To Love Me Well… Love My Children

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How can I have a relationship with a God I can’t see?

Last week we celebrated my son’s 6th birthday. The party was more than a month after his actual birthday, but he insisted on having a bounce house and sprinklers, so a belated celebration it was. We settled on Memorial Day weekend with an inflatable water slide that turned our backyard into a swamp suitable for Yoda to train young Jedi warriors, but hey, it was fun, right??

We hosted a gaggle of children in addition to my own crew, all precious to my Sweet Prince. However, the ones who stole my heart weren’t there for the water slide. Of course, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t get some play time in…

These two may have been the wettest of the bunch, but there were others who showed up to love my boy with wicked Nerf guns and Pokémon cards before they went about their adulting business. Yes, these special guests are grown men and women, not related to us, no kids of their own, with nothing obligating them to a 6-year-old’s birthday party when they could totally be out doing grown-up things like driving motorcycles or whitewater rafting or shopping for appliances… And yet they came.

They come over and over again, week after week, year after year. They come to birthday parties, preschool graduations, and over for dinner when my socialite 8-year-old begs for “company.” They make Play Doh creations, give us special treatment when we visit them at work (Chick-fil-A, of course), teach the kids’ classes at church, and model a life that is following Jesus. They simply love my children, and in turn, they are loving me.

Love me well

One of the great mysteries of faith is the idea of loving a being which we cannot experience with our 5 senses. Certainly we can connect with the divine in less tangible ways – the work and power of the spiritual realm is often misunderstood and vastly underrated by the exhibitionism of the internet age – but aside from recognizable theophanies, interacting with an invisible God can feel like explaining Pinterest to your great-grandmother… Where do you even begin??

Jesus was once posed a similar question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:36-40

The Pharisees get a bad rap for being the bad guys in the Gospels, but truth be told, the whole Pharisaical movement was born out of that one question: how can I have a relationships with a God I can’t see? 

Seeking to understand the Mosaic traditions of Judaism in their contemporary context, the Pharisees wanted to shift the focus of Hebrew worship from temple sacrifice to personal study and prayer. Their endless lists of rules missed the heart of the Law, to be certain, but ultimately, they were asking the same questions we are. Their answer landed on legalism; Jesus pointed to loving people. 

Love my children

To anyone who is a parent, it should come as no surprise that the best way for us to love God is to love his children – each other. He spent over half of the Ten Commandments (plus the majority of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that you never read because it feels rote) telling us how to respect one another, and the critiques of literally every minor prophet in the Old Testament boil down to Israel failing to care for the needs of her most vulnerable people groups.

Jesus’ entire ministry is devoted to loving God’s children. His miracles may be symbolic of large-scale principles, but let’s not forget they were still worked through individuals. He saw the needs right in front of him, and then he met them. We ought to take that as lesson #1 of “How to Be Like Jesus.” In Matthew 25, he gives us this familiar parable:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Matthew 25:34-40

If I had the job of writing section subheadings in the Bible, this one would be, “Jesus Tells Us How We Can Love a God We Can’t See.” It’s so simple: love his people.

We are created to live in community, and family is both the primary foundation of community and the primary vehicle through which God demonstrates his relationship to us and vice versa. We are most moved when others minister to our children, therefore, so is God.

If you are new to following Jesus, or if you’re considering it but not sure where to start, look to the greatest commandments – the second answers the “how” of the first! Love God, and love your neighbor. Look at the needs right in front of you, and meet them. Mentor a kid. Help someone who is struggling. Visit someone who is alone. Feed someone who is hungry. Get involved in community. That’s where the magic happens, because that’s where God’s heart is.

God is saying to us now, To love me well… Love my children.

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WWJD? Halloween Edition

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It seems like every October there is this strange tension in the church. While the rest of the world is out stretching cobwebs across their doorways and setting skeletons in their porch swings, folks inside the 4 walls of the church are tiptoeing around trying to avoid the obvious elephant in the room: Halloween. We try to pretend like it’s not an issue, scheduling our Harvest Festivals the week of the 31st – but maybe not on that day so as not to promote the holiday – half joking about our family friendly costumes of super heroes or princesses for the “Boo at the Zoo” party while ignoring the door-to-door visitors that might be coming Halloween night. We ride this imaginary fence of whether or not to participate, all the while missing the forest for the trees.

This year I learned how to celebrate Halloween like Jesus would.

