The tree that couldn’t die…and why I’m typing with tiny thorns embedded in my fingertips

I sit here on my patio trying to type with dozens of prickly pear thorns embedded in my fingertips…but I got the photos!

prickily 1 (2)Why? Why would I (in obvious plain stupidity) get down on the ground, risk slivers of thorns in my bare hands, and not even think to at least grab for some gardening gloves?

Clear to me now, tunnel vision had taken over…to get pictures of my perilous tree which had finally bloomed again after 12 years.

In the historic ’05 hurricane season, Wilma toppled this breathtaking prickly pear, sprawling it across three backyards. Cleanup was a bear. For days my daughter Jenna and I gingerly picked up and hauled branches covered with needle-like thorns that penetrated our flimsy gloves (all we had in those post-hurricane days). Greg was away every hour of daylight repairing damage at work, and Jenna and I finally just threw the last remnants of branches in a heap, where they stayed throughout that year.

Unbeknownst to us, those remnants took root and began to grow into a sort of unattractive spinney near the back fence of my tropical yard. For some odd reason (or pure self-preservation in not handling the wicked thorns), we never cut down the tiny replicas of the magnificent original.

Over a decade later and by now 10-feet high, the prickly pear took another devastating hit from Irma last fall.  With so many other things to deal with post-hurricane, we left it on it’s own to just sit there—and rot.

And then one day, these breathtaking flowers appeared amidst the dying tree.
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They seemed to be calling out to me about our incredible Creator, and I just had to capture it.

The symbolic flowers were telling a story by their mere existence, a true tale of life, storms, destruction, and a glimpse of the future…all for my prickly pear tree, and me.
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Between those hurricanes, my own physical stability and health took a fierce hit with longtime damage, too. Maybe that’s why those flowers are calling out to me in such a meaningful way this spring—reminding me of what God can do with our hurt, our injuries, what appears to be near ruin.

Our God, our Protector, our Healerthe One who gives life to me, to you, and to a crazy bunch of half-trees in my backyard that for some reason are still standing and may even amaze us with some fruit late this summer.

Selfies, Parenting & Walking on Water

Last Christmas, the only family picture we ended up with was a selfie with, as you can see, heads cut off, my grandbaby not looking, and my husband half hiding behind my hair. But the photo made me happy, and I wished my Facebook friends a Merry Christmas with it anyways! Sometimes the best photos are simply that candid look of unplanned moments—when someone reaches out their hand to take a picture and captures happiness.

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I once heard that it takes about 12 pictures to get a good one, so it’s still totally legitimate to take a couple dozen and keep the one that works! I do this all the time with photos of my garden, my family, and especially that little beauty on the bottom right of the photo above. I’m constantly deleting pictures on my phone to free up space for the next unexpected opportunity.

I used to be a “school parent.” I homeschooled my daughters Melissa and Jenna for several years and then enrolled them in a Christian school where I drove every school morning for eight years until they each graduated. For many of you reading this, that’s where you are today. You get it…how when we’re parenting kids, there are so many of those “save-able” moments, the ones we absolutely want to keep!

But then those other times. Those times when, looking back, we wish it were possible to hit a little button and permanently delete. I imagine you know exactly what I’m talking about. Yelling when we’re running late to school, exasperation when homework remains unfinished and it should be bedtime, impatience which really stems from our own lack of sleep rather than what our kids are doing. (And, Jenna says I can tell you about all our fights over the little rubber bands for her braces…but I almost don’t want to.)

I had PLENTY of those moments when my kids were growing up. (I still do.) So I’m thankful that although we might not get actual, complete “do-overs” in parenting, we definitely get re-starts—possibilities to begin again, to reach out a hand with another opportunity to know our kids better, love them, and be the best we can be for them.

It’s hard. Yes, it’s hard. I recently read a Facebook update about a parent facing unexpected pre-Christmas surgery for her daughter. I know more than one parent going through an illness of their own. Moms and dads wondering where to find the money for just a little Christmas shopping. Parents who are hurting deeply because their children are hurting.

