Life Trapped in the Cave of Social Distancing

I’ll be honest: at the beginning of social distancing I did not feel fear; instead I felt relief. You see, between shuttling two of my children back and forth to school, homeschooling the other two, and taking them to appointments, speech therapy, homeschool co-op, and extracurricular activities, I was feeling tired and ready for spring break. Even being given a reprieve from going to church felt like receiving a small vacation. Although I love our church and the community we find there, we usually spend half or more of our Sabbath away from home. Add to all of this juggling a part-time job, and my life was feeling very, very full. The truth is, I was utterly exhausted. Thus, social distancing at first felt like being granted a stay-cation.

Ironically, I have formed an entire podcast and blog around the idea of pausing and renewing. In doing so, I wasn’t striving to be a hypocrite. In fact, I know that I am preaching to myself more than anyone else. Still, it’s clear that pausing and renewing are exactly what I have been needing and not managing to attain often enough.

Many years ago, I read a book by Dannah Gresh in which she explained that King David found himself trapped in a cave many times throughout his life. Each time he found himself in a cave, there was a refining process that occurred in his life. It seemed that his “cave situations” were due to two very different scenarios. In one scenario he made bad and sinful choices that caused him to become trapped in a cave. In the other scenario, he found himself trapped in a cave due to circumstances outside of his control.

In our current life scenario, while experiencing a global pandemic, I believe all of us can find ourselves in scenario number two. Due to circumstances outside of our own control, we find ourselves trapped inside our own homes.

Enjoying the good life of our “stay-cation.”

It seems that a refining process may be at work in many of our lives; at least I am aware of it in my own life. I’ve been thinking about this cave analogy as the first week of social distancing turned into two weeks, and now three weeks. As an extrovert, pieces of my “stay-cation” are now beginning to get old. I have found myself seeking more contact with people this week via Voxer, Skype, and Messenger. I have noticed that my irritation threshold is much lower than it was in the beginning. I’ve found myself feeling bored and restless, as many of the distractions that keep me busy and hurried are taking a hiatus.

On the positive side, as social distancing continues, I am finding that I have more opportunity to choose quality time with my family. I have more time to read. I have more time to garden, go on family walks, or enjoy the peace of my goldfish pond. I also have more time to train my kids on the things that I usually brush off: cooking with them, watching their trampoline tricks, and reading a novel aloud as a family.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all “Little House on the Prairie” at my house. Having four boys at home all of the time means the noise, chaos, and aggression factor in our home is at an all-time high. Brothers love hard and fight harder. Even this however, may be a blessing in disguise. What an opportunity to model confession, reconciliation, and forgiveness! Not perfectly mind you, I have lost my cool multiple times already this week. Still, if my kids need to learn how to forgive and manage their anger, I’d rather they do it now as children than have to learn it later on in life when the stakes are higher.

I have also realized anew how much I seek stimulation from my phone. Quiet is uncomfortable for me. I would much rather browse Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter than sit alone with my thoughts. I very quickly turn on podcasts or Youtube when I have moments of downtime. I have even bought Disney+ to help keep all of us entertained and occupied for the month. While none of these pursuits are inherently bad, I am becoming more and more aware that stillness often feels like boredom to me. Quiet is uncomfortable, and it takes practice to enjoy it.

I guess what I’m saying is this: we have all been put in a refining situation, but we can choose how much we will allow ourselves to be refined. Isaiah 30:15, pictured above, is one of my favorite verses. The Lord entreats the people of Israel to come to Him. He tells them that in returning and rest they will find salvation and in quietness and trust they will find their strength.

Returning, rest, quietness, and trust, these are the attributes I want to develop during this time at home. These are attributes that, in Christ, move us away from fear, hurry, and worry, and towards renewal. I am still admittedly a work in progress on this front, but these are my personal hopes for my mandatory “stay-cation.”

Pause: Take a deep belly breath and slowly exhale. Meditate on Isaiah 30:15. What about this passage stands out to you?

Renew: What are you noticing about yourself during this time of social distancing? How has your life changed? Where do you notice you’re turning for comfort and entertainment?

Next: How can you begin to cultivate the attributes of Returning, Rest, Quietness, and Trust, during this time of social distancing? Take time to pray and journal about it.

