Thursday, 27 December 2012

Postscript to Christmas

"All who heard the shepherds story where astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often." (Luke 2:18,19) NLT

A soft day. Swirls of mist are making their way up from the valley, painting over pieces of the landscape. Sounds are muted, a sense of rest slowly settles in. Frogs continue their melancholy song and there is a sweet hush over Inesi. My little man tiptoes over the carpet while his brother snores. I marvel at the moment - there hasn't been too many of these lately. Much excitement, happy chaos, laughter and the inevitable flaring of tempers have been the norm the last few days. There has not been much time for contemplating. The rustling of wrapping paper in trembling little hands has become a familiar sound and sight. Precious moments flow together into a reel of memories, to be replayed often over the days and weeks to come. I want to capture them, make them last longer, like the last delectable bite of our Christmas cheesecake.

Like an eternal child, I cannot help feeling a sense of expectancy over Christmas time. Try as I may, I cannot keep the bubbles down. The cold fact that cruelty and loneliness do not allow themselves to be put on hold, does sober me for moments. Then I catch a glimpse of the star atop our platted vine tree and my heart bounds like a calf let out to pasture... What saddens, is the loss of true meaning during this time, what gladdens is God's limitless grace that continues to flow, regardless of the "maddening crowds".

Let me capture a few "starbrite" moments. Christmas eve - amid preparations for the afternoon crib service I pull up at the supa market for a few last minute supplies. A friend's (Afrikaans) grandchild is introduced to me. "Dis Tannie Maria" my friend says. "O ek weet wie's jy" says the girl. "Jy's Liewe Jesus se Mamma!" (You are Jesus' mom). How could I deny it...

Later that afternoon, after the angry skies have thundered and lashed out a drama of flashes and sheets of water, I make my way to the chapel on the hill. For the duration of the service, I am to be the shy, teen aged virgin Mary. "Mary" has a chenille shawl draped around her supposedly "young" face, a dust coloured skirt sweeps over her leather sandals and a well-worn embroidered linen Punjabi top finishes the picture. Her toes are covered in mud, so also her finger tips, the result of having to manually engage her four wheel drive donkey en route. Gathered at the back of the chapel, she joins, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, the woman that represent the female lineage of Jesus. We move about like highly strung mares, tucking and pinning stray bits of hair and nerves into place. As I finally relate my story to the sea of faces before me, I have a momentary sense of the awe that must have washed over that young girl when the reality of her "condition" sank in. Carrying a child under your heart is overwhelming enough - let alone the long awaited Messiah! What a wonder, what a privilege... I leave with the glorious sound of Christmas carols in my heart - singing all the way home. The radiance of a late afternoon sun breaks through the clouds, with brief but breathtaking sparkle.

Back home, we share gifts by lamp light. Power failures are almost as frequent as the rains up here, we've learnt to live with them, work around them, and enjoy the enforced silence. The intimacy of giving and receiving, is a gift of itself. A glow slips through the window, settles around us, and the world outside grows strangely dim.

Christmas day arrives - we all huddle together under the blankets. The day breaks with rain pelting the sink roof over our heads. We read the ever beautiful account of the birth of the Messiah, and it is new again through our children's eyes. "Let the little children come to me" - our duty to raise them for the God who put them in our care, is a marvel, a joy and a responsibility which we are only able to carry out by His grace and with His guidance. And as they grow up in this broken world, it is a deep relief that we may place their names in His hands each day. This changes the fear of the unknown on their future paths, into the knowing that they belong to a loving Father, who will spread His wings over them, always.

Fare to share is packed into the muddy chariot and whisked off to a gracious neighbour's house. Hogsback hospitality is another marvel that weaves warm colours into the tapestry of our community. We spend the rest of the afternoon sampling the delights of a shared meal and good company. With deep sighs of content we sink into the couches amid all the furry inhabitants of the house. We close our eyes and let the soothing sound of the master of the house's "baby grand" wash over us. Even the children are hushed, and grace flows in a wonderfully familiar way, from heart to heart.

Back home we are met with darkness once again. Lamps are lit and tired little bodies slipped into their pyjamas. I hum a carol from my own childhood and soon we are all snoring to the sound of rain playing out its familiar symphony. Another "Silent Night" begins in the mountains. What perfect timing our Father has. After all the rush and flush of celebrating the most magical birthday of the year, He pushes the "mute" button and silences our world once again.

Later, with only the trio of deep breaths from my three beautiful guys audible, I kneel in front of the fire. In the depth of this silence I reach for what my heart knows to be true. We began before words, and we will end beyond them. We understand beyond words. To hear our Father speak we need more love, more silence, more deep listening, more deep giving. Then we can escape the vast ocean of words and be witnesses to a world which hungers for meaning. We will be understood beyond words when we allow the Spirit of God to speak, the truth of Christ to shine and the light of the Holy Spirit to direct. Follow Him - He knows where you're meant to go - He's been there already!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Beauty of Suffering

"For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows" (2 Corinthians 1:5)

The wind that shakes the barley. An Irish ballad hauntingly depicting a doomed young Wexford rebel who is about to sacrifice his relationship with his beloved, to throw himself into a cauldron of violence during the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. These rebels often carried barley or oats in their pockets as provisions for when on the march. This gave rise to the somber post-rebellion phenomenon of barley growing and marking the mass unmarked graves into which slain rebels were thrown. For the Irish, this symbolised the regenerative nature of their resistance to British rule. 

Outside my window, the wind gently shakes the tips of the Silver Birches. In the silence I can hear a fly throwing itself repeatedly against the window pane. Trapped. The futility of his efforts moves me to get up to open the window. Freedom for the fly, sweet mountain breezes for me. My thoughts are guided to another man who sacrificed more than his life for more than a rebellion. The regenerative nature of this act was a gift to mankind, but then there was the question of suffering...

