For Gramma Dottie

In these anxious times when giant headlines and worldwide fears dominate, small tragedies tend to go unnoticed.  Whether noticed or not, the world changed on Tuesday evening, a change that on a global level might seem tiny, but in the kingdom of God was seismic:  after 94 years on this earth, Dottie Travis went home to be with her Father.  She was more than ready to go, but even as I felt relief for her, I sensed the world fade a little.  It’s just a little less bright without the light of one of its saints.  And to me, Gramma Dottie was a true saint:  selfless, loving, kind, gentle, patient to the end.  She raised both my mother-in-law, Glenda, and her brother, Rob, who was profoundly disabled with cerebral palsy, with compassion and care. 

Even though she was not blood-related to me, she was every inch my grandmother, and I have so many rich memories with her.  Among them:

*Meeting her for the first time at her house in Atlanta when Greg and I were dating.  I was immediately charmed by her hospitality and her kindness, and I enjoyed getting to know her as we packed her house together.  She was about to move to Alabama so that she could be closer to her son, Rob, at his group home.  Even though I was only in that Atlanta house once, it holds wonderful memories.  Not only did I meet Gramma, I met her younger brother, Joe, who shared her gentle spirit, and his wife, Betty, who had me in stitches with her colorful stories about Greg’s birth and childhood.  Also, Greg told me he loved me that night for the first time, moving me one step closer to these wonderful people becoming part of my family.

*Sitting around her kitchen table a few years later in Alabama with her, Greg, Joe, and Betty, while Gramma tried to tell a joke about a chicken in a freezer.  She got so tickled with the joke that she couldn’t get to the punch line for laughing so hard, which in turn had the rest of us laughing helplessly.  We sat around that table, all shaking with laughter, with tears streaming down our faces.  Greg said later he’d never seen Gramma laugh that hard.  I’m not sure I’VE ever laughed that hard.

*Coming to visit her in her house in Springfield, TN, several years ago, as she approached age 90.  I entered to find her reading Francis Chan’s Forgotten God, a recently published book about the Holy Spirit.  Turns out, Gramma was going to reteach a lesson series she had developed on the Spirit years ago, and she wanted to update it with the latest thoughts.  I loved that even at age 90, she was still reading, learning, and growing. 

*Getting to show her the printed out rough draft of my Bible study in the summer of 2018 while she was living at Greg’s parents’ house in Nashville.  And also getting to deliver the published version in the fall of 2019 to her at her assisted living home.  She was always a huge cheerleader and encouragement to me and loved the idea that I was writing Bible lessons.

*Playing Spinners with her and the kids one evening this fall. A helper came to get her for dinner before we were done, and she balked until I assured her the kids and I would come back afterward. We dutifully arrived to finish our game an hour or so later to find that Gramma had smuggled cookies for us from the dining room. I never knew she could be so sneaky!

Over the years, Gramma and I have sung together, prayed together, and read Scripture together.  She was one of my best mentors and one of my favorite people on the planet.  A few months ago, she was jokingly bemoaning the loss of her good looks, and I told her, with 100% honesty, “Gramma, you look absolutely beautiful.  I’m not joking.”  I paused to consider why she still possessed such stunning beauty after so many decades.  “I think it’s the sainthood,” I concluded.  We laughed, but it was true.  Her transformation into the likeness of Christ after ninety years was so profoundly thorough that it illuminated her features. 

A week ago, Gramma had a stroke, which was one of her greatest fears.  The next day, Glenda said it was a good time to visit her, so I did.  What I found was so sad:  Gramma had lost control of most of her limbs, with the exception of her right arm, and her expression was constantly cast to the right.  Though she seemed relatively alert, she couldn’t look at people and could barely speak.  At one point, though, she managed to look right at me.  It was to be the last time she would ever do so.  And she told me, with difficulty, “Anna needs to come hang Easter eggs on the tree.”  Anna had been decorating Gramma’s small tree to match the holidays of the year.  For Valentine’s Day, she’d made lots of little hearts to hang on it, and now it was time for Easter eggs.  Gramma was right.

So the next morning, our whole family sat down to decorate dozens of paper Easter eggs, and that afternoon, when I went to sit with Gramma for a couple of hours, we all went to hang them together.  Gramma never woke up during those hours.  I doubt she ever saw the Easter eggs.

