A simple Christmas

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10, NASB

Christmases in the Oakley house are pretty simple. I would characterize them as more sentimental than material, and for that I’m grateful. Being “poor” in worldly wealth (but not in spirit) has its advantages!

These are some of the things that have allowed me to feel abundantly blessed this Christmas:

SHOPPING

Heavenly Treasures global market at our church. I bought gifts for all the women on the Taylor side of our family (immediately family, that is). All the proceeds go to small-business owners (which may simply mean one artisan struggling to feed her family somewhere in Cambodia, Vietnam or another area where poverty is the norm). Blessings: 1) We bought these gifts for a fraction of what we would have paid in stores; 2) they are handcrafted; 3) most of all, we helped someone who’s hurting in another part of the world.

I also took advantage of a clearance sale online and bought seven copies of a book I read years ago – a book I wish I could give to every woman I know: $5 apiece, one for each woman in the Taylor-Oakley clan.

My stepson, Courtney, who lives in Oklahoma, was blessed recently with a promotion and a good raise, and because one of my main missions in life is to help people be good stewards of their God-given blessings, instead of buying him a gift he doesn’t necessarily need, or writing him a check like we often do at Christmastime, we put money into his savings account at the bank where I work.

When I turned 50 last month, Bruce pooled his money with birthday money from my mom, and he took me to the jewelry store. (This is the type of splurge I rarely indulge in, but I figured a half-century was a special enough occasion.) He helped me pick out a beautiful opal ring. I’ve always loved opal, and this ring is so special to me.

So because we splurged at birthday time, we kept it simple for Christmas, although keeping it simple has always been our norm. We have such abundant blessings throughout the year, we don’t buy much for each other at Christmastime. We also have our anniversary coming up next week, so Bruce suggested we combine the occasions and buy a house gift for ourselves. We really don’t know what that might be, but while we were shopping Saturday for my brother and his stepson, we ran across a DVD copy of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” (Bruce is a mixture of realist and sentimentalist, and often the sentimental side wins – he loves the idealism of this movie, and so do I, although I fall closer to the realist side of the fence. And we both love old movies and the great Jimmy Stewart.) So here’s a recap of our conversation in the store when I picked up the movie:

Me: “Do we have this on DVD?”
Bruce: “I don’t think we have it on DVD or anything else.”
Me: “Household gift. Ten dollars.”
Bruce: “Great.”

End of conversation. End of Christmas shopping for Bruzy. Simple.

This type of Christmas spirit allows me to breathe during the holidays, because I hate shopping. It’s a little easier at Christmas because then I’m shopping for others, but I still would rather sit near a sunny window with a good book than fight the crowds at the shopping center.

MUSIC

I could listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums year-round. Oh, what am I saying – I do listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums year-round. You might hear “Tennessee Christmas,” “Breath of Heaven” or “Welcome to our World” in my car during the blazing heat of July. To me, these songs and albums are timeless and always a breath of fresh air. Each album is better than the last, and she includes some incredibly beautiful pieces in the mix. The last album, “A Christmas to Remember,” is especially full of pieces that cause me to stop what I’m doing (unless I’m driving), close my eyes and savor every note. I also tend to wear out my Christmas albums by: Collin Raye, Andrea Bocelli, The Carpenters, and John Denver & the Muppets. Heck, even the classically trained Bocelli sings with Miss Piggy on his album. My favorite Christmas song? “Oh Holy Night,” especially Martina McBride’s beautiful rendition. Bruce’s favorite? “Silent Night” – and John and the Muppets do a pretty good job of that, singing it first in German (the language it was written in), then English. Bocelli sings it in three languages.

MOVIES/TV SPECIALS

Since we canceled our satellite service in August, I didn’t get to watch wall-to-wall Food Network like I love to do between October and December, and I didn’t get to OD on the sappy movies on Hallmark Channel, but we still have the good ol’ standbys on VHS (taped from TV in the mid-1980s) and a few on DVD. Another challenge this year: Bruce and I had about four weeks to pull together the White River Christmas Half-Marathon & Relay (long story), and my only Christmas-special “viewing” would fall more into the category of background noise. Nevertheless, I got to listen to these as I did my half-marathon work or cooked for family: Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown (I love Linus’ soliloquy on “what Christmas is all about”), and my favorite, the Grinch (another lesson on the true meaning of Christmas, plus it rhymes!). I also had these movies in the VCR: “Christmas in Connecticut” (my favorite Christmas movie, but only the Barbara Stanwyck version) and “White Christmas” – “snow, snow, snow, snow!” I think I even listened to “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” early in the season. Oh, I almost forgot: I did get to sit and watch an entire movie, start to finish, when Bruce and I spent Dec. 23 with Mom watching the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 1994 version isn’t quite as good as the original, but the cute little girl and the beautiful scenery [and wardrobe] make up for it.) Movies I didn’t get to watch: “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story.” (There’s still time, right?)

FAMILY (FURRY AND FOUR-LEGGED)

Our two fur-babies are … well, my babies. I have a stepson, but I never gave birth to children of my own, and Salsa and Pepper warm my heart every day, even 30 seconds after they’ve infuriated me by wetting the carpet, barking incessantly or begging for snacks. We call our girls The Spice Dogs, and when I created this blog in 2007, they were part of the inspiration for the name (I was also baking spice cookies that evening). They’re good help around the kitchen, too: When I drop a bit of food while chopping, mincing or mixing, they rush to help me clean it up.

