What I Learned to Embrace in 2020

We are two days into the New Year, and I find myself needing to wrap up 2020 somehow. I wish I could put a great big bow on it, but it wasn’t exactly that kind of year. Still, there was a lot of joy and a lot of growth, and I don’t want to accidentally leave those gifts behind.

I have never been one to choose a “word for the year” like so many others do, but last year a word chose me. I don’t even remember how it happened. I just know that as I prayed about whether or not I should consider choosing a word, God began to whisper the same word over and over to my heart. 

Embrace.

He whispered it in other places, too— songs on the radio, conversations with friends, in the pages of my devotional reading. Again and again the word appeared…. Embrace.

Immediately, it resonated with me, likely because I was filled with so much dread for 2020. Our oldest daughter was graduating from high school, and I was dreading all the “lasts”: her last show, her last prom, her graduation. And I couldn’t even begin to imagine driving her six and a half hours away to college and leaving her there without us! 

But God was telling me to EMBRACE those things, to soak them in and find joy instead of dread. 

So I learned to EMBRACE THE MOMENTS.

I prayed for time to slow down (and, boy, did it!). When the quarantine began, we were suddenly all home together, and I was prepared to embrace every moment. We baked cookies and made scones and watched movies together. We went on family hikes and made more cookies. We created videos and completed schoolwork and yes, we made more cookies. And we ate them. All. 

When Sarah’s Senior girls trip to Texas was cancelled, we went to the beach and swam with dolphins instead. When she missed our family Disney trip due to a Covid exposure, we snuck back down to the Mouse House for a couple days after Thanksgiving (yay for annual passes!). When yet another direct exposure ruined our Christmas day plans, we waved sadly to the grandparents and then embraced the moment, choosing to make a fun memory instead (it had something to do with chinese food and a crispy duck, but that’s a story for another day!).

And when Jeff and I dropped her off at college and I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest, I embraced all the things I was grateful for— that she was still able to be on campus with Covid, that she was making new friends and thriving, that she missed her crazy family after all…

So I am grateful that God prepared me to embrace each of those moments. However, my word ended up applying to so much more than just Sarah! The Lord had many other lessons for me to EMBRACE.

When the world shut down, life changed drastically in our home. We went from everyone going in different directions every evening to having dinner (and lunch… and breakfast… and dessert!) together at home every day. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months.

I learned to EMBRACE REST.

There were so many projects I could have done around the house. There were closets and cabinets and a basement full of stuff calling my name. But my soul needed something different— rest

And so, contrary to my normal nature, I embraced it. I left the clutter where it was and curled up in a chair with a book. I snuggled on the couch with the kids and watched movies. I laced up my sneakers and took long walks. And I spent extended time talking and listening to my Father

The strangest thing happened, y’all— my soul began to breathe. It was as if I had been on a ventilator for a very long time, maybe years, and was suddenly beginning to breathe on my own again. It was shallow at first; uneven, gasping, gulps of air followed by periods of holding my breath; but eventually, as I embraced my new normal, it began to settle into a more consistent rhythm. 

I also learned to EMBRACE WRITING.

I have always found clarity through writing my thoughts. Stacks and stacks of prayer journals line my bookshelves. There are even a few (hilarious!) middle school “diaries” thrown in the mix. I have written hundreds of letters to friends over the years, and I have a folder of (mostly embarrassing) poetry hidden in my closet that will hopefully never be read by other humans! 

But around Thanksgiving last year, God began to stir in my heart the urge to write more consistently… and to share my words.

There is something extremely vulnerable about sharing my words with others. I want them to be real, not contrived or impersonal. I want them to touch people, to inspire and encourage and help those who read them. And if I’m honest, I want people to like them (stupid pride). But mostly, I want them to draw people’s hearts to Jesus, just as He draws my own heart to Him. 

And I don’t often know how to do that. 

But suddenly I had nothing else to do except EMBRACE what God was calling me to do. So I wrote about a lot of random things, praying God would use them. I published things faithfully on my blog, even though I had no idea if anyone was reading it. I joined hope*writers and began to learn about the discipline of writing, the craft of storytelling, and the machine that is involved if one ever hopes to publish: building a brand, a platform, a social media following, an email list, etc. 

It still overwhelms me! But through the process…

I have learned to EMBRACE GROWTH. 

I have tried new things and failed. I have written pieces and cringed after I published them. With the help of some friends, I designed a totally new website— that I still haven’t launched. I even submitted two articles for publication, both of which were rejected. But I did it! 

(And I was actually just featured as a guest blogger on a fellow hope*writer’s blog, so that’s fun! You can read that article here.

Overall, I have learned so much. I have even been able to share some of it with others, and it is all a result of embracing something new, of not being afraid to try.

Above all else, I have EMBRACED JESUS.

This year has given me the gift of time and space to just be with Jesus. I have had the freedom to study the Word; to read deep, reflective books; to pour out my heart to my Father; and to sit at His feet and listen. He has convicted and encouraged me, and faithfully been present. I have asked Him for answers and direction, and He has repeatedly reminded me to open my hands and trust Him. So I embrace His goodness, his faithfulness, His love; and I place myself in His hands, like clay in the hands of the Potter. Have your way with me, Lord!

Looking back, it’s funny to think of 2020 as a year to be embraced. Yet, that is exactly what God asked me to do, and I am so grateful. Think of all I would have missed out on if I had stayed focused on what I was losing and if the world had not shut down! 

