Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Jesus, In the Middle of the Crazy

I have a little collection.
Can you guess what it is?
I'll give you three tries to see if you can get it right.
Clearly, I have a "thing" for Nativity scenes, and I have collected them for many years now.  I decided to do a gallery of scenes across the dining room table, though once the girls come home and set to work on their homework here, we'll see if this was a feasible idea after all.
As much as I love all of my Nativity sets, I have one in particular that brings me special joy when I put it out each Christmas season:
My sister gave me the pieces to this scene over the course of a couple of Christmases.  It's a substantial size, with somewhat realistic figures, even animals, awaiting the birth of baby Jesus.

Every year that I put it out, some of the hay shifts from the rooftop, and some of the grass pieces fall out of the manger.  It makes just a little bit of a mess as I set it up and pack it away each year.  It doesn't have that pristine quality of some of the Nativity scenes I've found out there in the world.

And I'm thinking that it is that bit of messiness, that bit of realism, that I especially like about it.

It's not enough that Jesus gave up his divinity to take on the form of a human being, coming to live among those he created, most of whom wouldn't even give him a second look, let alone recognize him as part of the Holy Trinity, present at the very creation of the universe.
It's that when he made that choice to sacrifice the honors and glories and comforts of heaven, he came right into the midst of our earthly mess.

It was only recently, probably after giving birth to my two daughters, that I really thought about what it must have been like for Mary to travel such an uncomfortable distance right before her due date, and then to actually experience labor and delivery in a barn. How many of us still tell horror stories about our children's births, when we were ensconced in clean bed linen at a 21st century hospital with an epidural taking the edge off the worst of the pain?

And I've also considered the sounds and smells that would have surrounded Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus on that birth night long ago:  the stench of the barn animals and the cacophony of moos and baas and whinneys.

But something else occurred to me the other day: the population explosion that Bethlehem was probably experiencing if everyone had headed back to town, as Mary and Joseph had, in order to be counted in the census.  After all, there were no proper indoor spaces to give the Holy Family a decent room for the night, so I have to believe that in addition to all the normal sounds of nighttime and animals, there was also an unusual din from all the people who had crowded into town that week.
I don't know exactly what life and attitudes were like back then, but I tend to believe that people probably got caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, and the excitement of the times, just as we do today.

I'm thinking that even without the rumbling of cars down the street and the noise of a hundred cell phone conversations, there was still plenty of din and activity surrounding baby Jesus in those first days.  No doubt the local economy of Bethlehem boomed--and then got a bit stretched beyond its means--as all those travelers sought shelter, food, and necessities for their time away from home.

I've always been taught that in Jesus' humanity, he experienced everything that we experience, which contributes to his great compassion for us, and his ability to walk with us through whatever we face.  Considering the circumstances of his birth has made me realize that he probably "gets" the crazy that surrounds us during the holiday season.  He was surrounded by crazy from the moment of his birth!

What does it matter to me that Jesus understands "the crazy"? For one thing, it helps me understand that I don't have to achieve a perfectly serene, tidy, quiet space in order to spend time with Him in prayer.  If there's just a touch of crazy going on around me, he is more than able to spend time in communion with me in the midst of it.

If my thoughts or prayers are a touch chaotic, it's nothing he hasn't encountered before, even at the moment of his birth.

My piles of Christmas decorations waiting to get displayed around the house are nothing compared to the bales of hay piled up around his manger.

My children's cries for making gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies, and going Christmas shopping, and "please please please get me an iPad for Christmas" (not gonna happen; the litany of request and denial is like a printed script at this point!) are nothing compared to the sounds of the animals reacting to three human beings invading their already-cramped stable space.

If I get distracted because I'm weighing my usual responsibilities with winter colds, extra errands, and holiday activity planning, it's nothing compared to Mary's swirling thoughts as she remembers her visit from the angel, her unprecedented conception, Joseph's counter-cultural level of understanding, and her unconventional birth story.

Hay askew, grass tumbling from the manger,  debris to sweep aside--sounds about right for this holiday season.

Jesus, in the middle of the crazy.

We have to be willing to look for him there because that is most assuredly where he will be found!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An Umbrella in the Rain

A few weeks ago, I passed a young woman standing at a bus stop in the pouring rain. From the vantage point of my dry mini-van, I looked out in dismay as she was soaked by the downpour. Reflexively, I reached down and grabbed the extra umbrella stashed in the driver's-side door. But the young woman was on the opposite side of the street, the light was green, and traffic was moving fast. There wasn't any way to get to her with the umbrella unless I turned around and went back, which was a complicated proposition on this particular stretch of road. I drove on.

