29 December 2013

New Year's Resolutions

Green Parakeet

{Photos of birds today, for no particular reason, except perhaps that I haven't had a chance to share them yet.  And birds just don't seem to forget--they don't resolve to wake up singing to their Master more often, or plan months in advance to migrate a week earlier.  They just do these things, on time, daily, yearly, always in a good rhythm...the sort of good daily rhythm my New Year's resolutions are usually geared to help me find.}

I had forgotten, until I picked up my Bible this morning and began studying the last Egyptian plague, the Passover, and that final moment of escape, that before the time of the Exodus, Israel and all his children counted the beginning of their years from a different month.

God told the people to eat the Passover supper dressed to the shoes, ready to get up and follow His lead out of the land of their bondage.  They couldn't possibly see what exactly deliverance held for them, but they needed to be ready for it nonetheless.

Their deliverance would forever be the new starting point in time for them, both personally and nationally as the people of God, always a reminder not of their own accomplishes or purposes, but of God's.  

His messages through Moses and Aaron.  His protection from plagues that fell only on Egyptians but not on God's people.  His mercy on their first born sons.  His miracles from the Red Sea to the manna to the water from the rock.  His laws to guide and govern their lives in place of Egyptian slave drivers.
Green Parakeets

Reading all these familiar things right before the beginning of a new year, a sort of meaningless and modern division of time where we nonetheless tend to take stalk of our lives and move in new directions, I began to see how my resolutions for 2014 need to take shape.

Rather than putting my focus on a cleaner kitchen, trying new recipes, honing in on making a better schedule for myself, or being more intentional about taking time for refreshing, which all put my focus on myself and my own efforts, my eyes need to look higher, to Jesus.

If I look back from this turning point we call the beginning of 2014, I need to look for Jesus--what He accomplished in my life leading me here, to what I experience now.

Were there blessings?  Were there clear points of guidance?  Were there miracles of changed hearts (my own, or others')?  Were there trials?  Did I grow in those trials?  Could I have grown even more in those trials?  Was Jesus with me during all the journeys of my life, my year?

I stand at the end of a year, at the brink of another one, and answer all those questions with a resounding YES. 

It makes me want to start the new year by documenting the things Jesus has done in the year prior, and all the years prior, facing every unknown of my future with the confidence built day by day, year by year, as I've watched Jesus take the trials and perplexities of my life and turn them to glory.

As much as my heart is encouraged by the memories of God's hand leading my life during 2013, I think there's a bigger picture, a wider plan in the whole history of the world, than just looking at what God has done for me personally.

Because I think this evening about God's people through history, delivered from Egypt, eventually led into Babylonian captivity, where Daniel both interpreted dreams and saw visions of his own.  

I think about Daniel 2, where Nebuchadnezzar sees a great image, starting with himself as the head of gold and moving down through the silver of Medo-Persia, the brass or bronze of Greece, the iron of Rome, the feet part of iron and part of clay, and the rock cut out without hands that breaks all the kingdoms of earth down to dust.  (See also Daniel 7 with the four beasts, and Daniel 8, which hones in more closely on Medo-Persia and Greece.)

I think of God's people returning to their own land, rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple, then backsliding once more until they sink to the level where they not only fail to recognize their longed-for Redeemer, but crucify Him.

I think of the early church, its zeal as well as its persecution, then the darkness of the middle ages where the common people were not allowed to have Bibles of their own.  After that, the light of the reformation shining on the pages of God's Word, when people began again to study its pages for themselves--and not to study it only, but to apply its truths to their individual and congregational lives.

It looks to me like we are right in the very edge of those feet, part of iron and part of clay, right on the edge of time before Jesus comes again and His kingdom--the rock cut out without hands--is the only and eternal kingdom.
We are not far from the last great events of the Bible, when Jesus will come to claim His faithful children.  My biggest desire for this new year is to live not only with a stronger faith in what God can do for me personally, but also with that great world-wide second coming informing my days and my choices.

On the night of Passover, the details of Israel's flight and future were yet unknown to them.  They simply clung to the promise of deliverance, wearing their traveling clothes in faith.

I can't look through 2014 knowing what trials and triumphs will come to me.  All I can do is look ahead, clinging to the promise of deliverance, seeking first His kingdom instead of my small and earth-sized goals, shoes on and ready to move at exactly the moment my Lord bids me to walk forward in faith.

26 December 2013

White Christmas South Texas Style

Christmas morning, we woke up without a particular schedule for the day.  Sure, we had a rough idea of what might happen as the day progressed, but the day also had a clean canvass feel to it.  So when I knew for sure we were both awake, I said, "Let's go to La Sal."

La Sal del Rey (or "the salt of the king") has become our favorite outdoor getaway here in South Texas, for its quiet (completely removed even from road noise) and its solitude (we've only encountered another human being there once).  It's one of several salt lakes in the area from which people and nations mined their salt for hundreds of years, and now serves as a wildlife refuge.

We thought we'd be early enough to catch a glimpse of more birds and animals than usual if we simply rolled out of bed and got in the car, and that's essentially what we did.  Although we didn't make it in time for sunrise, we saw larger flocks of birds with more variety than we see in our afternoon visits, and countless deer of two different kinds.

The crusted salt crystals on the shore of the lake, complete with bird prints, remind me a little of a light dusting of snow, or a heavy frost.  We joked that this would be the closest thing to a white Christmas we would see this year.

We could hear even more birds than we could see.  I'm not sure I've figured out the name of these little birds, but we love them nonetheless.  I think we see some every time we go, and since they're quick movers it has been hard to get a photo of them.

