Friday, December 24, 2010

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

A month ago, I saw a Gospel sign that made me stop longer than necessary at the intersection and stare at it. I almost took back everything I've ever said about Gospel signs. I almost cried at the warm wind of change from the usual portrayal of God as a god who threatens and frightens people into a relationship with Him. This is what it said:

The almighty God was born a baby, grew up in a poor town, and became a homeless healer. God stood at the foot of a sycamore, looked up at cheating, lying, thieving Zacchaeus and didn't proclaim his faults to the crowd or command Zacchaeus to fall at His feet and confess. Instead, He said, "I'm going to have lunch with you." He dignified Zacchaeus in front of the very people who had reason to hate him. He loved him. And that's what made Zacchaeus right his wrongs and give half of his assets to the poor. 

I suspect it is because we are created in the image of the One who is Love that we respond best to love. He knows us well enough to know that love is the only thing that can really heal and change us. That's why He came to be like us, to speak with lips like ours, so that we can't escape the Good News.

We are seen. We are loved. We are not alone.

Merry Christmas, everyone! I wish you all a day of celebration, peace, deep joy, and awe at the gift of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bits of Festivity

Advent is nearing its end.
The waiting and preparations are almost over.
I still have some baking to do, but everything else is ready.
The gifts are wrapped and ribboned.
Place de la Concorde (a.k.a., our house) has been ready and waiting for almost a month.
Every celebration necessitates a prepared venue, and Jesus's birthday is no exception.
I'm human. I need symbolism and tangible reminders.
Preparing our house... and living in a prepared house... shape my experience and my heart almost as much as giving gifts.
But the blatant materialism and commercial bowing to the almighty dollar leave a metallic taste in my mouth,
not to mention huge heaps in our landfills.
So I try to
use things I have,
use nothing artificial that should be real,
be creative in using things that are as free as the air.

Here's a festive tour of Place de la Concorde:

Amanda made this swag from tree-trimmings and hung it on our front door.

Our first Christmas tree as a household. We named him Joshua... for two reasons. One, in honor of the boy named Yeshua whose birth brought everlasting hope to the world. Two... well, a certain band produced a certain great album named Joshua Tree...

Our Joshua tree has quite a story. We three shivered through the cold, looking at tree after tree. Finally we picked one up and lugged it with us. Then we saw Joshua, looking as though he knew we'd come. We set the other tree smartly on its stump and struggled with Joshua to our mode of transportation - my car. Ebony's pain job isn't the greatest, so I didn't mind if Joshua scratched her a little when we tied him on the roof. What else do you do when you don't have a truck? That was my reasoning. Bekah said she felt she had no pride left. Manda kept saying we were crazy. But people in other cars kept pulling alongside us at stoplights, laughing, and giving thumbs-up to the great green thing that dangled its head over the windshield.
I bet Joshua never dreamed he'd make so many people smile.

We each got a special ornament to mark the year. The peace dove is mine...

I'm sure the star that guided the wise men was unparalleled in beauty,
but I think ours is a pretty good replica.

My nativity set has survived three years of active admiration by second-graders and is very happy to be repaired, reassembled, and surrounded by green tree-trimmings. I talked about this scene last post, so I won't elaborate more than to say that some of the moments of  deepest worship and awe I've experienced this season have occurred while watching this Nativity in the soft lights Joshua bears.

These fat birds are so endearing. At least, I think they are. Opinions are always subject to diversity.

When I was teaching school, I used gift money from my kids to buy this set of angels... and they've become sort of a Christmas tradition for me. I love unpacking them and smiling at the gift each one bears. This year, they grace our table with their presence.


Bekah's mom got a bag of the pine cones in South Carolina and gave them to us. They're huge and so perfect.

Even our chalkboard was festive for a while. At the moment, she bears a reminder of upcoming bills. A chalkboard of many personalities she is.

JoAnn Fabrics had these letters on sale. And (of course) I had a coupon, so I paid fifty cents a piece. The greens I clipped off a bush in our yard. This is the view while washing dishes.

Greens from a bush, a pine cone from Laurie, and cookie-cutters we already had...
Free decor + fresh decor = good decor, in my book.

I updated the coal scuttle and branches outside the back door with bush-greens, pine cones, and ribbon and lights I already had.

Our decor might not compare to this beautiful home, but I'm content. It's simple. Comfortable. It fits us.

The guests we've had seem to like it, too.

Speaking of guests... my family hopes to come visit me next week! Some of them have never been here, and I've missed them terribly.