We have become so accustomed with images of the suffering Christ, the crown of thorns embedded on his head, slumped forward on a blood-streaked chest. Like a lamb to the slaughter, he showed no resistance, called no defence, knowing full well the content of the bitter cup that could not pass him by. Pictures and films have made his physical suffering sensational, moving us only like a front page shot of the aftermath of an earthly tragedy would.

Quite some time ago a young boy we know asked his mother why Jesus had to suffer so much, why was it all so awful, so messy and cruel? How does one explain this that even a child can understand? It seemed a challenge at the time, but as with everything else, the Word of God provides ALL our answers. At the heart of His suffering lies a surprising beauty, which I hope will leave you breathless, as it did me.

When Christ came to our world, it was as a crying infant. Born of a humble woman, through pain, into a broken world, as we all are. When he grew up, it was as a young boy who got dirty at play. Set apart from the beginning, but going through the challenges of growing up, as we all have to. When he spoke the truth about his Father and ultimately about himself, it was resisted to the point of persecution. As we will experience when we speak up for what we believe, boldly enough to shake the core of deception in this world. When he grieved it was with salty tears, when he faced hunger and pain he was moved to compassion. He was tempted, taunted and ultimately convicted (without sin or fault) to hang on a cross. Every human condition, pain, rejection and brokenness is known to him - not as a god removed, but as God that became man in every sense of the word. When we hurt, he not only cares, he knows exactly how it feels. Only He is able to take our desperate pleas up to his Father's throne and plead on our behalf.

That's not the end of the good news. When we step off this mortal coil, it is not into an abyss, into darkness. Jesus has been there for us already. We step with Him, through Him, into glory, to spend eternity with our real Father, Abba, El Shaddai. Breathless? I hope to remain wonder-struck by this truth, so that when the sufferings of Christ flow over into my life, the comfort can also overflow. This comfort is not a soft pillow to lay back against when the going gets tough, it is the everlasting, undeniable victory through Christ, ours to have and to hold, beyond death do us part.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

What I Have I Give You

"I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, and who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (Rev 1:8)

"Sizzle"... When my mind brought up this word, I immediately saw images of mirages on a hot desert plane. Cicadas singing in the blistering sun. Hot beaches baking in a blinding white light. (No, not sausages in a pan...) It is not quite sizzling yet, but the sun is out, and there is a merry cricket-choir singing somewhere. Two small golden heads bend over the dandelions in the distance, then a whoop of delight is carried up to me when the seeds are blown up and away by the wind. I never thought I would come to love the sight of washing on a line - but this means there is sunshine, so to my gray-weary eyes they are banners of joy... The breeze blows a message of renewal through my window, my heart lifts, then sinks, then soars, then falters. If you are prone to emotional roller-coaster rides (as I am at times), this is big-dipper time! From soaring on wings with eagles, to an abyss of weltschmerz *, back to running with wild horses in the span of a single rotation around the sun. "Silly season" is an under-statement, but it needn't be, and I guess I am about (to attempt) to tell you why...

* (The modern meaning of Weltschmerz in the German language is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realising that someone's own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances).

For me this is a time of sharing, feeling awestruck, being generous, but I am overwhelmed by my own incapacity of being all I am called to be at the same time. Then I read the account of Peter and John and the lame beggar at the temple gate called "Beautiful". (This was the first miracle recorded in the book of Acts after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost).

Picture this: A guy who has been carried around his whole life, placed at the same spot each day asking for handouts, suddenly has two men asking him to "Look at us" (Acts 3:4) Probably quite used to people avoiding eye-contact, he looks up, expecting to hear the sound of coins dropping in his lap. Instead Peter says: "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you... A moment of expectation. Then Peter says: "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, WALK"! The miracle follows, his ankles grow strong, his feet straighten, he wobbles a moment and, off he goes! BUT, then he turns back... What has just happened here - a lame man walks! For a month or two he will be overwhelmed by the miracle of movement, but then the mundane may set in again and he could just be walking beggar. 

NO. Peter goes on. In front of an astonished crowd, he shares the true gift. Of how the Author, originator of Life, (John 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. HE -Jesus- was with God in the beginning"), was killed. BUT God raised him from the dead. So that this lame man (and the entire world with him) may receive a rebirth in Christ into an eternity with God. What struck me once again, is the value of a human soul - placed above silver or gold, physical wellness, emotional wholeness, even spiritual awareness. What is the greatest gift I have to share? Apart from grace, kindness, compassion, care - above all, I know the truth. This should compel me to be moved by the brokenness of the world, the futility of lost souls trying to find the truth in all the wrong places. To be a witness in whichever way He calls me to be. And ultimately; with his guidance, to have the courage and conviction to speak it into their hearts.

So, now that he could walk, and had no other option but to believe, what else did he need to do? Peter says in verse 19: "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord". Then in verse 21 he says of Jesus: "He must remain in heaven, until the time comes for God to restore everything as he promised long ago..."

What this means for us, is that the sooner we, not only turn from our own sins, but help others to turn back to God, who has placed His Spirit in all people, the sooner our Saviour will be able to return, to hail in the millennium of peace. Now wouldn't that be something!

So as I mentally tick off my list of Christmas gifts, preparations and all the sweet madness that goes with this time of year, it is SO good to remember what to place on the top of this list. The greatest Gift ever given has become the greatest gift that we could ever share. I feel rich beyond words, the wealth of my heart overflows into yours and hopefully all those that you will encounter during this time. The end may be near, the birth-pangs sharp and fierce, but the hope of renewal is real, glorious and eternal.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Yaweh Yireh

"I am making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland" (Isaiah 43:19)

Put a ladybug and rain in the same photo and I'll be a happy fangirl! :3

Rain and more rain. The earth can't soak it up fast enough, the joyous song of rain on a tin roof has become a melancholy refrain. Mud sucks at our gumboots,  tyre tracks become waterlogged gouges and potholes - miry little wells. When a stray ray of sunshine finally breaks through the grayness, doors and windows are thrown open wide. We scuttle around like busy ants, filling washing lines and tugging determinedly at the thriving weeds. Even the frogs are silent... But the gardens and fields are green and lush, every particle of dust has settled, and skin and hair is refreshed and soft. End-year mania is a far-away reality and I sigh a grateful sigh for being able to escape it all.

