Mosaic

IMG_3079 editI clearly remember the first time I saw a mosaic portrait in real life.IMG_3078 edit.jpgOf course, I’ve long been familiar with simple mosaics.  There were the tile floors I helped my dad grout, and the bathroom walls of a favorite coffee shop studded with bits of broken china.  I had sewn colored squares of fabric into the mosaic of a quilt or stitched a myriad tiny x’s to make a cross-stitch pattern.  I once taught an overview class on mosaics to 7th and 8th graders, which concluded with making our own of tiny pieces of colored paper on black poster board to line the school cafeteria walls.  But on this day, I knew that I had previously known next to nothing about mosaics in comparison to the piece of art before my eyes.IMG_3042 edit.jpgI was drawn to the portrait because, unlike the oil paintings around it, it shimmered with light.  That was the only difference from any distance.  I actually thought it was a painting until I walked up to it and read the placard beneath, which identified it as a mosaic—and it was only then that I looked closely and realized that what had appeared to be a painting was really a myriad tiny pieces of glass painstakingly composed into the tender likeness of a mother and her child.  IMG_3080 edit.jpgIt was Mary, cradling the baby Jesus, of course; a truly breathtaking masterpiece.

What an appropriate medium for such a daunting subject, I thought.  How, after all, does an artist depict the faces of people we have no actual likeness of?  Perhaps a thousand tiny beautiful pieces is the best way, because when you think about the birth of Christ, it is indeed a figurative mosaic of epic proportions and complex plot.IMG_3070 edit.jpgHundreds of prophecies over thousands of years, each piece coming together flawlessly in the grand unveiling of God’s masterpiece plan to save mankind.

Secular decrees by pagan emperors made so that at the perfect time and place, a baby born in a stable to a God-favored mother and the God-fearing man who would fill the role of earthly father, from exactly the right kingly lines.

At the perfect time, in exactly the right place in the sky, a star appearing to be seen by exactly the right men who understood that it was not just any star, an epiphany so definite they would traverse the deserts to find the source of such celestial celebration.

Angel messengers.  Angel hosts.  Angels in dreams.

A miraculously-conceived yet-unborn infant leaping in his mother’s womb in the presence of the Christ he would pave the way for.

The list could go on and on.IMG_3074 edit.jpgSo many intricate pieces.  Such flawless, artful and epic execution.  But the thing that really floors me is this:

God is still crafting that mosaic.  Christmas was only the beginning of the greatest story of all time!  And it doesn’t even end at Easter.  It hasn’t ended yet.  What we see is stunning, masterful, breathtaking…but yet incomplete.  There are yet prophecies waiting to be fulfilled, trumpets waiting to sound, hearts and battles waiting to be won before it can be framed and signed by the artist.

And if you have let Him win your heart, you get to be a piece of that mosaic.  Yes, YOU, like a shimmering little piece of glass, skillfully shaped and precisely placed into that epic Christmas mosaic that stretches back through the corridors of time.  You, a mosaic within a mosaic, all the pieces and parts of you forming a life that can matter a lot and shine bright in the grandest scheme of things—if you have faith and are willing.IMG_3044 edit.jpg“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ

by grace you have been saved— 

and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus…

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:4-8, 10)IMG_3064 edit.jpgPhotos: beneath the Ghost Bridge, Lake Superior, December 2018

 

Christmas Wonder

IMG_2719.JPGYesterday, my girls opened up a Christmas gift from their aunt.  Inside, they found a glass ball on a stand.  Inside the ball, the figures of Joseph and Mary, heads bent adoringly over the baby in her arms.  We tipped the ball.  Glitter swirled around them like an aura of splendor and holiness as the notes of “O Holy Night” played.

A snow globe!  I saw the wonder in their eyes, the kind that only a child has, the kind that has often been forgotten by us adults who have lived longer and become distracted by the cares of this world.  Too often we have no time or are too jaded for wonder.  Our schedules are too full, our lists are too long, our burdens too heavy, our worries too numerous.  Wonder is largely lost on us.

But Christmas is a beautiful time for restoring for what we’ve lost.

Christmas was made for children.  Not necessarily for children in age, as is often thought, but children in heart, or what is known as childlike wonder.  Not necessarily the wonder of presents, lights, and music, though they are all wonderful things, but the wonder of what these things are meant to point to, a baby born, the Prince of Peace who was called Wonderful.IMG_2737.JPGA verse from the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” says it well:

“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!”IMG_2736.JPGWonder is found when we take the time to rest, and listen, and see…with the wide-open, unhurried heart, ears and eyes of a child.  This Christmas, may you take the time to tip a snow globe over and watch the glitter swirl.  May you take the time to run outside and be the happy figure in the falling snow of your own private snow globe world.  But most of all, may you take the time to remember that the One who forms every perfect tiny snowflake, formed you for wonder, and bears the name of Wonderful…and is the only One who truly makes this the most Wonderful Time of the Year.