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” —Romans 8:28 (NLT)

God has given me a new word for 2021 (I’ll share it here soon!), but I intend to continue embracing whatever He places before me, and I pray you will as well! 

Looking Back and Moving Forward: 7 Questions to Guide You into 2021

Well friends, can you believe it? It’s the last day of 2020.

We made it!

Do you remember last New Year’s Eve? So many of us were looking forward to not only a new year, but a new decade! The beginning of a new beginning.  A chance to start fresh, to see things clearly, to create something new. We thought we were going to have “20/20” Vision, remember?

Instead, as the saying goes, it turns out “Hindsight is 20/20.”

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

I don’t think anyone can say this year looked like what they expected. I mean, who expects Tiger King, a global pandemic, a toilet paper shortage, a disputed Presidential election, and murder hornets (whatever happened to those anyway? Wait, forget I asked!) all in one year?

And that is only the beginning of what many of you faced this year. Job loss, separation from or loss of loved ones, financial stress, cancelled milestones… it has been a way different year than we all expected, for sure.

Yet, even in the darkness, there are moments of joy and lessons of light to be grasped. If we focus on the darkness, that is all we see, and it’s easy to lose our way. But if, in the midst of darkness, we search for light, even the tiniest spark will illuminate our path. 

Jesus came into our world at a time of great political and social unrest. In fact, He assured us that as long as we live in this world, we will experience trouble, hardship, and suffering. (John 16:33) But He goes on to remind us that He has overcome the darkness of this world. He is the light we long for in the darkness! He is the peace we so desperately seek. He is where we find our hope.

I’m sure we are all more than ready to kiss 2020 good-bye, but the reality is that 2021 probably isn’t going to look much different. Masks, quarantines, cancelled events, social media madness, political chaos— I’m afraid they are all going to stick around for awhile. The difference this time around is they are not unexpected. 

And expectations can make all the difference!

More than anything, I believe this year has revealed to us the illusion of our own control. Going into 2020, we thought we controlled our time, our travel plans, our priorities, our activities, and even our health to a large extent. How quickly we learned how little control we actually have over our own lives! 

Friends, sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we are not in control. 

We can do all the right things and bad things still happen. We can plan things out perfectly and those plans can disappear in an instant. There is something about uncertainty that clarifies our priorities. When all the excess things are stripped away, we find ourselves grasping for what we value most. And sometimes we can’t discern those things any other way.

So, before we start a new year, I want to encourage you to take some time to peek back into the darkness of 2020 and search for the light. Here are a few questions I am asking myself that I thought might be helpful for you as well.

Looking back at 2020:

1. What am I grateful for?

2. What did I lose or miss out on last year that I am still grieving?  What did I gain?

3. What have I learned?

Pondering my answers to these questions is helping me discern who/what is most important to me, what I truly value, and what I need to prioritize as I move forward. It’s important to keep those priorities in mind as we answer the next set of questions.

Moving forward into 2021:

4. Who/what do I most value? How can I make sure those stay my top priority in the coming year (even in uncertain circumstances)?

5. What is God leading me to let go of? (This may be certain habits, relationships, thought patterns, labels, activities, etc.)

6.  What is God calling me to BE in 2021?

7. What is God calling me to DO in 2021?

As we were discussing how 2020 has affected our family, one of our girls declared that it really hasn’t affected us that much, and our other kids agreed. And in the grand scheme, they are correct— we have not lost any loved ones to COVID, Jeff’s job is still secure, we are financially stable and currently all healthy, all of which we are grateful for! 

But there were plenty of disappointments and cancelled plans, especially for the kids. So when I asked her why she thought we weren’t affected, she said, “Well, I guess it’s because our family is just really good at rolling with things!”

Jeff and I try to live our lives in a way that reflects that God is in control, no matter what. We don’t always do it perfectly, but this year has given us plenty of opportunities to practice it, that’s for sure! Our goal has been to feel the darkness and grieve the losses when necessary, but then to refocus our eyes and look for the light. 

And without fail, we have found it. There are always hidden blessings, secret sources of joy, and unexplainable peace waiting there in the darkness, if only we will look for them.  Sometimes that light shines like a lantern; other times it is no bigger than a birthday candle. But in the darkest room, even a tiny flame can dispel some of the darkness. And once we find it, it remains with us, casting light in other places of darkness, spreading its glow to those around us, slowly illuminating the way forward.

Friends, take a few minutes today or tomorrow to search the darkness of 2020 for the glimpses of light. Get alone with God and ask Him to speak truth to your heart. Let those glimmers shine into the new year and show you how to start. Don’t worry about making resolutions or planning anything out twelve  months ahead (or even two weeks, lol!). Just listen to your Father and hold your days with open hands. Let His voice and the truth you’ve gleaned in 2020 guide you one step at a time.

And do not fear.

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” –John 1:5 (NIV)

Wishing you all the Light of Jesus to guide your steps in 2021~

Wrapped in the Unexpected

NOTE: This week’s guest blogger is my sweet friend, Lindsey Gibson. Lindsey was one of the first people to reach out to me when I joined Hope*Writers, and she quickly became a trusted friend. Her heart for Jesus and her passion for helping others is evident in everything she does. I am so grateful for her friendship and excited to share her words with you today!

