Advent | Celebrations and Stones

This time of the year is possibly my favorite. Admittedly, I love this whole season, from Thanksgiving to the New Year and experience what some might term a childish excitement as the festivities begin to take place. So many of my fondest memories take place in the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so many of my favorite family times have been interwoven with the traditions and customs that became part of the fabric of my family. Even though the world around us goes crazy with all the frivolous and self-centered consumerism that has become the unfortunate hallmark of the American Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season, there is so much to embrace and to firmly fix in our lives. We set aside a day to remember God’s goodness and thank Him for His blessings, and then we intentionally fix our eyes on the hope, love, joy, and peace that the Advent season remembers.

In a culture that increasingly tries to erase all evidence of the Christian faith from public expressions during these historically overtly Christian holidays, I think it is more important than ever that families rally themselves around traditions that draw their eyes Heavenward.

I think of the traditions my family had growing up…We had our big family Thanksgiving, usually shared with someone from our church, and in the next few days afterwards, we would usher in the Advent season by putting up our tree. Out would come all the old decorations, the lights, and the treasured Advent books we would read year after year as a family. I think of the Christmas programs at church, the traditional songs and hymns, the somber and joyful candlelight services we would attend at my grandparents church, The Little White Church in Hill City. I think of our Christmas morning Bible reading, reading through Luke’s account of the birth of Christ.

Unfortunately, America in general but even many branches of the Protestant church have either given up on Christian tradition altogether, or given up on fully appreciating and applying the traditions of the past. In the culture at large, I think it is pretty obvious why…The “old ways” have been systematically devalued and the church and expressions of faith have been essentially removed from the culture. For two religious holidays, what’s left for a culture that hates God? Nothing, really.

In the church, though, this forsaking of tradition is more complicated. It is sad to me that a lot of people find the Christmas season just another part of the year, the traditions are just kind of boring and old hat, and there’s sort of a collective eye-roll at the traditional Christmas hymns. One facet, I think, is a rather poorly-reasoned idea that too much tradition and it might become meaningless and rote.

What a loss of such a gift! How silly, to avoid a good thing because it might become less than what it should be. And can’t we having meaninglessness and roteness just as easily without our “traditional practices?” Maybe we should work on our heart attitudes instead.

Traditions of the faith join us with other Christians across the globe, through the centuries and millennia even, since we don’t just find our spiritual origin in the Christ of Christmas, but in God’s covenants with the Nation of Israel, thousands of years ago. I look at how God’s people committed His works to their memory for future generations, two big ways come to mind: Celebration and stones. Feasts and monuments.

When the Israelites were instructed on the keeping of the Passover Feast after God’s delivered them from Egypt, this was why:

And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 12:26-27)

And when years later the Israelites were under the command of Joshua, God brought them over the River Jordan, rolling back the flood-swollen river waters so that the whole nation could cross in safety. Joshua, instructed by God, directed the Israelites to take twelve stones out of the riverbed of the Jordan as they crossed over and to construct a memorial, so future generations might not forget the Lord’s power and His goodness.

And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’  then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’  For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” (Joshua 4:20-24)

Christmas and the Advent season should be a time of celebration for the Christian. A time when we can proclaim the joy we have in Christ to a world walking in darkness. And a half-hearted participation hardly communicates joy. So set up your family monuments to the goodness of God and celebrate with friends and family. Celebrate Advent. Find a live Nativity to attend. Cultivate traditions in your family. Set up your cherished Creche and ponder its significance. Sing the old songs and really taste the words. Don’t just “make memories” for the sake of the memories, but counteract the temptation to be passive at this time of year and make memories to the glory of God!

We need our celebrations and we need our stones. Celebrations to bring us into a heart-posture of thanks and praise to God, and stones to be a visual reminder of Who it is we celebrate.

Advent | The Hope Candle

Yesterday marked the first Sunday of the Advent season. Christians across the globe and through the years have observed this period of time leading up to Christmas, and I love joining together with them to prepare my heart for a proper celebration of the coming of the Baby Jesus two thousand years ago in a stable in a little-known town called Bethlehem.

