Advent: Hope

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Advent wreath

It’s been a rough week in Chattanooga.

The bus wreck that killed six children has made national news. This accident happened not far from my own children’s school, in the school district where they also ride buses. My fearful daughter is having a difficult time grasping that tomorrow she will have to ride a bus again. Our community is grieving over what seems to be a senseless, preventable tragedy. I have personal connections to two of the girls who died, through friends and acquaintances.

And it just feels like the endcap on a rough year.

In January, I got pregnant. I’m certainly not unhappy about that – I never was, because I truly wanted a fourth child – but it was unplanned and surprising. And expensive, given our high-deductible insurance. It’s been a huge change for our family.

In April, we thought we were going to move to another apartment this summer. When that fell through, it was extremely upsetting for me. We were hoping to have a little extra space for our expanding family (and hard floors for our messy kids), and we had to go back to square one on fitting six people into this apartment. Again, it’s fine – but it was a road bump in the year.

And as we surged through these and other sad events, there was this crazy election. I don’t consider myself to be a very political person, but this election was enough to get me to cast a ballot. The results were, to me, somewhat baffling. I’ve cried. I’ve been perplexed. I’ve been scared for the future of our country and what I thought it was and what, apparently, it really is. (I certainly do not wish to have any political discussions here. So please don’t argue with me about politics, because that isn’t the point.)

And now, on this first Sunday of Advent, we are confronted with hope.

Advent wreath
source: rosalynlouise

I stared at the candles on our Advent wreath tonight. That one lone candle, burning, its friends unlit, waiting. We hope and we wait for the joy, peace, and love. And we wait for Christ.

There’s been a lot of waiting for me in 2016, between the election and a pregnancy and the pushing back of some dreams. Not all of it brought joy. But I think of the surge of emotions after Hannah was finally born, all 8 pounds and 5 ounces of baby, finally freed from my body and her own little person. Pure joy, bright like fire. All the hope fulfilled, as we saw her perfect form and tiny fingers and toes and everything doing what it was supposed to do.

I’m trying, desperately, to lean into hope right now in Advent. It’s not an easy parenting season for us; our kids are all reacting to the new baby in their own way. It’s a time of being needed in four places at once, of stuffing Hannah into her carseat again, of going to the grocery AGAIN. It’s waiting to see how we will adjust to life with four kids. It’s also much nursing, cuddling, loving, reading books, and relying on God’s strength instead of my weakness.

Hope refuses to buckle and instead believes we will find that new normal. It sees the promise of children grown to responsible adults instead of every speck on the carpet. It fills my heart and lets me lean into the everyday joys.

In Advent, I’m saying yes more. Because in Christ, God said yes to us in every possible way. The fulfillment of all hope.

 

Panic at Christmas

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It appears I took an unintentional blogging break here. We hosted Thanksgiving this year – my parents came into town, and my sister and her husband spent a lot of time here, too. (They live in Chattanooga.) It was so nice not to have to travel for a holiday! We still had lots of late nights and crazy family time, but being at home helps the kids readjust easier.

I’ve also been battling a sickness that keeps coming back, which may account for my lack of writing and the vast amount of Jane the Virgin episodes I’ve watched in the last two weeks. Thankfully I felt mostly better over Thanksgiving, but then it seemed to come back with a vengeance. Argh. I am not sick very much, and it’s frustrating not to feel well when there is so much to be done.

1121740_christmas_gifts_2

But, see, I think the real reason I haven’t written is because I want to write about Christmas. And this year Christmas seems to have me a little panicky.

It’s not that I’m worried about making it magical, or buying the right gifts, or the fact that my kids will probably ask me why we don’t have Santa gifts or an Elf on the Shelf (again).

It’s just that it seems like IT WAS JUST CHRISTMAS.

Seriously. Where did the year go? How can it be Christmas again when I so vividly remember last year’s celebration? Wasn’t it just summer?

And then I get into the MY KIDS ARE GROWING SO FAST AND SOON JOSHUA WILL BE THREE AND THEN HE WILL BE 18 WAHHHHHHH!!!!

I wasn’t even sure I would want to do the Christmas things this year at all, because it seems like I just took down the tree. I have, of course. I’ve put them up, the big tree and the stockings and nativity and wreath and all the things that will fit in our little apartment. And I’m listening to Christmas music, even though it’s been in the 60s outside and it feels wrong.

I still don’t feel it.

But what I do feel is Christ. I actually made an Advent wreath for us this year, and on Sunday we lit the first candle of Hope and sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I shared in my Sunday School class about the traditional Hope passages of Scriptures, those being taught in liturgical churches around the world on the first Sunday of Advent. We talked about acknowledging pain, and how that is a part of hope. We wait, and waiting is not easy, but in it we hope.