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Like it was yesterday, I remember sneakily scooting as near to the Christmas tree as I could without touching it, as that was the rule. Each ornament had a story to tell, and the bubble lights were my absolute favorite. Hoping not to get caught, I’d quickly scan each gift placed carefully under the tree for my name and take note of each one’s size and shape. 

I’d think, dream, and guess what could be hiding behind the beautifully wrapped paper that was chosen just for me! 

Regarding gifts, what if I told you the ones most carefully chosen by our Heavenly Father aren’t always packaged in sparkle, but quite often, in unlikely, unpredictable, ill-timed packaging, while resembling nothing attractive and having little perceived value? 

UGH! Who wants that kind of gift? At first look, I’d say, absolutely no one. 

I’m sure you are saying, “Well, that’s encouraging, Lindsey! What else do you have to lift our hearts in the most fantastic year of 2020?” 

Glad you asked, sweet friend; let’s go to Isaiah 9:6-7 and read the promise given to God’s people: 

6 For to us, a child is born, to us, a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

The Messiah, or the “anointed one,” was a gift of relief, rescue, and redemption. This new KING and GOVERNOR would set the record straight and repair the broken bridge between a Holy God and man. 

Wow! A king is on the way! A palace. A throne. A Savior. 

However, God’s gift arrived a bit differently than anyone expected. Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20 tell us the unlikely, yet heavenly, story of a common young virgin girl named Mary. She was chosen to birth the Promised child, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiance, shocked and unsure, stepped up in humble obedience to become the earthly Father. 

There was no pampering preparation or luxurious birthing suite to anticipate the royal birth, just a long journey home on the back of a mule. Labor pains brought no room to welcome a baby properly. The company of livestock would have to do.

This type of “grand” entrance would be easy to overlook, dismiss, and reject, wouldn’t it? 

What about in our lives, now? Do we have promises we hold close? Are we waiting and believing that God will answer, reveal, and show up? Maybe we long to be a mother, have a healthy marriage, solid friendships, or a different career. 

Also, could we possibly miss the answer if it shows up looking more like a rock instead of the promised jewel?

In our lives, this may look a bit like:

Motherhood wrapped in infertility, 

A happy marriage layered under childhood baggage and bad choices. 

A treasured friendship walled off by trust issues.

A dream opportunity hidden behind a disappointing layoff. 

Did you know diamonds form when carbon deposits (rocks) deep within the earth are subject to extreme temperature and pressure?

It’s still the promise, yet unexpectedly unrefined.

1 Peter 1:6-7 tells us, “In this, you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which perishes though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;”

Life’s heat and pressure slow a hurried stride. Trials push pause and position desperate hearts to receive. In the beauty of difficulty, our gaze adjusts to focus on the heart of our Father. Intimacy and trust deepen as we lean in a bit more. Through this, His reflection tells our story.

Upon it, His strength is magnified. His goodness outshines hopelessness. His healing is mending the shattered. His faithfulness is never denied. 

Can you believe it, the humble gift sent to save us chose to display HIS glory through the most unlikely….US!!! 

Be encouraged! 

Lindsey Gibson is your “life unpacking” specialist, encourager, writer of the “Moving Beyond Messy Blog”, speaker, wife, Mama of two (plus a few), Registered Nurse, former “Hot Mess Express” titleholder, and definite God’s grace dweller. You can find her in the following places:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/moving_beyond_messy/

Facebook :https://www.facebook.com/LindseyGibsonWriter

Website: www.lindseygibson.com

I Need a Sign

The weather outside is gray and dreary, reflecting my soul. I am trying to get in the Christmas spirit… we are celebrating the greatest Gift ever given, after all! And You are my greatest gift, Jesus. Nothing in my life would mean anything without You. So I truly am grateful.

I just don’t feel like celebrating.

I don’t want any more stuff– I don’t want to buy it and I don’t want to receive it. I don’t want to eat the cookies I’m baking. I don’t want to buy an extension cord for the front porch decorations. And I’m tired of watching the same old movies for the hundredth time!

Everything just feels so… ordinary this year.

No magic. No wonder. No anticipation.

Change my heart, Lord!

I am like the shepherds of long ago, out in the fields, just going about their business. I’m doing what I always do, trapped in the rut of ordinary life. As the darkness of night settles in, everything looks the same as it always does. No angels. No star.

But wait… A star?

The star!

God, how did You know? Of all the years, how did You know we would need the reminder this year? 

A visible symbol declaring Your Presence with us; a light intended to draw our eyes and hearts to You. In 2020, the week of Christmas…

The Bethlehem Star.

If ever we needed something to lead us to You, Jesus, it is now!

Our world needs Your peace.

Our nation needs Your peace.

Our communities need Your peace.

Our families need Your peace.

I need Your peace.

“When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

– Matthew 2:10-11

Lord, whether I am caught in a cycle of busyness or muddling through the mundane, may I pause and lift my eyes tonight in search of something more.

May the star in the sky, the sign You have given (again), usher into my heart the joy and wonder I have been missing.

May it lead me into Your Presence, so I may bow down and worship You.

May I open my heart, my hands, my treasures, and lay them at Your feet. May all that I am and all that I have be used for Your glory.

“O Come, let us adore Him 

O Come, let us adore Him

O Come, let us adore Him,

Christ, the Lord!”

(-O Come, All Ye Faithful, John Francis Wade)

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Sweet friends, may you find wonder and joy in the coming of the Christ child this Christmas!