“Jesus invited a little child to stand among them. “Truly I tell you,” He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-3)

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Have a wonder-filled Christmas!

Frosted

IMG_7147.JPGWhen I was a young, aspiring baker, my mother taught me how to frost cookies and cakes.  It’s an experience that I remember with striking clarity because, in her kitchen, not just any frosting job would do.  Frosting (the verb, not the noun) was not merely a job to get done.  It was an art form.

We started with the least fussy of surfaces, a simple 9×13 cake.  She taught me how to spread the frosting evenly, thick to the edges but not quite touching the sides of the pan, never letting your knife touch the actual cake.  If you did it right, there was this beautifully rounded smooth edge to the whole sweet mass.  Then, you went back over the whole thing and made rows of dips or swoops, evenly but quickly so it didn’t look like you tried too hard.  If you did that part right, it looked as effortless and beautiful as the wind-tossed waves of sun-kissed lake.  If you didn’t—well, let’s just say that’s what my first attempts looked like.

From there we graduated to different surfaces, different kinds of frosting.  Whipped cream allowed the greatest abandon of perfection, and was great fun—but one still had to fuss with it a bit, because it still needed to look artsy.  Meringue was where deeper dips were needed to create the desired peaks; extra points if those peaks curled at the tips.  Glaze required wrist flicking, and the artful contriving of “even” drips all around.

Shaped sugar cookies were the final test of my basic skills, and true sign that I was about to graduate.  The technique was just like a cake, only applied with the tippiest-tip of a butter knife, maintaining that smooth rounded edge all around varied curves that included the narrow length of gingerbread arms and complicated crystaled forms of snowflakes.  You never scraped you knife on the edge of a cookie.  That was what the edges of the frosting bowl were for.

Once I’d mastered that, you’d think I’d arrived—but not so!  That’s when I started poring over her folder full of Wilton cake decorating books.  I’d hover around the table with my siblings, watching with fascination as my mom turned the sides of a layer cake into a woven basket and created three-dimensional roses on the end of a giant nail for our picture-perfect birthday cakes.  It was time to advance to a whole new level.IMG_7113.JPGIMG_7130IMG_7128IMG_7135IMG_7109.JPGOn mornings when I wake up to a frosted world, I can’t help thinking back to what it was like learning to frost.  I enjoyed learning, but mastering the techniques certainly didn’t happen overnight.  This refined coating of a thousand minute crystals deposited by a sudden drop in temperature, on the other hand, does.

I love how God makes something we have to work so hard to do right look so stunningly effortless.

“He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes.” (Psalm 147:16)

A Sparkling Performance

img_7343-e1518823912498.jpgWatching the wind move fine snow over the landscape is mesmerizing to me.

The snow dances,

whisked low, sifting as smooth as the most refined granulated sugar over the open spaces,

then spinning around to be thrown high, chasing billows of itself wild and free through the limitless expanse of the air.

The swirling and pouring creates this constantly changing landscape of fine layers, and miniature buttes, mesas, dunes and canyons.

Best of all is when the sun is shining at the same time, adding sparkle and shimmer and gold to elevate the entire show from mesmerizing to magnificent.IMG_6885img_6877-e1519176732283.jpgimg_6862.jpgIMG_6873IMG_7376-1.jpgIt’s like an Olympic figure skating performance, complete with the artistry, sparkles and gold.  The wind and the snow, they are like the perfect couple, as the wind tosses the snow up, spinning, catching it again with effortless ease, moving in perfect time with each other and the sound of their own music.  Only it’s right in my front yard, nobody’s keeping track of points, and I seem to be the only one watching.

But there the comparisons will have to cease, because other than the suspense of who will win, the required precision and ranking system of such a human performance removes it from the sheer mystery and wonder to be found in the movement of the wind and it’s interplay with the snow.

It’s no wonder that Solomon chooses the wind, then, as his comparison to the great mystery of how God works.

“As you do not know the path of the wind…so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)

Or, as a more familiar passage states it:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
            Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.

      “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
            So are My ways higher than your ways
            And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

An Ode to Resilience

img_9657This is oxalis triangularis, otherwise known as purple shamrock.  It sits in my south window in the perfect spot to catch the full sun, positioned right where I can enjoy it whenever I’m sitting in my favorite chair nursing the wee babe, or less frequently, as I am this week, convalescing from illness.  I especially love the way the sunlight glows through the translucent lavender petals and maroon leaves, and the way those tri-lobed leaves go to bed every night when the sun goes down, folding up neatly into little origami points.