The salt crystals you see above are actually under the water.  We usually don't see them in crystal form under the water, but we think perhaps there had been a recent enough rain that they had not dissolved just yet.  They were washed around a little by the waves, and we could see several ridges like the ones here.

The salt had inclosed this little twig , almost making it look like it had been in its own ice storm.  Of course it hadn't, but in the cool, lower-50s temperatures on Christmas morning, we liked to imagine familiar things, such as how it feels to be cold.

I particularly enjoyed our morning outing, because it gave us the chance to feed two of our great delights in one day--the delight of being out in the open air, surrounded by nature and its sounds, getting a bit of exercise right at the start of the day; as well as the delight of spending time with friends, connecting with people around a delicious Christmas dinner later in the day.  

We don't tend to create traditions and commit to them, but if we end up with anything resembling a tradition, it usually happens a little like our Christmas morning.  We have an idea, we go do something, we enjoy it, and we think to ourselves how nice it would be to do that idea, that thing, again.  Then we do, again and again, and it becomes something of a habit.  In fact, our tradition of singing Love at Home at the close of each Sabbath (well, almost each Sabbath) started this way.  We sang a hymn at random; then we liked it, and it stuck.

Maybe our spontaneous Christmas morning adventure will catch on too, and we'll do more of it in the future.  At the moment, I rather like that idea.

23 December 2013

Sing We All of Christmas (2012 Series)

Last year, I wrote a series featuring twenty-five Christmas carols.

Most of it was posted from my phone, and at that point I hardly knew anything about my phone camera (which I used for the series photos), so the posts aren't as polished as I'm learning to make them look now.

However, I still love the carols, and I love everything I learned from and about them last year, so I thought it would still be fun to look back through them during these last few days before Christmas.  There's still plenty of time to sing them around the piano, especially if you're like me and you give yourself a wide margin for Christmas carols after the day has passed.

So if you're interested, just click the button above, or the one on the sidebar, and enjoy!

Merry Christmas! 

22 December 2013

Fresh Fruit from the Markets and Orchards

One thing that takes time after a move is the process of discovery:  where the best grocery stores are, where there might be an orchard with well-priced fruit.  We've learned to ask questions and make small talk with people, and that's where we've gleaned the best local information.  

Google might be great, but it can't replace the woman who goes to the flea market down that road that goes west from the intersection by the school on Thursdays for mangoes, or the coworker who takes a moment to let us know there's an orchard down another road selling oranges and grapefruit for twenty cents per pound and giant avocados for fifty cents each.

Perhaps our diet has changed more moving here than any other place.  We've never lived in a climate where figs and bananas grow in the neighbors' yards, not to mention poinsettias.  And so we've tried, and enjoyed, quite a few new things, and we're making things that used to be an expensive treat more the norm on our table.

Thus when I see large tunas (or prickly pears) at the market selling eight for a dollar, I load up.  Or when there is a stand selling whole boxes of mangoes for a dollar each, I take the risk and buy two boxes, even though they look like they might be past their prime.  Or large papayas for one dollar each?  I bring home eight, and we eat some fresh and freeze the rest for smoothies.  Or pineapples on sale two for a dollar?  Let's just say we've been loading up on fresh fruit goodness.

We sit around the breakfast table, reading about starting pineapple seeds (it takes two months).  We consider starting a plant from the top of the pineapple we've just opened up this morning.  I've done this before with a friend in college.  She still has the plant nearly a decade later, but to my knowledge it has never borne fruit, likely because of her darker, colder climate.

We think a pineapple would be happy in our front yard in the bed next to the driveway, but even though it's warm today, and we could take it outside right after breakfast, we decide to wait, perhaps until late January or early February, the weather will for sure be heating up.

19 December 2013

Christmas Trees Past

(This is not a photo of our real Christmas tree.  I don't have that decorated yet, so you're getting a view of what I do have done, on top of the piano.  I'm hoping you'll see some photos of the real tree soon.)

We bought a Christmas tree yesterday.  As I confessed to my friend in the north land, I have never bought a Christmas tree in flip flops before.  (I was in the flip flops; the tree wasn't.)  It was 75 degrees F, on December 18.

They played lovely music in the tree stand--not the blaring "music" they play in the grocery store or Walmart, but real Christmas carols with orchestras and choirs and even children's choirs.  I thanked the man for having good taste.

They did not offer hot drinks at the Christmas tree stand.  Lemonade would have been more appropriate for the weather.

When I was growing up, we always had a real tree (except the year when my mom had just had surgery...that story in a minute).  Many times, we bought it at lots near the grocery store; one year, my dad and I bought one on Christmas eve for super cheap because we just hadn't gotten to it before then.

Then I had this idea that it would be fun to cut our own tree, and my family went along with it.  Or, different parts of the family went along with it different years.  One year, my mom and I headed out on our own to the snowy farm to select our dream tree, enjoyed the free hot chocolate, loaded our treasure in the back of the truck, and started for home.

"Where's the tree?" my dad and brother wanted to know.  "In the truck," we said.

But it wasn't.

Back along the road we went, until there in the huge bank of snow that had given it a soft landing we found it, unharmed.

We didn't go cut a tree the year my mom had surgery a few weeks before Christmas.  No one else had bothered to get a tree (although I probably had one at my house a few hours away, cut for five dollars in the woods), so we dug out the fake ones from the garage.  We didn't normally use the fake ones from Goodwill for anything other than porch decor, but this time we thought we'd group them inside the house, just to have something.

