How to Celebrate Thanksgiving All Year

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A couple of years ago, I accidentally got on a kick of books about suffering.

I had been wanting to read CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed for quite some time, so I picked it up. I think I had known ahead of time that it was a more or less private journal of his thoughts and feelings following his wife’s death, but it was a great read.

Then I picked up a book from Jason’s bookshelf by an author I’d already read and really enjoyed, not knowing what it was about. Turns out Bob Sorge’s In His Face is a study of the book of Job and how it can help us in the midst of difficult trials that make no sense.

And then I went to my mother-in-law’s house and saw a copy of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts sitting on the table in her hearth room. I had heard of the book, but did not know anything about it, so I asked what she thought. She hadn’t read it yet, but insisted I borrow it. I remember sitting by the window downstairs at her house, reading with tears streaming down my face, while my boys fished outside,  how at four years old, Ann had he watched her little sister be run over by a propane truck in her front yard. And then she told the story of her two nephews, both born with the same genetic disorder, being buried by their parents less than two years apart.

I was reeling, unable to imagine the pain of those losses from the comfort of my unfathomably blessed life. But as I read how Ann began to wrestle with God and how we serve him and continue to believe that He is good despite the pain we suffer in this life, I began to wonder what God was trying to tell me.

Over and over and over again I was reading about grief and loss, and trusting God in the midst of the storm, and I wasn’t choosing books on that topic on purpose. They just kept coming to me. These themes were showing up unbidden, and I was starting to wonder if perhaps God was preparing me. I still don’t know if that was purpose of those books or not. We did lose my sister-in-law tragically last September, and I can tell you unequivocally that it was only God’s grace and his presence that has carried my family through that loss. But I don’t know what is around the corner of tomorrow – perhaps fresh grief awaits me there.

But no matter what I face, I cling to these words from One Thousand Gifts: He is always good, and I am always loved.

Of all the books I read that fall, One Thousand Gifts had the most lasting impact on my life. When I saw a sale on it at our local Christian bookstore, I snatched it up, and over the summer I reread it, underlining something on almost every page now that I had my own copy.

I started keeping a blessings journal shortly after I read One Thousand Gifts for the first time. It was an exciting habit at first; I took the journal with me everywhere and saw gifts in everything. But like most new things I undertake, my enthusiasm for keeping the journal eventually faded, and the habit went by the wayside. I would still occasionally write when the inspiration struck, but I was not writing gifts down anywhere close to every day.

Rereading the book renewed my passion for keeping gift lists, as watching this video, where Ann explains that there is no wrong way to count gifts. It sounds a little silly now, but I was super-paranoid about writing down the same thing twice, thinking that somehow it would only count if I was able to name a thousand unique ways God had blessed me. Realizing that it does not really matter if I wrote the same thing more than once was completely freeing for me.

If I’m being really honest, I want to write “coffee” down every morning. Every single morning. Also, looking back through my journal, I can see that there are a number of time where I’ve written “potty in the toilet,” and every mom who has every potty-trained a child understands what a gift that really is.

 

The truth is, it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve written down that I’m thankful for my morning cup of of coffee, because the goal of counting gifts has nothing to do with reaching the milestone of 1000. It has everything to do with learning to find something today, right now, for which you can offer thanks to God.

Looking for things to be grateful about changes the posture of your heart. Especially when it seems like there is nothing for which to offer thanks – only things to complain about. For example, I remember distinctly one night recently, when I was trying everything I knew to get the boys to go to sleep. I’d spent almost an hour hopping off the couch every few minutes to send them back to bed.

Finally, I decided to sit in their room with them and sing to them and rub their backs. At the point where I was finally giving in to frustration and my belief that they were never ever going to sleep again, Ann’s words came to me unbidden: eucharisto (the act of giving thanks) always, always precedes the miracle. So I started thinking of things I could thank God for, even in my frustration with them.

I thanked God for the two little beds sitting side-by-side in my boys’ room, a luxury many kids in third-world countries cannot imagine. I thanked him that they had their own room, and that I could go do something else in another part of the house when they were asleep. I thanked God for the music that was rising softly from the mp3 player we leave in their room, and the way it was turning my thoughts towards him. Earlier that day, I’d seen pictures of orphans in China who’d been abandoned because of their deformed hands, so I thanked God for the five little fingers interlaced with mine.

It was hard thanks, but I started offering it up anyway. And you know what? They fell asleep. They probably would have eventually anyway, but giving thanks changed my attitude about it.

