Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Holiday Prep that Matters Most



A few days before Thanksgiving Jon brought the mail in, stuck a card in my face and said "No pressure!" with a laugh. Yeah right! It was the first holiday photo card of the season, wishing us a very Merry Christmas with beautiful faces beaming. I was standing in the kitchen, surrounded by ingredients for our Thanksgiving prep and all of a sudden I felt behind!

For some reason, the holidays can do that to me. Even when I declare that I will not stress, I will not compare, I will not put unnecessary pressure on myself, it still just sort of happens. Sneaks in, really.

So Saturday morning I made an important decision. I would start by focusing on the holiday prep that matters most. Because if nothing else happens this holiday season, I want for me and my family to be spiritually prepared to celebrate with joy the real meaning of Christmas. I don't want the next four weeks to be centered on the mad scramble of trying to find the perfect gifts, attend every party, send out greeting cards, make beautiful treats, or put up holiday decorations (although, as an aside, I do think I'll take my pumpkin off the porch first thing tomorrow morning!).

While I really do enjoy the Christmas season, from the lights, music and decorations to the Christmas cards, gifts and parties, sometimes I feel a little stressed out by it all. And I realize it's usually my own fault for putting pressure on myself or not knowing how to say "no". Therefore, right now I am choosing to just be content with what I've done so far. And all I've done so far is plan our family devotions for the season.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. As a family, we celebrate this season by carving out a few minutes each evening for advent devotions. We typically light a candle, read Scripture related to the birth of Christ, sing a Christmas song, memorize a passage together, and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. The general format has been the same for years, but we usually change the content each year.

This year we're using an advent devotional written by a pastor we love and respect who is now the lead pastor at the church I grew up in. You can link to the pdf version here if you're looking for a good family devotional to use this year too. The first day is December 1, so you're not even behind yet! There are official advent guides that explain how to do a traditional advent wreath and have different colored candles that represent specific things, but we aren't that fancy. We just stick five candles in the middle of our table. There's one candle for each of the four weeks leading up to Christmas, so we light just one candle during our advent time each night of the first week, then two candles each night of the second week, and so on. On Christmas Day we light all five candles. (We let a different child blow out the candles each night because they're at an age where that sort of thing is still a really big deal! 😉)

And this year we're trying to memorize John 1:9-14, 16 together too. "The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. For from his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace."

We still have a two-year-old, so our advent devotions certainly don't look perfect or always flow smoothly! But our goal is that our children will remember that what matters most this holiday (and throughout the year), is for our lives to be centered on Christ and grounded in His Word. We want to bring Him glory by focusing on Him and the true meaning of Christmas, all the while praying that we are planting seeds in the hearts of our children that will take root and lead them to Truth.

Once this priority is set in place, it's amazing how much easier and more fun it is to decorate, bake and address those cards!


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Thinking Rightly in the Midst of Chaos


Nothing gets the blood of a nation boiling like an election year! And as a Christian, it can be really difficult to wade through it all and keep thinking rightly. A few days ago I heard a great sermon by Russell Moore that focused on this very thing. He said that when we see the culture changing around us we can be tempted to fall into two types of fear and anxiety: "The sort of anxiety that can cause us either to be so timid and cowardly when the culture doesn't understand us, or when the culture even dislikes us...that [we] minimize the gospel itself." or "the kind of fear that leads us, in a hostile culture, simply to strike out in anger and to strike out in outrage." 

If you're tempted to respond in fear or outrage at our nation's current political state, I encourage you to listen to these wise words of truth from Russell Moore. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from his sermon: 

* "As American culture is undergoing a shaking time...when cultural Christianity is disappearing all around us...we should see this as God graciously identifying who His Church and who His people are, with a distinctive witness and message to the rest of the world, to the rest of the culture." 

*"You do not know what the future holds for you. And you do not know what the future holds for the culture around you. But here's what you know: No matter what you are going to face in the future, the worst thing that can possible happen to you has already happened. The worst thing that can possibly happen to you is not cancer, is not a divorce, is not financial ruin, is not going to jail, is not being beheaded by terrorists. The worst thing that can possibly happen to you is coming face-to-face with the wrath of God in the judgment of your sins and you have already been there if you're in Christ. And the best thing that could ever happen to you is already yours. Because the best thing that could possibly happen to you, if you're in Christ, is not that you would make it in your job and in your profession, is not that you would have the family that you wanted, not that you live in a culture that is morally behaved and upright. The best thing that can possibly happen to you is that you would be raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of the Father, and to hear from Him 'there is therefore now no condemnation for you.' And that has happened for you in Jesus Christ. The curses of God have been absorbed." 

