A Post-Christmas Confession

I admit: I’m always giddy with relief when Christmas is over.

i wantThe reason for this is that every year, it becomes more painful and even embarrassing to witness the great, sad irony of Christmas: the effort we put forth trying to convince ourselves and the world that Jesus is the Reason for a season that overflows with greed, gluttony, materialism, and marketing. Our efforts would make far more sense if 1) the Lord had instituted the season in the first place, or 2) the Church refused to bend its knee to the gods of self-indulgence and consumerism and the many practices that fly in the face of all that Jesus exemplified.

I respect those who strive to claim the season for Jesus, yet I feel no urgency to do so personally because those who assert that its roots and traditions are steeped in paganism are, quite frankly, correct. Add to this the increasing demand for bigger and shinier and more expensive gifts; the propaganda of modern-day media and marketing; the stress and irresponsibility of credit card bills; the license to party and drink and eat far more than any other time of the year . . . and the end result is a cauldron of hedonism that the Church drinks from just as eagerly as does the world. The only difference between us and the world is that we simultaneously try to turn the spotlight onto Jesus . . . and then we wonder why the world thinks we’re goofy and why we’re as exhausted, broke, stressed, and overweight as everyone else come January.

black fridayYes, there are things about the Christmas season that I enjoy, like the weekend trip that my husband and I make to Nashville in mid-December every year to do some shopping and carry out our own little traditions. I put up a tiny tree for the sake of the grandkids, and I love the happy chaos of a house full of family. But I am always thankful when the season is over for another year and we can all stop pretending that it’s about Jesus when the Church as a whole actually sold out long ago.

Please hear me: to teach our children about the birth of Christ the King at this time of year is a very good thing, but to teach them the same truths at all times and during all seasons is better. The danger of relegating a certain season (or two, if you count Easter) to the celebration of Jesus is that it’s too easy to excuse ourselves from focusing on what truly matters the rest of the year. The question of where to draw our boundaries as believers when it comes to Christmas is a tricky one with no easy or sweeping answers, but this one thing I know beyond any shadow of a doubt:

Jesus Is the Reason. Period.

Image: Nehemiah Project
Image: Nehemiah Project

Jesus is the reason for life, for existence, 365 days a year. He wants to be the constant object of our affections, the daily motivation behind our behavior, the ultimate purpose behind our career choices, the never-ending desire of our heart, the goal and prize for which we reach every day of our lives. We do not truly live unless we live and breathe and move in Him and for Him. Ultimately, nothing else matters. Perhaps that sounds too radical, but it’s the absolute truth, so I’ll say it again: Nothing else matters. He is the reason for all of it. Let’s keep this in mind as we take down our trees and tinsel, work off those extra five pounds, pay off our debts, and decide what 2015 should look like. As we set goals and enjoy the feeling of a second chance that a new year brings, let us ask the Savior to take His rightful place as King and Lord. Let us echo the song that says, “Jesus, be the fire in my heart,
Be the wind in these sails,
Be the reason that I live.”

What Are You Waiting For?

giving-hands-1What would we do if Jesus walked into our living rooms tonight and said, “I’ll make you a deal: detach yourself from all of this. Stop chasing the American dream and instead live on minimum resources, and I promise you’ll never regret it. Stop believing the lie that a responsible Christian must have a 401(k), three walk-in closets, and a college fund for each kid. Instead, dare to shave your budget and your schedule to a minimum and spend the surplus money, time, and energy on the poor, and I’ll give you in return the things you can’t buy: peace in your soul, more of My presence, unshakable joy, and a life that matters.” What would we do if He offered us that promise? Would we believe Him? Would we trade the American dream for treasures in heaven?

