December 22, 2008

The Twelve Gifts of Christmas

As I’ve written, I’ve traveled a deliberate, and at times heavy-hearted, journey this past month. At the beginning of Advent, I introduced the Advent Conspiracy and how we, as a family, planned to concentrate less on presents and more on Presence. It’s a work in progress, but our first try at a less materialistic and more Jesus-centered Christmas season has been a success. Santa will still bring our kids plenty of presents, but we've enjoyed a special fullness this season.

God’s blessed our efforts and I feel a sense of peace and joy that’s been absent for some time. But, even when my spirits were weary I’ve seen the “gifts” God sent my way. So, in the spirit of giving, I thought I’d share them with you.

Here they are, my Twelve Gifts of Christmas:
(Can be sung, if you’re so inclined, to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas.")

12 Girls a-Giggling…My daughter had a party with a dozen of her friends last Friday and the beautiful sound of teenage girls’ laughter, chatter and singing filled the house.

11 Snowflakes Falling…OK, there have been more than 11 flakes, but seeing snow gently covering the trees and grass on a few occasions fills me with joy.

10 Houses Twinkling…My grandmother gave us her Christmas village a few years ago and each year we’ve added a piece. Setting up the village under tree is now a treasured Christmas ritual.

9 Christmas CDs Playing…Come December 1 all our Christmas music comes out and it’s all Christmas all the time. What a great, and eclectic, collection we’ve accumulated over the years!

8 Friends a Visiting…In the midst of the Christmas crazies, I’ve enjoyed special visits with friends, old and new. God has blessed me richly, sending me friends who see the good in me, even when I have trouble seeing it myself…and accepting me regardless. Plus, the blessings continue with the friends I’ve made this year through writing and blogging. You have been an unexpected gift and a real treasure!

7 Rolls for Wrapping…Hallelujah! I’ve finished wrapping my Christmas presents. Usually this is a last minute panic that saps the joy right out of me—and now it’s done!

6 Playgoers Watching…This weekend Dan, the kids and I went with my parents to Lancaster to see The Miracle of Christmas at the Sight and Sound Theater. Wow! If this story doesn’t amaze you and REALLY bring to life the incredible message of Jesus’ birth, you better check your pulse. Definitely a two-hankie experience. Plus, spending time with my parents was a wonderful treat.

Fiiiiive Ad-vent Candles…As I wrote before, we created an Advent wreath. Spending a few minutes in mini-worship each Sunday has really helped us stay focused on Jesus. It’s become a time the kids really look forward to and they’re the ones to remind Dan and me about it each week.

4 Puzzlers Puzzling…Two weekends ago, right smack in the middle of the busiest prep time of the Christmas season my son pulled out a puzzle—a 550-piece puzzle—and asked, “Can we do this?” You know what? We did! Nothing on our Christmas to-do list got done that day, but we had a great time…and finally finished it three days later!

3 Batches of Cookies…OK, I’m not a baker, but having this many batches of cookies done, two of which were made by my daughter, is cause for celebration!

2 Kids a-Singing (and violin-ing…and drumming)…I have no idea where our children get their musical talent, but they both have it. Watching their chorus, orchestra and band holiday concerts brings tears to my eyes. And every year they just keep getting better and better.

And a Memory-Filled Christmas Tree…When Dan and I were engaged, we began collecting ornaments from everywhere we travel to. After 18+ years of marriage our tree brims with wonderful memories of the special places we’ve visited, first as a couple and now as a family.

I pray that as you “bring home” Christmas these next two days, you find the joy, peace, hope and love that Jesus brings...regardless of your circumstances. And in the midst of it all you see God’s gifts all around, especially His most precious gift of all—Emmanuel, God with us.

Merry Christmas and God bless you and your families!

“[The Shepherds and the Angels] And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.'” (Luke 2:8-11)

December 18, 2008

A Clean Sweep

A few days ago my bloggy friend Elaine wrote eloquently about her family’s deeply-rooted Christian heritage. She shared, “We are a Jesus people, and the family bloodline runs deep.” I thought then as I do now, Wow! What an identity. What a legacy to be born into and be a part of carrying out. I admit I am a bit envious of her roots. Mine are so newly-formed.

These thoughts visited me in spin class today. Then, just as quickly, my wandering mind rested on my chores for the day. Topping the list was herding the mess in our house. Clutter and chaos abounds even though I just cleaned up the other day. I’m perplexed how this happens so quickly. Then it hit me, we are a messy people. (Although this family legacy pretty much begins and ends with me because my parents and sister are really quite tidy!)

In my house no sooner is a room put in neat order than it reverts back to its “preferred” state of disorder. An equilibrium of sorts. Coats get draped here. Backpacks there. Piles of mail magically multiply. Shoes…don’t get me started on the shoes! And towels. Can someone please tell me how many times a parent must say, “Please, pick up your towel and hang it up!” before the obvious no longer needs mentioning? The nonchalance of my brood only piques my agitation. But even left to my own devices, I wonder if the continual neatness I desire is an unreachable goal. I’m good at getting motivated for a big clean-up, but not so good at maintaining the results.

This reminds me of Jesus’ teaching about sweeping a house clean.

“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. Then it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

These verses sober…and scare…me. Jesus is saying when we undertake a spring cleaning of our souls, if we don’t fill our “houses” with the Him, Satan and his friends will come back to us stronger than ever. As a result, we’ll find ourselves worse off than before. Yikes!

If I knew physics, I’d offer a clever illustration about vacuums or matter or such. But, to my simpler mind it appears that the space in our souls cannot remain empty. It must be filled. Filled by God. Or filled by Satan. Take your pick.

I wonder if some of the darkness and unrest I’m feeling results from poor housekeeping. Yes, I’ve been moved at times for a big spiritual cleanup, but have I vigilantly maintained the tidiness? Or have I carelessly let some of my rooms revert back to their “preferred” state of chaos? Are unwanted visitors making themselves comfortable amid the clutter?

These are questions on which to ponder and pray. For now I will rest in the promise that the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

While I can’t change my family’s faith history, I take comfort in the fact that, as believers all of us are part of a heritage that extends way, way back to Bethlehem. And I, along with my husband, can be a part of creating a new faith legacy for our children…and their children.

I may always be a messy person in my house—but I want to be a Jesus person in my heart. Now if you’ll excuse me I have some straightening up to do.

December 16, 2008

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

Songs and movies say it. Christmas cards say it. Commercials say it. EVERYONE says it.

So it must be true.

With nine days until Christmas one would expect us all to be knee deep in jingle belling, hearts all aglow, caroling in the snow, and an all-around feeling of Christmas cheer.

I’m not. Are you?

It seems Santa’s sack bulges with more than just presents. Dashing alongside our preparations are our expectations. We hope that some way, somehow our efforts will come out the other side magically transformed into dazzling wonders and treasured memories.

Unfortunately the switch to life’s troubles doesn’t get turned “off” come December. And for many, Christmas is bittersweet, if not downright disheartening. Against the backdrop of “required” glee burdens seem heavier. Losses greater. Sadness deeper. This Christmas, especially, I feel the pain of others as well as my own. I see lives profoundly marked by struggling marriages, ailing parents and lost children. I see the desperation of unemployment, depression and addiction. I see grief from death, cancer and poverty.

How do situations like these fit into the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas we have safely tucked away in our collective memories? Is Christmas still Christmas if it’s not marked with a sparkly tree? Or presents? Or parties? Or even peace?

Just look at Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t a prepared, produced, picture-perfect event. In fact, the first Christmas came with little fanfare, save a star in the sky. Think about it. We’re talking about God, the Creator of the universe. He could do anything. Anything. And He chose to enter the world helpless, tiny and weak. In the most humble of settings. Welcomed by smelly shepherds and smellier livestock. Emmanuel—God with us. Talk about magical transformation and dazzling wonder! Aren’t you blown away by this? I am.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
A new and glorious morn. How can we create a Christmas more amazing than the incarnation? Jesus didn’t come to heavy our load. He came to give rest to the weary. The brokenhearted. The downtrodden. For those in prison and those who mourn. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

This Christmas if you’re feeling a little (or a lot) less than, that’s OK. Christmas isn’t an event we pass or fail. It is a gift we behold and admire with awe. It’s one we receive, by choice. But to receive it, it’s not our houses, menus or Christmas cards we need to prepare—it’s our hearts.

