Removing My Planks

It’s so easy to see the faults in other people.

As I read from my Bible this morning in the book of Judges, I read the story of one of the Book’s most famous couples, Samson and Delilah. I read about how Samson was set apart even before his birth, how the Holy Spirit would come upon him and fill him with superhuman strength. How his parents knew from the beginning that his hair was never to be touched with a razor.

But Samson had a weakness. Time and again, he trusted in women who betrayed him. Delilah was hired by Samson’s own enemies to find the source of his strength, and three times, Samson lied to her because he knew that she would use the information to betray him. And she did. Not only did she tell his enemies what he had told her, she had the nerve to get angry with Samson when the information proved to be wrong and she looked like a fool. Yet he kept going back to her. Over and over again, she tried to hand him over to his enemies, and it didn’t stop him from going to her again. And when she finally got the truth out of him – that his hair was the source of his power – his head was shaven and God’s favor and power left him.

I used to teach a class at the high school level called The Bible As/In Literature. This was one of the stories we studied in there, and I always laughed when my students would voice their frustrations with Samson because I shared those very frustrations. It is so clear to the readers that Delilah was the enemy. Why wasn’t that clear to Samson, too? Or worse…why did he know it, yet choose to ignore it? How could this man who had found such favor and power with God give that up for anything, especially her?

But today, as I read that story again, God gave me something new to think about. Of course Samson should have known better. There were many great men in the Bible who should have known better. Jonah tried to run from God and his directions. God Himself told Adam and Eve not to eat of that one tree, yet they listened to Satan and ate anyway. It’s hard to read these stories sometimes without thinking, How could this person be so foolish?  When I put myself in their situations, I always envision myself making the right choice. After all, if I had a direct line to talk to God and He gave me specific instructions or powers, my obedience wouldn’t even be a question.

Would it?

How many times have I messed up? How many times have I repeated mistakes, knowing what the results were the first time but in a moment of weakness, choosing to do it again? Hoping the outcome will be different this time? How many times have I chosen to ignore God’s directions, trying to twist His Word and His Truth in my own way to justify my actions?

It’s so easy to watch from the outside and judge while others make mistakes. But to see my own shortcomings, my own areas where I am prone to mess up – sometimes painfully obvious in the eyes of those around me – why is that so much more difficult?

Jesus promised, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?…You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5)

As I sat in judgment of Samson this morning, God drew my attention to my own planks. What a hypocrite I am, thinking of myself as better than these great men of the Bible! Blind to my own weaknesses while I worry about the “specks” in the eyes of others!

And as far as my attitude about my “direct line to God”…I HAVE ONE. We all do. It’s called prayer, and He wants us to use it to have a relationship with Him. HE WILL SPEAK TO US. Maybe He won’t appear in a burning bush (or maybe He will? Who knows?) but He will speak to us. It’s up to us to ask Him for guidance and wisdom, and then listen for the answers. He may speak to your spirit as you’re reading His Word. He may use someone else to reach out to you. His methods are infinite. But He has never failed to get a message to me when He wanted to – as long as I prayed for open ears and an open heart to receive it from Him.

The good news is, though Samson messed up over and over again until He finally lost his God-given power, he still wasn’t a lost cause. In the end, after realizing his mistake, he begged God to return his power to him one last time in order to help him defeat his enemies. AND GOD LISTENED. I’m so grateful that we serve a merciful God who never gives up on us, never turns His back on us, even when we don’t deserve His love and grace. Because with God, it’s not about our works and what we deserve. It’s about our FAITH in Jesus Christ and our BELIEF in what He did for us on the cross. And for that I praise Him today and every day!

My prayer for today is that God will reveal my planks to me, so that I can focus my “judgment” inward rather than on those around me.

What I’m Worth

Just inside the entrance to my church is a beautiful stained-glass window depicting Jesus. He stands tall with his arms outstretched – just the way I hope that He will greet me one day. That window is visible from the road, and every time I drive by my little white church, I can’t help but turn and look at Him and marvel at His glory.

But even though I have seen that window more times than I can count throughout my life, my son brought something to my attention that I had somehow neglected. As we were leaving church one Sunday morning when he was just three years old, he walked over to that big window and “hugged” Jesus goodbye. When he pulled away and looked up at him, he said, “Mommy, why are his hands bleeding?”

I was speechless for a moment. How do you explain that to a three-year-old? Finally, I settled on, “Well, buddy, some bad guys did some mean things to him.”

I know. Pretty great answer, right? (Insert sarcastic eye-roll here.) I didn’t want to lie to him, but how do you explain the truth to such a young, innocent little boy?

Luckily, my answer satisfied him without further questioning, and to this day (he’s five now), he still sometimes looks at that window, points at His hands and says, “Bad guys did that to Jesus, Mommy.”

“I know, buddy,” is my standard reply. I can’t tell him that my own sins helped drive those nails in Him.

I have the privilege of working with an incredible youth group in my church each Sunday, doing lessons and activities to teach them about God and His love. With Easter approaching, I want to do something that will help them realize that the holiday is about so much more than Easter bunnies and egg hunts. After all, the Reason behind our Easter holiday is the very Reason that we are Christians. If Jesus hadn’t suffered that violent death on the cross and rose again, we wouldn’t have a Savior. We’d still be trapped in our sin, destined to an eternity in hell. And while I want the kids to grasp just what He did for us, those bloody details aren’t appropriate for such little ears.

