Saturday, November 22, 2014

Celebrating Waiting


Usually waiting is a process to be dreaded, avoided, or endured. Who likes to wait for what she doesn't have but earnestly desires? But every December, I very much look forward to a season of waiting.

Over the last few years, we have begun to develop some special family traditions to keep Jesus at the center of the Christmas season. My favorite by far has been the Jesse Tree. If you’re unfamiliar with this custom, a Jesse Tree is a way of celebrating Advent by tracing the story of redemption through the Old Testament, looking for hints of Jesus in His family tree. The name comes from Isaiah’s messianic prophecy:
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1).
Each day an ornament is added to the tree, a picture or symbol to remind us of a Bible story that points to Jesus—the ram Abraham sacrificed, Jacob’s ladder, David’s crown, and so on.

In recent years, it seems like Jesse Trees have become quite popular, and there are countless resources out there to get you started. Because there are far more than 24 Old Testament types and prophecies that point to Jesus, each collection of readings and ornaments is a little different.

Last year we used Story Warren's Family Advent Art and Reading Guide (which is a FREE download and includes *gorgeous* printable ornaments) in combination with a Jesus Storybook Bible Advent reading plan (I cannot say enough about this children's Bible storybook; if you somehow haven't seen it, put it at the top of your Christmas list--even if you do not have children!).


This miniature tree sits atop our piano. Its ornaments are a hodgepodge I've cobbled together--some homemade, some found at Hobby Lobby or JoAnn, some printed and mounted to cardstock. For once in my life I have not let "perfect" be the enemy of the good! My ideas and inspiration came from Passionate Homemaking and Rocks in My Dryer. You can get as fancy or as simple as you like--and you can build your collection over the years, rather than having everything "just so" right from the start. If you don't have the time or desire to make your own, there are hundreds of options on Etsy, like this beautiful set.

In addition to the tree, an Advent wreath serves as our December table centerpiece. My wonderfully talented husband made a wooden spiral that holds 24 candles, modeled after this beautiful one designed and crafted by Ann Voskamp's son.

Each evening of December we add another candle, we move the Mary figure one space closer to the center, and we read an Old Testament story, talking about how the story points to the coming Messiah. (And, lest I paint too idyllic a picture, we try to keep our boys from fighting about who gets to blow out how many candles and who gets to hang the ornament on the tree.)

I absolutely love this new tradition. Retracing the unfolding of the Bible's one big story throughout the month keeps the Christmas season focused and builds our anticipation for Jesus' coming to earth. And I think the tactile, interactive stuff (lighting and blowing out candles, hanging ornaments) has done wonders to hold our boys' attention. They loved it last year. 

So that's why I am eagerly anticipating waiting! I can't wait to get out all our Christmas boxes after Thanksgiving break and gather once more around the stories and symbols that tell of our coming Savior. 

What Advent or Christmas traditions do you anticipate and enjoy each year? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Treasures :: A Black Folder Full of Choral Music

Inspired by Leigh McLeroy's book Treasured: Knowing God by the Things He Keeps, I'm asking: What tangible pieces of my spiritual history would I place carefully in my own cigar box for safekeeping? What stories have shaped my journey with this ever-faithful, treasure-keeping God? Below is part eight of the "Treasures" series. 

*** 

VIII. A black folder full of choral music
When I first auditioned for the Indiana Wesleyan University Chorale, I didn’t really care much about whether I got in. Being in a choir was a requirement for joining a ministry team, my real dream and priority. Choir? Been there, done that. Might be fun, have to sign up anyway, here we go...

Yet by the end of my college career, I would identify my time with the University Chorale as the  most meaningful part of my college experience, the absolute last thing I ever would have given up. How can I sum up what membership in that group grew to mean to me?

We sang “Now, Shout” the first week of rehearsal—a chaotic twentieth-century piece that changes time signatures approximately every other measure and involves actual shouting. It’s a staple of the chorale, so all the returning members dropped their folders and launched into the a cappella piece, clapping at the appropriate times and thundering on the risers as they stomped to the beat. I, like most of the freshmen, wanted to assume the fetal position. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in high school anymore...

I spent frantic hours in the practice rooms, plunking out the second soprano part and trying to memorize songs the upperclassmen could sing in their sleep. On our first major trip, to the Gaithers’ “Praise Gathering,” I got yelled at by upperclassmen for “cutting the risers.” I didn’t even know what that meant.

And yet, even with the intimidation---even as I floundered in loneliness and struggled to learn my lines, find my place---I fell in love with this group. At 4:30 PM, four days a week, our conductor would sit down at the piano and play “More than Enough” or “I Want to Be Like Jesus,” and all sixty-five of us would flood the cinderblock walls with praises.

During my second semester, word spread that the chorale’s former conductor would return the following fall. He had left the university just before I arrived, causing no small amount of drama among the upperclassmen. Some had quit, unwilling to continue without Dr. Todd Guy at the helm. They told terrifying stories about him, yet they adored him.

