A Good Wilderness seeks to help Lutherans and other Christians cultivate faithful community and learn how to live in lonely places. One of the ways we can do this is by hearing from other Christians who own businesses, write and publish, or share life experiences that can give us insights, encouragement, and hope. You can find these interviews here at “Over My Neighbor’s Fence.”
We were horrified. Faithful Christians had been maimed and slaughtered as they celebrated our Lord’s resurrection. And we also feared for our good friends, Edward and Monica and their children, who live in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Edward is a missionary. Over the next days, they communicated with family and friends about their experiences, and I asked Monica to share them here. Below is a lightly edited email interview.
Give us a brief description of who you are and why you’re in Sri Lanka.
My husband, Rev. Dr. Edward Naumann, is a called Theological Educator of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In this capacity he has been teaching seminary courses, managing a small publishing house, and mentoring some colloquy students, among many other things. I get to stay at home and care for our six children. Formerly, I spent eight years working as a Family Nurse Practitioner in charity clinics around the United States.
What was your experience on Easter Sunday?
Our home congregation in Sri Lanka is about a twenty minute drive from our home across the city of Colombo. However, this Easter my husband wanted to visit a pastor he is currently colloquizing or mentoring, Father Ariarathane. Father Ariarathane’s congregation is in a small Sinhalese (the term for the majority population of native Sri Lankans) village about a 2.5 hours’ drive from Colombo.
We left at approximately 6:45am to start our drive to the village. We arrived with a few minutes to spare and were offered tea by our gracious hosts. People started filing in slowly as the service began. Eventually the church was full as Edward began his sermon which was translated into Sinhala. I distinctly remember Edward preaching about the persecution the church would face, which I presumed was referring to persecution from the Buddhists. (Christians are approximately 7% of the Sri Lankan population, while Buddhists are 70%.) Following the sermon, there were three infant baptisms. This is remarkable because previously the congregation had done infant dedications only. There was no font, so baptisms took place in a small inflatable, plastic pool outside. Edward was honored to baptize two babies, speaking the words in Sinhala.
As the service ended, we were ushered back to the pastor’s home directly next to the church. We were served a traditional Sri Lankan lunch: rice, chicken curry, lentils, and several vegetable side dishes. Edward caught my eye over lunch and said he didn’t know if we could return to Colombo. He had received a text during the service which notified him of the explosions that happened at several churches and hotels in Colombo. We spent the next hour deciding whether we should risk going back to Colombo, or simply stay at a hotel near the village. We were completely unprepared to spend the night anywhere, so eventually we decided to risk the drive back.
As we drove back, we received two phone calls from another pastor in Colombo notifying us of two additional explosions that happened, one close to our church, and one close to our home. Still we pressed on. Along the way, we had to drive through Negombo, a city just north of Colombo where a church bombing occurred. On the main road is a hospital where many of the victims were taken. Military guards and a crowd of people had gathered outside. Yet all the roads remained opened. By the grace of God, we arrived safely at home by the late afternoon.
What’s been the most scary aspect of your experience? And what’s been the most hopeful?
Never have I personally felt targeted in such a direct manner. The places attacked in Sri Lanka were Christian and/or places for foreigners; I am both. (“Foreigner” is a commonly used term in Sri Lanka identifying anyone not native to Sri Lanka. Foreigners are very often singled out and treated differently, both for good and for bad.) The hotels attacked in Colombo are places our family has been. Two of the three hotels that were bombed are places we have been in the past two months. In fact, we were in one of the bombed hotels having brunch just the week before on Palm Sunday. That’s scary for me to think about–how easy it would have been for us to have been victims.
At the time of this writing, many arrests have been made and blame has been placed on an Islamic terrorist group. While the threat has not been eliminated and life has not returned back to normal–for instance, our children haven’t returned to their school, which has been closed temporarily–I have hope that it will eventually. This is our home now, and we pray for stability.
What kind of response did you get from family, friends, and supporters in the US and elsewhere?
The response has been remarkable. Shortly after the attacks, the government shut down Facebook and WhatsApp. But even before the social media shut down, I received many messages asking if we were okay, some from people I have not heard from in years! I have received many messages since then, but have not been able to read them because the messages are blocked. Several people have reached out via email and text. It’s been overwhelming to receive so much concern and support.
How has this experience made you reflect upon your expat/missionary life? What do you want people who care about their Christian brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka to know?
In many ways, I feel guilty for all the attention and concern we have received, since our lives and health have been spared. All we have faced are minor inconveniences, which pale in comparison to the heart wrenching losses some of our brothers and sisters in Christ experienced and are facing. It will take a long time for Christians here to grieve and learn to live with this tragedy and what it might portend.
