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Are you worried about how everyone is going to get along this Christmas? Is there a pit in your stomach because you are dreading the interpersonal dynamics that are about to engulf your family? Does it seem like your family members revert back to childhood roles and behaviors when they get together? Is the cloistered life sounding pretty good to you right now? If this is how you are feeling, you are not alone.

Your family is a mess? Jesus’ family was dysfunctional, too. Just take a look at His family tree. Matthew 1:1-16 lays out His genealogy, and in it we find a liar, a cheat, a woman who slept with her father-in-law, a prostitute, a refugee, an adulterer, and a murderer. I’m not making this up. It’s all in there. These are some messed up people, my friends. God’s Word is meant for flawed families with real baggage and problems.

Could it be that God chose this particular family line for Jesus in order to teach us how He can redeem even the most broken families? What was amazing about the Holy Family is that they allowed God to write a new narrative with their lives, despite what had happened before. Instead of continuing in the same old patterns, they chose to sacrificially love in the hard places. They didn’t shrink back when love became costly. They leaned in. As a result, the pain and wounds weren’t transmitted—they were redeemed.

It’s been said that friends are the family you choose. In the words of Beth Moore:

We form most friendships out of personal preferences, but we’re not automatically the better for it…Many of us have distanced ourselves from extended family because we’ve replaced them with people we prefer. Though some elements of the transition are justified and godly, others are selfish. Let’s face it. Family is more trouble than friendship, and the fear that we might share similarities with some of our members also carries an indictment too strong to face on a regular basis. For one thing, we can drop friends more easily when the relationship becomes inconvenient. Here’s the rub and maybe the help: God chose our family even if we didn’t. Even the challenges they pose can be effective motivation to seek His throne, His help, and His healing (AKA deal with our stuff). [1]

Jesus has factored the dysfunction of your family into His plan for your good. All the garbage, the aggravating habits, the opposing political views, the childhood hurts, the unkind words, the unspoken judgments, the laziness of one and the workaholic nature of the other, the mental illness (yes, even that)… God can use all of it to benefit you and yours. It’s through the rub of our closest relationships that God chisels our hearts to better resemble His.

While friendships we can choose and discard at will may be easier, easy does not always equal good. Very often, good = hard. Nowhere is this truer than with families.

What might change if in addition to issuing gifts to our family this Christmas, we issued a challenge? What if we challenged one another to press in when we want to disengage from each other? What if we challenged each other to stay and love in the hard places, to have honest conversations, to face our demons, and to hold each other during the process? What if we committed to each other that home would be a safe place to let it all unravel… to follow the thread of tears and hurts… inviting the Lord to heal and redeem us each step of the way?

I know this isn’t easy and that most of us would rather numb out or distance ourselves from the dysfunction. But perhaps a better choice would be to encourage each other to go to counseling—calling out any shame under the surface and firmly rejecting it. Maybe things would change if instead of shutting down or being distracted, we said, “Tell me more.” What watershed moment might come if we had the courage to ask for or offer forgiveness?

There is no perfect family here on earth. We all have flaws galore, no matter how well we can pull it together when the neighbors come by. Jesus doesn’t ask us to come to Him when we’re cleaned up. He asks us to invite Him into the mess. Isn’t this the message of the manger? That’s where He first showed up, to the manure, animals, smells, and discomfort. Invite Him into your home and family this Christmas. I promise you—He will come.

Praying for you and yours,

Lisa

[1] Beth Moore, Stepping Up: a Journey Through the Psalms of Ascent (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Publishing, 2007), 155.

Walking with Purpose

Hello Sisters in Christ! The below is one of my early blog posts, published in 2012. I enjoyed re-reading it and I pray it resonates with you this Advent. – Lisa

ALL GOOD GIVING AND EVERY PERFECT GIFT IS FROM ABOVE, COMING DOWN FROM THE FATHER. – JAMES 1:17

As Christmas approaches, I’m freshly inspired to create the perfect Advent setting in my home. I picture beautiful arrangements of greenery and berries by my front door, a lovely tree by the roaring fire, homemade cookies, and peace and harmony wafting through the house like a scent of cinnamon, cloves, and orange. I want everything on my Christmas Pinterest board to magically appear in my house. Regardless of my good intentions, my reality never seems to match my ideal. Take for example the Advent calendar that I always forget to fill until mid-December. Why on earth I bought the Advent house that has little tiny openings that hardly any candy actually fits in is beyond me. But now it’s a tradition (although an empty one, literally), so each year I bring it out and hope that I’ll get my act together a little earlier. And then there’s the nativity set with no baby Jesus. This isn’t because we’re waiting to put him in the manger on December 24th. It’s because we lost him, and every time I buy a new nativity set, I manage to lose that baby Jesus, too.

Thankfully, a meaningful Advent season isn’t dependent on a perfectly decorated house, consistent traditions, homemade cookies or Christmas cards sent out on time. What is Advent all about? It’s about getting ready, spiritually preparing, for the coming of Christ. As we wait to celebrate Christ’s birth, we remember the long wait the Israelites had as they anticipated the coming of their Rescuer – the Messiah. During their wait, God stretched out a long Advent calendar where, from time to time, they were able to “open” a gift that reminded them they were drawing closer to the realization of His promise. These gifts were prophecies that pointed to Christ, and glimpses of God’s plan of redemption. Literally hundreds of Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus.

He continues to fill up a very personal Advent calendar for each one of us. Every day. Jesus (who is the giver of all good gifts) sends us reminders of His love that are handpicked for His precious daughters. Pope Benedict described this in his Apostolic letter, Porta Fidei, dated October 11, 2011. He wrote, “Faith grows when it’s lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” When we see God’s love at work in our lives, our faith grows. Unfortunately, these graces often go unnoticed by us as we dash around, always busy, slaves to our lists of to-do’s. Perhaps this Advent season can be different. Look for His unexpected gifts. How is God helping you to experience His love today? Did you listen to a beautiful piece of music? Did you receive an unexpected kindness? Did a piece of Scripture speak to your heart and encourage you? Did your child give you an unexpected hug? What reminder of His love did He send you today? God knows what delights you. It blesses His heart when we recognize what He’s sent. I encourage you to make an Advent list, recording what He has given. We can forget and take things for granted so quickly.