The women’s chaplain, a junior who was mentoring me, was thrilled at the prospect of Prof Guy’s return, but I was dismayed. I loved Todd Syswerda, the professor who had taken Prof Guy’s place and the only conductor I’d ever known. I wasn’t sure I wanted to experience this legendary man who had been known to bend music stands and rip the clock off the wall.

Again, I couldn’t have imagined how much I’d grow to love Prof myself, or the influence he’d have on me over the next three years. Yes, he was demanding. Yes, his temper occasionally exploded. But he was the most passionate man I had ever known, and his passion was for us to make excellent music, the caliber of praise that our glorious God deserved.

We didn’t talk during rehearsal. We held our folders at eye level (after four years of that, it took me a while to break the habit of wanting to hold my hymnal that awkwardly high during church). We stood on the balls of our feet and never, never took our eyes off our conductor. We ended words with mouths wide open, producing “high, forward, resonant” sound. And we took Prof’s exhortations to heart—phrases he repeated so often they were almost meaningless clichés, only they weren’t, because he meant them every time.

“Good is not good enough where excellence is expected!” 
“You can’t put a nickel’s worth in and expect a dime’s worth out!”
“I will not offer my God a sacrifice that doesn’t cost me something!”
“He deserves more than that!”

He’d point to the framed photos of former chorales lining the wall behind him, and tell us that they were watching us, expecting us to uphold the legacy they’d helped to build. He’d tell us that 4:30 was our sanctuary, our time to leave everything else at the door and come worship. And it was, and I did.

Prof worked so hard during rehearsals that the knees of his pants would grow dark with sweat. Never before or since have I seen a conductor move so much, communicate so much. I’m sure other choirs made fun of him behind our backs, just as we scorned their conductors for being so wishy-washy and unclear. Let them mock; Prof was dancing on that podium, and it was beautiful to behold. Every flick of his wrist gave you direction. If you watched him, he’d tell you *everything*---entrances, cutoffs, tempo, volume, feeling. And in a concert, we’d be singing “Give Me Jesus” and the tears would roll down his cheeks. My own voice would waver as I wept, a song practiced hundreds of times somehow fresh again and full of glory, its lyrics reflected on Prof’s face as he waved his arms and worshiped.

Chorale was worship, and it was also tradition. It was family. I’d never made such music; I’d also never known such community. All but one or two of my closest friendships during college arose from that group. We’d hold hands all throughout our last concert every year. During the benediction, Prof would point to each senior and mouth “I love you” as we all choked back sobs and tried to continue singing.

Once I rose to the rank of upperclassman and became an officer, I turned into one of those loud, bossy seniors who barked at the freshmen, wanting them to drop their high school arrogance and learn their place, wanting them to respect the traditions and uphold the standards, wanting to place my own bricks on that growing legacy. We were strict because we loved the group so much, because we couldn’t bear to think of it declining on our watch.

We sang Handel’s Messiah and pieces newly written by student composition majors. We performed  African spirituals and modern psalm settings, Russian alleluias and haunting medieval melodies and arrangements of traditional hymns. We spat out words, literally, overenunciating to the point of ridiculousness (someone once asked me why we sang “Cheesus”). And we produced truly otherworldly harmonies.


Our concerts took us all over Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, to Chicago and New York and Florida and Scotland. One spring break we sang a whirlwind eighteen concerts in eight days. And day after day, Prof demonstrated for me the truth of the hymn lines:

“Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

He showed me, four afternoons a week and several weekends a year, what that looked like. And the IWU Chorale gave me countless unmatched opportunities to lift my voice in majestic praise to the Creator of life and breath and music, to the Savior who gives us reason to sing.


Treasures, previously:
A broken piece of cornerstone
A sharp pebble
A pastel index card
A Bible with a broken spine
A rainbow lanyard with a pewter cross pendant
Pages of prayers scrawled in a journal
Flip-flops with holes worn through the heels 
A sparkly aqua heart necklace

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pumpkin Apple Spice Baked Oatmeal (Plus Lots of Flavor Variations)

It's that glorious time of year when people are eating and drinking pumpkin spice everything...and this fall I decided it was time to pumpkin-spice-ify one of our favorite breakfasts: baked oatmeal.

Don't judge a baked oatmeal by its photo...oatmeal is difficult to photograph attractively! I don't have the skills but I promise it is DELICIOUS!

My boys eat oatmeal nearly every day of the week, but I would really rather not touch the stuff. It's a texture issue. But baked oatmeal? LOVE. Especially the edges where it caramelizes a little...

I'm not gonna lie, it's way more of a pain than cooking up plain old oatmeal for my boys--which is why if I'm going to the trouble, I always double it and bake two pans side by side. It freezes beautifully--just cut it into squares and spread them out on a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat (or parchment or wax paper). Freeze them on the cookie sheet, then once frozen, transfer the squares to a ziploc bag. Super easy to pop a single serving out of the freezer in the morning--two minutes in the microwave and you've got a hot, delicious, nutritious breakfast! I actually did this in advance for our beach vacation last summer, which meant we got to start each day with a cheap + wholesome + effortless meal.