May we allow ourselves to be refined and renewed.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Pencils and Possibilities

Pause: My son sat on the sofa, working on his school assignments. We are homebound this month, due to social distancing and the coronavirus, yet his spirits were high this morning while doing his math homework. Suddenly, he turned to me and exclaimed: “Mom, do you know what I used to think about last year when I was working on school work?”

“No, what?,” I answered slightly distracted.

“I used to imagine my pencil and all of the drawings and ideas it had stored inside it. Then, I would draw a picture and imagine how happy the pencil was that one of its ideas was now on paper.”

I couldn’t stop myself from grinning as I exclaimed, “I love that so much. That’s a really fun idea.”

“Why do you like that so much Mom?,” he responded, confused as to why I would find his thoughts so inspiring.

“I just like the way you think. That’s a happy thought.”

Renew: My little out-of-the-box thinker teaches me a lot about the world. How to run full-speed ahead full of joy without the weight of worry dragging him down. How to look at a situation from a new angle. How to capitalize on imagination. How to include everyone, not just your favorite people. How to care for the least of these, especially animals.

I absolutely love his pencil idea and feel it has much to teach us.

What do you think your pencil holds?

Maybe it is full of all of the gifts and talents you have to share with the world. What if, like the pencil, when you use one of your gifts for God’s glory, He smiles, happy that you shared it with others.

Maybe your pencil is filled with all of the memories you are making with your loved ones. Each moment in our homes, even under social distancing restrictions, is an opportunity to cultivate family bonds and experiences together. Sure, not every moment of quarantined life among family is going to be ideal, but it will certainly be memorable!

Life really is like that pencil. Our lives are filled up with potential experiences and memories. Each time one is written down in the annals of time, more are just waiting to be released.

Next: What will you draw today?

Worry: Friend or Foe?

Can worry ever be helpful? My guess is that your instinctive response is to roll your eyes and say no. To be honest, worry has a pretty bad reputation, and for good reason. Worry often looks like endless negative ruminations. It can look like catastrophizing the future. It can lead us to unnecessary fear. It can get us stuck in endless thought loops, like a car spinning its tires in the mud but going nowhere.

I often find, though, that worry can be broken into two categories: helpful and unhelpful. Helpful worries are those that bring an important thought into our consciousness: something that needs to be dealt with and not avoided. For instance, if I anxiously remember that I’ve forgotten to tell my husband to pick up my son from school, that would be a helpful worry. It’s something that needs to be dealt with, and for which a plan needs to be made. It is not something I should avoid, though the situation may be creating anxiety inside of me. Another example might look like worrying about a confrontation or a hard conversation with someone that I love. This worry can be helpful, because the discomfort of my anxiety may be compelling me towards reconciliation in my relationship.

Helpful worries drive us to think about and make plans for dealing with the hard and uncomfortable parts of life.

On the other hand, unhelpful worries are thoughts about the future over which you have no control. Worrying about how your plane might crash, how you might have cancer in the future, or how long it will take the next virus epidemic to reach your neighborhood definitely classify as unhelpful worries. These thoughts lead to unneeded anxiety and cause our brains and bodies to react negatively. I’m certain that these sorts of worries are what Christ talks about in Matthew 6 when he warns us not to worry about what will come tomorrow.

This image of Matthew 6:34 is taken from the YouVersion Bible app.

Many years ago, when I was still only a mother of two children rather than four, our family moved to a new house. It was a dream come true for our family, as it provided more space, it was closer to family, it had a huge yard in which my children could play, and it came complete with a tiny goldfish pond made from a recycled old church baptismal. Therein began my worry.

Before we had even moved in, I woke up in the middle of the night, heart pounding from a nightmare about the pond. In my dream, my oldest child toddled into the pond (which looked substantially larger in my dream) and drowned. When I awoke, the dread began. I talked it over with my husband, and we came up with many rules for the pond.

  1. Do not play next to the pond.
  2. Do not stand next to the pond or feed the fish unless Mommy or Daddy are with you.
  3. Do not get in the pond.
  4. Do not bend over the pond looking at the fish.

After a few months went by and no incidents occurred, my anxiety decreased. In fact, the only problem we ever seemed to have was with our wild and fearless second-born, who always, even to this day, acts before he thinks. He lives to experience the world with all of his senses. Many times we found him leaning over, touching the water. Still, two years passed after we moved in, and no real incidents occurred.

