Advent Reflections: Discovering Bethlehem

Lynn Austin

Today’s advent reflection is by Lynn Austinan eight-time Christy Award winner and an inaugural inductee into the Christy Award Hall of Fame, as well as a popular speaker at retreats, conventions, women’s groups, and book clubs. She lives with her husband in Michigan. 

The first time I visited Bethlehem more than 25 years ago, I expected to feel a sense of the beauty and simplicity of the much-loved Christmas story: a crude stable, the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and the Son of God in the manger.  I was sadly disappointed. The traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is inside the Church of the Nativity—a truly ancient church built in 565 AD.  It has survived enemy invasions, the Crusaders, restorations, renovations, a fire, and an earthquake, but it looks like . . . well, a church.  A beautifully decorated and ornamented church, with all the sacred clutter that has accumulated over the centuries, but it bore no resemblance to my image of what Jesus’ birthplace was like.

But wait—the real site was down a set of stairs and inside a natural cave that has been venerated as the place of His birth since 160 AD. But even this simple cave was so gilded and bedecked with artwork and tapestries and lamps and incense burners that I still couldn’t get a sense of what it might have looked like on that first holy night. In the center of the floor was a silver-encrusted star with a hole in the middle. By putting my hand inside, I could touch the place where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago.  I tried it, but I left Bethlehem feeling empty, unable to make the sacred connection I had so longed for.

Discovering Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

And isn’t that how so many of our Christmases end up feeling? In spite of all the tinsel and glitter and sparkle, all the money we spend and the stress we endure as we try to create the perfect Hallmark Christmas, we’re often left with the same let-down feeling I had inside that church in Bethlehem.  We’ve lost the simple beauty of the story, that precious connection with God that is the true miracle of Bethlehem.

The year after visiting Bethlehem, I began looking for ways to recapture the simplicity of Christ’s incarnation. Santa Claus has never been invited to our family Christmases, and we’ve always celebrated it as Jesus’ birthday, exchanging presents because God gave us the gift of His Son.  But year after year, the clutter and glitz had draped themselves over our celebrations, just like the religious trappings that have collected inside the Church of the Nativity over the centuries.

That year, I purchased a nice but inexpensive manger set. I wanted something that wasn’t a toy, but that my children could handle and touch. We placed it at their level and at the center of our holiday, and began the simple tradition of gathering together as a family to fill the empty stable while my husband read the story from the Bible. Our children divided all the people and sheep and camels among themselves, and when we got to their part in the Bible story, they added their figures to the stable. This simple tradition has become so beloved by all of us that we still do it the same way every year, even though our children are now adults. Our two children couldn’t wait to share the tradition with their spouses, generously dividing their sheep and wise men among the newest members of our family. One year, our daughter was living overseas and couldn’t make it home for the holiday, but we still held our family tradition while she participated via Skype and a web camera.

And it’s always in those moments, with this simple stable and inexpensive plaster figures and my precious loved ones gathered around me that I feel the holy wonder of Christmas once again—Emmanuel, God with us!

I pray this season that you, too, will take time to reflect on the simple truth of a Creator who came down to live among his creation. [Click to tweet!Take a few moments to reflect on the “clutter” that might be taking your time and energy and keeping you from appreciating what matters most about this time of year.

Although the gospel of John doesn’t describe the historical event of Jesus’ birth, it does describe its significance in John 1:9-12. “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

And that’s worth celebrating.

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Advent Reflections: Becoming a Gospel Connoisseur

Advent Reflections: Becoming a Gospel Connoisseur

Today’s Advent reflection is by JR Vassar, the lead pastor at Church at the Cross in Grapevine, Texas. From 2005 to 2013, he served as the founding and lead pastor of Apostles Church in New York City. JR and his wife, Ginger, have three children. He is the author of the upcoming ebook, Glory Hunger: God, the Gospel, and Our Quest for Something More.

