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Logs vs Slivers

“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

I introduced Moses and the burning bush to my Sunday School students when I noticed a few of the boys looking at my feet. I looked down and instantly realized what they were staring at: the knobby bunions protruding out between my sandal straps. One boy, without any guile, blurted out, “Do you have tumors on your feet?” I decided to set the record straight that I had an autoimmune disorder that affected my joints, including my feet, resulting in bunions, hammertoes, and nodules. I spoke without shaming the boys, knowing that this was an honest question and, as one boy stated in the past, “Wow, I thought your feet were uglier than my mom’s.” Children are naturally curious and draw conclusions without understanding possible underlying medical conditions or social protocols. I wanted to be honest and talked for a few minutes and then moved on in the lesson. Soon the students’ attention was back on the burning bush, not on my deformed feet.

I am conscious of my feet and their deformities. Often, after wearing shoes all day, the bunions can be painful and swollen. I have difficulty finding shoes that are comfortable yet stylish. Surgery is an option, but even that has its potential pitfalls. But despite all these challenges, I am thankful that my feet are still able to get me from where I need to go.

It’s easy to be conscious of something obvious like the two-inch bunions on my feet, but harder to be aware of some of my internal shortcomings like selfishness, a judgmental attitude, and labeling of others. Like the boys in my Sunday school class, it’s easier to point out what I see as a fault or character flaw in others, than it is to look at myself and see my own faults and flaws.

Several times in the last few months, God has quietly addressed some of my personal shortcomings while I have been venting to my husband or friends about some frustrations. Every time I spewed unkind or judgmental words from my mouth, God, in his kindness, gave me some epiphanies about myself. While complaining about someone’s lack of generosity with their time, He reminded me that, although I am generous with my time, I can be selfish with my limited finances. While expressing judgement of an expensive purchase someone made, despite their complaints about their limited budget, God reminded me of foolish purchases I have made. And when someone misread my expression as frustrated, I was reminded of the times I have mislabeled my husband as angry or moody. In all these situations, God, in his kindness, has led me to repentance.

God calls us to sacrifice even out of our limitations, to pray for others and show grace, and finally, to show curiosity instead of labeling someone. All these actions require us to be honest about areas where we find it hard to give, pause before talking, pray sincerely for others, and take the time to really listen to others. Yet, instead of those things, my judgmental attitude erupts quickly, just like the young man who blurted out about the “tumors” on my feet. But instead of acting out of a place of innocence, these attitudes flow from years of me thinking that I am right. I easily draw conclusion about others, without internally evaluating myself.

The Bible addresses this failure with a harsh but true word: hypocrite. Even the sound of the word is harsh and staccato to my ears. As a teenager, I recognized the demeaning nature of that word when I hurled the insult at my stepfather, calling him a hypocrite because he was against drugs but had an obvious alcohol problem. Jesus, the only one who can legitimately use this word, uses it to address those of us who point out the “tiny speck” in a friend’s eye when we have a beam in our own eye. My husband envisions a person walking around with a log sticking out of their eye, banging into everyone around them while pointing out a sliver in someone’s pinky.

It may be funny, but this comedic image reflects the sad state of my heart. I discussed this rigid judgmental attitude in last week’s post, “Views” but it prevails across all areas of my life, not just my views on social justice issues, but also how I treat, or think about, others. Empathy is a trait I have consciously cultivated over the years. But in moments of frustration, or when I feel misrepresented, my judgmental heart comes out swinging and I “vent”!

Venting itself is not wrong. It’s important to have a good ventilation system in your home.  It keeps the air fresh and healthy indoors. Good ventilation helps remove unwanted moisture, odors, gases, dust, and other pollutants. And, on a personal level, we need to be able to talk about frustrations and problems we are experiencing. But I need to do so in way that is not tearing down someone else. This is hard and I am not always good at it.

What I am learning is that empathy is easy to apply when the situation doesn’t personally involve you, but less easy when it affects you. Those are the moments when I need to pause. I can address frustrations using “I” statements. I need to examine why I feel frustrated and get to the heart of the issue. In each of the above situations, I had what I deemed were legitimate frustrations, but in examining the reasons for the frustrations, I discovered some hard facts. In one situation, I had pride in the time I offered towards others. In another, I was frustrated that God hadn’t answered a prayer. I also discovered I had no problem labeling others, but I didn’t like having my expressions or actions being misinterpreted. In each of these situations, I discovered my own flawed humanity, placing me humbly at the feet of Jesus. This position of humility can only increase my empathy and keep my personal ventilation system healthy.

The last two books I read have shed light on the beam in my own eye. Sue Klebold’s “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy” helped me see the other side of the Columbine Massacre. The mother of one of the shooters shares candidly the responsibility she feels and holds her son to with the unfailing love of a mother. It helped me see that good parents can raise children who do horrible things.

Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” is changing my view on those in prison and how they are treated. One story that stood out is that of a victim, Debbie Baigre. She suffered a gunshot wound to the jaw, resulting in losing some teeth along with painful damage. Her shooter, Ian Manuel, thirteen years old when he committed the crime, was tried as an adult and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He spent the next eighteen years in uninterrupted solitary confinement. After calling Baigre to apologize for his crime, the two developed a relationship that resulted in her advocating for leniency and voicing that the conditions of his incarceration were inhumane.

When reading about these situations, I can see how I have misjudged and mistreated my friends in minor frustrations. Can I learn to be as vulnerable as Sue Klebold is in her book when facing harsh scrutiny? Can I show as much as grace as Debbie Baigre when I have been wounded? How do I choose not to be a hypocrite? The apostle Paul answers this question in his letter to the Ephesians by saying, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you with all malice.” This is what my unhealthy venting sounds like. He continues with, “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” When I remember how my God graciously forgave me, how can I, in good conscience, help but treat others with more grace? The answer: I can’t!