Thankfully Jesus isn’t a seasonal item only available for a limited time, and He doesn’t get packed away with the rest of our Christmas things come January. No, the promise God sent to us in the manger lives as vibrantly on June 25 as December 25.

Emmanuel, God with us. What truly good news of great joy in this, and all, seasons.

December 10, 2008

It's a Boy

We’ve been expecting it for weeks and yesterday was the big day. After school my 13-year-old daughter brought home her 7 lb. 8oz. baby boy. She named him Emmitt. He’s a cute little guy and pretty good, too.

Now before you cluck “Tsk, tsk!” or question the loose morals in our house, understand Emmitt is a health class project. At my daughter’s school every eighth grader is assigned a “baby” to care for overnight.

Emmitt is a life size and weight baby, and eerily real-looking. Even his cry sounds real. He runs on a program that makes him cry at pre-set intervals and records how well he’s cared for. To stop him from crying, the student inserts a key into the baby’s back for anywhere from one to 30 minutes. (Oh, what fun the teacher can have setting the baby for disruptive students!)

My daughter’s choral concert was last night and she had to take Emmitt with her. Thankfully the baby “behaved” during the concert. I can only imagine what she would have done if he started to cry while she was on stage!

In the lobby afterward, more than a few concert-goers shot shocked and curious glances in her direction as she walked through the crowd with her violin case in one hand and a baby carrier in the other! I even received a few “congratulations” from moms who’d already had their turn playing the grandmother role.

Whatever fun Emmitt provided during the day, quickly wore off at night. As any parent knows that's when the real fun with a newborn comes. True to form, Emmitt woke four times during the night. This morning our bleary-eyed daughter dragged herself and her baby to school, only too happy to return it for the next victim…er “parent.” Even this scaled-down simulation showed how hard it is to care for a baby.

As funny as this experience was for our family, it was surreal. And it freaked all of us out a bit. Our dog was convinced the baby was real. She sniffed and fretted and followed it everywhere. My husband said seeing his little girl with her newborn made him feel physically ill. I vacillated between fast forwarding to the day I hope to share this beautiful experience with my daughter and picturing that experience coming at far too young an age.

Overall I have mixed feelings about the baby simulator assignment. Maybe I don’t want to admit my little girl is growing up. Really, how did my daugther travel from American Girl dolls to the possibility of real babies so quickly? Did I miss something along the way? Do we really need to get discuss pregnancy with eighth graders?

Apparently, yes we do. Each year about a million teenage girls get pregnant. And some of them are nice Christian girls from godly families, girls just like our own. As parents, we can teach purity, listen and guide but ultimately this isn’t a decision we can control. How I pray for my daughter, and for all teenage girls, as they navigate the difficult, confusing and not-always-well-marked road to adulthood.

December 8, 2008

Words Matter

Twenty six-letters. That’s it. That’s all the English alphabet offers. Yet, look at what’s possible. The combining, creating and reorganizing of words is a never-ending gift.

Obviously since I write, I love words. They offer sport and respite and exploration. I noodle over crossword puzzles. I read constantly—and dream of the perfect afternoon spent curled up by a fire with a good book. I edit and proofread others’ work to help their words sparkle. And I write—sometimes because I have to, but mostly because I simply must.

Even so, I have much to learn about writing.

Whether you view writing as a dreaded task or joyful jaunt, sooner or later we all have to write. And when we do, how we write says something about us. People notice our words—especially when they’re incorrect. Like it or not, typos, misspelling, and improper usage make us look dumb.

It’s one thing to mess up on a note to a friend—who knows how brilliant you really are. It’s another to botch a letter to a prospective employer, an email to your distribution list, a report to your boss or a post to the entire blogosphere.

The electronic age has us communicating faster and faster. We hit “send” without a moment’s pause to proofread. I shudder to think of the number of emails I’ve sent with glaring mistakes. Or blogs posted with accidental errors. Ugh!

Even if we choose immediacy over accuracy, or have forgotten—or perhaps never quite figured out—those wonderful rules of spelling, grammar and usage, contrary to popular opinion, correct writing has NOT gone the way of the typewriter or corded telephone. It’s as relevant and in-fashion as ever.

That’s why my heart did a happy dance when I happened upon this article: The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words. Even though the site is geared toward marketers, it provides even the most talented writer an “aha” moment or two. Plus, the author has a great sense of humor. See, learning grammar can be fun!

Do yourself (and your future readers) a favor and check out this website. It sure showed me how much further I have to go with my learning…or is it “farther?”

“Go now, write it on a tablet for them, inscribe it on a scroll, that for
the days to come it may be an everlasting witness.” (Isaiah 30:8)

December 6, 2008

Finding Hope in a Hopeless World

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him. ~Psalm 62:5

Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent. Per my post on Advent Conspiracy, I’m trying to make this Christmas a little less crazy and a little more focused. To that end, we put together an Advent wreath so our family will pause each Sunday evening for a time of mini-worship. (Side note: Looking for something else, I happened upon a box of Advent candles at AC Moore. They even sell wreaths with the candle holders built right in. Who knew?! The whole thing cost less than seven dollars and took moments to put together.)

The first candle of Advent stands for hope.

Job and Psalms are some of the most anguish-filled books in the Bible. Even so, the word “hope” is mentioned more in them than the rest of the Old Testament. Obviously the writers of these books suffered greatly. They were oppressed physically and spiritually. They had experienced a stripping away that left them naked and broken. Yet, despite their sadness and circumstance, they knew in the deepest parts of their soul, their hope for the future was found in the Lord. We talk about the patience of Job; perhaps we should focus on the hope of Job.

To us today, the Old Testament can look like a dusty old book. It’s hard to relate to because life isn’t like that anymore. That was then, this is now.

I think times may change but the human experience doesn’t. Just look around.

We suffer greatly through abuse, addiction, a graceless society, war and terrorism. We’re oppressed physically and spiritually through cancer, loneliness, depression, materialism and sexual immorality. We’ve experienced stripping away through our prodigal children, evaporating finances, unemployment, fractured relationships, illness and death.

Each morning the paper tells of so much suffering and evil not only around the world, but close to home. At its best, this world doesn’t make sense. And at its worst, it can seem hopeless. It’s easy to wonder where God is. Does He see? Does He care?

God answered these age-old questions with one simple answer: Jesus. Jesus’ coming reveals the specific glory for which the ancient hoped for, but couldn’t name. He who was there at the beginning surrendered his infinite strength and power to become human “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corin. 5:21) The seemingly simple story of a baby in a manager changed all of human history.

Because of Jesus our hope is no longer vague or our future uncertain. Jesus bridged the chasm of sin that separated us from God. He gave us the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And He gave us the promise of eternal life so that “what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.” (Rom. 8:18)

So, when I look at this week’s Advent candle I truly see hope.

HOPE that “he who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion.” even when it’s hard to see the evidence. (Phil. 1:6a)

HOPE that His grace is sufficient for me, not in spite of, but because of my weakness. (2 Corin. 12:9)

HOPE that no matter how I will fail as a parent, God has plans for my children— "plans to prosper [them] and not to harm [them], plans to give [them] hope and a future. (Jer. 29:11)

HOPE that regardless of the leadership of our government and political happenings my future is secure because my citizenship isn't here, it is in heaven. (Eph 2:19)

HOPE that God will “richly provide us with everything for our enjoyment” despite the fledging stock market, crumbling financial institutions and increasing unemployment. (1 Tim. 6:17)

HOPE that the battle over evil was fought and won by Jesus on the cross and no amount evil doings in this world can change that. Satan has received his judgement. (1 Corin. 15:57, Rev. 20)

And HOPE that, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” for “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Phil. 1:21; Rom. 6:23)

Lord, even though it can sometimes seem there’s no hope in this hopeless world, thank you for sending your Son. Through Him “we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Heb. 6:19)

December 2, 2008

Book Review: "Billy, The Untold Story"

Many say Billy Graham is a modern day apostle. I'm too young to have experienced him in his prime, but he certainly seems like the real deal. However, my cynical side wonders if it’s just a matter of time before his past sins come to light and he’s undone by his own doings.

The latter is the launching point for the book Billy, The Untold Story of a Young Billy Graham and the Test of Faith that Almost Changed Everything by William Paul McKay and Ken Abraham. Set in 2001, an opportunistic reporter seeks to uncover the hidden “truth” about the 20th century’s most famous evangelist. She figures what better place to start than at the bedside of an aging Charles Templeton, Billy Graham’s once best friend and uber-evangelist-turned-atheist.