Strolling (and slipping) down the path of a friend's garden, my senses are overwhelmed by masses of roses, flaunting their beauty and heady fragrance. These are flanked by neat rows of fruit-trees, their delights ripening, still dripping from the morning's shower. I inhale the scent of wet leaves, mock orange, then more roses. Nature decorating our village like no bells or blinking lights could ever do.

Inside, we encircle the table, Hogsback sisters celebrating a year of learning and loving together. I am reminded of a tree full of Mynah birds, but then these woman are birds of a different feather, each one, delightfully different and real. The mountains have tested and moulded us, deeper knowledge of His Word anchored us to the Rock of all ages. Iron may sharpen iron, but woman nurture and support with gentle strength, like ears of wheat bending together in the wind.

This year, we came to "know" the woman of the Bible. Some we adored, admired. A few are loathesome, sentinals of warning. We all found someone to relate to, be inspired by. I saw once again, how God can rewrite the text of your life when you open the book of your heart to his eyes (Ps. 18:24 The Message). This is not a fable written on dusty pages, it is alive and breathing and more relevant now than it has ever been. How many times do we see fortunes reversed, episodes that seem doomed to end in disaster take a dramatic turn. A nation threatened to be annialiated, saved!  Maidens, orphans, widows, prostitutes, all are included in his plan. And so are you and me. Never has one "book" been the centre of so much controversy, criticism, and scrutiny. Yet any guru with a grand theory that sounds sweet to starved ears, is published, read and revered without too much effort.

Is it because the Bible reveals not only the God of love, but also a just God? Not only an adoring Father, but a father of discipline, a jealous God that asks his bride to be faithful to him. The same God that gave a not-so-young Sarah a beautiful boy named Isaac, tested his father Abraham by asking Him to tie his only son to an altar as an offering. On the way up to the mountain, noticing that his Dad only had wood and means for fire with him, he asked: "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?". Abraham's heart probably tore apart when he answered: "God himself will provide the lamb..." And as he lifted his knife, his hand trembling in mid-air, an angel spoke the sweetest words: "do not lay a hand on the boy". What seems like a cruel trick, was not only the toughest test of faith, but an example of, regardless of how big the price seems at the time, Yaweh Yireh - The Lord will provide. He provided the lamb, not only then but ultimately through His only Son - so that he may look at us and say: Do not lay a hand on my children...

When a cruel twist of circumstance threatened to take what was most dear to me, He provided. Not only an outcome, a reversal of fortune, but a life in abundance growing more abundant each day.

Forget the former things; do not dwell in the past
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up
Do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
And streams in the wasteland
The wild animals honour me,
The jackals and the owls.
For I provide water in the desert
And streams in the wasteland...
                                (Isaiah 43:18-20)

Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Humble Crown

"Grey hair is a crown of splendour, it is attained by a righteous life" (Proverbs 16:31)

Sundays are just the best. The day breaks with a sweetness to it, birdsong is clearer. It is a day of breathing deeply, pausing often and most of all, giving thanks. As our voices are carried out and over the mountaintops, joy is born. I look around the room where we are gathered, starting with a beautiful nonagenarian man, eyes closed, his bony hands resting lightly in his lap. Then glancing over each radiant face, before my gaze comes to rest on my littlest one, arms up, his small palms stretched out wide. Five generations, joined together in song... The moment swells and becomes a memory. Later, when the little worshipper is sitting in the elder's lap, I am struck by the gentle strength and unmistakable sense of peace around this man. The time is over all too soon, and I just know that if I could spend a day sitting at his feet, I would be richer and have deeper understanding.

One of the sad realities of living in the mountains, has always been the vast distance between us and our families. I used to think that our children would be poorer for growing up without an extended family. They have no real concept of family in terms of blood relations, but we have been truly blessed by an amazing "mountain family". They are not there to replace those who are far away, but they have given us a sense of belonging, added substance to our lives and offered more than generous support.

The best of all is that we are the "youngsters" in this family. What binds us is a shared love for Christ. The respect I feel for them is not because they are such wise, strong and "good" folk, but because they are humble and real. For me, the heart of a healthy community is mutual respect. This morning I almost read "over" 1 Peter 2:17: Show proper respect for everyone... At first glance it seemed so obvious, but then I looked again. Show, meaning; make it outward, tangible. Everyone being, I would imagine, well, everyone. Not only those whom I think have earned it, or have a position that demands it. Everyone. The word "respect" comes from the Greek word timao meaning honour, revere or venerate. It literally means placing a great value on something. Interestingly, today we tend to place our values on personal rights and the equality of man. Loving God means surrendering my rights and being willing to serve.

Respecting everyone also means we should be especially conscious that God has created all people in His image, regardless of whether they believe in Christ. Therefore, we should show them respect and honour, because their souls are of more value than all the wealth in the world. The second part of the verse reads; love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king (authorities)...

I was quite humbled (and flattered of course) when a talented young Xhosa artist and friend grabbed my hand and made a little curtsy when I told him my age. "Oh respect, mama" he said, his dreadlocks bobbing up and down around his face. Old Testament laws demanded that people should rise in the presence of the aged. (no, not counting myself in that category yet...) Lev 19:32 goes on to say "show respect for the elderly and revere your God".
There is true beauty in "ageing", even though it has become a word that is mostly seen with an "anti" before it. The world view is to resist it, counter it, slow it down. Could it be because we have forgotten how to "revere" the elders? That we fear becoming "old fools", instead of being embraced and respected, consulted rather than forgotten.

