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!

Connecting with Lutherans: Decluttering and Remembering the One Thing Needful with Laura Henry

A Good Wilderness seeks to help Lutherans and others cultivate community and learn how to live in lonely places. One of the ways we can do this is by hearing from faithful Lutherans who share life experiences, write and publish, pursue hobbies, or own businesses that can give us all insights and encouragement. You can find interviews with some of these people here at “Over My Neighbor’s Fence.”   

We’re at the end of January, and maybe your decluttering resolutions are at a standstill–or never really got started. If so, you are in the right place, and I’ve got someone for you to meet!

Laura Henry is a wife, mother, and decluttering guru. And to be honest, she’s an acquaintance of mine who I now consider a friend! Laura works with clients to help them clean out and clean up their homes—and she loves sharing her wisdom and encouragement with others. We communicated recently about her personal experiences, how she began helping others declutter, what she’s learned, and how to practice realistic and loving Lutheran hospitality. You’ll also see “Laura’s Lines” here—some particular gems in this awesome interview that highlight her insights. The following is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Hi, Laura! Please tell us about yourself—your family, what church you attend, your vocations.

Sure thing! My husband John and I have four children: Johnny (10), Luke (8), Silas (6), and Molly (4). Just a few weeks ago, we moved from Indiana to rural Fairmont, Minnesota, where my husband serves as Pastor to a dual parish—Zion in Fairmont and St. James in Northrop. I graduated with a degree in English in 2008, but I’ve spent the majority of the last ten years at home with our children.

The Henry Family. From left: Johnny, John, Molly, Laura, Luke, and Silas. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

While being a mother is still my primary vocation, as my children have grown and begun attending school and preschool, I’ve found time in my life to pursue what has become a great passion of mine: decluttering and helping people gain control of their homes. My hobbies include doing all sorts of puzzles, jigsaw, crossword, etcetera. Basically, I love putting things in order!

Having just moved a family of six nearly 500 miles in the middle of January, I don’t feel particularly qualified at the moment to talk about organization. There are still boxes to be unpacked, my walls are bare, and to be honest, we had way more stuff than I thought we did!

Actually, I think it makes you the perfect person to talk to! You’re totally living a real-life organizational slog. 

Ha! Well, I can’t imagine how much more overwhelming of a project a big move like that would have been had I not gone through some major downsizing over the last years. Things just seem to multiply like rabbits!

So tell us how you got into decluttering. Did you have experiences that prompted it in your own life?

Believe it or not, I have not always been into living with less or decluttering—actually, quite the opposite. I spent a lot of time during young adulthood acquiring, storing, and collecting a wide variety of items. I never turned down anything that someone wanted to give me, and I rarely drove past a rummage sale without stopping and taking home something I found interesting. There was a long period in my young adulthood where I was very preoccupied with things. I wanted desperately to have everything in my house “just right,” and I spent a lot of time and money trying to achieve that.

The pendulum really began to swing in the other direction for me in 2013. That spring, my husband graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne and received his first Divine Call as a Pastor to a small, urban church in northwest Indiana. At that point, we were a family of four, but we had a full-length moving truck and two carloads full of stuff that we moved into an extremely large parsonage that was already fully furnished. It was insane! I remember thinking before unloading our moving truck, “Where is all our stuff going to go?”

I think this is a common experience, at least the realization in a move of exactly how much superfluous stuff our families can have! How did you manage all the stuff?

To make a long story short, the previous tenants had left a large amount of their possessions behind when they moved. The parsonage had also been vacant for quite awhile, and much of the space had been used as storage for decades’ worth of things no longer used at the church next door.

The exterior of the Henry’s parsonage in Indiana; some interior clutter; some of the many dumpsters they filled. Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

Wow. That sounds overwhelming!

It was at the beginning. I spent the next three years slowly and carefully wading my way through clearing out the three stories, a basement, and a garage belonging to that massive, beautiful, historic parsonage.

Laura writes: “The old altar, font, and paintings were buried in the parsonage basement. They were able to be given to an artist, but I don’t know their ultimate fate.” Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

Through the course of decluttering, we discovered the presence of some very serious health and safety risks to us. For instance, when we were in the middle of the process, the bathroom ceiling collapsed and revealed a major mold issue. So that was all stripped down to the studs, and even most of the studs were replaced.

