Friday, December 2, 2016

Making Christmas Traditions Count

I have always loved the Christmas season…the lights, the decorations, the music, the smell of Christmas cookies baking in the oven. I love watching the kids decorate our tree with ornaments from their baby-hood. With Bing Crosby singing in the background, it’s a picture-perfect image from a Norman Rockwell painting.

However, the last couple Christmas seasons have brought an unsettled feeling to my heart. Sometimes the obligatory gift-giving is overwhelming. I don’t mean to sound Scrooge-y, but the sheer volume we are expected to give takes the fun out of giving. Then there are the crazy schedules. My husband’s job requires many weeks of long hours at the holidays. While holding down the “fort” on my own, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the daily necessities, not to mention all the fun stuff that I am “supposed” to do with our kids.

Earlier this week, I wrote on my personal blog about the importance of Christmas traditions. Or rather, how relatively unimportant they should be when compared to the good of others. I explored how Paul presents the concept of balancing knowledge and freedom with sacrificial love for others.

In a nutshell, we must follow the example of Christ and lay aside our “rights” in order to lovingly serve others.

"Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross." --Philippians 2:3-8 NLT

Now, let’s apply this to Christmas traditions. This will not be a legalistic bunch of rules to make you feel inadequate. Rather, it will be freeing and empowering. In re-evaluating our own family traditions, I have been able to drop the burden of guilt for not creating a Pinterest-worthy Christmas experience.

Who benefits from this Christmas tradition?

The kids are the biggest beneficiaries of Christmas trees. The neighbors are the main ones who enjoy outdoor decorations. The down-and-out benefit from our holiday donations.

What is the benefit of this Christmas tradition?

Prayerful, heartfelt readings of Advent stories may have a long-lasting spiritual effect on our children. Singing Christmas carols solidifies the message of Jesus’s birth in our hearts. Baking cookies for the neighbors creates goodwill and fosters friendships. Buying another toy for the school gift exchange just depletes our wallets by $5 and puts more “stuff” in my child’s overcrowded toy box. Decorating the house gives a feel-good, nostalgic atmosphere for the making memories.

What Christmas traditions are most important to me? Why?

This one requires a priority evaluation. No two Christians will have the same list. That’s OK. God made us all different. If, for example, your top priority is discipleship, then Scripture reading will have greater importance than toys. If nostalgia is high on your priority list, then the lights and greenery may play a big role in your celebration.

What Christmas traditions have the fewest long-term results?

Again, this is a personal. There are no right answers for every person. For me, Christmas cookies create a lot of work, they are gone in a few days, and they add inches to my waist. They obviously don’t carry the personal satisfaction that decorating the Christmas tree does. Same amount of work. One stays up for a month. The other is devoured within days.

Or maybe a tradition is empowering for one, but draining for another. My husband hates listening to Christmas carols. I adore them. Do I love him enough to reserve them for when he is gone? Will I force my “freedom” on him at the expense of our relationship?

What Christmas traditions can I discard to make room for the most important ones?

Here comes the freedom!! We have limited resources of time, money, and energy. Give yourself permission to discard the energy-draining traditions that have only short-term effects. Save your energy for the long-lasting memories and impressions. This will look different for each family, each person.

Some of you might trim the gift-giving. Others might increase their giving. Certain ones might leave behind the Christmas cookies. Others might add a trip to the homeless shelter.

Here’s the take-away:

  • Love others more than you love your traditions.
  • Prioritize peace and love over the Norman Rockwell Christmas experience.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Questioning Goodness

I don't know about you, though often when I'm asked a question or start my mind thinking on a topic, my brain goes a thousand different directions all at once or within nano-seconds of the initial processing point. As was the case when I was listening to a discussion about how and when we began questioning God's command. Very quickly the root of the problem was brought back thousands of years to Adam and Eve in the garden. How God had given them a perfect and beautiful home. How they were companions designed to complement and complete each other in relationship with God. And then how the day came when the enemy approached Eve in the form of a serpent and through the seeds of doubt he planted; made room for Eve to question God's leading.

I can imagine her thinking for the first time, "I thought the Creator was loving…though now, I think He's hiding something good from us." With every passing moment the doubt grew in her mind and her thinking quickly got tainted from the insertion of that toxic belief.

If Eve was anything like me (which in this moment I venture to guess she was), that seed of doubt set off a cascade of questions and wrong thinking and eventually poor decisions that resulted from that thinking.

Trust in the character of God was compromised. Marred beyond that which would be able to be recovered or repaired in her lifetime…

(Wow--thank God for Jesus, just sayin!)

