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!
All of us have experienced the incongruity of mismatched feelings to particular experiences. This happens when you know the social expectations or “normal” feelings that typically align with milestones or events, but yours just don’t. Like the wedding that prompts you to worry instead of rejoice. Or the baby shower that births frustration and sadness instead of gratitude and affection. Or the birthday party that makes you mad instead of cheerful. Or the funeral that brings you relief instead of sorrow. Even the church service that depresses instead of encourages.
It doesn’t keep us up at night, having most of these feelings. This is because we tend to be experienced and honest enough to acknowledge that feelings aren’t always clear. They certainly aren’t always predictable. And sometimes, they’re not even controllable.
But we can doubt what’s true or right when our feelings don’t match. It can be hard to do the things we ought when our feelings clash with our responsibilities or vocations. In our culture which touts individual, personal feelings as the sole key to our direction and purpose, it can feel, well, downright cruel and ruthless to push past or ignore our feelings in order to do what’s in front of us, let alone to do what’s right.
Yet as Christians, we can rest in the knowledge that God doesn’t expect us to have the right feelings. We should repent of sinful feelings, yes, and when we allow them to move us to reject Him and our neighbors, but we don’t have to worry about having the right amount of joy, say, to come to His house or His table. We don’t idolize our emotional experiences above the Truth He gives us. Christ says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He knew the temptations of bodily, emotional, and spiritual need and fatigue (Matthew 4:1-11). He knew hunger in the wilderness–and probably the force of hangryness, too, let’s be honest–and want and sorrow and all of the hard feelings humans experience. And He calls us to trust Him, not pull ourselves up by our emotional bootstraps to have a good face to put on before Him.
This is a relief to me, this Ash Wednesday and this Lent. I know I’m a sinner, and my only Savior is Christ. The last thing I need is the burden of the “right” emotional state as a sign of my salvation. The only thing I need is outside of my feelings–a Savior who felt for me and fulfilled the Law for my sake.
So I will go to church tonight and receive ashes on my forehead, a reminder that from dust I am formed, and to dust I shall return. And if I’m not feeling the weight of my sins, or the joy of knowing they no longer condemn me, that’s okay. Even as black soot crosses my unfeeling or weak-feeling forehead, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus bore my sins’ weight. I just receive what He has given me to know in my baptism, through His Word, and in His sacrament, and confess the Truth.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
Epiphany means “reveal.” It seems obvious but necessary to point out, then, on this Epiphany day of January 6, that a true epiphany involves the uncovering or exhibition or manifestation of something or someone other than the witness.
In our ego-centric culture, we hear constantly of our own inner value and majesty. In essence, many people have mistaken their uniquely, divinely created souls for the Divine itself.
And yet the law written upon our hearts knows the truth: for every narcissistic homo incurvatus in se, every self-laudatory “aha!” moment, every effort to lift and glorify oneself above our mortal dust turns right back into dust. The mortal new year shine reflects upon us not our own splendor. No, its dawn reveals the inexorable passing of time and our concomitant bondage to our inevitable decay.
This knowledge can cause us despair. Or we can learn from the great Epiphany again. “Arise, shine, for your Light has come,” wrote the prophet Isaiah,”and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1). He and the other true prophets pointed only and always to the great Light that saves us, Christ Jesus. In the child born to Mary, adopted by Joseph, we receive the only eternal life we can hope for. Like the kings from the East, we Christians also marvel at the Son of David’s coming for us and all the world. We blink in His light, bowing to the One whose pierced hands came to save us.
Now richly to my waiting heart, O Thou, my God, deign to impart The grace of love undying.
In Thy blest body let me be, E’en as the branch is in the tree, Thy life my life supplying.
Sighing, crying; For the savor of Thy favor; Resting never till I rest in Thee forever.
~ “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” The Lutheran Hymnal, #343vs. 3.
On May 4, 1917, crowds near Queenstown, Ireland, saw the thin masts of ships approaching on a calm sea from the west. Such sights weren’t unfamiliar on that popular seafaring lane. But these ships were special. They included six American destroyers, coming to aid their British allies in the first World War.
By most historical accounts, the ships themselves represented a modest, even small, American contribution to what was a dire naval situation in Britain. Thanks to the efficacy of German submarines like U-20, which nearly two years earlier and in the same waters had famously sunk the vast ocean liner Lusitania, the British fleet was on the brink of losing the seas and, in turn, the war. But here came the Mary Rose, a British destroyer, escorting the Americans into the harbor teeming with civilian boats. The Rose signaled, “Welcome to the American colors.” Bernard Gribble painted a portrait of the historic sight which was commissioned by the American Secretary of the Navy, a man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The portrait was entitled “The Return of the Mayflower.”