One day I returned home from work, and my five year old came running out of the house to tell me about his day. With exuberance, he told me how while Daddy had been looking elsewhere, his little brother had fallen in the pond. Quick as a wink, he ran screaming to tell his Dad, who ran over and pulled our little guy out soaking and squirming. No harm had been done, but he was definitely frightened. In fact, he didn’t try to play in the pond again for quite some time. Sometimes experience teaches better than warnings…

However, the scare definitely increased our plans to better secure the pond. At this point, my worry could have taken a turn towards unhealthy fear and endless ruminations. Instead, it spurred me to action. Our children were soon put in swimming lessons after that incident. In fact, for years afterwards, the pond was filled in while we pursued our foster and adoption license due to license restrictions about water around our home. More importantly, I came away from that incident knowing that even when I wasn’t there to protect my children, God was watching over them. As children of the Most High, we are promised that He watches over us and protects us. As I John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Our goldfish pond

Pause: Find a few quiet moments and reflect on Matthew 6:25-34. What stands out to you about anxiety and worry? How does this relate to your own life?

Renew: In thinking about your own list of current worries, which would you classify as helpful, and which feel most unhelpful? Why?

Next: This week, as you find yourself worrying, quickly decide if that worry is a helpful or unhelpful thought. If it could be helpful to make a plan regarding that worry, go for it! Then, give your worries to God, journal about them, talk to a trusted friend or counselor, and try to shift your thinking.

May we live in peace, free from the worries that drag us towards unhealthy fear.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Rupture and Repair

I will never forget that moment.

My two year old son stared at me, stricken. I don’t remember the events that led up to the moment, although I’m sure it had something to do with being an exhausted mom of two small boys. There was probably a meltdown or two involved. What I do remember is that I yelled, loudly, in response to the misbehavior of my incredibly sweet and wild toddler. The toddler who now stood looking at me as if I was a monster.

His shocked face crumpled, and he began to sob. “You scared me, Mommy!,” he wailed. The truth was, I had scared myself too! I had not been prepared for the stress and strains of emotion that parenting would require. Growing up with a sister, I felt ill-equipped for the physicality and noise level that little boys brought into our home. I had not set out to be a yelling Mom. How could I love someone so much that I would give my life for them and be boiling angry with them at the same time?

This is the perplexity of motherhood.

My sweet boy with the bright blue eyes

As my son sobbed, he ran towards me, seeking comfort. I knelt down, scooped him up, and hugged him for all I was worth. “I’m sorry buddy,” I crooned. “Mommy should not have yelled that way. I didn’t mean to scare you.” I patted his back and rocked him back and forth. Soon, he hiccuped a few last sobs and, feeling secure and safe again, ran off to play.

Just like that, our ruptured relationship was repaired.

Relationships are hard, and we often make mistakes along the way. In fact, ruptures in our relationships are inevitable. Sometimes these ruptures occur because we intentionally make poor choices. Sometimes they occur due to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Sometimes they occur because of plain old sin.

I’ve heard it said that parents get it right about 50% of the time. This dismal success rate, however, does not mean that you can’t be a successful parent. You don’t have to be a perfect parent or spouse to provide a secure attachment. You just have to be a “good enough” parent or spouse. Relationships can survive and thrive even after ruptures. Sometimes they even come out stronger.

It’s the repair work that makes all the difference.

When you know that a rupture has occurred in a relationship: a hurt, a slight, a sin, or a miscommunication, it is important to go back and make it right. Sometimes this looks like an apology, and sometimes it looks like correcting a misunderstanding. Sometimes it looks like showing support verbally, and sometimes it looks like a hug. Whatever it looks like, the message is clear: “You matter to me, and our relationship matters to me.” This repair work creates safety, trust, and intimacy.

Repair work is the message of the gospel. Christ came to bridge the gap of our sin and do the repair work for us, so that we would be united with our Father. In Him, we can experience the felt safety we so desire.

Pause: Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Read the above verse and consider how confessing our sins and praying for one another helps to repair relationships.

Renew: Think about your own relationships. What repair work have you recently experienced? Is there currently a relationship in which some repair work is needed? What might this look like?

Next: If you’d like to learn more about rupture and repair, watch this video of Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child, discussing repair work in parenting.

