why we decorated a peach tree instead of an evergreen for Christmas this year



The past three Christmases, we've gone to Home Depot or Lowe's and chosen a small potted evergreen. The size was just right. With a pan to catch water placed beneath the pot, and the entire plant perched on a sturdy chair, each tree was able to be seen through the front window, able to give enough cheer to drivers by and adequate joy to young children.

The price was right too, at just $18 for a tree that we could actually plant along our back fenceline. And it's totally appropriate down here in the South to plant a tree in January. So for the better part of December, we enjoyed our little potted evergreen, all lit and decorated with wooden cranberries and ribbon and glass balls and a few special ornaments. And then come January, we took it outside, planted it, and tried to remember to wrap a blanket around its base if the nights actually got below freezing. 

Thankfully, somehow, all three trees have survived. 

But this Christmas, I didn't want another potted evergreen to plant along the back fence line. I was unimpressed by any of the ones available at the garden centers. They just didn't look very full of hope this year. And since we added a couple of white-flowering crepe myrtles between the trio of evergreens along the back fence, we didn't really need another evergreen anyway. 

I'm not a huge fan of artificial. Just personally. For me, the Christmas tree is a metaphor, and the fake life--eh, just not me. Totally not judging. Just admitting I take metaphors too seriously. Blame it on being a writer. I don't know.

And I'm just a little too frugal to spend twice as much on already-chopped-down evergreen to decorate then toss to the curb come January than I would on one I could plant... I just can't bring myself to do it (and I say yet, because I'm sure one day I will, when there's no more room in my yard to plant anything). 

Since I do love the smell of pine, I appeased my olfactory privation--this need for the scent of pine at Christmas time--with a fresh-cut wreath that's hanging in the kitchen. 

But as far as trees go, I guess I'm admitting, I just wasn't satisfied with what I was seeing this Christmas. I couldn't find it. You know, the right tree, my family's tree for this year... 

And a good friend of mine, a brand marketing guy, was listening to me explain why we ended up buying a peach tree for our Christmas tree this year captured it: 
"The evergreen, after all, is a metaphor, and sometimes you just need a different metaphor." 
And he was right. He got it. (Thank you, David!)

The thing was $10. It's as tall as I am, but as thin as the bamboo shoot supporting its trunk. Its arms stretch out creatively, spaced just right for bulbs actually. And it's not dead, just dormant.

When we first brought it home, it didn't look like much. My parents actually visited before we had a chance to decorate it, and we all had a good laugh over my pathetic and random choice for a Christmas tree. Apparently later that night at my sister's house, dad was still making fun, how he just couldn't help being in a Christmas mood after seeing my tree... And since he did actually give me an early Christmas present that night, I've totally forgiven him for mocking my tree. 

It's not dead, just dormant, remember. And I'm going to make myself a little vulnerable here. If you've read blog posts from this past year and a half, you know it's been a going through season. What I've written has been a fraction of my own personal experiences. But I can't even describe ... though I can taste the salt on my lips as tears run down remembering. It's just been dark. Really, really dark. 

But it's not just my personal stuff--the lingering post partum and the mommying and the ridiculously difficult seminary years. That's really only part of it. A lot of this year's going through has been going through alongside people I love. One beloved family struggling to stay together, to make it work, in spite of everything... Close friends whose precious little one was called suddenly home to Jesus, and all the grief and longing left behind... Precious loved ones facing disability, debilitating disease, mental illness, abuse, dementia...and the day-to-day realities that go with each... 

Sometimes the pain and the grief are immobilizing. Sometimes, frankly, I feel dead, without hope. But I won't let myself stay there. Because it's not true. I'm not dead. I may not be an evergreen, but ... by faith ... I'm coming to believe this has been a season of dormancy. The darkness is passing away, and the dawn is beginning to shine, gradually brighter and brighter, promising hope and a future. 

So this year, in lieu of an evergreen, I convinced my wonderful husband--wonderful because he puts up with my random impulses and crazy metaphoric living and applauds (at least a good bit of) it as creative!--to buy me a peach tree for Christmas

Because somehow this year, a bare peach tree spoke to me and ironically proclaimed a message of hope. 

It's not like everybody else's Christmas tree, but that's okay. 

It beautifully brightens my little living room. (Even my dad admitted my pathetic little peach tree looked festive once lit and decorated with gold and crimson bulbs and ribbon.) 

And it speaks patience and hope to me on a daily basis.

And oh! the promise of the peach! 

I can almost feel the sweet juices of the ripe peach replacing the salty tears dripping down my chin. The hope of fruitfulness after a season of dormancy! 

And I'm hopeful that by the time the first peach ripens this year, we'll have seen Alan savor the soul-sweet satisfaction of a desire accomplished, his seminary complete. That he'll be able to tuck the diploma in the trunk with the rest of the padded pouches and slips of paper that signify a ton of work and a life's hope and calling. And that whatever the next step is will be becoming plain before our faces. 

That by the grace and kindness of God, we'll be able to go on from here. 

And though the path may still be rough and rugged going forward,
if it bears fruit, it will be worth it all. 

Multiplied grace and peace,
with love, 

michelle

Merry Christmas!

what our children need--growing up in this broken, abusive world


Ours is a broken world. Gross understatement, I know. And a harsh reality we would rather not dwell on. Especially as mothers with precious little ones clamoring around our ankles, resting against our breasts, looking up at us with those huge eyes and so many "whys." Tender innocents, appropriately naive.

We hear of the atrocities--the awful, unspeakable, aching realities. And we beg God never to let our children experience the soul-deep pain and emotional trauma of abuse.

And yet, in this broken world in which we live, it happens. And it happens far, far too often.

And these tender, frail olive shoots--the sweet children sitting around our tables--they depend on us.

They look to us to be their fruitful vine, producing fruit from the vine, filling their sippy cups with juice, or asking us to turn their water into juice because "you're supposed to be like Jesus, Mommy."

And yes, one of mine really did ask, really did believe I had the power to change his water into the juice he so badly wanted. But I couldn't.

