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).
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.
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.
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/.
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.
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.
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.
Nebraska has been hit hard recently with epic flooding, and the waters aren’t just affecting roads, homes, and lives. More than one-third of the costs–about $3 billion dollars, officials estimate— from the 2019 disaster are to agriculture. That financial burden will not help rural counties largely dependent upon farming. They already face population decline, a decline that is not likely to reverse anytime soon.
We have witnessed the devastation to the land and to local communities in the last few days, as we’ve visited friends in the northwest Panhandle and met up with family in Grand Island, in south central Nebraska. Endless miles of prairie, scores of wandering cattle, the ravages of angry waters, and many, many abandoned homes and farms–those left behind long before the floods arrived–dot the countryside from Sioux to Hall counties. Driving through these desolate areas, under a continuous gray sky, made me sad. As a granddaughter of farmers, I appreciate the desire to make something of the land that lasts, a legacy that won’t be forgotten. So many people and so much history has happened here, and crumbling, weather-beaten structures slowly falling into the dirt embodies the kind of end none of us want to see for ourselves or our children.
But Nebraskans are historically resilient, and they’re also realistic. While they enjoy the fruits of their labors when they come, they also stoically accept the vicissitudes of time and success that inevitably ebb and flow. One of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, was an early twentieth century author famous for her pioneer depictions of the rugged state, and she understood the fleeting and fickle nature of farm life on the plains. As one of her stalwart heroines, Alexandra, put it in O Pioneers!:
The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it–for a little while.”
O Pioneers! (you can order it here) was first published in 1913, over one hundred years ago. Not much has changed, it seems.
So while this particular Cornhusker wilderness might seem like a lost cause in the eyes of much of the world, its value lies in its ongoing existence. People will be born here and die here; some will leave and some will stay. Corn will continue to be planted, sown, and detasseled here, and cattle will roam its rolling, grassy hills. Rain will fall and dry up while some souls tough out life on land that will remain as long as God deems it good. Those are the stories worth telling–the ones that reveal to us the hardship and poignant glory of this life’s struggles, in lonely, vivid, and real places.
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.
All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.
“O Lord, We Praise Thee” vs. 2
To say that the student debt crisis in America in 2019 is bad is a gross understatement. The numbers themselves are staggering. Over forty-four million borrowers. Over five million of that group in default (no payments in over a year). Over $28,000 owed on average from 2017 graduates. Over $1.5 trillion–that’s with a “t”–owed cumulatively. That’s mind-boggling debt.
As an older millenial, I recognize many of the depressing and destabilizing realities faced by borrowers with seemingly insurmountable debt. The ironic shame of being an educated adult with such a terrible financial burden. The guilt of choices past, even long past. The queasy feeling just thinking about the four-, five-, or even six-digit financial hole. The not-wanting-to-think-about-it thinking about it that happens practically every day, if not every hour.
Much of the recent press about student debt has addressed the convoluted problems of the public forgiveness program or the limited life choices that borrowers face. But there are other stories out there, stories that borrowers and society alike need to hear. While appeals for debt forgiveness or funeral orations for unfulfilled, seemingly impossible dreams are important, they do not comprise the entirety of those of us trudging along with student debt. Like most burdens, student debt impresses its bearers with weight–but that weight can be borne and felt in entirely different ways.
A Debt Snapshot
Jon and I have carried substantial student debt for all of our married life. While his undergraduate education was mostly paid for, his seminary education for his Master’s of Divinity degree was not cheap. I graduated with my B.A. from a private university, and though I had substantial scholarships, I still finished school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I then earned my master’s degree in English from a public university where I taught undergraduate courses for a stipend. So that degree was cheaper than it otherwise would have been, but tuition still added up. In all, by the time I graduated with my M.A. in 2009, the last degree between us that we have earned, our student debt cumulatively stood in the low six figures. It was a horrific amount to fathom, especially for a young couple heading into non-profit ministry and teaching (and eventually full-time homemaking when the kids arrived). So basically due to sheer terror and the nausea the debt triggered, we tried not to think about it much. The total was too big and overwhelming to contemplate.
Then we were given The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. It shocked us like ice water dumped over an unsuspecting coach. Basically, the book’s messages forced us to actually look at our debt and our choices, and what we saw wasn’t pretty. That was a hard but necessary wake-up call for us, that we couldn’t just pretend our suffocating debt away. A year or so later, we attended Financial Peace University, the financial equivalent of a health and diet program. FPU taught us through deliberate, incremental steps how to eventually and actually reach our best financial state: debt-free with solid savings, a funded retirement and education savings for our children, a paid-off mortgage, and the ability to give to great causes we support. It was more financial planning encouragement, like the Makeover, but with more thorough and meticulous practical helps for us.
