Confessions, Kirsten Grace, Letters to My Kids, Parenting

Kirsten Grace – Month 11

Dear Kirsten,

Oh goodness, sweet girl, I missed your 10th month post completely. I saw it coming, I saw it fly right past me, and I consciously decided not to chase it down. It’s hard for your mom to let stuff go…to say “I need some margin in my life and I have none right now.” So last month that is exactly what I did, I let it go. And somehow, I am certain you still love me and if you ever read these letters when you’re a little older, I think you’ll smile and say, “Oh mom, why would you worry about that? Of course it’s ok!”
Kirsten Grace Month 11

Baby, you are my absolute favorite person in the whole world. These past two months have brought more wonders to our lives than I imagined. Man, those first few months are just tough. The nursing, the teething, the (no) sleeping. But we got through it together and now I feel like we’re having more fun than anyone should be allowed to have. At least once a day you and I get in these laughing fits…I do something that makes you laugh, or you do something that cracks me up…and off we go! It’s hysterical and so life-giving.

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You have learned to wave and point! Every morning when I pick you up from your crib you want to go to the window, open the drapes and we have “Hi, Outside!” Something out there really gets you excited. You love riding in your k’tan under my umbrella over to church, hearing the raindrops. You have come around to loving walks. I look forward to you asking me to take you for a stroller ride. I just love those times together.
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You love feeding yourself graham crackers, peanut butter toast, and cheerios. You drink with skill from your sippy cup and are trying to use a spoon. Most of the time you demand food from mom and dad’s plates rather than something separate for you. You like curried potatoes, chili, and pizza. You have shown some dislike for bananas and don’t seem interested in my chicken noodle soup, though you eat every other soup I make. Maybe it’s the black pepper?

Your body fought a cold for about 2 weeks in November and finally the doctor gave you your first prescription for Amoxicillin. It never slowed you down, though. Kirsten, you do not sit still. You are a little investigator, always going, going, going. I’ve tried to snuggle with you, but it never works. That’s ok. You’re a learner and an independent spirit. And I don’t think anyone doubts that you love your momma, even if you don’t love snuggling.

We’re still breastfeeding, though I think we’re both working towards weaning. You normally nurse when you wake up in the morning, once before a nap, and once before bed. And all glory to God in the highest….you are SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT! The past week we decided it was time for sleep training. I was still getting up once or twice a night with you, plus nursing you at 5 or 6am when I woke up and then laying you back down. It was torture, sheer torture, letting you scream in your bed for somewhere around 45 minutes. Our hearts were racing, and it took intense will power to stay in our bed. (It was more sleep training for me, I think, honestly.) Seeing you in the morning no worse for the wear, made the decision a lot easier. After the third night, I would hear you now and again, but I could go back to sleep and ignore you for the most part. And now, for the last three nights, I haven’t heard one peep from you (or at the most it lasts for 20 seconds!) You sleep from 7pm to 8am. Holy moly! After 11 months, I am finally catching up on sleep!

IMG_8905This shift in lifestyle is making me feel slightly more comfortable with the idea of being gone for 8 days in January (for my Master’s degree residency). Little girl, please know that leaving you is the hardest thing I think I’ve done. I’m not looking forward to it, but knowing you don’t need me during the night is comforting. You do wonderfully with your daddy during every other part of the day, so by then, I know the two of you will have a blast!

 

For as much as you are a momma’s girl, you are a daddy’s girl too! You still get all bouncy and kicky and grin spreading ear to ear when you see either of us.

 

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You love books more than any other toy. You love playing the drums (on boxes or whatever). You love playing the big piano and smile with such pride up at me.

You clap enthusiastically when I cheer “yay!” You gently pluck mom or dad’s guitar strings. And the only time you sit still is when daddy sits by you, playing guitar. You have an affinity for animals that is tough to rival. Wow, you might actually love dogs more more than mom and dad based on the flapping you do. Landon is one of your favorite friends, and you get (a little too) excited whenever you play with him. (He’s had a few scratches on the face from you talon-fingernails and all the love you’re trying to shower on him.)

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You crawl like lighting and stand up with ease, letting go now and then.  You walk along tables or chairs holding on. We’re waiting for the big moment of first steps any day!

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and your dad and I are looking forward to reading our Advent Devotional together and lighting our own Advent wreath. We’re going to do stockings on St. Nicholas Day and exchange three gifts for each person – something spiritual, something practical, and something extravagant. 