So I asked God to give me a lesson that I could share with them, something that would help them realize the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I asked God for wisdom before I opened my Bible, and as I began reading His word, He decided to teach me something, not only about who He is, but about who I am as well. It still amazes me how I can read the same stories over and over but He can make them like new and help me to gain different things from them.

It’s no secret that death by crucifixion was intended to be the most painful, horrifying death possible, typically reserved for criminals. Jesus was beaten to the verge of death. Mocked. Tormented. And though He was blameless, though He had the power to strike down his attackers with just one word, He took it all in silence.

For me. For them, the very people who murdered him.

I couldn’t endure what Jesus did for very many people. But to go through it for sinners? For my own murderers? To save them from a fate that they deserved, even when I knew that I was innocent? Forget it.

And while Jesus deserves our praise and undying devotion for what He did, I can’t help but be even more in awe of God. Because the thought of sending one of my sons to that fate in order to save someone who had sinned against me? It makes me physically sick to my stomach. I couldn’t send one of them to take that fate for anyone, not even the most righteous person in the whole world, much less an undeserving sinner. When I think about Him watching it all transpire from Heaven, my heart aches for Him.

While I’ve thought about all of this before, one thing I’d never truly considered is just what I’m worth in God’s eyes. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4 that “He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight.” That means that even before He created the world, He already had a plan for me.  For me! It’s hard to comprehend that the God who created our intricate universe by merely speaking into the void even knows my name, much less loves me that much.

He knew that I would mess up, over and over again. He knew that I would be prideful. Hateful. Profane. A liar. Disrespectful. Disobedient. Neglectful.

AND HE LOVES ME ANYWAY. I am worth so much in His eyes that He allowed His Son to be tortured and put to death in my place, knowing He would rise again and redeem me from my life of sin. He CHOSE me to be one of His children. He bestowed His gifts upon me so that I can serve His kingdom.

And I did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to deserve it. It’s not because He looked down on this Earth, saw me, and thought to Himself, “She’s a pretty good person.” I’m sure if He looked at me before I gave my life to Jesus, He would have thought quite the opposite, in fact. Because before the Holy Spirit came to live in me, I was nothing. I was consumed by worldly, evil thoughts, on a path to destruction without even realizing it. And yet, for whatever reason, He loved me enough to open my heart to His Truth so that I could choose to die to my old self and accept His love and forgiveness. How much I must be worth in His eyes!

So this Easter, I hope that I can convey to my kids at church not only the importance of what Jesus did for us when He conquered death on the cross, but what that says about who we are to God. Because when we truly realize our worth in Christ, we can fulfill the purpose that He has for each one of us and call on His power to do incredible things for His kingdom.

AN UNPOPULAR TRUTH

All this tip-toeing around is exhausting. And today, I just can’t do it.

Since I started blogging about my journey as I grow closer to God, I have been ignoring a message that He chose to lay on my heart. Not because I don’t believe the message, but because I don’t want to cause any friction or turn others away from reading what I have to say.

The thing is, I know it’s not what some people want to hear. So when God would whisper to me, telling me to write on this topic, I’d quickly push it out of mind until another message came to me, one with more of a “feel-good” vibe. Because that’s what most people want these days. “There’s enough negativity in the world these days,” someone once told me. “That’s why I don’t go to church; I don’t need to hear a negative preacher, too.”

I get it. I really do. Because when I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen to me when I died, I didn’t want to think about hell, either. But whether I wanted to think about it or not, the reality is, it still exists. And when we all have to face our final Judgment, it’s one of only two options for where we will spend eternity.

As I was studying the book of Acts this week, I came to the part where Peter and the apostles were persecuted, beaten, and jailed for preaching about Jesus. Yet they continued to do it, knowing how important it was to spread His message. They weren’t afraid of the punishment of men, and God rewarded them by sending an angel to open the doors of the jail and bring them out. They continued to be bold in their message, and the Bible tells us that they left “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41). Reading this passage reminded me that speaking out for God won’t always leave others feeling warm and fuzzy, and it probably won’t make me very popular. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

I believe that above all else, we need to know that God loves us. No matter where we are or what we’ve done, He loves us more than we can comprehend, so much so that He sent his only Son to take the fate that we deserve. And even though I have done things in my life that the devil still reminds me of in my darkest hours, things that haunt me in my worst nightmares, God wiped my slate clean the moment I asked Jesus into my heart. I don’t need to feel shame or dwell on those mistakes; God doesn’t even remember them anymore.

We live in a society today that no longer values a relationship with God. Many people are open about their atheistic views, claiming that they are “too smart” to believe in God, ironically enough, when He is the Giver of all true wisdom. And because of this society, there is a lot of pressure on today’s church to keep the “feel-good” vibe in their message so that they don’t turn people away. That’s easy to do when you focus solely on God’s love and His mercy, which are vital parts of this whole Christianity thing.

But there’s more to it, and it all boils down to this: simply knowing that God exists does not equate to KNOWING GOD. You can’t claim a relationship with Him based on the fact that you believe in His presence. Jesus demands a true relationship, one that requires work on our part. It’s a daily walk, a daily decision to take up your cross, die to your old self, and follow Him. It’s studying His word, talking to Him every day and giving Him control of every aspect of your life, and having fellowship with other Christians.