“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding;” Proverbs 3:5

It was dark as we headed to Rosendale, Wisconsin. Shadowy voids of farmland passed by, with the occasional flickering farmhouse lights to break up the lack of scenery. I stared out the window, with nothing to occupy my thoughts. Suddenly, we crested a mountain-like hill, and I stared straight ahead with wonder. Below me, the city of Fond Du Lac blazed with lights, appearing larger than reality. It was an amazing sight for a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin. Not to disparage my friends who live in Fond Du Lac, but I no longer see this hill as one of the wonders of the world as did my nine-year-old self.

So often, our sense of reality is shaped by our experiences. At that point in my life, the farthest I had ever traveled was to Chippewa Falls in northern Wisconsin, and Milwaukee was the biggest city I had experienced. When our experiences are limited, smaller things seem larger. This distortion shapes our worldview and color our opinions. It also helps create divisions between us and others.

For two years, I have been wrestling with how my faith intersects with my political worldview. For years, I drank the Kool-Aid, believing that a certain party aligned more with the actions and words of Jesus. It shaped how I viewed marginalized people, immigrants, and issues like poverty. And as I listened to only one side of the debate, my views became more entrenched. I was convinced and spouted the dogma, without engaging in research.

But when the pandemic shut the world down and social justice issues came to the forefront, my beliefs were challenged. It was at this same time, that I was also reconstructing my faith. I examined my faith through the Bible, paying particular attention to the words and actions of Jesus and his followers. Jesus’ compassion for marginalized people jumped out at me. Time and time again, Jesus chose to spend time with those who society ignored, like the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery exploited by the religious leaders. His closest disciples were men and women who society didn’t hold in high regard: fisherman, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He broke social norms by elevating women through simple interactions. His followers carried on his mission by addressing how we should handle widows, the fatherless, and foreigners.

The more I pay attention to the life of Jesus, the more I desire to be like him. Last fall at a MOPS meeting, the speaker admonished us to pray, “Jesus, let my heart break for what breaks your heart.” Immediately, my mind jumped to Jesus speaking to his disciples about when the King came in judgment. He told the righteous, “when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink, and when I was a stranger, you took Me in.” The righteous were confused and didn’t remember seeing the King under those circumstances. But Jesus replied that when they did this to the least of them, the marginalized, they were seeing Jesus. Conversely, the King asked another group to depart, because they ignored those who needed food, shelter, and clothing for the same reason.

Jesus cares about those around us who are in need. He is not interested in my pontifications on my beliefs and philosophies on social justice issues. He wants me to act with compassion in tangible ways. He finds my excuses empty and stinky and finds my actions more representative of where my heart is. My compassion can’t be based on what I get from it, rather it needs to be done with a spirit of generosity. In 1 John 3:17, the apostle John asks how the love of God can be in someone if he or she doesn’t show pity upon others. In Hebrews 13:16, Paul reminds the church to do good and to share with others.

There are so many issues that break Jesus’ heart: domestic abuse, homelessness, rape, human trafficking, elder abuse, the foster care system, drug addiction, and so much more. It’s overwhelming and I sometimes don’t even know where to start. This month, I am spending some time in prayer, asking God to lead to me somewhere I can volunteer to help others, and then I will take my first step.

Additionally, I will continue to examine my views through a Biblical lens. There are a lot of Christians who are interested in social justice issues, and I need to open my previously closed mind to another perspective. I can do this through reading books and listening to podcasts that explain the other side of current social issues, including diving into the historical context.

So, where do I stand politically? How do I know where God’s truth lies when there are Christians on both sides articulating radically different points of view supported by scripture? Can Christians do good works and still be short sighted on issues of race, poverty, and immigration? How can I make sure I am not being deceived by one side or the other? And once I draw a conclusion or take a stand, what if I am wrong?

I don’t have answers for any of these questions. But I heard a thought attributed to C.S. Lewis that I have been unable to verify. The idea is to hold firmly to the truth we know today, but be humble enough that, when new information presents itself tomorrow, I can shift and be willing to change. I think it’s a good model to live my life.

Five Books, 2 Podcasts and 2 Shows

“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Proverbs 18:15

Being old school, I don’t readily embrace fads or new technology. I didn’t get my first cell phone until 2011, I don’t know how to send a GIF, and I only recently started streaming media. This carries over into my reading life as well with a dusty Kindle on my nightstand beneath a stack of actual books. I also kept saying “no” to the idea of audiobooks, inwardly judging that listening wasn’t reading.

In June, I opened my Goodreads app to the notification, “You have read only 13 of the 70 books you set for your goal.” At the same time, my husband informed me that he was about to crest 200 books on his list of books read. He accomplished this partly by listening to audiobooks. Not happy with my reading life, I decided to give audio a try, putting aside my judgmental attitude.

With my earbuds in, I listened to my first book. I soon found myself enchanted with the spoken words, laughing aloud. I finished one book and quickly found another. I still have a stack of books both on my end table and on my nightstand. But I find listening to audiobooks is a way to fill in spaces where I would normally be unable to read, like car rides and house cleaning. I particularly enjoy modern fiction and memoirs as audio books.

I finished the year by surpassing my goal, reading 73 books. I love writing this annual post but had a hard time whittling it down to just five books. Overall, I saw a pattern in my reading. I am still reading cookbooks, exploring cultures through food, along with the addition of chef biographies. I read three books about death, all memoirs, that were sad but lifegiving as well. I discovered Louise Penny and her Inspector Gamache series, and I hope to become a completist this year. I continued my love of poetry by completing two anthologies.

I also noticed what I wasn’t reading. I read a few naturalist books, but not as many as in the past. I read no history or historical biographies. I also didn’t read any classics and my theological reading was light. Don’t get me wrong, I read the books my soul needed this year, but I want to widen my reading for 2023.

So, here is my list…insert drum roll or confetti falling from your ceiling. Remember, these are not in any particular order.

