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! 

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.

Finding Joy in the Simple Things

The clock approaches midnight as I wipe off the counters and look over my list one more time. The children, all four under the age of ten, have been tucked into bed for a few precious hours now, and I am trying to organize myself for the holiday rush. Between holiday decorating, class parties, cookie baking, and all the other things that come along with Christmas, my list keeps growing longer as my time grows shorter. 

I long for the simplicity I see on the front of the Hallmark Christmas cards: candles glowing through the windows of a quiet, peaceful home; warmly bundled children with red caps and mittens, holding hands and singing praises; a blanket of snow shimmering beneath the glow of the Christmas star.

Simple. Joy.

But my children are young; these days will fly by…

(Or so they tell me.)

It is imperative that I make the most of every moment. After all, their childhood will be ruined if they don’t assemble gingerbread houses and find the elf and sing Christmas carols in their PJ’s and…

So I find myself in Mom of the Year mode, making a list of every Instagram-worthy idea I can think of, and even scheduling them on a daily calendar to make sure we don’t forget to do them. “Simplicity is for lazy moms!” I tell myself. Not me. 

I am intentional

I am purposeful

I can handle this.

And yet…

I forgot to pick up the cookie ingredients at the grocery store today. Again. The pile of Christmas books calls out to me, reminding me that we forgot to read one tonight at bedtime. Again. And I forgot to pick up gift assignments for the nursing home service project. 

Again.

The self-inflicted weight of my “perfect Christmas requirements” is so heavy, I can barely breath. I glance at my list one more time, wondering why I ever loved the Christmas season, and stumble up the stairs to bed, switching off the lights behind me.

As I drift off to sleep, the lyrics of well-loved Christmas hymns echo in my mind:

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me…

Oh Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord…

I wonder briefly if I’m missing something. But before I can unpack that thought, the darkness claims me and I drift off to sleep.

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

That was many years ago, nearly a decade, and I am grateful to say Christmas looks a little different around here now. The pressure I once felt to be the perfect mom and make every moment matter has given way to a more realistic way of living. 

If COVID has had any positive impact on our society, it has been to slow us down and remind us of what really matters. I am reminded of that famous line from our favorite green-skinned Santy-claus:

“It came without ribbons, it came without tags,

It came without packages, boxes, or bags!”

And he puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.

“What if Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store?

What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss

Somewhere along the way, my desire to be intentional about every moment sucked the life right out of Christmas and left my spirit starving. So, while we still incorporate many of the same traditions and experiences from those early years, the pressure to make sure every. single. thing. is accomplished no longer drives our days.

Instead, I have learned to find joy in the simple things. 2020 has reinforced that habit, and I find myself treasuring the little things even more this season.

Here are a few simple things that are breathing joy into my soul this December…

Christmas music

There is just something about Christmas music that can give even the grumpiest Grinch a happy heart! It’s amazing how music can determine our mood. When I find myself feeling the stress of the season and need something to make me smile, turning on some Christmas tunes usually does the trick. Buddy the Elf had it right when he said, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!” Go search a Christmas playlist on Spotify and sing yourself into the Christmas spirit!

Our Nativity Set tradition

I don’t really even know how this started, but when I was growing up, my little brother used to hide baby Jesus in different places around the nativity until Christmas morning, when He would finally make His way into the manger. Somehow this tradition evolved in our own family to moving all the nativity characters around. Throughout the season, you might see Mary on one side talking to the angel, the three wise men on another shelf feeding their camels, or the shepherd off chasing a wayward sheep.  (One year, Mary went missing for several days. We eventually found her under the couch with the shepherd…) Walking by this particular nativity set always makes me pause to see what our little friends are up to, adding a bit of adventure to the ordinary. Sounds just like Jesus!

The Book of Isaiah

I started reading through the book of Isaiah in late October, simply because it’s been a few years since I’ve read it straight through, and I felt my heart drawn there. Had I been more purposeful, I might have realized it would put me reading the prophesies of the Messiah during December; instead, it was a delightful surprise! In a year like 2020, how encouraging it is to remember that nothing happens apart from the Lord’s knowledge and purposes. What seems random and unpredictable to us has its origin in the heavens and is intended to draw our hearts to our Father. His promises are certain; His timing is perfect; His mercies, though often disguised, are for our good and His glory. The One who promised is faithful! If you need something to read, check out Isaiah. There is so much to be gleaned.