I have never been one to make much ado about Halloween. My kids have a huge collection of costumes that they wear all the time, so Halloween is just the day that everyone else joins their party. Plus the candy, of course, or the Frankenstein-themed notepads and plastic spider rings from those teal pumpkin’ed houses. A few simply-carved gourds is the most decorating we do for the occasion, and this year we even skipped that due to a severe reasonably-priced-pumpkin shortage when we procrastinated until the last minute. I hold no ill will toward others who go all out; I simply don’t have the disposable income or off-season storage to devote toward such items.

Growing up, my church always had a “Hallelujah Hoedown” (laugh all you want; this is East Tennessee) in place of Halloween celebrations, and by the time my parents wrapped their heads around us trick-or-treating, my brothers and I were in middle school and not terribly interested anymore. For the last decade of my adult life, I have spent nearly every Halloween at church, where we hosted a Trunk or Treat event, a “safe alternative” to walking door to door at strangers’ houses. I value that this particular church was open to the community, and while our church-sponsored trunks were always “family friendly,” no one batted an eye when community members showed up dressed as zombies or demons or scantily-clad nurses or whatever other non-churchy costumes were presented. (Okay, well, maybe my husband batted his eyes in the other direction of scantily-clad nurses, but it wasn’t a judgmental sort of way.)

This year we are serving at a new church, one whose Fall Festival was held on Wednesday night before Halloween. Our neighbor across the street is festive for every occasion, and she rang my doorbell last week bringing special treats for my kids. “I know you are always at church on Halloween,” she said, “so here’s something special since the kids won’t be coming to my house.”

“Actually, we’re not doing anything on the 31st,” I replied, much to her surprise, “so we will plan to come by and show off our costumes!”

Her excitement at my news should have clued me in that there was something special about this day in our neighborhood, but I have to admit it didn’t. I was actually a little disappointed that our church wasn’t having an outreach event on Halloween night, as I had grown so accustomed to this tradition being a blessing in our previous context. This year, however, we got to try something new.

Halloween night came around, and I honestly considered skipping the trick or treating. We had already been to our church Fall Festival on Wednesday, our new church campus’ Fall Festival on Thursday, and a local Freaky Friday event in the park, so we had enough candy to feed the whole neighborhood. But I already told our neighbor we would come by in costume, so off we went. As we walked down our street I realized something that made my heart sink:

I don’t know my neighbors.

I know R&C on my right, whose boys ride the bus with my kids and let them come over when I am late getting home after school. I know D&K on my left, who always go out of their way to be neighborly, including dying my hair pink a few years ago. (That’s going above and beyond, people!) I know C&C across the street, who bring my kids dollar store treats for every major holiday and give them shiny rocks from their garden whenever we go retrieve a ball that has rolled into their yard. And that’s it.

As we walked from house to house, I saw dozens of kids I didn’t know lived here, including two in my son’s class. We met dozens of parents and grandparents giving out candy. There was one man sitting in his garage with a box of cigars and a bowl of candy about 10 feet away so kids could help themselves without breathing his smoke. (LOL, by the way.) There was a little old lady who lives by herself and gave kids packets of hot chocolate and instant oatmeal in lieu of candy. (LOL even more, by the way.) There was a family on a cul-de-sac with a trailer hitched on the back of their truck, giving neighbor kids a mini-hayride in addition to sweets from Elvira at the door. (Okay, that was awesome.)

Not only do I not know my neighbors, but I am missing out on what it means to be a neighbor.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Trunk or Treat (or Hallelujah Hoedowns) at church, as these can be a big blessing in certain communities. And yes, I should be spending time getting to know my neighbors all year long. But this Halloween showed me that a typically controversial holiday can be an opportunity to love people. No, I don’t mean hand out salvation tracts along with Blow Pops and Snickers. (That’s actually pretty annoying.) I mean coming together as a community, learning each others’ names and needs, loving people where they are, especially when that is just up the street.

For one night every year, my neighborhood becomes one big party where everyone joins in, and I have the opportunity to interact with people I normally never see. Rather than boycotting that with my self-righteousness or devaluing it with my presence somewhere else, I’m choosing to participate, dress up, share the fun, and share the LOVE. Body of Christ, rather than fighting about “the Christian response” to Halloween, let’s take the opportunity to get to know our neighbors, and serve them the way Jesus told us to. Because loving our neighbors honors him, and that’s what Christian holidays are all about.

Maybe next year I’ll remember to get pumpkins…

New Beginnings // Painful Endings

new beginnings tobymac

from TobyMac Facebook page

Today is a new beginning. But it kinda hurts.

