Wednesday, December 28, 2011

If You're Looking For A Home

It's the first week of December when I write about the call to Joy in the middle of all the unknowns.  But it's really the title phrase that catches me when I'm finished, reminds me of something I wrote just a few months back.

It was October when I wrote that it was time to let go.

And it's December when I write that it's time to rejoice.

I'm foolish enough to think it's only the titles that echo each other, because sometimes I'm just as blind as ever to the God who's always weaving the days together, telling a story I don't quite understand.

But God, He's not phased by this woman's scaled eyes and He lets the Truth Whisper slip down into the soul, rustle through thoughts until I can't help but recognize what's been there all along.

It was October when I wrote about letting go of what's been lost--the home that once was and will never be again, the life once lived that's fallen clean apart.  And it's December when I write about choosing joy in the "in between"--after it's all been torn down and we're still waiting here in the wreckage for what He's going to build.

And when I write about the "in between," I scratch it down boldly that God is Joy and God is Love--but somehow I stop short of the one thing I'm not yet ready to believe.

But God, He doesn't give up and He takes me to a place that seems unrelated, draws me back to my musings on the Psalms of Ascent.  And I pick up where I left off, read through that third song on this long road:

Psalm 122
I rejoiced with those who said to me,
'Let us go to the house of the LORD.'
Our feet are standing
in your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is built like a city
that is closely compacted together.
That is where the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
to praise the name of the LORD
according to the statute given to Israel.
There the thrones for judgment stand,
the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
'May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.'
For the sake of my brothers and friends,
I will say, 'Peace be within you.'
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

But I don't understand where this road's going.  The one who's been on the journey before, she writes this:  "The first Psalm of Ascent {Ps 120} seemed to position the pilgrim in an alien land.  Psalm 121 {the second Psalm of Ascent} pictured the pilgrim on his journey, gazing at the hills before him, enduring harsh elements, and dreading the dark of night.  In the third psalm {Ps 122} he stands with weary feet and a glad heart on the soil of his destination." {Beth Moore, Stepping Up}

And this is why I can't grab hold of what God's trying to say.  The psalmist has reached his destination.  And me?  I'm still wandering about in the wilderness, unsure if I'm even heading in the right direction.

But I turn to a secondary passage and it's there that I'm undone.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth...were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ....  Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.  {Ephesians 2:11-22}

And finally it's plain as day the one thing I can't--won't?--declare to the world when I write down words about rejoicing in the "in between."  I say that God is Joy and God is Love, but I pull back before I can say this, too:

God is Home.

For two and a half years, I've lived in places I don't call home, and for every last one of those months, there's been an empty aching way down deep.  Because I desperately want a place to belong, a place to root right into, a place to call home.  And all this time, I thought this longing of mine would find rest when the ruins of a life had been healed, built up--when I'd been settled into a home again at long last.

But it's this truth in Ephesians that shakes me out of my assumptions, reaches into the marrow of a life and turns it upside down.  I'm no longer an outsider, a lost pilgrim in a foreign land.  I'm a member of God's household--I *belong* in God's family.  And Christ, He's building me into a House of God.

God is Home.  And in Him, I am always--always--at home.

And this longing that burns and writhes within?  It's for Him.  I'm longing to find my home in Him.

It's been 12 long months since I named this year Faith, and God, He's poured down a fountain of Grace I couldn't contain.  And all that Grace?  It's led me straight to the Love I've been shutting out my whole life.  As these last days of December slip away, I'm hearing His gentle whispers of what the new year might hold.  And maybe I don't yet have a name for the year that's coming, but I know there's at least one thing He's asked--to make myself at home in Him.

Maybe I don't know the how and the what and the when of it all, but I've no doubt that He'll teach and stretch and pull me wide open along the way.  And, oh, what sweet hope there is in knowing that He's Home and I'm already in Him--now I've only to figure out how to really live here.

It might take a whole life to learn this one thing.  But isn't now the best time of all to begin?  It is and I will and, oh, I can hardly wait for the new year to unfold.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

When Christmas Is In Full Bloom

It's Christmas Day here and it's been a full weekend of baking and cooking, giving and laughing, eating and celebrating.  And there might not be any strength left for finding words, but on this Day of Hope I can't help but slip in to whisper "Merry Christmas" to each and every one of you.