How can people support you and your ministry, other missionaries in Sri Lanka, or those suffering after the bombings?
I ask for people’s prayers for the courage of Sri Lankan Christians. Many people (Christians and non-Christians) are living in fear now of further attacks. Many churches have cancelled their Sunday services three days in advance. But this is precisely the time when we must show courage to attend corporate worship and demonstrate forgiveness and love for our enemies. Sri Lankan Christians have been given a tremendous platform at the moment; the world is paying attention to a small minority group in an obscure country. This is an amazing opportunity to share the Gospel message of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. So Sri Lankan Christians must act with courage and love while the world is watching. Rarely is there such a poignant time as this, that Christians can act their faith rather than just speak their faith.
To find out more information about Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod missionaries in Sri Lanka, visit here. To support Rev. Edward Naumann’s mission work, please visit here.
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.
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has burned this Holy Week. The world watched the flickering heat lick and then consume the roof of the eight-hundred-year-old church, then, horrified, witnessed the spire falling. In our secular, postmodern world, why did the sight of flames devouring an old building, particularly a church, move so many? What are we to learn from this?
The historic value of Notre Dame, of course, explains part of our grief. Anyone who cherishes the study of the past and the relics, holy or otherwise, that mark it knows the incalculable worth of a Gothic structure like Notre Dame. Though the cathedral will be rebuilt, no amount of money, however philanthropically gifted, and no amount of architectural purity can replace what has been lost. Preservationists across the globe will be further disheartened to learn that part of the rebuilding will include a design contest rather than a reconstruction of what previously stood. I shudder to think of the result.
But Christians grieve over the loss of Notre Dame for more than its historical design and consequence. More than one commentator has noted the symbolic significance of the burning cathedral, from “The End of Christendom” to “Hope in the Ruins” (to mention just two takes). Those of us who notice the increased secularization of our culture, and the emptying and closing of our churches, know that the fire represents what has been happening to many churches, only the burn and smoke and destruction has more often been slow and subtle than fast and noticeable.
The transcendence of time by eternity, and by Christ as the incarnation of eternity in time, is suggested by the stability and durability of the church. An effective church building is a manifestation of tradition, and tradition is more than just the dead accumulation of custom; it is a living organism that overcomes time and death by a process of continual regeneration and gradual creative development. The church building, if it achieves permanence simply by resisting change and being preserved over centuries, might be no more than a museum or monument. But if it is built to last and is sustained from within by a community of worshippers then its permanence becomes a true reflection of eternity.
Caldecott rightly emphasizes the importance of devout worshippers. Too many of our churches have become merely museums and monuments (or even condos or bars or nightclubs), empty of people confessing Christ. The living organism of a community of faithful believers gathering around His Word and Sacrament has long been tepid or absent at too many Christian churches, even great, old ones like Notre Dame. This is why even Lutherans like me are sad at the news this week. Burning churches bespeak of both lost holy places and lost souls.
Joshua Gibbs noted this ecumenical mourning of Notre Dame in the Circe Institute “The Cedar Room” blog this week. “The loss of Notre Dame, or huge portions of it, stings even the Protestant and Orthodox Christian because cathedrals are physical manifestations that worship is one of the human things,” he wrote. “Cathedrals are silent arguments and wordless syllogisms which make it easier to believe. … Yes, Christianity will go on. No, no one died. Nonetheless, a very old and very good thing which testified to the power of piety and the sanity of beauty has been irreparably marred.” We cannot take for granted either our faith or the witness of our faith through physical materials of wood and stone when we see smoldering ruins, ash and dust that remind of us of Earth’s mortality and our own.
Which brings me to Holy Week. We began this Lent with Ash Wednesday, our somber reflection with King Solomon that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). This week we remember how our incarnate Lord, God made flesh, gave and gives His body and blood to us, and how He suffered crucifixion before He died. As we think about the burning of Notre Dame, let us also meditate upon its “Gothic floorplan [which] echoed the form of Christ’s human body on the Cross, and the distance between heaven and earth… in vertical elongation” (Caldecott 104). We must go to our own churches to hear and receive the Truth embodied in Christ, that though time will inevitably take its toll on us, moving us inexorably to the dust, we know that earthly death is not our end because it was not His end. An Architect and His mortal yet immortal Son remain our permanent hope.
