Advent and going back to basics.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and we are packing up everything we own and moving right smack dab in the middle of it!  Christmas is my absolute favorite holiday and, despite the craziness associated with moving a family of seven and downsizing, no less, I just couldn’t let it keep us from celebrating it as normally as possible.  Not only will it make the transition easier for our kids, but it will be the beginning of many years of beautiful memories in our new home, Lord willing.   I have been determined to preserve the traditions that are meaningful and get the tree(s) up in our new house even before we move in.  So the Christmas stuff may or may not have been moved into our house ahead of my clothes!

Priorities:)

In the controlled chaos of packing/moving/homeschooling and all the busy of our normal life with five athletic and extremely social kids I had to take a good look at Christmas this year and narrow things down…a lot.

I tend to be a “bandwagon celebrationist.”  (Yes, I just made that up.)  Whenever the latest book, devotional, or idea for celebrating a holiday in a meaningful, Christ-honoring way comes across my newsfeed I’m all, “Yeah!  I need that!  THAT is the key!  THAT will make our Christmases unforgettable!  I must add that to the 6 devotionals, 7 trees and fourteen advent wreaths we already have!”  (Kidding…about the wreaths, anyway.)

I’m always looking for the next great idea and then Christmas comes…

The half-read devotionals lay stacked on the side table.  Candles failed to be lit all of last week.  And, shoot, I was going to make that newest recipe for the holidays and the ingredients sit, untouched, because I ran out of time.  It’s too much.  And in the middle of my great intentions sits a festering seed of frustration and failure.  Jesus loses his place, once again, because I crowded him out with all of this “busy work.”

As I have packed and pared down our lives for this move, it has been eye opening.  First of all, I had way too much stuff.  It’s embarrassing.  Second, the determination to keep Christmas and be able to enjoy the season in the first days of life in our new home has made me realize that there are a few things of real value to our hearts, but many more that are not.

I have filled up a lot of giveaway and throwaway bags and it has been so freeing.

I got rid of the old, dusty wreaths and garlands.  All the ornaments that were, to be honest, ugly.  Even the stuff my kids made over the years, so many things that I couldn’t even remember who made them or when.  I chucked them in a bag and didn’t look back, only keeping the special ones that brought a smile to my face and warm fuzzies to my heart.

Kind of like Marie Kondo, without talking to my stuff.

Why do I make occasions like Christmas so complicated?  Why do I feel the need to fill this already beautiful season with experiences and create Pinterest-worthy memories?  Why are the holidays so exhaustingly busy?

Because we forget why we are celebrating in the first place.  And…we forget exactly who we are celebrating.

Jesus is not complicated, friends.  Everything about him is beautifully simple.  His birth, his life, his ministry, his death.  It was all very straightforward.  No frills.  He had a message and he taught it.  He had a mission and he completed it.  He knew why he was here and he let nothing distract him or deter him from it.  Jesus is not complicated, but he is beautiful.

And that is the key, if you ask me.  Creating beauty as we walk out the season of Advent can be so simple and meaningful.  In fact, I believe we can create beauty without opening a single devotional book or suffering guiding our kids through a single craft-making session.  Just this morning, as I was contemplating the words I am writing now, I asked my twelve year old daughter what she remembers most about Christmas as she has grown up.  What has been meaningful, and what has she thought was a waste of time?

Her answer surprised me.

She listed two meaningful traditions among the many we have upheld:  Watching Christmas movies together and putting twinkle lights all through the house.

The wastes of time in her eyes?  “Prettying up the tree.  Really, Mom, I just love the star on top and the ornaments.  It doesn’t need all that other stuff.”  This, from my artsiest and most creative child.   Do you know how much time I spent last year arranging and fluffing two different colors of extra-wide, sparkly ribbon on our big tree until it look just right?  She just cared about the star and the ornaments.

This is so profound to me.  We need less, friends.  Less gifts and more time spent talking about the meaning behind all of our celebrations.  Less hustling and bustling and more time to rest, to be restored and remember our First Love.  Less trying to fulfill our kids’ every wish and more attention on the longing fulfilled when the Son of God emerged from Mary’s womb in a stable surrounded by the lowliest of creatures and visited by the forgotten of society.

Jesus deserves our very best, but best does not mean busy work that will be forgotten next year.  It means sincere, heartfelt adoration of our King.  It means offering ourselves fully and slowing down long enough to let His still, small voice speak into our spirits.  That is what we will remember, and that is what our children will look back on fondly.  Simple beauty.  Candlelight and snuggles in front of a fire.  Words of life spoken in the quiet.  And laughter.  Always we must make time to laugh because following God is JOY.

