Celebrate a Fresh Start

New Year’s Day is the first day of the year in the Gregorian calendar, but there’s nothing mystical about January 1st. Actually, the date of New Year’s celebrations has fluctuated, but New Year’s is the oldest of all holidays, first observed by the ancient Babylonians in a festival that lasted eleven days.

In 2004, as I considered potential New Year’s resolutions, I remembered resolutions from previous years. My heart broke as I realized that the great majority of them were related to the physical world—losing weight, spending less money, writing more letters, etc. My resolutions were seldom spiritual, and even when they were, they sprang from unspiritual motives.

Since then, I’ve discovered that there’s nothing inherently biblical about making “New Year’s Resolutions,” but the Bible does teach that the Lord is to be the center-point of everything that goes on in the Christian’s life. So, if we do choose to make resolutions, they need to be Christ-centered and biblical. In an effort to change my perspective, I studied Jonathan Edwards’ 70 “Resolutions for Godly Living.” The great preacher recognized that only God can enable Christians to keep commitments. (I encourage you to download Edwards’ resolutions at: Revive Our Hearts.)

The truth is, there is no power in a resolution; there is only power in God and His Word. The value in New Year’s resolutions for the believer is that each resolution is an opportunity to contemplate change, and that contemplation is best done in the presence of God in prayer, asking Him for insight and wisdom.

Someday the One who sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). In that day, there will be no more resolutions—but for now, enjoy the fireworks, contemplate spiritual goals, and celebrate the dawning of another year.


Three C’s at Christmas

I have a huge lighted Nativity display in my front yard. The neighbors all see it as they dead-end from one street into the cross street at my front yard. It is a clear testimony to our neighborhood that we believe in Jesus, and many neighbors and strangers have stopped by to comment that the scene is special to them, too.

But I’ve often thought that another scene would be an even better representation of the Christ of Christmas. Christmas is really only the first chapter in the three-chapter story of Christ’s life. The first chapter is God’s birth announcement to the world, represented by a cradle. When we celebrate Christmas, we shout to the world: “It’s a boy! It’s God’s own Son!” This is what we normally see at Christmas—baby Jesus in the manger (Luke 2:16).

The second chapter is Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world, represented by a cross. We normally see the cross on Good Friday and Easter, but the seeds of that cross are found in the Nativity cradle. I Timothy 1:15 says, “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….” The cross was the purpose of the cradle. The third chapter is the risen and returning King of Kings. He is the conquering sovereign, represented by a crown (Hebrews 2:7, 9).

If I created that scene on my front lawn—a lowly “Silent Night” cradle in blue lights, rising to a simple cross in red lights, and ending up high with a brilliant golden crown—can you imagine the questions I’d get? But imagine, too, the opportunities to share the full truth about Christ, including the amazing Gospel of grace (I Corinthians 15:3-4).

I’ll probably never create that display, but I plan to share the story of the three “C’s” this Christmas. I hope you will, too.


Candy Canes for Cravings

The holiday season—from Thanksgiving through New Year’s—is a time of love, joy, and parties, but it’s also a time for caution when it comes to stuffing our faces. (In my mind right now, I’m hearing the TV show refrain, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”) The holidays don’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, however. Food is everywhere, but you can make some smart choices.

I receive a periodic newsletter from hungrygirl.com that encourages me in my weekly weight goals, especially during the holidays. One recent holiday tip-sheet suggested that I think before I chew, drinking lots of water, and … I love this … eat candy canes! Studies suggest that keeping mini candy canes nearby is a helpful trick to overcome cake/cookie/chocolate cravings during the holidays. (Three mini candy canes have roughly 70 fat-free calories.) This is an especially helpful tip for those who snack at the office. I’ve placed a pretty jar of candy canes on my desk—and some healthy snacks in the side drawer.

In the same way, it is easier to overcome spiritual temptations when some biblical alternatives are “nearby.” God says that He will make “a way of escape” for us (I Corinthians 10:13), and we need to be alert to that provision. But we also can prepare our hearts and minds to face any fleshly “cravings”—anything that would displease God and harm our walk with Him. We can, for example, place scripture verses in conspicuous places, fill our minds and hearts with His Word, create “signals” to remind us to pray, and substitute healthy, biblical activities for those that draw us away from God. We need to be proactive in dealing with temptation, and “make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14).

