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.