Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent is Here

The weekend has rumbled by us, and it was so good and full.

We had our First Annual Turkey Trot in China, complete with a 5k and 1 mile Tot Trot for the kids, and it was a delight and relief to see it come to fruition after the idea popped in my head a month or so ago.

We had our old upstairs neighbors to visit for the weekend which was a blessing to my entire family and not easy to say goodbye to (they even left a slew of gifts for me to to the 12 Days of Christmas-- how sweet are they?).

We celebrated two major feasts and one major oldest son's birthday, and then finally ended it all today with a party at school which involved me frosting a cake to look like a soccer ball, only to watch it be gobbled up with barely a glance at my intricate work of design. Such is love for your seven year old boy.

Into that weekend bursting full of food and togetherness and 5k sprints, crept the beginning of Advent.

I, for one, need Advent more than ever, or perhaps just differently and in a new way this year. And this is one of the things I do so love about holidays; they are there to heighten our awareness, to raise us up above the common days and enlarge us with celebration and all that comes with it.

We simply cannot live every day in celebration or in festivity, but God must have understood something about us as people- that these special, set-apart times are good and maybe even necessary for our souls. And though the festival days of old have become something shrouded in marketing, consumerism, and a celebration of emotions that barely touches the surface of what we're beholding, we can take hold of it's roots and our traditions, and let the time of Advent anchor our souls and enlarge our hearts. It is a combination of celebration and meditation, festivity and serenity, all centered around the works of God in our midst.

I do not have all my Advent ducks in a row yet. I am already behind. There is no advent wreath on the table, no special decor out, no special calendar ready for readings and little surprises with the children. I am learning to let it go a little and not feel too badly about all this. Sometimes you just can't get everything done, at least on time, and even doing all those things can become trappings. The point is, wreath or no wreath, I can still enter in.

Yesterday, these books came in the mail and I am pretty excited about using them as a tool to help me think on the themes that centuries of Advent celebration have developed. God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Watch For the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas by an assortment of authors. Two may be too many. I may stick with Bonhoeffer and try the other one next year.

Yesterday I read this quote in the opening pages of Bonhoeffer's book and it spoke to everything that can heighten and yet disappoint during Advent... it was a reminder of what it truly is, and what the importance of thinking on and worshiping in the midst of it all really does. As you read it, remember that Bonhoeffer was in prison as he wrote this, the place he died after being imprisoned for over two years during the reign of Hitler in Nazi Germany. During that time he was engaged to a woman named Maria.

"Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other- things that are really of no consequence- the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.
[as we wait during Advent] it's still not Christmas, but it's also not the great last Advent, the last coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate runs the longing for the last Advent, when the word will be: "See, I am making all things new" (Rev. 21:5).
The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving, Yes Please.

My camera broke today, so this photo is a reprint from almost one year ago. When it happened, I felt a little panicky at first, thinking of all the upcoming events and how much I delight in photographing them, not to mention the fact that they would not be recorded for all time in visual form. But then it was okay. Did you know that photographs are not the most important thing in the world? And neither is the act of taking them? It's true.

It's "The Big Weekend," starting tomorrow and we are in full swing here- even without the stores and travel and family gatherings. I love celebrating holidays, I truly do-- and more and more I love thinking through them and how they are so needed and good for us-- at least they can be. But they surely are a challenge, especially in this day and age, and even so far away from the hooplah that is American Holiday Time, it is a challenge and a discipline to enter into these celebratory times with care. I've already been given a firm but kind little "talking to" and it helped me see how I was once again getting caught up in the doing and beginning to be a miserable person.

So tonight, while the Man was away and the kids huddled in for a movie since there is no school tomorrow, I chopped vegetables and made a pie crust and thought again, as I have these past several days, over how we have been so provided for. Even when it all throws me for a loop and I kind of spin with accepting all the change, I can see His faithful provision.

