Crucifix and hand sanitizer

Here We Stand: Lutheran Words on COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Elly Fairytale from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIRUS: No, people should definitely fight over me.

FIENE: In what way?

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

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

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

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

A Full, Blooming Fifteen Years

Jon and I celebrated a milestone last week. On August 14, 2019, like a bashful but happy, coming-into-her-own teenager, our marriage reached a gangly, blooming, and substantial fifteen years together in Christ.

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

It feels substantial, this anniversary. In part, that substance is circumstantial. Numbers ending in zero or five get more attention from us, for better or for arbitrary reasons, and this one is no different. Why does fifteen seems more special than, say, thirteen or sixteen? Because it does. So there. (Hey, I said like a teenager, right?)

And, of course, the other substance that makes us cherish this anniversary is truly weighty and special.

Jon knows how much I love pink. And roses.

That substance is a priceless combination of time, experience, and God-given perseverance.

In fifteen years together, we’ve moved seven times and lived in Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We’ve studied and completed graduate degrees. We’ve rented apartments and houses. We’ve bought and torn up a house and remodeled it over ten years. (Well, Jon remodeled. I watched and cleaned up drywall dust.) We’ve lived in another house that has needed little fixing, thank God. We won’t even count the cars we’ve gone through. Suffice it to say that we have fought and cried and kissed and made up, over moves and renovations and many other things.

We’ve grown together from husband and wife to father and mother, together. We’ve been blessed with six living children, their rambunctious energy and delight matched only–maybe–by our exhaustion. We’ve learned a lot from these gifts. We’ve learned humility and patience and stamina and frustration and unimaginable joy.

We’ve also learned suffering.

Us, one week after our miscarriage in 2005.

We lost our first child early in my pregnancy, just a few weeks after we learned we were parents, and only eight months after we said our vows. We learned to mourn together and to hope together. Three years passed before our now oldest son was born.

We have said goodbye to a mother, grandparents and other relatives and friends. Earlier in August, we said goodbye to our tiny son, Christian. We have learned, and are learning, what it means to live with pain and grief that, though it might subside, will never fully disappear in this life.

At Christian’s committal on August 9, 2019.

We have learned to appreciate God’s amazingly good gifts. Five churches have been homes to us, with scores of others offering us Jesus through the Word and Sacraments. There is no counting all of the blessings we have received through Christ’s Church and faithful believers in Him from all over this country and the world. We have learned how little we are, and yet how bountifully and thoughtfully God loves us. Our cup has truly runneth over.

We have gained gray hair and wrinkles, laugh lines and tear stains, heartaches and heart swells. We have most decidedly relished some silly moments.

Practicing goofiness in 2017.

Last Friday, we attended the wedding of a young couple. I choked and wiped away tears as we chanted Psalm 127 during the service. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. … Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Jon and I exchanged glances numerous times from opposite ends of the pew, me with the inquisitive and antsy two-year-old, he acting as pillow to a sleeping boy, with children in between us. We cherished the reminders of God’s faithfulness to us and to so many others, as He carries the crosses we bear.

Then we attended the reception, where Jon dealt with voracious and relatively mannerless children at the buffet while I recovered from our four-year-old’s missed aim in the bathroom and discovering he was wearing no underwear (there was no good explanation for this). 2004 Us would have huffed and puffed and resented the kids for cutting in on the party. 2019 Us laughed and knew that all of it, the poignant and the petty, the beauty and the mess, was the party.

Still there: my wedding ring after fifteen years.

As I sat and waited for Jon to return to the table, I admired my wedding ring. Such a small, really valueless token, in the whole scheme of things. But the fidelity and blessing it symbolizes is precious beyond price. With Christ’s guidance, the newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson, will learn how impossible their union is without their Savior and how glorious it is with Him. We’re still students at these marriage lessons, too. But after 5,482 days together, Jon and I are getting there. And God willing, we will share many, many more awkward, flourishing, and meaningful days, and years, together.

Our Weakness His Strength

Women aren’t known for boasting. As a group, we tend to avoid discussing our accomplishments out of fear of looking arrogant, because arrogance doesn’t play well. But before you think this is yet another call for women to trumpet themselves, think again.

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.

Women sharing at our Pew Sisters study.

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.

St. Paul famously wrote that Christ’s “grace is sufficient for you, for [His] power is made perfect in weakness.” None of us enjoy weaknesses–the helplessness, the lack of control, the pain, the seeming endless weight of suffering. One of the women said that Christians, though, have the advantage of knowing that God works all things for good for those who love Him, even when we can’t see or understand His ultimate plan. This is a relief, a huge transfer of whatever weaknesses we endure to the back of Him who bore all things for us.

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.

Buried with Debt–and Gratitude


Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.

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 working 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.

Photo by Alexandro David from Pexels.

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.

And Miri’s clothes? Fleece – gift. Shirt – gift. Jeans – gift.

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.

Photo by Carl Attard from Pexels

Loving Lunch, Loving School

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. 

Let’s roll!

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?

 

Me, Lisa, and Athena, ready to serve!

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.

 

About to uncover the beans…

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.   

Just an ordinary Reformation Day

People say Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s also true that it wasn’t destroyed in a day, either the city itself which took several centuries to fall, or to the Roman Catholic Church, which still stands but continues to wither, for reasons both long known and recent to us.

