Christmas Gifts We were shopping when my husband David suddenly asked me what he gave me for Christmas last year. It was a wonderful, fantastic gift–something I really, really wanted, really, really needed, and was thrilled to find wrapped under the tree! I’m sure it was! But sadly, it has fallen right out of my brain. I had to admit that I had absolutely no idea what last year’s gift was. I felt a lot better when I discovered that he also couldn’t remember what he gave me, or what I gave him either. We had no last-year’s-Christmas-present memories’not a single one. I suddenly felt a little older, but also less stressed about this year’s shopping. I can predict what will happen tomorrow: we’ll open our gifts, declare them perfect, thoroughly enjoy the moment, and soon forget what they were. But not the Lord! When the leaders of Israel brought offerings to the dedication of the tabernacle, He recorded every detail. Every name from every tribe. Every cart, ox, silver platter, and gold pan. Every bull, ram, lamb, and kid. Every shekel of incense and fine flour mixed with oil’all the furnishings and provisions for worship. He inspired a written list of the gifts in the long thank-you letter we call Numbers 7. God noticed every offering, and over 24 centuries later, He’s still telling us about them. Christmas can be stressful in ministry homes. The schedule is overcrowded; the children are overexcited. Practices, programs, performances, parties, concerts, and cantatas collide on the calendar. There are dishes in the sink, strain on the checkbook, and an ache in your head. The fear of leaving something undone steals your sleep just when you need it most. I wish I could simplify Christmas ministry enough to make it stress-free. I can’t. But I can remind you of this: all during this hectic hubbub, you have been giving Him gifts that He will not forget. Even that tiny cup of Christmas punch you served with a smile to a toddler was an offering to the Lord (Matthew 10:42). The cookies you mixed, rolled, cut, and decorated for lonely folks and the turkey dinners you delivered to needy ones are, too. The family gatherings you’ve been joyfully sharing with people who aren’t family are generous gifts to your Savior (Matthew 25:35-40). All the time and money you could have used for yourself but gave away instead because someone else needed them more’they are ‘a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God’ rising heavenward like a sweet savor offering (Philippians 4:18). Even those patient, gentle words you chose to speak when you felt like snarling instead were love offerings to your Lord! The remarkable, encouraging truth is this: God regards any gift you give others in His name as though it were given directly to Him (Hebrews 13:16), and the best presents don’t come wrapped in paper. I hope you get lots of gushy thank-you notes after Christmas. But you may not, because too many people are like me, tearing into our packages and then just as quickly forgetting where they came from. So if people who have enjoyed your gifts neglect giving thanks for what you offered at some personal cost, remember that while you have been slaving and serving and wondering why they call this a holiday, He has been noticing ‘your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister’ (Hebrews 6:10). God always sees and never forgets. When you serve others, you are serving Him. What a privilege! Have a very happy Christmas! Sunday Picnic “Mommy, I wish we wasn’t Christians.” The quiet words coming from my little girl in the back seat surprised me. I followed her gaze out the car window toward the neighbors’ house–and then I understood. The neighbors were still asleep, but Stephanie had told me all about their exciting plans for a summer Sunday picnic at the lake. We weren’t headed to a picnic. We were off to begin a busy day of multiple services, rehearsals and meetings which, for my daughter would mean hours of sitting, listening, and waiting for grownups. I’m not sure what I said to lift her spirits as we drove to church. Platitudes, probably, and reminders of how much she liked going to Sunday school, seeing her friends, and singing in the kids’ choir. I do remember a deep sigh in my own spirit, though. On that perfect sunny morning, a picnic at the lake sounded mighty good to me, too. Our Sunday would be long and exhausting, and if things went as usual, spiritually draining as well. At church I would see people I loved for their steady faithfulness and constant encouragement, but I’d also see people I loved