Christmas Eve at Granny’s

   NOTE: Christmas is filled with great nostalgia for many of us. Family heirlooms, special recipes, and cherished traditions all have their place among our celebrations. I am excited to share this story with you, written by my sweet friend, Mel. 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 be our guest author today! Feel free to share about some of your special traditions or treasured family heirlooms in the comments!

 The worn box appeared like it always did on Christmas Eve. Sitting on the floor in its usual spot, just waiting to be opened and its treasures displayed. Just like the box, every Christmas Eve, my sister, cousins, and I would arrive at my Granny’s house to decorate for Christmas. 

     My little cousins were not allowed to touch the box. Its contents were too special to trust to tiny hands that had not learned the significance of the items inside. My sister and I were the only ones old enough. It did not matter, though, how long I had been helping with that box. My hands still shook when I unwrapped the delicate figurines from their tissue paper. I understood what these figures represented. They were also my Granny’s most cherished possession. I did not want to be the one who accidentally dropped one, breaking it, and ruining Christmas. 

     One by one, my sister and I would pull the figures from their wrappings, then would fuss over how to arrange them. Most were chipped and faded from time, but they were beautiful to me. My favorite one and the one I loved unwrapping the most was baby Jesus. He was always the last figurine to be pulled from the box. My sister or I would feel extra special if we were the one chosen to unwrap him and gently place him on his little bed of straw. 

    Then we would decorate the Christmas tree. It was a 4-foot artificial tree, which we always placed on a low table in order to make it taller. Old ornaments were hung from its branches that had been in the family for years. The tiny red horns were a favorite because they actually made noise if you blew into them. I also loved the green cylinders with little spinning fan blades, and the white snowflakes with intricate patterns. The entire tree was then covered in strands of silver tinsel. It always annoyed me when my little cousins placed all the ornaments in one spot, but Granny never let me move them. She said it was beautiful because we had decorated it together. She always loved how that little tree looked~ the lights twinkling off the tinsel making the entire tree shine. 

    

 Later that evening, we were all brought back for a traditional dinner of family favorites and Kolachie cookies for dessert. Then everyone would exchange presents. The best part of the evening finally arriving for us kids! Torn wrapping paper covered the floor as toys were opened and played with. Everyone would then sit around long after the food had been put away, talking and laughing into the night. We kids would fall asleep on some random corner of furniture or sometimes snuggled up on the floor at the base of the tree. I can never remember the presents I got, but I always remember how much love and laughter was bursting through that little house.

     It has been years since I celebrated Christmas Eve in my Granny’s tiny house in the small town I grew up in. But those memories of the holidays from my childhood are so special to me and come rushing back every Christmas when I pull out my decorations. My Nativity is not as delicate as Granny’s, but my hands still shake when I pull the figurines from their boxes. I still have those tiny red horns, green cylinders, and white snowflakes with their intricate designs. They are so special to me, and just like my little cousins, my own children would often put all the ornaments in one section of the tree. I never moved them because I could hear my Granny’s voice telling me not to. She was right; the tree was always beautiful, no matter how the ornaments were placed, because we decorated it together.

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     Melinda Casilli is small town girl who loves coffee, libraries, and stories that take you to faraway lands. She’s been married to her best friend for 27 years and is the mom to three girls. When she’s not organizing a closet or taming teenage drama you can find her writing under her pen name Mel Havens at MelHavens.com or on Instagram.com/mel.havens.author.

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.

**********

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!

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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

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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/.

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!

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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!

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!

My October Book Stack

Okay, y’all, I warned you. My October book stack can barely be called a “stack”…

A duo, maybe. A couple. Two books.

Seriously?

Yep, seriously. Two books. And if I’m honest, I still have a few pages left in one of them!

I have two other books I started reading last month, but they are both part of group studies, so I am still in the process of reading them. Hopefully they will make it into my November book stack.

At this rate, who knows?

But the good news is this will be a short blog post and a quick read! Let’s go!

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Experiencing God at Home by Tom and Richard Blackaby

If you are anywhere near my age and were involved in church in the 90’s, you are probably familiar with the “Experiencing God” Bible study and the Blackaby name.  The youth version of that study is by far the best tool I have found to help teenagers learn to hear God’s voice and recognize Him at work around them. So when I saw this book written by two of Henry Blackaby’s sons, I was immediately interested! This was not my first time reading it— I actually pulled it out as a resource for an online parenting discussion Jeff and I were involved in last month. It is on my bookshelf for a reason!

