A Prayer for our Schools

Tomorrow marks the beginning of another school year – my tenth year in the classroom. In this house, an odd mix of excitement and nervous dread fills the rooms as my soon-to-be first-grader prepares himself for something new (“Why did the summer go so fast, Mom? I thought we had almost eighty days off! What if I don’t have friends in my class? What if I miss you too much? What if I just want to play outside but I’m stuck at my desk for hours?”).

Tonight, as I make plans and get ready for my junior high students, I am overcome by an overwhelming urge to pray. Again I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Our schools, and our kids, are facing a world we’ve never known before – a world filled with hatred and pain on a scale we’ve never seen. And tonight, I’m turning to God and asking Him to be with us, to protect us and bless us as we navigate this new year.

Lord, be with our kids as they come back to us. You have created each one in Your image, each one with a specific purpose. You know their potential and see them for both who they are and who they can become.

Be with the super students, the overachievers, the ones who excel in school. Help them continue to do big things in the classroom so that they will go on to do even bigger things in this world.

Be with the ones who struggle, the ones who want to succeed but don’t have the same abilities as those straight A students. Help them to see that You have blessed them with talents and abilities and that Your plan for them will be amazing. Help them to find the path You have created for them, and let them know that they, too, will go on to do big things in this world.

Be with the students who don’t want to be there, the ones who don’t enjoy the classroom and feel stifled by the school routine. Help them to find their passion, their creative outlet.

Be with the ones who want to be there – not because they enjoy class, but because for those seven hours each day, they feel safe. They know they are free from whatever plagues them at home – abuse, neglect, hunger. They know they are guaranteed meals.

Be with the students who hate school – not because they don’t enjoy the classwork, but can’t even concentrate on learning because they feel like an outcast. Help them know they are loved and accepted when other students don’t make them feel that way. Help them see their worth in Your eyes.

Soften those students who are angry at the world. Help them to find their place in the middle of the chaos and give them a heart to know You and Your love.

Be with the parents and guardians – the involved PTA moms and dads who volunteer in the classroom, the ones who don’t know or care how their kids are doing in school, and every parent in between. Help them find ways to love and support their kids and set them up for success in school and in their lives.

And finally, be with our teachers and staff. Fill us with patience and wisdom. Help us to connect with each of our students, both in our content areas and in their lives. Help us to love them fiercely, as our own kids, even when it’s not easy. Help us to show them that in us, they have an ally, a confidant, a mentor, and a friend. Help us to be who they need us to be so that each and every student can experience success and most importantly, love and inclusion. Help us to be Your hands and feet each and every day. Help us to see each student through Your eyes, to love them as you do – for who they are now and who we know they can be.

Mighty God, please bless our schools. Help those students and teachers who know You to be Your light in this dark world. Keep all of our students safe, both in and out of the classroom. Help us all to have a successful year and to feel Your joy and peace, no matter our circumstances.

Thank You for hearing our prayers and loving us so completely. I ask these things in Jesus’ Holy name. Amen.