who weren’t doing right, and my burden for them would leave me with a Sunday heartache. And I’d battle with my frustration toward those I’d see only in my mind: the indifferent or unreliable ones who could have been at church but weren’t. The realities of ministry to very human beings can cause any of us to think now and then, “I wish we wasn’t in ministry.” When that happens to me, recalling some old, old stories keeps me from quitting (and eases my feelings of guilt). Leading Israel was no picnic for Moses. Continual murmuring, quarreling, fretting and fault-finding caused him to moan in prayer to Jehovah, “I am not able to bear all these people. . .The burden is too heavy for me. . . Please kill me here and now!” David, distressed by spiteful enemies and false friends, wished for “wings like a dove. . . [to] fly away and be at rest. . . wander far off, and remain in the wilderness.” Jeremiah had wept over Israel until he had no more tears, but their callous unresponsiveness caused even this compassionate prophet to yearn to operate “a lodging place for travelers in the wilderness, that I might leave my people and go from them.” I have felt like that a time or two. I can also identify with Paul’s desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. But Paul, like these other ministry heroes, decided to do what was more needful: stay, pray, work, and trust. He didn’t quit, understanding that though the ministry is no picnic, it is most certainly worthwhile. And seeing lives change because you’ve let the Lord use you is more fun than any picnic! On some rough ministry days, the only good thing that happens is that you don’t quit. I hope that for you, and for my little girl, those days are few. But when they come, and you’re tempted to run away to the lake, resolutely point your car toward church instead. and as you drive, look around. Somewhere in that great cloud of witnesses surrounding you, you’ll see some old-time ministry heroes, cheering you on!
Numbers 11:14-15; Psalm 55:6-7; Jeremiah 9:1-2; Philippians 1:23-24 Copyright 2010 ‘ Press On! Ministries
It’s a pastime that sets me up for lots of teasing, but I still like to wander in cemeteries. I’m intrigued by tombstones–the older, the better. Epitaphs used to be some sort of final admonition to the living, like the classic “Prepare to Follow Me.” Tombstones now tend to be unemotional records of names and dates, but I enjoy searching for the ones that are different. Sometimes they make me laugh. In Mississippi, the deceased’s address is solemnly engraved below his name: RFD 2. Is he expecting mail? A Wisconsin man wanted to tell us that he has just “Gone Fishin’.” In North Carolina, an elderly preacher is buried shoulder-to-shoulder with his wives–all four of them. In south Alabama, I sat a long time by the grave of the aunt I was named for. My own maiden name is engraved on her tombstone. For me, that was a sobering sight. Sometimes I cry in cemeteries. On a late fall afternoon, I discovered a fresh and elaborately-carved pumpkin on the grave of a ten-year old girl who had died many years earlier–on October 31. Walking among children’s graves, I grieve for my own baby boy in heaven. In the Deep South, I discovered a poignant tombstone marking the grave of a young father. The engraving read sadly, “All Our Hopes Lie Buried Here.” When I enter a cemetery, I am gripped by the truth that each marker represents a human soul who lived, loved, and labored, who created, cried, and celebrated. Each one, with all the details of his life, was fully known to God. I might categorize the deceased as we do in life: male, female, rich, poor, young, old. But God’s one-word epitaph for every tombstone would be SAVED or LOST. In life, every individual chooses which epitaph his will be. When I walk out through cemetery gates, I celebrate knowing as my Savior the One Who has conquered death. Death holds no sting for me! And I praise Him that He lets me spend my life serving Him. Because He has called me to ministry, I can devote my days to helping change future epitaphs from LOST to SAVED! I’m overwhelmed at my privilege. After all, what else really matters? Someday, maybe, I will be walking through a cemetery and stroll by your grave. I’ll read your epitaph and wonder about you. But, of course, you won’t really be there. You will be forever with your Master. And in heaven, I promise, you won’t remember any of the sacrifices of ministry. You will just be overwhelmed with gratitude that He let you spend your life helping to change epitaphs. Copyright 2010 ‘ Press On! Ministries