Note to readers: I love looking up recipes online when I’m cooking. But it annoys me to scroll through a bunch of commentary, videos, ads, and random detritus to get to an actual recipe. So I’m going to reverse all that when I share recipes. Instead, I’m going to post them first. That way, if you’re like me and short on time and patience, you can go ahead and use it. If you’ve got more time and a desire to read my rambling love note to a particularly delicious food, then you can just scroll on down past the recipe. 🙂
As a family of eight, we have mostly adjusted to the fact that we are that family. That family with the giant van with a million kids spilling out of it (usually some with our genes and some without. Hey, it’s basically like a party bus). That family with the laundry that never, ever ends. That family with all the noise, noise, noise, noise from all the boys, toys, and joys of screeching energetic kids (including the girls). And finally, that family that goes through so. much. food.
I’ve learned that there are perks to cooking huge portions for basically every meal. First, if you’re going to chop a bunch of vegetables, you might as well chop a little more, which will double the servings and maximize your efforts. Second, it’s easy to invite over extra people to eat because–hey!–there’s a ton of food, and that’s one big hurdle down for hosting. And who doesn’t love some hot soup and freshly baked bread on a snowy evening (hey, we’re in Wyoming, where it snows until at least May)? That’s right–nobody we know!
This is all a long way of saying that if you want to have enough soup for ten people and still be able to freeze an ice-cream bucket amount of leftovers, then this is your recipe!
I started making minestrone soup at around 11:00 in the morning, intending to let it simmer most of the afternoon. But I realized after tripling it that the leftovers would be abundant, even for our family. So at 3:00 in the afternoon, I asked Jon if we could invite some friends over. Being the great man that he is, and not having any particular responsibilities that night in the kitchen, he said yes. I texted my friend, she consulted her husband, they rounded up the kids, and around 5:30 they were at our house.
I love soup. Like really, really love it. I’ll try not to repeat myself here as to why I love it so much, but suffice it to say that it’s cheap, hearty, delicious, and hot. Four awesome reasons to eat it!
I have a few criteria when I make soup for my family and others.
First, the soup must taste great. As a wedding gift, a dear church lady and her daughter gave me the Taste of Home‘s Contest Winning Annual Recipes 2004(affiliate link). I’d received some other Taste of Home cookbooks as a newlywed, but this one is by far my favorite. After fifteen years, I can honestly say that it is worth far more to me than the-less-than-$7 you can buy it for from Amazon. Why? Because it’s got some recipes in it that have never failed me, including soup recipes!
In the absence of my mother and other amazing, experienced cooks I knew, Taste of Home gave me home-run recipes when I really didn’t know what I was doing in the kitchen. My mother-in-law got me a subscription to the TOH magazine about ten years ago, and my recipe box still holds cut-outs from those issues. Even fifteen years later, that cookbook, those magazine remnants, and Taste of Home website continue to provide me and mine with the kind of heart-warming food that makes you think of, well, home and love and all good things having to do with belonging. High cuisine it is not, but if I’ve learned anything from both cooking and hosting, it’s that most people don’t want super fancy when they eat. They want big portions and good taste. Which is a long way of saying that many of my good soup foundations, including my minestrone, a variation of one I found at TOH, are indebted to lots of other cooks.
Second, the soup must stand on its own–meaning it’s got to be more meat than broth. I learned early on in my marriage that Jon didn’t really like soup. But when I pressed him on why, his answer made sense: he liked the substance over the broth, and many soups he’d had were, well, weak on the substance. He’s a man who doesn’t tend to like food that’s, well, watery. So I collected soup recipes that were hearty, or my husband wasn’t happy. With a bunch of cooked chicken, this soup already stood a good chance of winning his favor (emphasis on “bunch” over “chicken.” The man likes mostly red meat. What can I say?)
To quickly make some chicken breasts, I often the Pioneer Woman’s hack that she shared for her chicken tortilla soup. Basically, you spray a cookie sheet with non-stick spray, throw some cut-up chicken breasts on it, sprinkle it with some seasonings like salt (I like to use Lowry’s), garlic powder, Italian seasoning or rosemary (my personal choice)–whatever your preference is! Then bake them in a 375 degree oven for about fifteen minutes. Like the PW, I make a ton–even more than my minestrone recipe calls for!–so I have leftover baked chicken breast for salads, toppings for pasta, and more.
I love red meat, too–I mean, we live in Wyoming, so our freezer has not only beef, but elk and bison and venison, and probably some other kinds of meat I’m forgetting right now. But chicken can be used for so many things and made ahead for more than one meal! And for recipes like this soup, I end up with extra cooked poultry. It’s a win-win.
