Friday, July 3, 2015

{The After}

As soon as we finished school and jumped into summer last month, Vacation Bible Camp was ready and waiting for us. I was a part of the song team this year, a blessing that the Lord dropped into my lap (after I stubbornly refused and resisted for quite some time).

I'm thankful that His ways are not my ways. It was a true joy to serve with Bethie (my co-leader!) and Aidan (one of the song crew) and to spend three months preparing with a great group of hard-working, enthusiastic kids.


One of the perks of being on the song team was that I had a break between my daily responsibilities. Some of my time was spent visiting with others and watching the kids enjoy their activities.

When possible, however, I tiptoed away to a quiet corner on the church property, Bible and journal in hand. I found a picnic table among the towering fir trees, quieted my heart, and listened. Mostly I heard the birds and the wind through the trees mingled with the children's voices across the lawn as they played their camp games. (It was a delight to occasionally hear Drew's voice take command as the fourth grade game leader. Wasn't he just a fourth grader himself?)

But I also heard the Lord whispering truth and love to my heart during those moments of stillness. He brought such timely, fitting passages to me as I read that it was as though He had tucked a precious note into my pocket for me to discover at just the right time. I was particularly struck by Psalm 68:4 which seemed to mirror my experience as song leader:

"Sing to God, sing praises to His name; Lift up a song for Him who rides through the deserts, 
whose name is the Lord, and exult before Him." 

There were several dry, desert moments as Bethie and I worked through choreography and planning in the weeks before VBC. We'd hit a wall or become frustrated by the lack of clarity, creativity, or inspiration. But without fail, the Lord rode through those deserts with us, gave us the water and manna we needed, and we very literally rejoiced in singing praises to His name that week.

VBC went by quickly, and we barely had time to catch our breath before packing up for camp. Jamie and I serve as leaders for The Calling, a young adult ministry at our church. I'm new to the group and felt anxious about jumping into a different situation. Especially one that involved mosquitoes and port-a-potties. But I knew from experience that camping is a pretty good way to quickly connect with others. I bit the bullet, grabbed the bug spray and hand sanitizer, and said yes. 

Again, the Lord rode through the desert. (And again He did so rather literally -- it was a hot week in Leavenworth). I learned to join this uniquely dynamic and vulnerable group in singing praises to His name. They warmly welcomed me, and I was blessed by their conversations and obvious love for each other, their group, and their Savior. It was also a delight and blessing to my mama's heart to see them scoop up and love our kiddos. (We got to bring Aidan and Avery along. Avery was in heaven with the many French braids and daisy chains with which she was adorned, and Aidan glowed with every fist bump he shared with the guys.)

This morning it all came to an end, which felt rather abrupt after weeks of pressing forward. Don't get me wrong -- I loved having my own bed, a long shower, my leisurely cup of tea, and no nagging details to arrange or plans to make. But I knew that this day would represent more of a valley than a mountaintop in my journey.

As I opened my Bible this morning, I turned to my bookmark and continued where I left off. I'm in Judges, and I so desperately wanted the Israelites to continue in the Truth they had learned under the leadership of Joshua. (Maybe they'd get it this time?) But we know the story. By chapter two, they had forgotten.

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers,
another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord
nor what He had done for Israel.
Judges 2:10

That first word hit me: after.

Our faith is tested and revealed in the after. After a mountaintop experience, after a lesson learned, after a new step taken . . . after a powerful week at raft camp or VBC or wherever we may have met the Lord in a new way in which commitments were strengthened and friendships made, the "after" is inevitable.

I find myself in the after today. The day after weeks of preparation and activity, learning and connecting with others. And a prayer rises within me. I pray that the Lord would fill this "after" with his presence, wisdom and joy, that I would keep listening to the whisper among the trees, and that I would keep learning from the shouts I both heard and joined in declaring when leaping nimbly among the peaks with His people.

As often happens in my life, Spurgeon's Morning and Evening text for today spoke to this reality: How discouraging it would be to allow "days of sloth" in the after to "ruinously destroy all that I had achieved in times of zealous industry!" So my prayer continues: May my zeal remain, Lord, and may it remain for each student who experienced your presence this week. These "after" days must be "fed in the right meadow, spent with the Lord, in His service, in His company, in His fear, and in His way. I have had more experience of my Lord," and because of that I have learned to "be more like Him." (Spurgeon) 

And so may I be more like you, Lord. May my husband and children be more like you. May the men and women of The Calling be more like you. May the kids and leaders of VBC be more like you. And may Drew and Bethie learn the same as they head to Leavenworth for their own camp experience with the high school group today. Richly bless each "before" and "during," that together we may rejoice evermore in the "after."    

