Spending Ourselves: Slowing Down the Holiday Spending Train

A few Christmases ago, we ate coconut, spaghetti, and pineapple for Christmas dinner. It was a mission trip to Costa Rica, so that should also explain the Christmas morning kayak trip through mangroves. (And the Christmas Eve trip to the turtle sanctuary.) We left Christmas gifts at home under the tree, with three cats wondering if perhaps they should do the job of unwrapping.
We also decided to do Christmas differently when we got home. In light of the fact that we were going to work with Nicaraguan immigrants who didn’t have the means to buy uniforms so their kids could go to school, we wondered how we would feel about coming home and opening a room full of gifts we didn’t need. Wisely, we figured we would not feel so great about that. So we planned an alternative.

For that year, we agreed that all presents had to be made, not bought. I

Christmas Eve. I wasn’t kidding. Beats Chicago.

made photo albums for everyone. Found groupons for classes to take together. Even finished those T-shirt quilts I’d been saving T-shirts for for approximately twenty years. (OK, I did not technically finish them. Some of them may have actually been a wrapped up box of fabric squares that were going to be a quilt someday when they grew up. But at least I got started.)

You know what? Our kids loved them. They spent more time poring over those photo albums than they had ever spent fascinated by a new device or game. They appreciated the time and love that went into those gifts. Every year since then I’ve thought, maybe we should do that again. And maybe we will.
One of the biggest ways we can slow down our holidays is to slow down financially. Slow down by rethinking what needs to be bought and who needs to be impressed. I know, making gifts can take time. Feeling we have to make Pinterest-level gifts for everyone on our list does not induce feelings of peace but rather heart palpitations.
But we don’t have to. “Not bought” does not equal intricately hand crafted marvels. It means creativity on another level entirely.
Here are a few easy ideas to get that creativity flowing.

Cut the List

I’m not kidding on this. Who told you you had to give gifts to your mail carrier, the person three cubicles down at work, your great-niece, and your best friend’s dog? There are no rules here unless you make them. A sincere note of appreciation is enough. (Although the dog will probably eat a note, so maybe not.) 

A card mentioning something you’ve noticed about that person. A list of reasons you’re glad you know her. A Bible verse that makes you think of him.
Really, affirming words, if they’re sincere, last longer than any gift. (Except fruitcake and tacky knick-knacks. Those lasts forever.) 
Exchange names among family members rather than trying to buy for everyone. Agree to make a charitable donation instead of give gifts. Minimize your list and take it from there.

Mass Produce

Can fifteen people on your list all receive the same loaf of homemade bread and a jar of jam? Yes, they can. Done. Stop stressing over making each one different. No one will remember. Believe me on this. (And if you still have fifteen non-family members on your list, see tip #1.)

Go with Your Gifts


A handmade gift I greatly appreciated 🙂

I can scrapbook. Maybe the thought would give you a migraine. Maybe, though, you’d be a whiz at uploading those same photos to Walgreens and making a quick photo album. Totally counts as homemade. Go for it. Go with whatever God-given abilities and passions were assigned to you. What do you love to do or create? How can that translate into giving? God gave us passions and gifts so we could bless others. Yours included, whatever they are.

Gift Someone with Time

A lunch together. A class together. A road trip together. Anything that ends with together. T-I-M-E spells love in our culture. Gift it lavishly. It will be the most treasured thing under the tree.
So take this as a challenge. A Don’t-Step-Foot-in-a-Store challenge. Slow down financially this year by making gifts, creating memories, appreciating tangibly, and gifting with time. Forget Black Friday. Seriously, Black Friday is like an abusive relationship anyway. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep going back. Break it off now.

Black Friday is an abusive relationship anyway. Break it off now.

If you find you need to do something else with all the money you save, there are some good options listed below.* Buy something someone else desperately needs given in the name of someone who doesn’t really need anything. Because nothing says “I love you,” like “I bought a goat in your name.” I’m serious, actually. It’s true.
We’re celebrating the One who had everything and gave everything so we could have anything. He didn’t spend money to woo us–he spent himself. Want to slow down financially this Christmas and stop the spending crazy train? Give of yourself. Simply, not in a “I can make cuter and more personal handmade gifts than you can buy” sort of giving. Because we all know those people, and they are annoying.
In small steps or big ways, start spending yourself this year rather than your credit cards.
In what ways do you try to focus on people rather than presents? Do you have great go-to’s for simple gifts? Please share!
Prison Fellowship/Project Angel Tree


Five Thanks — Thankful for All of These

This Thanksgiving is rough for me. Not personally – I have so much to be thankful for. Good health (finally!), three daughters in various stages of graduate school, wedding planning, and new journeys embarked upon. Fantastic friends, a new doctorate program beginning, and the best husband the planet has to offer.