Before and after pictures of the bathroom. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

At that point, our children’s health had been affected, and we needed to move out temporarily while those issues could be remediated. We actually ended up moving out twice over the course of six years. By the end of the process, I believe we had over two moving truck loads and I lost track of how many dumpsters of stuff removed from the house.

Before and after pictures of the kitchen. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

Due to the health concerns, not much could be saved or repurposed, and we lost most of our personal belongings, in addition to everything else that was left in the house by other parties.

That sounds like a nightmare! And you not only had to deal with all the physical problems and loss but with the mental and emotional ones that probably came along with it.

Yes. Those years were some of the most challenging of my life, and the stress from our living environment many times felt like it dominated our lives. While it was a challenge that I hadn’t asked for, nor fully understood walking into, it was truly one of the best things to ever happen to me. We witnessed an outpouring of love and mercy from other Christians and friends and even strangers. We got to see God’s people, and our church family, come together to try to rectify the situation.

The finished parsonage living room. Professional contractors did much of the rebuilding after the cleanout. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

I do wish I had more pictures of the “decluttering.” And I did not do the construction/remodeling, though I did pick the designs and paint colors. We had a good construction crew.

Outside help is crucial for some projects, right?

Absolutely! And as they say, hindsight is 20/20. The whole process ignited in me a purpose and passion for helping others who feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by their living conditions to take back control and find joy and peace in their homes. It was so empowering to be able to take a situation so utterly chaotic and work at it piece-by-piece to regain control. By the grace of God, we came out of that situation stronger as a family and as a church, not to mention the blessings in restoring a beautiful historic parsonage to its former glory.

Laura’s Lines

on Blessings in the Mess:

While [our extremely cluttered and dangerous parsonage] was a challenge that I hadn’t asked for, nor fully understood walking into, it was truly one of the best things to ever happen to me. We witnessed an outpouring of love and mercy from other Christians and friends and even strangers. We got to see God’s people, and our church family, come together … By the grace of God, we came out of that situation stronger as a family and as a church, not to mention the blessings in restoring a beautiful historic parsonage to its former glory.

What an inspirational story, Laura. I’m so glad you can see the blessings that resulted from such a literal mess.

I can definitely see the personal benefits now (and remember, this took years for me and us to get through!). And then the whole experience awakened a passion in me that I’ve never felt before. I get so much joy and energy out of walking beside my clients as they take back the control of their homes. I have really started to branch out and do work mostly via word of mouth references in the last two years. It’s been a complete joy and learning experience.

And you’re the perfect person to do this kind of work! You really get the challenges, the sweat, the tears, and the blessings! What’s something you’ve learned from helping others do what you had to do in your own home?

The experience changed me in many ways, but one of the greatest lessons I learned is not to judge a situation. It is what it is. How we got here is in the past, and how we are going to move towards a better future starts now with letting go of judgment, blame, shame, or embarrassment about “how bad it is.” Definitely, there is a time and a place for reflection and habit-changing to prevent falling back into old patterns, but to change and move forward, letting go of judgment and blame and working together is the first step.

Oftentimes in life, and in pursuit of a Christian life, we are asked to take responsibility for things that aren’t our fault. It’s the fault versus responsibility debate. I see that quite often with my clients. Many feel helpless and overwhelmed by their surroundings, and often, it wasn’t their sole fault that it got that bad. But them asking me into their personal lives and letting down their guard to ask for help is accepting responsibility for creating a life that better serves them and their loved ones. That’s a big deal!

I certainly stumbled through some intense and negative emotions through our journey. But letting go of the mental baggage allowed me to truly embrace all the lessons and be there as a support for others going through their own varying degrees of cleaning up.

And this leads into the next question: how do you understand the importance of order, or cleanliness, or minimalism—whatever words you want to use—in light of being a Lutheran?

This is a great question and one I think about a lot! Obviously, “tidying up” has been quite the trendy thing to do thanks to the meteoric rise of books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I loved that book, but it definitely wasn’t Lutheran in its spiritual perspective.

