Sinhalese (the term for the majority population of native Sri Lankans) village about a 2.5 hours’ drive from Colombo.
We left at approximately 6:45am to start our drive to the village. We arrived with a few minutes to spare and were offered tea by our gracious hosts. People started filing in slowly as the service began. Eventually the church was full as Edward began his sermon which was translated into Sinhala. I distinctly remember Edward preaching about the persecution the church would face, which I presumed was referring to persecution from the Buddhists. (Christians are approximately 7% of the Sri Lankan population, while Buddhists are 70%.) Following the sermon, there were three infant baptisms. This is remarkable because previously the congregation had done infant dedications only. There was no font, so baptisms took place in a small inflatable, plastic pool outside. Edward was honored to baptize two babies, speaking the words in Sinhala.
As the service ended, we were ushered back to the pastor’s home directly next to the church. We were served a traditional Sri Lankan lunch: rice, chicken curry, lentils, and several vegetable side dishes. Edward caught my eye over lunch and said he didn’t know if we could return to Colombo. He had received a text during the service which notified him of the explosions that happened at several churches and hotels in Colombo. We spent the next hour deciding whether we should risk going back to Colombo, or simply stay at a hotel near the village. We were completely unprepared to spend the night anywhere, so eventually we decided to risk the drive back.
As we drove back, we received two phone calls from another pastor in Colombo notifying us of two additional explosions that happened, one close to our church, and one close to our home. Still we pressed on. Along the way, we had to drive through Negombo, a city just north of Colombo where a church bombing occurred. On the main road is a hospital where many of the victims were taken. Military guards and a crowd of people had gathered outside. Yet all the roads remained opened. By the grace of God, we arrived safely at home by the late afternoon.
What’s been the most scary aspect of your experience? And what’s been the most hopeful?
Never have I personally felt targeted in such a direct manner. The places attacked in Sri Lanka were Christian and/or places for foreigners; I am both. (“Foreigner” is a commonly used term in Sri Lanka identifying anyone not native to Sri Lanka. Foreigners are very often singled out and treated differently, both for good and for bad.) The hotels attacked in Colombo are places our family has been. Two of the three hotels that were bombed are places we have been in the past two months. In fact, we were in one of the bombed hotels having brunch just the week before on Palm Sunday. That’s scary for me to think about–how easy it would have been for us to have been victims.
At the time of this writing, many arrests have been made and blame has been placed on an Islamic terrorist group. While the threat has not been eliminated and life has not returned back to normal–for instance, our children haven’t returned to their school, which has been closed temporarily–I have hope that it will eventually. This is our home now, and we pray for stability.
What kind of response did you get from family, friends, and supporters in the US and elsewhere?
The response has been remarkable. Shortly after the attacks, the government shut down Facebook and WhatsApp. But even before the social media shut down, I received many messages asking if we were okay, some from people I have not heard from in years! I have received many messages since then, but have not been able to read them because the messages are blocked. Several people have reached out via email and text. It’s been overwhelming to receive so much concern and support.
How has this experience made you reflect upon your expat/missionary life? What do you want people who care about their Christian brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka to know?
In many ways, I feel guilty for all the attention and concern we have received, since our lives and health have been spared. All we have faced are minor inconveniences, which pale in comparison to the heart wrenching losses some of our brothers and sisters in Christ experienced and are facing. It will take a long time for Christians here to grieve and learn to live with this tragedy and what it might portend.
How can people support you and your ministry, other missionaries in Sri Lanka, or those suffering after the bombings?
I ask for people’s prayers for the courage of Sri Lankan Christians. Many people (Christians and non-Christians) are living in fear now of further attacks. Many churches have cancelled their Sunday services three days in advance. But this is precisely the time when we must show courage to attend corporate worship and demonstrate forgiveness and love for our enemies. Sri Lankan Christians have been given a tremendous platform at the moment; the world is paying attention to a small minority group in an obscure country. This is an amazing opportunity to share the Gospel message of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. So Sri Lankan Christians must act with courage and love while the world is watching. Rarely is there such a poignant time as this, that Christians can act their faith rather than just speak their faith.
To find out more information about Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod missionaries in Sri Lanka, visit here. To support Rev. Edward Naumann’s mission work, please visit here.
How should Christians struggle with the invisible cross of infertility?
This is not a question any of us want to address. Infertility can be an incredibly difficult cross to bear, for us personally and for those we love.
What is infertility? The general definition refers to the inability of child-bearing age couples to conceive or carry a child after twelve months of regular, non-contraceptive sex. Unfortunately, many people, including our brothers and sisters in Christ, bear this pain. According to the CDC, around 18% of child-bearing age women struggle with infertility, and men struggle with infertility, too. The most telling symptom of infertility is in absence: no pregnancy or no child.
This week–April 21-27–is National Infertility Awareness Week, one of the countless remembrance weeks marked on our stuffed secular calendars. While there’s plenty of commentary on infertility for the non-religious, Christians should approach this particular cross with care and caution.
I’ve written here before about our experiences with infertility, from our miscarriage and years of infertility, as well as our more recent molar pregnancy. We obviously share some experiences with those who currently suffer from infertility. After long thinking, I’ve come up with five ways Christians can rightly struggle with the cross of infertility.
Unfortunately, many Christians who suffer from infertility, and Christians who love the infertile, have also fallen into this kind of thinking. Teen moms bear children out of wedlock, a live-in couple “accidentally” gets pregnant, celebrities undergo IVF and pay surrogate mothers to carry their babies, and Christian couples pray fervently for children that God does not give them. As soon as we encounter such situations, our sinful minds automatically play a comparison game, deeming some cases “fair” and others “unfair,” even grossly so. Too often, such comparison thinking transforms the cross of infertility into a trial. If we just plan more, eat better, pay extra, undergo more procedures, and strain mightily in a thousand different ways, then we’ll rid ourselves and loved ones of the unwanted burden of infertility and gain the blessing of children. This is a lie.
Because the desire for children is good, Christians have mistakenly deemed any methods to conceive or bear children as good, too. But this is making a good into a god, a cross into a trial.
“You shall have no other gods before Me,” God told Moses and His people in the wilderness (Exodus 20:3). He didn’t just mean pagan statues of gold or other images. He meant any material or emotional possession that commanded our hearts and our time, energy, and affection. The desire for children can, and does, become an idol, and infertility can become a trial. This can lead us away from God.
A theologian of glory calls barrenness a trial to be overcome, a burden which can be revoked by some great act of faith on our part, a curse that can be lifted by true love’s kiss. (Works Cited: My Own Wishes and Desires: A Treatise, The Complete Works of Joel Osteen, and The Wisdom of the Disney Princesses).