And yet, I’m glad that was her last request, and I’m glad we hung them.  Those little paper eggs, as silly as it might seem, are symbols of a profound faith that everyone in that room held:  the faith in a resurrection, the faith that even though every single body in that room would perish one day, our souls would live on.  As Gramma passed from this life to the next a couple days later, that faith strengthened all of us.  After all, it was that faith that had bonded us together all these years, that faith that she fed in me and in everyone around her, just by living it out so beautifully herself. 

If ever anyone heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” I know it was Gramma after almost a century of living a life of love.  And so, in the midst of the craziness of the coronavirus, I am mourning something that might seem much smaller but that actually is massive:  the passing of one of the best women I know.  I pray that one day, I will have her love, her patience, and her kindness.  May we all have them in these anxious times.

On Chasing Unicorns and Living Creatively

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver

This week in Nashville, we have woken up to unicorn weather, mid-70’s in June.  I’ve lived here for 7 1/2 years, and such weather feels unprecedented.  It also clashed discordantly with my long-standing plans for the week, which consisted of attending a three-day, indoor conference.  The conference had been on my calendar for months, but the unicorn weather, riding in like a gift from God, presented me with a conundrum:  do I stick with my well-laid plans, or do I chase the unicorn?

I have been thinking a lot lately about living creatively.  Ever since I read Emily P. Freeman’s A Million Little Ways about a year ago, I’ve been excitedly sharing with anyone who will listen that we humans are creative beings, made in the image of a creative God.  In her book, Emily points out that in Ephesians 2:10 (“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works…”), the Greek word translated workmanship is poiema, the same word from which we get the English word, poem.  We are God’s poem, His art.  And we are created to do good works, our art.  We are art, as Emily says, and we make art.

I tend to think of my own art as writing or even teaching.  But more and more, I’m realizing that to live creatively, I can view my entire life as art.  That’s a new idea for me:  living creatively not just in writing, but in marriage, in parenting, in homemaking, in teaching, and in my daily choices.  The decision to go on a hike instead of the morning session of the conference was a creative one, shaping our schedule in a new way.  Such decisions creatively shape my life and the lives of my children.

In a sense, all of our decisions are creative decisions.  Our very existence–our breaths and heartbeats, our time and circumstances, are given to us by God as raw material with which we create a life that honors Him.  What will that life look like?  And more particularly, what will that life look like today?  How will we use our time, energy, and circumstances today to live a life that glorifies God?

It feels weird to me to think of skipping a morning session to go hiking as a way to glorify God, but I do think that it can be.  I believe that this weather is a beautiful gift from God, and part of living for God means responding in real time to His gifts.  We make our little plans, but our plans must be held lightly if we are to live responsively to the circumstances He provides.  Sometimes those circumstances are pleasant, or unexpectedly delightful:  unicorn weather, or a visit from a friend.  Sometimes they are more challenging:  an unwelcome interruption, a call to serve in an uncomfortable way.  We don’t get to choose the raw material of our lives, and the circumstances we have to work with can range from enjoyable to maddening, lovely to sorrowful.  But we do get to choose what to make of these circumstances.  We get to respond creatively on the canvas of our lives and make art of our existence.

And as Christians, we offer that art to God.  God, after all, is the commissioner of the art; it’s purpose is for His glory.  Sometimes the art is taking our children on a hike; sometimes it is a more overt act of service.  Sometimes our art is in our spontaneity:  changing our well-laid plans to accommodate the circumstances God has sent us.  Sometimes our art is in faithfulness:  waking up and showing up to the same job, day after day, regardless of our feelings on the subject.  Our art varies, but its purpose, glorifying God, does not.  When we take the raw material of existence that God gives us and use it to creatively live for Him, we make art of our everyday lives.

Thus, I smashed the wet clay of my plans today back into a ball and started over.  My kids and I chose to make art by immersing ourselves in God’s own art.  It was hardly a heroic or a sacrificial choice, but it was a creative one.  We took a forest stroll with a mother deer and her young fawn, who ambled along the path beside us.  We marveled at cranes hunting and ducks diving and shafts of sunlight filtering through bright green leaves.  And we responded as best we could to God’s art through our own attempts at pictures and words.  This was our art this morning.  This was our effort at living creatively.