Casting My Net

prayer

I wasn’t in the mood for church this morning.
I lay wide awake at five-thirty this morning, contemplating “calling in sick” to church to let my Sunday school kids know I wouldn’t make it. After a sleepless night spent worrying about something beyond my control, my head spun.
I yawned. I need some sleep. Both my boys slept soundly on either side of me. One phone call, and you can sleep, too. It’s only one week. What will it hurt?
But something kept me from making that call. I lay there debating, but kept remembering things I needed to do there. Bible School is next week. I need to meet with the workers and find some materials. Plus, my boys look forward to “playing” their guitars with the kids’ praise and worship.
When I couldn’t lie there any longer, I got up. Fine, I’ll go. I got myself and my kids ready, grumbling in my head the whole time, still stressing about the same burden that kept me up all night.
I got to Sunday school and found I had extra students because another teacher was on vacation. The big, lively group of kids and the lesson we had on Jesus’ prayer to His Father just before going to the cross was enough to pull me from my slump a little. I left Sunday school feeling happier, more alive.
But it was the preacher’s message that wrecked me. He read from Luke chapter five, when Jesus got in the boat with Simon and told him to drop his net into the water. Simon told Him they’d been fishing all night with no luck, but that he’d try again. When he did, his net filled with fish until it broke.
How many times have I told God I’ve done all I can do? How many times have I given up when things didn’t go my way the first time? Jesus never promised an easy ride. Even when He blessed Simon with an abundance of fish, the net broke, making them work to get the fish into the boat.
God loves to bless us, but we can’t expect Him to just rain those blessings down upon us. We have to trust – we have to keep going when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel – we have to work. When we listen to Him and take that leap of faith, no matter how difficult that leap may be, that’s when we’ll see true blessings.
I was able to lay my burden at the altar of prayer. Instead of spending the whole night in my head, worrying and what-if-ing and replaying conversations, I should have given it to Him in the first place. I should have laid it at His feet and immersed myself in the rest and peace that only He provides.
But I’m grateful that He pulled me to church, even if my heart was in the wrong place when I got there. I leave there every single Sunday feeling blessed by His presence…today was no different in that respect.  But today, I also left feeling lighter. At peace. Rested. I’m grateful that He’s still working in me, that He doesn’t give up on me. I’m grateful that He not only listens to me when I’m hurt or confused, but that He cares. That he guides me and speaks to me in so many ways – often through others, like He did this morning.
And I’m grateful for the chance to cast my net in one more time. And if it still doesn’t work, one more time after that. I will keep working, keep trusting, and know that He is in control.

Filling the Void

The message I have tonight is a simple one. But it’s something God put on my heart days ago, something I feel He wants me to share. In fact, He actually gave me the opportunity to talk about this with two different people – two totally different situations – in the past four days. If that doesn’t tell me He wants me to share this, I don’t know what will.

I want to share a small part of my testimony that comes from my time in college. I enjoyed my time there – loved my classes, my professors, and most of all, my friends. The girls in my sorority were my family away from home. But I would suspect that many of those girls who knew me then wouldn’t even recognize me now.

During that time, I was searching for something – trying to fill a void in my life I didn’t even realize existed. In the freedom that came with living away from home for the first time, I made my own choices.

One of those choices was to leave church.

It wasn’t like I woke up one day and thought to myself, I’m not going to church anymore. It happened gradually. Late Saturday nights out with my friends led to sleeping in on Sunday mornings and laughing over late breakfasts.

When guilt pangs arose, I justified it. This is college. It’s normal. 

I remember a few specific moments, wandering out of the club at two a.m., thinking, You should go to church tomorrow. Get up early – drive home. And I actually did it several times. But when I walked into the church and looked around at all the “good” people, my bar stamp still faintly present on my hand, Satan whispered in my ear. You’re a hypocrite. Who are you kidding? You don’t belong here. God can’t love you when you’re living like this.

I let his voice keep me away until eventually, those guilt pangs stilled. After all, you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian, right?

But my hectic lifestyle left me “too busy” to read my Bible. I don’t think I even had one in my room in the sorority house – all my study Bibles from high school still rested on my nightstand back home.  More than once I eyed them while visiting my parents, but I never took one back to school with me. The idea of opening it, of trying to connect with God, seemed daunting. Days passed without prayer. Those days turned into weeks, into months.

I was too far gone, too far away from Him. I couldn’t come back to Him when I knew I was living a life He never intended for me. I would come back to Him someday – when college was over. When I could get my life together. Then I would get back in church…start praying again…read my Bible.

If you talked to anyone who knew me in college, they would describe a very different person. I don’t think most of my friends knew the emptiness I felt inside. I filled it with so many other things – school, work, friends, parties. I fooled a lot of people. Especially myself. When that emptiness rose from my stomach into my throat, threatening to choke me, I rationalized it. When _____ finally happens, you won’t feel like this anymore. Until it happened, and I still felt incomplete. When you get _____, things will be right. Until I got it, and I was still lost.