A theologian of the cross calls barrenness a terrible brokenness of the flesh which results from Sin in the world, a cross to be endured joyfully in light of Christ’s promise to make all things new on The Last Day, a suffering given to us by God who loves us and molds us and disciplines us and shapes us and points us straight to Christ’s own suffering on the cross for our own salvation and comfort. (Works Cited: God’s Word as revealed in The Book of Romans).
God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The truth is that none of us deserve anything good, but God gives us all kinds of goods anyway. He gave us life when we did nothing to merit it. He sustains us in countless ways, even while all of us sin (Romans 3:23). We deserve only death, but Christ has given Himself to us to take even that away. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Christ is our free gift. He gives us all we need, and while we live and wait for our resurrection in Him, we will suffer. Crosses are not just about pain and grief, though; they point us to the Cross-Bearer, Christ Himself. We might not understand why He gives us particular crosses, but we know with certainty that absolutely nothing, including infertility, can separate us from Christ’s love. He knows exactly what we bear because He bore it Himself–all the grief, all the loneliness, all the hurt and pain. And He loves us with an everlasting love.
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Embracing infertility as a cross doesn’t mean we or our loved ones have to hide our grief or pretend to be happy. But we can, and should, take comfort in our cross, that Christ knew emptiness and loneliness on Calvary, and He keeps and sustains us throughout our struggles.
Third, the cross of infertility can prompt a variety of feelings, and that’s okay.
The most vocal sufferers of infertility tend to be those who desire and pursue parenthood passionately and often vociferously, as noted above. But many people who suffer from infertility experience ambivalence about their infertility, and others who are infertile live out their particular condition quietly, sometimes pursuing medical help, but sometimes not. Sometimes they cry openly and tearfully about not being parents. Often, they don’t. Usually, they live day to day as most of us do who have unfulfilled good desires: pushing through, both impatiently and patiently, with changing feelings and attitudes toward those desires. One book, He Remembers the Barren (affiliated link) and He Remembers the Barren: God Remembers You in Jesus, the blog for the book that covers many topics related to infertility and Christianity, particularly Lutheranism. Three other Lutheran women who have experienced infertility contribute to the blog, too. I highly recommend both the book and the blog to any Christian.
Katie and Scott Sanders, at Beautiful Pieces of Us: Support for Parents with Leftover Frozen Embryos, share their story of embracing life through their experience with IVF and giving their unborn, frozen children a chance at life. Their blog is one of the few places I have found that addresses the heart-wrenching quandary of Christians who have undergone IVF and now struggle to live out their responsibilities to both their born and unborn children.
All of these writers point to Christ, and they can help us understand and articulate the difficult cross that is infertility and the hope we and loved ones can find in Him.
Fifth, we should pray.
All Christians should pray for the infertile in our pews. We should pray for peace for them, for Christ to continually remind them that He will never leave them. We should pray that infertile couples carefully consider their choices, learning about the huge financial market that is the infertility industry, weighing what their most ethical, God-pleasing options are and if and when to decide to pursue medical treatment. We should pray that we might help share their grief and struggle, that they bear with fortitude and patience the cross that they bear. We should pray that the cross of infertility, while a marker of time on this sinful earth, and the internal and external scars it leaves of our wandering in this wilderness, can be understood as signs pointing us to Christ. Infertility does not last forever, but Christ does.
Christians do well to remember that God does not give the same gifts to everyone, even good gifts like marriage and children. That knowledge can temper the pressure on all of us, infertile and fertile alike, to see all those suffering from infertility as losers or as desperate, no-holds-barred seekers. God loves all people, not because we loved Him, or because we are parents or not, but because He gave us Christ, His Son, to bear our sins (1 John 4:10). We should pray that all of us remember that blessed truth.
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has burned this Holy Week. The world watched the flickering heat lick and then consume the roof of the eight-hundred-year-old church, then, horrified, witnessed the spire falling. In our secular, postmodern world, why did the sight of flames devouring an old building, particularly a church, move so many? What are we to learn from this?
The historic value of Notre Dame, of course, explains part of our grief. Anyone who cherishes the study of the past and the relics, holy or otherwise, that mark it knows the incalculable worth of a Gothic structure like Notre Dame. Though the cathedral will be rebuilt, no amount of money, however philanthropically gifted, and no amount of architectural purity can replace what has been lost. Preservationists across the globe will be further disheartened to learn that part of the rebuilding will include a design contest rather than a reconstruction of what previously stood. I shudder to think of the result.
But Christians grieve over the loss of Notre Dame for more than its historical design and consequence. More than one commentator has noted the symbolic significance of the burning cathedral, from “The End of Christendom” to “Hope in the Ruins” (to mention just two takes). Those of us who notice the increased secularization of our culture, and the emptying and closing of our churches, know that the fire represents what has been happening to many churches, only the burn and smoke and destruction has more often been slow and subtle than fast and noticeable.
The transcendence of time by eternity, and by Christ as the incarnation of eternity in time, is suggested by the stability and durability of the church. An effective church building is a manifestation of tradition, and tradition is more than just the dead accumulation of custom; it is a living organism that overcomes time and death by a process of continual regeneration and gradual creative development. The church building, if it achieves permanence simply by resisting change and being preserved over centuries, might be no more than a museum or monument. But if it is built to last and is sustained from within by a community of worshippers then its permanence becomes a true reflection of eternity.
Caldecott rightly emphasizes the importance of devout worshippers. Too many of our churches have become merely museums and monuments (or even condos or bars or nightclubs), empty of people confessing Christ. The living organism of a community of faithful believers gathering around His Word and Sacrament has long been tepid or absent at too many Christian churches, even great, old ones like Notre Dame. This is why even Lutherans like me are sad at the news this week. Burning churches bespeak of both lost holy places and lost souls.
Joshua Gibbs noted this ecumenical mourning of Notre Dame in the Circe Institute “The Cedar Room” blog this week. “The loss of Notre Dame, or huge portions of it, stings even the Protestant and Orthodox Christian because cathedrals are physical manifestations that worship is one of the human things,” he wrote. “Cathedrals are silent arguments and wordless syllogisms which make it easier to believe. … Yes, Christianity will go on. No, no one died. Nonetheless, a very old and very good thing which testified to the power of piety and the sanity of beauty has been irreparably marred.” We cannot take for granted either our faith or the witness of our faith through physical materials of wood and stone when we see smoldering ruins, ash and dust that remind of us of Earth’s mortality and our own.
Which brings me to Holy Week. We began this Lent with Ash Wednesday, our somber reflection with King Solomon that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). This week we remember how our incarnate Lord, God made flesh, gave and gives His body and blood to us, and how He suffered crucifixion before He died. As we think about the burning of Notre Dame, let us also meditate upon its “Gothic floorplan [which] echoed the form of Christ’s human body on the Cross, and the distance between heaven and earth… in vertical elongation” (Caldecott 104). We must go to our own churches to hear and receive the Truth embodied in Christ, that though time will inevitably take its toll on us, moving us inexorably to the dust, we know that earthly death is not our end because it was not His end. An Architect and His mortal yet immortal Son remain our permanent hope.
