11 Bad Ways to Study Your Bible

I struggled with this piece, because really, I could write it in one sentence: The only bad way to study your Bible is to NOT DO IT. See? Easy and simple. Done. But nothing in life is ever that simple, is it? And studying the Bible is a complex and often intimidating endeavor. Just like ...

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I struggled with this piece, because really, I could write it in one sentence: The only bad way to study your Bible is to NOT DO IT.

See? Easy and simple. Done.

But nothing in life is ever that simple, is it? And studying the Bible is a complex and often intimidating endeavor.

Just like with any practice of our faith, and no matter how good our intentions, we will fall short. I don’t say that to discourage you, but to assure you that it’s normal and that no one (including God) expects perfection. If I can be real for a minute, I’ll confess that I have approached reading the Bible with a bunch of attitudes that have prevented me from getting the most out of it. Somehow, probably because God is more generous than I can fathom and because there’s such depth to the word of God, I’ve walked away, nearly every time, with a nugget of wisdom or a deeper sense of peace. I bet you have, too.

Read on and see if any of these thoughts have passed through your mind, and then let’s pray together for help overcoming and understanding.

“I’ll take this… and this… but not that.” (Picking and choosing individual verses)

You can find a verse to support nearly any opinion you want to express. But the truth is, this only works if you take the verses out of context—if you neglect to look at who the author of that passage was, who he was speaking to, and how the verse fits into the scope of the whole gospel story. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one verse or finding related passages as you study a topic. But there is danger in pulling it all out of context, because that’s when we can accidentally assign meaning that wasn’t originally intended. Our search for God is a search for truth-with-a-capital-T, and deceiving ourselves by not looking at the whole story won’t get us there.

“What she said.”(Relying only on other people’s teachings and interpretations)

I love a good Bible study—workbook pages with blanks just waiting to be filled in. Busy-work of copying verses, videos that set the stage, lay out the story, and lead you to the desired conclusion. There’s value in that—but will you remember it in six months or six years? When we learn something on our own, it stays with us longer. The Bible is one of the ways that God speaks to us today, and we have to interact with it personally in order to hear God’s voice and direction. Trust your instincts and look for meaning on your own. I promise you, it is there.

“I’m smarter than that; what does he know?” (Ignoring other people’s teachings and interpretations)

On the other hand, it’s arrogant to believe that we have a deeper understanding of these complex stories than men and women who made it their life’s work to study what God said about those gold-edged pages. When you want to go deeper, or when you’re struggling to make sense of it, turn to other sources to enrich what you’ve found on your own.

“Abracadabra…” (Randomly opening to a page for a “message”)

Don’t get me wrong: at times, I think that God leads me to a certain verse for a particular time. But we cannot expect that whenever we ask God a question, the first verse we see will be a direct answer, tailored to our situation, from the God of all eternity. God’s Word has unfathomable power, but it’s not magic and it’s not a lottery. We can’t treat the Bible as a buffet—picking and choosing whatever sounds good, leaving behind what doesn’t. God’s answers aren’t always easy, and sometimes the hardest thing to digest is exactly what we need.

“I’ve got this.” (Reading the Bible without benefit of prayer)

The Holy Spirit—the Helper—gives us understanding. The Bible’s pages only have meaning when viewed through the lens of prayer. We cannot come to an accurate interpretation or their meaning in our life until we allow God to lead us there, and when we forget to bathe the whole experience in prayer, we’re missing the most valuable thing: God’s presence and guidance. Faith is not a solo experience—we cannot have it without inviting God to be part of it. To get the most out of your study time, pray before, during, and after.

“Ain’t got time for that.” (Reading it just to be done with it)

Those year-long Bible reading plans don’t work for me, because I find myself treating it like homework—hurrying through so that I can say I’m done. When we rush, we’re cheating God, because in effect we’re saying, “Hurry up, God, I don’t have time for you.” Slow down. Ponder what you read, and listen for God to reveal meaning.

“God had better bless me for doing this.” (Reading the Bible resentfully)

Reading the Bible can be incredibly fulfilling—or a dry, laborious task. It all depends on your attitude. If you’re only doing it because someone said you had to, you’re not going to get much out of it. Reading the Bible does not earn our salvation, but it’s important because it strengthens our faith and encourages us to stand firm.

