great things He hath done!

I recently asked if we could go on vacation all the time, and, as life would have it, this summer it was high time that some of our college friends got the knot tied. Since we drove twelve hours from Iowa to Kentucky, stayed in a room by ourselves and didn’t do much cooking, I think we can safely call this trip a vacation. The bride, Hannah, who was one of my room-mates at Hillsdale, is an artist and photographer so I tried to take lots of pictures in her honor. (It was the snap of the button that was in her honor, not the end quality of the shots.) After arriving back home, we realized we have lots more memories than photos! Of course!

Aaron and I had our fourth anniversary during the festivities, and it was a delight to commemorate the special day with such a joyful wedding weekend. We’ve been in separate countries for two of our anniversaries, so it seemed quite trivial to complain about the fact that we were spending our time at the bachelorette parties instead of celebrating a romantic evening alone. (Party preparations for the ladies were so frenzied that we kept calling the boys’ shooting-grilling-drinking-and-cigar gathering a “Bachelorette” as well.)

The hours the wedding support team spent preparing food trays for parties, wrapping shower gifts, running errands, cleaning the outdoor reception pavilion, dipping flower balls in tubs of water, practicing piano for the ceremony, wrapping twinkle lights around banisters, scrubbing chairs, and tying tulle after driving twelve hours to get there was a tangible witness of our commitment to support Hannah and James in their marriage as the months and years pass. We were entirely thrilled to see so many college friends and participate in this happy wedding!

Since there was a little bit of empty time on our agenda before the wedding, we explored the gorgeous area and went hiking by the Kentucky River. You can note my oh-so-appropriate foot attire. Kentucky hiking is a little more intense than Iowa hiking!

As slightly older friends, just barely ahead of Hannah and James in our own marriage, we have a little bit of sage advice to offer about their life together.
I played piano for most of the wedding music, but when I think back on the songs they selected I keep hearing the glorious organ hymn they played for the recessional. It’s the exact soundtrack I want to play in my mind when I remember this day.

image from Zach Stone

“…Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the people rejoice.
Oh, come to the Father through Jesus the Son,
And give him the glory, great things He hath done!
– To God Be The Glory, lyrics by Fanny Crosby.

“fear not”

Whether you focus on the spiritual themes of Advent or jump ahead into Christmas celebrations, the weeks leading up to the holidays are full of waiting and excitement. While anticipating Christmas brings joyful hope, patience for other things in life is often very raw, destabilizing and scary. Especially when life is wearisome, the holiday waiting can hit a nerve of underlying or unrecognized fear.  It’s easy to picture happy children marking passed days on the calendar expecting another magical December 25th, but the rest of life isn’t like that. We don’t know what, when, or even if things will happen, and the things that do end up happening might be hard or painful. Depending on the person and their circumstances these contingencies may be especially terrifying, but it’s safe to say we all face this battle in some way. At this time of the year it might feel like the chasm between happy hope and our own gaping wounds is uncrossable. Uncertainty can make celebrations feel so painful for some, and these challenges seem worse with messages all around urging happiness and merriment.

There’s no use hiding these hard feelings, and I’ve been thinking about this because this theme of nagging anxiety has been a theme in so many conversations I’ve had lately. There are varied stories, of course, but most of us respond to all sorts of pain by asking similar questions:
What if I don’t succeed in this new endeavor – grad school, starting a business or job, parenting, paying off debt, leadership responsibilities, moving?

     What if the person I love rejects me and I’ve poured myself out for nothing?
     What if it takes forever to recover after this awful thing?
     What if things don’t get better?
The letters I-F in “what if?” give us a quick way to reveal what I Fear, and I confess a sinking familiarity with this list because I’m asking the same questions on some level every single day. I don’t think these fears are unique to anyone!

It shouldn’t be that surprising to confront growing fear while preparing for Christ’s coming. The Israelites must have mused, Our prophets seemed like they were crazy anyway, we were captured and in exile, and now we’ve had hundreds of years without a messenger from God… What if this is all a joke? Shouldn’t the Messiah be here by now? An angel had to command Joseph not to fear taking Mary as his wife. The shepherds were terrified for one of the most glorious fresh-air Angelic choir concerts of all time. And even today we’re bombarded with skepticism about Jesus’ return: Look at people like Howard Camping! Is it crazy to think this is real? Shouldn’t Jesus be back by now?  Human fear permeates the story of Christmas, so why shouldn’t contemplating the mysteries of Christ’s coming bring our own everyday fears to light as well?