“And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:16–19, ESV)

I’m a Protestant with a deep admiration of Mary. What a tremendous young woman she was, favored by the Lord to carry in her womb the son of God. At the visitation of the shepherds, Luke tells us that Mary treasured up all these things —the annunciation, the miraculous conception, the humble birth, and now this report of an angelic choir singing songs about this baby and his destiny to rescue and rule the world. It was a lot to take in.

She treasured these things, gathering them into her heart to be preserved for constant remembrance. Mary didn’t grasp all the realities that God was unfolding, but she tried to. Even when Jesus grew up and began his public ministry, Mary still couldn’t get her head around who he was and what his mission was. Mark’s Gospel indicates that Jesus’ family (it seems Mary is included in this) thought he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21, 31). It wasn’t until after his resurrection that Mary came to grips with who her son really was and what he had come to do. Mary never stopped pondering these realities about Jesus because they were inexhaustible. And so it must be with us.

I’m often guilty of “veteran pride.” I have been a Christ-follower for over 30 years, have a seminary degree, and spend multiple hours each week in the Scriptures preparing sermons. The gospel can become “old hat,” familiar, and I can easily lose sight of its boundless nature and its far-reaching implications for my life and this world. But the gospel is an inexhaustible treasure that must be pondered in our hearts so that its beauty and power stun us and thrill us.

In a sense we must become connoisseurs of the gospel, much like a connoisseur of coffee. The world of coffee is a vast world. There are certainly people who are Folgers people, content with an automatic drip machine. But there are others who scoff at freeze-dried coffee and pride themselves on savoring single-origin blends made with a pour over or AeroPress. Some people drink a cup of coffee and taste coffee, while others drink a cup of coffee and taste “an exotic bouquet of flavors comprised of blackberry, plum, fudge, and oak; conveying a viscous mouthfeel and silken finish” (this is an actual description of Buon Giorno coffee.) Some people “brew and drink” coffee and other people “extract flavors and detect all the subtle notes.” Some people ponder their coffee.

A gospel connoisseur is someone who ponders the person and work of Jesus and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, extracts the beautiful—and often subtle—notes. When we do so, our delight in the gospel increases and our life begins to take on new postures and patterns. When we detect the sovereign grace of God, faith rises and our fears fall. When we taste the humility of Christ, our own pride is decimated and a servant heart is awakened. When we savor the forgiveness of God, our bitterness dies and we extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us. [Click to tweet!] When we ponder the generosity of God, our hearts are set free to be generous.

This Advent season, follow in the footsteps of a teenage girl from Nazareth and ponder the inexhaustible realities of the gospel, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

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Advent Reflections: the Arc of One Long, Single Story

Advent Reflections: the Arc of One Long, Single Story

Today’s advent post is written by Russ Ramsey (ThM, Covenant Theological Seminary) who serves as a pastor at Midtown Fellowship Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He writes for the Rabbit Room (, a website devoted to the discovery and celebration of truth and beauty.

“All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

– Matthew 1:17 (ESV)

I love the narrative arc of scripture. Because I do, the older I get the more fascinated I become with the genealogies in the bible. They are there to tell us the Bible is more than a collection of stories; it is one story. It is the story of how God redeemed a wayward people and saved them from a ruin of their own making—and he did it through love and justice.

The story goes like this: Father Abraham had many sons. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation—the people to whom God would bind himself and from whom he would ultimately provide the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (Gen 17:1-14, John 1:29.)

Against all odds, Abraham had Isaac. Isaac had sons who had sons who had sons of their own, and before you know it, Boaz (who married Ruth) begat Obed who begat Jesse who begat David who became the King of Israel.

God expanded the details of his covenant with Abraham by telling King David that his throne would be established forever and that from his line would come the Messiah, who would reign in power and righteousness at the right hand of God for all eternity (2 Sam 7:12-14).

But while Abraham’s descendants continued to grow in number, their faith in the one who promised to never leave them wavered and weakened until many abandoned God altogether.

