The Effect of Being Rocked

When I was in my early 20’s, I spent two weeks in the heart of Mexico–Cuernivaca–for an immersion course as part of my graduate studies.

It was a formative trip for me in several ways. On a surface level, I had never traveled internationally with strangers before, and I realized the tremendous value of being able to walk through new experiences with people you love! On a deeper level, I treasured the slice of knowledge I gained about the culture and history of Mexico, including the long-storied relationship between them and the United States. I learned about the economic troubles, the civil unrest in its history, the seclusion and poverty of life in the rural areas, and the influence of American culture into the far corners of their land.

I remember clearly an old woman who came to speak (through a translator) to us eager-eyed grad students one evening. Although she had never been afforded the chance to pursue a formal education, this woman wowed us with her poise, her wisdom and her faith. She was a person who was not defined by her circumstances. She taught me more that evening than my professors would the entire trip.

I saw the hand of God that night, as he worked through that woman to reveal some misunderstandings I held about the world around me (however faulty and subconscious they were). I was rocked a bit. The construct of white, middle-class America came screaming down all around me. The individuals I met during that trip put faces to the suffering and injustice in our world, and they changed my mind and heart for good.

It was God’s grace that opened my eyes to my blind spots during those two weeks. I grew in understanding, compassion and love. He was in the process of changing me to be more like him.

As we look to 2020, we are experiencing many new things. We see people close to us suffering from a disease for which we don’t have access to the cure, we see neighbors struggling to make ends meet, we see acts of hatred based on skin color or profession… and it rocks us.

Let this be a good thing. Let this be a good thing that we are rocked. Let our hearts and minds be open to what the Lord wants to do in the rocking. Our world has been rocked this year, and some of the constructs we had are falling down all around us. Let us be eager to learn in this season.

What blindspots might God be revealing? What false assumptions were we unknowingly holding on to as truths? What does God want to cultivate in us?

May it be more compassion, more empathy, more understanding, and more love. Let us grow in those things to our brothers and sisters here and around the world.

“And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen.” 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13

Be the kind of _______ you want to be

It was just a quick blurb that came across the computer screen, and I only heard it by accident. My boys were finishing up a youtube video and at the end, with no explanation or reason, a voice came through the speaker saying, “Be the kind of parent you want to be.”

Uh, yeah… that seems to go without saying.

But my brain caught that trite little phrase and played it on repeat… as I was driving the car… as I was washing dishes… as I was checking my phone… as my kids played loudly in the living room. I was bothered by it.

Of course I was being the kind of parent I wanted to be, right? Right?? As I was drawn more to my phone than my kids, I wondered. As I noticed how I hadn’t really snuggled with my five-year-old all day, I cringed. As I chose the easy road over the better road, I doubted.

You see, sometimes, I forget what it takes to be the kind of [fill in the blank] person I want to be.

I need regular check-ins to reorient my character. Those typically need to come from something outside of myself—a book, a friend, a podcast. These things encourage me, “Yes, you’re on the right path!” and challenge me, “Have you ever thought about doing it THIS way?” So often I get this “character reorienting” naturally from people around me—those people I run into every week. In fact, in-the-flesh people are often the BEST way for this to happen in my life. (Left to myself, I often gravitate toward podcasts, publications and perspectives that don’t differ too much from my own.) However, I can’t control what kind of guy is in front of me at the ice cream shop, and I can’t “subscribe” to a certain type of mom that hangs out at the park after school. People are unpredictable and unpolished; they make me learn differently, think on my feet, and evaluate my own character and actions. But, hello! I am just not running into as many people these days as I used to… at least not here in CA where we are still very much under COVID restrictions.

So, it took a random voice on a youtube video to knock me back a bit and reevaluate whether my actions and my goals aligned.

Apart from that fluke youtube quote, my biggest “external reorienter” during this time has been the Creator of this world. His perspective is way different from mine, i.e. much, much bigger. As I read his words in the Bible, he challenges and encourages me. He has reminded me of my humble state before his sovereign power. He has shown me areas where I have been ignoring things he is passionate about. He has been revealing his holiness and my sinfulness.

But unlike a podcast or a youtube video or even another mom at the park, God doesn’t just leave me to reorient on my own. He shows me how. And the how ALWAYS comes back to Jesus. Because of Jesus, I do not need to prove myself to God. Jesus has given his perfectly-oriented life for my own disoriented one. It is his life in me that is my reorientation! Without Jesus, I would never be truly reoriented, living constantly aware that I am unable to be the parent/friend/spouse/daughter that I want to be. But through Jesus, my reorientation is perfected and kept permanently before God. #ohthankheaven

If you struggling to find that “outside” voice that sees the world differently than you do, will you allow God to reorient you this week? Try opening up a Bible and believing that his words are true. He loves you, and he wants to reorient you for good!

