February Family Discipline: Meditation

Meditation is my favorite discipline of the twelve introduced by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline.  When I first read the book years ago, his description of meditation sounds to me like an invitation to the relationship with God for which I always longed.  Practicing meditation has built up that relationship, but I still hear the invitation anew every time I read it.  It’s an invitation to depth, to total dependence on God.  As Foster puts it,

“In meditation we are growing to what Thomas a Kempis calls ‘a familiar friendship with Jesus.’ We are sinking down into the light and life of Christ and becoming comfortable in that posture.  The perpetual presence of the Lord…moves from a theological dogma to a radiant reality.  ‘He walks with me and he talks with me’ ceases to be pious jargon and instead becomes a straightforward description of daily life” (19).

He goes on:

“What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart” (20).

It was this latter description that guided me when I thought of meditative exercises for my children.  Elsewhere, Foster defines Christian meditation as “the ability to hear God’s voice and obey His word” (17), but I thought that definitively “hearing God’s voice” might be a tall order for a nine- and ten-year old.  Instead, I loosely defined meditation to them as thinking deeply, and Christian mediation as thinking deeply and reflecting on God.  I then introduced meditative exercises to them with the goal of creating that emotional and spiritual space where Christ could enter. 

In doing so, I focused on the areas of meditation suggested by Foster at the end of the chapter:

Meditation on Scripture

To meditate on Scripture, I taught the kids lectio divina, which sounds fancy, but really is just a practice of reading a short Scripture several times and reflecting and praying over it.  I started with Psalm 23, since that was the first passage I had heard used with lectio divina.  I invited the kids to get comfortable and close their eyes, and then I read the Psalm slowly through, asking them to imagine every detail, to really try to put themselves in the scene.  I invited them to walk through the green pastures, to sit by the still waters.  This first time, we talked about each step in between readings, and they eagerly told me of all they imagined.

Then, I read the passage a second time and asked them to pay attention to what jumped out at them.  I encouraged them to focus on that one part and reflect on what that means for them.  What jumped out to Anna was, “he makes me lie down in green pastures.”  It was the “make” part that spoke to her.  As she put it, “The shepherd had to MAKE the sheep do a good thing, because the shepherd knew what was good for the sheep.  And there are things in my life that are good [here she named a few] but that I don’t want to do.  And probably, God put those things in my life because He knew they were good for me.”  What stood out to Luke was walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” and the fact that God was with the psalmist in those times and would so be with us.

Lastly, I read the scripture a third time and asked them to pray over what had stood out to them, or to “give their thoughts back to God,” as I described it.  Anna prayed that God would give her the strength to do the good things, trusting they were good for her, and Luke thanked God for His protection. 

It was a simple enough exercise, and required no preparation other than picking out a Bible passage, but it yielded some good reflection and discussion.  Throughout the month, I used other passages, such as Psalm 19, the story of the widow’s mite (which was the kids’ Sunday school lesson that week), and the story of the Good Samaritan.

I focused on the Good Samaritan because I had gained an awareness that week that the kids were failing to understand that whole “Love your neighbor as yourself” concept in some key ways.  Thus, I chose that passage at that week’s lectio divina  reading, and later that day, I had the kids color a sheet about the verse.  As the adult coloring craze attests, coloring can be a meditative, mindful exercise, so I hoped to link those benefits with this particular scripture.  The kids enjoyed the exercise surprisingly well and really focused on their coloring projects.  So that was a fun, meditative way to focus on scripture, as well.

If you would like a simple guide to practicing lectio divina with kids, I made one that you can download HERE.

Meditation on Nature

Foster also suggests meditating on God through nature.  In my own experience, meditating on nature always naturally leads me to awe and worship, and I have been trying for years to instill that thought path in my children.  It’s almost become a joke how many times I force them to stop reading in the car and look out the window and something pretty, and then—because I have a didactic, instructive tendency—to rhapsodize on what a wonderful Creator would make such a beautiful thing.  Another practice I’ve tried to instill in them is the practice of nature journaling.  I love this concept in theory, but I’m not personally an artist and gain no great pleasure from drawing, and perhaps that’s why I’ve had trouble being consistent with this discipline.  Regardless, the kids had nature journals all five years of homeschooling, and they aren’t even a quarter full. 