I love Advent. When I was a child and a teenager, my family enjoyed observing Advent with various family devotions, the lighting of the candles, Advent calendars, and a series of family devotional books by Arnold Ytreeide, beginning with Jotham’s Journey, and over the years reading Tabitha’s Travels, and Bartholomew’s Passage. Far from being meaningless, or silly, or frivolous, the yearly observance touched my heart and drew us closer as a family to each other and to our Savior.

Last Christmas, Brad and I read an Advent book together in December, and this year we are continuing our tradition as husband and wife. Brad made me a beautiful and simple – just what I love – candle holder out of a length of weathered lumber from when the power company replaced the power lines. It is a section of one of the square-cut cross pieces, and is the same wood my father-in-law used to build the cross that served as the backdrop for our wedding. Yesterday evening, we lit the first candle – the Hope Candle.

Hope.

What a misunderstood word.

What a beautiful word.

Hope is something everyone could use right now.

“I sure hope so.” We’ve all heard someone growl those words almost as a veiled sort of threat, or maybe we’ve uttered them that way ourselves. We’ve heard those words spoken wistfully, or with ironic hopelessness. Looking around at the culture, at so many people I know, at the job field I used to work in, I see a world rife with hopelessness.

People need hope. I need hope.

I look around and see war, death, pain, suffering. I see a culture that has turned its back on God and His Law, I see rampant immorality and acceptance of things that would have been considered wrong even just a few years ago. I see illnesses that even the most elite scientists can’t figure out how to cure. I see the butchering of children in the womb, the desecrating of the beauty of marriage, the destruction of countless innocent lives for the greedy schemes of the very people who should be the protectors, the guardians. People running to drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, anything that can numb the pain of meaninglessness. Because without Biblical hope…life truly is meaningless.

Over the years, I’ve heard pastors talk about how Biblical hope is so contrary to how we so often use the word. Biblical hope is not an “I hope so” sort of hope. It is a confident expectation.

Which immediately begs the question…Where does our hope come from and for what are we hoping?

Hope without something or Someone to hope in is meaningless.

The Psalms are full to bursting with verses reminding us of where our hope is found, and in Whom we can have that confident expectation.

Lamentations 3: 24-25 reads:

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,     “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him,     to the soul who seeks him.

And 1 Peter 1: 3-4 rejoices:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope though the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in Heaven for you.

We hope in God. We confidently look to Jesus’s perfect life and death as the means to being forgiven, justified before God. We look forward to an eternal easing of suffering, we confidently wait for the day when the difficulties of this life will be comforted. We hope in our Savior, the God-Man Christ Jesus. The Jews waited for His coming, hoped in the promises of a faithful Heavenly Father, fulfilled two thousand years ago, and we remember that coming and now we wait for His Second Coming, when “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

And it just gets better. Revelation 22 reads:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place. And behold, I am coming soon.”

That, friends, is our hope. Jesus is coming soon. We enjoy this Advent seasons, reveling in God’s plan brought about in the person of Christ, born as a Baby in a manger in Bethlehem, but without the future hope, that living hope, that hope of something more, this season is meaningless. The Baby Jesus means nothing without the hope that comes from Jesus’s death and resurrection. And His death and resurrection mean nothing to us if there isn’t the hope of a future resurrection.

Hope. What a beautiful word.

When You Can’t Find the Words

Oh my goodness. Where to even start. I baked pies this week for Rainbow Bible Ranch’s pie auction last night, and of course was thinking back to the pies I baked last year for the same pie auction. So then of course I was thinking about just how much can change in a year. I have so many different thoughts I wanted to express today rattling around inside my little mind, thoughts of thankfulness, thankfulness for the blessings I’m reveling in, reflections on this season, reflections on the coming holidays, reflections on beauty and contentment and industriousness and home. But sometimes the words don’t come like I want them to and I muddle and puzzle and end up not saying anything at all. So sometimes it really is just necessary to write and see what happens.