That magical day when my life would “come together” never came. College came and went, but I only continued to distance myself. My life spiraled out of my control, and one bad decision led to another until I hit a point so low I had no choice but to cry out to God. Finally, I surrendered. And in the midst of the chaos, He restored my peace.

It wasn’t until then that I realized how messed up my old logic was. God didn’t want me to wait, to get my life together and THEN seek Him. He wanted me just as I was – broken, searching, living a life that didn’t include Him. The Bible tells us that His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). If I had come to Him, just as I was, He could have filled that void so much sooner. He would have opened His arms and taken me in…flaws, sin, and all. He could have begun a work in me way before I finally allowed Him to. He could have saved me from a lot of bumps and bruises along my path.

I’m sharing this message tonight in case there’s anyone out there – even one person – who’s going through what I went through. Who knows there’s something missing inside of them, but isn’t sure what it is or how to fix it. I can tell you from years and years of mistakes and false glimpses of happiness that He is the only answer out there. His love is the only thing that will truly fill that void.

And above all, don’t wait to come to Him. Don’t wait for the day when you are “worthy” to come to Him – when you are a “better person” – because the truth is, that day will never come. We aren’t allowed to come to Him because of anything we’ve done…it’s His unchanging, unfailing love that gives us that opportunity. It’s because of His grace alone, grace that is offered to anyone who accepts it, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. As someone once put it, you don’t wait until you’re healthy to see a doctor; you go when you’re sick. Come to Him when you’re broken. Let his power be made perfect in your weakness. Jesus didn’t come here for perfect people. He came for the damaged, the wrecked. The ones who needed a Savior.

I am one of the lucky ones: I found Him before it was too late. But the reality is, many won’t get that same luxury. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. Seek Him now, just as you are. He’s waiting with arms wide open.

In the Midst of Wolves

This coming week will bring about some big changes in our house and to say that I am a bundle of emotions is an understatement.

Tomorrow, I go back to work after taking a year off for maternity leave. But what I’m struggling with even more so is the fact that my oldest son starts kindergarten on Wednesday.

For the past year, I’ve been blessed to stay home with my two boys every day. Home, where we are safe. Where I at least feel somewhat in control of what they will see and hear even though…let’s be honest…nothing is totally in a parent’s control.

On one hand, I am so excited for the experiences that he will gain with this huge step. New friends, new activities, new skills learned. He will no longer have to pretend to read his books or “read” them by memory – he will actually learn how to read the words on the page. He will learn that when he measures his toy dinosaur, it’s four INCHES, not four POUNDS (and yes, I realize that I could teach him this myself…but it’s just too cute to correct.) He will begin to learn that the world really isn’t centered around him as he figures out what it means to work with others and be part of something bigger than himself.

On the other hand, Matthew 10:16 keeps creeping into my mind: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” These were Jesus’ words as he spoke to His disciples, warning them of persecutions that would come in His name. But I can’t help but feel they apply to this situation as well. Call me dramatic, but a part of me feels as though I’m sending my sweet, innocent boy into a pack of wolves. Even though I have every confidence that his teacher and the school administrators will provide a safe learning environment and will do everything in their power to take care of my baby while he’s away, this big step toward independence has my stomach in knots because I know that not all of his experiences will be good and there’s nothing I can do to shelter him from those bad things. He may get teased. He may get left out. Or, an even greater fear of mine: he may be the one doing the teasing or leaving others out. Either way, I won’t be there to protect him or correct him. He’s going to hear other kids say things I don’t allow him to say. And, like I did in elementary school, I’m sure he’ll experiment a little with those “bad words” himself. Along with all those exciting things he will learn from his teacher, he will also learn things from other kids that will make me cringe.

And when I think about his innocent mind being filled with inappropriate things, his beautiful little eyes being opened to what the world has to offer, it makes me want to lock him in the house with me and never leave again.

So today, I have to lean on God’s promises – things that I know are true.

First of all, He promised this: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). I have to trust that the foundation that we and our church family have provided for him at home will go with him even as he grows…even as he experiments with things he knows better than to say or do…and that at the end of the day, he will remember his faith in a God that is bigger than this world.

