The Six Evergreens

There were six trees across the street.

Towering evergreens, standing at attention in dry heat and brittle cold. They easily bore long weeks of soaking rain, violent hailstorms and heavy spring snows. When the hazy days of summer arrived, without a stitch of moisture, they didn’t crack or break. The wind barely bothered them at all unless it was nearly a gale.

A couple of years ago, the second one from the left started changing color. The dark, deep, healthy green faded to a sickly brown. I knew long before they actually cut it down that it would have to go.

Admittedly, I was sad. I loved my view of the six evergreens. In every season, something interesting and beautiful unfolded among their branches, from squirrels to blue jays to little song birds.

The day came. It was done in just a half an hour or so, and with it, the third tree from the right. I am not sure if the arborists found more disease, or if the homeowners just wanted a more balanced look, but since that day the view has changed.

Every time I look at the six evergreens, which are now just four evergreens, I feel the sting of loss. My beautiful wall of trees now has gaps.

This morning I was sitting on the floor playing with my toddler when I looked out the front window and saw something I hadn’t seen before. Through one of the new gaps in my favourite trees I could see another towering row of branches in the distance. These were just the very tops of a few evergreens in front of some very tall poplars. They have no leaves today, but my heart felt a spark of curiosity and the warmth of the hope of spring, when their leaves will begin to bud. My mind leaped to summer, when thousands of leaves will rustle in the wind. And then, to next fall, when those beautiful towering poplars will shine yellow and orange in the brilliance of a gloriously warm September day.

Before the six evergreens were forever changed, I couldn’t see the poplars in the distance. I didn’t even realize they were there.

It’s like that with change, isn’t it? We are marked and impacted by it. We grieve deeply. We spend time remembering the days of the fullness of our most recent experiences, and then, as time passes, we begin to catch a glimpse of something on the other side of what we’ve lost. We start to gain a clearer picture of what’s beyond. The ugly and unwanted gap in the trees becomes a clearing, revealing something completely unexpected, interesting and full of potential.

I still miss the six evergreens across the street. I still wish they were all there. But now that I’m beginning to see what’s beyond, I’m looking forward to my new view.

evergreens across the street winter

The evergreens in winter

The New Year

Yesterday felt different.

Today feels the same.

Isn’t that the way it is with the New Year? January 1st is filled with hopeful plans and anticipation of what the year will behold.  January 2nd is a meeting of expectations and reality. And at times, they don’t match up.

But is that really so bad?

We’ve spent the past week and a half in the sweetest way – with family and friends, giving and receiving, eating and laughing, listening and sharing. In the middle of it all, the demands of regular life have not ceased.

Sharing amazing meals with guests means dirty dishes and tablecloths. Floors that need cleaning. Clothes that need washing.

Little kids playing together means big emotions and conflicts to sort out. Hearts that need tending. Cheeks that need kissing.

Work and play go hand in hand.

The other day, my five year old daughter had a moment in her otherwise great day that was particularly difficult. In her pain she cried out, “This is the worst day of my life! The whole day is the worst day ever!”

Amen. I have been there!

I sat with her and listened to her list of reasons why. Then I asked her if anything good had happened at all. She gave me one or two things she thought would qualify as “kinda good I guess”.

“Isn’t it interesting that there are good things and bad things right beside each other in a day?” I asked her. “That’s sometimes how it is. We have something really great mixed in with something really hard.”

BOOM. I chuckle when I think of it now, but it was a lightning bolt to my heart. I realized in that moment that I needed to hear those words more than she did.

2018 was a really tough year, although right along with it, we’ve seen amazing things and enjoyed many incredible moments. And even now, through this season marked with hope, peace, joy and love, we have been praying for three beautiful families in our life who each have a child facing a big battle with cancer, a friend who lost her mother right before Christmas and other relationships that are utterly broken, seemingly beyond repair.

These things do not leave us when the season changes and the calendar flips to a new month or a new year. But neither does the Lord.

Whatever we’ve been walking through, whatever is following us into the New Year, we know that we are not alone.

Isaiah 41:10 (NIV) –

“So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Thank you Jesus! Amen.

first rose to bloom

Last year’s first rose to bloom

The Perfect Christmas

For a few minutes this morning, it really seemed possible to accomplish all the things necessary to make this Christmas perfect. It might of been that first cup of coffee of the day that gave me wings, but I really felt like I could fly into all my plans for the week and succeed!

Yes, this really would be The Perfect Christmas.

Then my little one raised his little arms with an “uh – uh – uh” and I swung him up into my arms. He wiggled his little body and settled into his favourite spot – my left hip – and the light of reality dawned on me.

I already have everything I need.

2 Peter 1:3-11 (NIV) –

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

THIS.

This is the stuff that makes life beautiful. This is what makes it possible to live in the mix of the heart-wrenching grief of a broken world and the wonderfully expectant hope of Advent.