A year ago, I graduated from the fire academy at Rapid City Fire Department. Like always, I got up early and then drove to Rapid City Fire Department Station 1, where I and the rest of the recruits did our graduation run in the morning, and then had an hour or two to get cleaned up and dressed for the graduation ceremony at the Civic Center. Brad and my folks attended, and Brad pinned my badge on me.

It was a weird feeling, going through all of that for a job I knew in my heart would be short lived if Brad and I were to get married. We were not yet engaged (he asked my dad’s permission Thanksgiving Day last year and asked me to marry him a week later!), and I was exhausted from academy and rather dreading going back to my regular shift, up to my ears in a job I realized was 100% incompatible with being a wife, or at least being the kind of Biblically-patterned wife I desired to be. I was wrung out and worn out. But I also knew that God was doing something, and although I wasn’t sure of His timing, I knew I could trust in His goodness. And I knew His hand was in Brad’s and my relationship.

I don’t have a feminist bone in my body. I had nothing to prove when I got on the fire department. I had no agenda. As a single gal at the time, it was a good job, in many ways a fun job, and was very compatible with my single life. But there is a reason certain jobs have a higher percentage of men than women, and no, it isn’t because men have it out for women. It is because it is much harder for women than men to successfully do certain jobs, whether it is for physical or emotional/mental reasons. And that isn’t anything for women to be ashamed of. It didn’t take long dating that tall, lean rancher to realize that not only was firefighter-paramedic not a job I saw as compatible with being a wife, but I had absolutely no desire to try to “make it work,” living this weird split existence as a tough paramedic one day dealing with drunks and drug addicts and mangled bodies and people trying to kill themselves and each other (too often successfully), and then the next being the kind of nurturing, gentle, home-oriented wife I so desired (and still desire) to be. God’s design is beautiful, and I didn’t want something as meaningless as a career to damage or warp that design.

After the graduation, Brad and I went back to his house and baked a couple of pies for the yearly pie auction at Rainbow Bible Ranch. Two peach raspberry pies. The auction was delightful and that recipe has become a favorite of mine.

Last night, we attended again, this time as husband and wife. How much can change in the short span of one year.

A year ago I was tired and struggling. This year, I am busier than I’ve ever been, and yet still I feel rested, and healthy, and whole. God has given me a life I dreamed of in my heart of hearts, married to the man I never thought I’d find, surrounded by so many things that bring me so much joy and give life so much meaning. My husband, my family, his family, meaningful work as a wife supporting my husband in his endeavors (which make them our endeavors!), projects galore, ten piano students, photography clients, and all the little things that come up that just keep things interesting. My cats and my chickens never fail to bring a smile to my face, and I love having abundance to share with others, whether it is eggs, or produce from the garden, or meat from our own cow herd, or a home-cooked meal. Or pies for a pie auction.

This wasn’t the streamlined, well-thought-out post I would have liked to have shared. But I wanted to share it. Because I am thankful. I have seen and lived how God provides what we need when we need it, and how He ordains and allows those circumstances that grow us, even if all those circumstances do is grow us in our trust of Him. I can look back just a year and see that, plain as plain.

God is good. And even when I can’t find all the words I want, at least I can say that.

November Graces

Birthdays for me used to come and go with something of a sense of regret. Not that I wasn’t thankful for yet another year, or for the people around me, or for the life God has given me. But birthdays were a bittersweet affair, usually a little more bitter than sweet, with a sense of regret at having not accomplished more in the past year. A sense of loneliness, I’m sure. A sense of uncertainty looking into the next year, and the vulnerability that came with being a single woman in my late twenties and then early thirties. A sense of there being something missing, but not really sure what it was.