For a reminder of how much God adores you and loves to lavish you with the things that delight, take a look at the Opening Your Heart Connect Coffee Talk “Priority #2: Your Heart – You Are Captivating!”

Wishing you an Advent season with time to pause and be filled with Christ’s sweet love.

Lisa Brenninkmeyer

Walking with Purpose

And just like that, the Advent season is among us. Before you know it, Christmas will be here. Of course, by the looks of the house across the street (the house that never took their Christmas decorations down from last year), one might think that every day was Christmas! And don’t get me started on retail. Santa was at the mall before the Halloween candy was digested. It appears the rush to get into the Christmas spirit is happening earlier and earlier, sooner and sooner, faster and faster.

And I am not a fan of this.

It’s not that I don’t have any Christmas spirit, or that I have a problem with premature Christmas decorating. I really don’t. If pulling out a box of vintage ornaments in November makes you happy, by all means, go for it. What I do have a problem with is approaching Advent as if it were a 24 day countdown, running ourselves ragged as we run from store to store, party to party. What bothers me is how easily we’ve turned Advent into a season of stress and anxiety; worrying about all the things that need to get done and how on earth are we going to afford it all. What was once a prayerful journey through darkness to light has now become a marathon sprint to the finish line with a peppermint martini in hand. Is it just me, or have we forgotten what Advent is all about?

I don’t know exactly when this happened, but somewhere along the line we got it all mixed up. We took the peaceful days that lead up to the birth of our Savior, and replaced its simplicity with chaos. Then we took the 12 days of Christmas, and reduced it to a single day by packing up the ornaments, taking down the tree, and boxing up the nativity all on the 26th. See ya next Christmas, baby Jesus!

In his book, Rejoice! Advent Meditations With Mary, Father Mark Toups reminds us what Advent is all about.

"The secular Christmas season we find ourselves in is anything but small, simple, and slow. In fact, for many of us, the pace of life accelerates as Christmas nears. There are presents to buy, parties to attend, and holidays to plan. As the world around us sprints into frenzy, Advent actually invites us to slow down. Just as Nazareth’s pace formed the heart of the Mother of God, Mary wants to slow us down so that we can receive as she did. So, slow down. Get quiet. Listen. After all, what’s the rush?"(1)

I want to slow down. I want to take off my Christmas running shoes and walk through this Advent peacefully, with Mary, away from Target and towards the stable. I want to trade anxiety for simplicity. Chaos for calm. I want to prepare my heart and make it a manger, ready to receive the infant Christ.

But how?

If a peaceful heart and home is what we desire this Advent, we need to rightly order our days. In his Magnificat reflection, Bishop Baron writes, “Whenever God is given highest value, order is established both within the worshiper and in the society that surrounds him or her...Consequently, trouble comes from incorrectly directed praise...if you want peace, get your worship rightly ordered.”(2)

Makes you wonder. What am I worshiping?

It’s as simple as asking yourself that question. Personally, I am tired of waking up Christmas morning, exhausted because I just spent the last 24 days worshiping all the wrong things, only to feel like once again, I missed it. If you can relate to any of this at all, I want you to know...I am reclaiming Advent. The world can have its secular holiday celebration with its Elf on the Shelf and Pinterest charcuterie boards.

I am putting things in their right place and taking back this holy season. Here’s how:

  1. I will protect my daily Mass/quiet prayer time. It is amazing how easily I can convince myself during Advent that there is way too much to get done, and I work best first thing in the morning, so clearly, Mass and/or prayer has got to go! Listen up: God first. Christmas errands second. PERIOD.
  2. I will not stress about fitting in every holiday tradition during Advent, and instead, I will take advantage of the 12 days of Christmas. If I want to gather friends over for a toast to Jesus, we can do that after Christmas day! If I want to enjoy sitting down and writing out Christmas cards with a pot of coffee, I can do that after Christmas day! We can party all the way to the Epiphany, folks!
  3. I will embrace the darkness. For too long I thought that a good Christmas was a perfect Christmas, and perfect meant no troubles, no problems, no sorrow. But now I know that’s not true. Peace is possible despite our circumstances, and nothing proves that truth better than the manger. Remember, you need the darkness to see the light.

Advent is meant to be a season of preparation—not celebration. It’s time we get our worship rightly ordered. There’s a baby about to be born: The King of Peace. You won’t want to miss him.

Laura

(1) Father Mark Toups, Rejoice! Advent Meditations With Mary, (Ascension Press, 2018), 7.
(2) Bishop Baron, “A Light Unto My Path,” Magnificat, December 2019, 22.

Bible Study

I received the call halfway through my drive from Florida to Maine. With the dog in the backseat and the car full of Christmas presents, my world stopped for a moment with the news that Amy, our oldest, was in labor. We were about to welcome little Luke Anthony into the world, I was becoming “Nana,” and I couldn't get on a plane to them fast enough. Since I was in Philadelphia visiting my son (who couldn't hide the dog in his dorm room), I had to re-work plans and meet another son at the airport in Boston to pass off the dog, car, and gifts. Slight aside-this son met me curbside with his blonde hair dyed red; never a dull moment. But I digress.

Knowing how Amy's life was about to change, wanting to comfort her during any pain, desperate to hold this new precious life… I told every person I encountered that I was becoming a grandmother. Someone told me once that when you have a grandchild, all the love you have for your own child just multiplies and passes to the new baby. It's a chance to do motherhood again, but without the heaviness of responsibility. I'm allowed to just enjoy little Luke, to kiss his little cheeks and enjoy his snuggles, and know that while my prayers for him will be powerful, the disciplining is someone else's job. My husband, Leo, and I were able to enjoy a taste of this delicious experience this weekend, and it was the supreme gift.