It’s NOT going to church on Sundays, feeling warm and fuzzy  when you leave, and then going about your life for the rest of the week. The fact is, you can’t continue to live the same old life of sin when He’s in your heart.

Not that Christians don’t sin. The Lord knows that I still struggle with various things. Many days I falter. Sometimes He points things out to me in my life that I hadn’t even considered to be sinful. The devil finds new ways to reach me all the time, trying to bring me back to his side. But he won’t succeed; he doesn’t even stand a chance. It’s already been determined who the winner of that fight will be. As long as I continue to rely on God, Satan has to keep stepping back down.

The fact is, we have a very real enemy, one who is creative and knows how to reach each one of us. He knows how to tempt each of us differently, based on our personalities and desires. And one of his greatest weapons right now is getting us to focus on the “feel-good” message and ignore the rest of it. Because as long as we’re only looking at the good stuff, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that as long as we believe that He’s up there, we’re safe…the whole idea that I’m a good person so I’ll go to heaven.

TRUTH: Being a “good person” does not get you into heaven. Believing that God exists will not get you into heaven. Believing that Jesus exists will not get you into heaven. There will be a lot of surprised people come judgment day – people that bought into that “feel good” message – when they see some of the world’s worst sinners who repented being welcomed into heaven and they themselves hear “Depart from me; I never knew you.”

Knowing and accepting Jesus Christ is the ONLY WAY to get into heaven. Not knowing that he exists, but KNOWING HIM PERSONALLY. Inviting Him into your heart and letting Him take over your life. Walking with Him every day. Making Him the center of your life.

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” – John 14:6

“Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?’” – Matthew 16:24-26

I am well aware that my message today does not mesh well with what many people want to hear. But I don’t care. I have been commanded to share His Word with the world…to share it the way it is presented, not the way I want to manipulate it in order to make it more popular. His Word will speak for itself. It doesn’t need me to put my own spin on it.

I know who my Savior is and I know where I’m going when I leave this world. And the idea that any of the people I love won’t be going with me is absolutely devastating. So I can’t afford to tip-toe anymore. I will share His truth with the hope that He uses it to reach someone out there. Our time is running too short to stick solely to the warm and fuzzy stuff.

An Open Letter to my Boys

Celebrating my oldest son’s fifth birthday this week has my mind going in a million different directions. For five years, I’ve watched him grow and change, watched him learn new things and experience some of the best that life has to offer. I got to see his face light up when he made his first shot in a basketball goal. I beamed with pride the first time he carried his monster guitar to the front of the church and played a song for our church family. I laughed as I watched the celebration dance he did the first time he scored a hole-in-one in putt-putt golf. I got to hold his hand as he put his toes in the sand for the first time. I had to let go when he finally decided he was brave enough to run out into the ocean, his hands stretched wide and his smile stretched even wider.

I am so thankful for all of the joy that he has brought to our lives, and I am in still in awe that God allowed me to carry him for nine months and bring him into this world, that He trusted me enough to raise this boy the best that I know how to do. I can’t believe I get to be there for every step, to celebrate life’s victories with him and hold him when things get tough.

But this birthday is almost bittersweet, because I know it brings changes. Five years old means one more step toward independence, toward that scary place called school, where Mommy won’t be there to protect him and correct him and make sure he makes the right choices. As he continues to grow, that independence will only grow, too. And I just can’t let that happen without saying a few things that I want him to know, that I want both of my sons to know as they make their way through this crazy world.

This is an open letter to my babies – though my oldest doesn’t always see himself as “mommy’s baby” these days.

 

To my sweet boys,

I am so blessed to have you both in my life. I love watching your personalities develop, your brains working as you work and learn new things. Even in the most difficult of moments, you are my two greatest joys in this world.

You’re going to find as you continue to grow that people are going to be quick to offer you advice. Some of that advice will be priceless; some of it, though well-intentioned, will be useless. And with that thought in mind, I want to convey to you what I have learned throughout my life, what I know in my heart is all that you need to know in order to live a life that’s full.

First of all, you need to understand that there is a Creator up there, One who spoke into the void and created ALL OF THIS with only his voice. He told the light to exist, and it appeared. And this same God who made the mountains and the oceans all those years ago already had YOU in mind. Don’t ever question what this life is for – don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t matter or that what you do doesn’t matter. Because God designed you so carefully with a specific purpose in mind, with intentions of giving you a life of fulfillment and freedom and joy. He gave you special gifts and talents that no one else can do like you. Figure out what those are, and use them every chance you get.

Our God is perfect and all-powerful and bigger than we can even comprehend. But even though we are so small, He loves us with a love that is unconditional, so much so that He sent His own son, Jesus, to take the fate that we deserve. That love continues even when we make mistakes. He knows that we’re not perfect – He knows when we will mess up before we even do it – yet He is quick to forgive if we just ask. This earthly life is temporary, but He has prepared a special place just for you in heaven, where you’ll never again feel sick or upset or angry. All you have to do is ask Jesus to come into your heart and let Him live through you. And Jesus…well, He’ll be the best friend you’ll ever know. Spend time with Him every day. Read your Bible and talk to Him. He’ll listen, and He’ll answer you. I promise. Don’t let the world fool you into believing that He won’t, that He’s too far away to hear you or that He’s this stiff, formal God that you can’t be real with. He’ll live inside of you. And He desperately wants to know you, the real you. Tell Him when you’re happy. Tell Him when you’re upset. Whatever you do, just talk to Him.