If our answer is yes, then we must ask ourselves what we’re waiting for. He’s already given us the promise:: “Then Jesus . . . said to him, ‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me’” (Mark 10:21).

leapAs someone who has taken several leaps of faith (e.g. leaving a secure job, a decent income with benefits, and a town I loved), I know what it feels like when God challenges you to take His word literally and do something that looks reckless or irresponsible to everyone around you. I also know what it’s like to be scared to death to jump into the wild unknown. I you’re resisting the call of God to take a leap of faith, ask yourself: What perfect condition am I waiting for? In what ways must all the stars be aligned before I obey? Am I waiting until I’m fearless? Until everyone agrees with my dream?

The only thing you must wait for is Jesus’ call—“Come, take up the cross, and follow Me”—and that call has already come.

 

The Trouble with Self-Condemnation

aWhen’s the last time your beat yourself up? Last week when you lost your temper at work? Yesterday when your teenager acted out and you felt like a rotten parent? This morning when you stepped on the scale?

Self-absorption entails far more than typical pride—it means anything that shifts your awareness away from Jesus (or the service of others) and onto yourself. Egocentricity has many “faces”—including the typical ones, such as putting your own needs above those of others or steering conversations so that they revolve around you and your accomplishments.

bBut here’s the clincher: self-absorption also includes indulging in self-condemnation. That’s right: self-condemnation is not a sign of humility; in fact, there’s nothing Christlike about it. I can’t beat myself up unless I’m obsessing about my own behavior rather than looking to Jesus. When I have eyes only for Him, I’m quick to extend grace and compassion to those He loves—including myself.

Some of us are willing to offer grace and forgiveness to everyone but ourselves. We’d never dream of attacking someone else the way you do ourselves: “Nothing you do is good enough; you are so stupid—what’s wrong with you? You’ll never measure up!”

cIt’s time to realize that brutalizing yourself is not any less sinful than brutalizing any other child of God.

The only way to steer clear of self-absorption is to stay tuned to Jesus’ presence and inclination at all times. Lord, help us to keep our eyes on You—and off ourselves.

 

Coldplay, Autumn Leaves, and the Voice of God

leavesThe other day, while I was sitting on my cozy, screened-in back porch, the wind suddenly began scuttling through the trees (which were fat and fragrant with autumn leaves), and the sound was like rushing water. If I’d closed my eyes I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. The sound nearly took the breath from my lungs, and it unlocked something inside me. I began pondering an idea I’d been chewing on for a week. For the next few minutes, the idea solidified and took shape. There it is again, I thought. The voice of God.

As I said last week, some believers have heard the audible voice of God, but that’s never happened to me. For me, “God’s voice” often begins as an awareness of His presence, His nearness . . . and then a vague idea or impression becomes more and more specific as God begins to “download.” Sometimes this download is no more than a simple instruction—for example, “Say a kind word to the bank teller, she’s having an awful day”; other times, it’s as complex as a magazine article, in which case I go running for a pen and paper. Sometimes I can put what I hear into words, other times not.

s. kingIf we say that God’s Word (that is, God’s voice) equals only what’s written in the pages of the Bible, we limit Him to a specific span of time (even though He knows no such limits) and specific words on a printed page. This would mean that God has spoken fewer words to His people than Stephen King has to his readers. Surely we don’t believe that.

The good news is that you don’t have to be in a “zen” environment to hear Him. I often hear God when surrounded by people or in the midst of much activity. For example, during a Manna Café event, while flanked by volunteers and guests, conversation and commotion, God is suddenly closer than my own skin, more real than the person in front of me. You might hear Him while walking the dog, teaching a seminar, or kissing your spouse. You might even hear God through avenues not necessarily intended to convey Him; for example, my spirit comes radically alive every time I listen to Coldplay’s “Clocks,” and several years ago God taught me a lifelong lesson through a scene in The Matrix.

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Image: versifylife.com

God hasn’t stopped speaking to His children. Isaiah 30:21 tells us, “Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go,’ whether to the right or to the left” (NLT).

 

 

What Do We Mean by the “Voice of God”?