What's even more mind blowing is that this all happened in the garden! No one had ever abused, neglected or taken advantage of Eve. So, if the question of the goodness of God was corrupted in the beauty of the garden…how much easier is it for us to take our eyes off of God's grand and perfect love in the world we live in today-one filled with deceit, brokenness and depravity…?

All too often things that happen in my daily life cause me to take my eyes off of God and his goodness and I find myself wondering if God indeed has my best in mind. Especially, if in my own mind, I have already decided what would be the best outcome in a situation or I have gone straight to sitting in a place of fear.

These are the times I need to begin with reminding myself of the truth which today starts with repeating Psalm 136:1.

Psalm 136:1 "Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever."

Psalm 94:19 "When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy."

2 Corinthians 1:3 "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort"

As I remind myself of the truth of who God is and what He says is true, it changes the way that I see things around me. I may still be surrounded by the same situation and feelings; however I get to sit in a place of seeing Him. I get to see the light of truth when I'm walking in a cave of darkness. I can move steadily toward that place of seeing right when the shadows of problems that feel too big for me threaten to overwhelm me. It's then when I lift my eyes and can adjust to focus on the brightness of the good and right that I journey toward…and with my eyes back on the beautiful presence of my King, I can rise above the troubles that surround me and know that God has me.

Those times when I find myself returning to a place of distrust and questioning, when I find myself in need of remembering truth-I am utterly thankful that there's a path I can take which leads me to the serenity of right believing.

Thank you, Father God, for giving me right perspective when I find myself looking at weeds of doubt. Thank you that you are good and no matter what I do or the choices I make-Your love endures forever. Thank you that Your word comforts me and that I get to find my grounding in Your truth. Thank you that I am Yours…and God…I just ask that you help me see you in all things…those things that are effortless and those that are challenging.

Joyfully His,

A critical eye

This week I was reminded again, that I have a lot of work to do. The reminder came on Monday afternoon while I was waiting to check-in for an appointment at the pediatricians office.

The office we visit has a check-in counter right inside the front door. As I walked in there was a woman at the counter being checked in, so I stood back in my best effort to give her some privacy while I waited my turn. 

The receptionists verify information during check-in such as your name, your relationship to the child, your current mailing address, phone number, and type of insurance. While the other woman was checking in I admired her appearance. She was wearing adorable designer jeans that happened to be my favorite brand. She had on nice shoes (also my favorite brand) and a beautiful handbag. I noticed the nice way she wore her hair.  She looked well kept and so did the child that was with her. 

Although I stood as far back as I could in an effort to give them privacy, I couldn't help but overhear when the receptionist asked about her insurance. At that moment I went from admiring her to judging her. I suddenly had a very critical eye. 

This woman had government funded insurance for the child. 

"How could she be standing there in $150 designer jeans, with new looking Danskos and a Michael Kors handbag slung over her shoulder but be relying on the government to provide medical care for this child? She's working the system!!! She's spending money on expensive clothing but can't take care of this child's medical expenses? Where are her priorities?? How dare she. She should be ashamed." 

The truth is, I should be the one ashamed. I don't know that woman's story, I don't even know her name, yet somehow I just picked her to pieces in my mind by the flash of one little insurance card. 

Maybe the jeans, shoes, and handbag were gifts. Should she not accept the gifts because she receives assistance for the child's medical expenses? 

Maybe the clothing and accessories were hand me downs or donations, should she not wear them because of what I think? 

Maybe she's had those clothes and shoes for a while but her financial situation has changed and she needs the help with insurance. 

Maybe she's newly divorced, separated, or widowed and she's doing the best she can to take care of that child. 

Maybe It's not her child at all. Maybe she's an aunt, or a friend. 

Maybe she's a foster parent and the state provides medical care for that child. Maybe has nothing to do with her "working the system" but everything to do with her being something positive in that child's life. Maybe she's helping the system not hurting it. 

Maybe she does buy these things and still gets help from the government for her child's health care...

Frankly it's none of my business. 

Who am I to pick her apart? I don't know her. I don't know her story. Is her worth really something for me to decide anyhow? 

What about those who don't appear to be well kept? Is their worth up to me? Are they of less value, beneath me, because of what they wear? 

“But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.””
I Samuel 16:7 NKJV

Shame on ME for having a critical eye! Shame on ME for jumping to conclusions. 

I too was wearing designer jeans that day, but the difference wasn't the form of insurance, it was my ugly and critical heart.

“Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”
I Peter 3:3-4 NKJV

Do you struggle like I do at times with judging or being critical of other people without knowing their story? Do you see people by their outward appearance rather than their heart? 

