I sit up late, this Saturday night. The room is quiet and still, except for the soft ticking of the wall clock and the dim, far-off hum of traffic through the open window.
And one more gentle sound: the faint, steady breathing of our six month old son, Nathan, sleeping in his bassinet.
Words cannot express how much of a gift our little boy has been to us in the last year. From the harrowing, hopeful, nerve-wracking early days of pregnancy, to seeing his tiny form and steady beating heart on the first ultrasound, all the way through the summer months of his kicking and rolling, until his early but routine labor and delivery, Nathan has become one of us, another member of our family whom we could not imagine life without. He was knit together in my womb, woven into the fabric of all of our lives, this precious, wholly unique person. So I ponder, in the stillness this Holy Saturday, how rich is God’s gift of life to all of His children.
And His children include children who lie beneath the earth, waiting for the resurrection of the dead. Christian, Delia, Ezekiel, Billy, Margaret. These and so many others, babies, who were cherished for such short times before their time on earth was over. My heart aches especially today for them, and for their parents, and those who love them. For we are still in the now and not yet time, the waiting. We still wipe tears from our faces and cry wordless prayers, grieving for those forever intertwined with us, permanently in the tapestries of our lives, and yet not with us.
There’s a part in The Passion of the Christ that always moves me. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has asked John, the beloved disciple, to help her get nearer to her son. He is carrying his cross through Jerusalem, beaten and bloodied, staggering and worn. She pauses in an alley, as though trying to catch her breath and gird herself for another glimpse of the suffering her son is bearing. And then she sees him fall, and in a beautiful moment of artistic license, the film shows Mary flashing back to a mundane moment decades before, when she was a young mother, and her Jesus was a very small boy, who stumbled and fell. Then, Mary raced to pick Him up, and dry His tears, and comfort Him. And so she instinctively rushes to Him, her Son with the thorn-encrusted brow. She embraces Him, trying to give him a small measure of comfort, and in the midst of His terrible passion, He says, “See, Mother, I make all things new.”
These words of Jesus come from Revelation 21:5, at the ultimate triumph that is still to come at the end of days. But we also have this triumph now, today, as well as tomorrow. Just as Christ said, “It is finished” on the cross, He meant that His bleeding and bearing and dying was transforming what was once always death to life. While Mary witnessed His agony, the terrible death of her blameless Son, she also saw Him reversing the tide, for Himself and for the entire world.
Tomorrow will be joyful. Many churches are open again, believers rejoicing to be together on the day we commemorate the greatest gift we have: the unalterable promise of life after death. We also grieve with hope, for the day Christ rose was the day He fulfilled His promise to make all things new. The old fallen Eden was restored. The dead will rise again. We will meet our children in Jesus. We will feel their breaths upon our faces and wrap our arms around them. And we will hear and sing the joyous songs of alleluias coming from all the saints, praising God together, forever and ever.
What a day to enter into our churches again. I can’t speak to the liturgical name for this fourth Sunday of Easter. It remains too far outside of my limited layperson’s church calendar knowledge. It is past the pre-Lent gesima weeks; past the regular rhythms of the somber, forty-day penitential season; past Holy Week when services can be marked by hours, let alone days; past the bright white glory of Easter Sunday; past the Doubting Thomas Sunday—my name for it; past Good Shepherd Sunday. Now we believers are still in the Easter season, but we are past the renewness of our annual celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Birds have been singing for weeks, daffodils and tulips pushing their stubborn green buds up through soil despite cold and late snow, green erupting across our brown and gray landscapes, the warmth of the sun returning to our days. We are hopeful again, and we are glad to see the reassuringly familiar signs of spring, just as we are glad to know that some things, however few, have not changed.
So today we returned to church. On Mother’s Day, a well-intentioned but kind of silly commemoration good for commercialization and few, debatable widespread merits. But the secular day fit our Christian longing for timeless truths. We went to the Bride of Christ, the church, our mother.