As you leave the safety of Mommy and Daddy World, you’re going to find that sometimes people can be cruel. They will disrespect you and treat you unfairly. But while the world will tell you to push them back, I’m going to tell you to love them. When they call you names, when they hurt your feelings, the only weapon you should use in return is prayer. Pray for them. Ask God to help you forgive them, even when it’s not easy. Because you know what? That same God who loved you and created you, loved THEM and created THEM. And that same God who forgives YOU when you mess up, forgives THEM just the same. In the end, the only one you’re hurting by holding a grudge against them is yourself. Give God your struggles and just love them any way you can. Some day, it won’t be between you and them – it will be between you and God.

I wish I could tell you that as you get older, things will get easier. But that’s not true. Growing up comes with responsibilities, and not all of them will be enjoyable. You will have teachers you don’t like, subjects you’re not good at in school. Try your best anyway. And you’re quickly going to learn that nothing comes for free. You will have bosses you don’t like, jobs you don’t enjoy. Put your all into it anyway. People will tell you things that you “have to do” in order to be successful…go to college, make good grades, get along with people. While there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, the truth is, those things won’t make or break your life. A day is coming when it won’t matter how much money you made or what kind of house you lived in. The only thing that will matter is that you gave everything you had to God, that you loved Him with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and that you showed His love to other people, too.

A day will come when you will choose a wife. My only advice in this category is this: wait for a woman who loves God more than she loves you.

If you remember these things, a lot of that other advice you will hear will just fall into place. People will tell you to do things that make you happy. And of course I want you to be happy. But I also know that happiness is fleeting, that it changes with the circumstances around you. And I also know that Satan is tricky, that he can make you believe that a sinful life will make you happy. But that JOY you will get only from God? That will never fade, even when your world seems to be falling apart around you.

As life continues to bring changes, remember that I will always love you. But even more importantly, God will always love you. Accept His love.

And even when you know you’re getting WAY TOO BIG to be my baby, just humor me and let me hold you once in a while.

Love, Mom

Getting Out of the Christian “Rut”

A friend of mine recently said to me, “I don’t know how you do it, staying home with two kids all day, every day…when do you and your husband ever get time to yourselves?”

I laughed. Being a stay-at-home mommy is not for everyone, though I personally love it. But my friend has a point, and she’s not the first one to make it to me: parents, whether stay-at-home or not, have to make time for each other. It’s not a secret that when husbands and wives make time for each other, they are generally happier in the marriage – kids or no kids. And yes, life gets in the way and it’s often difficult to do that, but read any advice column from any relationship counselor out there, and it will tell you that making time for each other is key for your marriage. Because let’s face it – that initial, butterflies-in-your-stomach-all-the-time feeling can’t last…especially when you watch each other get puked on and change the world’s most disgusting diapers on a regular basis. The only way to keep the magic alive is to break the routine, spend some time together, and make the effort to remember why you fell in love in the first place.

But despite what I’ve said so far, the purpose of this blog post is not to give advice for how to maintain a solid marriage.

I started thinking about my conversation with my friend, and how easy it is to get in the dreaded “rut” in your most meaningful relationships. And I realized that as crucial as it is to try to avoid that in your marriage, there’s another relationship  that is even more vital to nurture, and that’s your relationship with God. But in the midst of all that life brings with each passing day, I can say from my own experience that it’s probably the easiest one to push to the side.

I think that the things that come with Christianity sometimes just get added to a to-do list. We know what we’ve been taught to do as Christians – pray, read the Bible, go to church. But when we do those things simply out of habit or because we think we are supposed to, we are missing the point. It’s easy to get trapped in the “rules” that accompany Christianity, mindlessly following them because it’s what we are supposed to do. It’s also easy to get bogged down by all the do-this and don’t-do-that that comes along with it.

But Jesus came to the Earth breaking all those man-made rules…part of the reason the religious leaders hated Him so much. For example, they were strict about reserving Sunday strictly for God and resting, meaning do NO work. That didn’t stop Jesus from healing a man’s shriveled hand in the synagogue on a Sunday. His accusers watched Him, just waiting to see if He would break the rule. And He did, pointing out, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) before He ordered the man to stretch out his hand and restored it.

Until recently, I was guilty of getting caught up in the “rules.” I prayed pretty regularly, I read my Bible fairly often, and I never missed a Sunday at my church. But all of it, all of my actions, were empty. I was doing what I was supposed to, but the fact was, I had fallen out of love with Jesus. In fact, looking back, I’m not sure I was ever truly in love with Him – not the way I am now. I believed in Him, which I knew was a requirement to get to heaven. (After all, that’s what you learn when you’re young, right? John 3:16…“Whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”?) But the fact is, that’s only step one. Because if you believe in Him…REALLY believe in Him…and you ask Him into your heart, you can’t keep living life the way you always did before. I’ve used this quote from a friend of mine on another blog post before, but I love it so much that I’m using it again here – you can’t sit and continue to eat breakfast when you realize your house is on fire. That belief REQUIRES ACTION. Receiving His love REQUIRES ACTION. And not mindless, I’m-doing-this-because-someone-told-me-to action. That ACTION has to spring from HIS LOVE inside of you.