Generations later, when all seemed lost, one of David’s descendants, King Hezekiah, discovered the word of God on a dusty old shelf in the temple (2 Chronicles 29-31), and he began to read. The people heard the word of God again and their faith was rekindled into obedience and worship. But the obedience did not last, and eventually God exiled his people to Babylon and Assyria. Though many would eventually return to their homeland, the line of Abraham had become almost unrecognizable (2 Kings 24:10-17).

Until once upon a time, there was a young woman named Mary, engaged to a young man named Joseph. They lived in an out-of-the-way town called Nazareth. Joseph was a descendant of the great King David, though for his part he was a common laborer—a blue-collar man of no reputation. Together these two were common in every way—working hard to build an ordinary life.

But their plans were interrupted in a moment when an angel of the Lord appeared to tell Mary that the thread of his redemptive promise to Abraham, Jacob, and David was going to run through her life. She was going to have a son who would be the savior of the world (Luke 1:26-38).

For all the unimaginable good this news brought, it also brought trouble for the young couple. Mary and Joseph would suffer suspicious looks from friends and relatives, questioning his character and her purity as her belly expanded (Matthew 1:18-19).

Ultimately, as the old cleric Simeon told the couple when they brought Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord, the angel’s message to Mary would become like a sword that would pierce her soul (Luke 2:22-38). Jesus would be born so that he could die.

How did Simeon know all this? Though he was only meeting Jesus for the first time, Simeon knew the Messiah’s story. He had been waiting on this child for many years. He knew the line from which the Savior would come, and he knew the Christ would be a suffering servant (Isaiah 53). Mary’s deepest sorrows and greatest joys were wrapped up in the life of her son.

In the genealogies we see an amazing thread that runs through redemptive history—a strand God has sewn into the story of humanity. It is the true tall tale of promises made and promises kept. It is a storyline for which no one person can take any more credit than a man can take credit for his own birth.

The thread that runs through redemptive history tells the story of God’s fidelity to a wayward people. He has preserved the line of blessing that he promised Abraham he would trace on through into eternity.

Matthew’s genealogy tells us that the one in whom our righteousness rests, the one who represents us before the throne of God, the one who calls those who believe in him his Bride, comes precisely as God said he would.

Why does it matter that Obed begat Jesse? Because their lineage is part of an unbroken line God promised to draw from Abraham’s descendants to the Savior of the world.

When God made this promise, Abraham looked forward to its keeping in faith.

At this point in history, we now look back, also in faith.

Marvel at the precision of the miracle of the unbroken line in God’s redeeming plan, because there we see that the genealogies of Scripture are not just telling us Jesus’s story. They are telling us our own.

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Advent Reflections: Cultivating Joy in Your Family This Christmas

Advent Reflections: Cultivating Joy In Your Family This Christmas

Today’s advent reflection is by Becky Harling author of The 30-Day Praise Challenge and other ebooks aimed at helping people break free of the stress and anxiety of living in an applause-driven world.

“Do not be afraid.

I bring you good news of great joy”

Luke 2:10

The angel who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds declared that the birth of Christ was good news of great joy.  Yet, so often during the holidays, “joyful” is not the word someone might use to describe our homes. Tense, hurried, stressed or chaotic might be a better fit. Yet, God wants us to experience great joy.

But how do we experience great joy in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season? And how do we encourage joy in our kids during one of the most demanding and draining times of the year? In search of the answers to these questions, I did a bit of research on joy.