FAMILY (HUMAN)

I’m writing this on Christmas morning, 10 a.m. (savoring a steamy and wonderful cup of coffee with my favorite flavored creamer). We’ve spoken to some family members by phone today but haven’t gathered for the big celebration yet. We’ll go to Mom’s later for a feast of food and fellowship (more on the food below). I look forward to seeing those I rarely see throughout the year because of busyness, physical distance or, dare I say, apathy (on my part as much as anyone’s).

Bruce has been sick the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been trying to figure out why this cold/sinus junk has caused me more worry than other recent minor ailments. And why I might have seemed to overreact yesterday when he wanted to run a longer distance than I thought he should. Could it be that we’re “overdue” for a Crohn’s flare-up? The average for Crohn’s patients is 5 years, and his latest flare-up started in 2007 (and I did not marry an “average” guy!). I realize that it’s insane to worry – God has us covered. I suppose it’s just an opportunity to flex my trust muscles; after all, He is the Great Physician.

On Christmas Eve, Bruce got an opportunity to be the social guy that he is. We started with an afternoon run with some dear friends, the Tuckers; a family member, Bill, from out of town whom we had never had the opportunity to run with before; an awesome running buddy, Rita – who is growing to be a great running partner for me because, even though she’s a lot faster, she is sweetly willing to hang back with me, the slow one. She and I have had some great conversations, and she’s really fun (yesterday, we conspired to pretend we ran up a crazy hill when we saw Bruce and Shane – and I swear it was her idea! Unfortunately, we topped the hill and the guys hadn’t paid a bit of attention to us!).

I should have a separate category called Family (Running), because our running family is really precious to us. No space today to count all the ways, but in the spirit of Christmas, I’ll mention the great run last Tuesday night before our Roadrunners club Christmas party. Again, the speedsters took off without Slow Suzy, but Rita stayed behind with me. (She has a good heart.) On another note, I loved being able to attend a Christmas party in my sweaty leggings, running shirt and sports watch. (That’s just the way we roll!) This was only three days after my work Christmas party, which was beautiful and wonderful (except for the slightly inebriated Santa), but for which I made a most unfortunate choice of shoes, one of which had to come off before the party was over because my left foot was killing me!

But back to the main topic: Family (Human). After our run, I rushed to get clean and start the pecan pies, which needed to be out of the oven by 4:45 so we could attend the Christmas Eve service at Mom’s church. This church service has become a bit of a tradition for Bruce and me, starting even before we moved here in 2010. West Baptist always has a beautiful Christmas Eve service (which could also fall under the Music category). As I was whipping up the filling for the pies, I realized that someone had put the vanilla extract bottle into the cupboard with about three drops of extract remaining. (Seriously, who would do that?) Mom – on speed dial – to the rescue. Fortunately she’s less than a mile away. I sent Bruce over there, told him not to stop by our church to make sure the bathrooms were clean (part of his job), not to pass Go, not to collect $200. Just get back here with the vanilla. And he did.

The pies? Well, let’s just say the jury’s still out. I had to leave them in the oven (turned off) and put them back on to bake after all the evening’s festivities. I’m still not sure they’re quite right. But I’m also pretty sure no one will leave the table hungry this afternoon, pecan pies or no.

But wait! There’s more! (Isn’t there always?)

After the service at West, we went to my Aunt Pat’s across the street from our house. Her son-in-law, the aforementioned Bill (running buddy from out of town), had requested a family get-together in the spirit of the old days (the old days of our family, that is). Aunt Pat’s relatives from both sides gathered in her kitchen, which is only cramped when lots of relatives visit. Strange, she noted, we have all this space in the rest of the house, but everyone congregates in the kitchen and dining room. Not strange to me at all – Aunt Pat makes some of the best holiday treats west of the Mississippi. Can you say peanut butter fudge?

And then … we left that party to go to our church, Fellowship Bible Church in the old Landers Theater on Main Street. Whereas the West Baptist celebration was bright, colorful and upbeat, the Fellowship service was quiet, candlelit and reverent. Both services were full of beautiful music, and each was unique and meaningful in its own way. Each service fed my spirit and focused light on the One whose birth we celebrate, and whose Light takes away the darkness.

The Oakleys ended the evening together quietly – mama in her kerchief (OK, a red plaid flannel PJ shirt) and papa in his cap (his ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt), with one of the fur-children nestled under her bed down the hall and the other one begging for belly rubs. Both two-legged Oakleys spent the next hour reading, growing sleepy and sipping … okay, people, I’m not gonna lie. I wasn’t sipping a picture-perfect mug of steamy hot chocolate. I was indulging in a 10 p.m. glass of diet Coke, which I rarely drink after 3 p.m. And Bruce was sipping apple juice or water or something.

Now back to our fantasy.

FOOD

Three things I almost insist on having at Thanksgiving and Christmas are pecan pie, Cranberry Salad (made with red gelatin, apples, oranges, pineapple and pecans) and Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes. (As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have an Aunt Pearl and have no idea who she is, but we loooove her hash-brown casserole!) And because I’m the one who has a strong need for these three dishes, I’ve become the designated maker of them. How else am I going to be sure it happens? The pies … we’ll see. (Dec. 29 update: Let’s just call them “pie soup” and be done with it.) The cranberry stuff is ready, and the potatoes will go into the oven soon.

I also have a year-round craving to bake, but my schedule doesn’t allow it very often anymore, so the holidays are when I get to indulge in that. Even when I’m tired, baking sweet treats, breads, even pizza dough, makes me very, very happy.

And then there are the dirty dishes. But since this is a post about counting blessings, being with family and remembering our Savior’s birth, we’ll skip over that part.

