Invitation To A Feast: Bible Studies That Study the Bible

Recently, a handful of women from my church joined me in reading and discussing Lysa TerKeurst’s book “The Best Yes”. Though our numbers dwindled over the six weeks we met, those of us who remained at the end agreed that our time together had been well-spent.

TerKeurst is a New York Times best-selling author and president of Proverbs 31 Ministries. She’s a popular, gifted teacher and ministry leader. We were entertained, challenged and informed. And in some ways, we were changed by engaging through her book and the accompanying DVD-led study.

So why, as leader of this study group, do I feel like these women were short-changed?

As only God can do, I’ve received some gentle conviction in recent weeks over where I go — and where I lead others — for the study of God’s word. At the very least, I’ve been stopped in my tracks while I think about His desired path for women who want to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not sorry that we read this book. Nor do I feel we were misled in any way by the God-inspired wisdom offered by Lysa Terkeurst. I do, however, feel I misled the women by advertising the group as a Bible study. We discussed my “false advertising” in our first session and the women graciously forgave me. But in the end, it was as if I’d invited the ladies to come for bread and wine and served them chips and cola instead.

Tasty, but not as good as the real thing.

I’ve participated in women’s Bible studies for years, as proven by my library shelf full of Beth Moore, Priscilla Shire and Jennie Allen study books. I’ve read (and studied) many wonderful Christian books about topics that interested me written by spiritual leaders I respect, both men and women. Most of them have led me to a fuller understanding of scripture.

Here’s the thing. At least one of the women in our little gathering appears to be a “baby Christian” and I got the distinct feeling she was attempting to digest savory doctrinal commentary, when what she really needs is pure, simple food. Namely, the word of God.

Don’t we all?

My concerns are backed up by Bible teacher and author Jen Wilkin. Her essay in Christianity Today, “Let Bible Studies Be Bible Studies”, addresses this very issue.

“Churches must distinguish clearly between what is Bible study and what is something else because the average churchgoer may not be able to on her own. Knowing they should study the Bible, earnest Christians sign up for what we have labeled a Bible study, assuming that it is,” says Wilkin.

In her opinion, biblical illiteracy is pervasive in our churches, in part because we fail to point out the difference between pure Bible study and book study. Her church has become intentional about precise terminology when offering studies, with an emphasis on pure Bible study.

Moving forward, our church will do the same.

When a disciple of Christ desires to understand their choice to follow Him, going to source materials should be the first step. A well-versed Bible teacher can help by setting the table and joining in the feast, utilizing commentaries and even various translations to aid in the understanding of scripture.

In her excellent book “Women of the Word”, Wilkin says this about the value of intentional Bible study:

“Sound Bible study transforms the heart by training the mind and it places God at the center of the story. But sound Bible study does more than that — it leaves the student with a better understanding of the Bible than she had when she started.”

Reading and discussing good Christian books can enhance our application and even our understanding of scripture, but reading them should not be a substitute for studying the Bible itself, word by word, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book.

“When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, LORD God Almighty.” Jeremiah 15:16





When Faiths Collide: Finding Myself in Ash Wednesday

I stood in line for the symbolic smudge of ashes on the first day of Lent, unprepared for what that touch to my forehead would to do my heart.

In the glow of candlelight, tears spilled unbidden. And there she was again, standing at the altar. Skinny, smiling shyly as she posed in her white communion dress, mousy brown hair peaking from beneath a froth of netting, white anklets scrunched above black patent leather shoes. Ardent in her practice of a faith that formed her, the girl’s eyes glowed with the joy of taking her first communion. Her first confession.

Her first receiving of the ashes.

Did she know that five decades later, she’d stand at another altar and her heart would bust wide open, full with the joy of taking back the precious meaning of the ashes?

I turned away from Catholicism as a high school senior, lured by the popular youth group and upbeat music offered by my friends’ non-denominational church. I wanted guitars and games, not incense, chiming bells and Latin liturgy. A copy of The Living Bible went with me to college. My Catholic scriptures were left behind on a bedroom shelf.

An outdoor wedding ceremony officiated by the pastor of that non-denominational church set me on a path toward spiritual awakening and growth. Women in the church mentored and encouraged my still-ardent love for Jesus, and I learned to share Him with others. In years to come, pastors from various denominations and other churches contributed to a deepening faith that sustained me through trials — divorce, loss, cancer.

