Archive for December, 2011

Birthday Gifts

Yesterday was my birthday.

From my children, I received beautiful hand-drawn cards:

From my five year old.

My three year old wrote that!

From my husband, I received roses, two fair trade chocolate bars, and two books.

I read a chapter of this one that morning:

Wow–she didn’t pull any punches, did she?  It wrecked me.  I absolutely loved it, though.

After reading a chapter of that one, I turned my attention to other book he got me:

And I read it…um…in its entirety.

All I can say is, Wow.  It will completely inspire you to give your life to God–I mean really give your life to Him–right where you are.  I’m about to ship this one off to a dear friend.

From my parents, Greg’s parents, and our grandmothers, I received sweet cards (as well as some sweet spending money).

From my friends and family on Facebook, I received an overwhelming outpouring of love that made me praise God for His family.

From Luke’s teacher, I received the opportunity to shower love on twenty kids from all over the world as I traced their feet and helped them make a reindeer out of their foot and handprints.  After reading Kisses from Katie, I was dying to go love some children, and this provided the perfect opportunity.

And from God, I received a few things, too:

I received a reprieve from getting a horrible stomach bug.  There have been two in my house in the past two weeks (an inevitable side effect of having oodles of people over), and both times, they have miraculously passed over my family and my extremely-virus-prone self.  On Sunday, I was sure I had one, even before I knew one had been in my house on Saturday…but it passed.  (Maybe that’s also a gift from my immune system, having had 31 years to develop immunities to bugs that mainly affect toddlers.  Way to grow up, immune system!)  The principal at Luke’s school did tell me that they sent eight kids home yesterday with the bug, so we aren’t out of the woods, yet.  But…no birthday bug!

Secondly, from God, I received a rental lease on our house in South Carolina, signed by a family who will move in on December 10!  Praise the Lord!  That’s a birthday and Christmas gift in one.

Thinking about the lease being signed on my birthday, I realized that the signing was just the bow on a greater gift God has given me.  In these past few months, He has given me the certainty that He is in control of my life.  He has freed me from so many of the fears that have haunted me for the past eight years…mainly by making them come true…and then showing me that they were nothing He couldn’t handle.  I can’t explain what a burden has been lifted through this whole experience.  I now know, 100% know, that my life and my family are in God’s hands.  I don’t fear so many of the things I used to fear.  I just fear God, and commit my life to Him.  It is such a simpler, freer, and more beautiful existence.  And it’s probably the best gift I could receive on my birthday.

It rained all day yesterday, but the rain just reminded me of the grace that God pours on me everyday.  He showers grace on me through my husband and children, through our physical families and our church families, through the beauty of His world, and through His bountiful provision that we know we don’t deserve.

Thank you God–and everyone else–for a wonderful birthday!

Joy to the World: My Advent Conspiracy

Every year around this time early November, the cultural juggernaut known as Christmas lurches into motion.  From the approximately 20,000 depictions of Christmas I have witnessed in the last month (98% of them being commercials), I have deduced that the culture at large views the purpose of Christmas as “family togetherness.”  It is a time when people celebrate the ones they love, mainly by participating in traditions with them, such as the exchange of gifts.  Since all of us want to be part of a community, and the family is the cornerstone of community, Christmas brings out strong desires in us.  For many who come from broken families or who have lost loved ones, Christmas might even be the hardest time of the year.  And even for those who are part of vibrant families and communities, Christmas sometimes puts an immense pressure on them to live out the cozy, utopian visions of Christmas that are thrown at them all day, every day from advertisers.  The constant commercial exposure, which plays on our deepest desires–and anxieties–often results in consumer excesses, as we attempt to “buy” our way into a good Christmas.  Add to that a packed schedule that apparently comes with the territory of December, and it is easy to become overwhelmed and stressed out by what is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.”

Into this melee enters Christians, most of  whom rightly recognize that family togetherness, while admirable, is not the end goal of Christmas.  Rather, Christmas began as a pagan festival way to celebrate Christ’s birth.  Christians also recognize (at least sometimes) that the economic excesses associated with the holiday are at best deeply ironic and at worst pretty sinful, considering that Christmas is supposed to be in honor of Jesus, a poor carpenter who didn’t seem to really love economic excess.

