Gazing Upward
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  • August30th

    I’ve always had a love for pretty things.  A breathtaking work of art, an intricately designed ring, eye-catching home decor, a sleek and distinctive wardrobe piece.  I can’t even enter an office supplies store without ogling the colorfully designed notebooks and file folders.  It takes every ounce of self-control to not carry the item(s) to the cashier or complete the online checkout process.

    For a long time, I carried around a burden of guilt for my attraction to beauty.  I chastised myself for being so materialistic.  I wondered why beauty had such a powerful yet calming effect on me.  But a godly counselor revealed to me that the longing for beauty is actually hard-wired into our minds and hearts by God’s design. He created us for perfection and utmost beauty that won’t be experienced until Christ returns.  But what inspires awe in this world is a glimpse of the glory and grandeur we’ll behold in eternity. So our affinity for beauty isn’t wrong or evil in and of itself.  It’s part of our nature.  What matters is what we do with our desires, allowing them to lead us toward either holiness or worldliness.

    A few years ago, I came across a quote from author Harper Lee in reference to herself and her sister:

     

    “One thing about us, we can appreciate beauty without needing to possess it.”

     

    Oh how that has stuck with me! Every time I find myself in a store lusting after something, these words remind me that it’s possible to admire the beauty without having to bring it home with me.

    Through this process, I’ve discovered the value of self-denial.  If there’s a discipline that is completely lacking in our American culture, it’s this practice of saying no to temptation.  We can just look at the rising rates of affairs and divorce, obesity, extravagant lifestyles (with equally excessive debt), and destructive addictions to confirm this observation.   Even two-thousand years ago, Jesus warned,

     

    “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

    – Matthew 16:25

     

    While self-denial may sound like a punishment to ruin our fun, it’s actually a pathway to peace and contentment.  One of my favorite British authors wrote a novel in which one of the main female characters resists multiple opportunities to compromise her marriage for a moment of carnal pleasure.  Our society would say that such a decision leads only to regret and self-pity.  But for someone who looks to the Lord to fulfill their every need, the outcome looks vastly different.   Consider how the author describes her faithful character:

     

    “…for she had the true serenity that stems only from self-denial.”

    – Elizabeth Goudge, The Heart of the Family

     

    I had to read that sentence several times to digest the meaning.  In doing what she knew to be morally right and God-honoring, she lived with a heart, soul, and mind that were calm, untroubled, and peaceful.  Before reading that line, I probably would have guessed that the secret to achieving serenity was a tranquil, simplified lifestyle (which seems impossible with four kids).  And a super-clean house (also impossible with four kids.)  Or maybe a vacation on a desolate beach with just my husband and a tropical drink.  I could come up with several more scenarios.  But I’m pretty certain self-denial wouldn’t have been top of my list.

    Jesus says in Luke 9:23,

    “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  

     

    Sometimes our self-denial may initially feel uncomfortable.  Just yesterday, I listened to an episode of The Simple Show podcast called “Life in Cambodia.” (Click here to listen.) The guest, Marla Taviano, shared her journey of God’s call to move their family to the other side of the world.  Prior to that revelation, they were saving up to go on a short-term mission trip to Cambodia. While they had received some monetary gifts to help cover the expenses, they were also determined to finance the majority of the trip’s costs on their own because they wanted to feel the sacrifice.  By forgoing certain privileges, they were preparing their hearts to understand and relate to the culture and people they would be engaging.  And through that process, Jesus was refining their desires and priorities.

     

    The beauty of self-denial is displayed when we surrender our personal desires and indulgences for the benefit of others.

     

    If we practice self-denial on a regular basis, we strengthen that “muscle” so that we are prepared to turn away from truly captivating yet devastating temptations.  We’re allowing God to cultivate a habit of self-control and a heart for sacrificial service or giving.   It’s saying “no” to ourselves so we can say “yes” to God.  With this new perspective, I’ve been making an effort to deny myself even seemingly harmless pleasures.  Maybe it’s a bowl of my favorite ice cream. Or a new necklace, even though I may have the money to buy it.  Over time, my ability to say “no” will increase. And so will my delight.

     

    “Jesus’ demand for self-denial is another way of calling us to radically pursue our deepest and most lasting joy.”

     – John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World

     

    The apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 5 that if we live by the Spirit, the result in us is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  If I had to define serenity, the fruit of the Spirit is a pretty good description!

    My personal prayer is that I would have eyes to see the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross eclipse the allure of pretty things.  That I would grow to treasure eternal significance over instant gratification. And that in this chaotic, self-focused world, I would stand out from the crowd with a serenity that only comes from a commitment to live like Jesus.

    The question I’m learning to ask daily is:

    “What must I lay down today so I can take up the cross and follow Him?”

     

    Serenity waits for us there.