We love you, Kirsten Grace. Oh my word, do we ever love you.

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Dear God, Jesus, Ministry, Sermon Prep

An Advent People

This morning I have the privilege of ushering you all into the New Year…the new liturgical year, that is. At Monroe Free Methodist Church, Pastor Kevin and I have chosen to follow the Revised Common Lectionary and today is the beginning of Advent, the start of the new Church year. To begin, we’ll spend some time breaking down these “church-lingo” terms, then I’ll share a bit of my personal story, and finally I’d like to challenge us to become an Advent People.

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Ok, so backing up a bit…the Lectionary. What in the world is it? The root of the word is “lection” which simply means “reading.” The Lectionary, then, is a predetermined way of reading through the Scriptures. Back in the 60s, the Catholic Church made the groundbreaking decision to begin following an organized plan or reading the Bible. The Revised Common lectionary came about in the 80s and 90s when a long list of non-Catholic Christian Churches tweaked the original reading schedule. Each week we read a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, an Epistle (the biblical term for “letter”), and a Gospel (the biblical term for one of the four books teaching on the Good News, the life of Jesus.) Many Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Mennonites, Anglican and Free Methodist churches follow the lectionary together. That’s one of my favorite parts about the lectionary – knowing that on this Sunday I’m reading the same passages that many other churches are across the country, and around the world. The reading unifies the Church across space and time.

The cycle of readings begins in “Year A” with Matthew and it’s correlating Old Testament, Psalm, and Epistle. Then, we start over again with a new set of passages for Year B (using Mark), then Year C (in Luke). Thus…we travel a three year journey through the whole story of the Bible. Though not every verse or chapter can be read during this time, we as a church are able to get a better taste for the beautiful story of God’s redeeming plan for creation, a story that spans Genesis to Revelation. 

Following the Lectionary is not required of our church. It is a decision Kevin and I have made out of conviction; conviction that our personal plans for sermons will never surpass the wisdom of God. Sure, we could be determining our sermon series based on our own agenda, but we’re pretty sure our creativity would run out, our biases would show through, and we could easily steer the church on our own insight. In reading the Lectionary, we trust that the Holy Spirit works outside of time, believing that even (and perhaps especially) predetermined Scripture readings are exactly the message God has for us today. We choose to submit to the authority and study of the men and women who’ve gone before us, as opposed to sticking to our favorite books of the Bible or using the trusty “open your Bible and blindly point” method. It’s exciting to watch how God has used these pre-planned Scripture passages to weave together sermons at the proper time. He is so faithful.

Ok…so now that we understand the Lectionary a bit better, there’s this concept of the Church Calendar (also known as the Liturgical Year or the Christian Year). This is yearly progression through the life of Christ, a calendar of seasons – of feast days and fasting – adhered to by nearly every Christian church. We begin now with Advent, then follow the arc of scripture through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Season. With each changing season, we are offered the opportunity to reflect on how God worked in us and we’re invited to become aware of his leading into the coming season.

Which brings us to today. The cool thing about today?! It’s the first day of the New Year in Year A! So if you’re just hearing about this for the first time, you’re getting in on the “ground floor.” (But don’t worry, we’ll come back around to Year A in 2019).

Today we are entering into the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The origin of this Christian season dates back to 480 AD and perhaps even further…to the times of Peter and the Disciples. The word “advent” simply means “to come” and so this season is an opportunity to prepare and to wait with baited breath for the arrival of the newborn King. We wait, as Mary did, for Jesus Christ to be born. We wait, as the prophets did, for their long-awaited Prince of Peace. But as followers of Jesus on the “other side” of his birth, we have a different invitation to wait. Knowing that the celebration of Jesus’ birth is imminent, we now wait for his second coming. We wait for the day when Christ will come to bring his perfect peace to earth as it is in heaven…for all eternity. We wait with hope and angst for the day when he will make all things right, restoring relationships, repairing sick bodies, aligning healthy governments, abolishing poverty. We wait with excitement and perhaps dread, for his day of judgment, knowing that our trust in him brings salvation but that a detailed account of our lives will acknowledge the moments when we failed to follow faithfully. But we wait.