Because I'm not Him.

And I've been thinking about this post for a few weeks now, thinking how to phrase things, how to express what I don't fully understand, what I too often fail at.... How I need to point my children to Jesus even when His reflection is as if in a foggy mirror.

And I know I'm not alone. And you need to know you're not alone. That we're in this together.

We are the mommies. The fruitful vines. The ones squeezed out, pressed, stomped on. At times. Yes.

And too often, in the midst of the pressure, I don't see the pressures my kids are working through too, don't take the time to be more gentle, to listen better. 

But when I do, I realize the beauty of it.

As the moms, we're the ones that can nurture and comfort. The ones that get the "I love you mommy because you bake all the things" when we really just baked scones because we ran out of every other breakfast item in the house...

But we provide our precious, pressured little ones with a measure of comfort and joy. We push away their griefs, wipe their tears. We give them soup and scones and try our best to strengthen their hearts with stories and hugs. And (if we're lucky) we get to be the ones that have what it takes to make them smile again. 

But, ugh. They absorb more than we realize. They get it. Way too early. 
They understand way too much. They think way too deep. And they hurt.
Sometimes in ways we'll never know. 

They are our olive shoots. The precious little ones around our tables. And they're just trying to grow up, to be like us, to live the dream they've not yet dreamed--because they still think there's a way to be a super hero or a princess and earn a paycheck for it.

Our tender little olive shoots.

And we are the mommies, the ones tasked with helping them "grow well in rocky and arid conditions."

By the marvelous mercy of God, somehow "their roots help hold the soil in place and prevent erosion." And the questions they ask and the way they love and the words they speak and the hugs they give--oh! they hold us together. They are what we embrace as the worthwhile definition of "family!" And life just wouldn't be the same without them.

They push us to know God better, to live life more sincerely (because they see through every hypocritical farce), to love more fully.

These are our children.

And like the olive tree in Israel, like the Jewish people too, "thriving in an inhospitable part of the world," so our children are learning to thrive, despite the depravity of this world we brought them into. They're learning that Jesus loves them. Enough to take away the sin of the world. Their sin. And the sin of those that sin against them too.

And it's hard and wonderful to teach them that.

So we sing "O Grant Me Wisdom From Above" because we know we don't have enough on our own. And we pray for grace and strength and perfect peace. Tears trickle down our cheeks, burn in our eyes and throat. And we hope God will send rainbows if there must be rain. Hot cocoa and firesides if there must be snow. And aloe and swimming pools and lemonade if there must be scorching sun.

And in every season, in every trial, with every "why" and "please," we trust our Father, who loves us as we love them ... and more. Who works in ways we cannot understand. Who will redeem this world. Someday. And bring His heaven down to reign on the Eden-restored planet of peace.

Until then, we lift our eyes to Him and teach our children to lift their eyes too. Because (unless He returns before they get the chance) they too will be the parents one day. Sooner than it could ever seem possible, I'm sure. And they'll be the ones pointing their own little ones to the hope of Jesus in their broken, sin-cursed world.

And He is our hope. In this generation. And forever.

And the best thing we can be for our children--what they desperately need us to be--are desperate, dependent children of God who speak to them humbly, who listen, who cry, who repent and thrive in the Word.

We must live by faith, in full hope (full confidence) in the Redeemer who is accomplishing His work and who will make all things new in His time.

And tonight I'm praying peace and hope and joy for you and yours as well as mine.

May the grace and love of Jesus be with your spirit, 
  michelle


zuppa toscana (gluten- and dairy-free)

Here's the concept: 
1 pot, 2 meats, 3-4 veggies, 5+ herbs/spices, oil, broth, & a kick.

Here's the Full (process): 

1 pot. This is a necessity for me. (I hate washing multiple pots and pans.) 
  • Make sure you pick a good size stock pot. 

2 meats: sausage and bacon. 
  • Start with 1 lb. of Italian sausage... 
  • And 4 thick strips of bacon, sliced. 
  • Throw it all in the pot, on heat 6/medium high. 
  • And keep prepping, stirring with each addition to keep the sausage crumbling and the bacon cooking on all sides. 

