Forget Not His Benefits

IMG_5257 editSometimes, when you’re sick in bed, watching the world go by without you outside your window, it’s good to do something other than focus on how sore your throat happens to be.  Or maybe, for you, it’s more like sick in heart and focusing on how deep your hurts happen to be.  Either way, they can end up feeling pretty similar: discouraging.

I’ve found myself in both shoes at various times in my life, but for the past couple weeks, it happened to be in the physical realm, when my body decided to ignore all the items on my to-do list and important things I had on my schedule and sent me to bed instead with barely a voice to ask for a drink of water.  This was not in the plans, not to mention how many well-laid plans it managed to throw awry.

These are the times, I’ve found, when it’s time for a good dose of Psalm 103 right along with all the Vitamin C:

“Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (vs. 2)

It’s called turning my focus from all the things I’m missing out on to the gifts I have been given, which are many but too easily forgotten in the trouble of the moment.  Sometimes I think that’s one of the main reasons I even take pictures: so I can look at them later, remember, and be thankful.  That’s also one of the main reasons I keep a journal.  I think everyone should have some tangible way of remembering the little and big things God has given them, even if it’s just a running list on the counter.  Because we are oh, so prone to forget, but what incredible healing and uplifting there can be in the remembering!

So from my sick chair one afternoon, I scrolled through my photo files for the months of June and July, and remembered some of His benefits.

I remembered how we held our breath, waiting for the strawberry blossoms to turn to tiny nuggets of red sweetness in the canopy of the field grasses,

and how the butterflies danced amidst the short-lived lilacs, then moved to the field flowers.IMG_5210 edit.jpgIMG_5199 edit.jpg IMG_5768 editIMG_5809 editI remembered exhilarating cannonballs into cold lake water on a sultry day (or timid tiptoes in, as the personality went),

how we welcomed the first clouds of dragonflies zooming in to bring welcome relief from too many mosquitoes,

that day we swam with turtles.IMG_5726 editIMG_5702 editIMG_5887 editI remembered the spotted fawns trailing their mamas, stopping to stare wide-eyed at us from the edges of the forest,

watching from a respectful distance as a brave mama turtle left her eggs to the fates of nature,

that morning we got fresh doughnuts from a bakery and stopped to watch goose families paddling down a winding green river.IMG_5360 editIMG_5339 editIMG_5279 edit.jpgI remembered how the wild roses bent along the lake edge to almost touch the lapping waves,

the day I sat on a lake shore in a gentle rain of mayflies and thought how wonderful it was to be covered in bugs that didn’t bite you,

the day I and a three-year-old chased a brown-eyed cottontail through the field grass.IMG_5751 edit.jpgIMG_5559 edit.jpgIMG_5676 editI remembered the fish we saw, and the fish we caught,

the evening we celebrated our first summer birthday girl,

and waking up in the middle of the night to hear the loons yodeling and see the fireflies dancing outside my window like a thousand elusive stars.IMG_5763 editIMG_5457 edit.jpgIMG_6022 editI remembered eating ice cream in a shop that smelled of vanilla and waffles,

tiny birds carefully held by a small girl with a hole in her smile,

the way dandelions gone to seed look in the sunshine.IMG_5389 edit.jpgIMG_6062 edit.jpgIMG_5271 edit.jpgI remembered climbing among quiet pools and granite boulders along the Bigfork River,

the day we finally found the robin’s nest’,

and watching the full moon rise up over the flower garden.IMG_5851 edit.jpgIMG_6124 editIMG_6118 edit.jpgAnd, as is often the case, it was easy to go on from there and remember the things I didn’t have photographs of, like…

healthy baby kicks in my womb,

soothing tea with honey,

and my husband and dear friends who washed my dishes, cared for my children, and brought me food and medicine while I was down.

And you know what?  I wasn’t healed when I was done.  I was coughing as much as ever.  But in my soul, there had been a healing shift from the mentality of “poor me” to “wow, look at all my blessings”—and sometimes, I think we actually need that kind of healing more.