I shared the experience with my Sunday school class the following week, where we were discussing following Jesus' example of compassion in the world. I was dismayed that I hadn't made a great effort to respond to the woman's need.  Our participants listened kindly, and a visitor to class assured me that it would be impossible to act on every compassionate impulse.

Fast forward to today. Anyone who knows me or reads my Facebook posts knows that I am one of those who are reeling in disbelief and distress at Donald Trump's victory in the electoral college. As I drove around doing my errands, once again in the pouring rain, I was mulling things over: the Clinton concession speech, the Facebook posts I had been reading, the conversations I'd had with my children surrounding the election.  In my distraction, I almost missed noticing a young man walking down the street, with a soaked hoodie unable to withstand the downpour. I was past him before my thoughts pulled away from the election to focus on him.

No way. No way was I missing out on this chance again!  He had been walking on the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me, on the same side of the street. To get back to him, I had to drive around the corner and turn around in a side street.  Back out to where he was walking, I was now on the opposite side of the street. I laughed out loud, saying to myself, "Poor guy, I'm literally chasing you down." I turned around in another side street, and finally caught up to him. Grabbing the umbrella and slowing the car, I called out the window, "Sir, will you take this?"  He told me "Thanks," and I saw him pop it open in my rear-view mirror. I was flooded with emotion. It's been an emotional kind of day.

When you share a "good deed" you've done, you run the risk of looking like you're asking for some kind of "high five" for what a great person you are. Instead, I'm sharing it because it occurred to me that these kinds of small deeds, done daily by the millions, will be a way to secure the fabric of our nation in the absence of moral leadership in our government.

Throughout the presidential campaign, I heard and saw our President-Elect target, insult, mock, and threaten various groups, including women, immigrants, Muslims, refugees, the disabled, and Mexicans, both through his current-day words and actions and in his words and actions over the years. These observations led me to fear throughout the campaign that under his leadership, our country would move even further from our national ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (for all but a limited group). When roughly half of our country does not find it necessary to hold our highest elected official to a rather basic standard of human decency, then the future of our country appears grim.

[Because I see again and again in the Bible that God does not protect His people from their mistakes, and that He usually allows us to live out the consequences of our poor choices, my concerns for our short-term future are not assuaged by my ultimate and foundational faith in His goodness and love. Yes, I believe that God will ultimately work all things for good, according to His plan. But I also know that the path to getting there could get very uncomfortable.]

On Facebook today, I suggested that we give ourselves a day to wallow in our disbelief, but then engage in proactive efforts to prepare ourselves for the future, to protect our brothers and sisters who have been targeted and threatened, and to represent the values and beliefs that have not been prioritized in this vote. I wrote that while I don't have a "To Do list" of what needs to be done, I hope I can help to develop one and to begin to carry it out, rather than waiting around to watch new leadership wreak havoc on our country's progress.

My "umbrella in the rain" experience clued me in to a starting point, though. Our call to action might have to get big and ambitious FAST to respond to our new circumstances, but for now, my answer lies in small acts of kindness, one person to another: acts of kindness between people of different sexes, ages, genders, races, social groups, religions, political viewpoints, economic levels, and any of the other demographic divisions we have created for ourselves.

Whether it's a smile, a door held open, a heavy grocery bag loaded into a car, a sincere compliment, a moment of conversation, or an umbrella in the rain, these small acts of civility that create a point of connection--human being to human being--are the starting point of holding ourselves together when roughly half of us fear that we as a nation are going to fall apart.

Can such small acts possibly matter? I say, yes. As Howard Zinn wrote, "We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world." We can't afford to waste any more time crying, moping, or passive doomsaying.

Grab your extra umbrellas and get out there!


The Good and Beautiful Life: Chapter 4

In chapter 4 of James Bryan Smith's The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ, Smith writes about learning to live without anger.
He recounts a time when he grew increasingly angry sitting in California traffic, thinking that he might be late for a church retreat.  His anger moved through his body until he could feel it taking over. His brother, driving, remained calm, knowing that they were just in a temporary bottleneck, and would be flying along the freeway soon.  Jim does, in fact, reach his retreat on time, with room for a shower, rest, and prayer time before it began.  His earlier anger embarrassed him in retrospect, but led him to think about the roots of this kind of emotional response.

