My House Without a Christmas Tree

1354077As a girl, I loved the book The House Without a Christmas Tree. I understand it was a television special but I don’t remember having watched it. The book, however, I read, and reread, many times over. The grief of being motherless mirrored in the lack of a Christmas tree captivated me, no doubt because I could not imagine life without a mother nor, for that matter, a December without all the accoutrements of Christmas.

I had forgotten all about The House Without a Christmas Tree until this past December when it was my house without a Christmas tree or anything else festive decor related. No, no, we weren’t suffering from a tragic loss or anything like that. Rather, we moved and, upon moving in to our new home, we began a minor remodel. Nothing huge, just replacing flooring and installing ceiling fans, stuff like that. But it meant that our downstairs living space was for the most part uninhabitable during the month of December.

First world problems, I know. Actually upper middle class first world problems and I get that. But, as embarrassed as I am to admit this, I grieved the lack of a tree and the few other Christmas items I used to scatter about in a noble attempt at decking the halls.

It’s weird, isn’t it? I mean–and this is for all you longtime readers (anyone? anyone?)–just how many posts have I logged in at this site lamenting Christmas and my disdain for all its bells and whistles? I’ve labeled myself a Grinch and I’ve rather loudly and repeatedly announced my Yuletide hatred.

Not the baby Jesus part, mind you, I didn’t claim to hate that, but rather all the pomp and circumstance of the season: the tree and the decorating and the hustle and the bustle and the frenzied and frenetic pace.

But this year I didn’t hate it. I missed it. I was sad. I grieved.

I think maybe it had something to do with my boys growing up and the nest emptying. “It’s my second son’s last Christmas break at home!” I kept anguishing. I felt the pressure of wanting the perfect Norman Rockwell type scene, you know, the stuff they tell us memories are made of, especially when my Instagram feed was full of them. The sense of failure and inadequacy overwhelmed me, as we huddled upstairs out of the way of the workmen doing their work.

It’s silly, I know. But I confess as much to you because of something I read in Come, Let Us Adore Him, an advent devotional by Paul David Tripp. The December 16 entry begins with the following observation:

In truth, that beautifully decorated tree, wrapped presents, and all that tasty holiday food, which make us happy during the Christmas season, are poor representations of the world into which Jesus was born, and what his everyday life would be like. Jesus didn’t show up for a celebration. He wasn’t here for a vacation. His world wasn’t well decorated, and he surely wasn’t well fed. He came to a world that had been dramatically broken by sin, and his calling was to expose himself to the full range of its brokenness…Jesus came to suffer because he came to be our Savior.

Tripp goes on to say that there’s nothing wrong with the tree and the ornaments and the fabulous food; of course our celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord should be one of joy and jubilation. Yes! We’ve been saved by the lavish gift of grace granted to us by the Father in the life and death of His Son, glory to God!

And yet Tripp says our joy should be tempered, that we should commit ourselves to be “a sad celebrant.”

Let your joy at what your Savior has gifted you be mixed with grief at what it cost him. Remember this Christmas that you celebrating the birth of the ‘Man of Sorrows.’ Remember as you celebrate that the One whom you celebrate enjoyed none of the things that likely make up your celebration (a house, beautiful things, fine food, etc.). This Christmas may your holiday joy be shaped and colored by remembering that you have eternal reason for joy because of the life, death, and resurrection of your humble, willing, suffering Savior.

That last sentence,y’all. I was a sad celebrant, indeed I was, sad and resentful and jealous too, but only because I grieved the lack of what I thought constituted Christmas, stuff that in reality Jesus never had. I mean, I knew it intellectually. Of course Jesus didn’t drink wassail out of a matched set of Christmas mugs while gathered with his family in matching pajamas in front of a fake tree lit by strings of electric lights. I know that; I knew it last month. But seeing my grief for what it was–and what it wasn’t–this was sobering. And good. Thank you, Paul Tripp, for reminding me of true joy and rightly placed sadness.

