Spiritual Disciplines

This piece first appeared on Everyday Exiles. The words are my own.

Discipline. It’s a word that can carry a lot of weight, and even have a negative connotation. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word discipline? Perhaps punishment you received as a child? Or consequences you have set in place for your own children? Or maybe the “stick-to-it” mentality you need to complete a training plan or stay on track with your diet. While discipline can mean a lot of structure, rules, and staying power, it can also bring much freedom in your life.

You may have heard the platitudes “God is more interested in your character than your comfort.” and “God calls you out of your comfort zone.” Whether you believe they’re true or not, like all adages, they come from nuggets of truth. Like Jonah, Job, Nehemiah, and others, God has called countless people out of their comfortable lives to do things they didn’t want to do. He laid out plans for crazy things, like ark-building, sea-parting, and son-sacrificing, and asked for radical obedience. But if it weren’t for the discipline of all those fellows – whether it was their first response to the call, or their last – the fantastic plans God had in mind wouldn’t have come to pass in such a spectacular way.

Spiritual disciplines were created and ordained by God not to punish us or to restrict us, but to bring us freedom. Hebrews 12 tells us this: …but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. God has our best interest in mind when He instructs us to pray, study the Word, serve others, practice solitude, fast, give to the local church, submit to His will (obey), simplify, celebrate, confess our sins, give and receive guidance, and worship Him at each and every opportunity. That list of twelve may seem daunting, but think how many you may already have the routine of doing. Corporately, we can worship, celebrate, confess, and guide. These things happen in communities, and sometimes look different than we think. Confession can take the form of apology. Guidance can be as formal as counseling or as informal as asking a friend for advice. Individually, the other eight disciplines are integral for growth in relationship with the Lord and ability to hear and obey His will. Psalm 94 encourages us with this: Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law. The word “law” here is the Bible, God’s Word, the divine and holy text God gave us to learn from… it isn’t a legislation that sets us up to fail and be punished. Discipline and law are not one and the same; Romans 6:14 reminds us: For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. Law is not what governs us; the only thing that shall lord over us is Christ himself! Submitting to the very Kingship of Christ is how we are free to live without fear, free from condemnation, and free from the bondage of our sin! The disciplines that help us grow closer to the likeness of Christ are what set us free to receive the Spirit of God and all the fruits He has to offer. So if the son sets you free, you are free indeed! (John 8:36)

Savoring Ordinary Time

This piece originally appeared on Everyday Exiles

In the midst of our celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends, buying Christmas gifts while they’re on sale, and decorating our houses for the season ahead, we get caught up in a lot of days in a row that feel “extra”. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take a long few weeks to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or that we shouldn’t let ourselves get swept up in the celebrations that the end of the calendar year can bring. What I am saying, or rather, asking, is that when New Year’s has come and gone, will we be satisfied with what’s left? What even is left? Our ordinary.

In Emily P. Freeman’s lovely book Simply Tuesday, she invites the reader to find a way to look at the ordinary and even mundane moments so that we may appreciate their smallness. Smallness, she says, is often where we grow closer to Christ. We don’t particularly like the smallness, the ordinary, or the (gasp!) boring, but we do need a nudge to look for God in whatever is right in front of us, however unsightly or messy it may be.

As we navigate the busy and glorious season of Advent, our hearts are naturally more attuned to the Kingdom-looking parts of our lives. You know, the familial relationships that are healthy, the beauty in icicles and snowflakes, and the snuggles as our children are drifting off to sleep, cozied up beside us. But the challenge comes here in January, when the lights and tinsel have been packed away, the sugary dreams have worn off, the “New Year” has been properly celebrated, and we’ve lost a few pieces to most of our gifts that were so carefully chosen, wrapped, and placed under the tree. What happens when all the magic is gone? Do we just attempt to fabricate it?

To be honest, I don’t think the magic goes anywhere. It just looks a little different. In “ordinary time” – which by the way, is an actual part of the church’s liturgical year when the numerous celebrations aren’t happening – magic might be a little more difficult to find, but it isn’t gone. Sometimes, it takes actually resting, looking, and waiting. Hang on to this glimpse of forever we got, while things were beautiful and kindnesses were more frequent. Hold on to the feeling of love and warmth you got in a room full of your people.  Don’t forget that those things aren’t created by the Christmas season – they’re created by hearts full of joy, given to us by a Creator who loves us. He gifts us the ability to see with His eyes the beauty of wonder and truth, to hear with His ears the exciting sounds of creation, to love with His heart those He has placed in our paths. We only need to be willing to receive those gifts and use them in our own ordinary time.

For the Love of Books

This piece originally appeared on Everyday Exiles.

One of my (very loose and mostly ideal but certainly not practical) goals of 2018 was to read more.

Yeah, I told you it was loose.

Anyway, I certainly accomplished it, and I’m proud to say that this week, I finished my 52nd book of the year. I know you people who have had reading goals every year and accomplished some sort of list of genres, authors, and new releases have certainly still beaten me, but for my life stage and loosey-goosey approach, I’m happy. My parameters were every bit as loose as the goal itself; almost anything counted. A mix of fiction and nonfiction, a mix of classics and modern YA lit. Some books took me more than a month to chip away at, one page and one day at a time. Other books I finished in a single day, and didn’t discount them for that. I read a poetry collection, and counted it. I counted two of the chapter books that I read aloud to my daughter. I also counted my advent devotional and a few books I read simply because I was interviewing their authors.