When we were driving back to the airport, Leo talked about the effect little Luke had on him. “When I just held him, sleeping on my chest, all the things I've been worried about just faded away. There was a power in that little baby. He commanded all the attention in the room, simply by being there.”

It makes me think of a night thousands of years ago when another baby was born. It was the night that changed everything. Hope was ushered in, just because of His presence. Suddenly, everything else faded in importance. The door between heaven and earth was opened, and a baby entered. In the words of Ann Voskamp, Jesus came “as the most vulnerable imaginable. Because He wants unimaginable intimacy with you. What religion ever had a god that wanted such intimacy with us that He came with such vulnerability to us? What God ever came so tender we could touch Him? So fragile that we could break Him? So vulnerable that His bare, beating heart could be hurt? Only the One who loves you to death.”

Mingled with this outpouring of love is death. The incarnation and the Cross. This self-giving is the price of true intimacy. It's always demanding and brings with it a feeling of vulnerability.

I wonder where this Christmas Eve finds your heart. Is it weary from giving? Is it apprehensive, wondering how family dynamics will play out over the next few days? Are you feeling tempted to self-protect, to draw back, to fall into old coping mechanisms? Stress does that to the best of us.

So my prayer for you is that you can pause and feel the power of the baby in your midst. The Christ child comes and reminds us that all else can fade in importance, if we will focus on Him. It's His birthday, but He comes to offer gifts to us. He offers us kindness, hopeful that we will use it to offer forgiveness to those who don't seem to deserve it. He offers us patience, hopeful that we will use it to listen to the relative's story that we have already heard a million times. He offers us goodness, hopeful that we will do small things with great love for the people who are sitting in their chairs when we think they should be helping us. He offers us gentleness, hopeful that we'll be the balm between frustrated loved ones. He offers us self-control so that we close our mouths when the quick retort is on the tip of our tongues.

Just as being a grandmother offers a fresh opportunity to love again and perhaps love differently, the advent of Jesus gives us a chance to chart a new course in our relationships. So we pray…Oh come, oh come Emmanuel, and breathe new life into our families and homes. This Christmas Eve, we welcome you.

Lisa Brenninkmeyer

Dear Friend -- I just had to share this post with you, written this time last year, as it is one of my all-time favorites. -- Love, Lisa

It's such an interesting message the world sends us this time of year, and by interesting, I mean flat-out ridiculous. Get your shopping done, wrap those gifts, mail those Christmas cards and photos (the ones you took back in August), bake those cookies, host those parties, assemble the gingerbread houses, deck the halls. And that's just the first week of December.

I INSIST THAT THIS IS THE YEAR CHRISTMAS WILL NOT BE REDUCED TO THE TO-DO LIST THE WORLD WRITES FOR ME, BUT RATHER, IT WILL BE A PERIOD OF INTENTIONAL WAITING, AN ADVENT SEASON WHERE MY GAZE IS TRULY FIXATED ON THE EMPTY MANGER, PREGNANT IN THE ANTICIPATION OF BEING FILLED WITH THE COMPLETE AND AWESOME WONDER OF A NEWBORN KING.

I might have dropped dead on my floor yesterday morning when I saw how a friend on Instagram had finished her Christmas preparations over Thanksgiving weekend. FINISHED. Didn't help that our Thanksgiving decorations were still sitting out on the counter, next to the rotted Halloween pumpkin, when I came upon her post. And she planned it this way so that she could actually enjoy the month of December. Which I suppose, is a brilliant idea, if you have that kind of motivation. I, however, am the kind of woman who still has a stack of half-written and never sent Christmas cards from last year, stuffed into my china cabinet drawer. If you're lucky, maybe I will send you one…in time for Easter.

And you know, every year I say the same thing. “I am not going to miss it.”  The purpose. The meaning. The reason. The incredible build up of the immense weight of glory that is about to be born. I insist that this is the year Christmas will not be reduced to the to-do list the world writes for me, but rather, it will be a period of intentional waiting, an Advent season where my gaze is truly fixated on the empty manger, pregnant in the anticipation of being filled with the complete and awesome wonder of a newborn King; a King I so desperately need to come, to be born, and to rescue me, again and again. And then suddenly there I am, tearing at rolls of gift wrap with my teeth like a great white shark, and cursing out the stupid scotch tape dispenser like a full-on crazy woman, ordering my poor husband to go back out to Petco on Christmas Eve to purchase the third guinea pig that week, because the first two I brought home were not longhaired enough, and insisting that he must go back to Costco for more cheese and a larger ham, because I mean really, what on earth was he thinking buying so little cheese and such a small ham? It's CHRISTMAS people…you get the mother lode of cheese and you bring home the giant freaking ham!!!!!

Because that is exactly what Mary did the night before she gave birth to the Son of God. She scrambled like a lunatic for last minute gifts and sent Joseph to Costco, because the birth of her Son just wasn't enough.

And this pierces my heart as I write it…that the newborn baby Jesus…He just isn't enough. And sure, maybe we don't really mean that, but I think that maybe, we can surely act like that. When we stress over perfect menus and the matching kids' clothes, and spend more time worrying about will we have enough money to grant everyone's wishes, and will we be able to provide a good Christmas for our friends and family…well…I think when we do this, it is as if we are saying that baby Jesus, being born and with us, is not enough.

And I don't believe we do this intentionally. I do not believe we push Him aside, promising to get right back to Him, just as soon we complete all of our preparations, on purpose. I think it just happens. I think we so easily get caught up in the race, and dragged into the malls, and busy with the online shopping that is all too easy, and before you know it, we are getting pulled into Petco (OK, so maybe that last one is just me) because we actually have really good intentions. We want the kids to be happy on Christmas morning.  We want our holiday guests to feel at home.  We want our feast to be delicious. We want to eat our body weight in cheese.  We want to do all of these things because we want to have a beautiful Christmas. We are all about the baby Jesus, it is just that sometimes? Sometimes we just go about it the wrong way. Sometimes we get pulled in the wrong direction. I know I do. And when I do? I miss it.