The security of a faith built on decades spent living out God’s Word among His people allowed me to listen when a gentle ripple of longing began to surface. In the beginning, I couldn’t put a word to the yearnings that bubbled in a quiet corner of my soul. I love my church. I’m in deep agreement with the doctrine and theology of our evangelical protestant beliefs and practices. But, like a lamp lit by a low-wattage bulb, my rock-solid faith lacked some of the glow that burned across the years from the altar of that little Catholic chapel of my childhood.

Then, last summer I met two faithful women doing a work of revival at a Catholic retreat center, and the yearnings slipped into place.

Beauty, symbolism, tradition, corporate prayer, holy seasons. I had shed them like an ill-fitting coat in my youth. Now, I felt the loss of their weight and warmth.

I soaked up the joy of those women doing a work for Jesus, offering to add a work of my own to their revival project. As we talked and planned, I recognized and understood what shined from their eyes when they spoke to me of tradition. Of miracles, healings, sacraments. Of a church history that, in many ways, all Christian faiths share.

It was familiar because it was part of me.

My stepmom passed away shortly after these women completed their project. It was inevitable that my grieving was bound up by their unwavering commitment to The Church. And by my stepmother’s. Her collection of Catholic icons, prayer books, rosaries, holy medals and other symbols of faith passed through my hands. They gave weight once again to what I’d known and lived, to the faith that formed me.

You can turn from one good thing and replace it with another. But can you wipe away the imprint that one thing left on your soul? Or can you acknowledge the stirrings and make space for them to be welcomed in the now?

Our evangelical Christian church chose to observe Ash Wednesday for the first time in many years. Dipping back into the dust of a tradition that lay at the foundation of my faith brought me face-to-face with the ardent little Catholic girl who was the Bride of Jesus.

Her eyes still glow.

“Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Genesis 3:19b




Trusting God for the Outcome: A Mother’s Prayers

I’ve been reminded that a mother is only as happy as her happiest child. We’d rather experience illness or unhappiness ourselves than to see our children struggle. I’m learning to trust God has a plan as we walk alongside our son in his battle with anxiety, panic and depersonalization. I share this very personal story on my friend Amelia Rhodes’ blog today.

I will never forget the first time I sat with my son while he was experiencing a panic attack. Everything in me wanted to hold him and make it stop. All I could do was pray and wait for it to pass.

When he was in his early 20s, our adventurous, confident, athletic and creative son had his first collision with anxiety and panic. It came out of nowhere. He had moved from Indiana to Nashville, TN, and was enjoying the city with all its new experiences and friendships. Though he’d had periods of mild depression in the past, anxiety and panic were something new. The first time he experienced anxiety was confusing and frightening, but it passed and he lived mostly anxiety-free for the next five years………(read more)

While visiting Amelia’s website, check out her beautiful new book “Pray A to Z”. Amelia has taken her own desire to be intentional as she prays and developed a useful and inspiring tool to guide us in our prayers. My blog post today is one in a series on topics covered in her book.


5 Things I Learned While Going 7 Days Without Facebook

Still wide awake at 12:30 a.m. today, I rolled out of bed and did what I’ve done on many other sleepless nights. I grabbed my phone to check in with Facebook — for the first time in 7 days.

A week ago, inspired by a book I’m reading and challenged by my blogging friend Plaidfuzz, I decided to give myself a one week break from Facebook. Besides wanting to change a habit, a big motivation for my self-imposed fast was the climate on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong. There is much that’s good in this online community — inspiring messages, fun recipes, photos of friends and their families, groups of like-minded individuals conversing on topics of interest (writing and hygge). And, Facebook is sometimes a window into the world of my sons, though it’s not often their chosen means of communicating online.

But what I found when dropping in during the middle of the night is that not much has changed in seven days. Attacks and “false news” are still popping up in my news feed, which means I have to do a lot of scrolling to get to stuff I want to read, and, the things I don’t want to pour into my mind still seep in.

I have enjoyed at least 168 hours without the vitriol, and I feel cleansed.