When You Find Yourself on Empty

NOTE: Friends, please welcome our next guest blogger, my sweet friend, Abi! She is in the throes of young motherhood, among many other adventures, so I am grateful she was able to find time to write for us (I mean, I barely found time to go to the bathroom when my kids were little!) When she sent me her post this weekend, I almost cried. It is so timely for Christmas time and 2020 in general, when we all find ourselves running on empty, and I know so many of us can relate. You can read more about Abi and find ways to follow her writing at the end of this post. Thank you for taking time to read her words today!

In the countdown to Christmas and new year, we find ourselves writing and reviewing more lists than usual. We regularly unpack our cluttered brains with all of the “to dos” of the busy season and take pleasure in crossing items off our lists. We might find ourselves deciphering items on our children’s handwritten gift lists, monitoring tight budgets and balances, googling seasonal recipes and scribbling “brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce, eggnog” on the backs of envelopes, which we stuff into pockets before spreading pleated fabric over our faces and dashing out to the store.  

In between curbside pick ups and scheduled package deliveries, maybe we are also finding time to pen gratitude lists and gather all of the memories and lessons of 2020, or returning to bullet point prayers and resolutions to reflect and evaluate. Perhaps we’re so desperate to exchange this challenging year for a fresh start, we’re already jotting down our dreams, plans, and projects for what we hope is a brighter year ahead. 

In the last few weeks, I’ve done many of these things. I’m an analog-loving fan of pen, paper, and post-it notes. There’s a good chance you’ll find me frantically sorting through the mental mess of the season by spreading sticky yellow squares all over the kitchen table. For me, list writing is an organizational strategy and a therapeutic exercise. I also consider it to be a sometimes-effective sleep aid.

One night when I was struggling to fall asleep, I sat up and began to write a grocery list for the next day (as you do). Frustratingly, as I was nearing the end, the pen I was using began to dry out. Blue, inky letters gradually turned to dry, colorless etchings on the page. I furiously scribbled circles in the margins, applying more pressure than necessary, but that didn’t work. I moved the pen back and forth in straight and wiggly lines, but still, no ink appeared. Then in a last-ditch effort, I shook the pen with a strong flick of my wrist, multiple times, hoping that any residual ink stuck in the inner tube would shift towards the nib. I was trying to get that last bit of remaining ink to move and flow out so that I could finish my list. I got a little more done, but it still wasn’t enough. None of my efforts proved entirely successful (and neither did my “sleep aid”). It seemed like a reflection of the state of my heart at the end this year. 

When we are coming to the end of a challenging season, it is easy to grow weary and despondent. We might know the finish line is coming, but we are limping and shuffling towards the blurry end with a pained expression. We feel dry and spent. We’ve run out of energy and motivation. We can feel like that dwindling ink pen, with nothing left to give. We don’t have the strength or supply to finish what we started, let alone finish it well. 

In response, we either settle for less, strive for more, or give up entirely. Some of us decide that we will just survive it, shrink back, and quietly, dutifully finish. Some of us see our fast-fading output and fight back by adding more pressure and movement, trying to force any remaining fuel to the surface. Others of us abandon efforts altogether. 

In frustration, we can force and we can press and shake. In weariness, we can settle for running out and barely there—or even nothing at all. But thankfully those aren’t our only options. We can also admit our weakness and seek the strength and supply only God can provide. 

Perhaps you have given up and put your efforts on hold. You’re pinning all of your hope onto an uncertain future and shutting down until it appears. God has more for you right now.

Maybe hard times have caused you to retreat into the comfort of nostalgia and you find yourself wistfully looking back more than you are eagerly looking forward. Remember—you still have a story to tell, a vital part to play. God has much more He wants to do through you.  

May God release what is stuck, refresh your supply, and free you to flow in the gifts He has given you, to love and serve well in the places He has called you. May you and the people around you be utterly surprised by the abundant overflow of His goodness and grace to you. We are not those who shrink back and diminish but those who press on, fight the good fight, and finish the race.

Bring your lack, your empty vessels, bring your unfinished lists and your fading letters to an unlimited and generous God. Lower your tired and trembling hand, point your dwindling ink pen to the page once again and let grace that’s sufficient flow.

Sometimes the best stories are written from a place of emptiness, and the greatest miracles happen in a time of drought. Just as the finest wine is brought out at the end—quite unexpectedly—maybe the most vibrant ink is reserved for the last few lines. Though you feel weak and empty, God’s power and life will flow through you as you commit to the blank spaces ahead and move forward in faith.  

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:19)

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Abi Marks is a British non-fiction writer who moved to the middle of America 12 years ago. She lives in Missouri with her husband and three lively daughters where she also works as an adjunct English instructor and freelance copy editor. She loves a good analogy, looks for meaning in ordinary things, and writes to inspire reflection about life, faith, and creativity. You can find her on Instagram @abi.m.marks and her blog abimarks.wordpress.com.

Waiting for Hope

(**Note: This blogpost was originally published last December, but I am sharing it again with a few revisions as we finish up the first week of Advent. In a year like 2020, it seems we can all use a little more hope!)

Hope.

That is the word God has been whispering to my heart this week.

It has been in my devotional readings everyday. It has popped up in several Facebook posts. It was the theme running through our Midweek service. It was even written in glowing Christmas lights on my neighbor’s yard when I drove home last night! (I’m not kidding…talk about a sign!)

We just completed the first week of Advent in the Christian calendar, and the focus for this week was—you guessed it— hope.

