It was raining outside, the day I stared out the window of my mentor’s office, hoping our visit would help me determine my next steps. I had witnessed a horrible wrong, done not only to me, but to others like me. Many were suffering, and many more would suffer as news of this wrong spread. I wanted compassion. I wanted a shoulder to cry on. I wanted someone to listen and agree with my reasons for hurt, anger, and fear.
But I did not get my wish. Instead, I received a challenge to take that fear that kept me wrapped in a ball on her couch and toss it aside. “You have access,” she said. “You have a voice that others do not have,” she reasoned. “What if you are the one God has given this experience to so that you will stand up and speak? What if you’ve been placed in your position, in your situation, for such a time as this?”
I had heard those words before. “For such a time as this,” were words echoed to Queen Esther thousands of years ago when her uncle, Mordecai, let her in on a terrible secret—that all of the Jews of Susa were going to be rounded up and killed. That included her uncle, her friends from the village, and her—if anyone ever found out that she was not Persian, like she said she was, but was indeed a Jew.
Were you so engrossed in planning the "best" Christmas that you missed out on Christmas' best? Next year can be different. Author and mother Alexandra Kuykendall found herself burnt out from planning previous holidays, so she ushered in a new way of "doing" Christmas. Her experiment left her uttering words like hope, love, joy, and peace - keeping the focus on Christ and the reason for celebration.
Before you put away the decorations, listen in for some ideas that might have you singing a different tune next year.
Click hereto listen to Jo's conversation with Alexandra Kuykendall on her book, Loving my Actual Christmas: an Experiment in Relishing the Season.
As I breathe in the last few weeks of summer, I am reminded of one truth a wise mom shared with me when I was struggling with a couple of toddlers. “The days are long," she said, “but the years go fast.” At the end of each summer, I feel the truth of this statement weighing down on me. The years have gone fast, and they show no signs of slowing.
I cannot help but begin counting down the summers I have with my eldest child.
As my kids have been counting down the days to summer vacation, I have been counting them down too. As a teacher, I too look forward to the end of the year—a break from lesson plans, grading, and lectures. I look forward to three months of rest, rejuvenation, and refueling. Everyone has their favorite time of the year. Summer is definitely mine.
But wait… I have kids of my own…and they require my attention. Perhaps rest and relaxation will need to be redefined.
When my kids were young, I remember wondering how in the world I was going to keep the little cherubs busy for 15 hours a day, 12 weeks in a row. I set up an elaborate calendar of playdates, swim lessons, and activities to keep their minds and bodies active. I tried to make every day a fun adventure. I compiled a list each summer of places we’d visit on sunny days, and places we’d go on rainy days. I took trips to my parents’ cabin, trips to McDonald's, and trips to Daddy’s office—just to let him know how much fun we were having. My kids loved summer, and wanted it to last forever. And part of me loved it too. But by the beginning of August, I was praying for deliverance from my scheduled craziness and together time. The start of the school year felt like a vacation from my summer vacation.
I was always a little nervous about praying out loud in a group. Even praying a dinner blessing would sometimes cause a bit of stress. I would worry that I was somehow doing it wrong. The words always sounded fine in my head but when they left my mouth they were somehow less than lovely. I wanted to take them back, to edit, and then put forth my prayer in perfect grammar and proper theology.
I have tried acronyms in order to craft the perfect prayer: P.R.A.I.S.E., ACTS, PRAY, P.R.A.Y.E.R. They are all wonderful tools and have brought great clarity to my prayer time. But for me, I find myself holding back. I find myself more concerned with the format than I do with the subject.
At least I know I’m not alone. Maybe you’ve struggled too? Jesus taught his disciples to pray. They wondered how to communicate with the God who loved them, so Jesus encouraged them to come to him whenever they felt a need. He wanted them to know that the door was always open.
I was determined to learn a new language, even if I was well past the age of a typical college student. But I found that I struggled retaining many pieces of information—from simple vocabulary to complex verb conjugations. My professor noticed my difficulty and gave me a simple suggestion, “Study right before bed,” he said. “Your brain functions well while you’re sleeping.”
After years of pulling all-nighters as a graduate student, I found this concept difficult to believe. But a recent sleep study published by Notre Dame found that studying before sleep had some significant memory benefits. The study tested college students who were divided into two groups—those who were given information to memorize at 9 am, followed by 10 hours of wakefulness; and those who were given information to memorize at 9 pm, followed by 10 hours of sleep. Those who studied the information and went right to sleep could recall that information 10 hours later and were even able to process complex information and processes while they slept. Those who studied that information during the daytime were less able to recall even simple formulas and vocabulary.