Stepping away  from Facebook — even for just a week — gave me some perspective and taught me a thing or two. Or 5. Here are 5 things I learned during my 7-day break from Facebook:

  1. My friends are still my friends whether I “like” something they say or not. Not one of them unfriended me because of my neglect. Nor did they send me nasty messages.
  2. Picking up my Bible first thing in the morning instead of my phone or I-pad is better for my spiritual, emotional and mental health. I started most days happier, calmer and with a clearer mind. I’ve been reading the book of Jeremiah first thing in the morning, with Eugene Peterson’s great book “Run with the Horses” as my guide. The destruction of Jerusalem and the angry greed of Babylon aren’t so far removed from our world today. (Adding praises from Psalms tempers the message.)
  3. There’s a lot more to read, watch and listen to on the Internet besides what’s in my Facebook feed. Notable sites where I spent time this week included The Redbud Post, The Academy of Ideas, and Jeff Goins’ podcast The Portfolio Life .
  4. My political views didn’t waver in the absence of daily reminders of how divided our country has become. I’m still conservative, right of center, pro-life and praying for our nation.
  5. I can accomplish a lot in the 10 minutes I might spend several times a day scrolling thru, liking (or loving, crying, laughing) and commenting on Facebook posts. Some of my 10-minute fillers were folding a load of laundry, reading a chapter in a book, stirring up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, doing my yoga stretches, having a real conversation with a friend.
  6. I said 5? Here’s a bonus. Twitter is a poor substitute, and it is just as mind-numbing and time-wasting as Facebook. Instagram? Not ready to give that up yet.

Will I return to Facebook permanently? Possibly. I’ve made some great connections and found new friends there. But if I do, I think I’ll rely on it less often to fill spare moments and to connect with people.

My final three words on Facebook? Words I try to apply to everyday life: Discretion, Self-control, Balance.

Mary Richards, Joyce Smith and Me

If I’d owned a blue beret, I would have tossed it in the air. I was a fledgling news reporter in the early 1970s and Mary Richards was my inspiration, my role model. When all you’ve ever wanted is to be a journalist, seeing a young woman succeed in the news business — even in a fictional television sitcom — was affirmation.

“You’re gonna make it after all.”

Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards

Learning of the death this week of Mary Richards’ alter ego Mary Tyler Moore was like losing a big sister.

And as I processed the news of Mary Richards’ passing, my next thought was of my one-time editor and mentor, Joyce Smith. Though they were about as different in looks and demeanor as Marilyn Monroe and Carol Burnett, Mary Richards and Joyce Smith will forever be linked as the reasons I spent 20 years as a news reporter and have continued for another 20 as a writer.

Joyce, the first female editor at our small local newspaper, took this timid, 19-year-old college dropout under her wing. I’d been hired as a typist at The News-Sun but I had dreams of earning a desk in the news room. Joyce made that happen. My first reporting assignment was a feature story about my little brother’s T-ball team. Other assignments followed as Joyce patiently taught me to dig for the five Ws and one H (who, what, when, where, why and how) and edit out the “fluff” to make my sentences tight and precise. Joyce also modeled the integrity and impartiality that characterized her brand of good journalism. And she pushed me to get beyond my shyness and insecurity to master the art of the interview and to press in for the “just the facts.”

My years as a cub reporter were more valuable than any college journalism program. Though I came under my editor’s tutelage near the end of her journalism career, she was generous in passing on what she knew. Thanks to Joyce, my skills grew. Over my 20-year career, I was tapped to report on county government, business and agriculture news, as well as serve as the lifestyle editor and a regional reporter. I was honored to receive state and national press association awards for reporting.

All the while, I was channeling Mary Richards.

I never missed an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and watched reruns whenever I could catch them. I followed Moore’s career and personal life, cheering her on as she took other roles and became a respected television producer in real life. Like most of America, I would always see her as Mary Richards, the spunky TV news reporter with the winning smile. Along the way, guys like Woodward and Bernstein added another brand of inspiration, but always, it was Mary Richards that showed me how to be a news woman.

From the New York Times:

“At least a decade before the twin figures of the harried working woman and the neurotic, unwed 30-something became media preoccupations, Ms. Moore’s portrayal — for which she won four of her seven Emmy Awards — expressed both the exuberance and the melancholy of the single career woman who could plot her own course without reference to cultural archetypes. The show, and her portrayal of Mary as a sisterly presence in the office, as well as a source of ingenuity and humor, was a balm to widespread anxieties about women in the work force.”

I was the first in my family to attend college, albeit for only a year. My parents urged me to come home after my freshman year at a state school and get an office job. I came home, but the “office job” put me on the path to my dream career. For me, Mary and Joyce were a balm to my own anxiety about being a young woman in the work force. They pointed the way.