Each day, we paint on the canvas of the life God gives us, through our choices, our spontaneity, our faithfulness, our gratitude for the circumstances God sends.  We rarely make grand murals or dazzling sculptures, but we glorify God with our small efforts nonetheless when we embrace whatever God gives us and offer it as an art project back to Him.  Today, for us, that meant chasing unicorns and sketching fawns.  Who knows what it might mean tomorrow?

Practicing Solitude with Children who Don’t Naturally Like Solitude

It’s funny—you would think that with a homeschool environment consisting of three people during most of the day, our family would have plenty of natural chances to practice solitude. 

This is not the case.

I blame the children.

My children are not wild or crazy or loud…but their personalities just do not lend themselves to the discipline of solitude, as described by Richard Foster.  For one, solitude is supposed to be spent alone.  And Luke, in particular, hates to be alone.  We call him a “shy extrovert,” for, while he does not love crowds, he would like nothing more than to be surrounded by the people he loves, 100% of the time.  He gets his energy from his loved ones, and wants to constantly interact with at least one other person from his inner circle, whether that is a family member or close friend.  When Foster says, “the fear of being left alone petrifies people,” I think of Luke (96).  And when he says, “Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude,” and that “we can cultivate an inner solitude and silence that sets us free from loneliness and fear,” I see some of the value of solitude for my son.

Anna, on the other hand, greatly values her alone time.  However, Foster’s definition of solitude, as you can see in that last quote above, includes silence as a necessary ingredient.  He elaborates, “It is quite possible to be a desert hermit and never experience solitude.”  Anna would be that desert hermit.  She can experience a vivacious, rich, inner world of constant chatter, emotions, and adventures, and not have a soul within miles of her.  She can play happily in her room for hours, singing to herself, reading to her babies, and living in her imagination.  But that is not solitude.

And don’t get me wrong—I love that Luke wants to spend time with his family, and I love that Anna has such a rich imagination.  But I also want to teach them to be alone—truly alone—with God.  I want to teach them that they are more than their family, more than their imaginations, more than their need for entertainment, more than their emotions.  Those are pretty abstract lessons that probably would go over the heads of my 9- and 10-year-old if I tried to spell them out.  Thankfully, solitude is a simple, physical practice that can teach their bodies and their hearts ideas that their minds may not be ready for.

April turned out to be a perfect month to practice solitude because the weather was amazing.  Weeks ago, the kids asked Greg to hang his camping hammock so they could play in it, and he obliged, stringing it between two trees at the edge of our woods.  The hammock has stayed up all through April and now May, and it has become a little sanctuary for us.  When you lay in the hammock and look up at the lush, vibrant beauty of the forest, it feels like you are in your own private nature retreat.  It feels luxurious.

So that’s where we practice solitude.  In the hammock.

IMG_6366We even call it the “hammock of solitude,” and for ten minutes each day, I send a kid out there to “practice solitude.”  I usually do it during our school day, so the child is only too happy to comply.  And that’s part of my goal.  I really don’t want “spiritual disciplines” to feel like a chore, but a gift.  That’s how I see them.  They aren’t “one more thing” we “have” to do to become holy.  Rather, they are a present God gives us, a path to get to know Him better.  And as knowing and loving God is our key purpose in life, anything that aids us in that goal is a blessing, not a burden.

Through solitude, I want to teach my children to “be,” and to realize that in that “being,” God is with them.  I want to teach them that contentment in being with God.  In my own life, I see a continual temptation to strive and to find my worth—even my worth before God—in my actions alone.  Solitude is a struggle for me because while I’m practicing solitude, I’m not “getting things done.”  The idea of resting in God, in just spending a portion of my life enjoying His presence, does not naturally resonate with me.  It’s something I have to work at.  And so I want to introduce my children to that concept at an early age so that it will (hopefully) be more natural to them as they grow in their faith and understanding. 

What I love about the spiritual disciplines is that kids can benefit from them even without the understanding of all the abstract concepts that accompany them.  In simply being still, alone in the hammock, they are embodying these truths at an age where they can’t yet fully appreciate them mentally.  But through this practice, through the habit-forming and the discipline of their bodies, my prayer is that their soul is being nurtured and shaped to one day understand them.