As I think back on the beginning of the Christmas story, I am reminded that God’s people had been waiting for what must have seemed like forever for the promised Messiah to appear. Hundreds of years had gone by since the prophets proclaimed God’s message of the One who was to come. Their land had been torn apart by savages, their government overthrown, their people scattered among the nations. So much time had gone by that the stories of old were just that… ancient stories, passed down through generations, of a time long before when God had favored their people. 

But it was clear that God must have changed His mind and turned His back on them. 

Their great-great-great-great (you get it) grandparents had let Him down one too many times, trading long-term loyalty for a fast-food faith, and they were left living the repercussions. Sure, even in the midst of their betrayal, the Father had promised the Messiah, the One who would change everything. How they longed for Him to come! 

But that was a long time ago… 

Perhaps they forgot what it was like to hope.

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 Jeff and I were married for 5 years before we had our oldest daughter, Sarah. We spent three of those years trying to have a baby. At first, we waited patiently, trusting in God’s timing and continuing on with life as usual. After awhile, though, we knew something wasn’t right. We read all the articles, counted the days on the calendar, met with the doctors, ran all the tests. It was in God’s hands, we knew; still, our hearts broke a little with every negative test result.

At the same time, it seemed like every other young couple in our social circle chose that moment to start having babies. I remember buying hooded bath towels and lavender bath wash, smiling through all the baby showers and joking about not drinking the water, only to hide my tears in the bathroom where no one could see.  

The days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years

remember what it was like to long for someone I wasn’t sure would ever come. 

I, too, almost forgot how to hope.

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But then one day, out of the blue, when everyone was just going about their business as usual, an angel appeared to a teenage girl, and the message he delivered breathed HOPE back into the world once again! God had heard His people and He would no longer turn away. It was time. There would be a baby!

Wait, a baby? 

Yes. That baby changed everything.

*******

Our baby changed everything too. I was so in shock when the test was positive, I ran straight to Jeff’s study and handed him the pee stick.  No cute t-shirt or video announcement for us! No, we just sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor and cried at God’s faithfulness. We were so busy having faith that we hadn’t even realized we had lost hope, until suddenly our hearts were flooded with it once again!

I think I took at least four more tests after that just to be sure. It’s amazing what a little hope can do! God could have chosen to answer our prayer in a different way, and that would have been okay. Truly. Our hope came in the form of two lines on a stick that day, but ultimately our hope came in the promise fulfilled all those years ago, when Love chose to put on skin and dwell among us. Emmanuel. God with us! We are not alone.

That is our hope

And so, as we journey through this season of Advent, I want to remember what it was like to wait so long that I almost lost hope, to be afraid to be expectant after so much disappointment. I have been there. Some of you are still there, I know. 2020 has wreaked havoc on our ability to hope!

“But we cannot lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” -2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Friends, we must remember God’s unfailing faithfulness…

A Promise made.

A Baby given.

A Savior sent.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” -Hebrews 10:23

“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” –Romans 15:4

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” –Romans 15:13

Let us remember… and hope. 

Active Expectation: 4 Steps to Ready Your Soul for Christ

Guest Post by Yolanda Lichty, December 2020

NOTE: Friends, please welcome our first guest blogger for December! I am super excited to introduce y’all to my sweet friend, Yolanda. She is a middle school teacher, a beautiful, thoughtful writer who loves Jesus, and she just happens to be Canadian (so if you notice some words spelled differently, you’ll know why!). You can read more about her and find ways to follow her writing at the end of this post. I am so thankful she agreed to share her words with us today. Enjoy!

The room was cold, empty, half-forgotten. Dubbed the old gym, it waited above the student lounge for more funds and blue prints yet to be drawn. The vaulted ceilings were anything but grand, only giving space for barred windows and gray metal rafters. Still, somehow, in the bleak cold of December, it was the best place–a dark, shadowy, waiting place. 

And we came, one by one with blankets, winter coats, candles, and our own harried, half-grown souls. We came expecting. Expecting what? We didn’t really know. “Come to Advent,” they said, so we did. 

Sitting round in a circle, leaning against each other, sharing blankets, watching the candle light flicker in each other’s eyes, we listened as someone read the Old Story. A stumbling nation grew impatient and nearly gave up hoping for the Messiah, promised by Isaiah, Malachi, and others. The people walked in darkness, and the little bit of light they found did little to satisfy their expectations. 

“Come Messiah, come Messiah, come Messiah, we still wait

For the fruition of the great promise you gave,

Come Messiah, save us from cruel Roman hate,

Come Messiah, come now before it’s too late.” (Yolanda Lichty, 2014)

Come He did, and most of Bethlehem missed Him. Few in Judea recognized Him. The children of Abraham had distracted themselves with so many man-made ways to please the Father, that they forgot to expect the Son. 

I didn’t grow up celebrating Advent. I saw the word around Christmas time and assumed they were one and the same. I didn’t know that Christmas without Advent is like a gang of old friends showing up on your doorstep around seven thirty Monday morning. You love the old friends and want to welcome them with open arms; but the washer is spinning, the toast is burning, and your mind is whirling with the week’s to-do list. Christmas isn’t Christmas without Advent, because we cannot celebrate Jesus, if we are not expecting His Presence.

So, friend, this December, may I tell you a little secret?

Jesus is coming.