There is a balance in all of this, isn't there, and for those of you who have mastered it, please share. Because it is not easy to do and I think no matter how many of us try, we often fail. I do believe that we can have the baking, and we can have the gifts, and we can do all of our traditionally fun and expected things, if in fact…they are still fun and not just something we feel we ought to do because that one perfect lady we follow on social media does it, and look at how happy her family looks! But, how can you tell? How do you know what should stay, and what ought to go, this Advent? Well, before hitting your Christmas to-do list, might I suggest, you pray over it. Seriously. Take that list to prayer. Ask God what He would like to see you do for Him this Advent season. Because my guess is that God's way of preparing might look slightly different from the world's way of preparing. So it is wise to check in with Him, and ask….will doing this bring me closer to Your Son? Will this task, next on my list, deepen my love for You? How can I offer up this activity as praise and glory to You? Will this third guinea pig fill our home with the true joy of the birth of Jesus Christ?

And the answer to that last one is a resounding NO. The three guinea pigs have only brought true smell to my daughter's bedroom. Zero Jesus. If you are considering that Santa bring a live pet this year, come on over to my house first, and smell my upstairs.

You know, when I really meditate on the nativity, when I truly take some quiet time alone, escaping the chaos and the anxiety that without fail, washes over me this time of year, I can not help but find my tired mind taking me back to that one Christmas, five years ago; that one Christmas, that followed after the shooting at my children's elementary school. That one Christmas, where my community felt the groaning labor pains of the birth of unspeakable and devastating loss. That one Christmas, where we suffered such sorrow and disbelief, and couldn't imagine, for the life of us, how Christmas would come. Should Christmas come? And the miracle? Not only did Christmas come, but it came powerfully. It came beautifully. It came just as it promised. Because when you are reminded with what this life is all about, and you are slapped in the face of the reality that we need God like never before, guess what happens to that to-do list? Guess how much you care about the cookies and the parties and the wrapping? Everything takes on new meaning. Suddenly, you long for real presence, not presents. That Advent was like no other Advent I have ever lived through before. It was truly what Advent is supposed to be. A holy waiting period. A sacred preparation. A stripping away, a pulling apart, and a re-focusing. An awakening to the undeniable truth that the only thing we need, the very best gift we can ever hope for, is that swaddled baby boy, that newborn King. His presence is the only present. And until that sorrowful Christmas, I never knew how badly I wanted, how crazy much I needed, that gift. That baby.

And that is what the Advent season needs to be about. And I know it is hard. It took my being stripped away of everything, in the most hideous way, to see where I actually needed to be. It took giving up on my idea of what our Christmas was supposed to look like, and surrendering to God and His idea of what Christmas needed to be. It took my handing over my list…LITERALLY...and allowing friends to swoop on in and do what I was too sad to do. And guess what? Christmas still came that year. Sure, it looked different. It carried a weight of sorrow. But if you were to kneel next to Mary right now…right there in the stable…get on up close next to her, with the hay and the animals and the smell of the stable…and if you were to reach out and pick up that sweet babe, swaddled up tight, and gently kiss his head, and press His heart close into yours…would you not feel a tinge of sorrow?  Yes, the birth of our savior is a joyful occasion, but because we know His mission, because we know His sacrifice, because we know that the same baby we reach for in the manger is the same man we hung on the wood of the cross, how can we not weep?

And so maybe this Advent season, if you feel that earthly pull, if you feel that building anxiety and the stress of the world's to-do list, maybe it is a good idea to just stop. To be still. To give your list over to the Lord. And then, go on into the stable. Kneel down next to Mary. Close your eyes. And in joyful expectation, wait with her by the empty manger. Just wait.

He will soon be born, sweet friends. The hope we wait for. The grace we need. The Christmas presence that is beyond compare to any other present on our list. And He is more than enough.

So let's prepare wisely. Let's not miss it.

Laura

Laura Phelps author bio

 

Feast of Christ the King

Everyone worships something. Whether or not we issue an intentional invitation, something or someone sits on the throne of hearts. Whatever we consider most important, worthy of sacrifice, and critical to our happiness and well-being is given that place of importance. We get to choose what we worship, and what we pick will determine the trajectory of our lives.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King and in our first reading, Daniel receives a vision of Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven. It must have taken his breath away and I'm sure he was never the same again. This is what he recorded afterwards:

As the visions during the night continued,
I saw one like a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven;
when he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him,
the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

What a gift Daniel received. For the rest of his life, this image remained in his mind and filled it. By contrast, most of our field of vision is full of the things that our culture says have the highest value. Our eyes constantly are fed airbrushed images of celebrities that tempt us to think that nothing is more important than outward appearance. The news cycle would lead us to believe that the well-being of our nation isn't dependent on our morality; it's measured by the Dow, NASDAQ and S&P.  We seek security, significance, fulfillment and purpose and bow down to whatever promises to supply it.

We were made to worship. We'll worship whatever we decide we can't live without.  What can't you live without? Is it a child or a husband? Is it a thin body? How about financial security? How about a good reputation or social status? How about fruitful ministry for Christ? The things we worship can be good things. This is where it gets tricky. We check our motives, and think that what we're pursuing is good, or really for our families or other people, or really isn't harmful. And we continue down the path to nowhere.

What we believe we cannot live without we will make the supreme good in our lives. We'll pursue it with all we've got. We'll panic at the thought of losing it. Sometimes we'll compromise and break the rules if we're afraid that it's going to be taken away.

Whether we're doing it consciously or not, we have placed something on the throne of our hearts, and we're worshipping it with all we've got.

This issue isn't anything new. God talked about this to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and described it as “idols in our hearts.”(1) Anything that we love more than God is an idol. We think of an idol as a statue and picture people bowing in front of it. An idol can be that, but more often, it's not something physical that we can hold in our hands. But we hold them in our hearts, and that's just as dangerous.