Meditation gave me the inspiration, however, to renew my focus on nature journaling with them.  We journaled regularly throughout the month, and I tried to preface each session with a challenge to meditate on what they were seeing, and to let nature’s beauty and intricacy point them back to God.

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I love what Richard Foster says about meditating on nature, and even read it to the kids the first time we journaled this month:

“So give your attention to the created order.  Look at the trees, really look at them.  Take a flower and allow its beauty and symmetry to sink deep into your mind and heart.  Listen to the birds—they are the messengers of God.  Watch the little creatures that creep upon the earth.  These are humble acts, to be sure, but sometimes God reaches us profoundly in these simple ways if we will quiet ourselves to listen” (31).

9781597143158_lIn focusing on nature journaling, one resource was invaluable to me, and I would recommend it to any person in any situation:  Laws’ Guide to Nature Journaling and Drawing.  It was this book that finally got me to pick up a journal and pencil, and to participate myself in what I had just been having the kids do.  This book is beautiful, philosophical, instructive; I really cannot say enough good things about it.  Because of its depth, I think I get way more out of it than the children, but it is also excellent at breaking down the process of nature journaling into simple pieces, which I use as individual lessons for the kids.  Plus, the sample journal pages throughout are beautiful and inspiring. 

I also enrolled the kids in a nature journaling program at our local state park, which they were happy to attend with friends.  All in all, nature journaling was one of the primary ways we focused on meditation this month, and I think we all benefited greatly from it.

Meditation on People

I had really planned to use some time after watching CNN Student News to meditate on current events, which is another of Foster’s suggestions.  However, we didn’t watch the news as much this month, and it’s probably just as well.  Instead, a few times, we practiced meditation on people.  I had anticipated using that time to write cards of appreciation and gratitude to people whom we loved, but we never got around to doing that.  It was most helpful, though, on Valentine’s Day, when we all wrote our traditional “Things We Love About Each Other.”  Every Valentine’s Day, we each write five things we love about each member of our family on pink slips of paper and put them in a box to be read during our Valentine dinner.  Often, they write simple, repetitive descriptions on their slips:  “I love you because you take care of me,” “I love you because you play with me,” etc.  However, this year, with our focus on really meditating on God’s creation—which includes the members of our family—the descriptions were much better.  Here, for example, are Luke’s messages to Anna:

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I can’t emphasize enough what an improvement these descriptions are over the ones in past years! 

Conclusion

I very much enjoyed our month of meditation and probably got more out of it than the kids did, just because I already enjoyed the practice so much.  However, I think we were able to find some simple practices that were beneficial for the children:  Lectio divina, Scripture coloring, and nature journaling all drew our minds closer to God, and meditating on the people God has given us also made us more grateful for His blessings.

And now, since Lent starts on March 1, we turn our minds to fasting!

 

This blog post is part of a series called, A Year of Spiritual Disciplines, in which I blog about my attempts to introduce my children to a different spiritual discipline each month of 2017.  My purpose in sharing this journey is to share ideas and resources with other Christian parents who seek to disciple their children.

January Family Discipline: Prayer

As I introduce my children to spiritual disciplines this year, what is it that I want to happen?  What is the goal? 

I pondered these questions during December as I read Spirit of the Disciplines and pictured what our 2017 would look like.  When I picture what I want for my children and their relationship with God, I picture a life of joyful discipline, the type of discipline that leads to transformation.  That’s why, as I considered how to introduce prayer to them, I was careful not to make anything too rigorous.  I want them to want to pray, to understand prayer as a gift, a lifeline, a source of strength and joy.  My goal is to point their hearts toward God, not just to alter their habits. 