Even now that I’ve grown up, the hill still looks steep. My grandparents’ farmhouse sat at the top, and at the bottom, Granddaddy’s tin-roofed store huddled between the road and the creek. A gravel driveway wound slowly between house and store, but whenever Grandmother asked me to ‘run fetch’ something she needed, I took the shortcut straight down the hill instead–scrambling through the rails of the whitewashed fence and across the wide flat rock, hopping over fresh cow pies and avoiding blackberry brambles, galloping barefoot to the barbed wire that separated pasture and road. I’d pull from Granddaddy’s wooden shelves whatever Grandmother had asked for’a bottle of ketchup, maybe, dodging his teasing. (‘Cat soup? Why does she need cat soup? Our cats eat mice!’) Loaded down with the ketchup, and maybe a sack of sugar and a can of people soup besides, I’d start the climb back to the house. The hill was a lot steeper going up. I always wanted to quit, but I never did. For one thing, I knew my supper depended on my faithfulness. And I had learned a trick that seemed to flatten the slope: I just kept looking down. As long as I looked only at my next step, I didn’t think about the steepness of the path or how far I had to go. I’d lower my chin and take one step, one step, one more step. Enough steps in a row, and I’d be at the top, crossing the rock, through the fence and up the wide stone kitchen steps–toward my grandmother’s smile. My childhood climbing technique is still useful on morning walks and mountain hikes. It’s even more useful when I stand before a mountain of ministry obligations with duties squatting on my shoulders and uncertainties weighing on my mind, when unwanted changes that call for me to adjust and adapt have plopped onto my path like giant, stinky cow pies. I’d rather quit and sit (or run away) than press on. But I know that if I will stop staring in dismay up the trail and instead lower my chin to focus only on the task at hand (not a bad posture for prayer while I’m at it) and take one step, one step, one more step, before I know it, I’ll have climbed even the scariest peak. My welcome at the top is the smile of the One Who gave me strength sufficient for every step (Deuteronomy 33:25). Then I find it easy to praise Him, for looking back down the path, it’s obvious that even with the help of my trusty climbing technique, that hill was way too steep for me. Copyright 2010 ‘ Press On! Ministries
Doing Too Much
You might be doing too much if . . . You have never seen the bottom of your laundry hamper. Clothes that have to be ironed are only worn warm. By the time you sew on the button, your child has outgrown the shirt. Your mother asks, ‘Who is this?’ when you call. You have bought a belated birthday card’for your husband. All your cookbooks feature 15-minute meals. The berries you bought for making jam died a moldy death instead. You typically eat while in motion. Some days, Excedrin and coffee are your bread and water. A 10-minute traffic delay can shatter your schedule. You enjoy church partly because it’s a chance to sit. You have been known to arrive at church in your bedroom slippers. You scribble your grocery list in the margin of the bulletin during the service. Coupons lie crumpled in your purse until they expire. You wrap the baby gift as you drive to the shower. You’d never wake up without your alarm. Sickness just means you run a little more slowly. You return exhausted from vacation. No matter what you are doing, you feel you should be doing something else. If you’re doing too much . . . You’ll quickly lose the joys of stable ministry done ‘heartily, as to the Lord.’ His Spirit’s sweet fruit will sour in your anxious heart. Your health will suffer. (A chicken running around with its head cut off is headed for KFC.) You’ll be too busy doing the urgent to do the needful. You’ll stop doing too much when . . . You slam the door on the thief of hurry. You stop hearing every human request as a divine command. You post your priority list right side up. You master the gentle art of asking for help. You discover that exhaustion is rarely the route to success. You stop believing it all depends on you. You follow the Master from your frazzled race to His desert place, and there ask Him to teach you how to do just exactly enough. Colossians 3:23, Luke 10:41-42, Mark 6:30-32 Copyright 2010 ‘ Press On! Ministries