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

{These Days Are Ours}

"Guess what's on Hulu now!" I couldn't guess, but judging by the gleam in his eye, I knew I'd be just as pleased as Jamie. "Happy Days!" We laughed as our minds flooded with Happy Days memories and we definitely looked forward to catching an episode or two (or three) as soon as the kids were tucked in bed that night.

The memories were vivid. We'd been married for just a few months when we were both knocked down with mono. Jamie was especially wiped out. It was pathetic and a rather dark and odd way to begin a marriage, but we made the most of it. Our tiny apartment came with cable, so we had plenty of diverting television options from which to choose. Mostly we decided on Happy Days and I Love Lucy

We folded out our 90s plaid hide-a-bed couch (I can still remember the pride I felt when our landlord commented on how cleverly I had arranged our couch to create an office space in our minuscule living room), sprawled lethargically in front of the tube, and let the light-hearted stories carry us away from the despair of a dreary, lengthy illness. Friends and family brought us meals. We sprawled and watched Happy Days. (Did I mention how pathetic we were?)

We laugh and roll our eyes when we think back on those days, almost nineteen years ago now. And I fully anticipated laughing once again when we pulled up an episode the other night. The credits began, that record flipped into view, the theme song started . . . and my eyes filled with tears. "We were so young," I suddenly croaked, starting to choke up. A sob threatened. "Now we have four kids and one of them is in college! They . . . text!" (Somehow that seemed big at the moment.) "How did that even happen?!?" I'm sure Jamie wondered how Happy Days could suddenly become so . . . well, sad. (On second thought, scratch that. He's used to me crying at the drop of a hat.)

My mind started to spiral and suddenly all I could focus on was the change that time had wrought and the (seemingly) negative emotions associated with that. Hard decisions, teens, social media, computers, music, driving, school, movies, relationships, texting, grades . . . it was so much easier (wasn't it?) when the only decision I had to make was whether to mash a banana or dish up some applesauce for the baby's lunch.

But that theme song -- you know the words -- that theme song brought me back to a Truth I've known and need to keep on knowing: "These days are ours." These days -- the days of our kids experiencing high school and cars and friends and social change -- these days are just as much "ours" as the days when we were in our early 20s, down with mono, slurping chicken noodle soup.

These days are gifts, every single one of them. 

Seussical! Photo by Carolyn Nichols

In which they decide to bake me a cake for Mother's Day

I forced my mind to refocus. I forced my mind to see the gifts. My girl recently in a culture parade, wearing a dress that she and her Noni made. (The highlight of the parade for sister: riding on a school bus for the first time!)


My kids going to the homeschool spring formal . . . and Bethie asking if she could wear my prom dress . . . the dress my mom made for me . . . it was Jamie's senior prom . . . and the way Bethie visited with me long into the night after the dance. These days are ours.

Little sister watching big sister get ready for the dance in a (very fleeting) Norman Rockwell moment. These days are ours.

Little sister being . . . little sister . . . and still always catching us off guard with the unexpected.

The others were washing the van . . .

The boys playing basketball, throwing a football, trying to learn how to play Spikeball, a new game introduced by our family in Slovenia . . . all gifts. These days are ours.

The power of finding beauty in the humblest things makes home happy and life lovely.
~Louisa May Alcott~

Bethie's sweet surprise for Avery. (Photo by Carolyn Nichols.)

We've watched several more Happy Days episodes now. The theme song still causes my eyes to well up because I know it to be true. Not that life has changed and because of that everything is mournful and sad, but that life is still good, even in the change. That the Giver of Life is still faithful and true, that "these days are ours," and that He is the one who sings, "Share them with me." 

Oh, what beautiful, grace-filled, happy days these are.       

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

{Tuesday Tip: Give Slow Food a Try}

Perhaps you've heard of the slow food movement. Perhaps you even embrace it without knowing it has a name. Slow food, as the term suggests, is the opposite of fast food. It takes time. It takes thought. It takes energy. But, as with many things in this life, taking the time to plan and prepare one's food can lead to an even greater sense of satisfaction and enjoyment.

(I think this was the Easter bread. But, my brain.)