Third, the soup must include at least a few–if not many–vegetables. I’m a mom, so I’m fairly conscientious about providing my kids with healthy options (cookies are not a food group, though they’d argue otherwise). My kids are used to meals with veggies, and one-pot soups like this with lots of veggies mean it’s almost impossible for them to eat without swallowing some healthy goodness. Most of them don’t like the zucchini, but that’s okay. They’ll still get tomatoes, and peas, and green beans, and….you get the picture.
So that’s it for good soup. Good taste, lots of meat and fillings, particularly vegetables, and we’ve got a hearty, crowd-pleasing meal. And, of course, this minestrone scores in all three categories. It’s simple and filling and there’s lots of it. So yes, we’ve already eaten the ice cream bucket of leftovers, too.
After baking the chicken, chopping the veggies, throwing in the spices, and letting it all simmer together for a few hours, I made some quick French bread to go with the soup. That’s another recipe for another time–you can look forward to that one!–but it’s an easy side that pairs well with soup. Plus, the smell of home-baked bread always wins over guests. Or maybe that’s just me.
I didn’t have time between picking up the kids from school and doing the homework tango to make a dessert to share with our friends, but wouldn’t you know, they didn’t care. We just enjoyed eating bowl after bowl and catching up on work doings, summer plans, and kid foibles (okay, sins. Kids are sinners! Hey, we’re Lutherans and call sin what it is).
So if you, like us, are experiencing the last, furious vestiges of winter weather this early spring, make this delicious minestrone soup. Better yet, make it and invite over some neighbors in need of hot food and caring company. It doesn’t get much better than full stomachs and full hearts.
“Your dad and I are going to build that sandbox,” my husband said to me unexpectedly a few days ago.
I was surprised, but pleasantly so. Jon and I had discussed converting an empty flower bed on the north side of our house in our backyard to a sandbox since we’d moved in nearly two years ago, but other projects and priorities always cropped up. Plus, with my parents visiting for just over a week, and the weather sunning us with spring, Jon had both the help in my father, Steve, and the weather to actually enjoy crafting and building.
Dad learned young how to build. His father, my grandfather Charles, built and remodeled several homes when Dad was young, and Dad literally got his hands dirty with hammers and nails, wood and sawdust through his childhood. Some of his experiences are family legend, like the time Dad took copper tubing from Grandpa’s stash to build a bathroom in his tree house. “It was just sitting there,” Dad says facetiously. Suffice it to say, Grandpa was beyond furious to discover what Dad had done. The now-corroded tubing–because of course Dad had to test the plumbing, performing the kind of boy experiment outdoors that any boy can imagine, peeing down a pipe–was useless for the actual plumbing Grandpa had intended for the tubing. Dad got a sound whipping for that one. “And I never could get that plumbing to work,” he jokes. “Not a drop ever reached the ground. There must’ve been too many leaks.”
Dad eventually graduated to more sophisticated projects, including buying an old house and flipping it, his sweat equity in that remodel resulting in the down payment for my parents’ first home. He earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture, and though he ended up in the energy business, every single one of my childhood abodes were improved with Dad’s design or muscle, and usually both. A new heat pump (hey, energy efficiency is key!); a garage converted to a family room and half-bath; an added-on garage, front door entry nook, and sun room; a pantry conversion and tile flooring; a basketball pad in a backyard; finishing basements–these are just some of the major construction projects I remember as a kid that Dad tackled and finished. That’s not even considering all the cosmetic work of wallpapering or dewallpapering; painting; landscape design, and much more. Dad always said, “Leave a house better than you found it.” And he did. And yes, my mother is a very patient woman. Suffice it to say, her willingness to live in a construction site has pretty much disappeared after nearly forty years–and countless home projects–of marriage.
So Jon and I have also benefited from Dad’s expertise. Over the last fifteen years, Jon has learned to wire lighting and other basic electrical outlets under Dad’s direction. With the help of another extremely handy church member, Jon helped build a porch that Dad designed for our first house. He and Dad have built egress window covers, put in above-stall garage storage with pull-down stairs, and installed under-cabinet lighting together, among other things. It’s an assumed part of visits anymore, that Jon will do some kind of house or yard project with Dad.
Men need to build and keep things, and they need other men to do this. God told Adam to work and keep the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), and since the Fall, men have been sweating over tools and the ground. It’s a mark of sin, that sweat, but God always intended Adam to toil, because the work of our hands with the earth and material God has given us is a blessing.
And men learn from and cherish work done with other men. Jon’s grandfather, Heinz, was a carpenter, and Jon had learned something of basic building and tools from him. He’s appreciated having his father-in-law to teach him and, more importantly, to serve as a resource and encouragement while Jon figures out all matter of handyman jobs. While Jon learns a lot from YouTube videos (how to install an all-house humidifier onto our heater was the latest), he needs other guys to call for insight and inspection.