3-4 veggies: onion, potatoes, carrots and kale. 
  • Onion (and garlic). It's awesome if you can use real onion (and garlic), so chop up about 1/3 of a medium sweet onion (and a couple of cloves of garlic) and toss in while you're browning your meat. But it's really okay if you just add some onion (and/or garlic) powder later though, if you don't have an onion (garlic) on hand. 
  • Potatoes. Peel and dice four medium potatoes. Note: My mom prefers eight white potatoes, not peeled, and sliced thin. You choose. Additional note: When I've wanted this soup and haven't had potatoes on hand, I've been known to throw in a little mashed potato flakes after the liquid part. Just so you know you have options. The potatoes are important, but how they present themselves is entirely according to personal preference or present availability. 
  • Carrots. Grate 1-2 baby carrots. The little thin strips add just the right amount of sweetness and color. 
  • Kale. My favorite. Oh, sweet Kale! Kale is a newer companion of mine, but our relationship is just as deep as if we'd met a long, long time ago. A cross between spinach and broccoli almost, it's amazing and versatile! And Zuppa Toscana is a fabulous way to introduce this family to this fabulous friend. 
    • For this recipe, use at least as many stalks of kale as you can hold in one fist. Less is fine, but know, kale melts almost like spinach, so you can use more than you think. Just don't do what my  mom did and omit it. It wasn't on purpose, she just forgot to write it on her recipe. But Zuppa Toscana is just not the same without the kale.
    • To prep, cut out and discard the stem/stalk. 
    • Then slice the leaves two directions so that you end up with little squares. You can do strips, but even though the kale melts down a bit, it's nicer if you're not getting big long pieces, since you'll be eating this with a spoon.
    • Once the meat is browned/fully cooked, dump all the chopped kale into the pot and stir.
5+ Herbs & Oil.
  • Oil. Add a nice spill of extra virgin olive oil over the kale. 
  • 5+ Herbs. I can't tell you how much. I don't measure. And your tastes may be different than mine. So just remember, the name of this soup is Zuppa Toscana--soup of Tuscany--which would be Italian. So stick with herbs Italians love. Here's my list: 
    • Garlic and onion powder. If you didn't use fresh garlic and/or onion, don't forget to add these now. :) 
    • Italian seasoning. Or just a combination of basil, oregano and thyme.
    • Extra basil. Fresh, if you have it.
    • Parsley. Not too much.
    • Dill. This is my Mom's influence. I'm pretty sure she was influenced by my dad's Polish heritage on this one. But dill is hands-down the top herb of choice in my family. Even if I would consider it "optional" in this soup.
    • Celery seed. Another "optional." 
    • Pepper & Salt. Yes, I know these aren't actually herbs. And I know most people say it "salt & pepper." But this is where I add these. And I'm listing these additions in quantified order. I'm the kind of person who thinks we all consume too much sodium anyway, so I put my pepper first. I even put my pepper in the shaker with three holes and my salt in the one with two holes. Sorry, if that confuses people. But...it's better for you.
Broth & Kick. 
  • 6 cups chicken broth. I actually prefer using a ridiculous amount of Herbox chicken granules added when I add the herbs and just add 6 cups of water here, but I just realized Herbox uses "whey protein (from milk) and milk fat," so to stick with the gluten- and dairy-free promise, you'll want to use an approved broth in this step. I would recommend a low-sodium broth.
  • 3 cups soy milk. If you don't care about dairy-free, you could use 3 cups regular milk or 2 cups cream or 1 cup heavy whipping cream. But this soup has so much flavor that the soy is honestly not recognizable at all. And it makes it shareable with more people. 
  • Last but not least: Louisiana Hot Sauce. You could use any cayenne pepper sauce. Tabasco or Schlotszky's would be fine. I honestly really like the Burman's cayenne pepper sauce from Aldi. It's just the right finish! 
And here's the Short (recap): 
  • 1 stock pot. 
  • 2 meats: sausage & bacon. 
  • 3-4 veggies: onion (and garlic), potatoes, carrots, kale.
  • Oil. 
  • 5+ herbs: (Garlic/onion), Italian blend, extra basil, parsley, dill, celery seed, pepper, salt.
  • Chicken broth & soy milk. 
  • And the kick: cayenne pepper sauce.

Simmer. Or transfer to a crockpot on low for taking to your next Soup Celebration. 

And serve! Just as if we were at Olive Garden, I like to make Parmesan-Romano available for those who can enjoy it on the top. 

Bon appetit! And when people ask you for the recipe, you can send them here! :) 

With grace and peace,

michelle 

God our hope...even through seminary

Seminary. The word itself once inspired vision and missional enthusiasm. But "in it" long enough, 'seminary' now echoes hollow like a long, lonely hallway of some academic institution...

This preparation for ministry--ministry still future, still hoped for. And the necessariness of this preparation--all too frequently called into question: Do we have to keep doing this? Is this really what God's called us to? Can't we just move on and start doing what we're going to be doing for the rest of our lives? And 'seminary' now conjures far different connotative emotions.


It's been tempting so many times just to quit. Just to move on. And we could. And I'm convinced it would be fine if we walked away right now. 

But, for us, the just-when-we-need-it-most encouragements and the providential, timely path-smoothings have kept us going. 

And I hope, for you, this post will be a just-when-you-need-it-most timely encouragement as I share a handful of things that I've had to be reminded of (still need to be reminded of) frequently along the way: 

1) I have to fix my hope in God. My hope cannot be in a degree or some future ministry position. To be "in the ministry" must not become an idol, replacing the God it claims to want to serve. My hope must be in God. God, alone. Now. Just as in all the ministry years ahead. I must pursue Him, realize He's pursuing me. I need Him like I need air. It's essential that I stay close to Him, that I read the words He wrote for me, that I pray--a lot--pour out my heart--about everything.

2) I have to keep loving my husband. At times, this can be tough. 'Seminary' can get in the way--way too easily. Finances and time are most likely both limited. So we have to get creative. And we have to keep believing, he loves me. We're in this together. For better or worse. And, at this point in the game, it takes two to be awesome. He needs you. And you need him. Keeping your marriage strong is perhaps the most important way you can make sure you're ready for the opportunities of ministry God opens up for your family. Now and in the future.

3) I have to think right about 'ministry.' Ministry is not some future thing. Ministry is every opportunity God gives us to display His glory, love and righteousness to other people. Every day. Every moment. Ministry may be a conversation or a FB post. It may be holding the fort while your husband studies several nights a week, doing laundry, dishes, homework with kids... It may be loving your kids, listening, playing ball... which brings me to...

4) I have to love my kids. If you (like me) have kids during these seminary years, then you know they're feeling this too. And the older they get, the more they feel it. They're part of the team. And they're sacrificing during these years too. Talk openly with them. Let them weigh in. Make the moments you do have count. One-on-one date nights, one-child with one-parent, can be a simple but very special way to keep everyone on the same page. And if you've added kids along the way (like we have), then you've especially got to remember this next point...

5) I have to stay flexible, willing to change things up from time to time. Sometimes a total game-changer is in order. A late bedtime, a Sunday-night family night, a break from what has come to be accepted as our "norm." We've had several "new norms" along the way. Our schedule has, out of necessity, changed multiple times. When one or more of us is to a level of frustration and discouragement that is beginning to be immobilizing, it's time to stop insisting on banging a brick against our forehead and ask God to open our eyes to a solution. Earlier would probably be better. But sometimes we don't see it then. Once we see it--or feel it--then we need to start thinking outside the box. And sometimes, we have to totally break down our box and toss it out and get a bigger box. 

6) I have to be willing to adjust my expectations. And this isn't just seminary, I guess. This is just life. Things don't play out the way we think. My "great expectations" are dashed a thousand times before they become even greater than I could've hoped for. 