Image: unstained

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the voice of God. We Christians speak often of God’s voice, but some of us would be hard pressed to explain it. I’ve heard stories of people hearing an audible voice, but God has never spoken to me that way. Even so, I began hearing Him many years ago, around the same time I began speaking to Him as one speaks to a friend. The first time I ever conversed without using a “formal” prayer was on the evening of my confirmation as a Catholic, smack in the middle of the ceremony. “God, if this is all there is to You, I don’t need You,” I said. (I deeply appreciate my Catholic upbringing, but I never had much tolerance for ritual.) “But if You’re real, and if there’s more to You, then I want all of You,” I continued.

Sometimes we act like God quit talking when the disciples and apostles died . . . We live like His voice is limited to the written words in the pages of our Bibles. I love the Bible with all my heart, but God’s word goes far beyond those 66 books. I’m never outside God’s presence because that’s not even possible; to separate “me” from God would result in nothing but a bag of bones on the floor, for He is my very existence, and therefore I’m never beyond the sound of His voice. I need only to cultivate my awareness of Him, and my response to Him.

Image: coffeecrossroads.com

The same is true for you. It’s not whimsy or wishful thinking to suppose that you hear Him as you commute to work, build a web page, wash your car, or make the bed. When you hear Him, respond quickly. How? By acknowledging Him, maybe with a brief prayer—“Good morning, Lord!” or “Thank You, Lord, for morning coffee” or just an internal acknowledgement in your spirit. You can communicate spirit-to-Spirit all day long; this is surely what Paul meant when he said we should pray without ceasing. God’s voice is all around if you’ll just hear with spirit ears. You’re not “conjuring up” or imagining anything—rather, you’re learning to see, hear, feel—and then respond to—God’s presence. Let’s stop living as though God speaks to only a select few—or worse yet, as though He is mute.

Please Stop Talking

As an introvert, I’m not much of a talker compared to a lot of people, and yet I still catch myself trying to make conversation when the situation calls for silence. I did it again last night at suppertime. My husband Kenny and I had a busy afternoon, so we picked up a pizza, went home, and sat on the porch to eat it. He was as silent as a tortoise, which is completely understandable since, in the course of a day, he’s often pulled in a hundred directions while having myriad conversations and making countless critical decisions.

Image: Nicole Cottrell

But could I leave well enough alone and just enjoy the peace? No. Instead, I said, “A penny for your thoughts?” And a few minutes later, “Gosh, you’re quiet tonight.” Finally, I realized what I was doing. For Pete’s sake, stop it! I scolded myself.

Why are we so afraid of silence?

In spite of the stereotypes, men can be just as gabby as women, but right now I’m talking to wives/girlfriends because that’s the perspective I know. When we haven’t yet learned to appreciate silence, we women can get in the habit of (excuse the graphic illustration) “verbally puking” all over our men during those moments they need stillness. We fill the air with words—and far too often, those words are negative: “Karen is driving me nuts at work … Can you plleeaassee fix the brake light? … You’re going to have to punish Alex for talking back to me …”

I’m not saying that difficult subjects shouldn’t be broached, but there’s a time to do it, and when your spouse has that dazed, “my-brain-is-on-overload” look is not the time.

In 1 Peter 3:3–4, the apostle cautions women against putting too much emphasis on adornments like jewelry and fashion. He advises focusing on “the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” Peter then refers to the Old Testament heroines who exemplified this by “trust[ing] in God” and being “submissive to their … husbands” (v. 5).

These verses do not denote a mousey, faint-hearted woman who refuses to wear makeup, laugh enthusiastically, or express herself honestly. “A gentle and quiet spirit” indicates peace on the inside that’s reflected on the outside (versus shrieking on the inside while gritting your teeth on the outside). A gentle, quiet spirit is the product of unreserved trust in God and is therefore free of panic and agitation.