May we revel in the forgiveness and second chances that repair work provides for us.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Regulation, Integration, and Soul Care

It was on the third day of an 8-day overseas mission trip that I found myself losing patience. I managed to make it through the jet lag of a six-hour time difference, the money exchange, a broken-down van, meeting new people in a new culture, and beginning the ministry portion of our trip, before my overwhelming exhaustion made itself evident in my behavior. I found myself feeling irritable, overly critical, easily offended, and misunderstood. I reacted to issues that I normally would have let slide. I responded in anger to well-meaning family members.

Jet lag, excitement, and travel adventures…

As my sister-in-law and I were getting ready for bed later that night, I mused, “Wow, today was not great. I got into two arguments today, and I just cannot believe I said those things.” She nodded, agreeing that she had noticed my attitude, and asked, “Are you talking about what you said to Nathan earlier?”

“No,” I laughed, flabbergasted at myself, “I wasn’t even counting that whole thing. Make that three arguments.” Clearly, it was time for me to go to bed and start a new day.

By the time I woke up the next morning, life seemed more manageable again.

That’s what exhaustion does to us. It takes us to a place where we no longer feel regulated and integrated. We begin to feel dysregulated and disintegrated: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and even relationally.

  • Dysregulation: abnormality or impairment in the regulation of a metabolic, physiological, or psychological process.
  • Disintegration: the process of losing cohesion or strength; the process of coming to pieces.

We are not just spiritual beings, or relational beings, or physical beings, or emotional beings, or thinking beings. We are souls, comprised of all of these layers. When one of these areas becomes disintegrated, it tends to affect the other layers as well. For example, if my body is depleted of energy, then my emotions and relationships are affected by the exhaustion as well.

Dallas Willard’s model of the soul

Dallas Willard, author of Renovation of the Heart, developed a holistic model of the soul as being comprised of all the layers of the self. In other words, we are created as integrated beings, a sum of all of our parts. All of these layers affect the others. For instance, if I have a headache, it is my body affected by pain, but I will find myself with less emotional, spiritual, and relational bandwidth as my physical pain takes the majority of my focus.

If I am disintegrated relationally, due to a conflict or abuse, I will probably find that not only my relationship is affected, but my mind is also affected by feelings and thoughts about the hurt I’ve experienced. My body may also be affected, as I find myself crying, or holding muscle tension from the stress of the conflict.

Often in Christian circles, we talk about spirituality as if it is separate from the other three layers. As if bodily issues, or our thoughts/emotions, or our relationships are separate from our spirits. Yet, the Lord created us as physical beings. Jesus was born into a physical world where he suffered physical hurts, he experienced human relationships, and he had thoughts and emotions. Even our new lives in heaven will be lived in glorified bodies. There, we will still be physical. We will eat. We will love. However, in our glorified bodies, we will be fully integrated, with no sin, pain, physical or emotional exhaustion left to disintegrate us.

For now though, in these real, physical bodies that we are blessed to live in, we need to give ourselves and others grace. It is easy to become depleted and disintegrated. We must give ourselves permission to pause and rest, allowing ourselves to renew and recharge. And of course, we can always seek forgiveness for hardships and misunderstandings that were caused when we were feeling dysregulated. Soul care requires caring for the whole self: relationships, body, mind, and spirit.

Pause: Take a deep breath and slowly exhale. Quiet your mind and your heart; then meditate on the verse above, Psalm 107:9.

Renew: As you read this verse, contemplate how the Lord satisfies your longing soul and fills your hungry soul with good things. How does He provide for you in each of the following areas: in your relationships, in your body, in your mind (thoughts and emotions), and in your spirit?

Next: If you have found yourself feeling disintegrated lately, take time to think about which layers of your soul feel affected. Try to enact one form of soul care this week and give yourself the grace and rest you need as you work towards feeling more integrated again.

May your longing soul be filled with the good things God provides… …even rest.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Following Me

Many moons ago, at the beginning of my marriage and before I had children, I found myself with too much time on my hands. Given my current life situation, having too much time seems like a foreign concept. At that time, however, while my husband was at work, I had many lonely hours to fill each day. One of my favorite ways to pass the hours was to visit the park near our home and stroll the walking trail there.

Sometimes I would visit the park by myself, listening to the radio as I walked. On days that I felt up to the adventure, I would take my black lab-mix puppy, Todd, with me to walk the trail. He was always filled with pent-up energy and excitement, and without exception he would end up pulling me around the trail. It was not uncommon to be stopped by a passerby who would jokingly ask, “Are you walking him, or is he walking you?”