So the teacher gifts aren’t sorted out quite yet. So the house is mostly clean but not absolutely spotless. So the menu hasn’t been set. So the possibility of common childhood illness is looming (as it always does with small children in December).

All my best-made plans are nothing compared to what God has for me. All my ideas of how to improve upon what we already have are actually having the opposite effect. All my hopes for perfection will not be realized this Christmas, or any of my Christmases upon this earth.

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.
(Edward Mote)

Jesus, as we proclaim Your first coming with joyous activities, we long for Your second coming with groanings too deep for words to express. Tears flow, then we wash our faces and join in the celebrations. We know what is coming. In fact, You have given us everything we need right now, and we look forward to the day it will be completed and we receive a rich welcome into Your Kingdom.

We fall down in worship, King Jesus – we welcome You today.

***

Merry Christmas friends. May you know true joy in Christ this season.

tree

Advent in Action 2018

The Advent season begins on Sunday, December 2nd. I always want to be intentional about Advent, but sometimes I don’t know where to start. I hear about hope, peace, joy and love but somehow it can get lost in the pace of the season, so a few years ago I came up with Advent in Action. You’ll hear it on Shine FM Calgary from now ’til December 24th.

Leading up to each Sunday of Advent, I’m sharing small, totally do-able ways to put the themes of Advent into practice throughout the holidays! Follow my Facebook page to join in. This week’s theme is HOPE.

AiAtitle 2018

 

Time to Breathe

Is there anything more schedule-busting than illness? All the plans are put on hold until you hit recovery mode and then slowly you begin the process of catching up. It usually takes two, maybe three days to get through a tough cold, flu or stomach bug. Usually. Multiply that by four children and we’re talking two to three weeks. And often, when we’ve gotten over one thing, the next thing shows up.

Lord, have mercy.

It becomes my cold and flu season prayer. There are times when I’m not sure I can possibly do another load of laundry or wipe down another light switch or get out of my bed for another middle-of-the-night coughing fit.

And then, mercy shows up. The fever breaks, the illness skips the next kid, sleepless nights end.

Thank You, Lord.

That’s my other cold and flu season prayer. All the small things I may have otherwise overlooked have become reminders that He really is Emmanuel, God WITH us, in every moment.

Can I tell you something? This is a fairly new way of dealing with my feelings when illness strikes our home. Throughout my life, I have been notoriously inflexible when it comes to plans. Upset plans tend to upset me greatly. I feel deeply disappointed when something gets in the way of what I was going to do. And for many years, it went quite well. I was able to keep to my plans without much effort.

And then, kids.

I’ll tell you, nothing has brought greater growth in this area of my life than becoming a parent. I remember when my oldest was a baby, my mom shared some great wisdom with me. She said, “Stephanie, think of this as the gift of time. Whenever your plans have to change, you’re getting the gift of time to rest, time together, time to breathe.”

Thank You Lord.

The other day, three of the four kids were nestled in on the couch, completely captivated by the story playing out on the screen in front of them.  Two were home from school and one was just happy to have her sisters with her for the day. I glanced over at them, sharing in this moment together, and I thanked the Lord for this gift of rest, of time together, of time to breathe.

clock and coffee

Image: Aphiwat Chuangchoem

Bloom

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

In fact, I could have sworn that I yanked them all out at the end of the season two years ago.

And yet, there it was: a small purple, white and yellow pansy peeking out through dry dirt littered with the fallen leaves of a Saskatoon bush, blooming in the late October sun as if it was a midsummer’s afternoon.

In the past few months our backyard has seen desert-like conditions with heat and drought, followed not long after by a huge dump of snow and weeks of chilly temperatures, that has since melted and warmed into a gorgeous stretch of actual fall weather.

After all of that, the hardy little pansy popped its pretty head up out of the ground and started to blossom, right beside a big ugly thistle and our dried up pumpkin vine, the fruit of which had been stolen by our local squirrel before it even had much of a chance to grow.

Bloom where you’re planted.

Be faithful to God in the the driest, hottest seasons where you’re feeling unimportant and invisible.

In those very moments your heart begins to wilt, send your roots down deep into the Word and learn what it means to have the attitude of Christ:

“Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death
even death on a cross!”
Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV)

I’ve been reading through the books of Psalms and Isaiah this summer, attempting to savour each bit. It’s really. slow. going. Being a wife and mom of four young children is a full time job. Add in my career and other ministry involvements and it’s life overflowing! In years past I’ve gone with a quick devotional approach to reading my Bible, but I’ve recently been challenged to tap the brakes and take more time to understand the context of what I am reading and learn what it reveals about who God is.

There has been a long season in my life where I have been desperately seeking the truth about who God says I am instead of the lies I had been believing. Now I am finding more freedom and the desire to ask yet another question entirely: not “who am I?”, but “who is I AM?”.