  1. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. This book has two main characters, seven-year-old Elsa, and her eccentric grandmother. Both are quirky, along with the rest of the cast. The story had me laughing and crying throughout, sometimes simultaneously. The pieces don’t come together till the end, but I end up believing Grandma’s motto “Only different people change the world.” I loved Backman’s A Man Called Ove and intend to read the rest of his works. Note to sensitive readers, it does have some language.
  2. Know My Name by Chanel Miller. If I could require one book for every high school student to read before graduation, I would put this at the top of my list. This book chronicles the harrowing rape and aftermath of Chanel Miller by a Stanford athlete. This case hit national news when it went to trial and Chanel faced public harassment because she was intoxicated. It addresses the injustices of our criminal justice system and how rape victims are also put on trial based on their potential level of intoxication, style of dress, and whether she screamed “NO”. Chanel says, “My pain was never more valuable than his potential.” She described the effects of being raped in a poignant way that will resonate with all victims. “My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice.” With sexual assault statistics as high as they are, this book will surely resonate with you or a loved one. As a victim myself, it has helped me see how damaging the victim-shaming continues to be.
  3. Waymaker: Finding the Way to the Life You’ve Always Dreamed Of by Ann Voskamp. Voskamp remains one of my favorite writers with her carefully chosen poetic prose. Her vulnerability about her marriage and adoption resonated with me. Through this vulnerability, she leads you back to Christ and wholeness. She writes, “The deeper I trust the sovereignty of God, to accept and receive whatever He gives, the deeper my intimacy with God.” She helped me sum up my own marriage with these words, “There’s an old love that sees with a kind of holy double vision-that remembers a young lover in all their seeming infallibility and sees your aged lover in all their beautiful humanity.” This will be a reread!
  4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. This book was written in 2007 and still resonates today. Kingsolver is a fictional writer, but this non-fiction work is about her family’s commitment to eating local. Imagine giving up oranges and bananas, and truly eating seasonally. Her family did just that, and not only survived but thrived. Because they were not relying on packaged food and fast food, her family connected with cooking. She discovered, “Households that have lost the soul of cooking from their routines may not know what they are missing: the song of a stir-fry sizzle, the small talk of clinking measuring spoons, the yeasty smell of rising dough, the painting of flavors onto a pizza before it slides into the oven.”
  5. Rembrandt is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art through the Eyes of Faith by Russ Ramsey. I finished this audiobook on December 30 and knew immediately it belonged on this list. The book explores goodness, truth, and beauty through nine different artists and their works. Not academic in approach, Ramsey uses story to enrapture you with these faith principles, inspiring you to find a local art museum and explore. Furthermore, he helps convey a truth, that beauty can be created even within the broken lives of artists because they bear the image of a perfect God.

Honorable Mentions: In His Image by Jen Wilkin; Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery; I Guess I Haven’t Learned that Yet by Shauna Niequist; The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan; and Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman.

I continue to be an avid podcast listener, often binge-listening to a new one I have discovered. I want to briefly share two that I have found inspiring.

  1. Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughin and Ken Worley. This is a new podcast with only 12 episodes to date. They deal with hard issues the church faces through a balanced theological lens. It has helped me solidify some of my beliefs.
  2. BEMA Discipleship by Marty Solomon and Brent Billings. A dear friend recommended this podcast, saying it forever changed how she reads the Bible. They look at the Bible from the same perspective as it was written, exploring the Jewish world. This world is not based on logic like ours but on stories and experience. I have only listened to a few and am hooked. I highly recommend starting at Season One.

Finally, I am going to do something new this year. I am going to recommend two shows that I have watched that have made my life more beautiful.

  1. Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. Tucci explores the twenty separate regions of Italy through their unique foods. It weaves together history, art, and folklore with beautiful cinematography.
  2. The Chosen. Recommended by enthusiastic friends, we finally downloaded the free app in October, and binged the first two seasons. It is a series about Jesus and his disciples. You get a glimpse of the humanity of Jesus and the brokenness of his disciples. It may take a few episodes to hook you, but I promise it well.

This is one of my favorite posts to write each year. As a reader, listener and now watcher, I am always looking for a new book, podcast, and shows. Feel free to drop your favorites in the comments and maybe they will find their way onto my list next year!

Advent 4: Season of Joy

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” Luke 2:10

From November through the end of January, I indulge in Cranberry Ginger Ale. The festive pink soda comes in a 2-liter bottle with holiday fonts and designs. I love the taste, the bubbly effervescence in my glass, and the seasonal specialness of finding it only during a certain time of the year. Despite my love for this drink, I have painfully learned the right way to open a new bottle: slowly and deliberately. A few years ago, caught up in the bustle, I quickly unscrewed the cap and ginger ale exploded across the room, bubbling madly over the lid. Splashes of pink ginger ale hit my backsplash, my cupboards, and even shot up to my ceiling. Not quick in a crisis, I yelled, “Ooooh”, as I watched it erupt from the bottle. Ethan and my father-in-law laughed as I stood frozen, unsure of what to do. Eventually, I found towels to clean up the mess.

I love all things that explode, bubble, burst, or pop. I share the joy of Pop Rocks with the little people I love. My daughter and I squeal with delight as the cotton candy-colored soaps bubble across our windows in a car wash. The Broadway show “Wicked” enchanted me during the ending when metallic emerald streamers explode from the theater ceiling. And I jumped on the bandwagon of hot chocolate bombs, watching them burst in my cup. I believe bubbles and glitter should adorn every festive get together. The giggles that ensue are contagious, as is the glitter that remains in your carpet but is worth the cleanup!

Joy is the final topic of this Advent series, and the easiest for me to receive and give. I am bubbly in nature, delighting in simple pleasures. Practicing the discipline of gratitude increases my joy. I also try to engage all five senses when experiencing joy. Watching fireflies dance in summer, hearing my grandson’s giggles, smelling cardamom pods, tasting bright oranges in the dead of winter, and snuggling cozily under warm blankets all bring me joy.