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that much of Protestant Christianity aims for the “head,” the intellect, in discipleship, while our surrounding consumerist culture aims for the heart.  Culture wins, Smith posits, because we are not primarily intellectual beings, as much as we would like to think of ourselves as such.  Rather, we are much more motivated by our emotions, our “gut,” than we acknowledge.  Smith thus argues that Christian education needs to reorient toward the heart—specifically, by incorporating bodily practices into Christian education.  His suggestions veer more toward high church liturgy, but I see definite overlap in his argument and Dallas Willard’s discussion of the bodily disciplines.  We are physical creatures, the thinking goes, and so we need physical, bodily disciplines to capture our hearts. 

During the first week of January, I introduced the idea of set times of prayer for our family.   This practice formed the backbone of our month of prayer, and it is something I hope to continue throughout the year.  Now, the exact details of what I’m about to tell you about our times of prayer most likely won’t work for you.  That’s okay.  What I would urge you to think about as you read about ours is what would work for you.  How can you fit regular prayer in your family’s schedule in a way that feels like an opportunity, a gift, and not a burden?

For us, it worked to establish four times to pray each day, two of which we were already doing.  Each morning during our “family time” in school, we say a prayer together after reading the Bible and watching CNN Student News.  We use a laminated template I made to write down our various requests with dry erase marker, and we revisit it each day.  I uploaded the template here, in case anyone else finds it helpful for their family.  For us, since we were already in the habit of this morning prayer, it was not hard to continue it throughout the month. 

prayer journalThen, I added a time of private prayer to the beginning of our Quiet Time, which we have after lunch.  For this, I ordered each of the kids a copy of Jennifer Gerhardt’s Kids Prayer Journal.  These journals are simple, but proved very useful for our purposes.  In the journal, which focuses on the Lord’s Prayer, there is a page for each day, Monday-Saturday, for 13 weeks.  The prayer prompts on each page are simple enough not to be onerous for reluctant writers, but deep enough to really help kids start bringing their thoughts, hopes, and concerns before God.  Both Luke and Anna had no problem completing a page each day, and better still, they really seemed to take it seriously.  I highly recommend these journals, which you can order from Amazon.

 

At dinner, we typically say a family prayer before each meal, but to add some variety and depth to our prayers, I ordered Kim Sorgius’ JOY Prayer cards.  These cards each have three prompts to help focus on Prayers:  Jesus (which lists a characteristic of God), Others (which suggests a person or group to pray for), and Yourself (which includes a persJOYprayercards2_grandeonal request).  We found that we needed to discuss each prompt a bit before we prayed, so our dinner prayers ended up being “Thank you for dinner” prayers rather than “Bless this meal” prayers.  We would discuss each card over dinner, and then one of us would pray the prompts after we were done.  This was a little more difficult for my kids to catch on to than I thought, and they seemed kind of intimidated by praying from the different prompts, but they warmed up to it.  You can order these cards here (and if you are poking around on her website, I also highly recommend her hymn studies).

Lastly, each night, one of us would pray with each child as they lay in bed.  I’m sad to say, we had gotten way out of the habit of these nightly prayers.  By bedtime, the kids and I have spent a full day together, and we usually do just a quick tuck-in and kiss.  However, the kids love a longer bedtime routine, so they were genuinely excited for us to snuggle under the covers with them, discuss their day a bit, and then say a “chain prayer” together.  This was probably their favorite addition to our day, and we all enjoyed the extra bonding time at night. 

In fact, that was the biggest lesson I learned this month.  When I think of discipling my kids, I picture it in three main ways:  modeling, giving them resources to practice the discipline on their own, and practicing the discipline alongside them.  This month, I did all three:  I continued to model my own morning prayer time; I gave the kids a prayer journal and some other suggestions to pray during the day; and Greg and I prayed with them.  By FAR the technique with biggest impact was praying with them.  Not only did prayer build our relationship and give us a chance to talk to God together, it also led to some great conversations.  For instance, when Anna hesitated to pray for a woman she did not know well, who had lost her father, we had a great talk on praying with empathy.  We discussed praying for people the way we would want someone to pray for us in that situation, to really picture what they are going through and how we would feel.  It never would have occurred to me to bring those ideas up, but they came up naturally as we prayed together.  Looking back on the month, then, my number #1 recommendation is simply to pray with your child. 

