Christmas Cards

After a long hiatus from sending Christmas cards to friends and family, I am excited to report that I designed and ordered cards this year. I am 88% confident that we will get around to addressing envelopes and mailing them out as well. Just in case I live in the 12%, this is what I came up with this year:
Christmas-Card-2012

 

And this card idea was the runner-up:
Deer-on-car-5-edited2

Above the Clouds

We disembarked our small plane in Mendoza, Argentina, picked up our luggage from baggage claim, and passed all of our items through a security scanner. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and gloriously sunny. As I waited for Brian on the other side of security, I began to run through the schedule for the rest of our day.

We’ll take a taxi to our bed and breakfast, quickly freshen up, and then connect with our driver who will take us on the half-day winery tour. Where do we grab a taxi or shuttle? We should take whatever is faster, we want to make sure we have plenty of time at the wineries.

I scanned the open lobby.

Look at the chauffeurs holding signs with names. Wouldn’t that be nice, both time efficient and a luxury.

Still scanning the lobby, my brain processed what my eyes saw three seconds earlier.

Wait, was that my name?

I looked back. There it was — my name spelled incorrectly and scribbled very non-luxuriously on one of those handheld signs. When the owners of the B & B had scheduled the private wine tour for us, I had given them our flight information via email. I thought this was so they had an estimate of when we’d be arriving at the B & B. Maybe I had misunderstood the intent of the request for flight information. I guess the B & B owners had arranged for our driver to pick us up from the airport.

We greeted the driver and without question loaded our luggage and ourselves into the car. Conversation was minimal. He didn’t speak English (which was odd because the owners had told us that we’d have a bilingual driver), but more than that, I was still perplexed that we were picked up at the airport and not the B & B. Ah well, I’m just grateful and relieved that I happened to read my name since my standard protocol is to ignore those signs completely.

As we drove and drove, I began to worry that I had once again miscalculated the situation. All I said to the driver was hello. Why didn’t I clarify who he was there to pick up and where we were going? How dumb will I look if, after fifteen minutes of driving, I ask him if he has the correct passengers?… Why is it even harder to ask this after twenty minutes? Why did it seem like we drove through the whole city, and now we’re on the city’s outskirts? Why isn’t anyone in the car talking?!

Eventually I interrupted the silence that I was sure was awkward, “Are we near our B & B?” (I spoke in Spanish, of course).

Our driver responded (in Spanish, of course), “Oh no, that’s way back there.”

“Oh.”

Brian and I quietly discussed what this could mean. We aren’t going to the B & B first? The email didn’t have any of these details. Oh well, it’s probably fine. Or maybe we should throw out some pointed questions to ensure we aren’t being kidnapped? Yeah, that’s what we should do. It might feel uncomfortable asking such untimely questions, but better safe than sorry.

I clear my throat. “Incredible mountains.” Whoops. Not a pointed question at all.

“Yes, they are.” And on he goes telling us about the mountains and the region. “This road we are on is the road to Chile.”

Here was a prime opportunity to get answers and finally I capitalized on it, “But we’re not going to Chile today, right?”

On a more exciting blog, this is where the story would escalate to the adventures of the couple who was unwillfully held captive and forced to shovel llama manure for some wealthy Chilean. On this blog, however, the story ends happily and somewhat anti-climatically. The driver laughed. We laughed. And a very easy conversation followed about the afternoon plans.

There are over a thousand wineries in the Mendoza region, our driver took us to two of them that day. Both experiences were lovely in their own way. The masthead from this month was taken from the first winery, Ruca Malen.

Here we sampled wines over a five-course lunch. I’m an amateur at wines; I drink in moderation on infrequent occasion. Yes, the meal was truly exquisite, but the experience was so greatly enhanced by the view. The Andes. In fact, I could hardly take my eyes off the mountains from the moment we started driving on the road to Chile. This was our vista during lunch…

I have stood at the summit of Pike’s Peak in the Colorado Rockies and I have ridden a train through the Swiss Alps. I have seen these mountain ranges stretch to over 14,000 and 15,000 feet tall, which is nothing to sneeze at. But oh, the Andes. I was so wooed by the Andes — not the relatively puny peaks but the ones that were over 20,000 feet and reached beyond the clouds. How can a mountain range overshadow the clouds like that? How can those peaks really be real? (On our second day in Mendoza we took a day trip into the Andes to hike. Those peaks are quite real).