Post-script: leftovers (lots of them)

Have you ever eaten mashed potatoes for breakfast? Yeah, me, too.

REMEMBRANCES

My dad died 15 years ago this week. Every Dec. 23, I think about the day he died. That was a day full of pain and sadness, but knowing that my dad knew Jesus makes it so much easier. Even on that day, we had a measure of indescribable peace knowing he was no longer in pain (the pain my brother and I had known him to have our entire lives) and he is with Jesus now. Dad had told a relative just that morning that he was ready to go and was not afraid to die. None of us knew then that this would be his last day on earth. But we have the hope that surpasses all human ability to understand, and that’s because we know the Savior he rests with now.

Dad died 11 days before my wedding. In the ICU, when we weren’t sure whether he could hear us or not, as I held his hand I told him he needed to stick around and give me away next week, that I wasn’t ready to let go of him. But the Father had other plans, and Dad was gone within a couple of hours. That’s OK. My plans aren’t necessarily God’s plans, and His ways are not always my ways. He is sovereign, He is wise and He is, above all, GOOD. He takes care of us, even when we don’t always like how He goes about it. But even amid the not-liking, we had blessings: My Uncle Charles and Aunt Pat, who had just arrived at their daughter Kathy’s house in South Carolina when they got the news of Dad’s death in the evening, turned right around the next morning and drove back to Arkansas. They were here in time for his funeral. Now, that’s family.

God has blessed me with good family, good friends, a good job, an abundance of physical comforts (too much sometimes) and an ever-increasing awareness of just how good He really is. I thank Him for everyone He has put into my life, whether it’s to teach me, to reach me or just to bless me with caring and warmth.

As we celebrate His incarnate presence on the earth, may each of you feel His love, remember His sacrifice and give your life to Him.

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6, NKJV

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Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes

This morning, someone at church asked me about our Thanksgiving plans, and naturally our conversation turned to food (I’m sure I was the one to bring it up). She was intrigued by my talk of “hash brown casserole,” and I told her I’d publish the recipe here.

Several years ago the recipe for Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes came into our family. We don’t have an Aunt Pearl, and no one really knows who the heck she is or was. But, boy, do we love her potato casserole! It’s a treat to make this because we reserve it for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It has become my job to make it because I’ll be the one with the biggest serving on my plate (turkey? who needs turkey?), and I’m the one who would complain the loudest if this dish wasn’t on the table. (And being the designated maker of this dish, I can make as much as I want and save some aside in my own fridge – who’s gonna know?)

We’re probably going to eat our main Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant this year, but do you think I’m going to miss an opportunity to make these potatoes? Well, do you? (I didn’t think so.)

So here it is, Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes. And for anyone looking for the nutritional content of this dish, just forget it. Even if we knew, we wouldn’t burden you with that here. It’s Thanksgiving – a time of year we forget we’re supposed to be sensible about food!

I’m giving you the recipe 1) below and 2) as a downloadable PDF. There are two identical recipes on the PDF (I hate to waste paper, so there’s one for you and one to share.) To download the PDF, click the link below, then click the icon; it will download to your computer.

Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes

2 12-oz. bags hash browns, thawed
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
16 oz. sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks melted butter (divided use)
2 cups crushed corn flakes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In large casserole dish, mix first 6 ingredients (hash browns through salt) with 1 stick of butter. Sprinkle with corn flakes and drizzle with 2nd stick of butter. Bake for 1 hour.

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Kicking the crap out of Crohn’s disease

“Go out there and run to the best of your ability,” he replied. “Don’t run with your legs. Run with your heart.” On some level, even as a high school freshman, I got his meaning: the human body has limitations; the human spirit is boundless.

Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes

Mom and me, post-race.

I ran my first half-marathon yesterday morning (yes, it was still morning when I finished!)

In case you don’t know, a half-marathon is 13.1 miles. This was the longest I had ever run (12 miles was my longest training run in prep for the race.)

But this wasn’t just any run, and it wasn’t just any half-marathon. It was the one and only, inaugural (for me) half-marathon I chose because of what it supports: the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA).

Many of you know that my husband, Bruce, has suffered from Crohn’s disease since just before our first wedding anniversary. He spent that first Christmas in the hospital, and he was so sick I wasn’t sure he was going to make it. (Among other things, his entire digestive tract, from mouth to anus, was full of ulcers. Sorry for the butt talk, but part of raising awareness is getting people used to talking about unpleasant things – and helping people understand how hideous the disease can be. I’m actually sparing you the grossest details.)

Nearly 14 years and two more ugly flare-ups later, he’s dealing with what is our “new normal”: functioning, but at a diminished capacity from what my once very-active husband had been used to. (He’s the one who taught me to love running.)

And three years ago, my cousin’s then-10-year-old son, Spencer, was diagnosed with Crohn’s. And we have a teenage friend at our church, also named Spencer, who has Crohn’s. And an adult at church with Crohn’s. Get the picture? I want to kick the crap out of Crohn’s disease, and I want to do it, like, yesterday.

So that’s why I ran 13.1 miles yesterday.

I never intended to run a half-marathon. Six months ago it wasn’t even on my radar. But when some of the crazy-running-chick friends I hang with started talking about running a Half in October, naturally my thoughts turned to, “Could I?” I had certainly gotten addicted to running in the past couple of years (as I’ve said before, it’s like crack). I credit my friends’ ambitions with getting me on the road, so to speak, to my decision – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where Suzy has never gone before (sorry – couldn’t resist the Star Trek reference).