I am also reminded of Jesus’ words and promise in Matthew 6:25-34: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” I know that this verse seems to address worrying in regards to money, but it applies to all worry. And it reminds me that our God provides, and He is in control. Worrying about what Aven will see or hear or do won’t change anything – it’s all part of His perfect, bigger-than-I-can-comprehend plan for Aven’s life. None of it has ever been up to me in the first place – I’m just the one who is lucky enough to watch him grow up so that he can fulfill the purpose that God has for him here on this earth.

I ask you to pray for all of our kids, teachers, and staff all over our nation as we begin a new school year in an uncertain and unsafe world. There are so many kids who can’t wait to come back to school, just to know for certain they will have their next meal or that they can have seven full hours without being beaten or abused by a family member. Please pray for the safety and success of all of our kids – our future – and for their teachers, that they will not only teach them what they need to know, but that they will be a light in this world of darkness and a symbol of peace and safety.

Lies Walt Disney Told Me

An old friend from college sent me a message a couple days ago. I haven’t seen her in seven years, but because of the magic of Facebook, I’ve followed her all the way across the country and watched her start a new job, fall in love only to get her heart broken, and go on many other adventures along the way. She’s never met my husband or kids, but she feels like she knows them because of my constant posts about them. (Yep, I’m one of those moms. To all my social media friends who have to see pictures of every move my kids make, I’m sorry. But not really.)

We messaged back and forth several times throughout the day, taking time out from our daily routines to fill each other in on things that have been going on in our lives. In the last message she sent, she said, “I’m really happy for you. Your boys are precious, your husband seems wonderful, and you look so happy in all of your pictures. I hope someday my life comes together like yours!”

The first time I read that, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s flattering to think that someone aspires to have the life you’ve worked hard to create. But as I sat there, mentally patting myself on the back like a total jerk, the baby started crying and immediately following that, I heard, “I didn’t do anything, Mom!” (which is universal kid-language for I just did something bad) and then I heard my husband muttering in irritation in the next room over something or another and I found myself laughing, unable to get past that particular part of her message while thinking, If she only knew! As I began to dissect her words and the events that transpired, God put something on my heart that I just have to share.

When I was a little girl, I watched Disney movies and dreamed of the day when some handsome prince would ride in on a horse and carry me off into the sunset, where we would live “happily ever after.” It all seemed so easy. When I met “the one,” everything would just click and life together would be easy because “all you need is love.” And all those people getting divorced? They must have rushed into marriage. Or they got married too young. Or they didn’t choose carefully enough.

What a judgmental snob I was, without even meaning to be. It wasn’t until the day that I held my six-week-old sleeping baby in my arms and called a divorce lawyer that my eyes were opened to the fact that it doesn’t matter how carefully you plan, how hard you try to do everything “right”…LIFE STILL HAPPENS. And that means things will not always go according to your plan. I became part of that failed marriage statistic. The day I signed the papers, I broke that promise I made in front of God, my family, and my closest friends.

Fast forward two and a half years and a three-hour move from my old home in Smyrna, TN, when I was introduced to the man I now call my husband. For the first time in years, I felt something I thought I was too numb to ever feel again – a spark. He started working long shifts as a lineman on a job two hours away from me, but we managed to get to know each other better each day, despite the distance. I spent my days teaching high school English and then came home to spend time with and care for my son; by the time I put him to bed, I was tired. And the physical demands of his job left him tired at the end of the day, too. But it didn’t stop us from talking on the phone every single night for at least two or three hours and texting each other every chance we got throughout the day.

I fell hard and fast. And the best part was, my son fell in love with him, too. When he proposed just seven months later, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. We planned a wedding quickly and two months later, we were married. My son walked me down the aisle and my husband put rings on both of us, promising to love us for the rest of his life. Three months later, we were pregnant. A month after that, we were signing a contract on a new home out in the country just minutes away from my school.

