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Michelle Tessendorf

In Live more simply

A Hill To Die On

Behind our home the wind is stirring up the clouds that rest over the Helderberg mountains, daring the gentle shower to be more assertive.  In Cape Town, the rainy season has begun and I give thanks for this supply of life-giving water.  Our ancient, patched-up irrigation system is acting up again and the rain is bringing relief to those dry corners of our garden.   This piece of Africa that our family stewards is challenging, as is this entire Land.  Teeming with life, our garden is home to humans and critters alike.  Our patch of Africa has wetlands and desert, highlands and valleys and many a hill to die on.

Scrolling through my newsfeed, while keeping a beady eye on two squirrels fighting over an acorn on our front lawn, I wonder why humans across the world are yelling at each other.  I also wonder whether those two squirrels are intent on burying every single one of the hundreds of acorns laying on the ground.  This instinct for self-preservation is alive and well in humans and the animals of our world.

The yelling in my newsfeed is distressing.  The past fourteen months has disturbed us human creatures and we are spilling over.  We want to preserve our life – the way things have always been or the way we think things should be – and many have chosen a hill to die on.  “This far and no further”, is forcefully proclaimed!

I wonder what our newsfeeds would look like if the hill we choose to die on was:

  • Being humble in spirit, listening to one another.
  • Being sorrowful for the losses others have endured.
  • Being patient and accommodating of our neighbors.
  • Being decent and good because it is right.
  • Being kind and benevolent to those who deserve the opposite.
  • Being authentic and real so others can also stop pretending.
  • Being peacemakers.
  • Being willing to struggle – even painfully –  to understand the words of scripture and then to act, thereby putting away malice and anger.
  • Being willing to put everything else aside to seek out our brother – or sister or parent or child or friend or neighbor – and reconcile our differences.
  • To treat all others, all others without exception, as we would want them to treat us.

If we did these things, we would find ourselves on the hill that Jesus died on.  These are the things of which he taught on a mount near the sea of Galilee, and these are the things for which he gave his life.

If we choose these hills to die on, I think we human creatures would set ourselves apart from the squirrel on my front lawn that is desperately preserving his life by concealing one acorn in the ground when he lives in the very tree that produces the acorns.  We would possibly recognize that all the yelling and demanding and fighting is what causes our troubles in the first place.   When we are willing to live beyond defending our one acorn and we see the tree of life that provides acorns for us all, maybe millions of children will not go hungry, wondering where their next meal will come from.  Maybe the weary grandmama caring for her orphaned grandchildren will find some rest.  Perhaps the teacher in a rural African village will have books and pencils instead of writing the alphabet in the dirt under a tree.  Maybe there will be some peace on earth and a lot of goodwill to all, which is the very cause Jesus died for.

As the rain softly falls on our little patch of Africa, I pray that we will be better than the squirrels.  And I give sincere thanks for all those who are sharing their acorns.

In Worship more fully

God’s Face

Across continents, my sister and I spoke of coram Deo. To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life before the face of God, to be aware that everything we are doing is within his gaze. Coram Deo captures the very essence of what it means to be Christian.

This beautiful song by Matt Maher speaks of coram Deo. (You will be blessed listening to it.)

“Lord, I need you, O, I need you.

Every hour I need you.

My one defense, my righteousness,

O God, how I need you….

… where you are, Lord I am free,

Holiness is Christ in me.”

As I practice living coram Deo, I find a peace in following the will of Christ instead of anxiety in seeking the will of people. In his company I hear the important voices instead of the loud ones. Practicing the presence of God encourages me to relentlessly remove hurry from my life. Living under his gaze, I walk away from the tyranny of many meetings.  Instead, I seek out solitude and there I am never alone.  His presence soaks into every crevice and the beautiful friendships God has gifted to me are healthier for it. Living coram Deo I find that I need people less but I love them more.

Living before the face of God brings consistency to my life.  My heart is the same when washing dishes as it is when I am in church.  I speak of people the same as I speak to them and in this, I seek God’s words.  When I am aware that God’s face is turned toward me, I hear the symphony above the noise, I see the beggar and the businessman in the same light, I touch the gnarled stranger with the same gentleness I offer my little grandchild. Under his gaze, God’s love through me is stable.