Well, our cats spent a lot of time in the garage during the cold winters, and the trees weren't in the house long before we realized they'd been marked.  I don't remember if we got a real tree with a nice pine scent to replace them, but we didn't let those trees back in the house again!

I wouldn't call myself a die-hard when it comes to having a Christmas tree.  Some (or most) years, I have one, or enjoy one at family members' houses.  Other years, I do fine without one.  

Yet I enjoy bringing a festive bit of nature and beauty indoors, though, almost like a giant bouquet of fresh-cut flowers, and I don't picture myself ever committing to a fake tree.

That's why, when I lived in a place where I could cut a Christmas tree in the woods for a mere $5, I rallied friends every year to go out for an afternoon of snowy fresh air to find my little treasure.  Some years, it was an assortment of college friends; another year, it was a brave couple with their baby bundled on a sled (yes, a brave mama indeed!); another year, it was my future in-laws and some of their extended family.

Eventually, my brother did catch on to the festivities of cutting his own tree, too.  As my mom later confessed, it's dangerous sending a couple of sanguines out on an errand like that.  Because, you see, the cut-your-own lot they found was selling any size of tree for the same price, and it was my parents' first year in a house whose living room's ceiling could accommodate any size of tree they could find at the lot.  If the tree fits, why not cut it?

"Do you think we can tie it to the car without denting the roof?" they asked each other, after cutting the tree down.  Not to worry, though, the tree lot truck would be happy to deliver it, and leave it in the front yard.

Then the only dilemma would be getting it into the house.  A tall tree is also a w-i-d-e tree, and it won't fit through the door.

Two sanguines, however, are just the kind of people to have this problem, because when they are struggling with the tree in the front yard, and the husband and wife passers-by out for their daily walk ask if they need help, they don't feign independence like my father and I would do, but rather take it as a great opportunity to meet new friends.

"Yes!  We do need help!"

It takes all four to carry the tree around the back, and through the wider sliding glass door.  It turns out the wife's name is Esther, who, according to my brother, was sent for just such a time as this.

I know some people don't like the idea of buying a live tree or cutting one, because if we're environmentally inclined, after all, we should be planting trees, not destroying them.  But I don't mind being part of the forest's service's management program, or buying a tree that was grown particularly to be the delightful beauty in the corner of my living room.  They're already making plans to plant more trees right where that one grew.

And while I try to avoid the commercialism that says Christmas decor needs to be fresh and new every year, or that it needs to be fancy or expensive or extravagant, I love the chance I have to add a festive touch to my home.  Especially when it reminds me of the One who made the trees for me to enjoy.

13 December 2013

Flowers for Your December

I think there might be some of you who haven't been in weather above freezing for a while.  For some of you, that means lovely snow to use under your cross country skis.  For others of you, the white stuff is merely in the sky, or in the fog you might have had right up to your very door.  Or maybe some of you had enough cold for water to turn solid on top of ponds and under skates.

Some days, I think that sounds nice.  The weather cools down a little, with maybe a high of fifty or sixty instead of eighty, and I get in the mood to bake, or work on cozy projects around the house, and pretend I live in a place where winter means coats, hats, and scarves.

But in reality, that's not what winter means for me this year, and since I thought maybe some of you were missing the sweet colors of flowers, domestic and wild, I decided to share some living things in hopes that they will brighten your December, just a bit.

Can you imagine a little bird living up there, nested all comfortably in the middle of a thorn tree?  I think this little bird was a brave mother.  I've noticed lots of thorn bushes (in addition to cacti) here.  They always make me think of Jesus, and what He did for me.  I can't say I like it very well when I get the slightest poke from any of these as I walk past them, and I'm careful to avoid them at all costs.  Yet He endured big, nasty thorns, driven into His head, all because He knew if He made the slightest complaint or gave up in the middle of that dreadful day, I would be lost forever.

This little cactus fruit is no bigger than the end of my thumb.  They look similar to prickly pear fruits, on a much smaller scale, although their parent plants are nothing like the prickly pear's parent plant.  

Have you ever eaten a prickly pear?  They call them tunas in Spanish, and you can sometimes buy them ten for a dollar at the flea market nearby.  They're sweet, juicy, full of seeds, and just the refreshing touch at the end of a meal.  I think they're especially nice when my husband juices them for me, so I don't have to navigate through all the seeds.

We wondered if these tiny cactus fruits are edible, too, but we thought they might be a lot of work to peel and prepare.

We always look forward to the chance Sabbaths give us to go outside, and enjoy the things God has made.  I'm not perfect at it, but since the first Sabbath was a day to enjoy the fullness of creation, I like to take my Sabbath moments in nature to remember my Creator's delightful genius in all the things that He made.

All these vivid shades of color come from the same plant, the same cluster of flowers, even.  It doesn't seem quite real to me to have these colors outside in December, of all months.

As beautiful as all nature's floral gems are, can you imagine what they might be like in heaven?  I know many people believe there is nothing wrong with our world, and that God would have no reason to make it fresh and new.

Yet God Himself, through the Bible, promises the exact opposite.  After all, Adam only began the battle against thorns and thistles in his garden after he knowingly sinned against God (Genesis 3:17-19).  John, as he's viewing centuries' worth of events leading up to the second coming and beyond, talks about the old earth being completely made anew (Revelation 21:1).  God Himself says, "'Behold, I make all things new.'  And He said unto me, 'Write: for these words are true and faithful,'" (Revelation 22:5).