In all of Dave’s exhortations about getting out of debt, he reiterates something he calls gazelle intensity as a necessary ingredient to success. Basically, it’s a no-holds-barred, work-like-crazy, eat-rice-and-beans life until the debt is gone. I think he’s right that that’s the absolute best way to go. Maybe I’m excusing us, and he’d probably say that I am, but we were not gazelle intense. Let me clarify: at first we were, getting out of the credit card debt fairly quickly and getting down to the student debt in less than a year, but the student debt mountain really daunted us. We fell into the “it will take you five or six years of crazy living on nothing to get out of debt” category, and frankly, we weren’t willing to eat rice and beans for that long or give up visiting family far away–the only vacations we took. I remember thinking how awful the next ten years could be, counting pennies constantly, but I also knew that once the debt was gone, we would have so much more financial stability and flexibility. So it was frustrating for us, especially me, when we got a few months into the process because Jon’s income just wasn’t a lot, and I couldn’t make much in part-time work from home while taking care of our children. And that’s part of our journey, too.
Besides regular tithing, another one of our nonnegotiables as we got out of debt was that Jon and I weren’t willing to wait or plan our children around our financial goals. We miscarried not even a year into our marriage, and I hadn’t gotten pregnant again for over two years after that. That time was hard, but it taught us that only God gives life. We would not ever say no to children, no matter how inconvenient (re: expensive) their care and needs might be or how prenatal and postnatal expenses might slow down our debt snowball.
We read the Makeover when our oldest was a few months old, and we owned an older, cheap home, so our life already held some extra hurdles that, say, a single 20-something living at home working her first job didn’t have. So we took more of a turtle approach–the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind. We paid off some credit debt and stopped using the cards for things that we could budget for. We were blessed to be on an income-adjusted repayment schedule for our student loans from the beginning, so we made small, if manageable headway. So we plugged away, years ticking by. And the debt was still so big.
Almost three years ago, we sold our house. It had been on the market for over a year, but we knew if we could sell it, the equity could pay off a huge chunk of the debt. And it did. That was an enormous blessing.
After a few moves to rental houses, we now own a lovely home. Our vehicles are almost paid for (a topic for another post; suffice it to say I was not happy last year when our two teenage vehicles both lost their transmissions in a two week period). We have zero credit card debt. And our student debt is in the four digits. It will be gone in a few months. We can truly see the light at the end of the tunnel after all these years.
How to Avoid Debt Discouragement
I wish I could say that, in the last ten years, Jon and I have always presented a united front when it came to our debt. I wish I could say we cheerfully kept stiff upper lips, and unshakable devotion to our financial plan, in the face of more-month-than-money odds. I wish I could say we always knew we’d be in the position we are now. I wish I could say our faces and hearts constantly testified to the hope that is in us, despite our worldly financial circumstances.
But I would be lying, and you probably already knew that.
Like I mentioned before, though, there’s a need for stories other than laments about debt. I don’t want to downplay the hardship of it. It has affected our lives in ways I don’t think even we can fully appreciate, as John Thornton wrote in “A Debt to Education” in Plough.
Debt forms us just as radically as a university curriculum does. As bills mount, debt becomes a guiding force in our lives, directing our decisions about where to live, where to work, how to save and spend, and what we imagine possible. The anxiety, regret, and shame over one’s inability to determine one’s own life shapes our souls as well. In a deeply moving essay in The Baffler, M. H. Miller describes his working-class family’s struggles with the $120,000 in debt they assumed to enable him to attend New York University: “The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives.” If student debt forms us in this way, we’d do well to ask what kind of formation it is.
Undoubtedly, we hope and pray our children will not have to live with the kind of debt burden we have. We are teaching them about saving, about how they can earn their continuing educations, and about how debilitating and terrible debt is. Their formation will be different than ours. But even beyond the educational takeaways debt has given us–the silver linings of hard lessons learned–we have had another kind of formation during these years.
We have learned about the healing quality of gratitude.
