Saturday, November 30, 2013

Taste {The Grove}

Velvet Ashes: encouragement for women serving overseas{Linking up post-Thanksgiving with The Grove community over at Velvet Ashes, musing on  Taste…}
I never fully realized how one taste can send you straight home (in the "where-I-grew-up" sense).  

For the first time in my 8 years of married life, this week I cooked my first ever Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings: roasted chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, roasted veggies, peas, even cranberry sauce made from scratch from real cranberries!  The crowning glory, however, were my two pies, made from scratch - and I am NOT a pie maker!  

Without apologizing, I made the pumpkin pie for myself.  I knew my Kiwi husband would love the apple pie and tolerate the pumpkin (New Zealanders tend to keep things like pumpkin in the "savoury" category). I wasn't sure how my kids would react since they've never had pumpkin pie before, and I was pretty sure our local guests would take a polite bite or two and leave the rest (and I was right).  But I wanted pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and so I roasted the pumpkin, and followed the recipe carefully, and made one.  All by myself.  For me.  In honor of American Thanksgiving, as the only pure American in our vicinity.  I even tracked down real whipping cream (for a prince's ransom) to go with it!

I wasn't sure how the pies had turned out.  (After all, you can't taste a pie without cutting into it, and who serves a pie with a chunk out of it?)  

But as I slid my first forkful of pumpkin and real whipped cream into my mouth, I closed my eyes with pleasure.  Yum.  It tasted perfect.  I couldn't believe it.  Just like Thanksgiving at home.  

And with that mouthful I was at once perfectly happy and very sad.  No one else around my table - my kind local friends, my wonderful Kiwi husband, our lovely guest from New Zealand, even my sweet children - could share my experience in that moment.  

I felt immensely far from home, and immediately close to my original family, all at once.  I felt sorry for everyone else around my table who couldn't share this taste with me… not just the taste of pumpkin with whipped cream, but the taste of home.

And yet, I didn't feel guilty.  I savored every bite of my piece of pie, cut off another sliver and ate that too, and kept my eyes closed the whole time.  Home tastes sweet.  

And as I build my own home, I'm feeling nourished by the physical memory of the home that made me…. one Thanksgiving dinner at a time, year after year, holiday after holiday, memory after memory.  

Best of all, unbelievably, my children will have the taste of pumpkin pie and whipped cream as part of their memories growing up, even though they live in Central Asia… and that thought tastes really good to me.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Preparing for Advent {Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Finishing Touches}

{Making your own family Advent Calendar to teach your children the Christmas story?  Good for you!  Time for the finishing touches!  
Click here for Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3…}

Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Finishing Touches

Getting Started

Gather your supplies:

  • dowel the width of your calendar plus 2" either end for hanging
  • Christmas ribbon for hanging
  • gold felt and red permanent marker for verse, if desired

Verse (Luke 2:11) - Optional

1. If desired, cut out a rectangular piece of gold felt the same size as the back of the storage section of your Advent Calendar, when it's folded up.  

2. With a red permanent marker, print Luke 2:11 on the gold rectangle.  
3. Glue the rectangle upside down on the back of your felt background, so when you fold up your storage section the verse will appear right-side up.  

Hanging Your Advent Calendar

1. Sew a straight seam along the safety-pinned allowance at the top of your piece of background felt.

2. Slide the dowel in, making sure it's long enough to stick out 1.5 - 2 inches on each end.

3. Tie a pretty Christmas ribbon around each end of the dowel, making sure your knots are tight enough so the ribbon won't slide in towards the center.  

4. Hang your Advent Calendar!  

{If you included the verse on the back, it's your choice whether you fold up the storage section every day to show the verse, or whether you leave it unfolded until December 25 and have your kids fold it up for the first time to display the verse under the finished manger scene.}


Here's my version from two years ago of carrying out the above instructions, with a little Christmas devotional included:

Out back, in our borrowed apple orchard, James hacks off a branch from one of the little apple trees.  “Long enough?” he asks.  

I bring it inside, the ice melting off its underside from the warmth of my hand.  Feeling decidedly rustic, I sit with a kitchen knife and chip off buds along its length, smoothing the rough places.  

I choose a reasonably smooth 70cm length from the middle - not too fat, not too thin.  I clip each end with secateurs, try to get a clean cut.  

I slide the stick into the sewn tube at the top of my felt Advent Calendar background, and voila!  

A bit rough-looking, but it’ll do the job - and I didn’t even slice my finger (came close a couple times, though!).  