But I’ve also spent much time lately immersed in the refugee crisis, the not-very-Christian response to it, and the fears and hurts of the world. We’re excitedly putting together our “Good Neighbor” welcome kit for a refugee family and waiting to be matched to a family needing a friend to sort out things like learning English, negotiating grocery stores, riding busses, and obtaining library cards. Things we assume we will never have to learn all over again.

It is hard for me this year to look at a table filled with too much food and a family so fortunate beyond measure and think of these things. The ability to give thanks itself is a gift I can’t deserve or take for granted.

In saying thanks for five things, I decided I want to be thankful for people. Groups of people who have made my life better, or different, or at least, interesting. Here are my five.

People in my church

IMG_4002.JPGWe are a motley mess. Six or seven years old now? The place still seems so new. We’ve been through adventures with God. We’ve been through celebration and loss and service and pain. This is the grandest adventure I’ve ever been on, with you people who know that grace is a verb and that sometimes giving a person time to grow is the best gift possible. You are my brothers and sisters, and that is a bond I don’t take lightly. I may will let you down at times. But I am called to this church, and that means I am called to you. And I am thankful.

People who are different

I grew up in a white bread small midwestern town. The biggest differences I was aware of were that some kids were born to be on the cheerleading squad and some on the debate team, and those of us lower on the social order couldn’t mess with that. I had no clue about the wide world. Since then, I’ve lived in four cities and traveled to thirteen countries. There is an entire world of color and spice and fun out there!

9441_10200310842560635_1992226213_n.jpgYou people are so different, and you teach me so much about the variety God created and how much He loves all the differences he made. You teach me more about His amazing versatility. His creative abandon and joy in making so much that is so not alike. I get a glimpse of that joy when I see you. Thank you for letting me in your world.

People who are younger than I

I remember when our lead pastor spoke once about the need for older people to mentor the younger people in the church. I looked around me for someone who could mentor me. Then the terrible realization hit – I was the older person. I was the adult in this scenario. I still felt like such a needy kid in so many ways.

Then the terrible realization hit – I was the older person.

I’ve wanted to succeed, for my writing to make a difference, for my ministry to matter for so long. Then one day recently, I turned around and realized – in ways I never anticipated, it does. Because younger people are suddenly telling me I am that older person to them. Or one of those older people. It has been a blessing to me beyond belief to hear that.

I am doing miles of research on Millennials and all things to do with the next generation. The one thing I’ve learned for sure is – I love you. You are awesome. (Just as your parents and coaches always told you, but not exactly.) You are keeping me real and honest and alive. You teach me to take risks and to ask questions. You are a well-deserving group to take on the mantle of faith. As deserving as any of us ever are.

IMG_4707People who disagree with me

It’s difficult to be thankful for you. I usually want to call you names. But I don’t, because Jesus. Also, because that’s not the way problems ever get solved or enemies ever become friends. I am thankful for you. You teach me to listen. You show me that my knee-jerk reaction to statements I don’t like is usually more jerk than knee. You make me a better person by forcing me to move past my us-them, right-wrong default and think deeply and clearly. You make me think through my own positions with humility, grace, logic, and Scripture. Let’s talk more. Wait – let’s listen more. Talk less.

People who qualify for “the least of these”

That sounds like I’m thankful for your neediness. No, I’m not. I would much rather you had all you need in this life. I would give much to know that no one had to be desperate enough to sell herself to beasts in the guise of men or to board a leaky boat to an unknown passage. But I can’t, so I am thankful that God will not allow me to rest in my entitlements. I am glad he breaks my heart when it would sometimes rather sit in fullness of all it has and pretend it has no obligation to those who have not. It does. I do. Continue to break me until you are no longer broken.

Whom are you thankful for? I’d love to hear. Go on over to Mrs. Disciple to see others Five Thanks!

