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Taking hold of hope

 

Advent is a girl in a purple skirt, her face homelike and strange. I knew her once, you think. Maybe she’s the kid who used the live around the corner? Or what about the girl you almost asked to dance that night long ago?

Advent is a girl who never grins or giggles, but her eyes are bright. Nails clipped short, those hands say she works hard, while the line of her mouth–so nearly a smile–makes you want to ask, like a child, that she tell you a story.

You’ve seen her sisters, too: up north they clear snow-blocked sidewalks by night, and sneak into homes where the furnace has gone out, kindling fires to warm the sleepers. Here in Texas, Advent keeps a candle in her pocket, matches ready. Lit, it smells of southernwood and orange rind.

When Advent comes to visit, she will be stern to see your house in disarray, so much dust on the floor. Ashamed, you’ll fumble for the broom, only to see she has it in hand already. Humming, she drives the dirt from your rooms and helps you put the house aright.

After the work, you’ll sit together and she’ll tell tales you haven’t heard in years. If you fret over all that must still be done, she’ll take your hand and say, “Enough,” and call you back with a cup of spiced wine. (Did you even notice, as you cleaned, that she had set it to simmer on your stove?)

You invite her to the Christmas party, and she agrees, but only out of courtesy. The fête is glamorous, tinseled and triumphant, but you lose sight of the girl in the merry bustle. Someone says they saw her outside, candle lit, watching the sunset.

And so you run. Run to the door — can you catch a glimpse of her light? Forget the gaudy gladness inside: run and find that girl, whose name you now recall. Run, along the roads she’s cleared for you, run with a heart made warm by her wine. She’s gone on ahead, but she wants you to come. Run after Advent, take hold of her hand. Take hold of Hope.

 

 

 

 

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faith, life together, marriage, photography

So hard, so sweet

Hypocrisy is like saccharin: no real sweetness, but mixed into something good, it might fool your tongue into relishing the taste you crave. In my communication with friends, my status updates or Instagram posts, I’ve been veering between hypocrisy and silence lately. I don’t mean to say that what I’ve posted is untrue; merely that, for the first time in many years, the most cheerful updates have been the exception, not the rule, to my general mood.

My intellect keeps insisting that I need to snap out of my sadness, but my spirit knows better than to obey. My spirit knows that change is hard, and that is entirely possible to be full of joy and hope, full of gratitude and awe, but dreadfully homesick at the same time. I know how to share the joy, the hope, the gratitude, but I don’t know how to share the sadness. I don’t want maudlin status updates that sound like pleas for pity. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my sadness, blame my husband (who is, next to Jesus, the greatest bulwark to my joy right now), and come riding in on a white charger with sword drawn. I simply want to tell the stories of these days: truly and in full color, but tempered and measured according to the truth.

Thus, my September experiment and challenge. Each day I will share a picture of one thing about life right now that feels hard, and one thing that is beautiful and sweet. Some of these glimpses may be profound, others will certainly be silly. Some days I will explain the pictures, other days I won’t. My purpose is not to provoke pity or solicit solutions, but rather to train my own eyes to the truth.

Today’s picture has to do with the world right outside my door. I grew up in a green place, a city of tall trees and green canopies. In Alabama, I owned a house in an old neighborhood, and three enormous live oaks shaded roof. Given my love for green ground and tall trees, it’s been really hard living on the edge of a parking lot, on ground that has been upturned for so much building. I know that once the Village has all its buildings in place, landscaping will begin again, restoring the green. But still, the concrete and the bare dirt are hard for me to love. And the sweet? Just outside, there are a thousand promises of growth and green. Last week my husband brought home a parched soapberry tree. It’s leaves were all scorched from neglect, and we worried it might not flourish. But after a week of watering, its branches have sent forth so many hopeful shoots. Even sweeter? The tree was a gift, serendipitious generosity from the man at the nursery. We were not looking for a tree, but it came to us without striving or seeking. Our tree is, in more ways than one, full of grace, and that grace is very sweet indeed.

What has been hard and sweet for you lately?  Would you your pictures or juxtapositions? You can do so leaving a comment, or by posting photos to Twitter (@bethanyjoy) or Instagram (@bethanyjoyful). Tag your posts #sohardsosweet

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cooking, domestic arts, everyday parables, faith, marriage, recipes

Tasting hope

“This,” said my husband, putting down his spoon, “is really Tom Bombadilish! It’s the ideal that every jelly tries to be, and fails!” Of course I smiled. How could a lover of Plato and Tolkien–not to mention a new wife–fail to be pleased by such a comparison? Taking another bite myself, I knew he was right. The taste could only be called wild: richly flavored, baptized with sweetness, vivid with the memory of tree-high vines, spider webs, and early-morning sunlight.

