Friday, December 25, 2009

White Oklahoma Christmas

It is a white Christmas in Oklahoma. The "Unknown Precipitation" turned into snow. Honestly, I could have done without snow and ice during a time when families like to travel and get together, but at least it is pretty! This is what all the kids want! I have a habit of humming/singing songs from who knows where without even knowing it, so even I have broken out into song with, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas... just like the ones I used to know!" And yes, when I lived in Massachusetts, we did get more snow, but a white Christmas here is not like a white Christmas up north. New Englanders know how to handle snowstorms, so the roads are much safer up there in a snowstorm than here in Oklahoma under similar circumstances. One good thing about snowy roads is that they look white and pretty. It is gorgeous!

Note: The white photo to the right is of my street.
The photo at the top is of a neighbor's Christmas display.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas!

It is the last night of Advent. We wait to light the center Christ candle until tomorrow. It symbolizes the coming of Jesus. He came once as a baby, and He will come again as our King.
Christmas is a good time to remember family -- both those present and those loved ones separated from us by either distance or death. In this picture, you can see the pictures of both of my grandmothers. My dad's mother (in the top left) is waiting for us in Heaven. My mom's mother (in the bottom right) wished me a "Merry Christmas" on the phone this morning. I have many fond Christmas memories with her.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve Musings

My town is experiencing "Unknown Precipitation" today on Christmas Eve. It appears white on the streets, but it looks like rain in the air, and it sounds like... something frozen. That is not good.

Nicely, the house is warm and comfortable inside. My Mom is making her traditional Swedish Tea Ring at the moment, and my Dad has finished planning the Christmas Eve Service for church. We are planning a simpler menu for tomorrow than usual to keep this year relaxed and Christ-centered.

I am looking forward to Advent tonight. My family members have taken turns researching the history of familiar Christmas songs to share with the rest of the family. My sister started with I saw Three Ships. My mom followed up with Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem. David chose What Child is This? for last night's lesson. It is my turn tonight to present the history of Silent Night.

Also during Advent, my family is learning the seven "I am" statements of Christ from the book of John. My Dad has presented the first three so far. Jesus said, (1) I am the Bread of Life, (2) I am the Light of the World, and (3) I am the Door of the Sheep. The rest may carry over into the 12 days of Christmas!

This is a Christmas ornament I made this year.

Christmas is a wonderful time, but I am reminded that it is not an easy time for everyone. It can be especially difficult for those who have lost loved ones during the Christmas season -- either this year or during some Christmas past. Members of my own extended family are going through this struggle right now. The good news is that Jesus came to fulfill Isaiah 61 and "comfort all who mourn."

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
Isaiah 61:1-3

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Looking Back and Giving Thanks

2005 deepened my understanding of trusting God.

2006 was most difficult -- but full of spiritual growth.

2007 helped me find out who I am as an individual.

2008 was full of transition and surprises as I started a new chapter in my life.

2009 has been a roller coaster of joy, hard work, and anticipation of things to come.

Looking back on the last five years, I see that some of the most challenging times were some of my best times too. I live a blessed and joyful life, but there were moments in the past five years that were difficult beyond description. My walk with the Lord was deepened through experiences I would not have chosen for myself. My challenges were not extraordinary by any means, but they were unique to my struggles and specially molded to my situations and needs.

God knows what is best for me; He is molding me into the woman of faith he intended me to be. As Isaiah said:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
(Isaiah 64:8)

I have felt broken, molded, reworked, and baked, but I am so glad He cares enough about me to be my Father and my Potter.

In this Christmas season, we remember God's creative power. He made a way for us to be justly forgiven of our sins by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God became flesh and dwelt among us! He came humbly as a baby to live a human life; He felt our joys and our pains and lived a perfect life so He could be the sacrifice for us who have been so imperfect. Glory be to God Most High who loved us before we loved Him!

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Imagined Smarts

As a child storyteller, I told fanciful tall tales about large homes, massive grounds, tunnels that could circumnavigate the globe, and brilliant children.

Occasionally, they had parents.

If they did have parents, their mom and dad were sure to be good parents. If my story children did not have parents, they would be sad and mournful while happily living successful lives with some dismissive uncle. They thrived wherever they were put, and, regardless of formal or informal education, good teachers or bad teachers, my characters were smarter than smart.

Alicia, Rose, Alex, John, Alice…they all studied very hard or very well or for a very long time – and they loved it. Whether they lived in boarding schools or were homeschooled, my children were always at the top of their classes. It was so easy to say that Alicia (or whoever else was my current star) studied diligently all day.