I sweep up the shavings, and think about Joseph being a carpenter.  About the beautiful cradle he might have made for Mary’s baby’s birth.  About the manger in which he had to lay Jesus instead, knowing at some level that Jesus was much more than his natural son, that He was infinitely special.  

Did Joseph mourn the lowliness of the rustic manger, cursing the Roman decree that dragged them so far away from home at this most inconvenient time?  Or was the manger well-crafted, and did Joseph rejoice that the boy to be raised as a carpenter had carpenter’s craft for his bed?  Or did he even think of it at all, so thankful he was for the safe delivery of this precious gift, for a place to lay the baby that raised him up away from the cold dirt floor and the mice and rats?

James and I listen to our Sunday night sermon.  I sew velcro on the backs of “frankincense” and “myrrh”, still missing a square gold button for the “gold”.  No trip to the bazar this morning as planned: everyone sick with colds, huddled up away from the snow, drinking soup and hot tea and taking long naps.  

The gold button will have to wait.  

My needle pokes and pulls, and John Piper describes the afflictions of Christ, in a sermon from Romans we chose at random.  A Christmas sermon.  Born as an illegitimate child.  Jesus carried that slur all his life.  The Pharisees threw it in his face.  Forced to flee as a refugee almost immediately after he was born, barely escaped with his life; spent the first two years of his life sojourning in Egypt, grew up listening to a foreign tongue as his first language.  

“Let’s have a balanced Christmas celebration,” urges Piper, unpacking Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”  Rejoice in hope, Paul says, but that joy is an embattled joy, under constant attack from inside and outside.  Piper quotes the angel’s words: “I bring you good news of GREAT joy!” and adds, “That little baby grew up and said, ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword… and a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”  
Sufferings are normal.  If you don’t have any right now, you will.  And the thing is, we rejoice in our sufferings, not just in spite of them, because we know what sufferings do: they produce endurance.  “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  (Rom. 5:3-5)
So… a worn-out furnace, a broken door lock, a leaky sink, a surprise visit from our landlady when I’m still in my pajamas, relationship struggles, sickness, sleepless nights, feelings of futility and fruitlessness… all these are  actually gifts, to be rejoiced in?
Says Piper: “We have a God who doesn’t just defeat the enemy, but turns that enemy into the servant of our faithEvery tribulation that comes your way has a design from Satan, and a different design from God.  
All our tribulation drives the roots of our joy into hope.  For the Christian, the best is always yet to come.  An hour before you die, the best is yet to come.  The minute you wake up on the other side of death, the best is yet to come.  After 10 million years of reveling in God’s presence, the best is still yet to come.  In a profound sense, rejoicing for the Christian will always be in hope: the best is always yet to come!”

I stitch and sew and poke at the buttons I'm using for the wise men's gifts, and I think about these gifts the wise men are bringing to Jesus, and I listen to Piper close his sermon by asking, “So, what would the wise men answer when they’re told to “rejoice in hope”?  They’ve got everything: gold, frankincense, nice clothes, elephants to ride on… What does a man like that say when he’s told, “Rejoice in hope”?  When he’s got so much around him to rejoice in?”
Piper answers his own question: 
“We are given good gifts to enjoy - but only as gifts from God, and as pointers to God as the ultimate satisfaction of your soul.  All the pleasure in life - sex, food, relationships, thrills, more stuff - is created only to point you to Jesus: you will barely remember it when what it is pointing to is given you in the age to come.  So don’t embrace the gifts as ends; send your heart flying to the Giver to embrace Jesus as the ultimate joy of your life - then the gifts won’t become idols.”
The goal and ground of my hope is Jesus Himself: The glory of God, shining in the face of Christ.  He is my Gift.  Do I really want that treasure, more than I want anything?  Is that true of my heart this Christmas?  
I glue this verse onto the back of my calendar: “Unto you is born this day… a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)  

I glue it on upside down, since it will hang on the back of the calendar until December 25, when the last piece is put in place and we fold up the bottom of the calendar, now empty, to reveal the verse on the back.  

And I think about gifts, and idols, and the Giver, and Advent: the season of waiting for the coming of Christ, the upside-down King of an upside-down kingdom.  

And I remember a quote from Ann earlier today, deciding to re-read her gem of a book during Advent this year, starting early so there’s plenty of time to chew and digest her beautiful words before the New Year begins of a sudden:
“Thanksgiving is inherent to a true salvation experience: thanksgiving is necessary to live the well, whole, fullest life.
...the way God shows His salvation: ‘He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God’ (Psalm 50:23 NIV).  
Thanksgiving--giving thanks in everything--prepares the way that God might show us his fullest sacrifice in Christ.”  
~Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, p.39-40

Advent is about preparing the way.  And how best to prepare the way?  To rejoice.  To give thanks, even for trials.  To receive each element of each day, the good, the “bad” and the ugly, as a gift to be given thanks for.  To sacrifice thank offerings. 