Early in December, 2004, a 19-year-old college sophomore and her fiancé walked into a new church. (Okay, it was me, so we can drop the third person speak now.) We were looking for a church home to call “ours” as we transitioned into our new life together. We had heard that an old family friend had recently become pastor of this church, so we stopped in to visit.

That morning service included a drummer with 80’s hair and 80’s rocker gloves, a worship parody of a secular song, some awkward moments and imperfections. It also included a hug and kiss from an elderly woman who immediately treated us like her grandkids, a brief conversation with a man who told us how much he loved this church, an apology from the girl sitting behind us regarding that worship parody, an immediate invitation to get plugged in to serving, and lunch with that new pastor and his goofy 8-year-old son who immediately won our hearts.

We were home.

A few months later we were married on that stage. We were invited to start a brand new ministry for pre-teens, and to be honest, I didn’t want to do it. That age is so… Okay, do you remember being 11? Yeah, THAT. But God immediately gave us a heart for those kids, and one extra special kid to make every Sunday with them worth it. Then we were invited to join the staff part-time as Children’s Pastors, another role I didn’t think we were quite suited for, but God knew what he was doing. We fell in love with those kids and our time with them. Some of my favorite ministry moments involve grape juice boxes and Ritz crackers, teaching K-4th graders about communion.

Then the Lord and our pastor invited us on what has proven to be the most remarkable journey of our lives when, in February of 2007, my husband left his job to enter full-time ministry as the youth pastor at “our” church. I’ll never forget that first Wednesday when we introduced ourselves and overhearing a couple of students talking about me, saying, “I think she’ll be AWFUL.” I smiled and stepped into the conversation, assuring them I would only be as awful as they forced me to be. Those students captured my heart and became some of the closest, most valuable relationships we have had in our ministry.

Jeremy and I have been through a lot with this church body. We have seen probably hundreds of students filter through our doors over the years, some flitting in and out for lock-ins and retreats while others endured the blessings and curses of a small-ish youth group. Those enduring ones worked alongside us to grow and develop the group. They welcomed accountability and discipleship and “became their own evangelists,” a phrase I recently heard as a scoffing remark at the impossibility of getting students to do so. Some were overwhelmed by the challenges and gave up. Some wrestled with their faith and came through stronger. Some graduated, moved away, and lost touch. Some are my best friends today.

We have spent countless hours with teenagers on mission trips, service projects, retreats, conferences, Wednesday services, driving for 956,324 hours to the beach, playing basketball at the Civic Center, drinking coffee at Panera Bread with my baby in tow, and spending off-campus lunches at the church. I do not regret one single hour.

Our teens were hungry for the Word and begged Jeremy to start an extra Bible study outside the usual church times. They were the biggest supporters of an off-campus community outreach we started to “adopt a block” in our city and love on that neighborhood. Some of them continued that ministry when other obligations forced us to step out of it. Teenage girls have knitted scarves and made jewelry and stuffed goody bags for me to deliver to my friends in the strip clubs, and they have done so with such love and tenderness and never an ounce of judgment. Our teens started their own Bible studies and outreach projects we have been honored to support. They have made us so proud.

Our pastor trusted us completely with the students in his church, including his own son. He allowed us to try things that were out of the box – some worked, others didn’t – and he had our backs when criticism inevitably arose. He is an incredibly rare type of leader who is exactly the same person on stage and in the office and in his own home. We always knew who we were talking to, even when we disagreed. He didn’t fire us for the time(s) my husband punched (and dented) a metal door or the time our super fun and exciting event landed 3 kids in the emergency room, although he probably thought about it. Thanks for that, man. (However, that super fun and exciting event was henceforth forever banned…)

This church body has raised us from literal teenagers (well, for a few months anyway) to actual capable adults. They have prayed with and for us. I have been honored to serve in the nursery with women who chatted and shot the breeze and didn’t realize they were mentoring me as a mother. They poured in their honest and vulnerable stories of raising their own children, imparting their wisdom of hindsight while encouraging me that it’s okay to not have it all together. The church has supported us spiritually, emotionally, and financially. They welcomed with us the births of our 3 children… and the few who knew mourned with us when we lost two children in 2014. We were all eager to celebrate the healthy pregnancy I am currently carrying, but as one student said, “I wish this baby was OUR church baby.”