Maybe it wasn’t the lack of decked halls that brought you grief this Christmas or on this chilly rainy day in January. Maybe you couldn’t even admit to being a sad celebrant, because celebrating seems so foreign to your current circumstance. May you and I both, however flimsy or weighty our grief may be, place our hope and joy in Christ. Let us ponder His sacrifice and His suffering and thank Him for coming to save us. Let us remember our eternal reason for joy: Jesus, our Savior, our Lord, our indescribable gift from God.

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Favorite reads of 2017

Resurrecting the blog to post my contribution to my favorite among all the year end lists: favorite reads of the past year. I can’t help myself; I will click on every link to every such list. I love knowing what titles were most liked among what was read, as well as adding new books to my ever growing “want to read” list!

According to my Goodreads list, I read something like 50 books in 2017. Here’s my list of those I enjoyed the most, in no particular order, fiction and non fiction both. I’ve included the publisher’s description and a brief word about my impressions of the book:

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren.

Hands down my favorite non-fiction / spiritual life title. Tish is a fantastic writer and her examination of ordinary life in light of extraordinary grace was beautiful and thoughtful. I loved it.

In the overlooked moments and routines of our day, we can become aware of God’s presence in surprising ways. How do we embrace the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred?

Framed around one ordinary day, this book explores daily life through the lens of liturgy, small practices, and habits that form us. Each chapter looks at something―making the bed, brushing her teeth, losing her keys―that the author does every day. Drawing from the diversity of her life as a campus minister, Anglican priest, friend, wife, and mother, Tish Harrison Warren opens up a practical theology of the everyday. Each activity is related to a spiritual practice as well as an aspect of our Sunday worship.

Come and discover the holiness of your every day.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

How much did I love this book? More than I can express to you. So, so good. If you’ve read it and you didn’t like it, by all means don’t tell me. My favorite fiction read of 2017.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together by Jared Wilson

Grace for the imperfect? Hello, Jared’s telling my story and singing my song. Very encouraging read!

Too many discipleship books are written for clean, perfect people who know all the right Sunday school answers. The Imperfect Disciple is for the rest of us–people who screw up, people who are weary, people who are wondering if it’s safe to say what they’re really thinking.

For the believer who is tired of quasi-spiritual lifehacks being passed off as true, down-and-dirty discipleship, here is a discipleship book that isn’t afraid to be honest about the mess we call real life. With incisive wit, warm humor, and moving stories, Jared Wilson shows readers how the gospel works in them and in their lives when

– they can’t get their act together
– they think God is giving them the silent treatment
– they think church would be better without all the people
– they’re not happy with the person in the mirror
– and much more

Wilson frees readers from the self-doubt and even the misplaced self-confidence they may feel as they walk with Jesus down the often difficult road of life. The result is a faith that weathers storms, lifts burdens, and goes forth to make more imperfect disciples.

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry

Berry is always, always a favorite. Hannah Coulter is one of my all time favorites and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about her husband Nathan. Beautifully written with a simplicity and honesty that is a joy to read. I loved it.

When young Nathan loses his grandfather, Berry guides readers through the process of Nathan’s grief, endearing the reader to the simple humanity through which Nathan views the world. Echoing Berry’s own strongly held beliefs, Nathan tells us that his grandfather’s life “couldn’t be divided from the days he’d spent at work in his fields.” Berry has long been compared to Faulkner for his ability to erect entire communities in his fiction, and his heart and soul have always lived in Port William, Kentucky. In this eloquent novel about duty, community, and a sweeping love of the land, Berry gives readers a classic book that takes them to that storied place.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Horrifying and compelling, this memoir is definitely a book I won’t forget. Plus, Walls can write.

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie

My friend Melissa Kruger recommended this to me after I gushed on twitter about my great affection for A Gentleman in Moscow. Her recommendation was spot-on; I loved reading about this era in history that I knew nothing about. Fascinating and sad, this book spurred me to begin reading other Russian literature (meaning I started but have to yet to finish War and Peace, just keepin’ it real).

The story of the love that ended an empire

In this commanding book, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robert K. Massie sweeps readers back to the extraordinary world of Imperial Russia to tell the story of the Romanovs’ lives: Nicholas’s political naïveté, Alexandra’s obsession with the corrupt mystic Rasputin, and little Alexis’s brave struggle with hemophilia. Against a lavish backdrop of luxury and intrigue, Massie unfolds a powerful drama of passion and history—the story of a doomed empire and the death-marked royals who watched it crumble.