Thanks is really the only gift I can give back to Jesus this Christmas, and in giving it daily, my heart will be prepared for seeing God’s showing of His salvation.
I tie red ribbon around the ends of my stick, like I’m wrapping a present, and stand back to look at my finished calendar: the scene it shows, of God’s Gift to us entering the world, is only the beginning.  

The Wise Men knew their gifts weren’t enough; they offered them, and then “they bowed low and worshiped.”  
The coming of the Gift invites worship; and the giving of thanks returns  worship unto the Giver.  

{I found “gold” a few days later at the bazar in the form of a pair of men’s square gold cuff links - I pried off the link part and salvaged the gold square.  A spot of velcro, a bit of glue, and the calendar is finished!  Just in time, too…}


How is your calendar coming along?  I'd love to see your finished product!

{For a copy of the Christmas story divided into 25 pieces, email me at}

Monday, November 18, 2013

Preparing for Advent {Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Part 3}

{Only 13 days left until December 1st - how's your calendar coming along?  There's still time to get started!  Click here for Part 1 or Part 2 of this series...}
Dinner over, leftovers in the fridge, dishes washed, kids in bed, Christmas candle lit… Time to get back to work!

Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Part 3
All your manger scene pieces finished?  Great!  You're ready to start on your title and final spacing.

Getting Started

Gather your materials:
  • felt for title letters
  • paper patterns for title letters
  • velcro, cut into small squares
  • craft glue or hot glue hue


1. Cut out your title letters.  {Hint: Be sure to reverse your paper letter patterns when you trace them onto your felt; that way your black marker lines won't show when you turn them right side up to glue them on your background.}

2. Glue your title letters onto your background, using craft glue or a hot glue gun.

Final Spacing

1. Lay all your finished felt pieces into your manger scene, the way you want it to look.  Mark the bottom with a pen or scrap piece of felt.  Then move all the pieces one by one down to the bottom of your background, making sure they all fit.  Leave enough space near each piece to write in each day's number.  

2. Reassemble your manger scene.  Glue each corresponding velcro spot onto your background.  (I used two patches each for the stable and the double angels.)  

{Hint: Make sure to glue the bristly side of the velcro onto your characters and the soft side onto the background, so when you roll up the background to store it, it won't stick to itself.  Plus, the bristly side of the velcro on the backs of the characters sticks onto the felt itself in the storage spots, so you don't need a second set of velcro spots.}

3. Number each corresponding velcro spot for the manger scene and the character storage places with black Sharpie marker.  Where the character required two velcro spots, I either wrote the same number under both spots, or put the number in between the two spots.

(Black doesn’t show up that well on my dark green background, but I tried to make the numbers big enough for my preschoolers to find, and I’d prefer the numbers on the final manger scene to sort of blend in or be covered up by the end anyway.) 

Part 3 complete!  Great job!  You're almost done!


{For a copy of the Christmas story divided into 25 pieces, email me at}


How are your calendars coming along?  There’s still time to grab some felt and start cutting and gluing… Remember, your calendar can look any way you want it to, ornate or simple - the point is to have something Christ-centered to help your children anticipate Jesus’ birth and learn the Christmas story!  
Leave a comment with your progress… I’d love to see a photo when it’s done!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tree {at Lisa-Jo's Five-Minute-Friday}

{Joining up with the linkies over at Lisa-Jo’s today… her Five-Minute-Friday prompt this week is: tree.  Come join!}


Across from our first house in Central Asia there was a tree.  It was a beautiful poplar, and what I love about poplars is that they stretch their branches straight up to heaven.  Every time I passed that tree with first my 18-month-old and my bulging belly, then later my two-and-a-half-year-old and my infant in a stroller, I would follow the shape of the branches up into the blue sky, and inevitably my thoughts would turn to God.  I would take in a deep breath, exhale it, walk a little more slowly.  Return to being all there, right where I was.  I would usually smile at my little boys, point at the tree, remind them how beautiful it was.

And then, one day, they cut it down.

And I realized that here, in Central Asia, things like economizing and firewood and making room for telephone and power lines are just more important.  These people I live amongst just do not have the time and energy to appreciate art.  Art as we traditionally think of it is not necessary to their breathing, like it is to mine.  They do listen to music - at weddings and from car stereos, and they do frame photos - of grandparents and honored relatives.  But God’s art being all around us?  A tree pointing the way to heaven?  Those are things that rarely, if ever, cross their minds.  