Who is this amazing God who would lay aside His glory and sacrifice His life for the sake of those He loves so completely?

Is He really the same yesterday, today and forever? (Hebrews 13:8)

And how does knowing Him more deeply impact my day-to-day demands and moments of completely mundane tasks that bring no joy to me in my natural state?

I am captivated by the beauty of the world God has made. Even a simple tree across the street, standing strong and tall in both the blazing hot sun of the summer and the wickedly frigid winds of the winter brings my heart such awe and amazement that I can’t help but worship the Lord. I could spend all day in that moment, heart lifted by a glimpse of a bird taking flight, but I am snapped back to reality when I hear a little voice saying “uh-oh Mama” from the washroom (and all the parents cringe!). Somehow, walking around my living room straightening cushions, folding toddler t-shirts and bringing the trash to the curb just in time for the garbage truck just don’t have the same “wow, Lord, You’re awesome” factor.

And yet, these are the practical things right in front of me. And I am finding that they are the very things God is using to transform my heart.

This past week I’ve had to consciously make the choice to turn my work into worship. I’ve been picking up socks in prayer, tying little shoes with thanksgiving and teaching scissor skills with a song in my heart. Every time I return a toy to its home, every time I throw away a piece of trash left behind by my children, every time I behold the aftermath of imagination and creativity strewn about the living room, I am choosing prayer and praise: prayer for the person it reminds me of and praise for the gift of life in Christ.

Believe it or not, this simple act of worship is fuelling new growth in my cold, frustrated heart, and I am finding fresh gratitude and hope. Beauty is blossoming in the most unlikely of places because my eyes are constantly on the One who loves unconditionally and without end.

Against all odds, like the extraordinary little pansy flourishing in my otherwise-dead backyard, I’m just gonna go ahead and bloom where I’m planted too.

hardy pansy

Can you believe it?! This little pansy is amazing to me.

Making Space

We’re about to fall headlong into one of the busiest times of the year. Yes, I am talking about Christmas, even before the pie crumbs of Thanksgiving have really had time to settle and Halloween is still lurking.

I like to work ahead. By this time of the year, I’ve already been thinking about what we’ll do in December, how gifts might work and whether or not I need to start making things early. Life is already busy, and it just gets busier and busier as we head into November and December.

I absolutely adore all things Christmas, but I’ve found that the heart of the season can sometimes get lost in the heavy workload, flurry of activities and temporary demands. My schedule is often overwhelmed with holiday plans and my newsfeed is overrun with events and content even before November begins!

Let’s be honest for a moment. Most of us are knee deep in some sort of mess that we’re expected to tidy up just in time for the guests to arrive. We manage to find some cheer for an hour or two and then it’s right back to the grind we’ve made for ourselves, with all its harsh realities. When we’re working at capacity, we may find ourselves falling into a bit of a Scrooge attitude, grumbling under our breath about all the things we’ve still got to do before the deadline.

So I’m learning to choose now, more than two months in advance, to leave room in my schedule for rest, reflection and worship. It’s counterintuitive because the pace of the season is part of the fun! But Christmas is so much more than parties, presents and perfection. And through the  sacrifices and re-ordering of holiday priorities, I am finding the Lord in the unexpected quiet places.

We need that space to breathe in the true wonder of the season. Not the lights and the sparkle, but the unveiling of the Source of all authentic hope, peace, joy, and love: the Saviour of the world, coming as a baby on a bed of hay.

A baby.

Have you held or beheld a newborn recently? Perfectly formed and perfectly helpless. It’s the most incredible of ways that the God of Heaven could come to earth to bring salvation to a world that rejected Him so brutally.

Instead of filling our schedules with plans upon plans this holiday season, let’s make room for Jesus. Let’s welcome Him fully. Let’s let His deep, deep love overwhelm us and give Him centre stage in our holiday experience this year.

Let’s make space for the One who truly is the greatest gift of all.

holiday lights

Holiday lights

The Pie is Gone

It ain’t over ’til the pie’s all gone… and our pie is gone, bringing the end to another season of Three Weeks of Thanks.

I am enjoying the experiment I began a few years ago, to be more intentional over the Thanksgiving season in actually pausing to examine my heart instead of rushing through turkey and pie.

And yet, I have to be honest – this has been the most difficult year to “find my thankful heart” so to speak. Our family has had some things come up in the past twelve months that have given me cause to feel anything but thankful. I am learning, though, that I have a choice to worship anyway.

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:1-4 (NIV)

When Christ, who is your life, appears.

Is He my life? Or am I staking my hopes on things that crumble like dust beneath their weight?

It’s not an easy shift to make, but even there we find grace.

The Colossians passage gives more insight on what it means to truly find our lives in Christ.