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke

We read this book for our summer book club and I don’t think I’m overstating when I say this book should be read by anyone with a smart phone or a social media account or access to the internet. Read it and be sobered.

Do You Control Your Phone—Or Does Your Phone Control You?

Within a few years of its unveiling, the smartphone had become part of us, fully integrated into the daily patterns of our lives. Never offline, always within reach, we now wield in our hands a magic wand of technological power we have only begun to grasp. But it raises new enigmas, too. Never more connected, we seem to be growing more distant. Never more efficient, we have never been more distracted.

Drawing from the insights of numerous thinkers, published studies, and his own research, writer Tony Reinke identifies twelve potent ways our smartphones have changed us—for good and bad. Reinke calls us to cultivate wise thinking and healthy habits in the digital age, encouraging us to maximize the many blessings, to avoid the various pitfalls, and to wisely wield the most powerful gadget of human connection ever unleashed.

It was a good year of reading! Other books I read last year that I also liked very much:

  • Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep by Christine Hoover
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (a re-read or it definitely would have made the above list of favorites! As I said, Berry is always, always a favorite!)
  • Experiencing the Trinity: The Grace of God for the People of God by Joe Thorn
  • Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture by Wendy Alsup
  • We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
  • Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul by Hannah Anderson
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

What about your favorites of 2017? What did you read that you loved and you would recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Note: This post contains affiliate links

Motherhood is not the hardest job

Okay, so maybe my inner cynic is showing, but not too long ago I read yet another post affirming motherhood as the hardest job and the highest calling and I think I rolled my eyes. For sure I sighed. I may or may not have sent a snarky text to my friend (who, incidentally, may or may not have replied with a hearty assent urging the authors of such pieces to go ahead and get over themselves).

My friend and I don’t mean to be cynical. I do understand the authors’ intent with such articles. I do. Really, I do. No doubt I’ve written similar sentiments here on the blog. Motherhood is not easy, not by a long shot. It can be overwhelming and confusing and all-encompassing and, well, just plain hard, yes and amen. Not always but sometimes.

And maybe my snark is because I’m nearing the end of my daily responsibility as a mom. My nest is emptying; hence my curmudgeon-ry grows. Could be. Certainly my cynicism may well be closely related to my angst about transitioning out of this stage of life.

Regardless of the motivating factors, it’s not the assertion of the difficulty of the task of motherhood that gives me pause but rather the superlatives. The hardest job ever? The highest and best calling? If that were true, what about my life now as I near “retirement”? Am I to conclude that from here on out whatever my hand finds to do is somehow less important, of a less critical nature? And what about the implications for those who are single or who do not have children? Is our message really that motherhood is highest and best?

Besides, parenthood as we know it, what with medicine and healthcare and preschool and answers to any and all questions available with a few clicks of the google, is it really the hardest job? There are eternal implications to be sure. But I can’t help but think of friends who are laboring in parts of the world openly antagonistic to the gospel, where they do not know any other believers apart from they themselves; surely their job, their calling, their mission is hard, if not impossible.

Why then the repeated assertion of motherhood as highest and noblest? Does saying such really foster encouragement and joy in the task? For me it often had the opposite effect. I would grow depressed and discouraged to know that * this * ought to be the height of what I do and who I am; yet I was so often bored or overwhelmed or a complete failure. Some days, to be frank, seemed devoid of meaning and purpose in what was supposed to be the most important job of my life. Forget highest and hardest, while I knew days full of all that is good and grand about mothering, a lot of days just weren’t. If this was to be the end all, be all of my existence here on earth, shouldn’t I be better at it? Or find more joy in it?

Yes, indeed, dear mother, your task is difficult. It is a high and holy calling to raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. There are fabulous days and glorious days of sheer joy. There are also dark days and boring days and long days. Rest in the provision of your God no matter which kind of day you find yourself in. Do the best you can in the wisdom and provision of God, knowing your motherhood doesn’t define you. There are hard things and high callings beyond this stage and what matters is not necessarily the task at hand but the glory of God the Father who calls and empowers and sustains.