So I cried.  I cried, as I snapped photo after photo of the demise of my friend.  I blogged about it, cried some more, snapped more photos.  I grieved, unreasonably some might say.  But the thing is, there is so little real beauty around me and I scrape to find what there is, because I need it for the health of my soul… so when a huge piece is destroyed, just to feed someone’s fire for the winter or because it’s getting in the way… I can’t help it.  Something aches and oozes inside of me.

I went outside one day, across the street.  I couldn’t take it any more.  I knew I was the weird foreigner risking ridicule, but I had to ask someone.  Why?  No one had a good answer to give me - the worker men were just doing their job.  So I never got the real answer, but I don’t think it would’ve mattered anyway.

What mattered was the tree was gone.  And I miss it.  Still do.  

Amazing how a tree can be a signpost to God’s heart.


(links and photos added after my 5 minutes finished)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Together... {Friday word prompt at "The Grove"}

{Today I’m joining the Grove community over at Velvet Ashes, writing five minutes on the prompt “together”… Come and join!}

Five minutes. Unscripted.  Real and raw...


This week my poor, teething 13-month-old has been crying almost non-stop.  (That was a lot of hyphens, but that’s how my week has felt - minute-to-minute hyphens, with barely pause to take a breath.)  Some days it feels like if she could crawl back inside my womb, she would…

Yesterday I finally grabbed the flowerpots I had bought earlier in the week (in my one free hour of sans-kids time), and went outside gasping for some fresh air.  I brought my sweetie with me, since she needed air as much as I did, even if she wasn’t a big fan of her new “outside” boots… we sat together in the back yard, and dug in the dirt for a while.

Back up to an hour earlier, when my six-year-old flatly refused to do his reading lesson for the day, and I’d spent over 60 minutes cajoling, threatening, and finally bribing (combined with a promise from Daddy to come home and take over) before he finally gave in… still kicking and screaming.  Literally.  But we did our lesson together, and we had our promised hot chocolate bribe, and then I took myself, my camera, my pots and my sweetie outside.  Phew.  

So here we are, digging in the dirt, and I’m realizing how peaceful it is.  Ruby’s not crying.  She’s completely quiet, absorbed in lifting tiny bits of dirt out of one pot and pouring them into another.  Then she lifts her pot up and dumps the little dirt she’s gathered straight into her lap.  (Blueberries for Sal comes to mind.)  Then she starts over.  She does this, completely unaware I’m watching, totally absorbed in the dirt, happy just to be outside, with me.  Together.  

So I have a choice.  

I can resist and resent her clinginess.  Or, I can cling back, and enjoy every moment she wants to spend together, knowing that the day will come very soon when those pink-booted feet will run in the opposite direction.  

Together can be suffocating, or it can be good.  I choose good.  


(Links and photos added after my five minutes was up...)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It's a good thing I enjoy bringing order out of chaos...

...because I sure do a lot of it!

Messy kitchen counters, sinks full of crusty dishes, laundry baskets full of topsy-turvy clothes waiting to be sorted, folded and put away…  Living room floor covered with Thomas-the-Tank-Engine and all his friends, veranda littered with bats and balls, hall corridor strewn with every board book we own… 

Evidence that three happy, busy preschoolers live here.

It’s a good thing I get a thrill from clean, wiped-off countertops, freshly folded laundry piles, baskets full of the right toys in the right places, boxes of tidy sports equipment… because I seem to spend large quantities of time Tidying (or Supervising Tidying).

Creating order out of chaos.  

This is my life.  I’m glad I like it.  

Come to think of it, God must like it too.  Just think of all He’s done:

Out of the chaos of nothing, He created an orderly, law-abiding, wonder-filled universe to run faithfully and predictably under His command...

Out of a lump of mud, He created the marvel we call “a human being”…

He took the horrible mess-up we call “sin” and redeemed it with the most wonderful, surprising, beautifully crafted Rescue Plan ever invented… 

And he daily takes my fallen, sinful, imperfect striving and turns it into works of grace… 

(lately I've been listening to Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song “Holy Spirit”...)