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. Romans 8:1-2

Shine Bright

On July 29, 2019, I drove my two oldest boys to their first day of school of the 4th and 2nd grades.

The week before that had been a blur. We had joyfully arrived back home from “The Great Monster Road Trip” that spanned four weeks and nine states, leaving us about seven days to unpack and clean everything before school would start. And then… my husband ended up breaking his leg the evening before the first day of school.

The first day of school looked considerably different than I had expected. My husband was in a lot of pain—so much so that I was unsure about leaving our 4-year-old son with him at home. Twenty-four hours earlier, I imagined that all five of us would go together to drop off the boys. But here it was, just me and them taking the 15-minute drive to school, still reeling quite a bit from our world being shifted right under our feet the night before.

I didn’t want them to go. I didn’t want the summer with them to end. I loved being with my children. I loved being one of the main influencers in their lives. I was feeling uneasy about my oldest starting 4th grade–it just seemed so old and independent! Was he ready? What would he face? Would 2nd grade be a struggle for my active middle child? Would he make good friends? The unknowns of my husband’s sudden disability seemed to magnify the unknowns of the coming school year.

I was worried, driving to school that day, but I was also crystal clear with my boys. I let them know how much I loved them. I let them know that I was proud of them and that I believed in them. And I let them know that my prayer for them that day and that year was that their lights would shine bright. I knew they were headed to a place where they would not be taught about God, but I reminded them that the light of God in their lives could make an impact with their friends, in their classes and in their school.

We turned up TobyMac, snapped our fingers and sang all the way until we reached the parking lot.

The boys didn’t hesitate to get out of the car and, with a quick, sweet look back at me, they re-entered the routine they knew so well.

I saw them leave my watchful eye… and worked at entrusting them to the watchful eye of God.

Months passed. My husband had surgery and lots of PT appointments. My boys went on field trips and made new friends. They learned new math concepts and improved their writing skills. They played at recess and ate at the lunch tables. My husband’s ability to walk on his own returned, and he started driving himself to work and the boys to school. More months passed and COVID hit California. All of a sudden, no one was taking the boys to school. No one was going anywhere. School would now happen on a folding table just off of our living room. I was once again the main influencer in my sons’ daily lives. While I loved the opportunity to spend so much time with them again, I grieved that they couldn’t play with their friends or learn {directly} from their teachers. But their school year ended at home, with just our family, feeling pretty distant from the school community that had served as their second home for much of the year.

On Tuesday morning, my son, Noah, got to say goodbye to his 4th grade teacher. We had a 2-hour window where we could drive through the pick-up loop and grab his last remaining items from the classroom. Our car windows had been decorated with art and words to let her know how much he loved having her for a teacher and would miss her. Her joy-filled smile could be seen despite her mask. It was such a sweet moment. And then she said some words I hope my son will never forget: “Noah, I saw the light of Jesus in you every day.” My heart swelled as I looked at my son’s beautiful brown eyes; oh, he was for sure taking this in.

As we drove away from the school, my own eyes widened as I remembered the song that I played for my boys that first day of school. There it was. In true, almost-unbelievable fashion, God had answered my prayer from that day so long ago (not only for my first-born, but also for my second-born!). I never could have known on that shaky day last July how this year would have unfolded. In the midst of that unknown, I brought the desire of my heart to the Lord, and I trusted {albeit a little timidly} that he could take care of the things that I could not see. And, amazingly enough, he did.

What is a prayer that you could be praying for the people around you right now? Do you anticipate that God can answer it? How can you let your own light shine bright in the darkness?

Are you still trying to use Training Wheels?

Tonight, my youngest son rode his bike without training wheels for the first time.

It was the plan, all along, for him to take them off on his 5th birthday. I knew he was ready, but he wasn’t so sure—he needed to wait until he was five. Today is one week before that little joy of a boy turns five. As I replaced a tube on my 7-year-old’s bike in the garage, my almost-10-year-old boy helped take the training wheels off of the bike for the almost-5-year-old boy. And just like that, before I could even look up from what I was doing, Simon was cruising up and down the street, free of hindrances, smile as wide as the sky.

I finished putting the fixed wheel back on the bike I was working on, and bolted inside to grab my phone, feeling a twinge of failure that I hadn’t captured my little boy’s first attempt at riding solo. When I got back outside, Simon was in high heaven. He was so pleased with himself, and so empowered by his new skill; he was giddy.

no training wheels

When it was finally time to come inside, Simon walked his bike up to the garage. He took off his helmet while I was putting away all the wrenches. He was expressing his joy at his new skills, and I was letting him know how proud of him I was. I took a picture of his old training wheels, then threw them in the garbage. That’s when he said to me, “And we’ll get new training wheels for the bikes I get after this one so I can get used to them.”

