Category Archives: The Church

Five ways to celebrate Advent with children

The Advent season officially kicks off this week. Many churches celebrate Advent every year as a fixed part of the church calendar. But if you didn’t grow up in one of these churches or aren’t sure what Advent is all about, here’s a simple definition, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

I love this definition because it describes the season (December 2-24) as both a time of “expectant waiting” and a time of “preparation”. What a wonderful way to view the Christmas season! Not just as a time to prepare our homes with decorations, presents, and cookies; not only as a time to wait expectantly for the big guy in the red suit. But a time to prepare our hearts for Christ and for whatever God is calling us to do, as well as a time to reflect on the glorious gift He gave us, excitedly counting down the days to when we declare “for unto us a child is born”!

If you’re like my family, sometimes the other side of Christmas can get in the way of true Christ-centered waiting and preparation. But here are five ways you and your family, no matter what age your kids are, can celebrate Advent this year:

1. With a daily Advent devotion

A few years ago I bought Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift to read with my kids. It’s a beautiful book that takes your family through the journey of God’s people leading right up to the birth of our Savior on Christmas Day. Each day’s reading includes a story and related scripture, and it was a great way for us to all come together as a family each evening and focus our attention on the reason for this season. I would recommend this for families with children 8 years and up as the readings are a bit long for little ones. However, since buying Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, Voskamp has come out with a pop-up book called The Wonder of the Greatest Gift that looks like it would be more suitable for younger children, although I personally have not seen it in person.

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Photo credit: “Reading” by Sarah Elizabeth Altendorf

2. A Jesse Tree 

I first heard about the Jesse Tree when reading Ann Voskamp’s book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. The Jesse Tree is an interactive way to tell the stories of the Bible that lead up to the birth of Jesus. Each day there is a scripture reading and an associated ornament to represent that day’s lesson. Your family can either hang the ornaments on your Christmas Tree or have a small separate “Jesse Tree” just for this tradition. There are lots of places to buy Jesse Tree ornaments, but you can also make them yourself. I especially love this tutorial from Faith and Fabric.

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Photo credit: Weihnachtsdekoration mit Rentier-Kissen und Weihnachtsbaum by marcoverch

3. With an Advent Elf or Kindness Elf 

By now we all know about the “Elf on the Shelf”; but if incorporating that little North Pole spy and all of his crazy antics into your Christmas traditions is not for you, here are some alternative ideas that stick close to the heart of the Advent Season:

  • My friend Lauren from Blacktop to Dirt Road has the Kindness Elf show up to her house each year, beginning December 1st and staying through the Advent season. This cute little guy encourages Lauren’s family to do something kind each day, reminding them of the kindness and character Christ first exhibited for us.
  • Another friend of mine, Anne from Once Upon a Mom has introduced the Advent Elves into her family tradition. These elves help her family with their Jesse Tree by showing up each morning with that day’s ornament. So cute!

4. Intentional prayer as a family

Sometimes something as simple as time set-aside each day to pray together as a family is all you need to keep your heart focused on what’s truly special about Advent. Ask each member of the family to report on how they saw Jesus in action that day, what they did to shine His light to others, and who they saw that needs help or is hurting. Then pray together, praising God for His faithfulness and action, and lifting up those in need. This is simple and requires no pre-planning or materials.

However, if you’d like something a little more structured, check out this Advent Prayer Guide from my friend Bailey Suzio at The Thin Place.

Family hold hands around the kitchen table before their meal

5. Seek Peace Together

Let’s face it, this time of year can be one of the busiest we face, and in our rush and haste it’s easy to lose focus on the real reason for the season, coasting into December 25th exhausted, grumpy, and stressed out. A simple way to combat that is to be intentional in seeking peace. This will look different for each family. For some it may mean cutting back on extra-curricular activities and/or saying no to certain events in order to be home more in the evenings and on the weekends. For others it may mean scheduling family dinners a few nights a week. For my family it means protecting Sundays as our day of rest, as much as possible.

Take it a step further and use that down-time to read what God has to say about peace. You can download my free 31 Days of Seeking Peace scripture calendar and use it as a guide for you and your family. The readings are short, so this can easily be incorporated into prayer time, a Jesse Tree, or other Advent tradition.