“Bless the LORD, O my soul; all that is within me, bless His holy name…

He who forgives all your iniquities, and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit and crowns you with loving devotion and compassion,

who satisfies you with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103: 1, 3-5)

Bog Walking

IMG_5937 editThey are one of those last American frontiers of wilderness, these mysterious places that have triumphantly resisted many a pioneer effort to tame them.  We drive north, and great stretches of land spiked with the craggy silhouettes of stunted spruce and feathery tamarack are all that meet the eye for miles.  From the speed of the car window, it would seem that these trees are the only fauna that manage to monotonously thrive amidst the swamp grasses.  And inaccessible as they are, it can be a misconception difficult to prove otherwise.IMG_5590 editIMG_5624 edit.jpg IMG_5611 edit.jpgIf you’re fortunate enough to traverse a bog walk, however, you will find out that beneath the feathery tamarack branches there are wonderful, amazing plants that thrive in the water-logged, acidic soil, plants that you will see nowhere else but here.  There are strangely beautiful carnivorous plants…IMG_5635 editIMG_5943 editand rare exotic orchids named after legendary reptiles and dainty foot wear.IMG_5600 edit.jpg IMG_5370 editIMG_5923 edit.jpgThere are humps of moss so lush and thick it looks like shag carpet, and delicate grasses that are growing cotton balls.IMG_5617 edit.jpgThere are cranberries, bunchberries and labrador tea.IMG_5591 edit.jpgIMG_5368 editIMG_5650 edit.jpgThere are secret lakes of unknown depth, and pine cones in purple casings.IMG_5779 editIMG_5934 edit.jpgIt’s a whole new world of wonders, where even the more familiar flowers and berries manage to feel exotic if only for their tenacity to survive and thrive here.IMG_5946 edit.jpgIMG_5659 editAnd who knows what else might lie beyond?  The view a state park board walk lends is only a glimpse into this mysterious damp world of peat moss and uncertain footing.  I like the intrigue of this, imagining the rare orchids hidden away in the vast reaches of the bogs, never to be discovered.

I like to think of the Word of God as something like a bog walk into the otherwise unfathomable mysteries of who God is.  A walkway that doesn’t end like the ones in the parks do, but keeps going, on and on and on, as far as you’re willing to travel, with new and wonderful discoveries around every bend.  It’s an invitation to explore, to understand, to fully appreciate who He really is…not just what He might appear to look like when you’re speeding past a church building along the freeway.

We can have many impressions of and ideas about God.  Perhaps they’re based on how you were raised, or the way a certain church-goer you once knew acted.  They might even be based on what you hear at church or what a good Christian friend of yours says or thinks about Him.  But imagining that you understand God based purely on these “drive-by” experiences of life is like me imagining that a bog is completely boring because the only thing that grows there is weird looking pine trees, based purely on the view from my car window.  For all you know, your personal experiences may have given you a faulty view of what God is like.  At best, it’s only a partial view, just the tiniest incomplete glimpse into a God “who does great and unsearchable things, wonders without number” (Job 5:9), who causes the apostle Paul to exclaim: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33)

The only way to find out how beautiful He really is?  To get out of the car or off your seat on the sidelines, so to speak, and find out for yourself.  Don’t go slogging through in the hip waders of a self-made path, either, which can leave you lost and sinking fast into the mire of false ideas.  No, take the board walk He built just with you in mind, the one that is solidly built for sure footing, that skillfully curves along to bring you right to the rarest treasures of His wisdom and knowledge.

Read His Word.  Don’t think of it as something you have to do or should do; think of it as a treasure hunt into mysterious and wonderful places, because that’s what it really is.  There is no other way to truly “know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:2-3)

“Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119:105)

 

 

Little American Falls

IMG_4710 edit.jpgThe first time I clambered beneath the cedars trees along this steep muddy bank, we were eagerly experiencing the sights of our new neighborhood for the very first time.  On the recommendation of a dear friend, we drove up through the Bigfork State Forest, on a narrow strip of asphalt hedged by endless miles of black swamp water and stunted spruce.  There, tucked away in an obscure little park, we found the Bigfork River rushing it’s way to Canada across a set of Class III-IV rapids.  It was not quite Niagara Falls, but it was an exciting stretch of river that we could hear the thunder of before we saw it.  