I discovered that joy is primarily relational and that our brains have a joy center! Isn’t that amazing? The “joy center exists in the right orbital prefrontal cortex of the brain. It has executive control over the entire emotional system.” The joy center grows in infancy. Neurologists and psychologists teach us that when infants see delight in the eyes of their parents, the joy center of their brain is strengthened.  In other words, when babies see their parents’ eyes sparkle and light up in response to them, they know they are loved and their joy center develops. “If the joy center develops correctly, an individual can find the path back to joy, in spite of the most difficult trauma.” [1]

Even if your joy center didn’t develop properly in childhood, that part of your brain can be regenerated. In other words, not only can you as a parent develop your child’s joy center, you can strengthen your own joy muscle! Strengthening your joy muscle begins when you internalize the truth that you are the sparkle in your heavenly father’s eye. Friend, God, your heavenly father is madly in love with you! His Word teaches that he take great delight in you. He even sings and dances over you (Zephaniah 3:17). His eyes sparkle and light up when you come to spend time with him. It’s possible that you’ve never felt like anyone was particularly glad to see you. That’s not true of God. You are the sparkle in God’s eye. As you internalize that truth, you become better equipped to pass the “sparkle” on to your kids, your spouse, your friends, and neighbors. How do you go about internalizing that truth and passing it on to others during the holidays? I have a few suggestions.

Spend a few moments praising God each day. As you lift your focus to the sparkle in his eye, your cares won’t feel nearly as burdensome, and you’ll feel his love more deeply. Listen to Christmas music that is focused on praising Jesus Christ.  As you listen, remind yourself, that God’s eyes sparkle when he gets to spend time with you! He’s glad to be with you. Praise him that he designed you to experience joy and that you have the privilege of passing that on to your child.

Smile often. Smiling sends the message that you’re happy to see someone. When your kids wake up in the morning or come home from school allow them to see the sparkle in your eye. Communicate that you’re glad to see them and you’re happy to be with them.

Sing when you’re stressed. When you feel stressed out or tense start singing or turn on some music. Music often lightens our mood and helps us to enjoy God’s presence. Even if you can’t carry a tune, your efforts will release some of the stress.

Speak affirming words. Let your kids and those in your life know you’re proud of them and that you praise God for them. It’s easy when you’re stressed over busy schedules or tight finances to criticize. But scolding doesn’t strengthen anyone’s joy center. So, let it go and choose to affirm.

Shut off your cell phone for a few minutes each day to simply focus on your child. Our children often have to compete with phone calls, text messages, Facebook and Twitter. Strengthen their joy centers by allowing them to have your undivided attention for a few minutes each day. Your undivided attention speaks the powerful message, “I’m happy to be with you!”

Friend, I think we need more joy in our world, don’t you? As you look at the holiday season with all its demands, why not make it your goal to cultivate joy? Praise God that he is the joy giver and that you are the sparkle in his eye.  Seek to strengthen your joy center and your child’s.  Make it your goal to pass along the “sparkle” this Christmas and I think you’re going to find your home a much happier place!

[1] James  G. Friesen, E. James wilder, Anne M. Bierling, Rick Koepcke, and Maribeth Poole, Living From the Heart Jesus Gave You (Van Nuys, CA: Shepherd’s House, 2000), 12

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Advent Reflections: The Light of Christmas

Advent Reflections: The Light of Christmas

Today’s advent post is by Susan Fish, a writer, editor and mother of three living in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Her first book, Seeker of Stars, is a memoir of the magi, and imagines what kind of person would go off in search of a star.  We know well the passage in Isaiah that says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned,” (Isaiah 9:2) and it is often quoted at Christmas as a prophecy about Jesus, the light of the world. I want to share with you a more obscure passage that you might not, at first, think has much to do with Christmas:

Who is among you that fears the LORD, that obeys the voice of His servant, that walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God. Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who encircle yourselves with firebrands, walk in the light of your fire and among the brands you have set ablaze. This you will have from My hand: You will lie down in torment. (Isaiah 50:10-11)

What speaks to me in this passage is the sheer honesty of God’s servant who walks in darkness, trusting God, compared with those who try to bring light and comfort to themselves. There is nothing comfortable at all about walking in darkness. We notice every little sound. We fear what we can’t see, and we think we see things that aren’t there. We can stumble. We feel alone. We feel it must be better—it must be—to light a lamp for ourselves, to find ways of our own making to banish the darkness. But it won’t do. This passage says it can even make things worse to create false comfort for ourselves.