  • August18th

    It’s been a week since my youngest of four kids started kindergarten, and I’ve found myself a bit sentimental and nostalgic.  A quiet house can do that to you.  So I spent some time reading old blog posts to revisit the season of life when my kids were home all day long.  I reasoned that reminders of terrible twos and temper tantrums would make me especially grateful for the hours of silence and freedom I now have to myself.

    When I stumbled upon the post below from 2010, I not only melted when I saw the baby faces of Carter and Grace, I also felt encouraged by the reminders to embrace the daily grind. Even with my freed-up schedule, I can still get grumpy with the mundane rituals, especially when they become maddening with carpool delays, rushed dinner prep, endless chores, and bedtime-routines-gone-askew.   No matter our age or the season of life we’re in, the daily repetition of ordinary tasks can drain our joy, if we let it.

    But I love what author Richard Foster writes: “If we fail to sanctify the ordinary, we will be leaving God out of a large part of who we are and what we do.” For the mom struggling to hold onto her sense of purpose as she labors to get through the day, I especially hope the truths and insights below will be sweet to your soul.

    P.S. I’ve quickly adjusted to the calm and quiet hours by myself, and they’re glorious! No more tears from this momma!

    May 3, 2010
    (This was a few weeks after we adopted and brought home Grace from China.)

    On our flight home from China, I told Scott I was craving normalcy and routine. After weeks of anticipation (and anxiety) before our trip, and a long 17-day adventure across the world and back, I was ready to become a family of four and embrace the daily grind. Simple tasks like laundry, driving Carter to Mother’s Day Out, and grocery shopping seemed refreshingly simple.

    It didn’t take very long after arriving home before I began dreading the chore of folding clean clothes. And resenting the number of times I have to scrub our kitchen table and booster seats in one day. And feeling drained trying to create new ideas for fun and entertainment for two toddlers.

    Words of Wisdom

    The other day, I suddenly recalled a series of devotions I read in one of my seminary classes. I pulled out Devotional Classics edited by Richard J. Foster, and found the highlighted wise words penned by Kathleen Norris. Here are some tidbits I’ve pulled from her portion in the book:

    • “And it always seems that just when daily life seems most unbearable, stretching out before me like a prison sentence, when I seem most dead inside, reduced to mindlessness, bitter tears or both, that what is inmost breaks forth, and I realize that what had seemed ‘dead time’ was actually a period of gestation. It is a quotidian mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation.”
    • “The contemplative in me recognizes the sacred potential in the mundane task.”
    • “Repetition is both as ordinary and necessary as bread, and the very stuff of ecstasy.”

    God gives us work to do. And whether it’s at home, in an office, or even on the mission field, the work often involves repetition. Sometimes He’s inviting us to play. Other times, the mindlessness of the task frees us to worship Him in the midst of our busyness. There are moments in the day when I long for leisure time that is all to myself. Freedom to curl up and read a book. Or catch up on blogs. Or watch Tivo’d episodes of my favorite shows. And then I am reminded that motherhood is my job right now. That’s not to make it sound technical. Being a mother, and staying home with my kids, is a joy and fulfilled dream. But there are duties that come with the package…changing diapers, disciplining, cleaning up toys, preparing food for hungry mouths. Not to mention the sacrifice of self-denial. You can’t always sleep, eat, or play when you want to.

    When you want to escape from your responsibilities and mundane tasks for something more exciting or fulfilling, remind yourself that this work is just as important. When you feel like you must be missing your calling, that you can’t possibly be impacting the world for Christ while scrubbing dishes in the kitchen sink, let His Word remind you that He created this assignment just for you! Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” 

    As I reread the thoughts of Kathleen Norris, I was encouraged to embrace the mundane this week and find Him in those moments. In this season of my life, God has called me to be a stay-at-home mom of two toddlers. The days can be long. The work can be exhausting. The chores can seem endless. The time not my own. But when surrendered to Him, the rewards can be big. We don’t have to search in a church service, in a Bible study, through a praise song, or at a big spiritual retreat to find Him. He can be found in every simple and common thing we do.

    **If you have particular habits or ways you find God in the mundane, please share in the comments!  I’d love to hear and try your ideas!

    Copyright: tomertu / 123RF Stock Photo
  • August11th

     

     

    This morning, I tearfully watched my youngest child pull the straps of her multi-colored, zebra-print backpack onto her shoulders and walk into the elementary school as a kindergartener.  Leading up to this big day, she and I read many books together to prepare her heart and mind for this big step.

    The one story she wanted to hear repeatedly was I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas.  It’s a sweet, reassuring tale about how the momma pig’s love is with her piglet all day long, whether they’re together or apart.  She loves him even when he accidentally makes a mess, or trips over his shoelaces, or makes a mistake.  For my nervous, 5-year-old perfectionist, these were comforting thoughts.

