The Season of our Joy

There is a strange phenomena around the holidays that not many people talk about. Something most of us probably do not deal with, but then again, maybe we do. Something that stands opposed to this season of light and hope. Something that would rob us of our joy.

Depression. Sadness. Sorrow. I don’t care what you call it. It’s there for all kinds of reasons. That dull ache in your middle.

I feel it too. With Thanksgiving just a heart-beat away, I know that it is followed by a flurry of December birthdays and Christmas shopping and family get-togethers and good food and anticipation of my children’s expectancy and the advent activities we do.  And I love December. But there, in the midst of the glowing lights and the happy faces is the realization that my family is broken. That relationships are not what they should be. That loved ones are really struggling in all kinds of areas. And most of all, that I cannot fix it. Oh there is such deep sorrow over the pain of those I love!

I remember this Fall, at the very beginning of our first homeschool year, I went out for a walk. I prayed that God would reveal to me the meaning of my middle name. It seems a funny thing to pray for because my middle name is Joy. But I prayed for it nonetheless. Immediately, the phrase, “shouts of joy and victory”, from a Psalm our family had been memorizing, came to my mind. But I quickly dismissed it because that didn’t seem to fit me. I am not a loud person by any means. I had always thought my name meant a kind of peaceful happiness. That seems to gel more with my personality.

The next day I happened to look up a Scripture that God had used mightily in my life to deliver me from fear. Zephaniah 3:17. I began looking up this reference in all different translations of the Old Testament. The Complete Jewish Bible translation reads: “Adonai your God is right there with you, as a Mighty Savior. He will rejoice over you and be glad, He will be silent in His love, He will shout over you with joy.” And there it was again. This concept of shouting joy. So I looked up the Hebrew word for that specific use of joy in that passage and it is the word “B’rinnah” which means “praise with loud, joyful shouting or singing.” And this is the meaning of my name. A triumphant shout of joy.

And so God has revealed to me my name, my calling. A shout of triumph over the enemy of this dismal and corrupt world. A shout of joy that my God is still a Mighty Savior. That He rejoices over me. That I can be still and know His love. Even though there is still pain. Even though things are not how I want them to be.

He is here. He is right here in our midst. Emmanuel means God with us. It is the victory of advent. It is the joy that triumphs over the sadness. And it is mine.

Kittens and Memories

We were adopted by a stray cat several months ago. The kids were still in school at that time and Thadd and I were outside waiting for the bus to drop them off in the afternoon. We heard her before we saw her, the kind of friendly meow that beckons to you. She jumped up on the neighbor’s fence from the backyard, leapt down on our side and came trotting over to us. A small, gray, tiger-striped cat with just a dash of orange on her forehead. She let us pet her and then, when Addie and Jeremiah came home, we all found ourselves scrounging around for things to feed her. A bowl of milk, a piece of salami, a crust of bread (she didn’t care for that). And of course she kept coming back. I even accidentally happened to put a bag of cat food in the shopping cart soon after meeting her. Addie affectionately named her Maggie, which fit her perfectly. We continued to feed her and she stuck around.

A few weeks ago Maggie started to put on quite a bit of weight around her abdomen. My suspicions were confirmed one day when she let me put my hands around her belly and I felt an ever-so-slight kick. We watched her grow so pregnant that she couldn’t walk without waddling. We put a cardboard box and a towel out on our porch, just in case, and kept on checking on her. This past Saturday morning I went outside and Maggie showed up from our front bushes very much NOTpregnant. I called the kids and we began looking for the babies, which Addie found presently. Five tiny kittens huddled together behind a sago palm in front of our house.

Towards the end of the day, Maggie let us take the kittens to the box on our front porch. And there they stayed, their mama guarding and nursing them around the clock.

Every chance we get, we are out there watching the miracle.