So what do we do? How can we stop wanting these things so badly? How can we want God more?

The vision of God has got to so fill our minds and hearts that there isn't room for competing gods. They try to get in, but we're already full of God. We're feasting on what really, truly satisfies. The things the world offers to entice us - the pursuit of beauty, prosperity at any cost, self-made security - feel like too much cake for breakfast. We can see that there's an appeal, but we also recognize that filling up on those offerings will make us sick.

It was my longing for a fresh vision of God that led me to write the nine-week Bible study, Beholding Your King. I was tired of cake and wanted meat. Do you feel the same? Are you longing for something more? Do you look ahead to the Advent season and wonder how you are going to keep your focus in the right place? If that's where you find yourself, this Bible study is just for you. I wrote it to help fill the void left by superficial living, replacing it with a fuller view of God and His glory.

In the pages of Beholding Your King, we're reminded that God sits on the throne as the supreme authority.  There is no one higher. As the Creator of all, the One who sustains our every breath just because He feels like it, He is the One in charge. We can choose to ignore it in the same way that children sometimes act as if they can get away with anything, but the truth remains. We can fight against it all we want, but God sits on His throne, the authority over gravity, tsunamis, fire, water, the ground beneath our feet, and the air we breathe.

There is no law greater than Him. There is no love more powerful than Him. He says it best in Isaiah 46: 9, 10: “I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. At the beginning I declare the outcome; from of old, things not yet done.  I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every desire.”

What do we think would be a better authority to bow to? Ourselves? Another imperfect person? Money that can be gone in an instant? Beauty that is guaranteed to fade?  

Nothing but God is worthy of our worship, and He should take our breath away.

May the vision of His glory fill our hearts this Advent season,

Lisa

PS: If you're ready to let Christ fill your mind and heart this Advent, shop our store for Beholding Your King.

1. Ezekiel 14:3

Lisa Brenninkmeyer

Hello, my friend!

Today I'm welcoming back one of my favorite people to the WWP blog: Laura Phelps. One of my favorite things about Laura is the way she makes me laugh. She also shares my love for Jesus and women, and I know you'll enjoy her writing. In addition to raising her four children and loving on her husband, she works for WWP as a phenomenal Regional Area Coordinator. Laura blogs for us once a month, and once a month you'll hear from me. With love,
Lisa

It's such an interesting message the world sends us this time of year, and by interesting, I mean flat-out ridiculous. Get your shopping done, wrap those gifts, mail those Christmas cards and photos (the ones you took back in August), bake those cookies, host those parties, assemble the gingerbread houses, deck the halls. And that's just the first week of December.

'I insist that this is the year Christmas will not be reduced to the to-do list the world writes for me, but rather, it will be a period of intentional waiting, an Advent season where my gaze is truly fixated on the empty manger, pregnant in the anticipation of being filled with the complete and awesome wonder of a newborn King;'

I might have dropped dead on my floor yesterday morning when I saw how a friend on Instagram was already done with her Christmas preparations. FINISHED.  Didn't help that our Thanksgiving leftovers were still sitting out on the counter, next to the rotted Halloween pumpkin, when I came upon her  post. And she planned it this way so that she could actually enjoy the month of December. Which I suppose, is a brilliant idea, if you have that kind of motivation. I, however, am the kind of woman who still has a stack of half-written and never sent Christmas cards from last year, stuffed into my china cabinet drawer. If you're lucky, maybe I will send you one…in time for Easter.

And you know, every year I say the same thing. “I am not going to miss it.”  The purpose.  The meaning.  The reason. The incredible build up of the immense weight of glory that is about to be born. I insist that this is the year Christmas will not be reduced to the to-do list the world writes for me, but rather, it will be a period of intentional waiting, an Advent season where my gaze is truly fixated on the empty manger, pregnant in the anticipation of being filled with the complete and awesome wonder of a newborn King; a King I so desperately need to come, to be born, and to rescue me, again and again. And then suddenly there I am, tearing at rolls of gift wrap with my teeth like a great white shark, and cursing out the stupid scotch tape dispenser like a full-on crazy woman, ordering my poor husband to go back out to Petco on Christmas Eve to purchase the third guinea pig that week, because the first two I brought home were not longhaired enough, and insisting that he must go back to Costco for more cheese and a larger ham, because I mean really, what on earth was he thinking buying so little cheese and such a small ham? It's CHRISTMAS people…you get the mother lode of cheese and you bring home the giant freaking ham!!!!!

Because that is exactly what Mary did the night before she gave birth to the Son of God. She scrambled like a lunatic for last minute gifts and sent Joseph to Costco, because the birth of her Son just wasn't enough.

And this pierces my heart as I write it…that the newborn baby Jesus…He just isn't enough. And sure, maybe we don't really mean that, but I think that maybe, we can surely act like that. When we stress over perfect menus and the matching kids clothes, and spend more time worrying about will we have enough money to grant everyone's wishes, and will we be able to provide a good Christmas for our friends and family…well…I think when we do this, it is as if we are saying that baby Jesus, being born and with us, is not enough.

And I don't believe we do this intentionally. I do not believe we push Him aside, promising to get right back to Him, just as soon we complete all of our preparations, on purpose. I think it just happens. I think we so easily get caught up in the race, and dragged into the malls, and busy with the online shopping that is all too easy, and before you know it, we are getting pulled into Petco (OK, so maybe that last one is just me) because we actually have really good intentions. We want the kids to be happy on Christmas morning.  We want our holiday guests to feel at home.  We want our feast to be delicious. We want to eat our body weight in cheese.  We want to do all of these things because we want to have a beautiful Christmas.  We are all about the baby Jesus, it is just that sometimes? Sometimes we just go about it the wrong way.  Sometimes we get pulled in the wrong direction. I know I do. And when I do? I miss it.