7) I have to choose hope. (And I guess that was my first point too.) But I have to choose hope. Again and again. So I'll leave this here. Because I have to keep my eyes on Jesus--not my circumstances. I have to choose to walk by faith--not sight. I have to let go of what I think--lean not on my own understanding. I have to trust in the Lord with all my heart and settle my hope on Him. He will not disappoint. He is our Hope...forever...even through seminary. Hang on to hope. And if you need a friend through these seminary years, I'd love to be that for you. You can message me through my author page on FB or email michelle [at] vineandshoots [dot] com. 

Grace and peace, 
with love,

michelle

"not what i expected": the foreign field...of motherhood

Eighty-five to ninety, even occasionally ninety-five, percent of a cross-cultural, mission-minded individual's time can be taken up with just what it takes to live in a foreign setting: lesson plans or other business, shopping for groceries (which may in that culture be a daily event as contrasted to weekly), food preparation (which may require extra time too), laundry, correspondence, sleep (which really is necessary)....

And I'm not sure where we get this idea of being able to ignore "normal life" and giving ourselves so fully to "ministry." But it's a great expectation that sets us up perfectly for even greater disappointment.

But I was sitting in this session this past weekend at the FX missions conference up at The Wilds, listening to a brother sharing his experience teaching English in a cross-cultural setting, sharing his (sometimes literally) rude awakening to this new land.

The session's title: "It's Not What I Expected!"

And I found myself not just listening to, but connecting with, the challenge of our own pre-conceived expectations falling flat and needing to be adjusted. Having given the above statistic about eight-five to ninety-five percent, and having shared some of the ways God had to work in his heart, when this brother began to read Philippians 2:14-17, a tear trickled down my cheek.

There I was, sitting with my legs comfortably criss-crossed in my chair, relaxed, enjoying having my husband next to me, the kiddos safely cared for in homes of trusted friends...in another state....

And as he read Phippians 2:14-17, the Spirit applied this "Not What I Expected" session to my heart. He reminded me of my current mission, the one He's called me to, that hasn't been what I expected either. 

I jotted in my conference notebook: "My cross-cultural mission field right now is motherhood."

Motherhood. This land of pre-conceived notions and crazy expectations. This isn't how I thought God would use me. This isn't what I expected. And I certainly spend between eighty-five and ninety-five percent of my time just doing what it takes to live with little people in my home: laundry and dishes and diapers and making sure everyone has sufficient food in their faces, that their homework is done, that the lost library book is found before it incurs a twenty-seven dollar replacement fee, that they learn how to work with their hands and be brave when they scrape their knee or someone is not kind to them, packing lunches, making beds, and on and on....

And Philippians 2:14-17 speaks into my life, interrupts my thinking, gives me some spiritual chiropractic care and helps me realign my expectations:

"Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud [unashamed] that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all."

And the Spirit is applying these things to my life from that passage:

  • All things. All...
  • Don't complain. Don't question what I've given you right now.
  • And in this generation, I need you, my child, to be pure.
  • Shine where you are.
  • Make my Word a priority.
  • You won't be sorry, and your work will not be for nothing.
  • You feel like you're being drained, poured out till you're empty. You are.
  • But it's for the faith of those you're serving.
  • So be happy about it. Rejoice with those you're serving.
  • It's worth it. :)

And I think about Titus 2, where the older women are to instruct the younger women to love their husbands and love their children,etc., for the purpose of the Word of God not being blasphemed or thought little of.

And being a wife has as many concocted expectations as being a mom does. And loving that man isn't always what I expected it to look like, holding down the fort while he pours himself into a dissertation.

But I know this is what He's called me to. It's "not what I expected" but it's good.

And the dividends are often reaped in faith: "I have no greater joy than to hear [or, see] my children are walking in the truth" (3 John 4).

We're all going to have to face adjusted expectations of what the ministry God's given us is supposed to look like. It's not going to look like what we might have thought or hoped.

"His thoughts are different from our thoughts; His ways are better than our ways" (Isaiah).

And if I'll walk by faith, love my husband, love my children, love Him, love His Word...

It'll be worth it. He said so.

And I can trust Him.

Always.

And so I read Philippians 2 again. And again. And I'm happier, just believing He's doing this.

His Word is watering me, and I'm growing...right where He's planted me (for now). Who knows where He'll replant us down the road, but either way...here or there...He's fulfilling His purposes!

And I can't help but smile.


Grace and peace,
with love,

michelle






are we too hard on sufferers?: gaining perspective on Job's wife and Ruth's mother-in-law and the woman you know who's struggling

How many of us have voiced an unfiltered thought to our husband or a friend? An utterance that surfaced unchecked and maybe not even because we really believed that thing but because we were looking for that man of strength we married or that loyal friend to speak to our hearts and challenge how we were processing the present struggle?

Job's wife gets a lot of flack. In an unfiltered horrific (and providentially preserved) moment, the words came out: "Why not just curse God and die?" Let's just be done with all this. I don't think I can take anymore.

And tears ran down my face this morning as I shared with my small group at Ladies' Bible Study this brief vignette because sometimes the Spirit makes it really real that these characters in the Bible were individuals, fully human, just like me, and their reactions, their stories, could be mine. 

Job's wife, though we don't know her name, was a real woman. And she suffered significant loss, endured immense heartache. I cannot imagine. Every thing and every child she had was stolen from her grasp, taken away from her in rapid succession, and she was watching her hero, her husband suffer unexplained personal illness. 

And we do well to keep reminding ourselves, this story is not a work of fiction. This woman, Job's wife, breathed air and birthed children and worked hard and loved deep. 

And she was brought to the end of herself. The painful, bitter end. The hopeless bottom of the empty barrel. A place where, given enough hardship, any of us can come to. (And some of us get there way faster than she.) 

"Why not just curse God and let Him kill us?" Think about all they'd suffered. Read the first two chapters again. Put yourself in her shoes, remembering a significant loss you've experienced and the hot tears that you've shed. The question that always eventually surfaces is, "Is this worth it? Is it worth it to keep going on?"