Leave Room: When the Christmas Calendar Is Too Much

I have a calendar on my phone, a calendar on my computer, a calendar on my website, and a calendar on my wall. You’d think I would never miss an appointment. You’d think I would never double book anything. You’d think I went backpacking on a yak in Siberia. No, you wouldn’t, but that last guess would be equally as accurate as the first two.

I still screw up the calendar.
And now it’s December. The month when we routinely add 314 things to our calendar that we will feel guilty about never being able to do. Because that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
We are calendarically challenged (your new word of the month), and we need to slow it down for the holidays, not ramp it up. That’s not to say we turn down social occasions and stay at home all month with our twinkling lights. Socializing is good, even for us flaming introverts. But let’s slow it down to the right kind of socializing.


What really “makes” Christmas for your family members? Cutting down the tree? Christmas Eve service? Eating baking cookies? Listen to every person, and then schedule in the things that matter the most to each person. Yes, schedule in baking cookies. Or it will happen at the last minute because you have to squeeze it in and you’re frazzled. This is not the time to be adjacent to knives, blenders, and hot ovens.
Everyone feels listened to, and the important things happen.

Add in Slowly9d398-img_0276

Start to pick other things you want or have to do. School programs. Worship time. Visits with people from out of town. Look at each time-sucker holiday event and ask your self a couple questions.
♦Is this something I really want to do?
♦Is it something that means a lot to another person?
♦Is it something that shows my gratitude toward God?
♦Is it something I have to do or risk unemployment?
If the answer is yes, put it on the calendar. When something new comes up, go through the mental process of asking these questions before you make an automatic yes. (Or no.)

Protect downtime

Keep free time free. Resist the urge to fill it in with “just one things more.” Yes, it might fit. Yes, you might enjoy it. But it will also stress you out to look at a full calendar and feel like you cannot escape its selfish demands. Guard those non-colored areas on your calendar as if they are gold. They are. They are your golden time to do nothing, enjoy one another, read together, or go on a drive in your pajamas to see lights. These are important activities. If you decide at the time that you can and want to do that one extra thing? Then do it. But you’ll be free to choose.
This is the only time I’m going to give you a pass on not committing to an event. Treasure it.

Celebrate weirdly

My family usually gets together after Christmas sometime. The crazy is over, the gifts are half price, and everyone is sick of coma inducing amounts of food so there’s no need to cook lavishly. Choose a not-normal time for those things you’d like to do but can’t fit in. A breakfast party instead of a dinner one. Invite families to volunteer together. Have friends with little ones over for hot chocolate, pj’s, and a favorite Christmas story time after dinner and before bed. It’s short and sweet and fun. Create an event at a time no one thinks of, and since you created it, you get to make the rules.
Rules are, you don’t have to set up a photo booth and handmade placecards. Unless you want to.

17b9e-window4Leave Room

Sometimes, interruptions to your calendar are good. The shepherds’ willingness to listen to the angels and take off for the stable meant only good things. I’m not sure how the Christmas story would have gone down if they had said to the angelic host, “You know, we’re kind of stressed right now. Can we take a pass on the newborn king thing? Maybe next month, when things slow down.” Well, I am sure. God would have found someone else to do their job. And they would have missed out.

But divine interruptions can’t happen with a blacked-out calendar. Leave room. Leave room for His presence to surprise you on a starry night.

Five Senses of Fall

Over at Mrs. Disciple this morning we’re exploring the Five Senses. What a delightful way to settle in to what is quickly becoming real winter here in the Midwest. We’ve had a good long run of fall. I can’t complain. But snow this weekend . . . I just can’t. It’s not making this list of favorite sensory experiences. (Though the sound of snow. The not sound of snow. It is one of God’s better works. I will love it. When I’m not driving.)



I ate an everything bagel this morning. With cheese. Loads of cheese. I chased it down with a homemade almond cookie topped with lemon curd. Mundane tastes, maybe. (Except homemade lemon curd. That is no ordinary cookie filling. It is the stuff of gods.)

But mundane food works for me. For the last year and a half, food has made me sick. It’s only the past two months I’ve gotten to enjoy eating. So, I enjoy it. I especially enjoy cheese, my favorite food group, because that was one thing I could not have at all. And a bagel? Gluten was/is totally out. The cookie? I think perhaps I am enjoying sugar way too much. But mundane, daily food is a good thing I took for granted. Now, my sense of taste appreciates it like the sunrise after a storm.

