Monday, December 22, 2014

Gifts in Disguise

So yesterday in church, one of our elders shared with us that at the beginning of 2014, he had three wishes. Three specific ways he'd really prefer life to be different. Three situations he'd appreciate God addressing.

Guess how many of them changed in 2014? That would be zero.

"Santa didn't bring me my wishlist," he chuckled wryly. "But … Jesus Christ infused Himself into me in 2014!"

He wasn't the only one with a wry chuckle and a twinkle in his eye. I saw plenty of heads nodding knowingly. Would any of them have been yours? Maybe some mountains you'd like to have seen moved this past year … but you got something -- or Someone -- else instead?

The other morning on my walk I started to imagine --maybe because we often remark on how God isn't like Santa Claus, whisking down the chimneys of our lives to plop pretty things in our stockings or under our trees and then disappearing in a flash for another year -- what if each of us did have an invisible tree of sorts, and He WERE in the business of piling up gifts underneath it? What if the gift pile happened all year? What would that look like?

I don't know how about you, but some of the gifts under my tree would be shiny. Pretty. Glittery. Pinterest-y. Beautifully wrapped in heavyweight paper and adorned with a tulle bow and maybe a hand-stamped, gilt-edged tag.

But others? Well, a fair number of those gifts would be wrapped in wrinkled shopping bags or scraps of old newspaper and sealed up with duct tape.

And yes, as you're already guessing, inside each package, lovely or shabby, would be God himself. He truly is the greatest gift, disguised or unveiled by every circumstance. But He doesn't look the same, feel the same in every package.

 He gives us elements of the material, old creation, so appealingly wrapped, to point us to Him. Our souls long for beauty, so He allows us music, poetry, art, family, celebrations, holidays, feasts, the wonders of nature … not as ends in themselves, but as reflections, reminders, road signs that can point us to Him as the reality of all beauty, truth, goodness. 

He also allows us heartache, disappointment, and failure so that against their darkness we see His light more clearly. These too are gifts.

I thought about friendship. This has been a dynamic year for us, meaning full of change. Because of the friendships we forged in England, and especially because of those here in Texas that endured a year's separation and only grew deeper and stronger and more treasured, I appreciate all the more tangibly that Christ is faithful, enduring, unconditionally loving, and unchanging. And because of the friendships that frayed or faded, I appreciate all the more poignantly that ONLY Christ is truly faithful, enduring, unconditionally loving and unchanging.

I thought about home. Finding a sense of home in a place that we grew to love, starting to put down roots in a beautiful place, and then also having a warm nest to return to, were blessings that I could easily recognize. But as a result of all that, I feel like ever since we left for Cambridge a year and a half ago, my heart has felt the constant ache of yearning to be in two places at once, while learning to be content in one place at a time. The gift in that sense of displacement is that I see more clearly than ever that this earth has no perfect home. It's a temporary campground, with different features in different sites. Only in eternity will we find our true home and the fulfillment of every shadow.

Some things point us to Him by their presence, some things by their absence.

On my wish list for all of us this week, friends, and in the year ahead, is that we keep learning to see past the pretty packaging and the old newsprint, keep fearlessly unwrapping the treasures of Himself He's hidden inside for us to seek and to find.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Every Mother Needs

Do you have a quiet time? I don't mean two hours on your knees in meditative silence every day, friends. I mean something small, simple, honest … and regular. 

I talk to moms about their struggles, and one thing I hear over and over again is a sense of guilt over not having "time with the Lord." Babies arrive, then toddlers, then kids rushing off to school or co-op or whatever, and we feel like if we can't do it "right," why bother? Surely God isn't interested in giving us His attention if we can only offer him ten sleepy minutes?! So shoddy! And the habit fades away, swallowed up by guilt or excuses or perfectionism, a.k.a. The Enemy of Every Mother. 

And before we know it, we're living in a state of constant spiritual hypoglycemia, manifesting itself as chronic anxiety, depression, irritability, and loneliness. (I know there can be chemical components of these issues, and they are for real. But that's often not the whole story. Says one who knows.)

Recently I heard a speaker at a Christian conference liken our private life with God to a hidden garden. In the Song of Songs chapter 4, the king calls his bride a "garden locked up … a spring enclosed … a fountain sealed." If, likewise, our life with the Lord is not a religious form but a divine romance, then we need to cultivate something rooted and beautiful within that is not just for our own nourishment but also for His delight. 