To me, that was pretty much the worst.

have these words hanging in my office: You call me out upon the waters. Maybe you know the song Oceans by Hillsong which tells the story from Matthew 14 of Peter being called by Jesus to get out of his boat and walk on the water towards Him.

Wow. What would you have done?

I wonder, would I step out of a boat and try to walk towards Jesus on top of deep water? What kind of faith does this take? Where does that courage come from? I’m still learning that it means looking only to Him to do what, humanly speaking, would not be possible. Peter did step out of the boat, but when he temporarily lost faith and started to sink, he desperately looked up to Jesus to rescue him.

I’ve been thinking this season that maybe God calls us to step out of the boat and into the water more often than we think—and the only stipulation for success is to keep our eyes on Him. Moms and dads, if you feel like you’re failing (sinking!) more than you’re succeeding, if you’re needing do-overs more than savoring picture-perfect moments, let me tell you that God’s grace abounds in the deepest waters!

Even if you’re familiar with this song, consider listening to it again with your role as a parent in mind. Let God speak to you about looking above the waves and finding Him in the mysteries and challenges of parenting—and of life. Then why not think about doing something fabulous with your kids this holiday season, completely unrelated to giving them a tangible gift? Something unexpected, where you listen, you laugh, you do what they want, eat what they want, but mostly where you’re all there and all in…for them.

You might not end up with all picture-perfect selfie moments with your family this Christmas, in fact there might be some you just want to throw away and forget. But step out in faith anyway. Keep your eyes above the waves. Walk on the water to Jesus—and then let your kids see your own real faith and love for Him.

A momma’s love is greater than …

I don’t believe I’ve ever supported a prayer cause more than the one I’m writing about today, a personal story with a request to lift up my sister’s family separated by an ocean—and by obstacles only God can move. I’m asking you to read this, share this, and more than ever, pray for God’s power and glory to be seen as the adoption story continues to unfold.

Last night, I glanced through my Facebook notifications, clicking on the several items that really caught my attention. I thought I’d catch up with my friends and head to bed. I was moving at a pretty good pace until I got to my sister’s new cover photo. I clicked on it, but the mysterious graphic stopped me and stumped me. I mean, would YOU have known what this was supposed to be saying?

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What in the world? Forget about going to sleep. I saw that Luann was online so I sent her a message asking about it. Her simple and profound answer:

Love is greater than the distance between me and my children. (That’s 7,867 miles to be exact.)

Some of you may not know what’s been going on in our extended family, so let me catch you up. I have three sisters, and Luann is the youngest. She lives in Illinois with her husband Ken and their 4-year-old son. For the past two years, they have been working through an international adoption of three beautiful Ethiopian siblings.

As an adoptive mom myself, and the auntie-to-be of these three kiddos, this is pretty near to my heart.

Ken and Luann weren’t expecting to adopt three, that’s for sure. But when they received those first photos of the children, their hearts were smitten. No turning back, they immediately began working with the agency to bring the two girls (ages 7 and 9) and boy (age 12) home. While they filled out a myriad of papers and progressed through required classes, their family and friends got busy, too, throwing a gift-card shower to help them prepare for three more kids.

In the fall, Luann and Ken picked up the pace, buying additional bedroom furniture, painting the rooms, and creating a larger playroom. Then as the days grew colder, they shopped for winter clothes, shoes, and boots for the children who were “scheduled” to join their family sometime in the winter. My own daughter began knitting pretty scarves for her new cousins, and the entire family practically squealed with excitement as the preparations progressed.

I loved hearing from Luann the weekend they bought a bigger freezer and new kitchen table to fit their family expanding from three to six.

Right around Thanksgiving of last year, Ken and Luann communicated for the first time with the children via their adoption agency. Special letters, a little personalized picture book for each, and the news “We’re coming soon!” reached the hearts of the elated children who had spent the past seven years in orphanages.

It was the stuff fairy tales are made of—the kind of precious reactions that would make you burst into tears. The oldest said, I know other kids who have been adopted, but I never thought it would happen to me! One of the little girls began asking daily when her family would arrive. And can you imagine the excitement over their new little brother and the adorable white dog waiting for them in Illinois?