Joy is a sensory experience in the Christmas story as well. The Bible records the angel startled the sleepy shepherds with the message, “I bring you good tidings of great joy,” followed by an angelic chorus filling the sky with music. Mary swaddled her newborn baby in soft blankets, keeping him warm and cozy in the chilly stable. A bright star appeared in the sky, leading the wise men to baby Jesus, showering him with gifts, including the fragrant frankincense. And Mary prophesied in her song “He has fed the hungry with good things.”

Four times in the Biblical account of the Christmas story, the word joy is used to describe the coming of Jesus. Exceeding and great are used to qualify that joy, emphasizing its importance and magnitude. This joy is not the same as the happy feeling that rushes over you when you see fresh fallen snow, hear your favorite Christmas carol, or receive a hug from a loved one. These are based on external circumstances. This exceeding joy has nothing to do with what is tangible, but everything to do with the character of God. Yes, there were happy moments during the birth of Jesus, but exceeding joy had to do with this baby born to right the world.

For all the characters in the Christmas story, nothing outwardly changed at the time of Jesus’ birth. The shepherds returned to their ordinary lives, taking care of sheep. Despite Mary and Joseph having to deal with the rumors surrounding his birth, and even having to flee from their country for his safety, Jesus was still a normal baby. And the salvation that Simeon and Anna recognized in the temple did not come to everyone until after his death, burial, and resurrection. But the Bible doesn’t say joy “is coming”, but rather places joy in the present tense. Writer Jared C. Wilson says, “Happiness is dependent on our own circumstances. Joy is dependent on our Savior.” The shepherds, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna had joy because they knew they were a part of God fulfilling his promise. This joy, based on His word, affirmed his goodness and mercy.

Joy is mentioned throughout the Bible. Often, it is used in conjunction with tears, suffering, and the cross. These are not the words an ordinary person would associate with joy. But as a Christian, we can have joy in hard circumstances, not because we are manufacturing a cheerful disposition. Our neighbors will easily see through the facade. But if we allow joy to spring up from the comfort of knowing who God is, it will bubble over and make itself felt in everything we do. It will joyfully reveal the glory and majesty of that little baby born over 2,000 years ago.

Christmas and the end of Advent are just a few days away. I’ve been preparing my heart with hope, peace, love, and now, joy. Join with me on Christmas morning by listening to a version of “Joy to the World” accompanied by a full orchestra. Blast it and sing the lyrics wholeheartedly. I know of no other song that musically and lyrically embodies the true celebration of Christmas joy. And as the song is being played, I’m going to reflect on this past year, reminding myself of times that may have been hard, but how the goodness of God still prevailed. And like the song declares, I will “repeat the sounding joy”, offering gratitude to our good God.

Merry Christmas, dear readers! Thank you for journeying through Advent with me, this year. I pray you experienced the hope, peace, love, and joy of Christ, this season, and that they continue with you throughout the coming new year!

Advent 3: Season of Love

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

As young adults, my sisters and I hosted our first Christmas party with our church family. We sent the invites, cleaned the house, and baked cookies late into the afternoon. Pleased with our attempts at domesticity, we looked for some of my mom’s platters buried deep in her cupboard. As we pulled out the 1970s ruby glass platter, I noticed just a slight trace of dust, likely due to lack of use. Exhausted (and maybe a little lazy), I ignored the dust, and quickly placed the cookies on the dusty platter. The party was a success, despite dusty platters.

At Christmas, my husband is one of the jolliest souls I know. He loves old Christmas movies, especially “White Christmas”, collects vintage Christmas books, and listens to Bing Crosby. But when the song “Christmas Shoes” comes across the airwaves, my husband gets a little Grinchy. The song records the plight of a young child trying to buy a pair of shoes for his sick mother. It pulls on the heartstrings by expressing that the shoes will help her look beautiful if she meets Jesus, tonight. Please do not think my husband is heartless. He has teared up over the course of fifty viewings of George Bailey’s basket of donations during “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Unlike the Grinch, his heart is the right size. He just doesn’t appreciate contrived emotionalism.

The Christmas season invites differing opinions about music, movies, traditions, and foods. There are those who love Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” while others hate it. Most Americans seem to despise fruitcake, but across the pond, the love of fruitcake is alive and well. The Elf on the Shelf tradition elicits various responses, from those who chronicle the Elf’s antics on Instagram to those who wouldn’t chase the dog running away with the Elf in his mouth. We throw the words love and hate around casually, like the strands of tinsel that float around your house for months after Christmas.

This week in Advent, I am focusing on love. Even in researching Advent, I found some traditions disagree where to place love: either in the third or last week. Wherever you place it, John 3:16 clearly explains that Jesus came because “God so loved the world”. This love is not fickle like our love for fruitcake. It doesn’t compare to our love for our spouses, because sometimes that love is a choice, not a Hallmark moment. Pet owners declare undying love for their pets and may go to great lengths to care for them, but this love doesn’t measure up to God’s love. The closest human relationship we have with this kind of love is how a parent loves their child. But the Bible records that even though we provide amazing gifts for our children, especially under a Christmas tree, these gifts don’t compare to the gifts from God.

As a child, my son, Ethan, loved Christmas as much as his father. He was the first to turn on the lights on the tree, couldn’t wait to indulge in Peanut Butter balls, and had his favorite songs on repeat during the holidays. Even his sense of gratitude matched his love for Christmas. After opening each gift, he would bellow, “Thank you, mom and dad” followed up with a big hug.

As I unwrap the gift of Jesus, I want to express my gratitude as well. Jesus chose humility by being born in a stable full of animals, even though He was the King of everything. He endured a life of hardship and poverty when He had access to all the riches of the earth. And finally, He suffered unbelievable pain to bring me hope, peace, and joy, all for the sake of His love for me.

