I love that God knows exactly how to reach me – how to get a message across when I’m not listening for His voice.

This time, He chose my kids to deliver a message. And what better way to get to me than through the people I love most in this world?

I have been praying for something for quite some time, something I can’t share publicly but is important to me. And though I’m trying to be patient, I’ve grown frustrated at times because it feels like I’m not getting an answer from Him. I tell myself to trust Him, to trust His timing and His wisdom and listen for His gentle guidance.

But even though I tell myself I’m doing that – though I tell God Himself that I’m doing just that – He showed me otherwise.

The stomach virus has made its rounds in our house this month. And no, rounds (plural) is not a typo – while my husband and I took one turn with it, my boys each had it twice.

With my youngest, I quickly learned that milk – his favorite drink – was not a good thing while battling this virus. (I’ll spare the details of how I learned this, but I’m sure you can use your imagination.) I was scared that he was going to become dehydrated. For the sake of his poor little belly and body, I replaced his usual milk bottle with water or juice.

Through the day, he was mostly okay with this. It was nighttime that he resisted. He knew that he usually got milk to go to sleep and then again sometimes through the night when he woke. When I gave him a bottle of water at three a.m., the screaming fit display that followed was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

Of course, I tried to whisper calmly, tried to reason with him. (As if that’s really possible with an eighteen-month-old.) “Bray, you can’t have milk right now. It’s not good for you while you’re sick. Maybe tomorrow morning, if your belly is feeling better, we can try a little milk again. But not tonight.”

The screaming drowned out my whispers. I tried everything I could to soothe him – rocking, walking and bouncing, rubbing his arms and legs with my fingernails the way he likes – but nothing worked. He was determined to have his milk.

I held him against me and begged God to help me calm him down, to heal him, to comfort him. I asked Him to help Brayson understand that I was withholding the milk for a good reason.

And that’s when I heard His voice: “You want Brayson to trust that you know what’s best for him. So why don’t you trust that I know what’s best for you?”

That’s when I realized I had been so busy telling God what I needed, I hadn’t really stopped to ask for His input. I was so sure I knew what was best for me. I forgot for a moment that He is the Almighty, that He designed me with a specific, perfect plan in mind and that my own dreams may not always line up exactly with that plan.

I know that God wants us to come to Him with everything – with our needs, our wants, our hopes. And I am so grateful for that. I am so in awe of the fact that the One who created it all loves me and wants a personal relationship with me. He loves me so much that when I stop listening to Him, stop trusting Him, He takes the time to reach out to me to gently remind me of who He is and how much bigger His love is than I can ever comprehend or grasp. But part of knowing that He loves me is knowing that He also loves me enough to say No. Or Not Yet. And in not answering my prayers the way I think He should, He is preparing me for something better. Or saving me from something disastrous that He can see and I cannot.

On this Christmas Eve, I am praising Him for coming to Earth, for becoming one of us in order to bring us to Him. I just read the Christmas Story with my sons, and it brought tears to my eyes to realize of the perfection of God’s plan, bringing His Son into this world in such a humble way. It was the perfect beginning to His time on this earth.

From the beginning of it all, He had a plan for each and every one of us. And that plan included a love for us so fierce that He sacrificed Himself in order to save us – even though we are undeserving and so often ungrateful.

Thank you, God, for sending Your Son into this world. Thank You for loving us so much when we have done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

Merry Christmas to all of my family and friends!

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Stress

It seems I have seriously underestimated the power of my enemy.

They told me he was smart, that he could slip in undetected in the most unexpected places and wreak havoc on my life. But I wasn’t worried; he couldn’t pull anything over on me. I wouldn’t give him the opening he needed.

I didn’t even see him coming.

School started almost seven weeks ago. I started teaching in a new position, my oldest stated kindergarten, and my youngest went to a babysitter for essentially the first time in his life. The first week or so took some adjustment, but I was pleased with the way we all seemed to adapt to our new schedules. It was hectic, but in a good way. The exhausted feeling I had at the end of each day was weirdly satisfying.

The falling apart was gradual.