Living coram Deo has not perfected me – far from it.  However, God’s ever-present presence is in the process of perfecting me, and daily I sing and pray and call out, “Lord, I need you, O, I need you.  Every hour I need you.”

Aaron’s blessing is one of the most profound prayers, spoken originally from God’s own mouth, gifted by him to be spoken over his people.  It is the way of life God wants for us. Today, I pray this for you and for me.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

– Numbers 6: 24-26

In Lead more gently/ Worship more fully

The mixed emotions we have for the New Year

The eve of the New Year brings deep emotional responses for many of us.  Although the sun will rise tomorrow as it did yesterday, the last day of the year feels like a bridge – a transition from one place to another.   New Year’s Eve brings a combination of melancholy and anticipation, sadness and joy, a strange mix of emotions we perhaps find unsettling.   I believe we should embrace these feelings, and allow them to work their cleansing of our soul.

Sadness is not a negative emotion.  When we allow it to overstay its purpose it can be debilitating, but if we allow it to do its work, it can be a cleansing emotion.   Too much sadness leads to self-pity, but too little sadness makes us shallow and insensitive.

I am not by nature a funny person but I do love to laugh.  I laugh easily, until uncontrollable tears stream down my face.  My husband laughs in a way that is contagious; just listening to him makes others laugh.  My 3-year-old grandson had the entire movie theatre giggling at how hard he laughed at the new Grinch movie this holiday season.  The sight of that furry green creature in ridiculous underpants tickled his funny bone to no end. I have a friend who passes out when he laughs too hard, but I’ve never yet seen that stop him.  Laughter, the bible tells us, is as good as medicine.  Joy, like sadness, is good for our soul.

In many cultures, it is traditional to sing Auld Lang Syne as the New Year begins.  It is an old folk song that perfectly captures the emotions of this time.  It is filled with both melancholy for the year past and anticipation for the year to come.  It is a call to remember our friendships and take them into the future with us –  “Should old acquaintance be forgot … We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

The book of Proverbs says it very well; Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family …”

We may have regrets at this time of the year.  Regrets about things we did not accomplish during the year – a better job, a nicer home, more money.  None of this can possibly equal the regrets we carry regarding broken relationships.   It is for this that we should embrace any sadness we have.  We should allow it to speak to us, to teach us, to better us.  The melancholy should spur us to make amends wherever possible, to forgive where needed, to let go of offenses where necessary and to allow the joy of new beginnings fill our soul and make us kind.  As the New Year begins may our sadness make us more gentle creatures, touching others carefully.  May our joy make us more forgiving creatures, touching others with grace.   Thomas Merton said it well.  “Our job is to love others without stopping to enquire whether or not they are worthy.”  Jesus said it even better, “ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

May we each embrace this new (and ancient) commandment in the year to come. 

Happy New Year to you and all those you love.

In Worship more fully

Why Respect Wins

My father-in-law recently passed away after a prolonged illness. I spent 10 days alongside my husband caring for my mother-in-law in her grief and helping to finalize my father-in-law’s affairs. In a folder, my husband found a list written in his father’s hand, entitled “People to call when I die”. This was so typical of him – planning and taking care of the details. To him this was respectful of others. In fact, “respectful” is one of the top three words I would use to describe him. It is a character trait I deeply valued in him.

One of the core values of the organization where I serve is Respect. Psalm 138:6 tells us that even though the Lord is high, he regards (or respects – Amplified Bible) the lowly. Respect is when we give due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. The Lord is our role model in that, no matter how high we consider ourselves to be, we are to be respectful toward all, even, or maybe more especially, to those we consider to be lowly. It does not mean we never disagree with others; of course we do and may – even Jesus did – as long as our disagreement does not flow over into disrespect. At our organization we define disrespect as any action that diminishes or undermines someone else.

When we regard the feelings of others, it is a kindness we show toward them. Simple things like greeting someone – showing that you notice them and you acknowledge them. I know a woman who greets others with the kind of joy you display when seeing a long last friend after years of separation, yet she may have seen them the day before. The introvert in me admires that so much and I try and emulate that kindness within the parameters of my own personality.