Jim determined that anger develops from a combination of unmet expectations and fear (often in the form of insecurity or a sense of threat). In Jim's case, sitting in traffic, he had been hoping for some downtime before the retreat would begin, and he was afraid that he might actually be so late that he would be a "no show." The thought combination created a major angry response.

But the stories he was telling himself turned out to be false narratives.  Jim lists several examples of false narratives we have a tendency to tell ourselves--narratives that only lead to problems.  His list includes things like, "Something terrible with happen if I make a mistake," "I must be in control all of the time," and "I need to anticipate everything that will happen to me today."
Looking at the list on page 73, which one of these false narratives is most common in your life and how does it lead to anger?
All of these false narratives are grounded in fear and the need to be in control.  Jim identifies this need to control and live from our own resources instead of God's as "walking in the flesh" (page 74).  He contrasts "walking in the flesh" with "being led by the Spirit."
How is it sinful to live in the flesh?
How would you describe/ explain the difference between the false narrative our author first talked about, and the kingdom narratives we should replace them with (found on page 76)?
On page 74, Jim says, "Unrighteous anger rarely happens when we are led by the Spirit. It is spawned by not seeing our situation in light of God's kingdom." This led me to ask myself, "How would it change things to see my situation [whatever it is at the time] in light of God's kingdom?"

Further, on page 76, he writes about new "kingdom narratives" and it made me think:
"If I truly believe in the reality of the presence and power of God, then it will change the way I see things."
God never loses sight of us and never permits anything to happen to us that he can't redeem and use for good.
How does this impact anger? Do you have any evidence from your life of anger diminishing as you come to know that God is near you and working for your good?
Describe "the good kind of anger."
The good kind of anger is a correct response to injustice, to the things that anger God. The good kind of anger leads to remedying wrongs.  The good kind of anger motivates us to work toward change.
Give examples of righteous anger in today's world.
In closing, spend time with these words from Galatians 5:16-17:
"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want."
The Soul Training exercise for this chapter called for us to keep a Sabbath as a spiritual exercise to help us better deal with our anger.  Because "anger is about unmet expectations and fear" and "sabbath is about trusting God and his ways,"  Sabbath becomes a kind of antidote to anger. Rather than trying to keep things going by our own strength, we take time out to rely on God's grace.  
"Rest. Trust. Surrendering control. These are the core elements of sabbath keeping, and they can help us deal with anger" (page 81).
How did you attempt to keep a Sabbath, using Jim's suggestions on pages 82 and 83?
What connection did you experience between keeping a Sabbath and controlling anger?
What did you learn about God or yourself from your Sabbath rest?

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Good and Beautiful Life: Chapter 3

A large part of chapter 3 in James Bryan Smith's The Good and Beautiful Life focuses on the Beatitudes, a section of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5.

People sometimes think of the Beatitudes as "prescriptions for blessedness." In other words, we think that we are meant to read them to find out how to be blessed.  This tendency relates to our need to look for what we must do to receive God's favor, rather than accepting it as a free gift.

Smith encourages  us to read the Beatitudes, instead, as descriptions of the kinds of people who are invited to the Kingdom of God.  Chapter 3, entitled "The Grand Invitation," is all about the inclusivity of God's Kingdom.
Think about a time when you have been excluded from a group. What was that like?
When Jesus came preaching about the Kingdom of God, who did his Jewish hearers believe would be the only ones to be a part of it?

  • Jews
  • men
  • law-keepers
  • physically whole and healthy people
  • the wealthy

This list helps us to understand why Jesus' outreach to the sick, the poor, and the outcast was so shocking to the religious leaders of the time.  'They are invited to have a relationship with God, too?!'

But Jesus is the one issuing the invitations, and he says the non-Jews, the women, the sinners, the sick, and the poor are all invited to be in relationship with His Father in heaven.  Imagine how offensive this message was to some, and how welcome to others!
In light of this understanding, read the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12, and review Smith's interpretation of what each of them means.  As you read, think of them in terms of "words of hope and healing to those who have been marginalized" (page 56).