After years of following Jesus, I only recently began to embrace the seasons of the Christian calendar. A few years back, a friend who I deemed my “spiritual mother” invited me to join her intimate small prayer circle. Each Wednesday evening, five of us would gather in a chilly, candlelit sanctuary for an hour of stillness. We prayed the vespers service together, reading Scriptures and praying written-out prayers. Spending this type of quiet time together was new to me, but became deeply transformative. Together we were experiencing the life-changing lessons contained in the liturgy and the communion of saints.

And it was there that I met Advent. Along with my dear vespers sisters, we read Ruth Haley Barton’s Advent Reflections to guide our focus during this season of faith. Ruth’s writing and urging, combined with the lectionary Scripture passages offered the opportunity for self-examination, for refocusing, for shifting my perspective. Yes, this is the very same devotional guide we’ve offered to you. (Which, side note…the orders are in, and we have two extra, if you’re interested!)

Advent is such a beautiful, yet challenging time in life of the Church. It is at this time of year that we are reminded of our need to wake up to the coming of Jesus in our lives, to become an Advent People.

This Advent-waiting is so difficult because we are invited to sit in this in-between space: a space where we are no longer experiencing the comfortable, oh-so-familiar life, yet neither have we seen the resolution of the waiting…the answer, the direction, the “ahhhh yes” everything-is-turning-out-just-fine moment. We are in the time of holding our breath, left to wait. We can choose to gasp for air, fight for our lives, flee the fearful expectancy. Or we can seek the Lord Jesus Christ in this uncertainty, looking for his movement, listening to his voice. Because even in the waiting, especially in the waiting, there is Jesus.

When I first started observed Advent in 2013, I was in the middle of one of my darkest winters. It was our third year of infertility and that combined with other life circumstances made the dark winter nights a reality in my heart. But during that time, I prayed this prayer:

Lord Jesus, As hard as this is to admit, I thank you for this long time of advent in my life. This journey of infertility may continue for many more years, I don’t know, but the grace, the blessing has come and is coming in the ways I’m learning to seek you. I imagine where my focus would be right now if I had gotten “my way”…and it’s not likely to be totally on you. Teach me now how to keep company with Jesus, how to kindle communion with Him, that it may be an inextricable part of me in years to come.

Advent is so much more than a countdown to Christmas. It is an invitation to wait with God on God in our everyday lives. The process of Christian growth – of spiritual formation – is slow and ongoing and, quite frankly, beyond of our control. Friends, my challenge for our church is to become an Advent People: a congregation who responds to God’s invitation every day; a people who hold vigil with Christ each day – keeping the candle burning in our devotion to prayer and to scripture and to one another; a humble group of Jesus-followers becoming increasingly willing to change, willing to step out of the control seat and willing to let God do his transformational work.

Come! Let us walk in the light of the Lord together! (Isaiah 2:5)

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Ministry, Sermon Prep

Single-mindedness

At the end of Luke chapter 9, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It is with this resoluteness that Jesus continues the rest of his ministry: a singleminded focus on the plan of redemption for which God had sent him. He is determined to do the will of his Father and to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. It is through his determination that he heals the broken, confronts the authorities, questions loyalties and meekly endures scorn and shame, all on the journey to the cross.

This is the meaning of discipleship, a resolute following of Jesus to ministry of the Kingdom of God. This call to be disciples of Jesus requires a radical commitment. It is a call on each of our lives and it may result in alienation, in setting aside cultural norms and in making choices that go outside of the boundaries of family expectations. You have been warned.

And what is our task? What is this ministry of the Kingdom of God? Our singleminded focus is to live in step with the Spirit of God so that our submission to his will may result in fruit. Yes, the fruit (singular) is the result of our submission to the Spirit, our following of Jesus with resolute courage. Our individual lives will begin to be characterized by this Fruit which only the Spirit of God can make grow in us. And this fruit is not for us alone, it is for the transformation of our community, for the common good.

So root deeply into the community to which God has called you and begin calling out the Fruit of the Spirit in one another. Make it a common and resolute purpose to follow Jesus undistracted, pedal to the metal, and watch that Fruit multiply.

The call from God for each of us is to follow Jesus in the singleminded task of the ministry of kingdom of God: to Love one another. Our focus is to submit to the Spirit of God and allow his Fruit to grow in us and transform our earthly community into the Kingdom of God on earth. 