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The kids could stay out there for hours. Watching and petting them, picking them up, then putting them back when Maggie begins to nervously growl. The truth is, I could stay out there all day too. There is something deeply satisfying about a baby’s lustful quest for sustenance. Maggie purrs as we watch on. I have never seen her so content.

At night I put the kids to bed and the boys ask for the usual bedtime story as I scratch their backs. The books we had just read together never count. They want a made-up one. And about animals. Always animals. Usually, my mind is too tired to come up with anything interesting, but tonight is different. I find myself conjuring up scenes from my past when I was a little girl. About my first cat, Blue Eyes. I tell them about how I found him when I was four and how his owner gave him to me. How he was the sweetest cat ever, even though I would fold him in half. How he had the bluest eyes. How he had gotten out of the house one day and we couldn’t find him for a while. All of a sudden I was that bright-eyed little girl with the staticky hair.

“I remember being in the car on our way to the doctor, my mom driving my brother and I, when all of a sudden I heard my mom scream,” I paused and the boys sat up in bed, hanging onto every word.

“There on the side of the road was a dead cat, run over by a car. My mom wouldn’t let me see it, but she was sure it was Blue Eyes. I remember how my Uncle had come and picked him up and put him in a shoebox. He let me see him then, and even then I didn’t believe that it was my cat. It didn’t look like him, but all the adults were sure about it.

I remember how we had a little burial for him in the backyard. My dad, mom and I. My parents walked back inside the house, but I stood out there, sobbing. Right in front of the freshly-dug grave. I couldn’t believe this had happened. Death seemed so unnatural. I remember looking up and seeing my dad standing tall near the house looking at me. He started to walk toward me, a look of understanding on his face. I ran at him and he caught me and I wept into him-” my voice trailed off at this point as the distant memory enveloped me. A warm feeling overwhelmed and surprised me and I found myself fighting the tears. My daddy. I was overcome with feelings I had not felt in a long time. My two boys seemed fine with my ending the story at this point. Somehow they sensed the reverence of the moment. I sat there in the night thinking about my dad. His strength and kindness and protection. I kissed my boys and left the room.

I unlocked and opened the front door and sat down by the stray cat Maggie and her babies. I ran my hand through her soft fur as she purred lazily. And I thought about my daddy.

When Words Fail Me

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We were getting close to the visitors center at the South Rim. We had come far. 1300 miles in a truck pulling a travel trailer, three kids in the backseat, a flat tire miracle, a transmission scare (which turned out to be a fuel filter issue), changes of plans every day. But we had finally made it!

“Close your eyes,” Jason said,  “and I’ll lead you there.”

We had met my Uncle Ernie and Aunt Rose and my two cousins in Flagstaff the day before. I asked Aunt Rose to keep an eye on the kids while Jason led me to the rim. Didn’t want them jumping in or anything.

Now I have to explain that ever since growing up in the mountains of Latin America, the mountains have been in my blood. Living in the lowlands for 15 years have made me appreciate any kind of topography whatsoever. As we drove into the hills of San Antonio and the elevation began to change, my soul began to breathe deep. As we continued through southwest Texas and up through New Mexico and Arizona it just got better.

But even a mountain lover is not prepared for the Grand Canyon.

I’ve seen the photos. Bought books and checked others out at the library. Heard personal testimony of the greatness and beauty. My expectations were pretty high. But I was blindsided by a thought, “What if it’s not as great as what everyone says? What if I’m disappointed?” A crazy thought for sure, but as I was led down the path to the look-out I wondered just what my reaction would be.

It was overcast and the rain would gently come and go. I looked down at the ground as we walked and we finally came to a place everyone agreed upon. I heard a few exclamations from my children as we approached and Thaddaeus yelled out, “Is this the Grand Canyon?!” Jason put my hand on the metal guard rail and I could feel all eyes looking at me.

“OK, open your eyes.”