The word "blessed" is used for the Greek word makarios, which means "truly well off, those for whom everything is good."  So Jesus is essentially saying "life is really good" for all the different groups described here:

  • the poor in spirit: those with nothing going for them, who feel marginalized, even from God, who are overlooked by the world
  • those who mourn: those experiencing overwhelming grief at some loss
  • those who are meek: the gentle, who are unable to resist, unable to stand up in the face of the oppressor
  • those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: those who are in great need of things being made right
  • those who are merciful: those who give until it hurts
  • the pure in heart: the unselfish who long to do better in order to see God
  • the peacemakers: those who are caught in the middle
  • those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake: those who are willing to suffer for their faith, especially when they go against the grain of society

None of these people is cut off from God!

They aren't blessed because of these conditions; they are blessed because of Jesus!

Our worldly circumstances don't define us!
Which of the Beatitudes do you most relate to?
In chapter 3, Smith calls Jesus a "walking Beatitude," because he was a walking, talking blessing to the world.  And we become walking Beatitudes ourselves when we are walking, talking blessings to the world.
Have you known someone whom you would call a Living Beatitude, like Jim's example of Kevin, who helped people effectively through their grief after losing a spouse?
The Soul Training exercise in chapter 3 calls us to experiment with hospitality. The Beatitudes teach us that the marginalized are invited into the Kingdom of Heaven, and hospitality teaches us to be inclusive like God.

Last time we talked about how we live in the Kingdom of God now, so if we live in it now and God includes the excluded now, then we have a role in including the excluded, too!

Some of Smith's suggestions for exercising hospitality included connecting with people who are different, listening attentively to others, making hospitable preparations (including for family), paying attention to loved ones, and welcoming people who are not in our cliques.

Having said this:

  • Were you able to practice any of Smith's chapter 3 suggestions for hospitality?
  • What did you learn about God's presence in the lives of those who are different from you?
  • What did you learn about God or yourself through this exercise?


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Good and Beautiful Life: Chapter 2

If someone asked you, "What is the gospel of Jesus?" how would you answer?  Would your answer be similar to James Bryan Smith's when he was coming out of seminary?

"Jesus died for our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die" (page 35).

This is, after all, the good news of life in Jesus Christ: we are loved, we are forgiven, and we will be raised to new life.

But in The Good and Beautiful Life, our author Jim includes something more in the "good news" of the gospel, something he calls in his chapter title, "The Gospel Many People Have Never Heard."  It was only later that he realized that we are invited to live in the kingdom of God now, not just after we die.

The kingdom of God--a place where God's authority reigns in our lives--is available to us now, in this life.

He goes so far as to say that the kingdom was the primary topic of Jesus' preaching!

Nearly all of Jesus' parables were about the kingdom.  Remember how he compared it to good seed, to a mustard seed, and to yeast, just to name a few?
In fact, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God more than 100 times!

He instructed his disciples to preach about the kingdom when they went out from him (see Matthew 10:5-8).

And in Acts 1:3, Jesus is still teaching about the kingdom after his resurrection.

The apostle Paul then carried on the teaching, and his messages were also often about the kingdom of God.
How often have you heard teaching about the kingdom of God? How aware have you been of the kingdom as Jesus' central message?
Jim suggests that a powerful false narrative, that the kingdom of God is a period of time that has not yet come, has led us to neglect the kingdom.  Since we are obviously NOT living in a world running under the authority of God, it must be something coming that hasn't happened yet, something that will happen with Christ's Second Coming.

Jim's argument, instead, is this: The kingdom of God is a present reality that will be fully consummated in the future.  For now, it is intended to be the governing power over you and me (page 42).
In other words, we engage in kingdom living whether our neighborhoods or governments do or not.  We allow God to reign in our hearts and lives no matter who else does or doesn't.  When we pray, "They kingdom come..." in the Lord's prayer, we are essentially inviting his reign to spread even further.
What are your thoughts when you hear this? Could you articulate this to someone else? How could you make someone else understand that the kingdom of God is both a future promise and a present reality?
Even Jesus' miracles and healings proclaimed the good news of the kingdom: He did these things with kingdom power! The miracles were a demonstration or manifestation of its power.  His disciples used its power in their own ministry (page 43). We have access to that same authority and power when we allow God's reign in our hearts and lives.
When have you experienced a connection with that power...power coming from somewhere outside your own resources?
So how do we do it? How do we enter the kingdom of God?