How God must smile when a grey head bows down before him. In spite (or perhaps as a result of) all that they have seen in this crazy world. My prayer is, should I live to hold my own grandchildren in my lap, that I may remember the value of their souls. Remember to place their names in His hands and pray that they may be engraved there, until; grey but glorified - they too will be led into the Eternal Light.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

If it aint broke...

"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out" (Isaiah 42:3)

The days grow longer. Now that the exuberance of Spring has passed, the heat of the day shimmers off zinc rooftops and releases heady fragrances in our young garden. The Wattle branches are weighed down by thick clusters of yellow flowers. These are lifted on the breezes, adding another note to the summer perfume. Arum lilies spread out in drifts, and in thickets of thorny bramble bushes, tight berries start to ripen in the sun. The first blush of clambering roses are loosing their splendour, while the watsonias start to appear, soon to fill the fields with a red blaze. In the early hours of the day, Inesi's "lawn" comes alive with a sea of dandelions, weedy but wonderful! The formal gardens of Hogsback are an absolute delight to the senses, their gentle order and structure calming after the wild abandon of our patch.

I am always amazed by the resilience of God's creation. After the freeze of a heavy snowfall, as the wonder melts away, the most delicate plants re-emerge; unharmed, refreshed. Field mice stroke their whiskers and scurry along unperturbed.

My mountain driving skills, or lack thereof, have also put the odd bush, tree or fence-post through a few ordeals. I remember a particularly rainy day, when our truck did not quite make it to the top of the slippery incline towards the gate.  A young elm, gracing the base of the incline, happened to be in the way when I attempted a controlled backward slide to where I imagined the road to be. This poor specimen gracefully bowed down, allowed me to drive half over it, then tried to lift itself up again when I roared off for a second attempt. Half the bark had been taken off, and it was hunched over like a pregnant woman feeling the first labour pains. I felt awful, thinking that we would need to saw it down, in the hope that it would send out new shoots from the stump. The operation was delayed and  about a month later, when I stopped to open the gate, I noticed with delight that the trunk was busy repairing itself. Slowly, "scar tissue" formed over the injured part, and this tree still stands, rather askew,  but a proud witness to the resilience of nature (and my clumsiness).

The Creator of the Universe holds each living organism in the palm of his hand. He, who cares enough to patch up a damaged tree, how much more willing and capable is He to heal his children, the delight of his heart.

I have always (cognitively) known this to be the truth, but probably never fully understood the extent to which our Father desires for us to be whole. Or what it would take from me to free Him to do this. What it took from Him, to make it all possible. In our family, it took for us to be broken and almost torn apart to admit that we where in need of His grace to heal us.

St Patrick's on Fire - Hogsback

What it took from God was to give His only Son, to be "broken" on the cross, so that His children could be saved and walk in grace with Him. The difference being that He had no flaw. He, the son of God, was sent as a man, to take on the atrocities (sin) of mankind. His physical suffering was but the tip of the iceberg. Not only did the world torture and reject Him, his own Father turned his face away at the very moment when His Son cried out: Why have you forsaken me? Why would He do that? Because he loved us so much more than we could ever conceive. His love covers all our mistakes, counts them no more. For Christ did not surrender to the death that drew Him into the bowel of darkness. He was woken up, taken up into the light, where he now sits on the right hand of our heavenly Father. There, he takes our pleas to God. For He knows what it is like to be human, was tested as we are tested. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Holy trinity that makes us WHOLE.

You know the saying: "If it aint broke, don't fix it". If I constantly fill my life with diversions: things to do, things to want, things to decide and mull over - there can be no space or silence in which to become vulnerable before God. To admit that I am broken, constantly in need of  His "fixing". Day by day, the realisation grows; the great Physician is at work in me. Of myself I am nothing, but in Him, I can soar on wings like eagles, run and not grow weary, be more than my, and everyone else's wildest dreams could possibly imagine.

Photo: Praying soldier, Israel Today

We all breathe a sigh of relief on the eve of cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. We did not hear when the missiles struck, or fear for the safety of our families in our safe little corner of the world. I cannot claim to be up to date with the intricacies of the political situation. But I did feel deeply saddened by the day to day infliction (from both sides), of more hurt and less forgiveness. No one knows the heart of man but God. My prayer can only be that the day would come that a generation remembers the name of their Messiah, all who have been hurt, surrender the need to be avenged, forgive and admit the need to be saved. For on that day, the abundance of God's grace will flow and we will all be made whole in Him.

"For you who revere my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap with joy like calves released from the stall" (Malachi 4:2)

Thursday, 15 November 2012

New Light through Old Windows

"The people walking in darkness, have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned"
(Isaiah 9:2)

Sabbath Sunday. A shimmering breezy day, with an expanse of blue stretched far and wide over our heads. Sweet rays of warmth play through the leaves as we make our bumpy way down the mountain. A herd of white goats scatter in front of our truck, the ram glowering at us as we drive past. A day of fellowship. Tender memories shaped from an al fresco feast and children's laughter from the branches of a fallen tree. We pass platters of crusty bread and sun-softened cheese between us; reach for delicate treats from old tins that add a touch of nostalgia to the afternoon. Crisp ginger beer and mint water cool and refresh, and we part with contented sighs.

Later that day I sit back in a rocking chair on the deck, our two cherubs in my lap. We watch the clouds gather and change shape, the play of light on the treetops as the day draws to a close. I always marvel at the way the old masters could bring a canvas to life with light, colour and shadows, in perfect balance and harmony. But before me is a canvas that surpasses them all, this Artist's brushstrokes are beyond genius. They offer just a hint of the Glory that lies beyond all this, the source of eternal light and peace.

That little word "light" appears sixty six times in the Bible. We are called to be salt and light in a world that has lost its essence, surrendered the true source of light to something fickle, which can be manipulated, turned on and off at will. I need to be reminded that my candle will be snuffed out time and again, unless I have the shelter of His wings to protect it, fuel it, make it burn true.

