Saturday, December 31, 2005

a life in review

There's a whole lot reflecting going on in the blogosphere this week. The majority of people are assessing and good-byeing 2005. I briefly entertained the idea of jumping on that bandwagon and giving you my year in review. But then I thought, Why stop there?

So here, in a nutshell, is a life in review.

I knew He was there before I knew what to call Him. In deep pockets of memory, I hold visions that are hard to put to words; fleeting moments when I first heard those whispers, first understood that Something I couldn't see or place knew me, and was calling my name.

Normal didn't live in my home, or even stop to visit. I existed--for the most part--in a whirlwind of drunken outbursts and stormy encounters. I switched homes and states and fathers, observed the late sixties and early seventies, said good bye to Father Two and a home in the South, scowled when my mother traded in Father Three for a motorcycle, love beads and go-go boots, and kept reaching for the owner of that nameless voice. A street girl my mother befriended moved into my bedroom and brought me my first glimpse of God. Through her witness, I met Him on Thanksgiving night, the year I turned twelve, just as the clock reached midnight.

We attended a church that wasn't much interested in things of God. I joined a carnal youth group, where flesh was enthroned and Jesus was allowed nothing more than a brief reference or two once a year at the annual youth retreat. My flickering faith barely survived those malnourished years.

I entered high school, and though everything on the outside looked pristine--I played tennis, joined the debate team, honor society, and girls club--to a knowing eye, I was just another sheep so starved you could count my ribs. No God-life flowed through me. His hand was ever-extended to take mine, but I was too busy looking for love with skin on it to bother accepting that divine invitation.

At graduation, I stood at a podium and addressed my class of 400+, then threw my hat to the sky with the rest of my peers and asked God to give me my privacy while I turned and ran head-on into rebellion. He said no. While I was busy sinning, I'd catch glimpses of Him from a distance, watching me, waiting. The sight never failed to unsettle me.

It wasn't until I turned twenty--after enduring two years of stark ugliness--that I gave up and reached, finally, for that outstretched hand. And when I did, I discovered that everything I'd ever looked for in skin-covered form had been waiting for me in His touch. I began to walk. I began to understand God's heart in the pages of a book that had been there all along, waiting for my eyes. I began to fall in love with the Savior who had watched me so patiently and never stopped whispering, even when I'd been desperate to ignore the sound.

We didn't walk into the sunset. That part is yet to come. Instead, I made mistake after mistake. I willfully sinned. I can't even count the number of dreadful mistakes I've made since I placed my hand in His. And yet ... He has never once made me pay. Whenever I come to Him with my head down and my heart heavy, He lifts my chin with a tender touch and reminds me of the length of His love. He has never denied forgiveness. He has never once demanded a pound of flesh for my infractions. Though I could easily rival Paul as the "chief of sinners"--and I mean that down to my toes--I've never received any other response from God but kindness. Despite my lengthy list of faults, He has poured repeated blessings on me, covered my flaws and errors and blatant sins, opened the door of Grace wide and beckoned me--time after time and again--to come inside and warm myself. When I have least deserved it, He's held me close and calmed my heart and bandaged all my self-inflicted wounds. And all that without a single angry or disappointed word. It seems His rebuke, His disgust, His wrath was all spent on Jesus.

So there you have my life in review. I am a sinner saved by grace--loved, held, protected, encouraged, nurtured. I have failed God a hundred thousand times this year, and the year before, and the years before that. But He's never failed me once. Not once.

Here's to a new year. May God have His place of honor in our lives; may He be glorified in all we do.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

making room

This morning, while finishing a book edit, I moved my favorite Christmas decoration aside to make room for my cup of coffee. As I do often, I picked up the jar and shook the straw inside. Then I decided to tell you about it.

Here's an article I wrote for HomeLife magazine about eight years ago.

* * *

I remember–distinctly–how overwhelmed I felt the first time someone suggested an Advent celebration to me.