The Christmas story is beautiful here as it validates and releases these fears with  the messages of our Advent contemplations – hope, peace, joy and love.
Weary Israel: This is the branch from Jesse, with the spirit of the fear of the Lord, which remedies all the rest of your fears.
Take courage, Joseph: These crazy and embarrassing circumstances you don’t understand fulfill my promise to bring forth salvation.
Good news, lowly Shepherds:  Salvation comes for all people, including you.
Be not afraid: God is incarnate, dwelling among us that we may behold him.

Reinforcing the truth of scripture, many Christmas carols proclaim the Christ child is the antidote to fear.
Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light!
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.
– “O Little Town of Bethlehem” words by Philip Brooks, 1867.

Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear,  
Suddenly the Lord descending in His temple shall appear!
– “Angels from the Realms of Glory” words by James Montgomery, 1816.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free
From our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee!
– “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” words by Charles Wesley.

(Advent Starry Night by Virginia Wieringa)

And it’s interesting to note what happened after these Christmas story fears were confronted. Joseph woke up from his dream and obeyed the angel’s command.  The shepherds went from their fields to find the stable in obedience to their instructions. They responded to fear by acting on what God had revealed to them, and that’s the same path we can take to push past fear. In yielding any worry, big or small, we encounter the ultimate revelation God has given us – Christ, the Word made flesh.

Be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”   – Isaiah 40, king james version.

[image here]

joyful, joyful

For some reason, I always feel like there is great pressure to just “be joyful” without acknowledging that joy is a fruit of the spirit. It’s something that we receive from God,  not something we need to achieve in order to please Him. Of course, we should be joyful. Scripture clearly tells us to “Shout for joyBe joyful in all things…  Count it all joy…” and it’s undeniable that a heart in union with God is a heart of joy.  The conflict here comes when the rubber hits the road: life is hard and joy is not a natural response in the face of difficulty.

Thankfully, this joy is not at all a burdensome command placed on weary shoulders! It is a gift. God delights to give us gifts, and when joy seems out of reach we can (must!) ask for it with confidence.  I love that the hymn Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee abounds in encouragement. This song points us to God who gives joy instead of demanding something that seems so impossible to achieve on our own.

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest; vale and mountain; flowery meadow, flashing sea;
Chanting bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the mighty chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life.

-Joyful, Joyful text from Henry Van Dyke in 1907.

off’ring up on ev’ry shore

I’ve been thinking about my childhood as a “Missionary Kid” quite a bit today, mostly because I’ve been in the kitchen preparing my contributions for a Caribbean-themed potluck later this weekend, but also because I’m still reflecting on two movies I had on this morning about the missionaries to Ecuador who were killed in 1956. I would highly recommend that you do the same, as the stories of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, et al., are told in both “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” and “End of the Spear,”  which are available for free viewing on Hulu, the poor person’s Netflix!  Thankfully my own family’s missionary experience, though trying, did not involve murderous villagers or loss of life. Of course I do not directly compare them, except to note that both stories show sometimes making “big” sacrifices or steps of obedience as a Christian can turn out in a way that makes you feel like you’re falling flat on your face if you don’t have a wider perspective to see beyond the moment. And by “beyond the moment,” I mean it might be well beyond your own lifetime that anything comes together, even. This is a hard thing to grasp hold of!

When I was eight, my family moved to Trinidad so my parents could serve as professors at a seminary that was a part of their church denomination. We were there for two years, moving back to the US when I was ten. Here I am with my two younger sisters. We’re next to “Sister Ross,” the woman who cooked for all the faculty and students (probably ~30 people a day?). This picture is out the side door of the cafeteria – notice there is no glass on the windows? And no doorknob? We were truly in “the bush,” experiencing near 3rd-world conditions! I am especially remembering Sister Ross’ hot, steamy kitchen as I saute sliced plantains and boil chayote squash on this outrageously humid June afternoon

hungry cat, Sister Ross, Bethany (5), Abby (8) and Naomi (3)

Just some commentary on our appearance: We all had hurache sandals, but mine were multicolored because there were no more white ones in my size when we got them. I didn’t like not matching my sisters in our shoes, and I was really frustrated that I had outgrown the sweet acid wash denim outfit that Beth so fashionably models in this photo. But seriously… isn’t little Naomi the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? She was probably 3. And that poor cat is probably the most pathetic animal to ever walk the planet. I think I remember that we were not allowed to play with her.