I know it will return to mundane some day. It’s the way of our finite existence that we find something miraculous one day and common the next. I think maybe that’s how God keeps us aware that what awaits us surpasses any wonder we’ve ever known. Or any taste.



My favorite smell is my daughter. True story. When she sails into our home, the sweetness of tea roses and a hint of patchouli waft in around her. I just want to breath her hair, like I did when she was a newborn. She’s a soapmaker. So generally, she just smells good. I get to smell tea roses when my daughter comes over. And breathe in the aroma of her lovely heart while my nose gets a treat. And recognize in that smell that she’s making her own life and her own dreams. And her own soap.


“You want to come with me?” For years, that was the sentence I uttered to my kids whenever I had to go somewhere. Not that they had a lot of choice. They were kids; they came with. Later, they had a choice, and they had their own things to do and places to go.

Now, I hear it from them. And it’s the best sound. They are choosing to invite me into their lives, their cars, their conversations, their little errands and big events. They don’t have to, but they do. The roles have changed, and their options are open, but they choose to keep me at the top of that list. I may take cheese and bagels for granted one day, but not this. Never this.IMG_5059


My soft as a kitten blue blanket, wrapped around me against a chilly November night, sitting with a real cat curled on my lap (claws in), purring and snuggling against my knee. Watching old 80’s TV with my kid and my man, close together on the soft leather couch. That’s what we’re doing this month. Not sure what is the best part of that. But this blanket. It probably wins.IMG_0142


IMG_6331I admit right here to the sin of covetousness. I visited my sister this summer and marveled at her bird feeder pole with a half dozen different feeders on it and a gorgeous resident Orchard Oriole. I wanted that pole. I needed that pole.

My husband, being the amazing man he is, got me one for my birthday this fall. He posted it right outside the living room window where I work. Now it’s my turn to watch the antics of red-bellied woodpeckers, the majesty of cardinals, and the acrobatics of nuthatches a few feet away. I’m not sure I get as much work done as I used to.

But these amazing creations of God are right there, allowing me into their world for the price of a bit of birdseed and patience. Plus, I get to trade stories with my sister. We have the privilege of bonding over a black-capped chickadee. And that is a blessing.

What are your favorite senses of fall?

Less Is More Christmas

Christmastime is heeeere . . . yes, the warbling song stylings of the Peanuts Christmas special are in my head. I love Christmastime. I also love the Peanuts, so there is that. I know, it’s early yet, but there is a reason.
Unabashedly, I love it. I love the lights, the colors, the smells, the shiny wrapping paper, the songs, the general kindness. I love everything about Christmas.
Almost everything. I do not love the craziness of trying to get it all done. The last minute stress. The certainty that you have to get one more thing for one more person because said person is going to get you something and it will definitely be better than anything you can even think of with your hot-chocolate-hangover brain.
Plus I do not love “Santa Baby.” At all.
So I’m not Ebeneezer Scrooge, and I’m not Buddy Hall (the guy who wanted his Christmas lights to be seen from space). I’m just a Christmas lover. And a realist.
Being a realist, I want to take the best of Christmas and retain the reason we celebrate it (hint—the “Christ” part) and meld them into a holiday that celebrates peace on earth, not insanity in the dollar section of Target.
Light parades? I’m there.

So can we do that? Can we do a less is more Christmas with all the things we love and not the expectations we hate? I think so. 

If you were following my posts earlier this year, you know my daughter and I chose to go through the book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess for the second time. It’s all about slowing down, looking at what we have and what we need (don’t need), and finding ways to change our habits and expectations by employing some radical life changes. (Start here to find out more about that great experiment.)

Love the MSI Christmas decorations

We didn’t finish the experiment at that time. We did practice loosening the chains of food, clothing, and media before we declared a break for a while. Some of the things we learned, as well as some of the thing I’ve learned being both a mom and a pastor during Christmas (now that’s a double whammy right there), can illuminate the question: How do we slow down and do less while celebrating the season in the ways we love?

So we’re going to go through a few ways to do that this next month. Slowing down financially, electronically, calendarally (Yes, I did make that word up), and spiritually. Stay tuned. I think you’re going to like it.