Four nights. I’d have to set aside four nights during the busiest four weeks of the year. Lighting the candles sounded nice. I liked candles. Prayer was fine. I liked prayer. Sitting around a table asking questions and singing songs–that part I could do without.

“You’d be blessed,” my friend promised.

I didn’t believe her. It sounded like one more activity, one more “have to” in a month already crammed with have to’s. I accepted the paper she handed me, glanced at the suggestions, and thanked her. When she left, I filed the paper in the very back of my filing cabinet.

It probably would have stayed there forever except for a half-hearted prayer I tossed toward God one day soon afterwards.

I’d been out shopping with the masses. Armed with four pounds of toy catalogs and flyers, I elbowed my way through crowds, hissed over parking spaces, stood in lines twenty people deep, and heard enough musical bells and animated Santas to drive a person insane. I spent too much money on things I was certain no one would like or appreciate. Worst of all, on a whim I picked up the newest book by Martha What’s-Her-Name on “How to craft the world’s most memorable Christmas ever using only a glue gun and fresh bay leaves from your own bay tree.” Despite the fact that I didn’t have a bay tree and couldn’t remember when I’d last seen the glue gun, I plopped the book in my cart.

Driving home, I realized that something was way out of whack. My month was as full as it could possibly be. I’d loaded our schedule with every festive event I could find: concerts, parties, cookie exchanges, pageants, tree lighting ceremonies. There wasn’t room for a single thing more. And still I wasn’t happy, or satisfied, or contented. I didn’t feel close to God. I didn’t even like Christmas anymore. In fact, if I could have my way, I would have ripped December right out of my calendar.

I couldn’t pinpoint how it had happened, but somehow Christmas had taken on a life of its own. It drove me, in an endless cycle of haves and wants and musts. I was on the Christmas roller coaster and feeling sick.

“Something has to change,” I said out loud. Not much of a prayer. But God, I’ve learned, can read between the lines and find a prayer hidden in our little outbursts.

I lugged my purchases up to the house and hid them in the bedroom closet. With a cup of tea in hand, I curled up in my favorite chair and opened Martha’s new book. I turned the pages, slowly at first, then more rapidly. One by one I vetoed the projects and recipes. Too big. Too expensive. Too weird. Gold leaf on cookies? Who puts gold leaf on cookies? Who eats gold leaf on cookies?? Most of the projects called for things I’d never owned and probably couldn’t track down if my life depended on it.

Dejected, I tossed the book on the coffee table and wandered outside. Voices drew me to the sheep barn, where I found Dave and Zac, then four, spreading fresh straw.

Dave used the pitchfork, but hands-on Zac was down on his knee scattering straw with his hands.

“How was shopping?” Dave asked.

“Oh, you know. Plastic Santas. Angry people. No parking. Same as always.”

I wasn’t good company. My two men wisely kept working and said nothing. Until Zac, finally, made an announcement.

“That doesn’t feel good,” he said, pulling straw out of his sleeve. “It’s not comfortable on your skin.”

From my perch on a bale of straw, I watched but said nothing.

“Mom?” he pressed.


“It doesn’t feel good.”

“Well, then, don’t put it up your sleeve.” Cranky mother.

“Well, it’s just . . . I was thinking. Was Jesus really born in a barn?”

A cave, I thought. It was probably a cave. But I just nodded.

“Why did that happen?”

“They tried to find another place for him to be born, but there just wasn’t room.”

“That’s not good.” Zac shook his head.

He’d heard the Christmas story every Christmas of his young life. I couldn’t understand why this was bothering him now. “It’s just the way it happened,” I said.

“But, Mom,” he said, walking toward me, “feel this.” He laid a handful of straw on my arm and stepped back. “It feels bad.”

I looked at Zac. I looked at the small pile of straw on my arm and felt it prickling my skin. He was right.

His eyes were troubled. “They laid Him in a manger. I know what that is. That’s a thing full of straw. That’s not a place to put a baby.”