Some of you are the dear real-life friends who've walked a bit of hard road with me.  Some of you are the family who've known me through all the years of growing and struggling and becoming.  Some of you are readers who've stepped out of the shadows to speak into my story and now I've nothing but joy in calling you Friends.

And, yes, there are still more of you who've been faithful visitors here at Growing Is Beautiful but you're still slipping in quietly, not yet ready to make your presence known.  You may not understand this--but I'm grateful for you, too.  If we never meet or even exchange words of Hope and Love and Wisdom, I still count you as Gift.  I still count you as Grace, pouring down from the One Who Loves.  And, oh, does He love well!

Wherever you are on this Christmas Day, may you feel Him near and know without one shadow of doubt that you are loved, that your life matters, that you--yes, you--are His gift to a hurting, Christ-starved world.

Even in the dead of Winter, when all seems lost and we wonder if there'll ever be light again--even then, He is here and alive and oh-so-full of Grace.  He came to us once, a babe in a stable, and He's promised to come to us again, gather us in His arms, take us to the only Home we'll ever need.

But what really matters most of all?  He's here with us now.

Yes.  Emmanuel.

God is with us.

May you know it today more than you've ever known it in all the years before.

Merry Christmas, Dearest Friends!

{Photographs taken at Molbak's earlier this week, where Christmas was in full bloom and I couldn't take my eyes off all the beauty}

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How To Find Order In The Chaos

It's in the middle of all the quiet days when I turn my attention to a task that's sat unfinished for nearly a year.

It started last fall, when life was changing, trying to re-balance itself under the weight of all that Hope.  And I couldn't keep my hands off the clutter around me because who can resist bringing order to the chaos when God's gifted a future no one ever saw coming?

So I recorded all the mess in pictures that held a thousand words, told the story of the path I'd walked in the months before a diagnosis.  And then I set to work, carved out a place for my new life--a place to breathe and rest and find a way to really live.

And I took pictures then, too, of all the progress made, and I really did make progress.  But there was one corner of space that seemed too big to handle and I might've tried my best and I might've even made it halfway up the mountain.

But that's where I stopped and that's where it stayed and that's where it's been for nearly a year.

And then the days of silence come and I can't make sense of all the chaos of a soul and all I want is to fix something, anything--bring order to what I can touch with my own two hands.  And this time I won't give up until it's finished.

It isn't easy and it isn't fast, but after weeks of work, I stand back and I know I've done what I needed.  Because somehow, what once held all those symbols of a broken, weighed down, jumbled mess of a life--it stands there now with space and beauty and peace.



And I wrestle for weeks about the importance of these pictures--whether anyone really needs to see the inner workings of a daily life.  But I start to think maybe I'm not the only one who's feeling the chaos of a soul and longing for a way to find a little peace.

God, He's the only One who works out all the mess of a life, breaths order back into the places of a soul turned inside out by change and struggle and the everyday journey.  But sometimes we just need to give Him room to work, clear out a bit of chaos in the tangible corners of our lives, give ourselves an object lesson in the process of restoration.

So there's nothing earth shattering here, but I'll gladly share the little steps it took to climb this mountain of mine--and maybe, just maybe, they'll whisper Hope to a few hearts working through some chaos of their own?


First I ask for help (something I'm still learning how to do) and it's only an afternoon later when a carpentry-savvy father finishes putting in shelves to make better use of the space on the left side of my desk.  Now it holds all the brightly-colored books I need for work, a white wooden box to corral miscellaneous cords and connections, and one over-sized plastic drawer unit for reams of paper, folders and large mailing envelopes.

On the right side of my desk, I use an adhesive-backed hook to mount the wall calendar to the white board I never use.  Then I find an incline sorter at a secondhand shop and fill it with brightly colored folders to keep open projects and paperwork close at hand.  A small metal desk organizer houses the office supplies I need often and keeps them neatly ready for use.  (And the little cat and dog?  They are squishy tools for hand exercises and stress relief.  They keep me sane while I work.)

And that center shelf that's always collected paper and junk and who-knows-what-else?  I fill it with three plastic drawer units, carefully labeled and holding everything from stationery and paperclips to software and blank discs.