Faced with the disparity between what culture tells us is Christmas, and what we ourselves believe Christmas to be, we Christians react in different ways.  Some of us get downright polemical, demanding that culture “put Christ back into Christmas,” usually by saying “Merry Christmas,” instead of “Happy Holidays” (for an insightful analysis of this phenomenon, see this blog post by Jenny Rae Armstrong).  Others rebel equally as strongly, but instead suggest that Christians should use the holiday to solve poverty instead of giving gifts to each other.  Still others, like some from my faith tradition, don’t see any intersection at all between Christ and Christmas and actually believe it’s best to keep the two separate.

Believe it or not, I don’t really agree with any of those approaches.

And thinking about all three of them makes me realize that we sometimes make things a little too complicated.  (Yes, I just said that.)  In the past, I have analyzed and re-analyzed with Greg what Christmas means to us and how it should be celebrated by our family.  I think all of that time spent overthinking was a good thing, too, because after the ideas had marinated for a year or two, I came into this season feeling a clarity of purpose that is unusual for me.

So here it is–this is my Advent conspiracy:

I am going to celebrate for a reason.

Ta-da!  That’s it!  That’s all!  My Savior was born (at some random point in the year), and I am going to choose this time to be happy about it.  And even though I’m always “happy” about it, I have learned through reading through the Old Testament that God thinks there is great value in purposeful celebration.  In the Law, he commands such celebrations as a way to remember and acknowledge the wonderful things He has done.  And so I’m going to use Christmas to celebrate with my friends and family the wonderful fact that He sent Jesus.  I’m going to exchange photo cards with my extended family in different states and my wonderful church family back in South Carolina.  We’re going to have parties, and spend time with our new family here in Nashville.  We’re going to bake cookies, and we’re finally going to meet our neighbors and ply them with said baked goods. We’re going to spend time as a family going to the (mostly free–woo hoo!) Christmas events around town, like the Lighting of the Green at Lipscomb.  Basically, in all of our merry-making, we hope to reenact our own version of the angel chorus that appeared to the shepherds.  That in-breaking of joy to the world was not subtle.  Or humble.  Or small.  They celebrated in a big way.

And maybe all of our celebrations won’t name-drop Jesus overtly (Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what kind of dwelling Jesus was born in, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a gingerbread house), but we are going to make it clear to our family and anyone else interested that we are happy because our Lord came to earth.  And so we are going to celebrate!

The celebration part is easy–everyone is celebrating.  The tricky parts comes with the “for a reason” segment of my resolve.  Honestly, what first motivated me to get back to the purpose of Christmas was my kids.  As I thought about how I wanted to raise them, I realized that I wanted to teach them that the true meaning of Christmas was a way to celebrate what God did for us.  Then I realized that really, that’s the true meaning of life.  I realized that I wanted to teach my kids how to put Christ in everything, not just Christmas.  I realized that if Christmas meant radically restructuring our lives to shoehorn Jesus in, then we were doing it wrong.  I wanted the Jesus part to come naturally, just as it should come throughout the rest of our year.

Thus, as we take special time this year to celebrate Christ’s birth, we want the “Christ” part to be as seamlessly integrated as He hopefully is in the rest of our lives.  Here are some of the specific ways we have tried to do that:

For one, I have started reading an Advent devotional book as part of my normal, everyday quiet time.  The one I’m reading is the first one I’ve ever read, so I can’t compare it to others.  Even so, I think it’s pretty incredible.  It is called, Watch for the Light, and I first bought it because the Amazon reviews were so amazing and  because I could get it for .75, plus shipping, at half.com.  (Sorry, apparently that deal is gone.)  The book has some deep stuff in it, and reading it has really opened my eyes and mind to the miracle that we celebrate at Christmas this year.

With the kiddos, we do an Advent calendar.  Because I waited to shop for one on November 30, the day before the calendars start, I couldn’t find one of the cheapo cardboard ones, and certainly not one with the Bible verses on the back of the doors like I was wanting.  Instead, I caved and bought a reusable one from Target and filled it myself.  My children are super into it because they love Jesus candy, but I also printed out the Christmas story in 25 separate verses, and added one of them for each day.  Each morning, we read our story, and then Luke reads the newest verse to us.  (Added bonus:  reading practice!)