Could it be true? Could it be possible…that I just needed to study and then sleep? I could hear mothers across the country rejoicing…college students celebrating. I thought I owed it to my professor to try it.
My son came home from school one day and grabbed the dust pan and broom. I had wondered if this boy who rarely jumps into chores without my prompting had suddenly become responsible and independent during the course of the school day. As I was getting ready to sit down and congratulate myself for training him right, I heard him say, “Got it!” With that declaration, he grabbed a Ziploc bag from his pocket and carefully poured in the dust bunnies he had collected from under our couch.
By the expression on my face, he could see that I was quite confused. “It’s for science,” he said. “We are studying what kind of stuff makes up dust. We’re dissecting it!”
I didn’t know if I should be proud or offended that he knew just where to find these suspicious little dust-bunnies. I thought that I’d been successful at keeping those little buggers hidden. When it was time to host a party or even just a friend or two, I would take great pains to go through the house collecting and eliminating these dusty little reminders that people actually live in my home. I much prefer creating the impression that my family is so squeaky clean and happy that even the dust bunnies don’t gather here.
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
My heart was beating wildly as I watched my son stand at the edge of a small cliff off the coast of southern Greece. The beautiful turquoise waters beckoned him to jump, but his feet said “no.” While I had watched seven older cousins make the leap, I wondered if giving permission to my youngest to jump off a cliff might have not been my best parenting decision.
I like the concept of setting some resolutions for the new year. I feel like January is a time of reset, a chance to take a deep breath and head into the next year with a plan to become someone, well…better.
Numerous polls and articles list the top resolutions. Some people want to be thinner, some stronger, some wiser, some wealthier. Some want to be more generous, while others want to read the Bible more. Most of these goals have something in common—people want to be better versions of themselves. Let’s face it, we all want to improve. And the start of a new year gives us an opportunity to start fresh.
After all, the writers in the Bible are continually encouraging us to try and follow Christ’s example, reminding us to be…better.
Amidst the wonderful smells of turkeys basting, gravy simmering, and pies baking, I smelled something foul this past weekend. I caught a whiff of it on the way to Grandma’s house, passing homes basking in the glow of twinkling lights and plastic nativity scenes. I stole a sniff of it when I noticed the peppermint creamer served alongside the caramel macchiato and pumpkin spice varieties. I couldn’t ignore the disgusting odor settling into our conversation around the Thanksgiving table as well-meaning aunts and uncles asked my kiddos what they were hoping might show up under the tree next month. The scent is not easy to ignore. It’s the sneaky stench of Christmas panic.
This panic likes to boil up like a pressure cooker. It starts sometime in November and increases in strengths and potency as we move into December. I don’t really know if this sense of panic is only reserved for mothers. I can’t imagine this impending dread is gender specific. I just know that it’s real, that it’s palpable, and that it is already threatening to overtake that sweet, lingering aroma of Thanksgiving thankfulness—a time that we are supposed to give only gratitude. No gifts. Just thanks.
Today was one of those days that used to make me cringe when I worked as a meteorologist. Clear and sunny in the morning, but with possible showers moving in by midday. These are the most deceiving days, when I would warn viewers to pack an umbrella…just in case. For some, this is a huge inconvenience. Why would they want to lug around an extra umbrella just in case it was going to rain? While some people are okay if they get a little wet and don’t beat themselves up for not heeding the warning, others want assurance that carrying around that pesky umbrella will be worth the effort. My job, of course, was to please them both.
But for others—like me—lugging around an umbrella gives us a sense of security, a little insurance policy for the “what ifs” that may come about during the day. We don’t even mind if the rain never comes, as long as we know we’re equipped. For me, an umbrella is the sign of the one who is prepared and in control.
I often use planning and structure as one big umbrella—something I keep tucked away in my gigantic carry-all purse, for those moments when I see something coming that might sprinkle a little chaos into my perfectly-coifed life. When the sky gets a little dark, and I feel the wind pick up, I can feel the outline of that umbrella in my bag and I know that even if it does rain, I will have the proper tool to emerge victoriously. My schedule keeps me equipped and gives me the sense that I am on-the-ready for anything that comes my way.