Then I find a pack of cardboard storage boxes on sale for half price and choose a roll of contact paper from the kitchen aisle.  It might be a few hours of painstaking work, but I turn those plain and empty boxes into beauty-covered homes for all the files my drawers won't hold--and at the cost of only a few dollars per box.  They line the top tier of my desk, and I smile every time I look up and find them there.

I've got more music CDs than I can count, so I purchase empty sheets to hold them, find three-ring binders at the secondhand shop, and now they're all happily ordered and labeled.  Two clearance CD racks make homes for the new music I've yet to listen to, load onto the computer, and burn backup discs for the car.

And then I turn my attention to the back of this enormous desk, try to wrangle three sets of cords into some semblance of peace.  But even then, I'm left longing for beauty, so I use sticky-backed Velcro and a flat twin sheet and cover up all the things that aren't supposed to be seen anyway.


When I've finally made order out of all the mess, I realize what I've really done is this:  Given the soul a bit of time and space to breathe and ponder and find its way back to the One Who is Peace.  And when I wonder how there'll ever be a day without the soul in upheaval, I stare long at this desk that's been torn apart and remade into something beautiful and I remember that the One Who turns the ashes into beauty has never seen a mountain He couldn't climb, a life He couldn't rescue, a soul He couldn't make into a Home.

So if your feeling a bit lost inside?  Wondering how to find Peace?  Maybe turn your hands to a little corner of the tangible world and practice what He's already doing in the soul corners you can't reach.  And just maybe you'll discover you've made room to breathe and ponder and find your way back to Peace Himself.

Grace to you, Dear Friends, in whatever state of chaos you may find yourself.  May you know He's near and active no matter the depth of your mess.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

When You're Looking to Bake a Batch of Joy

Just slipping in here today to share a few recipes that have brightened up my holiday celebrations this year.  Perhaps they might bring a bit of joy to your days as well?

Wherever you are and in whatever ways you are marking the birth of Grace Himself, may you find Him near and feel His Joy way down deep in every last corner of your heart.

Grace to each of you, Dear Friends.


Cranberry Cream Cheese Muffins

(Printable Version)

Prep Time:  15 minutes
Bake Time:  20-25 minutes

1 cup butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1-1/2 cups sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups fresh or frozen (unthawed) cranberries
½ cup chopped pecans

  1. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  2. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt; stir into creamed mixture just until moistened.
  3. Fold in cranberries and pecans.
  4. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups three-fourths full.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Muffins will not brown, so use the toothpick as your guide.
  5. Cool for 5 minutes before removing from pans and transferring to wire racks.

Yield:  24 muffins

 Cranberry Almond Coffee Cake

(Printable Version)

Prep Time:  20 minutes
Bake Time:  45-55 minutes

½ cup almond paste
6 tablespoons butter, softened
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 eggs
1 cup plus ⅓ cup all-purpose flour, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2-1/4 cups fresh or frozen (unthawed) cranberries

  1. In a small mixing bowl, cream together almond paste, butter, and ½ cup sugar until fluffy.  Add 2 eggs, beating well after each addition.
  2. Combine 1 cup flour and baking powder; add to creamed mixture.
  3. Beat in the remaining egg and ⅓ cup flour.
  4. Stir in extracts and gently fold in cranberries.
  5. Spread batter evenly into a greased 8-inch square baking dish and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.
  6. Bake at 325 degrees for 45-55 minutes or until toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool on wire rack. 
Note:  I threw in the whole bag of cranberries (about 3 cups), which is why the above photo is quite loaded with berries.  This made the cake a bit on the tart side (perfect with a dollop of ice cream!), so I'd probably stick with the amount called for in the recipe next time.


Candy Cane Kisses Cookies

I posted the recipe for these fun treats last Christmas, but I just baked up a batch for a Christmas party and was reminded of just how much I love them.  You can find this recipe by clicking here--updated with fresh photos and a link to the printable version of the recipe.

Now go bake up a batch of joy!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When You Want To See Him All Year Long

 **Giveaway Update**
Many thanks to all who commented here, on Facebook, and via email!  The three random winners from the drawing are "Tinuviel," "Dustin and Shannon," and "Nellie S."  Congratulations!!  Send your mailing address to Courtney {at} Growing Is Beautiful {dot} com and I will get your calendar in the mail right after Christmas.

And if you didn't win this time around?  I hope you'll still count us friends and keep your eyes wide open to the God who's ever near and ever full of Grace.  May the year ahead be more full of Him than any you've known before.