A year ago today, I would have headed to work around 6 am, stopped for coffee with Brad at the end of his driveway, and spent the day in the thick of fire academy, doing burpees and running miles and dragging hose and bailing out of windows. I would have joined Brad for supper at the end of a very long day, exhausted in more ways than one. He surprised me with our first candle light meal and a space heater for my bedroom. That might not seem like a very romantic gift, but I can’t tell you the difference it made in my sleep! It was a delightful evening, and when I looked at the man sitting next to me, I knew exactly who I wanted to be. I knew I had found my missing puzzle piece, in the form of a good man to love and by whom to be loved. I just didn’t know when, and the job that had provided a level of satisfaction, the challenge that I desired, and the camaraderie of the fire service was becoming a lead weight in my heart.

This year, this day, couldn’t be any more different than last year. It really seems that all the years of waiting, of growing in my trust of God and my contentment in life, all have culminated in the blessings that God has just showered on me in this last year, and which are just flooding to mind today. What a year it has been! The uncertainty I felt a year ago, the sense of being misplaced every time I went to work, the anxiousness I fought, all have melted away as God has answered prayer after prayer over this last year. I told Brad yesterday that I’ve never felt so at peace or such a sense of belonging. I firmly believe this is exactly where God wants me to be. What a joy!

And what a picture perfect day. Waking up to my best friend is one of life’s simplest, sweetest joys, and then he brought me breakfast in bed and we spent the morning gathering cows in some beautiful country. I enjoyed my cats and my chickens, a long walk in one of the last of our 70-something degree days, birthday wishes from so many people God has blessed me with, and a steak supper. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

So as I embark on my 33rd year, I’m just so thankful for God’s faithfulness, and the ways it has been demonstrated so incredibly over the last year. What a beautiful, wonderful year. What a beautiful day.

Those Things That Last

Out in the middle of our yard is a beautiful, enormous lilac bush. In the spring, it is laden with the most fragrant, plentiful blossoms ever seen. Out in the middle of the ranch on top of a hill, a tad scraggly but still blooming vigorously after decades and maybe a century, is another couple of lilac bushes, the parent bushes of the one in our yard. There is nothing left of the homestead on the hill, just those few ancient lilacs and a patch of irises.

There is just something about old things that tugs at my heart, any old things, but especially those things that connect me to my family’s past and to my heritage (or to my husband’s family and his heritage). Heirlooms, some people might call them, although that might be too lofty a word. Old books. Worn-out hymnals. Old Mason jars. A box of my Grandma’s recipe cards with her scrawling cursive. My Grandpa’s old Merck veterinary manuals and his rifle that he brought back from World War II. Saddles and spurs with a story attached to them. Quilts pieced by hand. Even stretches of fence, miles long, mended dozens and hundreds of times over the decades.

We live in a day and age of the new, where the old isn’t really even talked of. Long-term has been replaced by short-term, both in our looking back and looking ahead. People are so set on living in the moment and sowing their wild oats that they aren’t tending the gardens of their future.

Quality has been replaced by mediocrity and cheap affluence. How many oil lamps and old vases and clocks and well-made furniture survive from previous generations because of the quality of the craftsmanship? But now we live in a day and age of cheap plenty and instant gratification, stuff designed to satisfy for a week and break in a year. People prefer multiple mediocre things to one quality thing that will last for years or decades. People prefer a closet full of cheap clothing to a small handful of well-made clothes. But it isn’t just in the physical realm that this invades, but the relational as well…People seem to prefer their five hundred Facebook friends to having five solid and real relationships that will last.

Tangible has been replaced by digital. The lastingness of hardcover books has been replaced by digital books. The tangibleness of written cards and letters has been replaced by text messages and emails. Physical photographs have been replaced by digital images stored on a phone or computer. Boxes of loved recipe cards with the handwriting of a dozen different women, or cookbooks with worn covers and pages littered with notes and smudges from batter and butter have all been replaced by Pinterest boards of recipes, or a hasty Google search for ideas. Personal Bibles with fingerprints, underlining, and highlighting have been replaced by Bible apps on phones.

What a loss. Truly, what a loss.

I don’t think people now experience the joy of thinking about what sort of “paper trail” they’ll leave behind for the next generation, or if they will even leave one. If your whole life is digital, will you even leave a paper trail? If you indulge in cheap affluence now, will your children or grandchildren have any relics to treasure? I don’t want to be trapped in a lifestyle of convenient plenty, of cheap bounty, of frivolous multiples. I don’t want to see actions today as having no connection to the future, or the past.