“Your dad and I are going to build that sandbox,” my husband said to me unexpectedly a few days ago.
I was surprised, but pleasantly so. Jon and I had discussed converting an empty flower bed on the north side of our house in our backyard to a sandbox since we’d moved in nearly two years ago, but other projects and priorities always cropped up. Plus, with my parents visiting for just over a week, and the weather sunning us with spring, Jon had both the help in my father, Steve, and the weather to actually enjoy crafting and building.
Dad learned young how to build. His father, my grandfather Charles, built and remodeled several homes when Dad was young, and Dad literally got his hands dirty with hammers and nails, wood and sawdust through his childhood. Some of his experiences are family legend, like the time Dad took copper tubing from Grandpa’s stash to build a bathroom in his tree house. “It was just sitting there,” Dad says facetiously. Suffice it to say, Grandpa was beyond furious to discover what Dad had done. The now-corroded tubing–because of course Dad had to test the plumbing, performing the kind of boy experiment outdoors that any boy can imagine, peeing down a pipe–was useless for the actual plumbing Grandpa had intended for the tubing. Dad got a sound whipping for that one. “And I never could get that plumbing to work,” he jokes. “Not a drop ever reached the ground. There must’ve been too many leaks.”
Dad eventually graduated to more sophisticated projects, including buying an old house and flipping it, his sweat equity in that remodel resulting in the down payment for my parents’ first home. He earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture, and though he ended up in the energy business, every single one of my childhood abodes were improved with Dad’s design or muscle, and usually both. A new heat pump (hey, energy efficiency is key!); a garage converted to a family room and half-bath; an added-on garage, front door entry nook, and sun room; a pantry conversion and tile flooring; a basketball pad in a backyard; finishing basements–these are just some of the major construction projects I remember as a kid that Dad tackled and finished. That’s not even considering all the cosmetic work of wallpapering or dewallpapering; painting; landscape design, and much more. Dad always said, “Leave a house better than you found it.” And he did. And yes, my mother is a very patient woman. Suffice it to say, her willingness to live in a construction site has pretty much disappeared after nearly forty years–and countless home projects–of marriage.
So Jon and I have also benefited from Dad’s expertise. Over the last fifteen years, Jon has learned to wire lighting and other basic electrical outlets under Dad’s direction. With the help of another extremely handy church member, Jon helped build a porch that Dad designed for our first house. He and Dad have built egress window covers, put in above-stall garage storage with pull-down stairs, and installed under-cabinet lighting together, among other things. It’s an assumed part of visits anymore, that Jon will do some kind of house or yard project with Dad.
Men need to build and keep things, and they need other men to do this. God told Adam to work and keep the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), and since the Fall, men have been sweating over tools and the ground. It’s a mark of sin, that sweat, but God always intended Adam to toil, because the work of our hands with the earth and material God has given us is a blessing.
And men learn from and cherish work done with other men. Jon’s grandfather, Heinz, was a carpenter, and Jon had learned something of basic building and tools from him. He’s appreciated having his father-in-law to teach him and, more importantly, to serve as a resource and encouragement while Jon figures out all matter of handyman jobs. While Jon learns a lot from YouTube videos (how to install an all-house humidifier onto our heater was the latest), he needs other guys to call for insight and inspection.
Building and preserving things are a vital and truly enriching part of life. Most of what Jon does involves improvement–making our home more efficient, fixing needed repairs–but Jon also has improved himself by learning different skills over time. Men, in particular, need the transition from pursuit to maintaining and building, Brett McKay writes in “The Crux of Adulthood: From Choosing and Pursuing to Maintaining and Building” at The Art of Manliness. “While the pleasure of pursuit is in getting something, period,” says McKay, “the pleasure of building comes in getting better at something.”
And so Jon and Dad got better yesterday by building a sandbox. They planned, and measured, and sweat (a little). They moved dirt and rock and cut wood and stapled on landscape fabric. They even built a little bench for the box. They spent time together. It was a small project, all things considered. But our kids will love it, and Jon and Dad now have the sweet pleasure of knowing they built it, themselves, with their own hands. May all men know such gratifying work.
This piece first appeared in the “Thoughts in the Heartland” column, which I wrote for several years, in the March 9, 2016 edition of the Pipestone County Star. I have edited it slightly here.
With the recent wave of warmer weather, northern prairie staters like Minnesotans can begin to think of outdoor pursuits with a little less affectation of duty and perhaps, even, a little hope. Rapidly melting snow piles, the reappearance of grass (and a meager but valiant green at that), and sunshine that actually warms the skin all make these first days of spring days to be—dare I say it?— celebrated rather than merely observed.
In the meantime, though, we will hide our budding optimism about the change of seasons with typical western aplomb: that mix of a careful acknowledgment of good things and simultaneous grumping about all the mess that comes with it. For spring, as we all know, is both glorious and a big, fat mud puddle.
I was reminded of this recently when my kids spent some time outside. I was delighted that they could partake of the golden rays and the fresh air without the need for countless layers of waterproofed clothing that always end up soaked anyway. I was thrilled that my husband could get out their bicycles and wagon and toys that had been stowed away for the winter and that they could exercise their cabin-fevered muscles with vigor. But as Dr. Seuss might say, oh, the mess, mess, mess mess! The mucky shoes and boots, the cruddy pant hems, the crust, the grime, the sludge! My heart fainted a little at seeing these familiar marks, and streaks, and tracks, and residue of late winter.
It is a truth all parents know that small children can leave
evidence of their presence virtually anywhere, and when the fertile earth
cooperates with their heedless, hearty play, well, there’s just no stopping the
mess. I have found mud on trim, on walls, even the ceiling (don’t ask. Just
imagine how an impatient kid will try to kick off an extra muddy boot, and I’m
sure your imagination will fill in the details). After years of spring
springing right into the house along with the kids, I’m learning to be fairly
resilient about the unending grime even when the mud parade seems to find
corners in its route I didn’t think were possible (see above). Knowing that
this season is short-lived helps, as does my favorite escape: clean, fresh
bedsheets scented with lavender.
Perhaps like many of you, I have memories of playing among sheets hanging from clotheslines, my mother or grandmother (or both) with pins in their mouths and damp piles in their arms as I ran among the lines. Of course, we kids weren’t technically allowed to touch the laundry for obvious reasons, but we must have transgressed when the sheets were dry and less prone to catch the dust from our busy, dirty fingers. That’s when the wind would better catch the fabric anyway and blow them around us, like a parachute happily flapping in an energetic breeze.