Told primarily through the eyes of Templeton, Billy is a look back on events that took place in the late 30’s to 1949. While the prose is more workmanlike than snappy, the story carries the reader enjoyably through an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Billy Graham’s early days, the business of evangelism in the 40s and eventually to a crisis of faith that nearly ended Graham’s career. Alongside that, Billy tells the tale of two friends, called by God. When they encounted a fork in the road, one chose one path and the other chose differently. Where the book lacked drama in the first 200 pages, it more than made up for it in the last 50.

Overall Billy provided an informative read. It whet my appetite to learn more about the characters involved. And it showed God working powerfully through the life of a young man who kept saying, "Yes."

This review was motivated by Thomas Nelson publishing’s offer for a free book. Free book? Yes! In exchange for posting a review on your blog or a consumer website (like, Thomas Nelson will send you a free book. Sign up (click here). Select a book. Read it. Write a review. Choose another book. Simple…and fun! Try it for yourself.

November 30, 2008

Stuck in the Middle

I’m in a funny place. It’s not an up or down place, a high or a low. It’s an in-between. And it feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Somehow the markers that guide my well-worn path have been moved. But to where? And what’s around the bend?

I’ve sensed it coming for some time.

Maybe it started when an elbow injury sidelined me from tennis in June, taking me out of a sport I love, leaving a gap where fitness, socializing and competition happily co-existed. Perhaps it finds root in the fact that my role as a mom is changing as I try to redefine what it means to mother my tween son and teen daughter. It could be that I’m uncertain how to proceed professionally with a freelance business I’ve let dwindle over the years.

Whatever “it” is, it’s left me with more free time than I’m used to. The schedules that ordered my days have dwindled. Where some might find an amazing sense of freedom, I’ve found restlessness and disorder.

Obviously, writing has filled the gaps. But I’ve discovered too much time alone in front of a computer screen is...well, too much. Too much time to think, ponder and analyze. Too much time to question my purpose in life. Too much time to look around and compare how much more filled/gifted/important/busy/meaningful others' lives seem to be.

Without the externally-induced “to-do’s” I’ve lost accountability. I can write or not. Volunteer or not. Work or not. Clean the house or not. Exercise or not. Call a friend or not. The “or nots” have gained the upper hand, adding to a creeping sense of drift. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? Should I wait for what’s next or plow ahead? If so, toward what?

Deep down, I sense a change of season like it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (3:1)

But, oh how easily I lose perspective and confuse today’s situation with forever’s reality.

Last week I learned from an orthopedic specialist that, short of a miracle, my elbow will not heal in the near future and my “temporary” hiatus from tennis—and many other daily activities—has become a long-term situation. The imminent life preserver I’ve been hoping would help right my sinking sense of self floated away. It might seem trivial, but I mourn this loss as well as my physical limitations.

The siren song of the pit lured me close to the edge.

Down in the dumps and unable to sleep, I took my dog for an early morning walk last week. There’s something about getting out in 20 degree weather and greeting the rising sun that orders one's thoughts—and allows God to speak.

In the brisk morning air, words from Psalm 139 came to mind: how God knows us completely; how there is nowhere we can flee from His presence; and how we’re fearfully and wonderfully made. Startling insight followed.

I knew that even in this in-between place, God’s right hand holds me. He may or may not have caused this time of pause, but certainly He can use it for good. For months, I’d become increasingly focused on what I lacked and lost sight of what I have. I wanted other people’s blessings instead of embracing the unique gifts with which God has blessed me.

I need to stop looking around or ahead, and focus on what’s been set before me. Surely with the gifts He’s given me, I have much to contribute to the Kingdom. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Jesus said it was: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:33-34)

So, I choose to focus on today. I choose to trust His divine guidance of my time, my writing, my work, my family and my friendships. And I choose to follow—even if I don’t know what lies ahead.

What season of life are you in right now? Are you using the blessings God has specifically given you or are you yearning for the blessings of others? What steps do you need to take to trust that God has hemmed you in and laid His hand upon you?

“O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:1,3,5,9,10,14)


Read all of Psalm 139. Let God speak to you through these beautiful verses.

November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Gratitude

Today feels lazy and preparatory and cozy. The kids are off from school. They’re eager to help with the cooking and baking, excited to see their cousins and grandparents tomorrow. A blanket of anticipation envelopes us.

It’s Thanksgiving and gratitude is in the air. What’s not to love about a holiday that makes us pause to count our blessings? Did you ever notice how your attitude changes when you do? How no matter what your circumstance, there are ALWAYS things for which to be thankful.

I stumbled across 1000 Gifts, a gratitude project on Holy Experience’s blog and it sparked me. Her evocative writing style took me on an unexpected trip to somewhere new and exciting. Her word paved a road that traveled far from my familiar.

She got me thinking (which was her purpose) about gratitude. I have thousands of things for which to be thankful. What if I deliberately named them? One at a time. Until I had a hundred, a thousand, a million. Is there an end to the list?

What if we all did that? How would our lives change, our focus alter, our perspective align more rightly? How much more of God would we gain in the process? Because that’s the point, isn’t it. To recognize that ALL blessings are from above.

Last night we were in prison again. Six of us went. Once again, we ended up taking out more of Jesus than we brought in. The power of the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries. Recognizes no border. Shows no favoritism. To hear the gospel presented in an environment so starkly opposite from our day-to-day is to see God anew.

Michael preached last night and God transformed this gentle man into a fierce warrior of the Word. He dug into Scripture and pulled out truths with such power and conviction that we all met Jesus in a fresh way. He taught that without the cross we have nothing. It all begins and ends there. Nothing we do/say/accomplish/sacrifice/give/learn can take away from or add to the Divine Blood shed at Calvary. Nothing.

And, without the cross, we have just that—nothing.

So, what better place to begin my 1000 Gifts list than at the cross. Because even if I never add another item, it is perfect. It is eternal. And it is enough.

Thanksgiving blessings to you and your family. Let’s continue our attitude of gratitude long after the the last bits of turkey morph into casseroles, the Christmas frenzy encroaches and the new year begins.

November 23, 2008

Just Too Good Not to Share

Sometimes, something is just too good not to share. In fact, this something is so good, I’ve decided to break my self-imposed blog rule of never sharing recipes and other domestic tips to share the wonderful-ness with you.

Now, I know most of you belong to incredible churches; each one possessing different gifts that nourish your congregations. But, I assert you’d be hard-pressed to find a church that serves better food at congregational get-togethers than we do at Woodside! I’m not talking church basement potlucks or even catered events, but meticulously-planned, mouth-watering, gourmet feasts. All made from scratch by the talented volunteers who magically make it all happen.

This morning our congregation gathered for a celebration breakfast to commemorate the end of our 52 Days with Nehemiah study. And once again the menu earned rave reviews!

So here’s where the something-too-good-not-to-share comes in.

For the past several years, a staple at church breakfasts is Crème Brulee French Toast. Let me tell you, it’s even better than it sounds. (Probably because “low fat” and this recipe share little in common.) But, the yummy noises from my breakfast companions told me they agreed—calories be damned!

If you’re looking for a special occasion breakfast/brunch item that’s easy-to-make, but deliciously memorable, look no further. We adopted this recipe as our own and now it's became a Christmas breakfast tradition with my family. We make it the night before and pop it in the oven while we open presents. Simple and delicious. Yum!

So, without further ado…drum roll please…

Note: Any country-type loaf, Italian or French bread will work, but challah bread is my personal favorite.

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
an 8- to 9-inch round loaf country-style bread
5 large eggs
1 1/2 cups half-and-half (I use low-fat milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a small heavy saucepan melt butter with brown sugar and corn syrup over moderate heat, stirring, until smooth and pour into a 9x13-inch baking dish. Cut six 1-inch thick slices from center portion of bread, reserving ends for another use, and trim crusts. Arrange bread slices in one layer in baking dish, squeezing them slightly to fit.

In a bowl whisk together eggs, half-and-half, vanilla, Grand Marnier, and salt until combined well and pour evenly over bread. Chill bread mixture, covered, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.
Preheat oven to 350° F. and bring bread to room temperature.