You will probably spend at least a part of today thinking about things you’re thankful for. But don’t let it stop after today. Don’t buy into the lies that as soon as the dishes are cleared away, you need to start planning a strategy for how you can acquire so much more tomorrow. Look around you and really see all the amazing blessings that are in your life.

“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” 1 Timothy 4:4

Happy Thanksgiving!

Serving God & Others When it’s Hard

Baby dedication

Sometimes serving God looks and feels super spiritual and important. Like getting to pray for a baby at his dedication in front of the entire congregation.

But most of the time, serving God is more quiet, more humble, and a whole lot less exciting. Sometimes it looks like scrubbing toilets or wiping bottoms. Sometimes it looks like crying alone in the bathroom because the work is falling to you, and only you, yet again. And sometimes it looks getting up from the meal and washing dirty feet of people who are beneath you.

I’m over at The Grace Mask today sharing about the spiritual discipline of service, and how hard I find it sometimes.

The wonderful thing about a lot of the disciplines, to me, is that they are mostly between me and God.

Prayer, worship, meditation, study, fasting – I can do all of those things by myself, for my own personal relationship with my beloved Savior. And if those were the only disciplines of a full and abundant Christian life, I could probably convince myself that I could do this thing on my own, just me and Jesus.

Then service steps in and reminds me that no matter how much I pray and study and worship in my own private time with God, that those things alone will not make me mature in Christ. That no matter how much I love Jesus, that if I don’t love others, I’ve missed a huge chunk of the gospel….

Head here to read the rest.

Thoughts and links for Halloween

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Today is Halloween.

We will be taking our kiddos out this evening and trick or treating, and the longer we do it, the more convinced I am that it is the right thing for our family. I’m not saying it is the right thing for every family. I know there are a lot of strong opinions in the church about this day, and that there are some places where the celebration of Halloween has some decidedly evil elements.

If you live in an area where there is a lot of pagan celebration of Halloween or maybe where it’s not safe for kids to be out after dark, maybe your church could be a witness to your community by offering kids a safe place to come and spend their evening. But for us, that’s not our reality.

The first four years we lived in this neighborhood, we were at a church event in Springfield. The longer we did it, the more we noticed that our event was mostly attracting people from our church and other nearby churches; we were not reaching the lost.

Two years ago, we were home, for the first time ever in this house, on Halloween. And let me tell you, our neighborhood does Halloween right. Families are everywhere. Most houses hand out candy. Several people deck out their whole garage, and some sit on their driveway around a fire pit, giving out not just candy, but cider or cocoa or popcorn. It’s a big deal around here and I cannot believe we missed it all those years.

We are excited to take our kids out and meet our neighbors. We have met more of our neighbors in the past year that we had in the previous five, thanks to our cat (who has a tendency to wander). Now most of the people know us (or at least him), and I’m excited to have that as a way to start a conversation.

I am convinced that there are people in our neighborhood who need Jesus–and what better day than today to be light and salt?

Here are some other great thoughts on celebrating today with Christ and community in mind:

Six Reasons I Celebrate Halloween with My Kids (Even Though I’m a Christian)

Practical Ideas for Being Missional on Halloween

Halloween: love it or hate it?

On a lighter note, we’re having some very dear, out-of-town friends over for dinner tonight. I have these cute hot dogs made up and waiting in the fridge. When I showed them to the boys, Garrett took one look and said, “They’re baby Jesus hot dogs!” We just got to the nativity scene in our Bible storybook, and while his comment made me laugh, I’m glad that his innocent little mind has a better frame of reference for recognizing baby Jesus than a mummy. 

And speaking of recipes, I’m all about swiping the kids’ candy and using it up in recipes that have a little more to recommend to them than does sitting around and snacking on handfuls of sugar. Here are some ways I’m planning to use up all that chocolate:

Orange-Scented Chocolate Chunk Scones from Homemade with Love (these are our favorite!!)

Coconut Pecan Chocolate Chunk Cookie Bars from Paleo Sweets and Treats

Chocolate French Toast

Faux Cookie Dough Dip (do you think I can convince my kids to eat this? I hope so!)

However you decide to celebrate tonight, from my family to yours – Happy Halloween!

Banned Books and Following Jesus

(A well-meaning patron at the library kindly pointed out that this is not the correct spelling of the word “freedom.” Image credit.)