I don’t have any great proclamation about how my heart has changed. I am still feeling panicky about the kids getting older and the years going quickly. I am still not feeling especially Christmasy. But I am also convinced that Christ is with me in this “wait” – these years that may seem both long and fleeting. And, like Brené Brown says, what gets me through is leaning in to the good, sweet moments. Breathing and not rushing and holding them when they want to hug and cuddle.

I look at our tree and remember the Light of the World, and how much He deserves to be honored, every Christmas, every moment.

Christmas tree

How God Is Like Babe the Pig

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babe

Say WHAT? I know. You’ll have to stick with me on this one.

Today I started a 30-day challenge of writing Scriptures. This kind of copywork isn’t something I’ve really done before, but I do like to write out Scripture and quotes to help me really dwell on the words.

The first Scripture is Psalm 95:1-7. It’s a beautiful passage, including the words, “Come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the LORD our maker,” which I can’t write without singing the tune in my head.

But what caught me today was the last verse, verse 7: “We are the people he watches over, the flock under his care. If only you would listen to his voice today!”

Psalm 95:7

It wasn’t long ago that I rewatched Babe, which has always been a favorite movie of mine. And since I don’t meet a lot of sheep in Chattanooga, I guess that’s why that flock popped into my head.

They’re an unruly bunch when we meet them, all baaing loudly about different things, not knowing life without a sheepdog nipping at their heels to bring them to some semblance of order. It turns out all they really needed was a dog who would listen and to respond in return. And they got that in Babe, the tiny, polite pig who ends up being a better sheepdog than any others on the farm – simply by talking to the sheep and asking them to do things.

I feel like this verse is speaking to us sheep, as we wildly roam around in confusion. Look! the author is writing. Just listen! You have no idea how simple it could be! We’re so used to chaos that we can’t embrace the leading of the Shepherd; we can’t imagine a life where things make sense. And all we would have to do is tilt our heads up and listen to His voice.

His yoke is easy, Matthew 11:30 says, another favorite verse of mine. His burden is light. That’s because HE is carrying it – not us. As long as we are letting Him remove it from our own tired shoulders.

So there you go. That’s how God is like Babe, the sheep-pig. I always knew Babe held a special place in my heart.

One Teaspoon

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Lessons from Making Chocolate Cake

I made a cake yesterday for our dorm boys, the smaller group of six of whom my husband is “in charge.” He’s sort of their parent in Chattanooga, since their parents are spread out all over the world.

Between the cake and its ganache frosting, I used three-and-a-half sticks of butter and almost two bags of dark chocolate chips. There was a good bit of sugar (a pound … plus all the chocolate!), eggs, flour, the usual suspects. It was a rich, dense cake that should have knocked my socks off.

But instead of the called-for two teaspoons of vanilla, I decided I would substitute one teaspoon with almond extract. Yes, I know that is a lot of almond flavor, but I usually adore almond extract in just about anything. I made my vanilla probably a year ago with bourbon, and to me it still smells like bourbon instead of vanilla. So instead of saturating the cake with bourbon flavor, I went with some almond.

It was a mistake.

I could smell it a mile away with my very strong sniffer. The cake was permeated with cheap almond extract, taking away from the richness of the dark chocolate and good sugar and butter. One teaspoon of almond was all it took to fight through the rest of the strong flavors.

Maybe it’s silly, but it made me think of sin.

We can be rolling along pretty well, but there’s one sin issue that we just can’t seem to let the Spirit conquer. Fear? Overeating? Acting in anger? (Guilty on all counts.) It seems small in comparison to all the good in our lives, all the obedience we have, but it’s there. Seeping into other areas of our life, separating us from the Godhead. It permeates as quickly as a teaspoon of clear, pungent extract. It can eat up all the sweetness we have.

You can’t cover up the flavor of sin with dark chocolate ganache. Or with good deeds or wanting it badly or washing yourself from head to foot. All you can do it start again, asking for forgiveness from the One who says His mercies are new every morning.

In that repentance is a promise both ways, His to cleanse and yours to let Him be the one in control.

Just like I will probably never make a perfect chocolate cake in my lifetime, short of heaven we will never be perfect. We’ll probably return to the same sins again. But as we become more willing and able to let Him take control, the sin that seemed so enticing becomes dull compared to life with Him.

I won’t be making chocolate cake with almond extract again any time soon. And I pray that I can remember this lesson a baking experiment taught me yesterday.

image source: Arrqh via Flickr Creative Commons

soliloquy

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It’s just been one of those days.

I feel gross. I still haven’t figured out how to tame my coarse, curly-ish hair in 33 years, and now it’s flecked with gray. My gums ache because I went to the dentist and I don’t floss enough.