Thank you, Ladies. I am forever grateful.




Gather Your Team and Make a ‘Family’

“Thank you for being on my team.”

Words from my friend bear witness to this friendship we’re nurturing, to the time we’ve spent catching up over tea, in prayer, studying God’s word. The times we’ve carried one another’s burdens, rejoiced over each other’s victories.

“Gather your team” we’d heard the speaker say. This wise woman at the podium, in the evening of her life, had given a diverse group of women gathered for worship and teaching a peek into the journey that’s been her life. She’s lived simply but with a heart open to all that God placed in her path. Divorced early in her marriage, she trusted God to lead her as a single parent, to bless her remarriage, and to bring comfort in the tragic too-soon death of her beloved second husband and a son.

At a round table with friends I’ve known for decades and with several new to this season of my life, I’d heard the lovely woman communing with us remind the gathering of this:

Whatever life brings, God has gone before you. He is already there. Click To Tweet

Then she said it. “Gather your team.”

Surround yourself with people who know you, she said, those you can trust, those who’ll hang with you in the hard days and dance with you in the good.

“Some friends are for a season,” she told us. “And that’s okay.”


“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing, but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.” Psalm 68:5-6

My Grandmothers. Sisters-in-law and lifelong teammates.

Always, always cultivate friends who are willing, committed, available. Find friends and make a “family.”

If we choose wisely, she said, we need never been lonely. Even in widowhood. Especially in the evening of our lives.

Then one more piece of advice fell from her lips — use your gifts. “I am a knitter of socks,” she said, smiling as she held up a pair in progress. “I’m using my gifts and God is pleased with me.”

More than a knitter of socks, she is a generous weaver of wise words, passed down, spread around and soaked up.

Thank you, Lord, for women who take seriously the command “to be reverent in the way they live….to teach what is good.” Titus 2:3





Pray A to Z: Purposeful Prayer in the New Year and a Book Give-Away

It’s a new year and because I love fresh starts, I’ve been known to make a resolution or two. (I won’t share the statistics on my success at keeping them.) Recently, our pastor challenged us to make commitments instead of resolutions — more importantly, to commit to God an action, attitude, habit or sacrifice that we’re willing to take up in the new year.

Mine is prayer. Just that — conversation with God. No more spiritual “tweets” or text messages sent up in the midst of other things, but deep, personal prayer. Intentional solicitations, thoughtful praises, heartfelt gratitude. With a new prayer journal in hand, I’m off to a good start.

One of the tools I know will guide me toward a habit of more intentional prayer is a new book by my friend, Amelia Rhodes, entitled Pray A to Z: A Practical Guide to Pray for Your Community. Amelia is a writer, author and speaker who lives in Lowell, Michigan, with her family. Her book grew out of a personal desire to cultivate an organized prayer life. From Amelia:

“Pray A to Z: A Practical Guide to Pray for Your Community features 5 topics for each letter. Three of those are prayers of petition, and two are prayers of praise. Each topic has a verse, a prompt, and a short prayer to get you started.

Pray A to Z can be used in many ways, including your personal quiet time, as a part of a small prayer group, during family devotions or in Sunday school classes. You can pray all the way through one letter each day, completing the entire alphabet in a month, or imply lift up one topic per day, or utilize any other order or schedule that suits your needs at the time. I’ve often camped out on one topic when there’s been something heavy on my heart.

My hope and prayer is that this book will help you experience a renewed excitement about prayer and enjoy a closer relationship with God. I also pray God will open your eyes to the struggles others are facing and show you how you can be His hands and feet of love to your community.”

I am giving a copy of this book to one reader who responds here with his or her request for prayer. I promise not only to send you the book (through Amazon), but to pray specifically for your request. I’ll choose the winner in a drawing.

The beautiful thing about writing out prayers is that we have a record which can make us aware of the answers to our prayers. I asked Amelia to share a personal story about answered prayer in her life:

Author Amelia Rhodes

A year ago at this time my family and I were settling into a cozy 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment. We had sold our house, believing that God was calling us to a simpler way of life, one that long term would allow us to be more generous with our time and our money. Yet, when our house sold, there was nothing for sale in our little town. However, there was this small rental that we were able to snag for six months, and it happened to be in the exact location we wanted to live. It was a perfect way to “try out” this part of town we believed we were supposed to move to. And by spring, there would be plenty of houses for sale.