Notice that this quality is precious to God—after all, it’s impossible to possess deep peace without radical trust in Him—and that it produces incorruptible beauty. What woman doesn’t want to be beautiful to the man she loves? There’s something highly attractive about a woman who possesses inner peace—who does not have a meltdown when things don’t go her way, or blather on and on about everyone’s faults, or meet her man at the door with a list of demands when he’s already swamped with obligations.

Even when things are chaotic on the outside, you can be this on the inside. Image: Citypictures.org.
Even when things are chaotic on the outside, you can be this on the inside. Image: citypictures.org.

Many times, when I sense that Kenny’s already got too much noise in his brain or too many responsibilities on his shoulders, the Lord will prompt me to be at peace. And when I say “be at peace,” I mean far more than “shut up”—I mean “be at rest body, soul, and spirit so that my presence makes it far easier, not more difficult, for Kenny to be at peace himself.” This kind of stillness is cultivated. It’s not easy; in fact, learning to be still is a discipline.

Are you a chatterbox? Don’t apologize—there’s nothing wrong with you. But learn to give the gift of silence when the situation calls for it, and you’ll discover that you can bring your husband relief from the tension or confusion in his head—and he’ll love you for it.

Trusting God with Your College Kid

Image: HuffPost
Image: HuffPost

September is here—which means some of you have recently moved a son or daughter into a college dorm for the first time. It’s natural and healthy to feel a sense of loss, but don’t allow your child’s new adventure to become a source of fear and anxiety for you. Commit to surrender him/her to God daily while leaving no room for fear. At first you might have to “put on a brave face” that you don’t entirely feel, but allow trust in God to take root deeply, until your prayers are no longer frantic lists of concerns and fears and what-ifs, but genuine thanksgiving for God’s providence and sovereignty.

How do you transcend fear when the child you love so much has left the nest? By relinquishing control of your son or daughter’s future to the God who knows all, and by acknowledging that God loves him/her more than you do.

Don’t be temped to feel guilty for not fretting, as though fear is the hallmark of love! Too often, we assume that loving a person necessitates worrying about him or her, but this is a misconception. Love and fear are opposites, not equals.

How to Shave $29,852 Off the Cost of a Wedding

According to CNN, the average cost of a wedding has hit the 30-thousand-dollar mark. Someone, please, please tell me …

WHY?

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If you’re a hippie, you’ll love this place. Photo: Nashville Guru

Expensive weddings make me cringe. I understand the desire to gather one’s family and friends, wear a pretty dress, and commemorate the day with quality photos. But this does not require $30,000, or even half that, or even half that.

Kenny has told people that he and I had a “glorified elopement.” I realize we were a little extreme in our money-saving methods, but maybe our story will inspire you to save at least a few thousand dollars: We bought simple wedding bands at Kay Jewelers, a new cotton shirt for Kenny, and a $68-dollar white dress for me from a great little boutique called Scarlett Begonia on West End Avenue. Because I have a habit of kicking my shoes off during holy moments, e.g. prayer or worship experiences, I knew I’d get married barefoot, so shoes weren’t an issue.

We gathered four or five people and our pastor one evening and walked over to a beautiful little garden outside the Upper Room headquarters on Grand Avenue. (No, we did not have permission, and no, I don’t recommend this, but we’d already discovered that typical outdoor wedding places charge roughly ten zillion dollars even if you ask to stand on their property for ten minutes with fewer than half a dozen people—so we decided it was easier to get forgiveness than permission.)

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Nom nom nom.

Aside from the fact that our pastor was so convinced we were going to get kicked out of the garden that he kept taking sidelong glances toward the Upper Room windows (where a few people did, in fact, gather to watch the festivities), the ceremony was perfect. As a symbol of our commitment to protect rather than harm one another, we exchanged swords (yes, real ones, which we’d received at a worship conference). And as a sign of our vow to serve each other, we washed one another’s feet. Afterward, we joined a few dozen friends at our favorite local sushi joint, which had opened after hours specifically for us.

Total wedding cost: $148.