And this is when all words fail me. No description does justice to what I experienced at that moment. My first thought was, “Are you kidding me? Is this real?” The immensity and beauty and majesty and awesomeness. The way the sun hit the side of the canyon and enflamed it red, and then the layers upon layers and all the colors. The blue and orange and red and purple. The treacherous cliffs and the chasm stretching out beyond what my eyes could see. The mists and the rain and the sky in all array of colors above. Ah, language! How I butcher the beauty!

I have only had one other similar experience. The only other moment of absolute disbelief and amazement was when I held my baby girl for the first time. Both of those times I was overcome by involuntary tears.

The Grand Canyon exceeded my highest expectations.

We went back to camp to fix dinner that evening, but hurried back to get a view of the canyon during sunset. As we pulled up we noticed a double rainbow in the steel gray clouds. We ran frantically to the rim with the camera and were able to take some shots in a tiny window of time before the clouds covered the rainbows from sight.

To see the sign of God’s covenant to the earth, two colored bows, stretched over one of the greatest evidences of a worldwide flood was overwhelming.

I was overcome by God’s great love for me. That I could get to see his handiwork like this! There are no words.

How in the World Do You Impart Faith to Your Children?

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It was the night before the first day at a new school. I came in her room to tuck her in and pray with her about the school and the people and the bus ride home. But she had other things on her mind.

“Mommy,” Addie began, “How do you ask Jesus to be your Savior? I really want to, but I don’t know how.”

The boys were in the other room fighting over pajamas. What had my daughter just asked me? My eyes widened at the realization of the moment. I had not anticipated this conversation that night. I asked her to wait as I ran downstairs to tell Jason to tend to the boys and I grabbed my tattered, purple Bible.

Running upstairs, I breathed a prayer that God would give me words to describe the great mystery of salvation only found in Jesus Christ. The salvation that had changed my life forever. And Jason’s.

I came into her room, the room Jason and I only a few weeks back had prayed over as we dedicated the rooms in our new home to the Lord. I closed the door and sat on her bed. And her eyes were urgent with anticipation. I took a deep breath and began to talk about the gospel. The good news that Jesus had come to earth to live and die and rise again to make us new and clean and take away our sins and give us a new life. It is so simple. And the most powerful thing in the world.

But she has heard this good news since she was a tiny girl. I remember her telling it to Jeremiah when she was three. Telling him all about the garden of Eden and Adam and Eve and the first sin and how God had to send Jesus to come rescue us.

But this day was different. This day Addie wanted a part of the story. She wanted Jesus to save HER.

And so as best as I could, I explained to her that all you have to do is ask Jesus to save you. You turn from the old way of life to the new way. You turn from sin and turn to Jesus.

I asked her if she wanted to kneel with me by her bed and pray. She hopped off fast and we knelt together, mother and daughter, as I helped her communicate to God that she was turning from sin to Jesus. From death to life. She was beaming with joy when we finished. And I found myself dizzy with the privilege of leading my little girl to Jesus.

I was suddenly struck by a realization as I opened my Bible to the place where I had recorded when I prayed to ask Jesus to save me as a little girl. January 6, 1988. I was eight years old. This day was January 7, 2013 and Addie was also eight years old. But my birthday is December 11 and my daughter’s is December 12. This means that we both chose to follow Jesus when we were the exact age. To the very day! This is no small thing. A precious detail in both of our stories to show that this was completely God’s timing and not my own. A gift from Him.

How in the world do you impart faith to your children?

I had long felt the pressure to lead Addie into that “sinner’s prayer”. But, I can’t make my children choose Jesus! All I could do was pray on my face for the salvation of my children and live and speak and love like Jesus. That is it.

God did everything in Addie’s life. He caused her heart to seek His. My boys will have a different experience that their sister’s. But God is able to reach them exactly as they understand and I will keep loving and praying for them. O what a holy calling to be a mother! And a discipline in self-control to let the Holy Spirit do His job.