Much of the appeal of the sheets lies in their lovely scent. Is there any better smell than freshly laundered cotton blowing in a strong spring breeze? If there is, it’s one that goes along with it: the cool, refreshing fragrance of lavender. For thousands of years, people have used the purple dried flowers in perfume and preservation, and yes, to place in clean laundry. Not only do they share their scent easily; they also ward off that perennial enemy of stored fabric—the moth. Some years ago, I received a lavender spray that I periodically use when I’m making up beds for guests, or for us when I’m feeling particularly extravagant. Such a soothing aroma! It’s a whiff of spring, and one notably without the season’s muddy residue. I feel relaxed just thinking about it.
After all, lavender receives its name from the Latin root “lavere,” which means to wash. It’s a fitting antidote to the grimy muck that spring necessitates, and even to the work that spring requires. Turning soil and preparing to plant is messy, and a good mess—even this fanatical mud-adverse homemaker can admit that. After all, food and fragrant plants must be cultivated. But all the more lovely is the clean-up after the sweaty and excellent outdoor efforts, like the promise of rest after hard work.
So as the Chinook winds approach, and the dirt stirs up, and the mud clings, and the earth awakens again, I will take a deep breath, savoring the promise of spring. I will rejoice, and pray, and give thanks. I will roll up my sleeves, grab my sponges, and scrub. And I will look forward to sleeping in lavender-scented sheets.
How can you say there are too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.
Spring has sprung, and with it will soon come flowers. And flowers make me think of children–mainly, the children God has given to Jon and I.
Next week our baby turns two. We’re shocked about this the way most parents are, that time has turned our helpless, fragile newborn into a thriving, talking, moving toddler. We love her so much. And I find myself wondering a little, too. A few months ago, we expected to soon hold another sweet baby. But another child was not in God’s divine plan for us in 2019. So this is the first time one of our children will turn two and we do not have another baby in utero or a newborn in arms.
That fact all by itself usually provokes a shocked response from people: “Wow.” And it is truly amazing. How blessed I have been by God to have the privilege of bearing, birthing, breastfeeding, and bundling up six babies, and all of them in less than ten years. It’s been a blur at times, that’s absolutely certain–there are periods in there that I don’t quite remember. But these years have also been overwhelmingly good. Jon and I are so grateful for what we have. Our family garden, so to speak, has abundantly multiplied and grown, and like good farmers, we thank the only One who has the ability to create and sustain life. We are merely receivers of His great generosity.
With our larger-than-normal family, we get questions sometimes. “Did you always want a big family?” “How do you do it?” and the niggling one that most people wonder: “Are you open to more children?” At least, that’s the tactful way questioners put it. Others phrase it as our cultural is wont to, in terms of choices and personal desires: “Do you want any more children?”
We can answer this with a short response, and we usually do. We say something like, “We’re open to as many as God wants to give us.” Another version we’ve shared is “We’ve left that in God’s hands.” Both of these answers imply our heartfelt feelings, hopefully, that we do, in fact, love children, both our own and the idea of more.
Our answer, and our life, is weird to most people. That’s why we get questions to begin with. Our culture doesn’t understand our family or our perspective on children, because our culture idolizes control and autonomy and definitely–definitely–human ways to avoid children at almost any cost.
Because of this, our short answer isn’t really enough to explain to people where we’re coming from in terms of children. If we had time, we’d sit down and chat for a few hours about God’s gift of fertility. That’s not possible in a grocery store checkout line, but it is possible on a blog! So if you’re curious and want to know the extended version of why we’ve welcomed children so readily into our family, read ahead.
The Typical Marriage Start
Jon and I have been blessed with nearly fifteen years of marriage. In the last ten, we have become one of “those” families—one that people smile at in parks, gawk at in stores, and probably run away from in airports and other confined spaces.
But in the first few years, we looked like many young married Americans. We didn’t have kids.
This wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned growing up. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted a big family. The play “Cheaper By the Dozen” and a number of books influenced my thinking, as did my loving, supportive parents who cared for me and my two siblings and made a wonderful home for us. I am also sure that God gave me a natural and good desire for a Godly husband and children during numerous babysitting jobs and summer camp counseling. Before Jon and I met, he, too, hoped God would give him a Godly wife and children—though he didn’t quite visualize a half-dozen children in his future. But on one of our first dates, when I mentioned I’d like six sons, he said, “That’s enough for a basketball team and a sixth man.” And he meant that in a good way! Suffice it to say that I was relieved that I hadn’t scared him off.
But in 2004, Jon and I were influenced by cultural norms, even among many Christians, regarding birth control. In particular, I was pretty sure we weren’t “ready” right away for children. I thought that we needed time to “get used to one another.” I was sure I needed to work at least a little bit to use my expensive undergraduate education and help out with the bills. I was confident of any number of popular ideas about early marriage that circulate, most of which involve materialistic acquisition and experiences, like saving up for a house and all the trappings and traveling. Mostly, I was sure that I should use birth control at least in the beginning of our marriage. I didn’t feel extremely dogmatic about it, but I definitely felt like it was something we should do–because that’s just what people did. And it just made so much sense, given all of my preconceptions going into marriage. Jon agreed with me in this. My gynecologist encouraged me, of course, and the example of countless friends and relatives silently supported it.
So just before we got married, I got a prescription for a birth control patch that I would stick on my skin and change once a month (I never remembered to take vitamins every day, so I figured the patch was my best bet). I immediately started using it.
In those first few months after our wedding, Jon and I didn’t really think much at all about God when it came to preventing conception. Despite both of us being raised in Lutheran churches our entire lives, we had no clear understanding of how God intended marriage, including our marriage, to be blessed by children. We had swallowed the cultural norm, hook, line, and sinker, that while children are great, responsible, educated, married people always plan for them, and they usually don’t have more than two or three, maybe four at the maximum. Those days of thinking of a basketball team and a spare seemed naive and heedless.
But after about six months, I was ready to stop using contraception, and Jon was supportive. I didn’t like the mood swings or the feelings I had when I used it. I didn’t like the discoloration on my skin and the tight stick of the patch. I also think both of us had pricked consciences. We felt like something was missing from our marriage, and I think we’d realized that most of our rationale involving contraception revolved around fear rather than trust—hardly the way to build a Godly marriage. I wish we’d had a thorough theological conversation about it, but we didn’t–not until later. Instead, we simply realized that we wanted to be open to children instead of trying to prevent them. So I stopped using contraception. And a month or so later, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive.
A Brief Life
Those of you who are parents can understand the joy we felt at learning that new life was growing inside of me. We were thrilled. We were also kind of terrified. I began to feel exhausted and nauseated right away, and while questions about our ability to parent and provide for our child began cropping up in our minds, we were extremely thankful for our child. We told our parents and some close friends, and I bought a little book with flowers on it to record questions I had for my first prenatal appointment.