No, definitely not! Minimalism has become a bit of a lightning rod, with some even having a visceral reaction against it. As Lutherans, we do tend to recoil from anything that may present as legalistic or giving us expectations for how to live outside of what Christ has commanded. I get it! And I agree. Being overly concerned with minimalistic living is the other side of the coin of being materialistic and seeking out after wealth. I really emphasize that to my clients. Decluttering is not the means to end for a picture perfect home. It’s a process through which you can discover the balance of possessions in your home that leads to contentment and peace and manageability. This end result will look different for everyone, and truly, for very, very few it will look like anything that resembles a home design photo shoot or Pinterest board.

Laura’s Lines on Decluttering:

Decluttering is not the means to end for a picture-perfect home. It’s a process through which you can discover the balance of possessions in your home that leads to contentment and peace and manageability.

One of Laura’s jobs for a client. Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

It seems like every week there are studies and articles popping up declaring the benefits of less clutter and how kids and adults thrive with fewer, and less stimulating, toys. Life is chaotic enough and we all are constantly under assault with comparisons to people who seemingly have it together.

Well, I think most of know that media is deceptive, but it still doesn’t stop the pervasiveness of “you aren’t doing enough.” So, while I do believe pretty much everyone would reap benefits from owning less, I don’t believe in guilting or shaming over it. Having major illness or surgery, having a baby, losing a loved one, or just not feeling like going through stuff are all signs to relax and let the nagging voice go that you missed the bus on tidying up. It’s ok. Minimizing can be a very long, exhausting process, so if you aren’t in the right frame of mind, then just don’t worry about it at the moment. The time will come. It does take preparation and the right frame of mind. So plant the seed and dwell on it. If and when the time is right, you’ll be ready. The mess will still be there.

Laura’s finally-at-long-last empty basement. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

Laura’s Lines on Timing:

Minimizing can be a very long, exhausting process, so if you aren’t in the right frame of mind, then just don’t worry about it at the moment. The time will come. It does take preparation and the right frame of mind. So plant the seed and dwell on it. If and when the time is right, you’ll be ready. The mess will still be there.

I love this. I think so often we get hung up on made-up timelines. Like, what, are we still in school with a cleaning deadline for third period next Tuesday? Deadlines can be helpful, but they can also be overwhelming. I appreciate that you acknowledge very common obstacles to the process of minimizing.

There are so many obstacles! But they can, truly, be overcome.

And as Lutherans, we’re trying to find a balance between what God says is good—like order—and our sinful proclivities—including loving wealth and stuff to being lazy to being pietists over what our homes look like. We try not to be legalists or Gnostics; that is, we understand and, I hope, cherish rather than hate the material gifts God gives us to us. But in appreciating our stuff, we don’t want to idolize it or mistake our stewardship of those gifts as meriting our salvation. This is a balance I feel like I swing back and forth on constantly, both trying to understand it rightly as a Christian, and also just doing the actual balancing in my own household.

Absolutely. I’ve been on the more neurotic end of the spectrum with being obsessed with having as little as possible and having everything in its perfect place. I’ve also been in depressive states where I’m behind on everything in my house from laundry to dishes and not a thing is where it belongs. Both are miserable places to be! I’m more relaxed now. I listen to my body and rest when I need to; I ask for help when I need to and pay attention to what needs to be paid attention to. Sometimes that is simply surviving life with four young kids! I don’t let myself feel guilty for that! I just feel it and know that eventually I will feel up to getting things in order again.

Over the years, I’ve come to see more clearly than ever the importance of boundaries. It’s so easy to become overcommitted and overscheduled. When my home life feels out of control, I often need to look no further than my schedule.

A garage clean-out and cleanup for a client. Photo montage credit: Laura Henry.

Nothing is more important than having time as a family, time to go to church together, time to prayer and study God’s Word together and sing hymns. We all need time to read as a family and eat dinner together. When the schedule is so crazy that those things aren’t even happening, how can I expect to have my home in order or have chores done? I’ve found it to be true for myself that keeping strong personal boundaries, being extremely careful about taking on external commitments, and learning how to say a confident “No” has been at the absolute core of being able to maintain a more orderly home. When I hear myself repeatedly saying “I’m so busy,” I know it’s time to stop and look at what can be delegated, rearranged, or dropped altogether from the schedule.