In the meantime, here’s a quick peek at some of the ways I’ve already found online. https://www.pinterest.com/jimari/all-stressed-up-holiday-hospitality/ I hope some of them sound fun and useful for you as you enter the happiest/craziest/holiest time of the year.

Also, here is my free ebook on stress free holiday hospitality. It’s yours, because while I love a little crazy, none of us loves psycho momma at Christmas. (Yes, you can also click on the little book cover to the right.)

Next week — We’ll start with the calendar. I’d love to hear your ideas, too.

If You Could Choose Five Dinner Guests….

The age I was when my mom passed away. That would be a great dinner to see her again.

Five dinner guests. That’s the prompt this week for the Friday Five linkup here at Mrs. Disciple. Tough one.

If you could chose five people to have at your dinner table, people who cannot physically be there in reality, whom would you choose?

I am a perfectionist. I could take days deciding the precisely right five. But that would be counterproductive. I have a talk I give on letting good enough be good enough. So I have to take my own advice. Don’t we just hate that?

So without overthinking it . . .

1 and 2. My mom and dad. I was going to add my two sets of grandparents whom I never really met and be done, but then I thought, that would get pretty tense. I have the idea that relations between my parents and their parents weren’t all that rosy. And I don’t need that drama at my dinner table.

But I would love to know why things were not rosy. I would treasure sitting there and listening to their stories. Stories they never told. Was I too young, or were they? Were they so young when the stories happened that they never wanted to talk about the times they wished had never been? Like the war, or the first marriages, or yes, the parents.

I’d want to see the love in their eyes for one another, a thing I never really paid attention to when I was a kid.

I would introduce them to their three granddaughters. I think they would be proud. I think my dad and oldest would find themselves a lot alike. I think my mom would find all of us a tad too freewheeling for her comfort zone. Not to mention the fact that we’d all most likely be religious fanatics in her eyes. I wonder what she’d say if she knew her daughter grew up to be a preacher lady? I truly don’t know.

And I’d like to.

She’d probably clean my house, though. There’s a plus.

#3. Casey. The young man we took into our home and hearts who passed away 1590a-393376_273421972702629_943581585_nfrom a heroin overdose. I’d want to go back to a dinner we shared. I’d warn him about the last day when he would want to try heroin one more time. I’d impress on him that one day when he would want to walk out of that treatment program in anger, he should not. I would want to beg him, “Please don’t make me perform your funeral. I’ll never be able to forget it.” And if it didn’t work? I’d just like to tell him one more time we love him.

We’d all like to tell a lot of people that, wouldn’t we?

Spending Ourselves
I would so be using this mug.

#4. J.R.R. Tolkien. This should be a no-brainer to anyone who knows me. I want to pick his brain. I want to hear him speak elvish as the originator of the language. I want to drink in the imagination and the wisdom that seemed so effortless but which I know was not, considering the time it took. I can hope some of the patience (and talent) sink in by osmosis. I want to just listen. And maybe I’d show him the pictures of our gingerbread Minas Tirith.

Plus, I think he would have a fascinating conversation with our final guest.

#5. The Tenth Doctor. Hey, no one said we couldn’t invite people who don’t actually exist. #10 is my favorite. So, he’s the one who gets to come.

Really, though, the theological intricacies of Dr. Who fascinate me. This particular incarnation of the Doctor interests me the most, because he learns and lives so much of turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, and always giving another chance. Always. I’d want to talk about that, and how those values came about in a person who has seen and done much and lived too long for it to be anything but lonely and heavy. Somehow it wasn’t. We could all learn more about that.

And I’d get a selfie in the tardis.

An interesting dinner table. I’d love to see who would talk to whom. Whom would you choose, if you could?

3 Ways to Raise Generous Kids

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 4.15.32 PMA generous spirit is the linkup topic this week on Live Free Thursday. It’s a topic near to my heart, and one I’ve written on often. So here, just in time for thinking about being generous during the holiday season. Or any time.

Raising Generous Kids

When we took our three kids on a mission trip twelve years ago, I didn’t expect to become an expert on raising kids who serve generously. Seriously—at that point I was concentrating on raising kids who survived our family’s particular brand of insanity.

Through the wonder of watching our kids’ compassion and courage blossom while holding the hand of an abandoned orphan 6500 miles from our home, I learned. Raising generous kids—generous with both time and resources—is a goal most Christian parents have. But it’s an art whose technique not many understand.