I tried to sit down and write this afternoon, blessed with a few solitary and quiet minutes, and the words wouldn’t come. I feel like I have much to write until I sit down, intimidated by the keyboard before me. No wonder every blogger has a book coming out except me.

My kids don’t even attempt to eat dinner for the second night in a row. I’m not sure how that’s possible when they didn’t eat lunch either, preferring to put on a sideshow in Applebee’s for my sister, her coworkers, and everyone else within a mile radius.

Lest you think I am exaggerating about Joshua’s antics, tonight after sitting on his little potty, Joshy stuck his finger in the big potty and then directly into his mouth.

AGHHHHHH!!!!!!

I laid on the floor and felt like the worst mom ever. The worst person. Nothing.

Tonight I need to tell myself something true instead of the negative thoughts that want to fill my brain, saturating me with lies and anger. 

Here is the truth: I am in no way the worst mom in the world. They will eat when they’re hungry. No one is judging me based on my hair, and if they are I feel sorry they don’t have better things to worry about. I am a writer, and God will guide my words at the right time for His purpose.

God says I am His treasure, the one He paid a great price for. And that is the truth – not whatever I happen to think about myself today.

Thank You, Lord.

The God of Patriotism

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Christianity Is Not American

source: crabby_gabby via Flickr

Here is what I think needs to be said to the church today:

Christianity is not American.

Do you realize that? That it’s not ours (assuming you are American yourself, as I am) to claim? It didn’t start in America, and it certainly won’t end there.

I’ve always felt pretty strongly about the separation of church and state. Even in a land started by (at least supposed) Christians (Thomas J, I’m looking at you and your “copy-and-paste” Bible), we are flooded with people from many nations, tongues, and belief systems. That is what America decided to be: a place that would embrace other cultures. (Other than those Indians that we forced right out into the wilderness … ahem.) We haven’t always been refined about it, but it’s our heritage.

So I don’t understand when people think the government should rule with a Christian mindset. Because although 78% of Americans will claim to be Christians, and we can call America a Christian nation all we want, they are two separate entities. We are Christians because we follow God, because we confess faith in Jesus’s death on the cross and His resurrection. We are Americans because we were born in this country or came here and worked to achieve citizenship.

Lately there have been so many upset and appalled Christians at the government legislature. My stance is this: if Christian does not equal American, laws of the land are not going to regulate what is sin and what is not sin. I firmly desire that homosexuals have the same legal rights in this country as anyone else, including partner/spouse rights. I absolutely do not think the church should have to perform homosexual marriages. Because American marriage is not the same as Christian marriage. 

We’ve gotten used to Christianity being easy. This isn’t something that is experienced worldwide, y’all. There are places where being a professing Christian means putting your life at risk. I believe our ease in a culture where mainstream has equaled Christian has led to a lot of lukewarm Christians, those who go to church but never consider the biblical implications of following Christ. Who live completely selfishly yet “know where they’re going when they die.” We’ve created a place where many people think they hate Christians or want no part in a church that does nothing like what it says it can and will do.

But man, is that Christianity patriotic. We love some America.

Please do not get me wrong. I do love America, and I am so proud to be American. I give nothing but honor to those who are serving in our military, including the five military men whose lives were taken in my own town of Chattanooga last week. I love patriotic songs.

But I’m not sure I love them in church.

Rob Tims, who was at one time the youth pastor at my church in Nashville, wrote about this in his wonderful little book Southern Fried Faith. He writes, “Whenever a group of people who are designed to primarily unite around one thing try to unite around something else, the result is devastating for all. … Any idol in the church — including the god of patriotism — can divide a church. The allure of American virtue is strong enough to blind us to the truth.”

Our fourth of July service at church made me uncomfortable this year. Pledging to the flag. Singing “God Bless the USA.” The whole shebang. We honored veterans. The government was chastised in prayer.

All the while, a lovely young woman from Iran was sitting in the service.

Is it fair to her to feel ostracized from a church because that church happens to be in the United States?

American Does Not Equal Christian

Wherever we go the church should be preaching the same message: Jesus. That’s it. The Bible. God. The unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If I went to church in France, or Malawi, or Taiwan, I wouldn’t want to be paying allegiance to their government in church or being presented with reasons why it stinks. The language barrier would be difficult enough to get through. I would want what I want whenever I enter my own church home: to worship freely the God of the universe. Not the God of America. The God who sees all souls equally with love.

I am an American, and so happy to be one. But I am first a Christian.

__________

I am sincerely not trying to start controversy or upset anyone; I simply would love you to consider this, what has been on my heart for weeks. I am closing the comments to avoid any public arguments. You are welcome to e-mail me at vanderbiltwife@gmail.com if you like.