Bake bread mixture, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed and edges are pale golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve hot French toast immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Enjoy! Let me know if you make it and what you think. By the way, I think this recipe is originally from

November 17, 2008

The Advent Conspiracy

“On your mark. Get set. Go!”

In 10 days we’ll gather to celebrate perhaps the nicest, coziest, most enjoyable holiday of the year. Thanksgiving comes with little pretense and expects little preparation. I mean, it’s pretty much the same menu every year. No surprises. No stress.

And then, before we’ve even had time to digest the stuffing and pumpkin pie, we’re off! Forget the dishes; we’ll do them later. It’s time to get ready for Christmas. Time to shop. Make lists and check them twice. Shop. Decorate. Entertain. Shop. Bake. Wrap. Shop.

What did you say? There are only 37 days until Christmas?

What?! Only 37 days! It’s not even officially ’tis the season and I’m already behind. Typing this makes my pulse race and my stress level rise. I need to get busy. Right now!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Christmas. I love the songs, the traditions, the decorations, the anticipation, and of course the celebration. But I HATE, HATE, HATE the shopping. Shopping for stuff the recipients probably don’t even want, may not like and possibly will never use. Don’t we all have enough stuff already, anyway? Do our loved ones feel more loved by our purchases? Or often, do they feel let down? Rarely can reality meet the expectations with which we embellish Christmas.

Each Christmas for the past several, I’ve tried to simplify. But each year, come Christmas Eve I end up feeling stressed out. At the very moment I want to feel the most joy, I find the most tension. The good will to men gets lost somewhere between the wrapping paper and the mall parking lot.

That’s why when I was in church yesterday and they showed a video entitled Advent Conspiracy, I said, “YES! This is it! This is what I (and hopefully my husband, too) am going to do this Christmas.”

Judging by the glazed faces of my friends and family during the pre-Christmas rush, I’m not alone in my thinking. What would it look like if, together, we all said, “STOP!” and then redesigned Advent. What if we made it a time to develop relationships, nurture our families, build meaningful traditions and honor the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place: Jesus.

Take a look at this video. Tell me what you think. What changes are you inspired to make this Christmas season?

If you want to give your presence this Christmas, click here to go to Advent Conspiracy for more information and some really helpful ideas on how to take this idea further.

Imagine what we can do.

November 13, 2008

The Most Unlikely Place

It was a Tuesday evening, just like any other. One where you’d expect this ordinary suburban mom to be out doing any number of things like shuttling kids, attending a church or school meeting, going to book club or socializing with friends.

Instead I chose to be here.

The spirit of God was alive in this place. I sat on my cheap plastic chair and soaked it in. It was here I saw Jesus clearer than ever, without clutter and distraction. It was here I felt His love. Understood His forgiveness. Marveled at His grace.

I gazed at the sea of faces, not a single one of which looked like me, as they sang and clapped with joy, shouted “Amen,” and lifted praise to the Lord. I felt I could reach out and touch the truth of Jesus and what He’s given us. The sermon was delivered with passion and conviction—and seemed aimed right at my heart. A few came forward to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation. We all gathered around to lay hands on these new members of God’s family, ending the evening in prayer that shook the rafters of heaven.

This familiar scene could have taken place in almost any church on any given evening. But we weren’t in church.

We were in prison.

And not a “country club” prison, but an urban, maximum security men’s correctional facility. The real deal. Of the 60 or so faces at worship that night, four belonged to our ministry. I was the only female. The rest were inmates. Many of them did truly awful things to earn their way in here. Some will never get out.

Of all the places I could choose to be on a weeknight, how did I find myself here?

Because God said, “Go.”

About six months ago, our couples’ Bible study searched for an outreach project. The typical ideas were tossed around, most having to do with food, women and children. Nothing seemed to fit right. Who are the most overlooked in our society? We searched our minds.

Breaking the silence, someone (who happened to be my husband) spoke up, “How about prison?”

We let his words sink in as we tried to make sense of this outrageous suggestion. Strangely, it felt right. We excitedly planned our next steps. Within a day, one of our friends “happened upon” someone who put us in contact with a nearby prison ministry. A few weeks later the two men who run the ministry—who are the ministry—came and spoke to us.

These guys were so filled with God’s purpose and Spirit; we listened to their stories, transfixed. By the end of the night, we were hooked.

A year’s passed since that meeting. Some in our group have moved on to other things, but a core remains. We’re still figuring out our place and our purpose among those inmates. But God keeps drawing us back. His hand gently nudges.

Being in prison reveals a startlingly simple picture of grace. One we may not want to accept: Jesus died for those prisoners as much as he died for you and me. Our God is one and the same.

On Tuesday after the worship service concluded, guards escorted the four of us out. We chatted amiably as we walked through the prison hallways. And do you know what one of the guards spoke about the entire time? How much she loved Jesus. Isn’t it amazing that even inside a maximum security prison, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, God’s love can still get in?

Once on the outside, the four of us rehashed the evening. As we stood in the parking lot, underneath the interstate, we held hands and prayed. Amid the scattered garbage, roar of cars overhead and prison looming in the background, we praised God for showing Himself to us through this experience.

Even here, in this most unlikely place, Jesus lives.
“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)

November 10, 2008

A Beautiful Mess

Of all the characters in the New Testament, Paul is my favorite. His writings have shown me Jesus in a very real way. Yet, he’s such a conundrum.

When we meet Paul in Scripture he despised Jesus. Yet, claimed to love God.

His knowledge of Scripture was impeccable. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees. A Hebrew of Hebrews. Yet, he eventually delivered the Good News to the Gentiles.

He never knew the “Pre-Easter” Jesus. Yet, his knowledge of Jesus would surpass the disciples.

He approved the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Yet, 13 of the 21 letters in the New Testament bear his name.

He was fueled by pride, self-righteousness and zeal. Yet, he boasted about his weakness.

He breathed murderous threats against Jesus’ disciples. Yet God chose him for a special purpose.

On the road to Damascus, Paul had a plan. But God had a different one. In a flash of light from heaven Paul fell to the ground. And was blinded. For three days. For the first time his pedigree and resume were worthless rags. He became helpless, weak and broken.

When the time was right, the Spirit came and healed him. Paul’s old purpose died and a new one emerged.

And for the first time, Paul could really see.

God saw Paul not for who he was, but for who he would become. Certainly God could have chosen someone more qualified, even-tempered or likeable. He chose Paul. Isn’t that amazing? It amazed Paul. His powerful testimony became his greatest evangelical tool. He was living proof of God’s grace.

Lest he not get too “puffed up” in his divine selection, Paul said, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” (2 Corin. 12:7)

No one knows for sure what Paul’s thorn was. Sickness, temptation, even poor eyesight top the list.

But, maybe it was something simpler, more human. Maybe he struggled with loneliness.

Maybe he felt excluded by Peter and the Jerusalem Christians who never really accepted him into their inner circle. Perhaps he regretted words spoken in anger to Barnabus and others; that his temper sabotaged yet another relationship.

While the Christian brothers and sisters he met on his missionary journeys looked up to him and respected him perhaps they were too intimidated to call him “friend.” Maybe he longed to experience physical love with a wife. Or all the time he spent traveling and in prison left him feeling there was really nowhere to call home.

No one knows what Paul’s thorn was; as God probably intended. His thorn could be my thorn—or yours.

I love that God used all of Paul—his strength but especially his weakness—for His good. It gives me hope.

It gave Paul hope too. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corin. 12:9)

Paul was a mess. But in God’s capable hands, he became a beautiful mess.

Some days I feel the yuck overshadows the beauty. The thorns prick my side, and I’m tempted to linger and lick my wounds. Self-pity lurks, ready to set up camp.

But then I read Paul’s words and know God’s grace is sufficient for me. And it’s sufficient for you, too.

Because there, in the mess, is the beauty. And power. And hope.

And God.

November 5, 2008

Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity

According to tennis superstar, Martina Navratilova, “Whoever said, ‘It's not whether you win or lose that counts,’ probably lost.” It might sound harsh, but it’s true. We don’t compete to have fun, we compete to win.

But what happens when we lose?

This weekend marked the end of my son’s Pop Warner football season. His middle-weight team, the Raiders, ended with a perfect season: 0-9. Yep, no wins—not even any ties.

The season began in a hurricane complete with gusting wind and driving rain. (Foreshadowing, perhaps?) The inaugural game started with a Raiders’ kickoff to their opponents who returned it for a touchdown. On paper the season didn’t get much better.