“I don’t think this part matters.” (Forgetting that God inspired every bit of the Bible)

Whether you take it all literally or figuratively, and whatever version of the Bible you read, it’s all important. We’re tempted to skip over the “boring” stuff—the genealogies, for example. But did you know that the meanings of the names, even in those long, dry lists, often tell a deeper story? Expect there to be more than initially meets the eye, because there usually is.

“I’ll show them.” (Reading to get “ammunition” against someone)

Ask anyone who’s ever been “beaten over the head” with Scripture—some people use God’s word as a weapon, wielding these holy words to prove you wrong, to back up their prejudices, or defend their sins, or (somehow) to make themselves appear more holy. God’s word should be used to guide our lives, strengthen our faith, and to teach us to live as Jesus did, not to allow us to say “gotcha!”

“That’s old news – irrelevant.” (Ignoring the Old Testament)

We now live under grace, right? The Old Testament no longer applies—or so many people think. The truth is that the New Testament is all about Jesus and the sacrifice he made for us to give us eternal and abundant life, but that doesn’t negate all that came before. The gospel story is rich in its heritage and history. The Old Testament is filled with references to the Messiah, situations in which Jesus is foreshadowed, and revealing the problems for which the only answer is Christ. Getting a grasp on the whole story can deepen our faith and enrich our understanding, revealing even more to us about the Messiah.

“Been there, done that.” (Assuming you already know everything there is to know about a passage)

I’ve read that the most-skipped parts of any book or article are Bible verses, because if we spend much time in church or study, we’ve heard so many of them before. Our gut response is to skip a familiar section, but even the most-studied passages can often yield an unexpected, insightful nuance if we approach them with an open mind. Slow down and you may be surprised what you discover.

A Prayer to Start Your Bible Study

Dear Lord, You are the author of this book, the author of our fates, the author of our lives. Give us a passion for hearing from You through the Bible, and open our understanding. Let us approach the Bible with belief that it is true, You are real, and Your Word will add meaning to our lives. Thank You for this gift and opportunity to get to know You better. Amen.

 

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

When the joy is hard to find

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, right? Except that, if we’re honest, it’s not always. If you’ve followed me for any length of time you already know this: I lost my love for Christmas about the time I lost my mom. And then when I lost Dad seven years later, ...

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Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, right? Except that, if we’re honest, it’s not always.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time you already know this: I lost my love for Christmas about the time I lost my mom. And then when I lost Dad seven years later, well, let’s just say whatever wisps of joy I’d managed to salvage fizzled out too. Nothing was the same, and I didn’t feel like celebrating. Not a big surprise, but also not something I had much desire to change.

Along the way, a little over a year ago, I met this sweet, sunny, vivacious woman named Jodie at the Suzie Eller Retreat. Loved her right away, and enjoyed her even more the second year we attended together. She’s all about prayer and spreads love, genuinely, wherever she goes.

Last year I discovered that she had hit upon a meaningful way to celebrate Christmas. It was all about meeting God under the tree in prayer, and she had written prayer prompts for each day of Advent—kindred spirits, right? When she asked me if I’d put together a prayer calendar to go with the release of her new Advent devotional, of course I said yes.

And then the unthinkable happened: Jodie’s 22-year-old son died suddenly in a tragic incident. Every time I looked at my own son, I could barely hold it together. I saw pictures she posted online with her son, and the way they interacted in those photos reminded me so much of my son and me that it completely broke my heart. A group of us who were brought together by this retreat have been praying our hearts out for her and her family, feeling the loss so deeply that it can only be explained by God’s intercession. That’s one of the most beautiful gifts of praying for someone else—I can’t explain how it happens, but I’ve experienced firsthand how God allows us to experience some of the love HE has for that person. It changes your connection to them, and it expands your awareness of the loving character of God. It’s a beautiful thing—even when the prayers are initially prompted by sorrow.

I haven’t written about what happened to Jodie anywhere because it felt too private. I don’t want to attempt to co-opt her tragedy for my own purposes, nor do I want to suggest that what I feel in any way compares with what she feels. But today I’m telling you about her for one important reason. Watching Jodie’s faith, seeing how deeply rooted she is in the truth of God’s goodness and love, even when it’s hard, even when it’s impossible, even when she is hurting and angry… well, it has changed me. I now have witnessed first-hand what it means to have a sustaining, life-giving faith. I’m watching her feel her way forward, spending time with God in prayer, feeling compassion for others affected by this horrific accident, always looking for God in the midst of the sorrow and pointing people towards God without fail.