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Ministry, Sermon Prep

Persistence in Prayer

Very often, it seems that our spiritual lives can be marked by seasons. There are seasons of action, seasons of waiting, seasons of darkness, seasons of sadness, seasons of joy, seasons of peace. In seeking what the Lord would have me to do right now, his answer was PRAY. I reiterated my question to him, thinking that perhaps he didn’t understand; I was asking what it was he wanted me to do. I even wrote down a few tasks, good and righteous work, that I thought I should be spending my time doing. My spirit quickly course-corrected as I felt that prompting from His Spirit, “No, you’re not going to do that good thing. You are going to pray.”

“That’s it, Lord? Of course I’ll be praying, but what do you want me to do? I really prefer action and crossing things off of my to-do list. Praying seems so inactive.”

But friends, the Lord is teaching me that prayer is exactly the opposite of inactive. Prayer is active. Prayer is where we meet God. Prayer is where we step deeper into trust and faith. Prayer is where we pour out our truest longings and come to know more of who God is calling us to be. Prayer is where we sit in the presence of God and enjoy him. Prayer is when we listen quietly to his voice. Prayer is where we wait and watch and know God will do the work. Prayer is humility. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is God on the move.

And so the Lord has called me to a Season of Prayer. Seasons can be days long or months long. I don’t know what this season will look like, but that is the beauty of prayer and staying in touch with His Spirit – He will tell me where and when to move next. And He will do the same for you.

In this Season of Prayer and through these lectionary passages of Scripture, God is revealing to me three essential aspects to a life defined by persistent prayer.

First of all, a life defined by persistence in prayer involves boldnessLet us then approach the throne of grace with confidence that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16). In Luke 11 Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray and he uses a story of a rather demanding friend to demonstrate the generosity of God. Imagine a friend banging on your door well after your family is asleep, seemingly desperate for loaves of bread to share with another friend who showed up at his house. He persists, even after receiving a rejection and eventually, this good man likely wakes up his entire household to get to work baking bread for a friend of a friend. Let us be more bold and more brazen than that man when we approach the throne of grace. Let us knock incessantly on the door of God’s throne room, beseeching him for help even in our darkest hours or with our most basic needs. Even when we could probably conjure up a solution all on our own, baking our own loaf of bread rather than pestering Almighty God, let us set our pride aside. God is waiting to give us what we need, and not only meeting our needs with good gifts, but giving us the Holy Spirit, his very presence to be with us always.

Abraham was bold and brazen, too, when he continued to bargain with the Lord for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. He cried out again and again for the Lord to save the city if he could find even 5 righteous individuals living among the sinfulness. God could have rejected Abraham’s request or refused to listen, but Abraham refused to give up and God honored that tenacity.

Secondly, a life defined by persistent prayer involves consistency. Keep knocking, keep asking, no matter how trivial or how out of reach your request may seem. As I mentioned in my last sermon, spiritual disciplines such as prayer are not to be acted on once or twice or even occasionally. These disciplines produce righteousness in our hearts and connection to God’s Spirit through our continued practice. Prayer involves consistency, invoking the name of Jesus again and again and again. Sometimes it seems redundant, like once we’ve prayed for so and so or for this request or that, we should cross it off the list and be done with it. But persistent prayer means consistent prayer. The more we come to God the more bold we become. Verse 3 of Psalm 138 confirms this: When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me.

Finally, a life defined by persistence in prayer starts with thanksgiving. I will praise you, I will bow down to you, O Lord, the psalmist says. We have endless reasons to offer thanksgiving to the Lord – for his marvelous deeds throughout history, for traces of his grace and goodness in our own lives, for his faithfulness and love and great mercy. It sometimes seems impossible to find reasons to be thankful, particularly when we’re in a season of darkness and despair, where the Spirit of the Lord seems silent and we can’t find any answers. But in those dark days, press into the Lord even harder. Begin to hunt for evidence of Him in your everyday life. Find his grace in simple things, like the reflection of a rainbow in the bubbles of your kitchen sink or the way a baby giggles in the grocery store aisle or finding your favorite comb you thought you’d lost forever…thank God for those things. Thanking him in the small, seemingly meaningless moments of life, will root you firmly into his character and carry you through those dark days. Everyone who seeks finds, right?