We returned with social distancing, some people with masks, many with fresh disinfectant on their hands, all with care for our neighbors on our minds. The exterior doors to our church were open today, in part because the fresh air and breeze allowed for it, and in part to prevent many hands from touching handles and spreading germs. Despite the strange additions in such a familiar place, we were home. We followed liturgies we have sung many times before and sang beloved hymns with the voices of our church family and organ ringing in our ears—rarely has such music sounded so lovely. We heard the Word that has long fed us and received in our mouths the Body and Blood that sustains us. None of it was new, and yet, it was all new. We were made whole, miraculously, again.
Mothers understand their children’s needs for order and predictability. They sacrifice themselves to provide care that children and society take for granted, assuming that such care will always happen smoothly and practically invisibly. When it doesn’t, life shifts. We have seen this in the last two months, with our jobs upended, our schools closed, our everyday routines suddenly shrunken to small, uncertain quarters. Normalcy seems far away, and perhaps impossible. So can God.
And yet He has given us His Church, the one place to receive Him physically and in time through our bodies. Just as a mother with child bears and carries the little one wherever she goes, literally wrapped around her helpless child, so the Church bears us to Him who gives us all things. She carries us to the only food that will last for eternity, to our Father and Lord who gently reassures us, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me” (John 14:1). We have no greater riches. We have received no greater love. We have everything.
Last week, our school’s headmaster, Rev. Andy Richard, shared a recording of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets. (You can watch and listen to it here and check out Mount Hope Lutheran School here.) It’s a lovely, lively, moving piece, and the powerful canticle “We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God” in our Lutheran Service Book takes its tune from “Jupiter,” making it yet more poignant for me.
In an interesting coincidence, I found the above picture of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot a day or so after listening to the music. I don’t know much about our planets, though I find them fascinating, and I wondered about this picturesque yet subtly menacing spot that stands out in so many pictures of Jupiter.
It turns out that the Great Red Spot, as it’s known, has been around for at least 150 years, but it’s probably older–even much older–than that. Its wind speeds range between 270 to 425 miles per hour, horrifically faster than the winds of Earth’s worst hurricanes and tornadoes. This storm is also twice the size of our planet (yes, you read that right). Suffice it to say, the great red spot is a storm beyond our comprehension, even with science and technology enabling us to study it. (You can read more about it here.)
And this brings me to the great change Earth has experienced in the last few weeks, with shutdowns and stay-at-home orders emptying our streets and schools and social lives. We’re not sure what to do with the giant pandemic storm that is COVID-19, beyond the protocols recommended by infectious disease and public health specialists. At least in America, we didn’t have living memory of quarantine up until about yesterday. And because we’re human, we inevitably thought that because we had no memory of something, and because we have science and technology, whatever those terms imply, we no longer had a communal fear of deadly plagues.
Our illusion has been shattered. It as though we awoke to find ourselves looking at a picture of a planet, mesmerized by a great red spot, one that we’d forgotten existed and suddenly noticed again. For the threat has always been with us, though we have mostly seen it in small and individual circumstances–a hospice bed, a coffin by a fresh-dug hole. Yet this threat is real, and it will never disappear until the world ends. I don’t mean coronavirus specifically, though who knows? Maybe this particular pestilence is a sign of the end times. What I do mean are the threats, the signs of death, that come for us all. We have become so talented at ignoring these, and removing them from our daily lives, that now confronted with death on a massive scale, we hardly know what to do.
Thankfully, we as Christians know just what to do. We turn to the only One who can help us in our illnesses and fear, our anxieties and our deathbeds. “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” says the One who created the world. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). God is not afraid of storms. He has already weathered the worst. He whose hands and side and feet bear great red spots turns them to us not to frighten us, but to comfort us. “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). As Lent wanes, we look forward yet again to commemorating the greatest sacrifice ever made and the hope it brought us–Christ’s death and resurrection. “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again,” we repeat with the Psalmist. “From the depths of the earth You will bring me up again” (Psalm 71:20). No spot, or storm, will triumph in the end.
You, Christ, are King of glory, the everlasting Son,
Yet You, with boundless love, sought to rescue ev’ry one:
You laid aside Your glory, were born of virgin’s womb,
Were crucified for us and were placed into a tomb;
Then by Your resurrection You won for us reprieve–
You opened heaven’s kingdom to all who would believe.
You sit in splendid glory, enthroned at God’s right hand,
Upholding earth and heaven by forces You command.