On friendship and complicated awkwardness

Reading Recommendation: Messy Beautiful Friendship by Christine Hoover

I think I was in eighth grade. I don’t remember the specific contributing factors but I do remember that it was at church on a Sunday morning just before Sunday school. I remember thinking my heart would break over a friend’s betrayal. I remember sobbing unconsolably while one of the Sunday school teachers attempted to comfort me, no doubt assuring me that the sun would come up tomorrow, that the world had not, actually, ended.

Here was our problem: there were three of us middle school girls attempting a BFF trifecta, which, as anyone who has been around preteen girls knows, is an utter impossibility. Someone is always left out or hurt or betrayed. That Sunday it was me and I was utterly heartbroken.

It was my first taste of the complications inherent in friendships between women.

Though I no longer find myself weeping on the Sunday school teacher’s shoulder–one reason being I am the Sunday school teacher after all–I continue to find friendship awkward and complicated, still, all these many years later. I understand that the common denominator has been me and I freely confess:when it comes to finding and being a friend I am awkward and I am complicated.

When I was a young woman–be it college student, newlywed, or young(er) mom–friendship was fairly easy and free and abundant and without all the drama of middle and high school (yes and amen). My friendships then were born of proximity and commonality. Whether it was in the dorm or over playdates at McDonald’s, we were doing life together and not as a catch phrase but for real. It was life, real life, spent together, hours chatting on the phone, hanging out, taking trips even. True, we were an homogenous group but our common experience and circumstance provided a rich foundation for friendship.

As my kids grew older, friendship became more difficult, no doubt due to the general busyness inherent therein. On top of this, not one but two sets of our dearest friends moved away. Left to my own devices I began to realize how bad I was (am) at forming deep friendships. I discovered I had no idea how to make friends, true friends, apart from the ease that comes with proximity and commonality, not to mention the always surprising grace of someone seeking to be my friend first. Hello, awkward and complicated, with a little diva on the side.

I have lots of “reasons” for my complicated awkwardness. I mean, being friends with women can mean comparison and jealousy and cattiness as well as work and vulnerability and time. Not only that but I’m an introvert. I’m a homebody. I’m independent. I think too much. I crave solitude. In other words, I’m not exactly the stuff your dream BFF is made of.

So when a friend suggested we read Messy Beautiful Friendship for our first summer book club title, I knew I needed it. But I was also wary and maybe even a little frightened of what the book might expose in me.

Christine Hoover’s book is a treatise on the importance, nay the necessity, of Biblical, gospel friendships. We need each other, not in the idealized sense of The One True Bestest Friend Over All Others Forever and Ever Yes and Amen, but in the fellowship and accountability as prescribed by the Word of God. She writes,

[T]he goal of friendship is to secure ourselves to the sure, steadfast anchor of Christ and, while holding to that anchor, give and receive the gift of friendship as we have opportunity. The goal is to enjoy God together with others and, as we move through life, to sharpen and allow ourselves to be sharpened by friends. We imitate Jesus with one another, willing to face the stark realities and consequences of sin, all the while persevering in our efforts to offer love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, comfort, and care to one another. In doing so, we display to one another the world how God loves and, through this, bring him glory.

Yes, Christine discusses awkward and complicated and repeatedly encourages us (me) to vulnerability. She is honest about the reality of disappointment and hurt and that friendship is risky and, as the title suggests, messy. She warns against comparison and harboring an idealized BFF wish-dream. She addresses conflict and confrontation and how to do both well in the spirit of love and gentleness. She advocates for wisdom, especially in our social media pursuits, one of my favorite chapters in the book. She reminds us that our friendships point to the greater and true Friend who laid down His life and who will one day, one glorious Day, answer all our longings with Himself.

I am continually surprised that there are those who genuinely want to be my friend and I am grateful for the women who come alongside me in companionship and fellowship. However, I want to be a better friend. Thank you, Christine, for your guidance and wisdom to that end. I needed this book and I daresay I’m not alone.

Real is best

I write on a Tuesday and I have to admit to you that today and the past three or four Tuesdays prior, I’ve felt off, floundering about like a fish out of water. Generally speaking, my Tuesdays are spent at a podium or around a table, studying God’s Word with a group of women I love and esteem. However, our study is on break for the summer and, though summer breaks are necessary and good, a Bible teacher without a class feels, well, a little lost.