 

31 Days of Seeking Peace

Whatever you do, I believe by spending a little bit of time each day to come together as a family and remember the special gift that God gave us not only keeps us focused on the reason for this season, it prepares our hearts to celebrate and accept that gift today and throughout the year.

If you or your family have other traditions for celebrating Advent, I’d love to hear about them!

 

5

Is there a reason for everything?

When I was in college at Appalachian State University, I was super involved with the campus Lutheran Student Association (LSA). It was the first group I joined when I got to school and in many ways the friends I met in that group were a life-line during those four years. They were my people and they helped me get closer to Jesus. I loved being a part of the group and the larger church community that supported them.

Each year I became increasingly more involved — serving on leadership, helping to plan and lead events, mentoring other students, etc. By my senior year it came time to hold elections for the group’s leadership and I decided to run for president. There was another girl who was younger, had not been a part of the group for as many years, who also decided to run.

I remember sitting in the fellowship hall of the church after the voting process and hearing the announcement that the other girl had been elected. She had won and my heart sank. I won’t lie, my ego was bruised, but I also felt like the group that had been “my people” had turned away and said, “you’re not the one that we want, we choose someone else.”

I know a leadership position for a campus church group doesn’t sound like a big deal or something to get upset about, but at the time I remember feeling devastated, hurt, even cast-out.

However, I’ll never forget that moments after the results were announced the pastor of the church and leader of our campus group — who had become a great mentor and surrogate father to me during my time at Appalachian — came over and rested his hand on my shoulder, leaned down and whispered in my ear, “I really wanted that for you.” Then he gave my shoulder a squeeze and walked away.

In that moment it was like he said, “I see you. I see what your heart desires, and because I care about you, I want you to have it.”

I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the years and what it meant to know that someone saw me and saw my heart.

A lot changed for me that year. Partly because of the hurt I carried from that event, I pulled away from LSA and church. Some other really hard things had already been happening in my life and it became a bit of a perfect storm. I slipped into a deep, deep depression my senior year. I didn’t go to class, I started getting migraines and had to be taken to the emergency room because of one that was so bad I couldn’t stop vomiting. I even contemplated suicide at one point. As my friends struggled to understand what was going on with me and how to be around this changed person, I withdrew from them. I was angry, I was lonely, and I was scared.

But during this time I stayed in touch with that same Pastor. Even though I wasn’t going to LSA meetings or to church much, I would stop by his office every week and we would talk. He would encourage me and pray for me. In many ways he was the life-line that kept me from completely severing my relationship with God.

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We often say, “everything happens for a reason.” I have said this frequently over the years. But as I get older I’m starting to question if that’s true, or is it just a nice platitude we tell ourselves? Does everything really happen for a reason? Is there a reason a mother has to bury her child? Is there a reason a husband and father would lose his entire family in a car crash? Is there a reason the young, healthy newlywed gets a cancer diagnosis on her 26th birthday?

Do I believe God creates good out of every situation? Absolutely, without a doubt I do. I have seen it time and again where beauty has risen out of the ashes and joy and love have transformed the ugliest, darkest situations and sorrowful times. But that still doesn’t mean those things — those desperate, break-a-person-in-two things — were ordained by God and happened for a reason.

Of course God can make something beautiful out of life’s ugly, and create strength and redemption from weakness and brokenness. In the midst of tragedy He can bring together people who otherwise would not have come into each other’s lives. But I cannot sit here and say God caused a tragic accident so that He could do those things. Or that there is some bigger purpose for a mother and father to bury their child. The reality is that sometimes hard, devastating, crappy stuff happens.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to compare me losing some silly election for a college student group 25 years ago to these other real-life tragedies. But I can look back and tell you that I don’t see any reason why that happened. I don’t see any reason why God would have created that situation, with a darkness already looming in my life. But I often wonder how or if that year would have been different had I not pulled away from my friends and from church. Had I not felt a little bit cast-aside.

And yet, I do see where God made sure there was someone there in the midst of that who said, “I see you.” And that created a life-line for me to get through a really difficult time.

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Recently my daughter had a pretty disappointing thing happen to her. Something she wanted badly and had worked hard for, and due to a simple mistake — a forgotten deadline — she lost the opportunity. When she came home in tears my heart just broke for her.