Quilted Christmas stockings

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I read it somewhere, I’m sure. Each stocking is made out of that child’s baby clothes, and I have a tree skirt stitched from all four of their clothes. When I look at those patches of color, I can picture their little faces in each little outfit, each pair of pj’s, and it makes my heart so happy! Our girls are nearly grown now, and our boys won’t be far behind. These stockings capture a moment of time and enable me to enjoy it every year. 

The fragrances of Christmas 

There is nothing like the smells of Christmas! Whether it’s the aroma of baking cookies filling the kitchen, or the scent of my favorite winter candle (thanks, Pam!) when I walk in the living room, something about it just makes a house feel like a home. For all you crunchy oil-users, I love to put Siberian Fir and Cinnamon in the diffuser (On Guard with Grapefruit is another fave). What smells bring Christmas to life for you?

Hot chocolate bar

This is new to us this year. Our kids are big enough now that we don’t have to monitor all their snacks (there are some advantages to being the baby of four!), so I pulled out all our hot chocolate ingredients, stuck them in containers, and put them on a tray on the kitchen counter. Suddenly everyone’s drinking hot chocolate every day, and I’m the mom that gets to say “Yes!” Super simple, but brings lots of joy!

Names of Jesus Advent cards

I am always looking for ways to keep our hearts centered on Jesus during the Christmas season. I found these cards online a year or two ago, and I love them! The set contains 24 numbered cards with names for Jesus, along with twine and mini-clothespins to hang them with. When you purchase the cards, the author emails you each day with a short devotion to go along with the name for that day. We were a few days late putting it up this year due to travelling, and before I knew it, we were ten days in without doing a single devotional. But no stress, right, because I no longer have to be the perfect mom!

Instead, I came up with a brilliant idea (if I do say so myself!)! Our boys need some money to buy Christmas presents, so I told them I would give them each a dollar per card if they look up and write out the corresponding Bible verse.  They could only use the concordance in the back of the Bible- Eli used the computer to type up his verses since he’s learning to type correctly, but not for searching Bible verses. Do you see what I did there, y’all? Hiding the Word in their hearts. That is $48 well spent, my friends!

There are other things I treasure, of course— Christmas cards from friends far and near, hand-made ornaments on the tree, handprint art from when the children were small. Maybe next year I should share one simple thing a day! (See, there I go, turning it into something purposeful… old habits die hard, friends!) But for now, I simply wanted to share these ideas as an encouragement to you. 

Take time to pause and find joy in the simple things.

Where do you find yourself this Christmas? Is it a season of busyness for you, filled with endless to-dos and must-haves? Or are you a little more settled this year, content to do less, but with more peace? Either way, my hope is that you will take a breath and allow the power of Christ to remove the pressure we so often place on ourselves. 

You don’t have to be perfect or do more. That’s the whole reason Jesus came in the first place!

Friends, I’d love to hear what’s bringing you joy this season, and how you are finding peace in a slower pace. Bonus points for sharing pics!

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.

**********

 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. 

Preparing Your Heart for Christmas

It’s been nearly four months since we drove to Virginia to move Sarah in for her Freshman year of college. 

We spent most of the summer preparing for this new adventure. It seems so long ago now. 

Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of preparation. After all, as the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Life can quickly become overwhelming, so being organized and planning ahead helps me avoid crisis situations. I knew Sarah going to college was going to be a big transition for all of us, and as with any new experience, I wanted her to be prepared.

So we started making lists.

We had a list for her dorm room, a list for her bathroom, a list for emergencies— I may even have had a list of all our lists!

When move-in day finally came, we loaded up the car, survived the tearful goodbyes with her siblings, and drove six and a half hours to her new home. We organized her closet and lofted her bed. We decorated her walls and set up her desk. Even with all our lists, Jeff had to run to the store to buy extra command hooks and a coffee cart for her Keurig. But when the day was done, her new home was ready, and there was only one thing left to do.