Jodie inspires me tremendously—because she reminds me that the joy God offers is not dependent on circumstances. But this is not something new. She’s having to live out her faith in a way she never wanted to, but it didn’t just start right here. Rather, the roots of her faith go deep, and they were planted in joy.

Jodie’s brand new book, Jingle and Joy, just came out last week and popped straight to #1 in Amazon’s prayer category. I had the privilege of reading it before it released, and what struck me the most was the joy filling the pages. It’s full of deep insights in short devotions, just right for busy women during the busiest time of the year. And to make it even better, it’s all about finding that joy through time spent in prayer. Prayer is where we can find peace, and it’s where we grow closer to God.

I look back now at my stubborn refusal to enjoy Christmas because it wasn’t on my own terms, and I see how immature that response is. We all have situations and people and losses and sorrow that interfere with our ability to celebrate sometimes. But I think this book is a great first step towards finding our way back.

So today I am honored to be able to offer you my free December prayer calendar with Jodie’s prayer prompts. To download it, click here.

And since this is a season of giving, I’ll also be giving away a free copy of her book. To enter, leave a comment after this post (or on my post about this book on Facebook) sharing what your biggest struggle is with keeping your thoughts on the meaning of the season. I’ll pray through your responses, because prayer can change things we can’t, and because this time of year can be especially hard. I hope that you will consider grabbing a copy for yourself, and one for a friend. As another friend said, this book is a great addition to your nightstand this season. 

More than that, though, it’s about what it will do for your heart… what God longs to do, if you’ll just slow down and sit with Him. He’ll show us, individually, personally, the abundant gift we have to celebrate at Christmastime—and always.


One quick note: you’ll see that this calendar looks different than my usual ones. For one thing, it’s vertical, and for the other, it was designed as a perpetual calendar, which is meant to be used year after year, and therefore does not have the prompts in a calendar grid under headings for each day of the week. I was going to create a version of this in my usual format for use by my subscribers, but honestly, I liked the one I did for her better. So if you’re someone who collects these and is aggravated by the inconsistency, please forgive me. It’s a one-time thing, I promise :-).

Go ahead. Write, draw, color, doodle in your Bible. It’s OK (and I can help).

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to talk to a Bible journaling group about my book, Designed to Pray—specifically, the meanings of different colors and how those meanings can “color” and inspire your prayers. (If you have my book, the material came from Week 8.) Now, I’m not one who’s afraid to write in her ...

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A few months ago, I had the opportunity to talk to a Bible journaling group about my book, Designed to Pray—specifically, the meanings of different colors and how those meanings can “color” and inspire your prayers. (If you have my book, the material came from Week 8.)

Now, I’m not one who’s afraid to write in her Bible. I put the dates that I read or was taught a passage, the name of the person the verse makes me think of, phrases of other translations or word meanings for clarification, and so on. With my art background, you wouldn’t think I would be afraid to draw in my Bible, either. But the truth is, when it came time to get to work, I was intimidated. I looked at the works of art created by some of the other women there and was in awe. I didn’t have the right tools, I don’t know the techniques—and since my biceps tendon repair surgery last spring, I just don’t quite have the same control I once had.

But I’d already put together some traceables for the class to use—which are simply illustrations of some of the key verses from that chapter of my book. And I was there, and I had some colored pencils and a black marker with me, so I tried it.

As you’ll see in my photos, these are not great works of art, nor do they need to be. But I got to see first-hand what so many people have already discovered (as the current trend can attest). It was fun. I like paying special attention to certain key words. Offering my scribbles as a form of prayer. Letting the words, the meanings, resonate in my soul as I spend time in this book that has changed me.

So I want to offer this set of 12 traceables to you (free even if you don’t subscribe to my newsletter; this link should take you directly there). Print them and then trace them into your Bible or a journal. Embellish. Change them. Or just trace them as you thank God for what He’s saying in those words.

And if you just don’t have it in you to try this, consider printing them to use as bookmarks. That works, too.

As you can see, I just used my NIV Life Application Study Bible, which I love love love. Right after I had my surgery last year, I got to review the Beautiful Word Bible —a great choice if you want to buy a Bible just for this, because it has wide margins and some verses already illustrated for inspiration.