In her book Notes from a Blue Bike, Tsh Oxenreider devotes a chapter to this idea of embracing "slow food" in family life. And when she talks about slowing down, she means slowing down . . . for the entire process. Not just the eating of it, but even the growing (when possible), shopping, planning, and preparing of our food. When we've put time and effort into our food, we are that much more likely to enjoy it and that much less likely to waste it or take it for granted.

Think about this for a minute. Have you ever made French fries? And I don't mean from a frozen food bag. I mean, have you ever peeled and sliced the potatoes and then fried the little puppies to a perfectly golden crispy bundle of goodness? Now think about that stale bag of fast food French fry remnants still lingering on the back seat of the van. (Can I get an amen?) We don't hesitate to toss them the minute they're no longer hot and crispy. But we just might think twice about tossing away something that we had carefully cut and prepared for our family. So it goes with slow food. We appreciate it, we savor it, we're thankful for it.

I really wish I could magically create a scratch-n-sniff screen for you.

One of the slow foods we enjoy in our home is fresh bread. Now I'll admit right away that I don't always have -- I mean take -- the time to make it, but when I do the family drools and immediately whips out the jam and butter. ("Tea with jam and bread, with jam, with jam and bread" never tasted so good.) The word "delicious" has been used by more than one child. We call it "That Molasses Bread" to distinguish it from other breads. The kids know this is the one that makes great sandwiches and toast.   

Just add jam . . . and a cuppa tea!

I thought I'd share my recipe with you in case you'd like to slow down for a bit and try it, too. It's a combination of a few recipes I've tried and tweaked over the years. One more disclaimer: I use my bread machine. (And I sometimes use my daughter who in turn uses the bread machine. She's getting good.) The use of a bread machine may bring me down a notch in the attempt to be perfectly "slow," but I've found a happy medium. The machine does the mixing and rising for me, and then I shape, rise again, and bake after taking the dough out of the machine because I love the look of a golden brown loaf so very muchly. Especially when it's looking at me from my merry Polish pottery.

Happy slow eating, friends.

That Molasses Bread  

10 oz. warm water
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 T butter, softened (oil also works)
1/3 cup molasses (or honey, or a combination of the two)
2 cups whole wheat flour (I use Bob's Red Mill)
1 cup all purpose flour (again, Bob's)
1/2 cup oats (guess who . . . Bob.)
1/4 cup gluten (WinCo bulk)
2 tsp. yeast (Saf instant yeast, WinCo. It's pre-packaged but located in the bulk aisles.)

Place ingredients in bread machine in the order listed. Select dough cycle. Once the cycle is complete, remove dough from machine, shape, and transfer to a greased loaf pan. Cover and let rise for about an hour. (I let it rise on top of the fridge. Nice and warm up there.) Bake for about 30-35 minutes in a 350 oven. You many need to bake for longer, covering with foil to keep it from getting too dark. It's done when it smells nice and toasty and makes a hollow sound when you tap on the top. (I've found that children enjoy bread tapping.) Optional: brush top with butter. Let it cool, slice, and enjoy. Slowly.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

{Farm Day}

"Julianna, we had three of the cutest little lambs born yesterday. They're still taking a bottle, and if you guys can come out this afternoon the kids might be able to feed them!"

As I listened to my messages, my mind quickly zipped through our day, tallying the pros and cons. We had planned to visit our friends in Oregon City to see their new pigs . . .  Avery was dying to meet them . . . but she was also very excited about the day the lambs would be born and was waiting for the call . . . the lambs would soon be out to pasture and not as eager to be held . . . the weather was nice so far . . . the rains were coming . . . .

Well! There was only one thing to do. We decided to have a farm day.

I called my dad to see if he could bring The Cousins along, since they, too, were invited to meet the lambs. Hooray for spontaneity! They loaded up, we loaded up, and we all headed north.

The kids were shy about feeding the lambs at first and chose to simply observe. They noticed how coarse their wool was, how long their legs, how tired the mama was. (I would be, too. Triplets!) But they warmed up and eventually took turns feeding the lambs. Clara was especially fetching in her dress-up accessories, ideal for farming. She also found infinite satisfaction in bundling up the lambs in warm towels.

Our wonderful hosts kindly let the kids play with the lambs and roam about the property until all of their wiggles were out. But the timely little, "Papa, I'm hungry," reminded us that it was time to say our goodbyes and move on to our next destination.

