Last night, a group of women from our church met to discuss a chapter in Katie Schuermann’s Pew Sisters. Our ages vary, from Millenials to Boomers, and our experiences vary, from exclusive homemakers to part-time volunteers and entrepreneurs to established professionals. All of us who gathered yesterday were moms. Some are in the diaper-and-potty-training stage. Some have tweens. Some are recent empty nesters. Some are grandmothers. One thing we all share, though, is that we are weak.
We read about Claire, a young mother suffering from postpartum depression who tenaciously clings to Christ’s promises to her in her baptism. Claire’s cross rendered her weak. And in her weakness, Christ revealed His strength and sustained Claire.
As we read and talked, our conversation touched upon many weaknesses we carry and face. Anxiety. Worry. Depression. Marital woes. Chronic illness. Addiction. Many of us shared traumatic birth stories of ourselves or of our children and grandchildren, as well as ongoing medical challenges some of our family and friends face from terminal illnesses. And it occurred to me that in precisely in baring our weaknesses, Christ’s steadfast love and His bearing of our burdens shone most brightly.
Lent is a time of reflection and penitence, of recognizing anew the terrible cross of sin for the entire world that Christ suffered and slew for us. We don’t have much to boast about, we sinners who constantly taint and mess up our lives and suffer many and myriad consequences of sin in our fallen world. But we can always boast in Him, who promises us His faithfulness and blesses us with Himself. And we can do this together, thank God, around His altar and around His word. Crosses come, but He remains, and His grace saves us. Ultimately, that’s all we need.
This blog exists to encourage Lutherans and other Christians to live faithfully on this hard, bleak earth. We know the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament are for our comfort and benefit. So, of course, are good foods and friends, especially when shared together. Friday Feedings, then, will include reflections on hospitality and community, and of course recipes, ones that are specifically designed to be shared for get-togethers. So get ready for lots of portions!
I vividly remember one of the first times Jon and I hosted people at our house after we were married. They were church ladies–very gracious, generous, and loving widows who supported us immensely during Jon’s vicarage (his one year training at a church during seminary). I nervously chattered as I prepared food and set up the living room, trying to make sure everything looked perfect. Eventually, Jon stopped me as I rambled. “They aren’t coming to see the house,” he said. “Relax. Just spend time with them and make them feel comfortable.”
He was right. I stopped stressing about doily placement and started thinking more about what those dear ladies actually wanted: to cherish our company.
One thing I’ve learned about hosting over the years is that most people just want to hang out. They don’t want to see your house. They won’t put on white gloves to test your mantle for dust. They just want you to want to see them. Sure, there are some basic rules. Like pick up enough so they don’t impale themselves on something as they come in your house or have to sit on junk if they want to sit down. Wipe down the bathroom sink and toilet if you’ve got an extra minute (thanks for that one, Mom). Offer them a beverage and provide some food that’s fairly fresh (i.e. not expired or poisoned), decently edible, and you’ll have a great time. And if you don’t have awesome food? If you only have peanut butter and crackers or popcorn? If you’ve got water? No problem. Remember: they just want to see you and want you to see them–really see them, talk with them, listen to them, and care about them.
Over the years, I’ve gotten much less anxious about hosting people. Hosting people sounds intimidating itself; really, I just mean providing a place where people can come and visit and feel comfortable. What does this look like? All kinds of things, really:
A friend stopping in for a quick cup of coffee when our floors are a crumby mess and the counters are full of dirty dishes, and we visit while she sips and I wash dishes (the best way to wash, I’ve found).
Foreign exchange students far from home hungry for a home-cooked meal of pork and pie and welcome in a snowy, isolated rural area.
Last-minute travelling guests dropping by, and me scrambling some eggs, frying some bacon, and buttering some toast and setting out preserves for a late breakfast while our guests play with the kids.
A busy church family coming over when I made way too much soup for us to eat, and I know it’s been a long week for them.
A lady whose husband travels a lot joining us for leftovers for supper, and while I wrangle older kids, she bathes the baby.
Hosting an open door annual Open House with finger foods and sweets for church family.
Resting with dear ones on a Sunday afternoon, with grilled brats and hot dogs and chips and veggies eaten on the porch and the patio, in the garage, and at the table, with doors opening and shutting constantly, and the voices of carefree children floating through the open windows (I’m looking forward to this when the warmth returns!).
Orchestrating–kind of–a chaotic taco bar for fifty people, including twenty plus kids, and multiple friends providing the delicious fixings and desserts while we make the meat.
These are just a few examples of the countless ways hospitality works at our house. You probably notice that many of the ways don’t require a bunch of cleaning and fancy extras. We definitely aren’t etiquette experts or candidates for an HGTV house and spread. We’re just regular people who have been the recipients of great hospitality and want to share with others, too. All our feedings just require a bit of planning (and sometimes virtually none) and the willingness to welcome others, whether new acquaintances or old friends, into our home and our life.
I’m excited to share Friday Feedings with you and hopefully to encourage you to start your own! Your life–and I’d venture others, too–will be richer because of it.
All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.
“O Lord, We Praise Thee” vs. 2
To say that the student debt crisis in America in 2019 is bad is a gross understatement. The numbers themselves are staggering. Over forty-four million borrowers. Over five million of that group in default (no payments in over a year). Over $28,000 owed on average from 2017 graduates. Over $1.5 trillion–that’s with a “t”–owed cumulatively. That’s mind-boggling debt.
As an older millenial, I recognize many of the depressing and destabilizing realities faced by borrowers with seemingly insurmountable debt. The ironic shame of being an educated adult with such a terrible financial burden. The guilt of choices past, even long past. The queasy feeling just thinking about the four-, five-, or even six-digit financial hole. The not-wanting-to-think-about-it thinking about it that happens practically every day, if not every hour.
Much of the recent press about student debt has addressed the convoluted problems of the public forgiveness program or the limited life choices that borrowers face. But there are other stories out there, stories that borrowers and society alike need to hear. While appeals for debt forgiveness or funeral orations for unfulfilled, seemingly impossible dreams are important, they do not comprise the entirety of those of us trudging along with student debt. Like most burdens, student debt impresses its bearers with weight–but that weight can be borne and felt in entirely different ways.
A Debt Snapshot
Jon and I have carried substantial student debt for all of our married life. While his undergraduate education was mostly paid for, his seminary education for his Master’s of Divinity degree was not cheap. I graduated with my B.A. from a private university, and though I had substantial scholarships, I still finished school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I then earned my master’s degree in English from a public university where I taught undergraduate courses for a stipend. So that degree was cheaper than it otherwise would have been, but tuition still added up. In all, by the time I graduated with my M.A. in 2009, the last degree between us that we have earned, our student debt cumulatively stood in the low six figures. It was a horrific amount to fathom, especially for a young couple heading into non-profit ministry and teaching (and eventually full-time homemaking when the kids arrived). So basically due to sheer terror and the nausea the debt triggered, we tried not to think about it much. The total was too big and overwhelming to contemplate.