I'm talking about the conversations that no one knows about. The early morning moments where I'm bleary-eyed, cup of coffee in hand, words blurring on the Bible page but somehow whispering to my heart. The walks I take each dawn with our dog, pouring out disconnected thoughts, worries, dreams, thanks, sorrows, praise to the Friend who walks with me. I remind Him that I have no idea how to be a mother to the children He's given me, a mother who inhales and exhales grace, and that He'd better come and be what I cannot be. Some of those interactions, the blurting out and maybe even the listening (I'm learning!) make their way onto the page or into others' ears. Some of them never will.

This is the way -- the few minutes sitting up with my Bible in bed, the walk around the block or the little pond -- that my heart quietly connects with Him in this season of my life. For you, in your season, it may look different. Your time may be in your car. On the treadmill. In the shower. On the floor in a full-on yoga Pose of the Child. 

Whatever it is, may you take joy in its being enough right now. 
May you find truth to nourish you for whatever battles or burdens lie ahead in your day. 
May you find beauty in the shining of His face. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Staying Cozy, Revisited

We've had quite the cold snap lately! Or so the drippy end of my nose, my most reliable thermometer, tells me. I guess even in Texas, even in November, we have to take our turn with weird weather fronts now and then. 

This called for upping the cozy (cosy? Is that American or British? How should I spell things now? Help!!) factor. I say there's nothing like berry crumble for breakfast (ground almonds, pecans, oats, maple syrup, olive oil baked over berries and topped with whipped cream), coffee in my cherished Cath  Kidston mug, and slow mornings with my people, two-legged and four-, to make a body feel warm and grateful all over. 

It doesn't take much. Small mercies, simple beauties … that's a rush enough for me right now.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

It Is God

Hey, friends.

I'm wondering whether any of these scenarios ring a bell with you?

You notice your children could sure use a leap forward in their resourcefulness, their independent problem-solving, their ability to tackle small domestic setbacks such as a misplaced book or a tight jar lid without immediately squawking, "MOM!!!" Also, you walked into homeschooling at least in part because you envisioned these unsullied, eager, self-motivated learners, but the kid who's actually at your kitchen table sure likes to grumble about math/Latin/fill-in-the-blank. As you wallow in insecurity about your parenting, you run into a friend/neighbor/relative (maybe even someone who appears to put much less effort into parenting than you do) who waxes positively poetic about how accomplished their child is in school, how they're taking all AP classes by their own choice and excelling in extracurriculars, and how they never need to be reminded to study. Or helped to open jars.

Then there's this one. You look at your spouse and, because you mistakenly believe he should be meeting your needs, wish that he would make more of an effort to plan fun stuff. Your life feels a bit mundane, a bit lacking in the adventure department, and it sure would be nice if he'd pull it together to spice things up a bit and MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. Not forty-eight hours later, your best friend calls to report that her husband just bought tickets for a romantic getaway in Hawaii, and made childcare arrangements to boot.

Or how about this? A close friend swears she loves and cares about you, but makes absolutely no effort to spend any time with you and yours. Your invitations are consistently declined (for good reasons, but declined nonetheless), reciprocal ones are not forthcoming, and you come face to face with the hard truth that you are the person keeping this relationship afloat. If you were to stop trying altogether, the relationship you've cherished would probably fade into the oblivion of polite waves across the parking lot and "Likes" on Facebook statuses. You don't understand. You wish you were worth fighting for in that person's eyes. Oh, and did I mention your kids are involved?  You wonder whether it's possible to have a meaningful friendship with no expectations or needs. You wonder whether the juice in this thing is still worth the proverbial squeeze. Maybe love means completely letting go. But what does that actually look like?

{Wondering where I get my highly hypothetical scenarios???}

I know, I know. A real upper of a post! But here's the thing: When I post in this space, which has become less and less frequent of late, I want to be real with you. We all have our victories, and we all have our dungeons. So, friends, hang in there with me a moment more, all right?

In Genesis 50, Joseph -- who knew a thing or two about dungeons -- stood before his brothers, who cam sniveling to him, worried that after so many years their sins would come back to haunt them and Joseph would exact his revenge for their  ugly treatment, now that Dad (Jacob) was out of the way. His word to them nearly takes my breath away:

" But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.