Choose something today that will help you reduce or eliminate unworthy cravings. And buy some candy canes.


Our Anchor of Hope

The Word of God and the character of God are our greatest resources of hope. Christian hope is not a “hope so” matter. It is our confident expectation in the Lord. Though God is the source of hope, our choices of faith and action will help us keep our sense of God’s hope alive!

When early Christians buried their dead, they decorated some sarcophagi with an anchor, symbolizing their sure hope in the resurrection. A scripture that is often tied to this concept is Hebrews 6:19, which says, “Hold fast the hope set before us, which we have as the anchor for the soul.” An anchor is a picture of something held securely.

Believers are anchored in the scriptures (Titus 1:9), but also in God Himself (Psalm 71:5; 130:7; 119:81). The Jews looked forward to their Messiah, which Paul called “the hope of Israel”(Acts 28:20). Our hope of salvation is in Christ’s sacrifice for our sin (I Peter 1:21). He is our “hope of glory” (I Timothy 1:1; Colossians 1:27) and we look to His return as our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). Many scriptures reveal that our hope in God is also instrumental in healing, helping, and comforting us. Hope lifts our spirit (Psalm 42:5, 11) and strengthens our heart (Psalm 31:24).

Do these great truths encourage you as much as they encourage me? Why, then, do we keep this great anchor of hope to ourselves when the world is full of people who desperately need the grounding and stability that Christ secures? As I look toward Christmas, my prayer is that God will make me alert to those who need God’s hope, and that I will make the courageous choice to share and explain His hope clearly and with conviction. If you know Him, spread the message: Christ is our hope for salvation and for every need.


Follow the Clues

"Dip your pen in your arteries and write!" William Allen White's directive always gets my creative juices rolling. The idea is, write what you know, and write with passion.

Janet Wong, featured in the O Magazine article, "Are You Listening to Your Life?" (January 2001), worked 60-hour weeks as a lawyer because she had to. Now she works 60-hour weeks because she wants to. She writes books with rich pictures and powerful words for children and young adults. "Throughout my life, the universe has been giving me clues," Wong said. "I just didn't see them."

I would rephrase that: "Throughout my life, God has been giving me clues." He created me on purpose and with a purpose, as He did you. We are most successful when we operate in conjunction with God's plans (Jeremiah 29:11). Clues can even surface in childhood. My oldest granddaughter, Megan, loves animals, zoos, and Sea World. Her room is a jungle (and I'm not saying she's messy). She toys with the idea of becoming a zookeeper or a veterinarian. Could these childhood clues predict her future?

It wouldn't be my passion, but my husband's sister, Jan, loves her job as a financial advisor. She says, "When you're exercising your passion, you experience the greatest amount of fulfillment with the least amount of frustration." Motivational expert John Maxwell wrote, "Find your passion and follow it. That is all the career advice you will ever need." Working in passion helps me look forward to Mondays, get more done, and do a better job. Passion is powerful.

If you do not have the luxury of working in your passion, you can still choose to use your unique gifts and strengths in your current job. God may engineer a change, so stay alert and follow the clues as He reveals them.


Priming the Pump

Gratitude is a choice, an important life-balancing choice. Without gratitude, we can take the blessings of life for granted, and forget the ultimate Source of our blessings.

I remember the day my grandpa introduced me to an old outdoor pump. "Watch me, Dawnie Babe," he said, "I have to prime the pump." When I looked confused, he started pumping the handle hard, coaxing water to rise from the earth.

These days, we speak of government "priming the pump" by taking action to stimulate the economy through cut taxes or reduced interest rates. To prime a pump is to use a strategy to drive something positive to happen.

So it is with gratitude. Sometimes we need to prime the pump of our gratitude by asking questions:

  • What do I have this thanksgiving that I didn't have a year ago?
  • Who are the people in my life that bless me?
  • Where has God allowed me to serve, and how were lives changed as a result?
  • When did I see God at work in my life?
  • How did God change my heart...my attitudes...my thoughts?
  • Why do I love the Lord more today than when I first met Him?

The classic scripture for priming our spiritual pump is Psalm 103:1-2. David says, "Bless the Lord, O my soul...and forget not all his benefits." Throughout the psalm, David lists some of those benefits: forgiveness, healing, redemption, love, compassion, good things, renewed youth, etc.