He might be coming in the form of a neighbour dropping by with cookies. He might be coming as a still, small whisper in your soul. He might be coming in a crabby son who needs to be held and hushed and kissed. He might be coming with the Salvation Army sign, tinkling bell, and the invitation to give. He might be coming in the strains of a virtual Christmas choir. Just know, He’s coming. 

We get to expect Him. This Christmas, the world may be under lockdown, but my risen Jesus comes through locked doors and into locked hearts. He comes into our empty spaces, our loneliness, or unfilled days on the calendar and fills them with Himself. What can we do to actively expect Him, so that we don’t miss Him when He comes?

Prepare Space: 

It can be a window looking down on the street with a candle on its sill. It can be a corner of the classroom where a few dogwood sticks make a Jesse tree. (That worked for my seventh grade last year.) It can be the hide-hole under the stairs where you go to be still for a while. Wherever it is, dim the lights, close the curtains, and prepare space for Jesus to enter in.

Prepare Time: 

Look at your calendar and choose the time. My college Advent services were at nine at night. When I did Advent with my students, it was sometimes first thing in the morning and sometimes squeezed into fifteen minutes after lunch, but every day the time was carved out ahead of time so we could anticipate it.

Prepare Your Heart: 

When you’ve brought yourself to the set apart space in the set apart time, take a few minutes to set aside the day’s stress. Give them to the Father. Confess the day’s faults. Then be still. Breathe deeply, read some Scripture, sing a few Advent songs, but mostly give space for silence.

Invite others: 

While there is something incredibly good about taking time alone with Jesus, the presence of others enriches the experience of Advent. A nation waited for the Messiah. All people of every generation expect the final return of King Jesus. Share these moments of expectation with others. Not convinced? Let me share a couple stories.

My second year at college, I stumbled into a conversation with the dean of men, a gaunt man with a scraggly beard and the pure heart of a child. He’d learned somewhere about Advent wreaths, with special candles for different days.  He didn’t think we’d need to go into all the details, but he’d kind of like to make one. If he made the base and got some greens together, could I help make it, maybe find someone else to help, too? I told him I had no clue what I was doing, but I’d try. I thought of a dormie (dorm-mate) of mine, a quiet, tiny girl with a knack for beautifying her corner of the world. I invited her to join us. There, in the dark, greasy corner of the maintenance garage, we assembled a lovely wreath with boxwood, cedar, dogwood, and spruce. We giggled as we stuck in a branch here, twisted a vine there, trimmed some holly, and added berries. Somehow in that moment of communal preparation, we caught the wonder of Advent.

Jesus is coming.

Last year, in my classroom, we all coloured a picture or two to hang on the Jesse tree. We pulled down the blinds, cleared our desks, and turned out the lights. We took turns reading the Scriptures and holding the candles. We sang and prayed together; and the quiet got into our souls. In one of the craziests seasons of the year, my seventh graders were calm, and so was I. The warmth of God’s Presence held us like the softest blanket.

Jesus is coming.

Friend, I invite you to prepare a space and time, to prepare your heart, and to invite others to wait with you (especially the children). Jesus is coming, if we have eyes to behold Him. Expect Jesus to show up and be delighted and surprised when He shows up in the most unexpected ways.

Yes, Jesus is coming, and I can hardly wait!

******************

Advent Resources I’ve Used:

The Greatest Gift a book of Advent meditations by Ann VosKamp

Jesse Tree Ornament printables available free on AnnVoskamp.com under the “Free Tools” tab

Free dogwood branches growing in the ditch

Candles of any shape and size

This Year I’m Using: Advent Devotions & Christmas Crafts for Families a book by Victoria Duerstock

****************

Yolanda Lichty, a Mennonite from Southern Ontario, (yes, Canada), lives at home with four of her five siblings. She entered the classroom as a student in 1999 and hasn’t left it since, currently teaching seventh grade. Small natural wonders, child’s play, and the minor key fascinate Yolanda. She longs for women to love God with their minds as a path to intentional, abundant life and would love if you’d join her in discovering grace and truth at travelight94.com. You can also find her on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.ca/yolandalichty/_created/.

An Attitude of Gratitude: 5 Reasons to Focus on Being Thankful

Y’all, I love Christmas like the next girl, but I am one of those people who holds out until after Thanksgiving to start celebrating it.  After all, we’re in the season of falling leaves and everything pumpkin! Who wants to rush that?!

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, NIV)

So while the rest of you are hanging lights and playing Christmas music, I’m over here trying to squeeze every last drop out of Thanksgiving! I love the food and the smells and time with family. I love the focus on gratitude— I love finding reasons to be thankful. And I love all the traditions that come with special holidays.

What our your favorite Thanksgiving traditions? 

Our family has a unique tradition. Each November, after we set out the pumpkins and scarecrows, we decorate our dinner table with the same tablecloth. 

There’s nothing really special about the cloth itself. It’s not particularly attractive or aesthetically pleasing. It didn’t come from Pottery Barn… in fact, I think we probably bought it at Wal-mart!  

(Let’s just say it’s not something Chip and Joanna would have in their home.) 

It’s simply a plain old white tablecloth with a border of tacky brown leaves in the middle and some scripted words around the bottom.

Not exactly Instagram worthy, I know.

What is special about this tablecloth, though, is the tradition which surrounds it.