On Pentecost Sunday two weeks ago now, we all watched as Addie Rose chose to tell the world that she has chosen Jesus over all other things. Through baptism. Buried with Christ in the likeness of his death, raised to walk in newness of life.

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When Is It Done?!

IMG_8376I had waited for the day of freedom. When Jason would be finished with paramedic school and clinicals and his National Registry exam. Finished with all of the work and the busy and the time-consuming activity spent somewhere else. When he would just be a firefighter with a one day on, two day off schedule. When he would be home and truly here; no more textbooks dictating the amount of time he could spend with all of us. We waited and persevered and found God faithful in the wait. And then as the final months broke down to weeks and then days, the hour of his exam was here and he passed! And we celebrated! And at last we were in our own home, with schooling behind us, and we were ready to just be and play and dream and figure out who we were after the messy three years of schooling and moving and waiting we had just emerged from.

But even as he was finishing, our van’s transmission was going out. And as soon as the National Registry was completed, Jason dove into car mechanics with the same fervency (even more so) as he had exhibited toward his paramedic studies. Not because he really wanted to spend all of his time rigging up engine braces made out of scrap lumber or traveling far and wide in search of used auto parts or schooling himself on transmission removal and a host of other pertinent information. No. He was motivated by a lack of money and the desire of having two working vehicles. He even went out to a Beaumont junkyard twice only to discover that the used transmissions they had sold us were defective. The first one we got was the wrong one and after returning it and picking up the second one, it wasn’t long before he figured out that that one, too, was bad. It seems like at every turn there have been roadblocks. And futility.

And so we came to the conclusion that he had to give up trying to fix the van and just settle for a cheap commuter car until we could save up enough money for something else. But when you settle for a cheap commuter, you usually settle for a car that needs a bit of work to get it going. And so we bought the 1996 Nisan Altima… The blueberry-colored one. The one that needs a new water pump. The one my husband, the car mechanic, is working on right now.

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And when you scrounge around for change to purchase auto parts and payday is tomorrow and there is not much food left in the pantry, that’s when snacks start to get creative. So I pour out the rest of an opened gluten free pizza mix and I add the remains of a gluten free pancake mix and I say, “Thaddaeus, we are going to make muffins.”

And my son wastes no time, but begins to drag the step-stool over to the counter. He grabs the milk out of the fridge and muscles it up next to the bowl I’ve just brought down from cupboards overhead. I crack eggs and add oil and milk and he stirs the mix happily as I oil the muffin tin. And then we fold in the frozen blueberries. I scoop out batter into the tins and he looks on hungrily. He licks the fork he had been mixing with. The oven is ready and I put the muffins in, set the timer and walk away.

“When is it done?” Thadd immediately asks. It hadn’t been in yet for even a minute.

“Twelve minutes, buddy. We just put them in.”

The blonde-headed four year-old has no concept of time. “I want them now!”

I turn on the oven light and he looks at the muffins, still gooey. “I can take them out and you can eat them if you’d like,” I offer. “But they will be all sticky. They are not done yet.”

He doesn’t want sticky muffins. He wants done muffins. Now. He has worked so hard pulling out ingredients and beating batter and dreaming about actually eating the muffins. And now to wait for them? This is more than he signed up for.

And that’s when I realize I am a lot like my son. Waiting makes no sense at all. Especially if what I am waiting for is something good like a chance to rest and breathe and spend time with family. Especially if we have already waited three years to get to this place. It’s not fair.

But wait we do. Whether we like it or not. Thaddaeus cries and complains and keeps a vigilant eye upon the muffins. But finally, twelve minutes come to an end. I, at long last, take the muffins out of the oven and they’ve changed! They are plump and golden and hot.

Another wait. For I make a cup of coffee. Muffins cool and Thadd jumps up and down. But as soon as I put the long-awaited muffin on his plate, all is well. He forgets the wait.