We all parted ways, our van heading south . . . south . . . south. Traffic was slow, but we were finally welcomed into the open arms of our friends. Avery couldn't wait to meet and feed the pigs, gather the eggs, admire the chicks and follow the ducklings. But her favorite part? Having tea with our hostess. Our hearts were filled to the brim as we visited, and Avery was quick to suggest that we should schedule some "special bonding time" again very soon.

As we drove home, I thought about our farm day. A day filled with new life and dear friends. A day that reminded me of the hard work it takes to grow good things. Patience . . . sacrifice . . . sorrow . . . uncertainty. But the hard work? It yields such good fruit. Joy . . . hope . . . satisfaction . . . life.

It's worth it.

I looked in the rearview mirror at my (not-so) little farmers. Each one tending their own plots of land in this life-journey, each one aware of the way I model, each one watching to see how I tend to my own land. Do I model the patience, sacrifice, hope and joy that inspire them to see the goodness of this calling? When I'm ankle-deep in mud in the pouring down rain, hunting for eggs or pulling up weeds, do I welcome the work, knowing that it produces endurance and faithfulness?

We gathered the fresh eggs into our home, we gathered our family together again at the end of the day. I looked at my little plot of land, these farmers at work, the tilling and growing, weeding and sowing . . . knowing full well that we still have much to do. We always will. But that also means that we have much goodness in store. Joy . . . hope . . . satisfaction . . . life. So we till and toil away.

And it's worth it.

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Monday, April 6, 2015

{"I Just Love Easter!"}

"I just love Easter," my niece sighed as she twirled and hopped, awaiting her turn to take a smack at the piñata.

I love Easter, too. I love the hope it represents and the huge, relieving contrast between the grief of Good Friday and the joy of Easter morning. He is risen!

This year I was feeling tired, but I still wanted Easter to be special and meaningful for the kids so that they, too, will always think (if not twirl and sigh), "I just love Easter!" So I asked them what traditions they especially liked, and we'd just stick with those.

They all voted for the Easter bread, which I've enjoyed ever since I was little. My "Aunt" Marlene always makes loaves and loaves every year, and when I was first married she taught me how to make it. Mine is never as beautiful as hers (akin to folding the fitted sheet), but it's tasty and we love it!

We also set aside time to go to the Good Friday service at our church. It's simple yet profoundly meaningful to quietly sit in the candlelight, listening to music and Scripture, partaking of communion, and receiving whatever gentle whispers the Holy Spirit has for our hearts.

Easter morning begins with the hustle and bustle of getting ready for church, all while downing Easter bread and tea. Avery asks for help with "a French braid on this side and a bow right here" and I'm happy to help. She so rarely asks anymore. The service is beautiful, and everyone hugs and smiles and beams, "He is Risen . . . He is Risen, indeed!" No matter how hard the week, month, or year has been, this truth remains and this truth is what gives us hope.

After church we rush home to pull together food and hide "the big eggs." That was another tradition the kids still enjoy and requested that we keep. We haven't decorated or hidden traditional eggs for a couple of years now, but they still like it when we hide their big plastic eggs. This is also a tradition I've carried on from my childhood. (In fact, Avery's egg used to be mine. It's the one with a band of ribbon around the center, made by my Nanee.) The gifts inside are sometimes for the individual, sometimes for the family, and sometimes represented by clues:

Can you figure it out? 

And then we feast! We usually head up to my sister's, joining them and my parents for a late brunch (is it still called brunch if it happens at 3:00?) where a bountiful feast and the eager cousins await. We've fallen into the habit of each bringing the same foods every year, so that helps keep things simple.

The final essential tradition is the Easter piñata, also carried over from childhood. This year my niece Alainna made it, and she did a beautiful job. My sister and I agree that it's a Marvelous Thing to have children who are old enough to make this messy, four-layered, painted, paper maché craft all on their own. If the weather's nice we head outside to take brutal swings at the work of art, but this year it became dark and gloomy right at piñata hour. Undaunted, Uncle Craig suspended the target from on high, and the kids went at it. The adults rather enjoyed watching from the comfort of the couches.

Papa and Noni pose for their mug shot.

Easter usually lands near a few birthdays, so we add those to the festivities as well. This year we had several people to catch up on.

A glance at the clock reminded us all too quickly that it was time to wrap things up and head home. With full hearts (and tummies) we gave hugs all around, thankful for the many reasons we have to truly proclaim, "I just love Easter!"


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