I’m thinking of this today, October 31, known to Lutherans as Reformation Day, the day when Martin Luther strode up to the Castle Church doors and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to them, forever changing Western Christianity. Rome, or the Roman Catholic Church, began to fall that day, petty Protestant triumphalists like to crow. While it was unquestionably an important event in history, Luther’s nailing was actually normal. He’d slapped other papers on the wood before, and so had many others. And he wasn’t the first person–or even the first priest–to criticize the RCC. But that reality isn’t flashy enough for us. “Man Does What Many Others Had Done Before” just doesn’t really sell as a headline. (If you’d like to read a fascinating secular analysis of how Luther and his reforms ended up garnering so much attention, I’d highly recommend Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree.)

Things of great import never happen overnight, much as we like to think they do. Let’s be real: we love the movie-reel squashing of time that erases all the toil and sweat and sheer inching along of tiny efforts that make up Great Imports because we don’t like incremental. We want everything dreamed one second and done the next, mostly because we’re shiftless and loafing and mostly interested in pleasing our stomachs, to paraphrase Luther.

I say all this not to belittle Luther’s contributions to the world. On the contrary. I actually just want to make the point that momentous days have beginnings prior to their happenings. Luther had spent decades studying theology and the Bible, as well as the writings and teachings of church fathers and many other respected pastors and teachers. In fact, through his own well-rounded, classical education, he revolutionized education as we know it. He didn’t just wake up one day with some grand understanding of the Truth. He sought it like silver and like a hidden treasure. (As an aside, that’s probably a good, solid way to sniff out a theological swindle.  If someone wakes up with a revelation after Revelation is over, and said revelations contradict Scripture, well, besides rejecting Scripture, which isn’t good, their insights haven’t been around long enough to percolate under the test of time. A flash-in-the-pan is not a silver strike. And news flash: “because an angel only I could see said so” isn’t valid evidence.)

So what should this teach us? In part, we should learn that, absent a lightening bolt of wisdom sent straight from God (hint: not likely), we should remember that small doses of the Truth, taken repeatedly and often, over long periods of time, reap great faith benefits. We recite the catechism, which comes from a Greek word that means to “sound back and forth.” As an experienced pastor, Luther wrote in his Enchiridion to the Small Catechism about how appalled he was to encounter Christians who didn’t actually know the basics about the faith they professed.

[They say that they were] Christians, [had] been baptized, and [had received] the holy Sacraments, even though they [could not] even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.

If that wasn’t clear enough, Luther went on: “[Those] who are unwilling to learn the catechism should deny Christ and are not Christians.” Ouch.

The freedom of the Gospel means Christians delight in the Law of the Lord, not ignore, revile, or neglect it. Even the well-intended don’t get a pass in his preface to the Large Catechism: “Oh, what mad, senseless fools are we! While we must ever live and dwell among such mighty enemies as the devils, we still despise our weapons and defense, and we are too lazy to look at or think of them!”

So what should we do? Or what does this mean? We should not shun the Word or the Catechism or the Divine Service. We should daily read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these treasures we have. We should bask in the gift of life that we have been given in our baptisms, and continue to be nourished in our small, faltering faiths, not having any illusions about how very small and faltering they are. We know those mustard seeds can move mountains; we must not shirk the gifts that water and feed them. We will not be Martin Luthers, titans of our time and in history, but we hope and pray to maintain the blessed grace we have been given, and never take it for granted–the same lesson Luther sought to cultivate and honor himself, and that led him to restore the Church.

Happy Reformation Day.

Not even apple seeds become trees overnight.

An Essential Summer Read-Aloud: The Thirteen Clocks

Affectionados of classical education have long embraced the good, the true and the beautiful as transcendent virtues. That is, we understand them as qualities of God, worthy to be sought after and emulated. It’s no accident that seeking after such things often involves the written word. After all, Christ is the Incarnate Word, and we are made in His image.

Good Lutherans know that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  John the Baptizer famously witnessed of Christ by leaping in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:39-40). So, too, wisdom comes through hearing. Our children have been listening since before they were born, and we hope to continue to edify both their faith and their wisdom as they grow, as well as our own.

Now comes the point–and, perhaps, answers to your muddled questions about the book pictured above. “What,” you might be thinking, “has a rather ridiculous book by James Thurber to do with the good, the true, and the beautiful?” It’s true that The Thirteen Clocks, first published in 1950, is ridiculous. It is also fantastic, strange, hilarious, and–to borrow a phrase from the book–“the only one there ever was.”

I had never read The Thirteen Clocks until several years ago, after reading of it in an interview an author gave about the best read-alouds for children (and, not coincidentally, adults. The best books are always good for everyone).  My children first heard it while sitting in a tent at a muggy, buggy campground in Minnesota. They were enraptured by this story, with the evil Duke who thought he had killed Time; with the breathtakingly beautiful Princess Saralinda; with the prince-turned-minstrel Xingu; with the wholly original Golux, who forgets things and makes things happen, especially on an impossible quest. It’s been a family favorite ever since.

One of the book’s joys is that it is written in prose, but reads like poetry. You won’t fully experience this unless you specifically hear the words. Try reading it out loud:

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.

This book is incredibly fun to read and to read out loud. We’re starting it again this week, and it’s already as popular as the first time around. The words are lovely, intricate and finely crafted together, and the story tells an age-old one of daring rescue and of justice–that is, good and evil receive their due. What better way to understand wisdom?

For commenters: what are some of your favorite books for reading aloud and why?