There's no denying that there's more of God than we can wrap ourselves around.  But all of us, we've been given eyes to see Him if we'll only choose to open them wide, let Him blind us with Beauty and Glory and God in even the most ordinary of days.

There are a million places to see Him, find Him, know He's near--and we've each been given our own unique eyes through which to seek His face.  No, we'll never see Him fully until that day we're finally Home and Whole and on our faces at His feet--but what if we all shared what we've seen, let everyone else peer through the eyes we've been given?

Wouldn't it fill the whole world with the One Who can deliver us all?

God, He's not been hard to find these last months of a life.  I've seen Him in hard days and dark nights, in the wounding and the wondering.  But I've seen Him, too, in the healing and the mending, in the Love and the Grace and the Hope that just won't quit.  Yes, He's been near and strong and oh-so-glorious every month, every day, every hour of this year.

But these eyes He's given me?  There's one place I see Him that pours Joy straight into the marrow.  And I capture tiny pieces of His Glory with the eyes of a camera and all I want is to turn around and show the whole world--Look!  Do you see Him?  Isn't He the most beautiful, glorious, life-giving One you've ever seen?

Oh, won't you let me show you what I see?

I stand in the cold sun of a January day, stare long at branches stripped of green and find God right there at the center of it all--the dogwood's branches bathed in light and life, God guarding Hope in the sacred depths of Winter's silence.

I wander through a grove of witch hazel trees on a February afternoon, blooms dripping straight from the barren places, and God whispers this truth--that sometimes the Beauty and the Glory and the God are found precisely because frozen winds sweep everything else away.

Then March dawns with rain and storm but a promise of Spring--and I kneel on the wet ground to see crocuses heralding the earth's rebirth, mouths opened wide to praise the One Who holds us all together.

April finally comes and I'm stopped short in the middle of the path, one branch of a cherry tree swooping down to meet me where I am, this one cluster of blooms filling me with longing for the face of the One I love--the One Who always meets me where I am.

And it's the month of May that finds me soaking in the warmth of the late Spring sun and I'm circling all the magnolia trees at least a dozen times because I can't get enough of beauty bursting out of cocoons, God delivering life from all these tiny wombs.

I'm lost in the maze of an arboretum one morning in June when I find all these hydrangea blooms darting in and out of the shadows, echoing His whisper, "Come and find Me."  So I seek and I find and I can't stop clicking the shutter because I don't want to forget the sound of His calling.

Then July comes rushing in with a welcome breath of warmth and I'm up before dawn to catch all the roses opening up to the day's first light.  Now I'm face to face with God awakening the whole garden with His Light and I can hardly bear to go back home.

It's August when I meander through rows of dahlias and I've a whole camera full of their beauty--but it's the one stem I bring home and settle in a glass that captures me most.  I snap a photo right there in the kitchen window and I'm beside myself with gratitude for a God so near in my tiny corner of the great big world.

Autumn's arrival isn't yet here, but September enters and the dogwood leaves start whispering of what's to come, bright green changing unexpectedly to glorious pink.  And who wants to dread the end of summer when God's busy painting the earth into a masterpiece?

It's October when I hear the Koto No Ito leaves playing the lilting song of Hope--because they've always known what I've only just learned through all the years of grieving:  Hope means laying it all down in the dark and waiting patiently, expectantly for the One Who Redeems to come and build the ashes into beauty.

Then November finds me traipsing through dead grass that's taller than me, braving spider webs bigger than any I've seen.  Because I've caught a glimpse of God across this field and I won't stop until I'm close enough to touch the Nyssa sylvatica trees all in a row, their leaves burnt orange with every last drop of Autumn's sun.

And maybe December slips in quietly while the earth marches right to Winter's edge--but my eyes are fixed on Him and I'm peering in the shadows, bending right down to the ground until I see the way He's studded even the tiniest of leaves with Winter's finest gems.

Yes, there's more God in this world than I'll ever see with my own eyes--but what I've already seen?  It's enough to fill every last one of my days with Beauty and Glory and Him.

Tomorrow, that fifteenth day of December, will mark my 30th birthday.  And what better way to celebrate the beginning of a new decade of life than by giving away tiny pieces of the God Who's enough to satisfy us all?