No, I thought. That’s no place for a baby.

“They should have made room for Him some place better,” he continued.

They should have made room, my thoughts echoed.

“It was God. He should have been born in the nicest hotel.”

The straw was still sitting on my arm. I collected it in my hand and let myself feel its scratchiness. And I tried to imagine my Savior lying in a bed full of plain, rough, scratchy straw.

Something clicked for me in that moment. Zac’s words pierced my mind and burrowed into my heart. No room. No room for Jesus. The Innkeeper was me, and I had left no room for the Savior.

I saw what was wrong, suddenly. I had pushed the Baby out and let unimportant things take the place that was His. I had banished Him to the far corners of our holiday. Church on Christmas Eve, maybe a prayer or two. A quick read of the Christmas story. Nothing more. All the rest had been reserved for talking Santas and toy catalogs and parties and such. A whole lot of fancy nothing.

In my quest for the perfect Christmas I had lost the meaning of the manger. I had forgotten the simplicity of the straw.

Our Christmas changed after that. I started by bringing that handful of straw up to the house and stuffing it in an old canning jar of my grandmother’s. Then I set it in a place of prominence, where it would remind me, with each glance, of the miracle that happened in a long-ago cave.

Next, I pulled out the Advent paper from the recesses of my filing cabinet. Studying the suggestions, I decided they were a bit too formal for our free-spirited family, so we started from scratch and formed our own Advent celebration. That first year Zac and I fashioned a simple wreath from evergreen branches we found lying in the yard and molded five little balls of clay into candle holders, which we tucked around the wreath. Nothing fancy. And on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, not knowing what to expect, we gathered around our table, dimmed the lights, and lit the first of the five candles. Dave opened with prayer.

“Lord, we ask Your forgiveness for our neglect. We want to honor You. We want You to be the center of all we do this month. More than anything else, Lord, we want Your presence.”

“Dad,” Zac whispered, “it’s not polite to ask for presents.”

* * *

This year, I pray you find your own way to make room for the Baby--the Baby the whole world is desperate to dismiss. May the miracle of the manger become a reality to you again ... or for the very first time.

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Saturday, December 17, 2005


The house is cold, and I'm the first one up.

But I know what to do. Dave sat me down in front of our first woodstove, eighteen years ago, and showed me how to arrange the logs and start a blaze.

Then, when we built this new house and I begged him to release me from wood chips and smokey burps and trails of sawdust, he relented ... and showed me how to flip the switch on our new, fake stove.

When the price of propane chased my finger from that "on" switch and made me miss the mess and smell of a real fire, he relented again and fixed my mistake. He laid a moss and amber-flecked slate hearth, cut an arched entrance into the fireplace alcove, overlaid it with river rock, then fitted a brand new, massive, Country woodstove inside. And then he sat me down for a fire-starting refresher course.

This morning, I'm prepared. I kneel before the slate hearth and turn the silver-coiled handle. The glass door squeaks almost indiscernably as I swing it open. Inside, I find slim pickins. On the left, two fat, dead chunks lie cold and useless on a bed of gray. One lone, sliverish log lies on the right, with only the barest of orange glows flickering on the ash side. I've caught it just in time.

I pick up the scooper and begin the gathering. The long, barely alive piece offers no resistence. It's alarmingly light. The two chunks are heftier, but stone cold. I slide those next to the longer piece. Then I arrange two bone dry slabs of wood on either side, and one thin slab on top of it all. Inside the V-shaped cave, the makings of a fire await.

I search the hearth until I find a handful of dry wood slivers. These I prop against the small orange glow. All that's left is a breath. I lean in close, fill my lungs, and send a stream of hope into the dark space. One breath, two, and on the third, a burst of gold flame chases the last of the blackness. In just that fraction of a second, fire is reborn.

Soon, I'll be warm.

Oh, God--make us live again. Gather us close. Make our shoulders touch, and our arms, and our hearts. And then, when you've pulled us in tight and huddled us as one ... breathe.