And I find it incredibly instructive to look at Job's response. Righteous man that he was, I have to read his character into his tone of voice: I do not think he's shouting this at her. I really don't think at that lowest point of struggle, after all they'd been through together, that he was really condemning her. I think if there were an inspired audio version...I believe...we'd hear a gentle husband quietly, calming counseling the woman he loves. 

"You sound like one of the foolish women. Should we expect good from the hand of God and not suffering?" 

It's as if Job's saying, That's not my faith-full, grace-full wife talking. That's not you, love, saying that. I know it's not. These words are coming out of your beautiful lips, but it doesn't sound like you. I know you. This isn't you. "You're talking like an unbelieving person."

And so he gently pleads with her to respond as a woman of the faith. And notice he says, you sound like or you're talking like. He doesn't accuse her of being an unbeliever. There is a difference. 

And then Job says just one thing more, he asks her a question. He doesn't go on and on, doesn't preach, doesn't lecture. He just challenges her thinking by asking her one probing question: "Should we expect God to give us good only and never what we consider to be bad?"

Then he leaves the scene, goes off to scrape his sores, to sit silently, and to suffer the bad theology of his so-called friends who thought they had it all figured out...until God would set them straight and speak for Himself. 

But Job's brief, kind response to his struggling wife reveals the measure of his faith. He believed God was sovereign (in complete control). And he believed God always did what was right (even if he didn't understand why). He didn't expect that He somehow deserved life to always be good. And he believed God was with them in this storm.

Still, it hurts to watch your husband soldier on and suffer. It hurts to lose everything you've worked for, anyone you've loved. It just hurts. And it hurts deeply.

And the question in our Bible study book today--Nancy Guthrie's The Promised One: Seeing Jesus in Genesis, week 3, discussion question 7--that in part prompted this post was this: 

"Many people feel and express anger with God when the brokenness of this world impacts them in ways that bring pain. How could you use what you've learned in this study of Genesis 3 (perhaps also using the truths in Romans 8 and Revelation 21 and 22) to help someone who is angry with God to put the blame where it belongs and place their hope in Christ?"

And there were some really good answers at our table.

But sometimes the answer to working through anger, bitterness of soul, resentment, grief, and other difficult heart responses with others is to give them space and time. 

It's not helpful to philosophize about the why when God hasn't revealed that. We may not know why. Ever. 

It's not helpful to give an answer before you hear the whole matter. (I think that's a proverb....)

It's not helpful to smack a bandaid Bible quote on the seeping sore. Though slowly pouring the water of the Word (without a running commentary) can wash over a wound and aid the healing.

And a word spoken in due season is priceless, beautiful! But I heard a pastor say once that the best thing Job's friends did was just be there and be silent, that the minute they opened their mouths, they became not helpful. 

And back to Job's wife, her ache was raw and her complaint was candid. And honestly I just don't believe it's wrong to voice our emotional battles to the One who created us in His image with a capacity for a full-range of feelings. Read the Psalms: 73, 77, 88, 109, 137. Try Lamentations. Listen to Jesus in the Garden. 

And sometimes it's helpful to talk to someone who you know loves you and who you know is striving to live by faith too. 

Jumping to the end of the book, we see (at least assume) Job and his wife weathered this storm...together. And went on to have ten more children together. 

And finally, though God rebukes Job's three self-proclaimed spiritual psychologists, He doesn't rebuke Job's wife. That's significant to me too.

***

A second woman comes to mind: Naomi. Or should we call her what she wished to be called: Mara, meaning bitter?

And as I talked with a friend this week, she shared a helpful perspective she'd gained from the life of Naomi, an insight from a Sunday school teacher that connected during a season of personal struggle she was going through.  

In the story of Ruth, we see this struggling saint named Naomi, and if we're not careful we look over her or condemn her. But a more thoughtful examination of the story reveals a woman who though at her very lowest is being used by God. 

In times of crisis, we often wonder if God is still working, if He's using our lives for any purpose. But God is fulfilling His purposes for us and through us. 

In the book of Ruth, we see God using Naomi (despite her depressed state) as a key connector. It is Naomi whom God uses to point Ruth in the way she should go, how she should respond, what she should do... And God uses this struggling widow to orchestrate events that would be significant in the eventual fulfillment of the promise of a Messiah. Ruth, after all, though a Moabite, became the wife of Boaz and one of the women in the lineage of Jesus, the Promised One, our Savior.

***

And we can take fresh courage that God will accomplish His purposes for us, that He's still working in and through us, that He will perfect what concerns us, that He is God, that He knows, that He cares, that it is worth it to hang on to hope. 

These thoughts have been significant to me recently. And I'm pretty convinced that they'll be pretty significant to some of you, too, whether you're the one struggling or you're the one walking through the valley with a friend or spouse who's struggling. 

I want to close with a portion of David's Miktam (Psalm 57): 

"Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, 
for in You my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High, 
to God who fulfills His purpose for me...
God will send out His steadfast love and His faithfulness!"

Let's find our refuge in Him tonight.
Let's rest in His love and faithfulness and trust His power to complete the good work He's begun in us. 

Grace and peace...

and a 

=]

from Kassia (who reached up and touched the keys and happened to type her very first smiley face tonight, and I couldn't bring myself to backspace over it)...

with love, 

michelle


If I can pray with you or be an encouragement to you in this journey you're on, please feel free to email michelle [at] vineandshoots [dot] com.

twin towers of Christianity: prayer and hospitality

There was a knock on my door. It was 9/11, and I had no clue whom I would find out there. 

The top of my front door has a window that looks like half a cake--four slices. I peeked through a slice...and was relieved. It was Ginger, a dear friend. 

On my side of the door, however, was unfolded laundry, chairs pulled out from around the kitchen table in preparation for mopping, and me--a mess. 

"Is it the wrong day? Because it's been a crazy week, and I could totally see myself coming on the wrong day," she said, full of grace.

"I don't know," I laughed. "But we're having tomato soup for lunch. Come on in." 

It ended up, I had somehow gotten a week ahead of myself in my calendar. When I flipped back one page, there it was, 9/11, "Ginger, lunch, here."