We know that You will come as our Judge that final day,
So help Your servants You have redeemed by blood, we pray;
May we with saints be numbered where praises never end,
In glory everlasting. Amen, O Lord, amen!
“We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God” LSB v.3 & 4.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
What are some good Lutheran words on COVID-19 that you’ve found? Please leave them in the comments, with links, if possible!
Labor Day. What does it bring to mind? Work, sure. Also, ironically, play–how many people frolic or relax on a day off from paid employment today? Understandably, mothers might think of the unforgettable process of birthing their children. I think of that, and many other days like and unlike them, today.
One year ago, on Labor Day Monday, I crept into my bedroom where Jon was still sleeping. “Hey,” I said softly, touching his shoulder. “Want to come have coffee with me and the baby?” He murmured something indecipherable, his eyes still closed, and I repeated what I said. Then he opened his eyes, like I’d pricked him with a pinpoint. “The baby?” he said, with a searching look. I nodded. He got a huge smile on his face and wrapped me in a hug.
That is a sweet memory. It’s all the more poignant because that pregnancy never resulted in a baby, and it began a year of days and weeks of contractions of grief, buoyed by hope and indescribable blessing, with yet more lessons of patience and suffering. It’s been a lot of labor, and there’s still more to come.
The day Christian was born, August 5, I labored in a quiet room.
I hadn’t want to walk into the hospital. We’d gotten everything together, driven through the sunny morning to a coffee shop, then gone on to where our son would be born. As we approached the front door, I hesitated. I almost stopped. I had known about this moment for months. I knew Christian was dead and that he needed to be born. But I knew that once I walked through those doors, the end was near. I would walk out of them without my son.
All through that quiet day, I watched clouds form and dissipate and reform outside the window. I saw the rocking chair, meant for laboring mothers, sit empty. It was sad, but it was simple. That chair was not meant for me that day.
I was glad for the sunshine and the clouds.
Grief is a funny, sneaky thing.
The pain of loss is mostly dull, like a quiet ache that one learns to accept because it doesn’t disappear. I expect it at certain times. At church, always at church. Driving past the cemetery. Reading a newly-arrived condolence card. These times make sense. They are direct reminders of Christian and of what we mourn.
Sometimes I can feel it coming, like a creeping storm. I received a call from a medical group, evaluating my stay at the hospital. I answered questions because I wanted there to be some formal record of the compassion we experienced–me, Jon, and Christian. But I wept when I got off the phone.
Jon stopped by our kids’ school, where another volunteer and I were cleaning and organizing in the library. We went by the stairwell to talk. He’d ordered the headstone, but after seeing more options–why is even death in our culture drowned by consumer choices?–wanted to see if I wanted something different. We spoke briefly, but I could feel the wave rising, the emotional wave threatening to crash. I couldn’t switch from school mode to grief mode. “I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this any more,” I said, abruptly. He nodded. He got it.
Sometimes grief flares up sharply, cutting my breath and choking my throat, at times I least expect it. On a hike with my daughter, after just marveling at the wonders of the view on the mountain, I see silvery-green leaves quivering in a soft breeze. Why should the shimmer of leaves, when a moment before I was alive and joyful to the wonders around us, make me want to weep?
How do people live with this? I think. I know of harder cases, the ones that I think would be more difficult to bear. The parents who’ve buried three adult children, all of their children. The new friend who had a stillborn son this year. And yet how can anyone learn to live with this or any suffering except to slog through it, to labor and be carried?
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Not “I will take your heavy burden.” But rest. The crosses are still there.
It is exhausting when it hits, this grief. I wrote this a few weeks ago after writing down some theological thoughts pertaining to grief: “I stand here, fully caffeinated in the morning, dishes washed, list getting checked off. I’m in my prime time. And after thinking about and writing these few words, all I want to do is crawl back into bed and sleep, deeply and without dreams.”
Yet I go on. What else can I do? People have been so incredibly kind. They are sympathetic and encouraging. “You are so strong.” “Thank you for your witness of Christ.” I am grateful, but my thoughts are garbled, struggling to reconcile the incongruity. I know hope during grief is good, but I do not feel good, or at least worthy of any special attention. This is gagging on a translucent, existential gnat to most people–most probably just mean to be sincerely supportive, while a small part of my brain hears them presupposing some herculean act of will on my part, Emily the Mighty Sufferer, standing athwart hopelessness and yelling, “Stop!” But I know that I am utterly powerless, and I can’t help feeling uncomfortable with the comments. What else can I do?