Reading about this history recently got me thinking about hope and help and the most vital things for which we wait. Sometimes our hopes are ephemeral–wordless longings for things which we can’t articulate, or deep desires for things we know to be, in this mortal world, impossible. And yet hope is a beacon, a light to which we turn, a promise that change is coming, no matter how flickeringly small that promise might be.
We have just celebrated another Thanksgiving, a time in which we express our gratitude for the blessings in our lives and which links us to generations of other Americans who have gone before us. Our children read books on the voyage of the Mayflower, that fabled ship of Pilgrims, bravely seeking out a new world in which to practice their faith without fear of persecution. Such early American history is colored today by competing narratives of unrelenting persecution and loss versus truly positive historic precedents of liberty. The most accurate and true histories, even that which inspires, always includes nuance and, inevitably, sinners and sin.
Our forebears–and they include countless individuals and groups–in America were certainly not perfect, and yet we can learn from them. American involvement in World War I is colored by the still ongoing controversy of British intelligence knowledge of the threats to the Lusitania and other ships bearing American passengers, as written about so lucidly in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. A beautiful painting can’t change that. But paintings, and nuanced stories, can still show us examples of hope and help, inspiring events that remind us that even in dire situations, vehicles of real promise can exist.
Too much of our current culture believes individual desire itself to be an ultimate goal, whether that desire means self-harm in the form of changing genders to blasting apart families in the name of sexual or other self-fulfillment. This is not an endorsement of such self-obsessed destructive desires. These desires descend rabbit holes of hara-kiri fantasy, where wreckage is creation and self is all. Instead, real hope places trust in what is truly good for us. And what is good? What do we most need? We need to know who we are here in time and there in eternity, to know whom God has created us to be and how He saves us from the temporal death that awaits us all until His second coming. We need to know that we are real, broken people, and that He promises real help.
Tomorrow begins the season of Advent, in which we once again look away from ourselves to the hope, Christ, promised to us. The only God who speaks and fulfills His promises reminds us this in the beautiful opening passage of the book of John, which tells us who God is and what He promises us.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Jon and I celebrated a milestone last week. On August 14, 2019, like a bashful but happy, coming-into-her-own teenager, our marriage reached a gangly, blooming, and substantial fifteen years together in Christ.
It feels substantial, this anniversary. In part, that substance is circumstantial. Numbers ending in zero or five get more attention from us, for better or for arbitrary reasons, and this one is no different. Why does fifteen seems more special than, say, thirteen or sixteen? Because it does. So there. (Hey, I said like a teenager, right?)
And, of course, the other substance that makes us cherish this anniversary is truly weighty and special.
That substance is a priceless combination of time, experience, and God-given perseverance.
In fifteen years together, we’ve moved seven times and lived in Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We’ve studied and completed graduate degrees. We’ve rented apartments and houses. We’ve bought and torn up a house and remodeled it over ten years. (Well, Jon remodeled. I watched and cleaned up drywall dust.) We’ve lived in another house that has needed little fixing, thank God. We won’t even count the cars we’ve gone through. Suffice it to say that we have fought and cried and kissed and made up, over moves and renovations and many other things.
We’ve grown together from husband and wife to father and mother, together. We’ve been blessed with six living children, their rambunctious energy and delight matched only–maybe–by our exhaustion. We’ve learned a lot from these gifts. We’ve learned humility and patience and stamina and frustration and unimaginable joy.
We’ve also learned suffering.
We lost our first child early in my pregnancy, just a few weeks after we learned we were parents, and only eight months after we said our vows. We learned to mourn together and to hope together. Three years passed before our now oldest son was born.
We have said goodbye to a mother, grandparents and other relatives and friends. Earlier in August, we said goodbye to our tiny son, Christian. We have learned, and are learning, what it means to live with pain and grief that, though it might subside, will never fully disappear in this life.
We have learned to appreciate God’s amazingly good gifts. Five churches have been homes to us, with scores of others offering us Jesus through the Word and Sacraments. There is no counting all of the blessings we have received through Christ’s Church and faithful believers in Him from all over this country and the world. We have learned how little we are, and yet how bountifully and thoughtfully God loves us. Our cup has truly runneth over.
We have gained gray hair and wrinkles, laugh lines and tear stains, heartaches and heart swells. We have most decidedly relished some silly moments.