Experiencing God at Home takes the seven basic steps from the Experiencing God study and uses them to help parents recognize and join God in how He is working in their children’s lives. It also provides tools to teach their kids how to apply these principles themselves. The authors provide plenty of personal illustrations from their own families, which are easy to relate to. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection/discussion, making this a great book for parents to read together or to study with a small group. This is actually one of my top 5 favorite parenting books, so if you haven’t read it, I definitely recommend it!

Guy’s Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket: 101 Real World Tips for Teenage Guys by Jonathan McKee

I know, I know, this is a really weird book for a 47 year old woman to be reading! But I have preteen boys, y’all, and growing up is a thing whether we like it or not. I have read a couple other books by Jonathan McKee, and he has a great grasp on the current teen culture. Not only that, but he does a terrific job relating Biblical truth to teens in a way that comes off helpful and appealing, not preachy. This book is no different.

I REALLY like this book! It is set up in one-to-two page chapters, making it perfect for teen guys to use as a daily devotional. Each chapter includes questions to think about which help the guys apply what they are reading to their daily life. It would be easy for a leader to pull some of these questions out and use this as a guide for a small group or accountability group. The topics are super relevant, and McKee’s approach is both Biblical and authentic. He comes off like a big brother or older friend, giving guidance on subjects such as technology use, friendship, dating, prayer, and making wise choices.  

What age is this book geared towards? Well, our oldest son, Eli, is twelve and in 7th grade. I read this book with him in mind, and honestly, I think he would love it. There are a few chapters about girls and sex-related themes that I don’t think he and many other boys his age are quite ready for. At the same time, I know there are some who are. It is definitely appropriate for high school boys. However, if your son is in middle school, I encourage you to preview it yourself first. You know your boy and what he is ready for. This might be a little too much, too soon, or it might be exactly what your son needs to draw his heart towards Christ! Either way, it should definitely be on your radar for the teen boys in your life.

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Well friends, that’s it! I was only able to get through two books last month, but don’t worry- November’s book stack will be larger! I should have at least four books ready to review when this month is over. (Spoiler: I hate one of them! And I rarely say that!!)

As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to pass on suggestions of books you think I might like!

What’s on your nightstand?

September Book Stack

Well friends, here we are in November. When I sat down to write about my (really small) October book stack, I realized I never posted my books from September!

What? How did that happen? 

Honestly, y’all, October was just a really strange month for me. First, we kicked it off with our annual family Disney trip; except Sarah had to quarantine at college at the last minute, so it didn’t really feel like a family trip for any of us. Then, the temperature outside kept bouncing between highs and lows, which was totally reflected in my mood. And because I couldn’t get out of my own head, I ended up spending WAY too much time scrolling on social media, and very little time reading or writing (or doing anything remotely productive).  

Thankfully, Sarah finally made it home for her first visit last weekend, and suddenly I feel like I can breathe again! Isn’t it crazy how we can be dealing with emotions internally and have no idea how they are affecting us? Apparently I was missing our girl way more than I realized. 

Anyway, a weekend of Heath Fam adventures was good for my soul. So, I am back in the game again! And my September book stack seems like a good place to start.

Here you go!

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Memories of Glass by Melanie Dobson

I added this book to my 2020 reading challenge after a friend recommended it. When I picked it up from the library, I was a little disheartened. I’m not sure if you can tell from the photo, but the cover consists of several old-fashioned glass perfume bottles, which screamed cheesy romance novel to me. Ugh! 

Thankfully, though, it turned out to be a historical fiction novel after all, with a little bit of mystery thrown in (and a smidge of romance on the side). The matriarchal grandmother and CEO of the family business has secrets from her youth that slowly begin to leak out, threatening the family’s reputation and relationships. As usual, secrets have a way of being found out, and in this case, they end up bringing people together. This story does contain some overt spiritual witnessing, for lack of a better phrase. Y’all know I am a Jesus girl and I am all for weaving Jesus into one’s writing, but in this case, several of these moments seemed to be awkwardly inserted, and more glaringly obvious than necessary. It would have been more effective, I think, to take a less obvious and more natural approach to the character’s faith. However, that’s a minor point for sure! If you like historical fiction, this was an enjoyable story and worth a read!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. Most people have read or are at least aware of Passion and Purity and Sense and Sensibility. However, Persuasion is not as well known, even though it was her last completed work. There is so much I love about this book! While I have read it before, her books never get old to me.