We just finished a study of selected Psalms and while I knew it would be good–hello, it’s the Word of GOD–I think it will go down as one of my favorite times in Bible study. I am always overwhelmed and humbled by the sheer goodness of God, how He tenders our hearts to His Word, how He reveals Himself and His gospel in beautiful and glorious ways, how He teaches and transforms. This go ’round He did all that, even more so. He is so good.

And my Bible study girls? What grace they are to me! Each and every group is different but all encourage me and sharpen me by their participation and presence. I know that no teacher can exercise her gift apart from students to come alongside but I am always–always!–happily and humbly surprised there are those who choose to join me.

I was wondering the other day just how many women have passed through one or more studies with me. Not that I see such a number as a trophy or something to seek after or boast in, but rather I see each woman and her attendance as a trust, a gift, a privilege wholly undeserved. I am not worthy but I am grateful.

I read an article yesterday about, of all things, whether pastors should use social media. In the article Tony Reinke describes the pressure many pastors feel when they compare their offering with the level of excellence widely available with the mere click of the mouse or scroll of the phone.

I get this. Currently there is much discussion on social media about women and ministry (indeed, when is there not?), particularly in terms of online and parachurch platforms. For many women their primary source of discipleship comes from outside their local church, and why not? Most of the popular teachers and podcasters and bloggers are so because they are good at what they do. They are funny, they are skilled orators, they are relatable, they are super fashionable, and did I mention they are funny? Me? I can’t compete with that.

My offering is humble, simple, ordinary. While I may have once resented it, I now not only embrace it but see it for the sacred privilege that it is. I believe we need to be in Bible study with people who know us, who know our name, who look us in the eye, who hold us accountable by their very presence, who see us at football games and the grocery store and other times when the mask is off and the real shows in all its realness, who know our hypocrisy, and who point us to the only hope, the gospel. To do so for another is a privilege and a trust. My Bible study girls are this, and more, for me and I hope and pray I am the same for them.

Books and blogs and podcasts are good, indeed they are. But they are no substitute for real people in our real lives living the real gospel side by side with us in the midst of real life with real problems and real need. Virtual is good; real is best.

So for my real friends who join me each Tuesday, thank you. I am grateful for the real fellowship we enjoy with the real God who in His providence placed us in real proximity to seek Him and to know Him and to study His Word together.

Goodness undeserved and astonishing

I write this on Good Friday. It is the Friday afternoon at the close of a difficult week. Not difficult because of difficult circumstances but difficult because of a funk and things said and a migraine and failure and sin and, well, you get the picture.

Weeks like this remind me why I need Good Friday. Today Christians remember and commemorate the death of Jesus, which is weird, if you think about it, that we celebrate death but that’s exactly what we do. We celebrate the death of Jesus because without it we come to the end of a difficult week or a difficult day or a difficult phone call or a difficult season or a difficult conversation or a difficult diagnosis and we have no hope.

It is easy and, I think, common to glance over Good Friday to get to the joy of Resurrection Sunday. Good Friday becomes incidental to the real show. Of course the Resurrection is the hope and foundation of our faith, yes and amen, glory to God. Paul says that without it, we are pitied because our faith then is in vain.

But today I feel the despair of my sin. I see my weakness and my utter depravity. I know–I know–that my sin is real and my utter insufficiency overwhelms me. I need the truth that Jesus resolutely set His face to His death, that by one sacrifice He paid it all, that here is the love of God demonstrated in that Christ died for sinners. This is the goodness of Good Friday–that Jesus, my Savior, has borne my griefs and carried my sorrows and healed me by His wounds. Yes, please, Lord.

I pulled my copy off The Valley of Vision off the shelf to put word to my need…

EVERLASTING CREATOR-FATHER,
I have destroyed myself,
my nature is defiled,
the powers of my soul are degraded;
I am vile, miserable, strengthless,
but my hope is in thee.

If ever I am saved it will be by goodness undeserved and astonishing,
not by mercy alone but by abundant mercy,
not by grace but by exceeding riches of grace;
And such thou has revealed, promised, exemplified
in thoughts of peace, not of evil.