I want to do things with a sense of permanence, a sense of joy that washes into the future. It takes intentionality.

Instead of cut flowers that fade in a week, gift someone a potted plant that could flourish for years with the proper care. Instead of annuals, plant perennials. Instead of a Kindle book, go to a used bookstore and find a loved hardcover book and grow your own collection of heirloom literature. Read and old book and savor the smell of it. Write a letter and send it by mail. Dig in the dirt. Plant trees. Cook a real meal. Write down your recipes, and share them with people. Take pictures and print them. Go on a long walk with a friend and just talk, no agenda. Set aside the digital world and live in the real one, the one we can taste and feel and smell and hear.

Take joy in those things that last.

Today’s Trouble, Today’s Joy

Since getting married and leaving my fulltime job as a paramedic and becoming a fulltime wife, I have found my days to be fuller than they ever used to be, busier, richer, and amazingly productive. It is a largely unplanned sort of busyness. Oftentimes it is a busyness brought about by what to other people might be considered inconveniences. It isn’t the kind of productive that puts dollars in the bank, but rather the kind of productive that leads to a happy marriage, healthy relationships, a clean and welcoming and beautified home, a vibrant church and community life, a productive little homestead, and plenty to share with family and friends. It is the kind of productive that leads to life, truly living and experiencing and feeling and tasting and cultivating and nurturing and creating and being.

One of the most beautiful passages of the New Testament is from Matthew 6:25-34, in which Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount spells out the cure for worry. He admonishes His listeners against the futility of worrying. What does worry accomplish for you? You work yourself to death trying to secure your future, but can you really change tomorrow? Do you trust God to provide? Can you make your life longer by worrying? Can you even add an hour to your existence? He reminds His hearers of God’s provision. God clothes the lilies and God feeds the birds. They don’t toil, and yet He provides. It really is a beautiful passage. Jesus concludes this admonition with this well-known statement: “Sufficient for the day is its own troubles.”

How true that is! But I would also say that sufficient for the day are its own joys. In fact, I would actually say that those troubles are often its joy. Trouble and joy are twins.

I think people miss out on a lot of joy because they are trying to stave off trouble (think inconvenience, nuisance, discomfort, changes in plans, something unwanted happening, etc.), or they are trying to manipulate their way into joy without any associated “trouble”. It strikes me that those “troubles” which to a self-occupied or career-centric person would be a nuisance or would be impossible demands to meet (such as one’s day getting turned topsy-turvy by someone else’s needs), those “troubles,” to a person whose life is shaped by spouse, family, and community, are also that person’s joys.

We wake up in the morning and make a plan, and give our attention to what is required of us today. Not tomorrow, not next week, but today. Obviously we have things on our schedule, weeks in advance, but the real question isn’t how best to use my time tomorrow, but how best to use my time today. Who or what needs my attention today? What joy there is in being able to live with an emphasis on those daily tasks that give life shape and meaning, allowing for the flexibility to meet spontaneous demands on my time, building those ties with my spouse, my family, and my community. Maybe it is going with my husband to find those cows that crawled into a neighbor’s pasture. Maybe it is helping with errands or being available to help with babysitting. It might be a spur of the moment picking fruit with my father-in-law, or canning tomatoes. Or jumping into our little fire rig and going to a grassfire across the highway with my husband. Or helping a neighbor work cows. Or a walk with my mom. Or helping shuttle my husband from the stack yards out in the hayfield up to the house after a load of hay was delivered. Or spontaneous coffee with my mother-in-law when taking her a couple dozen eggs on my way into town. Or doctoring an injured or sick animal, a process that always takes longer than anticipated.

We run into trouble when we spend so much time focusing on tomorrow’s troubles and trying to manipulate tomorrow’s joys that we don’t or can’t even experience what is right in front of us.

So I thank God for today’s troubles, and all of its joys.