Who’s in Your Boat?

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Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

This post first appeared here on The Glorious Table.

When I was eight years old, I sat out a tornado warning with my parents in a pickup truck on the side of the road. The truck swayed side to side as rain pelted its windshield, and thunder sounded as close as the back seat. The wind threatened to toss us into the ditch as the green sky darkened.

Outside, chaos raged. Inside, my parents’ arms wrapped around me, keeping me calm. Their presence assured me that even if the world out there was not all right, there with them, I could find peace.

Summer storms often light up the sky here in the Midwest. They can be sudden, just as my study of Scripture tells me that storms on the Sea of Galilee also came on quickly, giving little warning to fishermen in their boats. The workers usually stayed closer to the shore for that reason. Fishing boats were small and the lake large. Matthew records one such storm:

“Then Jesus got into the boat and started across the lake with his disciples. Suddenly, a fierce storm struck the lake, with waves breaking into the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ Jesus responded, ‘Why are you afraid? You have so little faith!’ Then he got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. The disciples were amazed. ‘Who is this man?’ they asked. ‘Even the winds and waves obey him!’” (Matthew 8:23-27 NLT)

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Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

Imagine the howling wind, crashing waves, and harsh sea spray hitting you in the face and filling the boat. Envision the lightning flashes around you, knowing your mast is the highest point for miles. Can you feel the fear?

They’ve got Jesus, so it’s all OK, right?

“But Jesus was sleeping.” Curled up at the back of the boat, Jesus hadn’t a concern in the world.

These seasoned fishermen know this sea. Right now, uncharacteristically, they are terrified of it. They do not interpret Jesus’ untroubled sleep as great faith to be imitated. They see it as abandonment in their hour of need.

These professional watermen wake him, shout at him, blame him, and otherwise act like scared kids. What do they yell? “Rescue us!” Their words reflect faith or perhaps desperation, probably a mix of both.

Jesus responds in a way they clearly don’t expect. He raises his hand and tells the weather who’s boss.

The clouds break up. The water calms. The disciples’ jaws drop.

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Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

I think we forget that they didn’t know who he was. To the disciples, Jesus was a rabbi—a man who happened onto the scene and chose them. They didn’t know what we know. The transition that had to take place between, “Hey he’s a great guy! Smart, good, a little odd, but we’re lucky he picked us,” to “He is straight-up God” was not a day’s work.

It took scenes like this, when they saw a storm rendered powerless and realized the Lord of the wind and waves was standing two feet away. That probably seemed more terrifying than the storm.

Sometimes, even though we do know who he is, we can’t see the end of our story. We don’t know how it plays out. We only know the scene being shot, and that scene contains wind and rain and fear.

We know he’s God in those times, too, but we think he should have kept us out of the storm, and we’re still not sure he can get us through it.

Sometimes we’re all eight-year-olds sitting in the front of the pickup hollering and praying that it stops.

Here’s what the disciples had to learn: It isn’t trust to expect Jesus to keep us out of the storm. Trust is believing he will keep us through it.

It isn’t trust to expect Jesus to keep us out of the storm. Trust is believing He will keep us through it.

We often look at this story as an example what God will do for us. But the true point of story is not that he will calm all our storms. The point is that we find our peace in the midst of the storm in the one with the power to control it.

It tells us who he is and who is in charge.

God, I know I look at the storms too much and at who’s in my boat too little. I let fear overtake me, and I forget who is steering. Please help me to trust you to guide me through the storms and not demand you stop them. Help me trust you as the one who created the seas. Amen.

Scripture for Reflection

“Who kept the sea inside its boundaries as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and wrapped it in thick darkness? For I locked it behind barred gates, limiting its shores. I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’” (Job 38:8-11 NLT)

“By his power the sea grew calm.” (Job 26:12 NLT)

Reach for More

What storm are you going through right now? It can be big, but it can also be the everyday grind of busyness and the struggle of time management.

