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Open To Advent by Jessica Dean

One of my most terrifying encounters with the natural world was a snowshoeing trek in Colorado. I went alone into an avalanche warning area and hiked to 12,000 feet having told no one my plans to hike. At the trailhead there were fresh snowshoe tracks and I soon met two women and their dogs on their way down, and spoke with them for a moment before continuing the ascent.

The women’s tracks stopped well before the summit. I walked past another avalanche warning sign and realized I had neither heavy snow gear nor knowledge of how to survive in avalanche conditions. Waiting for me at the top of this trail was a frozen lake and view of the Continental Divide. I felt I had come too far to turn around. Desire numbed a right fear and I kept walking.

The wind became fierce at 30 mph sustained and 50-60 mph gusts. I kept walking without any trail. I came above the tree line and could see the summit. There was no path to get there, only a steep, long hillside covered in snow.

I made it about 20 feet up the hillside. The wind blew so hard I literally could not take a step forward. The snow was very deep but felt very unsteady under my feet. The top layer was crunchy with ice and I knew a sheet could easily break off, sending a cascade of underlying powder (and me) down the mountain. I stood there for a moment encapsulated by a right fear. I was in real danger and I could not go any further. But I still beheld a tremendously gorgeous sight. I have yet to experience another moment of utter beauty and complete terror so inextricably bound.

“Click,” said the camera…. then I hauled my rear end down the mountain.

When I was a child I used to feed our horses twice daily. In the early darkness of winter, I imagined someone was hiding in the barn waiting to attack me. This may or may not have been caused by my siblings and I watching too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, something we enjoyed debating while gathering for Thanksgiving last week. Regardless of cause,I fed the horses and ran as fast as I could from the barn to the house. I hated when we left the horses out because it meant I had to stop to chain the gate. When we left them in the barn, I could sprint right through the gate to safety. I knew I looked ridiculous and stopped to catch my breath in the garage before I went inside.

High tailing it down this Colorado mountain, taller and older than the scared little girl running from the barn, I’m struck that fear, no matter its cause, looks and feels remarkably the same whether you are eleven or twenty-seven.

Driving around New Mexico a few years post Colorado, my dear friend Julie and I adventured along the Rio Grande. We wound beside its banks for a few miles and came upon a very old wooden bridge. I hit the breaks and pulled the car off the shoulder. The bridge was condemned, sagging and plastered with warning and no trespassing signs.

I saw a fox scampering across the length of the bridge. I tiptoed out a little ways on the creaking wood, compensating in weathered beauty what it lacked in engineered stability.  I walked back to the edge. I remembered a saying about doing something each day that terrifies you and decided it was a good day to follow that advice.

The wood creaked and the river roared underneath my feet.

beauty and brokenness.

peace and fear.

infinite and finite.

Jimmy Santiago Baca writes of nature’s healing beauty and uncontrollable power.  Much like God, nature soothes but also frightens. When we recognize fear and open ourselves to it, we are sometimes called to yield, to let go, to return safely home. And sometimes to summon the courage to continue onward.

Baca’s poem “This Day” came to mind as I thought about my walk across the river:

To open my life

and make this day a bough on a tree

leaning over infinity, where eternity flows forward

and with day the river runs

carrying all that falls in it.

beauty and brokenness.

peace and fear.

infinite and finite.

All of these were present on my walk up the mountain and across the river and hours of our daily lives, in all of our longings and movements toward beauty, love and faithfulness. I imagine these all were present at the manger, as eternal love came down.

And thus, if the life we lead is eternal, my advent prayer for us is that

Love may come down afresh to us all,

Help us open our lives

to fears and hopes,

sorrows and joys,

mystery and known,

absences and embraces.

To lean into eternity

while walking here on Earth

as He did.

Jessica Dean is a lover of roots – that grow in the ground, that make a sweet old banjo dance, that tangle up into the stories, pictures and songs of people today and long ago. After college, she spent nine years in Charlotte, North Carolina working in banking and non-profit management. Currently, she is a graduate student at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, working towards a Masters in English. She recently moved to the green hills of Knoxville, Tennessee where she lives and works on a 55 acre farm and spends this season of life growing food, writing stories, playing music and hiking the Smokies with her dog. She is working on her first book, a collection of children’s stories and songs, hopefully to be completed this winter.

Gratitude Assignment

Gratitude Assignment: Pick one of the five gratitude quotes from the list below and rewrite it in your own words – with your own gratitude.  If you’d like, share it in the comments.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

– GK Chesterton

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

“Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation.”