This past week was #BannedBooksWeek, which is a big deal at the library where I work. We’ve been talking a lot about censorship and what it means to live in a free country and why sometimes people band together and try to get a book removed from their school or library or community.

Oftentimes, the people behind the call to ban a book are those who professes faith in Jesus, as I do.

I don’t want to cause division in the church, or stand against my brothers and sisters in Christ, but I think banning a book is wrong.

I think most Christians ban books as an attempt to be good parents, out of fear of what their children might be exposed to.

I’ve written before about the responsibility before God that parents have for their children. You carry this responsibility for your own children, not for other people’s. And if you’re worried that something is inappropriate for your son or daughter, then read it. Or read detailed reviews about it. And then, if you still have objections to the book, don’t let your child read it.

Parenting is full of hard choices, and only you really know if your child is old enough to handle the knowledge that some people don’t believe in God, or that some people use bad words, or things about drugs and alcohol or the occult or sexual immorality. But those things are in the world, and at some point, even though we are are to be separate from those things, we must be aware they are out there.

Sometimes, as Christians, we act like we can’t be exposed to anyone who doesn’t live the way we do – through our friendships, or our entertainment choices, and yes, even through the books we read. But is this what the Bible says? No.

Paul says to the Corinthians, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people–not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral or greedy and swindlers or idolaters. In that case, you would have to leave the world” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10, emphasis added).

Right now, my kids are only 3 and 4. So there are very few books at their age level to which I object. I recognize that I’m not making a ton of hard decisions. Will I let my boys read the Harry Potter series when they are old enough? I don’t know. I will cross that bridge, prayerfully and thoughtfully, when I come to it. I want to do a good job of letting my children learn what sorts of things they will face in the world within the safety of our home so they want be blindsided when they are on their own. But I also want to be careful of not exposing them to too much too soon.

But I will be making that decision as a parent with the responsibility for my own two children. I refuse to try to exert control over other people’s children, especially those of people outside my church. 

The Nazis controlled what people read. The USSR controlled what people read. Today, China controls what people within its borders read. When a group, especially the government or another public institution such as a library decides to reign in and exert authority over people’s entertainment choices, we come dangerously close to mirroring the choices of totalitarian governments.

And more importantly, telling people what to think is not the way of the church we see embodied in Acts. We are told the people at the church in Berea “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).  They didn’t follow anyone blindly. And they didn’t let Paul or anyone else tell them what to think. They listened to his words, and they measured them against the words of the Bible.

They were careful, but they didn’t put their heads in the sand. I want to be the same way.

Ideas can be dangerous. But the most dangerous idea of all is this one: that Jesus came in the flesh, died a criminal’s death as an innocent man, and rose from the dead so that sinful people could be in right relationship with a holy God.

The Bible is more subversive, more radical, and completely different than any other book that will ever be published.

The word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). What other book is?

All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). Can you describe anything else you read with those words?

There are governments across the world today who are committed to preventing those God-breathed words from reaching the eyes and ears of their people. They want to see the message of the cross of Christ shut down, and the people who proclaim it silenced. Let us not be like them.

Let’s let the Koran and the Book of Mormon, and The DaVinci Code stand alongside our precious Bible to show the truth and power of what we believe. If we really know down in our hearts that the Bible is true, then it can stand up to that kind of scrutiny. I promise you: God’s word will not–cannot–be superseded.

If we truly believe that the Bible is the ONLY book that is inspired by God, and that it is infallible and authoritative, then let us allow it to stand for itself.

 

How Worshipping God Can Carry You Through Your Darkest Hour

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Tomorrow is the thirteenth anniversary anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Friday is an anniversary that is much less significant to the world but much more significant to those closest to me – it will mark one year since my sister-in-law Brooke died. The one thing – the only thing – that carried us through that season, and that will carry us through this weekend as we remember her, is the tangible presence of God in our lives, something that is felt most profoundly, in my limited experience, when we begin to take our eyes off of ourselves and lift them to our glorious Lord.

I’m over on The Grace Mask today sharing about how worshipping God gave us strength during those dark days, and gives us strength still:

“True worship doesn’t happen only when life is going well and things are happy and easy. True worship recognizes that no matter what we face, God still sits on the throne of the universe and is worthy of honor and glory and praise.”

Head over to The Grace Mask to read the rest.

We did it.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Caleb say the word “Jesus.”