Have you ever been to Slapout? That friendly little Alabama town was our temporary home while we helped a nearby church planter. Slapout has a scenic lake and a strange name that came, the locals say, came from a store too small to carry a full line of provisions. Unwilling to admit he didn’t carry what a customer wanted, the storekeeper would claim it was out of stock ‘Sorry,’ he’d say, ‘I’m slap out!’ I don’t know much about shop keeping, but slap out is a notion I do understand, for it’s how I often feel about the demands of ministry. Sometimes I think I can’t handle even one more problem. When I see a new one coming, I want to yell at it, ‘Go away! I can’t deal with you. I’m slap out of patience!’ When the devil attacks with a fresh army of temptations while I’m still wounded from our last battle, I want to surrender, ‘I can’t fight you anymore. I’m slap out of courage.’ There are days when I can’t make even one more decision, because I am slap out of wisdom. Another person arrives needing compassion, but I’ve already doled out so much to others that my stock is depleted. I see other ministry pressures heading my way (grumblers to pacify, conflicts to resolve, programs to plan, lessons to study, company to entertain), and I’m tempted to slam the door on all of them. ‘Sorry, can’t help you. I’m slap out!’ Of course I am. Such emptiness in my spirit only proves that ‘in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells’ (Romans 7:18). Pride tells me I have to be sufficient in myself, but pride is a liar. What I like to think of as my own competence for ministry is actually ‘His strength made perfect in my weakness’ (II Corinthians 12:9). In my own strength, I’m a store with empty shelves, unable to meet my own needs, much less help others. That’s the truth, and there’s no shame in admitting it. After all, I’m not meant to be the source; I’m just a channel for the Supplier of all good gifts. When I acknowledge that all the springs of my faith, all my capacity for ministry and good works, are in Him (Psalm 87:7), He fills my heart from His infinite store of riches in glory’and then my cup runs over! Restocked and replenished, I’m once more ready and eager to serve my customers. I ask Him for filling with humility and yet with boldness, for He has given His unfailing promise to supply all I need to do His will. And He, unlike the rest of us, is never slap out! Copyright 2010 ‘ Press On! Ministries
Too Tired to Run
Too tired to run and too scared to stop’that was Elijah. The tired part isn’t hard to understand. He had just humiliated and executed 450 false prophets and prayed so earnestly and fervently that a 3′-year drought ended. Then he had tucked up his long robes and outrun a king’s chariot. The scared part is understandable, too. After receiving death threats from the evil Jezebel, the prophet ran again, this time into the scorching wilderness where he collapsed under the shade of a juniper tree. Exhausted and depressed, he prayed to die. An angel came in answer to his prayer’not to escort him to glory, but to provide what God knew he needed. What did he need? Not more thrilling displays of Jehovah’s power, not glorious visions and fresh challenges, not even exposition of scripture. He needed the most ordinary of things: sleep and food. Stretched out under the tree, he took a nap. Soon the heavenly messenger woke him for a snack of angel-food cake. He ate, rolled over, and took another nap. Later, roused again by the angel and invigorated by more food, he set off for a Mt. Horeb retreat. Alone with God in a cave, He poured out his heart to One who understood. I have served you zealously, he cried, but those people are not only critical and obstinate–they want to kill me! Suddenly a strong wind split the rocks; the earth shuddered; a fire roared. But the Almighty was in none of these. Instead, He spoke gently to Elijah as he stood wrapped in his mantle, breathing fresh air at the mouth of the cave. You’re not alone, God explained, and you don’t have to deal with the wicked by yourself. I’ll handle that job, and I’m sending you an assistant to help you do yours. Maybe some morning you will wake under a juniper tree with the bone-deep ministry fatigue that Elijah knew’the spiritual exhaustion that follows both victories and terrors. When you find yourself too tired to run, don’t be scared to stop. Do the simplest things: sleep and eat. Find a cave where you can pour out your heart to God, releasing to Him the uproar of your emotions. Breathe fresh air and wait. In the quietness, you’ll soon hear the still, small, encouraging voice of the One who understands. Copyright 2010 ‘ Press On! Ministries
What Did You Do All Day?