Just a few weeks later, we got a chance to really consider how precious God’s gifts are. I began bleeding, and after several doctor visits, ultrasounds, and a hospital run, we were told a blood clot was pressuring our baby’s placenta. Shortly after that, I began cramping intensely, and we knew. On April 26, 2005, our daughter died.
What could we do? Nothing. We could do nothing. Jon felt helpless. I felt like a murderer. Doctors told me that sometimes the mother’s body attacks an inutero child as something foreign. That was bad enough to hear, but some of what I learned also pointed to my recent use of the patch as a likely reason why the blood clot appeared. But regardless of the “why,” we were both overwhelmed with grief, loss, and guilt. We had been so glib, assuming we were in charge and taking life for granted. Both Jon and I, like Peter, could only plead, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
God in Christ gave us comfort during that time. When I was miscarrying in the emergency room, a gentle nurse leaned over me to check my heart rate. A gold necklace around her neck slipped from beneath her uniform and swung just before my face. On it was a crucifix. Seeing that was a lifeline for me. I knew God was with me, despite my pain and anguish, and that He fully understood physical suffering and loss.
Our wonderful pastor arrived soon after that and prayed with us. A few days later, he held a private memorial service for us at church for our child and read Martin Luther’s “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage.” Both Jon and I were deeply gratified to be reminded that our child had received Christ through me when I had received His body and blood in the Sacrament. God had formed our child, and He had taken care of her. Someday, we will see her again.
The Waiting and Hoping
Months passed. We learned to grieve alone and grieve together. Jon’s seminary studies caused us to move several times, and we prayerfully weighed big decisions involving schooling and housing. And we waited. Several years went by. We no longer used birth control, but God chose to close my womb. I didn’t recognize it at the time, probably willfully, but we were experiencing infertility. Thankfully, our desire for children gave us opportunities to learn.
Those years of wondering and waiting, praying for children, taught us many things about God and His goodness. They were hard. Doctors told us everything was normal, and so we did not pursue any special medical treatment. Every month I wondered if this month, we would be pregnant again. And every month that we weren’t, God will still reassure us of His eternal love and mercy. “Be content with what you have,” His Word reminded us. “I will never leave you nor forsake you… Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” No matter what happened, we knew this was the Truth that would sustain us.
God blessed me with greater insight during that time. I learned not to judge so quickly when I saw married women without children. I learned to be more patient and trusting of God’s will for me, for my husband, and for our marriage. I especially learned that my worth is not bound to my ability to conceive or bear children. My worth is bound in the blood of Christ, who died for all of my sins. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16).
Answering the Question–and Trusting in God’s Provision
exactly did our views on family change?
By the time our oldest son arrived in 2008, both Jon and I were so thankful to more deeply understand that he, and every child, is a gift. As the years passed, and God added to our family, we learned through long nights and busy days that He knew exactly what He was doing, even when we didn’t–and we usually didn’t, and we still don’t. By now, we have learned countless more lessons in understanding and receiving children as a gift. God knew, in our case, that we needed to suffer before we began to grasp how precious life really is. We’d heard this countless times in pro-life circles, at church, and in the Bible, but we’d been influenced by our culture into thinking about children as acquisitions, as planned, as ultimately items and objects that we could, and even should, control.
In these full days, when I’m often frazzled, the thought of more children makes me pause. I know I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy right now, and for years. I know what pregnancy is like, and all the risks and dangers involved, especially as I get older. I also know in my marrow that regardless of how exhausted or overwhelmed or frustrated we might get with our brood, we are neither in control of creating life, nor do we want to be. We’ve sailed that ship, and we have no desire to do so again. And I am so reassured to know that my subjective feelings on the subject are moot, because God knows what is best.
So when people ask, “Do you want more kids?” my immediate, heartfelt thought is “Yes, but my wants don’t matter. Only God can give life.”
We also know that what people are really asking is “Will you do anything to prevent the conception of more of your children?” And our answer is an unequivocal “No.” In fact, when people ask us, testing our clairvoyance, “Will you have any more children?” We can say with frank and candid honesty, “We don’t know.” God might bless us with more children. He also might not. Either way, we trust His provision for us, both if He opens His hand to grant new life and how He will provide for that life. He’s got us either way. We are not God, and we do not know the future. But He does, and He knows what is good for us.
(And I’ll be honest: Jon is much more willing and adept at turning the tables on curious questioners. Once or twice, he’s said, straight-faced, “We really like sex, and that’s not ending any time soon.” So be careful what you ask! :))
What Our Children Learn
Awhile back, Jon and I played the board game of Life with our older sons. On their own, the boys both chose to follow the route labeled “Family” rather the route labeled “Life.” And both were extremely excited when they “won” a son or daughter, little blue and pink pegs. “Mom!” our oldest yelled. “I had so many kids, I had to get another car!” He was thrilled at the abundance he’d been given.
The boys’ excitement and genuine joy at having a family, even in a game, was so gratifying to us. Our children are young, and they have so much to learn in terms of the great responsibility God gives to fathers and mothers. But we are so thankful that they are already learning to view children as a priceless gift.
Do I know what God has in store for us regarding family size? No. I also do not know what God has in store for us regarding earthly wealth, health, opportunities–you name it. Not surprisingly, I don’t know exactly what God has in store for us tomorrow. I can guess, but I don’t know. All I know is that He promises to provide for us and care for us, and He is faithful even unto death. I know he will open His hand as He sees fit, and we will receive what He gives.
And this is our hope as individuals, as parents, as a family, and as pro-life, proliferating people: that our children will live out the thankfulness of God’s gracious, giving hand in regards to family, freedom, and faith. We hope that they will be brave enough to live the lives before them, making choices to serve their neighbors near and far, not in the hope that their choices will save them or anyone else, but trusting in Christ, who has promised to hold each of them in His hand–guiding them, blessing them, and taking care of them.
An excellent resource for questions about Lutheranism, problems with contraception, and the blessings of procreation can be found at Lutherans and Procreation.
Last night, a group of women from our church met to discuss a chapter in Katie Schuermann’s Pew Sisters. Our ages vary, from Millenials to Boomers, and our experiences vary, from exclusive homemakers to part-time volunteers and entrepreneurs to established professionals. All of us who gathered yesterday were moms. Some are in the diaper-and-potty-training stage. Some have tweens. Some are recent empty nesters. Some are grandmothers. One thing we all share, though, is that we are weak.
We read about Claire, a young mother suffering from postpartum depression who tenaciously clings to Christ’s promises to her in her baptism. Claire’s cross rendered her weak. And in her weakness, Christ revealed His strength and sustained Claire.