My choices seem woefully stark. Truly, all I can do is either reject God or surrender to His mercy. To definitively reject Him is to enter a darkness that frankly scares me more than it entices me, though the temptation to push away is real and angrily persistent. But I am so afraid of the hole that rejection presents that this means that it’s not an option. So I surrender to God’s mercy, to Christ’s bleeding hands. And even the surrender is weak and childlike, like a newborn mewing sibilant cries for food. He does not even reach for the nutrients he so desperately needs. He opens his mouth in helplessness and need. That’s all. Just as I lay, one day old, before a pastor in a hospital room, baptized into Christ in tiny weakness, I turn again into that premature babe. I am not yet grown. I do not yet understand.
Rev. Dr. Gregory P. Schulz knows this cognitive searching. In The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope, the pastor, philosopher, professor, and husband and father watched and wrestled as two of his children suffered and died. Kayleigh, his daughter, was almost one year old. Stephan, his son, was fourteen. “I often look at the crook of my right elbow and know it as a sacred place [the last place he held his son, Stephan]. Now I want to understand, if I can, what it means for me to feel the way I do, not just about Stephan’s suffering and death, but how I feel toward his God.”
I know how he feels now. I too confess the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Cognitively, I believe this. Theologically, I cling to this. Emotionally, I break under this necessity–that we die, that we need the hope of the resurrection. Death is awful.
I visit Christian’s grave alone sometimes. They are quick stops to clear away fresh flowers that have withered–how incredibly fast they wither and brown–and to pray. I gaze at the mountain and take deep breaths in the quiet of the trees and wind-swept stones. I watch the antelope that quietly graze in the clear spaces between the dead.
I visit my son’s grave to place my hand over him. I can still see the place where men cut away the grass to turn it back before the hole, the hole that holds the small box in the earth where our son’s body lies. I grip the grass, and smooth it, and I can’t seem to stop wanting to touch it. Because, I realized, it’s the closest I have to touching my son in this life. I weep when I touch the grass, and I weep writing this. Weeping is part of my soul’s rejection that death was ever supposed to be a part of life.
Then I stop weeping, and I go on, resting on Christ, the only One who keeps me going.
Approximately 87% of the time, give or take, I’m in daily life mode. Pouring yogurt and milk, wiping bottoms, clearing and cleaning and sorting and planning. 15% of the time I’m thinking, or reading, and of course the times and the roles–and the percentages–overlap. Vocations don’t always neatly delineate labor. It just happens, and I do what’s in front of me. The 2% of grief hides much of the time, but when it emerges, it feels like 200%.
Jon and I visited with good friends one Friday night. Lisa sat with me at the table while our husbands smoked cigars outside and the kids ran amok and alternately watched a movie. “How are you?” she asked, reaching for my hand. It was a creeping storm grief moment, one I had seen coming. I shared and cried, and she cried, and then she suddenly jumped up and ran down the hall, emerging again with a roll of toilet paper that she unrolled slightly, tearing off some sheets. “I’m completely out of tissues,” she said, handing me the paper portion. “So you’ll have to use this.” She set the roll on the table in front of me. We spoke some more, and the tears rolled down my face.
Just then, her husband came in. He took in the moment in a glance, and then said, “I brought the beer in for you, Lisa, but I think Emily needs it more.” He said it gently and caringly. But it was funny. I laughed through tears. Lisa did, too.
I never wanted to be a part of Those People, the ones like Pastor Schulz and the church people who lost three children and my new friend Becca who lost her son this year. Before, I admired them and others, and I feared what they shared. I secretly hoped I’d never, ever, have to be where they are. It’s like an out of body experience sometimes, explaining to people who don’t know our story, and I’m listening to myself speak calmly about Christian, his life and his death, while the whole time I’m incredulous. I’m not actually the one talking, am I? Did this really happen to us?