I could list fifty reasons that it’s a bad idea to spend lots of money on a wedding, but I’m going to touch briefly on just three:

  1. An expensive wedding buries a new marriage under the burden of debt. To anyone who overspends on a wedding, may I say, “Congratulations, you just guaranteed that your first several years of marriage will be fraught with stress and arguments focused on money … so that you could spend one day in extravagance.”
  2. Spending the money on the wedding versus the marriage is bass-akwards. A wedding is over in a few hours and doesn’t merit plunging into debt. A marriage deserves all you have to give. (Do you know what you could do with 30 or 20 or 10 thousand dollars that would build up rather than tear down your marriage? For example, if you break $10,000 into 500-dollar weekend trips, you end up with four mini-honeymoons per year for five years.)
  3. A couple that begins their life together by spending lavishly is going to have one heck of a time living simply. Let me explain: A couple that’s unattached to their possessions is a couple that knows the joy of freedom. I know, I know—someone can have a lot of stuff and still be emotionally unattached to it, but how much better to have minimal stuff in the first place? A couple that finds happiness apart from luxury is free to pull up stakes and relocate to the mission field, or give their second car to a single mom whose only car kicks the bucket, or forfeit a well-paying job in favor of one that pays less but allows a person to live out his or her God-given passion. It’s much easier for a couple to drop everything and go where the Lord leads them if they have little to drop.

By the way, today is our sixth anniversary. And if I had to do it all over again, I’d want things to be exactly the same: scrappy little wedding/big, beautiful marriage. 230726_1064889781519_1334990_n

 

 

CNN data: http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/28/pf/average-wedding-cost/

A few related verses (NIV):
Heb. 13:5
“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.”
Luke 14:28:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?”
Matt. 6:21
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Lk. 12:33
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
Rom. 13:8
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.”

 

 

Help! I Married a Viking!

The past few days have been absolutely nuts. For those of you who haven’t heard, my husband is spending two weeks as a homeless man in order to give a voice and face to an invisible population: the homeless of Clarksville, TN. Back in May, when he told me of his plan, I was a little rattled—but not surprised. This is who he is, and I made up my mind before I married him that I wasn’t going to squelch the part of him that’s not happy unless he’s in the middle of the fray.

His latest exploit is so unique that Channel 5 covered it. Find out more at proveitclarksville.com. 

I want to be like Queen Gorgo when I grow up. If you’ve seen the movie 300, then you know who I’m talking about: King Leonidas’s wife, Gorgo, is beautiful, tough as nails, and zealous for justice. She and Leonidas have a powerful, intimate connection, and although he’s one tough guy, he clearly adores her. I believe one key reason he feels this way is that she refuses to do what so many wives do: rein him in .. calm him down … domesticate him. Dare I say “emasculate him”?

gorgo
Gorgo in 300

There are a thousand ways to tear a man down and thereby damage your marriage; some of them are obvious: ridiculing him (especially in front of others), criticizing him as a person, wearing him out by trying to control him, etc. But if we’re not careful, we wives can also do a lot of damage by trying to get our husbands to stop being who they are by the design of God: warriors … heroes … vikings … Spartans.

Back to the movie: as Leonidas is about to go to war, Gorgo waits until he’s ten or twenty feet away. Then she calls after him, “Spartan!” Notice she doesn’t call him by his name; she knows he’s a Spartan even before he’s a husband. There’s a champion inside him. Like Leonidas, every man needs a cause. Every man needs to slay a dragon. A good man will find a worthy cause. He’ll “go to war” for justice. That might mean he works long hours, or turns down a cushy job to go to the mission field, or dreams “impossible” dreams, or practices his drums late into the night.

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The next words out of Gorgo’s mouth: “Come back with your shield … or on it.” In other words, “I release you to go so far as to die for what you believe.” How many modern-day wives would say the same? I imagine that military spouses can relate to Gorgo’s words better than most, but I want to encourage every woman to whom God gave a noble man to ask Him to get you to the place where you can say, “Come back with your shield … or on it.” In our society, it’s rare for a man to lose his life for an honorable cause, but rest assured that if you’ve been blessed with a good man, you’ll have to sacrifice a few things for the sake of the mission God has given him.