Lord please forgive me for the times I'm critical and ugly towards other people. Help me to see people as people and care to know their hearts and their story. Remind me that you are who decides their value and worth, not me. Help me to see them as you do.  

In His love, 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

10 Personal Benefits of a Biblical Fast

Coming off the holiday, I am reminded that feasting is a good thing!

I don't know about you, but I certainly enjoy a good Thanksgiving meal, complete with all the trimmings! It's good to celebrate all the things we are thankful for!

And it's also good to set aside times of self-sacrifice.

Last week we reviewed why the people in the Bible fasted.

This week, let's discuss the benefits of a Biblical fast:

1) Fasting has long-term health benefits for the physical body.
So much good happens inside us when we go without food for a time, which is why so many people who are not of the Church are applying this discipline apart from God. Unfortunately, fasting has become a bit of a fad to those who are zealous about their health. Scientific study shows that skipping several meals in a row clears toxins from our system, rests our organs, and sharpens our senses.

2) Fasting weakens the grip of the flesh.
Many Christians don't realize the power our sinful nature has over us. We can grow complacent and give in way too often to temporary pleasures. We can become desensitized to the things of God because we're focused on 'feeling good in the moment'. Fasting brings to light those areas where we've been catering to the desires of the flesh. This would include addictions and any kind of over-indulgence, not necessarily food related (too much TV, video games, social media, romance novels, etc.) Fasting breaks this power over us, freeing us from bondage.

3) Fasting cuts off worldly distractions.
Because we live in a sinful world, we are constantly bombarded by things that contradict God's Word, and we must constantly be on guard for areas where we may grow weak. Fasting helps us to refocus and anchor on God, rather than getting side-tracked by what's going on around us. We stop wasting time worrying about work, school, social events, culture, politics or our children's extracurricular activities. We give God more of our attention.

4) Fasting heightens our awareness of the spiritual realm.
Our eyes become opened to the furtherance of the Kingdom here on earth, like in the story of Daniel (Daniel 10). We see things that we ordinarily would have missed because we are not looking for them. When we fast, we become less interested in our own agenda, and more focused on God's will unfolding around us. We better understand His intentions and see His directions more clearly because we're more attentive. All else fades as we intentionally seek Him and His purposes.

5) Fasting can spare us from evil.
One fascinating story in scripture is about King Ahab, who was considered one of the most horrid rulers of Israel. (1 Kings 21) However, when he was confronted about his sin, he repented and fasted, begging God for mercy. God chose to hold off the punishment due him and keep evil away from his household. We have no idea what evil God will hold back from our own lives if we humble ourselves before Him in fasting.

6) Fasting chastens us, bringing moderation and righteousness.
Similar to weakening the pull of fleshly desires, fasting exposes areas where we are out of balance or ignoring sinful behaviors/attitudes. Since God wants us to do all things in moderation, fasting brings to light areas where we may not have realized (or admitted) we were in trouble. This could be any area of our life that is out of balance, such as people pleasing, habitual complaining, a problem with punctuality, a critical attitude, a harsh temper, a workaholic lifestyle, misunderstanding our personal value, vanity or arrogance, etc.

7) Fasting can make God gracious toward us.
When David sinned with Bathsheba, a child was conceived. When David was confronted about his sin, he fasted in hopes that God would be gracious and spare the child (2 Samuel 12). However, we don't always get what we ask for; God did not to spare the child as David asked. He did, however, choose to be gracious to David for his repentance. Later when David and Bathsheba conceived another son, God made this child the next ruler of Israel. God blesses us in ways we don't expect, but fasting always brings about some kind of goodness.

8) Fasting makes God's voice clearer. 
Although God can talk to us often and in various ways, we don't always hear Him. There could be many things that create barriers, but fasting can break down any hindrances that may be between us and God, allowing us to more clearly hear when He speaks. When we need guidance on a big decision, or when we feel far from Him, or when we need wisdom on responding to a difficult situation, fasting can open channels of greater communication and understanding.  

9) Fasting develops a deeper, more meaningful relationship with God.
When we fast, we make a deliberate sacrifice of something we enjoy as a means of reaching out to God. Because of this act of surrender, God's heart grows more tender toward us. (Don't you feel loved when someone goes out of their way to get/make your favorite treat, or sets aside a lot of money to buy you a gift? The extra effort makes it extra special.) God appreciates our sacrifice; a humble heart moves Him. He makes Himself more real to us and we connect with Him on a deeper level during times of fasting.