Laura’s Lines on Personal Boundaries:

I’ve found it to be true for myself that keeping strong personal boundaries, being extremely careful about taking on external commitments, and learning how to say a confident “No!” has been at the absolute core of being able to maintain a more orderly home.

Laura, you are pointing out something that I’ve been realizing this new year! With four kids at school and lots of extracurricular running around, two littles at home, and a very busy husband, I literally have started to schedule Home Days—days where I know I can just be home and catch up with cleaning, laundry, budgeting and finance, and keeping order. That means I have to say no to stuff, or only schedule certain things. My sanity, and the lives of my husband and children, depend upon the order we have at home. Saying “no” is absolutely key to that.

And it doesn’t just have to do with managing time. Saying no includes saying no to the question, “Do you want Great Aunt Sylvia’s china?” No! It’s okay to say no. It truly is. Many of my clients have houses full of guilt. They’ve accepted things because they don’t want to reject family heirlooms or the remnants of a deceased relative’s belongings. Sometimes they’ve gone to direct sales parties and bought things they don’t want or need in efforts to support their friends.

But there are so many genuine ways to love and support our family and friends that don’t involve us buying or accepting unwanted things that cause us stress and maybe even resentment. I also have developed those boundaries with myself. I’m only human. I get the same dopamine hit as any other woman when I walk into Target.

Ha ha! That’s totally true! It’s funny and not funny at the same time!

It’s the joke that’s on us! Understanding that the process of decluttering and minimizing starts with stopping the influx into our homes has been a big light bulb for me. If you are committing to living with less, you have to know that it does involve behavior changes. So stopping the impulse shopping is a big one! A very helpful question that I ask people is, “Where do you see this fitting into your vision of your ideal home?” If you don’t see a spot for it, put it back. I also really find the prompt, “Would you buy this a month from now?” Usually people would say, “No.” It’s just an impulse, and it will pass!

I rework that same question when going through the decluttering process. If people are really struggling with whether to keep an item asking, “If I didn’t own this today, would I go out and buy it?” The answer is oftentimes no, and knowing that frees the person to let it go.

Strategizes for evaluating what stays and goes are so helpful! What else should we consider when we look at our stuff?

Some other common obstacles for getting rid of items are our fears of them going into a landfill. There’s also the sunken cost factor. That means people see only the money they spent on the item and not whether it brings meaning to their lives currently. To get rid of it feels wasteful or like a loss. I work with people on reframing their mindset from reactive to proactive. To truly change, we need to focus on contentment. The money was spent when the item was purchased. The waste was created when it was manufactured. Holding onto these things to prevent the waste that was already created is faulty logic. The answer to too much isn’t too little; it’s enough. And most of us will find that we possess enough. We can let go of the security blanket of excess, and in turn, we gain contentment.

Laura’s Lines on Fighting Guilt

and Finding Contentment:

Instead of letting people live under guilt], I work with [them] on reframing their mindset from reactive to proactive. To truly change, we need to focus on contentment. … The answer to too much isn’t too little; it’s enough. And most of us will find that we possess enough. We can let go of the security blanket of excess, and in turn, we gain contentment.

One of my favorite parts of my job is getting the things that others are discarding into the hands of people who really need and can use it. There are typically dozens of organizations in most counties that will take donations to either give directly or resell to those in need. This can ease the nagging feeling of waste by letting items go. Someone else can use those things, and they can use them now!

Tell us about a particular project that meant a lot to you, and how you go about getting started with a client in the process of decluttering.

A special one was a whole house overhaul I did. (I don’t share names or identifying information to protect my clients’ privacy.) It was the woman’s childhood home, and she had never lived anywhere else. She was in her mid-50s when I helped her out.

A client’s before and after pictures. Photo credit: Laura Henry.

Once we were all finished, this client told me she was able to bake Christmas cookies with her niece and nephew in her kitchen for the first time ever. That’s what it’s all about!