I have to work Christmas morning, so going there isn't possible. I felt rather melancholy about working, then coming home to an empty house when my friends have gone to their families... until I became ashamed of myself. Some of my kids can't go home for Christmas and one has no home. It's OK for me to have to work. I'm planning a Christmas morning surprise for them. That makes me so excited, I feel like a kid on, well, Christmas morning.

At least I have family. And I will get to spend time with them and watch my sisters' faces as they open their gifts from me. Besides, isn't sacrifice what Christmas is all about?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beautiful Thorns

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. 
Jeremiah 23:5

We decorated for Christmas early this year, but I still haven't tired of the bits of festivity tucked around the house. In fact, I'm sitting on the couch at the moment, watching my Nativity set as if I expect the shepherd to gasp in wonder. It's a riveting, peaceful scene... the stable and inhabitants surrounded by evergreen branches and flanked by a candle. The tallest wise man's head no longer lands in the greens at his feet without warning, but the donkey is facing the wrong way and the shepherd is just slightly leaning. I must not have visited the stable since the last time little visitors did. 

One of my earliest Christmas memories is opening little cardboard windows in an Advent calender Mom put up every year. The scene on the calendar depicted the Nativity. It was beautiful and mystical to my young eyes, all the animals gazing with wide, soft eyes at the clean, peaceful baby sleeping in glowing hay. And the barn was as clean as a Marriott. I especially remember the face of the cow - eloquent, docile, and radiant with benevolence. Idealistic, sentimental me loved that cozy scene.

After a few years, that glowy feeling was threatened by a manger in someone's yard. A cross hovered over it, casting a long shadow. I hated it. I just wanted to focus on the holly-berry feeling of Jesus as an adorable baby, surrounded by shepherds, angels, Joseph, and Mary... and that benevolent cow. When Good Friday came, I'd deal with Jesus' suffering. At the moment, I wanted to be innocent. 

But not all cows are benevolent. Some, like the one who stepped and pivoted on my foot, are oblivious to the knowledge of their sheer mass and the cracking of bones in a small thing under their hoof... Oblivious, in fact, to anything outside their chewing mouths. Some are downright MALEVOLENT, like the one who, without any provocation, threw her weight on me, crushing me between her settling bulk and the stanchion bar until I could barely gasp for air. Don't get me wrong. I love cows and have many memories of leaning my head against sleek, warm sides on cold mornings. Most of my cows had large, deep, liquid eyes and loved to be scratched around their horns. But not all cows are like that. If cows did indeed witness Jesus' birth, some might have kept their heads buried in their mangers. Some might have had to be shooed away to prevent their hurting the little King. And no barn (no matter how attentive the farmer) is ever clean. Half an hour after a stall is mucked out, it's duly re-baptized. True story. Babies are not born plump and clean, either. 

Despite how much we romanticize the story of His coming, Jesus' birth was messy - just like His death. Dirt, pain, blood, and tears characterized both. Contrary to how I felt at age five, the kinship of the two happenings does not tarnish either. He came to suffer... like and for us. That is WHY His birth is so beautiful.

Entering into pain is HOW He brings justice to suffering people. Doesn't He call us to do the same?

One of my favorite examples of justice being done for the oppressed occurred during Hitler's ethnic cleansing endeavor. I couldn't find dates and places for this story, so I'll just try to relate it as I heard it recorded by an eye-witness.


A modest town populated by people of modest means was disrupted by the entry and occupation of Nazi soldiers. Gradually, the townspeople grew to accept their presence and went about their days as normally as possible.

A priest also lived in this town, a personage of fearsome proportions to the then-small narrator. He towered above most men. His frame was large, but he was thin. Dark robes hung from his wide shoulders, cavernous against his thin sides. His eyes, set deep above marked cheekbones, burned with such intensity that they seemed to penetrate one's very thoughts.

The soldiers' activities grew increasingly bizarre until, one day, the small boy stood on the sidewalk and watched as soldiers, heavily armed, marched down the street, herding Jewish people into a small pen. An enclosed truck stood waiting nearby. The pen became more and more crowded with quietly terrified families. Passers-by averted their eyes and scuttled fearfully past. 

News must have reached the large ears of the priest. Down the sidewalk he marched with long, angry steps. Without words and without fear, the priest confronted the soldiers guarding the entrance of the pen. Eyes blazing, he pushed the guards and their guns aside and stepped into the enclosure. Inside, he turned and fixed those eyes momentarily on the eyes of each guard. 

"If you take them, you must take me. They are my Brothers and Sisters."

Stunned, the guards looked from the priest to the faces of the people with whom he stood to the eyes of the people who had finally stopped walking and really looked. 