It has almost become in vogue to name the little things we are thankful for... physical tangibles like "eyelashes on cheeks" and "golden leaves in the wind" or the cup of tea we enjoyed, the dinner with friends, etc. And all these things are good to notice and call out. But when the physical does little to inspire you, the things unseen become that much more evident and sometimes even important- though it should always be so. I am an avid believer in soaking in the aesthetic beauty and goodness of the gifts God gives in physical ways, but we are spirit too- and when we are ministered to in our spirits, provided for, strengthened, pruned, and carried, I wonder if that means more than all the physical blessings we could count.

I've been reading a couple biographies on women who lived and survived the upheaval of China in the 1950's and 60's and you wonder how they could lift their heads through the ordeal at all, except that they were given strength in their inner being. And in Romans this morning it said that nothing... neither tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, height, depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of Christ. It is intangible, untouchable, unswayed by any human form or physical reality.

So this Thanksgiving, I am thinking on the great provisions our family has received. Provisions that have little to do with home or food or clothing or the presence of others, though we daily give thanks for all those things. Each and every one of us are beneficients of the beauty around us- and we do well to name those things. Yet, when the beauty fades, He remains and therein is a provision that will never run dry. "Whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never be thirsty again," He told the perplexed little woman at the well. And I find myself often looking at him with that same confused stare, "Really? Is it really going to be enough? You are really going to be enough?... even without all these things I'm pretty sure I need in order not to thirst?"

And in small, baby steps, the answer is, Yes.

 I will thank him when the sun comes out and when the leaves fall like golden sprinkles and my baby kicks and we have enough to eat. But even more than all that I will thank Him that He is enough. That when I run absolutely dry and empty, He sustains me, He blesses me in the innermost places with peace and comfort. He reminds me of His goodness, He convicts me and restores me again, He leads me in right paths and restores needy soul.

May you be blessed in your acts of giving thanks this weekend.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Autumn Can Do

The light is dying and with it life itself, so it seems. The sounds of the night are ruling longer. No one is about on the streets or in courtyards where, with the hint of sunrise, groups of crookedly agile—the aging—would normally gather for Tai Chi or some form of exercise. We all huddle longer underneath the covers, our bodies dying a little too it seems, slaked with a need for slumber that is almost imaginary, a psychotic phenomenon, or a chemical one that occurs as a result of less sunshine on the skin, that source of life-giving energy, filtering much needed vitamins to the bloodstream. Yes, the light is necessary for life itself. So as it goes, we seem ready to go too.

In the northern hemisphere, we all prepare for the days that are fast approaching, where light flees and the days grow darker. It is the autumn- where the earth turns into itself and huddles against the coming cold- the season of death.

I have always loved autumn. As a northern girl my body naturally seems to be more accustomed to cool air and the comfort of wool rather than stripped and bare against raging temperatures. In a funny way, my personality seems better suited to it as well: contemplative, melancholy, tending to retreat into the inner sanctums and the struggle against hard questioning rather than light hearted, fast paced, whimsical freshness of summer. When the breeze of autumn hustles drying leaves to the ground, perfumed by the smell of woodsmoke drifting in the air, a sense of sadness inevitably creeps in along with the welcome need for warmth and comfort. It is a paradoxical feeling of joy and pain- a reminiscent grief- that creeps into the bones, the psyche, and it strikes me as being some measure of a true reflection of our life in its fullness, our life as experienced in reality while on this earth. Joy and Pain. Suffering and Longing. The pursuit of happiness and the presence of disappointment. Tinges of both, sometimes steeped fully in one only to be thrust in the next moment to the other.

Is this where the sense of melancholy comes, as the earth starts to retreat, the world dying its yearly death? Is it the reminder of loss, or some great joy, filling us alternately or all at once? Is it some sense of the coming death that blankets us… like a memorial service that readies for burial, we are marched through memories of past years and days. Does autumn always conjure up memory for you, as it does for me? But it is often memory with a sense of longing attached. Perhaps those days are long gone, or the people are, or the dreams that you held then.