Click here to download, and please share them with anyone who might be interested. Now go, and never hesitate to write in your books. Make them your own!

 

 

20 Prayers to Pray Throughout a Busy Day (free printable)

Prayer is our primary means of communication with God, and it is only through God that we have the strength, abilities and wisdom we need to face a busy day. But when we’re so busy, when is there time to pray? My answer may surprise you: Always. It’s true, though. We don’t have to stop ...

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Prayer is our primary means of communication with God, and it is only through God that we have the strength, abilities and wisdom we need to face a busy day. But when we’re so busy, when is there time to pray? My answer may surprise you: Always. It’s true, though. We don’t have to stop everything in order to pray. Instead, let these short, simple prayers run through your mind as you go about your everyday tasks—your conversation with God will become a soundtrack underscoring your ordinary days, transforming them into something extraordinarily beautiful and meaningful.

1. Thank you for this day.
This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. ~PSALM 118:2,4

2. Be with me.
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. ~PSALM 118:6

3. You are so good.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. ~1 CHRONICLES 16:34

4. Give me strength for this day.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. ~GALATIANS 6:9

5. Protect me.
I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. ~LUKE 10:19

6. Thank You for the work that keeps me busy.
May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands. ~PSALM 90:17

7. Lord, give me rest.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. ~MATTHEW 11:28-30

8. Help me to love.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. ~ROMANS 12:9-10

9. Let me see You.
“You will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord. ~JEREMIAH 29:12-14

10. Fill me with joy.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. ~JOHN 15:11

11. Show me how to glorify you.
There is no one like You among the gods, O Lord, Nor are there any works like Yours. All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, And they shall glorify Your name. For You are great and do wondrous deeds; You alone are God. ~PSALM 86:8-10

12. Give me a generous heart.
A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed. ~PROVERBS 11:25

13. Erase my worries.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. ~JOHN 14:17

14. Help me.
The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. ~PSALM 34:17

15. Let my words be uplifting.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Ephesians 4:29

16. Forgive me and help me forgive others.

Jesus said, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” ~MATTHEW 6:14

17. Thank You for being in control.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. ~JEREMIAH 29:11

18. Teach me. Guide me. Show me what to do.
Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me. ~PSALM 25:4-5

19. Purify my mind.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. ~PHILIPPIANS 4:8

20. Thank You. Again. Always.
Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. ~1 THESSALONIANS 5:18

This article first appeared on crosswalk.com September 12, 2016

Click here to download the free printable list of 20 prayers.

The Beautiful Word Bible giveaway

It’s somewhat ironic, don’t you think, that I would have a stack of these Bibles—just begging for someone to come along with colorful writing implements and a love for drawing—as my right arm is immobilized for at least five weeks for surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon? Yeah. Well. So I’ll content myself with ...

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It’s somewhat ironic, don’t you think, that I would have a stack of these Bibles—just begging for someone to come along with colorful writing implements and a love for drawing—as my right arm is immobilized for at least five weeks for surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon?

Yeah. Well.

So I’ll content myself with doing a brief review (because typing left-handed is still slow-going)… and then I’ll give YOU a chance to win one of two copies of this beautiful book. (They knew what they were talking about when they named it.)

The NIV translation is my favorite, and that’s what these giveaway copies are (although this also comes in KJV and NKJV versions). I’m always wishing for lots of space to write notes in my Bibles and for nice, clean, elegant typography. This Bible offers those things, plus key verses illustrated in a wide variety of styles (all fun and colorful). It’s nice to see Scriptures expressed artistically—it gives us a chance to focus on key words and concepts and better understand them. If you’re comfortable drawing in your Bible, that’s what this was made for—but even if that’s not your thing, use the space for notes or journaling. Write about what a certain verse means to you, what you’re learning, who you’re praying for, what questions you have about it, the definitions of words or other related verses… it’s wide open and flexible. You can find your own way and do your own thing. If you want to doodle or draw, then DO. It’s a whole new dimension of interaction with God’s word that can be meaningful and enlightening.

(On a side note, I find the recent surge of interest in coloring, drawing, and so forth pretty exciting… especially since my new book, Designed to Pray, is coming out in August. It’s full of hands-on prayer activities—coloring pages, writing prompts, charts and questions and pages on which to explore—to help you find new insights in prayer by embracing your creativity. Watch for more announcements, or pre-order now :-).)