One of the great benefits of living on a lake is getting to watch a storm come across the water. The rain and wind engulf the calm waters section by section, until the storm is right at our doorstep. It is magnificent. It is amazing. And sometimes, it’s a little scary.
The scariness comes in watching the fishermen who like to hang out in our bay. On any given day, there are half-a-dozen boats trolling for walleye out in front of our house. I can always tell the dedicated anglers over the casual sport enthusiasts. When the storm starts moving across the lake, the casual sportsmen start speeding off. The dedicated anglers stay a little longer, hoping to snag that last fish. Or, maybe I have it mixed up? Perhaps the seasoned fishermen are the ones who know enough to get off the lake before they get caught in the storm. One poor boat had to pull up to my neighbor’s dock and hang on for dear life as a particularly windy storm came out of nowhere and threatened to do them in. They had nowhere to go, so they grabbed a hold of whatever might keep them afloat, even if it was just the post on a dock. The scene reminded me of a storm we read about in Mark’s gospel account—a storm that threatened to do in the disciples.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
One of my greatest joys is to hear my sons playing their instruments in the house. My youngest plays piano—sweet and melodic. My oldest plays electric guitar—not quite as sweet, but reminiscent of the 80's rock I used to crank through my boom-box. Either way, it’s a glorious sound, the sound of people using their talents to touch another soul, bringing joy to someone fortunate enough to be within earshot of their creative expression. I can honestly say, the music somehow restores my soul and helps me connect with our praise-worthy God.
I was fortunate to grow up in a musical household. My Mom would come into my room in the morning and actually sing me awake. She would also sing in the course of regular conversation. If someone inadvertently made a comment that came anywhere close to resembling a song lyric, she’d pick up there and sing the chorus for our listening pleasure. But what I loved most about having a professional opera singer for a mother was standing next to her in church. Those hymns take on a whole new meaning when you hear them belted out by a soprano who can hit all the notes. And (side note) I have yet to hear a rendition of “O Holy Night” that holds a candle to hers, which I heard each Christmas eve at the Midnight service. Simply spectacular.
My Mom always said that God loves to hear us sing praises to God. She has a poster hanging in her music room that reads, “He who sings prays twice.” The phrase is sometimes credited to St. Augustine, but the sentiment first appears in the Psalms.
I always figured that if God had a job to do and needed someone to act on his behalf here on earth that he’d choose someone who was perfectly qualified to get the job done.
I try, have tried, and am trying to be that person whom God might want to entrust with one of his jobs. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Toiling away at striving, perfecting, and keeping up appearances that I am, indeed, worthy of the task is a never-ending job. Worse yet, I continually fall short of making myself the perfect candidate. Every. Single. Time.
That’s why I love the story of Rahab. She’s far from the model citizen. But she believes who God is and what He can do. She wants in. And when faith collides with willingness, we get to see God’s power at work.
We live in a world where faster is usually perceived to be better. We like speed, and we are willing to pay for whatever gadget, gizmo, vehicle, computer or phone that will help us get where we need to go or get done what we need to do. We frequent places that offer fast food, quick results, and speedy service. We choose a checkout line based on what the people have in their shopping carts, or how capable the cashier looks. We find ourselves fuming if we select one line on the entrance ramp and then suddenly realize that we’ve chosen incorrectly. Slow drivers make us crazy. Lines make our blood boil. Having to wait has become increasingly difficult in a world that thrives on speed.
Sometimes waiting takes on a more serious tone—like waiting to hear the test results, or waiting for the phone to ring after an argument with your friend, or waiting to see if you got the job, passed the test, or made the team. One thing is for sure, none of us like to wait.
What we also know is that waiting, especially prolonged periods of waiting, seems to bring out the worst in us. Frustration builds, impatience takes over and we start to make decisions that might make things happen faster, but may not end up serving us well in the long run—decisions that do not tend to bring God’s best for us.
Several weeks ago I learned that a young girl from my community was in a coma after losing control of her car on one of the icy streets nearby. Her family waits by her bedside, hoping she would awaken from a coma that threatens to steal her life. As a parent, as a Mom, I have to admit…this story has wrecked me.
I remember, as a young single woman, telling my father that I wasn’t sure I wanted children. He said, with teary eyes, that I would never understand the depth of love that he had for me until I had my own child. I have to admit, as many of us often do, that my father was actually right… so right in fact, that I repeat this story to my own children, hoping they will also understand the deep love that I feel for them.