Advent is about the waiting, the longing for the Promise.  In creating simple beauty we can find that place and be truly transformed as we recognize, anew, the incredible gift of God’s son.

Filters

The struggle is real in my home.  With five kids, two of whom are well into their teens, we have every device imaginable at our fingertips.  Phones, computers, Kindles, and I-pads all compete for attention and, to tell you the truth, I could go Amish in a split-second and toss them all out the window.

Until I want to write a blog post.

Or watch Chip and Joanna.

Hence the struggle.

Filtering what my kids watch and listen to is like swimming up a waterfall with my ankles tied together.  Information rushes in so quickly these days and software updates constantly change the game.  I can’t keep up.

So how, in an age of information overload, do we protect our children?  In spite of internet filters and limits on what shows they can watch, too often they are still exposed to things that go against God and His desires for them.  Even if we successfully put up a concrete wall of internet safety, they are not in our home 24/7.  They have friends.  Their friends have TV’s and computers.  We cannot block it all, no matter how much we try.  There must be a better way to protect them, a more effective and dependable filter.

In the book of James, the twelve tribes of Israel have been dispersed throughout the world.  They are suddenly immersed in new cultures and learning to survive away from their beloved homeland because of persecution.  I can only imagine the temptation they faced to compromise, to “fit in” and just not be noticed or singled out.

I’m sure their kids, growing up in this foreign culture that did not feel foreign to them,  (this was their normal, just as a world full of electronic devices is normal to my kids) often pouted and whined, “Everybody else is doing it, why can’t we?”  The adults likely felt the same struggle.

So James reminds them of who they are and Whose they are.  He encourages them to face suffering with the courage of God and allow God to use it to refine them, making them more like Jesus, who happened to be James’ oldest brother. (Can you imagine?)  He reminds them that they are here for a purpose…God’s purpose.  He wants to use them. Their obedience, though it will not save them, will model the love of the Father to the dark society in which they live.  They have been given a mandate to love and serve sacrificially, because Jesus sacrificed his very life for them.  They are to live outwardly what has happened inwardly as evidence of their salvation and position in the Kingdom of God.

In chapter 4, James warns them about resisting worldliness.  Selfishness, arguing, boasting, befriending “the world” and arrogance are all on his list.  He didn’t tell them to only allow Christians into their home.  He also didn’t tell them to stay home and avoid society in order to avoid temptation.

He told them, in order to win the spiritual battle for their hearts, to turn away from their own interests and submit to God alone.  There are two opposing forces at work, battling to influence our minds and either cripple us spiritually or give us wings:  the World and the Kingdom of God.  They are polar opposites.  We cannot function in both at once.  We either live as an enemy of the World, or we effectively become enemies of God.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m choosing enemies it’s not going to be the Creator of the Universe.

As I ponder this, though, I wonder if what I just wrote is true.  Every day I make a thousand little decisions that add up and affect my loyalties.  This morning, as I was teaching this chapter of James to my children, a light bulb switched on in my spirit and the words came alive as never before regarding the choices we make minute by minute, hour by hour.  We talked about the characteristics of worldliness.  (They had no problem making a long list!)  I looked at them and gently challenged my sweet ones, “When you watch TV, like on Disney, and listen to music do you see any of these things?”  Three pairs of eyes widened as they nodded and named off the list again:  Pridefulness, boasting, selfishness, arrogance.  I continued…

“When you watch or listen to things that are filled with worldliness, it gradually soaks in.  The Bible says that ‘Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6:45) so what happens is your heart becomes full of these characteristics and it begins to show in your behavior and attitude.  We have to remember that God is the only one worthy of judging what is right and wrong, so if He says these things are sin then they are.  If we want to live as a friend of God then we have to choose not to immerse ourselves in the messages of the world.”

Boy, do I wish this was easy.  I wish that my just saying it to my kids would result in instant transformation and that they would, from this day forward, make awesome choices and have no desire for the things of the world.  But that is not reality.  I can filter internet and TV (which I do) all day long, but if their hearts are not drawn toward the Father then the second they leave my home they will run in the opposite direction of everything they have been taught.