If I’m being honest, I have to admit that the text in the Beautiful Word Bible is a little too small for my nearing-50 eyes. But the font is pretty and legible—an important consideration to this designer :-). I also wish the paper was a little thicker because some of the illustrated verses kind of show through the pages. Then again, Bibles always use thin paper or else they’d be too big and bulky to carry around!

Beautiful Word Bible composite

Would you like to win one of these Bibles? I have a hard-cover version and one with a leather cover to give away. To enter, just subscribe to my blog posts (right-hand sidebar) or leave a comment below. On April 8 (next Friday) I will post winners. And I’ll even include a little box of colored pencils I had produced as swag for the release of Praying Upside Down.

Hope lots of you will enter—I’m excited to be able to give these away! What do you think about this Bible? Does it scare you or thrill you to be invited to color in your Bible?


Some additional info from Zondervan that you might find useful:

Tips For Bible Art Journaling:

  1. Use the right pen: Look for a pen designed for Bible journaling to minimize bleed through and tears. There are many options in plenty of colors. Or, try your hand at colored pencils which make a great alternative to pens.
  2. Practice on scrap paper: Learn key factors like spacing and ink drying time before you make your mark on your Bible.
  3. Use back pages: When you get comfortable and want to move to Bible paper, try the pages in the back to help build confidence.
  4. Integrate Washi tape: Just a little tape under favorite verses and around the edge adds a lot of interest to the pages
  5. Peel and stick: You name it, there is a sticker for it. From letters and pictures, to shapes, ribbons, and designs. You don’t have to be an accomplished artist to brighten your pages with stickers.
  6. Stencil and stamp: Just like stickers, there are endless options in these categories to enhance your Bible without having an art degree.
  7. Appreciate the paper: Use the translucency to your advantage by tracing your favorite images directly onto the Bible paper.
  8. Get inspired: Reflect on the designs found in NIV Beautiful Word Bible or your favorite verse art to help spark ideas.
  9. Don’t stress about mistakes: You will make them – learn and let go of perfection!

Shanna’s 7 Tips to Illustrate Your Faith (courtesy IllustratedFaith.com):

  • Spend time with God – read a devotional, listen to worship music.
  • Pray about it – ask God to guide you
  • Write it down – what is God telling you?
  • Draw it – bring that big idea into the margins of your Bible
  • Date it – Date your entries as you will want to go back to those verses and reflect
  • Tab it – Use tables to see what themes you’ve covered
  • Forget the rules – Connect with God in the way that is most natural to you!

His faithful love endures forever

And this is why I am thankful today. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles. His ...

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And this is why I am thankful today.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords.
His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights—
His faithful love endures forever.
the sun to rule the day,
His faithful love endures forever.
and the moon and stars to rule the night.
His faithful love endures forever.

He remembered us in our weakness.
His faithful love endures forever.
He saved us from our enemies.
His faithful love endures forever.
He gives food to every living thing.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His faithful love endures forever.

Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26, NLT

An Upside-Down Christmas, part 2: Grief

I used to design and write my church’s weekly bulletin, and I was aware that, for some, certain holidays brought with them sadness. But I believed that surely time healed all wounds. Sure, it was sad when someone died, but I thought it was morbid to dwell on it. I naively assumed people could let ...

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I used to design and write my church’s weekly bulletin, and I was aware that, for some, certain holidays brought with them sadness. But I believed that surely time healed all wounds. Sure, it was sad when someone died, but I thought it was morbid to dwell on it. I naively assumed people could let it go (long before we’d heard of Elsa) and focus on what they did have. My friend Tami lost her mom many years ago, but I didn’t understand her sadness on Mother’s Day—couldn’t she focus on the good memories instead of feeling sad? Or celebrate being a mom to her own children?

Well, maybe she could have (and she likely did).

But how wrong I was. And how sorry I am for all of the opportunities I missed to extend kindness and grace—because now I know.

I know what it is to wonder how I can possibly celebrate when the absence is so real, so gigantic, that the void itself becomes a presence. To question how to “get over it” when the only thing time has proven is that things still have not changed. My mom still isn’t here. And I still miss her. Hundreds, now thousands, of days without her. Exponential sums and moments of being without someone whose body is not here but who is never far from my mind. Granted, I rarely cry myself to sleep anymore. But I still cry. I still mourn. And it overshadows everything, colors it as surely as if a dark filter covered the lens.