Today, almost exactly six years later, I’m on the same narrow trail, and I find that little has changed since then, as far as the river is concerned.  It’s still flowing faithfully.  The rocks cradling it show no visible signs of erosion.  The tumbling water still curls over that one giant boulder out in the middle in exactly the same way.

The changes that have occurred have been in my own life, and I’ve brought them with me.  My firstborn clambers ahead of me on this Sunday afternoon, reaching sweetly back to offer me a hand on the “hard parts”.  She’s not strong enough yet to really help, but I pretend to accept her offer anyway, marveling privately at how quickly life flies by.  Last time on this trail I was six months pregnant with her, not even a year married. Now she’s out there confidently posing on the lichened rocks while I snap pictures and punctuate my sentences anxiously with “be careful” and “that’s close enough”.  My husband is back up the trail, holding the hands of her two little sisters, who we had only dreamed of at that point.  

On the other hand, one thing hasn’t changed about me.  Apparently, being pregnant, even for the fourth time, still has little bearing on my eagerness to bypass the safely situated visitor’s viewing platforms to get up close to rushing water.   

IMG_4726 edit.jpg IMG_4720 edit.jpgIMG_4687 edit.jpgLast time I was here, I saw the elusive woodcock for the first time in my life, exploding up at my feet from what had appeared to be merely a pile of leaves.  Today the only wildlife is the bed of fluffy foam caught in an out-of-the-way nook beneath the falls, looking strikingly like the back of a very furry animal as it bobs gently in the current.  I smile when my daughter asks worriedly with big eyes: “Mommy, is that a bear?”  “Go poke it and see,” I counter slyly.  She laughs out loud at herself when she discovers that it’s pure fluff.

As we climb back up the river bank, I note the mosses cropping up lush and verdant at my feet, and the first signs of life at the tips of the tree branches arching over my head.  Spring is just waking here, reminding me of a sleepy, groggy two-year-old toddling out to snuggle with me on the couch in the morning, or maybe the four-year-old rolling over in the cocoon of her favorite penguin blanket and blinking sleepily at the morning light coming through her window.  Everything still has that just-got-out-of-bed look, still a little rumpled and squinty-eyed.

The most showy are the pussy willows, who have clearly gone from stage 1, silky and pearly gray, to stage 2, fluffy and lemon-lime yellow.  Also lovely at the tips of the maple branches exploding into bits of red, more showy up close than from a distance. And then on the forest floor, I see the bravely emerging leaves of hepatica.  Leaning down to feel beneath the leaves, I find what I’m looking for at the base of the plant: the downy heads of flower buds just emerging.  A couple more days, and there will be wildflowers in the woods.IMG_4721 edit.jpgIMG_4677 editBack up at the picnic area, we shake what mud we can off our shoes and take a last-minute trip to the nearby outhouse where we convince the girls that it’s safe to seat yourself over a deep, dark, echoing hole receding into the unknown depths of the earth.  Then we head out down the winding dirt road.  Tired little people quickly nod off into belated naps, and the thunder of the falls fades into fiddle music cranked up to keep their parents from following suit on the journey home. 

It’s good to know that as my own life shifts and changes, a wild river running north is still there, doing it’s God-ordained thing and fulfilling it’s purpose pretty much the same as always.

“All the rivers flow into the sea,

Yet the sea is not full.

To the place where the rivers flow,

There they flow again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:7)

Superior Dawn

IMG_3089 edit.jpgPerhaps the best thing about winter is that you don’t have to wake up in the wee hours to watch the sun rise.  For instance, you can roll out of bed at the usual time, spend half an hour bundling yourself up, stumble your way around the pre-dawn perimeter of an unfamiliar hotel building, risk life and limb to bump your way in sitting position down the steep bouldered bank to the shore—and still make it in time to watch the entire show at leisure.