The first few games were tough. Our team couldn’t match up to their opponents as they got pushed up and down the field. Everyone was frustrated and disappointed—the coaches, the players and the parents. Often kids left the field with tears in their eyes.

My son, who hates to lose, was beside himself. He looked for blame everywhere. The referees, players on the other team, his own teammates. Everywhere but in himself. Last season his coach’s motto was “Win with grace, lose with dignity.” Their winning record made it a pretty easy motto to live by.

There’s no doubt about it, losing stinks. But poor sportsmanship reeks. As parents, Dan and I knew it was time to teach our son the "losing with dignity" part of the motto. I won’t lie and say one pep talk made it all better. It was a season-long lesson we continue to give. (Don't we all need to revisit this from time?)

This season I think we all held out hope the Raiders would stage a Bad News Bears-style comeback. When losing seemed to be our fate it would have been easy for the parents and coaches to spiral into the shameful behavior we’ve all seen, and wished we hadn’t. In fact, just the opposite happened.

Somewhere around the fifth game, when you’d expect the griping to crescendo, the cheering increased. Coaches and parents chose to celebrate and encourage the small victories: a good tackle; a first down; a blocked pass. If the team recovered a fumble it was like they scored a touchdown.

By the last game of the season the Raiders’ improvement was noticeable even to my inexperienced eye. They executed plays, completed passes and held blocks. They even scored touchdowns!

Even though a late fourth quarter touchdown by the opposing team put winning out of reach, those kids played their hearts out. With minutes left in the game, the Raiders made one last effort toward the end zone. Their drive got them inside the ten-yard line. Time allowed for one last play.

The center snapped the ball. The quarterback looked into the end zone. He found his man. He threw the ball. A hushed silence fell on the sidelines. The parents and coaches watched the football sail into the end zone, as if in slow motion…right into the arms of a receiver.

Touchdown! Game over. Season over.

Those players came off the field as if they’d won the Superbowl (and they hadn’t even won the game)! Sure the year hadn’t unfolded as any of us had hoped, but in the post-game pow-wow, we parents listened to and laughed at the boys’ bantering and razzing. They had battled unsuccessfully, but they made friends, had fun and chose to persevere. The coaches told the boys they were champions in their eyes. Each of us watching knew we’d observed something pretty special: we saw what losing with dignity looks like.

As Vince Lombardi said, "The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall." Long after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fade from memory, our character remains. In the end it’s what matters most.

I expect our son will have many years of football ahead of him, but I hope he carries the memories of this season with him in a place of honor. And I pray one day he looks back on it and says, “There. There is where I learned to fight the good fight.”

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

ETA: I wrote this article a few days ago and didn't plan it's release for today. But as a few of you have pointed out, it might be a good reminder the day after the election.

November 2, 2008

99 Points to Ponder

Happy Monday. I found this list on 160 Acre Woods' blog and thought it was a fun way to start the week.

At heart I'm adventurer. In reality I'm a procrastinator. There are so many things I want to do and places I'd like to visit. But, I get comfortable with the status quo. As someone reminded me the other day: "You know, you're middle-aged." (I am? How did that happen?) I just don't want to let the years pass and watch the door close on "someday."

Luckily, according to this arbitrary list I'm doing OK. (My "yes" answers are in green.) But there are still so many adventures to be had.
  1. Started your own blog
  2. Slept under the stars
  3. Played in a band
  4. Visited Hawaii
  5. Watched a meteor shower
  6. Given more than you can afford to charity
  7. Been to Disneyland
  8. Climbed a mountain
  9. Held a praying mantis
  10. Sang a solo (If I count singing to my kids.)
  11. Bungee jumped
  12. Visited Paris
  13. Watched a lightning storm at sea
  14. Taught yourself an art from scratch
  15. Adopted a child
  16. Had food poisoning
  17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty (I don't think you can do this anymore.)
  18. Grown your own vegetables
  19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
  20. Slept on an overnight train
  21. Had a pillow fight
  22. Hitch hiked
  23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
  24. Built a snow fort
  25. Held a lamb
  26. Gone skinny dipping
  27. Run a marathon (...No, but I did the equivalent on a bike)
  28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice (...I saw them in Venice, but we were poor college students at the time and couldn't afford it.)
  29. Seen a total eclipse
  30. Watched a sunrise or sunset (...Most recently at the Grand Canyon)
  31. Hit a home run (...and a grand slam!)
  32. Been on a cruise
  33. Seen Niagara Falls in person (One of our favorite family vacations)
  34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors
  35. Seen an Amish community
  36. Taught yourself a new language
  37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
  38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
  39. Gone rock climbing
  40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
  41. Sung karaoke (Enough of the music questions!!)
  42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
  43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
  44. Visited Africa
  45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
  46. Been transported in an ambulance (For my kids, but never for myself)
  47. Had your portrait painted
  48. Gone deep sea fishing (Way to succeptible to seasickness!)
  49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
  50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
  51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
  52. Kissed in the rain
  53. Played in the mud (Cleanliness is way overrated!)
  54. Gone to a drive-in theater
  55. Been in a movie
  56. Visited the Great Wall of China
  57. Started a business
  58. Taken a martial arts class
  59. Visited Russia
  60. Served at a soup kitchen
  61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
  62. Gone whale watching (Sort of... We saw a whale while hiking in Canada)
  63. Got flowers for no reason
  64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
  65. Gone sky diving (Used to be a dream. Not anymore!)
  66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
  67. Bounced a check
  68. Flown in a helicopter
  69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
  70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
  71. Eaten Caviar (...Thought it was gross!)
  72. Pieced a quilt
  73. Stood in Times Square
  74. Toured the Everglades
  75. Been fired from a job
  76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
  77. Broken a bone
  78. Been on a speeding motorcycle (...and a scooter!)
  79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
  80. Published a book (...not yet)
  81. Visited the Vatican
  82. Bought a brand new car
  83. Walked in Jerusalem (...This is a dream!)
  84. Had your picture in the newspaper
  85. Read the entire Bible
  86. Visited the White House
  87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating (...GROSS! I gag putting a worm on a hook.)
  88. Had chickenpox
  89. Saved someone’s life
  90. Sat on a jury
  91. Met someone famous
  92. Joined a book club
  93. Lost a loved one
  94. Had a baby
  95. Seen the Alamo in person
  96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
  97. Been involved in a law suit
  98. Owned an iPod
  99. Been stung by a bee

How' did you do? What one thing do you want to do or see in the next ten years?

October 30, 2008

Slaying the Enemy

At church we’re studying Nehemiah (which, to my surprise, I’ve found is extremely relevant to our lives.) Nehemiah had a bold plan, blessed by God, to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. The Jews had many enemies who wanted them to fail—at anything. Threatened by the possible success of such a grand project, Sanballat, Tobiah and company gathered their resources and took aim. At first they hoped to squash the plan before it got off the ground. When this didn’t work and construction began successfully, they upped the ante and launched a full-scale verbal assault complete with public humiliation. They attacked the Jews’ self-image. Questioned their ability. Mocked their faith. Deflated their hope. Scoffed at their vision.

Any one of the arrows could have discouraged Nehemiah and his people. Surely a full onslaught would cause massive doubt, prompting the Jews to run back to the safety of the status quo.

It might have if Nehemiah wasn’t sure of one thing: He was living firmly in God’s purpose and God’s blessing was upon them. Instead of waging a battle on his own Nehemiah “prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” (Neh. 4:9). And then, in full confidence he faced his enemies. Armed with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other, workers continued to build the wall.

In this country we don’t often receive physical threats for carrying out God’s work. But that doesn’t mean warfare isn’t very real. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)

Our own Sanballats stand on the sidelines and criticize:
“Shouldn’t you wait until you get more experience?”
“I never let
my children do THAT!”
“Haven’t you tried diets before?”
“You want to start a new business in THIS environment?”
“Ever since you stopped drinking you’re no fun anymore.”
“Do you realize how difficult it is to get published?”
“Maybe you didn’t pray enough.”

Often our worst enemies are the ones inside our own head (my personal favorite):
“Who am I kidding, I’ll never be able to accomplish that…”
“There are so many others more qualified…”
“If I were a better mother/wife/friend…”
“What will others think?”
“I can’t, it’s too risky/scary/dangerous.”