Everything was pretty much set for Ken and Luann’s trip overseas. They would meet their children and spend time with them. They would finalize papers, wait on immigration paperwork, and then bring the children home,

And then it all began to fall apart. One thing after another seemed to go awry with final signatures and sign offs. And as time passed, the winter days turned into spring days, and spring into summer. The waiting game became a way of life, on both ends. Mommy and Daddy waiting for their much-loved children, and the children waiting for their forever family to walk through the door.

The last piece of news Luann and Ken just received from Ethiopia is that all systems are likely on hold for at least another six months. What? Can they really keep a family in limbo for an indefinite amount of time? Yes, evidently they can. And you know what? It honestly wouldn’t break our hearts quite so much if the children weren’t ready and waiting for their family, too. When are my parents coming? When will I go to my new home? When will I meet my new little brother? When? 

So why am I writing this? I’m actually asking you to join us, to print out Luann’s graphic and tape it to your mirror or fridge, or make it your screensaver. Will you let this simple little “equation” remind you to pray daily…

  • Pray for Ethiopian government logistics, a softening of hearts, and for God to move in a way we can’t even imagine.
  • Pray for God’s protection and peace on these three incredible children as they wait for their new family to arrive in Ethiopia and bring them home.
  • Pray for Ken, Luann, and Jack in Illinois as they continue to trust our Almighty God for the miracle that will bring their family together.

Yes, Luann’s mommy-love is greater than the miles that separate. Ken’s father-love is greater than the distance and days between. And God’s love and care is greater than we can even imagine.

As a family, we’re not stopping or putting a time-limit on our prayers. We’ll be praying continually until the children come home and this family of six has their first meal together around the same table. No matter how long it takes, will you join us as the story continues to unfold?

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Love is greater than the distance between me and my children.


Now all glory to God, who is able,
through his mighty power at work within us,
to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”
Ephesians 3:20

***Please contact me if you’d like to be included in prayer updates and/or send a message to Ken and Luann.

Come Grow a Tomato with Me

My first vegetable garden was on my apartment patio in plastic containers bought at Home Depot. The vegetables never received any direct sun and did poorly from the start. I eventually replaced the wilting tomatoes with flowers which also received no sun. They looked pretty for my mother-in-law’s visit but died soon after she left.

My second vegetable “garden” was on the kitchen counter in Solo cups as part of my daughter’s homeschool project. To her delight, the green bean plants grew quickly—but then never produced any more than a hint of a bean.

For the next decade I stuck to silk plants inside and a single flower pot by the front door. But again and again, as I replaced those potted seasonal flowers (if I could afford it), that gardening itch kept returning. Finally in my early 40s, I decided it might be time to get it right. With a little more planning and a lot more effort, vegetable garden number three was the charm.

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As a Christmas gift that year, my husband surprised me with all the elements needed for my first backyard vegetable gardening experience, including several bags of beautiful black soil, a must-have in our sandy Florida yard. (Don’t judge him for that; he also gave me a necklace!) The next week I methodically positioned my first plants in the 4×8 raised bed he built. I began to faithfully water my six cabbage plants, three tomatoes, and a few herbs. I watered and waited, watered and waited—and hoped for the best.

Crazy thing, but everything actually began to grow! I mean, I knew that was supposed to happen, but it had just never happened for me. I can’t even tell you how much fun I had watching those plants reach taller, expand wider, and start showing signs of real, edible food.

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And then came the day I realized it was time to snip off and use a couple sprigs of the herbs, harvest that very first cabbage, and start eating the tomatos. I felt like I’d become my dad during our Illinois summers in the 70s when he would come in from the garden completely delighted to cover the kitchen counter with his homegrown produce.

During the next year, my husband caught the gardening bug, too, and our joint efforts resulted in non-stop tomatoes for months and months, even after all the leaves were practically dead on the stems.

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As the tomatoes kept coming, I began to sympathize with my mom’s consuming efforts of trying to keep up with all the zucchinis my dad grew. I personally didn’t grow zucchini, but I felt like I was bonding with her in a new way, realizing her mix of gratefulness and frustration with so many homegrown garden delights. By the end of that second season, I had eaten so many tomatoes I became allergic to them.