Yet, as wondrous as God's blessings are, the Apostle Paul invites us to a higher standard. We are simply to rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 4:4). Our gratitude is not dependent on what we have or enjoy, but on Who we have and enjoy...God Himself.


'Grammy Camp'

I never expected to be this busy as a midlifer. I always dreamed I'd be just like my Grandma Parks, sewing and baking cookies. But God had other plans: college at age 50; a new ministry at 56; a crazy-packed writing and speaking calendar. I find that I have to be proactive and schedule-in time for my granddaughters. Schedule them in? Oh, that sounds so horrible; but it is my reality. The point is, I care about my granddaughters, and I want to be a part of their lives. They must be a priority! That's my goal, even when I fail so miserably sometimes in meeting it.

So, once in a while, I plan something fun. In October, it was "Grammy Camp." I cleared away all the breakables from the living room and gave the girls blankets and clothes pins. We designed a "campground" in the living room, draping the blankets over chairs, a small table, and the coffee table. We even added a flag. Then we turned out the lights, crawled into our "tent," and told stories by the light of a flashlight. We ate microwave S'mores and laughed. I prayed for them, told them how much I love them, and that I just knew God had wonderful plans for their lives. I prayed for their husbands, growing up somewhere in the world.

Children (and grandchildren) are indeed God's "heritage" (Psalm 127:3). His righteousness is not for us only, but "to our children's children" (Psalm 103:17). Motivational expert Steven Covey said there are "two lasting bequests we can give our children." One is roots and the other is wings. We can give those same gifts to our grandchildren. My granddaughters may not remember "Grammy Camp," but I hope they will never forget, "Grammy loves me and she prayed for me."

Bless your grandchildren, and point them to the Lord. And if you're not a grandparent, you can still create God-ward memories to bless your family, co-workers, and friends.


Guts, Not 'Goo'

In every challenge, whether faced with temptation or struggling with a burdensome circumstance, we have a choice: we can face our challenge with guts, or we can dissolve into mushy goo. "Guts" is another word for courage.

Courage might be as simple as turning off the television when programs are evil, choosing a modest blouse instead of a fashionable low-cut one, or staying in a difficult marriage. Anne Ortlund, in Because I Said Forever, said of that last choice: "The world says quit, but ask God for staying power. [Ask] for determination, patience, 'gutsy' courage to survive and survive well."

It takes guts to stand firm and make tough choices. It takes guts to turn our backs on the evils of our culture. It takes guts to face down our own fears and insecurities and act on biblical truth. While most of us do not have to face what Paul endured under great persecution (yet), each one of us deals with cultural challenges to our integrity, character, and purity. Our challenge is to embrace Joshua 1:8-9. We must obey God's Word and "be strong and of good courage," confident of His God's work in our lives.

The Apostle Paul had guts. Read 2 Corinthians 11:23-23 to see the record of this strong "fool" for Christ. Paul endured prison, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, robbers, pain, and severe lack. His courage and strength rested in two great truths: God's amazing grace, and his own desire to glory in infirmities and weaknesses so he could experience more of Christ's power (12:9-10).

To overcome the spirit of fear and act in courage, choose to move forward in God's power, rest secure in His love, and think clearly with a disciplined, biblical world view (2 Timothy 1:7).


Kick Out Fear!

“BOO!” I remember walking the neighborhood on Halloween night as a five year old. A prankster teen from down the block jumped out of the bushes and scared me, and I wet my pants. I was terrified! Halloween is a holiday geared not only to “fun” activities, but also, in many cases, to generating sheer terror.

But we don’t need Halloween to experience fear. Ann Landers, the famous newspaper counselor, said many of the 10,000 letters she received each month dealt with fear. A well-known doctor said 90 percent of the chronic patients that physicians treat daily have one common symptom. They are afraid!

Fear is a God-given emotion to protect us, but it becomes a problem when we have too many fears, or they become irrational. Most of the things we fear never even happen; and often, we can cause our fears to come to pass by dwelling on negative thoughts! Some fears, rooted in the past, become unreasonable and controlling. Other fears are conditioned or learned from others. And still others are real and authentic fear-causing circumstances.