I guess the next question is, how do we help them turn to God?  Well, we begin by modeling it ourselves.  Do they see me change the station when something inappropriate comes on the TV or radio?  Am I having good, gentle discussions with them as they learn to navigate these choppy waters or just casting judgement when they make choices that I disagree with?  It is in the day to day, minute to minute living and learning from real life consequences as well as experiencing blessing from good decisions that their little hearts are molded and shaped for Jesus.  I cannot cast a blanket of rules and expect them to blindly follow.  Legalism breeds sin.  Always has, always will.  But grace draws us to the Father.  Unconditional love and acceptance, having a safe place to land no matter how they have messed up and knowing who they are in Christ are the foundation for them to draw from as they stumble, fall, and learn to walk again.

I struggle with this.  I want to control and just keep them from messing up in the first place, but that is not possible.  There are only certain things I can do, provide a safe haven for them, a home where there are standards and filters and loving discussions bathed in forgiveness when the filters fail.  (Which they will.)  And I can help them develop their own, holy filter…a realization that choosing things that honor the Kingdom are always better, always more beautiful, and always with good consequences.  It takes time.  It takes a lifetime.  And it depends solely on the grace of God manifesting in the prayers and hard work we put in as parents.

 

You Can’t Hold It All

We left the hotel room in a flurry of bags, blankets and collected “treasures” from a week in Texas.  Since I tend to get sleepy when driving past mid-afternoon I was determined to get on the road by 7:00 am.  The kids, though, groggy, were on board with the idea.  They were as ready to be home and in their own beds as their mama!

As we paraded down the sidewalk to the parking lot one of my kids began to leave a trail.  A shoe.  A shirt.  A book.  Frustrated by the delay, I looked back to figure out why they were dropping all of this stuff, expecting to find an unzipped zipper or something like that.  Instead, I realized this child had thought it would be faster just to wad all of their loose belongings into their bathrobe and carry the awkward bundle to the car where, I guess, it would have been deposited on the floor and stepped on for the next eight hours. My child carried an empty backpack that was fully capable of holding all these things securely.

I scolded them, explaining why failing to secure the belongings had only resulted in delay and frustration and wouldn’t it have been easier to just throw it all in the bag instead of leaving a trail of clothing from the hotel to the car that you now have to go back and pick up?  And if we hadn’t looked back and noticed the stuff on the ground we would not have known what the heck had happened to all those clothes!

Then God gave me a spiritual flick on the head, nudging me to listen to what I had just said and, in turn, listen to what He wanted to tell me:

We have so many things we are asked to carry.  Our relationships, our homes, our jobs, finances, families, our health and spiritual disciplines are all responsibilities we must juggle.  But what we often forget is that we don’t have to carry all of them up front all of the time. What we need to hold in our hands changes constantly.   It can feel so overwhelming but we must intentionally keep the main thing the main thing!  The rest can be stowed away temporarily.

Think of the Holy Spirit as our great Backpack.  (I know…this is a big stretch!  Bear with me here!)  The Bible says the Holy Spirit is our helper.  (John 14:26)  It also says Jesus brings rest in the midst of the difficulties of life, promising not to “lay anything heavy or ill-fitting” on us.  (Matt 11:29)  So as I imagine this, I see myself…when walking well in faith…with Jesus by my side.  He is wearing the backpack that holds all of my “stuff.”  As my day progresses and my family needs to be front and center, I reach into the backpack and take them out, giving them my full attention and tending to their needs.  Then, a little while later, I get an email and a bill is due.  I can temporarily entrust my family in Jesus’ care as I take out the “financial” burden from the backpack, tending to it while my kids entertain themselves, read, play, etc.   Then the dog throws up.  ALL the stuff goes in the backpack at that point because…well…dog vomit.  Ugh.   Then the afternoon continues and my husband comes home.  I put the stress over what I just cleaned up in Jesus’ backpack and focus on this man that God has given me, greeting him with a smile and kiss and offering him dinner and a chance to rest.  Again, all of my responsibilities are nearby and available to be tended to as needed, but they are not all up front and overwhelming me all at the same time.  (And thank goodness for that because who wants dog puke front and center all the time!  Sorry…I digress.)

Does this make sense?  I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make as human beings is the same one my child made.  We don’t trust that there is enough time or energy to get all the things done so we refuse to put ANY of them down and soon they are spilling out all over the place and nothing gets done well.  But Jesus is right here by our side with an empty backpack and He is not only fully capable of holding every single one of our burdens, he WANTS to hold them.  It doesn’t mean He takes the burdens out of our lives completely, but He does take them out of our overfilled arms and off our backs!