The reminder is there whether we want to dwell on it or not: life is marked by death. Perhaps we do well to retreat into that nature inspired reminder as its yearly benediction swells in our wake. . But, why? Last year, as the first buds of spring began to force their way through seemingly lifeless branches, my friend lost her ten year old boy to sudden, unexpected death. Dying entered our world again, just as the season for new life was forcing its way upon us. It almost seemed cruel- a reminder we couldn’t quite grasp at that point on Resurrection Sunday a few short weeks later- that life would reign over death, that death was not the final story. It was difficult then and perhaps will be every year at that time for my friend. So why would entering into the death reflection of autumn be any help to those of us who experience deaths reality over and over again in our daily lives? Yes, why should a season of dying in God’s created world be of any good for us?

As dwellers in the dying season- we enter in, and fight against. We do it naturally in many ways already. We rake up leaves, clean out the garden, stock our shelves, pull out the woolens. We light candles to fend off the dark, and we prepare for the Advent. We accept the dying of the Light of the World, and yet we look ahead- we prepare to walk through it- knowing the same Hope of overcoming, resurrecting, saving Light is on the other side. We accept the scourges of death as a rite of passage that drives reality deep into our existence- but we do not see it as hopeless. Death with all its companions rage against from every side and we cannot escape no matter how we may try. Yet by facing it squarely, looking into its face, we are all the more ready to receive and acknowledge our need to be bought out of it, for a battle to be victorious against its forces. On all planes, physical, emotional, spiritual, we fight through the dark days, like seeds planted deep in the dark and smothering, but life forming loam of the earth.

Each day I set my alarm early. Darkness pervades and the hope of light is still hours away. I push back against feelings of sleepiness, of depression, of discouragement, willing myself to work and thrive and worship in the midst of a lightless world. This is my hope, my vocation as a Child of the One who brings light- who banishes darkness, who entered into it for a time so that in time, my time right now, it holds no power over me or the death scourged and aching earth.

And as I battle by means of early morning rising, warming my home with beauty in the onslaught of dark, cold days, worshiping in the midst of a suffering world, waiting with eyes ever upward, there comes that faithful companion of Longing. Autumn brings it to us, though we may feel it all the year round… that longing for something that stirs with the whirling colors fluttering with their last dance to the ground, piercing us with a cool breeze that wraps us tighter in our memories, in our need for warmth remembered or longed for. Our autumnal compass sends us into reverie, nostalgia, and a part of our soul that reaches out with grasping hands.

We sit there for awhile, preparing for the oncoming dark days of winter, when the landscape huddles and we press our noses against its cold panes of glass, gazing and holding out for the return of the warmth on our skin again, all the while with eager but meager hearts and hands bringing all the light into the world we can from the warmth of the One who dwells within.

~Advent is coming! Looking forward to thinking on things great and small during that time and posting about it here. Join me if you will.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Wee Bit of Wonderful

I do not come from "Big Birthday Bash" stock. We celebrate small. We keep it pretty simple. I am not saying this is a virtue in any way. At some point my children may grow frustrated and disappointed by my lack of birthday fervor. They may require counseling or a book on how to deal with childhood deprivation. But for now, they remain happy and content with the little we do, and the lack of pressure or house teeming with screaming, sugar induced children has probably added a few years to my life and a better outlook on my job as a mother.

I do have to say that I take my hat off to, and stand in awe of, and greatly admire (and sometimes wish I was so wired) those who enjoy and pull of such creative and delightful celebrations for their little loved ones.

But back to me, and my mine.

We celebrated with a bit of pink yesterday. She who runs around like a cowboy and wrestles with Big Brother without fear, who builds Lincoln Log houses (having no doll house) and demands that someone play catch with her or let her be goalie, firmly announced that she wanted a pink cake... pink all around if you please.

She also got a doll. A sweet and perfect little handmade doll I had asked my mother to make for Scout since she was turning three and does need some girlie things of her own. Grandma came through and finished a simple little version of this pattern by Wee Wonderfuls. She also made a small line of adorable outfits, half of which we gave her yesterday while the other half waits for Christmas.