Now this (all hazardous icy rocks at the bottom aside) is a photographer’s dream life.IMG_3092 edit.jpgIMG_3100 edit.jpgIMG_3114 edit.jpgIMG_3126 edit.jpgIMG_3123 edit 1.jpgimg_3146 editIMG_3127 edit.jpgThe wind off the big lake was so surprisingly mild for December, and the sound of the rhythmic waves so pleasant, I found a non-icy log to perch on and paused from my photography long enough to pull out my phone and find my Bible reading plan for the day.  And this, totally unplanned by me, was what popped up:

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness.” (Isaiah 9:2)

IMG_3152 edit.jpgIt was like God whispering into the stillness of the dawn that these photos I was taking were really pictures of Him.

Warmth creeping in to melt the cold.  Black fading to blue, then pink, then blazing gold.  Light flooding into darkness.  It was all just an echo of what He had done, what He is doing, and what He will yet do.

For me huddled on a rocky shore with a hat hastily pulled over my un-brushed bed hair.

For the receptionist in the lobby counting down the minutes until she got off night shift.

For the person in the car across the bay pausing from their work commute in the marina parking lot to watch the same thing I was.

For all the people waiting for Light, all over the world.IMG_3159 editIMG_3166 edit.jpgAs I picked my way back along the sun-kissed shore, pondering this, I looked up and spotted a different trail up the bank.  It was a safer, gentler route, one that I couldn’t see in the unfamiliar, un-mapped darkness, the way I should have taken on my way down.  I headed up, the sun warm on my back, relieved to walk confidently and upright instead of clambering awkwardly.

Again, I saw the echoes of His love, as what was once hidden in darkness was illuminated by light.  Funny how much easier it is to find the best way in the light, just like it is to find the only Way in the true Light.

“Who among you walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the LORD; let him lean on his God.” (Isaiah 50:10)

“I will turn darkness into light before them and rough places into level ground. These things I will do for them, and I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:16)

“…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light…” (Ephesians 5:8)

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

 

Golden

IMG_2611 edit.jpgWhen you hear the word “golden”, what do you think of?

For my four-year-old right now, it’s anything metallic.  Silver, copper, gold, it’s all “golden” to her.  And since it makes me smile to hear her calling our humble everyday silverware “golden”, I haven’t gotten around to educating her on the finer points of metallic hue identification.

But for me?

I think of my wedding band, a circle of precious metal around my finger, a valuable gift that symbolizes a solemn covenant made to me by a beloved man.IMG_2598 edit.jpgI think of lamplight on aged pine walls, and candle flames dancing above brass candlesticks, and the color of faces gathered companionably around a fire.img_2616-editI think of the warmly lit hour right around sunset that a photographer lives for, that has been universally dubbed “the golden hour” for it’s unparalleled quality of light.IMG_2603 edit.jpgI think of honey drizzled on cornbread,

of foot pedals on pianos,

of the gilded edges of a new Bible,

of the rims of the plates I used to serve golden slices of pumpkin pie on Thursday,

of a palomino horse galloping in the sunset,

of the color of my daughter’s favorite hen and the yolks of her pretty brown eggs.IMG_2606 edit.jpgAnd I think of the splendid way that autumn ends up here in the northwoods, all the tamaracks ablaze with glory, making even the murky swamp waters glimmer with unaccustomed splendor.  If the sun is shining on it all, then it truly is a tiny glimpse of heaven on earth.IMG_2614 edit.jpgThis little taste of “heaven on earth” is my favorite of all, then, because it’s one fleeting golden moment reminding me of a golden eternity.

It’s that place I’ve never been where my homesick heart belongs,

where the streets, buildings, furnishings, dishes, and clothing are golden,

where the prayers of the God’s people are so precious that they are presented before His throne in golden bowls,

where all that splendid gold needs no sun to illuminate it because God is there.

I can hardly wait to get there.

“…the city itself was of pure gold, as pure as glass…and the city has no need for sun or moon to shine on it, because the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its lamp.” (Revelation 22:5)

“The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8)

A is for Acorn

IMG_1583I’ve been a bit missing in action for the last month or two, and for those of you who haven’t guessed, it’s all due to a bit of a recent career shift.  From here on out, if my posts start to sounding to you like those of a kindergarten teacher, you will be correct.  It’s an exciting new chapter for us, but a busy one, with lots of adjustments to new schedules and more time spent researching literature and art projects for unit studies than composing blog posts.  I hope to get back to posting more often eventually, but we’ll see!

