December 13, 2017

The Pattern of Advent

As I write this, it’s cold outside, as it should be, because it’s winter and cold is what winter brings. We don’t question this is as it should be because there are patterns ingrained in our world. There are patterns for our days: the sun rises in the east, it crawls toward its height by midday, and it sets in the west. The tides go in and go out. Our bodies, just the same, are made to fall into sleep and rise again.
As there are patterns for our days, there are also ingrained patterns for our seasons. Summer gives way to fall and fall gives way to winter and winter to spring and so on, indefinitely.

What do these patterns tell us? Why did God write the pattern of our days and seasons and years into the DNA of the world? I think they are physical reminders of a deeper reality, one we cannot see with our eyes but one we experience deep in our bones. That deeper reality is a pattern of redemption.

The seasons speak of the pattern of this deeper reality: Summer is warm and carefree, a type of innocence. Fall, though beautiful, is a type of dying. Winter is barrenness, gripped completely by death. And then in spring comes new life. Plants that have given their seeds in death during the fall grow and multiply.

If, as God says it does, nature speaks of him, what is he saying to us through the seasons? He’s saying redemption is in process.

The seasons perhaps were created just for this reason: so they could be a tangible picture of the process of regeneration, so they could be a picture of what God speaks of in Scripture.

Because throughout the generations covered in Scripture, a pattern emerges there, too, among its stories and poems and commands. This is the pattern: look back and then look forward.

In the Old Testament, God repetitively required his people to build altars, to recall to their children stories of his acts, and to celebrate feasts that marked his miracles. Over and over, he said to them, “Look back. Remember.” They were to remember how God made freedom from slavery and provision from lack. Why? So they’d trust him in their present circumstances, their present winter.

Later in the Old Testament, God’s refrain through the prophets then became, “Look forward.” They were to look forward to a perfect deliverer and forever rescuer, when God would make beauty from their ashes. Why were they to look forward? So that they might trust him with those ashes in their present state.

In the New Testament, the same pattern emerges. After the Gospels, the writers continually point back to the death and resurrection of Christ and then forward to his future coming, all so that we’d look at the past with gratefulness and awe, the future with faith, and the present with eyes wide open to hope.

And so, where are we in the pattern of the seasons? We are, of course, in winter--literally and figuratively-- and we feel it profoundly. We know barrenness, both literal and figurative. We know cancer. We know uncertainty. We know generational sin. We know destitution and desperation. We know loneliness and our spiritual poverty. We know how we’ve hurt and been hurt. We know what it means to groan under the weight of winter.

There are those who say the present is all we have, that we should live fully in the present and not consider yesterday or tomorrow. As they’ve done in every generation that’s watched for Christ’s return, to everyone who’s waited for all things to be made right, these people say, “Where is He? Where is your God?” Sometimes we ask this too. How could he allow this? How can this be? We question through tears.

He is enduring, that’s where he is. He is enduring the world’s winter just as we are. But there’s a difference between what he’s enduring and what we’re enduring. We know our own winter, and perhaps those of our closest friends and family. But God sees and carries all the pain in the world. He sees the vilest things done in secret. He weeps and grieves the injustices done against his children. And he endures injustices against himself as well: those who mock him; those who swell with pride, believing that they’ve created their own successes; those who question his engagement in this world even while he continues giving air to their lungs. God endures the pain of billions of people so that his work of redemption can continue and can be completed.

This is his work. Isaiah, in 25:1, says God’s plans, formed of old, are faithful and sure. God says of himself in Isaiah 42:16, “I will turn darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them.”

Did you notice? God says to you, “Redemption is what I do.”

The seasons speak of it. Summer turning to fall shows us our sin leads to death. Fall turning to winter warns that death comes for each of us. Winter turning to spring screams out that there is a very real hope for new life after death.

And here we are in our winter, waiting, adventing.

So what do we do in this long, dark winter? There is a place for lament in advent. This is not something we often talk about, but if our hope is real, it also gives us the ability to look at pain without turning away. We don’t have to pretend. We must lament and lament with the lamenters, because winter is harsh. Jesus came and set things right, but that work is like the seed underground. The soul is blooming with forsythia. The soul is redeemed but we cannot see it yet.
Jesus left many things unfixed for now. This should elicit tears and tears are OK, because they are laced with the longing for the fulfilled promise.

We lace our tears with joy instead of despair when we do what all of God’s people since God’s people were have done in their own winters: we follow the pattern. We look back. And we look forward.

That is actually what we’re doing during Advent. We’re tracing the pattern God has given us.

We are looking back. We say we are waiting for the birth of Jesus, even though we know the birth of Jesus has already come. We are going through the discipline and practice of preparing as a way of looking back and remembering: God has created and God has come to dwell with us in our winter. 

We also, in this practice of Advent, are looking ahead. We are remembering the promise, that Christ will come again and we will dwell with him in the spring he has wrought.

These practices remind us that, in the present reality of winter, there is a world in motion going on beyond what we can see, because God, whom we cannot see, never sleeps nor does he slumber, and so he is at work, bringing about our final redemption, which we cannot yet see and experience.

But just as sure as the seasons that have existed before we were born and will continue long after we die, spring is coming. The Seed is dormant but it won’t be dormant forever.

Christians at Advent are together standing on the heater grate, looking, waiting, searching for signs of his coming. We look back at the first coming of Christ and we look forward to the second coming of Christ, so we can live in this present winter by faith. There will come a day when we won’t need faith or hope or advent any longer, because today’s hidden reality and today’s hidden patterns will become visible.

Isaiah in chapter 25:7-9 describes this reality to come. He says:
“The Lord will swallow up on this mountain    the covering that is cast over all peoples,    the veil that is spread over all nations.He will swallow up death forever;and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,    for the Lord has spoken.It will be said on that day,    “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.    This is the Lord; we have waited for him;    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Brothers and sisters, we cannot see it fully yet, but we can begin to do now what we will do then--let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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!