What a day to enter into our churches again. I can’t speak to the liturgical name for this fourth Sunday of Easter. It remains too far outside of my limited layperson’s church calendar knowledge. It is past the pre-Lent gesima weeks; past the regular rhythms of the somber, forty-day penitential season; past Holy Week when services can be marked by hours, let alone days; past the bright white glory of Easter Sunday; past the Doubting Thomas Sunday—my name for it; past Good Shepherd Sunday. Now we believers are still in the Easter season, but we are past the renewness of our annual celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Birds have been singing for weeks, daffodils and tulips pushing their stubborn green buds up through soil despite cold and late snow, green erupting across our brown and gray landscapes, the warmth of the sun returning to our days. We are hopeful again, and we are glad to see the reassuringly familiar signs of spring, just as we are glad to know that some things, however few, have not changed.
So today we returned to church. On Mother’s Day, a well-intentioned but kind of silly commemoration good for commercialization and few, debatable widespread merits. But the secular day fit our Christian longing for timeless truths. We went to the Bride of Christ, the church, our mother.
We returned with social distancing, some people with masks, many with fresh disinfectant on their hands, all with care for our neighbors on our minds. The exterior doors to our church were open today, in part because the fresh air and breeze allowed for it, and in part to prevent many hands from touching handles and spreading germs. Despite the strange additions in such a familiar place, we were home. We followed liturgies we have sung many times before and sang beloved hymns with the voices of our church family and organ ringing in our ears—rarely has such music sounded so lovely. We heard the Word that has long fed us and received in our mouths the Body and Blood that sustains us. None of it was new, and yet, it was all new. We were made whole, miraculously, again.
Mothers understand their children’s needs for order and predictability. They sacrifice themselves to provide care that children and society take for granted, assuming that such care will always happen smoothly and practically invisibly. When it doesn’t, life shifts. We have seen this in the last two months, with our jobs upended, our schools closed, our everyday routines suddenly shrunken to small, uncertain quarters. Normalcy seems far away, and perhaps impossible. So can God.
And yet He has given us His Church, the one place to receive Him physically and in time through our bodies. Just as a mother with child bears and carries the little one wherever she goes, literally wrapped around her helpless child, so the Church bears us to Him who gives us all things. She carries us to the only food that will last for eternity, to our Father and Lord who gently reassures us, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me” (John 14:1). We have no greater riches. We have received no greater love. We have everything.
Jon and I celebrated a milestone last week. On August 14, 2019, like a bashful but happy, coming-into-her-own teenager, our marriage reached a gangly, blooming, and substantial fifteen years together in Christ.
It feels substantial, this anniversary. In part, that substance is circumstantial. Numbers ending in zero or five get more attention from us, for better or for arbitrary reasons, and this one is no different. Why does fifteen seems more special than, say, thirteen or sixteen? Because it does. So there. (Hey, I said like a teenager, right?)
And, of course, the other substance that makes us cherish this anniversary is truly weighty and special.
That substance is a priceless combination of time, experience, and God-given perseverance.
In fifteen years together, we’ve moved seven times and lived in Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We’ve studied and completed graduate degrees. We’ve rented apartments and houses. We’ve bought and torn up a house and remodeled it over ten years. (Well, Jon remodeled. I watched and cleaned up drywall dust.) We’ve lived in another house that has needed little fixing, thank God. We won’t even count the cars we’ve gone through. Suffice it to say that we have fought and cried and kissed and made up, over moves and renovations and many other things.
We’ve grown together from husband and wife to father and mother, together. We’ve been blessed with six living children, their rambunctious energy and delight matched only–maybe–by our exhaustion. We’ve learned a lot from these gifts. We’ve learned humility and patience and stamina and frustration and unimaginable joy.
We’ve also learned suffering.
We lost our first child early in my pregnancy, just a few weeks after we learned we were parents, and only eight months after we said our vows. We learned to mourn together and to hope together. Three years passed before our now oldest son was born.
We have said goodbye to a mother, grandparents and other relatives and friends. Earlier in August, we said goodbye to our tiny son, Christian. We have learned, and are learning, what it means to live with pain and grief that, though it might subside, will never fully disappear in this life.
We have learned to appreciate God’s amazingly good gifts. Five churches have been homes to us, with scores of others offering us Jesus through the Word and Sacraments. There is no counting all of the blessings we have received through Christ’s Church and faithful believers in Him from all over this country and the world. We have learned how little we are, and yet how bountifully and thoughtfully God loves us. Our cup has truly runneth over.
We have gained gray hair and wrinkles, laugh lines and tear stains, heartaches and heart swells. We have most decidedly relished some silly moments.