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Colossians 3:5-17 (NIV)

My post-Thanksgiving prayer is simple: Lord, may I continually discover how to find my life in You every moment of this day!

pumpkin pie

A beautiful gift from a friend this Thanksgiving!

When I Remember

This is the third in a weekly series called “Three Weeks of Thanks”. Join the conversation at #3WeeksofThanks.

***

The “Thanksgiving Tree” is finally up. It’s just a piece of burlap on the wall, with twine and clothespins that hold cut-outs of leaves and the kids’ hand and footprints. On each one is written what they’re thankful for this year. We put up the “leaves” of years past so we remember how God has been faithful to our family. As time goes on, this inexpensive piece of rough burlap will fill up with the softness of our gratitude toward the One who holds everything together.

It’s a tradition that I’ve really come to love. As we trace our hands and cut out the shapes, think of our list of things to be thankful for and write the words on orange and brown and red construction paper, we’re discovering a way for us to connect what’s going on around us with a heart of gratitude.

This is the sixth year that I’ve chosen to be intentional with my thoughts leading up to Thanksgiving. In the past, I’ve had more of a quick, day-of, “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food” kind of approach, but I’ve come to learn that this season deserves so much more.

I’ve also come to learn that by the middle of September, my plate is nearly overflowing and I’m not sure I even have room to engage that kind of “more”. Can I really adjust my well-organized plans and leave space to quiet my heart before the big weekend is here?

Can I actually make time to discover what true thanks looks like?

It is not easy to pause when life is moving so quickly that I am out of breath before my feet even hit the floor in the morning. It’s not easy to stop when stopping means I have to actually think about the difficult things I’m facing, whether individually or even as a community or world. It’s not easy to sit down and lean into the Lord when I have more “productive” things to do, like plan a menu and craft my best sweet potato casserole ever.

And yet, I long so much for the “more” that I find when I just. slow. down. When I can make the connection between what I am doing and why I am even able to do it in the first place – when I discover the deep love of Jesus and astounding grace of God and the beautiful fellowship of the Holy Spirit, Thanksgiving becomes more than just turkey and to-do’s.

We crossed a bridge over the river in our city a couple of days ago and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the scene that stretched out before me. The cool turquoise water contrasted with the brilliant greens, rich golds, burnt oranges and fiery reds of the trees and bushes that lined riverbank. My heart sang at such a magnificent sight! In a moment we had passed it, but the image remained in my mind.

The One who brings that kind of beauty to life in an ordinary riverbank is the very same One who brings my heart to life when I remember that everything I am and everything I have is because of Him. I was made to worship!

God, help us this Thanksgiving to truly make space in our hearts and lives for Your presence. To breathe in Your breath of life and discover that we really can give thanks to You no matter what we’re facing, because this is Your will for us in Jesus. You know that with a truly thankful heart, we will begin to see what is most important in this life – being wholly devoted to You.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 —

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

leaves in fall

My favourite backyard bush in fall

Why I’m Praying All Day Today

This is the second in a weekly series called “Three Weeks of Thanks”. Join the conversation at #3WeeksofThanks.

***

It’s amazing to me that the moment I decide to make a point to live in the knowledge of constant rejoicing in what Christ has done, I realize how desperately I need to commit to the following verse: “Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Last week we received some difficult news that drove me to my knees in tears. I cannot express how much I didn’t feel like rejoicing; it was quite the opposite, actually. I couldn’t see beyond the circumstances I found myself in and I asked the Lord why this was happening. My mind clicked and whirred, thinking of all the ways we may have been able to avoid this if we had known then what we know now.

Over the past ten years or so, the Lord has graciously been reworking my heart and rooting out some of the things I’ve believed that simply aren’t true. One of those is the false impression that if I just do the right things, the right things will happen for me.

I mulled over the hard road ahead. “But we’re good people!” I found myself thinking. “We shouldn’t be dealing with this!”

And in the very next moment, it struck me: maybe all really is grace.

All the good things, all the tough things, all the things we can’t control and all the things we have some power over – it’s ALL His grace.

I am not all-knowing. I am not all-wise. My understanding has limits.

But I put my faith in the One whose “understanding no one can fathom”, the One who really does know what’s behind and ahead, the One who is good and just and full of compassion and deep love. The question then becomes not “why is it like this?” but “to whom will I compare Him? Or who is His equal?”

And I bow to the One who is worthy of my worship and my full trust. I am learning day by day and moment by moment that it requires a heart of constant prayer.

Lord, help me see You today!

Isaiah 40:21-31 (NIV)

“Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood since the earth was founded?

He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
    and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
    and spreads them out like a tent to live in.

He brings princes to naught
    and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

No sooner are they planted,
    no sooner are they sown,
    no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
    and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

‘To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.

Why do you complain, Jacob?
    Why do you say, Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord;
    my cause is disregarded by my God’?

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.”

stars caleb woods

Image: Caleb Woods