For many people this year, the Christmas season is hard. Maybe, like me, you’ve lost someone you loved dearly this last year. Or maybe you aren’t well yourself. Maybe you remember other, better Christmases. You walk in darkness.

This passage does not say that holly jolly Christmas celebrating is wrong. Christmas is indeed a joyful celebration of the birth of our Savior. It can be a wonderful time for family,  filled with beautiful music, delicious food and thoughtful gift-giving. My friend Ali calls herself the “Christmas Girl.” She’s a singer whose favorite time of year is Christmas. I’ve been to her Christmas concerts on many occasions. But Ali also makes sure to include a song called, “Get Me Through December” to acknowledge those who do walk in darkness, especially at this time of year when the contrast between what’s festive and what’s real can be so great.

If you are walking in darkness, this passage speaks to you. In it, God acknowledges your darkness and urges you to not give in to despair or to false, self-created brightness. Instead, God invites you to take one step forward in the darkness, trusting him. It’s in this context that the verse in Isaiah 9 sings out more joyously than ever—the light has come into the world and will break into our darkness again and again as we trust in him. [Click to tweet!]

If Christmas is a time of joy for you, be thankful. Appreciate the good gifts of Christmas, but do not lose sight of the fact that your joy ultimately rests in the one who broke into a dark time with great joy. Remember those who may be struggling—those who are lonely, sick, hungry, or in need—at this time. Find ways to offer the light to them, not denying their darkness but offering God’s true light. As we prepare our hearts for Christmas once again, may we put our trust completely in God and be both willing to step forward in the darkness and to anticipate the light.

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Today Only: Get 77% Off the Professional Growth Bundle


Today we have another 24 Days of Vyrso deal! We’ve already had some amazing discounts this week and will have even more as we countdown to Christmas. For day five, we have the Professional Growth Bundle aimed at helping you make an impact in the marketplace. These three ebooks offer advice on church and business leadership, lessons from leaders in the Bible, and how to serve in ministry and the marketplace.

We’re offering three ebooks for just $6.99—that’s 77% off!

Professional Growth Bundle


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Advent Reflections: an Amazing Testimony of Thanksgiving


Today’s advent guest post is by Mike Shreve, author of Powerful Prayers for Supernatural Results, 65 Promises From God for Your Child, and Truth Seekers. He has been involved in evangelism since 1971 and currently pastors The Sanctuary in Cleveland, Tennessee. 

Years ago, when speaking at a church in Florida, I heard a story that proved the power of a thankful heart. It was Sunday morning. I was passing through a side door leading to the platform when the pastor grabbed my arm, and said, “Come to my office! You’ve got to hear this!” At first I protested, explaining that I was supposed to be in the pulpit in about five minutes. He responded, “This is more important.” I just shook my head, stunned.

As I entered the pastor’s office he seated me across from a tall, distinguished-looking member of his congregation who began sharing one of the most amazing testimonies I have ever heard.

A few days prior, Dan Johansen had gone out fishing on Tampa Bay, which in itself was not a bad choice, but the whole journey was filled with a series of bad choices. Though he couldn’t swim, Dan didn’t take a life jacket and though he had only a one-engine boat, he didn’t take any oars. When Dan got out in deep waters, his propeller blades got caught in some vegetation floating just below the surface of the water, jammed, and shut down.

Leaning out of the boat to disengage the weeds, he lost his balance and fell into the water. Thrashing around, he desperately tried to stay afloat. One time, two times, three times, he sunk. The first two times he forced his way back up, spitting, coughing and gasping. When he went under the third time, his strength was gone. Slowly drifting deeper, Dan began preparing his mind for death.

Then unexpectedly, like a beam of light penetrating darkness, an intense thought entered his mind. In just a few moments, he was going to be face-to-face with God, the One he had served and loved for years. Strangely, instead of fear, he actually felt a kind of joyous anticipation. Then something remarkable happened. A loud voice boomed in his mind saying, “If you’re going to die, you need to be doing the will of God!” I quickly interjected, “How can you do God’s will in the middle of drowning to death?” He responded, “I thought that too, but then I heard that same voice quoting a scripture: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:8, emphasis added.)