Then we were given The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. It shocked us like ice water dumped over an unsuspecting coach. Basically, the book’s messages forced us to actually look at our debt and our choices, and what we saw wasn’t pretty. That was a hard but necessary wake-up call for us, that we couldn’t just pretend our suffocating debt away. A year or so later, we attended Financial Peace University, the financial equivalent of a health and diet program. FPU taught us through deliberate, incremental steps how to eventually and actually reach our best financial state: debt-free with solid savings, a funded retirement and education savings for our children, a paid-off mortgage, and the ability to give to great causes we support. It was more financial planning encouragement, like the Makeover, but with more thorough and meticulous practical helps for us.
In all of Dave’s exhortations about getting out of debt, he reiterates something he calls gazelle intensity as a necessary ingredient to success. Basically, it’s a no-holds-barred, work-like-crazy, eat-rice-and-beans life until the debt is gone. I think he’s right that that’s the absolute best way to go. Maybe I’m excusing us, and he’d probably say that I am, but we were not gazelle intense. Let me clarify: at first we were, getting out of the credit card debt fairly quickly and getting down to the student debt in less than a year, but the student debt mountain really daunted us. We fell into the “it will take you five or six years of crazy living on nothing to get out of debt” category, and frankly, we weren’t willing to eat rice and beans for that long or give up visiting family far away–the only vacations we took. I remember thinking how awful the next ten years could be, counting pennies constantly, but I also knew that once the debt was gone, we would have so much more financial stability and flexibility. So it was frustrating for us, especially me, when we got a few months into the process because Jon’s income just wasn’t a lot, and I couldn’t make much in part-time work from home while taking care of our children. And that’s part of our journey, too.
Besides regular tithing, another one of our nonnegotiables as we got out of debt was that Jon and I weren’t willing to wait or plan our children around our financial goals. We miscarried not even a year into our marriage, and I hadn’t gotten pregnant again for over two years after that. That time was hard, but it taught us that only God gives life. We would not ever say no to children, no matter how inconvenient (re: expensive) their care and needs might be or how prenatal and postnatal expenses might slow down our debt snowball.
We read the Makeover when our oldest was a few months old, and we owned an older, cheap home, so our life already held some extra hurdles that, say, a single 20-something living at home workig her first job didn’t have. So we took more of a turtle approach–the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind. We paid off some credit debt and stopped using the cards for things that we could budget for. We were blessed to be on an income-adjusted repayment schedule for our student loans from the beginning, so we made small, if manageable headway. So we plugged away, years ticking by. And the debt was still so big.
Almost three years ago, we sold our house. It had been on the market for over a year, but we knew if we could sell it, the equity could pay off a huge chunk of the debt. And it did. That was an enormous blessing.
After a few moves to rental houses, we now own a lovely home. Our vehicles are almost paid for (a topic for another post; suffice it to say I was not happy last year when our two teenage vehicles both lost their transmissions in a two week period). We have zero credit card debt. And our student debt is in the four digits. It will be gone in a few months. We can truly see the light at the end of the tunnel after all these years.
How to Avoid Debt Discouragement
I wish I could say that, in the last ten years, Jon and I have always presented a united front when it came to our debt. I wish I could say we cheerfully kept stiff upper lips, and unshakable devotion to our financial plan, in the face of more-month-than-money odds. I wish I could say we always knew we’d be in the position we are now. I wish I could say our faces and hearts constantly testified to the hope that is in us, despite our worldly financial circumstances.
But I would be lying, and you probably already knew that.
Like I mentioned before, though, there’s a need for stories other than laments about debt. I don’t want to downplay the hardship of it. It has affected our lives in ways I don’t think even we can fully appreciate, as John Thornton wrote in “A Debt to Education” in Plough.
Debt forms us just as radically as a university curriculum does. As bills mount, debt becomes a guiding force in our lives, directing our decisions about where to live, where to work, how to save and spend, and what we imagine possible. The anxiety, regret, and shame over one’s inability to determine one’s own life shapes our souls as well. In a deeply moving essay in The Baffler, M. H. Miller describes his working-class family’s struggles with the $120,000 in debt they assumed to enable him to attend New York University: “The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives.” If student debt forms us in this way, we’d do well to ask what kind of formation it is.
Undoubtedly, we hope and pray our children will not have to live with the kind of debt burden we have. We are teaching them about saving, about how they can earn their continuing educations, and about how debilitating and terrible debt is. Their formation will be different than ours. But even beyond the educational takeaways debt has given us–the silver linings of hard lessons learned–we have had another kind of formation during these years.
We have learned about the healing quality of gratitude.
Many times, we have lamented our inability to buy certain things or to travel due to our student debt. But mostly we have been overwhelmed by how gracious God has been to us in the last ten years. Rather than get stuck on what we don’t have, we have learned to focus on what we do have. We do possess degrees. We have owned two houses. We have owned multiple cars. Our home is stuffed with seemingly countless items, many of them not related to clothing, eating, or drinking (like books). But far beyond any material measure of blessings, we have been blessed with life. Our marriage is a wonderful gift. We have been given six beautiful, healthy, lively children. Our friends and family are supportive, generous, and loving presences in our lives. Our church family is unbelievably greathearted with their time and help and bounty. If we tried to count every good gift in our lives, we wouldn’t be able to number them. Christ truly has made our cup runneth over.
And the realization of the constant largess, the showers of items and food and time and affection and all the good people and things in our lives, has overpowered the debt discouragement that could have otherwise dominated our lives. Looking at our debt by itself was intimidating. Looking at it next to all the blessings we have is like looking at an anthill next to Everest. There’s no comparison. And the not-so-secret secret is that our blessings have always outnumbered our burdens, even when we couldn’t see or appreciate them.
Don’t be confused. This isn’t a backwards argument for student debt. Someone out there might be thinking, “See? Since your debt made you grateful, then the debt is good.” That’s bad logic. Gratitude is good. Debt is bad. The latter doesn’t cause the former. They exist separately. But yes, in a roundabout way, the sheer magnitude of our student debt made us humble and realize that we have far more than we ever need. We also definitely don’t deserve all the blessings we have. So we are grateful, knowing we do not deserve anything good, and we are made joyful by the riches we do have. I can say with full sincerity that both of us are awed by how good we have it.
One of my favorite hymns is “O Lord, We Praise Thee.” The second verse always reminds me of God’s great and abundant outpouring of good upon us.
Thy holy body into death was given,
Life to win for us in heaven.
No greater love than this to Thee could bind us;
May this feast thereof remind us!
O Lord, have mercy!
Lord, Thy kindness did so constrain Thee
That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.
All our debt Thou has paid;
Peace with God once more is made:
O Lord, have mercy!
Lutheran Service Book, #617 v.2
“All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.” I do struggle sometimes with this line. After all, we’re still paying down our student debt. But if we died tomorrow, God would take care of it. In fact, He has already taken care of the biggest debts we ever had–the sin-full debts, the ones we could never, ever repay, not in ten lifetimes of toil. What greater gift do we have than this? Our worldly circumstances weigh us down, leaving us with insurmountable struggles and strife. But Christ has overcome it all–from student debt to sins. We are at peace with Him. This is our everlasting comfort.