That’s not too say that my kids can’t grasp the basics.  Anna knows that her mind is a chattering monkey that has a hard time being still.  Luke knows that he hates to be alone, preferring the company of select loved ones for entertainment.  Both of them see the value of solitude and stillness before God.  But by introducing these ideas through simple bodily practices, these truths can be conveyed in ways that words can’t.  And hopefully, as we continue to work solitude into our days, God uses that space to shape their souls and their hearts and to draw them closer to Him.

How Moana Humbled Me As a Christian Parent


Like most American families, we took our children to see Moana when it came out in theaters last year.  I came to the theater with fairly low expectations, having not been drawn in by the trailers.  However, I and my whole family were blown away by the movie.  Visually, thematically, musically…it was amazing.  I read an opinion in a review that Moana  was the movie Disney has trying to make for 70 years.  I totally agree with that statement. 

There are a lot of reasons that I found Moana deeply moving, most of which revolve around the themes of identity that run throughout the movie.  Moana and Maui, especially, take wonderful inner journeys that parallel their outward adventure.  The biggest surprise to me, though, was the character to whom I related the most.  It wasn’t Moana, the plucky heroine.  It was her father, the chief.

As a Christian parent, I sympathized with and respected Chief Tui.  After all, he raised his daughter with great care and intentionality.  He viewed parenthood as a huge responsibility because he was raising Moana with purpose.  And he was raising her not toward just any purpose—not toward some vague goal like “chase your dreams” or “be true to yourself”—but toward a purpose bigger than herself.  He was raising her toward a purpose that would benefit their island kingdom and all the people on it.  His love and purposes for his daughter were noble.  They were diligently sought.

And yet.

The chief’s purposes for his daughter were hindered by his own lack of discernment, his own lack of vision, his own lack of faith.  In this movie—which I found so analagous to my own life—there is an overarching religion that is supposed to guide the islanders’ lives and add meaning to it.  The chief had not turned his back on this religion, but his too-small view of  it had drained it of its power.  See, he thought he knew his daughter’s place in the world and so was closed off to the ways his own god was trying to guide her.

In this movie, the sea itself is representative of the islanders’ god (the name, Moana, is the Polynesian name for the god of the sea), and that god clearly points her past the reef.  So does her grandmother, a wise  and trusted mentor, along with many of her life circumstances.  And lastly, the unceasing longings of her heart point in the direction of the water.   All these streams of discernment—her mentor, her circumstances, her heart, and her god point her in one way.  Her dad stands alone in pointing her in the other.

And why is that?  What puts the chief, a loving father, at odds with Moana’s clear purposes?  In a word, fear.  He is afraid of the ocean and afraid of what might happen to his daughter if she journeys across it.  He wants her to be safe.  And perhaps even more, he wants her to fit into his mental version of her role.  The only problem is that his mental version is wrong—and ironically, it is ultimately destructive to the very kingdom he is supposed to be serving.

  I saw Chief Tui’s whole plight as a cautionary tale to the Christian parent, including to me personally.  Like Moana’s father, I am raising my children very intentionally, with specific purposes in mind.  This is not a half-hearted undertaking for me; I see parenthood as incredibly important, my biggest role.  I strive to raise my children with love and discipline, but also toward a larger purpose.  My goals for them are more than “whatever makes them happy,” not just because I see that as an unhelpful and potentially destructive goal, but because I believe that they were created for a larger, nobler purpose.  I am raising them to take their place in the kingdom of God, and to serve that kingdom with their lives. 

And yet, even with all my prayers for them, even as I try to discern the potential shapes of their kingdom lives, based on their gifts and their passions, I must be always aware that my mental picture of their future might be too small.  I must be aware that ultimately, they must choose the direction of their lives, and when they choose that direction, they will need to weigh more than my wishes.  Most importantly, they must seek what God wants for them, and He will use other factors—their circumstances, their other mentors, the passions of their hearts—to direct them, not just me and their father. 

And that’s how it should be.