Imagine, right now, turning around in that storm and seeing Jesus behind you. Is he holding the rudder, or are you? Who is steering the course, who is bailing water, who knows the way to shore? Write down your fears and, at your pace, hand them to him. Allow him to wrap his arms around you and calm your anxiousness. Find a picture of a shoreline and look at it to remind you he knows where he’s going.

Change Happens

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While I was spending my time sailing, sunning, and writing pages and pages of thesis proposals that would get rejected and repurposed EVERY OTHER MINUTE in California this June, our front yard got a makeover.

Out with the Old

We called the city because one of the venerable old elm trees in the front yard looked ready to tumble onto our also old (if not equally venerable) house. The trees are technically on city property.

They came. They saw. They said that all three trees were bad and would be meeting the saw blade. (Insert sob emoji here.) A fourth elm sat just inside the property line, and it was in worse shape, so we struck a deal with the contractor to take it down for cheap while he was there.

Upshot—the entire front yard went from shade to full sun in a few hours. I returned home to a driveway I didn’t even recognize.

In with the . . . What?

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I do love light, but unfortunately, my front garden does not. We had planted it as a shade garden and filled it with hostas, coral bells, ferns, and the like. Now, they are baking. Turning yellow and crusty. They are not happy. It’s too hot out there to move them, and so they sit in the sun, as I hope and pray they survive long enough to be set somewhere  more understanding of their needs.

Meanwhile, an interesting thing is occurring in the back yard. There, the trees are growing. The spruce that was as tall as I am (and that’s not very tall) when we moved in now towers over its surroundings. If I wanted to get all mathematical, I’d go out there and measure the hypotenuse and the shadow and tell you exactly how tall it is. But, did I mention it’s hot? And I am not all mathematical as a general rule.

The ornamental pear tree we planted that was supposed to be remain small isn’t. Upshot—things that were planted in full sun, like our rose garden, no longer are. They’re also unhappy about the turn of events.

 

What is my point in all this?

My own back yard tells me that seasons change. Things never remain as planned. What we once thought would be forever isn’t, and what we thought would never be sometimes is. What worked once for us doesn’t work anymore. Usually, we keep trying it anyway, desperately hoping that we will not have to adjust to a new reality.

New Normals

  • Our bodies change or get injured. What was once easy isn’t.
  • Our kids leave home and our marriages turn in toward themselves and find hollow cores where communication and commitment once filled the space.
  • Our kids leave home period, and that’s enough change for any of us who love having their laughter and surprise and support floating through our days.
  • We move from single to two people, from two kids to three, and every addition is a glorious gift but still one we have to adjust to and whose learning curve may be steeper than we think we can climb.
  • We move to a new home, and its exciting and terrifying, adventurous and lonely, all at once.
  • Our faith turns into doubt nibbling away at the corners of our hearts and minds. What were once easy answers don’t come quite so quickly anymore.

Change doesn’t have to be bad to discombobulate our lives. (I love that word.) It just has to be what it is.

Different. New. Unknown.

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It can scorch our days like a July sun or it can shade our nights with extra darkness. It doesn’t matter. It just messes with what we thought we had stable and safe.

If I refuse to adjust to the new normal of our yard, the plants out front will die. They will shrivel and thirst and scorch and wither. They weren’t made for the sun. The plants out back will languish without the light they crave. They, too, will die. They weren’t made for the shade.

If I accept that normal isn’t coming back and I move them? I can create an entire new design out there. I have a chance to start over. I can make beautiful out of a new situation.

Create Beautiful

We can spend our time resisting whatever our new normal is, or we can embrace it. Now, I’m not advocating giving up on something that matters. I wouldn’t hang up my marriage if it changed. I can ( and might) plant a new tree in the front yard. I can opt to fight for those plants and that arrangement, because they’re important. Fighting is an option. It’s one I’d always take if change threatened something that truly mattered.

But, some things have just run their season. It’s time for a new one. Some things are better off for a new season.

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What if, for instance, I embrace this new empty nest that threatens? What if I stop seeing it as a threat? I can sit in my home and mourn the emptiness. (I will, some days.) I can guilt them into not ever moving farther than five miles away. (I have tried.) I can Snapchat my children incessantly until they block me. (I don’t recommend this.)