The hardest moments are the ones that are supposed to be happy—the celebrations, the milestones. The days in which we feel an obligation to laugh, to have fun, and to hide the pain that consumes us. It’s because of the juxtaposition, the extreme disparity between expectations and what we’re really feeling inside.

Some of you have had big losses—the death of a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent. The grandmother who raised you. The friend who knew all of your secrets. There are other losses, too. Divorce. Family feuds. Jobs requiring relocation. Budgets and work schedules that keep people apart on holidays. Unmet expectations. Joyful personalities changed by addiction or disappointment. These things are hard enough by themselves, but add in the other stresses most of us feel this time of year—money worries, anxiety about getting the right gifts and finishing dinner preparation on time, loneliness, not enough time—and it may seem impossible to bear.

I’m still—and will continue, indefinitely, to be—trying to figure this out. To make my way and hold tight to the sparks of joy, living in the moment and not the past or the future. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do have some ideas. The more we try to stuff down our feelings, the harder they fight to be seen. Maybe it’s time we welcome our sorrow. Flip it around and find the comfort that dwells on the other side of the pain.

It’s there. It really is. And I hope some of these ideas will help you find it.

**

Carry on. My mom was a giver like no one else I’ve ever known, much of it done in secret. She didn’t want the limelight, she just loved to find thoughtful ways to help. In her memory, my household established a new Christmas tradition. All month long, each of us is on the lookout for someone or something that could use a little help. It doesn’t have to be life-altering. It doesn’t have to be about orphans or the homeless or victims of disaster, although those are certainly options. It’s simply about looking for opportunities to give. We’re honoring my mom’s legacy by learning to give the way that she did. By telling our children about the ways their grandmother made an impact on other people’s lives so that she remains real and present in their minds. By cultivating the traits within them that are like her.

Each gift is presented (or provided anonymously) by the family member who thought of it. We don’t set strict budgets, just do what seems right and what we can afford. Gifts in previous years have included: donation of “wish list” books to an elementary classroom during a book fair (not my son’s own class, because he shouldn’t be one to benefit); paying the fee for my daughter’s friend to take the train to Chicago with a school club; my husband paying the bill for oil changes and tires for people he knows through his work at an auto shop; an envelope of cash for friends with small children to help supplement their Christmas buying; anonymous gift cards to an acquaintance who is out of work. Once I start looking, I see one need after another, and the more of them I respond to, the closer I feel to my mom.

If there isn’t an obvious tradition to continue, don’t worry. When you pray, ask God to point out opportunities and suggest ideas. My former neighbors lost their son, Henry, to cancer when he was six. I can’t change that. But maybe I could donate gas cards or games to a nearby children’s hospital for another family in a similar situation. My grandmother taught me to say the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed. I think of her when I sit down at night to pray with my son, knowing that just as she established that ritual in my mind, I’m helping provide a framework of prayer for my own child.

 

Write a special note. Chances are good that even if you haven’t experienced a deep loss, you know someone who has. Send flowers. Write a letter. Drop off cookies. There are lots of ways to let people know you’re thinking of them. But here’s the hard, potentially awkward part: don’t be shy. Mention the loved one by name. It’s a relief to be able to talk about it. To stop pretending it didn’t happen. To stop worrying that nobody else wants to know about your sadness.

If you have a sweet or funny memory, share that. And if not, just say that you’re thinking of them. You don’t have to—and probably shouldn’t try to—provide neat answers in an effort to make the pain disappear. It won’t. Just tell them you’re sorry. That you know how much they miss that person. That it’s OK to still feel sad. And that you care about them. Whatever you do or say, be genuine, and take your clues from the one who is mourning. Don’t force conversations, but don’t hide from them either.

 

Give a gift to memorialize someone, either for the person you’ve grieving or for someone else who is. Donate to a charity or church or school or organization in the person’s name. Perhaps you can continue a tradition that person started—buying a coat and gloves for a child in the community. Wrapping presents in the local toy drive. Donating a book to the library. If your aunt was known for her baking, write the recipe on pretty recipe cards (labeled “Aunt Sue’s Famous Poppyseed Bread”) and drop off loaves to friends so that they will always say her name when they make it. Go door to door in your neighborhood collecting canned foods and donate them to a local food pantry in that person’s name.

