Getting Ready to Receive, Day 6

Yesterday Nelson Mandela died, leaving behind a rich legacy of forgiveness, humility and leadership. He most certainly lived his life well and I am among the many who admired him greatly. Since the announcement of his death, I have heard several people use the word “hero,” a word we typically reserve for giants like Mandela who are known by the whole world. But I believe the visible work of heroes like Mandela often gets lived out quietly in the everyday life of people we know. One such hero in my life is none other than the author of today’s post and my big sister, Laura Brown. Laura lives in Ohio with her husband, John, and their three children. She works for a global company called Glatfelter, and when she’s not busy traveling all over North America for work  and all over Chillicothe, Ohio taking her kids to karate, tennis and more, she can be found running the Upward Basketball league in her community, volunteering with the Junior League or out training with her team, “Paper Girls Wear Pink,’ for the next Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. And if that’s not enough (and it is!), she’s also the big sister who flies down at a moment’s notice when her little sister is overwhelmed and gets her house cleaned, fills her freezer with crockpot meals and does her laundry! Hero barely scratches the surface here, friends.

Laura shares today from a place of wisdom and experience about managing the pressure-cooker of life without closing ourselves off from each other and from the God who wants to give us good gifts. Enjoy!

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The ugly sweater contest is a mystery to me. We place so much pressure on ourselves during this time of year:  Did I get the perfect gift for Joe’s uncle’s best friend whom I’ve never actually met? Is that present hidden where the kids will not see it during their latest game of “Spy Kids: Let’s Ruin Christmas for Mom and Dad”? Have I properly constructed the best wreath in the neighborhood per the shoddy directions given by that weird link on Pinterest?

So now, to add to the contents of our Christmas pressure cooker, we compete to see who can be the best at being the ugliest. Really? And I will not even mention that e-mail I got asking me to join the “No Weight Gain During the Holidays” challenge. Cris Carter needs to just add that one to the “C’Mon Man” lineup next Monday night.

Here’s the thing about that pressure cooker we’ve placed ourselves in: the lid is on, tightly sealed. That is not what God has intended for us in this season or any other.  God has called us to take the lid off. He has called us to open our hearts to receive his gifts of grace, mercy and healing. He has called us to share our light with the world so that others may see his glory.

On this day of advent, preparing for the coming of Christ, spend some time considering those gifts that God wants to give you this season. Are you hurting from a relationship gone awry? Jesus comes to heal the brokenhearted. Do you have financial hardship in your life? God will provide. Do you have family members living in the darkness? Jesus came to save.

Preparing to receive these things is not easy. But here is a great idea to start: get on your knees and pray. Hold your hands open as you pray signaling a willingness and ability to receive. Ask God to prepare your heart to receive that which he has for you in this season. And when you are done with that prayer, find a friend or a blog (hey, maybe this one?) to help you keep your hands open, outstretched to the Savior, ready to receive the gifts that only he can give.

“Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” Isaiah 64:4

Is the lid off your pressure cooker, ready to receive?

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Getting Ready to Receive, Day 5

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” ~John 1:6-9

Last night before bed, we were singing “The First Noel” with our 4-year old who proceeded to ask, “What does ‘Noel’ mean?”

Uhhh……….do you know? We sure didn’t.

Thank goodness for google. My search uncovered some discrepancy, but the basic gist is this: Noel comes from a combination of the Latin word natalis which means birthday, referring specifically to Jesus’ birthday, and the French word nouvelles which means news, referring to the good news of Jesus’ birth. And so, in “The First Noel” it’s basically defined as the first proclamation of the good news about Jesus.

You now have a fun fact to share at your next Christmas party between commenting on everyone’s ugly sweaters and discussing which unknown gift from the pile you’re going to choose to open. You’re welcome.

But seriously, while the angels got to sing the first noel, and John got to say the most noels, we still have work to do passing it along. It’s possible that the noel you share might be the first time someone else truly hears about Jesus as good news for them too. And chances are, it won’t be because you sing better than the angels or you speak more eloquently than John. It will be because you have a relationship with someone who trusts you, who knows you well enough to hear not only what you say, but to observe how you live and the difference Jesus has made in your life.

