December 6, 2017

What Our Children Will Remember About This Christmas

My happiest Christmas memory is the time each year that my aunt Nancy directed my cousins and me in a reenactment of the nativity. The youngest among us--a girl--was always baby Jesus, and as Mary, my main job was not dropping her when I placed her in the manger. That and avoiding wayward staffs twirled by the ragtag band of shepherds played by my boy cousins.
When I reflect on those memories, the principal player was my aunt Nancy. The yearly play was her idea, so of course we looked to her for to take the lead and to direct us as to when to proceed solemnly into the living room for our performance. But more than that, we followed her lead because she cared. She was enthusiastic about the story we were reenacting, so we naturally were too.

My happiest memories as a child, and the ones imprinted most indelibly on my heart, typically involve a happy or enthusiastic adult--a teacher who taught my class to dance the Virginia Reel during our Civil War unit, a softball coach who infused fun into every practice, and a band director who loved his job.

But the happiest of happy moments always involved my parents. When my dad laughed or my mom got excited about something, time stood still and my heart threatened to burst. I delighted to see them delighted; their enthusiasm and joy instantly and naturally transferred to me because I loved to see them happy.

Kids learn to love what makes their parents light up. I see it in my own kids now. My oldest son brings me the Sunday comics, points out a good strip, and waits expectantly to hear me laugh. All of my sons are adamantly loyal to my college team only because they know that I am. And when I ask them what they’re thankful for, they’ve learned to add a spiritual element, because they know Who it is that I love.

So what does this speak to me and to all parents during this Advent season?

Sometimes Christmas can feel like pressure to a young mom who wants her children to be well-versed in all things Jesus. There are countless (wonderful) Pinterest pins, blog posts, activities, and books about how to make the most of the season and communicate the meaning of Christmas to our children. This year I have felt this pressure acutely, for I can count down on one hand the years my oldest remains in our home. I want to make Christmas special and say all the right things that will imprint its meaning on each of their hearts.

I imagine, however, that what they’ll remember about this Christmas and all the Christmases of their childhood combined will not be coloring sheets or books or a lit candle on the Advent wreath, although these will certainly hover with warm connotations in the background of their minds. No, if they are like me, I imagine that what will have the most impact are the happy and enthusiastic adults in their lives, namely my husband and me, who have the story of Jesus joyfully tumbling around in their hearts throughout the year and the Christmas season.

Am I happy in the story of Jesus? Am I contemplating what His coming has wrought? Am I looking expectantly for His return? Am I enthusiastically speaking of it as I sit with my children in our house, and when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up?

This is what our children will remember about Christmas, long after the presents are opened and the Advent calendar is put away. They will not remember the details of their December experiences, but they will remember what delighted us. And because it delights us, it will delight them too. 

November 29, 2017

My Favorite Books From 2017

There aren't many topics I could go on endlessly about, but when it comes to good books, count me in on that conversation. I'm never without a book, never without a plan of what's next on my list to read, never without a load of holds at the library, and never without recommendations for the poor sucker who's stumbled into a books conversation with this passionate and crazed reader.

Every year I share my favorites (see previous lists at the end of the post), and today's the day I'm sharing what I loved most in 2017. These books weren't necessarily published in 2017 but made my favorites list because I read them this past year and I found them either fascinating or helpful in some way. I also can't stop recommending them to people in my offline life. 

This year I've also invited my husband to share his favorites. Long ago I converted him into a reader and it is now often what we do or talk about when we have quiet moments together. We tend to like similar genres, so you'll find that both of our lists are primarily nonfiction, Christian, and/or history books (sorry, fiction readers!). We even overlapped in some of our favorite titles from the year, which I've highlighted below.

One final note: I've linked to all the books below on Amazon using my affiliate link. You can browse a comprehensive list of my favorite books from this year (and a few from years past) here

Happy reading in 2018! And don't forget to comment with your favorites from this year. I'm always up for a recommendation. 

Christine's Favorites

Humble Roots by Hannah Anderson
When I read the first chapter of this book, I was immediately hooked. In describing her own restlessness and anxiety, Anderson describes my life. She then diagnoses an underlying pride and, using nature as a guide, teaches her readers how to cultivate humility.  

Steal Away Home by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey
I'd never read a book quite like this one before: it's fiction but also covers real people and events. Carter and Ivey take their readers inside a friendship between Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, one a world-famous, white, English preacher and the other a freed African-American slave. I appreciated the focus on friendship, suffering, and also the influence of the wives of these men.

Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch
There is one chapter--on leaders' hidden vulnerabilities--that has stuck with me months after reading this book. I felt as if Crouch helped me understand myself and my role as a pastor's wife in ways I hadn't previously been able to identify. I'd recommend this book for that chapter alone, especially to those in leadership positions.