― John Ortberg, When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box

“Gratitude for the seemingly insignificant—a seed—this plants the giant miracle.”

― Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

Gratitude – Ordinary as Legs by Roger Edwards

When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time.

Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?    

          G.K. Chesterton            

I experience gratitude most often because something extraordinary happens. For example, when I narrowly escape an automobile accident.  Or perhaps when I receive a surprise check or when a friend offers unexpected encouragement. I am filled with sense of well-being, I smile and move on.

But there is a deeper experience of gratitude.

The first type occurs when you are surprised by an unexpected good.  The second, deeper gratitude occurs when you are startled awake by the sheer improbability of  the ordinary good. It is the surprise insight that the crook of your mother’s arm, the bend in the road leading to your house, or the hum of the kettle are realties that did not have to be. And yet there they are. The second gratitude is the sudden seeing of things as they really are – gifts from God.

Just yesterday, I had this blessed experience of suddenly seeing things as they are. I was strolling down a sidewalk. I turned a corner, glanced down upon my footsteps and was hit with the very pleasant realization that my stockings were not filled with Christmas candy. They were filled, through no effort of my own, with something both superior and more practical. My stockings were filled with legs!

My next steps were different, buoyed as they were by the second deeper gratitude. It was like walking for the first time. Or perhaps a better metaphor, I felt like a child who, given a set of stilts, was trying them out in play. I took one exciting step, then two quick steps in succession to regain balance. I giggled at my pleasure. Approaching me on the sidewalk you might have thought me drunk. And you would be right – for a blessed moment I was intoxicated with the ordinary benevolence of things.

I tried a step or two backwards (just for fun) and then attempted a straight line, followed with two S-curves and a swing around the lamp post. Walking, when you are gifted with legs, becomes play. Running is adventure. Skipping downstairs is sheer madness. I was tall. I was blessed.

Then, for some sad, sad reason, the second, deeper gratitude dissipates.  Perhaps I noticed people staring or perhaps I become self-conscious in a window reflection. But the second deeper gratitude disappeared and I sank into the grey dullness of believing that ordinary things are unremarkable. I sank into the fog of taking for granted everything that is so inexplicably granted. My magical legs effectively disappear. And I become once again a short, plodding soul.

Oh, to see things for what they really are – gifts.

Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. In addition to counseling individuals and couples, Roger teaches and leads discussion groups about applying the Bible to everyday life.  He is a licensed professional counselor, holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He is married to Jean and they have seven children.

A Lesson from a Tiny Bird by Dawn Poulterer

Creation tells stories – all the time, in many ways, with strong, natural colors mixed with subtle, strange sounds. It groans in anticipation of the return of the King and it whispers of His presence here, now. My perception has gotten keener over the years. I guess in a way, I have trained myself to “pay attention.” Annie Dillard, a fine writer, sees nature around her as a scrapbook, telling the tales of the making of the Kingdom of God. In her view, nature both reveals and obscures Him. Both, and simultaneously. Wonder of wonders, mystery, complexity and beauty all wrapped into this One God. Nature  propels us to search and keeps us always looking for more.

Yesterday, I saw a small, hopping-about bird on my patio. Standing at the window, I took the time to just notice. After discreet observation, I actually noted his efficient eating pattern, and gradually I saw right through him, into a bigger allusion. A sermon surfaced, a theological truth fleshed out in this tiny, puffy, bird.

There hangs, in the bush outside our sliding glass door, an unsteady, unwieldy bird-feeder. I fill it almost every other day with popular sunflower seeds. I am always hoping for a redbird, but  instead a grey, mechanical-looking Tufted Titmouse carefully landed on a branch and jumped onto the swinging feeder, looking for a convenient bite  Quickly, he darted into an opening in the bush and looked around, making sure all was private and secured. With a successive and redundant motion, he took the sunflower seed, smashed it on the branch, cracked it open, and enjoyed his small seed. Keeping his eyes on watch alert, he sat for a moment, and darted back to the feeder for more treats! It seemed to me like such hard work. And yet he kept going, repeating what was laborious and tedious. All for food!

I read an interesting quote today from the book Life With God by Richard Foster: “The opposite of grace is works, but not effort.” Our theology can sometimes lead us down a road veering off from the intended course. We are told to “Wait on God.” We are told to be still, that He will fight for us, and that apart from Him, we can do nothing. All of this is true, biblical and sound. Yet somewhere along the timeline of our faith, we started to believe that we are hamstrung, capable of only sin, wanting in everything, and therefore waiting exclusively on Him. I learned a lesson from the Tufted Titmouse: work hard. Search, seek, dig, find, endure and sweat for something of value.

