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Savor Advent, Feast on Christmas

My familys new traditions made the season richer

It may be easier to roll a boulder up hill than to change holiday traditions. Several years ago, when I declared to my family that we would start new practices in the month of December, their response was not thundering applause.

“Ugh,” grunted my firstborn. (Insert tween attitude, eye rolls, and drama here.) “Why do we have to be so different from every other family? Everyone else starts doing Christmas stuff right after Thanksgiving! Why not us?”

The Light Shines in the Darkness

In medieval times, Christmastide, or the Christmas season, began not the day after Thanksgiving (or even earlier, as modern retailers’ displays suggest), but on Christmas Eve. Outward expressions of merrymaking in the forms of feasting, jousting, caroling, football, and other games celebrated the birth of the Messiah.

Gifts were exchanged, but they weren’t the highlight. The foundation of Christmas joy was light—God’s light, overcoming darkness. As the prologue to the Gospel of John confirms, Jesus is this light.

The Ultimate History Project explains the significance of light overcoming darkness for medieval Christians. In a world whose evenings were lit by fire and candlelight, winter months were long and dark, especially in northern Europe. For medieval Europeans, Christmas had a strong appeal, as it came just a few days after the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The celebration of the Messiah’s birth was about both his mission and their much-needed pick-me-up in the middle of what was often a long and dark winter.

The arrival of the Christ child signified warmth and light, a literal salvation from the bleakness of everyday winter life. I wanted my family—and ...

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Thu, 18 December 2014 08:00:00 CST
The Surprising Power of Our Weakest Moments

In Gods hands, crosses become instruments of life-giving grace

Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.

—Madeleine L’Engle

Sometimes I banter with God. Every now and then, I’ll tease him, telling him that since he disciplines the children he loves (Heb. 12:6), he must really love me because he often disciplines me by driving me into the desert and allowing me to spend long periods of time there. Other times, I wonder aloud to him about whether I am as stubborn and as stiff-necked as the Israelites. I’d like to think I am not, but then I’d be kidding myself. Maybe he’s trying to break me of my stubbornness and (as he did with Moses) trying to form me into one of the most humble people on earth by making me at home in the desert. I can’t get away with anything, not a single thing. The Lord won’t let me get away with a single un-Christlike disposition, behavior, or thought—not for long anyway.

The Holy Spirit is intent on immediately convicting me and calling me to repentance. Of course, that’s not unique to me. All of us are called to repent immediately and make things right, even if it’s uncomfortable. All of us become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit the longer we walk with God. Can’t God just cut us some slack when it comes to immediate conviction of wrongdoing and repentance in the little things? That’s a thought I have when I’m in a foul mood and don’t feel like repenting and reconciling right away, even though I know I have to if I am to keep destruction in myself and in the world at bay. As I tell our little girls, “We must obey right away.”

God is continually calling me (and every one of us) to take up the cross of obedience. ...

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Mon, 15 December 2014 08:00:00 CST
A Radical Idea for This Christmas

Spend the season on a mission

A few years ago my children and I walked into a department store during the Christmas season. A lady working there stopped us and cheerfully asked if my children would like to write a Christmas list to Santa Claus. There was a statue of Santa by the entrance, with a big red mailbox for kids to drop their letters into. I politely told her I do not teach my children that their Christmas gifts come from Santa Claus.

She said, “Oh, is your family Jewish?”

I said, “No…we're Christian.”

Without realizing it, the past few years I have wallowed through the Christmas season waiting for it to end. Not because I don't want to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior; instead, the world’s view of Christmas had completely taken my joy out of this wonderful time of year. For one thing, although I'm not certain we really know when Jesus was born, we have designated this time of year for him, yet everywhere we turn very little is about Jesus. Even in the church; sure, we display the nativity scene and gather together…but shouldn't there be more to it? I find nothing wrong with Christmas fellowships, but after the Sunday school party, the board member party, the women's ministry party, the staff party, the Christmas choir concert, and the children's program, how many leaders in the church can honestly say they were a blessing and shared the gospel with someone desperate for Jesus during Christmas?

Mission Minded

I heard a pastor once say that many of us in the church are waiting for people to walk through the doors of the church instead of going out into the “field" to bring them in. I believe the idea of going out into the community scares most people ...

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Thu, 11 December 2014 08:00:00 CST
Advents Knotty Family Tree

Jesus was born into a messy family too

On the first Sunday of Advent this season, my congregation’s sermon text was Matthew 1:1-17. Many of us likely don’t think too often about this passage: It is one of the dreaded genealogies, with hard-to-pronounce names and no storyline (or so it seems). Yet behind the sometimes unfamiliar names this text is jam-packed full of stories—stories of how God worked through the messy lives of women and men. This genealogy is a little different, as it sprinkles in a few mothers in the long line of fathers: Tamar, who seduced her father-in-law, Judah, by pretending to be a prostitute; the Canaanite Rahab who actually was a prostitute; the Moabite Ruth; Uriah’s wife, whom we know as Bathsheba; and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here are these five women, standing out amid all the fathers, with a long back story packed into each of their names.