Despite the grand illusions (delusions?), I had more or less decided that I wouldn’t run such a long-distance race. I have a mild heart condition, which worries my mother but not my cardiologist so much, and I had knee surgery 13 months ago, so I thought I’d just be kind to my body and stick with shorter races.

But in mid-June, when my new love of running supercollided with a cause I believe in with all my heart, the decision was practically made. The day after I got the email about Team Challenge, CCFA’s half-marathon training program to raise money for research and awareness, I signed up. (I would have signed up the same day, but you know me: I can’t do anything big without thoroughly researching it first. I left voice mails and emails for the Arkansas and the national people in the know; I texted; I read all the info online, etc. Next thing I knew, I was a Team Challenge member!)

I want to tell you all about Team Challenge in more detail, but today’s post is more about yesterday’s event and what got me there. I’ll cheerlead for the Team Challenge program in a post very soon.

The main thing I want to say about yesterday’s race has more to do with what came before it than with the actual event.

I want to say THANK YOU to all of you who supported me. For some that meant donations of money, for others donations of your time, talents and effort, and for still others it meant prayers, words of encouragement and general moral support. Some of you donated money out of your abundance (wallets and hearts), and some of you scraped up donations sacrificially because you believed in the cause, or maybe you just believed in me – or in a gracious God who has blessed you and you wanted to bless others.

I get teary-eyed just thinking about all of you.

My race shirt, bib and “top fundraiser” tag.

And, yes, I thought about each and every one of you as I ran, walked, sweated and even endured a brief bout of stomach cramps and nausea yesterday. I prayed for you; thanked God for such incredibly generous (of heart and wallet) friends, co-workers, church members and family who helped me get to the finish line (heck, you helped me get to the start line); and celebrated how generous God has been in putting you in my life. You will never know how much you mean to me. (By the way, you helped me take fifth-place honors in the fundraising.) And special shout-outs to Bruce, who jogged shortcuts to particular mile markers to take pictures of me, snapped me crossing the finish line and was my main cheerleader, even though he really wanted to be out there with me, running the whole race; to Mom, who traveled with us to Nashville so she could watch her baby cross the finish line (alive!); and to our sweet friends the Tuckers – Betsy dropped by my workplace Thursday morning to bring me a surprise: a great card about “amazing women” and a package of pre- and post-race energy goodies (Betsy has been my second-biggest cheerleader along the way, always telling me how proud she is of my accomplishments, and Tommy has offered his share of encouraging words).

I wish I could say the finish line of yesterday’s race was the finish line of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and every other ugly disease we watch our loved ones suffer through, but for me it was just the renewing of my commitment to raise awareness and funds for CCFA.

Next month, Bruce and I will sit in the Mission tent of CCFA’s Take Steps Walk in northwest Arkansas, as we have done for the past three years. We were on the ground floor of helping establish a CCFA chapter in Arkansas in 2010. Many of you helped us with that, for the Little Rock walks and the NWA walks (thank you).

But this year in our Mission tent will be a huge poster of Suzy’s first Team Challenge half-marathon, because next year I plan to return to Nashville with an Arkansas team! (This year I and the only other Team Challenge participant from Arkansas were placed on the National Team. But we’re gonna change that!) And since my official half-marathon coaching this year was “virtual” (our training sessions were in the form of emails and a weekly conference call from Coach Dave, and we had mentors and other support for the fundraising part), next year I’ll have the benefit of a real-live, local running coach. You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? (His name starts with B and ends with “ruce.”)

So, look out, Team Challenge: Suzy’s on a mission!

__________________________________

I still haven’t reached my fundraising goal and have a few weeks left. If you’d like to be a part of curing Crohn’s disease, click here to make a donation.

Arkansas had 42 participants in Saturday’s race, including two of us from Batesville. To view the official results, visit Nashville Women’s Half Marathon

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Bless the beasts and the children

If you don’t think God cares about animals, you need to read my dog tale.

I’d been praying for and about a dog along my jog/walk route. In fact, last time I walked with our group in the evenings (after we changed back to the 4-Mile  Classic route that’s close to my neighborhood), I mentioned it to one of the ladies.

“There’s this dog up ahead that I feel so sorry for,” I said.”

“I know exactly which one you’re talking about,” she said.

Every morning when I walked by myself, and two evenings a week when I walked with the group, I’d see this dog – a large black, friendly but somewhat subdued dog – tethered to a cable that ran from a tree to the roof of the house. A very short cable in a tiny, tiny yard. In fact, it’s so small I’m not even sure it qualifies as a yard.

That sweet dog was tethered to that short piece of cable all day every day, it seemed. What a life.

My friend and I talked about this poor dog – how we couldn’t understand why someone would want a dog if they were going to keep it chained up outside all the time and never play with it. (I have no real evidence to back this up – only speculation – but, judging by the condition of the tiny, rundown house and yard, the dog sure wasn’t getting any indoor playtime when we weren’t looking.)

I had mentioned the situation to Bruce, telling him that the dog never made a sound, even when I said hello (I say hello to all the furbabies along my route); she would just run back and forth along that short little cable every time I walked by, seemingly excited to see someone – anyone – any sign of life amid a dreary existence. I told him I wished I could gather her up and bring her home with me. (I’m a bit of a sucker for a needy animal.)

A week ago, I came in from my walk on Saturday morning, and Bruce was awake.

“I know we can barely afford the two dogs we have,” I told him, “but when we finally sell the North Little Rock house and have some extra cash, don’t be surprised to see me walking in the door with that dog I was telling you about.”

He kind of smiled (just like he always does when I say, “Can we take that dog? He needs a home!”).