Foster talks about God-ordained means of transformation. As people in such dire need for ultimate salvation and daily rescue from ourselves, we must participate in this faith. Meditation, fasting, prayer, study, solitude and silence, community and confession lead us into His transforming presence and life-giving resources.

So with a motivated heart, and with an expectant, watchful eye, submit to Peter’s bold command in the first chapter of his second letter, “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.”

Dawn graduated from Messiah College with a degree in English and went on to get her master’s degree in Christian Counseling at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She presently works as a counselor and teacher in the high school at Covenant Day School in Matthews, NC and in her spare time likes to read, write and teach Bible studies. For the last 15 years her passion has been to mentor young women in life and Scripture. Dawn’s blog may be seen here: www.dawnfromphilly.blogspot.com.

A Time for Growth by Chris Payne

Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for everything under the sun.”

Lots of songs have been written about this Biblical truth…most of us can sing right along and relate. Change is the song of our life.

God works in different seasons in different ways. Each of us is in a unique place and goes at a unique pace when it comes to the work of God in us.

I think these unique “growth” seasons generally reflect the climate seasons of summer, winter, spring and fall.

Here’s the thing, every season is uniquely important to the “growth” process of our lives. The dormant winter season has just as much to do with growth, as the bloom season of spring.

A few years ago, Charlotte experienced some “exceptional” drought conditions. I can remember listening to different news outlet’s reports about the “cause” of the drought and thinking it strange. Drought is an effect of lack of rain; no surprise there. However, the question of ‘when’ the worst of the Charlotte drought occurred, had an unexpected answer.

According to many of these reports, the drought’s beginning was in winter…not the hot and dry summer. The winter was so void of rain the ground had no chance to “store up” water for the hot and dry summer months. Thus, when summer came, we were thrust into a drought.

What can we take away from this?

Even if you are in a season “feeling” like nothing is happening or that change isn’t occurring as quickly as you’d like…God is at work. He has a season for it all.

Our role is to be, “like a tree planted by streams of water which yields fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” Psalm 1:3

We move our hearts closer to the “streams of living water,” that is, we move nearer to our God. We draw from that source in every season of life. Then, we can appreciate every moment of time that life has to offer and celebrate the change we see occurring because of it.

Chris Payne is the Senior Pastor of New Charlotte Church and has been ministering in the city of Charlotte for 14 years. Chris is a graduate of Liberty University and received his Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell. He is currently working toward his doctorate in Marriage and Family Counseling. He is married to Jen and they recently celebrated their 11-year anniversary. They are the proud parents of Jackson, Maryn and Faith and reside in Waxhaw, NC. You can read Chris’s blog at: http://newcharlotte.org/media/chriss-blog.

Aroma of Life or Death? by Wendy Osborn

About a month ago we paid off one of our cars.  This tends to take us a while to do, so we were excited to finally own this car outright. No more monthly payments, a little bit of breathing room.  Chris and I both breathed sighs of relief at God’s provision of a bit of extra money to spend in other places.

We were all smiles about it until the day I bought the watermelon.  Well, actually, we were still smiling until 2 days after the purchase.  That’s when we noticed the stench.  In the car.  The one we’d just received the title for in the mail.

My daughter and I headed out to the driveway prepared to pick up the friends in our morning carpool to school.  Everything about this Wednesday morning was clipping along fine, until Sarah Kate opened the car door.  Out came the worst smell I think I’ve ever smelled.   No other odor compares … it was just suffocating.

Suddenly, I remembered the melon that I’d bought as a sweet treat for my family. I remembered  noticing it in the back seat floorboard  on Monday (in case you didn’t notice, this was Wednesday morning).  I hadn’t placed the watermelon in the floorboard. I’d placed it in the cargo area that I had enlarged by folding down the back row of seats.  Apparently, on the drive from Sam’s to our house, it had fallen..  While unloading the other groceries, I remember making a mental note to come back and get it.  Needless to say, I quickly forgot and there it still sat.

What I hadn’t realized was that it had busted open when it fell.  Thus the smell: rotting watermelon with a day and a half of summer heat added in.

We rolled down all the windows and turned the AC on full blast in an attempt to clear the air before we got to the Moore’s house.  I apologized to the girls we were picking up for this less-than-welcoming scent, and they gagged as they entered.  All four of them.  It was a lot of gagging.