I was pretty excited about this gift- this one and only gift (save the dress our out of town guest and old neighbor gave her in the morning, and the few little trinkets of stickers and cards from friends sent over on the plane) but was not sure how much of a liking our little girl would take to her new little girl. Needless to worry- she was soon hugging and peppering her with kisses, talking sweetly to her and tucking her under her arm wherever she went. The following day has seen much of the same. "Sarah," she has been named, and so our celebration of turning 3 has been deemed a small but beautifully simple and meaningful success.


Monday, November 7, 2011

A Good Day Even With Oil For Dinner

It actually felt like Autumn today. The sky was still sporting its usual shade of grey, but there were breaks in it... breaks that let through splashes of sunlight here and there and twinkled on the few trees that have turned a mustard shade of gold. The air was cool, but sunkissed when not running from the clouds. It smelled like wet leaves, and freshness.

In this teeming mass of a city, nestled down between mountain crests in western China, the clouds get socked in where they can sit for weeks on end. I don't know all of what it takes to haul their masses up and out of the valley but when those powers move, I tell you I lift my head up in sheer wonder and a lot of gratitude. The skin begs to meet the sun and it drinks it in like parched earth.

I love Autumn. It is my favorite season of the year, and in a funny way it sort of reminds me of myself: auburn, freckled, dotted, melancholy, loving the brown earth and subdued colors of decay. I could live in autumn forever. I was so glad to feel a sense of it today, to get just a scent of it in the air and to throw open the doors and windows and wrap my sweater tight around, thinking on Thanksgiving menus and upcoming birthday plans and the good and hard of plugging through these days with little light.

We made it through most of the day, Scout and I, with just a few bumps along the way. She is such a bundle of strong and vivid life forces. She puts as much fervor into hauling herself across a room in rapid speed as she does in vehemently explaining why her proposition should be considered and acquiesced to as she does tearfully apologizing with all the heart she can muster. It is a jumble of emotions for me, her mother as well, feeling at once completely flabbergasted and frustrated and then consumed and overcome by her sweetness and hilarity and perfectly plump, porcelain beauty.

Then she dumped an entire cup of oil into my ready-to-be-served dinner. An entire cup of oil added to a pot or plate of anything (besides the brownie mix that it was intended for) is just plain disgusting. I nearly threw it out until my decidedly more level headed husband suggested that because oil floats to the top, we could attempt to remove as much of it as possible and save our dinner, which is what we did, even though I was sure it wouldn't work.

We then spilled cups of water at the table. This is normal, this is what we do at meals. Every meal. Many times. This is one of the reasons we serve water. Every meal. But somehow, we have not gotten used to it. You would think we would have.

But it felt like Autumn today, and maybe He knows I needed that. There seem to be so many things I bring up to Him lately, telling Him that I need in order for me to go on, or at least go on with a good attitude. Yet, in the absence of much that I think would be good, there are other kinds of goodness going on. Probably things far better than what I imagine would be best. All this gray leads to more love of the light I do think.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Apple Upside Down Muffins

With Thanksgiving just around the corner and autumn on my mind and in my heart, baking with apples and pumpkin seems to be playing center stage in the kitchen. We've had Pumpkin Cinnamon Chip Scones, pumpkin ginger pancakes, apple crisp, pumpkin pie, and now Apple Upside-Down Muffins.

Apple Upside-Down Muffins

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp butter, divided
1/2 cup buttermilk*
1 egg, beaten
1 cup apple, peeled, cored and grated
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup pecans, chopped

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
With pastry cutter, cut in 1/4 cup butter. Combine buttermilk and egg and add to flour mixture, along with apple; stir to moisten. Over low heat, melt remaining butter in a small saucepan and stir in brown sugar. Spoon one teaspoon brown sugar mixture into each cup of a greased 12 count muffin tin. Add pecans to each muffin cup. Spoon batter into cups and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes. Remove from pan and serve nut side up. Makes 12 muffins.

*Note: if you don't have buttermilk, you can substitute by adding a little bit of vinegar or lemon juice to regualr milk.