That afternoon in Mendoza is set apart as one of the best afternoons I have had in a long time. It wasn’t because of what we were doing, it was because I somehow let go of the everyday stresses and worries and annoyances and over-planning and goal-setting and general overwhelmedness that I so often throw into a bag and carry on my shoulders. I was lighter, freer, and more present than even the vacation version of myself. I was peaceful and giddy (which was not from too much wine). I can’t help but think the Andes provided some of the inspiration in reaching this release, this freedom. Perhaps the stunningly high peaks stood as a reminder that life’s hindrances are small and rather dull when contrasted with such majesty.

I frequently stare at this last picture of the mountains high above the clouds. It reminds me to take some time to leave life’s baggage full of distractions at the foothills so that I can relish, peacefully and joyously, in all the great things that surround me.

For His Glory

A 4-hour drive to Washington, D.C.

An 11-hour flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A 3.5-hour flight to Ushuaia.

A 2.5-day ship expedition across the Drake Passage.

A 7am wake up call came over the intercom system from the hotel manager aboard our ship, “Good morning and welcome to Antarctica!” The ship was finally protected by land and moving slowly. The engine murmured instead of roared. The harsh beating of the waves against the ship was now just a slosh. The rhythmic motion of the cabin bed curtains opening and closing stopped. Personal items were silent in the drawers. Best of all, we crawled out of bed, stood up, and walked around the cabin as we got ready for breakfast. We stood. We walked. It had been two days since we were able to accomplish these tasks without risking injury. After so many long days of travel, we had finally arrived at one of the most remote places in the world. Why hello, Antarctica.

By 10am we had dressed in three layers of clothing, put on our waterproof boots and our self-inflatable life jackets, and stepped onto the ship’s gangway in order to board a zodiac for our first landing on Antarctica.

Antarctica is another planet, except that it’s not. I inhale its air for the first time. It reminds me of fresh, crisp mountain air that I have tasted before, but there is a purity and flavor here that is set apart. A wall of snow hundreds of feet high hides the base of the mountains in front of me. There are no rolling foothills, just peaks that dramatically burst into the sky. Nothing is gradual or subtle here. The peaks of the mountains come in and out of view as the clouds and fog shift. The weather was quite the story-teller throughout the trip, creating complex, unpredictable, mysterious stories with the sun and clouds and rain. Nothing is simple or plain here.

About ten of us load onto a zodiac. Sitting in our inflatable boat, I look up. We are a blip next to the ship. We are a speck of dirt next to Antarctica. This scale, this vastness, this incomprehensible beauty cannot possibly exist on Earth, but it does. I literally feel unworthy in its presence, insignificant and blemished by comparison. Why am I allowed to experience this?

As we head to land, my autonomic nervous system shuts down. Every breath, every swallow, every action that would otherwise occur involuntarily now needs to be cued. No words can pass my lips even if I try. Blood rushes to every capillary, drawn to Antarctica like a magnet. Not one part of my body wants to be internal in this moment. Every cell and every organ put their jobs on hold to help me process this moment, this place. This? This is what it means to be arrested. This is Antarctica.

Of course my organs resumed normal function after this first encounter with the continent, but the awe never waned throughout the trip. I never felt like I could fully absorb the grandeur of the mountains, the snow, the sky, the wildlife, and the ice.

In the past eight or so years, only thirty to forty thousand people from around the world have visited Antarctica each year. That’s about six ten-thousandths of a percent of the world’s population per year. It’s too expensive, too remote, and too harsh to draw more visitors. Our reaction to this was, “What a waste.” What a waste for such an indescribable, arresting creation to be hidden from so many.

