Heart · Holidays

How We are Celebrating Advent with Waiting

Back in August, I read that in some liturgical traditions, they don’t begin to decorate or celebrate Christmas itself until December 24 or 25. These weeks between Thanksgiving and the celebration of our Savior’s birth are reserved for waiting.

As the calendar neared December, and I started planning the ways we would observe the holidays as a family, I kept coming back to the idea of waiting until it was actually Christmas to do any celebrating.

My temptation is always to try to do too much. Other familys’ traditions all sound so wonderful, I’m afraid to leave anything out. I want to make Christmas candy and bake a birthday cake for Jesus, and go to all the parties, and teach my kids about Hanukkah, and go caroling, and celebrate St. Nicholas day, and do an advent wreath, and attend a cookie swap, and make a Jesse tree.

But I can’t do all of it. So as I sifted through all the ideas and my own desires, I wondered: what would it look like for our family to obverse Advent as a time of waiting?

To intentionally delay our celebrations and live in the tension of the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God?

To seek out reminders that this world is not our home?

To store up treasures in heaven instead of earth?

I couldn’t move my friends’ parties, obviously, or ask the city park to wait six more weeks to put up their lights. And I could only avoid Caleb and Garrett seeing the Christmas displays at Walmart for so long. But I could figure out ways to bring an intentional waiting into our home.

As it turns out, forgoing the holiday trimmings has been a necessity as much as it was an intentional choice. When everything else is going into boxes, I can’t really justify bringing the Christmas things out of their boxes.

While moving at Christmastime has been stressful, I couldn’t ask for a more poignant reminder of waiting.

Truth be told, we’ve been waiting all year for the Lord to move in one way or another. Back in January, we had revival services at our church, and we knew then that this year was going to be a hard one of transition for our family. When we finally sensed the Lord leading us to close our church plant, we did so in faith, not knowing what would be next for us. When we sensed His leading to Nashville, we put our current house on the market, and made an offer on one in Tennessee.

Now, even though we have two houses under contract, the closing dates keep shifting, and the Lord is still, after eleven months, saying wait.

We are doing a few small things as a family to look to Jesus in this season, to anticipate His coming and joy that will be ours on Christmas Day:

We are unwrapping and reading one new Christmas picture book each day. (I’ve discovered a bunch of new-to-me treasures this year; I’ll share a full list of what we’re reading soon!)

We are lighting Advent candles every morning at breakfast.

We are listening to music that reminds us of the yearning the Israelites felt for the coming Messiah.

And tonight, we will begin this Christmas devotional during story time before bed.

That’s it.

Christmas is in twenty-four days, and I’m not exaggerating a bit when I say I do not know where we will wake up on Christmas morning. We could still be in our familiar Ozark home. We could be in our new house in Nashville. We could be somewhere in between. I really don’t know. I don’t know if we will have a chance to put up a tree or not.

God knows, though, our job for now (for always) is simply to wait on Him.

We won’t have to wait forever. At just the right time, Jesus came and broke the 400-year silence of God towards His people. When the time is right, He will come back for his church. And at some point in the meantime, I do believe that we will eventually, finally, get to Nashville.

But for today, we wait.


I know many of you are still praying for our family as we walk through time of transition. Thank you so much. Now that I’ve shared where we are at, I want to know: how are you celebrating Christmas with your family this year? 

Heart · Holidays

The First Whisper of Christmas

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Today is December 1st. The big meal and big deals are behind us. We started lighting advent candles at our dinner table two nights ago, and tonight, at bedtime, we will crack open a brand-new storybook that will carry us through these next 24 days, tracing the family of Jesus, the promised Messiah.

It begins with the promise that God made to Israel, through the prophet Isaiah:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD–and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. 
“He will not judge by what he see with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the people; the nations will rally to him and his place of rest will be glorious.” Isaiah 11:1-10

This is what the whole Old Testament has been leading up to, what all of creation itself has been waiting for since Adam and Eve took that very first bite of sin. This is where we place our hope, this Coming One, who will reconcile us to God and bring us peace.

My advent devotional reading this morning asked where in my life I was longing for a tender shoot of hope, and I wanted to ask back, “where am I not longing for hope?” Two thousand fifteen has been, without question, the hardest year I’ve had yet. Truthfully, there’s a large part of my heart that would be willing to box up the tree and skip right over this season and right into a new year.

This year has been a year of circling the story of Elijah. There’s the story of Mt. Carmel, when God answers Elijah’s simple but faith-filled prayer by sending fire from heaven. It is, to my mind, one the most astounding miracles in the whole BIble–this fire that burns up soaked wood and laps the water filling the trench beside it.

But that’s not the story I keep coming back to. In the aftermath of that miracle, Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, since he killed her false prophets.

And Elijah is DONE.

“He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD.’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'” 1 Kings 19:4

It is this story that I kept coming back to.

“I have had enough, Lord,” I prayed in April.

Then we put our dog to sleep.

“I’ve had enough.”

My son, who is about to start kindergarten, can’t stop having accidents.

“I’ve had enough.”

Attendance numbers at our church leave me feeling discouraged.

“I’ve had enough.”

My doctor can’t figure out why the medicine isn’t helping my asthma, and in the meantime, I can’t walk a block without getting winded.

“I’ve had enough.”

My friends move away.

“I’ve had enough.”

Hurt. Betrayal. Loss. Failure. Fear.

“I’ve had enough.”

Every single thing that happened, small or large, felt like the last straw, and I would kneel in my bedroom and read this story and pour my heart out before the Lord.

Like the people of Israel waiting for a political Messiah to throw off Roman oppression, I want Jesus to come in big and loud and rescue me out of this mess. I want God to be in the mighty wind or the earthquake or the fire. But that isn’t how God appeared to Elijah, and it’s not how he appears to us.