So how do you stay “in love” with Jesus? It requires work, just like any other meaningful relationship in your life. You have to seek Him. You have to read His word as often as you can. And more than anything, you have to pray. In the book of Mark, a father came to Jesus, begging for Him to heal his son. When Jesus told the man to believe, he cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (9:24). In other words, he believed, but he wanted to believe EVEN MORE. I was so moved by the man’s desire for Jesus that I use that approach in my prayer life. God, I love You, but help me to love You more. God, I believe in You, but help me to believe in You more. God, I am seeking You, but help me to seek You more. God, I give my life to You, but help me to give even more of myself to You. Give me chances to show Your love to others. Give me situations to proclaim Your love and mercy and grow in my relationship with You.

And I’ve found that when I start my day this way, when I really seek Him and watch for His work in my life, I’m seeing His hand in my life more and more every day. How can I not be in love with my Creator who reveals Himself to me, who loves me unconditionally and forgives me time after time after time? My prayer today is that my love for Him never grows stale, that I never again fall into that “rut” in my life again.

Unanswered Prayers

When I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I knew everything. I was lucky enough to grow up with wonderful parents who cared about me and were very involved in my life.

But sometimes, since I knew everything, that involvement become annoying. Especially when it meant I wasn’t allowed to do something that I wanted to do.

There was a boy where I worked part-time who had (finally) asked me out on a date. He asked me to dinner and a movie at the beginning of the week, and we made plans for that Saturday, not knowing that the first big snow of the winter was coming on Friday night.

On Saturday afternoon, after being out on the roads in town, my dad informed me that I would not be going anywhere that evening. In dramatic fashion, I cried and begged him to change his mind.  How could he ask me to cancel my plans when I had been so excited about them all week? I was a careful driver and he knew that; didn’t he trust me? When he did not relent, I went to my mom. Mom was more sympathetic and let me at least voice my opinions and concerns about missing the date. After she and dad discussed it further, he gave in and let me go, though he made it very clear that he did not like the idea and talked to me extensively about driving slowly and how to handle it if I hit a patch of ice.

I was ecstatic. To this day, it is still the only time I can remember my dad changing his mind about allowing me to do something after he had already said no. Though he was loving and funny most of the time, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy when it came to safety.  (And to the idea of his little girl dating boys. It didn’t matter how much I tried to convince him that my current boyfriend was a ‘good guy’ – he still viewed him as an ant that needed to be squashed.) Whatever made him change his mind, I didn’t know and didn’t care…I was going on that date.

To be honest, I don’t remember details about the date. I assume we had a nice enough time, though I don’t think we ever went out on a second date. What I DO remember is the drive home.

I drove to the boy’s hometown to meet him there, as it would have been out of the way for him to come pick me up and then drive the hour it took to get to the restaurant. So, at the end of the night, I had a fifteen-minute drive home. It was around ten o’clock as I turned onto the blacktop road that would lead me back to my house. I drove slowly as I cruised up a little hill, but after I reached the top and continued down the hill, I naturally accelerated a little. I didn’t see the black ice even after I hit it. Vividly I remember the way my car began to swerve and I, despite the fact that I knew everything, slammed on the brake in panic. I skidded from one side of the road to the other and did a complete 360 before landing in a ditch.

Though I was totally shaken up, I was fine. And other than a few dents and scrapes, so was my car. Once I calmed down after the initial freak-out, my next thought was, my dad is gonna kill me. But much to my surprise, he was madder at himself for going against his instincts and letting me go than he was at me for wrecking my car.

Though I hadn’t thought about that accident in years, the memory came flooding back to me just a couple of nights ago, when my husband and I had to drive down that same road after another big snow, the first of the winter this time as well. I thought of my dad and what I would have done in his situation back then, now being a mom of two kids myself – one of which is now old enough to want to attempt new things that make me nervous all the time.

Sometimes, I let him – like when he wanted to try riding a bicycle. I could foresee the potential danger, but I also knew the wonderful experience it would be once he mastered it…something he will use for years to come. But sometimes, I have to tell him no. And there have been times that he has cried and begged and I have relented, only to watch him make a bad choice or get hurt.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about prayer – both how powerful it can be, and how frustrating it can be when it seemingly goes unanswered. But with this story being brought back to mind, I’ve thought about it in connection with God, our Father, as well – the One who can foresee the potential danger in situations for His children in ways that we can’t. Like my sixteen-year-old self, sometimes I tend to think I know everything, including what is best for me. So when I ask God for something, knowing that Jesus promised us in the Bible that we will receive things if we ask in His name (Matthew 7:7-11), it frustrates me when I don’t get an immediate answer. After all, I’m not asking to win the lottery or anything unreasonable – I’m asking for things that I truly believe are in my family’s best interest. But I also know that God sees the big picture when I cannot. If He isn’t answering it yet, then now is not the right time. And I have to wrap my head around the fact that the right time may never come.

Jesus promised us that if we have even a little faith, we can do anything. We can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). We can walk on water (Matthew 14:22-33). But that doesn’t mean we will receive everything we ask Him for – our requests have to be in line with God’s plans for our lives.

Because unlike us – imperfect parents who make mistakes with our children from time to time – God will not make a mistake. And when I finally realized this, I had to learn to change my way of praying. It’s okay to ask Him for things that I think I need or even want…as long as I acknowledge that more than anything, I want His will for my life. Instead of asking for something and being frustrated when I don’t see a response, I am learning to ask Him to show me His way instead. So today, my prayer is not that He will give me everything that I think that I need, but that He will give me everything that He knows that I need, and the wisdom to align my requests with His plans.