Baked oatmeal can run the gamut from "fancy name for cake" to "tastes like health food." This one is  pretty low in sugar, but still has great flavor. I'd *like* it to be sweeter, since I have a raging sweet tooth, but I still very much enjoy it. And my boys are used to eating oatmeal sweetened only with fruit, so they think this is a huge treat. 

I love how forgiving this recipe is--you don't have to be a pro in the kitchen. This past time, I accidentally had the oven cranked to 425 for the first 20 minutes and it still turned out beautifully. My next goal is to convert it to a crockpot recipe and see if I can get it to cook overnight so we can wake up to that delicious smell and a hot breakfast with zero morning effort!

We've tried many variations and loved them all. Spiced cranberry-apple; peach; blueberry; blackberry-apple...and now, pumpkin apple spice.


FYI: There are a lot of explanations out there for why soaking grains is important. I actually haven't delved into that aspect of traditional cooking much; 99% of the time, I don't bother to soak. But this recipe calls for it, so I'm glad to just follow along and do it (lots easier than learning new methods and recipes for things I already knew how to make in a non-soaking way).

Baked Pumpkin Apple Spice Oatmeal
{adapted from Just Making Noise}

The day before:
Combine 4 cups regular rolled oats + 1/3 cup raw apple cider vinegar (or whey or lemon juice) + 6 cups water in a large bowl. Cover and soak at room temperature for up to 24 hours.

Ingredients:
1/3 cup melted coconut oil or butter
1 1/4 cups whole milk
3 eggs
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/3 cup maple syrup*
2 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cloves
3/4 tsp sea salt
1 apple, peeled and diced

Directions:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 13x9 baking dish.

Drain the oats in a large strainer (with fine holes) and rinse. Leave them to drain while you prepare the other ingredients.

In the large bowl that held the oats (no need to dirty more dishes, just rinse it out well), whisk together coconut oil, milk, eggs, syrup, vanilla, spices and salt. Stir in oats and fruit.

Pour mixture into a greased 13x9 baking dish, smoothing it evenly into the pan. Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let the baked oatmeal cool for 10-15 minutes before cutting and serving.

We like to eat this in a bowl with milk--but you can eat it with a fork on a plate, either plain or drizzled with butter and more syrup.

*Note: If your family is accustomed to sweeter oatmeal and breakfast foods, you may want to increase the sweetener. And if you use sugar instead of maple syrup, you'll have to increase the volume anyway--start with 1/2 - 3/4 cup if you're using brown sugar or sucanat.

Flavor Variations:

Berry-Apple Baked Oatmeal
1/3 cup melted coconut oil or butter
1 1/2 cups whole milk
4 eggs

1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp sea salt
1 apple, peeled and diced
2 cups berries (blueberry, blackberry, or cranberry)--no need to thaw if frozen

Notes: The spices for the pumpkin spice recipe are great with cranberry, but for blueberry or blackberry, I leave out all but the cinnamon. I cut blackberries in half if they are large ones (but you wouldn't have to--it just spreads them out in the batter more). If you use cranberries, chopping is important--they are too sour to make a bite of a big, whole cranberry appealing! I throw the still-frozen berries in my blender or food processor to chop them up pretty finely.

Peach:
same as berry-apple, but omit sliced apple and berries and add
1 lb sliced frozen peaches, chopped
1-2 tsp nutmeg

Monday, November 17, 2014

Multitude Monday, Take 336

Thanking God this week for...

6686. kitchen experiments turning out to be delicious
6687. new clothes
6688. opportunities to serve at Elijah's school
6689. Elijah's being humbled by getting a negative behavior point
6690. his telling me all about it freely

6691. an opportunity to reassure and encourage him
6692. the hilarious apology note he wrote to his teacher
6693. baking with Jude
6694. my grandma's sour cream cookies
6695. her Tupperware hand-me-down to put them in, just like she used to


6696. FINISHED stairs...cannot even tell you how excited I am about this project...after pics coming soon!!! here's a preview:


6697. all my husband's skill and hard work
6698. spots in the stain on the oak treads = reminder of how Daddy patiently lets his sons "help" :)
6699. significant decluttering accomplished
6700. Steve suggesting dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant after a long day of cleaning and other food prep and no leftovers in the fridge

6701. opportunities to practice hospitality
6702. Jude humming gospel songs, whispering to himself "Your grace has come to me..."
6703. pretty dusting of snow
6704. this lovely book of poem-prayers

Sunday, November 16, 2014

November Cuteness

Steve: "Ready for bed?"
Amy: "Hang on, I gotta throw a couple of pictures up on my blog and call it a night."
Steve: [chuckling] "You get credit for that?"
Amy: "Oh, it totally counts. Halfway through the month and I haven't even done it once yet."