And who am I to be worthy of such a gift? Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, as quoted by Ann Voskamp in “The Greatest Gift”, helped me answer this question. She said, “I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared to believe, but more loved and welcomed than I ever dared hope.” This quote has resonated with me as I examine where I fall short. I am a sinner, and no matter how I try to paint things, I have lied, judged, been harsh, and refused to do the things I know to do. And if I say I have no sin, I “deceive myself and the truth is not in me.” Like cookies on dusty platters, I may look good to others and even to myself, but Jesus looks underneath and knows who I really am.

Yet, despite this understanding of my sinful heart, Jesus loves me unconditionally. He doesn’t love me based on what I do, how I perform, or even how others perceive me. He loves me and welcomes me into His family as His adopted daughter. It is a relationship full of privilege and blessings. I have the hope of eternal life because His love covers a multitude of sins. I can move towards wholeness where sin had left me broken. And it’s His love that transforms my brokenness into the beautiful story I live today.

Yet, while I bask in His love, I can’t keep it all in my own heart. This love needs to be shared not just with my family and friends, but with the marginalized in my community. When I read the Christmas story, I marvel at the birth of the Messiah. Angels revealed His birth to shepherds. Simeon and Anna recognized Him as the Messiah in the temple. Wealthy wise men searched for the newborn king and presented Him with presents. Meanwhile, the so-called royalty of Jerusalem, baffled by the wise men’s inquiries, attempted to use them to destroy this new king. Poor farmhands, senior citizens, and foreigners got a glimpse of the baby who would change the world. From the time of His birth, Jesus cared about all people with an overwhelmingly abundant love. With such a great gift given to me, how can I help but share it with others?

Advent 2: Season of Peace

“Lord, You will establish peace for us, for you have also done all our works for us.” Isaiah 26:12

The first snowfall sprinkles my world with magic. White flakes cover the dead earth and coat the barest of branches, making winter a wonderland. On dark morning walks, the moon reflects on this clean slate, creating an ethereal atmosphere. All noise is muffled by the snow, adding to the magic. Despite the briskness, I walk with more ease, with my shoulders relaxed and my countenance carefree. Even my thoughts seem less cluttered, as I breathe deeply of the cold air, and my mind opens to more possibilities. All that is dead, brown, and heavy now seems alive, beautiful, and peaceful.

Of the four concepts I will explore in my Advent blogs, I find peace the most difficult to sustain in my life. I often find myself caught up in the busyness of life, anxious about details and overwhelmed with uncertainties. The stress manifests itself not only in my body but also in my actions and responses towards others. Internally, I get knots in my neck and stomach, causing discomfort. Externally, I become snippy and demanding, creating a less than peaceful atmosphere in my home. I am not proud of this, and it is something that I am consciously trying to change.

Timothy Keller, in his online Advent devotional, asks readers to meditate on the terms to describe Christ in Isaiah 9. When talking about the Prince of Peace, he says “Prince of Shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word that conveys absolute spiritual and physical flourishing.” This flourishing is antithetical to how I define peace as a place of inaction and lack of forward movement. How then is peace a place of growth?

Both in the Old and New Testaments, peace is synonymous with harmony. Being married to a musician, I have learned a little about harmony over the years. When a group sings in harmony, the individual different parts don’t sound so beautiful. But put together, something magical happens. It creates a fuller, richer sound that is more than the sum of its parts.

If peace is the same as harmony, the opposite would be conflict or disharmony, known musically as dissonance. This is not always unwanted, especially in a piece that is trying to convey a sense of urgency or chaos. But if you are trying to convey a sense of peace and beauty, adding the vocals of someone like me who goes off key will create an unwelcome dissonance (for more about my tone deafness, see “O Holy Night”). The one off-key person or one instrument disrupts the whole, leaving everyone slightly uncomfortable.

The Israelites anticipated the coming of the Messiah. They expected a powerful king like David, who they memorialized in their conversations and scriptures. This Messiah would restore the Hebrew people back to power. They felt validated when reading the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6, where he talked about “the mighty God” and, in the next verse, “the increase of His government”. They forgot that in these same two verses, peace is also recorded: “the prince of peace” and “of the increase of His government and peace, there will be no end.” Jesus came to bring a full and sustaining peace.

This peace is not the distorted view I have of inactivity. Instead, it is like the blanket of snow, covering a ground that seems dormant, but instead is busy beyond our purview. Snow provides the precipitation the earth needs for things to grow and to replenish our water supply. It contributes to soil fertility by trapping dissolved organic nitrogen and nitrates. Snow also protects our forests by insulating the ground and protecting roots in the bitter cold. As winter unravels, the warming temperatures and thawing snow allow for a season of miraculous growth.

There is nothing as precious as a baby sleeping. I watched in awe this past Thanksgiving as our family: parents, grandparents, and aunt and uncle, took turns holding a sleeping two-month-old. We all “oohed” and “aahed” over her sweet coos and sleepy stretches, beaming at this beautiful, precious baby girl lying peacefully in our arms.

I can only imagine the peaceful expressions of Mary and Joseph as they watched in awe while baby Jesus lay in the manger. Maybe, as they held him, counting his breaths, they remembered the past months of angelic visits, tough decisions to make, and the echo of rumors from friends and foes. But right now, all alone in a stable, they held in their arms the fulfillment of four millennia of prophecy. Their peaceful reminiscences were interrupted as a group of shepherds rushed into the stable. The shepherds, too, had a peaceful night interrupted by a host of angelic voices telling them of this baby born in this stable. How did Mary respond to this attention? The Bible records that “she kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”.