Or so we thought.

Spring came and there weren’t any houses for sale. Week after week we searched. Houses were selling before they were even listed. And a fixer-upper house in the price range and location we felt called to just wasn’t happening.

Every day for six months, I looked out the back window of that rental and prayed, asking God to guide our steps to obey this call on our life and show us the right place to live.

With weeks left before our lease was up, and still no houses for sale, we figured we would have to sign a one year lease and continue waiting. Another year in the rental would be challenging, but we were content to be patient until the right house showed up that would allow us to live the way we believed God was asking us to.

Then the landlord called. It turned out that due to health challenges, they were looking to sell all their rental homes. She hoped we had found a place to buy. When I told her we hadn’t, she asked what specifically we were looking for. I gave her our simple wish list and she replied, “We own the house behind where you are living, and we need to sell it too. I think it might be exactly what you’re looking for. Do you want to walk through it tomorrow?”

A few weeks later, we signed the papers to buy the house behind the rental. It also happened to be the house that filled my view for six months as I stared out the window asking God to show us where we were supposed to live. I’m sure God got a chuckle out of that. I can imagine Him thinking, “My dear, the answer is right in front of you. It’s just not time to show you yet.”

Sometimes the answer is right in front of us, but it’s not time for God to reveal it yet. And sometimes we have to wait, not because we aren’t ready, but because the other parties involved aren’t ready yet. Prayer and patience go together, and God gives us the patience we need to wait for HIs timing when we ask.

Amelia’s new book is available online at all major booksellers. You can also connect with her online at, on Twitter @amrhodes, Facebook @ameliarhodeswriter and Instagram @ameliamrhodes.

What Epiphany Looks Like in the Hard-Scrabble Brokenness of Our Everyday

This Christmas season was going to be different.

I entered Advent with a spirit of hope and good intentions, expecting it to carry me to January 6, to Epiphany. Candles would remain lit, trees with twinkling lights would hold their places in our home, and the beautiful Advent readings would keep us focused on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, right through the twelves days of Christmas.

About the same time our Christmas leftovers ran out, so did my spirit of hope.

So this weekend, smack-dab in the middle of Advent, I defrocked the house of Christmas. The artificial trees are bare and tucked away and the big white nativity scene is back in its plastic tub. Garlands and window decorations have been boxed and holiday napkins are stored in the cupboard for another year. The book of Advent readings has been shelved.

I’m both sad and relieved to see our house emptied of Christmas.

After the year we’ve had as a family, I craved the joy, the quiet, and the goodwill of the Christmas season. I didn’t want it come to a screeching halt a day or two after Christmas because I believed the beauty and symbolism of Epiphany could rescue us from a difficult 2016 and usher in a brand-spanking-new 2017.

But you can’t close the door on loss, pain, fear, sadness or illness just because it’s Christmas. There aren’t enough twinkling lights and garlands of evergreen to camouflage what’s resting in your soul, even when Advent is on your doorstep.

Don’t get me wrong — Christmas was good. We celebrated the birth of Jesus in our own fashion. Even with parts of our family missing on Christmas Day, and those other hard things hovering in the background, we feasted and gifted and enjoyed one another.

The reality is that once the Christmas music ended and the post-Christmas sales and holiday parties wound down, our day-to-day lives demanded attention.

I haven’t abandoned hope. It’s just lost some of its glow.

Stepping into the new year, I’m facing down the hard stuff, but still craving the promise of Advent. Though it no longer looks like Christmas around here, there is still some lingering essence of the season.

The historical and sacred Epiphany marks the visit to baby Jesus by the Magi. In the Greek, Epiphany means “manifestation”, the revelation of God in his Son as human in Jesus Christ.

God revealed.

Climbing the hills behind our house on New Year’s Day, ducking through the naked trees, I had a personal epiphany: God is no less manifest in the hard-scrabble brokenness of our everyday than he is in the humanity of his son, Jesus. Yes, God is revealed in His son and celebrated in the sacred of liturgy and tradition. But he’s also present in the struggle. If anything, he’s more manifest — more clearly revealed — in the struggle.

In her book “The Broken Way”, author Ann Voskamp has much to say about how brokenness makes room for goodness and sheds light on heroes:

“Grace can strike when you are in great pain and light you with the greatest hope.”