Then I remembered the purpose of creation. Ultimately, it was made to bring glory to God. It doesn’t matter if forty million, forty thousand, or four people experience this grandeur. The mountains proclaim, the ice sculptures reveal the glory of God. “Shout for joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious” (Psalm 66: 1-2).

I am his creation, too. I was made to bring him glory. It doesn’t matter if my sphere of influence includes millions, thousands, or no one, my purpose is to be sold out for him. To love him and to praise him when everyone is watching and when no one is watching. “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31). When people live for God with reckless abandon, it is the most beautiful, the most mysterious, the most arresting of all creation.

Rocks

Twenty-five days in to the month and I have finally managed to get a new masthead up.  As with writing, I am not up to speed with my picture-taking, so I thought I’d dig in to the archives for this photo.  This month’s masthead is a shot from the Australian Outback at Uluru, or Ayers Rock.  Because the Outback is so flat and desolate, and because this monolith is so grand (the largest in the world of its kind, in fact), you can easily see Uluru from a couple dozen miles away.  So majestic.

“There, in the middle of a memorable and imposing emptiness, stands an eminence of exceptional nobility and grandeur, 1150 feet high, a mile and a half long, five and a half miles around, less red than photographs have led you to expect but in every other way more arresting than you could ever have supposed…You cannot stop looking at it; you don’t want to stop looking at it. As you draw closer, it becomes even more interesting. It is more pitted than you had imagined, less regular in shape. There are more curves and divots and wavelike ribs, more irregularities of every type, than are evident from even a couple of hundred yards away. You realize that you could spend quite a lot of time — possibly a worryingly large amount of time; possibly a sell-your-house-and-move-here-to-live-in-a-tent amount of time — just looking at the rock, gazing at it from many angles, never tiring of it.”  Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

However forced or cliché it may seem, I cannot help but to compare the most impressive rock on Earth and the Rock of the Bible.

“There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” I Samuel 2:2

My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. Psalm 62:1-2

God is like Uluru, but living, bigger, more powerful, more dependable, holier, more personable, more loving, full of grace and redemption…  Okay, so they’re nothing alike, but I do love the imagery.  “See this magnificent rock that is so awe inspiring you can’t stop staring at it?  Yeah, well I am the unshakable, eternal Rock that is exponentially more arresting and majestic.”

In the midst of a cold and bleak Midwest American winter, here’s one small reminder of the warmth, inspiration, and fortitude that comes from standing at the foot of the Rock and gazing tirelessly.

Dedicated to You, Mom

Okay, so I know there are still the extensions, the quarterly reports, and the back log from your ‘real’ job, but I hope you can still appreciate this little e-card I made for you. (Click on image to enlarge.)

tax-day

It will probably take your eyes a while to readjust to natural lighting after constantly being exposed to only desk lamps and fluorescent lighting for so long, but they’ll get there.  Even though you still have a full load on your plate, please, please allow yourself to fully recover with pedis and massages and walks and sleep and American Idol…or whatever.

Easter

05-garden-tomb-02_1

The Garden Tomb just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  This is one of two possible sites that is believed to be where Jesus was buried after his crucifixion.  The evidence was compelling, but whether this was the true site or not, the tomb here at least provided a visual for where Jesus was buried on that first Good Friday.

After the story was recounted and the evidence was presented to us, we had a chance to look inside the tomb.

05-garden-tomb-04_1

Above all else, the evidence that was most pronounced to me was that it was empty.  When they discovered this tomb, this burial place had a pillow cut into the rock and the foot carved out – signs that it was a finished burial place.  The one next to it, in contrast, had not been completed.  Two burial places in this tomb, only one completed.  It was prepared for someone, but it was empty.  It was empty!

This completes the story.  The punishment for our shortcomings is death.  God loved us so much that He said, “Whoa, you all are in a predicament that you cannot escape on your own.  Tell you what, I will take your punishment for you.”  In the most awful death, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  He was buried.  Three days later, Jesus conquered death.  He left us with an empty tomb and gave us a victory that we could never earn on our own.  We don’t deserve it, but this victory is ours for the taking.