If these were the only words in Scripture telling us the world is not the way God originally intended it to be, and that He would make everything new, they are certainly clear enough for us to put full confidence in them, without shadow of doubt.  But there are many more such statements and promises throughout the Bible--so many, I can't list them all here, tonight.

This week, as the Sabbath opens afresh, I'm reveling not only in the remnants of beauty God has put beside the paths I walk, but also in the lovely thought that they are but shadows of what He has in store for me when Jesus comes to receive His own.

May that day be soon!

04 December 2013

Dinah, Daughter and Sister

When I committed myself to my 31 Days series this fall (Finding Jesus in Your Desert), I didn't know I would end the month with less angst toward difficult Bible stories.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm still beyond dumbfounded and upset by Sarah suggesting to Abraham that he cheat on her, for example.  It's just that somewhere in those 31 Days, God helped me see where He was in all those stories, and just how far He is willing to go to work in, through, and out of all the stupid things we (as well as other people around us) do to mess up our lives.

I also realized in a new way that most of the Bible stories are difficult.  I think it's because they're realistic.  Yes, there are lovely miracles.  Yes, there are stories of great faith heroes.  But there are also stories that record injustice, devastating sin, and ruin.  The Bible doesn't gloss over the failures of anyone.

Fiction writers have the liberty to make things come out the way they want them to.  

Indeed one of the things you're taught in a narrative writing class (i.e., fiction writing class) is that things need to keep a tight control on the balance between the interesting and believable. 
You can, of course, set up your own alternate reality upon which your story-world operates, but even then you must stay within its framework and not break too many rules.

The Bible writers did not have that liberty, and thus difficult story follows difficult, heart-breaking story as the Bible opens the window to the past and gives us a scathingly accurate picture of who and what brought our world to where we are today.  It's a picture that stands out in the greatest possible contrast with the longsuffering and love God has for us.

I recently began reading the Bible again, right from the beginning.  I never stopped reading the Bible, you know--I just mean that I decided to once again start at the front cover and proceed to the back cover, in order.  When I do that, I have to come face to face with all the stories...even the ones I don't like very much.

The story of Dinah is one of those.  You can find it in Genesis 34.

The only girl-child in a huge family of boys that has just moved, Dinah went out to make friends with some of the other girls in the neighborhood and got raped instead.  

The spoiled brat of a young man who took advantage of her decided to get his powerful father to talk Jacob into a marriage, and somehow or another Dinah's brothers take over negotiations and require all the men in the area to be circumcised before they would agree to a marriage.  The brothers require this because they know they'll have the chance for revenge; the men of the city agree to it because they know if they can get the right to intermarry with Jacob's family they'll have access to his wealth.

Then two of Dinah's brothers wipe out the whole city when all the men are out of commission from their recent surgical operation.

It's here that I wished something had truly been solved.  Jacob rebukes his sons for their rash act that sets the whole family up for danger in the land.  The two guilty sons simply remind him that their sister--his daughter--was just treated like a prostitute. 

And there's no further discussion.

Neither acknowledges the merits of the other's position, or apologizes, or suggests how to move forward as a family from there.  We don't find out what happens to Dinah, or to all the women and children her two brothers took captive on their raid.

All we get is an uncomfortable picture of the ugly reality of a difficult, true story, and the end of a chapter.

So I close the Bible, sad, and open the next day to these words:

"And God said unto Jacob, 'Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an alter unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother."  Genesis 35:1

Yes, just leave it to God.  There's no record that they're solving the problems themselves, or that they're even asking God for help.  Yet the gracious God steps in, takes over, draws the whole dysfunctional group back to Himself.

When Jacob calls the next family meeting, there's still no discussion of Dinah's rape or the brothers' military campaign.  After all, coming back to their Lord was the only way to have family resolution anyway, and that had to come first.

He simply demands the removal of false gods from their midst, and they obey.  They physically clean up and put on fresh clothes, gathering their idols and their jewelry, and rather than profit from the sale of their costly yet sinful possessions, they bury them all under a tree and leave.

They go to dwell in the exact place where God first revealed His mercy to Jacob, the place where although Jacob had lied his way into trouble and was fleeing for his life, God showed him the the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and promised to bless him and be with him throughout his life.  

The place where Jacob knew full well he didn't deserve God's mercy, but received it anyway, becomes the place where a whole family can learn afresh the ways of mercy instead of revenge.

Our lives get like that, too.  Slowly but surely we relax our guard, and things can creep into our days and our homes that we know don't honor our God.  Sometimes our circumstances or even our behaviors get beyond the place where we even know where to start fresh.

Like He did for Jacob, for Dinah, for the murdering brothers, God can still step in and take over, and He is still our only hope for reform.

Like them, we might need to clean up, and trash some things we know we shouldn't have in our possession.  Like them, we may need to physically leave a location or situation that isn't good.  Or we may simply need to come away and spend time in prayer to retrace our spiritual steps, re-open the doors to our hearts, and sit down again to supper with the King of our salvation.

The same merciful God who wasn't afraid to step into this difficult Bible story and restore a crazy family to Himself likewise isn't afraid to step into your difficult story to bring you fresh life.

27 November 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

I'm just oozing with things to share:  nature adventures, garden ideas, thoughts about family culture thanks to Pete and Buzz, thoughts about my personal testimony thanks to Privacy of Light, new epiphanies from my devotional reading (as in, God putting me in a phase where I can step back, evaluate, and be fertilized for new growth), and probably more.

For now, at least during this week with my husband home and off from school, will you simply enjoy this volunteer compost pile bean plant with me?  He has survived wind and rain thus far, and I can't wait until he grows just a little taller, and we'll perhaps be able to tell whether he is pinto bean or black bean.

