God Loves Celebrations: Part II

This post originally appeared on Everyday Exiles.

When I wrote the first post with this title, I thought I was finished with the subject. It turns out, I’m not. My last post was in light of a wedding I’d recently attended, and how amazing and God-honoring it was, how God must truly love celebrations of all kinds, and encourage His children to participate.

Now that Christmas has come and gone, and I’m exhausted with all the joy (and chaos) I’ve been experiencing, it happens to be my middle child’s birthday. Just like any mom who wouldn’t want her son’s birthday to be overshadowed by the birthday of his Savior (well, you know what I mean), I’ve tried to plan a few things, save some presents for his special day, and make sure he feels celebrated. He hasn’t really wanted a party, but told me that for his fourth birthday (the only fourth birthday he’ll ever have, ya know?!) he’d like a “yellow or boy-colored watch” (like his dad’s) and some cake. He didn’t mention a party, fancy food, a special outfit, or balloons – which I do plan to get early that morning, along with some sprinkled donuts. Why will I do it anyway? Because it gives our whole family great joy to celebrate him! The joy I derive from celebrating him must be only a tiny particle of the joy our Father derives from celebrating us.

Let me explain.

I’ve spoken about how God planned all sorts of things for His son’s birth, angels and unkempt shepherds and the like. In Psalm 145, we are encouraged to celebrate His goodness (v7). His goodness when He blessed my husband and me with a son, after a hard season of sadness over a miscarriage. Celebrating my son, for me, is celebrating a gift from God! And God loves the celebration! It is, to both of us, an expression of my gratitude.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable that finishes with a celebration. The prodigal son had returned to his father, hanging his head low and expecting (asking, even!) to be treated like a servant. However, the father is so delighted that he calls for a celebration to rival all other celebrations. That father, symbolizing our heavenly father, celebrates his son’s return, without even mentioning his sins. To bring it back around to my four-year-old, his tantrums and mistakes abound, but his birthday is a day to celebrate his very existence in our family, his very being that was lovingly created by God, who knit him together in my womb (Psalm 139) before we knew anything about him. I’d say that a gift of that magnitude is worth celebrating! And I daresay God would agree.

And still, all through the old testament are more and more examples of celebrations. Harvests, festivals, Passover… there are celebrations for all of these, signifying God’s faithfulness, His provision, and the deliverance He provided and is providing for His people over and over again. He built celebration into the strict rules the Israelites followed in the book of Exodus, and it continues all the way through till Jesus’s birth. There were rules surrounding celebrations and how they were to be observed. But the first rule was that they would be observed. Celebration has been an integral part of His plan for us, from the beginning of time. If in Zephaniah 3:17 it says that He will rejoice over you with singing, then I’d say celebrations are for you, too. 

10 Thoughts Every Mom Has About Holiday Shopping

This post originally appeared on The Grit and Grace Project.

Holiday shopping. Every year, it’s left to the moms. Well, usually. I pass off a few things to my husband, but generally, I do the lion’s share of our Christmas shopping. I don’t much like shopping in huge crowds, so I’m not usually a Black Friday frequenter – but here’s to you, Cyber Monday! Each year, when I’m going through the list of our family members and close friends we like to get gifts for, I have a series of thoughts that go through my mind… I’ll let you in on my secret questions.

1. Why does anyone need this junk anyway? All those gift kits of men’s “boutique” toiletries, women’s “specialist” manicure supplies, or a box set of cheap, miniature Marvel characters for little boys… does anyone like them? What about those department store “free gifts” when you spend a certain amount? What’s even in those things?! Usually junk, right? It looks nice all wrapped up, but who actually needs it?

2. What’s the point of getting anything for my kids? They are blessed with four living grandparents, all of whom spoil them with gifts and clothes and special time together. My kids are too young to remember who bought them which gift, and so I’m a little jaded about getting them anything from just me and their dad. They’ll have plenty of presents to open even if I buy them nothing. And hey, everything comes in those cardboard boxes they love!

3. Now where did I stash that gift? I’ve got this issue of hiding things from the kids… and myself. I start taking advantage of sales on websites like Zulily in September or so (yes, I’m one of those), so I have to have the top shelf of several to keep the kids from finding them too early. I get bonus points because I have a son with a birthday three days after Christmas, so I’m hiding his birthday gifts as well.

4. Oh, but she’d love to have this, too! I’m so guilty of over-buying for some of our people. When I find more than one thing that’s just perfect for someone, I want to get them all! I love giving good gifts – maybe because it’s not something I’m particularly good at. I find the perfect thing (or five) and I want to get it!

