Thursday, December 12, 2013

He Hears, and He Answers.

"When Jesus restores such a loss, He gives a fulfillment that is a 
little bit of heaven - a peace that passes all understanding. 
From our side it is only necessary to surrender." 
~ Corrie ten Boom

Hope is found in the little things. Life is turned upside down, earth-shattering events and circumstances stab mercilessly, senselessly; yet the tiniest whisper of a prayer is answered with the assurance that He hears me. I do not cry aloud to empty air. The God who spun the universe out of nothing counts the hairs of my head; catches the tiniest sparrow before it falls to the ground. He feels the unspoken longings in my heart, and He answers. Always, He answers.

Days after we heard the news of our sweet baby's death, my kitty and faithful companion for 12 years had to be put down. We didn't know what was wrong with her, couldn't fix her, had done all we could. As I tore her paws from around my neck (literally), forced her into a white box and surrendered her to the anesthesia technician, I had just one brokenhearted thought: Maybe someone will see her and love her and not want to kill her. A few days later we got a phone call. The vet at the shelter had seen kitty, taken pity on her and wanted our permission to treat her. She was still alive! After a week of unsuccessful treatment Tigger was put to sleep, but my grieving heart was calmed. The Lord had heard my prayer, had sent someone to have mercy on my kitty and try to do what I couldn't. I was at peace knowing that she really was sick beyond repair and I wasn't a horrible kitty parent for putting her down.

He cares for the sparrows. He cared for Tigger. He cared for my aunt's chicken who wandered off in 10 inches of snow and, miraculously, was found alive and well the next day. He cared for my tiny baby and for me; while Hope was not granted life, He answered my prayers for a natural and uncomplicated delivery at home - even when doctors told me I was insane for waiting indefinitely and not taking surgical or medical action.

This has been a year of disappointed dreams. We are in a new house, in a new place, searching for a new church, with job uncertainty and future uncertainty and so far away from the people we love. Our baby is gone, our kitty is gone, and once more Nathan faces the grad school application process and hopes for a better result. As I think of how we had wanted things to be right now, I am reminded that not a single prayer of ours has gone unanswered. So often we define God's nearness, His goodness, by our version of what we want - how we think He should intervene. When we get what we want, God is good! He loves us! When life appears to be spinning out of control, the rug of security is ripped out from under us and suddenly we are tormented with questions of all we ever believed in. Where is God? Why doesn't He answer us? If He were good, wouldn't He step in and stop this?

I look back over this past year and am reminded that God ALWAYS hears. He ALWAYS answers. He is a near and present help in trouble. He may not answer in the way we hoped, but that answer is simply "no" - it is never no answer at all. This year I have had to surrender so much - even having a "right" to know why God did what He did. All I can do is trust. And rest. I am safe in the arms of my Shepherd; no matter what storms are thrown at me, He WILL carry me through. "When He has brought out all His own, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice." We hear His voice. We follow the path laid out for us through gentle, guiding "yes's" and "no's." We lay down our insistence to understand. And we are at peace.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

He Makes All Things New

   "May the God of hope fill you with all joy
and peace as you trust in Him."
~Romans 15:13