And grace gives space for healing to begin and for hope to be restored. Maybe I had to clear away my symbols of Christmas to create space for a return to the hope of God incarnate.

But, in packing up Christmas, I couldn’t bring myself to put away my favorite nativity scene, the one I’ve had for three decades, figures collected piece by piece when our children were small. The Magi are already standing there, in awe of Jesus.

Evidence of the manifest God we need right now, in the brokenness of everyday, isn’t found only in a date on the calendar or a tradition, in decorations or celebrations. The God of grace and mercy and healing is revealed when we pick up the hard things and carry on because……hope.





Winter Means Counting Down the Blessings

“I look like a little boy,” Dad grumbles. He pulls the stocking cap down over his ears and eyebrows. “I never wear hats like this. Maybe you do, but I don’t.” Dad gives me an accusing look. “Where’s your hat.”

It’s blustery outside, it’s his birthday and he has an appointment with the dentist. I’ve brought the hat, some warm gloves and a new pair of long johns with me to dad’s apartment in the nursing home, hoping to keep his frail body warm while we travel through the countryside. He clearly isn’t impressed, and when I suggest he wear his warm winter coat, I sense a revolt coming on.

With so few choices left in his life, Dad wants to be the one deciding what to wear, even if leaving the long johns laying across his bed means he’ll be shivering while the car warms up.

“Stubborn,” I mutter under my breath.

“What’d you say?”

“You’re a little stubborn, Dad.”

“You bet I am. I dressed myself for 88 years. I don’t need to be told what to wear.”

The cursed stocking cap is a topic of debate throughout the afternoon, and the warm gloves are left conspicuously tossed on the dash of the car. The cap is pulled off as soon as we step into the dental office, exposing Dad’s fuzzy white buzz cut.

Dad’s life has been turned upside down in the past year. He and Mom sold the home they loved and moved into a little apartment at the edge of town. After a few good months getting settled, things started going downhill. Mom became sick and by the end of the summer, she was gone. Dad couldn’t live alone and couldn’t live with any of his kids, so he moved again, into an apartment in a nursing facility in a neighboring town.

It doesn’t matter how cozy the place is, how good and kind his caregivers are or that the food is more than adequate. Dad’s not happy.

The final straw for Dad is being told he can’t drive. His vision and reflexes are failing. For a man who drove a rural mail route for 25 years and who knows every country road surrounding his hometown like the back of his hand, it feels like he’s lost his identity.

How do you help someone who lives in a past that no longer exists see the goodness in today? I count my blessings, number them on a page, and wish I could make a list for him. But they wouldn’t measure up. In his mind, the best blessings of his best days are behind him.

We drive to the county seat, our hometown, and stop in at the restaurant where he and Mom ate breakfast nearly every day. The owner has agreed to let us bring a birthday cake this afternoon to share with a few hometown friends in a back room of the café. It’s good to see Dad’s face light up as people begin dropping by.

They’re a blessing, these good friends who take a minute to say “Happy Birthday”. There is laughter, memories are shared, illnesses compared, handshakes exchanged. Blessings, all of it. I make a mental note in Dad’s column.

The long afternoon winds down and it’s time to take Dad back to his apartment. The restaurant owner hands Dad a Styrofoam container of chili. I know this will be dinner, warmed up in his apartment so he doesn’t have to go to the dining room at the nursing home.

An early sunset has set a glow on the snow-covered evergreens along our route back to the nursing home. Dad remarks, as he often does, that the tall spruce trees look good lined up like soldiers. We travel the rest of the way in silence, his home territory in the rearview mirror. He’s keenly aware of what he’s leaving behind.

It keeps getting harder — both spending the time together and leaving him to go home. Before I leave, I want to share with Dad my mental list of all the ways he is blessed in the winter of his life, but I know he doesn’t want to hear it.

I can read it in the weary slump of his shoulders. It’s his birthday, and nothing feels right.

Then I realize the best gift I can give Dad on this dark day in December isn’t the warmth of a hat, gloves and long johns, or even the birthday cake shared with friends. The gift Dad wants most is for me to look into his heart and say it.

“Yeah, this stinks, doesn’t it Dad. It’s hard and some days it just stinks.”

Dad’s surprised I would say it, and he kind of chuckles while he hangs up his too-heavy winter coat and lays the hat and gloves on the top shelf of his closet.

“Ah, it ain’t so bad, I guess. Just not what I thought it would be.”