That is so special and inspiring! So have most of your projects involved certain rooms or areas? Or have most been whole house jobs?

Most of my jobs start as one specific area and turn into whole house decluttering!   

I do a lot of garages, basements, attics—those are more obvious clutter and catch-all areas. Oftentimes, people catch the fever and want to keep going. I’ve done two jobs where the clients started right off the bat knowing they wanted to do the entire house. In other instances, we started small with a specific area to get a feel for the process, but as often as not it led into other spaces. It’s very liberating and even addicting when you get in the zone.

That makes total sense! When have you known that someone “catches the fever”? Is it a comment? Just a general “now I can see what it can be and I don’t want to stop” vibe?

I think decluttering is a totally overwhelming prospect for many people. They don’t know where to start. But once we get through a smaller area like a closet, pantry, or garage, for instance, they “catch the fever”—and that is just a saying I used in the moment. By that I mean clients get excited about the progress, and it begins to snowball. The more they get done, the easier it is to for them to take on bigger projects. So we can start with one closet, and before you know it, we are doing an 800-square-foot attic. You have start small sometimes to see what you can manage and how good it feels. And starting small also helps you to realize that it’s not that hard! Once your mind starts working in decision mode and gets into that mode of letting go, it gets much easier. By far, the hardest part is starting!

Laura’s Lines on Starting Small:

You have start small sometimes to see what you can manage and how good it feels. And starting small also helps you to realize that it’s not that hard! Once your mind starts working in decision mode and gets into that mode of letting go, it gets much easier. By far, the hardest part is starting!

That’s what I tell people all the time: starting is the hardest! Anyone can do this, but everyone can benefit from a neutral third party who is clear and can do the work part, like bagging, hauling, moving, or reorganizing what is left while the client focuses solely on making the decisions. It also helps to have a neutral party ask questions, like some I mentioned before, if someone is having a really hard time deciding about whether to keep an item.

I love your emphasis on decisions. That’s really what it is, whether it’s a small or big project, or even the daily grind. I joke sometimes that I just need someone else to make decisions! But I think pacing is key, like in long distance sports. One thousand decisions is just too much. But ten decisions? That’s much more doable. Breaking things to do, and maybe most tasks, into small pieces is so key, and it sounds like that’s what you help people do.

Yes. I try to keep people focused in the moment. Instead of thinking about how out-of-control the entire household is, let’s look at this one closet. That saying is true: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Don’t focus on the end goal. Just try to stay focused on the baby steps. Most people are shocked at how quickly they can get through everything. But often the fear of how long it will take and how hard the decisions are stops people from even starting. So just set a tiny goal of one small area and be amazed at how well you can do! Let the momentum of the small wins carry you forward.

I love this! It’s so much more doable to concentrate on little things first, then keep going.

That’s my advice to people. And get a friend or family member or professional to help. A third party and neutral opinion can help diffuse the emotion and decision fatigue. I have yet to walk into a home where it’s anywhere near as bad as the people who live there think it is. Anything can be tackled. It just takes the right attitude and support.

And now I’m thinking: do you think there is a difference between the overwhelmed person who doesn’t know where to start and the basically organized person who feels flattened by the sheer work involved in “keeping up”? Aren’t they both kind of in the same boat?

Yes, I do think overwhelm is at the root of both types of people. I’d classify myself as the latter some days. Maintaining a household with kids or pets or both is just hard work. Trying to keep up with everything is just plain exhausting. In my case, it definitely feels more manageable without the chaos of excess clutter. But the bottom line is that it’s still hard, and it requires mental and physical effort.

And teaching kids these skills is an investment of time and demonstration as well. I’m hopeful that it’s an investment that pays off, but it’s still a daily part of parenting that is draining! No way around that!

That connects to my next question! In recent years, writers like Anthony Esolen and Rod Dreher have advocated for the good—and, indeed, the need—for Christians to be deliberate and conscientious about edifying each other through shared catechesis, confession, worship, and community to help weather social and familial fragmentation. What does cleaning out and cleaning up have to do with this? And how would you like to see Lutherans build physical and spiritual places to help and encourage each other? I’m thinking of how families can practice hospitality without thinking our homes have to be HGTV-ready, but also to truly provide our neighbors with welcoming spaces. This is especially hard when you’ve got young children at home!