The temptation as a parent to keep our kids safe at all costs is so strong.  We want to shield them from danger, and from the hatefulness of this world.  And yet, when our protection gets in the way of our children’s true purposes, that can be so damaging to them.  As a young adult, for example, I looked on with dismay as many of my Christian peers bravely and passionately resolved to go out into the world as missionaries—only to be bitterly opposed by their Christian parents!  Try to fathom the irony:  the American church has essentially lost a generation of young people, and the Christian parents who managed to not only keep their children in the faith, but to raise them with passion and courage for God were the very ones trying to squelch that passion and courage!  My goodness, can you say Chief Tui?  In holding back our children from living courageously and fearlessly for God, we are actually hurting the very kingdom we profess to serve!

Now, my kids are ages 9 and 10, so I still have a few years before they potentially break my heart by going off in a totally different path than I envisioned for them.  And who knows?  Maybe I’m correct in my tentative guesses for where they will end up in life.  But whatever they choose, I hope that my message to them is  always to follow where God leads them, whether or not I personally agree with that direction.  I want to teach them discernment, yes, but also fearlessness.  I want to teach them wisdom and courage.  And I want to equip them to ultimately exist independently of me and my wishes—to exist dependent on God alone. 

And I hope and pray that when that time comes–when and if they reveal plans that fill my parental heart with fear–that I will not be an obstacle in their path.  Instead, I pray that I will be an encouragement, a source of inspiration.  I hope that instead of trying to talk them out of their journey, I help them pack.  And I pray that I have the faith to send them off with God–to accomplish His purposes in them, to expand His kingdom through them–and to trust them to His care.

March Family Discipline: Fasting

This year, my goal is to introduce a different spiritual discipline each month to my children.  I decided to do this because they were both baptized into Christ last fall, so the new year seemed an obvious time to really focus intentionally on their spiritual growth.  In January, we did prayer.  We prayed at set times of day in different ways, and we kept prayer journals.  In February, the focus was on meditation.  We employed lectio divina to meditate on Scripture, and kept a nature journal to help us meditate on God’s creation. 

Since March 1 was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, it seemed a natural time to focus on the spiritual discipline of fasting.  To me, fasting seemed like a more intimidating discipline to introduce to my 9 and 10 year old, but I went ahead with it because they were already fascinated by fasting.  When Greg and I opted to observed Lent a few years ago, they were so intrigued by the idea of voluntarily giving something up for 40 days that they decided to participate themselves.  They did so again last year, and so I assumed, correctly, that they would want to participate this year, as well.  Luke usually gives up some form of screens, and this year was no exception:  he chose to give up his iPad.  Anna has been pondering vegetarianism, so at my suggestion, she gave up meat with me for Lent. 

Initially, I had big plans about all the ways we would explore the concepts of fasting:  we would look at fasting in the Bible, we would try out a variety of creative daily fasts, we would be purposeful about replacing the thing from which we were fasting with time with God. 

Guess how much of that we actually did?

None of it.

I also planned to make a guide to a family media fast/fun night. 

I didn’t do that, either.  Sorry.

In fact, we totally did NOT delve into fasting like I was hoping we would.  However, my kids faithfully kept their Lenten fasts and took them very seriously.  In fact, there were times when I, as their self-appointed priest, “excused” them from their fast, and they refused my absolution.  With Luke, it was during our three hour road trip to Memphis.  I told him that he could use the iPad during the trip, but he opted for a stack of books instead.  For Anna, on the Thursday before Easter, she didn’t like any of the vegetarian options I had for lunch, and I told her she could just eat the nachos with sausage in them.  Instead she chose to eat a hot dog bun with cheese on it.  I thought it was disgusting, but I had to admire her resolve.

And honestly, that’s the biggest lesson I think my kids have learned from fasting: that one’s commitments to God are important.  That they are between them and God.  And that even if they are voluntarily made, they should be kept.

I think that’s about as deep as they got, but I also believe that those are really good lessons for a 9 and 10 year old.  I am thankful that they are starting to take ownership of their faith, and that they take their commitment to God seriously.  My prayer is that they continue to do this in greater measure in all areas of their lives.  And that as they grow older, if they so choose, they will continue to mine the depths of fasting to refine their souls, strengthen their faith, and draw them closer to God.

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.


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:


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


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. 


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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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