Our God is a consuming fire. --Hebrews 12:29

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Friday, December 16, 2005


Have a minute? Listen to this excerpt from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo" CD:

I couldn't imagine my life without music.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

this moment

Just on the other side of my window, beyond the sage curtains I hung recently, past the doubled reflection of gold and green and red and blue lights on our 10-foot tree, I see the black and bony outlines of the leafless maples in our backyard, splayed against a weakening, slate blue sky.

Inside, we're warm. Dave is stuffing the stove with tinder dry logs. The heat from two crock pots (one with a roast for tonight; the other containing a slowly disintegrating roast, chunks of which will fill soft hoagies at tomorrow's Christmas potluck) keeps the kitchen toasty and fragrant. Larry lies prone on his green mat, striking a favored "I'm all tuckered out after pulling your sled that last hundred miles, Ma'am" pose, but he's done not a lick of work all day. He's barely budged from that mat. Just short breaks now and then to accept bits of bread and beef from me.

Until I stopped to capture this moment, I was sitting at the kitchen table knitting an icy blue, baby lash scarf. I suppose I needed to rest too. Zac had coaxed me into burning Lulu's To Sir With Love on a CD for him (I've ruined my children with old movies), and you know how physically exhausting it is to hit that "copy" button. He's upstairs jamming to Lulu, Tera is in the living room laughing as Squishy and Mittens cat-wrestle each other on the carpet, and I've got my headphones on and Rascal Flatts blasting as high as my laptop will let me go.

In an hour, our nephew, Christian, has a basketball game. We've been invited. We'll claim our spot on the middle-school gym bleachers, and shout and groan and clap till our hands hurt, and then we'll come home to a fork-tender roast.

If I could bottle this feeling and pass it around, we'd all soon forget the memory of tears.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights ..." --James 1:17

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Friday, December 09, 2005

december at calvary

Every so often, when my fondness for my church family bubbles over and spills onto this blog, you get a glimpse of our little Calvary Chapel. This morning, I'm bubbling.

There's no way I'll get it all in one post. This will have to be a three- or four-parter. Here's what you missed in week one:

The Lights of Christmas

We usually have a women's overnighter at The Lights of Christmas ... and we'll do it again next year for sure (that's for all you women who begged and whined :), but this year, we decided to make it a family event. A big pack of us met at the church office and caravanned first to Starbucks, and then out to Warm Beach. Since I know most of you have never been to The Lights, let me paint a picture: You head west toward the water, and just before you'd continue down that last block or two and hit Puget Sound, you take a right. A half mile or so later, you come to a densely treed area, and you begin to see the first of the lights. They're everywhere--wound around massive cedar tree stumps, hanging from branches, lining walkways, outlining buildings ... and those are the conservative displays. As you walk around, you see mountains made of sheets of lights hanging in the distance, waterfalls, a storm scene (complete with a lighthouse, flashing clouds, and crabs scampering about a shipwrecked boat), flowers, bees flying in and out of a hive, angels, and bunches more that I can't think of right now.

The lights are the big draw, but there's so much more. Frosty walks around greeting the kids. Bruce the Spruce, a talking fir tree, chats with a steady stream of visitors. Carolers sing. Bluegrass bands entertain. You can ride the train, or take a hay ride on a wagon attached to two Clydesdales (we did both). Scattered at thankfully close intervals are bonfires, where clusters of people linger to warm themselves.

There's food, of course. Cocoa and chili beckon. Hot donuts (6 for a dollar) send a come-and-get-me scent wafting out of one tent, while Ivar's clam chowder is dished up in another. (Taryn, pregnant with twins, got clam chowder AND a Philly steak sandwich, but to be fair, Mark helped her make it all disappear).

To top off your night, the tiny chapel perched on a hillside overlooking Puget Sound is decorated with subtle lights illuminating a nativity scene--the real reason for all this celebration. You can sit as long as you like, basking in that soft light and letting the music settle your soul. It's my favorite spot in the world. I once had a really amazing experience in that chapel. I'll have to write about that another time.