May your day of thanks truly be full--not of overwork or too much eating, but of grace (even for yourself), peace (as you walk it through arm in arm with peace's Prince), and moments alive with delight in those with whom you spend your day.

21 November 2013

Adding Fish Fertilizer

Even though we know it's totally disgusting (this isn't a bottle to open and smell just for fun), maybe it's inevitable that a family of Alaskan fishermen would resort to Alaska Fish Fertilizer to give our garden plants a boost while we wait for our compost pile to get rich enough to spread all over the garden.

The basil plants are growing more now, and I'd say we're up to three that look bigger than they did before, with the rest looking a little greener than they did before.  It's progress.  But we still felt like they--along with the tomato plants, peppers, and one remaining tomatillo, needed an extra boost.

These photos simply serve as the "before".  I'm hoping next week I'll be able to show you what they all look like after the fish plant food has had a chance to soak in a little.

The basil plant that has been healthy all along is about four inches tall now.  You can see that it has some splotchy yellow spots on the leaves, though, just like the tomato and pepper plants do.  My husband searched carefully for the most complete organic fertilizer so that we wouldn't be discovering and fixing one nutrient deficiency only to run to the store again to figure out a solution to the next one.  We're keeping molasses and Epsom salts in our repertoire, but we wanted our next thing to be a little more complete.

We looked at several options, and I'll just tell you we weren't impressed with the product designed to add iron to the soil....but that also contained lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic chemicals.  We're glad we read the labels!  Actually, we're glad HE read the labels.  I would have grabbed something and run home in my efficient little mode of operation.  And then my {edible} plants would have been eating lead for breakfast.  Yikes.

The fish stuff may smell bad, but at least it's more complete and safe than a toxic product designed for one nutrient deficiency.  I'm more ready to cheer for the organic movement all the time.  Even though I don't buy that way in the grocery store very well...I ignore the facts and try to stay in budget.  That's a different story, except that maybe it's another reason why I'm glad we have even a small garden to work with.

This morning I was visiting all the plants like I do every morning, and praying at the same time.  As I looked down at this little pepper plant, I realized what a miracle everything in the garden really is.  

Before, I was upset that any of the plants were being eaten by bugs at all.  Then I realized how sad Adam and Eve must have been to see the first plants die, knowing it was their fault, only to have the greater pain later of one son murdering the other.  Our world has just gotten worse since then, and we're calloused to the "small things" like plants dying when we're surrounded by so much that's worse.  

Our gardens still suffer from the curse given to Adam--that he would have to labor harder for the food he would eat, and that thorns would be his constant garden and farmyard enemies.  Maybe it was to remind him tangibly not to get too comfortable with this world, and keep him looking forward to the promised day when the Promised Seed (Jesus) would get rid of the curses of sin.

Those thoughts have all been in the back of my mind over the last several weeks as we've researched and tried to do the best thing for our plants with Neem Oil and now the fish fertilizer.  This morning, I saw it tangibly beginning to work.  The little leaves on this pepper plant are growing on a stalk that not long ago was eaten completely empty of leaves, yet it's putting out a fresh start.

It got me thinking about what the Gardener who first planted Eden can do with a human life, no matter how hard it gets plagued and no matter how empty of any outward sign of life it may become.

So did this little tomatillo plant.  It's the one that had its stem nearly destroyed three times, only to have us pile more soil around it in an effort to save its life.  And you know what?  It looks a little more yellow now, but it's beginning to seem firmly rooted, and it has not been eaten through the fourth time.

If my husband hadn't been so bent on saving it, I would have given up on it long ago, and we would have missed out on the miracle of how hard it's hanging on.  Now with the fertilizer, I really think it has a chance.

That got me thinking about people too, and how again God can take a life that looks like it's on its last spiritual leg, and completely revive it and get it to start growing again.

It made me glad, actually, that our gardening this fall hadn't been perfectly smooth and pest free, because now I have this object lesson right in front of me.  It's like He wanted me remember to treat myself and the people around me with the redemptive grace He offers to all.  There may be bad bugs trying to destroy by night, but God's mercies are still new every morning.

Here are the two best looking tomato plants.  We still have a few others growing slowly but surely, but these are the ones that get the most sun.  They're also the same variety, so we'll watch over the long term to see if the other varieties just have trouble in our climate, or if the place we planted them wasn't the most ideal.

We originally planted twelve tomato plants.  Part of the time, I wish all twelve had lived and grown to this size already.  Yet at the same time, I'm grateful I didn't lose all twelve, grateful several are still making the efforts to grow, grateful these two are almost up to my knee and beginning to flower.  Grateful for what I still have, instead of losing the joy of what's here while I focus on what isn't.  Grateful for the miracle we simply call growth.

19 November 2013

Salsa Verde Recipe

If you've been reading over the spring and summer, you know we've gardened in four states this calendar year, starting seeds, moving them with us to relatives' homes for their summer fruitfulness, and starting fresh here in South Texas.

If you're a gardener, too, you know there's a lot of satisfaction in simply tending the plants and watching them grow.  If they bloom and you see healthy little honey bees pollinating them, you know you've done the world some good.  Yet if you don't get to share in the harvest, there's a little piece of the joy missing.  You're happy when at least someone can enjoy the tasty goods, but it's not like being there yourself for those delicious fall feasts.

Well, that Friday afternoon when I stepped out on my front porch to check for the mail, and found a flat rate box waiting from home-people, I just knew without needing to be told what was packed inside.