As we sat down for dinner munching on a bowl of chips and salsa, the three of us began to realize that the hard part was only beginning. By the time the waiter brought our food, we just sat and stared at it… we couldn’t even eat. The dread of what was waiting on the other side of that meal completely eradicated our appetite.

Before we knew it, the bill was paid, and the time came for us to say goodbye to our girl.

We hugged. Then we cried. Then we hugged and cried some more. And we dispensed every piece of parental advice we could possibly think of:  

Don’t walk anywhere alone at night.

Make sure you take your vitamins and drink enough water.

Call us if you need more clothes.

Don’t forget you have a COVID emergency bag in the top of your closet!

And on and on and on…

(It’s amazing how much you realize you never told your child when it is suddenly time for them to survive on their own!)

Finally, we gave her one last squeeze and watched her drive away. 

To her new home. 

Without us.

“What in the world are we doing?” Jeff asked, as her taillights disappeared from sight. The two of us were a sobbing mess. 

And that is when I realized our mistake.

We had made all the lists, followed all the advice, and bought all the things so she would be prepared for her new adventure.

But there was one thing we had failed to prepare:

Our hearts.

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Friends, as we approach the Christmas season, how are you preparing your heart?

I love Christmas like the next girl, but I’m not going to lie- I can easily get overwhelmed with ALL THE THINGS.  

Cookie swaps and class parties. 

Teacher gifts and family gatherings.

Stockings and garland and Christmas lights. (Oh my!)

On top of all that, or maybe hidden underneath, is the meaning of what we’re celebrating. And if I’m honest, as much as I love baby Jesus, He often gets left in the manger while I’m busy trying to do everything else. So I’ve learned that when it comes to the holidays, preparing my heart is so important.

In Luke 10, we read the story of two sisters who opened their home to Jesus. Apparently, they were not expecting Him, because Martha was “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” (v. 40, NIV) While she was busy sweeping the floor and kneading the dough and doing all the things, Mary was content to sit at Jesus’ feet. 

Seriously? 

Yet, when Martha complains to Jesus, he doesn’t jump to her defense. He shows compassion for her predicament, but He affirms Mary’s priorities. 

This used to bother me. If preparation is so important, shouldn’t Jesus have encouraged Mary to help Martha? Surely the One who washed His friends’ feet understands the value of serving others! 

So I knew there must be a deeper lesson.

I think the point Jesus was trying to make is that while physical preparation is important, spiritual preparation is imminently more valuable. 

While Martha was surprised by Jesus’ visit, we are not. As Christmas approaches, we know it is coming. 

We know Jesus was born in a stable because no one had prepared room for Him in the Inn. 

We know the wise men eventually found Him because they were prepared to follow the star.

And we know a teenage girl was chosen because she was prepared to be obedient, whatever the cost.

Intentional planning and hard work today pave the way for peace and rest later. Preparing in advance enables me to be fully present, and allows me to focus on what is most important. Yet so often, I focus on getting things ready on the outside, forgetting the inside altogether.

So, friends, as we make our shopping lists and stock the freezer with cookie dough, let’s also take time to sit at the Master’s feet. 

To hear His voice. 

To gaze in wonder at the One who changed everything!

***********

I have some really fun things planned for the blog this month, and I am hoping some of them will help you prepare in different ways. One of my greatest blessings during the pandemic was the opportunity to join a hope*circle of writing friends from various backgrounds, life stages, and parts of the country (and one Canadian!).

Sharing everything from devotions to recipes, these sweet friends are going to guest post for me this month, and I am super excited to introduce them to you! I think you’re going to love them! (I do!)

I hope you will take time to read their contributions and glean from their experiences.

It is my prayer that you will find a few things here on the blog this month that help you with the oh-so-important task of preparing your heart for Christmas this year!

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.

Teachable Moments: Taking the Fear and Stress Out of Parenting Challenges

“The stress of facing a crisis with my children is definitely my favorite part of parenting!” …said no parent ever!