We need to learn how to kick out our fears. We must be transparent and admit the truth about our fear so God can set us free (John 8:32). We can learn to control our actions, in spite of our fears. It’s a choice. Imagined fears are often based on lies or false conclusions, so examine what you are thinking and believing, and see if it lines up with reality and scripture. If fear is a constant anxiety, a Christian counselor can help to uncover the root cause, direct your thoughts and heart to the power of the Word of God, and help you rest in the presence of God. Sometimes, we need to change the circumstances that cause us to fear. For example, it’s pretty foolish to watch horror movies if you are inclined to nightmares! Or if you fear being alone, reach out to others.

Regardless of your fear, the best choice to overcome fear is to love and trust in God (I John 4:18; Proverbs 29:25).


Reach Out at 'Halloween'

Next week is Halloween. We can enter into the annual debate about the evils of this holiday, or we can choose to use this element of our culture to reach out and touch our world with God’s truth and grace.

Halloween is an opportunity!

My home church, Shadow Mountain Community Church (where Dr. David Jeremiah is pastor), offers a huge annual event to the community called “Royal Night.” Many of the event workers dress in elegant medieval garb to carry out the theme, and the focus is on our King of Kings, Jesus. People in the community flood to the lighted parking lot, which is loaded with fun booths, rides and jumps for all ages, a petting zoo, Christian music performances, and plenty of food. Every guest is offered a bag full of “tickets,” along with an invitation to church, and material that presents the claims of Christ.

The whole event is top-notch, because Christians do, after all, represent the King. We are His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:19), and we need to conduct our lives with excellence and dignity, even when we are at play. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we are to manifest the sweetness of the knowledge of God “in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14), even a Halloween outreach. As a result of Royal Night, children and families have visited and joined our church, and many have come to know Christ.

On Halloween, you might choose to pass out gospel tracts with candy at your door, or take candy treats or fall flowers to a lonely shut-in. If you wear a costume, be sure that it reflects well on the Lord you love. The goal is to turn this holiday of darkness into a holy day of light for someone who needs something more than this world can offer.

So next week, do something positive with this negative holiday. Turn it into an opportunity to tell someone about King Jesus.


Ya Gotta Have Friends!

If we want to have friends, we must be friendly (Proverbs 18:24). We need friends of all kinds and for many reasons.

  • Some friends are Laughing friends. An early friend, Mary, helped me see “The Happy Side of Life.” She was like good medicine (Proverbs 17:22). Now I am cultivating friends like these in my Sunday school class. We love to laugh!
  • My friend Leslie is my Learning friend. Leslie opens her mouth in wisdom and shares practical advice. As my accountability partner, she provokes me to good works (Hebrews 10:24) and helps me embrace the character of God.
  • My walking partner, Kelly, is a Listening friend. There is no need for pretense or show. She hears my heart, not just my words. I can brainstorm with her about my vision, dreams, and goals. She hears my hurts and weeps with me. She rejoices in my victories and blessings without a shred of envy. She is trustworthy (Proverbs 11:13).
  • I can count on my friend Gail. She is my Leaning friend, offering support, and practical help. She answers my endless computer questions and sends emails with helpful information. She carries my burdens (Galatians 6:2). We have to be careful with leaning friends, though, because it is so easy to abuse their time.
  • And then there are the Lifting friends like Pam, Donna, Pat, and Sue. Pam is an encouraging cheerleader who helps me see my value and purpose. She gives me hope and speaks encouraging words (Romans 15:13; Proverbs 15:24). Donna, Pat, and Sue lift my ministry requests to God’s throne as quickly as their own.

Some of these friends actually fit in more than one category, but don’t forget: Jesus exemplifies all of these qualities of friendship (and that is a good scripture study). For example, we can laugh with Jesus, because He wants our joy to be full (John 15:11). He also prays for us, encourages us, gives us hope, listens to our heart, teaches and challenges us, and supports and helps us. Though we need to cultivate earthly friends, they may fail us. But Jesus will never disappoint.

Think about your friendships, and see if there are others you’d like to cultivate. Choose a variety!


Prayer: Standing against the Enemy

As we listen to the news each day, we have a choice about how we will respond. My new choice is to pray.

For example, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the United States recently, he caused quite a stir. I was angered, as usual, by his anti-American, anti-Israel rhetoric. I started spouting off about the insanity of Columbia University to invite him to speak, and the foolishness of offering the terror-espousing leader “freedom of speech” when he is not party to our democratic freedoms.