Jason and I were youth pastors and my parents kept our boys on Wednesday nights while we were at church. When I swung by mom and dad’s house on the way home to pick the kids up, my mom showed me a picture book she had been reading to Caleb. It was a very simple story, less than 10 pages, that presented the message of salvation that we, as Christians, believe.

On the last page was an illustration of the risen Christ. My mom pointed to the picture and asked Caleb who it was. He pointed to the picture also, and in his sweet, one-year-old voice he said, “Jesus.”

There have not been many moments in my parenting journey thus far where I’ve felt like the things I’m doing and teaching are getting through and shaping my boys into the type of men I’m praying they become. But when those moments come – oh, how my heart swells within me with love and joy and pride in who God has made my children to be. That night was one of those nights.

To hear my sweet baby’s lips utter, for the first time, the name that is above every name, to know that even as a small child, he knows that name, that he’s being raised in a home that speaks the name of Jesus, and teaches the power of that mighty name – that was a day I was proud to be Caleb’s mom.

If you’re not a pastor, you may not understand this, but the love and pride that I have for my children is very much like the love and pride that I have for my church. When we were in beginnings of the process of church-planting, an experienced pastor whom we love and respect gave us this sage advice: Jason and I would need to see ourselves as the “mom” and “dad” of our church.

While I understood what he meant in theory at the time, his words weren’t particularly meaningful to me until we were actually in the position of pastors at our campus.

When my church aches, I ache. When my church rejoices, I rejoice with them. When we have to teach them the same lesson over and over again, I get frustrated. I have to remind myself daily that maturity for children and for churches does not come overnight. And when I see the smallest glimmer of the fruit of our labors–signs that the church we parent is really getting everything we’ve been teaching, that they are growing in the Lord and embracing everything God desires for them to be–in those moments, my heart is so proud and so full of love I feel like I could burst.

Today was one of those days. 

Today we got to celebrate the second anniversary of our church launch – a milestone not all church-planters have the privilege of seeing. But we also got to celebrate something amazing that God did in the hearts of our people, something that makes me so happy and proud it brings tears to my eyes. We challenged our congregation to give generously to the missionaries we are supporting this month – Sam and Lisa Paris – with the promise we’d do the ice bucket challenge that’s been all over Facebook if they hit $1200.

To be honest, I was a little hesitant putting that figure on it. I wasn’t trying to get out of doing the ice bucket challenge by naming a figure so large. In fact, the day I published the challenge, I was still debating between $1000 and $1200. Twelve hundred dollars just seemed like so much. That’s a huge missions offering for our church for one month, and we’d just surpassed it last month for Care2Learn. I really wasn’t sure we could do it again. But I felt like that was the number I should ask our church for, so I put the figure out there.

And my church, you wonderful people we pastor, you blew me out of the water.

We gave over $1700 to the Parises this month. Seventeen hundred votes with our wallets, crying out “we believe reaching the lost with the gospel matters.” So this morning after church, our people got to drench us with ice water. And I was so happy to have to do that, because it meant we were generous towards people who are sacrificing much more to proclaim the name of Jesus where it has not been heard.

To the Parises: Thank you for your obedience to God’s calling. We are so privileged to partner with you in this small way.

And to my beautiful, wonderful church: Happy second birthday. I couldn’t be prouder of you. You make me crazy sometimes, but your momma loves you so much. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings!

Ice Buckets, and Giving, and What it Means to Really Make a Difference

If you’ve been on any type of social media in the last week, you are probably aware of the ice bucket challenge for ALS awareness.

I figured it was only a matter of time before it got around to us, and sure enough, on Tuesday, a couple of people in our church had challenged Jason and I to participate.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s, is a horrible, cruel, ugly, undiscriminating disease that preys on young and old alike. One of my favorite high school teachers lost her daughter, a sweet, vibrant girl I loved, and picked up from school a few times, to ALS. Watching her go from a strong, healthy, normal teenager to being wheelchair-bound is the definition of life not being fair.

I am glad that people are learning about, talking about, and spending money to fight ALS. And while there are some legitimate questions being raised about how much this challenge actually helps people with ALS, concerns over what kind of research the money actually funds, and objections from people who support other important causes, like clean water in third-world countries, it’s hard to argue with the numbers: as of yesterday, the ice bucket challenge had raised $31.5 million for ALS research, a 1600-percent increase over what was given during the same period last year.