“I’m serious!” I said. “If I ever see people at that house, I’m going to ask them if they really want that dog, and if they don’t I’m going to ask if I can have her. And when we sell the house, if she’s still there and I don’t see anyone outside I might just walk up to the door and knock on it!” (I get a little riled up sometimes.) “I’ll tell them we have a big yard and plenty of room.” I figured we could be foster parents until we found someone else to take her.

So I started praying for a decent home for my sweet little (big) poochy friend.

Tuesday or Wednesday morning as I approached her house, she was looking toward the back yard and barking a little – not mad barking, but friendly, excited barking, like, “Hey, let me back there to play with you!” Someone may have been back there, but I didn’t see anyone. When she saw me she ran up to the little 2-foot wall at the edge of the yard and put her front paws on it. I went over and rubbed her ears. She laid her head over on me, just eating up the attention. I talked to her for a couple of minutes, scratching and rubbing her head and neck, telling her what a good dog she was – and wishing I could untether her and take her with me. But I went home, leaving her there, alone in her tiny yard. Again. Praying for her all the way, wishing she could have a better life, with a big yard to run around in. Knowing that right now we could not provide that for her but hoping she would be at least a little happy until we could.

Toward the end of the week, I noticed I hadn’t seen her in a few days. I thought, “Well, maybe they finally took pity on her and let her go inside out of the heat.” Friday morning I realized the cable had been gone for a couple of days but the small doghouse was still there. I looked around in the street – no signs of a dog having been hit by a car, unless they cleaned it up really well (not likely).

Saturday as I approached the house, I noticed a man and a woman in the yard. He was just getting settled in a chair, and she was going back into the house. I said, “Hey, what happened to your dog?”

Him: “We gave it away to a good home.”

Her: “Where she could run around – and be free.”

Me: “Aww, that’s nice.” (That’s what I said on the outside. On the inside I was shouting, “Praise God! Yippee! Halleluiah! God, You are awesome! Thank you!”)

I kept walking. And smiling.

Sometimes all you gotta do is ask.

“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. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.” – Ephesians 3:20-21 (New Living Translation)

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Things I’m thankful for

These are things I’m thankful for this morning:

  • The glorious weather. I know it’s hot, but that’s why I like to do my workout (walk/jog) at sunrise; the weather is actually cool for about an hour, until the sun rises high over the houses. Today there were just enough wispy clouds to create a soft pastel scene just above the horizon for a few minutes. So peaceful. We’ve had no rain lately, either, meaning I have to remember to water my own tomatoes and herbs (small sacrifice), but that also means I don’t have to wear special gear to exercise outside. Another reason to be thankful.
  • City road crews. The dead ’possum I experienced yesterday morning on Hill Street was gone this morning. It was a fresh kill yesterday, so I’m really glad I won’t have to look at it every day for two weeks like we did the armadillo carcass. Not sure who picked it up, but I’m grateful to that person. For the record, any time the subject of “jobs I would never want to have” comes up, No. 1 on my list has always been “the person who cleans up road kill.”
  • New friends, Part 1. At the moment I’m thinking about my new running/walking friends. Since I joined the women’s running clinic in late February (and recruited Coach Bruce a few weeks into it), I have made some lifelong friends. The group is amazing in its enthusiasm and support of one another. Many of us had been couch potatoes for far too long, and we’re now spurring each other on in many ways. This particular group is a hybrid of the women’s clinic, the Run for God Bible study and the White River Road Runners group.
  • New friends, Part 2. Bruce and I have been Batesville residents for 13 months now, and we have felt so embraced by our community. We have friends at church, at work, through volunteering and because of family connections. There’s not enough space here to explain it all or to express our gratitude and sense of belonging.
  • Old friends. I’m thinking of Lynn in particular right now. It’s been so nice reconnecting with her over the past couple of years, and now we live closer to each other and are able to have face-to-face meetings every now and then. She has been an encouragement to me, as well as an encourager. We’re on similar journeys to physical fitness although our personal circumstances are quite different.
  • Family. We moved here because of family. I haven’t seen as much of my brother and his brood as much as I would like these past few months, but my mother and I talk nearly every day by phone or in person. We share rides to work sometimes (she lets us borrow her car when Bruce and I both need to drive somewhere), she feeds our dogs when we need to go out of town and she lets us come over and watch sports on her big-screen TV – very important things! We live less than a mile from my brother, J.T., and Mom’s house is a stone’s throw from his. We love being so close to them.
  • Good health. I have minor physical ailments, but they aren’t enough to keep me from continuing my fitness journey. I have finally embraced the idea of moving every day in a way that’s making my heart stronger, both physically and spiritually. I can’t say when I will breathe my last breath, and I try to remind myself to savor each day as it comes (some days that’s easier said than done, but I still try).
  • The little deck on the back of our house. Yesterday after my wog (our Run for God leader’s word for walk/jog), I took my Bible outside to the deck to read the first five Psalms (next in our through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan). It was perfect that Psalms fell on the day I was able to spend time outdoors, not worrying about the clock.
  • Trees and birds. You notice them more when you walk the streets early or sit on the deck in the morning. The birds’ songs are melodious and soothing.
  • Good books. I’m reading one right now that I’ll review for BookSneeze when I’m finished, but I would be telling you about it even if I didn’t have to. It’s called “Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me” by Ian Morgan Cron. More later.
  • Chocolate. No explanation needed.
  • The dogs. I’ve talked enough about them in the past, so I won’t bore you with that this morning, but I’m grateful for them every day. They make me laugh.
  • Bruce. He’s my sweetie pie. I love him for so many reasons – too many to express here and now. I’ll just tell him to his face.
  • My job.
  • Home. My favorite place.
  • God. He bestows so many blessings on my life. I will never find enough words to express my gratefulness.