As For Me and My House? We Live By Grace

A wooden plaque hangs above the doorway between our kitchen and dining room. It's a classic, mounted in thousands of Christian homes:

We received it as a wedding gift and didn't think twice about putting it up. I'm so used to seeing these familiar words from Joshua 24 displayed on household walls that I hadn't really considered the significance of the verse until Steve and I discussed it a while back. But the more I think about it, the more I am ready to take it down.

"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  

What could possibly be problematic about having these words over my doorway? Isn't this a helpful reminder? Certainly there's nothing wrong with the plaque; it's a noble aspiration. My earnest desire and fervent prayer is that I and my family will serve God wholeheartedly and faithfully!


But when we skim over the rest of Joshua 24 and pull out those eleven words as our family mantra, we put ourselves under law instead of grace. We rely on commands to do what only Jesus can do. We miss the point.

Think with me about the larger context of this declaration. Israel has finally come into the land God promised their forefather Abraham all those centuries ago. They have conquered their enemies. Their leader, Joshua, addresses them:

"And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed." (Joshua 23:14)

He gathers the tribes together and recounts a familiar story. "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel," Joshua proclaims, and he tells the story in God's own words:
I called Abraham and made him a father, impossibly.
I led Jacob and his children into Egypt.
I sent Moses and Aaron, and plagued the Egyptians, and brought My people out.
I led you through the wilderness and into the Promised Land and gave your enemies into your hand.

At the end of the telling, God pointedly reminds them whose work brought about this success, this divine favor:

"...it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant." (Joshua 24:12-13)

It's only after all this that Joshua delivers his famous exhortation:

“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15)

After this rousing reminder of their national history, how could they not affirm their commitment to God? Not a single one of His promises to them had failed to come true! And so they are quick to assure Joshua: "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods...we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God" (v.16, 18).

Interestingly, Joshua warns them: "You are not able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God...If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you" (v. 19-20).

Still they insist: "No, but we will serve the LORD. ...his voice we will obey" (v. 21, 24).

At this point, let's remember how this bold declaration turned out for the Israelites. Joshua died, and thus began the era of Judges: a depressing downward spiral of disobedience, destruction, crying out for mercy, receiving another chance, and disobeying again. After that came the briefly glorious rule of King David...followed by centuries more of disobedience, superficial repentance, more disobedience, and finally judgment and exile from this Promised Land.

Wow, that bold covenant declaration really worked out well for them.

Israel's history makes clear that determined human words don't take anyone very far. The problem is their hearts--their forgetful, wayward, stony hearts. And the truth is, my lofty-sounding words aren't worth much more than theirs.

But the good news is, God's words are much more potent. His promises never fail, in spite of how many times mine do. And in the centuries since the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and journey into the Promised Land, Joshua's speech still rings true: Not one word of all that God has promised has failed to come true.

He promised to send a Redeemer--and He did. He promised to remove hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh--and He has. He promised to send His Spirit to dwell within our hearts--and He does. Every promise of His is YES in Christ Jesus. And it's these realities--God's words, God's actions, not mine--that provide a foundation for my faith and my family to stand on.

I don't need a plaque to remind me of my duty; the law is powerless to transform the heart. But what the law could not do, God did! He sent His Son to meet every requirement of the law, to obey in ways we were utterly incapable of doing. And after Jesus perfectly feared the LORD and served Him in perfect sincerity and wholehearted faithfulness--after He utterly rejected all other gods and followed the LORD alone, never forsaking Him...then He went to the cross, where He endured the wrath we deserve for our insincerity, our faithlessness, our chasing after idols and forsaking the LORD.

This good news--this glorious gospel of grace--THIS is what I need plastered on the wall in my house. Like the Israelites, I am easily forgetful. And guilt is not an effective motivator; merely telling me what I'm supposed to be doing isn't going to get me very far. No, tell me what God has done. Tell me who He is and who He has made me to be in Christ. Replace the guilt with good news; that's what will motivate me to rise up and serve the Lord. That's what will keep me going when I fail.

We see it modeled right here in Joshua 24: The declaration of faith comes only after the reminder of God's character and saving work. And it's the latter that we are so prone to forget.

So I think I'd like to take down that plaque, and adorn my walls with the gospel instead. All I'd have to do is back up a verse:

"I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant."

These words that literally described the Israelites' entrance into the Promised Land serve to describe my own life, too--both my present privileges and my eternal inheritance. I received salvation I could not accomplish. I did not build this sweet 80-year-old house; I did not earn this loving husband, these beautiful sons. I not only didn't plant vineyards but worse, I actually fail to tend the orchards provided to me. Yet still they bear the fruit of grace. All this and more beyond (my inheritance in Heaven) has been deserved and paid for by Another. And I will live up to what I've been freely given only when I fix my eyes on Him and what He's already done.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

How to Make Last Names Plural or Possessive

We're almost to that wonderful time of year when mailboxes fill up with lovely Christmas cards. I hope you'll include a family photo and send one to me--I love to cover my refrigerator with the faces of our family and friends!