Light is first mentioned in the third verse of Genesis, when the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The stage is set, the drama poised to unfold. We hold our breaths, something amazing is about to happen... If I had to choose a music score for this scene, it would be a dramatic Bach organ prelude, in minor key.  And God said: Let there be light, and there was light and God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness. Remember that this was not the sun, it was only created on the fourth day... Vivaldi's Gloria! in D Major, plays out this act.

This morning I read these beautiful words in Isaiah 9:2: "The people walking in darkness, have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned". And then in verse 6 the source of this light is revealed: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on His shoulders". The Messiah came as a baby who was born, as a gift from God, to be a ruler.(...He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, his kingdom will never end" Lk 1:33) Verse 6 then names all his perfections: Wonderful Councillor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The Messiah is eternally a Father to his people (us!), guarding, supplying and caring for our needs. The One who brings peace in the fullest sense of wholeness, prosperity and tranquillity. We may experience his peace now, and in the fullness of time the world will experience it also. ("He will judge between nations, and will settle disputes for many people" Isa 2:4) How? The passage ends with this promise: "The zeal of the Lord will accomplish this". 

The black of night and the darkness of the world has no hold on us. Through those deep valleys when the shadows seem endless, there is THE eternal source of  light to draw on, always. The prince of darkness may be prowling and provoking, but our Prince of Peace has victory, for us to claim as our own.

And there; on the last page of my Bible, in Revelation chapter 22, I read about the wondrous delights of the new Jerusalem: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse". And then finally in verse 5: There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. You notice how many times "will" is mentioned?

An irrevocable promise of a fullness of life and a everlasting blessing.

Now I see through a hazy mirror. The mystery of what is foolishness to those walking in darkness, is still to be revealed. Until that day, with the anticipation of a child waiting for her father to come home, I will search the horizon. Turn my ears to the sound of Jesus' coming. Ask to have my lamp filled to the brim, with the oil of his Spirit. So that when the bridegroom arrives, I can get up on trembling legs, reach for His hand and walk with Him, into the Light eternal.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The More he Saw the Less he Spoke

 "The fear of the Lord is the Beginning of all Wisdom" (Psalm 111:10)

On a clear day, nightfall at Inesi is a dramatic time. The horizon swirls with shades of pink, darkening to the colour of a ripe pomegranate, struck through with purple, gold and burnished copper. I pull my shawl tighter around my shoulders, drink it in a bit longer, and then move back inside to light the fire. Through my window, the mountains seem to glow, then soften and darken, often to disappear completely under a cloudy veil. Now is the time of the night creatures. Crickets take over from robins, bats flit while the ibises announce the time to roost. When rain is on the way, we hear the frogs sing, and as a rare, eerie treat; the hoot of an owl....

Owls function extremely well at night, and their ability to see in the dark has, in some cultures, elevated them to manifestations of wisdom. We see them more as studious scholars, wise elders. You remember the old rhyme:

A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

Sadly, it seems to be just the opposite of what the world tends to do. The more we learn (and see), the more we speak, the more we speak the less we hear. Hear when God speaks through His Spirit, shouts out in nature, shines through a child's eyes. The psalmist takes it a level further in Psalm 111:10, the motto of the wisdom teachers, and the theme of Proverbs: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom". Fear, in this instance meaning: reverence for God expressed in submission to His will. This is the "beginning", the starting point and essence of wisdom. Job uses the same expression in his last reply to his friends, when challenged concerning his unfailing reverence to God in the face of severe testing.

In James 3 from verse 13 we read about two kinds of wisdom. "If you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, from the devil". In contrast to this, verse 17 says: "The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Tall order?

We have a young grapevine outside the bakery "afdak" (a humble veranda....). I was thrilled to see how the new shoots budded and stretched their limbs when spring finally arrived. It is growing stronger each day, but if I were to pull off one of the tender young branches, it would soon wither and die. In a year or so, it should produce its first harvest of fruit. We too, will grow in the wisdom of God and bear all the beautiful fruit of the Spirit if we remain in the vine, and not let the world pull us away from Him.

I have a nasty tendency toward wanting to be at the helm of the ship. To see what's coming, in control, in the know... Eve also desired wisdom, and that beguiling fruit, in all its juicy ripeness, would give her just that. Or so she was promised. She may have been tempted, but she deceived herself, and fell, with all the dreadful consequences that followed.

1 Kings 4:29 tells how God gave Solomon wisdom and insight and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore... He did not obtain a Master's degree at the prestigious Jerusalem College of Knowledge - he received it; "for free". Why? For he feared/revered God with all his heart. When God told him in a dream, that he could ask for whatever he wanted, the twenty year old king said: "...give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to know right from wrong". I wonder what I would have asked for...

This message is pure balm for my soul. Some days when I'm reading to our boys about Gruffaloes and Pirats, or crawling around the floor as a stand-in steed (mare?) for the little princes, I wonder... Conversing with toddlers can vary from being hugely entertaining to downright exasperating. Keeping their hungry minds stimulated and their busy bodies out of trouble, is fun but draining. So I wonder, where does that leave the "other me", when Mama bear is most in demand? Safe in the arms of Jesus, thank God! So tomorrow morning, in those precious moments when I spend time with my heavenly Father, I can open his living Word, bow my head and ask for Godly wisdom, discernment and most of all; His peace that surpasses all understanding. And know, that as long as I remain in Him, it will come, and I will never run the risk of becoming "stale or dull" in my journey as His daughter, as well as being wife and mother.

John the Baptist says these surprising words to the church of Corinth: Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel, not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power! That is quite a bit to digest. Writing this blog has been such a challenge. I, would love to write prose, be witty, sharp and tender all at once. But that would rob the cross of its impact. So, by grace, I  hope to write only what God presses on my heart. I run the risk of loosing some readers along the way, maybe even a friend, but the risk at the other end of the scale, tips it towards the truth of the gospel every time.