Experiencing significant life upheaval at a young age, like if your mom begins working outside of the home while you are all adapting to another culture, has a way of changing how a child sees the world. I was a precocious girl, very conscious of the culture shock we faced in both directions – moving to Trinidad and moving back to the States a few years later (the move back to the US was infinitely harder) – and I can’t remember much about life before this time. Plenty of my memories are of fun and carefree kids: playing outside in the rain (even the rainwater was warm!); eating fresh mangoes; our first puppy “Scooby”; seeing parakeets perched in the trees and telling my mom “I didn’t know those actually lived anywhere for real… I thought they were from the pet section at Meijer!”;  little lizards everywhere; and our special trip to the one McDonalds in the whole country where I got a Polly Pocket in my kids meal.  But there were challenging aspects that I remember, too: We went down there with practically nothing – personal belongings like clothing, homeschool books, toys, etc., for our family of five fit into eight trunks, and yet the neighborhood kids thought we must be princesses because we each had a Barbie; We could barely understand the “English” spoken there; Some of the food served to us was really gross, like pigs foot soup, and yet we obeyed my mom’s “look” that said finish your plate and if you say anything I swear I will kill you on the way home;  cockroaches the size of my nine-year-old hand and toads the size of a dinner plate; and on several occasions our small home was burglarized while we were sleeping.

One of the other frustrating things about life in Trinidad was that church took FOREVER. I mean it. Like 2-3 hours. And we would sing the same songs over and over and over. No air conditioning. Some Sundays it truly felt like torture – the hard pew, the sweaty back, the people behind us petting our pretty blond hair. And yet, I have to smile every time I think of this chorus we must have repeated at the beginning and end of each service for two years worth of Sundays:

The name of the Lord is a strong tower,
The righteous run into it and they are safe.

While I was old enough to know about some of the difficulty we all faced, this was an experience that has made my life richer and brighter, and I’m enjoying the memories these tastes and smells trigger for me.

Grandparents visited us the second year - with Poppa at Maracas Bay. He played in the waves with us, and it was the first time I'd ever seen him without that toupee.

For Thy Church which evermore, lifteth holy hands above.
Off’ring up on ev’ry shore , her pure sacrifice of love.
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise!
– For the Beauty of the Earth, Folliot Pierpoint 1864.

“There’s nothing my God cannot do”

It’s been a busy week, full of music, children, friends, and number crunching. I started off helping some friends with childcare and food after the birth of a new baby and immediately jumped into a week of vacation bible school at church. It’s such a challenge to juggle work and church commitments every single night, but I love singing with kids and investing myself in their lives. One of the reasons I love this is because I know music is one of the most powerful tools to firmly impress something in a person’s memory.  It’s pretty sobering to think that those hundred brilliant little minds are far more likely to remember the songs we taught than the stories they heard or even the verses they memorized.

And night after night, I made eye contact with the four- and five-year-olds, making eye contact, exaggerating my arm motions, smiling, encouraging them to repeat the words after me, teaching them

My God is so great, so strong and so mighty
There’s nothing my God cannot do – for you!

in some ways, I felt like I was teaching them a half-truth. Yes, of course, we instruct children about God’s sovereignty and power. But there is more to God’s might than the fact that He can do anything, and I feel a keen frustration that I start this lesson but will probably move away before they are ready for the rest of it. This first part, if understood without further explanation can lead to heartache, disillusionment and rebellion.  So as they grow into teenagers and adults, I hope and pray they will have more teachers and mentors to guide them through the hard and beautiful truth that this mighty, strong powerful God doesn’t always do the things you desperately wish would happen. And that God not doing those things does not mean He isn’t strong and mighty,  or that He is not working in the midst of pain or disappointment. This reminds me that I am outrageously grateful for the friends and teachers who have blessed me and encouraged my growing faith as we shared those lessons of discovery and trust.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy inhabitation of the Most High. God is within her; she will not be moved; God will help her when the morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
– psalm 46, esv.