And I'm reading Dispatches from the Front by Tim Keesee...remembering, too, a conversation with him over homemade pasta and tiramisu at my sister's home...and "given to hospitality" is going through my mind. Tim makes the point that hospitality is key to gospel advance, a part of the Christian life we dare not minimize. And I'm convinced the amount of coffee he consumes is way more about his passion for soul conversation and relationship building than his love for the substance itself.

"It's an hour cleaner than it was." I smiled. And she didn't care. 

We stirred in water and a little sour cream to the generic, condensed soup, and topped it with strong, fresh basil from the backyard and whole wheat crackers to a child's heart's content. 

Later, the kids played Toca Boca's "Kitchen Monster" on my iPad. And we moms talked, heart to heart.

She told me about a lesson the Lord's been repeating in her life, one that even her five year old is picking up because he's bowing his head before taking her on in Skip-Bo. And I'm listening with joy to her lesson on praying....

And then last night as I debriefed Alan on some stuff with our boys, confessing, "I just don't know what to do for him."

His calm "pray for him, love him" hit home.

Do you remember David Hosaflook's mission strategy? "Pray. Meet people. Tell them about Jesus." 

And it's sinking in.

Prayer and hospitality.

This is how God works. 

It seems so simple put that way. Prayer and hospitality. 

And I think at the root of both is humility. 

In prayer, we are humbling ourselves before God, admitting it is He who must do the work, begging for His wisdom and direction, that He would make our way plain before our faces. 

And in hospitality, we're opening our front doors and serving something really basic so that we can love other people.

And I'm so aware that as I live this way--given to prayer, given to hospitality--that it's not just a constant outpouring. It's not. Given to prayer, given to hospitality--this Christianity, this way of life--it builds me up, makes me strong too. It is the way I feel--really feel and experience--God working in and through me. And it's amazing!

Given to prayer.
Given to hospitality.

Let's keep humbling ourselves...and being amazed!

God is willing and able to work in and through each of us.

Amen? 


Grace and peace,
with love,

michelle








an original rendering of psalm 104

1. Heaven's Your pavilion, God, and Light is Your cloak.
You are King Eternal. Bless the LORD, O my soul!
Your chamber's in the firmament, Your chariot rides the clouds.
Winds and waves and flaming fire--Your Word goes forth with pow'r.

Chorus. Bless the LORD! Bless the LORD! O my soul!
As long as I have being, I will wait upon You, Lord.
I will lift my hands to worship You, I lift my eyes to wait.
Creator and Sustainer, God, You are so very great!
Bless the LORD!

2. The origin of this wide world conceived in Your wise mind.
"Let there be light!" And there was light--beginning of all time.
You formed the world from nothing, God. A word, and "it was good!"
The valleys sank, the waters ran, the mountains firmly stood.

3. A boundary--this far, no more--the waters followed course.
Submitting to Your sovereignty, they yielded to Your voice.
A gushing stream You thus provide, sustaining every beast,
And how beautiful the branches for the birds, those very least.

Chorus. Bless the LORD! Bless the LORD! O my soul!
As long as I have being, I will wait upon You, Lord.
I will lift my hands to worship You, I lift my eyes to wait.
Creator and Sustainer, God, You are so very great!
Bless the LORD!


4. From grains and greens, to oils and wine, You satisfy desires.
Give strength to work, make glad our hearts, our faces shining smile.
You give to Your beloved sleep, while lions seek their prey.
To their dens returned, the sun breaks forth--another faithful day!

Chorus. Bless the LORD! Bless the LORD! O my soul!
As long as I have being, I will wait upon You, Lord. 
I will lift my hands to worship You, I lift my eyes to wait.
Creator and Sustainer, God, You are so very great!
Bless the LORD!

5. Oh, here! the sea! Innumerable--Your creatures small and great!
Look, there! the ships! Leviathin--that beast You made to play!
How manifold Your works, O LORD! In wisdom You have placed
Ev'ry flow'r and tree, made each season be--Your greatness on display!

Chorus. Bless the LORD! Bless the LORD! O my soul!
As long as I have being, I will wait upon You, Lord. 
I will lift my hands to worship You, I lift my eyes to wait.
Creator and Sustainer, God, You are so very great!
Bless the LORD!


6. We look to You. We wait and wait. You hide Your face--dismay!
That final breath--from dust to dust--to rest our loved ones lay.
But still we look, and glory be! Your Spirit comes again!
You open up Your hands, and we so gladly gather in!

7. You satisfy our hungry hearts, Your glory fills the land.
You always work Your pleasure, Make Your power known to man.
A look--the mountains tremble, smoke. And so my heart responds:
I confess my sin, I embrace Your grace, to You my praise belongs!

Chorus. Bless the LORD! Bless the LORD! O my soul!
As long as I have being, I will wait upon You, Lord.
I will lift my hands to worship You, I lift my eyes to wait.
Creator and Sustainer, God, You are so very great!
Bless the LORD!

8. Hallelujah! for redemption. Bless the LORD, O my soul!
You are making all things new again--restoring, making whole.
Forever and forever, God, forever may it be--
that Your glory fills the earth--my heart--I lift my voice and sing!

Final Chorus. Bless the LORD! Bless the LORD! O my soul!
As long as I have being I will sing aloud Your praise!
In you, O LORD, I will rejoice! Jehovah! Elohim!
May my worship rise to Your throne on high, bringing pleasure to my King!
Bless the LORD!
Reprise. O Hallelujah! Bless the LORD! 
Forever! Forever! Forever, O LORD!
May my worship rise to Your throne on high, bringing pleasure to my King!
Bless the LORD!

2014. michelle l. grover.

permission not to ...

In this generation of stream-of-consciousness push-button posting without even a second thought, where we tap on screens and share selfies with space, not even imagining what living breathing human being somewhere else might see and think and want to do (or do) as a result, I think it's important to remember that you don't have to.