Anne Elliot is Austen’s oldest protagonist, and as so, brings such depth to the story. I love the premise of an unrequited love given a second chance, particularly when those involved have such strength of character and integrity. I find myself rooting for them all the way through the novel, no matter how many times I read it. If you don’t know the story, Anne and Frederick Wentworth were acquainted in their young adult years and formed a strong attachment. However, Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, and her guardian, Lady Russell, did not approve of their union, feeling his financial and social status were unworthy of her position in society. Though Anne very much loved him, she felt it was dishonorable to continue the relationship without their approval. In letting him go, she felt as though she were doing the right thing, while also wondering if she had given up her one true love in life.

The actual story begins seven years later, with both characters still unmarried. Circumstance finds them once again dancing in the same circles, but this time with walls of hurt and regret between them. Austen has a unique and wonderful way of peeling back the layers of her characters throughout the novel, slowly revealing their strengths and weaknesses, and weaving their stories together as she goes. People are never quite what they seem, and in the end, their true character is revealed. Persuasion is no exception. By the end, Anne learns that while it is important to seek wise counsel, sometimes the best counsel comes from your own heart and mind. If you are an Austen fan but have never read Persuasion, put it on your list!

Into the Book of Light by Ted & Kara Dekker (Book 1 of the Series)

This middle grade book is the first in a series by Ted Dekker and his daughter, Kara. It reminds me quite a bit of Priscilla Shirer’s Warrior Series, which y’all already know I loved! In this series, the main character, Theo, is a middle school boy who is plagued by fears and finds himself the target of a mob of school bullies.  As he seeks refuge in a secret room in the library, an ancient book falls into his lap, and he soon finds himself transported to another world. 

In this new world, he meets strange creatures and new friends, and is sent out on a quest to find the 5 Seals of Truth. The authors use wonderful imagery to describe everything Theo encounters on his search for truth. There are dark bat-like creatures who aggressively hinder his progress and seek to deceive him. There is a black fog of knowledge which, when breathed in, only increases his knowledge of fear and blinds him to the truth. There is cleansing water and the characterization of God as a lion… and a boy. After a powerful encounter with Elyon, Theo is able to respond with courage in the face of fear, earning the first seal—the seal of Light.

It is a great allegory for many Biblical truths, and teaches children to turn to God with their fears, trusting He is big enough to handle them and take care of them. I have no doubt that my boys will enjoy this book, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series!

Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth by R. Thomas Ashbrook

I absolutely loved this book! It is the kind of book that resonates when you read it and then stays with you, begging you to pull it back out and read it again. 

Based largely on the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, Mansions of the Heart describes a modernized ancient framework of spiritual growth for Christian believers. It is, perhaps, the best book on spiritual formation I have ever read.

Asher takes great care to point out that spiritual formation is not linear in nature, while still giving us a basic road map to use as a guideline. He emphasizes that we can be in more than one stage at the same time, and that we often move in and out of a given stage for a period of time. Most churches and books on spiritual growth direct us towards prayer, Bible Study, and other spiritual disciplines, but with no clear path or picture of where/what our relationship with Christ is going. What often happens, in my experience, is we find ourselves in that stage, vascillating between periods of  silence from God and closeness with Him. When we are hearing Him clearly, we feel like we are growing, but in long periods of silence, we may question what we are doing wrong or if, perhaps, we’ve had it wrong all along. Most of the believers I know never make it any further than this, and live with ongoing frustration sprinkled with moments of closeness, or worse, settle into an apathetic faith.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it gives a further path beyond just prayer and Bible study. It validates these periods of silence, termed “dark nights of the soul,” and encourages us to not only expect them, but even to appreciate them for their place in the process of drawing our hearts to Jesus. Asher points out the stages often coincide in many ways with our overall maturity and the life stages we find ourselves in. I definitely find this to be a true and logical correlation. I am both intrigued by and somehow hesitant to embrace the mysterious, mystical elements of the later stages he describes. As a culture, we do not like to embrace things we don’t understand and can’t explain… and yet, isn’t that exactly who God is and how He works? Having experienced personally a few spiritual encounters of this nature, and having read of significantly deeper encounters than mine by “spiritual greats” who were much purer in heart and faith than myself (Amy Carmichael, C.S. Lewis, Brother Lawrence, etc.), I am compelled to believe there is certainly a path forward beyond what many of us ever realize. Reading this book has encouraged me to continue pursuing communion with God at a deeper level than I was beginning to think was possible.