 

Don’t forget the friends. Our culture accepts that we will grieve a close family member, but often overlooks the friends, coworkers, students or an unmarried partner. My sister’s best friend passed away this year. Everyone was praying for the family, worrying about Teresa’s girls and husband. Of course. Sometimes I would forget that my sister was feeling a profound loss as well.

Occasionally I run into one of Mom’s friends in a parking lot or the baking aisle at Kroger. Until I see them fighting tears, I often forget. She’s missing from their lives as well. They wish they could pick up the phone to tell her something funny. They may not feel they have the “right” to grieve, but they do anyway. Acknowledge that: Thank you for loving her, too. Or she loved you, too, you know.

 

Tell stories. Let your kids hear about the time she left the sweet potatoes in the microwave through dinner and didn’t find them until the next day. Talk about the funny things that have happened. Point out which ornaments she gave you or describe what Christmas was like when your dad was a little boy. Plop a box of Kleenex in the center of the table if you need to. But let yourself remember.

 

Or don’t. There are times when sharing is the right thing to do, and times when you aren’t ready or able to “go there.” Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to do—or not do—what is right for you at that moment. And be aware that people grieve differently. My sister and I are very close and we both lost the same person on the same day. But we rarely feel the impact of that loss at the same moment. We both read the same book within a couple weeks. I could barely get through it, sobbing because it brought up all of my emotions. Kerry was fine. But then she has moments that I’m oblivious to, like when she fixes Mom’s recipe for stuffed peppers or rolls out some homemade noodles and she wraps herself in the contentment of showing her love for her family in the same way.

**

There’s not just one way to grieve. And there are plenty of different ways to honor someone. The only rules? Wrap your words and efforts with kindness and gentleness. Keep trying. And practice grace, both with those who may not know how to help you face your grief and with yourself when you fall short.

Do you have any ideas to share? I’d love to hear them.

Wrestling with God

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face ...

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Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Genesis 32:28-32, NIV

Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I’m not a “kid person.” I like my own OK (most of the time) and I adore the kids of most of my friends. But as a general rule, I’m not one who is thrilled to be seated on a plane with the mom on one side and the dad on the other side of me passing a screaming baby back and forth. (That really happened. I insisted — no, really, I don’t mind at all — that we trade seats so they could sit together. I’m fine with the aisle, I said with a smile. But I digress.)

Maybe I don’t think of myself as a kid person because I don’t usually know what to talk about with them. I’ve read that dads are usually the ones who roll around on the floor with the kids, but in my family it’s me. I don’t know why. But I’m more likely to be found swinging my friends’ kids around and being goofy than sitting and having a conversation. I blow raspberries on stomachs and turn in circles as I carry them and tickle their feet.

Because once there’s a connection in place, the walls are down. And the conversations come more easily.

**

I was talking with a friend the other day, saying that I felt far removed from God and church right now. And I didn’t know why or what to do about it.

I came home and sat down with my journal. And then, spontaneously, I picked up a book I started months ago but had decided not to finish. I opened it to the crumpled post-it note marking the page where I left off. Within minutes, I grabbed my pen and filled journal pages with quotes from the book. I underlined passages, drew stars in the margins. I had ideas. Questions. The book is, in some circles, slightly controversial — or, at the very least, not an easy one to grasp. After reading, writing, thinking, struggling — both to grasp elusive insights I could just barely start to discern and to decide whether I agreed or disagreed with this writer’s theology — I suddenly noticed that I felt God again.

As I lay in bed that night marveling at how quickly that had changed, I think an actual giant light bulb illuminated the space above my head. Followed by this awareness: Jacob wrestled with God.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing. I want to dive right in. All or nothing. I’d rather spill my guts in a conversation than discuss weather or sports. In the same way, I don’t know how to do superficial with God. And, sadly, that’s how it feels sometimes. I’m there. I’m being polite. But I’m not engaging. I’m not going deep. I’m holding Him at arm’s length so I don’t have to really give anything of myself.

But when I pick up a book, some kind of spiritual/self-help book (or a challenging blog on a controversial or inflammatory subject), the intensity of it forces me to engage. It’s not the same when it’s a fluff piece or even someone who parrots what everyone else says. It’s OK if it’s not easy to process or accept, if it’s a viewpoint or teaching that differs from one I’ve heard before (or that I currently hold). Usually those are the best ones. I may not always like what I read. Then again, I may change my thinking 180˚. But the one thing that will not happen is that I will remain lukewarm.