I’m about to get real, at the risk of a couple things – one, that I sound like a big whiner , and two, that I sound like a spoiled brat who doesn’t appreciate what I have – and I don’t like the idea of either of those things. So let me first clarify and defend myself and say that I absolutely love the life that God has given me – especially the people in it. That includes my family and the kids I teach every day, kids who quickly became “my kids” as well. And I recognize that compared to many, my problems are minuscule and for that I know I am blessed.

But I am tired. And I don’t like the person I sometimes become when I’m stressed out by a never-ending to-do list and jam-packed days with no sign of any sort of rest in sight. The days when I’m longing to stay home for just one evening, if only to catch up on the piles of laundry I can’t ever seem to get on top of or to clean more than just one room of my house at a time. Or when I’m feeling especially selfish, the longing to just read for fun or write a chapter in the new book I’m trying to write – something I haven’t even touched in over six weeks.

I hear older mothers always saying to enjoy this time while it’s here, that it will be over all too soon and that I will miss it someday and believe me, I GET THAT. But when I’m cooking supper with one hand because the other one is holding a baby on my hip and I’m tripping over my five-year-old, who is clinging to my waist and playing the copycat game, that thought tends to slip my mind.  And I become impatient. I find myself yelling at my oldest over something unnecessary – and I HATE yelling. Or feeling irritated when he asks me to listen to him read a story he’s already read to me three times that evening. I mean seriously, what kind of mom gets tired of listening to her child READ? I think that was the point that I realized that something had begun to unravel, and it was only when I examined the subtle changes that had taken place over the last few weeks that I realized the source of it.

It began when my over-packed schedule became too “crowded” for my quiet time with God. The early morning time I used to spend with Him, studying His word and praying before I began getting ready for my day, began getting shorter and shorter. Though I would force myself to get up with my alarm, I found myself grading papers. And before I knew it, the time was often up and it was time to get ready and I hadn’t even cracked my Bible open. Or sometimes I’d read for fifteen minutes and then realize my mind had been on my lesson plans the entire time and I hadn’t processed a word I’d just read.

He started with a whisper: “It’s okay. God understands. What’s that Bible verse about ‘doing everything with diligence for Him’? He knows you’re putting your whole heart into your job. It’s okay if you didn’t make time for Him this morning. You’ll do it later.”

Later never came. Between school and homework and soccer practice and just making sure my family was fed and bathed and all the other stuff that demanded my time, I found myself falling into bed at night with the final thought that I hadn’t spoken to God that day. Then I began prayers that I didn’t finish because I fell asleep in the middle of them.

And soon I found my upbeat attitude fading. The world slowly became more of my focus. I heard myself participating in gossip that was none of my business to begin with. Though I still continued trying to walk with God daily, it became more of a stand-still. I wasn’t growing in my relationship with Him, and it affected all my other relationships as well.

I’m not saying I need to ignore my other obligations. I firmly believe that I was put on this earth to be a wife, mommy, and teacher, and the Bible does teach that in “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). And I know that God understands the demands that come with each of those “jobs” that I love so much.

But when I stop truly seeking Him, it impacts those things that He put me here to do. And as far as all the stress that sometimes goes along with those things, He promises rest and peace that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:6-7). He promises that if I seek Him with all of my heart and soul, I will find Him (Deuteronomy 4:29-31; Proverbs 8:17).

So as far as my walk with Him, I’m starting to move forward once again. And this time, I’m going to be more diligent in fending off that enemy who lurks nearby, looking for places to worm his way in so he can slowly consume me.

Because this busy mommy doesn’t have time for him and his lies…my son has a book to read to me for the fifteenth time and I can’t wait to hear it.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Worldwide Blog Hop

This week, I am joining a worldwide blog hop called “The Writing Process World Blog Tour.” I was invited to join by author Krysten Lindsay Hager. Krysten is an author and book addict who has never met a bookstore she didn’t like. She’s worked as a journalist and also writes middle grade, YA, humor essays, and adult fiction. Her debut novel, TRUE COLORS, was released this summer. She is originally from Michigan and has lived in South Dakota, Portugal, and currently resides in Southern Ohio where you can find her reading and writing when she’s not catching up on her favorite shows. Find her at: http://www.krystenlindsay.com/.