    I’ve spent the last few hours cleaning my kitchen and doing laundry.  Don’t be impressed….this is much more an issue of me being a control freak than a diligent housewife.  If I can’t do anything about how my child is doing at school, I’ll find something I can control. It’s my way of bringing chaos into order. Plus an orderly room makes me feel more peaceful.

    As I pushed my Swiffer back and forth across the kitchen floors, I prayed that all four of my kids would remember throughout the day how loved they are.  I prayed that if they felt lonely, intimidated, insecure, or imperfect, that they would pull confidence from the truths and lessons we’ve tried to instill in them.  And just maybe, the little tale of a momma’s love would give them the quiet assurance they need to overcome their hesitations or fears.

    The Lord used this same book as a sweet reminder to me this morning that He loves me all day long as well.

    Even when I’m trying to control circumstances.

    Or when I make a mess out of a situation.

    Or in those moments that I doubt the goodness of His plans for me.

    His constant and unconditional love settles my restless spirit and aching heart. And I’m reminded that just as He has equipped me for every good work, He has given my children everything they need for today.

    I just looked up at my bulletin board and saw the verse Deuteronomy  31:8…. “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”  We don’t have to spend a moment apart from our Father! Regardless of where we’re headed or where we’ve come from.

    I’m praying for you fellow mommas who sent your babies off to big school today!  We have loved our children well, and Jesus loves them greater still.  Let Him be your source of comfort and love today.

     

     

  • May23rd

    I love that three of my four kids can read. It’s like revisiting my childhood when I share with them books that left such strong impressions on me as a kid.  It’s also nice when I can encourage (enforce) reading time which oh so quietly occupies them.  Then I can escape to my room to decompress and bury my nose in my own book.  For this introvert, that’s my happy place!

    With long summer days ahead, and all the free time that I (naively) envision having, I’m excited to delve into an ARMFUL of books I’ve had sitting on my nightstand for months.  Here are some of the ones I’ve pulled to read….

    The Whole-Brain Child
    12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
    by Siegel and Bryson

    I started this book a year ago but got caught up in end-of-the-year festivities before I finished it. So I’m picking it back up.  The authors are a neuropsychiatrist and a parenting expert who put their heads together to create a guide for helping children develop emotional intelligence.  It’s an informative yet entertaining read. They give a clear explanation of how the brain is wired, and then they provide practical ideas to help kids balance their emotions with logic.  For a mom of a child who can spiral downward in rage or anxiety, this book is an incredible tool!  My favorite tip – if your child is nervous before a big game, performance, audition, or interview, tell them to add simple equations in their head. 1+1=2     2+2=4      4+4=8.   By employing the logical left side of the brain, you balance out the emotional flood of anxiety from the right side and become calmer.  Caroline swears this helped her with dance tryouts!  The authors give an example of swimming….you can’t swim well with just one arm; it’s imperative to use both!

    How to Really Love Your Child 
    by D. Ross Campbell

    Now I did borrow this one, so I’ll just have to take notes.  Campbell co-authored The Five Love Languages of Children with Gary Chapman. This book similarly helps parents understand the emotional needs of children and how they perceive and receive love.  Having made some recent observations, I’m suspecting that my 8-year-old, Grace, is not feeling fully loved and accepted, despite my all the words of affirmation, hugs, kisses, etc.  A friend found this book to be very insightful for her family, so I’m looking forward to implementing some of the ideas and skills to ensure that my daughter feels unconditionally loved.  There’s definitely a parenting trend among our generation to avoid strict discipline or else harm your child’s psyche. But that’s not what this book is advocating.  This is more about how you connect with and engage your child in everyday life, not just when they act out.

    Are My Kids on Track?
    by Goff, Thomas, and Trevathan

    Can you tell I’m on a parenting-revamp kick?  Ironically, these books just happened to appear on my radar this past week. I certainly wasn’t searching for books on the emotional health of kids. In fact, it all sounds very hokey. But I had already been thinking about how to better teach empathy. And when I heard the authors on an episode of “The God-Centered Mom” podcast, I knew this book would point me in the right direction. There are various milestones for emotional, social, and spiritual development. And it’s our job as parents to help our kids grow in these areas at the appropriate pace so they can flourish.  For Caroline, who was adopted at age 12, these milestones have come much later because she didn’t have a typical or loving upbringing.  While I was initially more attracted to this book for the sake of my littles, I’m predicting that it will be very applicable to my oldest.

    Giddy Up, Eunice
    Because Women Need Each Other
    by Sophie Hudson

    Sophie Hudson is well-known as the author of the Boo Mama blog. She ‘s also located right here in  Birmingham, Alabama!  I fully expect this book to have me in side stitches from tearful laughing fits. And I also expect to be inspired to step outside my circle of friends and pursue relationships with women across generations.  There are several older women who live on my street who have countless stories I’m eager to hear.  Time to put the kettle on for tea!