I absolutely loved the group who went with us this year. A few of us talked knitting as we walked around (I'd spent that very afternoon with Jennifer for lemon bars and a knitting lesson, so she was particularly chatty). A few of us sang silly songs from our childhood. Okay, that was me. The kids (and Cora ... and Fran) walked around with snowman glassses on. One of them let me take a peek, and I instantly coveted the glasses. Every light--seen through the lenses--looked like bright snowmen. We took a stroll through the petting zoo, and waited as one for the alpaca to spit on us. Though none of us own any alpaca knowledge, I heard several adament, authoritative murmurs on the subject. "Oh yes. Alpacas spit. They sure do." No spitting occurred.

I loved the oldies, and I loved the newcomers. Gina, Rick and Mia feel like they've always belonged to us. I can't imagine not fellowshipping with them. Carly, Dave, and their boys scooched right in and endeared themselves to us. In fact, one of my favorite memories of the night was when Carly's son, 5-year old Wade, stopped in his tracks when he spotted Frosty in the courtyard, threw his arms back, and proclaimed, "Frosty!!! It's me again!" And you know what? That costumed Frosty managed to convey a look back that said, "Yes, Wade! I remember you from last year!"

There's nothing like the body of Christ. Nothing at all.

More to come.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

thank you!

The results of the Blogs of Beauty Awards are in. And ... we (Darlene and I) won! I can take very little credit for this blog design. Darlene found a few pictures and offered them for my approval, and although I did choose the girl standing in the field with her face lifted toward God, who would not choose that, given the choice? I'm sure I could never have found that on my own. Other than a few color requests, all the little special design touches belong to Darlene.

Thanks to all who took the time to vote. Here's a list of the winners:

Best Biblical Exhortation: Rebecca Writes

Best Design - Contemporary: Wind Scraps

Best Design - Traditional: Solo Femininity

Best Discussion: ChoosingHome Blog

Best Encourager: Windows to My Soul

Best Frugality: Like Merchant Ships

Best Homemaking: Large Family Logistics

Best Homeschooling: Spunky Homeschool

Best Humor: Daring Young Mom

Best Meet for a Mocha: Blest with sons

Best Motherhood: ChoosingHome Blog

Best Quiet Spirit: Holy Experience

Best Recipes: bakingsheet

Best Variety: Amy’s Humble Musings


Monday, December 05, 2005


The word--when it happens to cross my mind--always conjures the face of our friends, Hananya and Devorah, and the notion of hospitality. That's because Netanya was the first stop on our tour of Israel, and the first thing we saw, upon opening the double doors of our hotel, was an offering of juice: a half dozen trays of orange, grapefruit, and pineapple juice. I chose grapefruit (I always do), and as I sipped the slightly foreign concoction, I tried to make myself believe I was really standing in an Israeli hotel.

Hananya and Devorah live in Netanya. We met them in line at LAX and formed an instant connection, one that deepened during our conversations in Toronto and at Ben Gurien airport, and bloomed altogether at the end of our trip, when they drove from Netanya to our hotel in Jerusalem and swooped us up for a dinner of falafel and hummus in their favorite restaurant in the Arab section of town. Over that meal, we shared Jesus with them. If I live to be a hundred, I will never experience a higher privilege than what I was given during those three hours--the chance to tell my Jewish friends how much they are loved by my Jewish Savior.

This morning, I am grieving the violence that occurred in a market in Netanya. For three weeks now, I've been feeling an urgency to pray for Hananya and Devorah, and every time I stop to pray, I find myself praying for their safety. I am praying this morning that they were elsewhere when that young, smiling Palestinian blew himself up. I am praying that Devorah found no need to visit the market at that hour; that Hananya was safe in his office; that their son Yonathan was ensconsed in a classroom.