I can learn new ways to love them like crazy from a distance, pour my heart into other young people here who need someone, and renew career aspirations that have been put aside. I think that may be the better option.

On a larger scale, what if we accepted that “A Christian America” isn’t going to happen? The season of churchgoing as normal is over, and we pastors (and all Christians) have an uphill climb to be relevant or wanted. People aren’t going to beat the door down of my church.

I could demand things go back to the way they were. I could throw up my hands and gnash my teeth about the current state. I could toss blame all over the place and find scapegoats to label and denounce.

I could embrace a different culture and find my way to create God’s image of beauty within it. I know which is the ultimately more productive choice.

What if a new normal has brought something into your life that also brings worry, fear, anxiety, or sadness? How can you grow into that today? How can you look at your new season and find the beauty in it? What do you need to embrace in order to grow in this season rather than wither?

I hope and pray you find it. If I can help, let me know.

Surprised by Peace

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May is my favorite month. I gaze out the kitchen window at the brilliant pink crabapple trees standing over blushing tulips. Lilacs come into the house in bunches. Bikes come out for long rides, during which we smell morning rain over the forest preserve prairie. Sound carefree? Don’t let it fool you. This kind of peace doesn’t come easy in May. It’s also my craziest month.

 

When our oldest daughter got married two years ago, I informed my other two daughters they had to follow suit and keep all the family weddings in May. We could all go away for one big weekend to celebrate four anniversaries, one birthday, and Mother’s Day.

What’s the answer to craziness that threatens to steal our peace? Click on to the rest of this post at The Glorious Table to find out.

Cleaning Up the Clutter

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The area around our fire pit is a bit of a mess. Like, you could lose a small child in there mess. The logs and kindling are semi-stacked/falling to one side. A picnic table sits at one end, its boards crumbling with age. The patio is, well–a little uneven would be a charitable way to put it. We put the stone down ourselves, and straight and flat are not our strong suits.

We’re creatives here, not engineers. Don’t judge.

Last year, I worked hard to pull all the weeds that grow up between the logs and around the table. They were big. Thistles, pokeberries, bindweed—all of it went into the compost.

Then we went on vacation. And after two weeks, we returned to weeds so high they were over my head.

I am not even joking. Jesus please help if we ever forget to weed for over a month. They may never find us.

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Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

Now, the weedy soil.

“Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.”

I’m preaching an entire Advent series on distractions. Clutter. Those things in our lives that do exactly what these weeds do—crowd out the tender, beautiful things of God that are supposed to grow in our lives.

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” (Matthew 13)

Is your heart distracted or focused?

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Sometimes, I fear I have a thorny heart. There are so many other options. So many things get the resources that the seeds God plants in my heart need. He offers me the abundant resources of time, money, gifts, talents, people, things, and feelings. (Yes, they are abundant. Whether we believe it or not.) Too often, I squander those wonderful gifts on the things that should be lower on the priorities list.

Time? Booked.

Money? Budgeted.

Talents? Overextended.

Feelings? Already overloaded.

We get so distracted by competing priorities we don’t even notice the tiny plants God has sown into our lives struggling for their share of sun and rain. We’re too busy.

These priorities aren’t always bad, of course. Kids sports are good for them. Grades matter. Work requires our best. Entertainment is needed after a tough day of work, and paying bills, well, things can get a little dicey if we don’t.

The problem isn’t that we are committed to bad things. The problem is that we aren’t committed to the best thing first. When priorities compete, the biggest, loudest, strongest get the most attention. The weeds win. If I didn’t weed my garden, the weeds would always win. The same is true in our lives.

We’re always attracted to the shiny, the attention-seekers. The thing is, God’s kingdom isn’t usually shiny and loud. It’s usually quiet. It’s everyday. it’s about showing up and keeping on, and that can’t compete with the things that promise us all we’ve ever wanted.

The promise is:

We’ll be good parents if our kids are busy and get to do all the things other kids do.