Just like John, we need to help other people get ready for Jesus, not just ourselves.

So, the next time someone cuts you off in the parking lot during this busy season or someone gets impatient in a long check-out line, try to swallow your own frustration and instead reply with some variation of noel. We have good news of great joy, just as the angels did at the first Christmas.

How will you share the noel?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 4

“But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” ~Luke 1:30

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” ~Matthew 1:20

It’s obvious why Mary and Joseph were afraid. The whole seemingly illegitimate baby deal aside, they had angels showing up while they were awake and sleeping!

I remember being little and my grandmother talking to me about seeing angels. All I could think was, “I sure hope I never see one!” In fact, before I would go to bed at night, I would pray and ask God not to show up in my room while the lights were out. True story.

Now that I’m an adult, I don’t find myself praying that prayer out loud and I don’t think I would be quite as afraid if an angel did show up (who am I kidding? of course I would be!), but I know I’m still afraid of God showing up. What if God shows up and asks me to do something I’m not ready to do? What if God asks me to give something I’m not ready to give? What if God wants more of me than I’m willing to release?

Anyone else share those fears? Welcome to control-freaks anonymous where none of us are anonymous because that just seems a little too out-of-control. But all joking aside, I think we are all a little afraid. Mary and Joseph were afraid, or else the angel wouldn’t have told them to stop. We want to go deeper in our faith, but we’re not sure what that might mean for the life we’re currently living. We want to live big, meaningful lives, but only if we can stay in the driver’s seat.

What if right now, God is inviting you to move to the back seat and buckle up because He is ready to take you on a journey beyond your wildest imagination? What if God is whispering into your life, “Don’t be afraid. I love you. I created you. I’ve got this (whatever the ‘this’ of your life may be).”

Maybe it’s time to stop letting our fears be in charge. After all, Jesus is breaking into our lives whether we’re ready or not. And as scary as it may be, I wouldn’t want to miss it. Would you?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 3

Today I’m thrilled to share with you some words from my good friend, Mark Williams. Mark graduated from Davidson College before going on to seminary at Duke (Duke football right now – what?!?!), which is where we met. I remember well the night he called me after serving at a soup kitchen in downtown Durham and told me that he had met the woman he was going to marry as they dished green beans onto plates. A few years later, he and Emily were indeed married and have continued their life together just as it began by serving everyone they encounter. Their son, Nolan, celebrated his first birthday in October. 

Joseph and the Change Order

Many often refer to Joseph as the forgotten man of Christmas. Joseph is mentioned in the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, but material about him is scant. In scripture, Joseph is never quoted directly. In fact, Joseph all but disappears from the gospel story following the holy family’s return from Egypt. But the Bible does tell us of Joseph’s occupation: Joseph was a carpenter. Later in Jesus’ adult life, Jesus was performing miracles in an around the synagogue at Capernaum, and the people in the synagogue asked: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary?” (Matthew 13:55). Perhaps Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter might be important to understanding who he was. I’ve always wondered why God, in looking for an earthly father for Jesus, didn’t choose a powerful governor, or a wealthy merchant, or a teacher of the Law, or some other respected Jewish leader. Why a carpenter?

As I write this devotion, I look out my office window and watch a crew of carpenters building a new sanctuary where my church will soon worship. To be honest, I know nothing about carpentry. (As my wife will surely attest, I am the least handy person in the world!) But here’s what I’ve learned about carpentry from watching the professionals: Carpenters make things fit. They have a plan. They square off the edges. They follow the plumb line. They measure twice before they cut once. Not only do carpenters like to have a plan, they like to see the plan before they begin. Surprises are not the friend of a carpenter.