*That ought to give us the freedom to move forward no matter what happens in the culture around you at the workplace; no matter what happens in the culture that is going on in the United States of America, because we are marching joyfully and triumphantly toward a kingdom that will outlast the United States of America. The United States of America has been a great blessing and there are many fantastic things to thank God for about the United States of America. But the United States of America is temporary. You and I have trillions and trillions and trillions of years ahead of us, which means that we can be Americans best if we are not Americans first. If we see ourselves connected to a global body of Christ, a number that no man can number in heaven, and therefore the kind of people who stand with repentance and humbly. Not as those who are condemning the culture outside of us, but as the people who are saying to the culture outside of us 'repent for the kingdom of God is at hand' and 'behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world'."

*"Lord, would you remind us that we are the people that You have given the message that brings with it the very power of God? Would You remind us who we are? Would You remind us where we're going? Would You remind us Who sent us? And give us the boldness and courage and conviction and kindness." 

Let's ask God to help us think rightly in the months and years to come. No matter what happens in our political culture we have to remember our purpose. We're not here on earth as Christians to gripe and complain and belittle our leadership. We're here to pray and serve and love and preach the Gospel. And when we're called to take a stand in battle formation, let's be sure we're fighting for the Truth of God's Word, and not our political preferences or religious comforts. Our desire for God to be glorified and people to come to know Him should be greater than our desire to be comfortable in the society we live in.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

When We Don't Remember

My grandma called this morning. We had a great conversation. We talked, we laughed. She asked to speak to my daughter. She was returning my daughter's call and thought it was so sweet that she had called. They talked for a while. My two-year-old even got on the phone for a minute because her shouts of "I talk GG! I talk GG!" were making it difficult for anyone to hear. My grandma laughed some more and said "I just love her!" We talked a few more minutes. She told me she loves us so much and I must tell my husband how funny the kids were on the phone. She would talk to us again later. It was a sweet and encouraging way to start a Saturday morning.


The only problem is my daughter didn't call earlier this morning. In fact I'm not sure they've talked on the phone before. I don't know if my grandmother knows any of our kids' names right now and I'm pretty sure she had forgotten I have a fourth child. My grandma has been struggling with dementia for several years. She always seems to know who I am when we talk on the phone, but I think that's because my mom prompts her memory of us almost daily. She knows we have a relationship. She knows I love her. But she's usually surprised at details about my life like where I live, what my husband does, and how many kids I have. I'm not sure why we were blessed with her phone call this morning, but I'm glad she thought of us and wanted to catch up!

Sometimes she calls my mom or aunt and uncles in a panic. One night a while ago she didn't know where my grandpa was or why he hadn't come home yet. My grandpa died when I was in the 6th grade. Saying its sad doesn't really capture the raw heartbreak involved in watching such a process. A few nights ago she called me at about 11:30pm. She said she was upset. Anxious. Worried. When I asked her why or if something had happened, she wasn't really sure. We talked a few minutes. I tried to encourage her. I prayed for her. Five minutes later she may not have remembered the conversation. But I hope she remembered the peace. I hope her heart remembered comfort instead of fear and love instead of loneliness.

Several times she's told me "I think I'm going crazy." Each time I tell her that I'm so sorry this is happening to her, but my prayer is that she will never forget how much God loves her and that He is always with her. "Grandma," I say. "I'm praying that every time you feel confused or scared or alone, God will remind you that He is there and you can talk to Him. I'm praying you will never forget the truth of the gospel."

And while that may be a helpful prayer for someone with dementia, its really a vital prayer for me as well. Because I have a tendency to forget. I forget that God is in control. I forget that He loves me and ultimately wants what's best for me. I forget that my life is about something bigger than my to-do lists. I forget that shaping my life into holiness matters more to God than my momentary happiness. I forget that suffering brings perseverance, character and hope.

Its easy to forget. To get distracted. To become overwhelmed. I'm thankful God uses other people and His Word to constantly remind me of the Truth! This morning I was reminded. God is bigger than any difficult circumstance and He will see us through. Let's pray that God reminds us of that every minute of every day!

"But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in Him.'"  (Lamentations 3:21-24)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Blessed to BE a Blessing


In Genesis 12:2 God told Abraham that He would make him into a great nation and bless him and make his name great SO THAT Abraham would be a blessing. Abraham was blessed so that he could bless others.