Jim says that we need three things:

  1. We need humility (page 44).  Instead of believing that we're already perfect, something like the Pharisees, we recognize in our hearts that we have a lot to work on--integrity, gentleness, respect, mercy, etc. We are willing to let God work on our inner lives.
  2. We need to become child-like (page 44), living in trust and dependence on God, rather than asserting our power and control.
  3. We need to be born of water and spirit (page 45). Being born of water refers to the physical birth (because babies live in the water of their mothers' wombs before they are born). And then when we give control of our lives over to Jesus, we are born again, and are led by the Holy Spirit.

In summary, Jesus' primary message is the availability, presence, and power of the kingdom of God.
How do you feel about this view of the gospel message, and this view of the kingdom of God? 
The kingdom of God is among us here right now!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dear God,

At the end of each chapter of The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith includes a Soul Training exercise.  The idea is to engage in spiritual practices that relate in some way to the content of the chapter.  Some of these spiritual practices are familiar ideas related to prayer, offering service, and keeping the Sabbath.  But others are a bit  more unconventional, such as play and de-accumulation as a spiritual practice.

In his first chapter, Smith invites us to write a letter to God.  He encourages us to begin with the words, "Dear God, the life I want most for myself is..."  In the letter, we are sharing with God our ideas about what a "good and beautiful life" would look like for us.  "Feel free to dream big," Smith writes. "Let God in on your greatest hopes."
In our Living Stones meeting, some of us shared our letters aloud, and we all discussed our feelings about the process.  For some, it came naturally to express prayer in writing; for others, it was a difficult task to commit thoughts and feelings to the page.

There is no right or wrong way to write a letter to God.  It is essentially a written prayer, and will reflect your thoughts, needs, and concerns.  I invite you to try this Soul Training exercise.  Some people write a letter to God every day as an approach to a daily journaling practice.  For others, it might be an isolated exercise that can still give us guidance and inspiration about our lives and our relationship with God.

Here are two letters written to God by members of our Living Stones group, shown here to give you two examples of the innumerable ways we can address ourselves to our Creator:

Letter #1

Dear God,
The life I want most for myself is the life You have created for me. I want to be the person You created me to be. I want to be a woman of integrity--a woman whose insides match her outside--whole, honest, and authentic.

I would love to stop caring so much about what other people think of me, but until I manage that, I want to be seen as strong, faithful, honest, kind, compassionate, and creative. I want to be valued by my family for who I am and for what I do.

I want to raise daughters whose lives reflect the values I try to teach them--as well as the values present in Jesus' teaching that I fail to teach them.

I want a life filled with friendship, humor, joy, memory-making, and optimism. I want to live my life with a daily awareness that I am Your beloved child, and that I am surrounded by all Your other beloved children.  I want to treat others gently, and I want to be treated gently.

I want a life where the work I do, the service I provide, makes a positive difference for my family, my friends, and my community. I want to inspire creativity, and lead people to understand the beauty of a life lived in communion with You. I want to take care of all the blessings You have provided me, to be a good steward of my resources: my home, my body, my children, my husband, my friends, my church community, and my world.

I'll say again at the end what I said at the beginning: I want to be the person You created me to be. I want to live in the light and joy of Your love, and feel Your presence, protection and guidance.

Letter #2

Dear God,
The life I want most for myself is a life full of peace and joy. This life would be free from worry and anxiety.

In order to have the good and beautiful life, I need to learn and grow from my mistakes in the past such as: trying to control the situation, trusting myself more than You, and succumbing to the gentle whispers of negative thoughts and temptations from the devil.

In order to achieve this I will need to call on the power of the Holy Spirit and turn to prayer or scripture in moments of doubt or temptation. I can only do this with your help.

Thank you for always loving me. All glory, praise, and honor are yours.

In my next post, I will share with you our Living Stones discussion points for chapter 2 of Smith's book, "The Gospel Many People Have Never Heard."

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Good and Beautiful Life: Chapter 1

NOTE: This series of posts will provide the questions and discussion points used during our Living Stones meetings to talk about James Bryan Smith's book, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ. Please use them to review our conversations, or to guide your own thinking as you read the book on your own. You can follow this link to the post about the book's Introduction. Feel free to share your questions or comments on the blog or by email to aleakaskey@yahoo.com.
In chapter 1, we meet Ben Jacobs in the retirement center. He has lived a life of wealth and influence, but feels he has ruined everything because of his selfishness and sin. Ben thought he was pursuing happiness, but he had the wrong idea about what success and happiness are (page 20).