All this is to say that I learned a few things during my year of simply reading more. First of all, I learned that I like it better than watching TV. I don’t have anything against TV – in fact, I have several TV shows I love and have watched every episode of a hundred times. But when, at the end of the day, I need quiet moments of relaxation, I turn to books more happily. I also learned that while novels go very quickly for me, nonfiction is more than worth chipping away at. I used to hate reading nonfiction, but this year I have enjoyed more than a few spiritual memoirs, Scripture-based, and Christian lifestyle-type books (What even is the genre for all that, by the way?) and even a narrative nonfiction book that restored my belief in learning history past high school. I’m kidding, a little, but still.

I know a lot of people who would read, but “don’t have time” or they “can’t find anything they like past a few chapters in”. But to you guys, I’d encourage you to stick it out. Stick it out, try to build in the time, stretch your literary vocabulary, and explore a new kind of book you don’t usually read. If you haven’t yet found something you love, try the library instead of a bookstore until you find what you like, (It’s free, y’all. No-brainer.) even if it takes a little while.

What else did I learn? Well, I continue to learn that I’m no good at saying “No” to a book that looks even remotely interesting. A used book sale has my whole heart, and whatever cash I happen to have on me. I like libraries, but usually struggle with returning the books on time. I love my Kindle for the portability, but there’s nothing like turning pages. Reading in front of my kids makes them want to read, too. I’ll never stop buying books. I’ll never stop trading books with friends. I’ll never stop taking books to our neighbors’ little free library. I’ll never give away books that I loved – which results in a truly puzzling storage issue in my home. But most of all, I learned that I still really and truly love to read. I love it. I LOVE IT and I don’t care who knows it.

Authors I Love Right Now – Kate Morton and Kristin Hannah

So, y’all know I love reading. I’m not a picky reader, usually, widely spanning genres, years, fiction and nonfiction… I just love books. That being said, I have a few authors I’ve read a lot of – Kate Morton being one. She is one of my absolute favorites, and I think there’s only one of her books I haven’t read. I enjoy her historical fiction so much, as well as the contemporary story lines of her others. She is, in my opinion, a masterful plot creator, weaving storylines, connecting dots at the perfect moments, giving little bits you can figure out on your own, but never giving quite everything away, so that there are still a few surprising turns – you know, so you keep reading! She adds a perfect dose of mystery, so that her narrative isn’t predictable. I always plow right through her books quickly, partially because I become immersed in her stories, and partially because I cannot think of reading anything else until I find out what is really going on. I can’t put her books down!

Now that I’ve sung the praises of my beloved Kate Morton, I’ll move on to a new favorite: Kristin Hannah. She does for me something a little different than Kate Morton, although off the cuff, you might say they are similar writers. While Kate is a wonderful storyteller, Kristin Hannah also refreshes you with her unrivaled character development and incredible setting displays. She can take you right to the heart of why she chose a certain place or time, drop you right into that exact moment, and make you feel like you actually are her main character. It’s incredible to read her environmental descriptions (I mean, have you even read The Great Alone yet?!), and I can’t imagine how much research goes into making sure things are accurate and thoroughly described. Her descriptions of character relationships are so believable; you feel like you grew up in the climate of the community she describes. I truly love her style.

While I have read all but one of Kate Morton’s books (I’m coming for you, The Clockmaker’s Daughter!I have only read The Great Alone and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. If you have read either of these ladies’ works, do you agree with me? Have you found that to be true to Kristin Hannah’s backlist? Do you also love their unique styles? This is great literature, friends. Go and read their books! I have several if you’re local and want to borrow mine!

Enjoy it.

This piece originally appeared on Everyday Exiles

It seems to me that each year, we get more and more hasty. We’re rushing through Christmas to get to Valentine’s Day… then rushing through to the 4th of July. Next thing you know, it’s Halloween, and on November 1st, we see Christmas decorations everywhere. Seriously… What’s the rush?

We’ve lost the art of enjoying the moment. Maybe not all of us, and maybe not all the time. But when we rush from big thing, to big thing, to wondering why there isn’t a next big thing, we’ve lost the ability to appreciate the right now. What’s the right now? Well, it looks like this…

Sunrises. Sunsets. Afternoon sun shining through a canopy of leaves. Full moonlight on dewy grass. Golden leaves on the sidewalk just before they turn brown. Spaghetti sauce all over your toddler’s face. A nicely-wrapped gift on your birthday. A perfectly-plated pasta and a glass of wine. A cupcake. Dirt under your fingernails from gardening. The smell of fresh flowers, brought to you by a friend. An unexpected kind note in the mail, amidst the mundane pile of bills and junk.

In the world of Instagram, we think we have to make everything special that happens into a “thing”. We need to take a photo and post about it (yes, me too!), maybe tag someone who was there. But are we actually enjoying the “thing” itself? Are we slowing down, smelling those flowers, sipping the wine, savoring that last bite, and hugging the friend? Why does this matter, you ask?

It matters because we are created for only a few years on this earth. Yes, our treasure is in heaven, and that’s what we look forward to – but we were put here first. On purpose. For a reason. We are here to live fully, love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with God… and with our human companions as well. We were put here to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, the comfortable silence with loved ones, and the sweetly unorganized chaos of our children. So slow down. Take a long look at that ordinary beauty around you. Don’t rush out of that coffee date, even if you still have some errands to run. Savor the conversation, the last bite, the first sip, and the dropping of the sun behind those trees. Don’t pick up your phone and take a picture – enjoy it.

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!

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