Another thing I hope to start if it ever arrives is this devotional for bedtime.  We have a yearly devo book we do with the kids at night already, so as part of our conspiracy to seamlessly incorporate baby Jesus, we are simply going to replace that one with this Jesse tree one at Christmas.  Apparently, it does involve making 25 ornaments or something, but I read some suggestions that you can just use a piece of felt with printouts from the computer.  That is going to be our route...if the book ever comes (next year, I’m writing this post in October).

As far as the whole Santa thing, we don’t try very hard to keep up the charade, though we do play it all out like a game.  This year I read the kids this book about St. Nicholas that I got for 75% off after last Christmas, and in emulation of St. Nick, I think we are going to be “Sneaky Santas” for one of our friends.  Since my kids love sneaking and secrets, I think they’ll get a kick out of it.

And…I think that’s it.  That’s how we are going to celebrate Christmas this year.

Looking over our ways of celebrating Christmas, it appears that my go-to solutions to problems usually involve either books or candy, and I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description of my approach to life.  Mainly, we just want to model joy and love to our children…joy that we have a Savior and love that tries to emulate Him.

How do you celebrate Christmas?

Paul Has Big Dreams for You

Have you ever had someone sit you down and tell you that they believed in you and that they thought you could do great things?

It doesn’t happen often (at least not to me; you might get these kind of talks every other day), but when it does, you feel

ten feet tall

like you can do anything

ready to go out and conquer the world

soooo good.

There really aren’t words to describe it that don’t sound incredibly cliché, but the feeling that someone believes–really, truly believes–in you is kind of overwhelming.  And wonderful.

And terrifying.

You leave feeling great, but also thinking, “Wow–I hope I can live up to that!”  Sometimes, years later, I want to go back and just ask, you know?  “So how did I do?  Did I turn out as great as you thought I would?

But then again, I kind of don’t…because maybe I don’t want to know the answer.

I like to call those talks the “I have big dreams for you” speech.   I vividly remember such talks from my father, in his ongoing bid to keep his teenage daughter’s ego up as she battled through high school, while we sat on the back porch of our trailer.  And one time in high school, my brother gave me such a talk while we sat across from each other at the kitchen table, his eyes full of tears and his hand clutching mine.

Because I have gone on to give such talks to various teens, I understand my brother’s emotion in the moment.  You feel like you have a vision of what this person could be, and you want so desperately for them to see that vision, to see their potential for themselves.

Usually, the “I have big dreams for you” speech is loosely organized into two parts.  Part one is, “I think you’re great, and here’s why.”  Part two is, “I think you can do great things with that.”  Sometimes one part gets more air time than the other, and there is a wide range of specificity in the delivery…but the basic concept is the same.  The overall message is:  I love you, and I’m excited to see how you are going to turn out.

If you have never received some form of the “I have big dreams for you” speech, well, then first of all, shame on your mentors.  Secondly, I have good news:  you are about to hear daddy of all “big dreams” speeches.  

And it’s for you, as a member of Christ’s church.

It’s not just from anyone, either.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can give some pretty good “big dreams” speeches, but let’s be real:  would you care that I think you have great potential?

Exactly.

But what if the dreamer was Paul?  Like, the guy who wrote Ephesians?  What if he thought that, as a part of the body of Christ, your potential as a human was mind-blowing?  

What if it was Paul sitting across from you at the kitchen table, with his eyes full of tears and his hand clutching yours, while he looked at you and said,

You have been “blessed…with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3).

You have been chosen “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph. 1:4).

You are part of a church that is Christ’s “body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22-23).

God has “raised [you] up with Christ and seated [you] in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to [you] in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).

You were “created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [you] to do” (Eph. 2:10).

You are “a fellow citizen with God’s people and member of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19).

As part of the church, you “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).

God’s “intent was that now, through the church [like, the one you are apart of], the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (3:10).

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:17-19).

God has given you gifts “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:12-13).