10) Fasting can inspire God to rescue us from trouble.
There are countless stories in scripture where the people cried out to God in times of trials and He delivered them. But he didn't just show up to help, He helped in a miraculous way. How many times have we faced trials, and we prayed for God to intervene, but we never considered humbling ourselves in a fast?  When huge storms come against us, or when the enemy forges a major attack, sometimes fasting will bring the deliverance we need, at just the right time, in a miraculous way.

In my personal experiences with fasting, I have received all 10 of these benefits, not necessarily at the same time. It just makes me more determined to keep this a regular discipline in my life!

Next week, I'll share why fasting matters in the Church today.

Also coming soon, I will share with you more details about some of the resources I studied, different types of fasts, maintaining a proper motive/attitude, and some tips for getting started if you've never fasted before.

Have you considered joining our corporate fast in January? Click here for more details: 21-Day Group Fast

Blessings, Jen

Monday, November 28, 2016

Celebrating Advent

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

Could you imagine a time before the celebration of Christmas even existed? Or a time before a world that wasn't filled with sin or hopelessness? Israel was waiting and wondering if the prophecy in Isaiah was really going to be fulfilled. Or was a Messiah really going to be born?

Over the next 5 weeks I will be doing a series of topics about The Christmas story. Our hope and prayer from Alaska Christian Women’s Ministry is that even with the busyness of Christmas we keep Christ at the center of our Christmas celebrations. One way to keep Christ in the center is to celebrate Advent (which means coming) with our families.

There are many ways to celebrate Advent and there are no right or wrong ways to celebrate. Celebrating Advent enhances The Christmas Story and carries on Jesus’ legacy He left behind. Celebrating Advent and Christmas allows the birth of Jesus story to be told and carries of His story through us.

Over the years, our family has adopted ways to celebrate advent that helps keep the focus of Christmas on Christ and enhances the deeper meaning of The Christmas Story.

5 Ways to Enhance Our Advent Celebration:

Advent Calendar- I love the idea of the Advent calendar. Everyday starting with December first it is a way to fill the month of December by telling the Christmas story. Each day is a little piece of the story until gradually it builds to the birth of Jesus. Our calendar also becomes an ornament we hang on our tree after we read each day. The Advent calendar is a great daily reminder of the story of baby Jesus.

2. Nativity set- Our family has a acquired a few nativity sets over the years. Each year when we decorate for Christmas, the nativity scenes are part of our Christmas decorations. It’s a way to tell the Christmas story to younger children. When setting up the scenes we are reminded of the story of baby Jesus and everything Mary and Joseph went through in order to give birth in the stable. We can see how Jesus wasn’t surrounded by royalty, kings and riches, but shepherds, farm animals and his parents.

3. Singing and Learning Christmas Carols- When Christmas comes our family loves to play Christmas music in our home. It is a way to fill our ears with joyous noise and celebrate the meaning of Christmas through the gift of song. Each year we attend our church’s Christmas pageant where we sing Christmas carols and see the story of baby Jesus unfold through the live nativity scene.

4. Operation Christmas Child- Every year we participate in giving as a part of our Christmas celebration just as the Magi gave gifts to Mary and Joseph for the birth of Jesus. Each year we participate in Operation Christmas Child where we give shoeboxes filled with gifts for children in other countries. It is a way for kids to hear the beautiful message of the gospel usually for the first time ever.

5. Reading books or devotionals about the Christmas story- A great book to read with your family is Ann Voskamp’s The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas or Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas. Another great book is by Max Lucado Because of Bethlehem. Or sign up for an advent devotional with Shepherd on the search is a great way to involve the whole family when celebrating advent sign up for their daily activities to help guide you in your advent celebration.

Other ways to celebrate advent include-
Advent Candle- Lighting candles to remind us of the light of Jesus
Church- Attending Christmas Eve Services
Sending Christmas Cards with the Christmas Story message
Thankfulness- write down what you are thankful for and hang it on your tree

Before the busyness of the Christmas season begins, start your month off by planning time with your family each day to retell one of the greatest stories ever—The Christmas story. Make Advent celebration part of your Christmas story.

May Christ be the reason for our season.

How do you celebrate Advent with your family?

What is the your favorite way to celebrate Advent?

Would you like to know more about The Christmas Story? Join me every Monday over the next 4 weeks to learn more about the birth of Jesus and the deeper meaning of The Christmas Story.

In Him,


Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Thrill of Hope

A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Advent. A season of great anticipation. We wait, hushed, in a noisy world that does not know what it's missing. We wait in expectation for the child King's arrival, knowing He has already come, knowing He is coming again. We wait. We hope.