My #2 recommendation is to get them Gerhardt’s prayer journal.

Here are a few other things the kids and I did:

  • IMG_2146We colored and hung famous prayers around the house.  I printed out four prayers for them to decorate the borders, and they threw themselves into the task.  We love the Lord’s Prayer, of course, and I came across one from Mother Teresa in a biography we were reading.  St. Francis’ prayer is one of my favorites, and I got to tell the kids how I first heard that prayer on September 11, 2001, when a professor read it to us at chapel.  I sat in the balcony holding my brother’s hand, and the words of that prayer were the one thing that made sense in that senseless day.  They gave me a path forward.  Lastly, I printed on from Thomas Merton that I thought might be a little above them, conceptually, but that I knew would lead to a good discussion about uncertainty and pursuing God even when you don’t understand everything.  You can print your own copies of the link here.
  • We talked about praying simple prayers over and over, or ones that we pray automatically when we were in specific need.  For instance, Anna resolved to pray, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” every time she got frustrated with her brother.  I’m not sure how well she followed through with this, but the seed was planted.
  • We tried “throwing prayers” at people randomly.  I got this idea from Richard Foster’s chapter on prayer in Celebration of Discipline.  One can silently throw prayers to people at the store, for example, or the kids getting on and off the school bus as we were stopped and waiting for them.

All in all, this was a good month of prayer for our family.  It was a discipline, in that it took sustained effort, and we certainly weren’t perfect at it.  Cultivating the habit, however, of praying as a family multiple times a day has been helpful to us and has led to many great conversations about God.  My plan is to keep our set times of prayer as best we can throughout the year.  And now, I’m looking forward to February’s discipline:  meditation!

2017: The Year of Spiritual Disciplines

It’s funny: 2016 gets a bad rap for being horrible, and I largely agree with all the grim assessments I have been reading these last few days.  However, 2016 was also the year that both my children were baptized into Christ.  Luke became a Christian on October 19, and Anna followed suit on December 15.  That means that as we enter the new year, we enter it as four Christians.  That thought shocks, humbles, and motivates me.  Raising my kids has always felt like a huge responsibility, and even before they were baptized, I felt the burden to always point them to God and to lay a strong spiritual foundation for them.  Now that they are officially Christians, however, my call to disciple them feels even stronger.  And I instinctively know what I want to do to introduce them to the Christian life.

I want to introduce them to the spiritual disciplines.

IMG_1507Like the year 2016, spiritual disciplines have a bad reputation sometimes, conjuring up images of monkish mortification and pointless, taxing exercises.  However, I’ve been drawn to them ever since I first read Richard Foster’s landmark Celebration of Discipline a few years back, and after finishing Dallas Willard’s incredibly thorough and rational Spirit of the Disciplines last week, I am a total advocate of practicing disciplines.

In fact, Willard’s manifesto (and that’s really what it was) made me realize that the widespread lack of practice of the disciplines is most likely behind one of my biggest faith challenges:  the fact that most Christians I know are not radically different—or even different at all—from their non-Christian neighbors.  I remember asking my dad desperately once while in college, “Dad, if Christianity is true, why doesn’t it catch on more?  Like, when people become baptized, why don’t they change?  Why haven’t I changed more?  I’m supposed to be ‘transformed.’  I don’t feel transformed.”  Reading the Bible all the way through for the first time in 2006 increased my angst on the subject:  as I powered through the New Testament in 2 1/2 months, I saw so clearly that my life looked nothing like the lives of Jesus, His disciples, or the early Christians.  As you might imagine, this dawning awareness was profoundly depressing to me.

When I asked my dad my faith-shaking question, he told me that I was underestimating the power of sin.  I think he was totally right, and Dallas Willard would agree.  In his book, he argues that reason today’s American Christians do not, for the most part, follow the example of Christ as laid out in the sermon on the mount, is because we don’t pattern the rest of our lives after Him.  Unlike Paul, we fail to practice the day to day style of living that He practiced, which heavily involved spiritual disciplines such as prayer, solitude, and fasting.  Willard—who really is eminently practical—argues essentially that you practice how you play, and Christians today don’t practice.  He describes the disciplines as a “curriculum for Christlikeness” that help to train our bodies and minds so that we can fully participate in the kingdom of God.  And in my own life, I have found the disciplines very helpful in doing just that:  bringing me closer to God and training my responses.