What chaos is in your life right now?  Do you need to believe He can make something beautiful out of it?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Preparing for Advent {Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Part 2}

{Are you prepared to teach your children the Christmas story this year?  Why not make your own family Advent Calendar to use year after year?  
For part 1 of this series, click here...} 

I love what Noel Piper has to say about their family Advent Calendar:

“Mommy, Mommy!  May I open the next window on the calendar?”  A simple pasteboard Advent calendar with one flap to open on each day in December is probably the most familiar way to help a child understand the wait until Christmas.  In the stores several themes are likely to be available, including Swiss mountain villages and Santa’s workshops.  But since the Advent -- the coming -- we’re waiting for is Christ’s, let’s make sure our daily countdown has a real Christmas setting.
For our family a more permanent calendar has become a tradition. When our first child was a toddler, I could find hardly any Christmas things that had to do with Jesus.  So I created the Noel Calendar, a burlap banner with plastic and wood figures that by December 25 have been attached with Velcro across the top half of the banner to represent the Christmas story.  Throughout the month, that story is told in increments, starting over at the beginning and adding a bit more each day.  
The first year we used the calendar, I learned an important lesson: Repetition is an excellent way for a child to memorize.  In mid-December, when Karsten was barely two, my mother-in-law died in a bus crash in Israel.  With little time to plan, we were on our way from Minnesota to South Carolina to take care of my father-in-law, who had been injured.  On an impulse I had tossed the calendar into a suitcase.  In the midst of so much confusion, shock and irregularity, Karsten forgot everything he’d learned about potty training and too much of what he knew about behaving.  But even though he could hardly make a whole sentence on his own yet, he could pick up the Christmas story at any point and keep it going, word for word, as he’d heard it day after day when we did the calendar. 
...This period in Karsten’s life was the time when I began to realize the place of [repetition and regularity] in my life with my children -- repeating regularly the story that for centuries God’s people had longed to know.  
-Noel Piper, Treasuring God in Our Traditions, pp.78-79 (emphasis added)
We've been using our Advent Calendar for two years now, and William (who will be 6 next month) asked me this week if we're going to get out "The Green Thing" to count down the days until Christmas!  I told him yes, two days after his birthday we'll get it out.  He smiled, anticipation beginning already.  This really works!  (Even if the name "Advent" hasn't stuck yet…)

So.  Back to crafting.  Light a candle, turn on kids' Christmas music on the iPod… 

...and get to work!
Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Part 2

Getting Started

1. Gather your materials:
  • colored felt
  • printed out paper patterns
  • sharpie marker
  • scissors
  • Tacky Craft Glue or a hot glue gun
  • safety pins

2. Safety-pin enough allowance at the top of your background piece so you can put a dowel through it later to hang it up.

Check Spacing

Check to make sure you have room on your background for everything you want to include: 
  • the title - "The Christmas Story"
  • the finished manger scene underneath
  • the 25 storage spots for all the pieces at the bottom
1. Lay out your paper letters for the title “The Christmas Story” at the top of your background piece. 

2. Under the title, lay out your paper patterns for your manger scene, the way you want it to finally appear on Day 25.  Place a pencil or pen horizontally on your background to mark the bottom of the scene.   

3. Next, shift all your pieces down to the lower half of your background (under the pencil) and lay them out in rows, ordering them from #1-25.  You might have to move them around a bit until they all fit - you're just checking spacing and proportions at this stage, so you don't make all your pieces and then find out they don't fit.  

Start Making Pieces

Now you're ready to start making pieces!  

1. First, if you haven't done this already, make a list of your 25 pieces and write down the colors of felt you want to use for the parts of each one. 

2. Then, start with any piece you like.  I started at the beginning, with Mary, and worked my way down the list.

The patterns I found online seemed a bit plump, so I cut them down and traced around Mary’s body, head, and head covering on colored pieces of felt.  Then I glued them together with generous dots of craft glue.  (A hot glue gun would work better, but I didn't have one of those.)

I think Mary turned out well - simple, proportional, easy to recognize.  (She’ll be the only one wearing blue.)
3. I went on to make Joseph, adapting my friend’s patterns to suit what I wanted. 

4. Bethlehem came next: a long rectangle of gray felt behind and a brown square on top, with yellow lighted windows and doors.  

5. For the animals, I used my friend’s design for almost all of them, since her animals were the best.  The only animal I had to draw myself was the camel, and I must admit, I'm pretty proud of him!

6.  Use craft glue or a hot glue gun to attach a small square of velcro on the back of each character.  {After two years of use, my craft glue still seems fine overall - only an occasional re-glue needed.}
{NB: It took me a couple sessions to finish all my pieces… But this is the time-consuming part - the rest is easy!}

All your pieces finished?
Congratulations!  You've finished the hardest part!  Keep going!  

{For a copy of the Christmas story divided into 25 pieces, email me at}