  This morning I laid out Christmas dishes for two. I looked at Facebook posts of friends posing in the snow with pregnant bellies and radiant mommy smiles. I saw the holiday tribute to our little one, Hope, on the mantle surrounded by twinkling lights and holly. My heart sank, and I felt no hope. This is a Christmas season that I looked forward to with such anticipation – not only because it is my very favorite time of the year, but because I fully expected to be one of those glowing mamas-to-be standing under falling snow, bursting with a dazzling joy.The tree is up, holiday baking complete, presents bought, decorations out in full array. And my belly is empty. We buried our baby after 16 weeks of waiting, hoping, pleading for a miracle. It is hard to go through the motions of Christmas cheer. Hard to find joy when my longed-for little one lies under a tree in my back yard. Hard to give freely when inside I feel empty, and broken.
     This morning I sat down to my quiet time. I opened to my bookmark for today’s assigned reading, Psalm 103. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”
     In the face of grief and disappointment, giving thanks feels shallow, and forced. I try to be grateful for what we do have, then wonder if it somehow “doesn’t count” because I don’t feel grateful. I don’t feel contented or joyful. But the list in Psalm 103 is not contingent on feelings. Whether or not I “feel” the weightiness of these truths does not affect the fact that they are TRUE. The Lord has forgiven me of all my sins. He healed me from all miscarriage complications (a testimony in and of itself), He has redeemed me, set me apart for Himself, sealed me with His love and mercy, given me everything that is good in Himself. He is merciful and gracious. He does not treat me as my sins deserve. He is compassionate, and present. He hears every longing cry. The Lord does not promise to fulfill our desires with things, or circumstances, or relationships. If He did, we would have little reason to cling to Him every moment.
     In this season of emptiness I am reminded that I have all I need in Christ. My greatest need has already been atoned for, and on this earth I am simply passing through to a place where indescribable glory awaits. “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” Belonging to Christ is truly the only way that I can survive in a broken, grief-stricken world. Without the hope of eternity suffering is senseless. It is only in looking at tragedy through an eternal lens – this is not how it was meant to be, but someday all will be well – that I can lift my head from the grave of my baby and worship the God who has ultimately conquered death.
     This Christmas season, the gospel has taken on a new meaning for me. All I have is Christ. In the words of Noel Piper, “the reason for Christmas is the same as it ever was, and nothing is more essential to our lives than the incarnation. Trees are nothing. Feasts are nothing. Lights are nothing. Music is nothing. Only Jesus matters. Every day I fight to cling to my Savior. I long for heaven, where Hope is waiting for us, whole and perfect. Even now I am filled with joy as I think of these two things: Jesus, and heaven! What more could we want or need? Anything else is an undeserved gift that was never meant to distract us from the Giver, but to bring us more deeply into relationship and dependence on Him. It is only through Him that we have Christmas, the day that our souls’ most poignant need was satisfied, completely, forever. And so, truly, Merry Christmas. This season we rejoice in a God who makes all things new.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Three Years of Love & Learning

Eleven days ago, Nathan and I celebrated our three-year (three years!) anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, I read back in my journal to three summers ago when we were brand-newlyweds. Three years is a long time; an eighth of my lifetime. And yet, in many ways my life has come full-circle to the way it was back then. Once again I am in-between jobs. Once again we are searching for a church home. Again I find myself with long hours to fill between waking and sleeping. Again our future is uncertain; we have no roots, we are not grounded.

Those early days as a wife were intense. Days of worrying, days of wondering: I gained four pounds since our honeymoon! Three months and I haven't found a job. What am I supposed to do with my life? How do I maintain the independent qualities that Nathan loves, yet submit to his leadership? How do I take on my husband's preferences, habits and dreams without losing my individuality? What if I'm not enough? What if I really can't do this whole marriage thing? HOW do I love someone else more than myself, all day every day??

These thoughts and fears flowed freely in the summer of 2010, filling page after page of my journal. Reading back now, I wish I could have a conversation with my newlywed self. Tell myself to relax. It takes time, but marriage works itself out. Routines are established, personalities explored and understood, new habits evolve, and love becomes more richly seasoned. If God is the center of a relationship, and pleasing Him is the highest aim of husband and wife, conflict and selfishness - though a lifelong struggle - cannot thrive. And, as Ecclesiastes states, two are better than one. Countless times Nathan has lifted my gaze from the depths of self-pity to the blessings I've been given. So often he has deflected my accusations leveled at him to remind me that we are on the same team. Together we have learned the truth that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

In many ways, marriage and relocation across the country have felt like a full-blown identity crisis. Who I thought I was is morphing into someone entirely different and yet, deep down, the same. It's uncomfortable. It can be scary. It has definitely revealed where my previous identity was rooted in the wrong things. Yet, through all the change and uncertainty, I've learned several invaluable truths that I wouldn't trade for anything:

1. 99% of God's will for me is revealed in Scripture. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what my job is or where we live or go to church or how many kids we have. Circumstances fluctuate. Change is constant. Life is immensely unpredictable. And yet, God's Word is my rock. No matter what storms we face, I am called to live in a way that honors and glorifies my Savior and puts others first. My feelings, my mood and my situation can never excuse me from obeying God. And I firmly believe that "finding God's will" in those big life decisions is of secondary importance to living every moment of every day in step with His Spirit. My greatest priority in this season of uncertainty needs to be living each day in accordance to what I already KNOW God's will for me is, and trusting Him to lead us through the rest.