I'm no Joseph. I'm always looking for someone or something to blame, and I can let hurt feelings marinate like nobody's business. But lately, as I muse upon this or that situation that I sure wish were different, these three words have been winding through my heart like a small refrain: "It is God." 

Not the kids. Not the spouse. Not the friend. Not the unexpected bill, or the picky eaters, or the ill-timed red light, or the inconsiderate family members, or any number of totally unfair scenarios which remain annoyingly outside our control (but bless our hearts, don't we try, because we forget that little question: "Am I in the place of God?"). It is God. God, who intends it for the highest good. God, who wants to save many lives by our being so filled with grace that we have a surplus to feed the hungry. God, who needs our cooperation. After all, we're living in a land of famine of spirit. Is anyone not starving for such abundant grace?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Right Now

(This isn't actually right now. It's from four weeks ago at my youngest sister's wedding, but I'm just now getting around to sharing it with you! And to noticing that a certain someone's white dress shirt isn't quite tucked in! Can we just focus on the fact that he's wearing a tie??)

I am thinking … about The Hiding Place, a classic I finished this week. Have you read it? I was hesitant going in, as I'm very reluctant to read about the Holocaust. Not because I want to pretend it didn't exist, but because I can accept that human cruelty exists without having to voluntarily delve into it and end up with nightmares. But I'd forgotten how very uplifting this beautiful book actually is. So much wisdom about hiding in the will of God, about the grace He sends to meet the right need at the right moment (and never until then), and about thanking Him in everything. I'm not suffering in a flea-ridden concentration camp right now, thanks be to God, but I've had a couple situations lately that have a grip on my heart. In a world of Ebola and ISIS and so many other terrible threats, my concerns may seem petty -- but they are real to me, right here and now. They loom large. Thanking Him for these things, whenever the sadness or anxiety nags, is a spiritual muscle that requires exercise. 

I am hearing … minds in bloom. Probably because of the same book, which Ian and his classmates also just finished, I walked by a room yesterday during a co-op we attend with a small group of families and heard him and two friends having an intense, sober discussion. I later found out they were debating whether it's ever morally permissible for a Christian to lie. I love that these discussions are happening at this age, with or without adult participation. I love that they're thinking big, complex thoughts and seeking to understand more of the nature of God. I love that they're challenging each other, iron sharpening iron. 

I am loving … all the time my children are spending outdoors now that the weather's become decent. We got a trampoline a few weeks ago, and I wondered whether we'd get our money's worth from such a purchase (it meant shelving a couple other household items in the budget for a while) or whether they'd quickly lose interest. And the verdict? They're on it all. the. time. First thing in the morning. Late at night, in their pajamas, looking up at the stars. Grabbing quick study breaks. Playing silly games with each other and with their friends. And meanwhile, the patio door stands open and the breezes waft in. Fall here smells like summer in the house where I grew up, because that's when the windows stay open! 

(Who doesn't want to lie in a cardboard box while reading?)

I am makingthis recipe for Baked Ziti, tomorrow night when we host a whole crowd of teenaged kids for our church youth group meeting. No idea exactly how many are coming. No idea whether we'll have enough chairs, tables, or ziti. But I do have an idea of why God gave us this house, and that's to fill it with people whenever we can and trust Him for the details. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reading Aloud at Our House

 So who's listening to the Read-Aloud Revival podcast these days? I suspect some people in my life might be weary of hearing me mention it, but what can I say? When I find a good thing, I like to share it. Because sharing is caring, right?

Anyway, Sarah is the perfect host for this podcast, because she's warm and effervescent and asks intelligent questions instead of getting completely tongue-tied as I would if I were in her shoes … uh, headphones. Recently, she interviewed the similarly bubbly and articulate author of The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, and after hearing the interview, I immediately put the book on hold at the library. In a nutshell: this father read aloud to his daughter (the book's author) for nine years, without missing a single night, until she went off to college. It absolutely changed their lives.

Do you read aloud in your household (assuming you have children, or anyone with ears)? If you're a parent, who does most of the reading? I'll be honest with you: reading aloud has always been one of the things I feel I can actually do as a parent. Ever since Ian was a newborn and I sat in the rocking chair with him and reflected on how little I knew what I was doing with this bundle of needs joy, and then picked up Barnyard Dance! (Boynton on Board) for the sixty-third time, I've felt, I can do this. I may not be the best [fill in the blank here] but in the lifelong campaign -- battle, even! -- for my children's hearts, this is a tool I can wield with enthusiasm.

