Thursday, December 26, 2013

Silent Night

It's hard to believe Christmas has come and gone. With the busy-ness of the season, I'm yet again much later in posting than I wanted to be, but better late than never, right? :-)

December started off with decorating the cottages - inside and out. For the record, boys do not think decorating is a fun activity.
It took a little prompting, but we got our cottage looking festive. One of the boys took on the majority of the outside project, coming up with a design and hanging the lights. He did an excellent job. We enjoyed a trip to a local light display, Forster Falls Festival of Lights. We had a wagon ride around the park and sipped some hot cocoa and just enjoyed being together. It was a fun night!

We got to go to a local tree farm and cut down our own tree, which is a first for me. Here's a shot of our group "claiming" our tree:

Funny how you can find the perfect tree outside, but when you bring it in, it's not quite so perfect. Ours ended up being too tall and probably a bit too wide. And after spending a great deal of time getting it into the tree stand and putting the lights and decorations on it, it fell over. One of the boys came to the rescue and it's been standing tall since, albeit a bit crooked.

Elianna also celebrated her third (THIRD!!) birthday on December 10! Where did that three years go?! She's no longer a baby...she's so animated and funny. She keeps the boys (and us) laughing, for sure. We celebrated her day by going to the children's museum in Winston-Salem, NC and then walking around Old Salem Village. We came home for dinner, cupcakes and presents. It was a fun way to celebrate our little "Na-Na" as we affectionately call her.

We also experienced our first "storm" here. It really wasn't much, but there was some ice involved so we had to stay home from church. In lieu of a sermon from our pastor, we watched Billy Graham's My Hope America. The boys seemed to enjoy it and didn't make a sound for most of it, which is a minor miracle for them because they talk through most movies. We had some good discussion about it afterward, too.

One funny story - We got to experience our first "intruder" here this month, as well. One of the boys came to our upstairs apartment door one evening while I was getting the girls ready for bed. He asked if I would bring Tonka (our dog) out so he could play with him. While I was getting the dog, the boy yelled "Hey, we have a bat!" I ran to the door and asked where. He pointed to this little black creature, clinging to the side of the fireplace (right next to our apartment door.) I screamed, ran into the apartment and slammed the door shut while the boys scrambled to see it and decide what to do with it. Jason came to the rescue and scooped it up (in his Batman hat, no less) and took it outside. He said it must have come because it knew Batman lived here. I don't care why the little bat came, I just don't want to see him again! Oh, and for the record, the bat did live.

Joy Ranch has some annual events around the holidays, one of them being a trip to Barter Theater in Abingdon. Normally, it's scheduled on the same day as a church visit, but because of the ice and having to stay put, we didn't get to go. They were able to reschedule the theater visit though, and we got to see a production of A Christmas Story. The boys seemed to enjoy it and even our girls sat through it, mesmerized. It made for some quotables around our house, like "You'll shoot yer eye out!" and "I have to go wee-wee!" I never was able to get a picture of the boys together, looking all daper. When I tried to take pictures, they all covered their faces.

The next annual event was the Live Nativity. I've never experienced one and from things I'd heard, I just thought it was some people standing in a stable, dressed like Mary & Joseph and you just walk by and look and them and walk on...But here, it's a drive-through event. And it ended up making the front page of the local paper - how cool is that? (I saved it for my keepsakes.) We have staff and residents at different stations, acting out the different parts. Jason was the prophet at the beginning, prophesying the birth of the coming Messiah. The next stop was the entrance to Jerusalem, where you were shaken down by guards and told to pay your taxes. Next came the shepherds, tending their flocks by night. This is followed by an angel choir, singing of the Savior's birth. After that, you're told by the innkeepers that there is no room in all of Bethlehem. And of course, the last stop is the lowly stable where Mary & Joseph proudly show you the newborn King.
It was a wonderful evening, and a great way to be reminded of the reason we celebrate this joyous time of year - because the God of the universe sent His own son to be born as a babe, live a perfect life, die the death we deserve and rise again. All this so that we may have life, and life abundant! It blows me away to think about it...

Another way we celebrate this special holiday is with some Christmas parties. We had a staff Christmas party the week before Christmas. We shared some delicious brunch food and enjoyed some rare time together just having fun. It can be a challenge to get to know the other staff because of our responsibilities within the homes, so when we do get together, it's a good time. We played a neat game which involved everyone bringing $5.00 gift cards...we picked pieces of paper which said things like "trade with someone in the room who likes to read" or "trade with the person you think has the highest IQ." It made for a lot of laughs and we all ended up with gift cards at the end. It was neat - a game I'd definitely play again. The kids also have a Christmas party. Several churches/organizations provide Christmas gifts for the kids and we gathered with them in our gym for some pizza and presents. They read the Christmas story to us and shared a few thoughts on Christmas, then let the kids open their gifts.
It was a lovely night and the kids, including our own two girls, received some great gifts.

And then, Christmas break was upon us. Some of our guys left on Friday night, some on Saturday, another on Monday and two more on Christmas Eve. As I write this, our cottage is empty and strangely quiet. I must admit, I'm not a fan of that. I miss our boys, but am so very glad they all have somewhere to spend Christmas. They will trickle in over the next week-10 days. It will be a strange week, but it's good to get to spend time with them on a more individual basis, too.

And on that, note, here is wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful start to 2014!

Friday, December 6, 2013

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled program...