And I am wishing for peace for my friends--and the land that I love like my own.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, prosperity within your palaces." For the sake of my brethren and companions, I will now say, "Peace be within you." Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. --Psalm 122:6-9



Thursday, December 01, 2005

on trash, and treasures ... and starting over

On Mondays, we turn into an old married couple.

Although no pastor I know ever actually takes an entire day off, Dave tries to stay away from his office on Mondays, and he likes to pretend (though I know differently) that he's not thinking about church and the people it contains.

We begin the day with a cup of coffee--same as every other morning--but this cup is sipped leisurely. Sighs of satisfaction usually occur at some point. I wait as long as I can. Eventually, when I can't stand the suspense any longer, I'll ask, "What should we do today?"

Dave will take a minute before answering. He might look out the window, or stare at the fire flickering in the wood stove. "Well ..." he'll begin, when a sufficient list has formed. "I should probably work on the goat barn a bit."

I nod and sip, still waiting. I know he won't stop there. The goat barn is an ongoing hobby. That one will come up every Monday morning from now to eternity. I'm waiting to hear about the other possibilities--the ones that involve climbing into the truck and saying adios to the farm for a few hours.

"We're about out of feed," he'll say. Now we're getting to it. This means a trip out to Dale and Gabriela's farm (if he means hay) or Strotz Feed (if he means Layer 100 pellets and scratch for the chickens).

"And I need to get out to the dump."

I restrain myself from clapping my hands. Really and truly. A big part of my delight is simple reminiscence. I have very fond memories of going to the dump, and no trip has yet failed to make me remember my grandpa.

The dump, when I was a child, was a place of great mystery and possibility. The mystery was how people of sound thinking could part with all that treasure. The possibility was how much of it I'd end up carting home.

"Shanny, let's try to leave more garbage than we bring back," Grandpa would suggest. I always thought it greatly optimistic of him.

The dump today is a mechanical, no-touching, no-possibility place, but back then, you could actually walk among the garbage and scrounge. I'd leave Grandpa talking to the dump guy and hold my nose as I scurried among the seagulls, poking at piles with my sneakered-foot. Oh, the delights I discovered among all the filth! I found a pogo stick once. The blue plastic handle was split on one side and altogether gone from the other, and the springs squeaked terribly when you bounced, but when did a pogo stick not squeak? Grandma wasn't as delighted as I when she saw me lugging that pogo stick out of the truck. Her resistance, I'm sure, was simply disgust. She had a thing about germs and trash and the like. It's one of those things she passed down to me, eventually ... and after much resistence on my part.

Another time I found a bike--a red bike with a bent front wheel and no seat. I envisioned a miraculous healing of that bike, and me riding like the wind around the farm, a swift, red blur of joy and frenzy. Grandpa didn't see it. After reminding me that I had other transportation options back home--including a perfectly good bike and my choice of horses--he vetoed my dream. Some part of me still grieves that sad, red mass.

Since the dump today has a no-poking rule ... and since, as I said, I've inherited my grandmother's disdain for germs and probably wouldn't poke even if they did allow it, I've surmised that there's another reason for my love of the dump. I think it has something to do with the fact that we've loaded up a lot of unnecessary and unpleasant remnants of our life and driven them away from our dwelling place, and I know that once they've been tossed over the side of the pit, I never have to lay eyes on them again. We return home with a truckload of empty garbage cans and a fresh start.

You know where I'm going with this. I can't not see a comparison between dump-treks and Jesus. The bending of your knee in first-time awe and surrender is like making a first run to the dump after a lifetime of garbage accumulation. Prayers at bedtime, after reviewing the mistakes of your day, are akin to emptying the little can you keep next to your desk. And those middle of the day, I-can't-believe-I-just-did-that prayers are like finding a tissue in your pocket and tossing it where it belongs.

Life's a journey through filth. God's a Father with a germ issue. And we're nothing more than children, scampering where we ought not to scamper, and too often poking where we shouldn't poke.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. -1 John 1:9

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