But then God’s Spirit nudged me. Pray.

So I prayed. I prayed that truth would be revealed. I prayed that people would be discerning and hear the lies Ahmadinejad speaks. I prayed for Iranian believers everywhere, and all missionaries to the Muslims. I prayed that God’s Spirit would convict Muslims’ hearts. I prayed for safety, protection, and wisdom for those involved in security during the Iranian President’s visit.

Suddenly it hit me. In prayer, I was standing against the enemy...not our likely enemy from Iran, but our truest, most deadly enemy, Satan himself. We are not to be ignorant of his devices (2 Corinthians 2:11). The scriptures speak of the battles being waged between the powers of righteousness and the powers of evil (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Ephesians 6:12). James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” God’s power is stronger than “he that is in the world” (I John 4:4). So, God wants us to be vigilant and to stand strong against the enemy by putting on the armor of God (I Peter 5:8-9; Ephesians 6:11-17) and praying for others in faith. (See Luke 22:31-32 for Jesus’ example of intercessory prayer.)

Fundamental to the Christian worldview is the truth that God is ultimately going to win! We need to pray with that in mind. We need to pray that God’s purposes will be accomplished. Prayer is a much better choice than cursing the darkness.


Christmas Shopping...Already?

When do you start Christmas shopping? Do you shop the day after Christmas for the next year? Or do you wait until August? Or October? Or after Thanksgiving? A friend of mine shops on Christmas Eve. I can’t imagine that. For me, Christmas shopping begins on the first crisp day of fall. It just gets my holiday juices rolling. It also is early enough to spread out the cost.

Regardless of when you shop, it’s smart to plan ahead and to budget for the holidays. Gifts don’t have to break our pocketbooks. One of the smartest gifts I ever gave was a bold quilt for my husband, made from blue, brown, and beige squares cut from my young sons’ hole-y jeans, pieced together between strips of red denim, and backed with a manly brown and red plaid flannel. We used it for years on picnics. It is a true legacy gift, full of memories, and it cost me almost nothing.

I love a good time, but I’m amazed at some of the dumb things we consumers buy as gifts—wasting our money when people have real needs. I’ve bought into “stupid gift” ideas, and you probably have, too. I saw ads recently for a “spinmallow,” a motorized marshmallow turner for making campfire S’mores...and a mini vacuum cleaner shaped like a pig...and squid soap (in an ugly soap dispenser)...and even a “Jesus Saves” bank with coins dropped in between Jesus’ praying hands. These gifts can range from the absurd to the truly tacky.

Proverbs 21:5 says, “The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but to every one that is hasty, only to want.” In other words, careful planning will put you ahead financially, but hurrying and scurrying around, buying indiscriminately, will get you behind in your finances—and possibly, deeply in debt. We need to think before we buy.

It’s still early. Put some brain power behind your buying, and choose gifts that are meaningful and within your budget: good books, quality clothing, tasteful home décor, or something that will bless and encourage. Please, no squid soap.


Carefully-Chosen Words

Some of the funniest signs I’ve seen deal with communication. A favorite, on a poster at Fight Illiteracy, said, “Are you an adult that cannot read? If so, we can help!”

The words we speak will impact how we feel, how we are perceived, and how we affect others, so we must learn to choose our words wisely. Certainly, developing a wider vocabulary is important, but we can all make better choices with the vocabulary we already have. Carefully-chosen words help us describe our emotions, experiences, desires, goals, dreams, and most cherished beliefs.

One simple word choice can change how we view our entire day, or how others respond to us. When I stopped using the word “overwhelmed”—as in “I feel like a chicken with its head cut off. I’m so overwhelmed”—and instead substituted the phrase “time challenged,” my blood pressure went down and my thoughts cleared. I can deal with a time challenge, but how can I deal with “overwhelmed”? I made another choice to answer the question, “How are you?” with “Great!” instead of “Fine.” It really colored my day! A friend in a church I attended as a newlywed used to answer that question with, “Excellent!” Her enthusiasm was contagious.