If I agree with the author, I will read the Bible and study and talk it through with my friends to be sure I’ve found the “right” answer. If I disagree, I will read the Bible and study and talk it through with my friends until I believe I’ve found the “right” answer. To be truthful, even though I try to keep an open mind, often my gut-level answer is the one I stick with. But before the wrestling is over, I will have found resources and information to support my stance and solidify it. Over time, my opinion may evolve or outright change. But the great thing about wrestling with spiritual concepts is that I always — always — end up closer to God in the end.

I think it’s because wrestling is how I relate. The mental/intellectual struggle gives me something tangible to hold onto. Facts, quotes, ideas. It allows me to delve deep into the emotion. And it bypasses the superficial. When I wrestle with a Biblical passage or concept, I find myself adopting the words of Jacob: “I won’t let go until you bless me.”

And you know what? He always does.

Please comment, because I’d love to know: What books, articles, or blogs challenge you, spurring you on to studying a topic for yourself?

God’s Masterpiece

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12: If you’re anything like me, sometimes you look at the people around you — pastors, Bible study leaders, friends who faithfully have 5 am quiet time — and feel absolutely, positively certain that you don’t measure up. It’s like looking at ...

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“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you look at the people around you — pastors, Bible study leaders, friends who faithfully have 5 am quiet time — and feel absolutely, positively certain that you don’t measure up. It’s like looking at the giant canvases on a museum’s walls. Even if we don’t understand them, we know that they put to shame our meager scribbles. So much so that sometimes it’s easier not to even try. Not to risk failing. And certainly not to tape our measly little drawings on the wall next to the masterpiece.

I’m writing a book on prayer, and people I know have started to treat me as an “expert.” A pastor from another church sat down to ask me questions about the Holy Spirit, about how to know when you hear from God. Acquaintances send me private Facebook messages requesting prayer. Friends ask advice about how to get unstuck. I’ve had lovely, spontaneous conversations in coffee shops and on the street. People who want more. Whose desire for God, whose hunger to grow closer — or, maybe, just to make sure they’re not praying wrong (which is impossible, by the way) — prompts them to blurt out questions when the discussion turns to prayer.

I feel honored and grateful, but undeserving of such trust. Sure, I’m writing a book, but I have doubts, too. I sometimes forget to pray. Petty thoughts, cynicism and past hurts get in my way. I am quick to judge and jump to conclusions. I mess up on a daily basis. But here’s the truth: Living life as a Christian is not about our weaknesses, but His strengths.

Several months ago at church, we sang an old hymn. “Through it all… through it all… I learned to trust in Jesus, I learned to trust in God.” I bowed my head in sorrow, because I knew I’d failed miserably to lean on Him through the three years Mom fought cancer — and the two years I’ve had to live on this earth without her. All that time, even though I knew it would be impossible to get through it on my own, I pushed Him away.

I’m so sorry, I thought-prayed.

And then I pictured my God. Giddy with excitement, like a little child bouncing up and down, eager to see how his mom adores the gift he’s about to give her. He exclaimed, “BUT I GOT TO SHOW YOU GRACE!”

Got to. He didn’t have to. But He gave it anyway. With joy. For the first time I truly understood. God’s grace is freely, unconditionally given. A gift that is so much sweeter when you know you didn’t earn it.

So no more comparing myself to the people around me. Instead, I’m learning to look straight at the Artist who makes all things beautiful. The One who doesn’t care what my scribbles look like — because in His eyes, as long as I make them for Him, He sees a masterpiece.

How about you? How has God taught you about grace? What have you discovered? Where in your life can you give yourself grace?

Pass the fruit salad

Good morning! I have a new post at Internet Café today. Please join me there to read the rest of it. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT) In theory, I like fruit. But in practice? Well, I’m ...

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Good morning! I have a new post at Internet Café today. Please join me there to read the rest of it.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)

56568838In theory, I like fruit. But in practice? Well, I’m more of a chocolate kind of gal. I can notice the beautiful colors and shapes and agree that the fruit looks quite luscious. But I’m more likely to grab a bagel instead of a banana. While I’m often surprised by how good fruit tastes, I’m not all that adventurous. Give me the more “mainstream” ones like apples, grapes and strawberries. Watermelon and pineapple are yummy. But kiwi? Kumquat? I’ll pass. [read more]

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