This attitude of Mary’s was peaceful, but not without action. The Bible records earlier that Mary sang a song about her savior. In Luke 1:52-53, she exclaims that he has “exalted the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things.” Even though she didn’t understand how or when, she knew that this little baby came to fulfill all the prophecies and change her world. She didn’t fret or worry, instead, she did what she knew to do. She fed him, changed his diapers, played with him, taught him the basics of living, and helped him grow. She took care of him when he was sick, worried when he was missing in the temple, and encouraged him in his first miracle. She watched as he was taken away, saw him suffer on the cross, and was filled with his spirit after his ascension. By choosing peace, she continued with life and, eventually, it led to her being whole.

Jesus declared in his first message in the temple found in Luke 18:4, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to set at liberty all those who are oppressed.” He has come so those who are broken, captive, or oppressed can experience his gift of peace. And in his peace, they will flourish and grow by experiencing healing, freedom, and liberty.

Why do I struggle with peace? Like the Hebrews looking for a savior who would rescue them from their Roman captivity, too often I decide the kind of God I want to rescue me. I have preconceived notions about how God should orchestrate my life. And when my plans don’t align with his, this creates a dissonance that is uncomfortable for me and those around me.

Just today, as I wrote this, I called my husband asking if he had received any information on a situation we desperately need resolved. With no news, I felt tension rising in my body, asking why God hadn’t performed my Christmas miracle. It seems like a minor thing for God to do. I stopped for a moment, reminded about Advent, and prayed for peace to flood my soul. Like Mary, I took a few minutes to meditate on the life of Jesus, declare his future miracles, and trust him. And with that prayer, my shoulders relaxed. I took a deep breath and continued with what I know to do. By resting in his peace, I can wholeheartedly bless others without anxiety and stress taking up mental space. I can trust that He is doing a work in my life that will flourish. And that is Shalom peace, a beautiful, harmonious melody with God leading.

Advent 1: Season of Hope

“And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You.” Psalms 39:7

I watched my siblings open their enormous packages under the tree. They exclaimed with delight as paper, boxes, and bows flew around the room. Opening my small packages, I was confused about the obvious discrepancy. The only thing I had asked for that Christmas was a boom box, which seemed rather unrealistic at this point. I dreamed about using my paper route money to buy cassette tapes playing my favorite music in the privacy of my bedroom. I choked back the tears and expressed gratitude. One of my parents suggested I bring my gifts up to my room, and I complied, happy to escape. I opened my door and, much to my surprise, I found the very gift I longed for, a shiny boom box! Almost forty years later, I can still remember the hope, despair, and the joy that transpired that evening.

This week is the beginning of Advent, the Christian tradition of preparing themselves for the coming of Jesus. They celebrate it through calendars, daily devotions, artwork, music, lighting of candles, poetry reading, and even special ornaments. In the past, my experience with Advent was limited to the cheap cardboard calendars filled with even cheaper candy, not understanding the purpose or history. A few years ago, Terry and I incorporated this spiritual practice into our lives. Much to our surprise, it changed our perspective on Christmas and inspired feelings of expectations and wonder. In the next four weeks, I am going to focus on one Advent word each week, sharing with you how God is using that word to transform my life.

Hope is used throughout the Bible. In the book of Ruth, Naomi told her daughters-in-law to return to their families because she had no hope for the future. Job expressed his despair by saying he had no hope. In the Psalms, David lifts himself above difficult circumstances by reminding himself that he “should rest in hope” and find his hope in the salvation of the Lord. But even more than a word occasionally used in scripture, the whole Bible rests on hope, the hope of a Savior to bring reconciliation and restoration from sin.

Paul defines hope a little more clearly in Romans 8. This chapter is full of the gospel, reminding us we are not debtors, but orphans adopted into God’s family. He reminds us that suffering will happen in our lives, not as punishment, but as opportunities to show God’s glory. He then mentions hope three times in one verse. Verse 24 states, “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?” He continues in verse 25, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.” Hope, translated from the Greek word “elpis”, means “a joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation”. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, it can also mean “that in which one confides or to which he flees for refuge.”

It’s easy to have confidence when the blessings of God are flowing, our health is good, and our family is whole and happy. But this is not hope, it’s actual evidence we can point towards. Hope is when everything is not going well, yet we remain joyful and confident that God is working all things out for our good. Hope is last Christmas, where I found myself in spiritual darkness parallel to the dark December days getting shorter. It had already been a tough year that seemed unending. In a few weeks, Terry lost his job, leaving us without income for six weeks. My uncle Dennis died unexpectedly, and a gift I gave was rejected. Every time I thought I couldn’t handle anything more, something else would happen. I can’t say I smiled extra brightly that season or acted hopeful. But I remember at one point my perspective shifted, turning towards the Lord, choosing to believe that light would shine again in my dark world. I was confident my uncle was with his Lord despite the hard sorrow I felt. I saw God provide miraculously for our needs despite our empty bank account. Terry eventually accepted a new position, and I worked towards accepting the rejection with grace. But none of this happened until I began hoping for light in my darkness.

For four hundred years, God was silent, with no prophecy or evidence that He was still blessing the chosen people. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the nation of Israel was under Roman rule, losing their national identity and faltering under the burden of high taxation. Despite this season of darkness, hope’s fingerprints cover the accounts of Jesus’ birth. It starts with the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew. He records four women in this lineage: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. When you read the Biblical accounts about these women, you find out that each of them has a broken story, filled with despair and mistreatment by society. Yet, by placing them in Jesus’ lineage, we have hope that, despite our own broken stories, we can be a part of the family of God. Hope continues in the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth who were long past childbearing age. Visited by an angel, they were promised a child who would foretell the coming of the Messiah. Hope is declared in Mary’s words, “Be it unto me according to your word,” even though she faced so much uncertainty. Hope is found in Joseph’s acceptance of Mary’s status and the rumors about her impending birth. The shepherds chase after hope to find a baby swaddled in a manger. The wise men follow hope for miles to bring gifts to an unlikely king. Hope resonates in the voices of Simeon and Anna, two older people who waited and recognized the Messiah after years of studying or serving in the temple.