Sometimes, on weekends, my husband would join us for walks at the park. One Saturday morning, as we were loading our dog into the car, unexpectedly our cat, Squeedunk, jumped into the car too. Now, most logical cat owners would have lovingly taken their cat back out of the car, knowing that cats are not designed for strolls at the park. We were not those cat owners. Young, naive, and curious, we decided to take him with us and see what would happen.

When we got to the park, Todd jumped out of the vehicle, and my husband quickly put a leash around his neck, preparing him for our walk. Squeedunk jumped out of the vehicle too. We did not put a leash around his neck. As my curiosity was replaced by anxiety, I reassured myself that we only lived a mile from the park. Surely, if we lost our cat, he would find his way back home.

We began our walk and slowly, trailing us by 20 feet, our cat began strolling as well. Todd, our dog, pulled us excitedly down the trail, sniffing all of the smells and chasing passing squirrels. As we walked, my husband and I took turns sneaking peaks behind us. Steadily, in his own time, Squeedunk sauntered down the trail behind us. Just as one would expect, he stalked us in feline fashion, trailing nonchalantly, looking like he had other things he could be doing. He continued to follow us for the entire mile-long walking trail.

As we returned to the parking lot, Squeedunk walked over to us and allowed me to pick him up and put him back in the car for the ride home. It was an interesting experience to say the least. We never pressed our luck by trying it a second time.

What if goodness and mercy follow us in a similarly unexpected way? The lyricist David, ends Psalm 23, promising:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23:6 ESV

Following me. All the days of my life. How often do we pay attention to the way that the Lord’s goodness and mercy are following us? Is it easy for you to see the evidence of it?

I think there are seasons where the goodness and mercy in my life seem so evident that rather than casually following me, it feels they are hunting me down. Then, other times, like my cat, they seem to be trailing far behind. I find myself wondering if they are even still there. I can’t always see their evidence in the moment. Still, as I look back, almost always in hindsight, I find they have been there all along.

Sometimes goodness and mercy come in the form of tangible blessings, like money I wasn’t expecting. Sometimes they come in the form of protection, like a near-missed collision on the highway. Sometimes they arrive in the form of an opportunity, like a job or a calling. Sometimes, they show up as simply as my son’s hug and kiss at bedtime.

Regardless of how they arrive, goodness and mercy always come as love and provision from a God who infinitely cares for us all the days of our lives. What surprises of goodness and mercy are trailing you today?

Pause: Inhale and slowly exhale. Take a moment to quiet your mind. Slowly read Psalm 23 through once or twice. What stands out to you in this passage?

Renew: Take time to meditate or journal about how you have seen God’s goodness and mercy following you. Write down the large and the small ways you find evidence for goodness and mercy in your life.

Next: Keep your eyes open this week for ways that you see goodness and mercy. What you pay attention to changes your focus. As you pay attention to finding goodness and mercy, you will no doubt find them.

May we have joy on the adventure of life, knowing that goodness and mercy are following after us.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Fighting Words

Wherever you go, in restaurants, stores, even gas stations, there are background tracks playing. Like elevator music that fades into the periphery of conversation and the din of customers, the songs go mostly unnoticed. Then, a favorite song comes on, and suddenly you are aware that there has been music all along. Our thoughts play in much the same way. All day, every day, we are forming an inner script, creating the narrative of our lives inside the confines of our minds.

Our thoughts are the hidden tracks of our lives.
Photo by Skylar Sahakian on Unsplash

Most of the time, we remain blissfully unaware of our thought content. Still, if we considered our thoughts to be like an album playing in the background of our lives, upon turning up the volume, what track would you hear playing in your mind? Some common refrains I hear in my counseling office sound like:

  • I am never enough.
  • What if I fail?
  • What do others think of me?
  • I hate my body.

The list can go on and on. Each of our minds have specific, go-to, negative tracks that our brains like to play when we feel tired, weak, hurt, discouraged, or lonely. The amazing fact about our mind is that all day, as we think and act, we are wiring and rewiring our brains. The neuronal pathways that “fire” together in our brains also “wire” together. This means that, as we continue to think the same negative thoughts, we are making super pathways for those thoughts in our brains. On the other hand, as we change our thinking patterns, our brains are capable of making new pathways. It’s a completely phenomenal design by our Creator who is in the business of redemption. That is the good news.