In the United States, we have just come through the mid-term elections. We have witnessed disrespectful behavior on a daily basis for months on end. It has been painful to bear. Yet, in the midst of this, I have seen people take the high ground of respect. Not the kind of respect that says, “I admire you for what you stand for” but rather, the kind of respect that says, “I do not agree with what you stand for and I don’t really like the way you behave, but I will treat you respectfully. I will give due regard for your feelings.”

Oh, that I would always strive to take the high road and avoid giving in to the cheap, short-lived satisfaction of the low blows. The contemplative person in me sits and examines my actions over the past year. There are definite moments when I have failed. In humbling myself before the Lord with a contrite heart, I feel encouraged by the Spirit that, this year, the scales for me tipped toward the high road of respect. That is a win and I have seen the fruit of this in the beautiful and deep relationships I have enjoyed.

Respect is a form of kindness and kindness is an attribute of love and love never fails.

“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:29-32

In Worship more fully

The Weight of the Blessing

The early morning rain outside the window of my Arizona desert home is soothing. The heavens have opened and the sound of it is like laughter – full of abandon and contagiously joyful. From the warmth of my bed I watch the limbs of trees bow with the weight of the blessing. I recently returned to the desert from our home on the Southern tip of Africa. There I saw the rain too. After years of drought that had brought the city to within days of no water, the rain came. And came. And came. Not one person did I hear complain of the unending wet. The rivers flowed and the dams filled and grown men walked barefoot in the puddles.

From my bed I watch the rivulets run down the windowpane and I think of rivers of living water. I think of Jesus and of drinking of him and of never thirsting again.

Our souls long for the rain that soaks deep and brings refreshing to forgotten seeds planted long ago. Alongside deeply rooted trees, grown to maturity, the God of all creation continuously germinates seeds in our life. There is always the new within the old, the hope within the constant, the young trickle within a flowing river.

Our God establishes us and he refreshes us. He leads us beside still waters and he quenches us with fountains that spring forth.   He quiets our soul and he disturbs us deeply.

Oh, that we would taste and see that the Lord is good.

“Blessed is the one … whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.” – Psalm 1:1-3

In Worship more fully

Bits & Bridles and our God

In horse training, there is a technique called Liberty Training. The entire process is based on trust. The horse and trainer keep eye contact and they learn each other’s ways. The horse moves when the trainer moves and goes where the trainer goes. The end result is that this powerful, four legged creature simply watches the trainer and, based on a trusted relationship forged over time, follows direction without bit, bridle or crop. Sheer intuitive understanding takes over and a beautiful and majestic dance between the two ensues.  In freedom, the horse and trainer work and move as one.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye. Be not like horse and mule which have no understanding; whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you. (Psalm 32: 9-10)

What does it look like to be guided by God’s eye; to simply see where he is looking and to instinctively go to that place? What freedom to not need a bit and bridle, but to trust enough to stay near, to enter into a dance of liberty with the creator of our soul. What beauty, what peace.

This dance comes only from times of solitude with our God, learning him, experiencing him, watching him move and keeping our eye fixed on him as we follow.   It comes from understanding his deep, deep love and his ever-present grace. It comes from seeing his majesty and recognizing our own in his image. It comes from trusting his ways and finding our freedom within them.

This Liberty Dance between creator and created takes training in accepting the righteousness of this new creature we have become in Him. It takes a dying to self and living in Christ. It takes loving ourselves and loving our neighbor and loving Love above all else.  It is entering into the dance of life with the Trinity himself.

Anything less is a bit and a bridle.


“The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

In Lead more gently/ Live more simply/ Worship more fully

Familiar yet new

The light falls differently in this place. Sun-speckled shade through the canopy above is soft. The wind is gentle today, welcoming and calm, like the Holy Spirit in my heart. It is sorely needed after the long journey across the Atlantic to our home on the point of Africa. I allow peace and joy to mingle. This place; it soars in my veins, familiar and true.   This instinctive understanding of my home country settles on me. Like my very DNA, it has been passed on from generation to generation. No matter how long I am away, it is never gone. It remains firm and it gives me strength. Like the Holy Spirit, this place is familiar yet with a promise of being wild, uncontainable and always challenging.