Yet, hope didn’t end with the birth of Jesus. It didn’t end with Jesus’ life of ministry and miracles. It didn’t end with his death and resurrection. It didn’t end with the infilling of His spirit inside of me. Hope continues in the promise of his second coming, when we are united with him forever, where all suffering, tears, and pain ends. And the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”

My 1980s boombox is probably still decomposing in a landfill. This item that I hoped for, felt despair over, and later felt joy over while listening to music, doesn’t exist in my home. It’s a memory of a bygone era, where cassette tapes are archaic and radios with antennas are mostly obsolete. My hard Christmas is also gone, but there is no guarantee that my life will be full of ease and comfort. Death will come again, as will rejection and disappointment. But my hope is not based on the ease of my situations, it rests in my declaration of trust in the only one who is faithful. And in Jesus, I find a place of refuge despite my circumstances.

I close with the song, “After December Slips Away” by First Call. I hope you listen to this song and let the words minister to you as they do to me every Christmas. Advent is a season that ends quickly, but “no matter how many hopes come true, I know that all I have begins and ends with you”.

Let Them Eat Pie

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” James 1:17

The French peasantry looked to the extravagance of their king and queen with envy and resentment. They could barely feed their families, often making hard choices of which child would get the largest piece of carrot in an already thin soup. The peasants began to protest while begging for bread, the staple of their diet. This eventually led to the French Revolution, and the guillotine for the monarchy. Years later, the queen, Marie Antionette became immortalized with her callous response to the peasants, “Let them eat cake!” Although there is no historical record of her using these words, the euphemism has been used in any situation where someone is being oblivious to the plight of others.

Years ago, the leader of a weight loss program handed out a paper plate to each of us. She encouraged us to think about our goals and not let the holidays sabotage our efforts. We were to envision our Thanksgiving dinner and write down the foods that were most important to us, calculating to stay within our prescribed limits. She also suggested recipes to help us stay focused, such as crustless pumpkin pie. I left the meeting, taking my paper plate with me, resolved to stay in these preconceived limits. And it’s quite likely that I succeeded, that year.

But not all years have been what I deemed a success. I have vacillated between two spaces. The so-called successful years I spent time analyzing my caloric intake for Thanksgiving. Other years, I ignored calories, eating to the point I felt physical discomfort. The energy I spent analyzing my food intake was wasted by not being present with my family and friends. The amount of time I spent overeating and feeling ashamed of my discomfort also took time away from family and friends. One way or the other, I have either felt anxious about the impending holiday or felt guilty after the holiday.

I have heard a lot of interesting comments since I have lost weight. Most have been related to my appearance like, “You look great!” While I appreciate those compliments but the ones that have meant the most have not been related to my appearance. These included, “I bet you feel better” or “I am sure it is easier for you to get around.” But the compliment that stands above all others came from my sister, Cheryl. She said “Sherry, you are so much stronger than you were before.” That word “stronger” echoed in my mind, articulating the feeling that I hadn’t been able to name before.

I’ve been learning more about intuitive eating versus following diet culture. I’m just in the beginning stages of doing research and in no way have I formed any opinions. But I do know God doesn’t want me to live in this place of anxiousness and guilt. I do think it is important to be healthy, but I no longer want to define health by the numbers game. Feeling healthy should be defined by my energy levels, flexibility, and strength. God gave me a body as a blessing, to help me do the work He’s called me to do. As with all blessings from the Lord, He requires me to be a good steward.

What does it mean to be a good steward? It involves having a relationship with Jesus and allowing Him to speak into all areas of my life. Some areas include the principles of Jesus’ teachings like living in moderation, being anxious for nothing, making sure nothing becomes an idol, and seeking wisdom. I also think, “food is good gift from a good God”, as stated by Asheritah Ciuciu in her book, “Full”, is an important concept to remember. It’s also about finding the right balance, and not allowing either gluttony or deprivation, to control me.

Thursday is Thanksgiving, once again. I am going to be surrounded by family and friends, enjoying each other’s company while feasting and expressing gratefulness. This Thanksgiving, I want to reclaim the phrase that embodied callousness. Instead, my cry for Thanksgiving is, “Let them eat pie” without judgment and condemnation. “Let them eat pie” without calculating how much exercise I will need to work off the whipped cream. “Let them eat pie” with a reasonable portion that satisfies and is accompanied by laughter and good conversation. Finally, “Let them eat pie” with God’s blessings without making the pie the idol!

No More Disclaimers

“It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” Psalm 118:9

We have all seen the television ads for new drugs that will deal with any number of diseases. They typically show a video of a healthy woman or man whose lifestyle has been altered since starting this new drug. They are now playing with their grandchildren, building a deck, or dancing with their loved ones. At the end of the ad, for a solid fifteen seconds, the announcer rapidly reads off the list of disclaimers: this drug is unsuitable if you have any history of heart disease, any time in Southeast Asia, any history of high fevers, etc. The disclaimers are important, because not every drug works for every person. But as they rattle off the list, I start to lose confidence in the drug’s effectiveness.

Thanksgiving is next week, and my table will be spread with turkey and all the fixings. Preparation will start early, with some dishes being made a few days earlier. It is a challenge to get everything on the table at the same time, even if you have a double oven. Renowned chefs say it is one of the hardest meals to prepare well. After everyone is seated at the table, I find myself criticizing my food: apologizing for the turkey’s lack of flavor, or if the stuffing has too much celery. The “I’m sorry” or other similar disclaimers continue when I serve pie and coffee at the end of the meal. This habit is not just limited to the Thanksgiving table. I regularly apologize about the meals I have prepared for my family and friends.