While “speaking the truth in love, [you] will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ” (4:15).

As a Christian, you have a new identity, one that is “created to be like God in true righteousness in holiness” (4:24).

Wow!  That is incredible!  Can you believe that Paul thinks that about you?

Now, you might be sitting there thinking, “This is bunk.  Paul didn’t write this to me.  He wrote this to the Ephesians.  This is bad exegesis.”  To which I will respond maturely, “Your mom is bad exegesis,” before I theorize that because of Ephesians’ impersonal nature, it is believed to be a circular letter to be sent to lots of churches*.  That would make its message much more general to all believers…which includes you, my friend:)!

So…if this isn’t bunk, what are you…scratch that, what are we to do with those words?  On the one hand, Paul’s words give me confidence.  They make me feel very equipped.  I have every spiritual blessing!  I was created with a purpose!  I am part of a big, huge, dramatic plan to show God’s power to the world!

On the other hand, I kind of think, “Wow, I hope I live up to that.”  I mean, what does it even mean to “be filled to the measure of the fullness of God” or to “attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”???  Whenever I try to answer that question, I just stammer incoherently for a few minutes and then fall back into silence.  So if I cannot even grasp the end goal, how the heck am I supposed to reach it?

The beauty of Paul’s letter, though, is that I don’t have to.  All of these blessings are through Christ.  All of the plans are God’s.  It is God who creates me, who transforms me, who plans my “good works.”  I just seek.  And follow.  And worship.  And then…Paul’s big dreams happen.  

Paul has big dreams for you…because God does.  God dreams as one “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”  And even though I can’t even grasp such dreams, my prayers are with all of us as they come to pass.

Other than from Paul, have you ever received (or given) the “I have big dreams for you” speech?  Do you find such talk inspiring or intimidating?

*see Carson and Moo.  (probably not how I should cite that)

My Kind of Materialism

In some ways, I can honestly say I am not very materialistic.  When I see huge houses or fancy cars, there is not the smallest part of me that would want one.  You could give me a huge house, but unless you also give me a maid service to clean that thing, I’m not interested!  And that’s just it:  stuff makes life more complicated, and I don’t need any extra complications in my life.  Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I live by spartan standards.  At the same time, though, I just don’t have an inner desire for a ton of stuff.  I don’t often think, “You know what would make this situation better?  Going out and buying something.”  Oh, and that might be a part of it, too:  I hate spending money.

It would be easy, then, to think of myself as non-materialistic.  But I’m really not.  I just have a different type of materialism:  instead of things, I like experiences.  It sounds better, doesn’t it?  When I seek experiences, I feel more like I’m embracing life instead of just amassing junk.

Here’s the thing, though:  experiences come with a price tag, too.

Case in point:  My mom spoils my kids like crazy.  It’s not always a bad thing, but during one of our visits this summer, I did talk to her about easing up on the random trips to Toys R Us with the kids.  I told her that if she wanted to spend money on them, why not take them to do something cool, rather than to buy something?  For example, what about the Georgia Aquarium?  Luke loves aquariums, and it would be a great learning opportunity for both him and Anna.  Mom readily agreed, and a few days later, we headed off for a day of fun at the aquarium.

Friends, can I tell you how much that day cost?  Now, my mom didn’t cut any corners, but let’s just say, she could have gone to Toys R Us every day for a week and not spent as much money as the aquarium cost!

Or take our experience last week during Thanksgiving break.  Luke was so excited to have three days off of school, and he was even more excited that his cousins were coming in town Wednesday morning.  When they couldn’t get on their flight, the kids were disappointed…and we suddenly had a huge, empty day in front of us.  We wanted to make the most of Luke’s vacation from school, and so we thought, “Why not go see the Muppets movie?”  The four of us hadn’t seen a movie in the theater in a long time, and Greg loved the Muppets growing up, so it seemed like a great family activity.  As a special treat, we even told the kids we’d get popcorn.

Yeah.  Bad idea.