Yet, have you ever noticed how we seem to learn the most during the hard times? One of the greatest lessons I have learned about parenting is not to fear the challenges our children face, but to be grateful for them because they become teachable moments we might not have otherwise.

When our children were much younger, Jeff and I found ourselves in what felt like a crisis situation with our neighbors. Every time we went outside to play in our backyard, their very friendly (but also very large) labradoodle would run over barking, jump up on our one year old, and push him to the ground. Their daughters would knock on the door to see if our girls could play, then hide in the bushes and throw things at them when they came outside. They called our girls words they had never heard before. They even stole our snowman out of our front yard… with Jeff watching!

I can tell you honestly, I was not thanking God for that “opportunity.” I was figuring out how we could move! 

But those encounters led to some really important conversations about how our faith determines our actions instead of our feelings and how what we see on the outside is often a reflection of something deeper going on beneath the surface. We talked about being kind and setting healthy boundaries— not something I planned to address with a four year old, but there we were!

Our neighbors obviously had some personal struggles going on; however, we didn’t know the extent until a few years later. Once those issues were addressed, their family dynamics became much healthier. We ran into them at the pool one day and my girls were surprised because they were actually kind! 

Learning the truth and seeing how their girls had changed became another teachable moment. It enabled us to talk about forgiveness, grace, and second chances. These are gospel conversations they might not have understood without experiencing it themselves.

And that is something to be grateful for!

“These are gospel conversations they might not have understood without experiencing it themselves. That is something to be grateful for!”

When your daughter is dealing with friend drama, you can call the other moms or seize the opportunity to talk with your girl about what real friendship looks like (and doesn’t look like), as well as what kind of person she wants to be, both now and when she grows up.

When your son and his friends make a dumb choice and get into some trouble, you can yell at him or cover for him, or you can take the opportunity to talk about peer pressure, consequences, listening to the Holy Spirit, and the power of influence. 

When your child has a personality struggle with a boss or teacher, you can rescue them or teach them how to adjust their actions to align with different leadership styles. This will serve them well in life as they find themselves under different authority figures, some of whom they likely will not completely agree with.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When we catch our kids searching for something inappropriate on-line or caught up in some sort of crazy friend drama, you will not find Jeff and I skipping in circles, singing Oh Happy Day! No, we are as disappointed and frustrated as everyone else. But the advantage of having four kids is we’ve learned that most of these struggles are a normal part of growing up. They are not an exception; they should be expected. 

The important thing is how we handle them.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)

Paul David Tripp mentions this idea throughout his book, Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family. He puts beautiful words to what my heart has learned over the years:

Be thankful for these little moments. Don’t look at them as the bad moments of parenting, as hassles and interruptions; these are the good moments of parenting. These are moments of grace… Parents, if your eyes ever see or your ears ever hear the sin and weakness of your children, it’s never an accident, it’s never a hassle, it’s never an interruption; it’s always grace. God loves your children and because He does, he has placed them in a family of faith so that you can be his tool of convicting, forgiving, and transforming grace. You are faced with the resistance of your children because God is a God of amazing grace. His grace has the power to turn very bad moments into very good moments. Isn’t this what the cross of Jesus Christ is about?

—Paul David Tripp

God is a Master at taking bad situations and transforming them into something good. King David’s indiscretions led to a conversation with the prophet, Nathan, which transformed David into a man after God’s own heart. Peter’s betrayal of Jesus led to a conversation of repentance and restoration which transformed not only Peter, but countless others as well. And God transformed Jesus’s death on the cross, arguably the worst thing that has ever happened, into the best thing that ever happened to us! 

We do not need to fear or stress over the difficult situations we face as parents. God can transform each one of them into something good! When Jeff and I find ourselves faced with yet another parenting challenge, we remind ourselves (or more often, he reminds me!) to take a breath and view it as a “moment of grace.” I am grateful our children are learning these lessons at home and that we’ve been given the opportunity to walk through it with them. That will not always be the case, I know. 

So, for now, we will be grateful and embrace these challenging moments as teachable opportunities.

This is grace.

The Freedom of Self-Denial

“Mom, are you serious?? What is wrong with you? No one else in the world has stupid rules like this. I hate it! You’re ruining my life! You and dad are the worst!”