My brother excels in  picking out meaningful gifts, and regularly outdoes himself with the latest expression of generosity.  This box was no exception.  He thought of everything:  green beans, a zucchini, beets, carrots, hot peppers, tomatoes, and even tomatillos.  From our own garden.  Some of which started their lives in Virginia, bore their fruit in Oregon, and now came to the table in Texas.

We looked forward to some of our very own tomatillos for salsa verde all summer long, and now it was really happening.  I think my brother knew just how much it would mean to me to have that box of goodies.  It made my day.  No, not just one day.  It still makes my day every time I even give it a passing thought.

Have you ever made salsa verde before?  My husband learned from someone who worked in the music department of our undergraduate university, and I tried making it myself for the first time this fall.  It's delightfully easy, and it works well for those of us who like, at least every once-in-a-while, to cook by what looks right instead of by exact measurements. 

There are multitudes of other ways to make a green salsa (which is all "salsa verde" really means), but this is the one we're good at in our house.

Salsa Verde Recipe

1 green bell pepper
1 jalapeno pepper, or more if you like it with some heat (eek!  I can't find the little squiggle to go over the n!)
1 pretty small onion (or about a quarter of a large one)
1/2 avocado (or slightly less)
Dash of lime or lemon juice
Salt to taste
Chopped cilantro (optional)

Cover the bottom of a wide, medium sauce pan with tomatillos (peeled, cut in half).  Add the green bell pepper (in two halves, without the seeds), the onion or section thereof, and the jalapeno (with the seeds if you like the added heat).  Lightly steam these, until they're just tender.

Put all the vegetables, minus the water for steaming, into a blender.  Add the avocado half, and blend.  Taste the salsa now, and decide how much lime or lemon juice you want to add.  I add 1/2 to 1 Tablespoon usually, but if there's a larger avocado half in there, I add more.  Also add some salt at this point.  It's really to taste with both the salt and the lime--add a little, blend, taste, add a little more, blend....until you're happy.

Then stir in (don't blend) the chopped cilantro.

We love this salsa on its own with chips, in a taco salad, on a haystack (ask me if you haven't heard of one!), and on enchiladas of any kind, as well as on a baked potato with gravy for a little more zing.

14 November 2013

Life's Current Delights

I finished my October series with more things to say than I had when I began.  I felt as though I had merely touched the surface of the depths of encouragement Jesus has for us in the Bible.  Writing does that for me.  It's the beginning, not the end, of my thought processes, and the more I write, the more I am able to write.

Yet I've been a little quiet over here.  I've had to let my days flow around some other things, while my list of things to share just keeps growing.

Here's what I've been up to.

I began accompanying some of my husband's school choirs.  Have you been in a room full of middle schoolers lately?  Their energy is by turns exhausting and delightful.

A friend encouraged me to open up my sewing machine and attempt to adjust the needle alignment myself.  I'm glad I did.  I saved between $60 and $80 on what would have been a super basic fix.  I may still have it adjusted down the road sometime, because it's not completely perfect, but it's back to basic functionality.

The room in the house which once had the largest pile of boxes in it is now free from every last scrap of cardboard.  I think that means we're getting settled.  :)

I've welcomed several handymen into the house to have things repaired.  Things that needed {and got} quick attention.

A new Goodwill recently opened near my home.  Yep.  I'm one of those.  My first trip cost me less than $6, and I ended up with some great things to {wash and} wear.  I love a good deal.

For two days in a row, I got to wear sweaters, and one of the days I even got to wear cozy socks.  It felt so homey.  I think we'll be back to summer temperatures for the weekend, but having a taste of fall was priceless.

If you live where you get to rake leaves, will you jump in the pile an extra time for me?

11 November 2013

Happy Veterans' Day 2013

I have a great uncle (both in the genealogical sense and in the sense that he's one of the most amazing people I know) who served his country--my country--for three years in the South Pacific.  I can't begin to tell you the number of times his life was spared, or all the things he went through as a  medic working to save the lives of wounded men of all nationalities.  But I want to take a moment here to thank veterans of any era for giving their time, talents, and even lives to serve my home.

In a culture and time when looking out for number one means living without a thought for serving others, my great uncle's life is all the more inspiring to me.

When I talked with him today about some of his experiences, the repeated theme that came back over and over was this:  "It was a privilege to serve my country."

I've never heard my great uncle swear.  In fact, I've never heard so much as a complaint escape his lips.  About anything.  He only knows how to tell you about all the wonderful things in his life, and all the ways God has blessed him, provided for him, preserved him.  

Thus when he used the word "hell" to describe what he went through, I have to believe him.  Yet he counts those three years as privilege, not because he survived, but because he was able to spend those three years serving other people and helping to preserve a way of life we take all too much for granted.

In fact, service has been the story of his whole life, with my great aunt right at his side.  (She's equally amazing--he was given a forty-five day furlough in 1945, and not knowing the war would end and that he would be honorably discharged without having to go back to the Pacific, she married him, not knowing whether she would be a widow in as many days as she had been a wife.)  They've served not only their country, but also their Lord, with all their hearts, not only in the country of their birth, but in places about as far away from home as a person can get.

The fifteen minutes I spent on the phone with these two heroes today were among my most precious, ever.  They live a happy life, no matter their circumstances.  They have dozens of blessings to recount, without even a passing thought to anything resembling a complaint.  They each say the other gets better every day, and are just like newlyweds after decades and decades of marriage.  Neither would trade honesty and integrity for anything the world has to offer.

