Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Is there anybody out there who wants to be child-centered at the holidays but battles their inner Martha Stewart?! It’s like I have an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Their conversation goes something like this:

Angel: “Oh, look at how lovely it is to see you and your family decorating your tree together! The kids are getting big enough to help out. They love to open the boxes, discover forgotten ornaments, and reminisce about who made them. It is just heart-warming.”

Devil: “Yeah, but the kids keep hanging several ornaments in one place and weighing down the branches. You should just move them when they are not looking. It won’t hurt their feelings if they don’t see you do it!”

Ugh. It is embarrassing, but it is true. Every Christmas, I desire to be a mom who is more about the process than the outcome, but the frustrated interior decorator in me fights back. Everyone else seems to be having a good time, but inside of me, it is all-out war!

Once the initial decorating is complete, I spend the rest of the month trying to keep things picked up so that it continues to look lovely and feels peaceful in my home. The irony is that there is no peace when I am constantly trying to keep things clean! Can anyone relate?

We have a new nativity set that was given to us by my parents last year. A few weeks ago, the kids unwrapped the figurines and marveled over them one by one. Later, I placed them on the chest of drawers at the bottom of our stairs so that we could see them often and enjoy them throughout the season.

The next day, I noticed that the wise men had meandered a bit. The shepherds and the animals had also journeyed across the credenza. The kids had obviously been playing with them. I tried to resist the OCD urge, but it got the better of me…I stopped and took the time to tediously rearrange the figurines the way I thought they should look. I made sure they were properly aligned and that they took up the whole space…you know, like it would look in an ad in a magazine. Pleased with my work, I went on with my day and forgot about it.

But, try as I may to keep order, I keep finding those silly people repositioned when I’m not looking. Every time I rearrange them, I turn around and find the whole crew crowded up around the baby.

And, I know why! When my kids picture the story of Jesus’ birth, they imagine that everyone wanted to get a good look at the baby. They suspect that whoever was there wanted to get right up in Jesus’ grill. Of course, they did!

My kids really got me thinking about my preconceived idea of that manger scene. Do I really think that those shepherds who saw angels were really going to come find the Messiah and then just hang back as if they were onlookers at a golf tournament? Polite clapping, anyone? I don’t think so! The Bible reports that the shepherds said, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem to see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15b) Then, it states, “They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough.” (Luke 2:16) They were excited! They were in a hurry! They made a beeline for the baby! And, I bet they wanted to see what had happened up close and personal.

What about those wise men? Now, the Bible says they didn’t arrive until Jesus was a toddler, so placing them in the nativity scene is all wrong, but we can still imagine that once they got there, they didn’t hang back. Matthew’s gospel tells us that the wise men came to see Jesus for one purpose: to worship Him! Even if they reverently brought their gifts and laid them at His feet, do you really think they stayed at an arm’s length? They were looking for the star long before it appeared, and they traveled a long way to see the fulfillment of the prophecy. Don’t you imagine they wanted to touch the baby? Don’t you imagine they wanted to see if all of this that was prophesied was real?

I think my girls have the right idea. I told Bryan about the way they kept repositioning the figurines. That night, he came downstairs from tucking them into bed and reported that the nativity scene upstairs was in the same condition. It makes me smile from ear to ear. How can we hear from God if we are not willing to draw near to Him? I want to be close enough to read His lips!

Years after Jesus’ birth, when children were trying to get close to Him, His disciples corrected them, but Jesus replied, “Let the little children come to me, for such as theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16) Three of the four gospels tell this story. The message must have needed repeating. Jesus was saying that unless we are willing to crawl up into his lap like little children, we will not inherit the kingdom of God. We will not be able to receive all he has for us unless we are willing to draw near like children do.

Psalm 84:3,10 says, “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God…better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” If little children and even the birds find their home in the presence of the Lord, then so should I.

Oh, God, draw me closer! Pull me in! Show me who you are! Help me reposition myself so that I can receive all you have to give me.

The crowd at the manger remains on my credenza. There is not a breath between them. There is no order. In fact it is outright chaos. They are elbowing each other trying to see who is going to get a closer look. I think the baby likes it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Hand You Were Dealt

My husband really enjoys playing poker with the guys. Next to golf, poker is one of his favorite ways to relax with friends. For Christmas 2005, the kids and I gave him a deluxe set of poker chips in a nice, sturdy silver case. A few months later, while my mother stayed with us, Bryan left for a guy’s night out, poker set in hand.