Each afternoon, I walk to the end of our long driveway where I wait for my young son to get off the school bus. Although he pleads with me to “let him walk the driveway alone,” I can’t seem to make myself do it.
As I am reading through the gospels with my children during this Lenten season, I am struck once more by how often we read about Jesus making time to get away and talk with God. Mark records Jesus getting up in the morning, while it was still dark, to find a solitary place where he prayed. Matthew records Jesus dismissing his disciples and heading up to a mountainside where he could be alone with God. Luke writes how Jesus spent the entire night praying, calling out to God. Luke records Jesus crying out to God in prayer on the eve of his crucifixion. And when Jesus did that, Luke writes that an angel from heaven “appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22: 43). While Jesus was crying out to God in the garden, his disciples were nearby. Although he’d asked them to pray, they were sleeping.
As I closed the book for the night, tucked in my boys and headed off to my own bed, I began to wonder… how often, at the end of the day, I choose sleep over prayer. I sleep as a way to escape the problems of the day rather than cry out to God, as a way to gain strength to face those same problems.
I mentioned in my previous post that rest is essential to building relationship, with God and with others. Rest restores our soul and when we give God our time, he replenishes us. In the Garden, on the night Jesus was betrayed, we see God once again offering something Jesus desperately needs. As a response to Jesus’ prayer, as a loving response to Jesus’ cry for help, God, gives Jesus strength.
I tend to do my best writing and my best thinking in the early part of the day. After a good night’s sleep, my morning time with God and a short workout, my body is rested, my mind is fresh, and my spiritual bucket is full. When time eludes me and things get busy, as they often do, one of those areas always seems to suffer. I might skip a few workouts because I’m approaching a deadline and feel like I need to use that hour to work. Or my time with God gets shortened or skipped entirely because I’m crafting a message or preparing for an interview. Or worse yet, I open up my email before I open up my Bible. That’s always a sure sign that my day is not going to start out—or end—well. While technology allows me more access to God’s Word with electronic Bibles, daily devotions sent to my in-box, and social media that can connect me with prayer requests from others, starting my day in that way seems to drain me quickly.
Just one generation ago, sociologists were predicting that with technology, Americans would work far more effectively. Access to information, they said, would allow us to complete their work at such an accelerated speed that we would actually have too much spare time.
Do you have too much spare time?
I was having coffee with a friend just before the new year was to begin. As is typical for this time of year, we were discussing some goals that we both had for 2015. There were the usual suspects… getting in shape, being better about making time for friends, being on time for an appointment (I was 6 minutes late to coffee that day… ugh.) But then my friend threw out a new one. “I’d like to spend time this year seeking God’s will for my life, and actually doing it,” she said. It caught me by surprise, how she stated this with such intention, as if there were this package somewhere in her house with a big bow on it, a package that she’s walked by many times in the preceding days, months, and years, but for whatever reason, had chosen not to open. And when she did open up this package, there it would be, beneath layers of tissue paper—her God-ordained purpose—laid out perfectly and there for the taking.
If only it were that simple, seeking and finding God’s will for our lives. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject. My personal favorites are Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God, and Garry Friesan’s Decision Making and the Will of God. Both are good reads if you are seeking the face of God. Both helped me understand how finding God’s will for my life had less to do with focusing on myself and what I was to do and more to do with focusing on Him and what He was already doing.
I am fascinated by the concept of “finding” God’s will for our lives. Many people tend to believe that finding God’s will is like looking for buried treasure, that it’s out there somewhere but I have yet to put my finger on exactly where it is or what it is. “I’ll know it when I find it,” they muse, “but God’s not showing it to me just yet.” Some believe that if we could just get a hint as to where it’s buried, maybe a trail of bread or a column of smoke rising up from its burial spot could lead us to where it is that our purpose in life is buried. Perhaps God could send a lightning strike to guide me to that X. Then I would know, then I could do!
Thanksgiving. That blessed time of year when we stop all of our activity, gather with family and friends and recount all of our many, many blessings. We at Heart Matters find ourselves overflowing with joy and gratitude this year. Thank you dearest readers for your words of encouragement! Please keep them coming! We love to hear from you!
We are also grateful for the wonderful love gifts God sprinkles in our lives. His latest sprinkle is the addition of Jo Bender to our writing team! We just know you're going to love her as much as we do!
From Jo's heart to yours...