It’s my very favorite houseplant—but nice as all these things are, it might surprise you to know that it’s really an entirely different quality than these that elevated it to the top of the list.

What this photo doesn’t tell you is that last week, this favorite plant of mine had an accident.  We won’t name any names, but lets just say that having houseplants in the same house as toddlers is a rather optimistic idea.  Also, this is why I don’t (or shouldn’t) ever buy expensive flower pots.  Furthermore, it’s the third accident it’s had of this sort, not to mention multiple other instances of small hands plucking off way too many leaves and stems, because apparently I’m not the only one who thinks it’s pretty.

It’s not what I would call a sturdy plant by looking at it.  The leaves are tender and the stems easily broken, and every accident has literally crushed it.  Every time I’ve tucked it into a new pot when the former has been broken, or given it an extra drink after an inopportune childish pruning, I’ve thought that surely this was it.  Surely, the oxalis was going to succumb to adversity this time around.  I’ve had other houseplants that have given up the ghost under far less trying circumstances.

And, for a few days, it generally supports my fear.  All the remaining foliage dies.  By all appearances, it is time to dump the pot and move on with life.  But, always, just when I’ve given up on it, the coil of a tiny translucent shoot appears, tipped in the deep purple of the tiniest of exquisite new leaves—and the oxalis lives on yet again.

This seemed quite miraculous to me until I learned that the key to the strength of the oxalis is not in it’s stems, leaves or flowers, or even it’s roots.  It’s strength is actually in tiny tuberous bulbs, which are the true, hidden heart of the plant.

This then is the quality that has elevated this little houseplant to the top of my list of favorites.  A gorgeous little plant that obligingly flowers year round and can bounce back after any manner of toddler encounters?  This may very well be perfection in a pot.

There are quite a few lessons here, but perhaps the most important is that a person’s ability to handle hard times with resilience stems directly from where they are drawing their strength in all of the other times.  And the people who I have watched face trying times, who get back up time after time, with wounded souls shining strong, beautiful and tender yet again, always have one thing in common: their day-to-day lives have been centered in Christ.  There’s a difference, you see, between rising from adversity with a shell of hardened bitterness or cynicism, and that of rising from adversity with a renewed growth in faith, gentleness and hope.  Only a heart deeply rooted in Jesus can do that.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

“He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.” (Isaiah 40:29)

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

“My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:2)

To view a fun time lapse video of oxalis leaves “going to sleep”, go here.

 

 

Porcupine

img_6749.jpgOh, to be a porcupine up in a tree,

a conspicuous ball of black against the blue,

placidly nibbling tree buds,

oblivious to the -25 wind chill,

whose only response to a curious passerby ankle deep in snow

(after that twinkling in his eye—or was I imagining that?)

is to curl up into a slightly tighter ball,

just to be sure I didn’t forget that he had nothing to be afraid of underneath all that spiky armor.

IMG_6744.JPGBut I suppose that since I can’t be a porcupine

I can be a city on a hill instead, or maybe a lamp on a stand—or maybe both at once, since they have so much in common.

Especially the way a city glows after dark,

conspicuous for miles around in it’s reflections up to the heavens,

placidly humming with all the activity that makes it a city,

stoplights constantly switching colors,

brake lights flashing and turn signals blinking,

people closing the blinds at night so they can sleep in spite of the constant glow of lampposts.

Cities, like porcupines, don’t really know who might be wearily traveling

down long highways way off in the darkness,

gazing at the lights,

moving towards them and their promise of things to eat and places to lay their heads—

but they shine on steady through the night anyway.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

2017 Favorites

It’s a fun tradition during the first week of the new year to go back over my posts from the previous year and pick out my favorites.  It’s also a bit of a challenge, so this year I decided to give myself some categories to help make the task easier.

Also, I decided to title this year’s round-up as “favorites” rather than “best of” as I have in the past.  My actual favorites are not always the photos that would be deemed my finest “works of art”, and that’s okay.  To determine what is my best work I’ve decided I’m quite content to leave to the viewer’s discretion; what is my favorite work only I can determine and, I suspect, makes for a much more interesting story.IMG_5073-1Favorite Bucket List Score: A non-blurry close-up photo of a hummingbird has been on my list for a long time.  If you know how fast these little beauties move, you know why I considered this opportunity a gift!  This wasn’t the only shot I scored, either—and you can check out all of them in this post.