Dan said, “I thought to myself, ‘I can do that! What better way to leave the world!’” As he began to thank God in his mind for every blessing and benefit throughout his life, he heard the voice speaking again: I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. (1 Timothy 2:8, emphasis added.) He said, “I thought to myself, ‘What better position to die in!’” So with what little strength he had left, realizing he only had a few seconds left, he raised his hands above his head, preparing to meet God.

At that moment, the miracle happened.

Little did Dan realize, as he lifted his hands in worship one hand went just above the water. At precisely the same moment, a rescue boat just happened to be passing by. The rescue people saw his abandoned boat, and his hand sticking up through the water, and they rushed over and pulled him to safety. Dan lived to tell about it and it was a lesson he never forgot. Because he made a commitment to worship and to maintain a thankful heart even when he was drowning, God miraculously intervened in his behalf.

If it worked for a fisherman on Tampa Bay, surely it will work for you! You may feel like you are drowning mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, but there is an answer.  Decide that you are going to going to do everything you can to fulfill the will of God, and that you are going to “be thankful” unto God, and “bless his name” no matter what you are facing in life (Psalm 100:4). Determine that regardless of the pressure you are going through, you are still going to lift your hands in worship, “without wrath and without doubting” forgiving everyone and exiling unbelief from your heart.

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Parenting Rule: Get on Your Knees and Make a Batch of Cookies

Parenting Rules

Today’s guest post is by Ryan O’Quinn actor, comedian, and author of the new ebook, Parenting Rules! His family-friendly, everyman approach to comedy gives him a unique voice to say exactly what most people are thinking. You can get his Parenting Rules! exclusively on Vyrso for just $2.99 through Thursday, December 4.

I was upstairs working in my home office when a blood-curling scream came from downstairs.

As a parent to small kids you hear screams all day long and shortly into parenthood you learn to distinguish the difference between “good screams” and “bad screams.” The good ones have about the same high pitch frequency as the bad ones but laughs and giggles will soon follow. The bad ones mean it’s time to stop what you are doing immediately and race to the scene of the soon-to-be crime to prevent bodily harm.

When I heard the scream, my brain did that Terminator-like thing where it paused, processed the volume, pitch and frequency of the noise coming from the four-year-old and decided it was time to run. It was there at the base of the stairs that I assessed the problem. The five-year-old was holding nothing above her head. Yes, you read that correctly. She was standing with her hand poised above her head holding absolutely nothing with a defiant smirk on her face while her younger sister begged for what she had in her empty hand.

Following some quick interrogation I learned that the older sibling did indeed possess something valuable . . . invisible cookies!

It’s this point in the story I shall reveal one of my parenting rules—you must always approach parenting with a sense of humor. In my book, Parenting Rules! The Hilarious Handbook for Surviving Parenthood I describe 150 rules you can count on happening to you as a parent. The things we do as parents often make absolutely no sense whatsoever. You get so accustomed to the insanity you often don’t realize just how ridiculous it is.

Well, that’s why I’m here. To remind you that, yes, it is crazy and that you are not alone! Time is one thing that we parents rarely have. But once in a while you just have to stop, evaluate the whole situation, and laugh about it.

Back to the story. My five-year-old ran the opposite direction with the invisible cookie. The four-year-old chased her down, tackled her, took the cookie and ran the other way. The older girl caught her, pinned her down and took it back. It was then that dad finally intervened.

I screamed, “Stop! Daddy will make more cookies!” Both girls looked up wide-eyed and waited patiently while I got on my knees in front of them and whipped up a baker’s dozen, doling out six to one kid, six to the other, and saving the last gooey, hot, delicious nothing for myself.