I've taken these twelve photographs here and turned them into a calendar--designed and printed through Shutterfly--and I have three copies I'd love to give away, share my eyes for a bit and remind you to look for Him all year long.  If you wouldn't mind leaving a comment and letting me see through your eyes, too?  Tell me a place or a piece of this life where you see God most?

**Entries will be accepted until midnight Pacific time, December 21, 2011.**
**Three winners will be randomly selected after that date.**

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When It's Time To Rejoice

My mama, she labors off and on for three years to make something beautiful for me, her one daughter.  She chooses colors no one would expect but she picks them out because it's me she's choosing to celebrate.

And  maybe these colors don't whisper Christmas to anyone but me, but Christmas, it's always meant Joy to me--and who can resist celebrating the birth of Grace Himself with colors that seem to shout, "Rejoice!"?

For long months my mama works, cutting strips and sewing seams, then ripping them all out again.  She wants everything to be perfect and she's determined to do it as many times as it takes--but all of us, we start to wonder if there'll ever be an end.

She covers the back in the deepest shade of purple because it's the color I've loved the longest, and she spends months figuring out how to surround the edges in snowy white because it's what I've dreamed of and she's not giving up until she's found a way.

And the very last part?  All these tiny stitches quilting everything together?  She finds the idea in the middle of the night and it means ripping out more stitches than ever before but she presses on and believes that somehow it will all be worth it.

She finishes five weeks before the third Christmas since she began, and when I lay it out on the floor, I see her love there in every little detail.

And maybe she didn't choose the daughter who'd be born to her but I know it now that she chose to love the daughter I am from the moment I was given--and is there really any way to say thanks for that kind of gift?

She asks if I'd let her use this piece of beauty around her tree this year because she knows I haven't got a tree or even a home now.  And who wants to pack up the long labor in a box where no one will see?

But my heart, it aches a little thinking about the home I've lost and the future I'm unsure of, and I think it might just be easier to slip this gift in with the rest of the things I've stored and hope that next year I might have a place to call home, a place to let the joy colors come out of hiding.

I see it in her face, though--the disappointment after all the months of work.  And I feel the weight of that, too, right along with my own grieving and I have to breathe through a few more days before I know what's right.

Because the sadness of loss, it creeps up sometimes and whispers that it might be better to slip Joy into a back corner.  But it's not just these colors shouting "Rejoice!"  It's Him, too, isn't it?

This life lived in between what's been torn down and what's yet to be built, sometimes it feels all wrong.  But God, He's not just here in the beginning and the ending.  He's right in the middle of all the in-betweens, too.  And aren't we celebrating the One Who was born oh so far from Home anyway?

So I put on silly slippers beneath serious pants...

...and we hang a garland of color along the fireplace bricks...

...and slip grandmother-sewn stockings onto hooks across the mantle.

But then we start to adorn the tree that isn't mine, in the house that isn't mine either, and it's only a few minutes before one shiny green ball slips straight from my hands and shatters all to pieces on the floor.  And the ache roars strong and I shut my eyes tight, because all I want to do is gather up everything beautiful and pack it safely away in boxes again, hide it in a place where life can't break it anymore.

Still, I know this more than I know most things--the way all the Beauty and Glory and God can't be tucked out of sight, the way Joy breaks into pieces sometimes, leaving us wishing for a safety and certainty we can't seem to find.

But God, He's Joy and He's been the One broken to pieces for us and He's calling us to live with the hands stretched open, all His Grace filling us up and overflowing straight into the world.

So I breathe through the aching and swallow down the tears and choose to fill empty spaces with shiny orbs of joy, all the colors reflecting this one word:  Rejoice!

And that circle of love surrounds the base of the tree and ties everything together--because God, He's Love and He's the anchor that holds us down when we're afraid we might be torn right from the ground.

I don't know how He'll rebuild a life but I'm certain He'll do it and I've only this one thing to do in the waiting:  Rejoice!

Because God, He left everything to find me and He offered Himself up for the worst kind of breaking because of the joy He knew would come on the other side.  And didn't He die so that I'd know that Joy?  The Joy of redemption, of reconciliation, of life as it was intended to be all along?

So I'll choose Joy here.  I'll choose Him in the waiting and the wondering and it won't just be all these colors shouting, "Rejoice!"

Because I'll be saying it, too.