Of course, I’ve always been my child’s teacher; that comes with the territory of parenting, as it does for every mother.  Who else will teach her how tie her shoes or to look both ways before crossing the road?  But choosing to be the one who also teaches her I-before-E-except-after-C (except for in a few odd cases, as I’ve been reminded!) and why mushrooms grow on trees, to take the full weight of responsibility for what the world calls her formal education, is another realm altogether.IMG_1491IMG_1464.JPGIt makes sense: who else in the whole world cares more about her success than I do?

It’s exciting: learning is an adventure I’ve always loved, and I can hardly wait to take her along to all manner of new and thrilling places.

It’s serious business: it will be my fault if some vital branch of learning isn’t covered.

That’s why my husband and I agreed that a few days retreat was in order for the teacher before this all officially commenced.  A working retreat, in which to lay out lesson plans and familiarize myself with workbooks, yes, but also to recharge myself for the important task ahead.

And the first thing I did along that order?  Take a hike.IMG_1527IMG_1449I sensed, going into the retreat, that my ideas were good but jumbled.  If you know anything about the world of home education, you know that the amount of resources available are both incredible and rather overwhelming.  I needed some vision to narrow my focus down from all those fabulous options to what would work best for us—and I always think most clearly while walking.  And if the walk winds through sun-dappled woodlands around the edge of a sparkling blue lake?  If there’s not a sound to be heard but the crunching of leaves beneath your feet and the wind in the oak tree tops?  All the better.

I took a book along, and on a short break, sitting in the warm grass with my back against a sturdy oak, I read these inspiring lines:

“Little by little,” an acorn said,
As it slowly sank in its mossy bed,
“I am improving every day,
Hidden deep in the earth away.”IMG_1469Little by little, each day it grew;
Little by little, it sipped the dew;
Downward it sent out a thread-like root;
Up in the air sprung a tiny shoot.

Day after day, and year after year,
Little by little the leaves appear;
And the slender branches spread far and wide,
Till the mighty oak is the forest’s pride.

IMG_1457IMG_1506IMG_1517“Little by little,” said a thoughtful boy,
“Moment by moment, I’ll well employ,
Learning a little every day,
And not spending all my time in play.
And still this rule in my mind shall dwell,
Whatever I do, I will do it well.IMG_1542“Little by little, I’ll learn to know
The treasured wisdom of long ago;
And one of these days, perhaps, we’ll see
That the world will be the better for me”;
And do you not think that this simple plan
Made him a wise and useful man?”—Author Unknown

The acorns rolled under my feet as I hiked on, and the seed of vision had been planted that I was looking for.  Jumbled ideas melded into a plan in my head, and far-sighted goals broke down into the steps A, B and C that would get us there.

It was in honor of the role this poem played in my lesson planning process, that “A is for Acorn” was chosen as the topic of study for our very first week of school.  For my students, it would look like nature hikes to identify oak trees, and making leaf rubbings, and listening to delightful stories about squirrels who love acorns.  We would find out what acorns tasted like and learn about famous oaks of long ago.

But for I, the teacher, it would be an inspiring reminder that the great task I was beginning would be accomplished just like that of a humble acorn becoming a mighty tree: little by little.  Letter by letter, number by number, line by line, book by book, concept building on concept, my young students would put down foundational roots, reach for the sky, and grow strong and mighty into a wealth of skill, wisdom and knowledge.  And for what?  The goal of the poem seems quite adequate to me, that the world will be a better place for having them in it.IMG_1499“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

 

Did you know?

…that multiple people groups consider acorns a delicacy (Korean, Greek, Native American)?

…that acorns have frequently been used as a substitute for coffee?

…that the name of the nut is derived from the Gothic word akran, which means “fruit of the unenclosed land”?

…that one of the greatest visionary statements of the Old Testament was made beneath an oak tree?  Read about it in Joshua 24.

“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD!” (Joshua 24:15)