The movie tickets cost us $34, and that was a matinee!  The popcorn was $8, and a small bottle of water was $4.75.  Holy.  Cow.  The cashier handed me my $13 popcorn-and-water combo, and asked if I wanted a receipt.  “Nope,” I said as I put my card back in my wallet, “I don’t want any record that this ever happened.”  Besides, believe me, when I go to do my budget, I’m not going to see $46.75 spent at Regal Cinemas and think, “Hmm, what was that?  Is Regal Cinemas some kind of charity I donate to?”  I will remember what that was.

While I stood at the concession counter, with my gargantuan container of popcorn and tiny bottle of water, apparently taken from the fountain of youth, I began to be afflicted with a curse that strikes me from time to time.  It is a curse I like to call, Knowing What the Bible Says.    Apparently, there is a little section of my brain that spends all of its time filing away inconvenient parts of Scripture and then spitting them back out at me at inopportune times.  Things like, “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires,” or,  “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me,” or  “Among you, there must not even be a hint…”  You know what?  I’ll stop there.

Anyhow, my annoying, Bible-spitting brain chose this moment to offer up the Parable of the Talents.  You know the one:  the king gives his servants money and then comes back and judges them for how they use it.  The good servants make their money into more money,and the bad one just buries his in the ground.  We rightly interpret the message as pertaining to more than just money, but I think that money is definitely one of the resources to which it applies.  So anyway, here’s how the internal dialogue went from there:

Brain:  Parable of the Talents.  Think it over.

Me:  [Thinks]  Oh man, I’m not even burying my talent in the ground!  I’m squandering it on wild living, like the Prodigal Son!

Brain:  Hmm.  Something to think about.

Me:  Oh, come on!  I’m so sure the prodigal son spent his money on the moral equivalent of a Muppet movie.  This is family time!

Brain:  Family time for $50?  When your kids would have honestly been just as happy with renting a movie from Redbox and making some Pop Secret at home?

Me:  Going to the movies is not morally wrong.  Hush, brain.

Brain:  “From whom much is given, much is expected.”

Me:  Dang it!  I hate that verse.

This one is my brain’s trump card, and it reminds me of it regularly (again, usually at the most inopportune times).  If God’s expectations are proportional to the blessings He has given me, then, man…He expects A LOT out of me!

Anyway, I told my brain to shut it, and we went to see the movie.  It was pretty good, and we all had a pleasant enough time.  I do believe that building up your family and spending quality (and quantity) time with them is Kingdom work.  Even with that in mind, though, I’m not sure that our little movie-going experience would survive a cost-benefit analysis.  The cost was disproportionately high to the enjoyment we got out of it, especially considering the alternatives that would have been significantly cheaper and just as effective.

My movie angst, while a fascinating story in and of itself (tell me you weren’t riveted), is noteworthy because of the larger question it raised in my mind.  It is a question with which Greg and I wrestle very often:  how does God want us to use our resources?  I believe that God gives us everything we have in order to be used for His glory, and while there are no hard and fast rules precluding leisure time (have I mentioned how much I love watching movies?), I do believe that every expense we make as Christians has to be weighed in the light of eternity.  Maybe that sounds a little too deep…but I think that it’s true.  Greg and I even struggle with how much God would want us to spend on things that we know are good things–things like education for our kids or family time–when we have a sneaking suspicion that God would want us to do even better things, like helping His people who need it.  And honestly, I think that the struggle itself is good.  Maybe you are reading this and thinking that I completely overanalyzed the whole movie situation, and you might be right.  However, I tend to believe from reading the New Testament that if you are not wrestling with how you spend the resources that God has given you, then you may need to reexamine the gospel accounts.  Maybe it’s just me, but they kick my tail every time I read them!

In closing, I will share yet another quote that convicted me during the Muppets incident.  It is from C.S. Lewis, a man with whom I apparently have a passionate and tempestuous relationship (more to come, by the way).  Regarding the use of our resources for God’s kingdom, Lewis speculates:

“I do not believe that one can settle how much we ought to give.  I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.  In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.  If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.  There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.”

Based on those words, our movie experience would not have passed the Lewis test, much less the Kingdom test!

So, I guess the obvious question to end the post is,

How did you like the Muppets movie?:)

(Oh, and if you want to add something about using your resources for God’s kingdom, that’d be cool, too.)

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