The bad news is this: it takes a lot of work. A LOT of work. First, we must become aware of our thought lives. Paying attention to our thinking, or “metathinking,” does not come naturally. It feels strange at first. The process of beginning to change those negative thoughts once we are aware of them is even more difficult. After all, if we truly believe the negative scripts playing in our minds, then with what ammunition are we going to fight them?

Ellie Holcomb has a song, Fighting Words, that I absolutely love. In one short, fun-loving song, she sums up the work of fighting negative thoughts by speaking truth to them. As we begin to challenge the thoughts, rather than believe them every time they present themselves, change begins to occur.

A few years ago, I heard a pastor on the radio teaching about taking our thoughts captive to obey Christ (II Corinthians 10:5). He advocated that the imagery of taking a captive is the language of war. It doesn’t mean gently reprimanding a wayward thought. It means forcefully taking it to the dungeon and chaining it up. We are taking thoughts prisoner. We are reminding ourselves of the truth of Scripture, even when we are not yet able to believe it. Even when we don’t yet feel it.

The “fighting words” we use to speak back to the negative and untrue thoughts playing in the stereo of our minds help us incrementally build new pathways in our brains. Each small success has an impact on our spirit and brain. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Even attempts to challenge old thinking patterns begin to disrupt old neuronal pathways. That, friends, is the beauty of neuroplasticity and a God who loves to redeem and make all things new.

Photo by Skylar Sahakian on Unsplash

Pause: Take a moment to still your body and calm your brain. Slowly breathe in and slowly exhale. Read Romans 12:2 and meditate on the idea of being renewed by the transforming of your mind. What does this mean to you? What could this mean about your thought life?

Renew: As you have time, list some of the negative thoughts that plague you consistently. Begin to write down true statements that you can use to combat those thoughts when they come. Find Scripture passages that directly relate to those thoughts and use them as your “fighting words.”

Next: This is hard work. Give yourself grace for even trying. Healing is never linear, and neither is change. It takes time and practice. Thankfully, you have a whole lifetime to keep practicing. Choose one thought that you want to start fighting this week and begin the warfare!

May we know and accept Grace and Truth as we change the music of our thought-lives.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Look Mom, It’s Christmas!

With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, my youngest son excitedly pleaded with me to come to his room. “It’s decorated for Christmas!,” he exclaimed. He had been busily working on something for the 10 minutes prior, but like the distracted and multi-tasking Mom I am, I had not stopped to see what he was doing.

As I walked into his room, he proudly pointed at the top of his dresser. “Look, it’s for Christmas!,” he proclaimed. His dresser had been transformed by Christmas decorations, and it looked surprisingly good! I then realized that his decorations looked awfully familiar. He had carefully removed each piece from the living room bookshelf and painstakingly placed each one on the top of his dresser.

I looked at his face, and the pride was so evident. He had done his best to decorate. This had been his grand idea, and he had pulled it off. “Wasn’t I so happy?,” he seemed to be asking. How would I respond?

“It looks great, buddy! You did such a good job,” I told him.

Little did I know, this was the only encouragement he needed to continue his decorating escapades. The following day, as I unloaded groceries from our van, he disappeared again. Before I had finished unpacking groceries, he ran into the kitchen to find me. “Mom, come to my room,” he said and grabbed my hand. “What is it?,” I asked, trying to finish in the kitchen. “Come see my Christmas decorations,” he insisted.

I followed him down the hall and into his room, where he excitedly pointed to his dresser. There, next to the decorations he had previously taken from the living room, he had placed two more Christmas knick-knacks that he had confiscated from the entryway. These decorations had been hanging higher up on the wall, and I wondered how he had reached them.

“Um, those things are mine. I want you to leave those where I had them,” I gently responded. ” You need to ask before you take other people’s things.”

Crestfallen, he begged me to leave his new-found treasures. “I want them in my room!,” he insisted. I responded, “No those are my things, but I will give you something else you can put up in your room.” Easily persuaded, he wanted to see what else I had. I pulled a Christmas card off the counter and told him he could hang it up in his room. With his new treasure, he ran off happily to find the tape.

Within minutes, he was back in the kitchen stuffing paper into the garbage can. “What are you putting in the trash?,” I asked. As I got closer, I could see with dismay that, in order to hang up his card, he had taken down a poster his older brother had hung in the room they share. Before asking anyone, he had crumpled it up and stuffed it in the trash.