(ps, I know mom and grandma love the domestic updates: I transplanted a bunch of hostas last week and so far they are looking great)

And like I mentioned at first, there has been some exciting number-crunching going on at our house.  I’ll have more details to share later, but I am amazed at these answers to long-offered prayers. Our life is overwhelmingly blessed.

sweet will be the flower

It’s a lovely Sunday morning! We’re dogsitting for Chip‘s older brother, Baker, and I must have been a sight to see outside earlier. I filled a thermos of coffee from our french press and grabbed our camera, sure I would find something lovely in the park. Then Baker took me for a walk. I imagined a serene, contemplative morning and I was, instead, juggling a camera, a thermos of coffee, and a large dog that wanted to run when I wanted to be still and stay (or, um, pee all over everything) when I wanted to move.

So the little adventure went differently than I expected, but, of course, the woods were still beautiful. As the landscape displayed spring coming out of the dull grayness of winter, I kept thinking of a hymn from Scotland called “God Moves in  Mysterious Way.”

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break with blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding ev’ry hour
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter and He will make it plain.
– William Cowper

the weary world rejoices

It’s been a year of weariness for me in many ways, and I have been very comforted by the lyrics of O Holy Night during Advent and Christmas.  Striking lines like “the weary world rejoices / for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn” are sung glibly because we hear them so often, but are still very meaningful. I love that the second verse talks about the King of Kings lying “thus in lowly manger / in all our trials born to be our friend” – Almighty God experiencing humility that he might be a friend and comforter in our trials! The last verse, beginning with “Truly He taught us to love one another,” is such a reminder of how the afflictions of this year have brought a new sense of reliance and companionship in my marriage, too. This has been one of the greatest blessings of the year.

For the 2010 holidays, we were very grateful to have a few short days with both sides of the family during Christmas. I have such a short amount of time off work each year and we have to calculate the vacation hours carefully to make the most of it. There’s always so much to decide between – beyond family visits, there is also the option for time with friends, projects on our house, and adventures with just the two of us! We had great weather for our eight-hour drive and enjoyed some long chats in the car on both ends of a very action-packed trip. Unfortunately we took almost no photos of our own, but my sister got a camera so we have lots of lovely pictures from that part of our trip. Here are a few highlights:

After this next one, my Grandma so politely said “Um, Beth… I think everyone else was trying to look good for this shot.”

Also, in that deer-in-the-woods sculpture (we all want it and tell Grandma to pass it on if she’s ever changing her decor), I just discovered a unicorn.  Who puts a unicorn in the same scene with deer?

My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice
Ps 34:2

who makes the woeful heart to sing

I have a ginormous hymnal that is in a 3 ring binder, designed perfectly for a piano accompanist. I got it for my 18th birthday. Yes, I was the nerdy kid ASKING for a hymnal for my birthday.  I had no idea how weird I was am. And tonight, after dinner as I was singing while Aaron studied, I realized that the editors of my hymnal gently suggest the 2nd verse of Fairest Lord Jesus is not as necessary as the other three listed because it doesn’t have a star by it. Nearly every hymn has the three “most important” verses “starred” for lazy worship leaders and/or congregations. When I am playing, I purposefully sing those verses louder. And yet in this hymn, that “unnecessary” verse ends by describing Jesus as the one “who makes the woeful heart to sing”,  a miracle similar to but greater than spring blooming out of the frozen death of winter. How is that not important? For me, this fall has been all about a woeful heart trying to figure out how to even want to sing again – and I’m definitely getting there. But only because He shines with all brightness and purity in the midst of our pain and darkness here.

And some of those woeful heart learning-to-sing moments have occurred in situations like this:
drinking wassail with Jaimi in Madison, Wisconsin!
of course I have no picture, but heart-to-hearts with Jenny in Minneapolis!

and celebrating the marriage of Alisa and David in New Mexico with more wonderful Hillsdale friends!

Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands
Robed in the blooming garb of spring:
Jesus is brighter, Jesus is purer
Who makes the woeful heart to sing!