This grace and mercy, this unfailing love, this hope, this victory and promise of an abundant life…this is Easter!

(Here is one of the songs we sang in church this Easter morning.)

Keep Watch

Today begins Holy Week.  The events celebrated this week are the most critical of the Christian faith.  Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (our Palm Sunday), the Last Supper, the Crucifixtion, the Resurrection – these are no small potatoes.  One of the powerful moments during Jesus’ final week on Earth occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26).  Just before he is given over to his enemies who eventually crucify him, here in this garden Jesus tells his friends how heavy his heart is because he knows that he will soon bear the sins of the world on the cross.  He knows that death is closely upon him.  He sobs.  He prays.  Three times he lets God know that he doesn’t want to go through with this, but in those same moments he surrenders his will and says, okay, if this is really your plan, God, then I’m in.

April’s masthead shows olive trees from the Garden of Gethsemane that breathed the same air that Jesus did.  When we walked through this olive garden on our trip to Israel in November, I wanted so badly to hear these centuries-old trees tell the story of what they had seen, of what they had heard.  I cannot imagine the overwhelming sorrow of that night with Jesus.  But I hope someone told those trees that night to keep watch, because just beyond the darkest event in history comes the most remarkable, the most beautiful, the most powerful event this Earth has known.  Keep watch, good news is coming!

***

Gethsemane

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

~Mary Oliver

Hope

02-megiddo05

The Valley of Megiddo in Israel.  In Hebrew it is called Har Megiddo, what we know as Armageddon.  It is 50 miles long and 50 miles wide.  Here is where the Bible says the battle will take place (Zechariah 12:11, Revelation 16:16) between good and evil, between Christ returned and the Antichrist.  Christ prevails in this battle (Revelation 17:14), and then in Revelation 20 it explains that after this Christ will reign on Earth while Satan is captive.

For a thousand years the Earth will have the privilege of knowing and living with a perfect government, made perfect by an omnipotent, omniscient, holy leader.  After Satan’s imprisonment during this thousand years, he will be released and will build up one last army to fight against Christ.  As depicted in Revelation 20, Satan and his army will lose this final battle and will be forever separated from God and God’s faithful followers.

Did you hear that?  Even with a perfect government in place Satan will be able to gather people who willingly choose to fight against the ruler, against Christ.  The problem has never been a poorly run government or an economic bailout or an unmerited war or an incapable leader – even in a perfect government people will revolt.  The core issue has always been and will always be the heart of man.  We are fallen and imperfect.  Our human sinful nature is in conflict with what is right and true and holy.

Today was a monumental day in our country.  We inaugurated the 44th President of the United States of America.  Today we inaugurated the first black President of this nation.  The events were impressive as usual, though there was an added flare of emotion as this marks another ‘first’ in U.S. history.

I did not vote for Barack Obama.  I do not agree with most of his policies and have a different philosophy on the role and purpose of government.  I will, however, do my best to respect him as our President.  I will try my best to submit to his rules and laws as long as they do not compromise my adherence to God’s highest authority.  I pray that the decisions President Obama makes will ultimately bring blessings upon our country.

I will not, however, join the voices that deify him.  There has been so much talk of hope around this election and this President.  I understand the desire to have a competent government that generally serves its people well, but in what exactly are we being asked to place our hope?  Hope in an imperfect government?  Hope in an imperfect man?  I can’t hope in that because I know it will inevitably leave me disappointed.  I am not trying to be cynical, but am merely acknowledging that no mere man and no one administration will ever wash away the world’s problems or the country’s problems.  Rather, my hope is in the One who can make this promise —

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Revelation 21:4

President Obama is intelligent and well-spoken.  He will be a face of endless opportunities for children that think they have limits – they will think about what could be instead of simply what is now.  But there is only one perfect and holy One that can save me from my fallen, sinful state and there is only One that can uphold such lofty promises as offered in Revelation 21:4.  My hope is in him.