I think it’s so easy to overthink hospitality. Staying out of judgement, for ourselves and others, is a great place to start. People struggle with isolation and loneliness now more than ever. I support letting go of ideals in favor of opening our homes and offering hospitality. Guilt and shame are just not part of my process. I love to work with people who want support and are ready to walk through the process of decluttering. I do not believe in pressuring, shaming, or judging anyone for what their home looks like. That is the antithesis of Christian hospitality and generosity. It’s honestly a great honor to have friends who I can invite over when my house is a pit, and vice versa! The people I feel closest to in the world are the ones who have seen my kid’s bathroom in between cleanings and still love me!

Ha! I am totally with you there! It’s an awesome feeling to just have people over, no matter how long it’s been since, say, the floors were deep-cleaned.

Right! We don’t get hung up on benchmarks. Honestly, though, going through the process of decluttering can be a game changer for being more hospitable. The average home has over 300,000 possessions. Everything you own owns a tiny bit of you, your time, and your energy to maintain and store. That is a lot of responsibility that can be let go of to make way for more edifying things. Less stuff equals less cleaning, less organizing, and less to worry about getting out of the way for company. One big thing I do with my clients is ask them what they picture when they imagine their ideal home. It’s different for everyone, but it never involves piles of stuff and overflowing closets!

Home should be a sanctuary, so we start from what we imagine to be a relaxing, hospitable environment, and then work backward from that picture. It’s so much easier to quickly pull things together for an impromptu get-together when everything has a place and there is significantly less of everything.

Just one kind of hospitality: A friend dropping by with extra sugar cookies for a bunch of kids to decorate on a Saturday afternoon.

Laura’s Lines on Hospitality

and How Decluttering Can Help Us Welcome Others:

I do not believe in pressuring, shaming, or judging anyone for what their home looks like. That is the antithesis of Christian hospitality and generosity. …

Honestly, going through the process of decluttering can be a game changer for being more hospitable. The average home has over 300,000 possessions. Everything you own owns a tiny bit of you, your time, and your energy to maintain and store. Less stuff equals less cleaning, less organizing, and less to worry about getting out of the way for company.

Home should be a sanctuary, so we start from what we imagine to be a relaxing, hospitable environment, and then work backward from that picture. It’s so much easier to quickly pull things together for an impromptu get-together when everything has a place and there is significantly less of everything.

Welcoming starts with opening the door.

Your emphasis on the ideal home and the just plain ease of maintenance is critical, I think, to hospitality. And it’s more enjoyable for everyone who lives in the house, too, including kids!

I find my kids truly enjoy having their friends over, too. A lot of people criticize kids for being glued to their electronics, but when my ten-year-old had his classmates over for a goodbye party, not a single one was on his or her phone or playing video games. They played ghost hunters and hide-and-seek and other imaginative games in the basement that was pretty much completely empty! I was worried before they came that they’d have nothing to do. I almost went out and bought some extra toys or a video game. I’m totally glad I didn’t, because less is more for kids, too. When they are given space for imagination, there is no shortage of it!

I have friends that truly inspire me that host people for dinner almost every week. That is something I aspire to, but I’m not there yet. Hospitality is a gift I truly admire. I’ve been invited to dinner at some fine Lutherans’ home where there was lively, edifying conversation, prayer, hymn singing, and poetry recitations. It was a dream! One of my personal goals for 2020 as we adjust to living in a new community and getting to know our new church families is doing just that. Having people over to share a meal, talk, laugh, sing, and pray together: these are admirable pastimes. The importance of Christian community in an increasingly isolated world can’t be overstated.

I like how you point out the good in hospitality—the time together, the talking, singing hymns, even the kids being imaginative together—and notice that none of it references whether the décor is new or matching, or whether the house has been dusted recently, or anything like that. I’ve learned in having people over that just having something to offer—water, tea, the ever-popular coffee; and food from crackers and peanut butter to smoked elk—and having an open place to meet together is all you need. Seriously, people just want to hang out and share. And usually, they’re not starving when they show up. So if you only have water to offer, that’s fine. Only crackers, that’s fine. This does not have to be super fancy. In fact, it’s usually more enjoyable when it’s not! And having goals to reach out is good, too. I hope you can host new friends this year!