There is a balance in all of this, isn't there, and for those of you who have mastered it, please share. Because it is not easy to do and I think no matter how many of us try, we often fail. I do believe that we can have the baking, and we can have the gifts, and we can do all of our traditionally fun and expected things, if in fact…they are still fun and not just something we feel we ought to do because that one perfect lady we follow on social media does is, and look at how happy her family looks! But, how can you tell?  How do you know what should stay, and what ought to go, this Advent? Well, before hitting your Christmas to-do list, might I suggest, you pray over it. Seriously. Take that list to prayer. Ask God what He would like to see you do for Him this Advent season.  Because my guess is that God's way of preparing might look slightly different from the world's way of preparing.  So it is wise to check in with Him, and ask….will doing this bring me closer to Your Son? Will this task, next on my list, deepen my love for You? How can I offer up this activity as praise and glory to You? Will this third guinea pig fill our home with the true joy of the birth of Jesus Christ?

And the answer to that last one is a resounding NO. The three guinea pigs have only brought true smell to my daughter's bedroom. Zero Jesus. If you are considering that Santa bring a live pet this year, come on over to my house first, and smell my upstairs.

You know, when I really meditate on the nativity, when I truly take some quiet time alone, escaping the chaos and the anxiety that without fail, washes over me this time of year, I can not help but find my tired mind taking me back to that one Christmas, five years ago; that one Christmas, that followed after the shooting at my children's elementary school.  That one Christmas, where my community felt the groaning labor pains of the birth of unspeakable and devastating loss. That one Christmas, where we suffered such sorrow and disbelief, and couldn't imagine, for the life of us, how Christmas would come. Should Christmas come? And the miracle? Not only did Christmas come, but it came powerfully.  It came beautifully.  It came just as it promised. Because when you are reminded with what this life is all about, and you are slapped in the face of the reality that we need God like never before, guess what happens to that to-do list? Guess how much you care about the cookies and the parties and the wrapping?  Everything takes on new meaning.  Suddenly, you long for real presence, not presents. That Advent was like no other Advent I have ever lived through before. It was truly what Advent is supposed to be. A holy waiting period. A sacred preparation. A stripping away, a pulling apart, and a re-focusing. An awakening to the undeniable truth that the only thing we need, the very best gift we can ever hope for, is that swaddled baby boy, that newborn King. His presence is the only present.  And until that sorrowful Christmas, I never knew how badly I wanted, how crazy much I needed, that gift. That baby.

And that is what the Advent season needs to be about. And I know it is hard. It took my being stripped away of everything, in the most hideous way, to see where I actually needed to be. It took giving up on my idea of what our Christmas was supposed to look like, and surrendering to God and His idea of what Christmas needed to be.  It took my handing over my list…LITERALLY….and allowing friends to swoop on in and do what I was too sad to do. And guess what? Christmas still came that year. Sure, it looked different. It carried a weight of sorrow. But if you were to kneel next to Mary right now…right there in the stable…get on up close next to her, with the hay and the animals and the smell of the stable…and if you were to reach out and pick up that sweet babe, swaddled up tight, and gently kiss his head, and press His heart close into yours….would you not feel a tinge of sorrow?  Yes, the birth of our savior is a joyful occasion, but because we know His mission, because we know His sacrifice, because we know that the same baby we reach for in the manger is the same man who we hung on the wood of the cross, how can we not weep?  

And so maybe this Advent season, if you feel that earthly pull, if you feel that building anxiety and the stress of the world's to-do list, maybe it is a good idea to just stop. To be still. To give your list over to the Lord.  And then, go on into the stable. Kneel down next to Mary.  Close your eyes.  And in joyful expectation, wait with her by the empty manger. Just wait.

He will soon be born, sweet friends.  The hope we wait for. The grace we need. The Christmas presence that is beyond compare to any other present on our list.  And He is more than enough.

So let's prepare wisely. Let's not miss it.

Laura

Laura Phelps
Regional Area Coordinator
Walking with Purpose

Read Laura's blog here: http://www.lauramaryphelps.com/

To the mamas out there in the trenches…

To those who are spending this Advent waiting for a miracle…

This is for you.

We all dread the phone call that comes unexpectedly and causes life to feel like one big “before and after.” There's the bad news that sideswipes us and no one is at fault, and then there's the news that makes it very easy to point a finger. So many emotions can explode in those moments- fear, shame, guilt, embarrassment, worry, anger, resentment.

As a mother, there is nothing worse than a call that involves your child. From the moment our children are placed in our arms, we make an inner vow to do all in our power to protect them and give them the best that we've got. The more years I live and the more broken hearts I encounter, the more certain I am that we all are giving mothering the best that we've got. Is it perfect? Far from it. But for the most part, we are doing the best we can with what we know and are able to do in the moment. But this doesn't mean that outcomes are guaranteed. Each child comes with his or her own journey ahead, and while we play a significant role in it, it isn't all up to us. The grand majority of it is up to them and the choices they will make with the great gifts of freedom and life that God has given.

With seven children, I've gotten my fair share of those phone calls. Each time, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach has taken hold. My breath shortened and my hands felt clammy. I listened, and prayed that it wasn't true. And then I began walking the unpleasant road of picking through rumors, truth, lies and some shattered hopes and dreams. Was the various news I received the end of the world? Absolutely not. But did my heart feel devastated? Yes. Each time.

Someone asked me if I would be worried about Walking with Purpose if my “worst case scenarios” regarding my kids came true and became known. Without a moment's hesitation, I said, “Absolutely not.” The reason I responded in this way has everything to do with the way that I define success and failure. I think it's worth sharing, because I think there are a lot of moms out there who are dealing with their own set of disappointments that involve their families, and there's a lot of hiding going on. This hiding doesn't help anyone or anything, and is actually the devil's playground. He loves the shadows. So many mothers feel like failures, and I believe they are using the wrong measure to determine how well they are doing in this critical area of life.