I love the way little kids think.

I assured him that something amazing happened that day: that once you have ridden without training wheels, you would never need them ever again.

bye bye training wheels

It was a sweet moment that reminded me… again… that my children are growing up before my very eyes. That moment has lingered with me throughout the evening, and I can’t help but think there are some gems of wisdom in there for us.

I hope I remember Simon’s joy as he turned sharp corners and went up and down slants on the sidewalk without a problem. I hope I remember how useless the training wheels looked there on the floor of my garage. I hope I remember the silly question Simon had about getting training wheels again for his next bike.

As I seek wisdom and think about applying this to my own life, I wonder what “training wheels” God is waiting to remove in my life. I wonder if I am trying to hold on to training wheels in areas where I already am capable—old aids for new things. I wonder if my actions sometimes look as ridiculous to God as the image of Simon putting training wheels on his future bikes. I wonder how often I miss out on the joy and exhilaration of riding freely the way God knows I can, only because I prefer the safety of keeping my training wheels on.

Three times today, I have heard the story of Gideon. (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an easy read in the Bible—Judges chapters 6 & 7.) Gideon was absolutely one of those individuals who did not feel ready for the task God gave to him. He was comfortable with his “training wheels,” if you will. But God spoke amazing things to Gideon, giving Gideon a glimpse into the way that God saw him. And even in the midst of uncertainty from Gideon, God took those training wheels off of him (and the Isrealite army), so that they could experience the joy of freely following the God who loved them and provided for them like nothing else.

I’m still working through the above questions for myself, although based on the stories of Gideon and others like him, I know there are areas in my life where God desires to remove training wheels I no longer need. How about you? Are trying to keep your “training wheels” on? Or have you learned to trust God’s timing as he encourages you to ride freely?

I’d love to hear your “training wheels” story around the fire today!

Down the Drain

Hey friends. It’s good to be around the campfire with you again this Thursday. I imagine that we’re closer than 6 feet apart, and that brings a little healing to my heart. I hope you snuggle in close for some warmth today.

Can I just tell you about something that happened this last week?

Now, believe it or not, the people in my house want to eat dinner every. single. night. It’s incredible, really. Recently, I decided to make this delicious Crab Pot Pie for my family. As soon as my picky four-year-old Simon got wind of what I was making, he stated, “I’m not going to eat that.” (Typical.)

I let him know that I was working hard to prepare this meal, and that I would not be making him an alternative dinner. Then I must have said something along the lines of, “You can make yourself a different dinner if you do not want pot pie, but I am not going to help you.”

My little guy got to work. He made himself a ham and cheese sandwich.
“No crust, Mom.”
“I need two more pieces of bread, Mom.”

making sandwiches

He peeled carrots. (I caved and helped him with the cutting.)
“This pot, Mom?”
“Do I put them in here, Mom?”
“Mom, is that enough water?”

peeling carrots

He gathered a yogurt tube out of the fridge, along with some applesauce and a banana and a cup for water.

He was definitely finished making his dinner before I was.

About the time he finished, our kitchen was smelling like butter and onions and creamy pot pie. All I needed to do was add the corn kernels and crab meat. I couldn’t wait to eat it. I opened up the can of crab meat I had purchased at the store. (It was one of the few cans that was still left on the shelf–thank you, corona-panic–during my last trip to the store.) I had only used imitation crab meat before, and I was a bit surprised at how the canned variety looked so different from what I was expecting. It smelled okay, so I took a leap of faith and dumped the crab contents in. Ahhh, now for the last taste test, I was thinking to myself. This baby’s almost done.

I took a bite from the big pot, and stopped mid-chew. Something is not quite right. I began adding spices and a little more corn and a little more salt, but no matter what I did, the grainy, flat taste of canned crabmeat had permeated the whole soup! There was NO WAY I could serve it to my family (and expect them to eat it).

So, I did something I have done only once before: I poured our entire dinner down the drain. All my prep work, all those yummy vegetables, all that precious milk—GONE. WASTED. It was a very hard pill for me to swallow.

dinner down the drain

Pause. Have you had to see something you’ve worked hard for slip out of your hands during the trials of this past month? Maybe the coronavirus has devastated all the good you had been working so hard on. And, like my little can of crab, it’s “ruining effect” might have a far reach. …Friend, I’m sorry you are having to go through that loss. I’m sorry for the grief and worry that have followed. I can’t fully know what that must feel like.