In that light, how could I not introduce the disciplines to my children?   They should be seen as Discipleship 101!  Furthermore, as a homeschooling mom I emphasize the importance of discipline in so many other areas—academics, physical exercise, diet, hygiene, cleanliness—that my kids take it as an article of faith that discipline is good for you.  So why wouldn’t spiritual discipline fall into that category?  After my reading of Foster and Willard—not to mention Matthew, Luke, and Paul—spiritual disciplines seem like an important first step for any new Christian.

Thus, our family is going to take a month to focus on each of the twelve disciplines that Foster covers in his book.  We will start off in January with prayer, and I will probably have a separate post about what we do and the resources we use.  Which brings me to the whole point of my blogging about this.  First of all, I feel weird writing about it at all.  For one, I’m pretty sure that secrecy is a spiritual discipline, and this blog post kind of feels like I’m shouting from the rooftop this “holy” thing I’m doing, which feels super awkward to me. 

However, something I’ve long been convicted of (and you can confirm this with my husband and best friend, who have been subject to many of my angsty moanings on the topic) is that I need to use the tools around me to better serve the kingdom.  What I mean is this:  I am forever putting together resources to help my family and my church grow closer to God.  But in this technological age, it would be so easy to make those resources available for anyone who wanted them.  For instance, I have a fun Thanksgiving devotional, I have an Advent family reading calendar, I have several things like that, things that might be helpful to others.  And I need to share those things.  SO…I plan on developing some resources to introduce the spiritual disciplines to my own kids, and I think they might be helpful to other interested parents.  From my own searching, I see that there’s not a ton of stuff out there on spiritual disciplines for elementary-aged kids, and I’d like to make some things available. 

And at the very least, maybe in following our journey through the disciplines, other parents might get their own mental wheels spinning about creative ways to disciple their children.  I think that sometimes with all the other stuff we have to worry about in parenthood, nurturing our children’s spirituality falls by the wayside.  So if this is something you are struggling with, know that I’m right there with you!  And if you have any ideas for me, please share them.  We Christian parents are definitely in this thing together, and I pray that whatever your approach, 2017 will be a year that brings every member of your family closer to God.

Snow Day Sabbath

For northerners, a snow day is just, you know, a normal Tuesday, but here in the south, it is an event.  Schools and businesses close, roads become impassable for days, and life basically just stops. 

And I love it.

I was just remarking to Greg a few weeks ago that nothing has interrupted our life for awhile now.  That’s actually a really good thing, because it means that we have had no sickness or tragedies to deal with.  However, there is something nice about all your routines coming creaking to a halt for a few days, when it doesn’t involve ill health or tidings.  And so, when I woke up on Friday to flakes pouring from the sky, I rejoiced along with my children.  They were celebrating the possibility of sledding and snowmen, while I was celebrating a break.

Because that’s what snow days are.  They are a kind of weather-induced Sabbath, where we get to stay put for awhile and just “be.”  They remind us that we are not all-powerful, we with our roads and our vehicles and our never-ending to-do lists.  They open our eyes, yet again, to the fact that the world does not stop spinning just because we stop being productive and simply enjoy our lives for a little while.  In some ways, snow days teach us a hard lesson because they remind us of our own finiteness, our limits, our levels of impotence.  But they are also a blessing, in the way that anything that opens our eyes to the truth of our existence is a blessing. 

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And so instead of working or teaching or doing schoolwork, our family goes sledding.  We tromp through the woods behind our house, marveling at the new Narnia-scape.  We work puzzles in front of the fire.  We have movie nights, and introduce our kids to The Princess Bride, which we quote all the next day.  We drink hot chocolate and live off of whatever is in the fridge and the pantry.  We ban screens, and listen to the kids build tents and play with their stuffed animals.  We relax.