Building and preserving things are a vital and truly enriching part of life. Most of what Jon does involves improvement–making our home more efficient, fixing needed repairs–but Jon also has improved himself by learning different skills over time. Men, in particular, need the transition from pursuit to maintaining and building, Brett McKay writes in “The Crux of Adulthood: From Choosing and Pursuing to Maintaining and Building” at The Art of Manliness. “While the pleasure of pursuit is in getting something, period,” says McKay, “the pleasure of building comes in getting better at something.”
And so Jon and Dad got better yesterday by building a sandbox. They planned, and measured, and sweat (a little). They moved dirt and rock and cut wood and stapled on landscape fabric. They even built a little bench for the box. They spent time together. It was a small project, all things considered. But our kids will love it, and Jon and Dad now have the sweet pleasure of knowing they built it, themselves, with their own hands. May all men know such gratifying work.
Nebraska has been hit hard recently with epic flooding, and the waters aren’t just affecting roads, homes, and lives. More than one-third of the costs–about $3 billion dollars, officials estimate— from the 2019 disaster are to agriculture. That financial burden will not help rural counties largely dependent upon farming. They already face population decline, a decline that is not likely to reverse anytime soon.
We have witnessed the devastation to the land and to local communities in the last few days, as we’ve visited friends in the northwest Panhandle and met up with family in Grand Island, in south central Nebraska. Endless miles of prairie, scores of wandering cattle, the ravages of angry waters, and many, many abandoned homes and farms–those left behind long before the floods arrived–dot the countryside from Sioux to Hall counties. Driving through these desolate areas, under a continuous gray sky, made me sad. As a granddaughter of farmers, I appreciate the desire to make something of the land that lasts, a legacy that won’t be forgotten. So many people and so much history has happened here, and crumbling, weather-beaten structures slowly falling into the dirt embodies the kind of end none of us want to see for ourselves or our children.
But Nebraskans are historically resilient, and they’re also realistic. While they enjoy the fruits of their labors when they come, they also stoically accept the vicissitudes of time and success that inevitably ebb and flow. One of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, was an early twentieth century author famous for her pioneer depictions of the rugged state, and she understood the fleeting and fickle nature of farm life on the plains. As one of her stalwart heroines, Alexandra, put it in O Pioneers!:
The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it–for a little while.”
O Pioneers! (you can order it here) was first published in 1913, over one hundred years ago. Not much has changed, it seems.
So while this particular Cornhusker wilderness might seem like a lost cause in the eyes of much of the world, its value lies in its ongoing existence. People will be born here and die here; some will leave and some will stay. Corn will continue to be planted, sown, and detasseled here, and cattle will roam its rolling, grassy hills. Rain will fall and dry up while some souls tough out life on land that will remain as long as God deems it good. Those are the stories worth telling–the ones that reveal to us the hardship and poignant glory of this life’s struggles, in lonely, vivid, and real places.
This piece first appeared in the “Thoughts in the Heartland” column, which I wrote for several years, in the March 9, 2016 edition of the Pipestone County Star. I have edited it slightly here.
With the recent wave of warmer weather, northern prairie staters like Minnesotans can begin to think of outdoor pursuits with a little less affectation of duty and perhaps, even, a little hope. Rapidly melting snow piles, the reappearance of grass (and a meager but valiant green at that), and sunshine that actually warms the skin all make these first days of spring days to be—dare I say it?— celebrated rather than merely observed.
In the meantime, though, we will hide our budding optimism about the change of seasons with typical western aplomb: that mix of a careful acknowledgment of good things and simultaneous grumping about all the mess that comes with it. For spring, as we all know, is both glorious and a big, fat mud puddle.
I was reminded of this recently when my kids spent some time outside. I was delighted that they could partake of the golden rays and the fresh air without the need for countless layers of waterproofed clothing that always end up soaked anyway. I was thrilled that my husband could get out their bicycles and wagon and toys that had been stowed away for the winter and that they could exercise their cabin-fevered muscles with vigor. But as Dr. Seuss might say, oh, the mess, mess, mess mess! The mucky shoes and boots, the cruddy pant hems, the crust, the grime, the sludge! My heart fainted a little at seeing these familiar marks, and streaks, and tracks, and residue of late winter.