IMG_2193Favorite Associated Memory: Not surprisingly, my favorites are often so because of the stories and memories behind them.  This photo reminds me of a happy walk in the golden glow of a late summer evening, that ecstatic moment when we realized the ditch we were walking along was studded with these ripe little jewels, and the mental picture of my husband down on hands and knees picking every one in sight.  And the taste, oh the taste!IMG_2929Favorite Travel Shot:  I really had a hard time choosing, but oddly enough, I ended up settling on this one that never even made it into a blog post!  (Thus, a bonus photo for you!)  My reason is solely based on the humor of the situation.  This is a wild turkey mama who apparently doesn’t believe in broadcasting photos of her family for the world to see.  She paraded them daringly along the edge of the road, oblivious to traffic roaring by—but when I tried to discreetly poke a camera lens out the truck window, that was a different story.  She has at least six chicks, who are down there in the grass by her feet hiding.  I’m really not sure if that’s a twinkle of mischief in her eye there, or a glint of suspicion, or just a look of triumph for foiling my designs.  She granted me this one cameo peekaboo shot, and that was it.

This is also memorable, because my husband is the one who spotted her as we were driving and turned around of his own accord to go back so I could take a picture.  Now that’s true love, folks.

IMG_1943Favorite Action Shot:  The story behind this one can be found here!img_4098-1.jpgFavorite Landscape:  The more you get into photography, the more you obsess about light.  The absence or presence of the right kind of light, outside of actual studio photography, is something you chase after, wait for, wish for, do your best to contrive for, but cannot ever completely control.  When you catch it, its a glorious moment.  I passed this roadside bed of fire weed many times this summer, but it wasn’t until just the right shaft of late-afternoon golden light hit it, spotlighting the blossoms against the dark backdrop of forest, that it actually became worth stepping on the brakes for.IMG_1076Favorite Car Window Shot: Hands down.  It makes me smile every time I look at it.IMG_4958Favorite Floral:  Obviously I wasn’t the only one who appreciated the cornflower blue of these bachelor buttons in my flower garden this year!IMG_5779-1Favorite Challenge (as in the photos I worked the hardest for): That would definitely be any photo containing otters.  Just don’t ask how many photos I actually took to secure those I deemed worthy to share with you (you can view a couple more in this post).  I’ve found that otters, like hummingbirds, don’t sit still very much.  This is the first year I’ve actually gotten decent shots of them, but I by no means consider the challenge over.  Next Bucket List item: otter close-ups!IMG_4861-01Favorite Nature Close-Up:  I love the contrast of this perfect autumn leaf from my parent’s maple-rich yard posing on their picnic table.IMG_1567Favorite Sky Capture: this alignment of the storm clouds and big round moon just after sunset was so stunning, and I enjoyed the extra fiddling with my camera required to expose those lunar craters just right!  It rated high enough in my small world to become my desktop wallpaper.  It must have appealed to you, too, because it also rated as the post with the most views for 2017!

A close runner-up to that one, however, was this stormy sky:IMG_2880IMG_2882This was the most magnificent sunset I have seen in my life, and the pictures (yes, they’re both from the same evening) hardly do it justice.  It was also the one redeeming feature of the most severe summer storm I’ve had to drive through in my life.  That was the road trip in which we missed half-dollar sized hail by a mere couple miles and because it was raining so hard could see nothing but the taillights ahead of us for what seemed like eternity (probably more like fifteen minutes).  It was unforgettable all around.

I was going to do “Favorite Wildlife”—but so many of those ended up qualifying for the other categories that it seemed a bit redundant!

These photos, along with all the others I shared with you this year, represented lessons learned, whether in the technical realm of photography or in the stunning world of nature, and always in the beautiful realm of our Creator’s goodness, infinite creativity and love.  I considered each opportunity to take a photograph a gift, and it is my prayer that each one, in turn, became a gift to you as well.  If the sharing of these images have even once shifted your heart from the temporal to the eternal, from worrying to praise, from self to God—then I rejoice right along with “the little hills…on every side” (Psalm 65:12).

Now, here’s looking forward to all the yet unknown experiences, encounters, lessons and photographs 2018 holds and looking forward to continuing to share it with you!

 

 

Frost Fire

IMG_6324.JPGThere’s a new year rising, about ready to break over the horizon just like the sun was on this breathtakingly frosty morn.

What will it hold?

Naturally, not one of us can predict exactly.  We can talk, dream of and discuss plans, goals and resolutions until the clock strikes midnight—but no one really knows what will happen.  This we do know, however:

“Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

Because of that, just as the hoary treetops turned to fire, aflame with the hope and oncoming glory of the new day, this new year can be bright with hope on your horizon, too.  No matter what it holds, if we acknowledge Him each step of the way—be it exciting, ordinary or difficult—He will make our path straight.  Cling to that!