Each year on Thanksgiving day, we set out a bunch of Sharpies, and everyone gathers around the table to write what they are thankful for. Among the entries are:

  • Mommy and Daddy
  • Family and friends
  • My Little Pony
  • Our new puppy, May
  • Playing X-box
  • That Charlotte is cancer free!
  • Unicorns, pigs, and uni-pigs (Yes, I know, our kids are super weird!)

(Tik-Tok, soccer, and Disneyworld have also made it onto the tablecloth!)

We add the year to each entry so we can remember how old the kids were when they wrote it. It really is fun to look back at all the things we were grateful for!

Friends, we all tend to focus on being thankful around Thanksgiving, and there is nothing wrong with that! But if we want to develop an attitude of gratitude, it is something we should learn to practice all year long.

So, here are five reasons we should focus on being thankful all year:

1. Gratitude turns our focus away from ourselves.

Let’s face it, we live in a self-centered world. We come into the world focused on our own needs, and our social media culture has multiplied that tendency by a bazillion.  Being intentional about gratitude requires that we take our eyes off ourselves and turn them to the Giver. 

2. Gratitude helps us focus on the positive instead of the negative.

In a year like 2020, it is so easy to wallow in all the things that have gone wrong. We have sacrificed celebrations, milestones, vacations, jobs, and more because of COVID. But when we focus only on what we’ve given up, we miss out on so much! There were also many gifts during this time: uninterrupted time with family, new traditions created, and an appreciation for things we often take for granted. Where we direct our focus has a huge impact on our overall attitude. Gratitude enables us to embrace a positive perspective on life!

3. Gratitude teaches us to learn from difficult situations instead of complaining.

I led a Gratitude Challenge in my Facebook group this month, and one of the prompts I gave them was, “What are some difficult or challenging experiences you faced that you are grateful for now?” Time has a way of bringing perspective. Circumstances that are painful in the moment can eventually lead to great self-discovery and a strengthened faith. The more we take time to look back and glean the good from our difficult experiences, the more we are able to recognize those types of blessings and lessons in the moment. Choosing gratitude helps me embrace whatever the Lord desires to teach me through my circumstances. And that benefits everyone a lot more than just complaining!

4. Gratitude grows our faith.

Being thankful requires recognizing the gifts we have received. Being the receiver of those gifts requires acknowledging that there is a Giver. Most of what I am grateful for I have not earned; I have simply received it. As we focus on the many ways God has provided for us, we learn to trust in His future provision. We learn to trust His ways and His timing, even when they don’t align with ours. Focusing on gratitude becomes an expression of faith.

5. Gratitude is contagious- it spreads to everyone around us! 

Have you ever been around someone who has a grateful spirit? It’s contagious, isn’t it? People who intentionally choose an attitude of gratitude have learned to not take the little things for granted. The more we are around someone like that, the more we begin to treasure and appreciate the little moments as well. And the less we take things for granted, the kinder we tend to be to those around us. 

That sounds like something our world needs a little more of right now! I want to be the kind of person that other people want to be around. I want my gratitude to be contagious. How about you?

So, as you stuff the turkey (does anyone actually do that anymore?) and bake the pies this Thanksgiving, make sure you take time to be mindful of all your blessings. And then, when this season is over and we move into the next one, don’t leave your gratitude buried beneath a pile of leaves. Keep it going!

We have so many reasons to focus on being thankful. Let’s develop an attitude of gratitude that will last us all year long!

So What Do We Do Now, America?

Well, friends, it’s been several days since the General Election. Americans showed up at the polls in record number. All the ballots have been marked and the votes have been cast. America has spoken… (we have no idea what we actually said, but that’s beside the point!)

So, what do we do now?

First, let’s talk about what we don’t do. 

We don’t act like three year olds who didn’t get their way. We don’t throw temper tantrums, lash out, or take our toys and go home. 

We don’t act like middle-schoolers who think we know everything, smiling to our friends’ faces while we talk about them behind their back and find ways to embarrass them on social media. 

We don’t act like many of our politicians who use their words and platforms to emphasize what divides us.

No, America, we are better than that. 

So what do we do now?

We show up.

Remember all those issues we were so passionate about this past month? Remember the things we argued about on Facebook, the things we couldn’t believe our “friends” could be so unconcerned and uncaring about? Abortion, immigration, education, civil rights, the job market, the environment… remember those things?

Guess what? They are still issues.

Believe it or not, they were issues several decades ago, and they will likely still be issues several decades from now. Legislation is important, of course. But making a rule rarely fixes the problem…

That part is up to us.

So what do we do now? 

Friends, we can’t just show up to vote, we have to actually SHOW UP. Period. 

Choose to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

What does that look like? 

  • Put your money where your mouth is. 
  • Actually do as you say, not just as you say you do. 
  • Put down your phone, step away from the computer, and DO something!

You see, we live in this weird time in which everyone’s opinion seems to matter. With the click of a button, we have an enormous audience instantly applauding our words, and if we’re honest, that makes us feel important. It makes us feel like we’ve done something important, just by using our “voice”. 

But it’s a lie, y’all. We haven’t actually done anything.

Newsflash: No one reverses their opinion from a social media post, and the world is not a better place simply because we tweeted something. Posting and doing are two entirely different things. One is easy and self-edifying; the other is more difficult and actually costs us something.

Now, you should know, I am preaching to myself, too. 

Even as I write this blog post, I am fighting the urge to feel heroic. Surely my words count for something, right? And isn’t it noble to motivate people to action?

Not really. 