Losing my patience, and feeling sympathy for my older son, I explained that he could not take other people’s things. I told him that, because he shared a room, he had to ask his older brother before taking his older brother’s things down. At this point, feeling ashamed, my little guy burst into tears. As I hugged and rocked him, he told me that he just wanted everything in his room for Christmas.

Having four boys means that I find some interesting decorations in our home…

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Christmas is a time to celebrate our Savior, Emmanuel. He came to save us. All of us. There is enough of Him to share. Yet, like my son, we often find ourselves trying to hoard resources to ourselves at Christmas.

My son wanted to keep all of the decorations for himself, enjoying his own private Christmas. I have found myself feeling less than generous this month as well, with both my time and my finances. The more I feel overextended, the more I draw inward, finding myself guarding my time and resources. My guess is we can all relate to some aspect of this story.

The last two Advent candles symbolize joy and love. Jesus coming to save humanity is the manifestation of both joy and love. He came as an infant and grew up with the poor. He fashioned wood with his hands. He walked dusty roads and desert places in sandals. He had dirty feet and worn hands. He formed the universe with His words, yet had the patience to carefully disciple twelve ragamuffin men for 3 years. He did not keep his joy, love, or resources to himself. Not even his own life. There was and still is enough of Him to share.

Now, I am the first to preach boundaries, because all of us have limited time and resources to give. We certainly cannot give what we don’t have. However, as believers, we’ve been given a Messiah who loves in a way that multiplies and never runs out. In I John we are reminded that as an outpouring of the love He’s shown to us, we will love others. What could celebrating the love and joy of our Savior look like for you this Christmas?

Pause: Take a moment to rest and still your mind. Listen to and meditate on the song, We are the Reason, by Avalon. What are your reflections as you think about Christ’s love for you?

Renew: In what ways have you found yourself guarding your time and resources or overextending yourself this Advent season? Spend some time reflecting on what you want to prioritize this week.

Next: Think of one way you can show love to someone in your life this week and intentionally look for moments of joy.

May you experience the love and joy of our Savior.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Peace Like a River

Recently my youngest son swapped out his favorite nightly song list. As I tuck him in each night, I sing him three songs of his choosing. The B-I-B-L-E and He’s God the Whole World in His Hands used to be among his favorites, but I suppose recently he has grown tired of them. Suddenly, this month, he requested some new tunes. His updated nightly list includes the “Where?” song (aka Down in My Heart), Jesus in the Boat, and he now ends his personal playlist with “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.” This child clearly has a Mama who was raised in the 80’s!

Peace like a river. Are rivers peaceful? Some are peaceful like a lazy river, but others flow like an untamed torrent, creating rapids and crashing waterfalls. Still, Isaiah writes about Jerusalem this way:

For this is what the LORD says:

“I will extend peace to her like a river and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;”

Isaiah 66:12a NIV

God promises to bring peace to Jersualem like a flowing river. I love this quote by Beth Moore about peace: “God’s peace is like a river, not a pond. It is not stagnant. It is not confined. It moves. It forges tributaries. It breaks in. Brings life.”

God’s peace breaks into our lives like an undeserved gift of grace. In fact, when announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, the angels sang not just about joy coming to the world, but also peace:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Luke 2: 13 – 14 NIV

Peace to those on whom his favor rests.

On this second week of the Advent season, as we consider the candle of peace, let’s look more deeply at the meaning of peace. The noun “peace” can have two different definitions:

  • freedom from disturbance; tranquility
  • a state or period in which there is no war or a war has ended

Often when I consider peace, I think of the first definition and dream of blissful tranquility. (Mom-life has me dreaming of this form of peace often!) I believe that most people in our culture would define peace as a lack of anxiety, a moment of calm, or an internal centeredness. Although as believers we do have moments of this kind of tranquility, I’m not sure the Christian life is meant to be lived free from disturbance.

So, the second definition may also deserve our attention. Peace can also be a “state in which a war has ended.” Perhaps, when the angels sang of peace, they were not just promising tranquility, but also declaring that the war would soon be over.

The angels’ declaration of peace was not to everyone. It was only to those “on whom his favor rests.” In other words, those who believe in the Son. For the children of God, there is no more war between life and death. No more wrath between God and man. No more debt to be paid. When Jesus came, He paid the price for our sin and gave us access to the Father God. We have been given the gift of peace.