Last Friday, we attended the wedding of a young couple. I choked and wiped away tears as we chanted Psalm 127 during the service. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. … Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Jon and I exchanged glances numerous times from opposite ends of the pew, me with the inquisitive and antsy two-year-old, he acting as pillow to a sleeping boy, with children in between us. We cherished the reminders of God’s faithfulness to us and to so many others, as He carries the crosses we bear.
Then we attended the reception, where Jon dealt with voracious and relatively mannerless children at the buffet while I recovered from our four-year-old’s missed aim in the bathroom and discovering he was wearing no underwear (there was no good explanation for this). 2004 Us would have huffed and puffed and resented the kids for cutting in on the party. 2019 Us laughed and knew that all of it, the poignant and the petty, the beauty and the mess, was the party.
As I sat and waited for Jon to return to the table, I admired my wedding ring. Such a small, really valueless token, in the whole scheme of things. But the fidelity and blessing it symbolizes is precious beyond price. With Christ’s guidance, the newly married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson, will learn how impossible their union is without their Savior and how glorious it is with Him. We’re still students at these marriage lessons, too. But after 5,482 days together, Jon and I are getting there. And God willing, we will share many, many more awkward, flourishing, and meaningful days, and years, together.
This is a letter that no true, loving friend wants to write. But she does so precisely because she knows true, loving friends need and yes, even want, to share her burden.
For multiple reasons, I have not spoken to you of our latest news. The biggest one is that I am emotionally pacing myself. Even the most loving friends will grieve with us, and to grieve together means I must grieve again. And I can only grieve so much and still function, and tie shoes, and wipe noses, and slice and fry potatoes, and try to smile and enjoy the countless little gifts that surround us even as we mourn.
And why do we mourn? We mourn, in fact, because we have first been given a great and priceless gift. In early May, we learned that we had been given the gift of another child. In June, we learned that our child was a boy, our fifth son. We have named him Christian. And after many, many doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds in June and July, we understand that Christian’s physical heart is not as we would wish. It is not pumping properly, or not constructed as most healthy hearts are, or just not developing as a child’s heart in the womb is supposed to grow. We don’t exactly know what the precise problem is. But we do know that Christian is retaining fluid, far more than a baby should. And there’s nothing we can do to change that.
So, in the seventeenth week of pregnancy, we prepare to release Christian back to God much, much sooner than we would like. That time could be tomorrow, or in a week, or maybe in a month. It is a very hard and often strange reality to manage–great wonder and humility at what God has done to create and sustain our son thus far; fear and uncertainty about what exactly will happen; and at the same time great and terrible grief, now anticipatory grief, as we wait for Christian’s death.
So what can you do, dear friends, as we walk this road?
You can pray. You can pray for Christian, that he hears the saving Word of Christ and believes by hearing. You can pray that he feels no pain. You can pray for Jon and I, that we cleave together as we grope forward into the unknown. You can pray that I can weather the physical weight of pregnancy, giving Christian the best care he can get while he is still in my womb. You can pray that Jon knows best how to care for me and our family as the head of our household. You can pray that as parents, Jon and I can love and care for all of our children as they need, even while we struggle with our grief. You can pray that our ex utero children are comforted with the knowledge of Christ’s unending love to them and to their brother. Most of all, you can pray that all of us in the Olson family continually put our trust in Christ, placing all of our hopes and fears in Him, who does all things for our good and who will never leave us or forsake us.
You can cry with us. It can be awkward for people to hear our news, even when they love us. That’s okay. It can be awkward for us to share, and we (okay, I) will sometimes cry in the sharing. Sometimes that’s because I’m sad about Christian’s prognosis. But sometimes I cry because I know our friends truly and deeply grieve with us. And that makes me so grateful that I am moved to tears. So don’t be afraid of our tears, please. And share your stories of grief, too. Empathy bonds friends and makes comfort between us all the more poignant. It helps us to know that others have walked similar roads. And we are glad to give support to others as they bear their own sufferings and griefs, too.
You can rejoice with us. No, really. Please rejoice with us! Every child is a gift, even Christian. We are glad he is ours. We cherish every day with him. And I can’t emphasize this enough: all good news our friends have to share–an engagement, a marriage, an anniversary, a special birthday, and yes, a pregnancy or a birth announcement–we want to share with you, too. Few things become so clear in times of immanent death than how incredibly precious and beautiful life is. It has been such a joy to learn of blessings in other’s lives during the last few months.
I will write more in the days and weeks ahead. Thank you for loving us, dear friends. We love you, too.
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.