‘So what did you do all day?’ I knew the question was simply a way of opening our dinner conversation, and that my family wasn’t checking up to see that I earned my room and board, but the question still annoyed me. My exhausted self wanted to holler, ‘Look around and see!’ I’m glad I held off on the hollering, for except for supper’and it was rapidly disappearing’they could not see anything I had done that day. All the tasks that had consumed my time and energy were invisible. That day, I transformed a disordered mess of stinky laundry into neat, clean squares hidden in drawers. My rag and I banished clouds of household dust, and my vacuum and I evicted underbed dustbunnies from the premises. (Where did they go?). I hauled trash to the curb and watched it disappear down the street in a big truck. I reorganized a hidden closet shelf and removed obscure stains from sofa cushions. I brought home a mountain of groceries and stowed them neatly but invisibly in the pantry, fridge, and freezer. I mended an unseen pocket in my husband’s dress slacks and fed the houseplants with invisible fertilizer. I unclogged a sluggish pipe and the gunk had gurgled down the drain. I ironed a dozen shirts; the wrinkles were now gone. And who could see that under the spreads, all the beds had clean sheets? I answered lots of mail, but there were no stamped and sealed envelopes to advertise my diligence, since the letters had traveled through cyber-space. Plans I had made for a Bible study and ladies’ luncheon were rattling around in my brain, not yet on paper. I proofread Sunday school lessons on the computer and bought airline e-tickets for my husband’s next preaching trip’two more intangibles. No one had heard me practice the offertory or review my scripture verses. And nobody overheard the counseling, encouraging, and checking-up I did in telephone calls sandwiched between my other tasks. All I had done that day were the usual chores of any ministry wife. They added up to a day well spent. Maybe they were even more significant for being humanly invisible’for those who serve ‘with eyeservice, as menpleasers’ don’t receive the reward that comes from serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:22-24). And the God of the universe did see them. He is not so unjust that He will forget to honor all loving ministry, no matter how commonplace, done for His children (Hebrews 6:10). I didn’t detail my long list of accomplishments to my family. They were too busy eating. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do something visible–can some tomatoes, crochet something, or just post my scratched-off to-do list on the refrigerator. But even if nobody ever notices what I do, it’s enough for me to know that the Master is watching, and He always knows what I’ve been up to all day. Copyright 2010 ‘ Press On! Ministries
The Easy Way
Even after I had tried every recipe in every one of my cookbooks, my biscuits still didn’t taste like the ones I remembered from mornings in my grandmother’s kitchen. In my memory, they were perfect, and nothing else would do. When I asked my mom if she knew her mother’s secret recipe, she laughed a while before answering, ‘Those were canned biscuits.’ I was shocked. This was the grandmother who raised ten children on a mountain farm’milking, gardening, preserving to feed them, sewing through the night to clothe them, quilting by hand to keep them warm. By nature and necessity, she made everything from scratch. Except, it seems, biscuits for a horde of hungry grandchildren. The more I thought about it, the more I understood. We woke up early and starving. She always promised that if we picked blackberries without complaining, she would make sure we had warm jam for breakfast’and blackberry jam just begs for biscuits. I can’t even imagine how many we devoured. Now, hearing the whack of a roll of refrigerated biscuit dough on the edge of a kitchen counter takes me back to her kitchen and reminds me of what she taught me by example: sometimes it’s okay to do things the easy way. Every ministry wife I know works hard. I’m sure there are lazy ones (if that’s you, stop reading here), but I’ve yet to meet one who isn’t diligent to the point of exhaustion. She knows her job has eternal significance, and she’s determined to do it right. But I’ve noticed that the most relaxed and joyful ministry wives, the ones who wear well over the long term, are the ones who have learned that sometimes it’s okay to underdo, understate, uncomplicate. It’s hard to do that without guilt. I remember feeling terrible the rushed evening I served visiting missionaries KFC chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and both peas and biscuits from cans–on paper plates. But when the good memories of a relaxed supper outlasted my guilt, I developed enough courage to occasionally rerun offertories and leave bulletin boards bare. I changed our formal ladies’ tea into a picnic and stiff weeknight bridal showers into happy after-church fellowships. Monthly