Tomatoes on hold for me, and with the extended gardening season in South Florida, Greg tried planting peppers, onions, and carrots. Then one afternoon I walked around our backyard and realized he’d dug up yet another area—to plant carrots.

See, I told you he’d caught the vegetable gardening bug. Then he started planting fruit trees, and even brought home a baby avocado tree for me on Valentine’s Day.

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In the next couple years, we learned how easy it is to grow pineapples, if you’re super patient, that is.

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Of course, along the way, we had to brighten it all with some some orchids, another low-maintenance gardening beauty.

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Admittedly, the perennials I planted around the yard helped during the times the veggies died off and weeds overtook the gardens. During those times, this red shrimp plant just kept showing off its colors.

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After all this time, we’re still planting, watering, and watching things grow. It’s been a decade-long adventure of seeing up close the wonder of God’s artistry. I love it how during at least three seasons of the year, His intricate creation supplies us with fresh fruit, fresh veggies, and produce for juicing, smoothies, and salads.

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I don’t claim to be an expert on backyard farming, nor am I a photographer (except with my phone). But with those disclaimers, I invite you to join me here on my blog. Along the way, if you get the urge to dig a hole in your own soil and grow something edible (or just simply pretty), I’d love to hear from you.

My blog won’t always be about gardening, but you can be sure I’ll be returning to the backyard again and again in my writing. So go ahead and subscribe to Beyond (left of screen) for future ideas, photos, stories, successes, bloopers, and how to be part of this fun and fulfilling “farm to table” and flower-filled living.

(And one last thing. If you love essential oils, they’re going to pop up here, too. What do they have to do with gardening? Stay tuned. Because I’m rarely in my garden without them.)

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In the Morning When I Rise…

My first conscious thought that morning at 4:30 was unsettling. Still in a fog, I tried to push “work” out of my mind and go back to sleep. I still had two glorious hours before my alarm would sound.

But instead of snoozing, I began to fret about the day ahead. I fretted about having to leave work for a medical test, about the procedure itself, and about a meeting after lunch for which I was unprepared. I finally swung my feet out of bed and sat up straight to fully contemplate my worries.

It was then that I stopped myself—and prayed, Oh God, help me to not be like this! My full-blown, early-morning worry sessions had become an unhealthy habit, and I knew something had to change.

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I tried something different the next day—and the next and the next. When I woke up troubled and anxious, I prayed that His love would permeate my thoughts and engulf my soul. I consciously refocused my thoughts on the goodness of God and reminded myself: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never…end; they are new every morning.*

It didn’t feel natural, and it didn’t come easy. I had to make myself do this every single day.

As those winter mornings turned to spring mornings, I continued to pray in those hours before dawn: God, no matter what I face today, thank You for remaining faithful! Then one day I realized I had finally turned a corner—and was waking up most mornings at a normal time, rested and at peace.

Call me crazy, and good thing no one except my husband has to hear me, but there’s a song I sing to myself in the mornings now. I love the repetition of these words as I make my coffee and prepare for whatever God brings my way:

In the morning when I rise,
In 
the morning when I rise,
In 
the morning when I rise,
Give 
me Jesus.

Give me Jesus,
Give me Jesus,
You can have all this world,
Just give me Jesus.

If you need a new tune to run through your heart upon rising, too, this song is below. Watch out, though. If you get these words stuck in your head, it just might change your mornings (and drive your family a little crazy while you sing it all the time)!

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23

 

*Morning-Rise graphic by jennakristine.com

The Other Side of Adoption

Right now I’m looking back over my shoulder from the other side of adoption while my sister is looking forward to her future days as an adoptive mom.

My kids are grown up and out of the house, while she’s got a four year old running around…and three more kids on their way soon, from across the world.

Funny how life circles around like this.

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When Greg and I first told our families about our plans to adopt, they gave us immediate support on bringing a little girl from Haiti into our home. Every single person in the family developed his or her own unique relationship with two-year-old Melissa, and my youngest sister Luann was no exception.

Luann was 18 at the time. She fascinated my girls with “aunt gifts” sent from Chicago to Florida, her silly humor and fun projects when visiting, and her trips abroad to unusual places we looked up and studied in our atlas.