Best of Both Worlds

IMG_6148.JPGIs it Christmas lights?  Is it snow?

Yes.

Inside the house, our Christmas tree with the big white origami star brushing the ceiling is twinkling bright; outside the snow lies “deep and crisp and even”*.  In the reflection of the cold windowpane, I can see both at once.  It’s the best of both of my December worlds: all the warmth of a joyful holiday celebration mingled with the wide white expanse of winter’s best accessory, now richly blue in the falling dusk.

It’s also an appropriately symbolic picture of Christmas, considering that the One whose birth we celebrate this week was also the very best of both worlds.  Not of indoors and outdoors, but of heaven and earth.

If I could show you a picture of Him, you might ask:

Is He God?  Is He man?

Yes.

May the marvel of this mystery fill you with thoughtful joy and wonder this Christmas!

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

 

*From the carol “Good King Wenceslas” by John Mason Neale.

 

Giving

IMG_5946.JPGI find my mailbox stuffed full of shiny catalogs.  The sign at Walmart carefully documents exactly how few days are left until the big holiday.  My email inbox blinks every morning with a dizzying array of emails from all my favorite companies, wanting to make sure that I don’t forget.  Christmas is coming!  Whatever we sell is certainly exactly what everyone on your gift list needs!!  It’s a sale you can’t beat!!!  Finish you gift list with us!!! Hurry, hurry, before it’s too late!!!!

And they’re right about one thing.

Christmas is coming!  But do you get as weary of all the anticipation being linked to the use of your pocket book as I do?

I’m all about a good sale.  I also really enjoy putting thought and care into shopping for just the right gifts for the people on my list, envisioning their pleasure upon receiving them.  I feel like thoughtful gift giving can be a truly unselfish and beautiful way to commemorate the giving of the greatest Gift the world has ever known.

If that’s really why you’re doing it.

Because sometimes, between the long lines at check out, neon doorbuster signs, the giant displays of cheap plastic stocking stuffers and the mailboxes overflowing with ads, we can lose sight of why we’re even engaging in this cultural practice.  It becomes simply tradition for tradition’s sake, because “that’s just what you do at Christmas”.  It becomes a burden, because “that’s what everyone expects”.  It becomes a ploy, because “if I give something, I’ll probably get something back”.  It becomes an annoyance, because “they have everything” or “I hate shopping”.  It becomes a show, because “people will be impressed by my generosity, my cleverness and my gift wrapping skills”.  It becomes a contest, because “my gift is better than your gift” (or isn’t).  It can even become depressing, because “people are so ungrateful” or “my gift isn’t as nice as I would like it to be”.

But the fact is, if our “giving” has become any of these things, it has lost it’s meaning and it’s not even giving anymore.  It has become some other self-centered practice, and in that case, the world would be better off if you just quit.

Not quit giving.  Quit giving for the wrong reasons.

Because giving isn’t the problem.  The pure act of true giving has never been anything but good.  It’s in the motive and heart of the giver where the trouble can lie.

IMG_5948.JPGI believe that the best way to keep the motive of our giving pure is to simply seek to give as Christ gave.  Jesus put Himself in a manger, knowingly beginning the path to the cross, and gave the greatest gift anyone could possibly give—Himself.  What’s more, He gave that gift to everyone in the entire history of the world, past, present and future.

He gave to people who He knew would take His gift for granted, without comprehending the infinite value of what He had done.

He gave to people who would eventually turn the greatest event in the history of the world into just one more rote tradition—“a nice story to read in December and perhaps attend church to commemorate”.

He gave to a world that just expected Him to give—“no big deal, that’s what God does, and I deserve it”.

He gave fully knowing that He would receive absolutely nothing in return from the recipients—and that they had nothing to give back even if they wanted to.

He gave knowing that His gift would be met by ungratefulness, scorn and even hatred.

He gave to needy people who had nothing but thought they were rich and had everything.

He gave even though it was unthinkably inconvenient for Him to leave His throne in the heavens and confine the Eternal God of the universe to the limits of a frail human body.  He gave even though it would eventually mean excruciating pain of soul and body before the giving of His gift was finished.

He gave expecting to impress no one, but only to please His Father.

No, contrary to what the retail world might like us to think, Christmas isn’t about presents.  But the celebration of Christ’s birth is absolutely about giving.

“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)

“But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, and in…love…see that you also excel in this grace of giving…For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:7, 9)

“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

“Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)