One of the girls offered her family’s trash can for disposal of the rotten fruit.  I took her up on it, but was disappointed when I returned to the car and found its fragrance still lingering.  The car really smelled just as bad as it had before I hauled away the watermelon.

It was so bad, in fact, that our children began to refuse to ride in it.  Ella, our 10 year old, starting having gagging reactions when she would begin to get close to the car. The girls I drove to school requested air fresheners.  I think they probably held their breath.

I began to gag when I remembered that we now owned this car, this very stinky car.  This car that no one in the family wanted to come near anymore.

Something  had to be done.  Although we were ready to kiss it and its awful odor good-bye, I couldn’t envision trying to sell this smelly vehicle. Who else would want to drive a compost bin on wheels?  We were clearly stuck with this car.

So I have spent the last week – yes, 7 days – trying to rid our car of this smell.  I have used cleaning wipes, extra strength carpet odor eliminator powder, an over-priced spray for “tough odors,” another carpet deodorizing powder that touted a delightful floral scent (then it smelled like rotten watermelon in a garden).  I’ve sprayed lots of Febreze  … the one that purports to eliminate even the most stubborn smells. I’ve kept the windows down to let fresh air in and the bad smell out every chance I’ve had.  I even went to AutoBell and paid them $54 to shampoo the carpets.  My passengers still complained.  I finally resorted to stuffing Hawaiian breeze air fresheners under the seats.

A few days into this situation, I had an epiphany of sorts –  I am like this watermelon.  There are times when others experience my words and my presence as a fragrant offering.  These are the times that my words bring blessings and my presence offers comfort. The times when the fruit of my lips is tasty and sweet.

Then there are the days that I am a rotten melon.  The days that unkind words, (the Bible calls them curses), flow readily from my lips.  The moments when my temper is short, and my determination to have my own way long-lasting.  The times when the overflow of my heart is toxic to those around me.  Maybe even to the point that they want to gag when they see me next.

The freshness or the foulness of my fruit is determined by the spirit I’m listening to in the moment.  It is indication of whether I’m living according to my sinful and self-centered flesh or to the Holy Spirit’s call to receive grace and extend love.

My allegiance can change on a dime.  One minute I may be looking out for the needs of others and the next I am out to make myself happy.  One moment you may find me believing God’s trustworthy words about my value and the next you may find me fretting over my reflection in the mirror. On some occasions, I am quick to forgive and to ask for forgiveness and on many others I am judgmental and dug in.

Another similarity is the length of time the smell lingers … whether it is the aroma of Christ or the spirit of death.  Just like my family experienced in the Osborn Watermelon Fiasco, the stench of my poisonous words doesn’t easily fade. Neither does the bitter taste of my pride. Nor the divisive power of my unforgiveness.  Not even the bruises on my soul from falling down in worship to one of my idols … again.

No, the harm I do to others when I live as if I’m the king of my kingdom stays in the air a good long while. The sting of my words, the cutting of my tone, the burns inflicted by my icy withdrawal when I’m hurt … these are all aromas of death and when I default to them you could say that I stink at loving well. Instead of offering life to those God gave me to care for, I’m wounding the spirit of my loved ones each time I make the decision to live according to my sinful nature.

But I wasn’t meant to live this way.  I was created in God’s image and am designed to bring LIFE to those around me. I am called to resist evil (not participate with it) and to do good (not harm).  I am intended to be a human communicator of God’s love to people.

This requires that I live thoughtfully and deliberately, avoiding impulsive reactions whenever I possibly can.  It means that I must spend more time on my knees (begging for humility and mercy) than with my feet stuck in the muck and the mire of my own agenda.

It means that I need prayers.  My prayers for myself and your prayers on my behalf.  It means that I need Jesus to call His Holy Spirit to bring me direction and conviction.  It means that I must follow His lead if I am to be transformed into His likeness the way I say I want to be.

It means that I must remember daily the moral of this story.  People, like watermelons, create smelly situations when they fall.  And both require something bigger than themselves to do the clean-up.

 

Wendy Osborn is married to Chris, and their 3 daughters are her favorite girls in the world. She is in the process of launching a non-profit ministry called Fixing Our Eyes, dedicated to nurturing the souls of women with the love of Jesus as they walk through painful life circumstances. All services are offered free of charge.

Diagnosis: A Busy Heart by Sarah Pay

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.”

