Monday, December 22, 2014

Our Hope - This Year and Always

(An unofficial Keister Christmas letter for 2014)

For me, Christmas is always a time of year to recalibrate my perspective and remember the important things in life. Life struggles can smother and sometimes it's hard to see past the present. I love the chance to stop and soak in the tale of a Heavenly Prince leaving everything to gain His bride. A bride who doesn't even deserve Him and who flees Him! That's hope; that's good theater.

This has been a rough year for me. Not as rough as "the college years," but still. . . rough. I look at the pain and the circumstances that so many in the world (friends or not) are going through, and honestly, I know I have a beautiful life and I've been spared so much. But pain and struggles aren't always born in the "big" tragedies like death or divorce or Ebola; sometimes they're the day-to-day.

This has been a year of many minor trials. It started with a bang as we moved into our new (to us) house here in Houston. Adrian injured his shoulder in the move and was incapacitated for several weeks as a result, making our transition to our new abode a bit rockier. I also spent much of the year being monitored for a "suspicious lump" that seems to have resolved, but still cost some worry and concern. We love our house, but it has turned into a downward spiral of one new repair job after another. We also dealt with our 2nd, 3rd, and are now preparing for our 4th bout of mold since we moved to Houston. Houston fosters and breeds mold like no other place I've lived. My already-sensitive health does not respond well to mold, and Hans responds even less well.

We have learned so much about parenting this year. Mainly that we are totally at the mercy of God in this area and have no. idea. what we're doing. Probably our largest trial for this year has been trying to help our 6 year old son Hans process the extreme behavioral issues that seem to flare with each bout of mold we experience (and are still there in more muted form at other times). We love our extremely bright and enthusiastic boy, and knowing how to best help him while still holding him accountable for his own behavior has been. . . challenging. We've worked with a number of professionals this year and seen ebbs and flows in improvement. Our latest round of testing with a family doctor who specializes with autistic children has us optimistic, revealing both problems and possible solutions.

It's so easy to count problems instead of blessings in our hearts. But on the reverse, in Christmas letters it's so easy to give the "safe and air-brushed" version of the past year. "We're all well and loving life. Our children are great. Aren't our children adorable?" Nobody wants the negative at Christmas time. . . and really, during the year, how many people who ask "How are you?" really are expecting an answer that extends beyond "I'm fine"?

I'm not exactly sure where to strike that balance - honesty and rawness, with hope and not despair. But chronicling blessings along with some of the "struggle highlights" is a good start.

We are so thankful to finally be out of apartments. Not just the moldy apartment we were in last year, but apartments in general. We don't mind cramped quarters, but we really wanted a yard for our kids. We are blessed with 2/3 of an acre in our new place, a great quiet neighborhood for walks, and grandparent-ly neighbors who look out for us.

God has shown us a lot of grace in our "house woes." I could bore you with the (truly) long list of minor catastrophes and large house expenses we've dealt with this year, but instead, I'll just admit that God has met us each time. He's still meeting us, as we're preparing for our third professional remediation in the last 6 months and wondering where that sort of money is going to come from :-). He met us in our previous ones with good insurance coverage, and I'm sure he'll meet us in His own way this time.

We were also extremely blessed this year by our brother-in-law and Adrian's parents, who at different times visited us and poured days of their skills and time into helping us with house repairs. We are so grateful. He met us with a generous inheritance we received that helped with many of our unexpected expenses. He met us with an extra job for Adrian this summer.

Adrian loves his teaching job, teaching math and physics at a local classical Christian school. We are grateful for the awesome teaching position he has here and how it fits him so well. Northeast Christian Academy has been a phenomenal fit for him in so many ways. And getting to teach a class at the local community college this summer was not only great additional income, but also a fun experience for him. We're grateful that he's already been invited to return and teach the same class next summer.

We're grateful for God's grace in our parenting, for listening ears that offer us advice and sometimes just offer sympathy and love, and we're grateful for the opportunity to preach the Gospel to our kids. I can honestly say that trying to work with Hans through his own struggles has given me more opportunities to preach Christ to Him than I ever would have done had he been an "average" child. When my child is moved by God's grace, it's amazing to see him be convicted not by my own rebuke, not by a typical punishment, but by the Word of God. It is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. I still feel so lost in this whole sea of parenting, but I feel humbled and blessed by so many of the things God has shown me this year.

We're thankful for homeschooling. For our family, at this time, this has been a gift. This has been a rocky year in the homeschool department, with a few great weeks or months followed by rough ones, followed by great ones again. I'm so thankful for the flexibility homeschooling allows us, to "step back" when we need - such as when we were actively dealing with mold and just trying to keep a semblance of "normal" in our family life and peace - and also allowing us to plow ahead at "irregular times" - such as during the dog days of summer in Houston, when no one wanted to be outside and we had a fabulous several weeks of clear thinking and behavior for Hans. We got over 2 months ahead in schooling this way, which allowed us to take advantage of the beautiful fall weather to get our of our questionably-safe home air and play outside. I love that about homeschooling! And I love watching the kids learn and grow in knowledge and wonder at God's creation.