We’ll be secure if we work enough to have a cushion in the bank.

We’ll be liked if we know all the shows and all the music and all the Facebook news everyone else does.

We’ll be important if we look busy.

We need to do a prairie burn of our lives so that good things get first crack at the sunshine.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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If we seek everything else first and then hope there will be room for the kingdom in our lives? We’re going to harvest thorns. We won’t even be able to find God in all the clutter. But if we seek the kingdom first? Jesus says he will add all the important things we truly need.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

Everything. That we need.

Do you know what the tragic result is from all of our busyness and distraction? Did you notice that last line of the story?

“No fruit is produced.”

Fruit is the good story we tell with our lives. It’s all about the fruit. That’s the reason God left us here instead of winging us up out of this craziness the moment we got saved. We’re here to produce fruit. And distracted people don’t. It’s so clear in Jesus’ words that it’s tragic.

I think this may be the most common soil of all of them, which means I may be guilty. The world is so distracting and the kingdom so quiet.

Maybe these questions sounds familiar to you:

Why aren’t I joyful?

Why don’t I feel content?

Why are my finances always a mess?

Why is my schedule always nuts?

Why is life so hard?

It could be the answer to all of them is the same—we’ve let the weeds choke out the goodness and simplicity of the kingdom. We’ve made God’s good seeds compete, and they are losing.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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What do you need to weed out of your life? What do you need to focus on? Christmas and a new year are good times to get quiet, look at or priorities, and ask ourselves—am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Does it look like I am when I look at my list of activities? What seeds Is God trying to plant in my heart, and what is it going to take to give them some air and sunshine?

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

We can’t tell a good story with a cluttered life. Decluttering our hearts brings out our best story.

Spending Ourselves: Slowing Down the Holiday Spending Train

A few Christmases ago, we ate coconut, spaghetti, and pineapple for Christmas dinner. It was a mission trip to Costa Rica, so that should also explain the Christmas morning kayak trip through mangroves. (And the Christmas Eve trip to the turtle sanctuary.) We left Christmas gifts at home under the tree, with three cats wondering if perhaps they should do the job of unwrapping.
 
We also decided to do Christmas differently when we got home. In light of the fact that we were going to work with Nicaraguan immigrants who didn’t have the means to buy uniforms so their kids could go to school, we wondered how we would feel about coming home and opening a room full of gifts we didn’t need. Wisely, we figured we would not feel so great about that. So we planned an alternative.
 

For that year, we agreed that all presents had to be made, not bought. I

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Christmas Eve. I wasn’t kidding. Beats Chicago.

made photo albums for everyone. Found groupons for classes to take together. Even finished those T-shirt quilts I’d been saving T-shirts for for approximately twenty years. (OK, I did not technically finish them. Some of them may have actually been a wrapped up box of fabric squares that were going to be a quilt someday when they grew up. But at least I got started.)

 
You know what? Our kids loved them. They spent more time poring over those photo albums than they had ever spent fascinated by a new device or game. They appreciated the time and love that went into those gifts. Every year since then I’ve thought, maybe we should do that again. And maybe we will.
 
One of the biggest ways we can slow down our holidays is to slow down financially. Slow down by rethinking what needs to be bought and who needs to be impressed. I know, making gifts can take time. Feeling we have to make Pinterest-level gifts for everyone on our list does not induce feelings of peace but rather heart palpitations.
 
But we don’t have to. “Not bought” does not equal intricately hand crafted marvels. It means creativity on another level entirely.
 
Here are a few easy ideas to get that creativity flowing.

Cut the List

I’m not kidding on this. Who told you you had to give gifts to your mail carrier, the person three cubicles down at work, your great-niece, and your best friend’s dog? There are no rules here unless you make them. A sincere note of appreciation is enough. (Although the dog will probably eat a note, so maybe not.) 

 
A card mentioning something you’ve noticed about that person. A list of reasons you’re glad you know her. A Bible verse that makes you think of him.
Really, affirming words, if they’re sincere, last longer than any gift. (Except fruitcake and tacky knick-knacks. Those lasts forever.) 
 