If I needed her to have fun, I just made her wake up the next day with the grand idea to have friends over to play in her mansion or walk in the beautiful gardens she had spent tireless hours working in (with the help of a few gardeners). You never lived to hear tell of sweat, dirty hands, or failed crops. You never heard her puzzle over a difficult math equation. I planned her work in a moment, and it was over in a sentence – a paragraph at most. Alicia was ready for some new adventure.

It was easy for my story children to work faster and harder than anyone you ever met.

Now, years after I have outgrown the fanciful tales I used to entertain myself, brother, and sister, I find myself needing to study harder than ever before on a long list of subjects that take more than my imagination. I can’t say, “Elizabeth went to her school room and studied diligently all afternoon.” and call that enough. I have to Study and be Quiet (yes, pun intended).

Studying is hard work. It is harder than a story, but it is much better. I am a real person spending real time making real sacrifices and needing real help, so I can achieve a goal I feel called to achieve. So, what am I waiting for? Back to the books!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

In the Kitchen: Irish Soda Bread

Irish Soda Bread

4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup corn oil
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon milk

Preheat the oven to 350*F. Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, stir the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, buttermilk, and oil together. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk mixture. Add the caraway seeds and raisins. Stir until a soft dough has formed.

Shape the dough into a large ball on a lightly floured board [I just do it in the bowl for less mess] (flour your hands if necessary for easier handling). With a sharp knife, make a cross on the top. Place on the prepared pan. Brush the top with the milk. Bake in the center of the oven until golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes.

[from The Irish Heritage Cookbook by Margaret M. Johnson]
Everyone seems to cross the cross differently on their soda bread. Just search Google Images for Irish Soda Bread, and you will see what I mean. My family likes deep cuts -- almost cutting it completely through. However, if you do it this way, have your foil ready. It will be done on the peaks much earlier than in the valleys which will still be doughy. I start covering it about half way through the baking time -- even using two pieces of foil to allow a separation and allow direct heat on the center. Don't leave the caraway seeds out; they are really what make this recipe special.


An Explanation on the Length and Purpose of my Zechariah and Elizabeth Advent Series.

Six posts in six days (now seven): that has got to be a personal record for Study.Quiet. Why did I post so many? Why were they so long to the point that normal people can't read them?

Frankly, it was fun. I enjoyed writing them. But my reasons for these posts go deeper than simple enjoyment. It is a series I have been meaning to write since this blog first began back in 2006. It wasn't the right time then. If I had given it even more time, the posts might have been better -- and shorter. But Zechariah and Elizabeth's story was on my mind Sunday night, and I felt the itch to write.

It speaks to issues going on in my own life right now. Patience, trust, looking to God for His timing, resting on Him when I fail and am inadequate. Like Zechariah, I ask doubting questions. I tend to over think things. Like Elizabeth, I desire things and struggle with the wait. I want to be like the best qualities in Elizabeth and Zechariah, and they turned to the Almighty God for their answers.

So, that is my heart. I wrote this series for me. I needed to stop and think. If the posts seemed to ramble or get long, it is because I needed to think a few things through and write them down.

Actually, in my most ambitious moments, I planned to do a series each for Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Realistically, I don't have the time this year. Besides, my heart was with Elizabeth and Zechariah this season anyway. I take my Humanities exam on the 18th of this month, and I need to study more. I might post a thing or two over the next few weeks, but I will try to keep them short.

Blessings to everyone! Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Advent 1.6 -- Zechariah and Elizabeth: Prophetic Joy

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:5-24, 39-80

Background: Elizabeth gives birth to a healthy baby boy, and Zechariah could not be more excited. He opens his mouth to congratulate his wife, but nothing comes out. He is still mute.

"Why?" he might inwardly scream. The angel had said, "And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

"The baby is here! Why can't I speak?" the priest may wonder.

My thoughts: Zechariah has had a challenging nine months. First, an angel appears and promises a son, but, because of Zechariah's doubt, takes away his voice. For months now Zechariah has been communicating solely by signs and writing. Zechariah can hardly wait for his son to be born. He wants to hold his baby in his arms and... he wants to speak to him!

So, the baby is born, but Zechariah cannot speak. I can imagine Zechariah standing by his resting wife and newborn, his hand clasped in Elizabeth's -- silently crying -- overwhelmed by joy and regret. Can God be trusted?

Zechariah, though confused, knows the answer. Yes, God can be trusted. It is he who was untrustworthy, but God is and always will be faithful.

Fast forward eight days. All the family and friends have come to rejoice with Zechariah and Elizabeth in the circumcision of the baby. The little boy must be given a name, and everyone wants to help with that. The crowd picks "Zechariah." Naming the boy after his father would be fitting -- to keep his name alive. There are no other children, the parents are elderly, and, indeed, Zechariah may not live much longer -- look how he is failing already. He cannot speak!