All that said, this book is not for everyone. If you are fairly new to the Christian faith (or to actively growing in your faith—ie., Stage 1 or Stage 2 of spiritual growth as described in the book), I am afraid you will find this book overwhelming and largely irrelevant. In my opinion, it is better suited for people who are further along in their faith journey and already practice spiritual disciplines fairly consistently. Additionally, if you have a strong negative opinion of any sort of mystical element to Christianity, you will likely find this book a waste of time.

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Well, friends, those are my books from the month of September: Historical fiction, a Jane Austen novel, middle grade fantasy, and Spiritual formation. How’s that for variety? Ha! 

What’s on your nightstand?

Feel free to share suggestions or feedback in the comments! 

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.

How to Talk to Your Kids About the Election

My kids just watched our front running Presidential candidates behave in a way that is worse than behavior they themselves have lost phones and been grounded for. Awesome.”

This was posted by a friend of mine following the first Presidential debate of 2020. Whichever direction you lean, I believe we can all agree that debate was a train wreck! 

Regardless of the reasons, neither candidate represented themselves in a manner worthy of the highest office of this nation. I can’t count the number of times I have told my kids that our choices are not dependent on other people’s actions. If our Presidential candidates were our children, we would have taken away their microphones and sent them to bed without supper! 

Alas, that is not the case.

From my last blog post, you know I firmly believe in viewing challenges as teachable moments. Unfortunately—or fortunately— this election year is turning out to be a perfect opportunity to do just that.

I admit… it is a bit of a struggle. I find myself tempted to focus on:

  • The lack of integrity in our candidates
  • The division in America
  • The role of media bias & “fake news” from every side
  • Our tendency to choose “sides” and be “against” something
  • How mean and rude people can be to one another on social media regarding political issues and current events
  • The desire to throw something at the TV and stay home on election day! 

However, I’m not sure those topics would be the most beneficial to my kids. As easy as it is, it’s not enough to complain to our children about politics. No, how we talk about the election with our kids matters. 

This is one of those times I am reminding myself I have the opportunity to look at things from a different perspective and use the current situation to create constructive conversation. 

TALKING POINTS

Here are some revised talking points I came up with based on the frustrations I listed above:

  • Why we should vote for policy/platform and not a person. While it would be nice for our president to be an outstanding role model for future generations, unfortunately that is not often the case. Let’s be real— most of our leaders have had closets full of immorality and shameful behaviors… they just didn’t put them on display quite like our current candidates. In any case, one of the beautiful things about our government system is that it is designed so that the President’s personal power is limited. His or her main impact comes through the people he/she appoints. The President’s cabinet is made up of the heads of various departments. These are the people who oversee the areas that directly affect us as Americans—transportation, education, national security, etc. The President also nominates Supreme Court Justices, should an opening occur. The Supreme Court verdicts often have widespread implications and, subsequently, guide the morals of our nation. Thus, the people a President appoints generally play a much greater role in directing our nation than the President himself/herself. This is so important for our children (and us) to understand!
  • While America seems very divided, there are large areas of common ground in the middle.  In many cases, most Americans actually want the same thing, but see different ways of achieving it. Do you listen and communicate better with someone if you realize you mostly want the same things?
  • “I saw it on the internet (or TV or TikTok), so it must be true!” The reality is our kids DO tend to internalize what they watch and listen to, and so do we. And the more we trust our source, the more blindly we accept it. Unfortunately, NONE of our current news sources report anything objectively without bias. We are fooling ourselves if we think there is any source without an agenda. This is a GREAT opportunity to talk to our kids (and ourselves!) about the importance of implementing critical thinking skills. What does that look like? How do we pursue truth (even at the expense of our own opinions)? How do we recognize bias in a story? How can we tell when we are being manipulated? How do we check the validity of a source or a story? How do we research counter-arguments to make sure we have a more accurate perspective instead of just choosing articles that support our opinions? These are all great questions to walk through with our kids.
  • In this election more than any other, people are talking about their desire to vote “against” someone or something. As Christ-followers, there are obviously things we should stand up against. But mostly, I want my kids to be known for what (and who) they stand FOR. Do our children know what we believe in and why it matters to us, not just what we stand against? 
  • This election season is the first time I have ever used Facebook’s “Snooze for 30 days” feature. I realize we all have personal experiences, which create strong emotions, and Satan is having a field day with that! But somewhere along the way, some of us have forgotten about human decency. Seriously, y’all—if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all! However, this also creates a great opportunity to discuss the importance of listening with an open mind, sharing your words where they will have the best return, stepping away from the noise when you need to, and recognizing that POSTING about something is not the same thing as DOING something.
  • And yes, when I want to throw something at the TV, I remind myself of the privilege it is to have a voice in our elected officials and the responsibility that comes with it. Do our kids understand how this process works, how it is purposely different from other countries, and why that matters? Even at our worst, the ideals we stand for and our methods of maintaining them have tremendous value, and our kids need to know that. Otherwise, they will eventually forfeit those freedoms, and by the time they realize what they have lost, it will be too late. “History repeats itself” is a real thing.