Exchange names among family members rather than trying to buy for everyone. Agree to make a charitable donation instead of give gifts. Minimize your list and take it from there.

Mass Produce

Can fifteen people on your list all receive the same loaf of homemade bread and a jar of jam? Yes, they can. Done. Stop stressing over making each one different. No one will remember. Believe me on this. (And if you still have fifteen non-family members on your list, see tip #1.)

Go with Your Gifts

 

A handmade gift I greatly appreciated 🙂

I can scrapbook. Maybe the thought would give you a migraine. Maybe, though, you’d be a whiz at uploading those same photos to Walgreens and making a quick photo album. Totally counts as homemade. Go for it. Go with whatever God-given abilities and passions were assigned to you. What do you love to do or create? How can that translate into giving? God gave us passions and gifts so we could bless others. Yours included, whatever they are.

Gift Someone with Time

A lunch together. A class together. A road trip together. Anything that ends with together. T-I-M-E spells love in our culture. Gift it lavishly. It will be the most treasured thing under the tree.
 
So take this as a challenge. A Don’t-Step-Foot-in-a-Store challenge. Slow down financially this year by making gifts, creating memories, appreciating tangibly, and gifting with time. Forget Black Friday. Seriously, Black Friday is like an abusive relationship anyway. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep going back. Break it off now.
 

Black Friday is an abusive relationship anyway. Break it off now.

 
If you find you need to do something else with all the money you save, there are some good options listed below.* Buy something someone else desperately needs given in the name of someone who doesn’t really need anything. Because nothing says “I love you,” like “I bought a goat in your name.” I’m serious, actually. It’s true.
 
We’re celebrating the One who had everything and gave everything so we could have anything. He didn’t spend money to woo us–he spent himself. Want to slow down financially this Christmas and stop the spending crazy train? Give of yourself. Simply, not in a “I can make cuter and more personal handmade gifts than you can buy” sort of giving. Because we all know those people, and they are annoying.
 
In small steps or big ways, start spending yourself this year rather than your credit cards.
 
In what ways do you try to focus on people rather than presents? Do you have great go-to’s for simple gifts? Please share!
 
Prison Fellowship/Project Angel Tree
 

 

Leave Room: When the Christmas Calendar Is Too Much

I have a calendar on my phone, a calendar on my computer, a calendar on my website, and a calendar on my wall. You’d think I would never miss an appointment. You’d think I would never double book anything. You’d think I went backpacking on a yak in Siberia. No, you wouldn’t, but that last guess would be equally as accurate as the first two.

I still screw up the calendar.
And now it’s December. The month when we routinely add 314 things to our calendar that we will feel guilty about never being able to do. Because that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
We are calendarically challenged (your new word of the month), and we need to slow it down for the holidays, not ramp it up. That’s not to say we turn down social occasions and stay at home all month with our twinkling lights. Socializing is good, even for us flaming introverts. But let’s slow it down to the right kind of socializing.

Prioritize

What really “makes” Christmas for your family members? Cutting down the tree? Christmas Eve service? Eating baking cookies? Listen to every person, and then schedule in the things that matter the most to each person. Yes, schedule in baking cookies. Or it will happen at the last minute because you have to squeeze it in and you’re frazzled. This is not the time to be adjacent to knives, blenders, and hot ovens.
Everyone feels listened to, and the important things happen.

Add in Slowly9d398-img_0276

Start to pick other things you want or have to do. School programs. Worship time. Visits with people from out of town. Look at each time-sucker holiday event and ask your self a couple questions.
♦Is this something I really want to do?
♦Is it something that means a lot to another person?
♦Is it something that shows my gratitude toward God?
♦Is it something I have to do or risk unemployment?
If the answer is yes, put it on the calendar. When something new comes up, go through the mental process of asking these questions before you make an automatic yes. (Or no.)