The almighty God of the universe created laughter and joy. He knows that it’s OK to pause and shake our heads at the crazy things we do as parents.

It’s normal to get on your knees to pray for your children that they would know him in a powerful way. It’s also normal to get on your knees to make a batch of invisible cookies to establish some peace in your household . . . at least for another five minutes!

Read more parenting stories, tips, and rules in Parenting Rules! by Ryan O’Quinn for just $2.99!

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Advent Reflections: Always We Begin Again

Advent Reflections: Always We Begin Again

Today’s advent guest post is by Leeana Tankersley the author of Breathing Room and Found Art. Leeana and her husband Steve, an active duty Navy SEAL, are currently stationed in San Diego, CA., with their three children, Luke, Lane, and Elle.

The other day I was driving Luke and Lane, my five-year-old twins, to preschool with their baby sister Elle, age two, along for the ride. About 11 seconds after we pulled out of the driveway, Lane announced she wanted a doll to take with her to school. No doll in the car. I determined we were already on our way and she would have to play with the dolls in her classroom.

Commence Lane. Losing. Her. Mind. Bashing the seat in front of her with both heals. High-pitched screams that would make you think one of her arms spontaneously detached.

I ripped the steering wheel over and stopped the car on the steepest hill between our house and their school. I threw my door open, and flew out, preparing to give Lane some godly wisdom about her choices. The incline of the street brought my door screaming back and the corner caught me right in the back of the calf. Like a gun shot. Mom down.

Bent over in the middle of the street, trying to catch my breath, sweating, spewing unsavory sentiments, I felt practically rabid.

I limped around and opened her door, breathless, groaning.

By this point, Lane was perfectly calm and looking at me like how I imagine she will look at me when she’s 15. (Geesh, Mom, you are so lame.)

In fact, all three of my kids looked at me as if I was the one who had lost my mind. Even Elle had popped her fingers out of her mouth and was staring at me aghast.

And then Luke says what everyone is already thinking: “Mommy, you’re kind of scary.”

I closed their door, limped back to my side of the car and waited by my door for a minute. Trying to breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

When we pulled into the preschool parking lot, I was still breathless with anger and pain and wishing it were all prettier. I was still nursing the angst, protecting it like a precious. I felt deeply entitled to my self-pity.

One salvific sentence arrives. I know it is the way out, and yet I begrudge its arrival. Saint Benedict is whispering in my ear, “Always we begin again.”

Once more with emphasis and deep compassion, “Leeana, always we begin again.”

Man, I hate letting go of my righteous indignation. I hate the audacity of grace, sometimes. I’m out for judgment, retribution, reckoning.

Saint Benedict invites me out of the corner I’ve backed myself into. He invites me to a much more spacious place. Breathe and begin again. In our parenting, in our marriages, with our bodies, in our recovery, in our thankfulness, in our prayers, in our attempts to cook a decent meal. Breathe and begin again.

I walk Luke and Lane into their class with Elle on my hip, and when we get inside, I put Elle down and whisper in Lane’s ear, trying to let God ungrit my teeth: “I’m sorry I got crazy. I’m sorry we had a hard start this morning. I love you.”

“OK, mom,” she says, her green eyes looking right into my green eyes. And she turns and walks into her class.

I see, as I look at her, the scared child inside of me that is punching my feet into the back of the headrest, all triggered and tantrum-y. The hardest moment, as I put my face directly in front of Lane’s precious face and feel my guilt, is then turning toward myself with the same compassion. “You lost your mind. You went to crazy town. You screamed. Your son thought you were scary. You wanted it to all to be so much easier and it terrifies you when it’s not. It’s OK. You’re OK. Let’s try and begin again.”

As we celebrate Advent, we commemorate hope. Hope in the midst of our longing. Hope in the midst of our heartbrokenness. Hope that we are not doomed in our scary, pained humanity.

This is such incredibly good news for someone like me.

During advent we celebrate the truth that we have been offered a gracious way out of our corners. [Click to tweet!] And everyday, we have the choice to accept that way out.