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Psalm 25:4, 5

Helena Is My Homegirl

We’ve been home from Israel for a week now, but I’m still reflecting on our days there…

On our first day of traveling around the Sea of Galilee, there was a slice of me that wished the churches at the sites we visited weren’t there. I could’ve done without the buildings and the tourists and the souvenir shops. That rock that marks where Jesus took five loaves of bread and a couple fish and fed 5,000 people – yeah, I don’t need the church and the famous mosaic around it. They are beautiful in their own right, but let me see the rock as it was nearly 2,000 years ago in the open air. Let me sit on it and feel the same breeze that came in off the Sea of Galilee that the crowd felt, and let me close my eyes to see Jesus in that moment. I don’t need the pews and the stain glass to make this a worshipful site.

Then I got some perspective.

In 326 AD, Queen Helena of the Romans and mother of Emperor Constantine took a Christian pilgrimage to the land of Israel. Constantine insisted that she be protected as she journeyed, so thousands of Roman military went with her. As she traveled, she asked, “Where did Jesus do this?” and “Where did Jesus do that?” When she was shown a historic site, she ordered a group of soldiers to stay behind to build a church there.

In the case of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, as implied thousands of people were first-hand witnesses to the location of the event. In fact, crowds of people often watched Jesus, listened to him, followed him, and believed in him. Here are just a few of the dozens of examples that evidence this throughout Jesus’ ministry –

“Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him” (John 8:30).

“Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak…” (Luke 12:1).

“For he healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him” (Mark 3:10).

“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name” (John 2:23).

“Then, because so many people were coming and going that [Jesus and his disciples] did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to [his disciples], ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’…But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them” (Mark 6:31, 33).

“When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon” (Mark 3:8).

Not only were there many witnesses at the time of Jesus, but these events were well documented in both Biblical and non-Biblical accounts. Three hundred years after Jesus’ time the people of Helena’s time were able to identify where many prominent events occurred. Here’s an analogy. In the United States, it is impressive to see a battlefield from the Civil War or to stand in Independence Hall where our forefathers adopted our Declaration of Independence 232 years ago, but we don’t question the sites of these events. They didn’t happen in our lifetime or our grandparents’ lifetime or even the generation before that. No one around us today was alive in 1776 and there certainly weren’t any computers or telephones or any sort of technology to spread the word of the momentous occasion taking place in Independence Hall. Three hundred years in some contexts is a long time, but in identifying major historical milestones it’s relatively short, particularly for sites that are well documented.

Well, thank God for Queen Helena. Not only did her church planting prevent the construction of WalMarts and Jiffy Lubes on these most precious places, but it also provides additional evidence and validity to the stories of the New Testament. Suddenly my perspective of these 4th century churches all over Israel was one of appreciation and reflection. Suddenly I was able to close my eyes and let each site become a worshipful, meaningful place.

****

Two thousand years later in a land far away from Israel, people live as though Jesus’ existence were a matter of opinion. This is not like choosing to believe in the existence of Santa Claus; this would be like choosing to believe in the existence of George Washington. No one in Jesus’ time doubted his existence. No one doubted that he said what he said. When the followers of Jesus wrote the New Testament, it would have been so easy for the naysayers of the time to dispute what was written if the events of Jesus’ life were not written factually. They wanted to prevent the spread of Christianity and discrediting the New Testament would have been a quick and simple way to do it. But those opposed to Jesus didn’t do that. They couldn’t do that. Jesus claimed to be God and the Messiah. His opposers hated this concept so much that they crucified him for it and they martyred those that preached Jesus’ message, but they could not ignore the reality of the events. They didn’t like what was happening, but they couldn’t just dismiss it as fiction.

Likewise, we may not like history, but we can’t deny it or redefine it. Fact: Two thousand years ago this man named Jesus spoke to thousands. He preached to thousands, he fed thousands, he healed thousands, he claimed to be God and a Savior for all mankind, and he died on a cross because of his proclamations. This aspect of the story is non-negotiable.

But we do all have a choice. Jesus repeatedly claimed to be the Savior for the sins of the world and claimed to be the only way to heaven. He was either telling the truth or he was very wrong. Choice: Do you believe what he said?  Can you defend your choice?