It is a truth all parents know that small children can leave
evidence of their presence virtually anywhere, and when the fertile earth
cooperates with their heedless, hearty play, well, there’s just no stopping the
mess. I have found mud on trim, on walls, even the ceiling (don’t ask. Just
imagine how an impatient kid will try to kick off an extra muddy boot, and I’m
sure your imagination will fill in the details). After years of spring
springing right into the house along with the kids, I’m learning to be fairly
resilient about the unending grime even when the mud parade seems to find
corners in its route I didn’t think were possible (see above). Knowing that
this season is short-lived helps, as does my favorite escape: clean, fresh
bedsheets scented with lavender.
Perhaps like many of you, I have memories of playing among sheets hanging from clotheslines, my mother or grandmother (or both) with pins in their mouths and damp piles in their arms as I ran among the lines. Of course, we kids weren’t technically allowed to touch the laundry for obvious reasons, but we must have transgressed when the sheets were dry and less prone to catch the dust from our busy, dirty fingers. That’s when the wind would better catch the fabric anyway and blow them around us, like a parachute happily flapping in an energetic breeze.
Much of the appeal of the sheets lies in their lovely scent. Is there any better smell than freshly laundered cotton blowing in a strong spring breeze? If there is, it’s one that goes along with it: the cool, refreshing fragrance of lavender. For thousands of years, people have used the purple dried flowers in perfume and preservation, and yes, to place in clean laundry. Not only do they share their scent easily; they also ward off that perennial enemy of stored fabric—the moth. Some years ago, I received a lavender spray that I periodically use when I’m making up beds for guests, or for us when I’m feeling particularly extravagant. Such a soothing aroma! It’s a whiff of spring, and one notably without the season’s muddy residue. I feel relaxed just thinking about it.
After all, lavender receives its name from the Latin root “lavere,” which means to wash. It’s a fitting antidote to the grimy muck that spring necessitates, and even to the work that spring requires. Turning soil and preparing to plant is messy, and a good mess—even this fanatical mud-adverse homemaker can admit that. After all, food and fragrant plants must be cultivated. But all the more lovely is the clean-up after the sweaty and excellent outdoor efforts, like the promise of rest after hard work.
So as the Chinook winds approach, and the dirt stirs up, and the mud clings, and the earth awakens again, I will take a deep breath, savoring the promise of spring. I will rejoice, and pray, and give thanks. I will roll up my sleeves, grab my sponges, and scrub. And I will look forward to sleeping in lavender-scented sheets.
How can you say there are too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.
Spring has sprung, and with it will soon come flowers. And flowers make me think of children–mainly, the children God has given to Jon and I.
Next week our baby turns two. We’re shocked about this the way most parents are, that time has turned our helpless, fragile newborn into a thriving, talking, moving toddler. We love her so much. And I find myself wondering a little, too. A few months ago, we expected to soon hold another sweet baby. But another child was not in God’s divine plan for us in 2019. So this is the first time one of our children will turn two and we do not have another baby in utero or a newborn in arms.
That fact all by itself usually provokes a shocked response from people: “Wow.” And it is truly amazing. How blessed I have been by God to have the privilege of bearing, birthing, breastfeeding, and bundling up six babies, and all of them in less than ten years. It’s been a blur at times, that’s absolutely certain–there are periods in there that I don’t quite remember. But these years have also been overwhelmingly good. Jon and I are so grateful for what we have. Our family garden, so to speak, has abundantly multiplied and grown, and like good farmers, we thank the only One who has the ability to create and sustain life. We are merely receivers of His great generosity.
With our larger-than-normal family, we get questions sometimes. “Did you always want a big family?” “How do you do it?” and the niggling one that most people wonder: “Are you open to more children?” At least, that’s the tactful way questioners put it. Others phrase it as our cultural is wont to, in terms of choices and personal desires: “Do you want any more children?”
We can answer this with a short response, and we usually do. We say something like, “We’re open to as many as God wants to give us.” Another version we’ve shared is “We’ve left that in God’s hands.” Both of these answers imply our heartfelt feelings, hopefully, that we do, in fact, love children, both our own and the idea of more.
Our answer, and our life, is weird to most people. That’s why we get questions to begin with. Our culture doesn’t understand our family or our perspective on children, because our culture idolizes control and autonomy and definitely–definitely–human ways to avoid children at almost any cost.
Because of this, our short answer isn’t really enough to explain to people where we’re coming from in terms of children. If we had time, we’d sit down and chat for a few hours about God’s gift of fertility. That’s not possible in a grocery store checkout line, but it is possible on a blog! So if you’re curious and want to know the extended version of why we’ve welcomed children so readily into our family, read ahead.
The Typical Marriage Start
Jon and I have been blessed with nearly fifteen years of marriage. In the last ten, we have become one of “those” families—one that people smile at in parks, gawk at in stores, and probably run away from in airports and other confined spaces.