Public speakers, pastors, lawyers, and other professionals cultivate a colorful, persuasive vocabulary, but good word choices are a skill everyone should develop. The scriptures are full of references to the tongue that give insight into word choices. We grieve the Spirit of God when our words do not edify (Ephesians 4:29-30). We don’t want our words to destroy people, cutting them like a sharp razor (Psalm 52:2).We need to guard against bitter words (James 3:10-12). We want our words to minister life (Proverbs 10:11a) and grace (Ephesians 4:29), to heal (Proverbs 12:18b), and to encourage others with joy and gladness (Proverbs 12:25).

Listen to your words today. What are you saying to others? What are you saying to yourself? Choose words that build, encourage, challenge, and motivate.


Spending Your ‘Time Account’

clockTime is so daily. That’s the good news...and also the bad.

Because time is daily, we can always anticipate fresh seconds, minutes, and hours tomorrow. But since time is daily, we can only spend it once, and sometimes we don’t make smart choices in managing our time.

I read about an unusual “bank” that credits every person on earth with 86,400 seconds of time, every single day. There is no balance of time carried over from day to day in this generous account, but every evening the balance we do not use (or wisely invest) is deleted. And we can’t draw on tomorrow’s time.

How does that make you feel? The first time I heard about this ‘time account,’ years ago, I actually sat down and wept with regret. I sensed God urging me to use my time more effectively, and I determined to examine my life and manage my hours better, seeking God’s will for each day.

A catchy lyric written by Pete Seeger and popularized by The Byrds is based on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. The song—Turn! Turn! Turn!—reminds us that “to everything...there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” God has purposes for our time—sometimes work, sometimes rest, sometimes celebration, sometimes grieving. We need to be keenly aware of how we use every minute, because, as an unknown author wrote, it’s “just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”

My clock is running today and so is yours. Your “time account” is so freely supplied. Make the most of your 86,400 seconds as you seek God’s will (Ephesians 5:15-17).


'Normal' Eating

I can choose what I eat. Well, "duh!" But the truth is, while knowing that fact is good, acting wisely is crucial to my health.

J. Ron Eaker, MD, author of Fat Proof Your Family (Bethany House), opened my eyes to the foolishness of my "normal" eating patterns. "Normal," he says, is the typical American diet, which does not lead to health. "Normal" is supersized, fat-laden, gorge-according-to-your-feelings eating. Eaker's challenge is to think abnormally by the world's standards, and to instead follow the absolutes of the Word of God and make wise, healthy choices. When we fully embrace the reality of consequences, we're better armed to stop falling into the trap of the media-driven "distorted sense of normal."

We all compromise with nutrition. I once went through the grocery checkout with a stockpile of nutritious, low-fat, low-calorie foods...and three half-gallons of ice cream! As the grocery clerk scanned my items, she looked up at me and grinned as the ice cream approached. "For the kids," right? I turned red. She saw the inconsistency. The on-sale ice cream was my (sabotaging) reward for "being good." Who was I fooling?

Although the main meaning of Galatians 6:7-8 is spiritual, we do reap what we sow when it comes to nutrition. There are consequences; even if most of us don't want to deal with them until we hear, "Doctor's orders!" In Genesis 1, God created all things and declared them "good," so we have an incredible smorgasbord of healthy food choices. But God also expects us to be smart and to practice discipline, not gluttony. We must keep our bodies, the dwelling place of God’s Spirit, "blameless" (I Thessalonians 5:23-24) until Christ's return.

So … why be "normal"? Ask God to help you be abnormal when it comes to nutrition, so you can make wiser choices.


Fresh Joy

Joy is a choice - a conscious, focused, look-beyond-your-circumstances, keep-your-eyes-on-Jesus decision. We need fresh joy every day.

My dear girlfriend Nancy recently attended a Memorial Service and funeral - not "happy" circumstances. Her son Ryan, a Marine recently returned from Iraq, died in an accident two miles from her home. It was both ironic and tragic. She walked through the understandable struggles of a saint. She acknowledged God’s sovereignty one moment, and wondered "what good can come from this?" the next. Her assurance in God, her confidence in His love and goodness, and her belief that God’s purposes are greater and wiser than her own have sustained her, even though she still grieves...deeply. One might say that her joy is sustained in the midst of her grief as God’s Spirit works supernaturally in her spirit. Joy is, after all, part of the fruit of the Spirit.