In the meantime, please allow me to indulge my inner Grammar Nerd and pass along a few helpful tips for writing last names on cards or personalized gifts. Last names can be tricky to make plural or possessive--especially if the name ends in "s." We get easily confused because surnames like "Brooks" or "Woods" sound like they are already plural. So we leave them as-is, thinking the "s" on the end will suffice, resulting in phrasing like:
  • "Pray for the Woods." (Which "Woods"? THE Woods--meaning Tiger Woods?)
  • "We're having the Brooks over for dinner." (Just Garth, by himself? You're on a last-name-as-nickname basis with him?)

Some people, realizing that doesn't feel quite right, will try to fix it by throwing in an apostrophe:
  • "Pray for the Woods' "
  • "We're having the Brook's over for dinner."

But making a name plural should never, ever involve an apostrophe.  JUST SAY NO to unnecessary apostrophes.

It may look or sound strange. But you always add "s" or "es" to last names to make them plural--even if those names already end with "s". So we would write:
  • "Pray for the Woodses."
  • "We're having the Brookses over for dinner."

If this feels too awkward, there is an easy way out: Just add the word "family"!
  • "Pray for the Woods family."
  • "We're having the Brooks family over for dinner."

Problem solved.

On the other hand, what if you *are* referring to something the family owns? What if, for example, you want to invite people to the house that belongs to the Williams family?

It's not just one Williams who lives in the house. You have to make the name plural before adding the possessive. So it's not "the Williams' house," but rather "the Williamses' house" or simply "the Williamses'."

Again, remember: the safe solution is to change it to "the Williams family's house"  or "the home of the Williams family."

Keep in mind, the same rules apply for names that don't end in "s"--always add an S for plurals and  never add an apostrophe unless referring to a possessive:
  • Merry Christmas from the Johnsons!
  • Happy New Year from the Martinezes!
  • You're invited to a party at the Johnsons' house!
  • The Martinezes' house is beautiful.
And in case you were wondering, names that end in "y" don't change spelling as other y-ending words do:
  • Happy Holidays from the Kennedys!
  • The Kennedys' dog is cute.

There you have it. I hope this helps someone out there preparing Christmas cards or personalized Christmas gifts for family and friends!

More on the topic from anal-retentive like-minded grammarians: 
Grammar Lesson: Last Names That End in S
How to Make Family Names Plural

Friday, November 14, 2014

Made for More: Author Interview

Hannah Anderson's book had me shouting YES! out loud as I read. I repeatedly scribbled "wow" and "AMEN!" in the margins. I think Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image is a deeply important contribution to the church's conversation about gender roles, femininity, and identity.


I am delighted to direct you to Ungrind today, where you can find a recent interview I did with Hannah about her book--and a giveaway from her publisher! Hannah begins by saying:
When I first entered adulthood, life was pretty easy; I had my nice, neat categories. I knew who I was and where I belonged. And then life happened.
Ten years later, the roles and categories that had once given me security weren’t working anymore. I felt uncertain, out of sorts, and restless. When I looked around, I saw my friends going through very similar struggles. So I started asking myself, What have we missed? What has been absent from the conversation that would explain why so many of us are longing for “more”? It turns out that the “more” we needed wasn’t more opportunity or different roles; the “more” we needed was God Himself.
 Head over to Ungrind for more, plus a chance to win one of two copies of the book.

...And stay tuned, because I'll be revisiting this next week with more of my thoughts about the book and some "bonus material" from my interview with the author!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Treasures :: A Sparkly Silver Necklace with an Aqua Hearts Pendant

I've been sorting through my treasures in chronological order so far, telling the stories of God's work in my life as I remember them unfolding. But tonight I’m compelled to fast-forward from my college years to the present. Last week, I received a brand-new treasure.

 ***

“Treasure chests” have been a low hum of annoyance in my life ever since Elijah started preschool. Oh, I don't at all blame the teachers for trying anything that works for classroom management. I just don't love all the cheap junk littering my house.

Over the last two years, we’ve amassed quite a collection of plastic trinkets, thanks to our obedient (at school, anyway) boys. This year, Elijah’s first grade teacher invites the students who have good behavior all week to eat lunch with her in the classroom every Friday, so he always looks forward to “Lunch Bunch.” He also gets to select a treasure.

(As an aside, "treasure chest" has long been one of those adorable kid-language quirks in our house. It was only a few weeks ago that I finally explained to Elijah that the object itself was not called a “treasure chest.” For years he’s been saying, “I got a treasure chest today!” “Look, see my treasure chest?”)

I digress. So last Friday, on the way home from school, Elijah was excited to tell me what he had picked out from the treasure chest. “Mom, wait till you see it,” he said. “I got something for you. It’s beautiful.”

Instead of selecting some sort of racecar or superhero figure, Elijah chose a “pretty necklace,” and he presented it to me with pride.

Not since Steve placed a diamond on my left hand have I felt more proud to wear a piece of jewelry, or more undeserving of the love with which it was given.