2. I am not alone! No matter where I go or what I do, it's not just about me anymore. I have a husband who loves, supports and cheers for me in the smallest things like learning a song on the piano, taking a good picture or making his favorite meal. My life goal is no longer about being the best at my job or writing the next hit novel or impressing anyone else with my accomplishments. I have married a man and taken on his name and his identity. It's not about me. It's about us. His successes are my successes. Whatever God calls us to, we will accomplish together. This goes against the grain of an individualistic, independent culture, but I cannot survive long in a universe where I am at the center, nor would I want to. 

These past three years Nathan and I have grown in the art of loving well. The childhood mantra of "God first, others second, me third" is even more true today than it was then. C.S. Lewis defines true humility not as thinking less of myself, but as not thinking of myself at all. Those rare moments when I am caught up in complete joy - worshipping God or marveling at His creation of another human being - and my self ceases to exist, even for seconds, are the definition of pure and perfect happiness. In heaven my brain will not be running a constant background dialogue about how everything going on around me effects me, or how I feel about it. Every facet of my being will being will be caught up in eternal, blissful worship. This doesn't mean that I'm seeking to detach myself from my personality now. As Lewis explains, when I am fully God's, I will be more myself than ever - who He created me to be!

Thinking back on these three years of change, of being stretched and torn away from my comfort zone with nothing concrete about our future, I wouldn't trade a minute of it for stability. There is no growth in ease. In my selfish heart I so often equate God's will with what I want (i.e. not being challenged). I am so thankful that He loves me too much to let me have my own way, "for this light momentary affliction is preparing us for a weight of glory beyond all comparison." - 2 Cor. 4:17

Nate, thanks for being with  me on this journey. It's been a crazy ride, and there's no one I'd want beside me but you. Here's to many more years of unpredictability!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Great Gatsby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 
F. Scott Fitzgerald

I was first introduced to The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school. A passionate lover of all things literary, I drank in the complex word pictures and sensuous imagery. Long after our study of the book was completed, I pored over its pages until phrases and descriptions were embedded in my memory. 

Soon I moved away to college, and then to Texas. All my belongings - including hundreds of well-loved books - were boxed and made various pilgrimages from bedroom to attic to moving van to three different apartments. In all the chaos I lost sight of my beloved Gatsby for awhile, until Baz Luhrmann's riveting preview of the film made its debut. I was spellbound by that preview. Thirty seconds of haunting, soul-beating music, accompanied by gold and glamour and heavy raindrops and Leonardo DiCaprio. As several other previews have leaked out over the past few weeks, I've grown even more excited about the film.

Luhrmann has some pretty big shoes to fill. Contemporary actors attempting to convey classic literary figures so vividly, perfectly painted in words can either impart the ultimate breath of life-giving air to complete the immortalization, or else fall despairingly short of portraying a character's psyche. That said, if I created a physical embodiment of Jay Gatsby out of thin air, I couldn't have painted a better portrait than Leonardo. He is Gatsby, in all his broken, extravagant yearnings. And Nick Carraway - dear, vague, introspective Nick - is given just the right touch of curious sincerity by Tobey Maguire.

This film has very nearly possessed me. The highlight of recent movies has been those glorious two minutes of Gatsby in the previews, a tantalizing appetizer for what is sure to be at least as exquisite as Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. I dug up my well-worn copy of Gatsby and elected to buy a brand-new one; I wanted to read it with new eyes, and the corpulent highlighting, underlining and marginal notes distracted me.

Then Nathan made the greatest of masculine sacrifices and allowed me to read Gatsby to him. Aloud. We breezed through the entire book in less than a week and he only fell asleep a few times. He then proceeded to top that and get us tickets to the premiere. Tonight. The night before he goes out of town. That, friends, is a selfless gesture worthy of the highest esteem - although I have a sneaking suspicion that he's nearly as enchanted with the mystery that is Jay Gatsby as I am. 

Here are some of my favorite quotes from this reading, as well as exquisite book covers from printings over the years. If you haven't yet been introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald, I hope this whets your appetite.

"I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men."

"I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart."

"There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life."

"It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again...the exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain."

"The glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk."

"The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life."

"High over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."

"There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

"I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart."

"Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy."

"A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor."

"Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans."

"Ahead lay the scalloped ocean and the abounding blessed isles."

"Her voice struggled on through the heat, beating against it, molding its senselessness into forms."

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."