  • What is the world's narrative of the good and beautiful life/ the successful and happy life?
  • Can you name some people living the good and beautiful life according to these narratives?
Jim tells us that the stories we live by determine the outcome of our lives. People like Ben Jacobs live false narratives of success. "Each day we make decisions that move us closer to a life of virtue or vice. We face decisions whether to be greedy or generous, self-centered or self-sacrificing, condemning or forgiving, cursing or blessing" (page 27).

When it comes to people ruining their lives and getting caught in the downward spiral into sin, Jim says sin is always ugly and virtue is always beautiful (page 24).
  • Why, then, is sin so able to lure us into its illusion of happiness?
Coach John Wooden is a counter-example to Ben. He chose a different narrative to practice each day. And it was a narrative closely reflected in the life of Jesus. When we examine how Jesus thought, we can adopt His narratives--which means we understand God, the world, and ourselves as Jesus does. That's powerful!

Read Matthew 7:24-27.
  • What does it mean to build your house (your life) on rock as opposed to on shifting sand?
Jesus isn't demanding that we live His way in order to get His blessing or to get into heaven. And He isn't offering His teachings just to make us have a bunch of rules to follow. In fact, he's just telling the truth about reality. He warns against lust, not because He's a prude, but because He knows it destroys lives when it is unchecked (page 30). He wants us to have the tools to live the best and most beautiful life possible.

"The idea that following Jesus' teaching will lead to a boring life is one of the most effective narratives employed by the enemy of our souls" (page 31).
  • How have you experienced Satan's use of this strategy, in your own life or in the lives of others?
On page 32, Jim emphasizes that no one--no even his friend Ben--is past redemption. We are always able to change when necessary. Every day we begin anew--making decisions about how we will think, speak, and act that day.
  • When in the past have you felt the possibility for change most fully?
  • What truths from this chapter could you draw on to inspire you that change is possible?
Heavenly Father, help us to remember that You have loved us from the beginning, that we don't have to do anything to earn Your love. Allow us to live in the freedom of that feeling. At the same time, help us to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit's leading, encouraging, and transforming. Help us to feel both hopeful and certain that You are at work in our lives, and that You will bring Your good work to completion. May we be open to being changed, and then used to change the world. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.


At the end of each chapter, Jim presents a "Soul Training" exercise. At the end of this week, I will post the Soul Training from chapter 1.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Good and Beautiful Life: Introduction


NOTE:  As the Living Stones Women's Ministry studies The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ, by James Bryan Smith, I am going to be posting the questions and discussion points I use for our twice-monthly conversations about the book.  These posts will serve as reminders of our meetings for those who have attended, and will allow anyone who has not been able to attend to follow along with the things we have been talking about.  I hope that reading these discussion points will encourage you to spend time with this book in order to learn more about putting on the character of Christ!

How does Jim describe the good and beautiful life in these opening sections of his book? What makes for a good and beautiful life?

Virtue lies at the heart of the good and beautiful life. What are the connotations of that word today? What does Jim use it to mean?

In the introduction, Jim says his book contains "a method of growth toward a virtuous life" (10). But he reminds us a couple of times of the very important truth that we aren't living this virtuous life to get into heaven. Everything that needs to be done to bring us close to God has already been done by Jesus on the cross. It's important to remember as we read this book that we don't have to do anything to merit God's favor. We have God's favor already through Christ.

If that's the case, then what is the point of reading books like this one, with exercises for drawing close to God?  Some points to consider:
--knowing God now, not just in heaven
--learning to live as Jesus taught
--sanctification: God's goal for us, to be holy like Jesus is holy
--cooperating in God's work; allowing Him to work in us

Jim also reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the real agent of change within us. We need to engage with the Holy Spirit as we read this book, welcoming its leading.  "If not for the work of the Holy Spirit, transformation simply will not take place" (12).

Jim writes, "I encourage you to proceed with hope and certainty that you are engaged in something that can make a positive difference in your life. I am confident that God, who has begun a good work in you, will bring it to completion" (14).
I will post again next week with the discussion notes from chapter 1.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

7 Things Kids Need to See Their Mom Doing

I often add pins with interesting headlines to my Pinterest boards with the intention of coming back to read them later.

On Friday evening, I decided to go through some of the pins on my Parenting board to determine if they were "keepers," or if it was time to "clean house."  I saw a pin entitled, "7 Things Kids Need to See Their Mom Doing."  I had this sudden burst of inspiration that I should come up with my own list of 7 things my girls should see me doing before consulting the article to see the writer's opinions.