I finally had my Disney fairytale ending, my “happily ever after.” God had taken my broken life and pieced it back together, but this time, it was even better than I’d ever imagined it would be. On our one-year anniversary, I went into labor and the next morning, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy and the school where I teach even granted me a year off for maternity leave. Nothing could go wrong now. Right?

Wrong. Because even though everything seemed to be going well on the outside, I’ve learned all over again that LIFE STILL HAPPENS. And marriage? Well, marriage is hard sometimes. Spending all day every day with my two young boys is incredible…but incredibly exhausting, too. And though my youngest turns a year old tomorrow, he still doesn’t sleep through the night, even though I’ve tried different suggestions from all those “expert” moms out there. I often find myself unable to talk to my husband about anything but our kids because they consume the biggest part of my life. While I want to put him first in front of all my other responsibilities and obligations, the reality is it doesn’t always happen.

And meanwhile, he’s working 40+ hours a week in a job that takes a toll on his energy, working outside no matter the weather. When he gets home, our oldest son immediately asks him to play outside with him – pitch and catch, fishing, basketball, etc., and he almost always obliges him. Plus, he coaches our son’s t-ball team. And all that means that he doesn’t always have time to put me first, either.

Once in a while, it goes beyond the fact that we don’t put each other first and progresses into one of those “perfect storm” days, as I call them, when things just aren’t going right and we take it out on each other. Those little quirks that each of us have that we once found adorable are suddenly unbelievably irritating. It almost always starts with something little. For instance, my refusal to make a grocery list means that I forget at least one item every time I go, and on one of those perfect storm days, it will be an item that he needs. His patience level gets low, and since I avoid confrontation, I will retreat upstairs with the kids to avoid him for a bit. And before I know it, it’s time to go to bed and we have barely even spoken to each other outside of things that had to be said, much less spent any quality time together. And then I read some post by one of those Pinterest moms…you know, the type that I admire but will never measure up to…and see where she has managed to take care of her children, clean the house, do all the laundry with the detergent she created from scratch, cook a five-course meal, get her children to bed at promptly seven p.m. and still be full of energy to devote to her husband so that her marriage remains the most important part of her life.

I understand the importance of putting work into marriage and I’m not devaluing that. All I’m saying is that it’s hard some days. Life is so fast-paced and throws so much at us and since we’re imperfect people, we’re not always going to handle it all the right way. And so that “happily ever after” is momentarily forgotten and that “handsome prince” that stole my heart loses some of his charm. Those butterflies that once fluttered in my stomach when I saw his truck pull into my driveway  go to sleep sometimes.

And don’t get me wrong; it works both ways. I have no doubt that there are days when I am not the woman he once fell in love with, either. When I’m changing diapers with spit up in my hair and serving spaghetti for supper at least once a week just because it’s the easiest meal in the world to make, I’m sure those butterflies he once felt for me are long gone.

But God is still working in my life. And as I grow closer to Him in my daily walk, He’s showing me a few things.

The first thing I’ve learned is that LOVE is not just a butterflies-in-your-stomach FEELING, it’s an ACTION, a CHOICE you make. Though I wouldn’t call it a choice back when I fell in love with my husband – I don’t think I could have controlled that even if I wanted to – there are those perfect-storm days when it’s hard to remember why we even LIKE each other, much less LOVE each other. But I CHOOSE to love him anyway. And when I make an effort to show that love to him even when I don’t feel like it, God steps in and reminds me why I gave my heart to this man in the first place. And suddenly, it’s easy to adore him again.

Another thing I’ve learned is that when I pray diligently for my husband, asking God to guide him and protect our marriage, He finds ways not to change my husband, but to change me. Instead of picking his quirks apart, He diverts my attention to my own shortcomings and shows me again the beautiful qualities He created in my husband. When I spend my time focusing on the good things about him and remember that he is an imperfect child of God, just like me, suddenly those flaws I sometimes focus on fade into the background.