I’m so excited to be part of this blog tour. Here is a little about me…
I wear many hats: Christian; wife; mother to my young son, Aven, and my four-legged sons, Shakespeare and Poe; teacher of middle school reading and high school English; and now – my lifelong dream realized – author. My debut novel, THE VISITORS, will be released September 16. I graduated from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a bachelor’s degree in English Education and a master’s degree in Reading and Language Studies. I reside and teach in a small town in southern Illinois. From a young age, I was always an avid reader and writer with a big imagination. I spent much of my childhood searching for ghosts and UFOs to no avail – but I haven’t given up the hunt just yet. Though I continue to grow older, my true literature love is and has always been young adult fiction. I loves creating both futuristic and realistic stories about teenagers, and I feel so fortunate to get to work with them every day as a teacher.

As part of the blog hop, all authors are answering the same four questions. So here are my answers!

question 1) What are you working on?

I am currently in the middle of two writing projects! I have written a novel titled Healing Rain that I am in the process of editing, and I am also in the middle of the sequel to my debut novel, The Visitors. Though they are both young adult fiction novels, they are very different. Healing Rain is a realistic contemporary piece about a teen girl starting over in a new town after a devastating event changed her family and shook her Christian faith. She is trying to keep her dark past a secret while juggling new friends (and enemies), new love interest(s), therapy, and fitting in at her new high school. The sequel to the The Visitors (which debuts in September) is a science fiction piece with romance and action mixed in, but I can’t give too many details just yet – I wouldn’t want to spoil the end of The Visitors before it even comes out! I typically focus on one project at a time, but I’m actually enjoying dabbling back and forth between the two at this time. Healing Rain will be complete in the very near future, leaving me to focus on The Visitors – I have a third novel outlined to complete this series after I finish the sequel in progress.

question 2) How does your work differ from others in your genre?

I will focus on The Visitors, as this is the novel that will be available soon. I think it will be easier to answer this question if you already know a little bit about the story, and since it hasn’t been released just yet, I will give you a little blurb about the novel:

Seventeen-year-old Noah awakes one day to find that dangerous, irrational, self-serving, and destructive visitors called “humans” are coming to visit his beautiful, perfect planet. All citizens are ordered to have limited contact and share little information with these visitors.

Sixteen-year-old Jady is thrilled to accompany her father and his crew on a trip to a recently-discovered planet, Verdant. The United States’ crew is hopeful that they can learn from this advanced yet similar species.

Despite their greatest efforts to fight it, it doesn’t take long for Jady and Noah to fall in love and begin a secret affair. But when their relationship is revealed, danger is created for everyone involved…

Some of the concepts in the novel – teen romance, forbidden love, and futuristic space travel – are universal, which people can relate to. The storyline, however, has several unique features: I have created my own planet, with a dystopian society of people who look like humans but are very, very different in the way they think and live. My main characters, Noah and Jady, are young and get swept away in love, but they’re both incredibly intelligent, brave, and strong in their own ways. I hope that my readers will fall in love with them the way I have.

question 3) Why do you write what you write?

I have been a writer my whole life. It’s a passion. These ideas enter my head – sometimes through dreams, sometimes in conversation with friends or at work when I’m teaching – and they just won’t leave me alone until I write and release them. Young adult literature is and has always been what I love. When I was growing up, it was the way I escaped every day. I loved authors who could make me feel like I was part of the story – like the characters I was reading about were part of my life, too. I think my love for working with young people compels me to write for them as well.

question 4) How does your writing process work?