    Uninvited
    Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely
    by Lysa TerKeurst

    I’ve actually already finished this book, but it so deeply resonated with me that I have to share.  This book is for anyone who has ever felt rejected, insecure, inadequate, or overlooked.  I would venture to say that every single person falls into this category.  With wit, vulnerability, and Scriptural references, Lysa teaches how to process hurt in a healthy way so you can handle future rejection with more confidence, and most importantly, recognize the unwavering love of Christ that steadies the soul and heals the heart.

    Nothing to Prove
    Why We Can Stop Trying So Hard
    by Jennie Allen

    I am a huge fan of Jennie Allen. She appears to be one of the most grounded, theologically-sound, humble, and genuine women doing ministry today. In her latest book, she speaks to those who feel like they’ll never be enough or measure up.   I can’t help but feel that way some days as I scroll through Instagram pics.  Pointing the reader to Jesus, Jennie illustrates the freedom and power that come when you admit your weaknesses and needs, and then allow God to meet them.

    Steadfast Love
    by Lauren Chandler

    Lauren is the wife of Matt Chandler, the lead teaching pastor at The Village Church in Dallas. If you’re looking for some great sermons, check him out!  Seven years ago, Matt was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  Lauren writes of the journey of faith God took them on during such a terrifying and uncertain time.   It’s hard to worship when you’re stuck in the hard places, but Lauren reminds us that we can experience the steadfast love of God during those seasons.  And we will come out of those valleys stronger and victorious when we allow Him, and nothing else, to be the anchor of our souls.

    The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House
    by Kate Andersen Brower

    I find a lot of great ideas and encouragement from parenting and Christian living books. But I also love a good page-turner, from suspenseful mysteries to coming-of-age novels to biographies and memoirs!  I’m particularly fascinated by true life accounts and personal stories.  Recommended by a fellow bookworm, The Residence is like the Downton Abbey of the White House.  Amazon describes the book as “an intimate account of the service staff of the White House, from the Kennedys to the Obamas.”  And it’s a fun companion to my current TV binge-watching show, Designated Survivor.

     I’m always looking for more recommendations! Especially in fiction.
    What’s on your summer reading list?

  • May16th

    Every year, I seem to engage in three periods of reflection and evaluation:  the launch of a new school year, the celebration of a new calendar year, and the transition into summer.  There are always fresh ideas, new goals, renewed resolutions, and unbridled determination (which may or may not last but a few days.)  The allure is that I love fresh starts and second chances.  These times remind me that I can make a choice to break out of unhealthy or unproductive patterns. I can give a worthwhile goal another GO. I can reprioritize to include a project I’ve long kept on the back-burner. And I have an excuse to go splurge on new office supplies. Because who doesn’t feel better after buying a pretty new notebook and fancy colored pens and nifty paperclips?? Nothing makes me want to get organized like gorgeous, patterned filing folders.  Surely I have some soul sisters out there who feel the same way.

    So the 2016-17 school year is wrapping up, and I’m making my summer wish lists, bucket lists, and project lists.  As I look back at my 2017 New Year’s goals, I see one resolution in particular that I did not make good on…. updating my blog.   I kept putting it off because I wasn’t sure where to start, or if anyone actually reads blogs anymore, or if I even remembered how to sign in to the dashboard! Alas, five months into 2017, I’m adding it to my summer goals and giving it a try.

    I’ve always loved to write, and this blog was such a great forum to sift through my thoughts. It’s a space where jumbled emotions transformed into words and coherent ideas. It’s a space where I often had big revelations in the midst of typing about mundane happenings. And most importantly, this blog became a “stone of remembrance” for me where I could look back at posts and recall the many times God demonstrated His faithfulness. Because I certainly can’t rely on my memory anymore!  In the limitless world wide web, I found a small sacred space where I learned more about God, myself and others.  I made connections with incredible people whom I never would have met otherwise, and I was left the better for it.

    Let me clarify, I’m not calling this blog itself “sacred.” What I mean, is that I have found that when I take a few moments to quiet myself before Jesus, He can bring some sort of order to the haphazard impressions and feelings that emanate from this crazy life. In fact, when I set apart these moments to reflect and look for His hand at work in my daily life, I find myself humbled, encouraged, inspired, and changed.  And I was much more likely to reflect on daily life when I was blogging and writing.  Sometimes these moments were just a few seconds and sometimes they were much more. No matter their length, the key is that they were moments I set apart – and when I do so God makes them sacred. He does that for us all whenever we come before Him.  I look forward to sharing the silly, the serious, and yes, the sacred, as I continue this journey as wife, mother, and friend.

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