Here is my personal list:

 7 Things My Kids Need to See Their Mom Doing:
1.  PRAYING:  I want to be an example of prayer for my girls.  I want them to see me turning to God for my daily strength.  I want to model for them how I turn to God when I am sick, sad, hurt, thankful, joyful, or irritable--how I feel comfortable taking every emotion to God.  By showing them my faith in God to stay with me and comfort me in all times and during all emotional up- and down-turns, I want to provide a model for them for their own lives.  I want them to know that I feel closer to God by turning to Him, by talking to Him, and by trusting in Him.

2.  THANKING:  I want my girls to see that I recognize my blessings.  I want to model for them how I recognize all the good things in my life.  And I especially want them to know how thankful I am that God has made us a family!

3.  LEARNING:  I don't have too many pithy sayings that I hope my kids will quote as they grow up, but there is one that I say whenever I can:  "It's a good day when you can learn something new."  I value a teachable spirit above just about anything else, I think, and I love to continue learning new things every day of my life.  I want them to see me learning all the time, so that they will feel comfortable "not knowing," and then inspired to learn all that they can each day of their lives.

4. LOVING: I want my girls to see me loving them and their daddy throughout their lives.  I want them to observe affection, so they know that they deserve the same in their own relationships when they are older.  (Though even at age 7, Bayla already says things like, "Eww, Mommy and Daddy KISSED!" as though the little peck on the lips she's observed is the grossest thing she's ever seen.)

5.  APPRECIATING:  I want to present a positive attitude about myself and my abilities to my girls.  I don't want to raise them thinking that they need to be self-deprecating or self-degrading in order to "come off" as humble.  I want them to recognize their God-given gifts, and envision how they can use them for God's glory, so they need to see me doing the same.

6.  PURSUING:  I want my girls to see me pursuing my interests, my hobbies, and the things that bring me joy.  There are things that have to be done in life--jobs, requirements, duties.  But I never want my girls to lose sight of the hours in the day they can preserve to pursue what is important to them, what uses their unique and individual gifts, what sets them on fire.  They might not learn that as easily if they don't see their mom making time for it!

7. ENCOURAGING: No matter how anyone else in the world treats my girls, I want them to know that I am their #1 fan.  I always felt this affirmation from my own mom, and it made such a difference in my confidence for facing the challenges of life.  I want to gift my girls with that same sense of encouragement.  They are beloved children of God, and they are my own beloved children--the absolute treasures of my life--and I never want them to forget their absolute and eternal value.

So, of course, then, I went to the article that I pinned to see the author's "take" on the 7 Things Kids Need to See Their Mom Doing.

Now, you can check out the article I pinned to see how that author's ideas compared to mine!

Happy Mothers' Day!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Perfectly Imperfect

I wrote the following article for my church's weekly e-newsletter, MPC This Week.  I will be following it up with some related posts here on the blog.
Perfectly Imperfect

When I was a teenager, I decided to try going to Youth Group at a local church. 

In my mind, I think that I expected to find a “better sort” of teenager there.  After all, they went to church and loved God, didn’t they?  So, it followed that they wouldn’t have cliques or make people feel excluded.  They wouldn’t cuss or make bad choices.  They would be the kind of kids I wanted to be—perfect kids—and they would help me get there myself.  Right?

As you might imagine, they did not, in fact, turn out to be perfect kids.  They had cliques and made people feel excluded.  They cussed and made bad choices.  They turned out to be actual real teenagers—real people.  So I stopped going to Youth Group.

I was too young and immature to understand the bumper sticker wisdom that states, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I missed out on all the ways I could have been blessed by those perfectly imperfect young people.  I may have lost faith in that small community of Christians back in high school, but I never lost faith in my relationship with God.  He worked in my heart to help me understand that my hope is not found in perfect and exemplary behavior—not my own, or anyone else’s.  Rather my hope is in the Lord. 

“But now Lord what do I look for?  My hope is in you.” Psalm 39:7

Again and again, in the small groups I belong to, the subject of vulnerability has been raised.  We want to feel free to be vulnerable around our church family members, to reveal our true selves with the veneer of “having it all together” cast aside.  But we aren’t sure that we have found a safe place to reveal ourselves with full honesty, to acknowledge truthfully that we aren’t a “better sort” of person, but rather broken people held together by Christ’s amazing grace.