The Tech Wise Family by Andy Crouch
I've felt the technology take-over in my house within the past year, and both my husband and I read this book looking for wisdom and help for what we've seen as an increasing problem in our lives and in our home. Crouch doesn't give rules for technology; instead he gets to the heart of how and why we use it. I highly recommend this for parents, no matter the age of their children.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
There are a few subjects I'll read anything on and one of them, strangely enough, is North Korea. Demick's book takes us inside the Hermit Kingdom through the lives of North Koreans who have since escaped. Her writing makes her reader feel as if they're living there themselves, experiencing the desperation and hopelessness. This is a well-written and fascinating read.

Devoted to God by Sinclair Ferguson
I didn't expect to like this book, but in fact I loved it! Ferguson answers the questions I've been mulling for a few years now: how does sanctification work? How do we grow and slay sin according to the grace of Christ? I found this book immensely helpful as well as convicting. 

Romans 8-16 for You by Tim Keller
I love the book of Romans but I've always been deeply confused by chapters 9-11. I picked up Keller's book for help. The best way I can think to describe the book is that it's a combination of a devotional and an easy-to-read commentary. I read it alongside the book of Romans to help me clarify and comprehend the parts I've found difficult. Keller has a way of making difficult concepts simple and understandable, which is why I liked this book.

Struck by Russ Ramsey
Ramsey is a poetic and introspective writer, and in Struck, he takes on the subject of suffering, illness, and death. Although not facing these things at the time I read it, the book helped me think through how I might face suffering well and how I can help others in theirs.

Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides
Sides takes his readers through the days leading up to and following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. A page-turner, there were many details I didn't already know. 

God's Good Design by Claire Smith 
This year, I've been researching and studying what the Bible has to say about women and the church. Smith's book, which is available in paperback here, was the most straightforward I found. She goes straight to the "problematic" texts and exegetes them. (Another helpful book in my reading on this topic was Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles by Kathy Keller.)

Kyle's Favorites

Some of my favorites were also his: Humble Roots, Devoted to God, Strong and Weak, and The Tech Wise Family. Here are the rest:

Messy Beautiful Friendship by his wife, so take his biased opinion for what it's worth (but thanks, babe!)
Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas
The Last Lion: Winston Churchill by William Manchester
Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus by Reggie Williams
The Sacred Journey by Frederick Buechner
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne
The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson
Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Lists from Previous Years

Want more suggestions? Check out my favorites from 2016201520142013, and 2012, or peruse my Recommendations page.

November 15, 2017

Hope Versus Hope

There are certain verses in the Bible that, in their beauty and phrasing, snatch my attention and curiosity every time I read them. One of those is a portion of Romans 4:18: In hope he believed against hope. The "he" in the phrase is Abraham and the "hope" to which Paul refers is that Abraham would one day see, with his 99-year-old eyes, a son to call his own.

In hope he believed against hope. Over and over, I read and repeat it to myself under my breath, letting it settle deep inside. That phrase, it seems to me, describes the very essence of what it means to be a Christian. There is one hope, and then there is a very different hope, and they contrast and even contradict each other, fighting for prominence in our hearts. The Christian life is one big fight: hope versus hope. To which hope will we turn in belief?

Abraham believed against earthly hope. In other words, he didn't believe in what he could see or touch or make rational sense of. He could have. He could've considered his physical body, his wife's womb, his circumstances, or his past life experiences and pronounced judgments on what could or couldn't or would or wouldn't happen. A 99-year-old producing a baby? This baby producing nations? Ha.

If Abraham had hoped in the things of this earth, he would inevitably come to hopelessness. Hopelessness is the end of earthly hope. Hopelessness is actually a form of hope, because it causes one to place his or her full weight on faulty hopes, find those hopes crumbling beneath them, and then believing with certainty that hope doesn't exist at all.

Abraham's age may have actually helped him believe God, because the promise of a child to a 99-year-old was so absurd that it was laughable. It often takes us a lifetime to recognize and admit that our earthly hopes are crumbling beneath us and have always been crumbling. But Abraham had lived a lot of life, and he knew that earthly hopes couldn't hold him.

So Abraham chose the absurd hope. He didn't look to himself or to his circumstances; he instead looked with spiritual eyes at God, the one "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." He hoped in what he couldn't see with his physical eyes, because he hoped in an unseen God.

Hope versus hope.

We have this same choice every single day and in every thought and situation: by which hope will we live? I've faced it recently in parenting. In light of what I desire for my children to become, I can hope in their education, in my own efforts to teach and discipline them, or in trying to keep them safe and protected. I find myself most often placing my hope in control. If I can control everything they see and do, or if I can control their circumstances, I believe I can do a supernatural work in their hearts and grow them up into godly men.