Resolutions of Love

On this New Year’s Eve, I, like many others, am reflecting on the past year. 2015 was beautiful, full of both blessings and trials. I am optimistic as we usher in 2016, because I serve a God who promises to take care of me: “’For I know the thoughts that I think toward you,’ says the LORD, ‘thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

As I anticipate the plans of peace and hope that He has for me, I want to do my part in helping them unfold, living a life that includes Him in the center of it all. I have spent the past couple of months really rethinking what that means and what that will look like in my life.

When I turned to Him this morning in prayer and Biblical study, I was struck by one particular passage. In Matthew chapter 22, a man decided to test Jesus as He was teaching by asking what commandment was the greatest. Jesus’ reply was this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verses 37-39).

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by all the ways I fall short of His glory, all the areas in my life where I need less of me and more of Him. But as I read that passage in Matthew, I realized that in so many ways, these two commandments alone are all I need as I set goals for the new year – because if I follow them, they will cover so much more.

In this world, giving God all of our heart, soul, and mind becomes increasingly more difficult. Distractions are everywhere – the people around us…the movies and shows we watch on TV that show glamorous God-less lives…even in the palms of our hands. (And no, I’m not preaching against cell phones – I am on mine frequently, too. But does it distract me from serving Him? Absolutely.) When so many around us want to push God out of everything we do, sometimes it isn’t easy to fight for Him. But that’s where that whole “dying daily” thing comes in. If I can spend even a short time with Him each morning, asking Him to fill me and push me out, it makes it easier to keep my focus on Him and off of those distractions.

But as difficult as that first commandment may be, the second part is the real challenge. Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s easy to sacrifice my own needs for my kids. It’s easy to love my family. And my friends. But my “neighbor” means EVERYONE I come into contact with. What a challenge! “Love” for my neighbor is not something that comes naturally; it’s got to be a conscious choice that I make every day. And let’s face it – there are a lot of people out there who make this task seem impossible. But I still have to find a way to love those who don’t make it easy to love them. Because even those people who hurt me, who hurt others physically and emotionally with no remorse…Jesus still loves them just as much as He loves me. When you think about some of the worst people in the world, or even just someone who has left scars on you, that can be a hard fact to swallow. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

In 1 Peter 4:8, Peter commands this of the people: “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins.” Thinking about this in regards to the new year, I realize the truth in that statement. If I can make that choice – the choice to love others even when it’s not easy – it will help me overcome all those other areas in my life that can lead to unhappiness. Things like jealousy. And discontentment. And judgment. And resentment. And holding grudges. Because the thing is, in the end, it’s not about me and my neighbor, not about me and someone who has offended me; it’s about me and God. And He calls me to forgive, just like He does.

I know very well how difficult that can be. I know how to hold a grudge. But I also know what all that anger did to me, both mentally and physically, as I held on to a spirit of unforgiveness. When I first decided I wanted to forgive the person who hurt me, it seemed impossible. But I prayed and asked God for His help every single day until eventually, I realized all that anger was gone. I was finally able to show some of that mercy that He shows me at all times, even though I don’t deserve it.

So as we enter into this new year, in order to keep God at the center of my life each and every day, I am making a resolution, a choice, to be filled with love. I pray that He will guide me down the path He has planned for me and help me to be more like Him with every step I take.

Reflections on the Daddy of Jesus

As I’m typing this, only one hour remains until Christmas. I, like many parents, am already exhausted. Exhausted in the best possible way, of course. We’ve already been through two rounds of opening presents with family and we’re nowhere near finished. After bathing the kids and getting them to bed, I’ve been up getting all my own last-minute preparations done before tomorrow’s excitement, smiling as I imagine my sons’ faces when they wake up and see all the presents under the Christmas tree. (And I have to admit, another reason I’m smiling is because the Elf on the Shelf has to go back to the North Pole for another year.)

In the midst of all the chaos, I received the best possible reminder of the Reason for it all – when I just read the story of Jesus’ birth to my boys. We read it from their Beginner Bible so they could see the pictures to accompany the story. And just like he does every time we read ANY story, my four-year-old son interrupted constantly with questions. “What’s an inn?…It’s like a hotel? Why were there so many people in the hotel?…What’s a manger?…Why did they have to sleep in a barn?” I love to answer his questions, especially during stories as important as this one – it means he’s paying attention, and that he’s learning. But, as I constantly stopped the story to answer questions while also prying my six-month-old’s little fingers off of the book to keep him from eating the pages, I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing much.

But tonight, after we finished the story and he sat staring at the picture, my son shed a new light on a story I’ve read so many times before. “Why isn’t God there to see baby Jesus?”

“He was there,” I said. “You just can’t see Him.”

“God is Jesus’ Daddy?”

I smiled. “Yes, He is.”

The idea of Jesus as God’s Son wasn’t a new one to me, obviously. But hearing my son call Him Jesus’ “daddy”? That was different. Everyone knows that even though “father” and “daddy” mean the same thing in one sense, in another sense, they couldn’t be more different. “Daddy” has different connotations, drawing images of the loving relationship between a father and a son.