That’s good. I can complain for him and the tables are turned. This feels right — Dad reassuring daughter that things “ain’t so bad.” Could there be blessings?

I turn to go and he reaches for a hug.

“How can I ever pay you back,” he says. Tears well up in his eyes, as they do so often these days.

“You already have, Dad. A long time ago.”

The days I get with Dad, even the hard ones, are blessings and I know it’s true — I’m counting them down. Each one is precious.





In the Rush to Christmas, Slow Down for Advent

When our boys were young, the countdown to Christmas involved a festive green cloth calendar with pockets, one for each of 25 days until Christmas. A tiny grey mouse was moved from one pocket to the next as he made his way through the weeks leading up to our sons’ favorite holiday. Each day, a different boy took a turn at jumping the mouse into the new day’s pocket and announcing the countdown.

The older boys understood the progression of time and the build-up of excitement that was behind our family Advent calendar, but it was a hard concept for the two littlest ones to grasp. One morning, with the calendar clearly showing Christmas was still days away, the three-year-old took it upon himself to give the mouse extra jumps. When caught in the act, he turned to his brothers and happily declared “It’s Christmas!”

Sometimes, we grown-ups want to rush the season. Quoting the Angela Lansbury/Johnny Mathis tune, “We need a little Christmas right this very minute. Candles in the window. Carols at the spinet.”

Given the uncertainty, confusion and fear in America today, it’s no surprise this year’s rush to Christmas appears almost frantic. I’m not referring to Christmas decorations that appeared alongside Halloween masks or holiday music playing in the background at Wal-Mart while we shopped for Thanksgiving food. That consumer-driven reality has been with us for several years. What’s different is that people of all faith traditions (and without them) are speaking with nostalgia and great anticipation about the coming of Christmas.

I feel it myself. I sense a deep need to step into something solid, into a season grounded in words and promises I can trust. But my heart’s leaning is not toward December 25. My anticipation has been centered on the anticipation. On Advent — “the coming”.

In America, Advent begins on the Sunday after our traditional Thanksgiving, the fourth Sunday before Christmas. If we are true to it’s intent, at Thanksgiving we’ve given thanks to God — “eucharisteo” — and there has been the breaking of bread with others  — “koinonia”.

Stepping into Advent after we’ve given thanks and shared fellowship prepares us to receive the perfect gift of Christ. The liturgical calendar cycles through a rhythm of seasons.

“Advent to prepare for Christ’s coming, Epiphany to remember the Light, Lent to confess our resistance to the Light, Holy Week to remember Christ’s suffering, Easter to celebrate the resurrection’s power, the birthday of the church at Pentacost, and Ordinary Time to bring us back to the beginning again.” (quoted from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

The Greek word for liturgy means “the work of the people”. Advent, then, is as much a  time of work as a time of waiting. Our Advent work goes beyond decorating the house, baking cookies, putting up lights, installing the tree. Though all can be a life-giving aspect of the season. might we also choose actions that draw us near to the One we await, who is waiting for us.

Amidst the feasting, decorating and celebrating, there can be times for fasting, prayer and readings that set the pace for the slow walk toward Christ.

An Advent wreath, akin to the Advent calendar we hung on our wall for our children, is an intentional measuring of the journey toward receiving the gift of Jesus. Each Sunday, as we light the candle for that week, we step closer to Christ. In our practices throughout the week, we move into His presence by laying hands on His Word.

There is more. In this season of waiting and giving, could there not also be giving of “self? We can break through the distractions of the Christmas season and bring focus to the Advent with acts of kindness. The gift of “self” will look different for each of us — a meal for a neighbor, volunteering at a shelter, cookies dropped off at a nursing home, prayers with a friend in need, strangers around our dinner table..

In waiting, choose one gift of “self” for each candle lit during advent. One sometimes painful, terrifying, humbling gift. One action each week, perhaps even more as the gift of Jesus draws near.

As we actively wait for the coming of Christ, we’re aware that our celebration centers on the truth — that He has already come.

“We are forever seeking, while the forever for which we seek is now. Awaken to the truth that any place contains every place and every moment contains eternity. Seekers and searchers of all times have looked toward the heavens in order to find God. Then the gift was given.” (Richard John Neuhaus in “God With Us”)

Christ came, Christ comes, Christ will come again.

The mouse is already sitting in the December 25 pocket. Jesus is here. It’s Christmas.