Two aspects of my own journey of prayer stood out to me as I studied these passages and contemplated a a life defined by persistent prayer. Concerning the call of God to step into a season of prayer, I thought I would share what that’s been looking like. When I was at annual conference, I spent a lot of time in the church nursery with my baby girl. Across the hall was a room designated as a prayer chapel to be used by anyone during the day. There was a pastor who was stationed there and spent most of the day alone. At one point in the afternoon, through two closed doors, I heard this pastor literally crying out in prayer for at least an hour. He was likely praying through the book of reports, covering each church and each pastor in heartfelt prayer. I was in tears listening to his tenacity, his boldness, his sincere intercession for people he’d never met, believing God’s will would be done in our Southern Michigan churches. I began to pray that way more consistently. I take walks almost every day and when I walk by myself I take the time to pray. I choose a 3 mile path that is mostly secluded so as to pray all the more boldly. I find that praying out loud helps me to focus my thoughts. And so I pray.

I probably look like a crazy person walking through the cornfields of Keegan Rd, talking to myself, sometimes crying, other times grinning like a fool. Those are my very real encounters with God. It takes a while to set aside my conscientious pride and put away my flippant thoughts and truly focus on intercession, but once I do, man, it is the most emboldening experience. Almost always I begin by praying for my church – our church. The ministry I am a part of in this congregation and in this town is a gift that I am incredibly passionate about. I believe God is at work in our church. I believe He is changing our lives and drawing many of us into a lifestyle defined by prayer, transformed by Scripture, committed to honest relationships and conflict resolution. I believe He is freeing us of our dependence on finances and moving us into effective ministry to the hurting and the lost. I believe wounds are being healed – wounds inflicted by church, by friends, by spouses and children. I believe God is pulling our little congregation out of a place of frustration and desolation and into a land of passionately pursing holiness…together. I pray for all of those things.

I pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among us, to change us in ways we never imagined. I pray for each of us to be pliable under His firm but gentle hand, willing to endure whatever formative encounters He may have for us. I pray for the state of our church finances; that we would step into a new mindset of budgeting and be willing to give to missions and ministry first, above and beyond what we could possibly afford on our own, believing God will honor this Kingdom-use of money. I pray for miraculous things to happen through our generosity – that our hearts would be changed and become increasingly trusting of God’s goodness, and that we would give God all the glory for the way He will surely provide and even multiply our resources. Oh, may we be faithful!

Then I start to picture these pews and I begin to see your faces. I name you before God praying for fervor for whatever needs I know of and interceding on your behalf for needs that the Holy Spirit brings to my mind. I pray for each of us to be so in love with Jesus and completely committed to weekly corporate worship. I pray that we’d each be moved with compassion for our coworkers, our neighbors, our waiters, and our cashiers that we would begin praying earnestly for each of them and inviting them to join us in church, to be a part of our congregational experience of God.

I begin to pray for needs of my other friends and mentors. I pray for my husband, for wisdom as he pastors this congregation, for passion as he seeks Jesus through prayer and study, and for continued strengthening of our marriage. I pray for my daughter that she would grow into her name – to be a follower of Christ by the grace of God.

And on and on.

Secondly, I thought I’d bring a visual example of how I’ve prayed and encourage you to do the same. These are my prayer journals from March 2014 to now. I use these not only for prayer but also to guide my time with the Lord. I read the daily scripture passages which are included in our bulletins. As I read I write down passages or words or phrases that stick out to me. Sometimes I write out my thoughts about those passages or spend time rereading those lines and ask the Lord what it is that He wants me to hear. If I’m also reading a devotional or a book about the spiritual life, I write important quotes down so I have a mind-body connection to the words and the time to let their meaning steep in my soul. And throughout those types of journaling, I write out my heart’s prayers.

In preparing for today, I read through many of these pages. I was looking for excerpts to share with you and in the process I experienced God all over again. As I reread my petitions, I was struck by the persistence of prayer. There were pages where it seemed I confessed the same sins again and again, pleading with the Lord to deliver me. My heart remembered the heaviness of those sin struggles. And then suddenly I recognized the freedom the Lord had given me. Two years ago I was in bondage to a sin I couldn’t seem to shake. And today I stand to testify to the Lord’s faithfulness to the faithful. Even in the privacy of my own bedroom I was embarrassed to read some of my own confessions and remembered what it felt like to write them down over and over again. But, friends, we must persist in prayer. We must be bold even if we look ridiculous and feel bothersome. We must be consistent even if it seems repetitive and pointless. We must begin with thanksgiving because there is always evidence of God’s work around us. When we persist in prayer, we will be able to look back, maybe months or years from today, and say PRAISE THE LORD.

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