Protect downtime

Keep free time free. Resist the urge to fill it in with “just one things more.” Yes, it might fit. Yes, you might enjoy it. But it will also stress you out to look at a full calendar and feel like you cannot escape its selfish demands. Guard those non-colored areas on your calendar as if they are gold. They are. They are your golden time to do nothing, enjoy one another, read together, or go on a drive in your pajamas to see lights. These are important activities. If you decide at the time that you can and want to do that one extra thing? Then do it. But you’ll be free to choose.
This is the only time I’m going to give you a pass on not committing to an event. Treasure it.

Celebrate weirdly

My family usually gets together after Christmas sometime. The crazy is over, the gifts are half price, and everyone is sick of coma inducing amounts of food so there’s no need to cook lavishly. Choose a not-normal time for those things you’d like to do but can’t fit in. A breakfast party instead of a dinner one. Invite families to volunteer together. Have friends with little ones over for hot chocolate, pj’s, and a favorite Christmas story time after dinner and before bed. It’s short and sweet and fun. Create an event at a time no one thinks of, and since you created it, you get to make the rules.
Rules are, you don’t have to set up a photo booth and handmade placecards. Unless you want to.

17b9e-window4Leave Room

Sometimes, interruptions to your calendar are good. The shepherds’ willingness to listen to the angels and take off for the stable meant only good things. I’m not sure how the Christmas story would have gone down if they had said to the angelic host, “You know, we’re kind of stressed right now. Can we take a pass on the newborn king thing? Maybe next month, when things slow down.” Well, I am sure. God would have found someone else to do their job. And they would have missed out.

But divine interruptions can’t happen with a blacked-out calendar. Leave room. Leave room for His presence to surprise you on a starry night.

Less Is More Christmas



Christmastime is heeeere . . . yes, the warbling song stylings of the Peanuts Christmas special are in my head. I love Christmastime. I also love the Peanuts, so there is that. I know, it’s early yet, but there is a reason.
 
Unabashedly, I love it. I love the lights, the colors, the smells, the shiny wrapping paper, the songs, the general kindness. I love everything about Christmas.
 
Almost everything. I do not love the craziness of trying to get it all done. The last minute stress. The certainty that you have to get one more thing for one more person because said person is going to get you something and it will definitely be better than anything you can even think of with your hot-chocolate-hangover brain.
 
Plus I do not love “Santa Baby.” At all.
 
So I’m not Ebeneezer Scrooge, and I’m not Buddy Hall (the guy who wanted his Christmas lights to be seen from space). I’m just a Christmas lover. And a realist.
 
Being a realist, I want to take the best of Christmas and retain the reason we celebrate it (hint—the “Christ” part) and meld them into a holiday that celebrates peace on earth, not insanity in the dollar section of Target.
 
Light parades? I’m there.

So can we do that? Can we do a less is more Christmas with all the things we love and not the expectations we hate? I think so. 

If you were following my posts earlier this year, you know my daughter and I chose to go through the book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess for the second time. It’s all about slowing down, looking at what we have and what we need (don’t need), and finding ways to change our habits and expectations by employing some radical life changes. (Start here to find out more about that great experiment.)

 
Love the MSI Christmas decorations

We didn’t finish the experiment at that time. We did practice loosening the chains of food, clothing, and media before we declared a break for a while. Some of the things we learned, as well as some of the thing I’ve learned being both a mom and a pastor during Christmas (now that’s a double whammy right there), can illuminate the question: How do we slow down and do less while celebrating the season in the ways we love?

 
So we’re going to go through a few ways to do that this next month. Slowing down financially, electronically, calendarally (Yes, I did make that word up), and spiritually. Stay tuned. I think you’re going to like it.
 

In the meantime, here’s a quick peek at some of the ways I’ve already found online. https://www.pinterest.com/jimari/all-stressed-up-holiday-hospitality/ I hope some of them sound fun and useful for you as you enter the happiest/craziest/holiest time of the year.

Also, here is my free ebook on stress free holiday hospitality. It’s yours, because while I love a little crazy, none of us loves psycho momma at Christmas. (Yes, you can also click on the little book cover to the right.)


Next week — We’ll start with the calendar. I’d love to hear your ideas, too.