I imagine Joseph’s personality as that of a carpenter. He had a plan. Joseph had a plan for his life. What carpenter doesn’t have a plan? Joseph was engaged to young woman named Mary. He was in love. The plan was to get married. The plan was to have a family. The plan was to grow old together. The plan was to be an active, faithful member of the local synagogue. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.” The Hebrew word for a righteous man was a sadeek, which means that Joseph was known by his religious community for his uncompromising obedience to the scripture, to the book of Torah (the book of law). This means Joseph didn’t eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn’t keep the carpentry shop open on the Sabbath. He was a righteous man. That was his identity. Joseph was who people wanted to be—admired and respected. To be a sadeek in Jewish culture was to be looked up to. That was Joseph. He was a young man with promising plans for the future. Joseph’s life was headed in all the right directions. The carpenter had a plan.

One day, Mary, Joseph’s young fiancée, had a conversation with Joseph that would forever change his plan. “I’m pregnant. And you’re not the Father.” Translated into building/construction terms: CHANGE ORDER FOR THE CARPENTER! The girl Joseph had promised to marry was going to have a baby, and whoever the Father was, Joseph knew it was not him. Nazareth was a small town, and as a general rule, word gets around in a small town. Joseph was now a carpenter without a plan. Thanks to Mary’s revelation, Joseph’s life no longer made sense.

Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Have you ever had plans for the future, but because of some event or circumstance life stopped making sense. God, I had plans to sit around a full dinner table this Christmas, but this year I’ve lost someone I love. And life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future, but after going to the doctor or taking someone I love to the doctor, life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for this child or grandchild, but thanks to some event that has happened, those plans are no more and life no longer makes sense. God, I had plans for the future of my career, but it’s not working out quite like I thought it would and now life no longer makes sense. Have you ever stood in Joseph’s shoes? Perhaps you had plans for the future, but recently life handed you change order. What now?

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn at Christmastime from Joseph is this: Joseph trusted in God, even when his life did not make sense. Joseph’s immediate response to Mary’s pregnancy was what you might expect. Without a plan, Joseph was ready to throw in the towel. He wanted to give up. Scripture says that Joseph had in mind that he would divorce Mary quietly. That’s when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

In waking up from that dream, Joseph made a big choice. Joseph swapped his religious reputation for a pregnant fiancé and in so doing made the big choice of discipleship. It’s as if Joseph, the carpenter, says: This time, God, I’m not the builder, am I? This time God, I’m a tool. I’m a hammer in your grip, God. A nail between your fingers. A chisel in your hands. This whole project, is yours, God, not mine. And even though I don’t understand it all yet, I’m going to see it through to the end—because I have been called to be obedient and trust in you even when my life does not make sense.

You may be asking: Why did God make Joseph struggle with all this stuff? Why couldn’t an angel have come to Joseph ahead of time to lay out the plans, explain everything—removing all the anxiety? To be sure, these are tough questions. But I wonder if God had a reason for this odd, painful, lonely, way to start a family. I wonder if God wanted Joseph to be an encouragement for each one of us, who, in the days before Christmas, share a lot in common with Joseph. For there are areas of our lives this Christmas that do not make sense. What will we do in response to life’s sudden change orders? Give up? Or will we follow in Joseph’s footsteps, continuing to be obedient and trusting in God?

Obedience to God is easy when it neatly fits into the plans we have constructed for our lives. But obedience to God is much more difficult when certain areas of our lives are not going as we planned. At Christmastime, Joseph, the obedient carpenter, whispers to us words of encouragement: Keep persevering. Obey. Keep trusting God even when your life does not make sense. It will all be worth it eventually. I promise.

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 2

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”  ~Romans 13:8-14

I don’t know about your house, but in ours there is a constant battle between the feelings of “No time, there’s NO TIME!” and “Eh, there’s plenty of time to do that later.” For some reason, we always drift to the extremes instead of meeting in the middle. Sound familiar? The good news is that perhaps it’s not the middle we need, but a good dose of both extremes.

You see, I think we need both. We need the urgency to remind us that our days are numbered and we need to make the most of them, i.e. not living in dissension and jealousy, but rather clothing ourselves with Christ. We also need the wisdom and patience to recognize that so many of the things eating our time are not the necessary things, and they indeed can wait until later while we spend ourselves (all the way into debt) loving each other.

It’s true what they say that our kids will not remember the gifts they got at each Christmas, but they will remember the love and the laughter. Sure, they don’t realize it when they’re young so of course they’re going to count the days wishing they would go by faster and making their lists of want, want, wants. But while they wish the hours away and we feel the hours slipping from our grasp, we can make them all count.