Whether you're a tween who has just gained access to the world wide web, a teen experimenting with who you are and how others perceive you, a young adult starting her own blog and wanting to make a difference in the world by loving other people and choosing the right-for-you college major and maybe even the right-for-you young man, or if you're a young mom trying not to be too desperate for contact with the world outside your own little growing family, a professional working hard to make all the key contact connections, or a retiree wanting to keep up with family--we all can get sucked into the trap of thinking "I have to..." or "I should..." and wanting to feel like we matter to someone.

I've talked with a number of you, and I'm picking this theme up. You're realizing there are appropriate balances and seasons. There are significant beneficial reasons for participating in social media. But it's not a must for living a godly Christian life, not for most of us. 

We put pressures on ourselves too often, resolving to blog once a month, or twice a week, or Monday through Friday. We're told by experts, this is the way you have to do it if you want to be successful and make it out there in today's world. 

But sometimes there's just not time. God's called you into a season where it isn't practical to expect yourself to manage a blog, a Facebook page in addition to a personal wall, a Linkedin profile, a Twitter account...and the piles of laundry and stacks of dishes and school assignments or exercise or reading with the kids or other significant work...and continue to grow in your personal relationship with God.

And sometimes there's just no way to say it. Sometimes God's called you into a season so dark and so difficult, so deep and private, that you can't get words on a page. If you remember to keep breathing you're doing well. If you can make yourself eat and speak truth to yourself, singing even just one song or hymn or spiritual song in your heart to the Lord, probably something simple like "I know He is able to carry me through," then you say thank you even as you cry yourself to sleep because you survived another day, and God is faithful even though it's hard. 

You don't need my permission, but you have to know this: 

It's okay to not post anything on Facebook for a month. It's okay to totally deactivate your account.
It's okay to take a nap or go on a walk with a friend or soak in the tub and soak in the Word.
It's okay to not write, for a season, while you process. 
It's okay to cling on to hope, to walk by faith. It's more than okay!

"There's a time for everything..." wrote the created human most intellectually gifted ever. Solomon tried it all and sorted it all out and came to this startling conclusion: "Fear God, and keep His commandments." 

Obey and reverence HIM.

Because God is Who He says He is--our faithful Creator, Sustainer, Savior, Shepherd, Counselor, King--if He is orchestrating things in your life in such a way that you cannot write or network or spend hours scrolling through other people's musings and linked articles and witty cartoons and poignant quotations, as long as you are accepting what He's giving you, honoring Him by submitting to His choice for this season, seeking to build your relationship with Him and then with others that He has strategically positioned around you to "do life" with, if you are keeping your gaze on Him and the work He has called you to for this season, then it's okay. You're going to be okay. 

Because He promises to reward obedience. 
He can multiply your efforts, your rest, your effectiveness in ways you could never drum up. 

"Seek first God and His Kingdom, and let Him add every thing else in His time."

"He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that you ask or imagine." 

"He is able, He is able, I know, He is able!" 

Whatever season you're going through, 

you have permission not to do what you do because you feel social pressure from without or because you're tempted to self-impose a regiment that is supposed to work out to your famous success.

Instead, you have permission to do what you do for the glory of God, "whether you're eating, or drinking, or sleeping, or socializing, or exercising, or studying, or reading stories to children and tucking into bed, or lying in a hospital, or holding the hand of someone lying in a hospital, or ...." 

Stay in close communication with the Spirit. "Keep in step with" Him! And you'll be okay. In fact, you'll be more than okay. You'll be who He made you to be. 

"You are His workmanship--His masterpiece, His poem!"

And you have permission not to do anything but what He's created you uniquely to do, and to do that with everything you've got.

Grace and peace multiplied,
with love,

michelle

the very best place to start?

Yesterday I stumbled across an old InTouch devotional from back in 2002 on "Wisdom in Trials." 2002? Wow, really!? 

Well, this July was a sort of reordering-my-private-world kind of month, which I may or may not share all the details regarding. But I didn't have any tutoring scheduled and just got to focus on the kids and the home and a few close relationships. Halfway through, the boys went to spend a few days with Grampa and Gramma while I sorted through two closets, bonded with baby, and searched my heart. I'm happy to report that the end is in sight for the organization of "stuff." I think I'll always be sorting through "soul stuff"--an ongoing "project", for sure. "We're all in process," right!? Well, I'm thankful "He's still working on me" ... very patiently!




Anway, this 2002 InTouch devo guide on "Wisdom in Trials" by Charles Stanley. My first thought was to either throw it away or pass it on (my modus operandi when I'm cleaning out--emphasis on out!). Instead, I decided to take a look. And I'm so glad I did! 

As an author, it always intrigues me to think about a topic and think where I might start the discussion, how I might plot the thirty days or the dozen chapters if I were to take up the task. And it's so interesting to see how different approaches work so effectively at different times. 

Well, this month-long devotional was no different. Day 1 didn't start where I expected with one of your typical passages on suffering. Interestingly, instead, it started in Revelation 20. 

Sometimes I think we think the "best place to start" is "at the very beginning" thanks to a stirring Rodgers-and-Hammerstein tune performed by Julie Andrews and the captain's kids... 

Or we think we need to start in the moment and then kind of work out--backwards and forwards--after we deal with the right now. 

Granted, there's a place for each of these approaches, to be sure. 

But this time, for me, Charles Stanley nailed it: sometimes the best place to start is at the very end ... the future hope that is ours. 

Revelation can be a very challenging book for me. But today, despite initial impression from the beginning of the verse, my heart became focused and I came away with pure encouragement.

Revelation 20:4, "And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshiped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years."  


As I looked at the part about those who have been beheaded/martyred ... but who will be exalted to reign with Christ, my mind was directed to the two things those saints held firmly to the very end: the testimony of Jesus and the Word of God. 

Those two things are what I, too, must hold onto. 

I can let go of other things. I've been told I need to. And I really am working on that. 

But I cannot ... I must not ... let go of these: the testimony of Jesus and the Word of God. 

The resurrection is coming! "It will be worth it all!!!" 

And I am so thankful for this sure and steadfast hope! 

No matter what you're facing today, I pray this will be an encouragement to you too. 

Hold fast the testimony of Jesus. 

Grip tight the Word of God. 