But I am one of Those People now. And sitting with Lisa, and looking at the toilet paper, I thought, “Yep, that’s what this is. The TP Project.” The Toilet-Paper-necessary-for-tears, the Time Project of living here while waiting for eternity, the Those People embrace. Because the fact is that unless I am one of Those People, hopelessly broken and in need, I don’t really need Jesus. No, I didn’t need Christian to die to believe that the Son of God dead, buried, and resurrected is true. But loving Christian, and living and laboring through my own helpless grief, continually points me to our Savior who labored mightily for me and for him. The grief will go on, but it will not last forever.
I’m a little TP. I giggle, and wipe away my tears, and drink a beer. And the labor goes on.
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.
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.
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of theLord in the land of the living!
Wait for theLord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for theLord!
~ Psalm 27:13-14
What happens when time runs short for a child? How do we wait?
On Monday, July 8, Jon and I visited a high-risk pregnancy doctor at an exclusively high-risk practice in Denver after receiving a referral from Dr. M. We met Dr. L, a friendly man in his 60s, who introduced himself. Then he sat at the ultrasound monitor, explaining that he was going to show us some things. But then he turned back to us, looking directly at me.
“The first thing I need to tell you,” said Dr. L, “is that you didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t use the wrong shampoo. You didn’t stand too close to the microwave. You didn’t eat the wrong thing. You didn’t cause this.
“And the second thing,” he said more quietly, “is that there’s nothing we can do.”
That’s when all of our fears from the prior month were confirmed. Our son, Christian, had less than a five percent chance of survival, and he would probably not live long in my womb. Dr. L told us to go back to Dr. M for checks at least every two weeks. If you were my daughter,” he said, “I’d probably fit you in once a week. Just to see if Baby is still alive.” We spoke about another high-risk appointment in a month or so, maybe even meeting with a cardiologist, but both Jon and I felt like that talk was perfunctory, a going-through-the-motions. Neither of us felt like Dr. L thought we would need that appointment.
At the front desk, as the receptionist and I discussed dates and times, I was acutely aware of the mothers waiting behind me. I tried to speak calmly, normally. The last thing they needed was to see a distraught pregnant woman, a fulfillment of their own fears. And the last thing I wanted, at that moment, was to be that mom, the one who’d just received heart-shattering news.
So what did we do? Jon and I decided that, as long as I felt physically able, we would to try to maintain our normal routine. This would help us cope, it would help our other children, and it would give Christian what we hoped was a little bit of normal life. The day after our meeting with Dr. L, I took the kids to a parade. It was jarring, and unreal, but it was also life. I watched the little ones run for thrown candy and mesmerizingly watch four-wheelers and tractors and floats. It was sunny and warm. We were together.
We kept on. During quiet time when some of our kids napped and others quietly played or read books, I read a book about continuing pregnancy when Baby is not expected to live. I usually cried. I cried in the shower and at night as I prayed. I would talk to Christian. “I’m sorry Mommy is crying so much. I love you.” And I talked to him about his siblings. “Boy, your big sister sure is loud sometimes, right? She loves her blanket. You hear her yelling about it a lot. She likes to snuggle with you.” She did, and she does. “‘Nuggle?” she says. “‘Nuggle?” Then she climbs over me with her blanket, her Dida, nestles right above my belly, and comfortingly puts her finger in her mouth.
During the other times of the day, right after the news, life was quietly blessed. The kids and I sat on the patio swing or porch rockers, sometimes talking, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting. We went swimming. We visited with friends at parks and on a few playdates. We are with generous friends who brought us food. We went on walks together. We sang songs. We watched movies together and ate ice cream and popcorn. We read books like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. We went to the library. We laughed together when Jon would wrestle with the kids, them screaming in glee. We prayed together and read Psalms. We went to church and received Jesus together. We snuggled a lot.
I would get emotional sometimes, and occasionally the kids noticed. “I’m just sad because I’m thinking about Baby Christian,” I would say. “But I’m glad we have time together.” Unfailingly, they would speak of how they loved him and prayed for him. Sometimes they would just hug me, and in hugging me, they would hug him.
At sixteen weeks, a week and a day after we met with Dr. L, I dressed up as though for church and went to see Dr. M. to see if our Christian was still alive. Jon came, too. We spoke together with Dr. M of what will likely happen, which includes induction after finding out Christian’s heart stops beating, to me suddenly going into labor with no warning. Finally, I climbed up on the table, and Dr. M got out the Doppler. I expected to hear nothing–no heartbeat. I expected to hear that our son was dead. This is what I wrote after that visit.