Here’s an idea: Choose one thing today that you can put off for another day and before that time gets eaten by all of the other starving items on your list, do something today that has no value outside of the love it shares with someone else. It can be as simple as the text message you send to your spouse that says, “You matter to me and I love you so much,” or it can be the plate of store-bought cookies (because who has time to bake?) that you drop off at your neighbor’s house (you know, the one whose name you can’t remember) on your way home.

Give love today. You’ll always miss the time you waste, but you’ll never miss the love you give!

How’s your love debt? What did you give today?

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 1

In an effort to Worship Fully this Christmas season, I’ve decided to turn my blog into a devotional between now and Christmas Day. I’ll be writing most of the entries, but I have a few special guests who will also be contributing along the way. I hope you enjoy!

Getting Ready to Receive, Day 1

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” ~Luke 2:1, KJV

No one has to issue a decree these days for everyone to be taxed. We’re stretched, overburdened, overloaded and encumbered. And even if that wasn’t the kind of tax Caesar was referring to, I find it funny that the Christmas story begins with a taxed world. We can relate, can’t we?

This may be getting a little ahead in the story, but funnier still is the fact that when Jesus shows up in the Christmas story he decrees a “stop tax” of sorts (without saying a word, of course, babies can’t talk). When Jesus arrives, the shepherds walk off the job for a night, the wise men start ignoring orders from their leader, and it seems as though the whole world collectively takes a deep breath while the angels sing. Jesus shows up and says, “I got this. Cast your cares on me.”

What if instead of waiting for Christmas Day to take a deep breath, we decided to issue our own “stop tax” in order to get ready for more Jesus in our lives? We could do less instead of more. We could make better choices about the things and people we tell “yes,” and make better choices about the things and people we tell “no.” It’s like the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus shows up at their door and one sister, Martha, gets so busy preparing for Jesus that she misses spending any time with him. Meanwhile, Mary skips all of the preparation (much to her sister’s annoyance) and spends all of her time with Jesus. Who do you think made the better choice?

Here’s an idea: sit down with your family or friends and make a list of all the things you don’t want to miss this Christmas season. Then, make another list of all the things you want to not do this Christmas season so you don’t feel quite so taxed. You can call it your “Christmas To-Don’t List.”

What’s on your Christmas list(s)?

Christmas Cave

So, typically, I’m the “must wait until Santa appears at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade until we listen to Christmas music/talk about Christmas/decorate for Christmas” type of person. That’s a type, right? I’m not alone?

But this year, I have a confession to make. I have been listening to Christmas music for the last week (don’t hate fellow-types). I can’t wait! It’s possible I’m even out-pacing my 4-year old in level of excitement for the Christmas season. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration.) And so, I’ve decided that if I’m giving in, I’m totally giving in. I’m “buying the limited edition candy cane oreos this week” giving in.

Before you write me off as a sell-out, you should know the real reason I’m caving is because we are 5 days away from the launch of our #5000gifts campaign at Ashley Ridge Church and I’m about to bust something! We are re-imagining Christmas and preparing to celebrate the season like we’ve never celebrated before and I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT!

But not yet.

5 more days.

Just 5 more days.

I can wait just 5 more days…I think.

What about you? If you were to let yourself think about Christmas for just a minute, what would you be anticipating most this Christmas? Anyone else want to cave with me, just this once?

Enough and Exhausted

The local newspaper knew they made a mistake choosing me as a “Woman to Watch” the minute the photographer called me.

“Would you like to do the photo shoot at your office or your home?” she asked.

“Neither,” I replied. “The public doesn’t want to see that.”

It didn’t get any better a few days later when the reporter came to interview me. After talking for a few minutes about the details of my life and the church, he asked me, “Is there anything else? I mean, anything more you’ve done or accomplished?”

He wasn’t being rude. He just knew how much space he needed to fill in the column and “church planter, pastor, wife, mom to two young boys, and occasional half-marathon runner” wasn’t going to be…enough.