Many times, we have lamented our inability to buy certain things or to travel due to our student debt. But mostly we have been overwhelmed by how gracious God has been to us in the last ten years. Rather than get stuck on what we don’t have, we have learned to focus on what we do have. We do possess degrees. We have owned two houses. We have owned multiple cars. Our home is stuffed with seemingly countless items, many of them not related to clothing, eating, or drinking (like books). But far beyond any material measure of blessings, we have been blessed with life. Our marriage is a wonderful gift. We have been given six beautiful, healthy, lively children. Our friends and family are supportive, generous, and loving presences in our lives. Our church family is unbelievably greathearted with their time and help and bounty. If we tried to count every good gift in our lives, we wouldn’t be able to number them. Christ truly has made our cup runneth over.
And the realization of the constant largess, the showers of items and food and time and affection and all the good people and things in our lives, has overpowered the debt discouragement that could have otherwise dominated our lives. Looking at our debt by itself was intimidating. Looking at it next to all the blessings we have is like looking at an anthill next to Everest. There’s no comparison. And the not-so-secret secret is that our blessings have always outnumbered our burdens, even when we couldn’t see or appreciate them.
Don’t be confused. This isn’t a backwards argument for student debt. Someone out there might be thinking, “See? Since your debt made you grateful, then the debt is good.” That’s bad logic. Gratitude is good. Debt is bad. The latter doesn’t cause the former. They exist separately. But yes, in a roundabout way, the sheer magnitude of our student debt made us humble and realize that we have far more than we ever need. We also definitely don’t deserve all the blessings we have. So we are grateful, knowing we do not deserve anything good, and we are made joyful by the riches we do have. I can say with full sincerity that both of us are awed by how good we have it.
One of my favorite hymns is “O Lord, We Praise Thee.” The second verse always reminds me of God’s great and abundant outpouring of good upon us.
Thy holy body into death was given,
Life to win for us in heaven.
No greater love than this to Thee could bind us;
May this feast thereof remind us!
O Lord, have mercy!
Lord, Thy kindness did so constrain Thee
That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.
All our debt Thou has paid;
Peace with God once more is made:
O Lord, have mercy!
Lutheran Service Book, #617 v.2
“All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.” I do struggle sometimes with this line. After all, we’re still paying down our student debt. But if we died tomorrow, God would take care of it. In fact, He has already taken care of the biggest debts we ever had–the sin-full debts, the ones we could never, ever repay, not in ten lifetimes of toil. What greater gift do we have than this? Our worldly circumstances weigh us down, leaving us with insurmountable struggles and strife. But Christ has overcome it all–from student debt to sins. We are at peace with Him. This is our everlasting comfort.
Hannah’s Story of Gratitude
I have only met Hannah once, and then briefly. But her comment on Facebook in light of both her and her husband’s student debt as they raise their daughter is priceless. I reprint it here with her permission.
I had one of those “profound moments” while sitting in Chipotle yesterday with my daughter.
She was snuggled up next to me on our bench (she likes to sit next to me at restaurants, not across the table), and we were sharing a burrito bowl.
I was thinking about how grateful I was to have a Chipotle gift card because I got rid of our budget for EVER eating out in 2019. I’ve always been frugal, but Luke and I have been working our butts off trying to get rid of student loans (graduate school). We’ve also been working on being generous and giving what we can to people who need it even in the midst of paying off debt.
And then it dawned on me that I have never bought my daughter a toy.
At first, I thought that I must be forgetting something. “Surely you have bought your daughter SOMETHING to play with.”
I ran through all of her toys in my head. She has a lot. Her xylophone, her toy violin, her Fischer Price house and people, her Rose Petal cottage, her baby, her blocks, her puzzles, her tunnel…
“Ha! Her tunnel! I bought her that tunnel — no, wait. We bought that with a Walmart gift card from our landlords.”
Still not convinced, I resolved to go through Miri’s toys when we got home. Miri munched away happily on her chips. I made a mental note to feed my child vegetables at some point in the future.
I looked at my boots. A Christmas present from my parents. What else was I wearing that was a gift? My socks…present from a student. My sweater. My coat. My scarf. Holy cow.
It didn’t stop there, though. When I got home, I began looking at my furniture. Couches – gift. Lamps – gift. Bed – gift. Car – gift! The list could go on and on. I couldn’t find a single toy that I had bought for Miri.
God’s provision (above and beyond what we actually need) through the people He places in our lives is truly incredible, and I’m glad I got a chance to remember that yesterday.
Amen, Hannah. May we also continue to remember His good gifts–and give thanks for them–always.