Crucifix and hand sanitizer

Here We Stand: Lutheran Words on COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Elly Fairytale from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIRUS: No, people should definitely fight over me.

FIENE: In what way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow. That sounds overwhelming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside help is crucial for some projects, right?

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

Laura’s Lines

on Blessings in the Mess:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura’s Lines on Decluttering:

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

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

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

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

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

Laura’s Lines on Timing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura’s Lines on Personal Boundaries:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura’s Lines on Fighting Guilt

and Finding Contentment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura’s Lines on Starting Small:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura’s Lines on Hospitality

and How Decluttering Can Help Us Welcome Others:

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

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

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

Welcoming starts with opening the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura’s Lines

on the One Thing Needful:

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

A Full, Blooming Fifteen Years

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.

Us, beaming and thrilled, on our wedding day in 2004.

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.

Jon knows how much I love pink. And roses.

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.

Us, one week after our miscarriage in 2005.

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.

At Christian’s committal on August 9, 2019.

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.

Practicing goofiness in 2017.

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.

Still there: my wedding ring after fifteen years.

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 and Forever

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.

The Lord Gave and the Lord Hath Taketh Away

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: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.‘”

~Job 1:20-21

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/.

Ephemeral Daylily Flowers and Extra Days

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.”

Matthew 6:28b-33.

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.

When Time Runs Short

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!

Wait for the Lord;
   be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!

~ 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.

A Letter to Friends

Dear Friends,

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.

Love in Christ,

Emily

The Magnitude of Motherhood

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.

Five Ways Christians Can Rightly Struggle with the Cross of Infertility

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.

First, we should reject infertility as trial.

Conceiving and bearing a child is not a human right, and infertility is not a trial to be overcome. This is not popular to say. Infertility is becoming a politicized condition in our culture, in that many people see it as only a problematic barrier to a right–the right to a child, the right to parent–with few or no perceived necessary limits to that right. To many, if people desire children, they therefore “deserve” them, and nothing should check that desire. It’s not surprising that non-believers, therefore, would engage in a plethora of ethically problematic practices like freezing eggs and egg banking, sperm donation, surrogacy, and the multiple kinds of artificial reproductive technology (ART) that out of necessity break the one-man, one-woman procreative act intended for marriage. When children are a right, they also become possessions–possessions that can be created, manipulated, or terminated, almost without limit here in the United States. This is an awful reality of believing that children, rather than being gifts from the Lord (Psalm 127:3), are property, and thus subject to the greed and savagery of markets.

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.

Second, we should embrace infertility as a cross.

Katie Schuermann is the author of He Remembers the Barren (affiliated link), a beautiful Christian treatise on infertility. In her blog of the same name, Katie writes in “Glory Vs. Cross”:

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 TreatiseThe 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.

Romans 8:35-40, English Standard Version.

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.