Maybe for the first time, those soldiers really looked, too. And they were embarrassed at what they saw. Something about the priest's willingness to claim the suffering of others as his own so moved them that they stepped back. They broke orders, forfeiting their own lives.

"Go," they commanded the captives. "Quickly! Hide. And then get out of town."

Justice was executed in the earth. 

And thorns do not ruin a picture.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Wondering around Town (and thoughts on Advent)

I wonder... where does time go? 
Now is now, and it's easy to accept it soon being yesterday. Perhaps someday today's now will be a long time ago, but not for many misty years. So we think. My sister Candace spent a week with me. During the 5.5 hour drive from Lancaster, she wanted to log some driving time for her license. It's a strange feeling, this flying down the road while telling the person behind the wheel stories of when they were born.

When began a snowfall of epic proportions, Candace and I went wandering around town, wondering at how all my favorite haunts were being transformed. I love the first snow, the dusty glitter that sticks to every intricate detail. 

Christmas trees for sale along Market St.

I love this town's shabby grandeur...
And the fact that it's home to the best coffee shop ever.

Reading a book while drinking phenomenal coffee... surrounded by art and the warmth of human company... thinking to the beat of live music by local musicians... it feeds the soul, I'm telling you.

This church reminds me of a stately woman, beautiful and awe-inspiring, no matter what the season.

This church, I'm convinced, burst from the ground of its own accord, having been erected by fauns in Narnia.

I wonder what it is about bare branches... especially when all the tiny twigs are highlighted with snow. I wonder if there is a scientific explanation to how staring at them seems to hit "reset" on a hurried me.

See what I mean? Market House is even more inviting 
under that lithe, living lace.

I used to imagine that little gnomes in pointy caps with bells on the tips of their pointy shoes made icicles with their shiny ice-picks. 
I still like to wonder if I was right.

I wonder how the leaves that remain on trees feel at the coming of snow. Are they triumphant at having remained tenacious, or do they mourn being unable to lie at rest on the ground, being silently blanketed to sleep? 

When awe leaves me wordless, I resort to quotes. Lately I've been pondering this one by C.S. Lewis:

"We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with God. God walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."

With Advent underway, I've been thinking a lot about hope.

Like the generations who waited for the Messiah's arrival, 
we wait for Him to come again. 

We wait for many things, and hope enables us to really live in the waiting.

Hope is not a blissful denial of the present, eyes fixated on an expected end. It is an embracing of the reality of today's messiness while expecting a brighter tomorrow. 

We shrink from pain and bleakness, but in estranging our hearts from walking their valleys we forfeit the full ecstasy of our hopes realized.

Whether in the Advent story or in this chapter of our lives, we need not rush too fast to the end, where everything is resolved. Beauty can be found in dissonance. Embrace it with this reassurance: we are not here alone.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Tale of the Great Snow

Once upon a time, in a darling house in a darling town, 
there lived three girls. 
The girls loved all seasons, but could not wait until winter.
"Because," they said, "what is more enchanting than snow?"

Finally, winter came.
Snow began to fall, sifting silently from the sky.
The sky was white and low, the air was thick with snowflakes, 
and the ground grew as white and clean as a new handkerchief. 

The snow poured down for a whole week, piling higher

and higher.

It blanketed their roof.

It buried their porch.

It covered their flowerbeds.

It made their driveway disappear.

For several days, the girls dug out their cars with their hands and feet 
when they went to work 
and plowed into the snow as best as their cars could when they came home...

...because, you see, they had no snow shovel.

Finally, the day came when the snow was too deep to plow into with their cars.
They went to the store to buy a shovel.

When they got home, they could not park in the driveway.
They could not park on the road.
The snowplows would hit their cars.

And then the girls had an idea.
A terribly wonderful idea.

The neighbor man wasn't home.
He hadn't been, for weeks and weeks.
He wouldn't be back for more weeks and weeks.
His friend keept his driveway open, but they did not know why. 
No one ever used it.

"We can park in his driveway!" they said.
Just for a few hours, until we can park in ours.
And so they did.

They went into the house to warm themselves and change into 
Snow-Shoveling Clothes.
When they came back outside, this is what they saw.

Signs! Two signs.
One in front of each car.

"This is not good!" the girls declared (once they had stopped laughing).
"We do not want to bother our neighbor's friend!"

So they started shoveling, and guess what they found?

Their driveway was still there, under all that snow!

And so, they put their cars where they belonged.
Ebony (which was Becca's car) was very relieved to be where she belonged. 