Art is complex—but here are three ways, mindsets really, that will help parents in their goal.

Start Small

You don’t have to travel to China right away. (But hey, if you like a challenge, go for it. You won’t be sorry.) You don’t have to commit to one thing for the next five years. Dip the toes in the water. Find a couple small things you can manage quickly. Let the adrenaline from that move you toward bigger ideas. There are websites that offer suggestions for small projects you can even do at home. Through that, you may find something that releases a passion in your family, and you’ll want to find a bigger project. Don’t let the idea that you have to tackle world hunger overwhelm you and keep you from finding one thing you can do, right now.

Empower Your Kids

Currently, at least 75 percent of young people will leave the church when they leave china 8home. One of the major reasons for this heartbreaking attrition is their feeling that church is irrelevant to and out of touch with their daily lives. As well, young people cite a feeling that older generations prefer to condescend to them and refuse them meaningful service until they’re “ready.” For a generation bent on making a difference, this is understandably frustrating.

What would happen if, instead, we taught kids from the time they could walk that they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought?

I’ve not yet read the Scripture that said children had to wait and watch until they’re old enough to “handle” using their gifts. In fact, several passages relate how God did use children who had been trained to listen to Him.

Find a cause your family can all get exited about and pursue that mission together. Trust them with meaningful work, not busyness to keep them occupied. Let them decide what you’re going to do together. Let them own the work, and give them credit. Take their lead. You will be joyfully surprised.

Be What You Want To See

Parents get kids who resemble them—in more ways than hair and eye color. If you want generous kids, be a generous person. Bottom line. Dropping kids off at a service project for children’s church or a mission trip for the youth group will not magically convert them to eager servers. Kids willingly go along with programs, but they watch, and imitate, you.

If you model a lifestyle that is too busy to volunteer at that community event, go with them on that mission trip, or visit a lonely person, your kids will compartmentalize service as “something adults do when they have time. Which is never.”

Model a way of life where generosity and service happen as a natural part of who you are. Make it something you’ll stop everything to do. Let them see you willing to do without something so you can give to someone else. Talk about that choice.

As my daughter recently said, “You never taught us that serving was a “thing” you had to do as Christians. You showed us it was a way of thinking and observing the world, 24/7.”

Be the generous person you want to see in your kids.


Websites to try:








Books to read:

When More Is not Enough: How to Stop Giving Your Kids What They Want and Give Them What They Need

Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids: Short-Term Missions for Your Whole Family

Teach Me to Serve: 99 Ways Preschoolers can learn to serve and bless others, Kristen Summers

Small Things with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor, Margot Starbuck

Growing Grateful Kids: Teaching Them to Appreciate an Extraordinary God in Ordinary Places, Susie Larson

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, Jen Hatmaker

Rocks, Rails, and The Bible–They’re All Hard

As you read last week, I’ve had some health challenges in the last year. Or so. 
Funny thing is, once approximately 27 doctors, 478 blood tests, and 3500 random guesses/unsolicited advice/WebMd visits were all involved? The answer was something no one expected. One of the drugs I’ve been taking for eight years to keep my body from rejecting my donor kidney was causing my body to reject basically everything else. Like food.
Food is important. I think I learned that in health class at some point. But now I’m quite certain of it. Nutrients contained in food keep us alive. And my body was having none of them. For a long time.
So . . . something meant to make me healthy and well ended up poisoning me. It happens, to a select few.

Spiritual Poison

Hard, hard rocks

Spiritually, I’m afraid it happens to many of us. I think automatically of the Pharisees that Jesus confronted time and again. His basic message to them? You have a good foundation. You want to know how to please God. But you’ve taken it so far from its purpose that you’re poisoning yourselves. And everyone else.

The Pharisees had rules. Lots of them. They began well enough—with a desire to obey and follow God. They began in Scripture. But they got a tad out of hand. Anytime there are 613 rules for getting through your day, things are a tad out of hand.
My medication began well. It was intended to keep my body from killing a life-saving donor kidney. And it did that. But along the way, it started killing me instead. That’s a little out of hand. A bit of straying from the original intent.
I fear–no, I know–we’ve done that, too. We’ve looked at the guardrails God set up for life as He intended and, instead of being grateful for their life-saving capacity, we’ve used them to beat others into anything but life. Too often, we’ve poisoned the body with something that was supposed to help it.