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Of course, we also have to work, but it’s not “important” work.  It’s not the work that we describe as a “calling,” or that we believe will change the world.  No, it’s the mundane work of washing the same 16 layers of clothing each night, of running dryer load after dryer load of hats and mittens and scarves, of repeatedly mopping snow and water off the kitchen floor, of meal preparation and cleanup.  It’s the dull, repetitive work of survival that somehow takes on new life when it’s the only work you have to do, and when it so clearly facilitates your family’s enjoyment of the day.  It’s that simple grunt labor that connects you with your humanity and with the reality that labor is inherent in existence.

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And for me this year, our snow days have done two other things.  One, they have challenged me to fully embrace this wild, wonderful life.  I’m the type of person who would rather sit inside reading a book and watching the snow fun through the window.  And yet, my kids think it’s Christmas if Greg and I go out and sled with them.  So, of course, I bundle up in layer after layer, and march my 35-year-old body to the top of our giant hill, plant it on a small plastic sled, and push off.  And I feel that familiar exhilaration and excitement and a little bit of fear at the chaos theory being enacted by our hill—you truly never know exactly what path the sled is going to take.  I get to the bottom and am dumped out in some way, and then I haul sled and self back up the icy slope to give one of the kids a turn. 

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I’m not a kid anymore, so the up and down is not as easy, and yet I’m still healthy and somewhat young, and it would be criminal not to embrace it.  Sometimes as I sit at the top of the hill, I think about how one day (if I’m lucky), I will be old, and my body won’t work right anymore.  Maybe pain will be a constant part of my life.  Maybe my actions will be severely limited by my failing health.  Certainly, these days will be over soon.  Certainly, my kids will grow up and be gone.  And I hope I still enjoy my life then, even with all its limitations, but I can’t help but think of the longing I will feel when those days come.  The longing for the time when my kids were young and at home, when Greg and I were healthy and active, when we had snow days where we could sled down hills over and over.  And I feel my future self smiling on this present self, who is sitting on top of a snowy hill on a little sled, and my future self tells my present self, “You made a good choice.”  So I push off, and I scream happily at all the bumps and dips, pretending that I’m not going to feel them all the next morning.

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The other thing these snow days have challenged me to do is to recognize the precious gift that is my family.  Just a couple days ago, a poor two-year-old’s body was found after he wandered away from his grandmother while on a hike in the woods.  It appears that he died of exposure, a thought that contains such horror and sorrow that my brain shuts off protectively when I start to think of it too much.  Also this week, my great uncle died, and actually, if we weren’t snowed in, I would be at his visitation today.  In contrast to little Noah, Uncle Donald lived a nice, long life, but even so, it is still so hard for our family when our days on earth come to an end.  And as much as we may try to ignore the thought, they will come to an end, and we are not promised a long life like Uncle Donald had.  There is a temptation toward fear when faced with that reality, but I choose instead to let it prompt me to gratitude for every second I have with my family.  Even those seconds where I am peeling wet jeans off wiggly legs, or vacuuming the same room for the second time in 24 hours because of all the popcorn kernels.  Those wiggly legs and errant popcorn are the result of the presence of fragile humans whom I so dearly love.  Sometimes it takes something as morbid as death to wake you up to the depths of that love.  I have felt those depths during these snow days.

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I went on a walk around the block today, and ended up shedding my outer coat, hat, scarf, and gloves.  It was much warmer, and the icy roads were starting to thaw.  I felt my Sabbath melting around me in the slush through which I trudged, and I faced the fact that Greg would head back to work tomorrow, and the kids and I would spend the day doing school.   That’s not exactly a tragedy, as I do enjoy our normal life, but I did so cherish this snow day Sabbath, and I loved embracing its invitation to hold tight to this charmed and fleeting life.