We live in a world that tells us the success of our children is measured by the outward appearance. Physical beauty, athletic ability, academic accolades and a charismatic personality are all sought after and considered the highest prize. As long as outward appearance looks good, all too often mothers are willing to hide-or more tragically, ignore-sins and deficits of their child's character. We don't want our children to suffer, but perhaps just as much, we don't want their reputations to suffer. In our world, reputation, what people think of us, is everything. As a result, we step in the way of natural consequences that God wants to use to teach our children deep, lasting lessons. We make excuses, cast blame, and bail them out so that their spirits aren't crushed. And in doing so, we warp their understanding of choices and consequences. We leave them ill-equipped for a world that will not continue to soften the blows or buffer them from discomfort. The result? They will never grow up.

'Engage in this spiritual battle with heartfelt, fervent prayers. Let's storm heaven as we plead on behalf of this next generation.'

Why do we do this? Because we are caught up in the very things the world values. We are mixed up with it all ourselves. We gain an extra ten pounds and feel less valuable. We measure our worth against what we accomplish. Striving and hustling to be considered good enough, we focus on the tip of the iceberg and ignore the enormity of what lies beneath.

God leans into this mess and reminds us, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) He cares about what's going on underneath the water. The tip of that iceberg may look great and earn us a lot of applause, but God is disinterested in those bells and whistles. He looks beneath, and measures our success by how we love. First and foremost, He cares about how we love Him. The first and greatest commandment is this: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

One of the ways that we love Him is by raising the children He has placed in our care. Raising children today is a battleground. We no longer live in a society that backs us up when we teach our kids what is most important. Leading our children to love and serve the Lord is incredibly hard in a culture that says truth is relative, everything in life revolves around them and their happiness, and that actions don't have consequences. The older our children get, the more we recognize what a battle it is. It's hard, and so many of us are weary.

Those of us who have determined to let the shoe fall, to let consequences be felt, often feel so alone on that path. We want to give up. We want to give in. We desperately want everything to just get comfortable again, even while we recognize that discomfort is exactly what our kids likely need in order to learn. Many of us are facing really serious battles with long term consequences, and too many of these warrior mamas feel like failures because their kids are seemingly not learning these lessons.

I believe that even when we recognize the battle for what it is, too many of us are fighting with the wrong weapons, and we're getting discouraged about the wrong things.

The true battle isn't what we see with our eyes. Ephesians 6:12 tells us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the power of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The battle is in the spiritual realm. Only one kind of weapon can meet the battle in the air. It's described in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”

The weapons of the world are reputation, money, influence, power and a shiny outward appearance. They can take us only so far. And from the Lord's perspective, all they are affecting is that tip of the iceberg, evident to all. But the weapons that have impact below the surface are far, far, more powerful than the worldly weapons.

The sword of the Spirit is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). This is an offensive spiritual weapon. Prayer is tremendously powerful because it literally moves the hand of God and calls down angels to battle on our behalf. The Eucharist has been used in physical battle, and the rosary's power has been seen for hundreds of years.

It's what's going on under the water that makes all the difference and is the true measure of success. And that's where we employ the weapons discussed in 2 Corinthians 10. The spiritual battle is a hidden battle-done in the quiet of our homes and adoration chapels. It's waged on our knees and literally pushes back the darkness.

If we copy the world and use its weapons, we are guaranteeing a lack of power. This is because those weapons have nothing to do with the release of the Holy Spirit. If we seem to win a battle by using the world's weapons, from God's perspective, we have lost. The reverse is also true. If we seem to lose a battle but we have relied on the Lord, trusting in Him and the weapons of prayer and God's word, we have won. We have WON, regardless of what it looks like to the rest of the world. This means that what others might say is a failure can actually be an enormous victory.

Join me, precious mamas, on your knees. Engage in this spiritual battle with heartfelt, fervent prayers. Let's storm heaven as we plead on behalf of this next generation. Do the hard things. Let the hammer fall and the consequences be felt. Don't stand between God and the lessons He is trying to teach your child. And over all these things, put on love. Tough love is real love. And isn't this what God is teaching us during Advent? The gift of love is always costly, but always redemptive.

With love,
Lisa

“Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” -Pope Francis

The Year of Mercy has begun, and oh, how we need it. As we journey through Advent towards Christmas, so many hearts are aching. We desperately need hope. We need it more than Christmas gifts or the perfect tree or eggnog by the fire. Without it, we lack the courage to move forward. And when we extend mercy to each other, it's hope that is poured out.

When I sat down next to my friend after the funeral reception was over, the raw ache in her eyes tore into my heart. She had just lost her teenage daughter. Christmas would never again be the same for her. There would always be an emptiness in the midst of the festivities. My friend's story was heavy with pain. When despair and depression had become overpowering, when the pain had felt unbearable, her daughter had made the choice to end her life. So we sat, with just quietness between us. After a few minutes, she looked around the room and spoke words that I believe hold a message for the body of Christ.

“You know, this isn't my church. This isn't where I had planned to have the funeral. But when we called the church to tell them what had happened, they said they'd come to us, but they never did. If you are ever going to show up and be the church, that time was now. That time was this week for my family. Their silence spoke loudly to us. So we decided to do the funeral somewhere else. It was just too painful to be in a place where they obviously didn't care about us.”

I don't believe my friend's church doesn't care. Most likely someone dropped the ball entirely by accident. Perhaps a note with my friend's name and address had been caught by a draft and fluttered away. It's very unlikely that anyone proactively decided to ignore this hurting family at such a critical time. But what I really wonder is where was the safety net of the church community? Why were their arms not wrapped tight around this family? They could have run interference, helping bridge the gap between who the church wanted to be and what the family was experiencing.

Affliction comes in many forms. We don't wear our heartache as visible, outward wounds, but we all know how much pain is out there. In the midst of a sin-saturated world, people need to know that they matter-that their pain matters-that they are seen. It's been said that suffering that feels senseless is the hardest to bear. When that is compounded with a feeling that the pain must be carried alone, despair can quickly set in. But what a difference the presence of a comforter can make. We can't answer all the questions about the suffering, but we can say, “I see it. And most importantly, I see you. I won't let this pain swallow you or overwhelm you.”