                                Blessed to Be a Blessing Sermon Series Idea        
                                                         
And I think its fair to say that we are still being blessed today so that we can bless others. Sometimes we sort of forget that. We store up blessings and cling to them. We live as if we deserve these blessings. Like they're our right. We often get so used to them that we fail to even recognize the variety of blessings that have been poured out in our lives.

I was reminded this past weekend that I have been richly blessed. I grew up in a great church. Not a perfect church, but a church that offered me more spiritual blessings that I can even recount. The name was Providence Baptist, and it was through the ministries of this church that I first learned how to have a quiet time (or devotional time) with the Lord. It was through this church that I went on many state-side and overseas mission trips. The ministries of this church taught me how to study God's Word for myself as well as how to teach and lead others. Through this church countless women prayed for me and poured into me. Several pastor's wives invested in me in ways that still impact my life, marriage, parenting and ministry today. When I was in college this church even gave me a job working with the youth ministry...a job that would help me understand to a small degree some of the pressures and responsibilities Jon would face as a student pastor in year's to come. The internship program at this church allowed me to meet and work with a young intern from Georgia who would one day become my husband. The pastoral equipping ministries of this church gave Jon immense opportunity to grow and learn from wise and godly men who served as mentors and encouragers to many seminary students. I could go on and on. I do believe one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was exposing me to the ministries of a great church.

And this month the pastor who planted this church 37 years ago retired from his leadership position at this church. On Sunday night Jon and I sat in a celebration service recognizing the incredible work God has done through the people at Providence and the ministries of Pastor David Horner. It felt like a reunion, getting to see many people who (like us) have moved to other places and other areas of ministry. It was such a joy to worship alongside this great family of faith and to think about how many people have been blessed by God through this church and sent out to minister in all parts of the world. It was so fun to sing a few of the worship songs we used to sing years ago and to hear of the many ways God has been glorified by this particular body of believers. It was so encouraging to reflect on the ways God has used Pastor Horner over the years...the pastor who baptized me when I was 9, performed my wedding fourteen years later, and then connected us with the first church Jon served at as a full-time pastor just a few years later.


As I was sitting there (in the row right behind Anne Graham Lotz), I thought about something I frequently remember when I'm visiting PBC. I didn't grow up there just for my own personal edification. I wasn't poured into by so many people and exposed to so many ministry opportunities just to fill up my "church experience" resume. I didn't work there for three years just to have a job or just to meet my future husband.

I was blessed to be a blessing. I frequently think of the passage in Luke 12:48: "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required." I've been given alot...am I pouring that out on others?

What about you? Maybe you didn't grow up in a "good" church. Maybe you weren't taught how to study the Scriptures or even that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. But let's look around us. We live in a country and in a technological age that is overwhelmed with spiritual blessings. We have access to just about any pastor's sermon we want to hear via websites and podcasts. We have so many Christian bookstores and seminaries and ministries and resources that we are in danger of becoming spiritually fat and lazy if we just sit around and eat it all up for our own satisfaction.

Let's look for ways to pour our knowledge, our experiences and our gifts out for the benefit of others. After all, we've been blessed for a significant reason. We've been blessed to be a blessing! 

(By the way, if you clicked on the link above to check out the celebration service, you saw it was pretty long! It might take a moment to load, but my favorite songs were at 29.11 minutes in, 43.35, 109.16 and 121.50 minutes into the feed. Check those out...I think you will be blessed!)

(photo credit: top photo from http://churchsermonseriesideas.com/blessed-to-be-a-blessing/)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Read Hard Books

Sometimes the things that make us grow the most are not the things that we would choose. It's the difficult situations that make us strong. And it's often the difficult books that really stretch our minds and make us wise.

I like to read. But if I'm honest, I like to read books that I find relaxing or enjoyable. Sometimes I like to read books that address a specific responsibility I have, like parenting. You know how you're usually drawn to people who have similar interests or similar backgrounds? Well, my book choices are like that...frequently very similar. But this year I'm trying to read a wider variety. To stretch my mind in new areas. To expose myself to different ways of thinking. To get outside my reading comfort zone. (In case you're interested, I'm using this reading plan to accomplish this.)

I just finished a book that quite honestly I wouldn't typically choose to read. But the last 50 or so pages were so compelling and encouraging that I was literally crying at Panera while I finished it up. It's an allegory by C.S. Lewis called The Pilgrim's Regress



The Pilgrim's Regress is sort of a modern-day version of The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. And keep in mind that when I say modern-day, I mean published in 1933 versus 1678! So, not necessarily all that modern, and not necessarily an easy read. But I pushed through and at the end I was so glad I did. Some of the philosophical arguments probably went over my head, but there was a great deal of deep, rich insight for me to really think on.