Beyond that, the question I have been asking myself is what do our kids need to know specifically about how Jeff and I determine who to vote for? Basically, it comes down to two things: What matters to us and why.

WHAT MATTERS TO US AND WHY

1. KNOW YOUR WHAT

This is where our worldview comes into play. As Christ followers, we focus on what the Bible says. God gets to determine what is most important to us, not us. Our job is to critically think, pray, and determine which platform (not person) we believe lines up most with Biblical objectives and will do the most good for the most people.

2. KNOW YOUR WHY

“Because I don’t like the other candidate” is not a good enough reason to vote for someone. The privilege of voting comes with great responsibility, and we must take that seriously. Even with all our faults, the freedoms we enjoy in this country cannot be taken for granted. We cannot be led by the crowd in matters this important! Just because some person with a microphone says this candidate is going to help someone doesn’t mean they actually will. We must look deeper to understand WHY a person or platform is more worthy than the other of our vote.

IMPORTANT VALUES FOR OUR FAMILY

Some of you have asked me to share some of the Biblical values that are important to our family, so here are a few. Yours may be different, and that’s okay! Or yours may be similar, but you may have a different perspective on how to best achieve those values. That’s okay, too! Diversity of thought can actually make us better—but only if we learn how to listen, compromise, and work together for the greater good.  (Can you tell I’m an Enneagram 9? Lol!)

  • The freedom to worship God and to share our faith with others
  • The value of all human life, as every person, of every color, from the point of conception, is created in God’s image 
  • The pursuit of Biblical integrity and character traits such as personal responsibility, wise stewardship, hard work, generosity, and caring for those who cannot care for themselves 
  • The limited role of government—what it is intended to do in our lives and in our country, and what it is not intended to do. 
  • National security—not just for our own safety, but also for what it means for the protection and provision of liberty around the world.

There are many other things that matter to us, obviously, but these are a good place to start. Whatever your values are, I encourage you to make sure you discuss them with your children. Teens and young adults are particularly impressionable, and the world will share its values with them whether we like it or not. I continue to see more and more thoughtful, compassionate students embracing what they believe to be enlightened, revolutionary thinking, when in actuality, they are being manipulated with biased information and merely following a trend. 

PASSING ON OUR VALUES

Parents, please don’t forfeit the responsibility you have been given to pass on Biblical values to your children. Don’t assume they know your “what” or understand your “why” without explanation. Embrace the craziness of this next week as a teachable moment to discuss why voting matters, why you vote the way you do, and how the Bible influences (or in our case, determines) your choices.

And remind them that, above all, our hope lies in Jesus, not a political candidate. Whoever wins this election will do so under God’s sovereignty. We will pray and remain faithful, regardless of the outcome, and be grateful for the opportunity to vote again in four years.

“But Christians know that we are not at the mercy of chance. A loving hand, a great wisdom, and an omnipotent power rule our destiny. The government of all is on the mighty shoulders of Christ Himself, who sees all long before it happens. All is intended for our blessing. How different things look to us!”

-Elisabeth Elliot, Secure in the Everlasting Arms

In the words of Horatio Spafford’s famous hymn, we can teach our children to rest in this truth: “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”