As we read and talked, our conversation touched upon many weaknesses we carry and face. Anxiety. Worry. Depression. Marital woes. Chronic illness. Addiction. Many of us shared traumatic birth stories of ourselves or of our children and grandchildren, as well as ongoing medical challenges some of our family and friends face from terminal illnesses. And it occurred to me that in precisely in baring our weaknesses, Christ’s steadfast love and His bearing of our burdens shone most brightly.
Lent is a time of reflection and penitence, of recognizing anew the terrible cross of sin for the entire world that Christ suffered and slew for us. We don’t have much to boast about, we sinners who constantly taint and mess up our lives and suffer many and myriad consequences of sin in our fallen world. But we can always boast in Him, who promises us His faithfulness and blesses us with Himself. And we can do this together, thank God, around His altar and around His word. Crosses come, but He remains, and His grace saves us. Ultimately, that’s all we need.
This blog exists to encourage Lutherans and other Christians to live faithfully on this hard, bleak earth. We know the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament are for our comfort and benefit. So, of course, are good foods and friends, especially when shared together. Friday Feedings, then, will include reflections on hospitality and community, and of course recipes, ones that are specifically designed to be shared for get-togethers. So get ready for lots of portions!
I vividly remember one of the first times Jon and I hosted people at our house after we were married. They were church ladies–very gracious, generous, and loving widows who supported us immensely during Jon’s vicarage (his one year training at a church during seminary). I nervously chattered as I prepared food and set up the living room, trying to make sure everything looked perfect. Eventually, Jon stopped me as I rambled. “They aren’t coming to see the house,” he said. “Relax. Just spend time with them and make them feel comfortable.”
He was right. I stopped stressing about doily placement and started thinking more about what those dear ladies actually wanted: to cherish our company.
One thing I’ve learned about hosting over the years is that most people just want to hang out. They don’t want to see your house. They won’t put on white gloves to test your mantle for dust. They just want you to want to see them. Sure, there are some basic rules. Like pick up enough so they don’t impale themselves on something as they come in your house or have to sit on junk if they want to sit down. Wipe down the bathroom sink and toilet if you’ve got an extra minute (thanks for that one, Mom). Offer them a beverage and provide some food that’s fairly fresh (i.e. not expired or poisoned), decently edible, and you’ll have a great time. And if you don’t have awesome food? If you only have peanut butter and crackers or popcorn? If you’ve got water? No problem. Remember: they just want to see you and want you to see them–really see them, talk with them, listen to them, and care about them.
Over the years, I’ve gotten much less anxious about hosting people. Hosting people sounds intimidating itself; really, I just mean providing a place where people can come and visit and feel comfortable. What does this look like? All kinds of things, really:
A friend stopping in for a quick cup of coffee when our floors are a crumby mess and the counters are full of dirty dishes, and we visit while she sips and I wash dishes (the best way to wash, I’ve found).
Foreign exchange students far from home hungry for a home-cooked meal of pork and pie and welcome in a snowy, isolated rural area.
Last-minute travelling guests dropping by, and me scrambling some eggs, frying some bacon, and buttering some toast and setting out preserves for a late breakfast while our guests play with the kids.
A busy church family coming over when I made way too much soup for us to eat, and I know it’s been a long week for them.
A lady whose husband travels a lot joining us for leftovers for supper, and while I wrangle older kids, she bathes the baby.
Hosting an open door annual Open House with finger foods and sweets for church family.
Resting with dear ones on a Sunday afternoon, with grilled brats and hot dogs and chips and veggies eaten on the porch and the patio, in the garage, and at the table, with doors opening and shutting constantly, and the voices of carefree children floating through the open windows (I’m looking forward to this when the warmth returns!).
Orchestrating–kind of–a chaotic taco bar for fifty people, including twenty plus kids, and multiple friends providing the delicious fixings and desserts while we make the meat.
These are just a few examples of the countless ways hospitality works at our house. You probably notice that many of the ways don’t require a bunch of cleaning and fancy extras. We definitely aren’t etiquette experts or candidates for an HGTV house and spread. We’re just regular people who have been the recipients of great hospitality and want to share with others, too. All our feedings just require a bit of planning (and sometimes virtually none) and the willingness to welcome others, whether new acquaintances or old friends, into our home and our life.
I’m excited to share Friday Feedings with you and hopefully to encourage you to start your own! Your life–and I’d venture others, too–will be richer because of it.
It’s funny how God works through His Word at just the right time to address specific sins and crosses. Take lying, for instance.
Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we heard how the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Of course, any references to the wilderness pique my interest, and I listened closely. I wondered about one of our middle sons, though, who rarely seems to be paying attention in church.
“Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” read my husband, the pastor. “And he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'” Our son, eyes wandering and fingers twiddling, leaned over to me at this point and whispered, “That’s dumb. The kingdoms already belonged to Jesus.”
An insight indeed. Not only was I reminded that children often listen when they seem to be doing anything but; I also realized that the devil never, ever stops telling lies. His lies can be compelling and seem to address true needs, like offering bread to a Man who has miraculously gone without food or drink for forty days and who is, in admirable understatement, “hungry.” His lies can also be completely ridiculous, like telling Jesus, the Son of the Father who created all things and thus already possessed them all, that if He just bows down before him, the devil will give Him…what He already had.
The truth is, though, that the devil will continue to lie to us the way he lied to our Savior because we fall prey to his lies. We dumb, selfish, idiotic fools all have something we crave, and when the right words come along, we can believe almost anything, despite how ridiculous it might be. Sunday morning buffet is so delicious, and I’m hungry; I can go to church some other time. The tax man is so swamped and busy; he won’t notice if I fudge a few numbers on my return. My colleague at work is bright and good-looking; I can be close with him, and my husband won’t even notice. And so on.
One of our children has made a habit lately of lying. It’s been a difficult lesson to learn, for him and for us, seeing how lies–all of them–affect others and relationships, and how we understand the truth. It’s been important for him to learn that there are both temporal consequences to lying, like staying in from recess to complete homework he previously claimed he had finished, as well as spiritual consequences. Broken trust is not renewed overnight. Lies told about small things betray, at best, a lack of understanding to the gravity of untruths. At worst, they betray a rejection that lies hurt both the teller and the receiver of the lie. Lies imprison the teller and ostracize the receiver. They are like worms that, if unchecked, can ruin an apple, leaving only rot behind.
In Bible class after service today, we continued studying in the book of Proverbs, including many verses that referred to both fools and the wise, lying and the truth. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment,” reads Proverbs 12:19. “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy,” exhorts Proverbs 12:20. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are His delight,” goes Proverbs 12:22.
We know, we know, we all say. This is old news to us believers. And then we all slide on that greasy rail down the wide path, telling others and ourselves little white deceptions that show us just how susceptible we are to the Father of Lies. Even when the lies are dumb, we tell them, and hang on.