This allegory is about a man named John who is walking through life in search of a great and beautiful island he has seen in visions. He begins a journey to find the island and along the way meets and interacts with people who represent various philosophies and worldly ideas of the time. They affect his thinking and make him question many things, especially the existence of the Landlord (who represents God). Eventually he comes to a great chasm and realizes his path to the island is completely blocked. He cannot cross over. He meets Mother Kirk (Christianity) who informs him that there is no chance of him crossing the chasm at all unless she carries him down. He doesn't trust her and decides to look for a way across the canyon on his own.

After trying and failing many times he comes to the realization that Mother Kirk was right...there is only one way across the canyon. Only one way to get to the beautiful island he has been longing for all his life.

Lewis' description of John's salvation experience is powerful:
     "I have come to give myself up," he said.
     "It is well," said Mother Kirk. "You have come a long way round to reach this place, whither I       
     would have carried you in a few moments. But it is very well."
     "What must I do?" said John. 
     "You must take off your rags," said she, "as your friend has done already, and then you must dive
     into this water." 
     "Alas" said he, "I have never learned to dive."
     "There is nothing to learn," said she. "The art of diving is not to do anything new but simply to
     cease doing something. You have only to let yourself go." 
     "It is only necessary," said Vertue, with a smile, "to abandon all efforts at self-preservation." 
     "I think," said John, "that if it is all one, I would rather jump." 
     "It is not all one," said Mother Kirk. "If you jump, you will be trying to save yourself and you 
      may be hurt. As well, you would not go deep enough. You must dive so that you can go right 
      down to the bottom of the pool: for you are not to come up again on this side. There is a tunnel in 
      the cliff, far beneath the surface of the water, and it is through that that you must pass so that you 
      may come up on the far side."  (p. 166-7)

Its not a book I would have chosen, but its a book that encouraged and deeply affected me. It was a tough read at times, but I'm glad I read it!

What about you? Do you hate reading? Do you only read for work-related purposes? Do you only read historical fiction or romance novels or mysteries? Let me encourage you to read something different. Something good, but something that would challenge you in a new and maybe deeper way.

And not to be patronizing, but I feel like it has to be said...if you aren't reading the Bible, start with that! There are tons of Bible reading plans out there to get you started if you don't know where to begin. Like this one or this one.

Friday, January 1, 2016

When Life is Like a Photo Shoot



Several weeks ago we had some family pictures made. My sister's sweet friend Courtney did a great job (anchorphotographync.com) and we were really happy with the results! 


But the funny thing about having your picture made is that the photos don't really tell the true story. I mean, a good photographer can make you look...well, really good. Laughing, playing, throwing leaves. It all looks so fun and so easy. 


You'd never know that we spent hours trying to organize just the right outfits so we'd all coordinate but not seem too matchy-matchy. I trekked from store to store to get some more stylish clothes for my two youngest girls who only wear hand-me-downs from a decade ago. (by the way...I'm NOT dissing hand-me-downs...we love, love, love those blessings!)


You'd never guess my mom was hobbling around on a sprained ankle or that Jon had hurt his back so badly he couldn't get out of bed two days earlier, let alone lean over to put on his own socks!


You can't really tell my nephew (and therefore his parents too!) had been up all night with a fever and ear infection the night before. And Courtney didn't give us the pictures where kids were screaming, crying, picking their noses or refusing to look at the camera. 


And I got to thinking that life really is a lot like a photo shoot. We try to look so pretty and put-together. So happy and carefree. So fun and fit. When in reality we're sometimes dying inside. Worn-out, hurting, scared and overwhelmed. We want everyone to think we've got it together, so we cover up the junk as best we can and try to put our best face forward. 


Its exhausting. And lonely. 

I was reading in Jeremiah 17:10 The Message version this morning:

"But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be." 

Isn't that refreshing? God knows what we're really like. He knows the hidden stuff of the heart. He knows our weaknesses and our fears. And He knows just how to treat us. 

Let's quit pretending and run with honest neediness to the God who knows. Let's confess sin, surrender fear and accept weakness so that God can forgive, comfort and strengthen us. 

Let's be real this year. With ourselves. With God. With others. 




Photo Credit: Courtney Smith, anchorphotographync.com