But Elizabeth will have nothing to do with it. She says, “No; he shall be called John.”

"John? But there is no one in the family by that name." They insist, "He must have a family name!" Ignoring Elizabeth now, they turn to the father and, using signs, ask him what the boy should be called. Surely, he -- poor man -- will see their side of things!

Zechariah, perhaps standing back in the corner as his baby is passed from one relative to another, motions for his writing tablet. He knows the baby's name. It was given to him by God. He writes "His name is John." in big bold letters. He shows it to the crowded room. Emotion overtakes him as he realizes that God is both merciful and great. Out of the abundance of his gratitude and obedience, he blesses God -- out loud. The message from God, spoken by the angel Gabriel, is fulfilled. Zechariah's tongue is loosed, and so is everyone else's; the story is spread all throughout the hill country of Judea! They ask in their hearts “What then will this child be?”

They account goes on to say:

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Zechariah understands the bigger picture. He is trusting God to move through the lives of his family in whatever way He chooses. It doesn't need to make sense --age, youth, marital status -- all of it is meaningless when it comes to God's ability to use us for His glory.

No matter what stage we are in our lives, if we make ourselves available to God, He can and will use us for His purposes. Zechariah has had months to contemplate the wondrous works of God. None of it made sense to his logical mind at first, but now, he is able to put his doubt away and understand it with his heart. He is able to trust God. Full of the Holy Spirit, Zechariah becomes God's mouthpiece to speak blessings over his son and prophesy about John's role in preparing others for the soon coming Messiah.

Zechariah was a righteous man before all of this happened, but now, his faith has been tried, grounded, and built up. He has the joy of a son and the purpose to help John become a faithful prophet of God. Zechariah's sacrifice and experience, his joy and his sorrow, his relationship with his wife Elizabeth and her cousin Mary... it has prepared him for this role. He and Elizabeth will prepare their son John to prepare the world for the advent of the Savior.

What a mighty God we serve!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Advent 1.5 -- Zechariah and Elizabeth: Shelter in the Storm

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:5-24, 39-80

Background: Zechariah and Elizabeth are expecting a baby. Elizabeth exclaims, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” This is one joyful household! They are happy that their "bundle of joy," is on his way, but they both know this is no ordinary pregnancy.

My mom says that when she first found out she was pregnant with her firstborn, my sister Susanna, she imagined the cute, cuddly baby she would hold peacefully in her arms. It was not until the next day that she remembered one of the other aspects of child rearing: diapers. She began to encourage herself that her baby would grow up someday, but wait... her baby would grow up! Was she really ready for parenting?

My thoughts: Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have a lot more to deal with than diapers. Their son John will be, "a prophet of the Most High." There had to be a lot of questions in these elderly -- but new -- parents' minds.

Then, just a few months into Elizabeth's pregnancy, a visitor arrives at their door -- Elizabeth's maiden cousin Mary -- and what a surprise of joy she will bring!

The Bible account tells us:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

This is probably not the way Mary expected to be greeted. Elizabeth knew her secret, but she wasn't shocked. Rather, she was rejoicing and calling her blessed! This is testimony to Elizabeth's strong relationship with the Lord. The Holy Spirit was able to use Elizabeth to affirm Mary in her greatest moment of need.

Elizabeth was a port in the storm for Mary, an unmarried girl who found herself pregnant. Mary didn't have a great excuse either. Instead, she has an unbelievable story about still being a virgin, an angelic visit, and that her unborn child is the son of the Most High God. Yet, Elizabeth believed. She didn't even need the explanation; she (and baby John within her) recognized Mary as the mother of her Lord! Remarkable.

Elizabeth is the kind of woman I want to be. She was led by the Holy Spirit, she was a place of security and comfort within her family, she was an encourager, and, most of all, she had faith in God. She wasn't afraid to shelter a girl with a strange, scandalous tale. She felt honored to be chosen by Mary as a safe mentor to go to. Elizabeth was able to express genuine joy!

But what about Zechariah? He has been punished by God and made mute. Will he rise above it all and believe Mary? Can he have joy despite his questions? …more on that later.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Advent 1.4 -- Zechariah and Elizabeth: Prepared For Purpose

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:5-24, 39-80

Background: God's timing is impeccable. He handpicked the family that would give John the training and nurturing needed for a lifetime of service. The baby Elizabeth carried was not to grow up and become a man of leisure. He wasn't even going to spend his life in normal hard work with the comforts of a home and family. No, his life was given a unique purpose before he was even born. Young John was trained to be a man of service, to love and follow the Lord above everything. He would not have the chance to marry or have a family of his own. He would anger important people and ultimately die for his bold words and actions. His purpose was seemingly simple but dangerously radical. He was, "To make ready for the Lord a people prepared."