Here's how it works in our house.

At breakfast, I read with the children. Bit by bit, we are working our way through the following right now:
George Washington's World (SUCH a fun way to learn history together!)
DK Illustrated Family Bible
A Heart Strangely Warmed
We also read and memorize poetry and a Scripture passage. Our guideposts for our morning time: truth, goodness, beauty.

Some time during the afternoon, I usually read a novel to the girls. Right now: Calico Captive. Before that: The Wheel on the School. I found it easier to be very consistent about the timing of this while we lived in England and were almost invariably home around 4:00, a.k.a. tea-time. (Our schedule was pretty simple when we had to be indoors and boiling the water by 4:00 or risk cycling home in the dark during wintertime!)

Every single night at bedtime, Tim reads to all three of them. First, a chapter from the Bible. Then, their current novel. He tends to pick different things than I would -- usually with some element of fantasy (him) versus historical or classic fiction (me). They recently finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and have moved on to the 100 Cupboards) series.

("I think we have enough bookshelves." Said no homeschooler ever.)

If you have any recommendations for reading aloud from your own family, I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

After the Adventure

Friends, I've gotten a nudge or two lately about the silence of this space. You're sweet to ask.

Mostly, I'm busy and haven't been able to carve out a new routine that involves regular writing time, especially when my brain is fresh and functional.

But the bald truth is, I'm afraid that if I start writing, as I tried to a week or two ago, it will be like unleashing a torrent of rather glum and circuitous words. But perhaps I'll labor over just this one, and then move on.

It's an adventure to be married to me these days, as I'm sure the Professor could verify. He's just sitting there scheduling a mortgage payment on his laptop or doing any number of other innocent activities when BLAM! I'll ask whether he thinks we should move back to England for a longer period of time "next time." I believe the expression "deer in the headlights" may have been coined just for such a facial expression as his at times like these.

So it's too much to go into in any great depth. Suffice it to say that in the last two years, I have experienced following the God of Abraham by faith through selling a house with no destination in mind and ending up thousands of miles away. Then I enjoyed the blessings of the God of Isaac, learning and growing and soaking in the beauties of a new city, new friendships, new opportunities for service. Now? The God of Jacob, the God who transforms wrestlers into those who lean on staffs to bless others, is digging deep. My grasping, desperate spiritual fingers are finding purchase on the steep rock face of His promise to that same Jacob: To be with him, and not to leave him until His work of a lifetime is completed.

One thing I'm learning is that the God of Jacob hides Himself behind other people and things. Dear friends disappoint(as I myself surely must). Experiences fall short. Things fail to deliver on their shiny promise. Sometimes, those things happen in a series --  a bitter cascade of disappointments large and small. And when none of it makes sense, when you can't explain any of it with reasons that satisfy your sore heart, you come face to face with the God who wants you to lean on Him alone. The only explanation for this is God. 

Is it that He wants to detach us from the pleasures and comforts of our American life so that we're willing to live elsewhere, whenever and wherever He chooses? Or just that He loves us enough to save us from any and all of our broken cisterns, period? I don't know. I don't particularly enjoy what He's doing at the moment, but I do know that I and my family are in the most loving and trustworthy of wise hands.

Meanwhile: little glimmers. I see the way our time away has forged the strongest of bonds among my children. I marvel at the change in perspective a year can bring, especially for the child who was most resistant to spending a year abroad and now can't wait to visit, reflecting on the time as the best of his life. I notice how our reduction of possessions there governs my view of our true wants and needs, even though we can now own much more. I feel a bit embarrassed at the things I actually cared about when I couldn't have them (like easy access to Costco, Target and Banana Republic) but care much less about now that they're all within ten minutes of our door. I appreciate those who have reached out to us with their presence, listening ears, and offers of help (here) and their correspondence (there).

And why not, I ask myself, pray the prayer that bubbled up so often during our time in Cambridge: "Bless us, and make us a blessing!"? I prayed it more urgently there because the time felt finite. But really, isn't all of our time finite? Can't life turn on its head, or vanish like a vapor, at any moment?

May He bless you today.
May He make you a blessing, wherever you may be.