At the dinner table, my mom asked Caroline (then 4) to tell her what Daddy was doing that night. “He is with his friends. They’re putting a puzzle together,” she replied. I giggled. “How do you know that?” my mother asked, amused. “Because he has puzzle pieces in his lunchbox!” Caroline exclaimed.

I have a life-sized picture of that in my mind...a bunch of grown men just hanging out around the table eating Doritos, drinking Mountain Dew, and…putting together a puzzle! Caroline obviously didn’t have a clue about poker!

The rest of us, however, have at least a general knowledge of the game. Your success depends on several things (not the least of which is the ability to bluff, which is why I cannot play worth a hill of beans). It depends more, though, on the hand you are dealt—and your ability to play that hand well.

Two nights ago I was talking to a friend on the phone. She was encouraging me to participate in a weekend retreat that she insisted would help me heal. She prodded, “Of all the people I know who need this, you are the one who just HAS to go.” I know this friend’s heart, and I am confident she would not steer me toward something unless she thought it would benefit me. But, I had to wonder, what is it about me that makes me the ONE person she knows who needs it most? Pride getting in the way, I had to inquire, “Is there something you see in me that makes you want me to go? Is there something in my healing process I am overlooking?” “No,” she said, “I just thought about people I know who have been dealt a really crummy hand, and you come to mind.”

Nice. But, I get why she said that. Anybody who looks at what has happened to me in the past few years can see that I have suffered a lot at once. And, most of it has been completely out of my control. Taking in her remark, I began to get indignant with God. Yeah! I really have been dealt a crummy hand! What’s up with that, God?

Yesterday, I perused my pastor’s “e-votionals” and came across one titled, “Right Now with God.” He discussed the importance of (and the difficulty of) living in the present. He told the story of a woman in prison for murder who maintains to this day that she is innocent. She says she tries to think about what life was like before prison and what it will be like after she is released. She rarely thinks about where she really is. My pastor, mulling over her statement, asked, “How many of us who are free sentence ourselves to a prison of a lost yesterday and an unknown tomorrow?”

Great question. I often have a very hard time enjoying my present. Bryan and the kids, not so much. But, me? Yep. I’m flat out bad at it. It takes a lot for me to lose myself in the moment. It happened once this week that I know of…I was jumping on the trampoline with the girls, and I lost track of space and time. But, it was brief. And, for me, the occurrence is rare.

Last night I was looking at some family pictures from 2006. It was a tough year. I felt sick most of that year and didn’t know why for a long time. My mother-in-law was dying of brain cancer. Bryan and I were chunky—not just a little chunky. And, we looked tired. Because we were. We were young and overwhelmed (parenting three children under age 5) and we were just trying to stay afloat.

But, as I looked at those pictures, I realized that struggle was not the only story of 2006. I saw all three of my adorable little girls with their arms entwined around each other on so many “ordinary” days. I saw innocent times with lots of backyard play and summer fun. I saw dress-up and creek exploration. I saw mealtime and park time and snack time and birthdays and all of the regular stuff of life—all of the “present” moments. And, I remembered it was oh, so good. It was good!

I began to think about what my friend had said: “You have been dealt a crummy hand.” And, I thought about my heart’s subconscious agreement with that. Then, I thought about my pastor’s question: “How many of us who are free sentence ourselves to a prison of a lost yesterday and an unknown tomorrow?” I wondered how many moments I had missed in 2006 (or in any other year, for that matter) because I was imprisoned by my discontent with what had happened or my fear of what might happen. All at once, as if branding my soul, God opened me up and poured in the truth where bitterness had taken root: “You, my beloved,” He said to me, “have been dealt a very, very good hand.” He was right.

Maybe I don’t have a royal flush. But, who would call four aces and a two a bad hand?! We are so often tempted to define our lives by our disadvantages, our trials, our misfortunes, and our pain. I don’t know why it is, but that is just human nature—sin nature. I will always talk about my pain because it has certainly changed me. And, I believe that others who are hurting can benefit from knowing they are not alone in the struggles of life on this earth. There is much to be learned in the school of suffering. But, mark my words: my misfortunes do not define my life! And, they certainly have not dominated it! I pray that I will forever characterize my life by my blessings. They far outnumber my hardships. Furthermore, spiritually, I have inherited EVERYTHING that Christ has been given from God. The Bible says I am co-heir. It says I am entitled to everything the firstborn son has. Wow!

What cards are in your hand? How are you going to play them? Are you sentencing yourself to a prison of a lost yesterday and an unknown tomorrow? Or, can you freely rest in the present? Just because you live in this country and you can read this blog on your computer, it is likely that your present is very, very good indeed.