Talk is cheap, friends, even for people like me who invest a lot of time and thought into our words. Especially for people like me!

I am prone to think I’ve done something simply because I’ve talked about it and advocated for it and encouraged others to do something about it. But at the end of the day, all I’ve done is talk, and the issues still remain.

One good thing about this circus of an election is it has led many of us to honestly evaluate what is important to us and why. But I can’t help asking myself, if those issues are such a strong determiner of what matters to me and to our country, then what am I actually doing about it?

Voting is not enough. Posting is not enough. Arguing is not enough.

It’s time to do something!

Because when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter who the President is or which party controls Congress. Laws will passed and repealed. Parties will be elected and then defeated. 

Meanwhile, there are young women in crisis, praying for someone to rescue them. There are struggling boys without fathers, in desperate need of love and leadership. There are immigrants and refugees right down the road who need furniture, job training, and someone to teach them to speak English. There are foreign countries plotting against us, and not enough people to protect us. There are people living in extreme poverty all around the world.

Pregnant teens need support, neglected children need foster homes, and the local food pantries need replenishing. 

It can be overwhelming when you really think about it!

And honestly, that’s what leads to my personal passivity. 

There is so much to do, so many people who need help, so many issues I care about, that I don’t know where to start. 

How do I decide what’s most important? 

How do I find time to help when my schedule is already so full?

How do I know how much to donate, especially if my budget is tight?

And how do I know if I am doing enough?

It reminds me of watching my boys play soccer. They are usually a force to be reckoned with—they are unbeatable on defense and unstoppable on offense. But this year, I’ve noticed they have struggled playing midfield. They seem unsure of whether they should attack, stay back, or stall for their teammates. So instead, they end up doing nothing. They stand there, frozen, unable to make a decision.

And they end up missing the opportunity to make a difference.

Y’all, I do the same thing. I don’t want to do the wrong thing, or I’m not really sure how to help, so I end up doing nothing at all.

And I miss my opportunity to make a difference. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to miss any more opportunities.

  • Like Esther, I believe we were created for such a time as this. 
  • Like Abraham, we need to be willing to step out in faith and go where God leads us.
  • Like Moses, we need to be willing to put our fears aside and do what God tells us to do.
  • Like the disciples, we need to boldly share the hope we’ve been given by meeting the needs of those God puts in our path.

My favorite author, Elisabeth Elliot, made popular a poem by an unknown author, entitled, “Do The Next Thing.” She returned to it often when she found herself unsure of what to do.  These two stanzas seem particularly relevant to us:

Many a questioning, many a fear,
Many a doubt, hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from Heaven,
Time, opportunity, and guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrows, child of the King,
Trust them with Jesus, do the next thing

Do it immediately, do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly, casting all care;
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand
Who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing,
Leave all results, do the next thing.

So what do we do now, America?

If we vote our values, we must live our values. We don’t have to do everything, but we must do something!

  • Volunteer to teach English/job skills to some local refugees. 
  • Sign up to be a mentor at your local school. 
  • Buy groceries for the Food Pantry. 
  • Sponsor a child and buy Free Trade products.
  • Get trained to volunteer or lead a Bible Study at your local Crisis Pregnancy Center. 
  • Coach a basketball team in an underprivileged area. 
  • Provide furniture for someone rescued from sex trafficking. 
  • Offer to take dinner or babysit for a foster/adoptive family.
  • Donate to your local homeless shelter and find out other ways you can help. 
  • Send care packages to our soldiers (or become one yourself). 

Get involved! And take your children with you. Our actions speak much louder than our words!

I don’t really care who you voted for or why. We are called to be Light in the darkness, to take the hope of Christ to the nations and to our neighbors.

So, what are you going to do now, America?

That part is up to you. 

Just do something.

The Masks We Hide Behind

Halloween 2010

October is the month of masks. Superheroes or villains, scary or silly, our masks are on display for all to see! 

2020 has brought new meaning to mask-wearing, for sure. But normally we reserve our masks for Halloween. At least on the outside…

However, if we’re honest, you and I wear masks all the time. We pretend to be someone we’re not so people will like us. We pretend to be better than we are so people won’t hate us. We wear some masks to impress, and other masks to hide the truth. And sometimes we wear a mask to disguise the fact that we have no idea who we really are!

We’ve gotten so good at wearing masks, we often forget they are there.

But there is One who sees behind the mask into all our hidden places. He is not fooled by our pretense or distracted by our deceptions. He is not afraid of our secrets or impressed by our facade. Nothing is hidden from Him; and still, He loves us just the same.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” -2 Corinthians 3:17-18 (NIV)

We may fool other people with our masks; we may even fool ourselves for awhile. But if we truly want to grow, we must allow God to pull back our masks. We must be willing to reveal our hearts to Him~ our fears, our secrets, our hopes, our shame. 

Those hidden dreams. That secret sin. That part of you you’re sure no one could love. Those old regrets that continue to resurface. The fear and insecurity you try so hard to hide.

Only when we have “unveiled faces” can God begin to transform us into His image. When we allow His Holy Spirit to remove our masks, He reveals Truth to us, and we begin to experience true freedom~ not the feelings-based “freedom” the world offers, but the true freedom of surrendering to His holiness.

Are you eagerly awaiting the day when we can go to church and the grocery store without having to hide behind a mask? I know I am!

May my heart be so eager to leave its masks behind as well.