It’s a habit that even carries itself beyond meal preparation. My daughter-in-law, Rachel, and I tripped over each other with the words “I’m sorry” when I was at her house for two weeks. Whether it was forgetting to thaw out a meal, or thinking a dish didn’t turn out right, it was a race to say, “I’m sorry.” At one point, we both recognized the absurdity of our apologies. She just had delivered a baby, and was navigating recovery, nursing, and lack of sleep. I was there to help make her life easier by cooking some meals, cleaning the house, playing with Joel, and getting baby snuggles. There was no need for apologies, and even though we declared a moratorium on “I’m sorry”, they continued.

The words “I’m sorry” are important. They signify a recognition that your actions were hurtful or disrespectful towards someone else. I should apologize when I respond harshly to my husband. I should display remorse when I treat a friend unkindly. I should ask for forgiveness when my actions were intentionally harmful. But they lose their meaning when I apologize for something that needs no apology.

Why do I feel a need to apologize to others when I am serving or providing a meal? By nature, I am not a perfectionist. I’m okay if my sheets are not folded perfectly, or if my silverware drawer is a little awry. And, although social media pressure to be a perfect hostess may play a role in my apologies, this habit was in place long before the inception of Instagram. Additionally, it’s a habit I see manifest itself more in women than men. If a man offers to help out his buddy with mowing his lawn, you will rarely hear him say, “Sorry, I didn’t get those perfect lines in your grass.” What are the roots of this obsessive need to apologize?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, it’s my fear of disappointing others. I apologize in advance, because I want to lower the perceived standards I believe others hold for me. It’s my need to stay in their good graces and to find approval. And this puts unhealthy pressure on my relationships with family and friends. My approval needs to be found in my relationship with God, not with others. God calls me to serve, not to have perfectly salted chicken or chili with the perfect amount of cumin. I should always do my best, but God doesn’t demand perfection.

Julia Turshen, one of my new favorite cookbook authors, wrote in “Simply Julia”, ‘“Disclaimers don’t taste good. If something didn’t turn out how you planned it, there’s no need to tell your guests what the original plan was. Just say, “dinner’s ready!” You made someone a meal! That’s a gift.”’ Those words struck me! When I am hosting and serving, I don’t need to offer any disclaimers. I am offering the gift of help and/or hospitality. My goal should not be to create a perfect meal, but to create a place where the other person feels welcomed and important!

Finally, just like hearing the disclaimers of a new wonder drug, when I am on the receiving end of a friend’s disclaimers, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable and a need to praise excessively. Food then becomes the object of the hospitality, not the company of my good friends.

This Thanksgiving, I am hoping to offer no more disclaimers, but to enjoy the company of my family and friends. I will not apologize for my turkey or make excuses for the stuffing or make a disclaimer for the pie. Instead, I will be enjoying my family and friends, extolling the goodness of God!

Magical Thinking

“You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.” Psalms 77:14 ESV

We sat across the table from each other, both of us eating our apples, dipping his into peanut butter. Landon, my favorite five-year-old, smiled with his vivid blue eyes and thick eyelashes and said, “Sherry, do you want to know something? Sometimes I feel magical!” He continued sharing with me how he feels like he has wings that allow him to fly over his world. I texted his parents and my husband, sharing with them this delightful insight.

I spend a lot of time with children. It seems as if God always puts little people in my path. I can take the high road and claim that I am a blessing to a lot of different families, often serving by providing childcare. This may be true on some levels, but these little people help me keep my sense of wonder, delight, and curiosity.

Landon Horne with his magical thinking, Credit to Frankford Photography

Feeling magical is a way of viewing your circumstances in a beautiful or delightful way, removing yourself from everyday life. I think this little man’s statement is not only delightful, but full of pure wisdom. Too often, I get so caught up in my list of things to do, goals to accomplish, and places I need to be, that I forget to dream and imagine life differently. I forget my limitations are not based on external circumstances, but on ones that I place on God.

Two weeks ago, I saw one of my favorite local farmers advertise a job for another organization they partner with. I followed the link and read the description. The job fascinated me, combining all my current passions in one position. I told Terry about the position but listed reasons I shouldn’t apply for the job: no experience, no recent positions to share transferable skills, and no applicable references. All I had was a lot of passion, energy, and a lot of research. Terry encouraged me to apply for the position. I wrote an interesting cover letter and submitted it with my updated resume.

For the past year, I have been living in a place of waiting: waiting to move, to finish my book, to start a new blog, to get a job, and to become more involved in my community. So many obstacles seem to be in my way, like the reasons I listed why I shouldn’t apply for the job. I ordered in my mind how things should happen: first, I need to move, then I will get a job and then I will get involved in the community. But if I apply Landon’s magical thinking to my circumstances, maybe A doesn’t have to happen before I do C. Maybe I just need to dream big, but still put my hands to work with all the opportunities that God has given me. Maybe I need to stop treating this like a waiting period, and trust God for good things to happen in my life.

The Bible is full of men and women who placed qualifications on how God should or should not do something. Moses believed that his stuttering would hinder him as God’s spokesperson, but God still used him to lead his people out of bondage. Esther was afraid that she didn’t have enough influence with her husband, the king, but God still used her bravery to save her people from annihilation. And Martha told Jesus that if he had been there earlier, her brother would not have died. All Martha could see was the dead, stinky body of her brother laying in the tomb. But Jesus envisioned a miracle of epic proportions, thanked God, and then called Lazarus forth. For the first time, a man who laid dead in his tomb for days, had risen from the dead. This miracle spread throughout the community, arousing more curiosity about the carpenter from Nazareth.

I received a reply for the position, and although I can’t say for certain, I don’t think I am in the running for the position. But applying for this position has opened my eyes to new possibilities. I am going to volunteer with some local organizations. I am going to stop treating this like a waiting period and organize my time better to accomplish the many opportunities God has given me. I am blocking time out to finish my book, so that I can move it towards publication. Finally, I am going to trust God in some of the big things we need to happen, including moving, and declare His miracles when it happens.

Landon, I, too, sometimes feel magical. It doesn’t involve any superpowers like having wings. Instead, it is learning to trust God and His plans.