"I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Photos courtesy of The New York Times Style Magazine

Friday, May 3, 2013

Running the Race

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Hebrews 12:1

After 4 months and nearly 200 miles of training, Nate and I ran our very first half marathon in Irving, TX. All the carefully patterned sleeping and eating routines, the gallons of water faithfully consumed, the worn shoes and sweat and injuries consummated in this one goal: to finish, and to do it in under two hours.

I am not one of those enviable runners who adore running and live to pound the pavement. Before this spring I'd only run an occasional three miles because I had to. I view running as a necessary discipline that must be endured to improve overall health, fitness and mental endurance. My secret weapon is books on tape which distract me from the misery I'm putting my body through. Multiple times during that race - specifically on miles 7, 9 and 11 - I asked myself again why on earth I was doing this. But I finished. I ran every step of the way, spurred on by Agatha Christie and cheering spectators with cowbells, and I placed second in my age group.

Nate and I held hands as we crossed the finish line, and celebrated in a steaming jacuzzi as our screaming knees and hip flexors called us every name known to man. We hobbled around Irving for the rest of the weekend, enjoying wonderful food and movies and museums and sunning ourselves in parks while trying not to look too much like 80-year-olds with arthritis.

We love Jefferson Street Bed & Breakfast!

Farm-to-table restaurant with incredible food

Venison chili and wildflower honey cornbread (elk tacos for an appetizer)

Yeah, I married him.

Fluffy hair and pale skin just needs to come back in style.

An original Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Boy Scout Museum. So good!

Love this man.

Then we came home and did the unthinkable. We registered for the Disney Marathon on January 12, 2014. Yes, we are out of our minds. Yes, in a moment of extravagant confidence I forgot every painful step of that 13.1 miles and convinced myself that I could do it twice. I hit the "register" button, and then dissolved into a puddle of quaking disbelief.

But today I laced up my running shoes and pounded it out again. We have 8 months, after all. And who knows? Maybe in that 8 months I'll learn to love running. Maybe my body will cross a threshold where I can crank out mile after mile without my joints dying a miserable death. And maybe we will have the time of our lives, flying through all 26.2 miles of those glorious Disney parks. In any case, whether we set a new record or have to stop every 20 minutes and take pictures with Mickey, it feels good to set a goal - a challenging, impossible goal - and make steady progress towards attaining it.

If there's one thing running regularly has taught me, it's a deeper appreciation for all of the Apostle Paul's exercise analogies:

"Run in such a way as to get the prize. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." - 1 Cor. 9:24-25

"Train yourself for godliness, for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way." - 1 Tim. 4:7-8

"Run with endurance." - Hebrews 12:1

Comparing physical training with training in godliness has shown me that becoming like Christ doesn't just happen. Just as I could never set off one day to run a marathon on a whim, I can't hope to have Christlike words, thoughts and actions without applying myself to His Word and example. This race, reaping imperishable rewards, is so worth my entire life's devotion. May I run here, and wherever God places me, with endurance and with joy.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A Tribute to 27 Years

All men have a sweetness in their life. That is what helps them go on. 
It is towards that they turn when they feel too worn out.
Albert Camus

Today is the 27th anniversary of two of my favorite people - these sweethearts who don't look a day over 25. 

All men have a sweetness in their lives, said Camus, and without it they cannot go on. My dad's sweetness has been my mom, from the day he first wooed that pretty girl of seventeen. The life of a small business owner is unpredictable, and often chaotic. Through it all Mom has been that gentle, loving force of sweetness and goodness and routine that keeps him grounded. They are so happy together. And their happiness has not been in the least bit self-centered. Instead, they took it upon themselves to bring six wonderfully wacky kids into this world. They raised us from a bunch of banshees... the very closest of friends. 

They love us so deeply and so well, even when they aren't quite sure what to do with us. 

They appreciate good food and can put it away with the best of them. 

They are fiercely protective of each other and their relationship.

They still play dress-up and make-believe together. 

They have single-handedly raised and educated a colony of offspring...

...and welcomed new additions with open arms. 

They love their kids more than anything on this earth...

...with the exception of each other. 

They are world-class travelers, full of creative spontaneity. 

And every April 26 for 27 years, they get dressed in wedding clothes and pore over their wedding album like it was yesterday. 