Hannah’s Story of Gratitude
I have only met Hannah once, and then briefly. But her comment on Facebook in light of both her and her husband’s student debt as they raise their daughter is priceless. I reprint it here with her permission.
I had one of those “profound moments” while sitting in Chipotle yesterday with my daughter.
She was snuggled up next to me on our bench (she likes to sit next to me at restaurants, not across the table), and we were sharing a burrito bowl.
I was thinking about how grateful I was to have a Chipotle gift card because I got rid of our budget for EVER eating out in 2019. I’ve always been frugal, but Luke and I have been working our butts off trying to get rid of student loans (graduate school). We’ve also been working on being generous and giving what we can to people who need it even in the midst of paying off debt.
And then it dawned on me that I have never bought my daughter a toy.
At first, I thought that I must be forgetting something. “Surely you have bought your daughter SOMETHING to play with.”
I ran through all of her toys in my head. She has a lot. Her xylophone, her toy violin, her Fischer Price house and people, her Rose Petal cottage, her baby, her blocks, her puzzles, her tunnel…
“Ha! Her tunnel! I bought her that tunnel — no, wait. We bought that with a Walmart gift card from our landlords.”
Still not convinced, I resolved to go through Miri’s toys when we got home. Miri munched away happily on her chips. I made a mental note to feed my child vegetables at some point in the future.
I looked at my boots. A Christmas present from my parents. What else was I wearing that was a gift? My socks…present from a student. My sweater. My coat. My scarf. Holy cow.
It didn’t stop there, though. When I got home, I began looking at my furniture. Couches – gift. Lamps – gift. Bed – gift. Car – gift! The list could go on and on. I couldn’t find a single toy that I had bought for Miri.
God’s provision (above and beyond what we actually need) through the people He places in our lives is truly incredible, and I’m glad I got a chance to remember that yesterday.
Amen, Hannah. May we also continue to remember His good gifts–and give thanks for them–always.
It’s funny how God works through His Word at just the right time to address specific sins and crosses. Take lying, for instance.
Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we heard how the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Of course, any references to the wilderness pique my interest, and I listened closely. I wondered about one of our middle sons, though, who rarely seems to be paying attention in church.
“Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” read my husband, the pastor. “And he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'” Our son, eyes wandering and fingers twiddling, leaned over to me at this point and whispered, “That’s dumb. The kingdoms already belonged to Jesus.”
An insight indeed. Not only was I reminded that children often listen when they seem to be doing anything but; I also realized that the devil never, ever stops telling lies. His lies can be compelling and seem to address true needs, like offering bread to a Man who has miraculously gone without food or drink for forty days and who is, in admirable understatement, “hungry.” His lies can also be completely ridiculous, like telling Jesus, the Son of the Father who created all things and thus already possessed them all, that if He just bows down before him, the devil will give Him…what He already had.
The truth is, though, that the devil will continue to lie to us the way he lied to our Savior because we fall prey to his lies. We dumb, selfish, idiotic fools all have something we crave, and when the right words come along, we can believe almost anything, despite how ridiculous it might be. Sunday morning buffet is so delicious, and I’m hungry; I can go to church some other time. The tax man is so swamped and busy; he won’t notice if I fudge a few numbers on my return. My colleague at work is bright and good-looking; I can be close with him, and my husband won’t even notice. And so on.
One of our children has made a habit lately of lying. It’s been a difficult lesson to learn, for him and for us, seeing how lies–all of them–affect others and relationships, and how we understand the truth. It’s been important for him to learn that there are both temporal consequences to lying, like staying in from recess to complete homework he previously claimed he had finished, as well as spiritual consequences. Broken trust is not renewed overnight. Lies told about small things betray, at best, a lack of understanding to the gravity of untruths. At worst, they betray a rejection that lies hurt both the teller and the receiver of the lie. Lies imprison the teller and ostracize the receiver. They are like worms that, if unchecked, can ruin an apple, leaving only rot behind.
In Bible class after service today, we continued studying in the book of Proverbs, including many verses that referred to both fools and the wise, lying and the truth. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment,” reads Proverbs 12:19. “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy,” exhorts Proverbs 12:20. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are His delight,” goes Proverbs 12:22.
We know, we know, we all say. This is old news to us believers. And then we all slide on that greasy rail down the wide path, telling others and ourselves little white deceptions that show us just how susceptible we are to the Father of Lies. Even when the lies are dumb, we tell them, and hang on.
Near the end of Bible class, I noticed a small plastic lamb that our youngest had been playing with. There’s nothing particular about it, except I saw ink scribbles all over it. The scribbles had not been there before the class. After simple questions failed to unearth the truth, some moms had to interrogate the likely scribblers. Blanket denials resulted, until one mom said, “Even if it wasn’t you, but you know something that can reveal the truth, you need to speak up.” Then my son opened his mouth and shared the truth.
As sinners, we lie because we fail to see the big picture, the ultimate good that God desires for us. We lie because in the blink of a moment, we think we will get something good for ourselves, whether it’s bread, kingdoms, or avoiding punishment. In that instant, we are blind to the beauty of the Truth, the only Truth that can set us free from our slavery to sin and lies.
Telling the truth is hard. It can mean hunger, and loneliness, and punishment. But God knows what is best. His Word endures forever, and He wants us to be His forever, too. When the lies come easily, we can cling to Christ, who, emaciated and exhausted, told the devil, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.'” In His weakness, the Lamb who died for us, we have strength, and we can tell the truth, too.
Last weekend, our family watched March of the Penguins, the amazing 2005 documentary of Antarctic emperor penguins. Although we’d seen it years ago, it was newly enthralling to our youngest members. And as we watched the majestic penguins bravely survive together in their frigid wilderness, it occurred to me that, at our best, Lutherans are like penguins.
Before you write me off as a meme-inspired ridiculoso, bundle up your skepticism for a few minutes and let me explain.
Emperor penguins faithfully and tenaciously make the best of their given environment for the sake of an unseen future. No one argues that Antarctica is an awesome place to live. In fact, pretty much everybody agrees that it’s one of the most inhospitable places–if not the most inhospitable place–on our planet. But penguins make the best of their home. They don’t act like it’s a tropical paradise instead of a frozen wilderness; they don’t try to dress it up like something it’s not. It’s where they are, and for better or worse, it’s the home that they have.
So the resilient birds swim and fish in cold waters. They mark and avoid predators as best they can. And they walk for up to seventy miles to procreate, gestate, and nurture their young in their best hopes for survival (hence the point of the long march). No one would say this is easy. But this is what they do, because emperor penguins know instinctively that the best way to preserve the future is to go the distance in the world they have.
Emperor penguins know instinctively
that the best way to preserve the future
is to go the distance in the world they have.
At our best, Lutherans do the same thing. We acknowledge that our world is not our true home, but we slavishly cling to what we know we need and what is most important–teaching ourselves and our children about the life Christ has given us and that waits for us long after this world is like a dream. We don’t try to make this world into something it’s not. We don’t care if most of the world thinks we’re crazy, either for living in freezing (or hot, or uncool) places or holding to commandments and confessions most of the world finds laughable. We live in the world, whether snow or secularism are swirling around us, and we keep on keeping on. Not for nothing have Lutherans been called the frozen chosen. It can be a pejorative, yes, referring to those icily unemotional, typically Nordic types that act high and mighty. But it can also be a backhanded compliment, referring to those who, despite slogging through the bitter wastelands of our world, cling to truths that transcend our environment, that are beyond our sight. For “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” What we can’t see is what drives us on.