Me, too! And remember: a hospitable home doesn’t mean it’s spotless. Perfectionism has got to go, the same as judgment!

Absolutely! So my last questions: what have been some challenges that you’ve encountered as you’ve established or grown your business that have been learning opportunities for you? What are some goals that you have for your business?

The greatest challenges that I’ve experienced in my business are adapting the process to each individual. People are so different. Their circumstances, emotional processing, physical capabilities to help, and functional capabilities to make complicated decisions are on a wide spectrum. It’s helped me grow in empathy and learn that this business is not just about moving things out of people’s houses. It’s often working through grief, overwhelm, and complicated emotions, and yes, lots of laughter and fun mixed in as well! An underlying message that I try to remind myself and my clients all the time through the process is that God provides. He provides strength to do hard things, forgiveness when we make mistakes, and He provides for our daily needs. We take deep breaths, thank God for His goodness, and move on making progress!

My biggest goal is to get my own website up and running. I have many folders of photos of some really rewarding projects I’ve worked on that I’d love to share with the world. I also want to assemble a resource guide to help walk people through the process of decluttering from a balanced, Lutheran perspective.

Up until now, I’ve worked very selectively taking jobs by word of mouth only, but my youngest will begin attending school in the fall, so God willing, my business will be able to grow. I will definitely update once those things are put in place.

I am so excited for you, Laura, as you settle into a new home and hopefully continue to tackle helping others clean out and clean up. Thanks so much for your time and your wonderful insights! We look forward to hearing from you again and will pray that God opens doors for you.

Thank you, too! At the end of the day, there is truly one thing needful, and that is Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins offered for us through His death and resurrection. What an awesome opportunity to use our vocations and platforms to share that good news!

Laura’s Lines

on the One Thing Needful:

At the end of the day, there is truly one thing needful, and that is Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins offered for us through His death and resurrection. What an awesome opportunity to use our vocations and platforms to share that good news!

Friday Feeding: Minestrone for Many

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.

My kitchen company while I made the soup. Don’t you love the sock rainbow?

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.

Innumerable grease spots, food stains, and random deposits mark this well-beloved book.

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.

Mmmmm. Chicken.

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.

Carrots. Lots of carrots.

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.

Mmmmm. Minestrone!

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.

Men Building a Sandbox

“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 and sawdust.

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.”

All it needs is sand, some shovels, and happy kids.

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.

Past Blast: Mud and Lavender, and Why We Need Both

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.

What my kids love to do: dig in mud. By Lukas.

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.

Fresh laundry on the line. Photo by Skitterphoto.

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.

Lavender in Basket by Pixabay.

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.       

Why We Welcome Babies

How can you say there are too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.

Mother Teresa
Wildflowers on Casper Mountain.

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.

Our kids lined up, cell signal style, in 2017.

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.

Yellow flowers on Casper Mountain.

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.

The only physical reminder I have that our first baby existed. I have used this notebook for prenatal visit notes for all of our children.

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 in utero 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).

God opens His hand and showers us with blessings.

Answering the Question–and Trusting in God’s Provision

So how 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.

From 2017: All these blessings.

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.

His mercies never cease.

Friday Feeding: An Introduction

About Friday Feedings:

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.

Even my kids get that all you need around your table are people. And, um, food.

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.

Buried with Debt–and Gratitude

Photo by 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

Christmas Valentines

I am embarrassed to admit this, but over the last few weeks, I have been sending out Christmas cards. Yes, Christmas cards. The ones I ordered at four in the morning on Christmas Eve while I fought a bout of the stomach flu. Lovely details, no? But they communicate the reality: that I knew receiving the cards, writing brief personal notes, addressing them, and mailing them during the twelve days of Christmas was an unlikely stretch, and that family and friends alike would be receiving our annual form note and pictures long after most of our society would be thinking of Christmas, or even New Year’s, or even January.