Bedrock is Hard Stuff–Be Careful

We’ve taken the basic moral bedrock and, instead of standing on it with arms outstretched to heaven in gratitude, we’ve smacked peoples’ heads on it. Not always. Often Christians are awesomely gracious, and I have been witness to that beauty so many times. But enough for some to feel poisoned by the people God meant to be good news. This is not good news. For anyone.
Gratitude is November’s watchword.

The way to respond to God’s guardrails is with gratitude, not self-righteousness. 

And the beautiful life they give.
When God does it his way.

I am grateful for the chance to live with fewer consequences for my dumb choices if I live by the rules. But I am not free to glibly inform others that their consequences are their own dumb fault. I’m not even free to decide that this is true. Only God can decide if an effect is a result of some cause. It’s not in my bandwidth. It’s not up to me to call a tsunami or an earthquake or AIDS God’s judgment because I don’t get to be God. The complex nuances of cause and effect in my own body turned out difficult enough to navigate, let alone believing I can judge those effects on a cosmic basis.

Gratitude dictates that I fall on my knees in worship and then rise in service. Not judgment. Gratitude that I have what is life-giving should make me a life-giving conduit, not an arbiter of who gets to be in and who is out.

Making God’s life-giving Word into something that poisons those it comes in contact with is something for which we will surely answer.  .The last year and a half have taught me a great deal about turning something good into a weapon rather than a balm.

 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7.47)

(Even better, read the whole story from Jesus here.)

In what ways can we use God’s life-giving words to give life this week? How can we guard ourselves from the opposite? Let’s talk about it.

Falling off the Promises

I gave my life to Jesus when I was 16, and I’m a quick study. Within a couple years, I was teaching backyard Bible clubs and could exegete the wordless book right alongside the kids who’d grown up singing “The B-I-B-L-E.” (Which was also big in backyard Bible clubs.)

I used to think they probably gave these out in heaven.

As a shiny new believer in an uber-liberal university, I grabbed all the support I could and was soon fluent in quiet time, servant leadership, and telling people about Jesus, whether they liked it or not.

By the time I was a young married six years later, I tuned in to Focus on the Family every day, volunteered at a pregnancy clinic, and suspected that anyone who voted democrat probably would not be standing next to me in heaven singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

The perfect family, right?

At 32, with three kids and a perfect life, I had read all the books. I knew exactly what to do to make sure it all stayed that way, blessed by God.

Until I didn’t.

Until I looked into the face of a raging child, screaming obscenities at me, cuts on her arms and traces of drugs in her eyes. My child. I cried out to that God for whom I had planned this perfect witness of a life. Begging for those black and white answers that had promised so much but suddenly seemed far less clear.

He didn’t answer. Crickets from Jesus. You know, the Jesus who said trusting and obeying were the way to be happy all the day?

“Happy” doesn’t quite describe the feeling of walking up to a stranger’s door to ask if your daughter spent the night there. It doesn’t encompass the terror of wondering if she spent it anywhere safe. It never applies to watching her once-sparkling eyes turn away from yours and seeing the fresh razor marks she tries to pull her sleeves over.

I had stood on the promises, and they dropped me. Hard.

I was a Christian, a pastor, and alone, with a bleeding, devastated heart where faith still resided by the smallest of glimmers. What kind of pastor has a suicidal heroin addict for a daughter? It’s a great way to avoid eye contact in meetings.

It was also, possibly, the best thing that ever happened to my false-floor faith.

I went at this teenage rebellion thing all wrong. In my twenties, I followed without (much) question. In my forties, I started to question the whole Happy Meal.

Who does that?

I used to think conforming made me a good Christian.

I used to think following all the rules would get me all the right results.

Now I’m not sure I even knew the rules.

Now I’m pretty sure there aren’t as many as I thought.

My sureness that I knew how to do this Christian life thing got hit by a 7.8 quake. When things shake to that magnitude, something is bound to shake loose. Questions bubble up like lava from deep underground. Questions like, what is certain and what’s rubble in this mountain I’ve created? If it all comes down, what will be left to stand on?

If you stripped the gospel down to Jesus, to all he’d said and done, what was surely still there? And what had we added because we needed to be sure we were on the right track to make the grade? To be quite certain we were in control of God?

Asking questions like these can turn you into a spiritual misfit. It can get you side eyes in the Christian blogosphere.