ladies’ meetings with agendas, officers, and committees were swapped for informal gatherings with volunteer help. Some folks didn’t even notice; those who did, seemed relieved. We discovered together, as stress levels dropped, that simpler is nearly always sweeter, and some traditions hold more trouble than value. What matters of course is not programs, but people. Just as sweet as her jam biscuits, was my grandmother’s smile as she plopped them onto our plates. Her recipe didn’t matter, but her relaxed attention did. Maybe it was precisely because she made biscuits the easy way that she had time to sit and smile at us across the breakfast table. If your church is still at the simple-by-necessity stage, enjoy it! But maybe this January morning finds you standing nose to nose with a complex, demanding church calendar, and you feel weary as you foresee months of frantic dogpaddling through its details. Sit down today and bravely, prayerfully, decide where and how to simplify. Believe what this grandmother is telling you: sometimes it really is okay to do things the easy way. Copyright 2011 Press On! Ministries
The Point Loma Pause
It only happens when we’re visiting our friends in southern California, and only outdoors. We’re chatting away to a background of rustling palms, singing birds, and the muffled hum of traffic on its way to the Pacific when abruptly’literally out of the blue’an enormous fuel-heavy jet loaded with vacationers and their luggage lifts off from the nearby San Diego airport. Its shadow blocks the sun. A growling, deafening roar paralyzes conversation. They call it the Point Loma Pause. It lasts only about 18 seconds, but it happens a lot. The first time you experience it, it does give you pause, but after a while, you don’t look up anymore or even think much about it. The Pause is an accepted part of open-air life in that gorgeous place. The last time we were there, the Pause became my friend when by the time it ended, I had decided not to say what I had been right on the verge of saying when it started. Instead I (whew) detoured toward words that were kinder and more loving, more hopeful and positive–better in every way than I had planned. It’s amazing, the good that can come from waiting even 18 seconds before letting my words fly. There are some pauses in the Bible. They’re Selahs–musical notations that gave Psalm singers a break to rest their voices. Selahs gave players of timbrels and harps, trumpets, organs, psalteries, and cymbals time to breathe and re-tune their instruments. A Selah was a moment of silence, not awkward and involuntary like the ones in Point Loma, but a welcome break. These short and simple pauses invited the congregation and musicians to ‘think about that!’, to consider the rich truths that filled their stanzas. Truths like God’s sovereignty and justice, His righteousness and holiness, His providential control over detail of every life. Right in the middle of their song, the people stopped to think about the God of the music. Thou art my hiding place; Thou shalt preserve me from trouble; Thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance. Selah. (Psalm 32:7) The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. (Psalm 46:7) And the heavens shall declare His righteousness: for God is judge Himself. Selah. (Psalm 50:6) Blessed be the Lord, Who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation. Selah. (Psalm 68:19) If you keep the music of your days playing loud and fast without any scheduled Selahs, you’ll always be out of breath. Others will be jarred by sour notes coming out of your mouth. You’ll be off-key and out of sorts–flat when you need to be sharp, sharp when you should be gentle, phony when it’s better to be natural. These are your cues that it’s time for a Selah, signals that it’s time to take a few deep breaths and re-tune your heart. Pausing even 18 seconds to remember His loving providence over a quaking world can head off panic. If you stop to focus on His longsuffering before you hit ‘send,’ you’re likely to reword that e-mail. Seconds spent recalling His lovingkindness toward you will increase your patience toward other wandering sheep. A short break to remember His justice will blunt your passion for personal vengeance. Focusing on His omnipresence will lessen your loneliness. Taking frequent Selahs to turn your mind from your temporary crises to His eternal truths will keep you singing all day long. When I’m outdoors in Point Loma and have something I have to say right that minute, the short Pause can seem awfully long. I want to raise my voice and press my point over the sound of the roar. How foolish to be so impatient. If it’s worth saying, it can wait 18 seconds. And how silly to react impulsively to the circumstances the Lord allows in my day without taking even that much time to look up to Him first. Pauses may be small moments in the song of a woman’s life, but they can make a big difference. Selah’think about that! Copyright 2013 – Press On! Ministries