I turned my back on those teenagers so many years ago because they didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations.  Many of us probably hope that we are too kind, generous, and spiritually mature to make the same kind of mistake I made at age 14.  We like to think that others can be vulnerable around us—honest and open with their true selves—but are we sure we can provide that safe place?  Satan well knows how quickly we fall prey to tendencies to judge, gossip, and condemn.  Can we handle the vulnerabilities of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Our Elders? Our pastors? The worshiper in the pew ahead of us?

“I abuse prescription drugs.”

“I was unfaithful to my wife, and she has filed for divorce.”

“My children are totally out of control, and I don’t know what to do.”

“I am sick, and so very afraid to die.”

“I am an alcoholic.”

“My daughter doesn’t trust me around the new baby.”

“Sometimes I don’t believe there is a God.”

“I’m so lonely.”

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners: to save me and to save you (1 Timothy 1:15). His strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  In all of our imperfection, God adopted us into His family as His children (Ephesians 1:5). 

Christ is our example of loving, of serving, of providing a safe place for sinners, just as we ourselves as sinners desire a safe place.  We are called to accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted us (Romans 15:7). 

This week I am going to invite the Holy Spirit to continue His work in my heart so I can  recognize that my hope is in the Lord, that my brothers and sisters in Christ deserve better than my unrealistic expectations, and that I can lead the way in creating the safe place that we “perfectly imperfect” followers of Christ are craving.   Will you join me?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Word for the Year: April Meet-Up

Our Word for the Year group recently had our second meet-up of the year to check in on our progress with having a special word selected to guide and direct our year.
Rather than meeting up at church, like we did in January, one of our members Mindy hosted us in her home.  A total of eight women participated, and we enjoyed snacks and conversation as we shared about our experiences with our words.
Our group members' words include:  commitment, contentment, dis-CONNECT, reconnect, and vulnerability, We talked about how helpful our words have been, how much attention we have paying to them, and whether keeping our word in mind over the months is having a positive impact on our year.
Then we brought out the art supplies!
I brought a stack of full-page illustrations from magazines, calendars, and catalogs, and we used them to create a full-page visual aid to remind us of our word for the next few months.  We could use the page to define our word, collect quotations about our word, reflect on how our word is helping us--however we wanted to use the space.
When we finished, we each shared our illustrated pages, and talked about where we might put them so that they can continue to remind us of our commitment to our word for the rest of the year.
Here's a little gallery walk through the pages, so you can read our thoughts more clearly:
We are continuing our commitment to emailing our partners with an inspiring or encouraging word at least once a month.  And we will continue to receive prompts over the months to engage with our words through writing or projects.  Those who are interested may journal to keep a record of their experiences and feelings over the course of the year so that they can track their progress toward their goals.

Our next meet-up will take place in July, so we can fellowship face-to-face again, and continue to encourage one another with this year-long experiment.

In closing, I leave you with this inspiration, given to each of us as a gift by our Word for the Year partner, Blaire:

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Spring Mission Project: Personal Care Kits

For our spring mission project, the women of Living Stones have purchased personal care items to create kits to deliver to the Media Food Bank.

The items we have included in our kits are important health and hygiene products that cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits (more commonly known as "food stamps").  These items can be quite pricey for individuals to purchase, and yet can make a big difference when it comes to their health and being presentable for personal interactions and job interviews.
We chose to include the following items in each personal care kit:  shampoo, conditioner, lotion, razor, dental floss, toothpaste, toothbrush, a washcloth, cotton swabs, two rolls of individually wrapped toilet paper, lip balm, deodorant, and a bar of soap.

Over half of our group participated financially in supporting this project; one member completed the shopping, with two members offering donations of items; and then three of us assembled the bags.
We had some help from our littlest members as well!
I am also very excited and pleased to report that my supermarket, Giant, agreed to contribute the tote bags free of charge!

The women of Living Stones have created eleven personal care kits, while women in Bible studies and circles of Media Presbyterian Church will create nine additional kits.  We will be able to donate twenty personal care kits total to the Media Food Bank.
Tana, Julie, and I celebrate putting the kits together for delivery!
I want to thank everyone who has participated in this spring mission effort, as well as challenge others to consider how they might contribute to the health and well-being of their communities through similar efforts.
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