Photo by twinsfisch on Unsplash

Life may not always be tranquil on the outside, but our war is over. We are at peace with God. He is doing a new thing, moving in our lives, making tributaries, and bringing life. He carries us through grief, fear, and suffering, and promises a peace that passes all understanding. (Phillipians 4:7)

That kind of peace, friends, is a beautiful Christmas gift indeed.

Pause: If you have a few moments, practice praying a centering prayer based off of the angels’ proclamation. Inhale slowly and say, “Glory to God.” Exhale slowly, and say, “Peace on Earth.” Repeat 5-7 times. If you want to enjoy a song about peace, listen to Casting Crown’s rendition of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Renew: Take some time to meditate on or journal about how Christ, the Prince of Peace, brought peace to us. How is His peace flowing and bringing new life?

Next: Thank the Lord this week for His gift of peace to you. Keep your eyes open for examples of peace in your life.

May the Prince of Peace forge rivers and tributaries of peace in your life.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Almost There

Advent brings with it the anticipation of a celebration. The word “advent” means: “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” I did not grow up in a church that celebrated Advent or lit candles, so I am later in coming around to the traditions surrounding it. For those of you who may also wonder about the celebration of Advent, the season is ushered in the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and with it begins a spiritual countdown of sorts to Christmas Day: the arrival of Christ.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It is fitting, with the anticipation of Christ’s coming, that the Advent candle lit on the first Sunday of December symbolizes hope. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Israelite people had been waiting a L-O-N-G time for the Messiah to come. They had long carried hope for what had been promised to them by the prophets. Seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah wrote:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9: 6-7 ESV

700 years! That is a long time to wait for a promise. One generation passed their hope on to the next, verbally telling and retelling the old stories and prophecies. Generations died, and new ones were formed, and still they waited. Finally, the beginnings of change arrived in the form of small miracles foretelling the Messiah’s arrival:

  • The angel Gabriel appears (Luke 1:19, & 1:28)
  • A priest mysteriously goes mute (Luke 1:20)
  • A barren woman is suddenly with child (Luke 1:24)
  • A small baby leaps in the womb (Luke 1:41)
  • Angels are found singing in the sky (Luke 2:13)

These miracles were not broadly publicized. Most Israelites had no idea they had even occurred. After hundreds of years of waiting, baby Jesus arrived with little fanfare or celebration.

The chosen Messiah certainly did not come in the way that the Jewish people had expected. They had been waiting in hope for a Savior who, as Isaiah had prophesied, would come and set up his own government. They were living under Roman rule and felt oppressed. They wanted a strong leader to come and save them, not an innocent babe arriving practically unannounced. Their vision was too small. They wanted to be rid of Roman rule, and God had bigger plans. Jesus didn’t rid the Jews of Roman rule. Instead, He banished sin and death itself, providing salvation for all people. God’s ways of delivering on His promises often look very different from our expectations.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Advent is a time of reflecting on Christ’s arrival 2,000 years ago, but did you know that Advent also continues in the present? We are not just celebrating a past event, we are anticipating what is to come! Jesus has promised he is coming back again, and we can fervently await his coming. The hope of Advent continues today!

As I write about Advent this Christmas season, I want to make the experience multi-sensory. Advent is a time for meditation and worship, and using more of our senses enriches that experience. For this reason, I will be including a song in each Advent blog post that parallels with the week’s topic. Almost There, written by Michael W. Smith and sung by Amy Grant, is a beautiful song all about waiting in hope. Enjoy!

Pause: Take a moment to still and quiet your mind. Listen to the song above, then read Isaiah 9: 1-7. Allow yourself to slow down enough to really meditate on the words.

Renew: What are you waiting for this Christmas season? What does Hope mean to you this Advent? Take time to think, pray, or journal about how Christ’s coming has changed the world and how it has changed you.

Next: In the busyness of the Christmas season, it is sometimes difficult to focus on Christ. Think of ways that you can live out Hope this Christmas season. Maybe it will be in the form of beginning an Advent tradition with your family or perhaps in loving a neighbor who is grieving and has lost their own hope this Christmas. Pray and use your imagination!

May you be filled with Hope this Advent season.

Pause, Renew, Next!