Beautiful weather tends to make me sentimental, hence the spontaneous gratefulness post. I think it’s important to stop and count my blessings every now and then, though. It helps me slow down from the busyness of life and remember the Source of all that’s good.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

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Gut reaction

“And Nehemiah continued, ‘Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!’ ” (Nehemiah 8:10, New Living Translation).

I was preparing to write today’s post on Nehemiah 5-9 for my church’s Connect+Scripture blog when that verse hit me between the eyes – or should I say punched me in the gut. (My gut is the part of my anatomy that comes to mind when I read it.)

The occasion in Nehemiah was a celebration of the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, which had been torn down when the Temple of God was destroyed and the Israelites were taken captive to Babylon decades earlier.

Now the Temple had been restored, the wall had been rebuilt and generations of exiles had returned home.

It was a time of celebration!

Why did Nehemiah 8:10 speak to me with such force? After reading of all that the great leader Nehemiah had done to help the Israelites restore the city wall (he organized, planned, inspired, admonished and defended, demonstrating not only his leadership skills but his great love of the God for whom the Temple was built), I noticed in particular the phrase, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks.”

We have become ashamed of eating.

In our overweight, self-indulgent, image-obsessed, dying-to-be-thin, dying-because-we’re-fat, out-of-control society, we have lost the pure pleasure of eating in celebration of what’s good. Oh, sure, some of us can enjoy ourselves temporarily, while we’re feasting, but how many of us can say we are left with not one ounce of guilt afterward?

I’m not talking about gluttony, but of the pure, true enjoyment (in moderation) of well-prepared food and the fellowship that almost always makes it taste better.

I am not immune to the contradictions. I have found myself smack dab in the middle of the tug of war: One minute I’m an epicure, a glutton; the next, an ascetic who worships at the altar of self-denial. The accompanying emotions might battle it out for space in my brain at any given time.

No wonder the world is crazy; most of us can’t decide whether the piece of cake we’re contemplating should be angel’s food (fat free, and therefore “virtuous”) or devil’s food (chocolate, and therefore “sinful”). We’ve even created a moral vocabulary for our food insanity: “sinfully delicious,” “those evil brownies,” “She’s thin; we hate her.”

We have gotten so off track we can’t enjoy a piece of chocolate without feeling guilty. And I’m here to tell you, I believe chocolate is one of God’s greatest gifts (I secretly believe and fervently hope there will be chocolate in heaven).

I believe it’s time we got healthy – in our minds, our hearts and our vocabularies (our bodies will follow). In Bible times, God ordained times of celebration (and rich foods) for his children.

I am one of those children, and I’m on a journey to wholeness. It’s a lifelong journey, but it includes appreciating good food, eating it in moderation, being thankful for where it came from, sharing it with those less fortunate and letting it nourish my body (and soul) – one delicious bite at a time.

“So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them” (Nehemiah 8:12, NLT).

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Honey, I’m home

People, before it’s over, you’re going to get tired of hearing me say how much I love being back in Batesville, where I grew up.

But two things this morning have made me think that thought all over again!

First, I got an e-mail from Lynn. She told me in a “rambling” (her word, but it wasn’t rambly) e-mail:

I can tell you’re having a lot of fun with your blog. … Moving to Batesville seems to have fufilled you in so many ways.

Then, my cousin Teri posted something on Facebook about making spaghetti, and I told her:

Mom has decided we’re having spaghetti for Christmas dinner this year. 🙂 She makes hers Mexican-spicy, and I haven’t had that in years! She used to make it every year for my birthday.

In all this talk about spaghetti for Christmas dinner (I had told Mom I could make chicken spaghetti – yum!), I had forgotten that she used to make her Mexican-spicy spaghetti for my birthday every year.

What a wonderful thing to remember after all these years!

Yes, Lynn, moving to Batesville has fulfilled me in so many ways I can’t even name them all. But I’m going to keep trying.

I know this euphoria won’t last forever, but in the meantime I’m going to savor every sunrise (pale pink at the moment), every glimpse of the cows in the pasture behind us that drive my furbabies crazy, every dog-walking trip or jog to my brother’s and mom’s houses, every drive down Main Street or up Boswell or College, every new encounter I have with someone I knew way-back-when, every hug from my mom and every visit with my brother and his family.

As I’ve said, God made me wait a long time after Bruce and I decided to move here, and I hope I never forget how gracious He was in finally working it out for us.

Normally I would blame this feeling on the holidays, but I’ve had it bad for seven months now. Bruce has learned to smile and accept it, although he is also happy to be here.

Of course there are things about being here that aren’t perfect (nothing this side of heaven ever will be), but overall it has been very, very good.

Welcome home, Suzy & Spice.

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Thankfulness, Day 17 (finale)

Near the end of yesterday’s thankfulness post, I alluded to today’s topic, although I’m the only one who knew that (I didn’t want to say it because I was afraid something would keep me from posting today!).

Every post in this 17-day project has had thankfulness as its theme, but I’ve barely mentioned to Whom I’m thankful.

Most of you know that I am a follower of Jesus Christ, the Savior of all mankind. And you can read between the lines: You know that when I’m thankful, it’s to God. (If you didn’t know it before, you know it now.)