Emperor penguins act in the best interest of the group because they know that together, they have hope. Alone, they will die. Penguins are not known for their swagger or bravada. While they can certainly act in their own self-interest–mating rituals and fishing come to mind–they are far more noticeable for their ability to congregate, travel, and survive as a group. Happy Feet and its typically individualistic moral notwithstanding, real penguins live within small realms of species-proscribed fulfillment. They eat, swim, play, fight off the cold, and march together. They instinctively act for the benefit of all penguins, and when they don’t, they are disciplined (grieving mothers who have lost their own chicks sometimes try to steal others). Or they die. Ultimately, the reason the penguin herd is a herd is because they know they’re lost when they go their own ways.
Humans don’t have problems seeing penguin life as normal and practical. We can see their circumstances and understand that they must live the way they do out of sheer survival. When people act this way, though, we can be suspicious. Especially in America, we hold soft spots for outliers, black sheep, and straight-up disrupters in all kinds of gatherings. Groupthink (and action) can look rigid and unfair. Sometimes it is.
Lutherans join together regularly around Christ and His gifts
exactly because He calls us all by name
and because it is good and necessary for us to be together.
Which brings me to one of the most endearing qualities of both penguins and good Lutherans: ultimately, what they do in their small lives testifies to a deep and abiding love in response to another. Mother and father penguins risk exhaustion, starvation, and freezing to death for the sake of their children. They endure almost unimaginable hardship to themselves to preserve their babies. These are beautiful acts of self-sacrifice that happen regularly in our hostile, freezing world.
And precisely because He loved us first, we self-sacrificially then love our neighbors. Such love doesn’t earn us anything, and because it’s not for show, it can be subtle. But that doesn’t make it any less loving. Just as the penguins could care less whether someone in a snowsuit was filming them or not, we–when we love the way Christ intends us to love–don’t care if anyone is watching. We just do it.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation in which we commemorate Christ’s suffering for us that led to His death and resurrection at Easter. We know that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return, but that is not all that God has in store for us. So while we yet walk on this earth, we march as those who have hope, and keep on moving, in faith and love.
This year, Americans can’t pretend that other motives, more practical or even “altruistic,” provoke the murder of our children. As Hans Fiene has written, abortion supporters have found themselves, intentionally or not, climbing what amounts to an enormous skyscraper as they’ve had to justify increasingly more barbaric practices for the sake of preserving abortion. Now, even infanticide is okay.
Our very own U.S. Senate, just this week, blocked a bill that would require doctors to provide care to children born alive after botched abortions. Abortion advocates insist that such a bill is unnecessary because infanticide is illegal. They purposely misinterpret this bill. Abortion–and tellingly, abortion up to the moment of a child’s birth–is now legal in parts of the U.S. (see above). And so now doctors are faced with terrible quandaries. They must preserve the life of infants in every situation they encounter them–except after abortions. Some lives, it seems, are more deserving of care than others.
This entire debate has always passionately interested me, mostly because I was taught–and I deeply believe–that every human being, from the moment of conception, deserves a chance at life, no matter how difficult or short that life might be. It’s occurred to me in the last month or so, though, that as abortion supporters are attempting to codify limitless access to abortion, and by extension, encourage infanticide when it’s connected to abortion, I need to share my own small beginning. My story is just one example, among many, of what can happen when doctors and other medical personnel strive mightily to give even very small children a chance to live.
Our Birth Story
Last weekend, I came across some family papers. They included family trees, copies of old documents, things like that. One of them was a November-December 1981 copy of Hi-Lines, a publication of Illinois Power Company (which has since been bought by Amren). My father, Stephen, worked for Illinois Power in the 1980s. On the cover of this particular issue was a picture of him, my mother Talitha, and my twin sister Amilia and I.
The title of the article in which we were featured was “The Most Precious Gift.” At the beginning, the columnist Glenda Collins wrote, “Each of us possesses this gift, but many of us take it for granted acting as if ‘we’ are in control of the situation. This gift is as fleeting as vapor… here one minute and, without warning, gone the next. No human can give this gift, but many are guilty of taking it away from others. When given, this gift is accepted without thought or choice. The most precious gift is… the gift of LIFE!”
I wonder if most people in state of Illinois even believe Collins’ comments anymore.
My parents found out in May of 1981 that my mother was expecting. In August, they found out they were expecting twins. In October, right before they were supposed to begin their prenatal classes, my mother went into labor at about 29 weeks–at the very beginning of her third trimester.
Thankfully, Mom was able to receive care at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which included a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She was given intravenous (IV) drugs, then oral medication, and then IV drugs again in multiple attempts to stop labor. After some tests, doctors confirmed that the babies’ lungs were undeveloped. My parents were told that if labor didn’t stop and their children were born, the babies could be blind, that they could have permanent disabilities, and that, frankly, they could die. The doctors gave the babies’ chances of survival at between 25-50%.
My parents were overwhelmed. Mom was 22, and Dad was was 25. As they prayed, they struggled. Mom remembered: “[We] couldn’t rejoice in the fact of two new lives because we weren’t sure if that was what God had chosen for us. I guess that’s the hardest thing to ask God; for strength to accept His will.”
Just over twenty-four hours after my mother was admitted to the hospital, her labor was unstoppable. My dad remembered what happened next.
By 8 p.m., in the words of the doctor, ‘the party was over.’ The labor and delivery ward went from calm to a ‘controlled’ pandemonium. The doctor was a general in the midst of the battle…directing his personnel in strategic moves which had been made many times before.
Emotions in the waiting room hit a new high. In times of great uncertainty, especially when the matter becomes life or death, one turns to God. Everyone has probably experienced the feeling whether it is the life of a friend, relative, or even your own life. Now I was asking God for two lives. ‘Thy will be done’ almost caught in my throat. I felt selfish asking God for both babies. I didn’t want to accept the possibility of one life without the other.
“The Most Precious Gift,” Hi-Lines. November-December 1981.
At 8:19, I was born. I weighed two pounds, eleven ounces. My sister was born at 8:20. She weighed one pound, fourteen ounces. Each one of us could be held in a palm of our father’s hand.
We spent months in the NICU. Countless nurses, doctors, and other dedicated medical personnel cared for us. Relatives poured out support and help to my parents. My sister developed hydrocephalus in her brain and underwent several procedures before receiving a ventriculoperiteneal (VP) shunt to correct the blockage. She had to have surgery as a small child to have the shunt lengthened, which was successful. Amilia will always live with the shunt. She also developed viral pneumonia just after being released in late 1981 and had to be airlifted back to the hospital for treatment. Thankfully, she fully recovered. In early 1982, we were both finally at home with my parents.