But already the snow had begun to cover her again.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Art & Lisa [iii]

I don't pretend to be of remotely the same caliber as Daryl Musser Photography, the pro photographers at Art & Lisa's wedding. But I had so much fun that I bet the sun was jealous. Candid photography is exquisite because I get to follow my friends around all day, seeing, capturing, and being a part of almost everything. It's a fun challenge to look for angles and moments not being caught by the first shooters and documenting things as I see them without the pressure of trying to be perfect. :)

Just a little FYI, if you're getting married and looking for a photographer, I highly recommend Daryl Musser and his wife. I've followed their blog and admired their work for years, but neither their blog nor their facebook page wholly conveys the joy of working with them. They were professional and helpful, humble and admiring, funny and warmly human. I was especially impressed with their sensitivity to the bride and groom's relationship dynamic... they were all about capturing who Art and Lisa ARE.

Aaaand, here is the final run-down of a few of my favorite shots:

A little quiet interaction between poses...

Lisa's brother-in-law, Stephen, was holding the light screen one moment and the next...
My, my! What big EARS you have!

Another angle of a shot the Mussers' were taking...

Soon before the guests arrived at the church, Art was spotted wandering about with Lisa's bouquet, looking rather pleased with himself...

Pillar candles, red ribbon, and a mirror made a simple, beautiful bridal table. The smoothies were courtesy of Lisa's superbridesmaid friend, Susan, who whipped them up sometime between the ceremony and reception.

The photo table also had objects Art and Lisa had saved during significant moments in their story. A few I recognized and laughed at how much proverbial water has gone under the proverbial bridge. For instance, the jar of maple syrup I bought at Market House for Lisa when we were both at FB... a token of an inside joke involving her sappiness. :)

While waiting to enter the reception, Art was sitting in a very typical attitude. He saw me coming with the camera and said, "Yup, my job is done now." :)

Happily ever-after, Art and Lisa. I love you guys.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Art & Lisa [ii]

Lisa is one of those rare people who is completely at home in her own skin. She's always been one of my go-to friends, the kind that you call when you just feel mixed-up and lost and need to be told you're alright. And that you can be comfortable in your skin, too. 

In our five years of being friends, we've talked a mad lot. Identity, self-worth, theology, and the persecuted church. And guys. Shocking, I know. ;) In five years, we've both been asked by guys to whom we couldn't say "yes" and not asked by guys to whom we wouldn't have said "no". I still haven't figured out which is worse, but I know for a fact that Lisa's stuffed bear may have saved my hands a terrible fate. When I'd start pounding the floor, she'd throw me the bear. "Pound him; he's USED to it!" 

Art just is the "big brother" type of guy that would tell me, "You're thinking too hard. Stop it; you're going to hurt yourself." :)

They both care hugely about other people.

Together, they're an amazing couple. Who but Art and Lisa would spend their Valentine's date delivering roses to their single friends? 

Their wedding was just like them.

When Art gave his speech, he said that no person, no couple, is self-made. He said they are grateful for all the people who love them, and we all clapped because we all knew that the same was true about them... that even their wedding day was all about being with the people they love.

Mine was the honor of being candid photographer. Here are a few glimpses:

The church. Lisa liked it because the sanctuary was short and wide. The benches hugged the altar, so everyone could be fairly close to them.

Lisa's family is the close, loyal sort. The grandchildren are universally adored. When Kendall and Ginger arrived at the rehearsal with their mini crowd, this little guy steamed across the floor to Lisa with his arms outstretched like wings.

He must have been able to release her at some point, because here is the same guy with his grandpa who's talking to Art's youngest brother.

Their new Uncle Art is somewhat of a natural himself.

This shot is blurry because I tried to shoot without flash, but I love it. During the prayer that commenced rehearsal, Lisa's nephew looks a bit protective. And loved. 

The lighting in the sanctuary was far less than ideal, but a lot of you have said you want to see shots of the families, so here goes. :) 

Art and his parents.

Art and Lisa's parents.

How is it possible that I know so many talented people? The vocalists were phenomenal. Even during rehearsal, the music melted your insides and made you want to take off your shoes.

The bridal party's posture eeks out some of the reverence and sheer beauty of the music at that moment.

They didn't want to "practice" their vows. The words were tucked away and kept for the next day. Instead, they ad-libbed creative substitutes. 

A happy, hand-swinging recessional. :)

The morning of the wedding was clear and frosty.

Both of them were so real, so relaxed, so present. They felt every moment without thought of the next.

The sufficiently dashing bridal party.

Art got a gem... and he knows it.

The adorable girls...

...held handwarmers with their bouquets in formal pictures and over their noses in candid ones.

The sisterhood endures...

We three have come a long from eating red jello during nightly rants in the Faith Builders dorm. 
We're different, but still very much the same. 
I like that about us.

Art & Lisa [iii] coming later...