'We are to surround one another, to press into one another's pain, to offer the gift of our presence, to give comfort to others, just as God gives comfort to us.'

Isn't this the message of the Incarnation? Bridging all distance between God and man, Jesus moved into the neighborhood. He reached out and touched the leper, looked into and healed the eyes of the blind man, and restored Peter when his heart was overwhelmed with his own failure. He rushed in when there was pain instead of recoiling or standing back where it felt safe.

Isn't this the example that the Blessed Mother gave us? She didn't shrink back from human suffering. She didn't shield her eyes when her Son was stripped, beaten, and crucified. She pressed into the suffering, and stayed by His side, providing strength with her presence.

This is how we are asked to live.

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1) These words aren't just for our priests and parish staff. They are spoken to you and to me. God promises in Isaiah 43:1-2, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through waters, I will be with you; through rivers, you shall not be swept away. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, nor will flames consume you.”  He understands that while His presence makes all the difference, we also need a human hand to grasp hold of. We need to see eyes that understand and don't judge. What a privilege it is that He trusts and calls us to be a part of this ministry of comfort.

Nothing makes us more effective ministers of comfort than having suffered ourselves. Not one of your tears of pain will be wasted, if you allow them to be redeemed in the life of another. God can use every ounce of what you have been through to make this world a better, kinder place. 2 Corinthians 1:4 tells us, “The God of all comfort…comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

If you have experienced miscarriage, divorce, grief, abuse, financial crisis…could it be that God is calling you to step out and encourage and give comfort to others who are going through those very things today? You are uniquely equipped to offer comfort because you have been there. You understand. You are proof that life does go on. You are a carrier of hope.

This is the call to the body of Christ. We are to surround one another, to press into one another's pain, to offer the gift of our presence, to give comfort to others, just as God gives comfort to us. Sometimes sitting silently alongside someone is the best gift we can give. Sometimes it's making a meal. Sometimes advice is truly helpful. The important thing is that we show up. That we slow down enough to notice the pain in someone's eyes. That we ask questions, and then wait for the answers. There is no Christmas present under the tree that will have the kind of life-changing impact that the gift our comforting presence offers.

Lord, open our eyes to see the invisible wounds people carry. Help us to look through grace-healed eyes that search deeper, that pause, that step closer when an aching heart is near.

Originally published in Beautiful Mercy (featuring content from Matthew Kelly and twenty-six other authors)

To order a copy of the entire book:

http://dynamiccatholic.com/year-of-mercy/#mercy_book

As we move through Advent and prepare to celebrate the arrival of our Savior, I wonder what is pulling at your heart. Is there a longing? Is there something you are wishing for? Is the biggest thing on your Christmas list impossible to wrap up in a package, but oh, if it could be delivered to you, the satisfaction would be so very sweet?

Last month, I wrote about what we can do when it's hard to hope. Perhaps at no time of year is it harder to hope than at Christmastime. The lights, decorations, and smells create something beautiful. That beauty expands our hearts, and makes us long for fulfillment. It can make us long for traditions we had in childhood. It can make us long for a return of the pure wonder we used to have. The deepest ache comes when we long for the presence of loved ones who were here in years past but are no longer with us.

These aches were placed in our hearts by our Creator to make us long for heaven. Our time on earth is not all there is. Our destiny is an eternal one, and it is only there that we will have all our longings satisfied. Our hearts are continuously being pulled towards that place where we'll experience true fulfillment. During our lifetimes, we'll get tastes and glimmers of what that heavenly bliss is going to be like, but they are only meant to point us homeward, never to totally fill and satisfy us.

When we look to people, or circumstances, or even answers to prayer to satisfy our longings, we will always be disappointed. We were made for more, and that more is not here. Yes, Jesus satisfies. Yes, His Holy Spirit fills us and makes all the difference in our lives. But there will always be a gap between what we experience on earth, and the total union with God that we were created for.

What we think of heaven will have an enormous impact on how we feel about all of this. If we think of heaven as a place where we do nothing but play harps and sing all day, we're going to try to squeeze as much satisfaction out of this life as we can. We'll have the attitude, “Let's eat and drink and be merry because tomorrow we die (and everything gets really boring after that point).”

Oh my friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. Heaven is NOT going to be boring. It's going to be the place where our emptiness is filled. Where our joy shoots through the roof to the point of ecstasy. Where all our longings will be satisfied. Everything wrong will be made right. Every tear will be wiped from our eyes. When Jesus left this earth, He went to get it all ready for us. Think about the ultimate Christmas experience. The most beautifully decorated home. Sublime smells. Foods with the perfect blend of flavor and comfort. Unwrapping the gift that you've been hoping for but were sure was out of reach. Being surrounded by those you love. All of that is just a taste of what Jesus has prepared for us.

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
(1 Corinthians 2:9)

The story is told of a woman who lost her only child. Holding him in her arms, she turned her face towards heaven and said, “I give you joy, my sweet child.” This is what awaits us. Pure joy. This is what is being experienced right now by our loved ones who have gone before us. This why we don't “grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

E'en for the dead I will not bind my soul to grief; Death cannot long divide. For is it not as though the rose that climbed my garden wall Has blossomed on the other side? Death does hide, But not divide; You are but on Christ's other side! You are with Christ, and Christ with me; In Christ united still are we.

This Advent season, let's turn our hearts to heaven. While we enjoy the glimmers of joy here, let's remember that our inner ache, our longings, our desires, are going to be satisfied there.

So now we wait. We still our hearts. We prepare for the coming of Jesus, the one who came into the mess of the manger, who made Himself into bread so our hunger could be satisfied, who even now is preparing a banquet for us in heaven, beyond our wildest imaginings.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

May the blessing of hope be yours this Advent season!
Lisa

[1] L.B. Cowman, Streams in the Desert (Grand Rapids, MI: Zonderan, 1997), 450.

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