Last Friday, we attended the wedding of a young couple. I choked and wiped away tears as we chanted Psalm 127 during the service. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. … Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Jon and I exchanged glances numerous times from opposite ends of the pew, me with the inquisitive and antsy two-year-old, he acting as pillow to a sleeping boy, with children in between us. We cherished the reminders of God’s faithfulness to us and to so many others, as He carries the crosses we bear.
Then we attended the reception, where Jon dealt with voracious and relatively mannerless children at the buffet while I recovered from our four-year-old’s missed aim in the bathroom and discovering he was wearing no underwear (there was no good explanation for this). 2004 Us would have huffed and puffed and resented the kids for cutting in on the party. 2019 Us laughed and knew that all of it, the poignant and the petty, the beauty and the mess, was the party.
As I sat and waited for Jon to return to the table, I admired my wedding ring. Such a small, really valueless token, in the whole scheme of things. But the fidelity and blessing it symbolizes is precious beyond price. With Christ’s guidance, the newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson, will learn how impossible their union is without their Savior and how glorious it is with Him. We’re still students at these marriage lessons, too. But after 5,482 days together, Jon and I are getting there. And God willing, we will share many, many more awkward, flourishing, and meaningful days, and years, together.
Tomorrow, my vocation of mother will include a task that no loving mother ever wants to complete.
Tomorrow, we will bury Christian. Our son. My son.
I know our children are not ours in the sense of proprietary ownership. We are merely temporary guardians of these precious souls whom God has created for His good purposes. But we never expect to see them die before us. We expect that they will bury us, not that we will bury them.
Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery, Jon and I, and our six living children; my parents; two dear pastors and their wives. We will commend our son’s body to Christ, confessing that on the last day, Christian will rise again, he and all the dead. And we will see him, and them, again, and live forever together with Christ in heaven.
I don’t want to do this. But I know this is what God has given us to do. As long as he lived, Jon and I strove to feed and nourish Christian; to take him to church so he could hear the Word and receive Christ; to care for him by acknowledging that God made him a unique individual placed in our family for a short time. We did this imperfectly, of course. Yet God gave us these tasks to love and serve our little Christian.
I got to hold Christian late Monday night, after he was born. He was so small, and his body was swollen from all the fluid that had been growing in him. But he was beautiful. Every cell on his head was intricate and flawlessly connected. The fine cuticles and nails on his tiny fingers were so detailed and immaculate. His wide-topped head was like his five-year-old brother’s. His deep brows were like his Dad’s, his long fingers like his mine. His button nose was just like his biggest sister’s.
I don’t know how God could have ever chosen us over His Son. When Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden, asking for His Father to take His cup away from Him; when He staggered up Golgatha, beaten beyond belief; when He hung gasping on the cross–I cannot fathom the love of God who would see and know His Son’s excruciating suffering and allow Him to die because He loved and loves the world so much. As a mother, if I had to choose between saving my son Christian and saving the rest of the world, God help me, I would choose Christian.
And God knows that, and He has given us this glimpse into His unfathomable love in this: that when we lay Christian’s body down to sleep in the earth tomorrow, when my hopes and dreams as a mother to love and to see my son grow up and thrive in this world are buried, I will still yet have hope. I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I will have this: Christ has made all things new. He choose us. He will raise our son from the dead, and He will raise us if He does not come again to the earth first. And we will hug our Christian, and bow before the pierced hands of Christ, and He will embrace us all forever.
Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home, That I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace, Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend, And I will praise Thee without end.
~”Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” Lutheran Service Book #708, vs. 3.
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about – whenever the wind blows.”
We love to complain about the shocking, simply shocking turns of our fickle spring weather. Not just here in Wyoming, of course. Americans as a whole find the outlier climes of our natural world as disquieting at best and monstrous at worst. Coastal hurricanes in September, Midwest tornadoes in April, western mountain snowfall in May–these disturb us, scare us, and even horrify us, based upon the ferocity of their whirling winds and wrath and the destruction they can wreak upon us. We marvel at it, and talk and talk and talk about it, and shake our heads. “It’s not right,” we say.