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The Needy Season

The Christmas season is upon us again, and for most people, including us, that means that life becomes a whirlwind of family, friends, and general merriment.  It means that we have been to parties and observed time-honored traditions that bring our family joy.  It also means that we have taken a couple of occasions to throw the door open wide and welcome all comers to celebrate with us:

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However, this year more than ever, I’ve noticed a funny thing in the midst of all this joy-making.  It seems like this time of year, when everyone is, at least in appearance, prioritizing family and community togetherness, we notice so much more the parts of family and community that we lack.  It’s as if the light of all the holiday cheer casts a glare on the holes in our support system.  I know people struggling with all sorts of forms of loneliness this time of year.  People who want spouses and have none; people who were betrayed by the spouses they have; people who are mourning the loss of loved ones that should still be here.  The list goes on.  I know for me, I’ve been haunted by so many memories of my dead brother this season that it’s as if his ghost has taken up residence in the house.  He is as much a part of my current environment as the presents under my tree, and his memories burst into my mind every day, begging to be spoken.  One of my secret joys is having a friend who shares his name so that several times a week, I can at least say it out loud.  I love the sound of it rolling off my tongue; it gives some little relief to the build-up of memories in my mind.

But it’s not just dead people who haunt us this time of year:  it’s any perceived lack in family and community.  All of our “holes” are magnified when seen in contrast to holiday cheer.  The type of friends we want but don’t have.  The family we wish for but don’t experience.  The life we pictured but haven’t seen in reality yet.  So many holes.

And I’ve decided that at least for me…maybe my holes are a hidden mercy.  Maybe, instead of being a failure in the Christmas system, they point me to the true meaning of Christmas.

I was reading an Advent devo by William Willemon this morning, and he pointed out that everyone, even the “nominally religious” loves Christmas because it gives us a chance to celebrate our own generosity, to celebrate what we have to offer to the world, instead of what was offered to us by God.  In one provocative passage, he argues:

We love Christmas because, as we say, Christmas brings out the best in us.  Everyone gives at Christmas, even the stingiest among us, even the Ebenezer Scrooges.  Charles Dickens’ story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to form our notion of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger.  Whereas Luke tells us of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others.  A Christmas Carol is more congenial to our favorite images of ourselves.  Dickens suggests that deep down, even the worst of us can become generous, giving people.

Yet I suggest, we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people, but because we are proud, arrogant people.  The Christmas story–the one according to Luke, not Dickens–is not about how blessed it is to be givers, but how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.”

Now, listen:  I love A Christmas Carol as much as the next person, and I love giving gifts.  But I think Willemon might be onto something.  At least, I’m pretty sure that at its root, the Christmas season isn’t about family togetherness or gift giving.  At its root, the message of Christmas is that we were all poor, we were all in need, and we were all desperate for a Savior–a Savior that was given freely to us by a loving God.  And I don’t think you can feel the impact of that gift without understanding the holes in your life.  The lack.  The deep, yearning need.  The sense that all is not as it should be.

I have felt that lack this holiday season.  I have felt needy, and I hate feeling needy.  Not only have I felt the holes in my own soul, I have felt my lack of ability to patch the holes in others’ souls.  I see people suffering and understand intuitively that I cannot meet their deep needs, no matter how many Christmas parties I invite them to.  I can fill their stomachs with food, and their hands with treats, but their souls?  I’m sorry, but I don’t have that in me right now.

And I don’t think I ever did.

I think I needed to be reminded of that.  I needed to be reminded that I am not anyone’s Savior, I am not even my own Savior, but instead that I am desperately in need of a Savior.  When I think of that, I begin to see my “holes” as acts of grace from God.  Then, I begin to open my heart and let Him fill those holes.  And He does in beautiful ways–and funnily enough, He tends to use those who are historically considered to be “the least of these.”

For instance, yesterday, a small two-year-old girl who was visiting my house snuggled up to me out of nowhere and sang to me.  For no reason at all, she took the time to shine light into my soul yesterday.

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Then this morning, I was approached by an Iranian widow who attends my church, and she handed me a beautiful scarf that she had knit for me.  She has so little in her life.  She is all alone in a foreign environment; even the yarn she used to knit was a gift to her.  And she used that gift to pour blessing into my life.