Because today is a new beginning as my husband walks through the doors of a different church, to a different office, with a different flock to shepherd. This is a wonderful opportunity for a new beginning, but it comes with a painful ending. Yesterday we were honored by “our” cherished church family as we said goodbye to that home of the last decade. God has called us into a new season of ministry, one which honestly has been difficult for me to accept.

Sometimes a new beginning really feels like a painful ending. But the pain does not negate the beauty of the promise. I have learned that sometimes we need to sit in that pain and allow ourselves to feel it in order to move past it. The last few weeks have been so difficult to wrap my head around starting over, but God’s grace has been so overwhelmingly great that I have never been so sure in my life that we are right in step with God’s purpose and plan. And sometimes the beauty of the promise doesn’t wipe away the pain of the moment. But it is worth the struggle.

To all who have been on this journey with us over the last decade, thank you – with everything that is in me, thank you. To my beloved students – from the redheaded duo of terror (who became the joy of my heart) to the SnapChatting, hashtag-creating, inside-joking loves in my group today – If I could put you inside my heart, I would just squish you with my incredible love for you! To the students and families coming in the next season of our lives, I cannot wait for the beauty of this promise. I love you already…

Now let’s do this.

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. I always pray for you, and I make my requests with a heart full of joy because you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus comes back again.

“It is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a very special place in my heart. We have shared together in the blessings of God [in the good times and the bad]… God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. I pray that your love for each other will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in your knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until Christ returns. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation – those good things that are produced in your life by Jesus Christ – for this will bring much glory and praise to God.”

Philippians 1:3-11

Snow Day Magic

I’ll be honest with you; the last week and a half has been hard. Today is our 12th consecutive day without school, and judging by the forecast, I don’t feel hopeful for the rest of the week.

I really don’t mind being stuck at home. I have done more cleaning this week than in the last month combined (don’t judge me, I’m pre-nesting pregnant). Today I experimented with making my own bread because I’ve been craving French toast. (Free doughnuts at Krispy Kreme prevented me from actually making the French toast… I’ll let you know how it goes next time.)

Of course you want to see my first homemade loaf of bread! I'd share the recipe, but it actually wasn't that good.

Of course you want to see my first homemade loaf of bread! I’d share the recipe, but it actually wasn’t that good.

It’s not really the cabin fever that gets us. We have actually managed to get out several times, which has been nice. Our struggle is the lack of routine. We are a family that thrives on routine. We didn’t intend to become that way, but our children just naturally fell into a pattern, and we realized they are much happier (which of course makes my husband and me happier) when everyone knows what to expect.

Enter SNOWPOCOLYPSE.

The first day was a lazy movie day, because at first it was all ice. The second day they played outside for like 20 minutes before coming in for hot chocolate and Spaghettios. Those 20 minutes cost me 2 loads of laundry. Days 3 and 4 we went to my parents’ house to sled on their massive hill, which lasted a couple of hours (and 3 loads of laundry, including towels after post-sledding baths). Today we finally got a good packing snow for snowballs and snowmen, but they’re all so over it, nobody even wanted to go outside.

During these routine-less days at home, I really want to be the crafty mom making snowflakes out of popsicle sticks and baking snowman cookies with the kids. But I don’t have a “rainy (snowy) day craft supply” budget, and my kitchen is barely big enough for me to bake in, let alone anyone else standing there.

I would love to be the fun mom out in the snow sledding and playing with the kids. But my kids seem to detest snow almost as much as I do, and they definitely do not enjoy bundling up only to get cold and wet and come in after 20 minutes.

really want to be creative mom who builds elaborate obstacle courses in the house or films a snow-day-dance-party-music-video to share with our friends and family. Shout out to my cool brother for actually doing the music video thing with his kids.

Unfortunately, those things don’t really come naturally to me, and I certainly didn’t plan for them or this much time at home. So today I am striving to be like this mom and simply pause in this moment to treasure the extra time with my family. I may have told Sweet Prince 53 times today not to jump off the top bunk of his bed. But I got to talk to him. I may have listened to Princess sing “Let it Go” for the 95,000th time today. But I heard her voice. I may have wiped Little Man’s bottom 6 times today because apparently he poops when he’s bored. But he still needs me. (Okay that last one was a stretch. Work with me.) And as I put my little pumpkins to bed all in the same room tonight because they are best friends and get lonely when they’re apart, I can look back on these snow days and remember the messes made together, the countless giggles together, the meals together, and the snuggles together. We may be stuck together in this house, but at least we’re together.

Snow day magic <3

Snow day magic ❤