I wouldn’t say I have one magical formula for writing a novel. Writing BC – Before Child – was much easier! I get an idea, and then create a rough outline for a story in my head. I develop my main characters, picturing them as I imagine what their personalities will become. Then, I just start writing. Some days I write more than others, but I would guess that I average about ten pages a day, on good days. Of course, with a full-time job and a family, there are many days that I don’t reach that goal! I have to do most of my writing when my little man is asleep, either during his mid-day nap or at night when he goes to bed. You will often find us in my recliner – him sprawled across my lap asleep, and me leaning over him and typing away on my computer. Once I complete a novel, I usually step away from it for a few weeks. I then go back and read it again, editing for any mistakes and changing any scenes that feel weak. Sometimes this means cutting out entire chapters and rewriting them, so the editing process can take a few weeks as well.

I’m very excited to introduce the authors who will be joining me on this blog hop and posting on August 5.

KV Flynn: Author of Middle Grade and Young Adult Literature whose first book debuts in September as well. Find him at www.OnTheMoveBooks.com,

Karen King: Author of Young Adult Literature. Find her at www.karenking.net.

Tammi Steiner Booth: Author of Young Adult Literature. Find her at www.awritersdevotion.blogspot.com.

 

 

The Human Mind: To Read, Or Not to Read

If you were offered the gift of reading the minds of others, would you take it?

Sometimes, I wish I could get into people’s minds. Like my dogs’, for example. (And yes, my dogs are people.) They can make the sweetest and funniest faces, and I just wonder, What are they thinking? Or my three-year-old son’s. He’s very outgoing and talkative and will usually tell you exactly what’s going through his head, but not always. When he stares into space or rambles about things I don’t understand, I wish I could see what he’s thinking. And I know as he gets older, there will be a million times that I wish to see inside his head.

There are also times when I am talking to someone and I just know that person is thinking something they’re not saying. I know you all have been there: You say something to a friend and they grow too quiet. Or they say one thing, but you can just tell that they are actually thinking the opposite. At those moments, I would love the ability to read their thoughts.

But would I want to hear them? I definitely wouldn’t want my thoughts to go public sometimes. Two reasons: A. I wouldn’t want everyone to know just how weird I really am, and B. As positive as I try to be, sometimes thoughts are uncontrollably terrible. Things can pop into your head that, if said out loud, could devastate another person. You can chase these thoughts out of your own head quickly, but if there was a person with the ability to read them, the damage would already be done. You just can’t help it when a friend gets a new haircut and by impulse you think, She really should have thought twice about that style. If my friend thinks to herself that the jeans I have on look terrible on me, do I want to know that? Sure, on one hand, you may want to know – if it’s something that helps you, it’s beneficial to hear it. But at the same time, wouldn’t it still hurt your feelings to know that your friend had a negative thought about you, no matter how small or insignificant it may have been?

In my upcoming young adult novel, The Visitors, one of the main characters has the ability read the minds of those around her. I decided to make this a gift that she can turn off or on as needed. (Does anyone remember that Mel Gibson movie What Women Want? The one about this man who is suddenly gifted with the ability to hear women’s thoughts? It’s been years since I saw it, but I remembered one particular scene when the guy is out on the street, surrounded by women, and their thoughts are just bombarding his mind. I figured that if a person could hear everyone’s thoughts at one time, it would no longer be a gift but an inconvenience.) Considering the gift in this light, the character has to tune into a person’s mind in order to hear his or her thoughts. But this brings up another issue when the character uses her gift to hear something she shouldn’t hear. She doesn’t mean to: she notices that her friend is in a particularly strange mood and just tunes into his thoughts innocently to see if everything is okay. What she learns about him has absolutely nothing to do with her, but she still intervenes, changing the course of his actions and the entire novel. Is this acceptable?

Consider the good possibilities of possessing such a gift. If you could read the mind of someone who was about to go rob a bank and could do something to stop it, you’re a hero. You could use your gift for the greater good of mankind. But, as I learned from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. How would you decide whose mind to read and whose to ignore? And some would argue that this would be playing with fate – what right do you have to go poking into people’s private thoughts? And then, of course, you would have to consider that a gift like this could fall into the wrong hands – someone who wouldn’t even attempt to use it to better the world, but to better himself.

With all things considered, would you accept this gift? I would love to hear your ideas on if and how you would use it if the opportunity presented itself to you. Thanks in advance for sharing!