Thou has devised means
to rescue me from sin’s perdition,
to restore me to happiness, honour, safety.
I bless thee for the everlasting covenant,
for the appointment of a Mediator.

I rejoice that he failed me not, nor was discouraged,
but accomplished the work thou gavest him to do;
and said on the cross, ‘It is finished.’

I exult in the thought that
thy justice is satisfied,
thy truth established,
thy law magnified,
and a foundation is laid for my hope.

I look to a present and personal interest in Christ and say,
Surely he has borne my griefs,
carried my sorrows,
won my peace,
healed my soul.

Justified by his blood I am saved by his life,
Glorying in his cross I bow to his sceptre,
Having his Spirit I possess his mind.

Lord, grant that my religion may not be occasional and partial,
but universal, influential, effective,
and may I always continue in thy words as well as thy works,
so that I may reach my end in peace.

-“The Mediator,” The Valley of Vision

Talking on the phone and learning to be needy

My friend called me this week and when I first saw her name on the caller ID, I admit my first thought was that she was calling with bad news. She lives out of town and we rarely talk, like with our voices, so for her to call, while welcome, was also disconcerting.

It wasn’t bad news but rather the best sort of happy news and we chatted and laughed and talked, like with our voices, for quite some time. It was great.

I once talked on the phone all the time. Way back when my babies were just that, I had friends with whom I would talk on the phone about everything and anything. For instance, I had one particular friend that either she or I would call the other right at 9 am nearly and we would proceed to talk for an hour, sometimes more. Every day.

This is crazy, particularly in comparison to my current phone talking habits which are nearly nonexistent. I’m not (exactly) a hermit; I do converse with people but with the more narrow medium of text messaging.

And I love it. Text messaging, as I’ve asserted often, is an introvert’s dream. Short, direct conversations which can be easily avoided or abandoned, what’s not to love?

Years ago I was on the phone with a friend, conversing like with our voices, me bemoaning the general state of my life. I can’t remember my specific circumstances but I do know that the laundry wasn’t done and the dishes were piled in the sink and I sighed and whined and complained about both and probably a wealth of other things besides.

About fifteen minutes after I hung up with my friend, my doorbell rang. It was my friend and she walked straight through my front door to my kitchen sink and began to wash the dishes. THE NERVE. Not only that but she refused to leave without taking a few loads of laundry with her to wash. I allowed her the boys’ laundry and some towels but not my or my husband’s dirties. My dignity, what was left of it, compelled me to draw the line somewhere.

I was mortified. And embarrassed. And utterly humiliated.

Evidently I reserved the right to complain but not the right to accept help. And there was no quid pro quo here. Her kids were grown and out of the house and she had all the time in the world for a friend’s need as well as her dishes and laundry. In the end I could only receive her help and I hated it.

In Sunday School I am teaching through the book Side By Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love. Author Ed Welch asserts that in any healthy community, the members both give and receive help. This process of walking with another begins with each of us realizing we are needy.

I am needy and that truth rankles, as was so obvious when my friend administered very real, very practical help to me all those years ago. I don’t think I’m alone in my dislike of my helplessness. We all would rather appear strong and like we have “it” all together, whatever “it” may be.

Admitting our need feels risky. We conceal our neediness, or we revel in it, like some kind of weird misery contest, but in reality, we are embarrassed by our weakness, we are afraid of what others may think, and we fight to appear competent.

Welch states the obvious: in order to receive help I must admit my neediness. But there’s a less obvious dynamic at work: in order to effectively give help, I must also admit my neediness. In fact, my honest admission of my weakness, according to Welch, is one of the greatest gifts I can give the church. Wait. What?

Honestly assessing who I am and living in that honesty make me a better helper. Self sufficiency, on the other hand, may really be arrogance. Our community will grow together in love and humility as we each of us understand our weakness and our need for each other. This is the grace of the gospel, is it not, that I am so weak and flawed I needed rescuing and the Lord did just that. It is humbling and humiliating to be so weak and so needy but it is also beautiful.