I thought it best to let the wisdom of Solomon bring this to a close:

"My son (daughter), if you accept my words, and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight, and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure; then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding..."

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Dew of Little Things

"Better one handful with tranquility, than two handfuls with toil and chasing after wind". (Ecclesiastics 4:6)

It is early morning. I stand very still in the doorway, watching my children's upturned faces, gaping at a tiny spider climbing up and up on an invisible thread... A moment of wonder. My days receive substance from moments such as these, like the sudden glimpse of scarlet from the Knysna Loerie in a silent forest. A few days of blessed sunshine made the village sigh with warm content. Our tread becomes light, we buzz around and lap up the sweetness like Pooh bear in a vat of honey. We slide down potholed roads in muddy cars, windows rolled down, humming as we bounce along. Everything soaks it up into each pore and vein, to sustain during those endless grey days.

We are often asked by visitors or curious bread-buyers: "So what is it that you do in Hogsback?" rolling their eyes in feigned disbelief. Implying; how on earth do you live here? Don't you miss "civilisation"? Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might... Eccl 9:10. That is what I would like my reply to be. My days can be as dreary or delightful as the state of my heart. William Blake wrote in "Auguries of Innocence":

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Even though Solomon understood that much of life is futile, one must grasp each opportunity and use it to the fullest in serving God. Every man (woman) has a particular work, which is accomplished in this life or not at all. He also adds in Eccl 3:10: "I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made all things beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what He has done from beginning to end"...

God knows each of us so intimately, and knowing what an incurable romantic this daughter of his happens to be, he brings many of these moments into my days.

Just recently, I was churning up dust in my workshop, in search of something to keep Luke and Daniel busy, when my fingers brushed over a familiar container. My heart smiled at the content; a collection of old buttons from my childhood. I tucked it under my arm and carried it back upstairs, expectant and light. With whoops of delight they took out small fist-fulls at a time, dropping them into my lap. I was not quite prepared for the impact these tiny objects would have on me. All at once I was cast back in time, holding a button covered in the same fabric as a favourite dress that my mom use to wear around the house. The next one was brass, once buffed and shining on a tunic of my brother's, then a member of an army band. Next was a wooden one from a winter coat I had as a girl, then a delicate pearly button from my mother's Sunday best. Turning over a small silver button with an anchor on it, I felt my stomach tighten. I was about five or six years old (I think), wearing an adorable sailor's outfit that my mom had put together. The occasion was my grandparent's wedding anniversary, and I had the "privilege" of serenading them, a Capella. With trembling voice I sang: "Op 'n mooie paddastoel, rood met witte stippen". I never realised how adorable it all was...

Such is His love for us. He is not only our Almighty Father, Saviour of the Universe, but also the God of small things. He speaks to us through birdsong, the smile of a petrol pump attendant, a wild flower in a scorched field. He is not a Father that sends a multipurpose message to each one of the children on His address list. He longs for intimate relationship with us, unique and breathtakingly direct. He did not only give us the Holy Spirit - His Word is substance, alive, inexhaustible. It reveals a unique message to each one of us at the exact time when we need it, should we seek it out.

Towards the end of last year, a rather tumultuous time in paradise for me, God led me to a verse that gave me renewed hope. Jeremiah 29:11 reads: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. A well-known and loved scripture. But then just to make sure that "I got it", I received a text message the next day from a former neighbour that I had lost contact with for many years. It was forwarded by a friend of hers who did not even know me. I gasped as I read it, in Afrikaans: Ek weet wat Ek vir julle beplan, se die Here: voorspoed en nie teenspoed nie; Ek wil vir julle 'n toekoms gee, 'n verwagting! (Jeremia 29:11)... God must have thought, lets just make sure this scatter-brain gets the message, in two different languages "nogal".

His plans are unfolding, one miraculous day at a time. He shows me the poetry he has written for me, and it stirs me in ways I never thought possible. If not for the mundane, the sublime would not stand out so starkly, if not for the trials, the treasures would loose their value. I inhale the smell of freshly cut grass as I watch Luke offering bits of apple to the grazing horses, their heads large above his. Being refreshed in Jesus' love for me through these gems, I can set my soul on eternity once more, and the waiting turns into hoping, nourishing my ever-deepening love for Him.

In the dew of little things, my heart finds her morning and is refreshed...

Thursday, 25 October 2012

On Moving Mountains

"The Abdication of Belief
Makes the Behaviour small"

Emily Dickinson

After a day of sea breezes, sunshine and gaping around in shopping malls, we are back on Cold Mountain. Over stimulated and foot-sore, we rolled down the windows as we finally turned off the R63 towards the place I now call home. Settlements in the Tyume valley at the foot of the mountain, are dappled with an eclectic array of huts, shacks, half-built houses. We see so many of their inhabitants day by day on the mountain, yet know so little of their lives. Each settlement has an identity, with names as diverse as the people that breathe there. Aukland, Binfield, Umbombo, Lushington... There is poverty there, but also a sense of dignity and a degree of contentment. Scatterings of goats and other livestock glare at us as we speed past. A woman carrying a bucket of water's skirt flutters in the icy wind and I pray silently that there is wood for her fire and some "nyama" for the pot.

With our peace threatened by the monotony of grey rainy days, plummeting temperatures, a skinny purse and frustrated little ones, I remember. Days when the skies were mostly clear, the sun baked the tar into blisters and my bank account was soaring. I witnessed this all from the double-glazed window of an air-conditioned office, looking down on an endless stream of traffic and more office buildings under smoggy clouds. I also remember that beyond this mist, lies a vista that takes your breath away. Most of all I remember that "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). These "little foxes" are insignificant compared to what we have already faced since we've come to this beautiful place. In the face of a storm that seems so huge and angry that you have no defence against it, we tend to bend our backs into it and pray. And then seem surprised when God answers! Doesn't He say "All things are possible to him who believes"? (Mark 9:23) I'd like to add, all things are possible to God, even if we do not believe. But with true faith and daily prayer, our lives can and will be transformed by miracles that won't only leave you breathless but humbled with awe.