Some of the barbs meet resistance and fall away. But, others find our weakness and penetrate. Ouch! Soon we’re disabled, disheartened and disillusioned, willing to settle for the status quo. Ah, it’s so much safer and more comfortable there!

But is this what God desires of us? To play it safe? Avoid risks? Pursue the sure thing?

God created each of us for a unique purpose. But finding and fulfilling that purpose requires movement. Often it requires we travel off our map into unfamiliar territory where it’s risky and uncomfortable. Like the Jews we feel threatened. The enemy attacks. We begin negative self-talk. Doubt our ability. Waver in our faith. Lose hope. Or question God’s calling. Satan’s happy because he knows if he can just keep us focused on ourselves, we’re rendered useless for the Kingdom.

We learn from Nehemiah there is a way to fight this battle: with a trowel (God’s work) in one hand and a sword (God’s word) in the other. For the question isn’t “if” but “when” the battle will happen. And we need to be prepared. “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground...Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

There is real power in God’s word. Whatever you’re experiencing, there is a verse of victory. Find it. Claim it. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Memorize it. Say it aloud. Stand firm in its truth. “With God we will gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies.” Psalm 108:13

In Him we can be brave.

"Brave" by Nichole Nordeman. This song is so empowering and victorious.

October 26, 2008

Falling for Him — From the Inside Out

I wrote the following for Internet Cafe Devotions' "Falling for Jesus" contest. Click their button on the right to read others' entries and to check out this great site.

I knew all about Him—this guy named Jesus. I sang songs, memorized Scripture and watched stories re-enacted in dramas. I envisioned Him a rescuer of fair maidens and figured sooner or later He’d sweep me off my feet. The emotions from Vacation Bible School, summer camp and youth group retreat fueled my young faith. But when the happy feelings faded it seemed Jesus disappeared too. Leaving behind the same old me.

Entering adulthood poor Prince Charming Jesus didn’t stand a chance against my burgeoning intellect. So I packed Him away alongside Barbie and Ken and the other mementos of my youth. Fondly remembered but no longer useful. Skepticism crept in.

In time skepticism turned to outright cynicism. For years I wandered far from Jesus.

Until about six years ago when I found myself in Alpha, a ten-week program for those questioning Christianity. People like me. We started with the basic principles of the Christian faith and I found my disbelief was fueled more by ignorance than intellect. I began to understand who Jesus really is and why He had to die.

Then one week at Alpha, I heard a verse that changed everything. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20, NIV)

To illustrate we viewed the famous painting, Light of the World. In it Jesus stands knocking on a door overgrown with vines, however the door’s only handle is on the inside.

Finally, I was beginning to get it.

How foolish I’d been. I wasn’t a modern-day Rapunzel. I was a stubborn, willful girl whose Prince had already rescued her at Calvary. No matter how far I'd strayed He’d been standing outside the door of my heart, waiting—patiently.

A few weeks later at the Alpha retreat we held an afternoon of intimate, one-on-one prayer. Sacred music played quietly as the small group leaders prayed with each participant scattered around the dimly-lit room.

Nervous yet excited for this unknown experience, I prayed to Jesus, this new guest in my life. From somewhere deep inside a wave of emotion—pure and spontaneous—enveloped me. Without knowing exactly why I started to cry. But they were tears of joy. Of beauty. Of forgiveness. Of truth. The quiet sobs and sniffles of others told me I wasn’t alone.

Soon my small group leader came alongside and listened to my prayer requests. He laid hands on me and lifted up my requests, asking the Holy Spirit to come. As he prayed it felt like lava flowed from his hands, into my head and through my body. Heat radiated. I was filled. Invigorated. Transformed. The crying turned to sobs. How long I’d wandered—lost. And now I’d finally found my way home.

What I’d always feared would be a leap of faith into an abyss was really a step into the waiting arms of a Savior. By His amazing grace and the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus took me to the mountaintop. There He removed the scales and gave me eyes to see. He instilled a thirst that’s yet to be quenched. And He filled the hole inside that’s shaped just for Him. I felt like Moses—radiant from the encounter.

What seemed like minutes was actually hours and when our prayer time ended, I sat speechless and spent. I wanted to rest in that moment forever. To bask in Jesus’ consuming love.

That afternoon marked the close of one door and the opening of another—one that I’d opened from the inside. It was as Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). Scripture came alive. Praise music stirred my soul. Sunday worship joined my heart with His. I was truly, madly, deeply in love!

And I still am. Oh, to know Him—this guy named Jesus.

October 21, 2008

"Buck Up Little Camper!"--Part Two

Continued from Friday’s “Buck Up Little Camper!– Part One.” Read that entry before reading today’s.

We sat at our picnic spot in Indians Gardens, 3,000 feet into the Grand Canyon. With the canyon’s rock stratifications clearly marking geological divisions, it was as if we rested inside a gigantic prehistoric urn. The massive canyon walls stretched skyward. Ahead several more miles lay the Colorado River, the genesis of it all. It was tempting to stay in on our lush little oasis and savor the sights, but we had to hike out before sunset.

By now the morning’s shade and chilly temperatures had been replaced by plentiful sunshine and temps in the mid-80s. We began the long journey up and within hiking a few hundred feet I realized this was going to be more difficult that I expected. The sun's powerful rays sapped my strength. Sweat dripped off my brow. The ominous warning of an experienced guide we'd met rang in my ears, “Be careful of the sun.” Tales my husband shared from the book he'd been reading, “Death in the Grand Canyon” filled my thoughts. The Grand Canyon presents unique dangers to visitors and hikers. Every year people die here. I felt weak thinking about it.

My son and I usually pull up the rear of our hiking quartet. He wasn’t feeling great that day and lagged more than normal. I turned to see what was keeping him. He sat on a rock with body language that proclaimed, “I don’t want to do it!”

I set my misgivings aside and focused on the task at hand. “Buddy, we don’t have a choice. You can do it. Let’s keep going,” I gently encouraged—with little effect. So Mr. “Buck Up Little Camper” delivered his own version of a pep talk. Upward progress continued, albeit slowly.

Step by dusty step we moved forward. Little Bear and I in the rear and my daughter and husband ahead. My daughter's turning into an excellent hiker. Clad in her cute hiking outfit (of course!) she traveled steadily with little complaint. She and her dad chatted away, playing games and sharing observations. Snippets of their conversations drifted down to my ears like music. (Any meaningful conversation taking place between a teenage girl and her dad are rare treasures indeed. You just never know when the “moment” is right!)

We reached the first rest stop much sooner than anticipated and were encouraged to press on. Up. Up. Up. We reached the second rest stop. We were making progress. Up. Up. Up. The rim was getting closer. Promises of extra-large ice cream cones were offered as motivation. Soon the goal was in sight. We had less than an hour to go. The path didn’t get any easier, but knowing the end was near made the journey so much more bearable.

Eight hours after we started we climbed out of the Grand Canyon tired, dusty, hungry and so proud of our accomplishment! We did it. (And we only hiked half-way. Imagine what a feat it would be to go all the way to the bottom!)

Half-expecting congratulatory well-wishers to welcome us back, Grand Canyon Village bustled with tourists thoroughly unaware of our absence and nonplussed by our emergence. They scurried about taking in the sights, buying souvenirs and snapping obligatory pictures before their buses departed.

As we sat on the rim wall eating our ice cream rewards, I watched the passersby and pondered, You came here, but did you really see? And experience? Do you realize how much more there is to this place than this?

I think this is what Jesus meant when He said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

Jesus’ dusty sandals brought Him to a gate so small only He could find—and enter. By doing so He revealed a path for the faithful to follow. For those early disciples who did—Paul, Peter, Barnabus, Stephen, Timothy and so on—the journey challenged them in ways they had never imagined. They experienced scorn, ridicule, danger, suffering, discomfort, uncertainty, loneliness and rejection.

Did they ever plop down on a rock and cry out, “I can’t do this, it’s too hard!” Probably. But they encouraged one another and pressed on step by dusty step with the end goal in sight. Why? Were they nuts or gluttons for punishment? No. As hard as their journey was the Spirit sustained and guided them.

And they knew the promised reward at the end made it all worth it.