Here’s what I do know: I know that the Bible is true, and that the things that it tells us about God are trustworthy.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in times of trouble.” Psalm 46:1
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50:20

Back to my dinner story. Thankfully, my oven was a piping-hot 400 degrees already, and there were pizzas in our freezer. I mixed together a bagged salad, and bam! Dinner version 2.0 was on the table in less than 15 minutes.

Was it as delicious as a good pot pie? No. Would I have liked to redeem the past hour of my life? Yes. Did I like it that my four-year-old seemed to out-wit me? Definitely not, though I did find some humor in the irony…

Did we still eat? Yes. Was my family together for dinner? Yes.

Did we have everything we needed? Yes.

dinner version 2-0

If you are struggling because you are watching something precious to you go down the drain, I hope you can gain a little courage from this silly little pot pie story. Things are probably not going like you planned right now, but that does not mean that all hope is lost. God is able to work good, even when we can’t see past our grief. I trust that God can give you everything you need at this time. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll even get to laugh at your witty four year old in the process.

“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 4:19

The “Right” Path

I had the opportunity to go for a long hike last Saturday. Friends, one of the most amazing things about living east of San Francisco is the East Bay Regional Park system. I mean, just look at all these open spaces within an hour’s drive of my home! It is such a gift.

East Bay Regional Park District map

This particular Saturday, I tried out a brand new park: Briones. I had never been there before, but with my energetic dog, plenty of sunscreen and water, a few snacks and my AllTrails app, I was ready for some adventure.

Now, there were some recommended hikes I found on AllTrails, but none of them seemed quite long enough for me. I figured I would easily be able to make my own route, taking some of the less-traveled trails. My goal was to make it to the Briones Peak, which apparently had beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, hills and valleys.

After about a mile into the hike, which was mostly uphill, I made the choice to jut away from my destination, veering east and downhill instead of west and uphill. Whereas before, I had to be cautious of Spear behaving well towards the passing people and other dogs, on this new trail, I had no such concerns. We were the only ones on it. And since there are 2.5 million people who live in the East Bay, seclusion is a sweet commodity.

seclusion in briones park

Down, down, down we hiked, enjoying lovely views of Mount Diablo and the peaceful country-side around us. Once we hit the valley, the trail began finally heading west along a small creek. And it was there where I realized why this trail was so empty. 

The trail that ran along the creek was wide, yes, but you could also tell that for the last two months, this trail had been mud. Thankfully, it hadn’t rained for a while, so almost all of the mud had dried up. However, the big hoofprints of many cows had sunk most of the trail a foot and a half lower than where the path “should have been.” I wish I would have stopped to take a picture. It was not fun to try to hike through/on top of/around. Pair that with the feeling of being VERY secluded and VERY far away from anyone who could help should anything happen, I was beginning to doubt my choice of trail.

In time, the trail began to climb back up out of the valley. We actually passed another hiker. I paused on a fallen log to have a snack and give Spear some water. The forest around us was beautiful. We continued our quest to get to Briones Peak. 

tired puppy on hike

The climb was pretty strenuous, both for me and my pup, but I knew we were getting close. I saw that we had just about a mile left of a pretty straight shot to the peak. That mile took us up, up, up. And part of that climb was through a thicket so close to the trail that I could not see much besides bushes and trail. My imagination got the best of me, and I began talking loudly to my dog, taking a cue from my brother, Jon, who likes to sing  loudly “to the bears” when he hikes in Colorado. I knew there were no bears here, but I was not so sure that there were no mountain lions creeping about. My adrenaline was in full-force, and my body was getting tired from all the climbing.

Finally, we reached a clearing where two paths intersected. I was hopeful that we would see other hikers again soon. I was able to relax for a bit. I thought about just skipping the peak and heading back to the car. This restful hike was becoming more trouble than it was worth. However, I only had 0.2 miles of climbing left and I knew I wanted to make it to the top. 

And…. We made it! The views were very nice, but honestly, having the chance to sit on the park bench at the top was probably my favorite part.

Briones Peak

As I rested and refueled, I pondered which trail I needed to take back to the parking lot. There was the straight-shot one, which had elevated my blood pressure and was not-at-all enjoyable at parts. Or there was one that looped around to the west. I wasn’t sure that Spear or I had the energy to hike longer than necessary, and my experience on the secluded loop valley trail earlier had me a bit gun-shy. I asked God to show me. I had the sense that we were supposed to head west and take the longer loop.

Can I just tell you that it was my favorite part of the whole hike? The descent gradually wound around the sides of hills and through a lovely, shaded forest with abundant varieties of trees, bushes and ferns. The path was soft and smooth, and we jogged along most of it. My heart was light and filled with joy that God would give me the sense to take this trail–I was so glad he knew which one would be best for me.

easy lovely trail

As I often do on my hikes, I came back to God with the question: “Is there something I need to hear from you today?”