In my mind, I tend to have a more formal, stiff image of God. Inaccurate? Sure. But it’s just the way I frequently view Him. I see Jesus as the link between us and Him, having come to Earth as a human and sacrificing Himself on our behalf so that we can be reconciled with God.

But when I think of God as Jesus’ “daddy,” it softens that image somehow. I remember the birth of my own sons, how my heart swelled with love and pride at first sight of them. And as much love as I felt for them – as I feel for them every minute of every day – I know that my love is just a glimpse of the love that God had for Jesus. And luckily, though we’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve it, the love that He has for us. How His own heart must have leapt when He watched Mary give birth to His Son, even knowing the fate that He would meet in just a short time.

I think about the day when my youngest was born just a few months ago, and the birth of my oldest four years ago. With both boys, I wanted the best of everything. I spent months planning silly things, like their first pictures and what they would wear home from the hospital. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t make a big deal out of the birth of our children, but how trivial that all seems when I think about the Messiah sleeping in a manger surrounded by animals. It really puts things in perspective.

So as I reflect on the story of Jesus’ humble birth, I am incredibly grateful for a loving God, a merciful God who reveals Himself to me in new ways every day. Thank you, God, for sending your Son so that I might live. My prayer tonight is that You will help me understand your love more fully and give me every opportunity to share that love with others.

The Fraud

I am a fraud.

Satan reminds me of this day after day. He taunts me with his words: You can’t work for God. You’re not good enough. Look at what you’ve done…how can you be a true Christian? You’re a fraud.

And he’s right; I’m not good enough. I’m a sinner. I’ve done terrible things in my life, things that still haunt me in my darkest hours, when I’m feeling down about the person I am.

Satan is the master of guilt and self-doubt. Without warning, he slips into my mind and brings back memories of my past. There are so many people out there who are better Christians than you will ever be, he whispers. What makes you think you can talk to anyone about Jesus?

With Satan’s voice in my head, it’s easy to say, He’s right. I need to fix myself before I think about reaching out to others. Just this morning, I opened my Bible with those thoughts in my mind. “Okay, you need to do more for God. It’s time to memorize more Bible verses…pray harder…reach out to those in need…”

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things on my to-do list above. Those are all things that Christians are called to do.

But the thought process that got me there? It’s WAY off-base. And just like He always does, God brought that to my attention through His word.

In chapter two of the book of Mark, Jesus eats dinner in the midst of tax collectors and sinners. The scribes and Pharisees are angry that He’s surrounding Himself with “low” people such as these. But when He hears what they are saying, He responds with, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:17)

It’s impossible to fix myself; Jesus is THE physician. I can’t make myself well and THEN go see the doctor; things don’t work that way. I have to come to Him, surrender myself, confess my sins, and let Him work in my life to make me into the person He wants me to be.

And as far as waiting until I’m “fixed” to work for Him?

In the book of John, chapter four, Jesus passes through the city of Samaria. There He encounters a woman drawing water from the well. She is a sinner, which He is well aware of, but He asks her for a drink. By doing this, He breaks major social rules of the day – first of all, men in the Middle East didn’t speak to women in public…not even their wives or mothers; second, Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans; and third, a teacher like Jesus would never speak to a woman like her – a social outcast with five former husbands who lived with her boyfriend in sin. But He ignores all the rules and tells her that He is the Messiah, that He can give her water so that she will never thirst again. And what does she do from there? She runs into the city and tells everyone she sees about Jesus. The Bible tells us that “many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified” (John 4:39). He used her – a sinner – to turn many people into believers.

Jesus can use the “worst” of us for His purpose. I don’t have to wait until I’m a “better” person; I can ask Jesus for opportunities to speak for Him just as I am, and He will use me for His good.

When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, He knew that we would never live up to them. But He loved us so much that He let His only Son die for us, taking the fate that we deserve. How thankful I am that I serve a God of mercy, a God who loves me as I am, listens to my prayers, teaches me, molds me, and forgives me time and time again.

Like a Child

Living life with my four-year-old is, to put it mildly, an adventure. He has been the source of my laughter and my tears. My love and my worry. My admiration and my frustration. My excitement and my exhaustion. My pride and my embarrassment.  I love that little boy more than I could ever put into words and I would do absolutely anything for him. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt the urge to check myself into an institution after some days with him.

There’s a passage in Matthew that I’ve found myself returning to over and over in my studies this past month. And after reading it, I’ve realized that there’s a lot I can learn from my little man.

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)

I imagine the surprise and confusion on the disciples’ faces when Jesus responded to their question by pulling a little child to Him. A little kid – the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? People must become as little children to enter heaven? When I think about all the mistakes I made growing up – many out of sheer ignorance and lack of life experience – I shudder to think of returning to my youth. But that’s what Jesus wants us to do?

So what does it mean to become “humble as a little child”? I think about Jesus’ words all the time when interacting with my children, and two things have stood out to me lately in regards to those ‘child-like’ qualities that Jesus must have been referring to. And to my surprise, some of the very things that drive me absolutely insane are, I believe, some of the things God may be looking for.

  • Total Dependence

Last night, my son followed my every step for at least fifteen minutes, asking me to tighten the Velcro strap on his tennis shoes. This is a job that he can do alone, mind you, but he insisted that I do it “better” than he does. I thought he would eventually get tired of asking me as I completed other task after other task and give in to do it himself, but he was relentless. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I bent down and tightened the strap for him, sighing loudly as I did it. He just grinned and said, “Thank you, Mommy. You did a great job,” before he went on about his way. And I immediately felt ashamed of feeling so irritated by his little request.