What these storms don’t usually do is convict us of our willful pigheadedness of thinking weather to be some sort of predictable, and thus peaceable, component of our physical life. If the skies and sunlight and seasons are normal–that is, neat and tidy and comfortable–we wear them with a familiar and faintly condescending kind of neglect, a habitual ignoring in which we can safely box them in, quite like an ordinary old hat, and set them aside, like forgettable scenery to the more important parts of our lives. I’m reminded of any number of those lovely, neat, colorful children’s books about the seasons. There’s no way, really, to allow for the true wide-ranging orthodoxies of our weather patterns in a few pages of illustrations directed to the youngest among us (or if there is, I haven’t discovered such a book or books yet). But such texts invariably shape how we expect, and even emotionally demand, our seasons to be, even when we know they cannot be so cleanly understood.
I love books like these precisely because they present a cohesive and predictable view of the elements. They are gloriously comfortable, like homemade macaroni and cheese. But they play into our desire for a safe and easy world. For when spring, say, turns fickle, and mild temperatures plunge as ominously heavy grey clouds amass above us, the soft flakes that fall upon our upturned, wondering faces break our smug certainties. We are left cold, startled and shaken by the unexpected. No matter how gently the white powder caresses the newly-budded trees, we know, deep in our bones, just how little we comprehend the mysteries and depth of our creation, just how small and vulnerable we are under the vast expanse.
Or at least we should. Last week here, we watched as our freshly green locale was covered once again by wet, thick snow. For three days, the sun hid, the cold persisted, and frosted crystals swirled and stuck. My irritability over the snow, the dragging out of newly washed and stored snow pants and gloves, my shivering body which had grown used to sunny, pleasant breezes, all reminded me how I had fallen, once again, into thinking the outdoors was somehow a companionable canvas of my personal expectations. May means flowers, and short-sleeves, and bare feet soaking in the rays of a long-absent warmth, my childlike thinking went. The snow shattered my illusions.
And lest I sound bitter, let me acknowledge that such moments in time and in life are invaluable, precisely because they can yank us from the self-contented complacency that so often dulls our thoughts and senses. “You are not in control,” the swishing, soft snowflakes whisper. Unlike their work on Alice, they do not lull us into sleep. Instead, they hammer us again to turn back, to remember what will always be true. “You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm,” said an indignant Job. “For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living.”
Who can Job be speaking to? Who controls the natural world? We all know, surely. This is both the source and the answer to our deepest fears when the skies darken.
God replies that such disquiet in the air and on our skin, both Job’s and ours, is truly from His hand. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? … From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” Such power and threat are terrifying, if not for the One Man who like His Father commands the seasons, saying “Peace! Be still!” He has not left us alone. And the storms are not heretics. They rage an impotent orthodoxy of dying brokenness, and they portend the Day when they shall finally cease at the sound of that one perfect Voice breaking them forever.
I can’t pretend that from this point onward I will happily embrace the untidy, unruly, and unfathomable power of storms. But I can accept them as the signs they are, of time inching slowly toward its glorious, terrible end. That is a truth both formidable and hopeful. For then, like snow in May, we will one day dress in garments of white in a green and golden land, and dance.
How should Christians struggle with the invisible cross of infertility?
This is not a question any of us want to address. Infertility can be an incredibly difficult cross to bear, for us personally and for those we love.
What is infertility? The general definition refers to the inability of child-bearing age couples to conceive or carry a child after twelve months of regular, non-contraceptive sex. Unfortunately, many people, including our brothers and sisters in Christ, bear this pain. According to the CDC, around 18% of child-bearing age women struggle with infertility, and men struggle with infertility, too. The most telling symptom of infertility is in absence: no pregnancy or no child.
This week–April 21-27–is National Infertility Awareness Week, one of the countless remembrance weeks marked on our stuffed secular calendars. While there’s plenty of commentary on infertility for the non-religious, Christians should approach this particular cross with care and caution.
I’ve written here before about our experiences with infertility, from our miscarriage and years of infertility, as well as our more recent molar pregnancy. We obviously share some experiences with those who currently suffer from infertility. After long thinking, I’ve come up with five ways Christians can rightly struggle with the cross of infertility.
Unfortunately, many Christians who suffer from infertility, and Christians who love the infertile, have also fallen into this kind of thinking. Teen moms bear children out of wedlock, a live-in couple “accidentally” gets pregnant, celebrities undergo IVF and pay surrogate mothers to carry their babies, and Christian couples pray fervently for children that God does not give them. As soon as we encounter such situations, our sinful minds automatically play a comparison game, deeming some cases “fair” and others “unfair,” even grossly so. Too often, such comparison thinking transforms the cross of infertility into a trial. If we just plan more, eat better, pay extra, undergo more procedures, and strain mightily in a thousand different ways, then we’ll rid ourselves and loved ones of the unwanted burden of infertility and gain the blessing of children. This is a lie.