Two phrases popped out at me:

The shortest way is not always the best way.

The best way is not always the easiest way.

I thought about Jesus and the ways in which he was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Three different times, the devil came to Jesus and offered him a short-cut–a way to get around the hard work that the Father had set before Jesus to do. Each time, Jesus trusted the wisdom of the Father rather than the appeal of what was easier. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, toward the end of Jesus’ life, Jesus asked the Father for an easier route (and was quite capable of taking an easier route), but he was willing to do the Father’s will above all else (Matthew 26:36-56).

I was forced to stop and examine my own life and motives, and the decisions that I make day-in and day-out. So often, I prefer comfortable and safe. So often, I want what is easiest or quickest. But the Lord, in his kindness and grace, was reminding me that quick is not always best, and best is not always easy.

I became thankful for the muddy, hard-to-pass trail of the valley and for the spooky, adrenaline-pumping hard trail up the hillside. Without experiencing those hard things, I would not have sought out God’s wisdom, nor known the joy of the sweet trail down through the forest. 

So it is in our daily lives. If we do not have to walk through difficult, weary paths, then we cannot fully know the joy that comes in the beautiful, peaceful times. Our God is the God of both. We can trust him to care for our every need, no matter which path we are on. And he delights in leading us in the best path–the one that leads to him.

What kind of path do you feel like you’re on right now (muddy and challenging, or beautiful and delightful)? What might God be accomplishing in you on your journey?

Confessions of a Present-Over-Planning Person

Hi. My name is Christa, and I am most comfortable living in the present.
I don’t easily see into the future.
I have a hard time being motivated by something that is not directly in front of me.
I don’t strategize about what to do today so that tomorrow will be different.
I work best for people, not for goals.

Making goals around New Year’s is often overwhelming to the point of debilitation. Here’s what goes on in my head:
“I’m supposed to plan for what will happen in the next twelve months…52 weeks…365 days…8,760 hours?? It sounds nice, but I don’t even know what will happen this afternoon! I don’t know how needy or how independent my four year old will be. I could have two hours to work on my goal or two minutes. And if I can’t know that for this afternoon, how can I know that for the year? How am I supposed to make a goal with that kind of unknown before me?!? Anyway, do I really want to focus on some ethereal goals when I know that there are dishes to be done, a floor to be vacuumed, games of Uno to be played and books to be read to little people?”

Anyone else out there like me? My husband is not like me. My best friend is not like me. There are people out there who see goals in front of them like they are physical entities. They easily see how today’s small actions move them closer toward accomplishing the goals that they have set in their hearts. I am jealous of those people. I wish my brain could work in the present with a focus on the future, but it is not how I am wired.

yearly goals

So, should I throw in the towel on goal setting? Is the yearly act of looking ahead strategically at the coming months simply for the forward-thinkers among us? Should those of us who are people-driven and present-driven just live in who we are?

I don’t believe so. Simply because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. The hard things are often the things that are most valuable.

So, how do non-goal-oriented people make (and stick to) goals?

Let me share with you what I have learned through years of fumbling with this.

First, work with what motivates you. I am externally motivated, so I need a person who will hold goals out in front of me. Having a friend, a coach, or a mentor hold me accountable to things I want to do is vital. Five years ago, I was able to enter a coaching relationship, and I was amazed at the change I was able to see in my own life when I had someone else encouraging me to think critically and act with intentionality. If you are motivated by people, find your person. He or she is out there, I promise.

Second, set goals that are flexible. Goals that are very specific, like “run 13 miles every week,” are too static for me. This week, I might be able to do that, but next week, I might have a friend who needs to grab coffee, and I like the freedom to be able to say yes to her. I want to be able to stay true to who I am by saying yes to present needs without feeling guilty for reneging on my goals. A goal that gives me flexibility helps me to both be intentional with my time and be open to the needs that pop up on a daily basis. A running goal that works for me is “sign up for two 10K races in the next year.”

Third, write them down and find a way to keep them in front of you. Perhaps this is in a weekly meeting with your accountability person. Perhaps this is writing them down 52 times in your planner so that you see them every seven days as you turn to a new week. Perhaps this is a strategically placed Post-It note. One thing that has been helpful for me has been setting a reminder in my phone to alert me each week of the thing that I want to do.