I fell down such a hole after the birth of my first son. Being over-committed with both work and relationships was routine for me, but the addition of a dependent little human being threw a wrench in the gears of the machine that was my life. Even though labor began almost ten days late, the timing with Bradley still felt inconvenient.  It began just days before a major work deadline. I had been putting off the project as I raced against the clock trying to tie all the other loose ends, knowing I needed Bradley to stay put for at least another two months in order to complete them all.  During my first week home from the hospital, I pulled three all-nighters, trying to continue life at a pace that was, quite frankly, insane. Pulling all-nighters to accomplish as much as seemed humanly possible suddenly became not humanly possible. I was scattered, confused and scared. Unable to function as efficiently as I used to, my productivity idol wasn’t serving me as well as it had in the past. I was falling fast.  I had turned from capable and confident to needy and insecure overnight.  It took me about 10 months to finally realize my situation was not improving and I wasn’t going to be able to climb out of this rabbit hole alone. Life felt unmanageable. Life was unmanageable.

Reluctantly I sought help at The Barnabas Center.  Many of my friends were already there. Now it was my turn. Filling out the New Client Packet felt like a joke.  I moved through the checklist of more than 70 issues enumerated under “Present Concerns” (40 of which I would check today) but none seemed to fit, so I crafted the most straightforward sentence I could in order to explain my issues: “I have a re-occurring sin-pattern of busyness and, in addition to that, having a baby has ruined the way my life used to work.”

I was hoping for a simple solution or at least a clear plan of action, but as you can imagine, there hasn’t been anything simple or clear about my journey. Fast forward through six years, the birth of two more children, countless cycles of trying to manage the busyness that continued to hijack my life and I found myself at square one again. How? I had learned to say no, I had practiced seasons of ‘task-abstinence’.  I had been seduced by the twin temptations of ‘balance and order’.  I trusted them to help me cope. They worked for a while, but eventually their true identities of ‘control and dependence on self’ were exposed.  The weight of my circumstances started to drown my soul.  I thought I believed the Gospel and that God was good, but I was confused and ready to admit that “the problem” was bigger, deeper, and more complicated than I had believed.

Now, with a different perspective about what I was facing, I began to seek God for a new way to treat this chronic condition. I knew that prayer was key, but even praying had become confusing. One morning after returning to finish a book I had started earlier that year, “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller, I sat in my living room, exhausted from a particularly busy week and pleading with God to help my children sleep past 6:15. As I read, my eyes fell on these words: “Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart.” The words fell like lead on my soul. It was like accidentally stumbling across a diagnosis after having given up the search.  Oh the relief, but oh, the weight. Who wants to be diagnosed with a busy heart?

I had worked for so long trying to fix my busy life, when all along I had been treating the symptoms of a systemic disease of the heart. The heaviness of my reality quickly lifted when I realized I could be healed, but it wasn’t going to look at all like anything I had expected.  I was weary from years of self-absorbed introspection and so tired of thinking about myself. It felt counter-intuitive to the Gospel that gave me life.  How could I be an involved mother of three, wife, friend and part of an active community without being busy? How could I love people the way Jesus called me to, without offering parts of myself? I couldn’t, but the question should have been, what is the source of what I’m offering? That was the problem. I had been working and giving out of dried up cisterns. As I moved toward surrender and allowed God to work in me, He began to fill those dry cisterns and turn my focus from surviving to living. He was also growing within me a life-giving inner stillness that would increase my capacity to love, to give and to be present with Him and those around me in the midst of the busy.

To be honest, I’ve l not learned to apply this same Gospel to every part of my life, but I’m content to be patient with myself. What I’m learning is that dealing with a busy heart is  much more complicated than just changing the pace. Interrupting the cycle of a busy heart requires a fiercely intentional act that is not willful but soulful.  Slowing down on the outside is more of a discipline –  but being still on the inside is a practice that offers rest to our souls in spite of outer pressures.  Knowing the finished work of Christ for me allows an inner calm – a resting heart.

Sarah Pay received her BS degree in Interior Architecture but transitioned into a career as a freelance graphic designer. She also worked as the program administrator for Camp Lurecrest Ministries for 6 years before becoming a mom. Sarah lives in Charlotte with her husband Joe. They have three boys, Bradley, Bennett and Dexter, who help to fill their lives with chaos, perspective and joy. Sarah is passionate about walking with women as they face both the everyday struggles of life and the bigger crises that bring us into a place of deeper dependence on Jesus.

 

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