Thirty-seven years later after our traumatic birth, my sister and I are not blind. We have no disabilities. We survived, and we believe we have thrived, in the quotidian ways of millions of Americans. We are college graduates. Both of us are married and cherish our families. We work at jobs and engage in our communities. We both have always lived with deep gratitude that we live. It would have been so easy, so remarkably easy, for us to have died.
Though we live far apart, Amilia and I talk regularly about our lives, books, culture, and our shared Lutheran faith. We have no doubt that God has blessed us with our lives, and that He has directed the hands of many hundreds, if not thousands of others, to preserve them.
What happens to small beginnings now?
In 1981, no doctor could fully foresee the kinds of challenges and blessings that lay in store for my sister and I. And the fact is, aside from speculating to my parents about certain risks we faced, the doctors who cared for my sister and I never tried to argue that our lives weren’t worth saving. It wasn’t even a conversation. For one thing, U.S. and Missouri law prohibited them from wrapping us in blankets and leaving us in a corner to die. For another, the ethical oath of their practice, a version of the Hippocratic Oath, bound them to do right. One early translation of the Hippocratic Oath reads: “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm.” Our physicians assumed, as doctors have historically always done, that their jobs were to use all of the skills and tools at their disposal to keep us alive, regardless of the outcome.
But what happens now when children are born alive who, just a moment before, physicians were trying to kill? I can hardly believe that doctors would be so callous and unloving to deny care to any child. But then, doctors have been actively killing children in utero for decades. It is not a bridge too far to see that children ex utero will likewise be targeted for death, whether through intentional harm or passive neglect. Both options are abhorrent beyond belief.
And then there’s the parental role in baby death. My parents had no idea what kind of lives we, their daughters, would have in 1981–if they would be short or long, if they would include ongoing medical treatment. They were frightened by the prospect of our deaths, but also by the possibility that we would live with terrible physical or neurological problems. My sister and I can rest in the knowledge that even if my parents had somehow been given the choice to determine whether we would receive care and thus live or die, they would have chosen care.
But many parents now hold both the awesome and appalling power to both choose death for their small ones deliberately through abortion and passively through neglect. It breaks my heart that doctors in several states in our country will now be obligated to cease treatment for babies like my sister and I due to the fears, both real and speculative, of the mothers and perhaps fathers of those babies.
And as a mother myself, I empathize with mothers and fathers who believe that aborting their children is their best choice. Birthing and raising children, no matter their health needs, is hard. But my empathy does not extend to support for death. We can all acknowledge that life itself is hard. Ending the lives of helpless children of any age or condition is neither caring nor loving. Too many of us are afraid of what might happen. We fear that our unborn child might need expensive or involved care. We fear that she will suffer physical or other pain. We fear that he will die and we won’t be able to handle it. We fear that whatever might happen might just be too much for us to take, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially. These are the fears that can overwhelm us, that can make abortion seem necessary, even merciful.
History can guide us here. In 1949, medical utilitarianism, or the idea that lives could be judged worthy of care based on a set of increasingly subjective qualities, was rightly under assault. Why? The world had seen, in awful example after awful example, how the argument for merciful death could lead to the Holocaust. Wesley Smith wrote, “Writing after the revelation of the depraved practices of the Nazi regime’s doctors, who engaged in infanticide, the killing of disabled adults, and many other infamies in the name of science, Leo Alexander, a psychiatrist and medical adviser to the office of chief counsel at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, warned that the utilitarian infection that destroyed German medical ethics could spread:
Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived.
Quoted in “As Doctors Euthanize Patients and Harvest Their Organs, the Hippocratic Oath is Dead.” LifeNews.com. 17 September 2018.
Small beginnings are, in fact, not small at all. How we view them, and treat them, reveals how we view life itself. Medical utilitarianism doesn’t spring up overnight. For over forty years in America, abortion has been a depraved and horrific practice hidden in plain view. Millions upon millions of our children have died–and they have died legally. Now we can see the natural, slippery progression of attitude shifts and thus actions. Doctors kill lives in the womb, and now they are allowed to leave others to die outside of it. This is no fallacy; this is actually happening. We must never forget that some gas chambers built to euthanize people in Germany during the mid-twentieth century were built on hospital grounds. Once some lives are deemed not worthy to be lived, others will be, too. They already are. If my sister and I were born in 2019 at twenty-nine weeks to parents who decided we shouldn’t receive care, then who is to say our lives now, thirty-seven years later, are worth keeping or saving? Will doctors act as “[generals] in the midst of [battles]…directing [their] personnel in strategic moves which [have] been made many times before,” as my father noted, in efforts to preserve life? How will they treat small beginnings, and how will they treat others?
No matter how dark our way forward looks, though, we can reject the fears that drive us to seek solace in death as the lies they are. We don’t know what will happen, and we don’t know how we will handle whatever comes. But Someone does, and He always has a plan for us and for our children. We can admit, no matter how long we’ve believed that abortion and infanticide are acceptable, that they are, in fact, wrong. All children deserve life, no matter their ages or conditions. We can embrace this fundamental truth. If you haven’t, know that God still loves you. He knows your entire life, from your worst thoughts and failings and actions. Despite them, He still wants you —small, little, mortal you–to live, from your very beginning to your God-deemed end. Hans Fiene again:
So, yes, voters, you should have stopped voting for pro-choice candidates a long time ago. Yes, politicians, from day one you should have feared the wrath of God more than the wrath of NARAL. But it’s not too late to do that now. It’s not too late to escape condemnation and find peace with the God who has already written out of existence every sin you committed against your most innocent and defenseless neighbors.
So don’t be afraid to take the plunge out the window. Don’t be afraid to jump. Don’t think that your father in heaven wants to watch you splatter on the sidewalk. He doesn’t. He wants to watch you land safely in the hands that have been waiting to catch you from before the foundation of the world. And don’t worry that you’ve doubled down on your sin one too many times. Don’t worry that you’ve climbed too high to survive the fall. Jump and see that the gravity of guilt is no match for the grace of God.
UPDATE: From my sister, Amilia.
I can’t, and won’t pretend, to be impartial about abortion. I have always been pro-life, and my own story has a role why I take that side. Though to me it’s not a sides issue – we’re all human, and we all started out small.
To me, making abortion illegal has never been about taking away someone’s rights – it’s acknowledging that there’s more than one person’s rights involved. As Dr. Seuss said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” And in weighing the rights of the people involved in an unplanned or risky pregnancy, as a society we need to take into consideration the rights of the person who cannot speak for themselves just as much as the woman carrying her or him. It seems to be the just thing to do. Not to ignore the smaller, infinitely weaker person. That to me is what bullies do.
Our humanity is not based on how much we’re wanted by our parents, or whether we’ve got good health (mental and physical), or whether the circumstances around our births are perfect. It’s not based on how little of a burden we’ll place on others by our existence. Our humanity is established in this fact: that we EXIST, both before birth and after. No matter how many years or months or days or breaths of life that we’re given.