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When I don’t see the holes in my soul, I am tempted to think that little toddlers and poor widows have nothing to offer me.  That instead, should be the one taking care of them.  I do try to take care of them, but my holes remind me that I am also needy.  That we all are.  And while we can minister to each other as best we can within our limited means, we ultimately are dependent on a Savior.  We can’t fill our own holes, and we can barely patch up the holes of others, but, through God’s love, we can find grace and peace in the Savior He sent for us all.

On my own, I am needy, so desperately needy.  But…unto me a child was born.  And that child was a gift that I could never earn through my own merit.  I understand that more at Christmastime, which is why I’m thankful for this needy season.

I Have EVERYTHING I NEED for Life

In our Wednesday night class last week, we women talked about all the ways we feel overwhelmed. We come from all walks of life, but a common thread of our answers was that, in some way or another, most of us were overwhelmed by the demands of work or family–or the demand of balancing work AND family. There was also a theme of feeling inadequate…like we were not “up” to our tasks, like we did not have “enough.” We didn’t have the talent…or maybe the money…or perhaps the organizational skills…or the patience…or the time…to do all the things we had to do.

In light of that discussion, we read a really crazy verse from the Bible:

“His divine power has given us EVERYTHING WE NEED FOR A GODLY LIFE through our knowledge of Him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3

A similarly unbelievable verse is found in 2 Corinthians 9:8…

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, HAVING ALL THAT YOU NEED, you will abound in every good work.”

I emphasize the “all that you need” part because both verses challenge our faith and our current experience of life. After we read them, we had to ask ourselves, “Do I really believe this?”

And even more importantly, “If I believe this is true, then why do I so often feel that I DON’T have everything I need?”

eynFor the next five weeks in class, we are going to explore that conflict. My dear friend, Courtney Steed, has written a Bible study called, “Everything You Need,” in which she uses Scripture and good ol’ fashioned logic to help Christian women grasp the wonderful idea that with Christ, we do have “everything we need.”

One thing I love about Courtney’s study is that is is SO practical.  It’s not simply, “Of course you have everything you need because you have God’s Spirit in you.”  That’s true, and it’s a big deal…but often our needs seem more tangible than that.  As Courtney says,

“So much of what I feel I need is not in a cloud above my head. What I need is not kindness, it’s a enough of money to pay the mortgage. It’s not just patience (though I need that tremendously), it’s time to go to the grocery store. Its not just gentleness, it’s time to myself. I need a nap, relief from my pain, for my relationships to be easier, my house to be clean and my kids to behave.”

Amen!

This study, then, is going to be very relevant and practical for our day to day lives.  Last week, the main thing we discussed to set the stage for this week was the idea of Supply and Demand.  All of us have “Demands” that need to be met…from the demand for sleep, the demands of a job, the demands of a mother, the demands of relationships, health demands, time demands…it goes on and on.  We are only able to meet those Demands with our Supply, our resources.  This week we are going to talk more in detail about our Supply, but the one point we made last week was that our Supply always comes from God.  It’s all from Him, and that idea that we have it naturally in us, that we just have to dig down deep or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or whatever is more of an American idea than it is a Christian idea.  In fact, Jesus Himself tells us,

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5

So that’s Truth #1 from our study so far:  Our Supply comes from God.

Truth #2 is this:  Our Demand is determined by God.

God doesn’t guarantee us that we have “everything we need” to do whatever it is we want to do.  We don’t have “everything we need” to meet our own goals, but to glorify Him.  To me, this is a freeing concept.  So much of my Demand is self-imposed.  It is a list that I give myself, out of feelings of guilt or obligation.  In the next five weeks, we are going to learn how to determine God’s Demand for us, as opposed to Society’s Demands, or Others’ Demands, or even Our Own Demands.  I can’t tell you how liberating this idea has been in my life.  Since I’ve embraced these ideas, I have had so much more peace and feelings of adequacy when it comes to my tasks.  I still have a ways to go, but my soul definitely rests easier now, and I have much less stress in my life.  That’s why I’m so excited to share this study with our women’s class!

I can’t wait to walk through the ideas in this study with the women at church.  This week, we are going to look at our Supply and what all it includes.  I think you will be surprised–you have more than you think!

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