The other incredibly good news is that we can start today: in the most mundane moments and the most magical moments of this holiday season, we can begin again. And in doing so we allow our humanity and the hope of heaven to rub shoulders. We allow our hearts to remain in a posture of possibility. We allow Emmanuel to come to us . . . over and over and over.

Always, we begin again.

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Advent Reflections: God’s Government in Your Marriage

God's Government in Your Marriage

Today we’re starting a new advent series on the blog leading up to Christmas day. Our aim is to help you focus on Jesus throughout the busy Christmas season. Gary Thomas, author of many marriage books, will kick off our series with an Old Testament Christmas prophecy. 

The Bible is so powerful that one phrase can feed a hungry soul for days. The way God weaves words to nourish our spirits is truly astounding.

I thought of this when I came across a familiar passage used to celebrate Christmas, an Old Testament prophecy that speaks of the future Messiah. “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,” (Isaiah 9:7).

There is so much hope here for marriages and families. Let me explain.

God’s “government” is his rule, his sustaining influence and providential work over our lives and this world. Isaiah reminds us that this rule will never end. God, unlike a politician, doesn’t have to get re-elected. We’ll never see him standing behind a podium giving a concession speech. His words are eternal, forever binding. No one can vote him out of office and undo one of his decrees. We need never fear the veto or rule of another.

It’s not just God’s government that will never end, it’s the increase of his government that will never end. God’s government, his rule, spreads. That’s what it does, by nature, and it can’t be stopped. So, if you’re praying for a lost spouse or lost child, be comforted in knowing that the nature of God’s reign is to increase. It never stops increasing. You can have great hope that there is always room for one more soul to bow down and recognize God as Lord. There is no “quota,” no limit to which God’s authority is confined.

This promise gave me hope to write A Lifelong Love: What If Marriage Is About More Than Just Staying Together?If God’s government (his rule and influence) is on the increase, then my marriage doesn’t have to stay where it is. Allowing him to be the builder and re-builder of my marriage, we can submit ourselves to him and say, “Lord, we tried building a marriage and family our way, without you, or limiting you. It didn’t work. Will you take over? We submit to your rule and your influence.”

I was challenged by Jeremiah 31:4 where God promises Israel, “I will build you and you will be rebuilt.” Could this work for a dead or dying marriage? Or even just a stagnant marriage?

Yes, it can. When God’s influence increases in our lives through worship, through one or both marriage partners growing in their understanding and practice of love, and in submitting ourselves to intentionally follow through on our vows made before God, marriages can be and are being remade, renewed, refreshed and strengthened. In short, it’s about putting our marriages under God’s reign, influence, and government.

In other words, what many marriages need is to get more into God so that the couple can get more into each other.

Christmas marks God breaking into this world in a dramatic fashion. Experiencing the increase of his government is about opening up our marriages to receive more of God—we surrender to the increase of God’s government instead of our own selfishness; we surrender to God’s aim and purpose instead of our own desires; we recognize the daily authority of God’s presence over our words, our thoughts, and actions toward each other.

Marriage is about far more than just staying together—it’s about sharing God together, enjoying God together, growing in God together, and when we do that, the affection we feel for each other, the joy we have in each other, constitutes not just a lifelong marriage, but a lifelong love.

There is great security, peace, joy, and hopeful expectation when we surrender our relationships to God’s government. God didn’t come merely to save—He came to rule. And He wants to rule in and through you, beginning with your marriage.

Drink deeply of God’s reign this Christmas season. Feast on the security that God is in charge, and not just in charge, but in eternal charge. [Click to tweet!] When you return from this meditation to reconsider your family and marriage, you just might live with a lighter spirit. You’re not in this alone. You never have been, and you never need to be.


You can get many of Gary Thomas’ ebooks on Vyrso, including his bestseller Sacred Marriage and the newly-released A Lifelong Love: What if Marriage is about More Than Just Staying Together?

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