We're thankful for our bundles of energy: Hans with his colorful imagination and amazing memory, Gretchen with her sweet and easy disposition, and Martin with his inquisitive nature that keeps me constantly on my toes. We've already been to the ER twice for head injuries for that boy and I've had to call poison control twice, and he's only 18 months! He is a dare-devil! But he's also a sweet cuddle-bug who loves to make smacking sounds while Adrian and I kiss, and brightens up with excitement every time he knows we're heading outside.

Gretchen, at age 4, is all girl. Well, sort of. Sometimes she is Sam Gamgee when she and Hans are on a "Lord of the Rings" verge. But she is Miss Pink (although she now accepts other colors into her wardrobe), is often in elaborate dress-up clothes, and loves having her hair done and playing princess. But she can also hold her own in imaginary battles that she and Hans conduct against their imaginary enemies. And she loves to ride her birthday bike on our driveway and go for walks with us all. She is a sweet cuddler who loves special Mommy time and getting to read books before bed.

Hans is 6 and in first grade, our bookworm who can become lost in a book for hours (favorites currently include Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Wind in the Willows, Doctor Dolittle, as well as various American history books he reads and recounts to me "for fun."), or he can become Mr. Crazy Superhero, fighting imaginary "bad guys" with his various pretend weapons and his super powers. His thirst and ability to soak up knowledge and retain it is truly amazing. We are constantly amused by his perspective on things and the sorts of things he thinks to say.

We've had a GOOD year, despite many difficult circumstances, and despite many uncertainties and continued trials. We've had a GOOD year, because we serve a GOOD God. Or more importantly, because we are loved by a good God. We love because He first loved us. That is one verse the kids and I have discussed a lot recently. We don't love God because we can conjure up that love. We love Him because He reached out to us first. Isn't that amazing, strange, and hard to grasp, all at the same time?

Why did the God of the universe care to come to earth, be born of a woman, live for over 3 decades in this sin-riddled world, and then die a horrific death. . . just to recover a bride who wanted to spit in His face? Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my Lord, shouldst die for me? This is our hope at Christmas, and throughout the year. We pray it is your hope too.

Merry Christmas from Susan and all the Keisters

Monday, December 01, 2014

Jesse Tree

Isaiah 11

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

We've done a Jesse Tree the last three years during the Advent season. The kids love it and look forward to it. We all do, actually!

If you've never heard of a Jesse Tree, it is a visual story of Christ, tracing the need for redemption from creation, through the fall, judgment in the flood, seeing glimpses of Him in the prophets, in Jonah, Samuel, His lineage through the kings, etc. Generally, each day in Advent, a family has a passage to read from the Bible, and then an ornament to hang on their "Jesse Tree" that symbolizes the passage. For the prophets, we hang a scroll, for the psalmist David, we hang a harp, etc. As the days progress, the passages narrow into the time of His birth. The term "Jesse Tree" comes from Isaiah 11, the prophecy that a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse.

I grew up hearing of the concept, as my elementary Sunday school curriculum had a special Advent series that uses a Jesse Tree. It wasn't a regular part of growing up, but I was exposed to it, and liked the idea. Adrian had never heard of a Jesse tree before, and when I first approached him with the idea he was skeptical, wondering if it would be shallow (like a lot of popular "family devotion ideas"), etc., but he agreed to give it a try a few years ago. He was definitely impressed after we did it ourselves and doesn't need any more convincing :-).

(On a side note, two other non-Jesse-tree resources that have similar themes of the entire Biblical story building up to the birth of Christ: I recommend Andrew Peterson's album "The Lamb of God," and also this short film by the Skit Guys. I gotta admit the Skit Guys butchered a much-beloved hymn - "Come, Though Long-expected Jesus" - but I like the film for the amazing progressive painting showing the story from creation to the birth of Christ.)

So basically, there is no exact "one way" to do a Jesse tree. If you search online, you will find different lists of passages and corresponding events/people/objects. Some lists stick strictly with the lineage of Christ, but most will delve into the prophets as well and other events that point to Christ. The main thing is to tell God's preparations for bringing His Son into the world.

I basically combined the best of several lists, if I remember correctly. I also chose to keep ours to 25 days, which allows us to start December 1st and end on Christmas. Some suggestions have more or fewer days. Here is what I ended up doing (much of this came from blog posts I cut/pasted from, but that was a few years ago, so I don't have the original links to share and can't remember how much I altered and what was original):