But in the first few years, we looked like many young married Americans. We didn’t have kids.
This wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned growing up. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted a big family. The play “Cheaper By the Dozen” and a number of books influenced my thinking, as did my loving, supportive parents who cared for me and my two siblings and made a wonderful home for us. I am also sure that God gave me a natural and good desire for a Godly husband and children during numerous babysitting jobs and summer camp counseling. Before Jon and I met, he, too, hoped God would give him a Godly wife and children—though he didn’t quite visualize a half-dozen children in his future. But on one of our first dates, when I mentioned I’d like six sons, he said, “That’s enough for a basketball team and a sixth man.” And he meant that in a good way! Suffice it to say that I was relieved that I hadn’t scared him off.
But in 2004, Jon and I were influenced by cultural norms, even among many Christians, regarding birth control. In particular, I was pretty sure we weren’t “ready” right away for children. I thought that we needed time to “get used to one another.” I was sure I needed to work at least a little bit to use my expensive undergraduate education and help out with the bills. I was confident of any number of popular ideas about early marriage that circulate, most of which involve materialistic acquisition and experiences, like saving up for a house and all the trappings and traveling. Mostly, I was sure that I should use birth control at least in the beginning of our marriage. I didn’t feel extremely dogmatic about it, but I definitely felt like it was something we should do–because that’s just what people did. And it just made so much sense, given all of my preconceptions going into marriage. Jon agreed with me in this. My gynecologist encouraged me, of course, and the example of countless friends and relatives silently supported it.
So just before we got married, I got a prescription for a birth control patch that I would stick on my skin and change once a month (I never remembered to take vitamins every day, so I figured the patch was my best bet). I immediately started using it.
In those first few months after our wedding, Jon and I didn’t really think much at all about God when it came to preventing conception. Despite both of us being raised in Lutheran churches our entire lives, we had no clear understanding of how God intended marriage, including our marriage, to be blessed by children. We had swallowed the cultural norm, hook, line, and sinker, that while children are great, responsible, educated, married people always plan for them, and they usually don’t have more than two or three, maybe four at the maximum. Those days of thinking of a basketball team and a spare seemed naive and heedless.
But after about six months, I was ready to stop using contraception, and Jon was supportive. I didn’t like the mood swings or the feelings I had when I used it. I didn’t like the discoloration on my skin and the tight stick of the patch. I also think both of us had pricked consciences. We felt like something was missing from our marriage, and I think we’d realized that most of our rationale involving contraception revolved around fear rather than trust—hardly the way to build a Godly marriage. I wish we’d had a thorough theological conversation about it, but we didn’t–not until later. Instead, we simply realized that we wanted to be open to children instead of trying to prevent them. So I stopped using contraception. And a month or so later, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive.
A Brief Life
Those of you who are parents can understand the joy we felt at learning that new life was growing inside of me. We were thrilled. We were also kind of terrified. I began to feel exhausted and nauseated right away, and while questions about our ability to parent and provide for our child began cropping up in our minds, we were extremely thankful for our child. We told our parents and some close friends, and I bought a little book with flowers on it to record questions I had for my first prenatal appointment.
Just a few weeks later, we got a chance to really consider how precious God’s gifts are. I began bleeding, and after several doctor visits, ultrasounds, and a hospital run, we were told a blood clot was pressuring our baby’s placenta. Shortly after that, I began cramping intensely, and we knew. On April 26, 2005, our daughter died.
What could we do? Nothing. We could do nothing. Jon felt helpless. I felt like a murderer. Doctors told me that sometimes the mother’s body attacks an inutero child as something foreign. That was bad enough to hear, but some of what I learned also pointed to my recent use of the patch as a likely reason why the blood clot appeared. But regardless of the “why,” we were both overwhelmed with grief, loss, and guilt. We had been so glib, assuming we were in charge and taking life for granted. Both Jon and I, like Peter, could only plead, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
God in Christ gave us comfort during that time. When I was miscarrying in the emergency room, a gentle nurse leaned over me to check my heart rate. A gold necklace around her neck slipped from beneath her uniform and swung just before my face. On it was a crucifix. Seeing that was a lifeline for me. I knew God was with me, despite my pain and anguish, and that He fully understood physical suffering and loss.
Our wonderful pastor arrived soon after that and prayed with us. A few days later, he held a private memorial service for us at church for our child and read Martin Luther’s “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage.” Both Jon and I were deeply gratified to be reminded that our child had received Christ through me when I had received His body and blood in the Sacrament. God had formed our child, and He had taken care of her. Someday, we will see her again.