Matthew 1 is an embarrassing genealogy, embarrassingly glorious in the way God worked in and through these lives.

And so, before the sermon text was read in this particular service, I reminded the congregation of the story of Matthew 1 through a monologue (written by Alison Siewert) from the perspective of Rahab, retelling her story from Joshua 2. In this story Rahab, a woman with little power, no prestige, and no future, was given power and the opportunity to serve God’s people. And she did. Rahab resisted her culture: She saw something within the story of the God of the Israelites that compelled her to fear God and pledge her and her family’s lives on her promise of silence.

The story of Rahab is the story of one woman’s act of resistance. Rahab’s story contrasts greatly to the kinds of stories our culture tells at Christmastime: stories ...

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Mon, 8 December 2014 08:00:00 CST
Free Yourself to Pause and Take a Break

Surrender to Gods desire to shape your soul

The Internet is saturated with information for self-improvement and practical tools and techniques to become a better you. The business sections of bookstores include titles which inform leaders and executives about management skills, vision casting, and team development. Christian markets normally offer the same counsel sprinkled with a few heartfelt stories and accommodating Scriptures. As I grow as a leader, I am convinced that we do not need more tools and techniques about leadership. What we actually need is to humbly, lovingly, consistently, and intentionally engage the hearts and souls of those God has called to leadership.

We need to regularly gift our leaders with the time and space that is needed to pause, rest, reflect, and be present with the Lord without distraction. For to lead well requires regular submission and a humble surrender to God. In his book A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders, Reggie McNeal writes, “The first order of responsibility for spiritual leaders [is] to reflect the heart of God to the people around them…Leaders whose hearts and lives turn out as divine masterpieces help those who are in their sphere of influence become more aware of who God is, understand his engagement with the world, and know how they can participate more fully in his mission of building the kingdom.” Leaders who desire to influence others with integrity over an extended period of time regularly practice surrendering their hearts to God by resting to contemplate long enough to allow themselves to be changed by him. In the quiet moments, God shapes every aspect of our existence as his servants.

He does this by reminding us of his power, while strengthening and using ...

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Thu, 4 December 2014 08:00:00 CST
Thoughts on Q Women 2014

A conference review

Last month I attended the Q Women gathering with my leader friend Jodie. We both were looking for challenging conversations that would stimulate our thinking about faith and women leaders. The tagline for Q drew me in: “Stay Curious. Think Well. Advance Good.” Through Q, husband and wife co-founders Gabe and Rebekah Lyons have cultivated an environment where speakers and attendees engage in a refreshing dialogue around challenging questions, not over-simplified answers.

Worth the price of admission:

• Non-traditional women's gathering. Q Women was thoughtful and thought-provoking, lifting our heads about what's going on with women both locally and globally. And in the day of huge conferences with big names and even bigger production value, this gathering felt more like I was invited to someone’s kitchen table for an intriguing conversation.

• Pace. The pacing of the day helped me slow down and yet stay engaged. With each speaker working with either a 9- or 18-minute timeframe, no one segment dragged on too long. We also had multiple opportunities to discuss what we had just heard with women around our table.

• Speakers. The day was filled with speakers who weren't selling me their books/products/events the whole time. In fact, some of them I had never heard of until Q; it was a refreshing introduction to more world-changing women.

Fun factor:

• Location. The Factory at Franklin in beautiful Franklin, Tennessee, is a refurbished industrial building that now houses shops, restaurants, and really interesting event space. It was such a nice departure from the typical hotel ballrooms and conference centers.

• DIY. I’m not normally a fan of anything crafty. ...

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Mon, 1 December 2014 08:00:00 CST
Lead Me On: When Even J. Lo Doesnt Like Herself

Moses had the same problem—and so do we

In an interview with Maria Shriver this month, Jennifer Lopez confessed that she has struggled with low self-esteem. It’s getting better. She’s working on it. But there it is.

If this person, who is strong, savvy, and successful, and who sports a booty that is all about the bass in all the right places, does not have at her fingertips a world-class feeling of rock-solid about herself—well, come on already.

Lopez once thought she was scrappy and strong, but she found she was actually ignoring warning signs of low self-esteem. She recalled a time when she was younger and someone, overhearing how she handled a phone conversation, told her that she did not have a good sense of herself.

Wherein we are reminded that what we think is true regularly is just a little bit different than what is actually true. Especially about ourselves.

One place this is even more of a problem than in Hollywood? In the Bible.

What do you get when big-name heroes take the call of die-to-self all the way over to abandon-being-yourself?

In short, Moses.