So can starting to ask questions like, “Who is really my neighbor?” Not my theoretical, nice biblical neighbor. My real, complicated, dirty neighbor whom maybe I’ve never chosen to see.

Like suicidal heroin addicts.

Looking into the faces of kids who hurt and who drown that hurt in any self-destructive behavior they could find made me question all the people I had been certain were “other.”

Why not love the unloveable? Why not forgive the unforgivable? Why not admit there is no difference between me and the junkie in the ditch or the immigrant running the border? No matter how many rules I follow?

Many of those unloveable kids wandered in and out of my house over those years. Kids I would have ignored before. Kids I would have feared. Kids I would have judged. But in my house, at my table, with names and pasts and brown eyes that echoed all the hurt they’d ever been dealt and all the bad choices they’d made? They were no longer sinners who needed to get their acts together. They were lost kids. They were my kids.

I was the sinner who needed to get it together.

I used to think I had it together. Now I think together doesn’t exist. But grace does.

I used to think God was safe and His promises guaranteed.

Now I think real life with Jesus is nowhere near safe. It’s abundant. And beautiful.

And all I want.

Closer to the real us.

This blog is part of an amazing link up on Sarah Bessey’s blog. Sarah Bessey? As in, one of my favorite authors and an all around amazing woman? Yes, that one. Whose new book Out of Sorts is at the top of my reading pile. Find more stories here. 

Five Favorite Charities

11012109_10208027679833277_8014582040523728440_nIt’s Friday Five time again, and here is something I get very excited about. We are supposed to list 5 favorite charities. I love to throw love and awareness toward these five, so bring this one on! Here is the link at Mrs. Disciple to others’ great ideas.

I do hesitate to call them charities. It has such a negative connotation in our language. And these organizations are so very far from negative. They don’t do charity work.

They do love work.

Respect work.

Restoring work.

Rebuilding, reconciling, renewing, re-everything-I-love work. It’s re–ally beautiful.

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 7.33.27 AMSEED. Have to mention my own denomination’s arm of hope, here. In their words, “SEED partners with holistic livelihood groups connected to Free Methodist churches around the world to do micro-enterprise that makes sense in their local communities.”

In other words, they offer fair prices, a market, and dignity to people who make very cool stuff. I have some of this cool stuff. Christmas presents . . .

IMG_0057TWLOHA. The mission: “To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.”

In brief, everything my own daughter went through. They are there for daughters (and sons) in so much pain they hurt their own precious God-image bodies. Maybe those who don’t have the safety net of family that won’t ever let go. I cry just writing this; it’s so real for me. If anyone gets hope from these people, just anyone. Yes, they sell Tshirts (and other stuff) for support. But more importantly,They tell the stories. They let hurting people be heard and seen. 

Prison Fellowship. I have a thing for overlooked people, don’t I? Ive been involved with this group for about thirty years, so that’s saying something. Restoration for prisoners and hope for their families. Win-win. Right now, it’s Project Angel Tree time, so presents for prisoners’ kids. Great program.

“Supporting prisoners, ministering to families, supporting successful reentry, advocating for restorative justice.” Love their willingness to help those Jesus told us to help but few really want to.

d57f1-p1040945World Relief. I am VERY excited about this group, because very soon I will be matched with a family to be their friendship partner and introduce them to American culture and weirdness. Like Chicago hot dogs and pizza. Oh, and library cards, busses, job applications, English — all that, too. But there will be pizza. All those refugees you hear about? These are the people on the front lines. I love them.

“Our calling at World Relief is to stand for the vulnerable.” I am so thrilled I get to be a part of that.

We are even thinking that, instead of the usual too-many-presents-we-don’t-really-need Christmas at the Richardson house this year, we may create a Good Neighbor Kit for a refugee family rather than exchange gifts. To make one family’s welcome here easier, after what they’ve been through when they have nothing? Yeah, I think that may be what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Set Free Movement. OK, another shameless plug for my own denomination’s work. But really, this is so cool.

“The Set Free Movement seeks to END modern slavery and CREATE new futures in PARTNERSHIP with others through COMMUNITY-based action.”

They mean that. They’re doing it. They’re teaching others how to do it.

Of course, I wish I could list more. But these are favorites. Ones that touch my heart with the great things they do. What are yours? I would love to know.