Perhaps their lives of service provide the key to their happiness. Counting it a privilege to serve, they've always had more than enough privileges at their fingertips, with blessings poured out on them from the King of loving service besides.

06 November 2013

Learning Opportunities in the Garden

We have one stunning basil plant right now.  The others (minus one) are managing to stay alive.  The latest one we planted looked like it would be a beauty, but like several other plants in the garden, got chewed almost all the way through the stem within a couple of days.  Why this lovely specimen in the back of the row is thriving (and not being attacked by bugs) when the others seem to struggle is something we haven't figured out, but we're grateful for the one!

What Basil Plants Need to Grow

We read up on what particular things make basil plants especially happy.  Many gardeners simply said that basil is an easy-to-please garden plant, growing like crazy even in less-than-ideal conditions.  We don't have it all figured out yet, but here are some things we're learning.  (For more information, you can start by reading more about basil in this article:  Enjoy Basil Year-Round by Growing it Indoors & Outdoors.)
  • Basil plants like sunshine.  [Ours get primarily indirect light.  We opted for planting them where we did because the sun here is so intense that we were afraid they would be sunburned if we planted them elsewhere.  It would be interesting to try a different location with the next few starts we have growing inside right now.]
  • Basil likes well-drained soil.  [Because it does not appear to have been worked much lately, none of our soil is well-drained.  We're composting as fast as we can, as well as adding mulch to the top of the soil, both to act as compost and reduce the need for watering.]
  • Basil likes to have air flow around it.  [Note to self:  keep the mulch a little bit away from the main stem.  This will help the water evaporate out more consistently, since the soil doesn't drain quickly.]
  • As for soil nutrients for basil plants, we have added both Epsom Salt (for magnesium) and molasses (for potassium) when we have done the same for our tomato and pepper plants.  We expect the soil to be better supplied as our composting and mulching progress, but we may need to consider a well-balanced organic fertilizer in the meantime.


I've never seen a cutworm.  We've seen some signs in our tomato and tomatillo patch that seem to indicate their presence; however, when I've dug around in the soil to see if I can find one, there hasn't been any evidence.  I do frequently see ants in the garden, but from my reading, ants are usually helpful in the garden, not harmful, so I hesitate to blame them for hollowing out plant stems.  

This particular tomatillo plant has had its stem nearly eaten through a minimum of three times now.  The first two times, my husband lovingly buried it deeper in potting soil, since tomatillo plants and tomato plants will both sprout more roots from the hairy stems if the stems are planted further down in the dirt.  Both times, the plant revived quickly, and seemed to be on a good growing spurt.

Today I found it chewed on for the third time, in a third place on the stem.  As I dug around, I found that indeed the stem had begun to root well.  Again finding no particular culprit, I buried it deeper still, and we're watching to see what happens to it.

Although it's usually something I try to do right away, we haven't managed to plant marigolds yet.  They're a good companion for any plant in the garden, and where I've had marigolds, my garden hasn't suffered nearly so much from pests and insects.  Maybe that's the next thing on the garden list--although it seems incomprehensible, our local Home Depot may just have some even in November to get us by until we can grow some from seed.  (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has a delightful collection of colors and sizes, and I'm itching to try several of them.)

Any further advice would be welcome.

Tomato Plants' Nutrient Needs

I've pinned an infographic called "Signs of Nutrient Deficiency", and I consult it often.  We first determined that the tomato plants would need a magnesium boost, which we provided with an Epsom Salts solution (one tablespoon dissolved in a gallon of water).  Later, it looked like they needed potassium, and with a little searching found that molasses--as "black" as you can get it--is a good, quick provider of potassium (also one tablespoon dissolved in a gallon of water).

Being new to town and a little short on time that day, we weren't sure where to get good black strap molasses, and settled for a milder version.  The plants loved it nonetheless, and looked quite healthy again.

These days, I'm keeping an eye on them for a possible iron deficiency, and thinking about ways to add iron to the soil.  I haven't yet found as easy a solution as the Epsom Salts or the molasses; however, black strap molasses, or molasses from a feed store that is stronger than humans usually consume, is much higher in iron content that your average "Grandma's Molasses", so we may try that if necessary.

I've also noted that there is a line of shade coming from the house each morning.  It shades a few of the tomato plants, while the others enjoy two or three hours more sunlight every day.  The plants on the sunny side are more than twice as large as any on the shadier side.  Next time we plant tomatoes, I have it in mind to plant them where they'll all get even more sun.  They'll be happy for the rays, and crop rotation is also a good pest deterrent.

Compost Solves Everything

In just about all the reading I've done on maintaining healthy soil, one thing stands out in it all:  compost solves everything.  Poorly draining soil?  Compost loosens it up.  Poor nutrient balance?  Composted manures and kitchen scraps have everything it needs.  Tired of tilling and weeding?  Compost and mulch added to the soil vastly reduce the need for both.

It's quite a lesson in patience and perseverance for me, because compost isn't an overnight solution.

I have dreams of a huge garden, where everything I could possibly want or need grows in over-abundance.  Yet I face daily reminders that in so many ways, I am still a beginner gardener, with beginner soil and lots of lessons to learn and wisdom to gain.  Some days I feel frustrated that it's not easier; other days I remember that the blessing of research, learning, trial and error, hard-won success, and patience will give me a far better garden in the long run.