And the third thing He’s shown me is that if I rely solely on my husband for my joy, I will be disappointed. My husband is a good man and I can’t brag on him enough for what he does for our family. He keeps me laughing every single day. He is a hard worker and he takes good care of our boys. He stepped in and became a daddy for our oldest when he didn’t have to, and that boy looks up to him and wants to please him more than anyone else. And as for our youngest, the admiration he has for his daddy is already evident in the way he looks at him. He really loves him, giving him hugs and loving pats and squeezes. But in spite of all that, my husband still makes mistakes. And there are times when he hurts my feelings – often unknowingly – and I feel let down. But that’s a consequence of relying on another person to make you happy: it’s impossible to do at all times. When I rely on God to fulfill me instead, I receive a joy that is unexplainable yet everlasting.

Today is our two-year anniversary. Only two years, but we’ve already been through so much. I can’t wait to see what God has in store for our lives as we spend them together. I know there will be more happiness, but there will be more tears, too. Through it all, I will love him – imperfectly, no doubt – and even when times get tough, I will CHOOSE to love. And as long as we trust in God and allow Him to lead us in this marriage, I know we will continue to create our own “happily ever after.”

Motherhood

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing at this whole “motherhood” thing.

My oldest son is five years old. And, well, he’s all boy. He’s rough, he dirty (he is filthy by the end of every single day – somehow even on those rainy days when we have to stay in the house), he’s loud, he’s goofy, and he’s wild.

But he’s also loving. He gives the tightest bear hugs I’ve ever received. He loves to read the Bible and pray and talk about Jesus. When his little brother cries, he hurries to find a toy for him or tries to make him laugh.

I try my best to teach him the things he needs to know – what it really means to love others, how to treat people, how to be the kind of person that I hope for him to be.

And most of the time, even at this young age, I can see that he is becoming the kid, and eventually the man, that I know he is capable of being. Under all that rough-boy exterior is a sensitive little boy who loves to hug and kiss and make others feel good about themselves. A little boy who includes others and protects the people that he loves.

But like every kid, he makes wrong choices, too. I see those wrong choices when we’re alone from time to time, like a few nights ago when his ten-month-old brother was crying, and he told him to “shut up” – something he knows he’s not allowed to say but he thought he was far enough out of my earshot to get away with it. Sometimes he talks back to me. He can be rude. Hateful, even.

I can honestly say that when we’re at home, I see a whole lot more of the GOOD stuff than the BAD stuff. But for whatever reason, as soon as we get around other people, my son can turn into a different person. Like today, at my mother’s house, when he got mad at his older cousin and left a scratch on his face…and then turned around and got too rough with his younger cousin and upset him, too.

Today, as I paced outside the door where he sat in time-out, I felt so disappointed. I just kept thinking in my head, Why does he act like this? This isn’t the way I’ve taught him to behave – why doesn’t he listen to what I’ve said? Why can’t he be the sweet boy that I know when we get around other people? Why does he have to do something to get in trouble ALMOST EVERY TIME we have a family gathering?

As I asked these questions in my mind, a still voice spoke to me. Are you perfect? Are you the person that I want you to be at all times? Tears came to my eyes when I recognized HIS voice and I realized that just as my son acts out against me, I act out against God. I know what He wants for my life. I know what He expects out of me. And yet I find myself repenting of sin – the same ones, it seems – almost daily. I could picture God pacing my doorway, asking Himself the same types of questions I asked myself about my own child: This isn’t the way I’ve taught her – why doesn’t she listen to what I’ve said? Why does she keep making the same mistakes? Why can’t she be the woman that I created her to be?

Just as I began to really feel down about myself –for both my failures as a mother and my failures as a child of God – I heard that still voice again: I love you anyway, just as you are. My kids aren’t perfect, and neither am I. But the same way I love my child no matter what he says or does, no matter how trying some days may be, God loves me, too. He doesn’t love me less when I mess up and I don’t have to “earn” His love any more than my son has to earn mine – He gives it freely.

Being a mother is my favorite part of God’s plan for me. The love that I feel for my boys is greater than anything I’ve ever known. And today, God showed me that motherhood is His way of giving us a glimpse of the infinite love that He has for us.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the giving, hard-working, beautiful mothers out there!

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.