Near the end of Bible class, I noticed a small plastic lamb that our youngest had been playing with. There’s nothing particular about it, except I saw ink scribbles all over it. The scribbles had not been there before the class. After simple questions failed to unearth the truth, some moms had to interrogate the likely scribblers. Blanket denials resulted, until one mom said, “Even if it wasn’t you, but you know something that can reveal the truth, you need to speak up.” Then my son opened his mouth and shared the truth.
As sinners, we lie because we fail to see the big picture, the ultimate good that God desires for us. We lie because in the blink of a moment, we think we will get something good for ourselves, whether it’s bread, kingdoms, or avoiding punishment. In that instant, we are blind to the beauty of the Truth, the only Truth that can set us free from our slavery to sin and lies.
Telling the truth is hard. It can mean hunger, and loneliness, and punishment. But God knows what is best. His Word endures forever, and He wants us to be His forever, too. When the lies come easily, we can cling to Christ, who, emaciated and exhausted, told the devil, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.'” In His weakness, the Lamb who died for us, we have strength, and we can tell the truth, too.
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).
We are both sorrowful and joyful in sharing that our son Christian has died. We found out earlier this morning that his heart had stopped beating sometime over the weekend. His body will be born today.
“Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: theLordgave, and theLordhath taken away; blessed be the name of theLord.‘”
We are beyond grateful for all the messages, hugs, meals, tears, and prayers given on our behalf. We truly can’t thank our friends and fellow pilgrims enough for all the support. We thank God for all of His good gifts, and especially for the gift of His Son, Jesus, who has now welcomed Christian into eternity.
The artwork is a screenshot of Kelly Schumacher’s “The Kingdom of Heaven Belongs to Such as These.” You can see this painting and more of Kelly’s art at http://agnusdeiarts.com/.
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of theLord in the land of the living!
Wait for theLord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for theLord!
~ Psalm 27:13-14
What happens when time runs short for a child? How do we wait?
On Monday, July 8, Jon and I visited a high-risk pregnancy doctor at an exclusively high-risk practice in Denver after receiving a referral from Dr. M. We met Dr. L, a friendly man in his 60s, who introduced himself. Then he sat at the ultrasound monitor, explaining that he was going to show us some things. But then he turned back to us, looking directly at me.
“The first thing I need to tell you,” said Dr. L, “is that you didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t use the wrong shampoo. You didn’t stand too close to the microwave. You didn’t eat the wrong thing. You didn’t cause this.
“And the second thing,” he said more quietly, “is that there’s nothing we can do.”
That’s when all of our fears from the prior month were confirmed. Our son, Christian, had less than a five percent chance of survival, and he would probably not live long in my womb. Dr. L told us to go back to Dr. M for checks at least every two weeks. If you were my daughter,” he said, “I’d probably fit you in once a week. Just to see if Baby is still alive.” We spoke about another high-risk appointment in a month or so, maybe even meeting with a cardiologist, but both Jon and I felt like that talk was perfunctory, a going-through-the-motions. Neither of us felt like Dr. L thought we would need that appointment.
At the front desk, as the receptionist and I discussed dates and times, I was acutely aware of the mothers waiting behind me. I tried to speak calmly, normally. The last thing they needed was to see a distraught pregnant woman, a fulfillment of their own fears. And the last thing I wanted, at that moment, was to be that mom, the one who’d just received heart-shattering news.
So what did we do? Jon and I decided that, as long as I felt physically able, we would to try to maintain our normal routine. This would help us cope, it would help our other children, and it would give Christian what we hoped was a little bit of normal life. The day after our meeting with Dr. L, I took the kids to a parade. It was jarring, and unreal, but it was also life. I watched the little ones run for thrown candy and mesmerizingly watch four-wheelers and tractors and floats. It was sunny and warm. We were together.
We kept on. During quiet time when some of our kids napped and others quietly played or read books, I read a book about continuing pregnancy when Baby is not expected to live. I usually cried. I cried in the shower and at night as I prayed. I would talk to Christian. “I’m sorry Mommy is crying so much. I love you.” And I talked to him about his siblings. “Boy, your big sister sure is loud sometimes, right? She loves her blanket. You hear her yelling about it a lot. She likes to snuggle with you.” She did, and she does. “‘Nuggle?” she says. “‘Nuggle?” Then she climbs over me with her blanket, her Dida, nestles right above my belly, and comfortingly puts her finger in her mouth.
During the other times of the day, right after the news, life was quietly blessed. The kids and I sat on the patio swing or porch rockers, sometimes talking, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting. We went swimming. We visited with friends at parks and on a few playdates. We are with generous friends who brought us food. We went on walks together. We sang songs. We watched movies together and ate ice cream and popcorn. We read books like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. We went to the library. We laughed together when Jon would wrestle with the kids, them screaming in glee. We prayed together and read Psalms. We went to church and received Jesus together. We snuggled a lot.
I would get emotional sometimes, and occasionally the kids noticed. “I’m just sad because I’m thinking about Baby Christian,” I would say. “But I’m glad we have time together.” Unfailingly, they would speak of how they loved him and prayed for him. Sometimes they would just hug me, and in hugging me, they would hug him.
At sixteen weeks, a week and a day after we met with Dr. L, I dressed up as though for church and went to see Dr. M. to see if our Christian was still alive. Jon came, too. We spoke together with Dr. M of what will likely happen, which includes induction after finding out Christian’s heart stops beating, to me suddenly going into labor with no warning. Finally, I climbed up on the table, and Dr. M got out the Doppler. I expected to hear nothing–no heartbeat. I expected to hear that our son was dead. This is what I wrote after that visit.
“The relief and joy at hearing our son’s heartbeat–I can hardly describe it. Hours later, I’m still joyfully incredulous, delirious on the high of knowing he is still alive. Our son is still alive. Every moment is precious. Yes, if I think about what will probably happen, and soon, I am terrified. At the same time, I was reminded today that only God knows our times, and they are in His hands. I pray we can cherish every moment, and every day, that he is with us.”
Outside of the doctor visits, life was–I don’t want to say simple, but it was simple. Eating. Drinking. Thinking. Talking. Chores. Visits. So often, simple moments were charged. The hidden thought was always there: this is probably one of the last times/the only time Christian will be here for this. Playing Horse with our rising fourth-grader and laughing at how bad Mom was at taking shots. Poking toes in the sandbox. Grocery shopping. Brushing the girls’ hair. Tickling the little boys before bed. Talking on the phone in the kitchen. Every day, and every week was poignant, but mostly in a cherishing kind of way. This time is special. Only occasionally would I fall apart, thinking of what would never be. Seeing a plane pass overhead on a drive home and thinking, “He will never be a pilot.” Tousling my eldest boy’s unkept, sun-lightened hair and thinking, “He will never stand next to me like this.” The tears would run and run down my face the way they are running now. But I needed those moments like I needed the crazy herding kids “where-are-your-shoes-we-need-to-go-NOW” moments. They were, and are, all tied together.