What does our path look like? If it’s crowed, comfortable, clean and carefree chances are it’s pretty wide too. It may lead to success in the eyes of the world, but it leads to destruction in the eyes of our Father.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

It’s easy to miss the small gate. The narrow road is often overlooked, ignored or rebuffed. It’s dirty and difficult. It challenges us and makes us uncomfortable. It might be risky or dangerous. It’s unpopular and often lonely.

But Jesus promises it’s worth it. Plus He's sent the Holy Spirit to guide and sustain us. And an occasional oasis to delight and refresh us.

I am so eager to take the narrow road when it comes to life’s adventures. But am I so bold when it comes to following Jesus? Are my boots dirty? Or am I riding a tour bus, enjoying the sights, collecting snapshots and souvenirs but missing the real experience? Does Jesus look at me and say, "You came to me, but do you really see—and experience? Do you realize how much more there is to Me than this?"

Lord, I want to be bold in my faith. Show me the way and give me the courage to follow.

October 19, 2008

An Ode to Fall

Part two is coming…I promise. I thought for sure I’d find some time to write this weekend, but no such luck. Instead this weekend we officially packed away summer and unpacked fall. It was too good not to share!

While we were in Arizona last week, fall happened back east. The bright greens and candy colors of summer morphed into a palette of crimson, gold and orange. The trees now boldly display their fiery hues. Pumpkins and scarecrows dot the neighbors’ yards. Leaves crunch underfoot. Smoky aromas waft from nearby chimneys. And just like that, our thoughts have turned to hot chocolate, hayrides and even the holidays.

Autumn is arguably the best season of the year. Warm days give way to cool nights. We slow down and settle in. We look forward to bundling up, snuggling in and getting cozy.

Fall officially floated into my life last Thursday. I sat in my car outside the violin teacher’s house while my daughter took her lesson. It was early evening but still warm enough to keep the windows open. As I read my book, a large leaf dropped through the sunroof onto my lap. Then another. And another. I glanced up to witness a flurry of leaves, like snowflakes, delicately drifting downward from the massive trees all around. Serenading them on their descent, the violin’s melody floated on the gentle breeze. For a moment this simple neighborhood was magically transformed and I paused to soak in the simple beauty. If I were apt to write poetry, I would write of this.

That could have been enough, but the entirety of this weekend was an ode to fall. Penn State beating Michigan. My son’s chilly Saturday night football game (unfortunately his team lost—again!). Putting flannel sheets and a down comforter on the bed. Wearing turtlenecks. Picking apples. Decorating with cornstalks, hay bales and pumpkins. Planting bulbs for the spring. Even making homemade chili and apple pie. (Only 20 more pounds of apples to go!) Best of all, our family enjoyed it together. My son was an apple picking pro and happily helped peel them for the pie. My daughter put all those hours of watching HGTV to work and added her expert flair to the decorating. Even our dog, Tess, joined along for the fun and absolutely loved fetching the endless supply of apples that had fallen from the trees. My husband and I enjoyed watching it all unfold.

Too many weekends have us on the go and gasping for breath by Sunday night. But once in a while we start Monday relaxed and restored, ready for the week ahead. This weekend was such a gift. Thank you Lord for the unplanned and unexpected treats you put in our path.

No matter where you are right now—geographically, emotionally, physically, spiritually—or what you see outside your window, God’s love and wonders are everywhere. In the smallest of moments and tiniest of details. Evidence of His wondrous creation abounds. Take time to breathe in, observe and savor Him in it all.

“What a wildly wonderful world, God!

You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,

made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.”

(Psalm 104:24, The Message)

October 17, 2008

"Buck up Little Camper!" -- Part One

We had so much fun in Arizona I could write and write (and maybe I will). I know this story's going to be long so I broke it into two parts. Stop back on Monday for part two.

After years of dreaming we were finally here. My family and I “oohed” and “aahed” along with the hundreds of other sightseers taking in the view. Spread out before us was one of the most amazing sights in the world—the Grand Canyon. Over a billion years of geological history appeared as a breathtaking sculpture. We followed the masses along the South Rim, soaking in sights from different viewpoints, but the sheer grandeur made it impossible to fully comprehend.

By late afternoon the crowds had dispersed. Most of them returned to their tour buses and were on their way to the next stop on their itineraries. They came, they saw, they photographed, they left. We were lucky enough to stay a few days and experience the Canyon more fully. We witnessed the first light of day awaken the slumbering giant; we viewed the setting sun paint the canyon walls; we gazed at the dreamlike vista gently illuminated by moonlight. We even saw elk grazing on the lawn of El Tovar, a coyote sneak out of view, a condor soar below and other desert fauna scurry and flitter about. It was all incredible—especially the view of the canyon from our hotel room!

Of the 5 million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon most arrive at the South Rim and experience its beauty from the many overlooks along the canyon edge. Only about 250,000 descend below the rim and hike the inner canyon. And less than one percent makes it all the way to the river. If the view looking down from the rim is so spectacular, can you imagine what it’s like to stand at the bottom and look up?

My husband was an experienced hiker when we met. To win his approval (and because I considered myself outdoors-y) we backpacked together. Not car camping and hiking with a knapsack mind you, but carrying a fully-loaded backpack up a mountain, to sleep in the wilderness, with no running water or facilities…for fun.

Part way into one of our first trips my foot started to hurt, the weight of the backpack burdened me and I was just plain tired. It was too hard. I wanted to quit and go home. With tears in my eyes I sat down on a rock waiting for the love of my life to rescue this damsel in distress and whisk her off to somewhere more comfortable. Instead, he returned to where I sat, stood right in front of me, gently tapped my chin with his fist and said, “Aw, buck up little camper!”

It was not the response I wanted—at all. Certainly I could have stormed off in a huff, angry I wasn’t coddled as I hoped. But I didn’t. While I wasn’t particularly happy about it, I gathered my inner resources, picked up my gear and continued up the mountain.

That day I learned a valuable lesson that has served me incredibly well over the years. I can do far more than I ever imagined and character is built on the path less traveled.

So when we visited the Grand Canyon there was no question. We were going in. For the sake of our kids (and my no longer twenty-something body) we planned a day hike and not a multi-day trek to the river and back. Starting at the break of day we hit the trail, loaded with food and water. Compared to the views from the rim we were astounded by the ever-changing and dramatic scenery of the inner canyon. Rock layers stratified before eyes. 20,000 years passed with each step.

Inside the canyon we met a community of hikers invisible from the rim. We chatted with fellow day hikers on their way down and overnight hikers on their way up. How long did it take you? Where did you stay? How much further until the next rest stop? We even met fellow Penn State fans! Despite the adamant warnings against it, we met a young guy who was finishing up a one-day round trip to the bottom and back. But most memorable of all was a group of middle-aged women from Iowa. They were close to finishing a rim-to-rim hike that started two days prior. And they were still smiling! I thought to myself, if they can do it, I can too!

Within several hours we reached our destination 4.5 miles below the rim—Indian Gardens. This small oasis of cottonwood trees, fed by an underground stream, was an unexpected lush surprise and a wonderful place to break for lunch.
But, as they say at the Grand Canyon: Hiking down is optional. Hiking up is mandatory. So, after a brief rest we began the journey back to the rim.

To be continued...

October 14, 2008

A Celebration in the Desert

Today is my grandmother’s (my mom’s mother’s) 90th birthday. This past weekend we gathered in Tucson to celebrate. From coast-to-coast and in-between came sisters, daughters, sons, cousins, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to mark the momentous occasion.

For our small, scattered family this weekend was the first time ever we all assembled as a group. It was a wonderful reunion for all present: those who hadn’t seen each other for years or decades, and those, like newly-added spouses or grandchildren, who met for the first time.

Since 2,400 miles separated my grandparents’ desert home from my parent’s East Coast one and my mom’s closest relatives lived over 10 hours away, when I was growing up we didn’t do Sunday dinners at Grandma’s or celebrate special occasions with large family gatherings. While I don’t have lots of memories of our time together, there are precious slivers—a Christmas in the desert, Thanksgiving in the Midwest, summer road trips. As I recall, my grandparents always made the trip east for all of our important family milestones like graduations and weddings.

But because of the geographic barriers and infrequent visits, when it comes to family, I never developed a strong sense of “place” or a deep-rooted feeling for my “people.” It's the way it's always been and I've just accepted it.

This weekend I added a piece to the puzzle I didn’t even realize was missing.