We could be tempted to ascribe miracles to chance or good fortune, destiny. When our hearts falter after weeks, months of desperate prayer, met only with silence, do we also call that destiny? Or do we dig deeper, test ourselves against His living Word and then return to the cross to surrender once more. I thought long and hard to find an example in my own life that would do justice to the witness I would like to bear. Something not too personal, too painful or embarrassing to share. We just seem to live a miracle, where would I begin... Do I tell you in mind-boggling detail how, edging towards ominous "midlife", I conceived, carried and gave natural birth to two perfect boy babies? Or do I relate the trial by fire it took to move here and build our home in the "wilderness". How we were given an extended family when I asked for a friend. Faithful friends that have prayed with, provided for, battled and loved us back onto the road to wholeness. Maybe some time, as I am led, I may share these stories and many more. But for now I can "only" share the heart of the most important miracle of all. The pivot point that I was led up to and from which nothing could ever be the same again.

For many years I believed that true contentment was the result of spiritual, physical and mental well-being. All backed up by a substantial, secure income that would help ensure that most of these aspects are kept in balance. Why was my scale then still tipping back and forth, never finding this elusive balance? At first it was a niggle, an itch that no amount of scratching and distraction would ease. Finally, the longing for truth and true goodness would no longer go away, regardless of how I tried to fill this void. It was a sadly delayed process, having so much to distract, numb and fill my stunted senses with. I do not for a moment judge anyone who chooses to live the life we escaped from, it works for some, it just did not work for us.

So there we were, en route to "paradise", the long awaited dream about to enfold. One by one the "disasters" struck, and each time we had to dig a little deeper to keep on trusting that we were indeed "doing the right thing". We learnt anew to pray, surrender, hope and hardest of all, to wait. The waiting was hard, but rewarded without fail, the shadow of His wings always there. I thought we had finally found our balance. Then all at once, I found myself alone, facing a deep personal crisis; and there was an eerie silence from heaven. Or so I thought. In these desert days, I was taken back to a place that rocked my world. The foot of the cross. I looked up and saw another suffering face, hauntingly familiar, but filled with not only my pain, but the pain of every living soul in the universe. Something broke inside me and I sobbed and shook with the realisation of what my Saviour Jesus' death and resurrection really meant. So yes, thank God, I was spiritually, mentally, physically broken, but I new that God meant what He said with "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" Ezekiel 36:26.

Now, one day at a time, He is truly "making all things new".  We're still here, in our piece of paradise, trying to live the forgiveness we were given and continue to receive each day. The mountains are visible again, even though with faith as small as a mustard seed, we could tell them to move and they would! (Heaven forbid). Another small miracle is unfolding as I write. At the bottom of our property, a hefty man is digging a hole for a pole (with another watching in the shade...). In due course a few more will follow, and finally a wire that will give us the long awaited land line will be connected. This should not take long, since Luke is there, his feet shod in bright red gumboots, digging with his little spade, making their work "light". So when the skies grow dark, another storm threatens and the foxes nudge at our gate; I water that mustard seed, hope for what is yet unseen and BELIEVE.

Matthew 17:20 ... "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain: Move from here to there, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you".

Friday, 19 October 2012

Shall We Dance?

"You turned my mourning into dancing, you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy."( Psalm 30:11)

Another day of swirling mists and soft persistent rain. Only the closest trees are visible, waving ghostly branches at the grey skies. We hauled out an old leather suitcase, snapped open its latches and within a few minutes my two tough mountain toddlers were transformed into glittery, jingly butterflies. I buried my nose in the fabrics and relived the elation of my shimmy-swaying dancing days. Aah, what fun we had,  twirling like little girls, veils flying high and our spirits even higher. I jumped up, rummaged for some desert vibes and off we were, Tigger, Tinkerbell and Poo, bumping shins and (almost) bringing the house down. Less graceful, I admit, but just as much fun. To each one of you, beautiful friends and hip-swaying woman, thank you! from my heart. We taught each other to fly, sometimes through pain, but all along discovering the wonder of being women, "non regrette rien".

I do tend to romanticise the past, but those were sweet times. All along, they have always been there, soul-sisters, kinswoman, doulas, midwifes. We are bound together by silken threads, at times stretched taught by circumstance or distance, but always there. I realised this morning that even if we no longer dance hip to hip, the rhythm continues.

When I first became aware of the new life that I carried under my heart it was at once wondrous and terrifying. Thoughts of nausea, untimely cravings, backache and the like spun through my head. A hormonal roller-coaster ride lay ahead for me, I thought. Why I was blessed with a near-perfect pregnancy, I'll never know. I could think of many more deserving candidates. I felt serene, alive and totally in awe of how wondrously we are created. Psalm 139:14 says: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; a phrase of scripture I say aloud to myself on days when the mirror does not. I treasured each day of flutterings across my belly, from the first sense of quickening to the goal-kicking thuds against my ribs. Even when I grew large, we never stopped dancing. Belly-dancing took on a whole new meaning and the little one loved it. (He still does).

With these dancing sisters I celebrated a rite of passage into motherhood. I was lead down a leafy path guarded by tiny flames. At the end of it was the place where we danced. A candle was passed from mother to mother and each one of them shared advice or a blessing. I soaked it all up, feeling truly connected. Somehow "knowing" each woman who ever felt strong and weak with love for the gift growing in her womb. I found something that I wrote a few days after giving birth to Luke. "The most profound experience of my life. The pain and passion of giving birth has given my own life new meaning and purpose".