As a woman, a wife, and a mom my life has gone through many seasons.  There are years where my biggest accomplishment was that I took a shower and the kids were still alive at bedtime.  There are others where I was more productive in keeping home, relationships outside my home, and serving.  Some years I have been a prayer warrior, others I have barely breathed out two or three words of desperation to God while trying to bring down a high fever or handle an epic tantrum.  We cannot do everything all of the time. And when we try, we will generally not do any of them well.

For example:

It’s OK, young mama, if your babies are demanding all of your time and you had to order pizza for dinner two nights in a row.  But make eating pizza an event!  Light candles! Play music!  Thank God as a family for that convenience and celebrate it!  You will have more time to cook as your kids grow, I promise.  And when you do, it doesn’t have to be Pinterest-worthy.  And please don’t wish away their little years by longing for things that would bring you more accolades.  In these long, exhausting years do your very best to be satisfied with the approval of the audience of One.  Your Heavenly Father sees and knows every sacrifice, every bottle cleaned, every diaper changed, and every exhausted kiss you give your husband.

My dear sister who is caring for a very sick loved one, maybe you stayed up later than everyone else last night and watched Netflix instead of doing the sink full of dishes.  That may not have been the most productive use of that hour…but then again maybe it was. You have to build rest into your day in order to survive.  Sabbath.  Call a friend and ask her to bring you coffee.  Offer up breath prayers when you are desperate and know that God hears them just as clearly as longer, more eloquent offerings.  Just be in His presence.  You don’t have to say a thing.

My single friend, you may long for husband and a house full of kids.  (Or maybe you don’t!)  God has not given you that “burden” to carry in life and you may feel like a third wheel at social gatherings, but you are very needed and useful.  Serve Him.  Serve His people who run around like chickens with their heads cut off and be an instrument of peace and rest in your community and church!  Use your freedom to go where young mothers cannot in their season of life.  Pave the way for us who will, one day, be empty-nesters and join you on your adventures!

Most importantly, friends, seek the Lord.  Ask Him what he wants you to hold in your hands at this moment.  Then don’t give in to the temptation to carry anything more.  That may sound simple, but you know as well as I do that it is not.  Do one thing at a time and do it well, then put it in the “backpack” before taking out the next thing.  This skill we work so hard to instill in children when learning to care for their belongings is just as useful to us as women as we navigate the busyness of life!

Gosh, I’m thankful for the lessons God teaches me through my kids.  I would love to hear from you if you have anything to share in this area!  You can comment here or email me at alifeofsimplejoys@gmail.com.  I so enjoy interacting with you and learning about the ways you seek to keep life simple!

 

Traveling…Mercy!

I’m convinced road trips are one of God’s most efficient tools for refining me.

This morning my alarm went off at 5am and I hit snooze not once, not twice, but three times.  I had spent the last two days packing up our entire family for a road trip to San Antonio.   My husband has been out of the country on a mission trip and will meet us in Texas for our niece’s wedding.  So that means I’m driving us, solo, for two days, and keeping kids from killing each other without Daddy as backup.

We left the house at 6:15 with me fully expecting them to all go back to sleep for the first few hours of the trip because I’ve been told on multiple occasions that this exactly what they do when they travel with FRIENDS.

BUT NO.

These kids who insist every. single. morning. that they are not hungry, that they are “never hungry when I wake up” wanted food immediately.  But I had a plan in mind and I stood my ground, wanting to get on the road and keep the schedule I knew would result in an efficient and memorable trip.  So I said no, that we would wait a little while to stop for breakfast at our normal eating time.  After much weeping and gnashing of teeth we started driving.  We stopped in Jackson, Tennessee and had Chick-fil-a around 8:45 am and WOULDN’T YOU KNOW a couple of kids had to be reminded to EAT because they suddenly weren’t hungry!  For. The. Love.

Throughout the day, I felt myself getting impatient.  I know you probably cannot relate (#sarcasm) but I’m just being honest here!  I got tired of complaints about being crowded/hungry/uncomfortable/and mom’s music choices.  One child and I bickered for about ten minutes over something stupid and finally made the wise decision just to drop it and be quiet.  I wasn’t going to win any mother-of-the-year awards, I just wanted to get to the hotel and let them veg in front of a TV with no time limits for once.

But here is the simple joy God injected into what began as a frustrating trip.  The same child with whom I had the conflict with became a comedian and we ended up in stitches. I put on 80’s music and we sang.  Loudly.  Off-key.  We all laughed and danced in the car and the highlight was when we belted out “Total Eclipse of the Heart” while in a traffic jam on I-30 just outside Texarkana!