04 November 2013

Neem Oil Spray Saves Pepper Plants

The hot, humid weather of south Texas, even in October and November, has been perfect for growing pepper plants.  We're told many varieties of peppers grow as perennials here, which is why we planted ours from seed soon after we arrived in early September.  Although our yard has some room for the garden to be in the ground, we opted for pots for the peppers to save room for other things in the garden beds.

Before long, however, the pepper plants (of which we started ten plants total of several varieties) began to show signs of being eaten during the night.  Each morning, I came out to find fewer leaves on the plants.  Not once did I find an actual culprit on the plant; every time the critters were gone by the time I discovered the damage.  Since we're wanting to grow our garden as organically as possible (we're learning as we go), we weren't sure just what course to pursue.

In General,  Healthy Soil Protects Plants

My great uncle swore by his theory of healthy soil makes and protects healthy plants, even to the extent that healthy plants will develop strong "immune systems" that will deter devastating attacks from insects.  While I have never been able to confirm or deny this in other sources, family gardeners that he also believed unhealthy or dehydrated plants' were more susceptible to pests and insects because leaves would emit high-pitched distress noises (perhaps as their cells dryly rub against each other) that would attract insects, which would then eat the leaves.  From his hierarchy of manures from greatest to least (sheep-chicken-horse-cow) to his recipe for adding minerals to soil, the family still passes around his gardening wisdom.

The organic gardening books I've been reading over the summer and fall tend to agree.*  Making healthy soil will make healthy plants.  Compost is key.

We've started our compost piles and put in some mulch in many places, but we knew compost wouldn't move fast enough to save us from losing our average of one pepper plant per night.

*The Organic Gardening Bible:  Successful Gardening the Natural Way, by Bob Flowerdew; and The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: a Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden Garden and Yard the Earth-friendly Way, by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara W. Ellis, and Deborah L. Martin.

Neem Oil Spray

Consulting with a friend as well as the book on natural pest and disease control listed above, we decided to give Neem Oil a try.  Although you can order pure Neem Oil online, and perhaps buy some at a specialized local garden store, we opted for the ready-to-use kind from our local Home Depot for two reasons.  First, at the loss of one plant per night, we didn't have time to wait for a package to arrive in the mail.  Second, it fit our budget.

The solution from Home Depot does contain some other ingredients (and we're not entirely sure what they all are, so next time we're in need we hope to plan ahead enough to simply buy the pure Neem Oil and dilute it ourselves).  However, from the time we sprayed the plants to the present moment (about four days), we haven't suffered the loss of another pepper plant.  In fact, one of the "lost" pepper plants has already sprouted new leaves, which means we won't lose any of the varieties we planted.

Three cheers for Neem Oil!

31 October 2013

Cheer A Weary Traveler (A Habit for Day 31)

I know when you're in the middle of trials, you feel like you're in the middle of a dense fog.  Believe me, I know.

But as you and I draw as close to Jesus as we can--and I hope you've realized afresh with me this month that He is always closer than we thought--we cannot help but begin anew to reflect the light of His presence.

It's a light too beautiful to keep to ourselves, and it only increases as we share it.

There's a simple educational plan Jesus uses with us as He walks us through our lives' hardest times, because it's hard to know exactly how to encourage someone else.  It's one of the good things God works together from the all things (even the ones that appear to be against us).

"Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God."  
2 Corinthians 1:3, 4

God never intended for us to go through our trials alone.  He also never intended us to stand aside, not knowing what to do or say when we see someone hurting.  He Himself draws near during our worst moments, and once we've experienced the soothing and refreshing only He can offer, He gives us the job of imitating Him to those around us.

Don't stand by at a loss for what to do or say.

Think about what Jesus did for you during your darkest hours, and then go do that (to whatever extent a human can, anyway).  It may be in the form of an encouraging card, text, phone call, or e-mail.  Maybe cookies with a quick note are your love language.  Sometimes all a person needs to remember is that they're not alone, that the kinds of trials they face are not unique to them, that someone understands.  Draw close to the one in need, speak the promises of God, tell how you yourself have been comforted, led, and delivered.

But a word of caution?

If you're a woman, and you see a man who is not your husband or a close family member going through "tribulation"?  Let another man do the comforting.  Stay completely out of it if you can; if not, be extremely cautious.  Stay emotionally distant.  Those men are what my friends and I like to call "guy projects".  Girls will have plenty to keep them busy if they stick to "girl projects".  

I'm not saying you can never speak to or encourage someone of the opposite gender.  Just don't get yourself emotionally entangled with someone you shouldn't (especially if their "desert" involves marital issues).  

But do look for appropriate opportunities to brighten the path of another pilgrim striving for that glorious city.  It's our final goal, after all, and it's one we don't want to miss.  We all need those rays of sunshine to brighten the straight and narrow path.

On the last day of our series in the desert, let's remember to gather hope and encouragement, not only for ourselves, but also for others wandering through barrenness.

It's just one more way we can be like Jesus--the Jesus who walks with us all the way, brings us water in the wilderness, and gives us a hope and a future.

"Earthly pleasures vainly call me;
I would be like Jesus; 
Nothing worldly shall enthrall me;
I would be like Jesus.

"Be like Jesus, this my song,
in the home, and in the throng;
Be like Jesus all day long!
I would be like Jesus.

"He has broken every fetter;
I would be like Jesus;
That my soul may serve Him better;
I would be like Jesus.


"All the way from earth to glory
I would be like Jesus
Telling o'er and o'er the story
I would be like Jesus.


"That in heaven He may meet me,
I would be like Jesus;
That His words, 'Well done' may greet me,
I would be like Jesus."


(Hymn I Would Be Like Jesus found in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, number 311.)

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