5. Do my kids all have the same number of gifts? My kids aren’t old enough to be counting their presents quite yet, but I definitely look at the piles and see if there’s a significant difference. I know it’s the thought that counts, and that quality is better than quantity, but if my boys have huge piles of presents on Christmas morning, and my daughter only has a couple of things, you better believe she’s going to notice. AND say something.

6. I can’t remember whether I bought that person something… Since I’m often an early shopper, I sometimes forget when I’ve bought someone something. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got several little spots I hide things, and I frequently spend about a week before Christmas re-finding them.

7. Is this outfit going to fit? I don’t know about you, but every time I’m in a store, looking at clothes to buy for Christmas, or birthdays, I immediately forget what size my child wears, or what they even look like. I hold up a pair of pants (you know, the kind I fold ten of each day) and I can’t tell if they’ll fit my two year old or my five year old. You call it lack of spacial reasoning, I call it holiday brain freeze.

8. Have I eaten today? During the holidays, I’m so overwhelmed with cleaning my house (because I’m usually a host of something or another), cooking something, baking something, grocery shopping or gift shopping, I totally neglect myself. I tend to forget to eat, shower, exercise, and do pretty much anything except my chores, and collapse on the couch with a glass of wine when things finally slow down. So while I’m out in Target, checking items off my list, I often wonder, “Have I even eaten anything besides those samples at Costco?”

9. What in the world am I going to buy for him? Typically, I’m asking this question about my husband. He’s the guy who just buys himself whatever it is he wants. I have to remind him a couple of months before Christmas to please, please just let me get it and wrap it. It won’t kill him to wait a couple of weeks for whatever it is, right?

10. I wonder who is shopping for me right now. It’s not totally selfish to wonder whether anyone remembered ol’ Mom this Christmas, right?

I love everything about Christmas, but these semi-stressful thoughts usually run through my mind every December. Please, tell me I’m not the only one!

Teach Them How to Pray

This piece originally appeared on Everyday Exiles.

My daughter is 6. She’s been really interested in praying: the words we say, who we’re talking to, things we ask for, etc. Naturally, this has made me much more intentional about the time I spending talking with Jesus in her presence, as well as how we pray together at bedtime, or when there’s a need. Since she’s been in first grade, she’s really begun to know things. Parents,  I’m sure you know what I mean. She’s started reading, she’s in school with a bunch of kids I don’t know, she spends time with her school friends when I’m not within earshot, and she’s brought home some odd turns-of-phrase. But one thing I want her to pick up well is how she talks with Jesus.

She asked me at bedtime the other night if I could give her a list of things to pray. Oh, how I loved this innocent request, suggesting that there are words that are perfect to pray at any and all times. Then, as I was writing down a little ideas list for her, all organized into things to thank Him for (like our family, our home, our church), things to ask for help with (such as being kind, forgiving others, and loving others well), and those items we usually try to remember (like keep our family members healthy and protect our home) the idea popped into my head: There already is a perfect prayer for any and every time we pray.

In Matthew’s gospel, we join Jesus as he preaches the Sermon on the Mount. About halfway through, he gives us the way to not to pray, and the perfect example of a prayer to our heavenly Father. How could I not begin here, with Jesus’s words, to teach my daughter how to pray?

So in addition to some ideas of things she could mention during prayers, or people who might need an extra blessing, I wrote out Matthew 6:9-13. Here it is in the ESV, in case you aren’t familiar, or you only know the version you memorized before you knew what the words meant:

9. Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

10. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

11. Give us this day our daily bread,

12. and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

I closed her version with the simple words I had learned so long ago: For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

When so many things we teach our children can feel really complicated, I am more than content to begin the process of teaching her to pray with these simple words, straight from Jesus, to be used as a guideline for every other prayer we pray.

Four Great Christmas Books for Young Children

This post originally appeared on Everyday Exiles.

I have a big red bin full of books I pull out only during Advent and Christmas time. It includes silly ones about melting snowmen, and a couple of those touchy-feely Usborne books for toddlers, but it also includes a few beautiful stories. Of course, like everyone, we love The Polar Express and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but these are a little lesser known. Here are my favorite books I read with my kids during this season.