Isn’t it funny how a simple choice can change the entire tone of a day?  Choosing to drop a grudge and laugh, choosing to stop wanting silence and embrace silliness?

Then there was the moment when we passed our first Whataburger billboard because…y’all…there are NO Whataburgers in Tennessee.  The entire car filled with happy yells and all the kids nearly jumped out of their seats in excitement because, “Guess what we are having for dinner!”

And all the people said…Amen and pass me a fry.

 

 

 

 

Simple begins now.

More than fifteen years ago I was a mommy of two toddlers.  We lived in a little white house on Galveston Island and life was blissfully simple.  I would sometimes go five days straight without ever leaving my house! My to-do lists were short and the kids’ naps were nice and long.

We were in a season of training, of waiting as my husband worked his patootie off to complete his residency and move on to the next phase of life.  We looked forward to the good things that were to come and dreamed of bigger houses, cars with warranties, and evenings out with friends where the meals came from restaurants that did not serve chicken nuggets.  It was a such a sweet time!

I had this incredible group of friends.  They were all medical wives, like me, and in various stages of training.  Some a year or two ahead, some a year or two behind.  We all had babies and toddlers and our play group grew from four mamas and a handful of kids to nearly thirty moms and kids destroying gracing a house every Tuesday morning!  We enjoyed endless hours of conversation, coffee and prayer while our children watched Veggie Tales and ate endless bowls of popcorn.  We called our little/big group “Pray and Play” and it was the highlight of our week.  Shoot, looking back, it is still one of the highlights of my life as a young mother.

I remember a particular conversation with my friend, Stacy.  We were coming up on our last years in Galveston and the reality of life beyond the island was hitting us.  She told me of a girl she had recently spoken with who had moved on to “post-residency” a year or so ago…

“She said to enjoy this time.  Life is so simple. Right now it is a big deal to get a 99 cent ice cream cone at McDonald’s.  Little things are such a treat.”

I nodded in agreement.

“She said that, after residency, life is so much more complicated and that it will never be this simple again.”

We looked at each other, knowing it was true.  We were so intentional back then, so determined to make the little things count and appreciate the joys that filled our young-mom days.  We wanted to believe we could keep it up and not lose sight of the beauty of this gift of wife and motherhood.

“Keep life simple.”

I mean, really, how hard can that be?  You just choose it, right?  You just don’t let the crazy creep in and you determine not to conform to the harried schedule of the world.  You have decided you are going to have dinner as a family almost every night and home-cooked meals will be the norm.  You are going to make memories with your kids and maintain that beautiful pace you have found, extolling the virtues of patience and discipline and raising little pastors and missionaries, right?

Wrong.

Somewhere along the way, the crazy crept in.  It doesn’t matter the source, you know what I am talking about.  You find yourself stretched so thin you can’t believe you haven’t snapped and died of whiplash.  Late nights find you in front of a screen in a haze of fatigue and early mornings find you mashing the snooze button and crawling out of bed only after your child pries your eyes open and asks if you are asleep.  Quiet time? You put on a Christian song and call it even.  You stop cooking from scratch and burn out two microwaves because you keep a steady supply of frozen junk in the deep freeze.  Processed food becomes such a staple that you have all forgotten what fresh food should taste like.  Yet, despite the lack of cooking, your kitchen is a disaster.

You are drowning.

Life is anything but simple.  It is complicated and you feel frazzled.  You stare into the mirror, wondering when the bright girl you once saw got replaced by a tired and bitter old woman.

So here we are, today.  Sisters, it’s time to start over!  God loves us too much to allow us to wallow in the pity pit!  He has so much waiting for us!  He longs to fill us with joy and the peace of Christ!  But, first, we must shed the entanglements and pare down our lives. What is holding you back?  What is making you feel like you can’t keep your head above water?  Pray for wisdom and clarity and get ready because today we begin.  Today we are going to find beauty in the mundane, rediscovering the little things that bring big happiness.  We are going to restore order and catch a vision for our future.  We are going to wake up prepared for each day so that when suffering does come (and you can be sure it will) we have the fortitude to face it and dare to find joy in the midst of it.

Are you ready?

 

Staying afloat, head above water, sunrise, mercies new every morning
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” ‭‭Lamentations‬ ‭3:22-23‬ ‭ESV‬‬