“The relief and joy at hearing our son’s heartbeat–I can hardly describe it. Hours later, I’m still joyfully incredulous, delirious on the high of knowing he is still alive. Our son is still alive. Every moment is precious. Yes, if I think about what will probably happen, and soon, I am terrified. At the same time, I was reminded today that only God knows our times, and they are in His hands. I pray we can cherish every moment, and every day, that he is with us.”
Outside of the doctor visits, life was–I don’t want to say simple, but it was simple. Eating. Drinking. Thinking. Talking. Chores. Visits. So often, simple moments were charged. The hidden thought was always there: this is probably one of the last times/the only time Christian will be here for this. Playing Horse with our rising fourth-grader and laughing at how bad Mom was at taking shots. Poking toes in the sandbox. Grocery shopping. Brushing the girls’ hair. Tickling the little boys before bed. Talking on the phone in the kitchen. Every day, and every week was poignant, but mostly in a cherishing kind of way. This time is special. Only occasionally would I fall apart, thinking of what would never be. Seeing a plane pass overhead on a drive home and thinking, “He will never be a pilot.” Tousling my eldest boy’s unkept, sun-lightened hair and thinking, “He will never stand next to me like this.” The tears would run and run down my face the way they are running now. But I needed those moments like I needed the crazy herding kids “where-are-your-shoes-we-need-to-go-NOW” moments. They were, and are, all tied together.
At seventeen weeks, last week, I experienced some cramping and spotting prior to my appointment. I went in, again with Jon, fully expecting to hear no heartbeat. Once again, Christian surprised me. That time, I was shocked–actually dumbfounded–that he was still alive. Once again, we had an ultrasound to see our son.
“See his feet here?” Dr. M pointed out. We marveled at his tiny toes. But I could see that something wasn’t quite right. “You can also see how they’re swollen,” she went on gently. Our son has been slowly swelling with excess fluid, most likely because his heart isn’t strong enough. It’s like congestive heart failure in adults, who deal with bloating and water retention. I had worried about pain for him and asked Dr. M before about that, not sure if I even wanted to hear the answer. What could we even do about it? But she had explained that as a baby in utero, Christian’s nervous system wasn’t fully developed yet, so he likely wasn’t feeling pain. “Also, this is his normal,” she said. “He’s never known anything different.” As I looked at his feet, for the first time I thought, You need heaven.
Yesterday. Another week, another appointment. We were silly, waiting with the big boys who’d just had dentist appointments, telling them a story about me that made them embarrassed, grinning, and acting like they didn’t want to hear any more. They stayed in the waiting room when Jon and I went back.
Instead of the Doppler first, due to a nurse shortage, we had an ultrasound. We saw Christian right away, a white figure moving in the black on the screen. His heart thumped. Da-dum. A pause. Da-dum. Another pause, a little longer. Da-dum.
Both Jon and I thought, “Maybe Dr. M isn’t holding the wand right.” We all watched Christian move for a moment, the lines from the erratic beating creating a messy pattern below him, the sound of his heartbeat a pausing, uncertain staccato-like sound. Then Dr. M said quietly, “So you can see how his heartbeat is irregular.” My eyes blurred, and tears ran down my cheeks.
This was stark and real. Christian’s slowing heart was telling us the end of his time on earth was fast approaching its end, and though we’d expected this, I suddenly ached, almost gasping. No! Not yet! my heart screamed.
I pulled it together. In spurts, I managed to ask, “Is there any way to know how long he could make it?” Dr. M was already shaking her head. “His heartbeat could have been irregular before, and we just missed it. Or it could have just started its irregularity. He could last a week or just a day–we don’t know.”
That happened yesterday, at our third weekly appointment since our meeting with the high-risk doctor in Denver. Today, I will see Dr. M again, to see if Christian is with us. If he is, I will go in more regularly. I no longer feel comfortable with weekly checks. I know we don’t have that much time.