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Luann and my daughters dying Easter eggs in 1994

When Luann traveled, we had a nightly routine of singing a song about God watching over her and protecting her. I had actually forgotten all about those words until the other night when I was praying for Luann’s three almost-adopted children still so far away.

And that’s when God brought the words back to me.

God is watching over you, watching over you, watching over you. God is watching over you tonight.

And then there was another song we sang at bedtime.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and give you peace, and give you peace, and give you peace forever.

There was a lot of singing and praying going on while Luann traveled the world, and now the lyrics keep echoing in my mind for her kids: God is watching over you, watching over you, watching over you.

Maybe I mistakenly chose those words I used to begin this blog when I wrote, I’m looking back from the other side of adoption. Truthfully, I’m looking forward, too. This spring as we’re praying for the final international papers to be signed, our blended-extended family is about to gain three more children. But those last papers still lack a signature, and the kids are still waiting.

They’ve been told about their new family. Their new mom. Their new dad. Their new little brother. They’ve even been told about the dog. But they’re not here yet. There are still a few obstacles in the way.

Will you pray that God will bring these three children home? Pray these words for each of them as they wait for their very own forever family: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and give you peace, and give you peace, and give you peace forever.

Fifteen Easters Ago

Fifteen years ago on Easter Sunday morning, my family and I sat on the far side of the balcony in our crowded church. I had purposely chosen this unfamiliar hideaway, steering clear of our routine place downstairs with the usual mob of friends and acquaintances.

The praise team began singing, and the congregation quieted. I remember noticing how my daughters, 9 and 13, were amused at our new location. They had no idea. My husband threw his arm around the back of my shoulders, but his touch felt strangely awkward that morning. I don’t know why. Maybe because we’d never sat in church together so sick with worry.

I went from bad to worse as the service progressed. Instead of bursting with joy for our risen Savior, I silently endured the singing and ambivalently checked out during the message. (Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?)

Fear of the future gripped me. I’d learned a few days earlier that an ugly “something” was growing inside me, with more tests scheduled the coming week. As I sat in church, I became keenly aware in my heart that life was about to change. I felt terrible, and no wonder. Unknown to me at that time, my tumor was growing at the rate of a centimeter a day.

Church ended, and I had barely heard a word. I’d been thinking about the Easter baskets hidden at home, waiting to be found. And I’d been praying that whatever was coming my way, God would intervene so my girls wouldn’t have to grow up without a mommy. (Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?)

God is never taken by surprise, and at that moment He already knew the number of my days. Of course I didn’t, and I came up with vivid scenarios of the worst. Actually, those imaginations came true almost immediately with surgeries, chemotherapy, weight gain, and a wig that never seemed to stayed in place. But alongside my “imaginations-turned-true” also came something unexpected. Over those hard days and weeks and months and years which followed, I slowly began to know God and trust Him in a way I’d never dared to dream was possible.

Then somehow, in the blink of an eye it seemed, my doctor was jubilantly noting on my charts the 10-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. Driving back to work that spring morning, I realized God had answered the prayers I had started pleading of Him during the Easter service so long ago. My girls had grown beautifully despite, or perhaps through, the trials our family had faced. Jenna was no longer my little 9-year-old, but 19 and in her first year of college. Melissa, no longer a junior higher, was now 23, a college graduate planning her wedding. (I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again, my Savior and my God!)

Today, as I write this, another five years have gone by. Five more years of ups and downs and highlights and valleys. Five more years of birthdays and Easters and answered prayers. Yet as I launch this blog titled Beyond, I’m not writing to just dwell on the past. I’m not writing to merely look back at where I’ve been.

This Easter season, I’m thinking about what’s yet to come and how much I still have to learn about God’s love and grace. I’m here to talk about Jesus, my risen Savior, and the hope I find today in Christ alone.

I invite you to join me on a journey of looking forward, of learning to live beyond the confusion of the moment and instead in the grace and exuberant living Jesus Christ offers.

Beyond, my friends, beyond.

Happy Easter!

Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?
I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again, my Savior and my God!
Psalm 42