The Waiting and Hoping
Months passed. We learned to grieve alone and grieve together. Jon’s seminary studies caused us to move several times, and we prayerfully weighed big decisions involving schooling and housing. And we waited. Several years went by. We no longer used birth control, but God chose to close my womb. I didn’t recognize it at the time, probably willfully, but we were experiencing infertility. Thankfully, our desire for children gave us opportunities to learn.
Those years of wondering and waiting, praying for children, taught us many things about God and His goodness. They were hard. Doctors told us everything was normal, and so we did not pursue any special medical treatment. Every month I wondered if this month, we would be pregnant again. And every month that we weren’t, God will still reassure us of His eternal love and mercy. “Be content with what you have,” His Word reminded us. “I will never leave you nor forsake you… Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” No matter what happened, we knew this was the Truth that would sustain us.
God blessed me with greater insight during that time. I learned not to judge so quickly when I saw married women without children. I learned to be more patient and trusting of God’s will for me, for my husband, and for our marriage. I especially learned that my worth is not bound to my ability to conceive or bear children. My worth is bound in the blood of Christ, who died for all of my sins. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16).
Answering the Question–and Trusting in God’s Provision
exactly did our views on family change?
By the time our oldest son arrived in 2008, both Jon and I were so thankful to more deeply understand that he, and every child, is a gift. As the years passed, and God added to our family, we learned through long nights and busy days that He knew exactly what He was doing, even when we didn’t–and we usually didn’t, and we still don’t. By now, we have learned countless more lessons in understanding and receiving children as a gift. God knew, in our case, that we needed to suffer before we began to grasp how precious life really is. We’d heard this countless times in pro-life circles, at church, and in the Bible, but we’d been influenced by our culture into thinking about children as acquisitions, as planned, as ultimately items and objects that we could, and even should, control.
In these full days, when I’m often frazzled, the thought of more children makes me pause. I know I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy right now, and for years. I know what pregnancy is like, and all the risks and dangers involved, especially as I get older. I also know in my marrow that regardless of how exhausted or overwhelmed or frustrated we might get with our brood, we are neither in control of creating life, nor do we want to be. We’ve sailed that ship, and we have no desire to do so again. And I am so reassured to know that my subjective feelings on the subject are moot, because God knows what is best.
So when people ask, “Do you want more kids?” my immediate, heartfelt thought is “Yes, but my wants don’t matter. Only God can give life.”
We also know that what people are really asking is “Will you do anything to prevent the conception of more of your children?” And our answer is an unequivocal “No.” In fact, when people ask us, testing our clairvoyance, “Will you have any more children?” We can say with frank and candid honesty, “We don’t know.” God might bless us with more children. He also might not. Either way, we trust His provision for us, both if He opens His hand to grant new life and how He will provide for that life. He’s got us either way. We are not God, and we do not know the future. But He does, and He knows what is good for us.
(And I’ll be honest: Jon is much more willing and adept at turning the tables on curious questioners. Once or twice, he’s said, straight-faced, “We really like sex, and that’s not ending any time soon.” So be careful what you ask! :))
What Our Children Learn
Awhile back, Jon and I played the board game of Life with our older sons. On their own, the boys both chose to follow the route labeled “Family” rather the route labeled “Life.” And both were extremely excited when they “won” a son or daughter, little blue and pink pegs. “Mom!” our oldest yelled. “I had so many kids, I had to get another car!” He was thrilled at the abundance he’d been given.
The boys’ excitement and genuine joy at having a family, even in a game, was so gratifying to us. Our children are young, and they have so much to learn in terms of the great responsibility God gives to fathers and mothers. But we are so thankful that they are already learning to view children as a priceless gift.
Do I know what God has in store for us regarding family size? No. I also do not know what God has in store for us regarding earthly wealth, health, opportunities–you name it. Not surprisingly, I don’t know exactly what God has in store for us tomorrow. I can guess, but I don’t know. All I know is that He promises to provide for us and care for us, and He is faithful even unto death. I know he will open His hand as He sees fit, and we will receive what He gives.
And this is our hope as individuals, as parents, as a family, and as pro-life, proliferating people: that our children will live out the thankfulness of God’s gracious, giving hand in regards to family, freedom, and faith. We hope that they will be brave enough to live the lives before them, making choices to serve their neighbors near and far, not in the hope that their choices will save them or anyone else, but trusting in Christ, who has promised to hold each of them in His hand–guiding them, blessing them, and taking care of them.
An excellent resource for questions about Lutheranism, problems with contraception, and the blessings of procreation can be found at Lutherans and Procreation.
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.