To Santa or not to Santa?

So… Santa.

Lots of talk going on this time of year about this one poor man.

I had a friend ask me recently about my opinion on this issue, and suggest I write about it. At the time, I didn’t feel like I had much to say, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I do have some opinions about Santa and Christmas.

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Of course, if you go on Facebook, it won’t take long before you begin to believe that everyone has an opinion about how you should celebrate Christmas and whether or not it should include Santa. Easter and its infamous bunny has a lot of the same issues, but I don’t know that anyone takes the debate over the Easter Bunny quite as seriously as they approach the issue of Santa Claus.

It’s tricky ground, I realize. Some people would have you believe that if your children are taught Santa Claus exists as a red-suited, chimney-climbing, gift-delivering North Pole dweller, when they find out otherwise they will categorically deny everything else you’ve taught them to take by faith, most notably, the existence of God.

Others would have you believe that if you deny your kids the experience of believing in Santa, they will miss out on an important rite of passage as children, and grow to be joyless adults who have no sense of the magic and beauty of the world.

These are generalizations and over-simplifications of the two main camps when it comes to Santa, I know, but that is the general gist of what each is afraid of, deep in their hearts. But the truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in the middle.

The phrase Santa Claus has descended to us from the Dutch Sante Klaas, and the earlier Sinter Niklass which means Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a real person who lived in the 3rd century and was a follower of Jesus. Nicholas lived in what is now Turkey, and was known, among other things, for his generosity.

There are a lot of legends surrounding the life of Nicholas, the most well-known of which tells how Nicholas heard of three young women whose father was too poor to afford a dowry for them. There were not any good options for single women back then, and without a dowry, the girls could have ended up having to sell themselves to survive. In one version of the story, Nicholas came at night to secretly give enough gold to the father to be able to marry his daughters off, and the bag of gold landed inside a stocking that had been hung to dry by the fireplace.

But aside from this well-known story, Nicholas was also an important figure in church history. He was a part of the Council of Nicea in 325, a meeting of bishops called by Constantine, which helped solidify some of the essential doctrines of the Church. After his death, the bishop Nicholas was sainted by the Catholic church, and St. Nicholas Day is observed on December 6 on the liturgical church calendar

We talked to our kids about St. Nicholas this year, and how he gave things to people who had less than he did. Part of the reason we talked about him was a reaction, on my part, to Caleb’s interest in Santa this year, for the first time ever. He started slipping casually into conversation things about Santa – how he lived at the North Pole, and how he would be delivering presents to us this year, and I’ll admit, I panicked a little bit.

If I had to pick one side or the other of this debate, I’d have to confess that right now I lean a little toward leaving Santa out of things, but I think that’s mostly a default because neither Jason nor I really remember ever believing in Santa, and we do not feel as though we missed out on anything.

But I think it possible to do either and do right by our kids, and by the same token, do either and lead our kids astray. You can make sure your kids know that Santa isn’t real, and still fill the bottom of your Christmas tree with everything your child asks for and more, and teach them by example that Christmas is about how much you can get. Or you can encourage Santa fantasies and teach your kids about a generous spirit and the power of faith in things that are unseen.

I’m not certain about all these things, by any means. Honestly, we are just making up this whole parenting thing as we go, talking with our kids as much as we can, about as much as we can, and praying that God’s spirit will fill in all the gaps of our imperfection. But I have a feeling that in the context of the larger scheme of my boys’ life, when I look back in 10 or 15 years, agonizing over Santa will seem as silly to me then as agonizing over pacifier brands in the boys’ infancy seems to me now.

I can’t tell you whether or not including Santa in your Christmas celebrations is right for your family. There isn’t a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all to that question. But I can tell you that the way to give your kids the best chance to follow Jesus when they are adults is to make sure they hear about him at home for more than a couple of days in December.

So let’s agree to be okay with how other people – people who genuinely love Jesus – decide to celebrate Christmas with their kiddos, even if the choices they make are different than the ones we have made for our own families.

I honestly do not know which side of this we will land on in the course of the next several years. I’m sure the boys will pick up things from friends at school, and even if we don’t teach overtly about Santa, he’s in a lot of the Christmas movies we love, like Polar Express and Elf. But I’m really not too worried about it, because I am convinced that whether or not my boys end up thinking that Santa Claus exists, it won’t shake their faith in Jesus. Of course, only God can draw their hearts, and they will have to decide to follow him for themselves at some point, but God is a part of our family life in a way that Santa will never be.

Santa Claus sees heavy action in most homes, ours included, for four weeks, maybe five. But we talk about God all the time. We talk about God at each meal, and before bed every night. We talk about God when we see people making bad choices, and when we are believing him for things that are bigger than us. We talk about God when we see a pretty sunset or hear scary thunder. He is the center of our home.

And I don’t think anyone, not even Santa, can uproot that.

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

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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!