December is the month we celebrate the birth of the Savior, and leading to that we celebrate a holiday known as Thanksgiving. As we have done with Christmas, we also have done with Thanksgiving: We’ve made it a secular holiday more about how much we can eat and how much football we can watch than a remembrance and recounting of our blessings. I’ve begun to loathe the term “Turkey Day,” although I have been guilty of saying it.

I never want to trivialize these occasions we have for giving God the glory for how He has blessed us.

For, even though I am no stranger to the habit of complaining, I am keenly aware that God has blessed me abundantly.

If you read my posts of the past few weeks, you’ll see that this has been a happy year for my family: Bruce and I moved to Batesville in May, and we have a house we love that’s close to my mom, brother and aunt; I have a great job; we attend an awesome church; and we’ve been involved in the community, even more so than we were in North Little Rock. I’ve been able to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, and this has brought much joy to our household.

God made me wait quite a while before he moved us back to my hometown.

I was growing quite impatient, even though I knew that He had a plan and our move would be in His time  and not ours. His ways are often mysterious to me, but I have read the Bible enough years to know that His plan is always best, even when His purposes are not clear to us.

I once heard it explained like this: Life is like a parade, and we can see only a little piece of it as we watch from our little spot along the street, whereas God is above it seeing the entire scene. He sees the big picture, and we see things from our limited perspective.

God can see eternity, and we often cannot see beyond our own noses.

I try to see things from an eternal perspective. When I step outside myself and forget about my own wants and “needs,” I sometimes can do that.

When I get to feeling sorry for myself (“This is hard!” “I can’t afford that.” “I’m starving!” “You hurt my feelings!”), I sometimes have the good sense to stop myself and think for a minute. When life is just “too hard,” I remember the Cross.

Jesus, who knew no sin, willingly gave up His life – dying a horrible, painful, publicly humiliating death – for me.

Did I deserve His sacrifice? No. Can I ever be good enough to earn His gift of salvation, freely given? Not a chance.

When I remember the Cross, all the thankfulness I can muster will never be enough.

In my best moments, I remember that.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. – James 1:17

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Thankfulness, Day 16

Today I am thankful for my new/old hometown.

This year has been so busy that I haven’t done what I’ve wanted to do for the past seven months – talk about my old/new place of residence.

Yeah, I posted a brief note when we found out we were moving to Batesville, but we have been in a whirlwind of activity ever since.

On Friday, May 7, I said goodbye to my former employer (we had also relocated offices that very same day), and on Saturday, May 8, I took my final exam in Accounting II at Pulaski Tech. That afternoon, we loaded the car with the Spice Dogs and a few belongings and headed to Batesville. We spent the next five weeks living at Mom’s and driving back to North Little Rock on the weekends to continue packing. (Because I was in school all semester in addition to working full time, we hadn’t finished all our packing, so we made trips and hauled little loads each weekend.) On June 5, a bunch of guys from Fellowship North came over and loaded the furniture and other heavy stuff, and we hauled it to Batesville and spent our first night in our new house that night.

There is SO VERY MUCH to tell about our new home. I could stay up all night expressing my joy at all the wonderful things that have come of this move, but I will try to hit the high points:

  • Family: My mom, my brother, my nieces and my many cousins, uncles, aunts, in-laws and outlaws are the reason we’re here. We had prayed for a long time for the Lord to allow us to be closer. Yes, North Little Rock is only 90 miles away, but it had just gotten to be too far for us. We wanted to be close. And we are: Our house is about 3/4 of a mile from my brother, JT, and if you walk through his back yard, you reach Mom’s house in just-over-3/4-of-a-mile. And my Aunt Pat lives across the street from us. And in July, I got new family members: JT married Lisa, and she brings to our family Chance, Cobhye and Catie. And Chance became a first-time dad a few weeks later when we welcomed baby Maggie to the fold.
  • Church: We traded Fellowship North for Fellowship Batesville. I tell ya, leaving Fellowship North was my biggest challenge. I had been a member there for 16 years, and I just wasn’t sure how God was going to come through for me on a church. How could He top Fellowship North? Well, He didn’t have to top it, because it’s not a competition. But I was spoiled for a contemporary, nontraditional church that reaches out to the community. Fellowship Batesville, which congregates in the old Landers Theater, fits the bill for us in a way only God could have ordained. Bruce and our pastor, John Mark, have become friends, and I think the world of John Mark’s wife, Desiree. And we’ve made some other fast friends at Fellowship Batesville. We couldn’t be happier.
  • Work: I love my job! Two years ago I couldn’t have said that. And maybe it took the job I had then to make me appreciate the job I have now. Sure, I had a great job in the between time (from October 2008 to May 2010), but this one just fits me. It fits my personality, my skill set, my left-brainededness (yes, I know that’s not a real word) and so many other things. My co-workers are a joy to be around (most of the time), my physical surroundings are pleasant and my employer is community minded, a trait I cherish. The commute is short (10 minutes when there’s traffic; 5-7 when there isn’t); in fact, most places around here are within a short distance of my house.
  • Play: My childhood friend Michael has co-founded a local camera club, and I’m an inaugural member. I’m still an amateur, but it has been fun learning from the “experts” and the serious hobbyists. I love to take pictures, and I love that I now have a place to get personalized advice. Also, Bruce and I have been to several high school football games this fall, seeing my alma mater through an undefeated season until Round 3 of the state playoffs. We have sat through heat, humidity, cold and rain for the Pioneers! My sweetie and I have bitten off lots of little slices of the local scene in the few months we’ve been here – everything from a music night at the local coffeehouse to summer fireworks to grilling hot dogs before a BHS football game as volunteers for the bank. We’re on a first-name basis with the clerk at Sherwin-Williams (her husband has Crohn’s disease, and she noticed our CCFA shirts one Saturday morning) and have enjoyed showing off our furbabies to anyone who cares to meet them. (Our neighbor’s 2-year-old grandson likes to come over and visit the Spice Dogs, and in fact he named his new stuffed dog Salsa.)
  • Education: I’m taking Principles of Banking at UACCB, and I’m also learning a lot about banking on the job. I get to do a lot of reading, and I enjoy that. (One new employee who was being introduced around the office a couple of weeks ago thought it a bit odd that I actually enjoy reading regulations. At least that knowledge helped him remember me later when I had to e-mail him about getting his insurance license!) In the spring, I will continue working toward an associate’s degree in banking and finance. Next summer, I will be eligible for the bank to pay for my schooling. Sweet!
  • God: The thread that weaves through every inch of the above tapestry is my heavenly Father. Without Him, none of this would be possible. Without Him, my life wouldn’t be possible. He is the Source of all good things. I cannot thank Him enough for all my blessings. I hope I never forget to thank Him.