Every April 26 our family huddles around the TV and watches, again, the timeless vows whispered by candlelight. Every year the mood is magical, unbroken even when my adolescent uncle is overcome by a suffocating tie and faints in the middle of the ceremony. Every April 26 my siblings and I are reminded, again, of the love that Mom and Dad have lavished upon us - first cultivated in their early years and growing, ever more strong, selfless and free - a love that established us on a solid foundation, saw us through our most difficult years, provided far above and beyond our needs and continues to intercede and care for us. 

Mom and Dad, words cannot express what a gift you both are. God knew exactly what He was doing when He knit all these Hoffmans together. You are both gems, and have given your children much to aspire to in our own marriages. May God bless you more richly than ever in this coming year together!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Happiest Weekend

The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.
Eden Ahbez

On the Thursday before Easter, I boarded a plane in early-morning twilight and sneakily arrived in Maryland. I crept around downtown Frederick and covertly visited my in-laws and best friend, terrified that my presence would be discovered. And on Friday, on a sunny mountain by the railroad tracks, Jordan David Starin proposed to the love of his life, my sweet, beautiful, not-so-little sister Christene Marie. He knocked her socks off. She was floored. She said yes, and he swept her off to his sister-in-law's house where I showered her with confetti and her socks came off again (she thought I was in Texas, camping). I dressed her up in a starry lavender outfit and her soon-to-be husband whisked her off to a gourmet celebration dinner. It was a Good Friday, indeed.

There are just too many things to say about this dazzling, wonderful girl. She is bright and an extremely gifted actress, yet after she graduated from high school she chose to spend her time working with youth in local public schools. She ministers to hundreds of kids and has made an incredible impact on their lives. She is a godly and mature servant who I look up to in so many ways. And, at the ripe young age of 19 she finds herself engaged to a man she loves with all of her heart. I don't know Jordan very well yet, but my sister chose him which makes him pretty dang amazing. 

These two. I can't even.

pcs: Bethany Starin

Jordan and Christene have modeled such an admirable relationship. He first noticed her on the front lines of serving - pouring herself out for others without even a thought of "catching a man." He was hooked; here was a Proverbs 31 woman if he'd ever seen one! (not to mention the fact that she's drop-dead gorgeous.) Jordan was several hours away at school, so he and Christene wrote letters for months while seeking God to see if they were supposed to be together. In November Jordan asked Christene to be his girlfriend. In March he asked her to be his wife. Some would call it a whirlwind romance, but no couple has sought God and His will more than they have. What a joy to be home and see Him lavish them with blessing. They embody Psalm 37:4 - "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." I could not be happier for them!!

Saturday was our girls' day. Mom, the littles and I took Stene dress shopping (she killed every one of them) and to high tea. It was such a lovely time.

Saturday evening the Starin and Hoffman clans all got together for feasting and much rejoicing. I was in charge of decorations and desserts, and there was such a general flurry that I forgot to get any pictures. Thankfully Leah snapped a few shots of the desserts - they were quite a hit and I highly recommend these recipes!

Moccachino Cupcakes* (Recipe is below from my mother-in-law. They are divine!)

Jordan has quite a thing for donuts. I bought the sweetest milk bottles and striped straws from Shop Sweet Lulu. It was my first time attempting Baked Donuts, but they turned out wonderfully! (Note: these were made in a mini donut pan. I piped the batter with an icing tip and there was no mess. Follow the pastry chef's adaptions in the reviews! Chocolate glaze recipe is here.)

pcs: Leah Starin

I got to spend Easter with my family for the first time in three years. We had a lovely, relaxing day at home, and Jared only got a little crazy. 

I have the most amazing family in the world. Welcome, Jordan! :)

*Mochaccino Cupcakes (adapted by Beth Farlow)

1 box of Duncan Hines Devil’s food cake mix, baked with the following two substitutions.
½ c. unsweetened applesauce instead of the oil
1c. strong brewed hazelnut coffee instead of water 
Bake the cupcakes as directed on the box and use muffin tin liners of your choice.  Let them cool while you are making the icing.

Buttercream Icing  
1 stick of butter
3 c. powdered sugar
1 ½ t. vanilla
~4 T. strong brewed hazelnut coffee, cooled
Pirouette cookies

Allow butter to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. In a large mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Gradually add 1 c. powdered sugar, beating well. Beat in the brewed coffee and the vanilla. Gradually beat in the remaining powdered sugar. If necessary, beat in additional brewed coffee until buttercream reaches spreading consistency.  Right before serving, insert 1/3 of a Pepperidge Farm Pirouette cookie. The cookies will get soft if placed sooner.