Am I suggesting that only men can do heroic things, or that only they are called to take risks for the Kingdom? Absolutely not! I love nothing more than to see a woman discover her inner Joan of Arc. I know a warrior princess when I see one. In fact, I am one. But right now I’m talking to wives who have the spunk to look honestly at one way to honor and serve their husbands that’s been ignored for far too long, even by the Church.

I have an adventurous spirit; I enjoy and work hard in the areas of ministry that God assigned to me. But my Number One ministry is to take care of Kenny so he can take care of the poor. Ultimately, he belongs to God, not me, and I can never forget that. If he spends a great deal of time, energy, money, etc. for the sake of the poor, so be it. After all, his greatest example, Jesus, spared nothing. In fact, Jesus was the most radical, over-the-top Hero of all time. Any time I have to sacrifice the occasional date night or a few hours of sleep or a new pair of shoes so that my husband can pour himself out for something that’s far bigger than either of us, I’m just that much more determined to squeeze every ounce of joy out of the experiences, possessions, and time together that we do have—and that’s a large part of the reason, as far as I’m concerned, that after six years we’re still besotted with each other.

Jesus_temple
If Jesus had had a wife, I’ll bet she would have relegated him to the couch after this “crazy stunt.”

Do you want to love your husband the best you can? Then allow him his sense of adventure and heroism—even encourage it. When he gets banged up, be a safe, welcoming place for him to recover, and then send him back “out there.” When Kenny feels beaten up and exhausted, the best thing I can do is “bandage him up”—maybe with a back rub or an encouraging word, a prayer, or just a hug—and tell him, “Go get us another one, Baby.” He knows what I mean: Go slay another dragon. Go tear down another wall or champion another cause. I love you enough to let you be the hero that God created you to be.  

knight
Image: Crosswalk

 

 

The One Thing You Should Not Pray About (at Least for the Moment)

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My next word of caution as we hash out the topic of fear versus fearlessness is about prayer—and it’s probably not what you think…

Let’s assume you’ve made up your mind to “Fear not,” just like Jesus said. If you’ve read the last couple of posts, you now understand that, as soon as you have that “oh-crap-I’m-gonna-hyperventilate” feeling, Rule Number One is to stop giving your attention to the fear and give it instead to what’s right in front of you.

Rule Number Two is to refrain from praying about what’s bothering you.

At the risk of sounding like a heathen, I’m going to say it again: now is not the time to pray—because right now, you’re disciplining your mind to turn away from fear and think wholesome thoughts. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: prayer is crucial to life. We’ll shrivel up and die without it. But sometimes, the fearful person will use prayer time to hash out (and then rehash and rehash) his or her fears. Sometimes, what a fearful person calls “prayer” looks a lot like freaking out and dwelling on the issue. In other words, trading thoughts that sound like this: “What am I gonna do, I don’t know what to do!” for prayers that sound like this: “Lord, what am I gonna do, I don’t know what to do!” does not equal progress. So, for now, when you’re tempted to worry and fret, don’t spiritualize the situation by disguising your meltdown as prayer. Stick to the plan. Take your thoughts captive. You’ll discover that, as you learn to live apart from fear, your prayer life will start sounding a lot more like a peaceful conversation with God rather than a mental breakdown.

Stop begging God to make you courageous and simply embrace courage. Lay claim to it—it’s yours because Jesus paid the price. Don’t worry if you don’t feel courageous—that’ll happen sooner or later. This isn’t about emotions, it’s about stepping across the border between “Afraid” and “Fearless” because fearlessness is your birthright as a child of God.

 

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(I do not like bears. At all. So to me, this is what courage looks like.)

 

 

 

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