Help is given and I only receive. I cannot earn it and I cannot repay it. My friend taught me as much all those years ago and I am grateful for her example of friendship and of gospel grace.

The impossible

I started 2017 off with the best of intentions and by that I mean I attempted to implement a new Bible reading plan, a new Scripture memory plan, and a new plan to journal.

Please, please, don’t ask me how any of those plans are going currently. Let’s just say there’s grace, much grace, for those of us with the best of intentions and the worst of follow through.

Just keepin’ it real.

Anyway, so in order to effect my newfound determination to journal more regularly (yeah, I know), I began to write out my thoughts regarding these ten questions for the new year. Self evaluation is always good, and biblical too. We are to examine ourselves and to ask the Lord to search us and expose any grievous way in us. What better use of my journaling endeavor? And, hey, automatic fodder for writing so win-win.

Question 2 asks, “What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?”

I have to confess: my first thoughts skewed toward the more personal, wildest dreams kind of answers. The sorts of things that are, if I am honest, more improbable than impossible, and certainly more about me, my comfort, my ambition, my happiness.

But as I pondered a little more and scribbled a little longer, I had to ask myself: what sorts of things are humanly impossible? What is it that only God can do and what among those things will I dare to persist in prayer for?

Among the list of humanly impossible things I came up with: The saving of souls. The spread of gospel zeal across churches and communities and around the world. Partnership and community that spans socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial divides. Babies no longer aborted but wanted and welcomed and loved.

We cannot effect any of these apart from the power and providence of God.

I grew ashamed of how little I ask for these impossible things.

When I ask for what only He can do, I am asking to see His power, to see His kingdom accomplished on earth as it is in heaven, ultimately to see His glory. The smallness of my prayers–confined only to my world, my life, my concerns, my wants–reflect the smallness of my faith. When I am only asking for my own comfort and the granting of my deepest desires, it is no wonder I find prayer difficult to the point of nonexistence.

What humanly impossible thing will I ask God for? What will you? Let us pray big and bold prayers, prayers that stretch beyond the reach of the probable into the realm of the impossible, prayers that dare to believe that God can and will answer according to His providence and His wisdom. Let us believe that the humanly impossible can be made possible by the working of the will of our good and gracious God. May we see His kingdom advance in power to save, to inflame, and to transform, and may we rejoice with the humble wonder of knowing we asked Him for it.

On death, grief, and the bent of my life

We were staying with our Mam Maw, our maternal grandmother, my sister and I were, when we got the news. Mam Maw hung up the phone and turning toward us, she pulled us to herself as she told us that our other grandmother, our dad’s mom, had died.

My sister immediately burst into tears while I, no less sad or bereft, stood there shocked by the loss of death and, if truth be told, perhaps somewhat embarrassed by my stoicism.

Of course if you knew me or my sister as girls you would probably say our responses were spot on. I have always been the more reserved–dare I say the more boring–of the two of us. My sister would drift through the house singing at the top of her lungs and I would be in the quietest corner I could find hunched over a book.

One Halloween my sister and I got the inspiration to trick or treat our own house. Our home at the time had several doors that opened to the outside so we decided we could go “door to door,” in the assumption our mom would indulge us by skittering from one door to the next with the requisite candy.

Meanwhile my dad had his own inspiration to attempt to scare us. He grabbed a sheet and as we made our way across the yard he ran by on the other side of the house with the sheet waving behind him. I was frightened out of my wits, frozen by my fear, unable to move, my mind immediately racing with how and where we could retreat, hide, escape. My sister, on the other hand, propelled me forward, laughing, barely containing her excitement and was it joy?

That’s us in a nutshell, particularly in terms of strong emotion. Me, frozen, thinking, standing back. My sister, embracing, transparent, eager even.

My husband and I received a similarly heartbreaking phone call a couple of weeks ago. This time my husband got the call and he immediately wept upon receiving the terrible news. Our friend Ron had been killed. I didn’t cry right then but prayed over and over, aloud and silently both, “Oh, my God.”

Some of us cry and others of us brood. I’ve brooded much in the days since that phone call as the truths of life and death gain greater weight and urgency. I’ve been moved to action too; in the tradition we Southerners have of marking all of life’s events with food, I’ve cooked a pork tenderloin and a Dr. Pepper cake and a squash casserole, all meager offerings in the face of the family’s devastating grief. Necessary and needful but still inadequate. What is a casserole to assuage the loss of husband and father?