Never let go. No matter what.

Grace and peace multiplied,
with love, 

michelle

digging ditches, dirty dishes, and discipleship: a reminder that God works wonders in the (seemingly) random, ridiculous, and repetitious things He calls us to

It was a parent-swap-taking-care-of-sick-kids/going-to-service kind of Sunday. Alan stayed home in the morning, and I in the evening. But that meant I got to hear Pastor Andrew Henderson (candidate for Discipleship Pastor) preach twice (SS and AM service) and get some refreshing fellowship before holding up the fort for the night. 

Bold-roast truths--of the necessity of the church being identified by love and a culture of discipleship--were fresh-ground, steeping in my soul. Rehearsing the sermons to Alan was something akin to rightly timed, slow, smooth French-press coffee pouring into our cups. 

"Discipleship is investing ourselves in others so that they come to know Christ and become more and more like Him."

"We're all in process!" 
And "we're all part of the process!" 

And those twin truths set at ease my bipolar dichotomy of feeling like "Here, let me help you!" and "Ah! I need help!" "We're all in process" and "We're all part of the process" unifies those "helper" vs. "hairy" moments. Because the reality is, there are those I need to be coming alongside and discipling; and I need others coming alongside me, discipling me.

After lunch and some family time, Alan left for the Q&A with Andy. And I set about to tackling dishes, setting up one child to listen to Andy's morning message already uploaded to sermonaudio.com, and stealing away for some quiet reading while the little two still slept. 

And I actually finished chapter 7, "The Means of Providence," in Dr. Layton Talbert's phenomenal Not by Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God

One of the things I love about this book is how the Lord has already begun a work in my heart through so many of the passages that Dr. Talbert addresses. As if making homemade bread, God has stirred together the ingredients and kneaded truth into my life experience, then let it rest and rise for a certain amount of time before working it again. 

  • In chapter 2, Talbert did some extensive working through Psalm 104, which is the focus text for my second Bible study book No Matter What (the one with the upside-down turtle on the cover). 
  • And then, here, in chapter 7, he quotes Cowper's "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" (a precious balm God used specifically after our miscarriage); 
  • and several of the scenarios he covers are from the first part of 2 Kings, passages I worked through for my historical novel Voice of a Servant, which tells the story of Naaman and its surrounding passages through 3 VP characters (Cassia, the little maid from Israel; Marcus, Naaman's attendant; and, of course, Gehazi, servant to Elisha). I really can't wait to share this story with you, but...

All that to say, God's worked me over on these truths before. They're not necessarily new concepts. But ... they're needful, and so helpful, to rehearse (again). 

So that you can read what I read, here are two quotes (and the underlining is mine): 

2 Kings 3:9-20. "The kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom faced a severe situation. Having joined together to put down the rebellion of Moab, their forces faced an impending battle in the midst of a drought that threatened man and beast. Elisha was called on to inquire of the Lord for them. Through him, God directed them to dig ditches through the valley--a seemingly pointless task in the dry dirt. What a foolish thing to do, wasting their precious energies and resources on such an absurd exercise...of faith. But the next day 'there came water by the way of Edom,' apparently from the nearby mountains. Drought problem solved!"...He used those same ditches to solve their battle problem as well..." (Talbert, Not by Chance, 109).


2 Kings 3:21-25. "...The rays of the early morning sun reflecting on the groundwater in the ditches looked to the Moabites like blood. Thinking that the armies of the three kings had fallen to fighting among themselves, Moab flew heedlessly upon the spoil--so they thought. They didn't realize their error until it was too late, and their disarray was their downfall" (Talbert, Not by Chance, 112). [Victory for God's people.]
After finishing a chapter, I like to go back to what I've underlined, reflect, and apply. 

When I looked back at page 109, where it said, 
"God directed them to dig ditches through the valley--a seemingly pointless task...wasting their precious energies and resources on such an absurd exercise...of faith."
I had to ask:

"What has God asked me to do that seems pointless, a waste of energy and resources?"

And the Matchbox cars strewn around the room need picked up (again). 
And the laundry sometimes gets thrown back into the dirty clothes hamper it was just cleansed from, instead of going neatly into the designated drawers. 
And the dishes. 
And the diapers. 

And discipling. "It's hard," Andy said, "Really, really hard. Because it's an investment, and it takes so much energy and time." 

But it's what God's called me to do. 

And His Spirit brings to remembrance Titus 2 and what He has called me to in this phase of life--to loving my husband, loving my children, managing our home. And He underscores the significance to my obedience by pointing out that neglecting these things could make room for a reviling/blaspheming of the Word. 

They dug the ditches...by faith. And God shined and showed off His "infinite imagination and unlimited resources" (Talbert, Not by Chance, 112). They obeyed. And He worked. 

And how many children have turned to Christ because of a faithful mother? (Think Augustine.)

How many men have radically amputated an addiction to lust because of a forgiving, loving wife? (And I've witnessed this amazing grace in the lives of dear friends, the power of love to restore and heal and make all things new.)


How many husbands have been successful in the work God has called them to because of a supportive, encouraging wife? ("Her husband is known in the gates." Proverbs 31)

How many women have been encouraged to be faithful servants because of another woman doing well what God has given her too? (And I am so thankful for so many of you who have been this for me!)

Is it exhausting? Yes. 
Repetitive? Yes. Repetitive? Yes. Repetitive? ... ;) Yes.
Dirty? Often, yes. 
Absurd? (Um, I have three boys.) At times, Yes, quite absurd! 

But is it worth it? 
By Faith...YES!

Because in the morning, when God shines His light on it all--that glorious light that's getting progressively brighter (Proverbs 4)--"it will be worth it all!"

So let's not lose heart and be overwhelmed by the "sweeping up lost Cheerios that got away!"

Let's roll up our sleeves. 

To the work!

Cheerfully. :)

For "[our] labor is not in vain in the Lord." 

If it's what He's asked us to do, it's worth doing!

Because God works wonders in the random, ridiculous, and repetitious things He calls us to. 

Grace and peace, 
with love, 

michelle