Let me give you an example of one way I’m doing this this year. “Using my prayer journal regularly” is one thing that God has placed on my heart for the coming year. When something weighs heavily on my heart, that’s a good indicator that I should make a goal around it. Within that broader goal, I specifically want to be praying for the people I am discipling. That desire leads me to the goal of praying for them weekly. I see them on a weekly basis (which helps inform my prayers for them), and I have an alarm that reminds me to set aside time Wednesday mornings (before my kids wake up) to pray for them. If I begin struggling with following through on this goal, I can ask my husband to keep me accountable to it by asking me about it at our weekly business meeting. Before you know it, I will have spent over 1000 minutes in prayer for them by the end of the year! Pretty amazing, huh?

prayer journal

Did you see how my prayer goal was not necessarily motivated by the end product? (All the strategic goal-oriented people reading this just shuddered. And I’m ok with that.) Because product goals do not motivate me, I organized this goal around people (who do motivate me) and around present needs (like the weekly struggles they experience).

Not all of us are wired to be motivated by year-end goals, but that doesn’t mean that goal setting is only for the strategists. It’s for those of us who prefer to live in the present, too.

I invite you to press into some goal setting, even if it is hard. Bring a friend alongside you—let them know you need their help to achieve the thing that is pressed upon your heart. That thing on your heart is important. Treat it as such. God gives his people wisdom and understanding to know the things we should be doing, but there is plenty in this world that would love to distract us from doing that which is most important.

Setting (and sticking to) goals that help us do the things that God puts before us is some of the most valuable work we will do all year.

What about you? Are you goal-motivated or present-motivated? What goals have you made for 2020?

Light for the Darkness

dog by the fireI know this is supposed to be a place where we gather around a fire and share stories, but sometimes, there is no one story that really captures what we are experiencing.

These last few weeks, I have heard stories from friends of pain and struggle and suffering. These last few months, I have walked along friends who shared stories of uncertainty and fear and confusion.These last few years, I have had friends living in stories of loneliness and turmoil and grief.

And it was enough to cause this effect in me where “Holly Jolly Christmas” was missing its pep, and the lights on my neighbor’s homes shone a bit dim, and I found that festivity felt far away and funky.

I know there are many of you are out there, maybe reading this now, who know that feeling. It could be because of your own story, or a friend’s story, or maybe one of the stories of the world around you. My heart goes out to you, friend. This is not a fun place to be during the most wonderful time of the year.

What can we do? Manufactured joy is no joy at all. The farce is almost worse than just living in sadness. Where do we find a joy that is deeper than the suffering we see around us? How can we resurrect the festivity of the season in the midst of pain?

I’ll tell you a secret: we cannot do it.

But God can. I will tell you how he did for me.

WEDNESDAY: I reached out to a friend, and asked her to pray: that I would be able to share God’s love and hope to my suffering friends—without sounding trite. Because honestly, that’s how my words were sounding to my own ears.

THURSDAY: I read these verses from Scripture:

“Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—a Spirit of counsel and strength,
A Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
[…] he will judge the poor righteously
and execute justice for the oppressed of the land.” Isaiah 11:1-2, 4

“He grew up before him like a young plant
and like a root out of dry ground.
He didn’t have an impressive form
or majesty that we should look at him,
no appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.” Isaiah 53:2-3

“I, Jesus, [… ] am the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Revelation 22:16

The purpose of Jesus’ life began to come back into focus in my heart. I began to see {again} how he embraced suffering. And yet he could still say that he shines as the bright morning star. I became hungry to know how that could be true in my life, too.

Saturday: I spent a good amount of time praying–for my family, for my friends, for my church. I ran across these verses from Scripture as I prayed:

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be […] strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Colossians 1:9-14

Who needs endurance and patience except those who are suffering? And here Paul prays that they would have joy and give thanks as well. So I started praying for joy and thanksgiving even in the midst of suffering.

SUNDAY: the pastor, who also happens to be my husband, focused his sermon on Jeremiah 31:2, “Thus says the Lord: ‘The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.’” Grace in the wilderness! Like manna for the people of Israel, like an angel for Elijah, like the call of John the Baptist—God meets us in the wilderness by his grace. He meets us in our suffering with mercy and provision.

SUNDAY EVENING: I had the privilege of joining the high school youth of our church on their yearly “Elf Caroling” excursion. At our first stop, we sang “Joy to the World” to an older woman whose health problems I don’t pretend to know. All I saw was her daughter at her side, and a walker in her hands. Tears welled up in her eyes, and mine, as she sang along. I noticed that she did not have tears of sadness, though, but tears of hope. A certain hope in a certain joy. She knew her Savior had come to the world to bring her joy.


In and out of cars we piled, all twelve of us elves, dressed goofily, with red tights on {some of} our legs and bells on our hats and booties. I watched as my little boys sang along with all their might—a special bright light in their eyes. We sang to a mom who is lonely. We sang to a family that’s stretched thin, while their little kids danced at our knees. We sang to a couple who have endured a tough year. We sang to one of my friend’s families—trying their best to hang on to joy in the midst of suffering on top of suffering.