At seventeen weeks, last week, I experienced some cramping and spotting prior to my appointment. I went in, again with Jon, fully expecting to hear no heartbeat. Once again, Christian surprised me. That time, I was shocked–actually dumbfounded–that he was still alive. Once again, we had an ultrasound to see our son.
“See his feet here?” Dr. M pointed out. We marveled at his tiny toes. But I could see that something wasn’t quite right. “You can also see how they’re swollen,” she went on gently. Our son has been slowly swelling with excess fluid, most likely because his heart isn’t strong enough. It’s like congestive heart failure in adults, who deal with bloating and water retention. I had worried about pain for him and asked Dr. M before about that, not sure if I even wanted to hear the answer. What could we even do about it? But she had explained that as a baby in utero, Christian’s nervous system wasn’t fully developed yet, so he likely wasn’t feeling pain. “Also, this is his normal,” she said. “He’s never known anything different.” As I looked at his feet, for the first time I thought, You need heaven.
Yesterday. Another week, another appointment. We were silly, waiting with the big boys who’d just had dentist appointments, telling them a story about me that made them embarrassed, grinning, and acting like they didn’t want to hear any more. They stayed in the waiting room when Jon and I went back.
Instead of the Doppler first, due to a nurse shortage, we had an ultrasound. We saw Christian right away, a white figure moving in the black on the screen. His heart thumped. Da-dum. A pause. Da-dum. Another pause, a little longer. Da-dum.
Both Jon and I thought, “Maybe Dr. M isn’t holding the wand right.” We all watched Christian move for a moment, the lines from the erratic beating creating a messy pattern below him, the sound of his heartbeat a pausing, uncertain staccato-like sound. Then Dr. M said quietly, “So you can see how his heartbeat is irregular.” My eyes blurred, and tears ran down my cheeks.
This was stark and real. Christian’s slowing heart was telling us the end of his time on earth was fast approaching its end, and though we’d expected this, I suddenly ached, almost gasping. No! Not yet! my heart screamed.
I pulled it together. In spurts, I managed to ask, “Is there any way to know how long he could make it?” Dr. M was already shaking her head. “His heartbeat could have been irregular before, and we just missed it. Or it could have just started its irregularity. He could last a week or just a day–we don’t know.”
That happened yesterday, at our third weekly appointment since our meeting with the high-risk doctor in Denver. Today, I will see Dr. M again, to see if Christian is with us. If he is, I will go in more regularly. I no longer feel comfortable with weekly checks. I know we don’t have that much time.
If Christian has died, between yesterday and today, I will be induced to go into labor, and the last part of Christian’s life on this earth will commence. This has all been so surreal and yet real at the same time. I don’t really want to sleep–I want to be awake as long as he is with us. As I write this, I think I just felt him kick. That started last week–the fluttering kicks of his quickening. I never thought I’d experience that. It is an extra gift, just as he is.
After the appointment yesterday, through my choking sobs, I spoke to Christian. “You’re going home soon, Baby. Home to Jesus. He loves you more than all of us combined.” He died so Christian will live. His body will be perfected and on the last day, he will rise with a terrifically strong heart. The kids gave me hugs last night as we told them Christian’s time was short with us. “Tell him you’ll see him again,” I said. “We love you, Baby!” our five-year-old yelled. “See you in heaven!”
So we wait now, not knowing what today will bring. We wait knowing while our time here in earth is short, we will live forever in Jesus. There with Him, we will have all the time in the heavens. And He will wipe every tear from our eyes.
This is a letter that no true, loving friend wants to write. But she does so precisely because she knows true, loving friends need and yes, even want, to share her burden.
For multiple reasons, I have not spoken to you of our latest news. The biggest one is that I am emotionally pacing myself. Even the most loving friends will grieve with us, and to grieve together means I must grieve again. And I can only grieve so much and still function, and tie shoes, and wipe noses, and slice and fry potatoes, and try to smile and enjoy the countless little gifts that surround us even as we mourn.
And why do we mourn? We mourn, in fact, because we have first been given a great and priceless gift. In early May, we learned that we had been given the gift of another child. In June, we learned that our child was a boy, our fifth son. We have named him Christian. And after many, many doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds in June and July, we understand that Christian’s physical heart is not as we would wish. It is not pumping properly, or not constructed as most healthy hearts are, or just not developing as a child’s heart in the womb is supposed to grow. We don’t exactly know what the precise problem is. But we do know that Christian is retaining fluid, far more than a baby should. And there’s nothing we can do to change that.
So, in the seventeenth week of pregnancy, we prepare to release Christian back to God much, much sooner than we would like. That time could be tomorrow, or in a week, or maybe in a month. It is a very hard and often strange reality to manage–great wonder and humility at what God has done to create and sustain our son thus far; fear and uncertainty about what exactly will happen; and at the same time great and terrible grief, now anticipatory grief, as we wait for Christian’s death.
So what can you do, dear friends, as we walk this road?
You can pray. You can pray for Christian, that he hears the saving Word of Christ and believes by hearing. You can pray that he feels no pain. You can pray for Jon and I, that we cleave together as we grope forward into the unknown. You can pray that I can weather the physical weight of pregnancy, giving Christian the best care he can get while he is still in my womb. You can pray that Jon knows best how to care for me and our family as the head of our household. You can pray that as parents, Jon and I can love and care for all of our children as they need, even while we struggle with our grief. You can pray that our ex utero children are comforted with the knowledge of Christ’s unending love to them and to their brother. Most of all, you can pray that all of us in the Olson family continually put our trust in Christ, placing all of our hopes and fears in Him, who does all things for our good and who will never leave us or forsake us.
You can cry with us. It can be awkward for people to hear our news, even when they love us. That’s okay. It can be awkward for us to share, and we (okay, I) will sometimes cry in the sharing. Sometimes that’s because I’m sad about Christian’s prognosis. But sometimes I cry because I know our friends truly and deeply grieve with us. And that makes me so grateful that I am moved to tears. So don’t be afraid of our tears, please. And share your stories of grief, too. Empathy bonds friends and makes comfort between us all the more poignant. It helps us to know that others have walked similar roads. And we are glad to give support to others as they bear their own sufferings and griefs, too.
You can rejoice with us. No, really. Please rejoice with us! Every child is a gift, even Christian. We are glad he is ours. We cherish every day with him. And I can’t emphasize this enough: all good news our friends have to share–an engagement, a marriage, an anniversary, a special birthday, and yes, a pregnancy or a birth announcement–we want to share with you, too. Few things become so clear in times of immanent death than how incredibly precious and beautiful life is. It has been such a joy to learn of blessings in other’s lives during the last few months.
I will write more in the days and weeks ahead. Thank you for loving us, dear friends. We love you, too.