“After the fire came a gentle whisper.” 1 Kings 19:12

“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and place him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7

All year long, I’ve been begging God to come and change my circumstances. But instead, he offers to come in quiet and small, and change me.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus.

 

Heart · Holidays

How & Why We Celebrated Passover with Our Kids

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This is my oldest son, sitting across from me at the dinner table on Thursday night.

The night before, we had read in our Bible the story of how God has rescued his people from the hands of the Egyptians by sending ten plagues. The last plague, the death of the firstborn, passed over the Israelites, because each household had slaughtered a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts of their home. When the destroyer visited Egypt that night, he saw the blood of the lamb, and did not come for theirs. Afterward, they would always remember that night, and celebrate their deliverance as the Passover.

When I tucked Caleb into bed after the story, he asked quietly, “Mommy, could we have a Passover sometime?”

I said, “Sure. How about we have one tomorrow?”

So on Thursday, we went to the store and bought costly lamb, bitter herbs, and whole wheat flour. We spent the rest of the day cooking and cleaning, making preparations for our Passover. The boys were so excited. We found a recipe for roast lamb and got it into the oven. They helped me make bread without yeast and pierce it full of holes. We mashed up potatoes and chopped some apples and raisins. We even painted sheets of paper red and taped them to the trim around our doors. WP_20150402_003[2]WP_20150402_001[2]WP_20150402_015[1]

When it was ready, Jason and I sat down to eat our meal with our little disciples, just as Jesus had done with his on the Thursday of Easter week so many hundreds of years ago. We talked with them about what the elements of our meal meant to the Israelites, and what they meant to us as people who believed in and followed Jesus. We talked about the covenant God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai, and the new covenant God made with us through the body and blood of Jesus. We ate the bread and drank the grape juice and proclaimed the death of our Lord together.

As I sat across the table from my Caleb, my firstborn son, I was overwhelmed by the weight of what God has done for us. I thought about all those Israelite mommas, sitting down to that first Passover dinner with their boys, and how thankful they must have been when their sons were spared from the plague. And I thought about God in heaven, who did not spare his only son, but gave him up for us, to be sacrificed like a lamb.

I still have the red taped to my doors. I think the boys like seeing their handiwork on display like that, but I love it even more for its constant reminder to me: the lamb died instead of us. The lamb of God, God’s best priceless gift to us, was offered up for our sake. God’s judgment has passed over us, and he has made a way for us to leave the bondage of sin, and go to the glorious mountain where his presence dwells.

And as I sit here in the not-quite-light wee hours of Easter morning, I am reminded of one more amazing truth: the lamb that died, Jesus, could not be held by the cords of death. On a morning much like this one, a grieving momma who did watch her boy die went to tomb where he was buried, and heard the greatest news the world has ever been given: “He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6).

The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, is alive, forevermore.

Happy Easter.

Holidays · Home

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 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 answer 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.

Heart · Holidays

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!

Holidays · Home

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!

Heart · Holidays

What it Means To Celebrate Freedom

God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above. 

I was at a church service on 4th of July weekend a number of years ago, where we sang this, along with a handful of other patriotic hymns, such as America the Beautiful and Battle Hymn of the Republic. About halfway through the set of songs, I looked around the room and was surprised to see a number of people with their hands in the air.

I’m from a charismatic background, so it’s not strange or surprising to me to see people lifting their hands as they sing a worship song. But we weren’t singing worship songs. At least not to Jesus.

Are these people even listening to what they’re singing? I wondered. Are we so accustomed to raising our hands simply because a song is slow and moving, that we’ll do it no matter what the song is about? Or are they intentionally raising their hands to this land, this nation, this government that was formed by human hands?

Neither answer makes me feel any better. In fact, both are terrifying. Whether we are worshiping America on accident or on purpose, it’s still idolatry.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love this county. I will help my kids play with sparklers in the driveway today, and then go see a fireworks display later tonight. I will have my hand right next to my beating heart if they pledge allegiance to our flag, or if they sing the national anthem. I will probably cry if they play “God Bless America.”

I count myself blessed to have been born under the stars and stripes, a nation affluent enough that we never went hungry, even when we were poor, and progressive enough that I received a free education even though I am woman. It’s not because of anything good that I did that I was born an American. I am so very, very blessed. And I love this nation that I call my “home” for now.

But I love my Jesus more. 

If America falls apart tomorrow, I won’t lose my identity, because I am first and foremost a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20).

If God calls my family to leave America to proclaim the gospel in a foreign land, we’ll be okay, because we are already strangers and aliens in this world (1 Peter 2:11).

And if I begin losing the civil liberties that are currently afforded me as an American, it doesn’t matter, because I am free in a way that has nothing to do with the Bill of Rights (2 Corinthians 3:17).

If in the days to come, the government begins to take away from me my free speech, my right to peaceably assemble, my right to bear arms, my protection against unlawful search and seizure, even my right to vote, it’s not going to shake the core of who I am. Jesus promised us that in this world we would face trouble, and that if we choose to follow him, people will hate us in the same way that they hated him (John 15:18).

For today, my right to worship whatever God I choose is protected under our government. But if that went away tomorrow, if the government decided that my proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord was grounds for my detainment, torture, or even execution, it wouldn’t ultimately be the end of me, because I have already died with Christ and have secured eternal life through his resurrection (Colossians 3:3).

I will celebrate America today. I’ll read my kids the Declaration of Independence and teach them about the America our forefathers envisioned.

But freedom? I will celebrate that every day. Because my freedom doesn’t come from the White House. It comes from Calvary.