Any mother of young children can tell you that her job is literally never done. When you’re not with your kids, you’re still worrying about them. When you are with them, they require your constant attention. Even when they’re napping and you get a tiny break, you’re still on call – you can’t fully relax or get too far away. And when they’re awake, forget breaks. They need your full focus. Anything they want or need, it’s up to you to get it for them. Any questions they have, it’s up to you to answer them. Any stories they want to tell, it’s up to you to listen to them. Going to the bathroom alone? Forget it. Taking a shower in peace? No more. They are like your constant shadow, except your real shadow is quiet and doesn’t require any work, time, or attention.

Of course, I say all this jokingly. Sort of. The truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But is it exhausting? Absolutely.

God will give us His constant attention willingly. If we want or need something, or have questions, or even just want to share things with Him, He is always there and wants us to bring those things to Him. And the best part is, He never grows tired of or irritated by us. He invites us to become like little children and depend on Him for our every need, want, or worry, no matter how big or small. He actually wants us to be like His shadow – relying on Him alone in every aspect of life. He will tighten the strap on your tennis shoes (metaphorically, of course) without even sighing in utter annoyance. In fact, He’ll be pleased that you acknowledged that He can do it better than you can…something I forget from time to time.

  • Losing the Filter

Last month, my husband, our two boys and I went down to Panama City Beach for a family vacation with my husband’s parents. My sports-obsessed four-year-old spent most of his days in the sand hitting baseballs from anyone who would pitch to him. He’s a pretty good little hitter and soon caught the attention some of our neighbors from the condo where we stayed. One day, while I was the designated pitcher, an older man stopped to watch him hit.

My son didn’t notice him at first – not until the man called out, “You keep that up, buddy! You’re going to make a great baseball player someday!”

As the man went on to tell him about his own glory days playing baseball as a kid, my eyes were on my son. It was one of those scary mom moments – a moment when I was looking into his eyes, but I could see past them and into his brain and I could just see those little wheels turning. He was no longer hearing a word the old man was saying – a question was formulating in his mind and it was about to come out.

I know other moms can relate to the feeling of dread that came over me. I offered up a quick, pleading prayer – Oh, God, please don’t let him say something embarrassing – and before I could say anymore, he blurted out, “Mommy, why does he not have a belly button?”

I could only hope my sunburn hid the heat I could feel in my cheeks. I gave him my best mom look – that frown with narrowed eyes that warns him to be quiet – but my son still studied the man’s stomach (which, by the way, I’m sure was equipped with a perfectly normal belly button…but his swimming trunks were pulled up pretty high so that the elastic hid it).

The man either didn’t hear the question or pretended he didn’t hear the question – either way, he didn’t respond. He simply encouraged my son again: “You keep practicing hard and you could go pro, you hear me?” My son just nodded, still eyeing the missing belly button warily.

When the man was gone, I squatted down beside my son. “Hey, buddy, you can’t say things like that,” I said.

“What did I say bad?” he asked, his blue eyes searching mine in alarm.

“About that guy’s belly button. You could have embarrassed him.”

He frowned. “I didn’t try to embarrass him, Mom. I just wanted to see why he didn’t have a belly button.”

I knew I could have used that moment to explain how it’s not nice to point out differences, but I didn’t. Instead, I just smiled and picked up the ball again. When my son saw the ball in my hand, his eyes lit up and he grabbed the bat, his mind already on batting and far from the man with the mystery belly button. He didn’t even understand that he’d done anything wrong. At that moment, instead of attempting to teach my son a lesson, I decided to let him keep his innocence a bit longer.

As we grow up, we develop a filter that tells us what is and is not appropriate to say. And with good reason: we don’t need to walk around pointing out people who lack belly buttons.

When first meeting a person, our filters are on thick, resulting in small talk, politeness, etc. After developing deeper relationships with people, our filters tend to thin out a little. (Like when your best friend asks for your honest opinion about a pair of jeans and you oh-so-politely inform her that they look horrendous.)

But when it comes to God, we have to lose that filter completely…both with Him and with others.

Our job is to be transparent with God, which is something I often struggle with. When I confess my sins to Him, I tend to gloss over them a little. And I don’t know why…He knows my heart even better than I do; what am I accomplishing by trying to filter my deepest thoughts before confessing them to Him? With Him, it’s okay to admit your shortcomings, no matter how horrible they may sound when spoken out loud. In fact, it’s what He wants us to do. It’s the only way He can help us fix them. It’s the only way to have a real relationship with Him.

Losing my filter with others is especially difficult regarding my faith. I talk about my kids, my day-to-day activities and events, my experiences. If God is the most important part of my life, why is it so difficult to talk about Him? It’s that filter I’ve developed – the little thing in the back of my mind that worries about offending others or being laughed at. But God calls us to share His word. If we ask Him to help us eliminate that filter, He will give us the words to say to glorify and bring others to Him.

I still mess up in this daily walk and I still have such a long way to go. And when I think about the patience God has with me, I’m ashamed of the impatience I sometimes feel with my own child. After all, despite his age, I clearly have a lot to learn from him about what it means to be a child of God.