We don’t know the effects we have on others. Emily, thank you for sharing our story.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but over the last few weeks, I have been sending out Christmas cards. Yes, Christmas cards. The ones I ordered at four in the morning on Christmas Eve while I fought a bout of the stomach flu. Lovely details, no? But they communicate the reality: that I knew receiving the cards, writing brief personal notes, addressing them, and mailing them during the twelve days of Christmas was an unlikely stretch, and that family and friends alike would be receiving our annual form note and pictures long after most of our society would be thinking of Christmas, or even New Year’s, or even January.
So illness and normal vacation antics prevailed during the days after Christmas, and other duties and houseguests and responsibilities filled up January, and all of a sudden, I realized I had many, many cards still sitting on the floor by my desk. What to do? I know more than one person who doesn’t send Christmas cards at all. I even know a few that have ordered them and just not sent them, as days turn into weeks and months. So I considered filing them away and trying again this fall, at the socially appropriate time to write notes and send annual greetings.
But I just couldn’t. I am too practical, for one, to want anything to go to waste. Even more, I feel a strong responsibility to responding to those who have made an effort to share their lives with us. I am guilty that I have not yet done so. Silence is neither polite nor loving. Simple etiquette says as much.
Some millennials are embracing the physical greeting card tradition that older generations largely practice. But the fact is that most people rarely write letters or send cards. I understand the draw to and need for electronic communication–I’m blogging right now, which is one form of it, after all. But in our atomized world, where loneliness is prevalent, I think mailed notes are a small token towards cultivating the kind of connections that matter to us. And those are the physical kind, the real kind.
That’s why I’m sharing my project of sending out Christmas cards in February. They’re belated love notes, like Valentines, to tell loved ones, “We still think of you and remember you and love you. And here’s something real and tangible to prove it.” You can do the same. It’s never too late to tell someone you care, that you love them. I hope to send Christmas cards at a more appropriate time in the future, of course. But for now, Christmas Valentines will do.
This year has brought record lows and snows to much of the continental United States. Here in Wyoming, we’ve gotten more snow than usual, and what we’ve learned in three winters here is that more snow means more skiing–cross-country skiing (XC) or Nordic skiing, to be precise. We’ve grown to love cross-country, which might seem trivial, in the face of all the mess going on in the world. But hang with me, and learn why loving XC improves our lives and broadens our world.
1.XC is a sport that began with a practical outdoor purpose–and its history combines ingenuity and courage.
Not many people lay claim to loving frosty weather for significant portions of the year, let alone finding fun ways to navigate mountains–and mountains, and mountains–of snow. Cross-country skiing is, in fact, one awesome invention beget precisely for humans otherwise torpid, shivering, and probably half-crazy from cabin fever. Basically, XC began as a way for one snow-bound guy to get to his neighbor’s house more easily. Later, it evolved into (what else?) a strategy for military maneuvering and eventually made its way into the sporting arena in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originating in Norway–I know, you’re shocked–Nordic skiing is unsurprisingly dominated by Scandinavian athletes at Winter Olympic games. Think about it: if your great-grandfather had to go seven kilometers to his buddy Sven’s place, or find something fun to do in the white wilderness that lay in his backyard for eight months out of the year, you’d appreciate and probably master cross-country skiing, too! (Especially if your great-grandfather ended up marrying Sven’s sister. Which he probably did. Hey, a romantic motive for heading out into sub-freezing temperatures makes a lot of sense.)
Though it may seem a bit silly, we like that cross-country skiing has a history. It’s an activity that ties us to our forebears–hey, our last name is Olson!–and to people who knew exactly how to make do with long winters in frigid and avalanche-prone climes. Links to the past remind us that we aren’t the center of the universe or somehow better than our ancestors. Our technology-improved skis might be better than the retro wood ones of Sven and his immediate progeny, but I doubt our abilities to ski, or understand the intricacies of snowfall and weather, or how to navigate the unrecognizable outdoors are. Our forebears set the bar, and with the resources they had, they whittled it so they could perform controlled slides downhill at heart-stopping speeds. That’s chutzpah, and they’ve got our respect.
2. XC allows us to cherish our local environment–and in the winter, no less.
We still can’t believe that we live in Wyoming, for many reasons. One of the big ones is that we live just a fifteen minute drive from the world-class cross-country trails on Casper Mountain. It’s an easy, scenic drive well before we reach the Casper Nordic Club Lodge. Just yesterday, we spotted about a dozen wild turkeys hanging out in a copse at the base of the mountain right next to the road. A mule deer was standing with them, like they hang out all the time–which they probably do. We’ve also seen antelope on many occasions. On the trails themselves, we find rabbit and mule deer tracks, and sometimes the scat that tells us we just missed meeting our furry friends face-to-face. Witnessing wildlife in their home, in a place we also call home, makes us want to conserve and protect our mutual habitats.
And the views on the trails are breathtaking. I loved snow as a kid, and it never stuck around long in Ohio or Kentucky. The closest I got to consistently experiencing the magical sight and feel of whirling flakes deep in a forest happened during the Dance of the Snowflakes in productions of The Nutcracker I danced in. But when we ski, we glide through a winter wonderland every time. Sparkling, glittering, unbroken hills of white meeting a cerulean blue sky; evergreens towering and clustered, weighted with blankets of heavy white; silences so still we can hear clumps of softly falling snow on the mountain–we experience this every single time we head out on our skis. Many trails criss-cross the top of the mountain, and up there we can admire the prairie three thousand feet below us reaching to the horizon and the white caps of the distant Bighorn Mountains. With these kinds of viscerally moving views, can you blame us for becoming skiing regulars?
3. XC keeps us in shape–and in the winter, no less.
Many so-called winter sports take place mainly on indoor rinks and are not actually very lay-friendly. Take figure skating. It’s fantastic, if you’re a teenager with great knees, rock-solid tendons, and crazy dedication to mastering airborne spins. Curling is fun, but it won’t exactly raise your heart rate. But cross-country skiing? Few other sports combine upper body athleticism, core strength, and cardiovascular challenge quite like it–and it always takes place outdoors. It’s one of the best full-body workouts that we can get. It requires herringboning up hills and double-poling down, not to mention the constant muscle work required to maintain balance. As a decades-long study of cross-country skiers showed, while genetics can sure help us reach old age (thank you, great-grandfathers!), skiing is an excellent way to improve our chances of relishing our golden years (and cut down on our risks of heart disease and cancer).
But most anyone who’s tried cross-country skiing knows that it’s a simple concept but also just plain hard to actually do. In other words, it’s an activity most people would pursue, or even watch, like they would a root canal. “Cross-country skiing is the least glamorous, least pyrotechnic, least watchable of the major Olympic sports. … [It’s] where the elegant majesty of winter sports goes to die an excruciatingly drawn-out death,” writes Sam Anderson in this must-read love-hate essay to cross-country skiing. “So why would anyone do it?”
I know, I know–the skeptics among you are currently echoing the top entry in Urban Dictionary for cross-country skiing. Only “people who like the cold, hills and exercise induced asthma” go for this. “Some find it fun, but for most it closely resembles some form of personal hell.” Believe me, I get it. The physical exertion is no joke. For the last two winters my husband and I have ventured out with both patient and encouraging friends and formal instructors to try ourselves at what is distinctly not an armchair sport. XC can be exhausting and humbling, especially with all the falling down and getting back up–which all by itself is a challenge. (Imagine wearing long skinny poles on your feet on your rear on slippery snow. Now imagine getting up. Yeah, I’d laugh, too.) There have been times, particularly in long, grueling climbs, when I’ve wanted to lay down in the snow and just stay there.