Being a mom I wanted so badly to look for the reason. I wanted to say to her, “there must be a reason, let’s look for it together. What’s the good that can come out of this, how is God going to use this?” But I couldn’t bring myself to say it because the truth is, I don’t know if there is a reason. Maybe it’s just a really crummy thing that happened.

Will she learn from this experience and never miss a deadline again? Maybe. But I’m not sure that her feeling badly about herself and the sense of failure and disappointment she is carrying were intended for some loftier purpose.

So instead of pulling out the mom advice on what’s the big lesson we can learn here, or what’s God’s reasoning, I was just honest with her and said, “You know what honey? This sucks. I know it hurts and you’re disappointed, and I’m so sorry. I really wanted this for you. Because you wanted this, I wanted it for you.

I see how hard you are working and what you’re working towards. I see you. And I want you to know that.

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There’s probably someone in your life who, right now, just needs to be seen. Maybe it’s one of your kids. Maybe it’s your spouse. Maybe it’s a sibling, a parent, a friend, or a co-worker. Maybe a teacher or a next-door neighbor. But I want you to find that person. Find someone who is going through something really crummy and please don’t give them that sad, old platitude that everything is happening for a reason when they start to pour out their heart to you. Instead, just come alongside them and simply say, “I’m so sorry. This sucks and I wanted better for you, because I care about you. Because I see you. I see your heart and I see that you’re hurting.

Maybe if we spend more time seeing each other and loving each other rather than trying to put quick fixes and patches on everything, then instead of wasting so much energy trying to understand why tragic things happen, we can simply be a beacon of light and love in the darkness.

Matthew 25:35-36

photo credit: alexandermazilkin Moscow’s summer via photopin (license)

Listen up men of the church: This is how we eradicate sexual discrimination and abuse

When I was 11 years old I remember hanging out in the arcade at the bowling alley and two men came up to me, leaned in closer than I felt comfortable, and told me how beautiful I was. They offered to pay for my video games and then asked me for a kiss.

When I was 13 years old I was molested by someone I trusted. Someone who was supposed to be a father figure to me.

When I was 14 years old a boy that I liked put his tongue down my throat and it scared me so much I ran to the bathroom and threw up.

By the time I was 15 I started getting cat-calls when I walked down city streets or past construction zones.

Each year, during highschool, I put on a little more weight, got a little bit heavier, until I started to become invisible to the guys around me. I hated being invisible, I hated being the fat friend, but it was better than the unwanted attention.

By the time I got to college the only time boys came to talk to me was to ask me about one of my pretty friends. My dating experience was pretty limited, so you can imagine my surprise when one day this boy followed me into the lady Foot Locker where I worked and asked me for my phone number. I was 19 years old and four years later I married that boy. I guess you can say I got pretty lucky that my first serious boyfriend turned out to be the one. I would definitely say that.

But my early interactions with men had left a lasting impact I couldn’t shake, and as I entered my adult years I had absolutely no idea how to be around men or how to have male friends. My husband and I had very few couple friends in our early years of married life. Most of his guy friendships he’d had from his single days fizzled out, and it seemed the few men I did come into contact with either completely ignored me or made me incredibly uncomfortable with their sexual comments and perverse jokes.

On the flip side I was also very sensitive about the dangers of male/ female friendships. I’d heard too many rumors, seen too many broken relationships. I felt incredibly uncomfortable with the single women who sought out friendships with my husband. Maybe because of this, I closed myself off to friendship, or put off a vibe that I wasn’t interested. Even the boyfriends and husband’s of my girlfriends seemed to only just tolerate, if barely acknowledge my presence.

In my mid twenties I had a male boss who I thought of as a friend for a while, but he told me that I would never be able to reach my career goals because I had chosen to be a wife and a mother instead. And then he sexually harassed another colleague.

By my late twenties I started to wonder if it was possible to have healthy male friendships at all. If I even knew what a healthy friendship with a guy looked like.

So much of my interaction with men left me feeling either invisible or objectified. I just wanted to be an equal. Appreciated for my wit, my intelligence, and my kindness.

Finally, in my mid-thirties I began to find the kinds of friendships I’d thought might be possible, but had mostly been elusive. Brotherly friendships with guys who let me be their equal. Not surprisingly, most of these friendships came through church.

In the last few years I, who never had brothers, suddenly found myself with 6 or 7 dear “brothers from another mother.” And it’s been the most amazing phenomenon for me. I never knew how much I was missing this type of friendship in my life until it happened.