No wonder we’re all exhausted.  Our culture has built a mentality of more, more, more that none of us can live up to, but sadly we’re all still trying. And while we never reach the elusive “enough,” that other “e” word follows us wherever we go…exhausted.

Tullian Tchividjian recently asked the question, “If God’s grace is inexhaustible, why are we so exhausted?”

The question stopped me in my tracks because the answer is so obvious. We’re exhausted because even though we talk about grace and sing about grace, very few of us believe that it’s real. We think we have something to prove and subconsciously we believe God cares more about our resume than our heart.

Today I want to remind me and I want to remind you that God loved you before you accomplished anything. Take a deep breath and know that He is enough.

Lessons from the Boss

Perhaps the infrequency of my posting is sufficient commentary on marriage, motherhood and ministry, but I think it has more to do with building habits.   “They say” it takes something like 16 days to form a habit.

I’m not that patient.

Sixteen days seems too much, it should happen in two or not at all.  At least that’s what I told my husband as I ranted about people at church not filling out connect cards.  The rant started there and ended with a full-blown temper tantrum about feeling like no one is listening to me and I might as well be spending my days talking to a black hole.  And why wasn’t he filling out his connect card, anyway?!?!

Have you ever seen the movie Father of the Bride? Specifically, the scene where he’s tearing hot dog buns out of the package in the middle of the grocery store…yea, that was me.

And, of course, the rant ended as rants typically do in tears and weariness and the dawning realization that the “they” I’m ranting about includes me.

How often does Jesus look at me and think, “How many times do I have to tell her to trust? How many times do I have to tell her to love first and let the rest work itself out? How many times do I have to tell her to not be afraid and have courage?”

And yet, he never loses patience with me.  He never stops guiding and leading – doing that Good Shepherd deal he talks about in John 10.

I’ve chased sheep before.  The church my dad pastored when I was a teenager did a living nativity every December and the youth always went to the farm to pick the two sheep who would come and hang out with us for a week.  It was always fun for the first few minutes as we ran and dove and even got a little messy, but as time wore on, it got less fun.  The sheep were stubborn and disobedient and didn’t seem to get the command “Come” that seems to work so well for dogs.  Maybe that’s why the Bible compares us to sheep more often than dogs?

Sheep are frustrating, but the Good Shepherd continues to sheep herd because that’s what a good shepherd does.  And he does it less for the end goal and much more for the love of the sheep.  It’s hard to love when we’re ranting instead of guiding, loving and sacrificing.

I get it, Jesus, I get it.  But, you’ll still have to tell me again because that’s the way I am.  And, I’ll pass the message on, again, but maybe next time with a little more grace and a lot less judgment.

Failing Forward

I’m afraid to fail.  There it is, in print, my greatest fear in life.  I’m afraid to fail as a mom, as a wife, as a pastor and as a human being.

Sadly, there have been seasons of my life where this fear has been an asset and I’ve learned to rely on it.  For example, church plants have an 80% failure rate.  Logic might suggest that statistic alone disqualifies me as a church planter.  Instead, it became the perfect driver.  We set out to plant a church and I refused to fail because that would have been more than I could bear.

At a conference in Nashville two weeks ago, we talked about the dangers of leading out of our fears versus our true self (true self defined as, “the me that is essentially me, uniquely reflecting God’s merciful, undeserved presence inside of me”).  I had a lightbulb moment, realizing just how much I had been leading out of my fear of failure.  I had become paralyzed, unable to make decisions in case that decision became the decision that led to a failure.  I was pleasing people to build a hedge of protection in case I did fail and I needed people to love me so much that they wouldn’t be able to see it.  I was so busy worrying about what I thought I could control that I forgot Who is in control.

Craig Groeschel once said, “Be careful not to take too much blame for your failures or you’ll be tempted to take too much credit for your success.”  Wowzers!

Here’s the deal, I can’t allow fear to call the shots.  Especially when the thing that I fear is inevitable.  I will fail.  I have failed.  I do fail.

His grace is enough.  It’s time to go big!

2 Timothy 1:7 – “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, love and self-control!”