IMG_8393We take a cup of coffee and a steamy blueberry muffin out to the car mechanic. Big hands smeared with grime take the cup and plate carefully. He smiles and thanks us. I take a deep breath, go back inside and keep waiting.

Home, At Last!!!

IMG_8204We are home!  After 17 months living with extended family, 14 months studying for paramedic class, 5 attempts to purchasing houses vastly different from each other, and countless walks around the subdivision offering desperate tears to the God that continued to close doors, we were given the key to a beautiful home in Katy, TX.

Life is surreal.  I wake up in the morning and pour hot coffee and sit in my living room on a chair we bought from craigslist.  The one with the cat scratches.  I smile silly and just look up the stairs and wait as they come down with messy hair and morning breath.  Jeremiah, his red fleece blanket wrapped around him, descends slowly.  His eyes sparkle joy.  He crawls on my lap and snuggles.  He tries to suck his thumb without my noticing.

He takes it out just long enough to manage, “I love our house, Mommy.”  The thumb goes back in.

My smile is still plastered over my giddy face.  I bring my coffee cup carefully around him and set it up on the little bookcase Jason made a few years ago.  I kiss my son’s head.  “God gave you the desire of your heart, Jeremiah.”

He looks at me in question and I point up from where he has just come from.  And he understands slowly as a smile curls from around the thumb.  “Stairs!” he exclaims.

And we rejoice together as we sit there because stairs is a big thing.  A longing fulfilled.  Like drinking cool water in a desert.  No.  Rather like coming from the desert to the promised land.

 

The Pruning

Jason has these self-watering containers in the backyard where he plants tomato seedlings.  The second planting season in Houston is mid-September so he cut down the old Cherokee Purple and the Sugar Lump plants that were dying away, but he saved the very tops of them that were new growth, growing out of the old.  And he replanted them in the containers.  Just to see what would happen.

Two weeks later they were vibrant with growth, especially one of them.  The one in the blue container.  I would watch it every day as the days turned more bearable and you could enjoy sitting outside again, a cool breeze occasionally interrupting the warmth.  A few days later I noticed there were already yellow flowers throughout the tomato plant.  This plant was unbelievable.  Life was overtaking it and it was thriving.  I told Jason about the flowers, but he had already seen them.

“Wait.  What are you doing?” I asked in horror.  He was pinching the flowers off one by one.  The flowers that would turn into fruit.

He smiled at me and said, “This plant’s not ready for fruit yet.  If I don’t prune it, all the energy will go towards fruit and then the growth of the plant will become stunted.  The energy needs to go to the roots.  Let it build up the plant.  Then it will be ready after a while to produce fruit.  A lot of fruit.”

My frown slowly turned upward as the truth of the farmer’s words hit me.  Pruning to be more fruitful.  Where had I heard that before?

I remember having a phone conversation with my dear friend Ruth several years ago.  I was in the kitchen on my cell phone amid dirty sippy cups and sticky countertops, stealing a bit of time away during a baby’s nap.  And I was relaying to her my earnest desire to serve the Lord in ministry.  How it seemed like all of my Bible college friends were just passing us by and doing incredible things for God.  And here I was, a Carpenter’s wife having a kid every two years.  Not that I discounted the ministry of motherhood.  I just sensed there was more that I was made for.  This calling of a life of being poured out doing something big.

“Maybe you’re not ready yet,” Ruth said to me.

I had opened my mouth, but couldn’t say anything to that.  I had sometimes feared that I had missed God’s call upon my life.  But the thought of not being ready for the call was something entirely different than missing it all together.  I thought I was ready.  Why wouldn’t I be?  I’ve been to Bible school, grew up on the mission field, loved Jesus for as long as I can remember.  Not ready yet?  But then did I really have the right to determine my own readiness?

A month later I look at that same, pruned Sugar Lump tomato plant in the blue container.  And it towers over the other plants in the Autumn garden.  And it is heavy as can be with abundant fruit.