My girlfriends, they are beautiful and fierce, and our relationships are sacred. My girlfriends are my heroes. But my guy friends lift me up in a different way. They are wonderfully blunt in their honesty, and I never worry if they’re just telling me what they think I want to hear. They put me in check when I’m over thinking or over stressed about something I should be giving over to God. And most of them are legit hilarious, and can handle some good-natured, sisterly ribbing like a boss.

But you want to know what else almost all of these guys have in common? They cherish their wives. I see it in how they look and speak of them. And because they love and honor the most important woman in their life, they are able to treat other women with kindness and respect.

And guys – listen up! Men of the church, I’m talking to you now: We need more of this.

Women need to be treated with compassion and reverence. We need to have men show us we matter because we are daughters of a King and sisters in Christ, not because of how we look, sound, or dress. We don’t want to be looked over and ignored because of our femininity anymore than we want to be objectified for it.

First and foremost, love and cherish your wives; we will love and honor our husbands. Let’s definitely safeguard our marriages and put smart boundaries in place.

But then, be a brother and a friend. The women in your church or community need that. Our sons and daughters need to see healthy relationships modeled for them. They are watching.

We can get this right.

We must get this right. It’s so important! If we show our children the right way, then the next generation can eradicate sexual abuse and discrimination.

Are you with me?

For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:50

Photo credit: timsamoff Ignited via photopin (license)

The Greatest Love Story of All Time

Who enjoys a good love story? I know I do. Whether it’s in a book or movie, I love the experience of watching a love story unfold, it just feels good to witness that love.

When I think about some of the best love stories I’ve read or watched, there are a couple of things they have in common. And as it turns out there is actually a formula that authors and screen writers use to create the perfect love story. According to Writer’s Digest there are four crucial basics that every love story must have:

  1. A hero and a heroine to fall in love
  2. A problem that creates conflict and tension between them and threatens to keep them apart
  3. A developing love that is so special it comes about only once in a lifetime
  4. A resolution in which the problem is solved and the couple is united

Tomorrow is Easter, a day that makes up a key chapter in the greatest love story of all time. The story of a Father’s love that knew no limits.

If we look at those four basics of the perfect love story we can find each of them in the story of God’s love for us.

Number one: A hero and heroine fall in love. Of course, the hero in our story isn’t your average hero. It’s God. You might say He’s the hero of heroes. And before each of us was even born, He had already fallen in love with us. God created us specifically to be in relationship with Him and He has loved us from the beginning. Now, unfortunately we took a bit longer to recognize and accept this love. But if you are a believer, I want you to think back to when you first discovered God’s love and how you felt when you first accepted Him into your heart. And if you aren’t sure you’ve gotten there yet, that’s OK, it just means your love story is waiting to happen.

 

Number two: There is a problem that creates conflict and tension between them and threatens to keep them apart. Boy does our love story have this. In fact it has thousands of years of problems and conflict. But it all started in the garden when Adam and Eve chose sin instead of love. Over and over God’s people have chosen something — or someone –over Him. Often that someone else we choose is ourselves. Our own selfish desires. And if this love story were a movie or book, I imagine even the most devoted hero would have given up and moved on. But not our Hero. He continues to pursue us. He continues to forgive us. He continues to love us.

 

Number three: A developing love that is so special it comes about only once in a lifetime. Now this is the part of our story where we start to get closer to today’s chapter. While from the beginning God’s love for us could easily be categorized as “so special it comes only once in a lifetime”, it was really the day that God himself chose to walk on this earth in human form that changed everything. When our Hero decided that the best way to win our love was to meet us where we were, to become just like us, and tell us in His own words, from the lips of His own mouth just how much He loved us… I mean there had never been anything like it to come before, and there has been nothing like it to come since. Jesus Christ was that once-in-a-lifetime expression of love.

 

And so, that brings us to Number four: A resolution in which the problem is solved and the couple is united. Now remember, our conflict, the thing keeping us apart from our Hero is our own sin. So what did God do to resolve this? He made the ultimate sacrifice. He took all of our sin, nailed it to a cross and died. On a day, nearly 2,000 years ago, when the skies turned black, God looked down from that cross and said: “I love you more.”