Song of the Stars. This Sally Lloyd-Jones beauty is one of my favorite books ever. With beautiful illustration by Alison Jay, it is similar to SLJ’s Jesus Storybook Bible (which has a WONDERFUL telling of Jesus’s birth, by the way) on keeping Jesus at the center of the season, and emphasizing his saving of us all, not just his birth. The story begins with the tangible excitement of his coming, rustling through the leaves and being sensed by all of nature, this gift that would change the world.

Room for a Little One. This one is a toddler book, but it’s so sweet. My kids have loved naming the animals as we go through it, and seeing Jesus’s birth from the perspective of those unsuspecting characters. It’s by Martin Waddell.

Birds of Bethlehem. Now THIS is a neat book, by Tomie de Paola. We see the story of Jesus’s birth from some birds in and around Bethlehem. They are chattering away, sharing stories about how a baby has been born, angels sang, shepherds and wise men visited, and what it all means.

The Gift of the Magi. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love this story by O. Henry. A beautiful telling of a couple who have nothing to give to each other, but end up showing their love by giving everything. The version I have is illustrated by P. J. Lynch, and is simply stunning. I can’t read it without crying.

What are the most treasured Christmas books in your family?

A Christmas Itch

This post originally appeared on Everyday Exiles.

Every year at this time, I get the itch.

No, it’s not just my dry skin.

I get the itch to play that Christmas music, get out my decorations, and even to watch those cheesy movies. You know why? Because I truly do believe it’s the most wonderful time of the year. My home state has a chill in the air – but not too chilly, because, let’s be honest, enough is enough when it comes to cold weather. Lights are beginning to twinkle at some of the houses on my street. Stores are full of Christmassy colors, freshly baked treats, and boxes of glittery cards to send to loved ones. It really, really is the most wonderful, incredible time of the year.

But it isn’t the borderline-oppressive red and green decorations, the Christmas cookies, or even the sweet-smelling wreaths and garlands that make this the best time of year. No, it’s much more than that. It’s the general feeling of goodwill the circulates, because it’s even more apparent than usual that we’re part of a bigger story. The story that began all this stuff, this gift-giving and song-singing, is a story that has always been written. In fact, it started who knows how many millennia ago, before the beginning of time as we know it. And it’s still going on now; we’re not to its end. This narrative, the story of all of us, it’s not even remotely over.

You see, God knew this story was going to play out like this. He knew each of us, before we were knitted together in our mothers’ wombs, before our great-great-great-grandparents were even thought of. Before the flood, or even Adam and Eve. God is so far out of time as we know it that He probably feels like all that stuff was just this morning. He has known forever that we wouldn’t be perfect, or even good, without His help. He knew we’d screw up and need some serious intervention. But He didn’t stop loving us or start holding back His help. He provided the ultimate way for our saving, a way to let us be closer to Him. He had this majestic plan to send His Son before He even created us!

What does all of this mean? It means is that we have been given the greatest gift possible. We’ve been given the most perfect gift in the form of a helpless babe in arms. What kind of God sends His love to someone like that? As it turns out, an all-powerful, forever-gracious, fully righteous God sends His love like that. Love came down, under a bright star, in the dead of night, to an unwed mother and a frightened earthly father. Love came down to give hope, to live a perfect life, to be persecuted and crucified, to make straight a highway for our God to literally come alongside us. Jesus was the first Christmas gift, the most mind-blowing and expectation-shatttering gift ever.

Now, what does all of this mean for us? It means that we can call on God for anything and everything. It means that through Jesus, we are made holy and righteous, and God sees us that way. It means that, through Jesus, we have literally been given every spiritual blessing. Did you read that right? Every. Spiritual. Blessing. (Ephesians 1) That means we have the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5). We can pray directly to our Father and receive the ability to do works, just as Jesus did (John 14). We can ask Holy Spirit to intercede for us (Romans 8).

He’s Sovereign Over the Shuffle

This piece originally appeared on Everyday Exiles. It’s extra appropriate to post right now, because I am running another half marathon this weekend!

This past weekend, I ran my third half marathon. As usual on race day, I’m driving to the race, asking the Lord for strength, endurance, and peace as I run. I enjoyed an incredible sunrise as I was driving east, reminding me of His promises that His mercies are new each morning, and His love never fails. I just so happened to be late because of the hurricane that had wrecked trees and power lines all over the region, leading to road closures and power outages (including red lights). So as I literally ran to the starting line while tying my shoes, the peace I had felt in the car left me pretty quickly.