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Call me a nerd, but to me, there’s nothing quite like a good book! I could spend hours reading and typically, I have 2-5 books going at one time. And every so often, a book comes along that is worth sharing with others. Recently, an old friend of mine from Camp Good News wrote a book. He’s written a few now, but this time he opened it up to Facebook friends to read and review it and I jumped on it. Now, the deal was, I could get an un-edited copy to read and then I was supposed to give a little review around the time it came out…It was released Nov. 26, so 2 weeks later is still “around” that time, right?! Yes, as usual, I am late. But, better late than never…

Risky Gospel, by Owen Strachan, is chock full of the ingredients it takes to make a good book on Christian living: personal stories, biblical text, humor and applicability (did I just make up a word?) I’ll be honest, going into it I thought it might be over my head – a deep theology text, which is not my kind of reading. Even as a teenager, Owen was a deep-thinker. He’s well-educated, intelligent and articulate. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow, much less relate. But this book is for people of all walks of life and all stages of their journey with the Lord.

No matter who we are, life often feels very busy – sometimes overwhelming. We don’t want to settle for mediocre, but we do and for a hundred different reasons. And life gets hard. I think there’s a part of all of us that just wants things to be easy. But, as Owen points out, the Christian life wasn’t made to be an easy, put-your-head-down-and-get-through-the-day kind of life. We were made for more – so much more! But, that doesn’t mean life will be easy. In fact, many verses paint the opposite picture and Owen doesn’t try to hide that fact. “You follow God and you just might get asked to walk in the wilderness. For forty years.” (pg. 34) That sounds scary to some and causes us to hold back, it keeps us living in mediocre-land.  To step out of that and live out the risky Gospel, we have to first understand who God is and realize our identity as His child. In chapter 3, Owen does a phenomenal job of pointing out the need to understand who we are in Christ and he does so by pulling out Scripture to encourage us in embracing our identity. As we do that, we gain purpose and confidence. We begin to see that no matter our station in life, we can grow, we can bring glory to God. Once we understand our identity, Owen reminds us of the importance of building our faith and gives us practical ways to do that. Then he points out something most books seem to ignore: that we will fail. We will get frustrated with ourselves and our experiences. But the story doesn’t end there – we have hope because of this risky Gospel living in us. Too many authors today give us these ways to be better Christians and then when we don’t live up to it, we feel guilty, ashamed and drowning in despair. I love that Owen is honest about the human condition, his own included, and the redemption found in Jesus.

The next few chapters are spent showing us how we can bring glory to God in a variety of ways: by building a legacy, a vocation, a godly community, an evangelistic outreach and public witness. I loved that each of these chapters focused on the importance of these areas of our lives and give the reader practical ways to grow. Being encouraged to invest in your family and see spouses and children as great blessings is refreshing. Hearing that God cares more about your heart and your service than your title and paycheck is always encouraging, especially in a world so focused on the latter. And even in Christian circles, we chalk spiritual “success” up to how involved we are in ministry and whether it is vocational or not. While being in ministry is wonderful, it doesn’t necessarily determine how Christ-like one is. God has lots of us in lots of different places in life because that’s where He can use us best or grow us more like Him. And in a day and age of “church shopping” it’s good to be challenged to commit to a godly community. Many people today have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to church, usually because of a bad experience (or a bunch!) or people who have been hurt. But the reality is, we NEED each other – in the good AND the bad. That’s challenging to read, but oh so good, too! Owen gives great (and often overlooked) ideas for how to serve other believers. The same week I read that chapter, I had an opportunity to help out with something at our new church. I didn’t want to go. It was our night off, we go to a large church and I don’t know anyone…the excuses went on. But then God reminded me how much I need to be connected to a local body of believers. So, I went. And nothing huge happened, but it was an opportunity to serve and meet people. We need that, even when we think we don’t. Owen mentioned the story of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield in this chapter. If you’ve never heard of her or read her book, you should! But, that’s for another day…

Probably the most difficult chapters for me were the ones on evangelistic witness and public witness. Like many people, I’d rather keep my head down and be out of the spotlight. I don’t like to ruffle feathers AT. ALL. I try to be super sensitive about not offending people (I’m sure I offend people more than I think, but I do try not to!) And while we shouldn’t be out trying to offend people and make enemies, the reality is, the Gospel is offensive. People are going to get upset and relationships may be severed. And that’s where I struggle. And yet again, as is true throughout the rest of the book, Owen breaks it down to show us ways to step out in faith and obedience – makes it seem doable. And of course, it is because of the power of Christ in us. So, while I didn’t “like” these chapters, it wasn’t because anything Owen said was incorrect – it was because the truth hurts! And a book like this wouldn’t be good if it didn’t challenge you.

The book ends with a challenge to Christians to live out this risky Gospel, understanding that the risk is really minimal when we serve a great big God. From our earthly standpoint, it seems scary, but God knows all the days of our lives and what will bring Him the most glory. It may mean we face all sorts of trials, big and small. Only God knows. But, as Owen writes, “if we’re pursuing Christ wholeheartedly through a life of gospel risk, here’s the awesome truth: there really is no such thing as failure.” (pg. 215) There’s no “you’re doing it wrong.” And that does not sound risky at all. In fact, the thought is quite comforting.

So, even though I’ve written a novel of my own, there’s still a lot of good stuff left to explore. If you get a chance, pick up a copy. I’m pretty sure it’ll be under the tree this Christmas for some of my loved ones! J