And let’s pause for a moment and talk about passion. It wasn’t in our list, but every good love story has an element of passion in it, right? That day that God said “I love you more” and took from us the very thing that was keeping us separated? The Bible tells us that in that moment the “curtain of the temple was torn in two, the earth shook and the rocks split, and tombs were broken open!” (Matthew 27:51-52). There was so much passion in God’s love for us that at the exact moment He took away the thing that was tearing us apart, the moment He took on our sin, the whole world shook.

As beautiful of an example of love as this story is, it would be kind of a sad ending to the greatest love story of all time if it just ended there at the cross. Of course God, our Hero, doesn’t leave anything unfinished. He doesn’t leave us lost and alone, weeping in the realization of what love did for us.

He came back. He was resurrected. He made sure we knew that He was not leaving us for good; that His death was truly a resolution to what had been keeping us apart and now we could be together forever. Our Hero was raised from the dead and got up and walked among us once again so that we could hear from his very own lips these words: “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

He doesn't leave us lost and alone, weeping in the realization of what love did for us.

Today we celebrate the greatest love story of all time. And you know what makes it even better? We are part of that story. We are not simply moviegoers or bystanders to this love story. We are the heroine, the bride of Christ. We have been united with our great love, with our Hero because of Easter. Because of His death and resurrection there is nothing, nothing we can ever do to make him stop loving us, to give up on us, to leave us.

Now, go and live that story, it’s the story of your life.

 

 

Image Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

I choose hope

It’s been a hard couple of weeks to be an American, to be a human, to be a Christian. Tragedy has struck families and communities in Michigan, Louisiana, and Dallas. Innocent people were terrorized in Bangladesh and nearly 300 lives lost in Baghdad at the hands of terrorists. And I know the list doesn’t end here.

It’s easy to ask “why” and “how” when we read headlines and see videos of senseless tragedy, hate, anger and death. It paints a grim picture of the world we live in and feelings of doubt and worry over the future our children will inherit.

I know many Christians who feel the world no longer offers hope for change, or they feel things can only get worse, and they have started predicting, and even praying for, the end times.

But I’m just gonna say it out loud: I hope they’re wrong.

That my fellow Christians praying for Jesus to come back tomorrow, don’t get to see it in their lifetime. And here’s why:

In the midst of the tragedy and loss, I still see hope.

At the perimeter, in the headlines, we live in a dangerous world where evil gets center stage and every morning you hold your breath waiting to hear what horrible tragedy struck overnight. It’s hard to have faith that anything will ever change, that evil will ever be destroyed or at least slowed down.

But on the inside, below the headlines, in communities and homes and hospitals and churches, there is another story. It is a story where volunteers rally around grieving families who have lost their homes, possessions, and loved ones, providing for their basic needs.

It is a story where children are selling lemonade to raise money for cancer research and teens are spending their summer vacations serving in impoverished communities to build churches, teach the Gospel, and share love.

It is a story where marriages are being restored, friendships repaired, and forgiveness is offered in abundance.

It is a story of hurting, lost people finding healing through a community that loves and supports them in the name of Jesus Christ.*

These are the real stories I see Every. Single. Day. And I am filled with hope.

They are not attention-grabbing, headline-stealing stories. They are not even stories of hundreds of lives and hearts being changed in a single week. They are about one at a time: one life given to Christ, one heart healed, one relationship restored.

 

There’s an old song that we used to sing at summer camp every year when I was kid. I’m pretty sure they still sing it.

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.

And soon all those around can warm up from its glowing.

That’s how it is with God’s love.

Once you’ve experienced it, you spread His love to everyone.

You want to pass it on.”

one at a time

On the inside, in our schools and churches, homes and communities, there is a glow, a radiating warmth. It is not extinguished in the midst of tragedy, loss, pain, and anger, but rather it becomes a beacon of light and promise.

Because a candle burns brightest in darkness.

And there are so many who are called and driven, with a sense of urgency, to spread that light, not because of their own desire or goodness, but because The Light is so brilliant it cannot be contained.

There are more lives yet to be touched, healed, warmed, welcomed, comforted and loved. There is still so much work to be done. I believe God is entrusting us, using us to do more for Him before it is all over.

And I am filled with hope for the future.

 

*The examples in this post are based on real people and events I have witnessed in just the last 6 months.

 

photo credit: candle without wind via photopin (license)