Grape jelly is not a food I’ve spent much time or energy pondering. Lacking the symbolic heft of bread, for example, it seems, at best, a marker of childhood lunches, peanut-butter-and-jelly days of untroubled desire. As an adult, I’ve kept my love of peanut butter but tend to skip the cloying jellies in favor of honey, cinnamon, or apple butter.

Why, then, did this jelly mean so much? Why did my husband taste in it something of Middle Earth? And why did I come back to my six little jars of it five times yesterday, simply to look into its purple depths? Because when I savored its wild sweetness, its complex goodness, I knew I was tasting hope.

Hope can be complicated when everything is new. On the one hand, new doors open all around, inviting dreams and desires. But you also lose the settled expectations of the old order. The relationships you can rest in, the view out your window, the nature and value of your work — all these can become impossibly fragile. At least, that is how I have often felt during these first months of my new life. How can I hope towards a beautiful home, when my house is an RV, pretty enough on the inside, but nothing compared to the beautiful old house I owned in Alabama? And how can I hope into my vocation, when I am not teaching –the one expression of my calling which I was sure I did well?

When questions are too big to run away from, sometimes the wisest course is to run into them. When my narrow walls make me fretful, I rise early and go run. I watch the tiny homes go up, play with the kittens, say good morning to the chickens, bless the gardens, and remember that I am living in a beautiful place, so much larger than my private domestic aspirations. I run through the gap in the fence, into the neighboring subdivision. Passing house after house, I find an unexpected nature trail. The serendipity of this discovery makes me love the canopy of green, the steady sound of crushed granite beneath my feet.

Last week, Steven came with me to see the trail. As we walked, he noticed a vine of wild mustang grapes. “I can’t believe they’re still here so late in the season,” he said, plucking one. The skin was thick and sour, but the pulp inside was tantalizing and sweet. We continued our walk, dreaming together. The next morning, I returned. The vines tangled far deeper into the thicket than we had realized the day before. They climbed high into the trees, and with their purple fruit they hung like beaded curtains between the trail and the little clearing within.

The foraging was sticky, scratchy, spidery work, but after an hour I returned home with five pounds of fruit. Over the next two days I worked with the grapes, my hope growing with each step: soaking, washing, pureeing, cooking, preserving. When it finally came time to taste, I was wide-eyed, ready to eat spoonful after spoonful straight from the pot. Such goodness, waiting among forgotten trees. Such grace, bought without coin or credit. I remembered God’s call in Isaiah 55.1:

Come, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price

The greatest enemy to hope is the idea that the fulfillment of hope depends on my power. I should know better, really; my dissertation, if nothing else, taught me that hope empowers my work and self-sufficiency, not the other way round. We can and must work toward the objects of our hope, but in the end, God’s abundance supplies all the goodness we can bear.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

and delight yourselves in rich food

(Isaiah 55.2)

Last week, God’s grace came in the form of wild mustang grapes. Surprised delight made my hands wise, and they created something beautiful. This is the wildness of hope: it gives us so much more than we could ask or imagine.

***

Wild Mustang Jelly

Ingredients

(adapted from the PickYourOwn.org instructions, here)

5 pounds wild mustang grapes

4 cups sugar

3 Tbs + 1 tsp Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin (this is important! Use regular pectin and you’ll end up drowning out the tang with too much sugar)

Instructions

Wash the grapes. I did this by placing them in a large dishpan of cool water, letting them soak for a few hours, then draining them. Sort out any grapes that are wrinkled or rotten.

Puree the grapes in a food processor. (You can do this by hand with a potato masher or food mill but a processor will do a better job of releasing the juice from the skins and fruit).

Put the puree (pulp, skins, and even seeds) in a large stock pot or Dutch oven, and add just enough water to cover the grapes. Heat with high heat, stirring often to prevent scorching, until the mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Strain the grapes. You can do this in a number of ways. Jelly purists use a very fine strainer, such as a jelly bag or even a muslin pillowcase, to obtain a clear juice. I actually prefer having some of the fruit pulp in my jelly, so I simply poured the puree through an ordinary kitchen sieve. (I also set aside the already-strained pulp in a bowl, and found that once it cooled, I could pour off even more juice). Altogether, your five pounds of fruit ought to yield 5 cups of juice. If you have less than this, you could always make up the difference with some organic grape juice.

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Return the strained juice to the pot and add the pectin. Bring to a full boil over medium or high heat.