And the cold can be brutal, too. I learned the hard way a few months ago that I have Raynaud’s Phenomenon–a circulatory problem where the ends of my fingers turn white and get icy when my body feels too cold. I actually got a mild form of frostbite, despite my two pairs of gloves and handwarmers, while Jon and I were skiing in sub-zero temperatures in late December (hey, the sun was shining and the wind wasn’t blowing! Cut me some slack). Skiing requires a modest attitude and cold-weather preparation–and a hefty amount of persistence (see below). And with that persistence comes the reward. Both Jon and I have said that after skiing season is over, we’re usually in the best shape of the year, if not our lives. That’s not a little accomplishment.
4. XC is an activity our entire family can enjoy.
Before you start believing that we are uber-athletes or that only crazy Wyomingites ski, let me remind you that our kids can ski. Our three-year-old started strapping on his little L.L. Bean boot-adjustable skis this winter (okay, we do it for him), and now our oldest three kids (seven, eight, and ten) get everything on and leave down the trails before we can get our own gear on. It turns out that having a low center of gravity and malleable ability to learn really helps kids master XC–especially when they don’t use poles, which is the best way to learn.
Their confidence comes in large part from two winters of Mangus League Ski lessons, hosted by the Casper Nordic Club. For six weeks on Sunday afternoons, kids as young as four all the way up to retired adults learn how to and improve at XC. The instructors range from teenagers to retirees. In fact, Vicki, one of my instructors last winter, told me how she started skiing in her 30s, and now she’s been doing it for thirty years. Dan, another instructor, has a prosthetic leg–and no, I’m not joking. He’s been skiing for decades. The fact is that there’s an entire range of difficulty in the sport, and that’s good both for beginners and for advanced skiers alike. We can stay near the lodge and ski the maze–a criss-crossing weave of easier groomed trails–for miles, or we can do the three-mile Bishop’s Loop. There are endless options for distance and difficulty. We can gradually take more difficult trails, or not. To be fair, our oldest kids already love to ski down Good Luck (appropriately named), a moderate to difficult hill from the top of the mountain down closer to the lodge. The hardest part now for them is getting up the hill!
And while it’s not easy, and we can’t do five or six mile workouts (yet), we can actually take the baby along, too. Ski trailers or pulks enable skiers to pull up to fifty pounds. Our little cupcake is barely twenty-five pounds soaking wet, and we have awesome friends who loaned us their trailer, so she gets to slide along with us. The last time we went, she was so warm and cozy by the end of our time that she actually fell asleep.
And can somebody say hot cocoa? We so enjoy sitting around together with steaming mugs of chocolate bliss, topped with swirls of real whipped cream, after we’ve all finished a good ski workout in the woods, faces pink and muscles burning. That sugar really perks us up after we’ve burned off thousands of calories. And marshmallows are awesome.
5. XC encourages us to persevere.
The last month or so has been challenging for me, personally. The frostbite diagnosis, and exhortations to not get my hands cold, effectively ended my chances to ski during January. (As an aside, do you know how hard it is to prevent cold hands when you use water, reach into the fridge or freezer, move wet laundry to the dryer, or any number or regular household tasks? I now have renewed respect for people with extra cold sensitivity in their hands.) And the New Year, with all the positive exhortations to start over with a blank slate, emphasized again to me that I am, physically, empty–I am not pregnant when we had expected last fall that I was. I was surprised to find myself grieving again early in 2019.
But skiing has been a gift this winter–an experience I enjoy immensely, with my husband and with my children, and with friends, and a reminder that silver linings always exist. Right after my molar pregnancy, our caring and optimistic seven-year-old daughter told me, “Well, at least you can go skiing, Mom.” If an adult had told me that, I probably would have slapped him. But my girl knew how much I loved the outdoors, and being out in the snow, and she had put together that pregnancy effectively ends Mom’s opportunities to ski. If we were expecting a baby now, I would not be skiing. And that would be okay. But since we are not, at least I can enjoy XC. And that’s something I cherish.
And there’s this, too. Remember Anderson’s question “So why would anyone do [XC]?” Here’s his loquacious answer (warning: some language).
“Because cross-country skiers are existential heroes in goggles and tights. Instead of offering us distraction — the glittery melodrama of figure skating or the quirky novelty of curling — cross-country skiers lean right into a bleak truth: We are stranded on a planet that is largely indifferent to us, a world that sets mountains in our path and drops iceballs from 50,000 feet and tortures our skin with hostile air. There is no escaping it; the only noble choice is to strap on a helmet and slog right in. Cross-country skiing expresses something deep about the human condition: the absolute, nonnegotiable necessity of the grind. The purity and sanctity of the goddamn slog.”
We’re not existential heroes–that’s kind of funny, actually. We’re regular people who have tried something new and enjoy it. But there’s no doubt cross-country skiing embodies the kind of discipline and self-control that encourages us to remain faithful under hardship. To paraphrase St. Paul, we do not ski as those skiing aimlessly, for our ultimate hope lies in an imperishable prize. It would be hilariously tragic if, say, by skiing God deemed us righteous. What kind of a God would judge us by our works–even by our XC skills? Instead, we know that
[Since] we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Personally, it’s been really fulfilling for us to learn how to ski–to not only stay upright consistently, but to be humbled and challenged, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When we started skiing last November, I took two of our kids out for the first time in about eight months. They completed three miles–and they were exhausted. They were also thrilled at what God enabled their bodies to accomplish.
And it’s not just the kids who are energized by perseverance on the trails. When Jon and I skied part of the Biathlon course the other day, we stopped briefly at the top of a steep, curving hill. “Do you remember this one?” Jon asked me. I sure did. Last year, I attempted to ski down the hill three times without being able to make it without falling (more like spectacularly wiping out). I hesitantly tried it, following a safe distance behind Jon, but I didn’t dig in enough on the turn and made a whirling, ski-in-the-air spin as I landed on my tush. My direct intrapersonal quote as I descended was, “I think I’m going to make it! … And I’m not.”
But I didn’t get bruised or at all, so Jon asked if I wanted to try again. The next time, I went first, carefully pizza-wedging my skis to slow myself down and zig-zagging carefully as the hill grew steeper before the sharp right-turn plunge. I reached the spot where I’d fallen the first time, dug in extra hard, and all of a sudden, I knew I was going to make it–and I felt exhilarated. I couldn’t stop myself from jubilantly yelling, my voice echoing through the quiet trees.
We will never be great skiers–or at least, I won’t be. But we want to enjoy skiing, and our kids to enjoy it, for a long time. It ties us to the past, connects us to this particular place, keeps us physically fit, strengthens our family, and encourages us to persevere–and all in the winter, no less! May you find a way to immerse yourselves in something similar as you trek through life.