There is so much more to tell, but maybe I will manage to remember it and continue to tell you the tales in the months to come.

Tune in tomorrow for my last “thankfulness” post of the Month for Giving Thanks.

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Thankfulness, Days 9-15

I have been soooo lax in posting this week. I’ll blame the busyness of the pre-holiday season (can I get away with that?). Not posting doesn’t equal not being thankful, though. I have continued to count my blessings, even though I haven’t logged on to tell my little blog audience about it.

Because it’s been 7 days since I posted, I guess I need to list at least 7 things I’m thankful for. Trust me, the number of blessings is much higher, but I will be up too late tonight if I list more than 7.

Let’s see if I can remember things in reverse order:

Day 15 (Sunday, Nov. 28): I’m thankful for Bruce’s birthday gift to me this morning. He bought me a domain name, so now instead of suzyandspice.wordpress.com, you can visit me at www.suzyandspice.com. For you, it just shortens the Web address a bit; for me, it allows flexibility in appearance and content. Bruce and I can make the site look more like I want it to look. Yippee! We’ll be working on that over the new few weeks; he will be doing most of the work, at my direction. He’s the real geek, and I’m still a geek-in-training.

Day 14 (Saturday, Nov. 27): I’m thankful for football! Bad news first: My high school alma mater, the Batesville Pioneers, lost in Round 3 of the state playoffs Friday night (and it was doggone cold while we watched!), but we enjoyed the experience, nonetheless. The Pioneers did us proud this season. The good news: The Arkansas Razorbacks ended their regular season with a big win over LSU last night. It was an awesome game, and I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest a couple of times (especially that Mallett TD pass with 6 seconds to go in the first half. “Take a knee,” my foot!).

Day 13 (Friday, Nov. 26): I’m thankful for my workplace. Post-Thanksgiving Friday was a quiet one at work; several of my co-workers took an extra-long weekend, and the office was relaxed and casual. A couple of people in my department decorated the department’s Christmas tree and chatted about football, food and the upcoming Christmas season. I so enjoy my job, my co-workers and my workplace. Friday was also the day we had our Thanksgiving celebration at my brother’s house; just chalk it up to a logistical challenge. My boss let me take a longer-than-usual lunch break, so it was nice and relaxing, and I didn’t have to stay and do the dishes!

Day 12 (Thursday, Nov. 25): Thanksgiving Day. I’m thankful that I am healthy. I spent a few hours at the hospital with a young woman from my church who is a college student away from her family. She has endured several health challenges in the past few weeks and was back in the hospital this past week with new symptoms. Her family was far away, and she was alone in the hospital on Thanksgiving, save for a couple of people from church who went and sat and watched over her. (Bless you, Desiree, for taking her under your wing.)

Day 11 (Wednesday, Nov. 24): I’m thankful for … okay, this is another workplace thing. My co-workers – who knew that Friday (the last workday before my birthday) would be a day when several people would be absent – threw me a little birthday feast. I stuffed my face on summer sausage and crackers, chicken enchilada dip and tortilla chips, brownies, cranberry cookies and a host of other delights. What a sweet (literally) surprise.

Day 10 (Tuesday, Nov. 23): I’m thankful for Luanne. My co-worker and I had to visit the bank’s Highland branch (she for marketing-department reasons, I for audit reasons), and we had a nice visit on the drive up and back. We left at 6 a.m. in the rain, but the sun was shining by the time we arrived. She is a special woman, full of interesting and hilarious stories, and she loves Jesus as much as I do. This was the first out-of-town trip we’ve made just the two of us (usually a third co-worker is with us), and we shared on a deeper level this time. She speaks so lovingly of her family, it’s just nice to be around her. (We share family in common, too. We’re both excited that Judy [my third cousin] and Bill [Luanne’s brother-in-law] will be moving back to Batesville next month.)

Day 9 (Monday, Nov. 22): I’m thankful for education. My “Principles of Banking” class at UACCB is on Monday nights, and I’m so thankful that we have a community college where I can work on my second degree (I earned a bachelor’s in journalism from ASU 21 years ago). I’m majoring in banking and finance this time, and in the spring I will be taking Intro to Business, also on Monday nights. After I’ve been at the bank for a year (in May), the bank will pay for my schooling – another great blessing. It may take me forever to finish, but I’m plugging away at it.

Wow – a lot of blessings to remember. I will try to post the next two nights, the final two days of my half-month of thankfulness.

God is good.

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