1. Tree (Jesse's lineage) I Samuel 16: 1-13 Jesse was King David's father
Isaiah 11:1,10 Prophecy about Christ coming from the “stump of Jesse”; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2. Globe (creation) Genesis 1 Creation
John 1: 1-5 Jesus was from the beginning with God; Jesus is light
3. Apple (Adam and Eve, fall) Genesis 3 Sin entered the world, but God promised to send Someone to crush Satan
Romans 5:12-19 Sin came into the world through Adam, but God gives us life through Christ
4. Ark and rainbow (Noah) Genesis 7:1-9:17 God's promises and covenant
5. Stars (Abraham) Genesis 12:1-7, 15:1-6 God's promise to bless the earth through Abraham
6. Bundle of sticks (Isaac) Genesis 22:1-14 Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son points to God sending His only Son to be the perfect sacrifice for us
7. Ladder (Jacob) Genesis 27:41-28:22 Jesus is our ladder to God
8. Coat of many colors (Joseph) Genesis 37:1-36, 50:15-21 God used Joseph to save His people
9. Lamb (Moses, passover) Exodus 12:1-30 The blood of a lamb on the doorposts of the Israelites' houses was the sign for God to spare His people
John 1:29 Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world
Mark 14:12-16 Celebration of Passover becomes the celebration of the Lord's Supper
10. Bread (Moses, manna) Exodus 16 God gave His people manna to eat in the wilderness, to save them from hunger
John 6:46-51 Jesus is the bread of life
11. Law tablets (Moses, 10 commandments) Exodus 20:1-21 God gave His people His law
Romans 10:4 Christ is the fulfillment of the law
12. Wheat (Ruth) Ruth 4:9-22 Ruth was not born into God's people, but she loved God and was humble and obedient. She became David's grandmother, part of the lineage of Christ
13. Ear (Samuel) I Samuel 3 As a little boy, Samuel heard God and believed Him
14. Shepherd's staff (Jesse) I Samuel 16:1-13 Samuel annointed Jesse's youngest son, David, because God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance
Isaiah 53:2 A prophecy that Christ would not attract us by His appearance
15. Slingshot (David – warrior) I Samuel 17:17-51 David remembered God's provision in the past, trusted God, and would not stand for Goliath insulting God
16. Harp (David – psalmist) Psalm 23 God teaches us how to praise Him in the Psalms; the Psalms point to the Savior
17. Crown (Solomon) I Kings 3:1-14 God gave Solomon wisdom
18. Altar (Elijah) I Kings 18:16-46 Israel was worshipping false gods; God showed His people that He was the true God
19. Scroll (prophecy) Isaiah 9:1-7 God sent prophets to tell Israel of the promised Redeemer
20. Lion (Daniel) Daniel 6 Daniel trusted in the Lord; God protects His people
21. Fish (Jonah) Jonah 1-3 Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights; God's desire was for the people of Ninevah to repent
22. Hammer (Joseph) Matthew 1:18-25 Joseph was a carpenter who listened to the angel of the Lord and was obedient in faith
23. Angel (virgin birth foretold to Mary) Luke 1:26-38, 46-55 Mary had faith and obedience; she praised God for His plan
24. Donkey (Bethlehem) Luke 2:1-5 Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem
25. Manger (birth of Jesus) Luke 2:1-20 Jesus is born.

I also took pictures to show you the ornaments I made/obtained to go along with the passages. Once again, there is a lot of flexibility. For example, for your Jesse tree you can draw a tree on a poster board (which we've done before) and hang the ornaments on with thumb tacks. Or you can purchase an artificial mini tree to use each year for your Jesse tree. You could even just add the ornaments to your regular Christmas tree, though I think there is something special about having a separate tree. What we're doing this year is using a branch from our yard, stuck in a vase with rocks to weight it down and hold it erect. We'll hang the ornaments off the different twigs branching off of the main branch. We'll see how it goes :-). 

For the ornaments, there are plenty of options online for printing off pre-made images and pasting them onto discs to make your ornaments. You can make or purchase objects/ornaments, collecting from various stores or using craft supplies you have. It's up to you. You'll see in the pictures that we kind of did a little of everything. I worked on collecting and making the ornaments over several weeks. I don't think I actually had to buy anything, but used a lot of what we already had. The lamb was a toy that I turned into an ornament. The harp was already an ornament, but I plucked off the bear that was attached. I made Joseph's coat from felt, Jonah's fish was an embellished washcloth that I converted, etc. I'm particularly proud of my Lego ark, I have to admit :-).

Don't feel like you have to have the "perfect ornaments" for it to be a meaningful experience. You can go easy with pre-printed options, and then you can always branch out and replace with more intricate ones as the years progress. There are a few we have that I'd still like to replace with "better" options if I find them, but I'm using what I have until then. For example, the three stars to represent the Abrahamic covenant. . . not exactly awe-inspiring :-P. I want to make/get something that has LOTS of stars, but I just haven't yet.

Also, you can use artistic license and decide that instead of a crown to represent Solomon, you want to use a mini replica of the temple. Or instead of a fruit to represent the fall in the garden, you could use a serpent or a little tiny tree ornament. Whatever. Use your imagination and work with what you have or can find/make easily :-).

Here is our current collection:

The tree (1) and globe (2).

Apple (3), ark/rainbow (4), stars (5).

Bundle of sticks (6), ladder (7), coat of many colors (8).

Lamb (9), bread (10), law tablets (11).

Wheat (12), ear (13), shepherd's staff (14).

Slingshot (15), harp (16), crown (17).

Altar (18), scroll (19), lion (20).

Fish (21), hammer (22), angel (23).

Donkey (24) and manger (25).