So much of life involves the careful, absentminded completion of tasks. Take wiping the table. I must pay attention to the congealing syrup; to the crumbs teetering precariously on the edge of the wood, and others scattered on the bench; to the construction paper projects threatened by stray threads of moist streaks. Yet as I watch and wipe, I am free to also engage in a life of the mind. Marveling at the solidifying powers of sugar. Thinking how one material can take on numerous forms, in physical matter and in spiritual. Pondering Ezekiel’s anguish over God’s coming judgement and the prophet’s simultaneous obedience to preach it. Wondering why Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot. Contemplating the tedious, hugely creative process of writing. Musing how slowly nerves at the ends of fingers regenerate–or even if they do–after frostbite.
We can resent the mundane and the petty demands on our time. Many of those things we deem interruptions of important jobs, of work that matters. I do this too often. For these tasks do matter, in and of themselves. Tables must be clean, for sanitary as well as aesthetic reasons. And cleaning one also gives me time to think on things freely, without a particular pattern and without a definite aim. With other, more demanding jobs, I otherwise would feel obligated to mentally shelve my meandering thoughts, out of deference to the Immediate and Important. So how precious are these few moments. How rich can be a simple scrub, a moment of pondering.
It is said that food tastes better when shared with loved ones. People share sustenance, conversation, and time. They share themselves. This is one reason why I love to visit my older children at school during their noon meal. They attend Mount Hope Lutheran School, a small classical Lutheran gem here in Casper. In their twenty-minute lunch time, we chat a little, squeeze in hugs, smile at each other and their school mates, and eat. I get to visit briefly with their truly amazing, conscientious teachers and other parents. It’s short but special–one of those everyday but priceless experiences that I never regret making the time to do.
Last November, a friend and fellow mom brought up the idea of making an Advent dinner for the students and teachers. Our school is not part of any school lunch program, so the only times our kids get a hot meal at noon are at pizza lunches, bi-weekly events where Little Caesar’s reigns in the kitchen. The kids love it, and we moms like the break from all the brown bagging, but it’s not exactly five-star cuisine.
Lunch ladies–and gentlemen, though they are few and far between–hold a warm place in my heart. My maternal grandmother worked for years as a school cook. She was born and raised on a farm, and fed and nourished five children, as well as family and friends on a regular basis, so preparing food for crowds was a natural love language for her. “What can I get you to eat? You must be hungry,” she’d say to us at any possible opportunity, pulling out food–ham, potatoes, all kinds of dessert–at midnight when we’d arrive at her house after the long road trip to visit.
And it wasn’t just my grandma. At one small public elementary school I attended in Kentucky, the two or three lunch ladies were beloved–they made either giant homemade cinnamon rolls or yeast rolls every Wednesday, and they were gentle and friendly, just like Grandma. One gentleman at a former congregation, Tony, was a long time school cook, an amazing chef, and one of the genuinely nicest guys I’ve ever met. Another dear lady at yet another congregation, Lydia, was also a legendary school cook. She nearly single-handedly ran the large old-fashioned supper the church hosted as a fundraiser every year, with baked ham, raw apple cake and apple butter, and Lydia’s famous Schnitzel Beans always making an appearance. She never shared the bean recipe with anyone, not even my mother who asked for it several times, until she met my husband Jon. In Lydia’s bridal shower card to me, she inserted several hand-written recipes, and one of them was for her beans.
All this is to say that I thought my friend Athena’s idea was a great one. Athena is a warm and enthusiastic lady, and like my grandmother, one of her love languages is to cook delicious food for large groups. She offered to make turkey and gravy and chicken nuggets–because let’s face it, she understands kid food proclivities–and a giant pan of her homemade macaroni and cheese. Another dear friend, Lisa, offered to provide chocolate milk–always a treat–and oodles of cut-up carrots and cucumbers. I offered to make chocolate-chip cookies (from premade dough), homemade yeast rolls, a small batch of mashed potatoes, and Lydia’s beans. The bread recipe was one my mother shared with me years ago that I grew up eating at Thanksgiving and other holidays, so it just seemed fitting. The potatoes were for the small number of kids who didn’t like mac and cheese, and the beans–well, they have bacon, an obvious plus, and Lydia would be tickled to know they were served to Lutheran school kids.
On the day of the Advent dinner, we met up at school in the gym, which doubles as a lunchroom, with our haul. Athena had thought to bring festive tablecloths and napkins, and our younger kids and another mom helped set the tables. We’d timed all the baking down to the minute, prayed with Athena that the turkey would be cooked through but not dry, set aside the few rolls that fell off the tray into asphalt when I opened the van door, and lined all the food along the counter in a sequence we thought would be best. We were excited and a little bit nervous–would everything go smoothly?
The teachers and students came in silently, as usual, and when all the classes had arrived, we all prayed together. Then the kids lined up at the window, and we learned fast why lots of hands are useful. The kids had options–turkey, dark or white, or nuggets or both? Gravy? Macaroni and cheese? Veggies? We quickly moved to one person placing bread and some veggies on each plate, with two of us filling plates for individual students per their requests, instead of each of us asking the same kid different questions. The students were overwhelmed with the choices, most of them quietly delighted with the food. The nuggets and mac were highly popular, as were the rolls. But the beans started going and were gone before I knew it–the potatoes, too. Lydia and my Grandma would have been delighted.
Just when we thought we wouldn’t be able to keep up, the line was finished. Several teachers and volunteers, including two pastors and the headmistress, came through. We filled our own plates and sat in the lunchroom with our children, sopping up messes with our paper napkins, relaxing in the happy din of a shared meal.
People in our culture are often overwhelmed by the thought of hosting a party or preparing large quantities of food for others. And yet homes built for “entertaining,” lavish television shows and ubiquitous media dedicated to food and sharing it surround us. We all want a shared table and are so often afraid to try to make one. In those times and places I have felt most loved around a table, the material evidences of such love are simple: hot food, offered frequently, with loved ones. That’s it. Well-chosen decorations are icing on the cake. The real value lies in the sharing itself.
While we tried to give the teachers and students something special, there was nothing particularly fantastic about our meal. Rather, we wanted to give them those simple ingredients of what we have so loved about eating with friends at school and other places: hot food and togetherness. My favorite part of our Advent dinner was seeing the kids’ faces at the window. It was visceral–my hands covered in plastic gloves, placing beans dripping from a spoon or gooey macaroni on their plates, their hands taking their plates, splooshing ketchup next to their nuggets.
There are countless reasons why I love Mount Hope, and I will blog about more of them in the future, but a big one is that it is a family. Teachers give abundantly of themselves to our whole family and to the other students and their families, and vice versa. We share laughter and tears, countless planning and learning and striving. We share services in the Chapel, partaking of our Lord together, and we share meals in the gym. It is more precious than I can express.
During Christmas and now Epiphany, we remember Christ’s incarnation, His coming to us in the flesh as a little child. During Epiphany, we will hear of the Kings who came to honor him, the Gentiles who were the forerunners of others who would come to know Him out of the great, wide world, who knew that He was the One who would reconcile them, the outsiders, to God. They touched him, knowing that He would open His hand to them, and He fed them, just as He feeds us. What a great and awesome wonder is this.