I sat there suppressing a smile and polishing my Mother of the Year trophy while the child-who-shall-not-be-named stomped out of the room.

Sorry, kid, this isn’t our first rodeo.

In case you’re wondering about the preposterous rule, Jeff and I recently implemented a “No technology during the school week” policy. You can imagine how well that went over.

Y’all, sometimes parenting is really hard. Okay, most of the time, parenting is really hard! Making our kids mad at us is no fun. Setting limits and boundaries we know they won’t like is terribly difficult. Listening to them tell us that we are ruining their life (and wondering if it’s true) is heart-wrenching. 

But sometimes a mom (or dad) has to do what a mom (or dad) has to do.

In this case, the reality is that our kids are different people when they are not using technology. When they know it’s an option, nothing else seems to matter. They rush carelessly through their schoolwork so they can get online with their friends. They overlook assignments or “forget” to study so they can be done faster. They lose sight of how much they love things like sports and other activities because their focus is on a screen. And though they hate to admit it, their aggression and anxiety skyrocket. 

However, when digital entertainment is no longer an option, everything changes! They take their time on their schoolwork and their grades go up. They spend time together— laughing, playing outside, making up games, and being creative. As much as they hate the sacrifice, they quickly begin to enjoy the freedom that comes with not being tethered to an idol. Our hope is that, through this process, they will learn the value of denying themselves and be able to choose it for themselves in the future.

In fact, on a few occasions, our older children have even handed us their phones, recognizing they needed a break from the digital world, but not trusting their own ability to resist the temptation. How cool is that?

As much as they hate the sacrifice, they quickly begin to enjoy the freedom that comes with not being tethered to an idol.

Unfortunately, it never gets any easier to deny ourselves what we really want.

Jeff and I started a new eating plan this week. I’m not going to lie; it has been tough. Our meals (I use that term loosely, lol!) are planned out for us, and our eating is extremely restricted compared to what we are used to. Honestly, it feels quite a bit like torture!

But it has also given me new perspective. I had no idea how much my life revolved around food. It is horrifying and humbling to recognize how quickly an indulgence here and there can become an all-consuming, insatiable hunger. Like my kids, I have overlooked the most important things in order to satisfy what my heart craves.  I have been ruled by the desire to eat whatever I want, whenever I want, and I didn’t even know it!

However, this week, all that changed. 

This week has been an experience in self-denial. I have had to prioritize what is best for me over what I desire. I have chosen integrity over indulgence and long-term results over short-term satisfaction. My hunger pains have reminded me that while I may feel deprived, there are those who would consider my small portion a gift, an answered prayer.  As the week went along, my perspective shifted and I have grown more grateful for what I have been given instead of focusing on what has been withheld. 

I’m not quite there yet, but I am inching my way towards finding the freedom that comes from releasing an idol.

Friends, it makes me wonder. If my kids didn’t recognize how technology affects them and I didn’t realize how food affects me, what else in our lives are we blind to? In what other areas are we indulging our senses, feeding our feelings, and drowning in our desires? And what would happen if we chose to step back and open our hands, willingly denying ourselves of whatever it is that consumes us?

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

We live in a fast food world of self-indulgence. Super-sizing is expected. Entitlement is rampant. Just look at our political climate—we are so quick to claim a side, yet we have forgotten how to have a conversation.  We continually choose being right over being in relationship. We focus on our miniscule areas of disagreement instead of our larger areas of commonality. 

We are being deceived, friends! We are worshiping self-made idols and calling it freedom, when really we are enslaved to our own desires. 

I wonder what would happen if we all chose gratitude over greed. Would our world look any different if we decided to walk the path of self-denial? If, instead of feeding our selfish desires, we denied ourselves and sought to fulfill someone else’s needs? What freedom would we gain by shifting our perspective, and rather than seeing ourselves as victims of someone else’s restrictive cruelty, we decided to find freedom through restricting ourselves?

This is the perspective we are hoping our kids will grasp— that while self-denial is unpleasant at first, it can lead to great joy and freedom.

Just a few things to think about as I count the minutes until my next “fueling”…