So illness and normal vacation antics prevailed during the days after Christmas, and other duties and houseguests and responsibilities filled up January, and all of a sudden, I realized I had many, many cards still sitting on the floor by my desk. What to do? I know more than one person who doesn’t send Christmas cards at all. I even know a few that have ordered them and just not sent them, as days turn into weeks and months. So I considered filing them away and trying again this fall, at the socially appropriate time to write notes and send annual greetings.

But I just couldn’t. I am too practical, for one, to want anything to go to waste. Even more, I feel a strong responsibility to responding to those who have made an effort to share their lives with us. I am guilty that I have not yet done so. Silence is neither polite nor loving. Simple etiquette says as much.

Some millennials are embracing the physical greeting card tradition that older generations largely practice. But the fact is that most people rarely write letters or send cards. I understand the draw to and need for electronic communication–I’m blogging right now, which is one form of it, after all. But in our atomized world, where loneliness is prevalent, I think mailed notes are a small token towards cultivating the kind of connections that matter to us. And those are the physical kind, the real kind.

That’s why I’m sharing my project of sending out Christmas cards in February. They’re belated love notes, like Valentines, to tell loved ones, “We still think of you and remember you and love you. And here’s something real and tangible to prove it.” You can do the same. It’s never too late to tell someone you care, that you love them. I hope to send Christmas cards at a more appropriate time in the future, of course. But for now, Christmas Valentines will do.

The Third Day

There’s a memorable line from an unmemorable book, Ramona Forever, that I think of this time every year. Ramona’s aunt, I think, has just gotten married, and life for the rest of the family has marched on after the reception is over. “Everybody felt let down, like the day after Christmas,” the narrator says. As a kid, I always knew exactly what that meant. Christmas was that one shining day that held all the anticipation and promise of gifts and surprises and magic and love. The day after? Kind of sad, with a quiet melancholy.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thankfully learned to appreciate the days between Christmas and New Year’s, and in truth, the full twelve days of Christmas. Part of this is experiencing the miracle of childbirth personally and realizing the depth and breadth of moments with a newborn. Yes, the birthday of a child is awesome and priceless. But the days after are, too, for countless small reasons.

After the births of the first several of our children, a nurse at the hospital would give me a paper sheet—it was always blue—that numbered the first ten days to two weeks after Baby’s birth. It listed feeding times and numbers, and diaper changes and types, that we needed to meticulously record to make sure Baby was growing and progressing as a new baby should. I would carefully record, with pen and ink—how quaint that seems!—everything on that sheet that happened in those first days. And inevitably, by about Day 12, I would forget to record a feeding or diaper change. By then, we would be falling into routines. What had been new and daunting, and in need of meticulous attention, was now comfortingly familiar.

And so I think this third day of Christmas. Our children are learning customs of the season, many devout, others entertaining. One I enjoy is unpacking small Nativity scenes on Christmas Eve with them and letting them display them in their bedrooms. This year, I let our oldest daughter, who is seven, set up one I received from my godmother when I was about her age. My mother left a note inside the box when I married, explaining where I got the set and how she enjoyed watching me meticulously arrange it every year. She also wrote how she prayed that our marriage would be centered in Christ. Such a small note, and such a small act—unwrapping a porcelain, childlike Joseph and Mary, shepherd and sheep, Wise Men and animals. And a baby Jesus. God who could fit in the palm of my hand. And now the little figure fits in my daughter’s hand.

I suppose the comfort of habit and repetition comes in part from their smallness: the methodical, the routine, the pattern of the everyday that recedes from our active, thoughtful practice to that of work that has seeped down to our pores—the kinds of things we do automatically. Rocking. Feeding. Changing. Humming. All of a sudden, it seems, what was first new and unfamiliar is now beloved and close.

We need the spectacular, it is true—the angels in glory chorusing brilliantly in a midnight sky, the star among millions shining for one Child. But He knew we also needed the regular and familiar. Water and word. Body and blood. Quiet moments after earth-shattering ones.  A hand, a creased and lined warm hand, with eternal love in its palm.

The Navity by Gari Melchers