We have a new neighbor. He has torn down the old house he purchased and is building anew. In the process he has removed tall trees that bordered our property. This has changed my garden. Where there used to be old, wet shade, there is now bright sunshine.   Where there used to be a canopy of pine needles above, there is now blue sky and majestic views of the mountains behind our respective properties. I love the newness of all this. In the shadow of the ancient mountain, I get to recreate my garden with sun-loving plants. Isn’t this just like the Holy Spirit in our lives? Sometimes the old and familiar needs to go and we need the change. The challenge of the new makes us lean into him all the more. Yet, like the mountain range, He brings an ageless comfort that is solid and reliable.

Our African garden is filled with critters. Proximity to a Nature Reserve brings eagles, owls, tortoise, squirrels, a snake or two, wild geese and bugs galore. The soil teems with earthworms providing organic compost others pay good money for. I love sharing this space with the wildlife. I also love sharing it with guests who come from afar on mission trips, family trips and diverse celebratory trips. This old property has seen seeds planted, harvest gathered, children raised, families gather, seasons change and generations come and go. What a privilege it is for me to be one of God’s stewards, providing a place of peace and joy to all who pass through her gates.

I relish the people with whom I have walked long roads, shared in pain, laughed out loud, grown older and with whom I have forged a purpose. I look forward to the fresh insight from those new to our work. Like my old garden bathed in fresh sunlight, the damp, moldy places will find new meaning. The breeze of spring blowing over the southern hemisphere is like the newness of the ancient Spirit that blows where He wills. Life is full.

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In Worship more fully

How Your Soul Is Formed Matters

The image is on bended knee, directly in front of me when I wake up every morning. I found it many years ago on a sale, cluttered amongst other marked down items. In that busy, post-Christmas store, as people were returning and exchanging their gifts, this little sculpture spoke to me.   It represents my innards, my soul, my very depth. This, Lord, is how I want my soul to be formed – in an always bended-knee posture, face upward, searching Yours.   So, there it is, on the dressing table in front of my bed. In the morning it petitions me and in the evening it encourages me, this symbol of my beseeching soul.

Every day we are being formed. What we see, hear, touch, smell and taste sends us messages.   These messages whisper stories to us about ourselves and they form us. The prevailing culture sends a message that all we have and all we do must be busier and bigger in order to be better. It daily whispers our shame as we become slaves to the tyranny of first and of most. But what if we turn away from the call of the tormenter and bend our knees to the creator of our soul and, with face lifted to his, we smell his fragrance and we see and feel and hear and taste his way?

This is the way of slow and steady and sacrifice.

The earth is filled with His glory and we have but to look and to learn. The creators of fine wines prune back vines in ways that yield a smaller crop. The fruit from these vines grow slowly and cluster into bunches that make the kind of wine that matures in character and depth with each passing year. The growers of mass-produced grapes on unwieldy trellises produce wine fit only for instant consumption.

The earth shows us the way Glorious, if we only but look. Soil polluted by the harsh chemicals of the tyrant-made is not what forms the soul to be Christ-like.

Organic and heirloom He wants for us. This requires us to turn from the culture of our day and be willing to prune back, live simply, take longer, grow authentically and produce seed after this kind. Heirloom seeds contain all that they have inherited from those that came before and they pass it all on to the next generation, unmodified and fully able to produce after its’ own kind. How we pass the gospel of Christ from one generation to the next matters.

Of late, my heart cries more and more to turn away from the dominion of the culture of this present age and to seek God’s pruning. With the Scriptures as my anchor, I look more and more to the Church fathers of ancient days and seek out their teaching and their prayers. I search for those in our post-modern world who bear fruit that tastes of the good inheritance they have received from those who came before them – people like Dallas Willard and Eugene Petersen and Henri Nouwen and others. People of old and of new, all who display the same innards and who call us to turn from the mass-produced and who beseech us to embrace solitude and silence and sacrifice.

So that our souls may be formed in Christ and not in culture.

So that our souls may heal from the chemicals that produce false growth.

So that our souls may long for our neighbor’s good and not so very much for our own.

So that our spiritual disciplines are exactly that and not forms of entertainment.

So that our souls are not led into temptation but that we are delivered from evil.

So that the Body of Christ reflects His kingdom and not our own.


“May your kingdom come. May your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:10