Learning to live in light of our present blessings is a form of worship. Will you try something with me? Look around you. What does your NOW look like? I see my little girls chilling out in a cozy living room glittering with twinkle lights. I smell the pizza I ordered an hour ago so that I could chill out, too! I hear the carefree sounds of an episode of Phineas and Ferb. I taste the ice cold Diet Dr. Pepper I am drinking so that I can “wake up” for Night of Praise rehearsal at church tonight. And, I feel the tap, tap, tap of the keys on my laptop while snuggling in the soft, red throw blanket on my couch. A pretty great present, if you ask me. In every sense of the word.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Honest Question

At the Moran household, the Christmas season started earlier than usual this year. When we found out Caroline is allergic to nearly every pollen God made, we decided to scrap our tradition of going to cut down a real Christmas tree. We had to grieve the change. All of us like the look, feel, and smell of a real tree. And, we have always made great memories hunting for one. Alas, wisdom told us that holding onto our tradition was not worth sacrificing our child’s health, so we made the switch. Looking on the bright side, we don’t have to worry about how long this tree will last, so we put it up on the day after Thanksgiving, blasted the Christmas carols, lit the “Christmas wreath” candle (I’ve got to have the smell somehow!) and got to enjoying the holidays.

Both of our girls have taken our cue by really jumping into the celebration. Caroline has been taking piano lessons for a few short months, but she is pounding out the melodies of her favorite carols. I love finding her practicing when no one is watching. She has also led our family in lighting the advent wreath at the dinner table, looking up corresponding Scriptures, and singing together. Having big kids is fun. Last night, we watched “The Nativity Story”. It is a non-animated version of the Biblical account of Christmas. I enjoyed the thoughtful questions that my children interjected as we watched. Some days I cannot believe what they already understand. It blows my mind.

But, it was what occurred after the movie was over that really got me thinking. Our movie discussion led to a dialogue about Heaven. Conversations in our household often do. I told my girls about a book I read last week titled, “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo. It is a pastor’s story of his four-year-old son’s trip to Heaven and back. Sounds far-fetched, but after checking references and reading the book critically, I am confident it lines up with Scripture and that it is entirely probable it is true. Caroline and Mary Claire’s eyes lit up as I told them about little Colton’s story. They begged me to show them the book and read from it. As they nestled themselves in bed, I read aloud some of my favorite passages. Caroline asked me to let her take the book to school so that she could read it during her free time. I was struck by the passion she expressed when she said to me, “Oh, Mommy, I want to go to Heaven so badly! I want to see it! I want to be there!” After I put her to bed, I thought to myself, “What eight-year-old kid says stuff like that?” And, I praised God for making a life-altering change in my family.

If this was the only time my children had said they want to go to Heaven, I would not blink, really. But, they talk about it ALL the time. Seriously. We played a game at the dinner table one night called “Would You Rather”. We took turns giving each other questions like, “Would you rather play in the snow or go to the beach?” And we threw in a couple of dilemmas like, “Would you rather lick an elephant or kiss a lizard?” It was silly fun. Then, Mary Claire piped up, “Would you rather live forever or …?” I honestly don’t remember the second part of her question, but I do remember Caroline’s response. “Well, Mary Claire, I want to go to Heaven, so I don’t really want to live forever.” Mary Claire clarified, “That’s what I mean. You will live forever in Heaven.” “Oh,” Caroline replied matter-of-factly, “Then, I want to live forever, of course!”

You know the Scripture in Deuteronomy (6:7) where we are instructed to talk about God, “when we sit in our house, when we walk along the road, when we lie down, and when we get up”? Well, we do. And, in the last three years, invariably, when we have talked about God, our conversation has turned toward the eternal. Since we lost Audrey, life is different. Not just bad different. Good different, too.

Can I ask you an honest question? Do you want to go to Heaven? No one is looking at you, so just get real and acknowledge the truth in your heart. What is your gut reaction when you hear the question? Let’s try one more. Do you want Jesus to come back?

I have discovered that the answer to these two questions is an excellent diagnostic test for the health and maturity of our faith. Less than three years ago, my answer to both questions was “no.” You might think that was because I was not too interested in spiritual things or didn’t spend time studying my Bible or talking with God. And, you would be dead wrong. I was passionate about my relationship with God. Why, then, did I not want Jesus to come back? Why didn’t I desire Heaven? Two reasons, I think: 1) A wrong view of the present world, and 2) A wrong view of Heaven. In short, I had an improper perspective. I didn’t see myself and my life in light of God’s bigger plan.