What is hope exactly? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hope as desiring something with the expectation of obtainment. This definition leads me to ask the question: What do we hope for?

If we look around us, we see the world in a dire state, but I don't believe these sorrows are anything new under the sun. When Israel waited for the Messiah, their nation was in a dire state too. When Jesus was born into the world, people were starving, families were broken, and nations were war-torn. Evil men ruled. Disease destroyed. Hopelessness reigned in people's hearts. Sound familiar? Tonight's dark is no darker than the night the holy angels appeared to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night. 

Jesus' arrival into this world, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, I don't think they turned out the way people thought they would. Jesus didn't overthrow Roman rule over Israel, and the "kingdom" he established was intangible, unsettling, and started with twelve quite-motley men. Perhaps the people who had been waiting for the Savior did not recognize Jesus as such for these very reasons. 

The good news? Every person who met Jesus and opened their hearts to His message found their longings fulfilled and their expectations surpassed. He not only healed the bleeding woman's disease, he let her know that she was seen and valued, in a community where she was deemed outcast and unclean (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus not only healed the paralyzed man who was lowered through the ceiling during a sermon, He forgave the man's sins too (Mark 2:1-12)! He enabled Peter to walk on water, and then He showed Peter a way to walk in fellowship with God all his days (Matthew 14: 28-33). When people's hearts met Jesus', they walked away full of hope. 

When Jesus brought hope to this world, he brought the real deal. While he often brings physical hope and rescue, he always brings hope of the heart. Hope that what we desire in our innermost being - acceptance, love, forgiveness, life abundant - can be obtained despite our circumstances because His presence is always with us - as near as His smooth new-born skin to his mother's chest, as real as the wounds in His nail-pierced hands, as sure as His second coming. 

Though our days be dark and sorrows many, our thrill of hope has come. The weary world awakes to Hope Himself shining upon us. Lift up your heads and take heart. 

*This begins a Sunday series celebrating Advent. If you are unfamiliar with this tradition, advent is the celebration of the anticipation of the "coming" of Christ at Christmas on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day. While there are many variations of focus in this season, I will focus on the themes of hope, love, peace, and joy, all given to us by the Light of the World Himself, Jesus Christ. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Slow Down Before You Speak

It seems to be an epidemic. National headlines prove we have a problem with it. Riots prove it. Rants on Facebook prove it.

What is "it"?

We rush to judgment before we have the facts.

We paint groups of people with broad brush-strokes. We assume all Democrats are a certain way. We assume all Republicans are a certain way. We make broad judgments about Christians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists.

We judge motives before we even have a chance to get the facts:

  • Visitors at church are ignored because they are not dressed like us. We assume the worst about them, or we simply don't take the time to talk to them.
  • Moms are bullied because they choose to breast-feed or formula-feed.
  • Black-Friday shoppers are vilified for greed and hypocrisy because they shop the day after Thanksgiving.
What if we actually took time to find out the facts behind the actions?
What if we paused before we ascribe evil motives to others?
  • We might discover that the visitor just lost everything and they are wearing their best...and that they are so terrified they are considering never returning again.
  • We might find out breast-feeding moms are doing what they think is best...or that some formula-feeding moms have shed many tears over their inability to breast-feed...or that others simply cannot earn a living and breast-feed. (And it's none of our business!)
  • We might find out that many Black-Friday shoppers are just trying to clothe their families by taking advantage of the deep discounts.
If we refrain from rushed judgments, we would spare the teacher the agony of vilification. We would spare moms the humiliation of mockery. We would spend our energy minding our own business, rather than focusing on how others spend the day after Thanksgiving.
Timing is the key. Find out the facts BEFORE you act. Save your energy. Save your relationships.
"...Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." --James 1:19-20

Let's look at some antidotes to lightning-quick judgement.

Get the facts before you get angry.

"If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his shame and folly." --Proverbs 18:13 
"Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly." --Proverbs 14:29

Remember your own flaws before you criticize.

"When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom." --Proverbs 11:2

 Keep your mouth shut.

"Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent." --Proverbs 11:12

If you still think the other person is wrong, stay out of it as much as possible.

"It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling." --Proverbs 20:3
I am not saying that we must turn a blind eye to injustice. Some wrongs truly NEED to be addressed in in love. Just don't jump on the outrage-bandwagon for entertainment. All confrontation must be done in love and after many prayers for wisdom and guidance.

We are called "Christians". Let us model Christ-like behavior by reacting in love, not self-righteous condemnation.

And please be nice to the Black Friday shoppers. We are excited about replacing our worn-out jeans for $10 a pair!

All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.