But this is no hope! I am, figuratively speaking, a 99-year-old barren woman. I have no ability to produce spiritual crops in my sons. I am not my own hope.

And you are not yours.

This is the fight of the Christian life: to get our hope off of ourselves or our circumstances and onto our unseen God.

An earthly hope is crumbling, forever slipping out of our grasp, destined for hopelessness. These feelings I've wrestled with of restlessness, of worry, of fear--these are the feelings borne from the wrong hope.

But hope in God breeds faith and security. It is not the hope we speak of when we say, "I hope I'll get to see my friend tomorrow," as if it might or might not happen. Hope in the Bible is a sure thing, a guarantee. True hope--a hope that will hold us--is a guarantee spoken by a God who doesn't lie.

The guarantee is that we've been given a Son to call our own. In him, we have forgiveness of sins. Through him, we have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven. By him, we have help and power through his indwelling Spirit now in this time. We are never without hope.

Earthly hopes will seduce us away and promise us things that they cannot give. Our own flesh will cause us to doubt the very forgiveness Christ promised. We are prone to falling back into the pride of believing we're able to produce spiritual fruit or correct the injustices in this world, that our hope is in ourselves.

What will we choose? Will we in hope believe against hope that God is at work now and that one day we will see him with our own eyes? We now look for him through a glass dimly, but one day hope will fade away completely, because hope will no longer be needed.

We will have a Son to call our own. And we will see him with our own eyes.

October 30, 2017

NEW Friendship Resources: Bible Study Guide, Leader Guide, Discount Code, and More!

It's always a thrill to hear from women who are reading Messy Beautiful Friendship and finding it helpful. One of my favorite responses was from a reader who passed the book along to her mom, who also read it and was prompted to reconcile with a friend after many years of silence between them. Praise the Lord!

In addition to individual responses, I'm always so happy to hear that women are reading and discussing the book together. I truly believe so much good can happen when we talk openly about how we've experienced friendship, what its joys and difficulties inherently are, and when we consider together how we might approach our relationships with one another in a more biblical way. If you think about it, friendship is the one of the key relationships within the Church and in how we reach our communities with the gospel. We need a solid understanding of how God designed us to befriend others and receive their friendship! Here's a picture sent to me by Dana of her Houston book club:
As women have been reading together, many have requested a discussion guide. I'm happy today to answer that request! Not only have I written a discussion guide for leaders, I've also written a Bible study for readers that is meant to prepare them for group discussion. And in celebration of all of this, I'm passing out party favors!

Here are the new resources on friendship and the ways you can interact with them:

Study: A Five-Week Bible Study Guide
Download a free, five-week Bible study that will guide you through passages and questions related to friendship, such as how God designed friendship and what kinds of attitudes and mindsets we need in order to navigate friendship well. The study is best used as a group study and is designed to be completed as you read Messy Beautiful Friendship, but it can certainly be used by an individual as well.

Download your free Reader's Guide here.

Discuss: A Six-Week Group Gathering Guide for Leaders
Perhaps you want to use the Bible study guide in order to discuss friendship with others? Download a free, six-week guide to gather and lead others through the Bible study guide and the reading of Messy Beautiful Friendship.

Download your free Leader's Guide here.

Give: Gift a card and/or personalized copy of Messy Beautiful Friendship this Christmas!
If you've already read Messy Beautiful Friendship and want to gift it to your friends and family for a birthday or Christmas present, I've set up shop online where you can purchase books and detail how you want them personalized. For U.S. addresses only at this time.

In addition, download some free cards inspired by the book to go with your gift, such as the one pictured here. Or if you aren't purchasing, simply download and use the cards for your note-writing and gift-giving. Fun!

Purchase a signed copy of my books here. 
Download free "friend" cards here.

Listen: $5 Audio Version of Messy Beautiful Friendship is joining in the fun by offering the audio version of Messy Beautiful Friendship for only $5 when you use the code "FRIEND" through November 3! Grab your download and listen while in carpool or driving to work or folding laundry.

Grab your download here.

I pray these new resources serve you and your church well! As you use them, I'd love to hear what you're learning. Share your thoughts and group pictures online using the hashtag #messybeautifulfriendship, or just drop me a line. Love to you!

October 25, 2017

How to Diagnose Your Discouragement

We sat in the sun and its heat beat down in the same way my heart beat up. I felt sunny, as if my heart were strolling along and whistling back at the optimistic blue sky. But my friend was a different kind of blue, and she told me why, and her tears sprang easily. I could see so clearly how God was using her and moving in her and gifting her and loving her, but her heart was clouded by that constant and persistent enemy: discouragement.
The questions I asked my friend and the words I spoke over her in response to her discouragement came in quite handy, for within the day the clouds rolled in on my own sun.