I realize every mother gets a million of these cheap trinkets from her offspring. I can remember excitedly shopping at my elementary school’s Secret Santa Shop for Christmas gifts I was just sure my parents would LOVE (paid for with their own money). But this is my first one, and it feels like a milestone—not least because it actually cost Elijah something.

This wasn’t him taking money he’d gotten from Daddy and picking out a present for me. And it wasn’t prompted by an occasion like Mother’s Day or my birthday. This was Elijah simply loving me: looking through all the treasures, spotting a sparkly necklace, thinking of me and wanting me to have it more than he wanted a new toy.

These last few days, as I feel the weight of a cheap aqua heart pendant around my neck, it is heavy with a son’s love for his mama. And it has me pondering gospel implications.

Being a mother is indeed teaching me about unconditional love and the way God the Father relates to us. But it isn’t in the way everyone says, the way I expected. No, often *I* am the child in the relationship, learning from the love of my son. 

I’m finding that this little necklace—unexpected, undeserved gift—does more to motivate me to be a good mom than any amount of reading pep talks (or shaming screeds) about motherhood. It has more of an impact than “should”-ing myself, more than beating myself up about how I’ve failed and resolving to try harder and do better. I touch the bejeweled hearts, and when I realize how loved I am in spite of my mistakes, I *want* to be the mama Elijah needs. I want to walk worthy of a necklace.

How can I be irritated with him, when he chose something from the treasure chest for me? How can I yell at him, when he loved me enough to sacrifice taking something for himself? How can I be impatient with him, when he kept me on his mind and heart and picked out a beautiful trinket just because he thought it would make me smile?

“Stop yelling! You’re crushing him! Good moms don’t yell at their kids! You’ve GOT to get your anger under control!”—funny how that doesn’t actually seem to help.

“He loves you, in spite of yourself. He is glad you are his mama, even after all the times you’ve yelled at him.”—amazing how that inspires me to take a deep breath, look at him through different eyes, and love him.

And finally God begins to get it through my thick head: We love because He first loved us. It’s His kindness that leads us to repentance. Growth and change come not by beating ourselves over the head with should and ought-tos, but by resting securely in His grace—through being rooted and grounded in His deep, deep love for us.

How can I be indifferent toward Him, when He chose me as His treasure?
How can I betray Him, when He loved me enough to sacrifice His only Son for me?
How can I distrust Him, when His thoughts toward me are without number? 

What the law could not do, God did—by sending His own Son. By lavishing His love. By adopting us as His children. We love, because He first loved us. And then we change, because we love.

Elijah gave me a trinket that spoke volumes about his love for his mama. More than that, he gave me the gift of seeing the gospel a little bit more clearly. He gave me a glimpse of Jesus’ love for me.


Treasures, previously:
A broken piece of cornerstone
A sharp pebble
A pastel index card
A Bible with a broken spine
A rainbow lanyard with a pewter cross pendant
Pages of prayers scrawled in a journal
Flip-flops with holes worn through the heels 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

About Me

I believe my sidebar has said "full bio coming soon" for about a year or so now. So here I am, finally getting around to fixing that :) 

I've been a writer for as long as I can remember, but I often feel like an impostor calling myself such. As a quick look at the archives of this blog will tell you, I write in fits and spurts at best. Somewhere after college, I seem to have misplaced my discipline and self-motivation, and that part of me sort of died. But as my favorite writing professor pointed out when I mentioned this to her a few years back: "Thankfully, we are people of the Resurrection!"

Still, in light of the dizzying number of bloggers like me out there--women who are more prolific, more business-savvy, more eloquent and have a far bigger platform--I often wonder why I feel compelled to keep this up. I've been writing on this blog for over ten years now (here's where the title came from, in case you were wondering), but I don't have a lot of followers or a significant reach; I don't bring in any side income for my family. Why do my words here even matter? Am I just one more unnecessary voice adding to the cacophony of internet content clamoring for your limited and valuable time?  

I don't know, but I'm realizing more and more that I *need* to be writing--even if I am not exceptional, even if there are a million other bloggers out there. As Jennie Allen so helpfully said recently, "Before killing your dream because someone else is already doing it, remember there are 7 billion people on the planet. I am just saying there is a chance that the other person is not reaching all of them." Point taken! Whether there are many or few who read my words here, it is a privilege to have even a single soul visit my little corner of the internet and consider what I have to say. I don't take that lightly.

Beyond that, I write for my own health. If I am not writing, I am generally not seeing, not preaching to myself, not mapmaking. If I am not writing, I am not thriving.

So I write to preach the truth to myself, and welcome you to listen in along the way. I write to reflect on the joys and trials of living in a testosterone-filled house. I write to process the challenges of pointing two impressionable little ones to Jesus (and the ways they point me to Jesus). I write to practice gratitude and remembrance. I write to capture and celebrate the extraordinary stories of ordinary people and the Grand Storyteller behind them all. I write to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing--to redirect my focus to Christ. I write to remember who He is, what He did at the cross, what He has done in my life, and what He promises to one day complete.