Because the desire for children is good, Christians have mistakenly deemed any methods to conceive or bear children as good, too. But this is making a good into a god, a cross into a trial.
“You shall have no other gods before Me,” God told Moses and His people in the wilderness (Exodus 20:3). He didn’t just mean pagan statues of gold or other images. He meant any material or emotional possession that commanded our hearts and our time, energy, and affection. The desire for children can, and does, become an idol, and infertility can become a trial. This can lead us away from God.
A theologian of glory calls barrenness a trial to be overcome, a burden which can be revoked by some great act of faith on our part, a curse that can be lifted by true love’s kiss. (Works Cited: My Own Wishes and Desires: A Treatise, The Complete Works of Joel Osteen, and The Wisdom of the Disney Princesses).
A theologian of the cross calls barrenness a terrible brokenness of the flesh which results from Sin in the world, a cross to be endured joyfully in light of Christ’s promise to make all things new on The Last Day, a suffering given to us by God who loves us and molds us and disciplines us and shapes us and points us straight to Christ’s own suffering on the cross for our own salvation and comfort. (Works Cited: God’s Word as revealed in The Book of Romans).
God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The truth is that none of us deserve anything good, but God gives us all kinds of goods anyway. He gave us life when we did nothing to merit it. He sustains us in countless ways, even while all of us sin (Romans 3:23). We deserve only death, but Christ has given Himself to us to take even that away. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Christ is our free gift. He gives us all we need, and while we live and wait for our resurrection in Him, we will suffer. Crosses are not just about pain and grief, though; they point us to the Cross-Bearer, Christ Himself. We might not understand why He gives us particular crosses, but we know with certainty that absolutely nothing, including infertility, can separate us from Christ’s love. He knows exactly what we bear because He bore it Himself–all the grief, all the loneliness, all the hurt and pain. And He loves us with an everlasting love.
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Embracing infertility as a cross doesn’t mean we or our loved ones have to hide our grief or pretend to be happy. But we can, and should, take comfort in our cross, that Christ knew emptiness and loneliness on Calvary, and He keeps and sustains us throughout our struggles.
Third, the cross of infertility can prompt a variety of feelings, and that’s okay.
The most vocal sufferers of infertility tend to be those who desire and pursue parenthood passionately and often vociferously, as noted above. But many people who suffer from infertility experience ambivalence about their infertility, and others who are infertile live out their particular condition quietly, sometimes pursuing medical help, but sometimes not. Sometimes they cry openly and tearfully about not being parents. Often, they don’t. Usually, they live day to day as most of us do who have unfulfilled good desires: pushing through, both impatiently and patiently, with changing feelings and attitudes toward those desires. One book, He Remembers the Barren (affiliated link) and He Remembers the Barren: God Remembers You in Jesus, the blog for the book that covers many topics related to infertility and Christianity, particularly Lutheranism. Three other Lutheran women who have experienced infertility contribute to the blog, too. I highly recommend both the book and the blog to any Christian.
Katie and Scott Sanders, at Beautiful Pieces of Us: Support for Parents with Leftover Frozen Embryos, share their story of embracing life through their experience with IVF and giving their unborn, frozen children a chance at life. Their blog is one of the few places I have found that addresses the heart-wrenching quandary of Christians who have undergone IVF and now struggle to live out their responsibilities to both their born and unborn children.
All of these writers point to Christ, and they can help us understand and articulate the difficult cross that is infertility and the hope we and loved ones can find in Him.
Fifth, we should pray.
All Christians should pray for the infertile in our pews. We should pray for peace for them, for Christ to continually remind them that He will never leave them. We should pray that infertile couples carefully consider their choices, learning about the huge financial market that is the infertility industry, weighing what their most ethical, God-pleasing options are and if and when to decide to pursue medical treatment. We should pray that we might help share their grief and struggle, that they bear with fortitude and patience the cross that they bear. We should pray that the cross of infertility, while a marker of time on this sinful earth, and the internal and external scars it leaves of our wandering in this wilderness, can be understood as signs pointing us to Christ. Infertility does not last forever, but Christ does.
Christians do well to remember that God does not give the same gifts to everyone, even good gifts like marriage and children. That knowledge can temper the pressure on all of us, infertile and fertile alike, to see all those suffering from infertility as losers or as desperate, no-holds-barred seekers. God loves all people, not because we loved Him, or because we are parents or not, but because He gave us Christ, His Son, to bear our sins (1 John 4:10). We should pray that all of us remember that blessed truth.