One of the best definitions of joy I’ve ever read was by Kay Warren, wife of Dr. Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life author). She wrote, "Joy is the unshakable assurance that God is in control of all the details in my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything will be alright; and the determined purpose to praise God in all things." Unshakable assurance ... quiet confidence ... determined purpose. This is a lot more substantial than a "happy face" mentality.

Joy has healing properties (Proverbs 17:22). It is the highest expression of a life saturated with God’s love and grace. A joyful heart looks for reasons to be thankful. It looks for God’s hand of blessing in the messes, absurdities, and even tragedies of life. Unlike happiness, which is unreliable, joy wells up from within. When we "lose our joy," we forget God; we forget His promises, faithfulness, and sustaining grace. There is joy in God’s presence (Psalm 16:11) because He is the source of all we need. We can even face down temptation with joy (James 1:2) because of His strength within us. We truly rejoice in Him (Philippians 4:4).

You can choose your focus today. Will it be on your challenging circumstances, or will you look beyond your circumstances to God’s promises and presence?


Collection or Clutter?

Collections can be educational, fun, and definitely varied in type and value.

People collect stamps, coins, figurines, expensive paintings and sculptures, rubber bands, jewelry—even lint! I read about a man in Minnesota named Francis Johnson who collected more than five tons of string and wrapped it into a ball more than 10 feet in diameter! I wonder, where does he store that?

We need discernment or collections will take over. It's hard to organize our homes when they are filled with the clutter of out-of-control collections. My Cherished Teddies figurine collection started with a simple gift, a Teddie in a teacup that represented Friendship. I now have four giant boxes of the sober-faced bears...in the garage. When I decided to get rid of most of them, I couldn't even sell them on Ebay! I thought about all the money involved in purchasing them, and the storage space they require.

The collections that make more sense require little space, cost near-to-nothing, and deeply satisfy. A friend collects photos of children's smiles. Another collects wisdom proverbs. A caring woman collects lightly-used business clothes to share with poor women who enter the work force. She echoes the example of the biblical Dorcas who made garments for the poor. I Timothy 6:18 tells us to be "rich in good works." Good works—a valuable collection that pays eternal dividends.

If I had it to do over, I would choose a collection with better value and consequence. There's nothing wrong with occasional trinkets and tasteful home decorations, but we need to pray for wisdom so our collections do not take over, clutter our homes and lives, and in some cases, become idols. What about you? Need to make a better choice?


Intentional Ministry in Marriage

From the biblical perspective, a wife is not called to manipulate or manage her husband, but rather to minister to him. Deb Kalmach wrote in Because I Said Forever: "In order to turn your marriage into a real ministry to your husband, you have to be intentional." While there are hundreds of books about women's roles in the home, there are four basic ways a wife can minister to her husband - through:

When my husband Bob slipped a wedding ring on my finger, it didn't suddenly turn me into a selfless woman. Bob often says, "It's not a matter of whether we are selfish or not - it's a matter of how selfish we are." When our honeymoon passed, I was still a loyal, supportive companion, but I suddenly realized that I'd have to be a lot more intentional in following his lead and meeting his needs - especially sexual ones!

Ministry in marriage doesn't just happen. A ministry called Revive Our Hearts offers a helpful tool that I recommend - a "30-Day Challenge" with proactive, practical advice for wives in encouraging their husbands (reviveourhearts.com - a printable download under "Resources"). If you are married, think of ways to be more intentional in ministering to your husband today. It's your choice, and it will make a difference.


An Attractive Appearance

"Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart" (I Samuel 16:7). I'm so glad for God's perspective—but people still notice if I take the time to brush my hair and look presentable. First impressions count and either open or close doors for communication and ministry. Appearance is an important step in sharing our faith, because our appearance should reflect our relationship with God. We want opportunities to attract people to God's love, and we don't want our appearance to hinder the gospel message.

Appearances can be superficial, of course. Some people have an attractive appearance but an ugly heart. But the opposite is also true. We can have a beautiful, godly heart, and not express that in a meaningful way. The Christian's outward appearance should include modesty and purity (I Timothy 2:9-10), but also charm and careful grooming. Our focus isn't beauty or "image," but rather, being appropriate and taking time to look our best.