From the moment we first gathered, storytelling, reminiscing and laughter—lots of laughter—filled the air. Over wonderful meals, a canyon hike, champagne toasts and birthday cake we connected and re-connected. Everyone truly enjoyed one another’s company.

As I observed the goings on, I realized I’m part of this. These are my "people." We're all connected. I saw the face of my grandfather in my uncle. My great-grandfather in my cousin. My grandmother in my mom and her sisters. I heard variations of the laugh they all share. Even the in-law spouses seemed to fit just right.

And at the center of it all is my grandmother, the family matriarch—a blend of Midwestern sensibility and rugged western independence. Like the stately saguaro cacti that dot the landscape around her, she’s a woman of quiet grace and dignity. Her faith is the root that sustains her. In her outstretched arms we find comfort and rest—and always a ready laugh.

I’m so thankful I’ve gotten to know my grandmother as a person these last many years. It was she who first opened the door for God’s light to shine into my life nine years ago. For that I am eternally grateful. Together we've shared conversations on faith and family, enjoyed one-on-one visits, traded book recommendations and even noodled over crossword puzzles. I have been immeasurably blessed by Grandmother’s love and kindness. I know my husband and children have been as well.

To my family, as you return to your homes far and wide, I pray for traveling mercies. And I hope you take with you the memories of our time together, a greater appreciation for family and an abiding love for the beautiful woman we came to celebrate. Thank you for showing me my roots and that I’m part of something bigger than I thought.

To Grandmother, Happy Birthday! Let's do this again next year! I love you.

October 6, 2008

Notes for the Journey

Today we’re leaving for a trip to Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon and to celebrate my Grandmother’s 90th birthday. Yesterday was a day of packing and preparing.

My husband and I are excited because it’s our first big family trip in over a year and our first trip ever to the Grand Canyon.

Our kids are excited too, although with all the enthusiasm of an ennui-filled teenager, my daughter’s response was, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a big hole in the ground.” (Lord, give me patience!) But where my daughter lacks words, my 10-year-old son more than fills the silence. Since this is his first trip to Arizona as well as the Grand Canyon he asked a lot of questions yesterday. A. lot. of. questions!

With his habitual mantra of Why? What? How? When? he’s often focused on figuring out the unknown. As a result he frequently misses the unfolding discoveries of new experiences.

When we arrive in Phoenix we’ll visit with a dear friend of mine from high school. Then we’re off to the Grand Canyon. There are many unknowns. Yesterday as we packed, my son’s brain was in overdrive trying to identify, categorize and sort them all.

- What are her (my friend’s) kids going to be like?
- Do they have a pool? How big is it?
- When we land? What time will it be at home?
- How long is the drive to the Grand Canyon?
- What will our room look like?
- How far away is the Canyon from our room?
- How wide are the paths that we hike on?
- Why can’t we hike to the bottom? I want to play in the water.
- Will there be water along the way?
- Will we see coyote?
- What kind of SUV did we rent?
- What time do we get home? Is that Arizona time or our time?

Whew, all that in ten minutes! I’m not kidding!

Even if I could answer all his questions, dozens more lay in wait. Because he wants to envision a moment-by-moment picture in his mind’s eye. But what concrete answers can adequately describe the actual experience of traveling to an exciting new place, visiting with family and friends we rarely see and witnessing the majesty of a natural wonder.

His questions got me thinking about our faith journey and the questions we ask along the way. Why? What? How? When?

- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Why wasn’t my prayer answered?
- How can all the stories in the Old Testament really be true?
- Why are there starving people in Africa?
- What about religious people who die who aren’t Christians?
- What does heaven look like?
- Why does God let evil exist if He’s really all-powerful?
- Why do I have to tell others?
- Why isn’t it enough that I’m a good person?
- When is Jesus coming again?

We ask and ask and ask. Some of our questions can be answered. Others can’t—yet. Even if they are, dozens more lay in wait. But as we focus on figuring out the situation-by-situation specifics we miss the experience.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Besides, what concrete answers can adequately describe how much God loves us or what it’s like, through Jesus, to have a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe? And that’s the point of the journey, isn’t it?

I’m excited for the experiences and memories our trip will bring. But most of all I can’t wait to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and take in a view that I'm sure will be magnificent.

I can only imagine the view at the gates of heaven will be even better!

October 5, 2008

Just Breathe

Thanks for your wonderful comments on prayer. I was inspired by your beautiful words and moving prayer experiences. If you haven’t read the comments to Pondering Prayer, take a moment to do so. I think you’ll be blessed as well. And even if you didn’t respond hopefully the question (and comments) caused you to pause and reflect on your own prayer life, and maybe gain fresh insight.

In an amazing coincidence (or God-incidence) this morning's sermon was on prayer. The inspiration came from Nehemiah’s prayer to God in Nehemiah 1. (Yes, it really is a book in the Bible…I know, I hadn’t given it much thought before either. Further proof that the ENTIRE Bible deserves our attention.) Here's what I learned...
Pastor Doug, please forgive me if I misrepresent your very eloquent sermon!

Why do we pray?
“Prayer is the way our soul breathes.”

I just love the way that sounds, don’t you? So easy. So necessary. So natural.

With each breath of air we don’t think about when, why or how we should breathe, we just do it. Period. So it should be with prayer. No fancy formulas, stringent schedules or evocative elocutions. Just the natural inhalation and exhalation of our soul in response to the Almighty.

If we want to build to a life of prayer we start with three things. (And yes, this is really a rephrasing of the ACTS model of prayer.)

1. Honor God.
Nehemiah recognized what we sometimes have trouble accepting or often overlook. God is God and we’re not. Nehemiah praised God with humility and a reverential heart.

When we acknowledge God the Father; the Creator of the Universe; the One who was and is, and is to come; we adjust our hearts and attitudes into their proper perspective.

2. Be Honest with God.
Nehemiah acknowledged the gravity of his and the Israelites’ sin. Instead of casting blame, hiding behind excuses or sugar coating the problem he bared his soul with honest confession.

God sees all, so there’s nothing we do or think that He’s not already aware of. By emptying the dark, hidden corners of our life through prayer we’re then able to receive God’s grace, power and healing.

3. Ask God.
Nehemiah didn’t ask God to do something he simply wanted, he asked God to do what God had already promised Moses He’d do. God responded in a miraculous way.

Our prayers tend to try to bend God’s will to ours. In addition to our Father's unique purpose for each of our lives, Scripture is filled with His promises to us. When we line up our prayers with God’s will, as Nehemiah did, we will receive powerful responses.

I'm ready to get started. How about you?

Just don't forget...breathe. Your soul will thank you.

For some spiritual CPR, check out this video for an inspiring breath.
Michael W. Smith, “Breathe”

October 1, 2008

Pondering Prayer

I’ve talked enough. Today I want to hear from you. (I may make this a regular feature. We’ll see how it goes.)

Let’s talk about prayer.

Of all the tools in my Christian toolbox, I think prayer is one the hardest to understand…and to do well. It’s not that I don’t pray, I do. I just don’t think I’m very good at it. Despite my best intentions to stay focused, my mind wanders. I start out strong, but soon I’m thinking about the laundry, what’s planned for the day, a conversation I had and so on. Plus, there are so many people and circumstances to pray for, I never know when I’m done. Often I pray in bed at night. Inevitably I fall asleep. Is God OK with this?

I struggle with the concept that if God has preordained everything isn’t the thing I’m praying for going to happen whether I pray or not? Is God really listening? Sometimes God answers prayers. Sometimes He doesn’t. Why?

I've observed a lot of people using prayer as a magic wand like they’re trying to bend the will of God to their liking. Or they use prayer like a rabbit’s foot, rubbing it for good luck and a means of protection.

That said, in the years I’ve been a Christian I’ve grown a lot in regard to prayer. Among other things I’ve learned four important lessons:

1. God DOES answer prayer.

2. The more specific and personal my requests, the more specific and personal God’s answers.

3. Praying aloud with fellow believers in an intimate setting has allowed me to experience the presence of God and the Holy Spirit in incredibly powerful ways.

4. There are no perfect pray-ers. We may rank the “effectiveness” or “eloquence” of our prayers compared to others, but God doesn’t. I think nothing is more precious to our heavenly Father than a heart laid bare before Him, no matter what the words that cover it.

Now it's your turn. What's your experience with prayer? Why and how do you pray? Have you had specific answers to prayer? Do you struggle with hearing God or wonder if He’s even listening?