And finally, the lights on the Christmas trees shone brilliantly. The Bright Morning Star had made his way into the depths of my soul. I sung for joy. I sung with hope. I sung knowing that, no matter the suffering, the story of Emmanuel (God with Us) brings enough joy to push back the darkness.

joyful little elf

“The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.
God sent a man, John the Baptist to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. […] The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
John 1:4-7, 9

God Made Dirt…

We bought our house in October of 2010. My husband had been employed in his job as pastor for a little over a year. Our baby was five months old. After months of searching and picking our way through plenty of foreclosures, short sales, and bank-owned properties, we had finally found a home that fit our budget and fit our taste (without having to put a ton of work in before we could move in).

Over that winter, we enjoyed getting acclimated to our new home. I came up with a list of improvement projects…knowing full well that they wouldn’t happen until I got a better paying job, but dreaming nonetheless. One of the things on that list was to put grass in our back yard.


It appeared that at one time, there had been a system for watering the back, but we had no idea how to hook it up or make it work. (Growing up in the midwest did not afford us many opportunities to learn about sprinkler systems.) We were total newbies. And instead of asking for help, we just did what we knew how to do: we planted grass seed over the winter, bought a sprinkler, attached it to the hose, and watered the grass regularly. Unfortunately, our midwest system was no match for the rainless summer, and by the next fall, half of our back yard had turned into a back “patch of dirt.” I was annoyed every time our baby…now toddler… went outside to play. He couldn’t enjoy toddling or crawling through the yard, because his hands, knees, feet, and who knows what else would be instantly filthy. Well, let’s say I couldn’t enjoy it. He didn’t seem to care, honestly. I, however, was constantly worried he would put dirt in his mouth, and constantly cleaning up the dirt that seemed to walk into our house by the fistful.

I grew more and more resentful towards the dirt in our backyard. How could I contain it? What were we going to do about it? How long would I have to put up with it before a change could be made? We tried planting grass seed multiple times throughout multiple years, but there always seemed to be a section of our yard that was determined to be dirt.


Some time passed, and then I noticed how every day, when I would bring our son, Noah, home from daycare, he would play in the back yard. He was quietly moving sandy dirt around, using dump trucks, hands, shovels and whatever else was back there. Well, I thought, maybe the dirt is not such a bad thing. It seems to be a happy place for our boy.

Fast forward another couple of years. By this time, we had added another boy to our family. Number Two was the exact opposite of his older brother in just about every way, and they butted heads with each other in just about every way. But not when they were outside. And our dirt patch in the back was a place where they could play together without fighting. During this same season, I toured an open house of a home that was for sale in my friend’s neighborhood. I stepped out into the pristine backyard, and I was immediately sad for the family who would move in there. They didn’t have room in their back yard for a dirt patch.

That little five month old baby is now a tall nine year old boy. I cannot tell you how many hours he has spent outside, playing in our once-unwanted dirt patch. I can tell you that he continues to enjoy working outside in the dirt, even all these years later, and he’s modeled for his little brothers the joy of playing in dirt. We’ve had mud pies and mud castles and mud forts and mud trenches and mud reservoirs and mud towers. We’ve traded in toy dump trucks for full-sized shovels, and the boys are now working on a pulley system to carry dirt up the slide of our play structure. I even checked in with the Call-Before-You-Dig organization this past spring, because Noah wanted to see how big of a hole he could dig, and I was a little worried he might run into something.

And you know what happens just about every time the boys have friends over? They end up playing in the dirt. Every. Time. Boys, girls, preschoolers, 4th graders: they all love dirt. It gives them a chance to be creative, a chance to be dirty without getting scolded, a chance to make something and then mess it up again.

Let this be, to you and to me, a reminder to be thankful for the messy things things of this life. Take heart that even those things that drive you crazy today might just turn out to be sources of  pure joy in the future.


What is something that used to drive you crazy, but you now are thankful for?

Plenty or Few?

I am not very good at gardening. Good gardeners know about acidic levels and potassium. Good gardeners fertilize every month and water regularly. I am, what you would call, a very mediocre gardener.

Gardening is something I enjoy, though. I love sending our kitchen scraps to our compost pile (or, as my parents used to call theirs, the “compost heap.”) I love finding earthworms and giving them the great good work of turning the sandy soil of my planter boxes into something better. I love releasing ladybugs to eat the aphids that eat my crops. And I love how fresh and delicious food is straight out of the ground.

One of the best parts about gardening, though, are the surprises.  And when I say that, I mean the good surprises; the bad surprises of gardening are evil incarnate. Anyway, good surprises. Like the time I grew sweet potatoes: digging to harvest them was like a treasure hunt–where would the next one be hiding? would it be big or small? normal looking or completely funky? And like the time that my dad and I planted strawberries, and they actually grew (unlike my previous attempts at strawberries) and produced more little red bits of joy than I had ever expected.