Once the mixture has begun to boil, you can test the jell by dipping an ice-cold metal spoon in the jelly. If the jelly becomes really thick as it cools to room temperature, you’re ready to proceed. If not, try adding a bit more pectin.

Preserve the jelly. Pour your jelly into hot, sterilized jars and process in a water-bath canner according to the directions on the jars or the pectin. Once processed, remove the jars, let them cool, test the seal, and then find a friend with whom to share your treasure.

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everyday parables, faith, glimpse, marriage, photography

After the rains

As the rains fall, don’t rush to name them, “blessing” or “curse.” Allow yourself to look on nourished fields and grace-green trees, but don’t forget the floods that have washed away homes and hopes.

It is good to cry when it rains, to feel at home with the sky’s weeping, to remember that you are not alone in whatever sorrows have filled your eyes.

But after it rains, dry your eyes. Sew for yourself a skirt the color of Texas wildflowers, and walk down a road you do not know. Ponder the names of the trees, and look out on new fields, wide-open spaces. Don’t be afraid.

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everyday parables

A Not-So-Lonely Road

The kingdom of heaven is like a girl who has heard rumors about a narrow road that leads you home. She packs her bags and prepares for a long, lonely journey, but before she can begin, she hears a mighty pounding on her door. Opening it cautiously, she finds three friends on the threshold. “Don’t be afraid,” they say. “We’re coming with you.”

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faith, life together, marriage, scripture

Merry Apocalypse

For Christmas this year, I’m hoping for the apocalypse and sewing my own wedding veil.

I know, it sounds bizarre, like the teaser for a movie about zombie-brides or nuclear winter. Even without zombies, the image is still alarming, isn’t it? What sort of bride hopes for the end of the world?

“Apocalypse” comes from the Greek noun “ἀποκάλυψις,” meaning “an unveiling, a revelation.” Every wedding is a kind of apocalypse. As the bride unveils herself and holds fast to her husband, they become one flesh, revealing, says the Apostle Paul, the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:29-32). When Christians speak of “the Apocalypse,” we usually mean the ultimate unveiling of God’s Kingdom: Christ’s return, the resurrection of the dead (but as foreverstrong people, not zombies!), the reconciliation of heaven and earth, the redemption of the whole created order.

Christmas celebrates this revelation, too. When we remember that the Son of God was born as a wee baby, we see God’s hidden plan writ large among the stars. We believe that he came among us, and we hope he will return.

Hope. That’s a hard word, even for a girl sewing her wedding veil. In fact, preparing for marriage has burdened me with a paradox: that it is much harder to wait for a certain hope than a vague wish. Before I met my fiancé, the thought of marriage inspired neither joy nor despair. As I moved through my twenties and into year thirty, I didn’t think about the prospect of marriage with much hope, but neither did I feel its lack very keenly. I arranged my life in ways that did not require a husband, and I was content.

Now the situation is quite different. A man I love has promised to marry me in the summertime, and so I am spending this long winter waiting. Engagement, I find, feels a lot like Advent. It is a season of dreams and deferral, of smiles and sighs, a time when I must make decisions that include a spouse who is not here. I live, each day, in the confidence that our wedding will come. And yet, that hope unsettles me. Steven lives in Texas, while my home is on the Alabama coast, and missing him hurts more than not knowing he existed. Phone calls and letters offer partial revelations, beautiful but utterly insufficient. Could I have dreamed it all? But no — bright diamonds on a ring of gold say that the bridegroom will come.

In the same way, I think Christmas would be easier to celebrate if we didn’t believe that it heralds the apocalypse, if we didn’t, with all creation, wait “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Most of us could manage a successful Christmas if the holiday meant only decorating a house and swapping a few gifts. After all, there’s nothing cosmic at stake if Christmas dinner isn’t perfect. But when Christmas asserts our hope in a new heaven and a new earth, redeemed and restored, it hurts to see how much of God’s kingdom remains hidden, even on December 25. It kills us to watch the news, to read the history books, to walk the streets, to listen to our friends–even to look in the mirror–and to realize that the world is still so deeply broken. Should we be preparing wedding veils or donning funeral shrouds?

If we’re like the wise virgins of the parable, we keep our lamps trimmed and burning, announcing our certainty that Christ the bridegroom is on his way. By that light, I’m sewing a wedding veil this Christmas. Mine is a little lamp, and it doesn’t give much heat in the dead of winter. And so I am doing what sad and hopeful people have always done: I’m spending Christmas with those who share my hope, gathering strength from our gathered lights.

Merry Apocalypse, everyone. Some people call it “the end of the world,” but I’ve heard wiser voices call it “the beginning.”

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