My thoughts: How did John grow up to be a loud spokesman for God? What made him into a bold man who would relentlessly speak God's message of repentance to King Herod and anyone else who would listen?

He was prepared for this purpose by God Himself. God gave John parents who knew how to sacrifice and serve. Zechariah and Elizabeth knew how to put God's plans above their own desires. They spent years practicing faithful service without apparent rewards. Zechariah and Elizabeth were the perfect parents for John.

John had something else too. It is a Someone that I have too -- Jesus Christ. John would grow up to prepare the way for this Jesus and say,

“I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17)
And later,

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ (John 1:29-30)

This last exclamation is a clear acknowledgment of the divinity of Jesus Christ. John says of Jesus, "He was before me." He says this even though John was physically several months older than Jesus. He even started his public ministry earlier! Yet John understood the supreme importance of Jesus Christ and put his faith in him long before Jesus had a following or performed any miracles. John was full of the Holy Spirit from before his birth, and he recognized the Savior. Recognition wasn't enough, however. John would die for his convictions.

In this Advent season we look back and remember the first coming of Christ and look forward to His second coming. Like John, we too are prepared for a purpose. Just as John prepared the way for Jesus' ministry here on earth, we all must be preparing the way for His second coming. He is coming soon! That is something to rejoice about! ...but more on that later.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Advent 1.3 -- Zechariah and Elizabeth: Trust and Timing

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:5-24, 39-80

Background: Zechariah was resigned to the idea of being childless, but it had to hurt. He might have struggled with wanting to be enough for Elizabeth's happiness -- even without the blessing of children. Out of love for his wife he might not have mentioned his desire for children as much as he used to. Perhaps his yearning for children was voiced only in a habitual, silent prayer to God that he and his wife be blessed. Despite giving up hope long ago, he may have held on to his prayer simply out of habit or because dropping it meant admitting forever that he would never have the long desired son or daughter. Maybe he just couldn't admit that his dream would never be realized. Whatever the struggle, however, Zechariah had moved on with his life. He had a job to do. After all, he was a priest of the Most High God.

My thoughts: Zechariah was working for the Lord by burning incense in the temple. This was his moment to serve God and pray inside the temple. Remember that this was not like the modern Christian church where anyone and everyone has open access to the sanctuary. This was a great honor -- probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It was at this special moment in Zechariah's life that God moved. Luke 1 tells us that:

"There appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Imagine! God is giving Zechariah and Elizabeth their heart's desire. He is giving them a son! And instead of just allowing them to discover the miracle of Elizabeth's pregnancy on their own, He sends an angelic messenger to tell Zechariah in person and give him detailed instructions about what the child should be named and how he should be raised!

How did Zechariah respond?

Sadly, Zechariah had given up all hope of a child to the point that when a fear-inspiring angel stood before him in the temple of the Lord, looked him squarely in the face, and audibly told him, "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son." Zechariah could not believe it. He asked for proof. Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Before we are too hard on Zechariah, think about how you would respond if the same thing happened to you. How would I react if I had wanted something so badly that I had spent years praying for it even after all hope was gone? When was the last time I gave up hope with the epitaph, "I guess the Lord's ways are not our ways." Though often true, could it be too quickly spoken? Is it possible that we are dismissing God -- underestimating either His power or willingness to help us?

In this case, Zechariah was not without evidence that something special was happening in his life. An angel is standing there, and it is an awesome sight! What more proof did he need? But the doubt was there. He didn't want to be disappointed again. Perhaps he wanted to be absolutely sure before bringing back a flicker of hope to Elizabeth. To tell her some fantastical story and it not be true... it would be a crushing blow. It all comes down to one sad truth; Zechariah doubted God.

The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

This demonstrates that "blameless" does not mean perfect. And as always, there are consequences when we sin. Zechariah was given proof, but it wasn't the kind he was hoping for. He was denied the ability to speak until his son was born. Oh, the conversations he must have wanted with his wife as they rejoiced together when it became apparent that Elizabeth was indeed pregnant. His exclamations of delight were stifled when they first felt baby John kick or move in the womb. How he must have wished for some outlet for his joy -- to tell his wife in detail about the angelic visit or apologize for his lack of faith...

God's promises are sure. He doesn't act on a whim or give and take away randomly. I know this, but it helps to be reminded. I don't need to question God or ask for a surer sign. He is the Almighty God. He has a plan for my life bigger than the one I could think up myself. It just takes trust. And if God is anything, He is definitely trustworthy.

Zechariah and Elizabeth learned that God is awesome beyond anything they had imagined, and they also learned that God's timing was different than their own. We can learn the same things.

They had Someone that is worthy of both worship and trust, and so do we... but more on that later.