I recently made a quick trip to the grocery store. I didn't take time to freshen up, and I looked sloppy and haggard. I hoped I wouldn't run into anyone I knew—but wouldn't you know it, I saw a woman from my church. I ducked in and out of aisles, trying to avoid her. She caught up with me as I stood in the check-out line. After we chatted, she waved goodbye, calling out, "See you in church!" As she left, people turned and looked at me, and I cringed. One woman took in my full sloppy appearance, examining me from head to toe. Ashamed, I prayed, "Oh, Lord, this is not a good reflection on you or the family of God."

There are times we cannot help how we look, but whenever we have the choice, it's smart to cultivate an attractive appearance.


Smooth Out the Knots of Stress

Does stress have you tied in knots? For years, I tired my friends with constant complaints—''I'm so overwhelmed … I'm so stressed out. '' One day I realized that God was not pleased by my responses, and I asked Him to help me make wiser choices so I could live in greater freedom and, as a result, honor Him.

According to ''The Stress Epidemic,'' more than 19 million Americans suffer from stress. Dealing with stress is a way of life for the world, but Christians do not have to respond to stress as the world does. John 16:33 (Amplified Bible) tells us that we will indeed have ''tribulation and trials and distress and frustration'' in life, but we can take heart because we do not need to face these things alone. God wants to help us.

Whatever the source of our stress, we can make two choices. First, we can choose our ATTITUDES. We can respond to circumstances with calmness, clarity, cheerfulness, courage, and confidence when we trust God and obey His Word. Second, we can choose our ACTIONS toward the sources of our stress. We can pray, review our schedules and activities to be sure that we are only doing those things God has called us to do, say ''no'' to those things that are outside of God's will for us, and then move forward with confidence to accomplish God's purposes in our lives.

Experiencing stress today? If you're tied in knots, smooth them out by choosing the attitudes and actions that will please God and reflect His work in your life.


Create a Soothing, Peaceful Home

Whether we live in a mansion, a cottage, an apartment, or a humble room, we can create a place of peace and relaxation—a shelter from the pressures outside.

A peaceful home is Calm. It is mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically relaxing. It is a respite from the world. "Respite" means "a place of rest and relief." We might create a soothing feeling with a bubbling fountain. It helps to clear any fussy, "functional" elements from our bedrooms, to make them visually restful. We can play soft music in our homes instead of the constant din of television. Or we might even try silence—what a thought! We can use at least one calming color in our décor—think natural tones or "spa colors." If a brighter color is used, balance it with a calming one so there is always a place for the eyes to rest in peace. My dining room/kitchen walls are bright ruby red, but the adjacent walls are a soft buttery tone. Experiment with soft lighting, green plants, open space, photos of families—anything that helps you relax.

A peaceful home is also reasonably Clean. If we plan a "cleaning day" once a week, it’s easy to tidy up in short spurts throughout the week. Orderliness immediately puts us at ease. It’s easier to have a clean home if there is a place for everything, and today, with a myriad of containers available, it’s even fun to be organized.

For the Christian, a peaceful home is also Christ-centered. He is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and when he rules in our heart and reigns in our home, there is peace (Colossians 3:15a).

Creating a peaceful, well-ordered home is always a wise choice. Look at your home. Is it calm, clean, and Christ-centered? If not, what can you change—today?


Pursue Wisdom with Passion

Wisdom doesn’t just happen. We have to search for it.

Thomas Aquinas said, "Of all the pursuits open to men, the search for wisdom is most perfect, more sublime, more profitable, and more full of joy." What was Aquinas saying? We have to pursue wisdom. We have to run hard after it. Aquinas said that that pursuit is a perfect, paramount, profitable, and pleasurable choice. It’s well worth our time because in gaining wisdom, we embrace excellence and growth.

As a young girl, I sat in an old white-board church and listened to the story of King Solomon’s prayer request for understanding and discernment (for wisdom), and I loved God’s gracious response (I Kings 3:9, 12). So I prayed that God would teach me wisdom, too. As I matured, I grew to love and embrace the Bible, especially the book of Proverbs, and I collected other wisdom-insights that lined up with biblical truth and a Christian worldview.

Proverbs 3:13 says, "Blessed is the man (or woman!) who finds wisdom ..." I believe that God honored His Word and blessed my life as I sought His perspective, and He will do that for you!

We all have a choice. We can sit around hoping that wisdom will find us, or we can pursue it with passion. I hope you’ll join me in that pursuit!