However, I love a long run on a cool day, and that’s exactly what I got. Headphones in and shuffle turned on for my race playlist (yes, I have a race playlist, more on that later), I REALLY enjoyed my first ten miles. It didn’t actually get tough until then. You’d better believe when the running starts to get tough, I rely on my playlist to get me through that tough spot to where I can breath easily again. I craft a race playlist to be way too long, in case I hit a song I don’t want to listen to in the moment. I ask friends for upbeat suggestions of things I’ve never heard of (bonus points for Latin pop) and worship songs that don’t drag. I stack the deck, so to speak, with interesting or new songs, songs about Jesus, and songs I’d dance to at a wedding. It’s actually pretty fun to see what comes up, and the Lord shows His kindness to me by reigning over the shuffle.

For instance, around 10.5 miles, I began to drag my feet. The next song up was Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”. Just being fair, there’s no beat to perk you up like this one. Later, there was a huge, slow hill leading up to the finish, and my shuffle provided me with a song that has kept me going in other long runs: “Alive In You”, sung by Kim Walker-Smith on Jesus Culture’s Let It Echo. This has long been a favorite for my running playlists, and these lyrics are why: You are strong in my brokenness, sovereign over every step. Even in the fire I’m alive, I’m alive in You. I won’t lie, I need that reassurance more often than I’d like.

I often feel broken. It’s a result of the fall. We are all broken. It’s the plight of living in the world but not of the world… we realize we’re made for something more, and this world leaves us feeling dejected, like we’re missing something, like we aren’t a good fit. But in the midst of this brokenness, Jesus has entered in, met us, saved us, and made us whole. As it reads in 2 Corinthians 12:9, His grace is sufficient for me! His power and strength are made perfect in my weakness!

As for needing my Heavenly Father to direct my path and show up in His sovereignty over my steps, I need it daily in a literal and a figurative way. Amid the big-picture choices I make alongside my family, the ways I spend my time, and the choatic shuffle (see what I did there?) of everyday with young kids, I need my steps ordered for many reasons: so I am productive, so I am honoring God, so I am setting a good example for life and Godliness for my children, and (not the least of which by any means) so I don’t get all tripped up and fall where I should be soaring.

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! 1 Corinthians 15:57

Four Reasons It’s Great to Sow Into Your Local Church

I’m a big believer in spreading the Gospel and building the Kingdom of God. Why? Because it’s part of what we’re called to do as followers of Jesus. I’m also a big believer that ANYONE and EVERYONE can do that. There are so many ways to take part in those things, and the best place to start is within your local church. I LOVE the local church. Every small-town church, every multi-site church, every megachurch – they all are sowing into the everyday lives of people just like you and me, and I believe it’s one of our greatest gifts to be able to sow back into the local church. How will we do this? We are Biblically called to tithe, but I think it’s just as important to find a place to serve. Why? Well, here are a few of my favorite reasons:

It’s easy! I don’t know a single church in existence that doesn’t have a job for a willing volunteer. Seriously, a lot of people think the only thing you can volunteer to do with work with kids. That just isn’t true. If that’s not your ministry of choice, just ask a pastor or ministry area leader how you can help, and they will direct you! Be sure to communicate your level of commitment – it’s okay if it’s low! A cheerful helper always has a place at a church.

It builds community and relationships. If you’re new to your church and looking for a way to get connected, giving your time to a ministry is a wonderful way to start. You’re rarely a lone volunteer on a project, and it’ll immediately connect you to people in various areas of leadership or service. If you aren’t new to your church, but you haven’t found a tribe there yet, get plugged in to a ministry, like being a greeter, a musical worship volunteer, or join the technology team! I’d bet you don’t have to be super-skilled in technology (or any other area) to be able to help out, or learn as you go.

It helps the wider community. Many churches have volunteer opportunities that are more outreach-centered. Ask what regular contributions your church makes to local ministries or organizations. I’ll bet your church partners at some level with helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, or providing for needy children.

It’s good to see the Church isn’t perfect. The Church (yes – even the “Big-C Church”) is comprised of – you guessed it! – imperfect humans. I think it’s important to get to know your church leaders on a personal level, working alongside them to build the Kingdom. One of the biggest reasons that I think it’s important is to dispel the often incorrect idea that church leaders are superheroes, or even worse, somehow perfect. We all have bad days, we all spill our coffee from time to time, and we all sometimes cry at  stupid Hallmark commercials. Pastors and ministry leaders included!

So if you’ve been holding off on giving your time and talents to the local church, I implore you to give it a try. There’s never a bad time to sow into a church community!

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