When Moses was a baby, his indescribably faithful momma tucked him in a basket and settled it among river reeds, which led to a series of miraculous save-his-life-plus-now-he-lives-in-a-palace circumstances. A long time later, he felt convicted to help the unjustly enslaved Israelites—so he thumped a soldier who was hurting a slave. Bold move, but then the slaves turned on Moses, plus the king found out what he’d done to the soldier and, in pure biblically heroic form, Moses hightailed it out of town (Exodus 2).

All to say, this guy had lead a life, and God had been a big part of it. So it should not surprise the reader that, after a time, God showed up ...

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Thu, 27 November 2014 08:00:00 CST
'Light upon Light' Brings Meaning to Advent and Beyond

A book review

Each year I look for ways to make the Advent season more meaningful. It can be surprisingly hard to find something fresh and new. But a new release compiled by Sarah Arthur, Light upon Light, is my pièce de résistance for this year.

As Arthur says in her introduction: “Finding the works for this collection, discovering some of these authors and poets, has been like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.”

Her book lives up to that description. She quotes many classic authors I am familiar with and love, such as John Donne, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Francis of Assisi, C. S. Lewis, and George MacDonald, to name a few, along with more recent writings from Frederick Buechner, Eugene Peterson, and Walter Wangerin, Jr. But she also introduces me to contemporary authors and poets I haven’t read, such as Li-Young Lee, Tania Runyan, Scott Cairns, and Sarah Arthur (her own compositions). These newer writers do a fine job of mining the depths of the Advent season alongside the classic writers with whom I am so well acquainted.

For example, my heart skips a beat when I read this quote from George MacDonald:

“They all were looking for a king

To slay their foes and lift them high;

Thou cam’st, a little baby thing

That made a woman cry.”

And I love how this poem “Mary at the Nativity,” by Tania Runyan, begins:

“The angel said there would be no end

to his kingdom. So for three hundred days

I carried rivers and cedars and mountains.

Stars spilled in my belly when he turned.”

Arthur begins with the first ...

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Mon, 24 November 2014 08:00:00 CST
Time to Stop Worrying

Its about who God is, not who we are

The sensational displays of God's power described in the Bible may seem to us as though they happened all the time, because they are collected and familiar. But like us, most people throughout history, even ancient history, never saw such faith-bolstering events. They believed based on the stories they knew and on their own experience of God in the mundane. The people whose stories are told in our Scriptures had plenty of reasons for worry, but God called them to be countercultural in living through trust in him. He calls us to do the same.

In many ways, we can relate to what these ancient sisters and brothers experienced. But in other ways, we can't imagine how difficult their lives were—just as they would not have been able to imagine the complexity of our world. In the face of such hardship, God told them to turn away from fear and worry and to trust him instead. It is not unreasonable to believe he wants us to do so as well. God cares as much about our faith and worry as he did about theirs. Worry is a tremendous obstacle to the bold and sacrificial life he has called us to. Like all sin, it offends God and impairs our relationship with him.

We, who are among the most comfortable Christians in history, have no business embracing fear and letting worry drain us of the strength God gives. It's time for us to repent of worry, recognize we can make a different choice, and pursue the frightening freedom and baffling peace of trust in God.

This is not about simply "handing our worries over to God"; it's about understanding how incredibly powerful and trustworthy God is, how much higher his ways are than ours, how ridiculous it is for us to cling to the illusion of control and the fear ...

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Thu, 20 November 2014 08:00:00 CST
Study Reveals Missing Influence of Women among Nonprofit Leaders

An interview with researchers Dr. Janel Curry and Dr. Amy Reynolds

The Women in Leadership National Study, funded by the Imago Dei Fund of Boston, has completed two phases of a three-part study that examines institutional leadership among evangelical nonprofit organizations. Researchers have studied a number of organizations that include World Vision US, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, Christianity Today, American Bible Society, and others.

On behalf of Gifted for Leadership, Margot Starbuck spoke with Dr. Janel Curry and Dr. Amy Reynolds, professors at Gordon College and Wheaton College respectively, who shared what they’re learning from the study.

GFL: I know the study was inspired, in part, by the absence of data about women’s leadership in the Christian sector outside the church. I’m curious about what you each brought to the study personally.

Janel: I would say for me personally, I was looking for a way to help organizations that wanted to move forward—I am always looking for data that helps you know how to be successful. This is of most interest to me: helping organizations move forward.

Amy: For me personally, one of the reasons I was interested in this project was because of my interactions with female students at my own college. I saw the tensions some faced as parents, or home churches, or peers, encouraged them not to be too career-driven. I encountered students who were a bit surprised to see me combining my role as a mother with my role as a professor and Christian, often seeking advice since they had seen few models of women combining careers and family in their own lives. Even for those students who believed God did not restrict them because they were women, they were dealing with baggage ...

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Mon, 17 November 2014 08:00:00 CST
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