And I also write about random and/or frivolous things like my pen obsession (which, incidentally, is still the #1 most viewed and commented-upon thing I've ever written...keeps me humble) or grammar (I will freely admit to chronically overusing the ellipsis and the em-dash). 

A few more rooted, less lofty specifics: I grew up in Ohio, graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University, and married a boy I'd known since we were seven and loved since we were seventeen. We moved to the Nashville area immediately after our wedding, and I will be forever grateful to the South for introducing me to tomato pie.

When I'm not writing, you might find me making said pie and other kitchen messes, singing and snuggling and reading with my boys (ages 7 and 4), ballroom dancing in the living room with Mr. Wonderful, pretending to be a photographer, or working on one of our many never-ending home renovation projects. Or, OK, let's be honest: I'm sorry to say you're also likely to find me wasting time on Facebook and procrastinating from cleaning my shower.

At any rate, if you’d told me ten years ago that I would even think of mentioning cooking in a bio, I would have declared you certifiably insane…which helps me remember that God is in the business of changing people, even if the process is slower than my perfectionistic self would prefer.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you'll stick around...maybe even leave a comment...or subscribe via email or Facebook.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

For My Grandparents, and Veterans Everywhere

Given how needy I am during labor and in the first weeks postpartum (not to mention how having his babies has made me fall more deeply in love with my husband), I can't imagine not having my husband present for the birth of our children.

Yet it's a reality military families have always faced. This Veterans Day, those families and the magnitude of their sacrifices are on my mind: families like my friend Lisa's, whose Marine husband missed the births of *both* their babies...and families like my grandparents.

My mom's parents, high school sweethearts, got married in September of 1941--hardly able to fathom how their lives would change less than three months later when Pearl Harbor was bombed.


My grandfather joined the Army in early 1943, and he was in basic training when his first child (my beloved aunt) was born in May 1943. The Red Cross notified him by telegram--failing to mention whether it was a boy or girl.

He was allowed to come home for a brief visit when his daughter was about six weeks old before deploying to England that summer. He wouldn't see his wife and daughter again until my aunt was two years old.

***

I never got to meet my grandpa; he died just two months before I was born. And the more time passes since my grandmother's death in 2012, the more I wish I'd asked her more questions, listened to more stories, preserved more memories. I have just a couple of letters and cards she and my grandpa sent to each other while he was overseas: a letter she wrote on their third wedding anniversary; a Valentine and a Christmas card he sent. They are precious beyond words; I remove them gingerly from yellowed and torn envelopes, greedily wishing there were more.


One is a "Wish for the New Year" card he sent her in December 1944. He signed it, "With all My Love and may we be together to celebrate the next one." I'm grateful that his wish came true. My grandma was one of the lucky ones; her husband came home from the war (making my own existence possible, when my mom was born nine years later). Still, I can't imagine what she went through as a young, new mother, with her husband fighting half a world away--especially before the days of Skype and emails or even easy access to make international phone calls!

***

Over the last few years, especially with living relatively close to an Army base (Fort Campbell), I've developed friendships with a couple of military wives/former soldiers, and I'm frequently in awe of how they do what they do. Most of them downplay it as no big deal, but I don't ever want to take it for granted: because they give up their husbands, mine gets to stay home. Because they sacrifice to serve our country, my little boys can be free to wave flags at a Veterans Day parade totally oblivious to what it is like to have war in your country, or even to have your life touched by war in any way.


So this Veterans Day post is my feeble attempt to honor the memory of Ed and June Wise, members of "The Greatest Generation," and to say to veterans and their families everywhere, with the most inadequate but sincere words I have: Thank you.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Multitude Monday, Take 335

Thanking God this week for...

6650. Jude lifting weights with us in his Spiderman costume + cowboy boots
6651. FaceTime
6652. grace to walk into the light, confess sin
6653. Elijah asking for clarification: "Mom, could you give me some more information about that?"
6654. the right to vote

6655. boys' being super cooperative for a quick, impromptu photo shoot
6656. a sunny afternoon spent at the park
6657. the color of cranberry chutney
6658. early morning prayer with a dear friend
6659. antique photographs, rare and precious


6660. the fact that photos of my boys and other loved ones *aren't* rare
6661. rush shipping on a computer cable for only $4
6662. fresh air
6663. sore muscles
6664. grace to control myself and not yell

6665. leaves in our neighborhood still beautiful
6666. the courageous people who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s
6667. two crockpots full of vegetable beef soup, plenty to share
6668. the safe arrival of a dear friend's new baby girl
6669. Steve's help with hospitality
6670. fellowship and great teaching with friends

6671. all the messages from TGC's women's conference available for free download
6672. perspective that changed my 4AM parenting
6673. boys cleaning gutters with Daddy
6674. Steve having a rare guys' night
6675. pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon cream syrup

6676. a new cardigan in my new favorite shade of blue
6677. Elijah's finally being hooked on the Wingfeather Saga
6678. conviction and repentance
6679. not restraining His mercy from me
6680. this encouragement from Jennie Allen:
6681. the means to buy the clothes my kids need
6682. the Coupon Sherpa app
6683. friends being vulnerable about their weaknesses and struggles
6684. this early morning moment with my boys
6685. the fact that I happened to have my phone in my pocket to capture it



Sunday, November 09, 2014

Little by Little

"The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you" (Deuteronomy 7:22).