If Christian has died, between yesterday and today, I will be induced to go into labor, and the last part of Christian’s life on this earth will commence. This has all been so surreal and yet real at the same time. I don’t really want to sleep–I want to be awake as long as he is with us. As I write this, I think I just felt him kick. That started last week–the fluttering kicks of his quickening. I never thought I’d experience that. It is an extra gift, just as he is.
After the appointment yesterday, through my choking sobs, I spoke to Christian. “You’re going home soon, Baby. Home to Jesus. He loves you more than all of us combined.” He died so Christian will live. His body will be perfected and on the last day, he will rise with a terrifically strong heart. The kids gave me hugs last night as we told them Christian’s time was short with us. “Tell him you’ll see him again,” I said. “We love you, Baby!” our five-year-old yelled. “See you in heaven!”
So we wait now, not knowing what today will bring. We wait knowing while our time here in earth is short, we will live forever in Jesus. There with Him, we will have all the time in the heavens. And He will wipe every tear from our eyes.
This is a letter that no true, loving friend wants to write. But she does so precisely because she knows true, loving friends need and yes, even want, to share her burden.
For multiple reasons, I have not spoken to you of our latest news. The biggest one is that I am emotionally pacing myself. Even the most loving friends will grieve with us, and to grieve together means I must grieve again. And I can only grieve so much and still function, and tie shoes, and wipe noses, and slice and fry potatoes, and try to smile and enjoy the countless little gifts that surround us even as we mourn.
And why do we mourn? We mourn, in fact, because we have first been given a great and priceless gift. In early May, we learned that we had been given the gift of another child. In June, we learned that our child was a boy, our fifth son. We have named him Christian. And after many, many doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds in June and July, we understand that Christian’s physical heart is not as we would wish. It is not pumping properly, or not constructed as most healthy hearts are, or just not developing as a child’s heart in the womb is supposed to grow. We don’t exactly know what the precise problem is. But we do know that Christian is retaining fluid, far more than a baby should. And there’s nothing we can do to change that.
So, in the seventeenth week of pregnancy, we prepare to release Christian back to God much, much sooner than we would like. That time could be tomorrow, or in a week, or maybe in a month. It is a very hard and often strange reality to manage–great wonder and humility at what God has done to create and sustain our son thus far; fear and uncertainty about what exactly will happen; and at the same time great and terrible grief, now anticipatory grief, as we wait for Christian’s death.
So what can you do, dear friends, as we walk this road?
You can pray. You can pray for Christian, that he hears the saving Word of Christ and believes by hearing. You can pray that he feels no pain. You can pray for Jon and I, that we cleave together as we grope forward into the unknown. You can pray that I can weather the physical weight of pregnancy, giving Christian the best care he can get while he is still in my womb. You can pray that Jon knows best how to care for me and our family as the head of our household. You can pray that as parents, Jon and I can love and care for all of our children as they need, even while we struggle with our grief. You can pray that our ex utero children are comforted with the knowledge of Christ’s unending love to them and to their brother. Most of all, you can pray that all of us in the Olson family continually put our trust in Christ, placing all of our hopes and fears in Him, who does all things for our good and who will never leave us or forsake us.
You can cry with us. It can be awkward for people to hear our news, even when they love us. That’s okay. It can be awkward for us to share, and we (okay, I) will sometimes cry in the sharing. Sometimes that’s because I’m sad about Christian’s prognosis. But sometimes I cry because I know our friends truly and deeply grieve with us. And that makes me so grateful that I am moved to tears. So don’t be afraid of our tears, please. And share your stories of grief, too. Empathy bonds friends and makes comfort between us all the more poignant. It helps us to know that others have walked similar roads. And we are glad to give support to others as they bear their own sufferings and griefs, too.
You can rejoice with us. No, really. Please rejoice with us! Every child is a gift, even Christian. We are glad he is ours. We cherish every day with him. And I can’t emphasize this enough: all good news our friends have to share–an engagement, a marriage, an anniversary, a special birthday, and yes, a pregnancy or a birth announcement–we want to share with you, too. Few things become so clear in times of immanent death than how incredibly precious and beautiful life is. It has been such a joy to learn of blessings in other’s lives during the last few months.
I will write more in the days and weeks ahead. Thank you for loving us, dear friends. We love you, too.