Discouragement feels much like an overcast day, doesn't it? Heavy, foggy, and cold. The clouds rolled in on me for various reasons--someone found my work distasteful, a child dodged (again) the wisdom I'd tried to impart, the endless demands kept endlessly demanding of my best energy and attention, several seemingly insurmountable obstacles jumped into my view.

I always know the clouds have rolled in when I find myself jumbled and uncertain, wondering most of all if what I'm doing for the Lord is worth the effort.

We all face the cloudy days. Though it is a worthy conversation, I'm not talking about depression or mental illness here; I'm talking about the days when we question if our lives matter, if what we're doing counts for anything, if God is at work. I'm referring to what Hebrews 12:12 calls "drooping hands and weak knees": the discouragement that comes with simply living.

The Christian is not immune to discouragement. In fact, because the Christian life is a fight against sin and flesh and all their wayward children, we may often find ourselves knocked down, weary, and needing to get back up again while feeling we lack the strength to do it.

This time, when the clouds rolled in, I thought back to my friend. She'd ask me, "How do you get out of your funks?" And I'd been so certain of my answer on that sunny day. Now, on the cloudy one, I needed to put into practice what I'd offered her. I needed to go back to the questions I ask myself in order to diagnose my discouragement.

What is Actually Happening?
Emotions easily rise to the surface when the clouds roll in, but they aren't always truth-speaking. I may feel discouraged or restless or that my work is pointless, but are these feelings true? My first step in diagnosing discouragement is to prayerfully dig down to the root issue that's causing me consternation. I ask myself these questions:

  • What am I actually wishing for or hoping for in this circumstance? Is it a certain outcome or result? And is that outcome or result concerned with self-glory or God-glory?
  • What was I doing in the moments before I recognized my discouragement? Was I comparing myself to someone on social media? Was I attempting to control a situation and not getting my way? Was I scrolling through an internal litany of worries or possibilities that make me anxious?
  • Am I focused on being faithful or rather on how I (or my children) appear to other people? Am I doing what I'm doing for the Lord or am I rather looking for some form of validation?
  • Where is my gaze? Am I staring hard at my discouragement, feeding and fueling it? Or am I making intentional efforts to respond to it with a God-ward response?

How Am I Responding or Have Been Responding?
Noticing and acknowledging discouragement means I must also notice and acknowledge how I've been responding to it. My natural response is often attempts at control: to work harder, to prove myself, and to overcome the obstacles in my life through self-righteousness. This is not a God-ward response to discouragement. In thinking through a response, I must ask myself these questions:

  • God commands me not to be dismayed or fearful or full of worry. He says that I'm instead to "cast all my cares upon him because he cares for me." Am I casting my cares on him or holding them tightly to myself in worry or despair?
  • Am I looking to other people to magically "fix" my situation and, therefore, rescue me from my discouragement? 
  • Am I acting from a belief that if I work harder next time, I can prevent my own discouragement?
  • Am I receiving the gifts of God's care that he's instituted for me: am I getting enough sleep? Am I getting exercise? Am I spending time with friends? Am I taking time off from work? Am I placing myself within the care of the Church through my presence, my commitment, and my relationships?
  • After I've cast my cares upon the Lord, do I need to talk to someone about my discouragement? 
  • What would it look like for me to trust God in what I'm facing?

What is True?
After diagnosing why I'm discouraged, I need lots and lots of truth. And then some more truth.

  • What does God require of me? The answer is always faith and obedience. Am I living from a different answer?
  • Have I forgotten that Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble"? How is my discouragement pointing me to him in order to "take heart" by the One who's overcome?
  • How is God caring for me? How has he provided for me in the past? How does he promise he will care for me in the future? (It helps for me to write down specifics.) Do I believe him? 
  • What do I see God doing in and around me? Am I only rehearsing a litany of my worries or am I purposefully noticing and thinking on the ways I'm seeing and experiencing God's goodness?
  • Am I frustrated with a circumstance that is out of my control? How will I trust God in it?
  • What specific verses or attributes of God speak to my discouragement? 

Friend, if you are in a place of discouragement, may these questions serve you well. I would like to pray for you. Please leave me a comment and I will pray, even if you don't want or need to disclose your specific circumstance.

In addition, I recently taught our women's Bible study on Philippians 2:12-18. God spoke to me powerfully about discouragement in my preparation. May listening to the talk serve you in some way.

Finally, my plan is to do an occasional series in the same vein as this post: a "How Do You Do" series where readers like you send in questions about anything big or small that you have a question about it. Maybe it's "How do you do your Bible reading?" or "How do you do hospitality?" It can be anything! Comment below with your question.