So another week of grey sleety days draws to a close. My patience has been worn paper thin at times, but we're still dancing. We began before words and we will end beyond them.  We were given so many ways of expression, dance just being one of them. Why does it feel so good to lift your arms up to the heavens, palms outstretched and eyes closed? We were made to worship Him, our Creator of heaven and earth. He who's silence is the most eloquent of all. The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (Romans 8:26) The comfort of knowing that in desperation, when we do not even know what to pray for, He does it for us. Not with words, with groans. And when your heart is filled with awe and gratitude that words cannot express; dance before Him. Sway and twirl with infinite bliss - no-one is watching but our God; and He's loving it!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Dumbfounded by Grace

"In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise."
W.H. Auden

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills" - I close my eyes and let the slow, soothing narrative evoke images of the familiar scenes to follow. Here, I too become a mental traveller, smelling the coffee plantations and feeling the wind on my skin as we soar above the Kenyan planes. Like the hero of this story, I love a story well told, and this classic film about a Danish baroness' struggles on her "farm in Africa", even entranced our three year old from beginning to end. This Sunday was a typical Hogsback day, misty-cool and wet. A day of fellowship, heartwarming food and for desert; a good movie. After sitting through tiresome repetitions of meaningless children's movies, we have discovered (with much wonder and relief) that our boys can somehow relate better to films about "real people". They both literally fell off the couch with excitement when that yellow biplane roars over lake Nakuru, the horizon filled with wave upon wave of pink flamingo's.*

Back to our own house on the hill - the wandering bovines of Hogsback have pruned our tender elm trees and neighbouring swines have dug up our newly terraced vegetable garden. It is still raining, still cold and the mists continue to swirl around the birches. Nonetheless, the veldt is lush with new growth in shades of startling green, the frogs are frogging and water reservoirs filled to the brim. In their lofty look-outs, fire-watchmen breathe sighs of relief and those whose seedbeds have not been raided, smile. Yes, the rain is a friend, as are the mists, even though it has taken me just over four years to embrace this gracious friendship. But it is the rain that refreshes my heart that I need most, for only then, can grace overflow into my life.

The community of Hogsback is an eccentric mix of individuals. Some are easy to love. With some I really need to remind myself that God extends (offers) grace to all people, and so should I. Our village brims with creative and artistic talent. We have sculptors, potters, poets, painters, mosaic artists, cheese makers, a knife maker, wood turners, a silver smith, musicians... The best of them all: an amazing artisan baker... The baker and I have been blessed with two amazing little cherubs called Luke and Daniel. They are works in progress, but we trust that they are masterpieces in their own right.

A group of quilters pin and sow textures and fabrics into functional art that is a delight to the senses. One can loose yourself in the intricate designs, drawing your eyes from the marvel of a completed work, to each intricate detail and touch that is the signature of the seamstress. It is the reward of patience, delicate attention to detail, as well as a willingness to creative intuitively , a reminder that all gifts and talents are God-breathed.

I am deeply privileged to call one of these woman a dear friend and mentor, not as a quilter, but sister in faith. The warmth and peace of her home attests to a woman who walks with her Saviour and it is wonderfully infectious! Whenever we meet there in His name, I marvel at how we rush in from our mountain-hollows, (often with wispy breaths and cold noses) to melt deliciously into the wide quilt-covered couches. It is a "gracious" warmth, not just from the hearth. Here the Spirit of God has infused each inch and atom, soaked up through years of daily devotion to Him who longs to live in our hearts.
"Enlarge the limits of your home, spread wide the curtains of your tent; let out the ropes to the full and drive your pegs home;" Isaiah 54:2

Back to the subject of grace... In his book "What is so amazing about Grace" Phillip Yancy explores the need for (and desperate lack of) grace at street level. If grace is God's love for the undeserving, and through Christ we become it's true dispensers, then how are we doing at lavishing grace on a world that knows far more about cruelty and unforgiveness than it does of mercy? Trace the roots of grace, or charis in Greek and you will find a verb that means "I rejoice, I am glad". We probably each have a different concept of grace and many reasons to be in need of giving or receiving it. For me, it is a humble acknowledgement of how in need I am of Divine grace. To live in this state of surrender, to share the gift, and  remain willing to forgive, is a daily challenge. Can I do this by my own strength? Most certainly not. I still stumble through most days, but I do have the certainty that "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" Phil 4:13

C.S Lewis uses the term "drippings of grace" for what awakens a deep longing in us for "a scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited" This struck a bitter-sweet chord with me. I remember feeling so hollow, that I would weep with longing and have no idea what for. In Afrikaans they say: "Jy sit op die stoep en verlang na mense wat jy nie ken nie" The thirst for grace will not be quenched, not even by the most crystalline mountain water. It is only when we respond to this great invitation that we will thirst no more. "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me,..... streams of living water will flow from within him. John 7:37

As I write this, the sun finally breaks through. The mountains loom large in the distance, casting deep shadows on their slopes. After a three-day "absence" behind the clouds they are once again breathtaking. To wake up each new day with this post-card panorama outside my window, is something I hope never to take for granted. Everything glistens, beads of moisture cling to the trees and the wild wideness of it, opens fresh spaces in my heart.

A forest walk brought this day to a close, watching two little blond heads bobbing through the pines, their happy voices carried on the still air. The Elandsberg flanks the road next to the forest and in front of us lay Gaika kop, (named after King Ngqika, the Xhosa ruler who reigned over the Rharhabe tribe in the beginning of the 19th century). Seeing things through these little ones eyes has made each experience new. They are like puppies, wide-eyed with exuberance, "tails" wagging and eager to please. We have received such healing through our babies, they have taught us to sing again, to play, to believe in endless possibilities and potential. They have allowed us a glimpse into the holiest of holies whence they came from. We learn, day by day, to trust again, to love more, but mostly, to surrender to the endless grace that began at that rugged cross, on a hill, far away...

* Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The story of Baroness Karen Blixen and her struggles on her Kenyan farm.