Ron’s death was sudden and shocking. As I brood and ponder, I sometimes cannot wrap my mind around it. How very bizarre it seems, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but to consider that one Sunday Ron was there at church with us, serving and conversing and singing and praising, and by the next he was dead and buried? It is sad, unspeakably so. It is heartbreaking. It is shocking. It is sobering.

One thing I can say unequivocally about Ron: he loved the Lord Jesus. That I can assert without a shadow of a doubt. He certainly did not know that the Lord would call him home on that particular Wednesday night but it didn’t matter, not ultimately, because this was the bent of Ron’s life. His love for the Lord marked him; it was how he lived.

All my brooding has led me to this question: should the Lord take me today, tomorrow, or four decades from now, is the love of the Lord the bent of my life? Could you stand over my casket and say without a doubt that this girl lived for the glory of her Savior? It was so of my friend and I want it to be so for me. I think Ron would be happy for this to be his legacy: men and women saved from their sins by the grace of the Lord and living the rest of their lives, however long, however short, aflame with affection for their Savior.

Yes and amen.

It takes a village

As many of you know, we had a wedding in our family last summer. In fact, my son and his sweet bride celebrate six months (!) of wedded bliss today. 

The wedding didn’t get much coverage here on the blog but, hey, nothing’s getting much coverage on the blog. However, today as I was poking around on my laptop and uncovered a few draft posts in a word document, I found the following unpublished post and thought I’d share. I’m so very thankful for those who bless me as stewards of God’s varied grace and I honor them today.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about weddings in general and my gig as mother of the groom, it’s this: weddings take a village.

The responsibility as mother of the groom is, admittedly, far less involved than that of the mother of the bride but I have to tell you, even with the lesser load I could not have pulled it off without a little help from my friends.

My main duty as mother of the groom included planning and hosting the rehearsal dinner. One friend lent me her beautiful tablecloths and toppers; another friend catered the desserts; yet another friend helped with setting up and arranging the room. My neighbor gave me free reign to cut some of her gorgeous hydrangeas for the table arrangements.

During the meal itself I had friends who filled cups with ice, refilled the tea dispensers, replenished the food in the serving bowls, and kept the cheese dip from burning. The evening was all the more beautiful thanks to the efforts of my sister who can take pebbles, candles, and succulents, as well as a stack of black chargers, and make a memorable evening stunningly gorgeous.

A friend made chicken salad for our house party to have here for lunch as well as sausage balls and cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Another friend dropped by with a plate of deli sandwiches.

Hear me when I say I could not have survived the weekend, certainly not as well fed or with as little stress, without the care and support of others.

When my husband wrecked his bicycle a few years ago and was in a wheelchair for eight weeks, we were the humble recipients of a similar outpouring of help. Naturally the circumstances could not have been more different but both remind me of how critically we need each other and how beautiful it is when the church serves one another as stewards of God’s varied grace.

Some of us have tablecloths to share and in our generosity we can minister to others. Some of us make chicken salad and sausage balls and so exercise hospitality. Others of us devote their culinary skills to bless others, with chocolate for example, yes and amen, and thus make the world a happier place. Some of us like my sister leave beauty in their wake and bring joy and happiness to the rest of us, especially those among us who can’t even.

A friend remarked on the success of the dinner and I could only give credit where credit was due: the caterers, my friends, my sister. If it were up to me, I admitted, we would have still enjoyed the delicious meal but I would have probably just stacked some paper plates at the end of the buffet line and considered my duty done. Not that I don’t appreciate beautiful décor, sometimes I just would rather not fool with it.

I am grateful for those who do. I know that the more “prominent” gifts-teaching and preaching and the like-are sometimes assumed to have more worth and those of us who exercise them may seem the more spiritual. This is baloney and I say that as one who teaches.

Generosity, hospitality, service, these too are important and critical in the life of the church and in the proclamation of the kingdom. I esteem those of you who exercise these gifts with grace and generosity in the joyous service of our Savior. Thank you.