How often I want things taken care of RIGHT NOW. I want the problem solved immediately; I want the character refined instantly; I want the knowledge gained all at once. But I can't handle it that way. The lessons are learned and the real growth happens along the way, little by little, in the midst of the journey.

I heard somewhere once that the sturdiest, strongest trees are the ones in which the rings are impossibly narrow, where the growth is nearly imperceptible. And the slowest-growing trees also live the longest. Though I want the immediate gratification that our fast-food, instant-winner world demands, God knows it'd be too much for me. So I press on, little by little, trusting Him to grow me at a rate that will last and run deep.

“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” ― Molière


Saturday, November 08, 2014

Better Than Ex Nihilo

 "...the God...who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Romans 4:17).

Primarily Paul is referring here to creation, of course--the wonder that God created everything out of nothing. But, as a friend of mine once suggested, couldn't it also apply to what God can do in my own heart?

There is HOPE in who God is! He is the God who calls into existence the things that do not exist: love and compassion for others; joy in difficult circumstances; courage to speak hard words; trust in Him despite the unknown future...He is able to create all these things and so many more, out of nothing.

In fact, His work in my heart is *more* impressive than creating the world out of nothing, because apart from Christ my heart was not empty, it was full. It wasn't simply without form and void--it was crammed with rebellion and unbelief and love for self. When He breathed life into my heart and gave me faith in Him, He was not just creating out of nothing; He was creating the exact opposite of what was already there!

This powerful, life-giving, transforming God continues His astounding work in my heart. He is committed to remaking me in the image of His Son, which means I can have hope--not in my own efforts to change or ability or knowledge, but because of who He is and what He has done and continues to do. He calls into existence the things that do not exist in my heart.


[edited repost from the archives]

Friday, November 07, 2014

Beautiful Through Dying

The most beautiful season is the dying.


Winter holds its own appeal, though my ability to appreciate it is brief (the snow is beautiful; the cold and the dark, not so much). I delight in spring, when everything comes alive again. And the color green never looks so beautiful to me as in early summer, after so much gray and brown and white. But it isn’t until the autumn, the dying, that the trees which seem the most ordinary—the ones that otherwise blend together in a nondescript blur of green or a tangle of bare brown—make me stand in awe.


I somehow spent the first two and a half decades of my life not paying attention. Oh, I might have paid the blazing trees a passing compliment each October; some years I suppose I marveled a little. But I never got up close, never slowed to take in the details and ponder their significance.


Then we moved to an old neighborhood, one whose streets are shaded by trees that have seen more than my grandparents. And on long walks up and down its sidewalks, I learned to see. I picked up a bright yellow fan-shaped leaf and taped it in my visual journal, not knowing what it was, sure I’d never seen one before. Did we have that kind of tree up north? (Yes, it turns out; the photo below is from Ohio.)

When my firstborn was three, we checked out Autumn Leaves from the library. We embarked on a hunt, collecting as many different specimens as we could find from the trees near our house. I had known the basic oak and maple, but now I learned the shapes of tulip poplar, smoke tree, sweet gum and linden.

The burning bushes turn scarlet, and this really does feel like holy ground. Every November is new; every year I wander slow, unable to believe that perfect blue shade of the autumn sky, exact complement to the orange trees…awed by the intricate shape of a maple leaf…thrilled to watch the gingko turn glorious yellow.


I try to capture it in pictures, occasionally getting lucky but mostly frustrated by my inability to freeze-frame the way the light plays off the warm, rich colors. I think vaguely poetic thoughts, haunted by poem-ghosts that make their homes in the fiery maples and the oak across the street whose brittle brown leaves hang on all winter, refusing to fall.


Day after day, I am reminded that this beauty comes in dying. And this is no happenstance, no mere natural occurrence that coincidentally points to a spiritual reality. It is the wise and wonderful design of a Creator who intended the metaphor even as He gave each leaf its color and then cloaked them all in green. He painted the trees for the very purpose of testifying to His Son, the One He had already planned would die in the most terribly beautiful way.


And I am reminded that His design is for me, too, to become beautiful through dying--and that when I lay my life down, my flesh crucified with Christ, I can rest assured that a resurrection spring will always, always come. 


Previously in the fall (aka, I write a version of this post every year, with photos of our gorgeous neighborhood):
Autumn Beauty
Contemplating Beauty
Death and Beauty
Part of the Whole
Compelled to Capture Beauty