I was really attached to this world, even if that meant overlooking how many things are wrong here. In some ways, I thought I was invincible. I remember thinking not too long ago that I didn’t want Jesus to come back before I got married and had children. With each passing phase of life, that list just got longer and longer. There was so much I wanted to live for—and that was not bad in and of itself. But, suffering has lifted the veil from my eyes. I am no longer under the impression that this world (in its present state) is a good place to live. My eyes have been opened to the impact of sin—the rampant destruction it causes. And, I have tasted the bitterness of death. Once that happened, my perspective was broadened. I started paying attention to suffering in other parts of the world and to suffering throughout history. I stopped living blindly in my relatively wealthy and comfortable existence. God showed me why we need a Savior and why He simply must come back to redeem His people and this place we call home.

One of the verses of “Joy to the World” reads, “No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.” That last phrase makes an impression on me. We don’t often take the time to think about how far-reaching the curse really is. Some evidence? This is the verse most often cut out when people want to shorten the hymn. I have a version printed from the internet which doesn’t even include the verse. My awesome Casting Crowns Christmas CD has a version of Joy to the World that also leaves out this verse. We sing “He rules the world”, but we don’t understand how far reaching His rule will be and how much will change when He returns. The curse extends over people, but it also extends over the earth. God’s Word says He intends to redeem it all.

Once we change our perspective on this world, though, it is imperative that we increase our understanding of Heaven. If we understand the impact of sin and death on earth and we do not have a clear Biblical picture of where we are going from here, we risk despair. Opening our eyes to the reality of the world as it is can be quite depressing without seeing it through the lens of eternity. Just turn on the news. I didn’t watch it for 2 years straight because I couldn’t handle how sad it was. Once I began to study Heaven—really mull it around in my mind, dream about it, imagine it—I obtained a sense of purpose I never had before. Rather than making me want to leave this sorry place, it made me want to stay and do what God made me to do until I get to go home. Isn’t that interesting? That is why I want my little girls to have a love for Heaven—not just so that they can see their sister again, but so that they will live out the rest of their days here with purpose, joy, and hope.

I used to shut out sad stories, try not to think about other people’s pain for too long, and I avoided the news like the plague. Now, I watch it a little every day. I don’t have to pretend that evil and suffering don’t exist. I don’t have to put them out of sight so that they will be out of mind. In fact, I embrace them because they give me a greater compassion for others, a greater thankfulness for my own blessings, a deeper longing for Christ’s return, and a more urgent motivation to share the gospel with boldness.

Here’s something worth noting: I didn’t get my new perspective by osmosis. You know, we joked about it in school…we wished we could just sleep with our books under our pillows and wake up ready for the test! Ah, but reality is that anything worth knowing requires study. It requires intentionality. I have pursued a knowledge of Heaven, I have asked God to reveal more about His plan to me, and I have made a concerted effort to change the way I think about—well, about almost everything. This new perspective was hard-earned. It was a result of chasing after God in the midst of the refiner’s fire. And, He is not done with me yet.

So, I ask you: What was your answer to the question? Do you want to go to Heaven? Note that I am not asking, “Do you want to go to Heaven when you die?”. I am asking, “Do you desire Heaven?” If your answer is no (or any shade of “yes, but…”), then let me issue you a challenge. Start by praying. Ask God to show you why you don’t desire Heaven. Ask Him to increase your desire for it. Ask Him to loosen your grip on this world. Ask Him to show you how thinking about eternity could improve your here and now. Then, Christian sister or brother, study! Devour Scripture. Eat it up like you need it to survive. Seek out books about Heaven. I guarantee that as you do, road blocks to your personal spiritual growth will come crashing down. We simply cannot enjoy the abundant life without having a clear picture of where we are going.

Finally, make it part of your worship as you contemplate Christmas and Jesus’ birth. As you celebrate, ask God to draw you a picture of the fullness of His plan. Christ was born. Christ died. Christ arose. Christ will come again. The writers of our beloved Christmas carols knew the secret. They knew that the world is under a curse, they longed for a “better and enduring possession” (Hebrews 10:34), and they looked for Jesus’ return. They knew that God’s redemptive work did not stop at the cross or even at the empty tomb. Consider the message from a few of my favorites:

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

“O come, thou Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

From “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”

“For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold, when with the ever circling years come round the age of gold, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”

From “Angels From the Realm of Glory”

“Saints before the alter bending, watching long in hope and fear; Suddenly the Lord descending, in His temple shall appear. Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.”

May your Christmas worship and celebration be full of the hope of Heaven!