So it’s good that people are giving to ALS. I’m not saying that those millions of dollars for ALS do not matter. It’s fun and easy to give in ways that seem tangible and concrete like this. In July, our church brought in one of our largest monthly Cause offerings to replace the small, falling-apart backpacks of our school district’s weekend feeding program. Your generosity was noticed by our community, and those who work closely with these hungry kids were moved by our gift.

But when I see pictures of the backpacks we bought, and watch videos of people participating in the ice bucket challenge–things that I think are noble and good and important–there’s this part of my brain that is still ringing with the words that Dick Brogden spoke at the AG Centennial simulcast:

“Dollars for one-time sexy projects can seduce us, that we slide from the greatest impact of missions giving: monthly support for boots-on-the-ground missionaries. And if your church is not regularly, sacrificially, giving to support missionaries around the world, you are not in spirit Assemblies of God. Call yourself whatever you want, but you cannot in truth be part of this fellowship if your budget does not prioritize the mission of God in the uttermost places of the earth.”

I think feeding kids in Ozark matters. I think raising money for ALS research matters. I would never argue otherwise.

Unfortunately, the sobering truth is that a lot of the projects we give to that make us feel that we are helping, and making a difference, do not really have the impact on the needy that we think they do. Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, offers this sobering indictment of our benevolence: “As compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served” (p. 5).

However, even supposing that all charitable projects and dollars were achieving everything we hoped they would, it’s hard for me to swallow just how difficult it is to inspire generosity for projects that don’t put something tangible in our hands but matter, perhaps, a great deal more. Because, after all, if we put food in the bellies of hungry kids or save the life of someone suffering with ALS, but never tell that person about the love of Jesus, have we really helped them? And what about the millions of people around the world who have yet to even hear the name of Jesus? Aren’t they worth our dollars, and Facebook activism, and even our lives?

My friends Sam and Lisa Paris think they are. Which is why they are taking their family to Tanna, Vanuatu to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are forsaking the familiar, losing physical comfort, and putting themselves on the line for the sake of the gospel. What they are getting ready to do as a family requires sacrifices that most of us cannot even fathom.

If I take a bucket of ice water and pour it over my head, afterwards, I can go inside and towel off, throw my wet clothes in an electric-powered washing machine, take a hot shower, and snuggle up in a blanket on the couch in my climate-controlled home.

The Parises won’t have easy access to those luxuries in Vanuatu. However, they consider these sacrifices worthwhile. And because I know them, I can say with confidence that they are even a little bit excited about the adventure they’re embarking upon as a family because they know that the things they are exchanging–those temporary, earthly comforts–are worth giving up when you compare them to the importance of adding just one more person to the kingdom of God.

They have taken Paul’s words to heart: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Our church has the awesome privilege of partnering with Sam and Lisa this month with our CAUSE monies. Not all of us are called to go to Vanuatu. Some of us are called to other places. And some of us are called to stay right where we are and be faithful with the influence God has given us here. But what is wonderful is that even though you and I will likely never see the tribesmen and women of Tanna, we can contribute to them hearing the name of Jesus for the first time by funding Sam and Lisa’s missionary budget.

The single most effective way to engineer lasting change in a community is not through drop-in aid, or one-time projects, but through the consistent, enduring efforts of people who make their homes and build their lives within that community. This is the work of a missionary. That is what Sam and Lisa and their kids are going to Vanuatu to do. Their vision is to establish a long-term ministry in Vanuatu that will continue beyond their lifetimes, providing education, healthcare, and most importantly, knowledge of Jesus Christ to the Ni-Vanuatu people.

Missions is important to the heart of God. It’s important to our church. And it’s important to me and Jason as a family. When we received the ice bucket challenge a couple of days ago, we made a donation to ALS, and we started talking about what it really means to make a difference. As we watched video after video of people publicly participating in this challenge, Jason said casually, “what if people did this for missions?”

His question kept me awake most of the night. What if people did this for missions? What if we did this for missions?

So, since people apparently want to see me and Jason freezing and soaking wet, we offer the following challenge to the people of our church: 

If you give $1200 to Sam and Lisa by the end of the month, we will do the ice bucket challenge, at our church building, in front of all of you. Twelve hundred dollars is the equivalent of supporting the Parises at $100 a month for a year, or $25 a month for an entire four-year term. Many of you have given to ALS in the last few weeks. We gave more than this as a church for backpacks last month. We can give this much to see people come to know Jesus. In fact, I cannot think of any more important way to spend our dollars.

Twelve hundred dollars, by August 31, and you’ll get to see your pastors drenched in ice water.

Are you up for the challenge?