One of my favorite surprises about gardening is the “volunteer.” I didn’t really know that this was a thing until I had a garden of my own, but often, seeds that get mixed in with compost or that drop from last year’s plants just begin sprouting up on their own.  They volunteer to grow without any planning or preparation on the gardener’s part.  One year, Romaine lettuce sprouted in one of my planters completely by accident, and we had fresh salad leaves for months! This year, my volunteer has been an enormous cherry tomato plant. It began as just a tiny sprout back in May. I had purposely planned on NOT growing any tomatoes this year, because our family had a long summer vacation planned.  But this little plant didn’t care about my plans.  And honestly, I practically ignored it. This little plant didn’t care about that either.  It just kept right on growing.

Somehow it survived our long summer trip, getting watered occasionally by a friend. (My prized strawberries? not so much.) Somehow, it kept right on growing. Somehow, it kept right on producing sweet, round, red tomatoes.  I kept right on mostly ignoring it, giving it water only when I felt really guilty for not. By September, its searching branches had become two feet tall and close to five feet wide. It gave us handfuls of delicious, ripe tomatoes anytime we wanted them. And, thanks to the long growing season in California, it still is flowering, and I’m still watching the little lycopene producers change in color from green to yellow to orange to red. It is giving BOUNTIFUL fruit!

Well, just last week, I asked my seven-year-old, Zeke, to help me get things ready for dinner by going to the backyard to harvest some tomatoes.  I gave him a Tupperware container and reminded him to pick the red ones. He gladly accepted the task.  I went on browning the taco meat, and clearing the table.  Then I realized that Zeke had not returned with his harvest.  I peeked out the sliding glass door to see him intently picking tomatoes off of the plant. A bit surprised that he had not yet been distracted from his task, I went back to cutting onions and slicing bell peppers. I had almost finished all the preparations for dinner, so I headed toward the back yard one more time.  Zeke met me at the door with this:

only a few tomatoes

He had been in the back yard for at least 10 minutes, focused on the task of picking good tomatoes, and this is what he brought in: five perfect red tomatoes. Internally, I said, “That’s it?!” Externally, I said, “Thanks so much for your help! It looks like you were really good about picking just the best ones.” Zeke quickly skipped off to something more engaging than tomatoes.

Since I’ve had the privilege of watching Zeke over the past seven years, I could guess two things about his tomato harvesting adventure.  The first: he is quite a perfectionist (and a literalist), so he searched for the tomatoes that were truly red–not a hint of orange to be found. The second: he is skittish around spiders and spiderwebs, and since there are quite a few wispy webs on our tomato plant, his options for harvesting were limited to only part of the plant.

I took the Tupperware container and headed out to the backyard. In less than 20 seconds, I was back in the kitchen, with enough tomatoes for our tacos for the night:

many more tomatoes

What a difference our perspective makes. While Zeke was focused in on just getting the very best, and with the least amount of discomfort, he was only able to see very few opportunities. Since I was focused on “very good” instead of “perfect,” and willing to have the discomfort of spiderwebbing on my fingers, I was able to see boundless opportunities. In fact, I left many, many red tomatoes on the plant that evening, for the sake of getting food into my hungry tummy sooner than later.

Oftentimes, in my life, relationships and work, I tend to be like Zeke. I disregard things that are less than perfect, or anything that has potential to make me uncomfortable. And when I have that mindset, it seems like the opportunity–the fruit ready for harvest in front of me–is very limited.

But, Jesus has been challenging me on this. When he says, “Come, follow me” to his disciples, he’s bringing them into a life that is full of opportunities–BOUNTIFUL, if you will. He has placed that same call on my life. Like Zeke in the above example, I can look through the stories in the Bible and can see people struggling with their own ideas of “perfect fruit.” Jesus almost always challenges it. One of my favorites is when the disciples return to Jesus after they had gone into town, and they find him talking to a Samaritan woman: uncomfortable because of racial and cultural tensions. She was definitely not perfect “fruit,” in their opinion. And yet Jesus shows them that “perfect” and “comfortable” are not his highest priority as he sets about his work.

How are you looking at the opportunities before you? I’m going to guess that there is at least one area of your life that is BOUNTIFUL.  Perhaps it even grew up out of nothing you planned, like a volunteer tomato plant. How are you looking at it? Are you spending lots of hours, trying to figure out which pieces are perfect and most comfortable, and only going after those parts? I challenge you today to see the bounty that lies before you, and to be willing to go after the harvest before you there, especially to the uncomfortable and the imperfect.