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Seeing a Sermon

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Last week, I found this little treasure in my Bible. I don’t remember the sermon — obviously it was something about being salt, light, sheep, and branches, God’s voice and Psalm 81:10. I’m sure whoever the preacher was made all that fit together beautifully.

I don’t remember any words, though. I don’t even remember who was preaching. I just remember looking down at my little Daniel taking these notes. No one told him to do it. I didn’t hand him a pen and paper and say, “Here boy, now listen to the preacher and write down what he says.” No, he did it on his own. I doubt he even knew what “providence” meant. All he knew was his Mama was taking notes, so he wanted to do it too.

I kept this in my Bible to remind me there are little eyes watching. Children (and humans in general) have always been better at imitating what they see more than what they hear.

It was a vivid example to me that I carry a huge responsibility, a heavy burden. The next generation was watching me, and in my heart I prayed, “Lord help me to always give him something worth following.

I made a decision when my children were born not to be one of those “Do as I say, not as I do” parents. If I didn’t want them to do it, I tried not to do it either.

Although they’re all adults now, they don’t stop watching us just because they’re grown. The weight of responsibility is still on our shoulders to give our children an example of how to live, how to treat people, how to conduct themselves, how to be productive citizens, even though they’re living on their own.

The other day I heard my mother in law, Sue, say, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” Even though I didn’t tell her, I thought about how she probably doesn’t realize it, but she’s a living sermon to me every day.

Sue Hall is one amazing lady. I watch how she treats her husband, her grown children, her grandchildren, her extended family, friends and neighbors. I love how kind and generous she is. I love how she helps my father in law work in the yard and shows him such respect. He loves the ground she walks on, and she deserves it.

I love how she cooks for us, how she’s always thinking of us, how she buys us little gifts, sends people notes, makes meals for the sick, visits folks in the nursing home every single week, and how she’s never met a stranger. I love that her door is always open, and she’s always happy to see us come in. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for us if we needed it.

She loves to travel. Last summer when she and Mike went with us to Alaska to visit my daughter, Lindsey and son in law, Dan, we were running to keep up with her. No peak was too high, no hike too steep, no food too different for her to try.

sue

She isn’t afraid of the latest technology. If there’s a new iPhone, she’s getting it. Whatever the latest fashion, the latest trend, the latest gadget, Sue’s on it.

No getting old for Sue Hall. She’s 75 going on 30.

And I want to be just like her. She might think she’s done raising children. She’s not. She’s the sermon I’m seeing instead of hearing.

I want our children and grandchildren to love coming to our house. I want them to smell something good cooking when they walk in, and always have a jug of tea in the fridge. Just like Sue.

Sue lives like the Apostle Paul instructed us in 1 Corinthians 11:1,

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

At first glance, his directive might seem a little haughty. It’s pretty bold to tell people to follow your example. Scary, actually. But Paul makes a clarification. He’s not just making stuff up that he wants us to do. He’s following Jesus, and he’s giving a living example of how to do that — a sermon you can see and not just hear.

With my dying breath, I want to set a good example.  Our children, even at ages 27, 25, 23, 21 and 19, are still watching, and now we have a precious granddaughter on the way. More than I can express to you, I want that sweet little thing to want to come to Mimi and Pop’s house. When she’s grown up, I hope she’ll say she wants to be the things she saw in me. May I never give her reason not to!

I kept kept Daniel’s sermon notes not only as a reminder that he was watching me, but also as a priceless keepsake of his innocence. I knew one day, all too soon, he would be out on his own, living his life, and I wanted to remember his childlike faith in a God who was the voice of peace and promise. When I see this, it comforts me to know the God of all providence is still watching over my little boy when I can’t anymore.

A prayer is on my heart. Won’t you pray it with me? There is power in agreement.

Precious Lord Jesus, enable us to live like You. To love like You. To be the voice of kindness, gentleness, goodness, love, joy and peace in a world full of anger, hatred, confusion and strife.

May this generation, and the ones to come, follow us as we follow You. May they love others because they saw us love people. May all those who cross our paths be glad they did.

Keep a watch over our children. Guide and protect them, and hold them close to Your heart, as You hold us.

Where we have messed up, where in our humanness and flawed actions we have failed, forgive us and cover our mistakes. Let those who follow us see the intent of our hearts instead of our faults.

May we be a sermon for the world to see You, and may they find hope that You are always at work for our good, for our success. If You are for us, who can be against us?

May all who come behind us find us faithful.

For Your glory, amen and may it be so.

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A Faith that Works

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We had few neighbors growing up. Our grandparents lived across the field. On the other side was the McGee’s who farmed probably a hundred acres. One of the McGee’s lived through the pasture, and behind the pond. That’s what having neighbors means when you live in a farming community.

They had three little girls. The oldest was Sandra, who was in kindergarten when I was in the 5th grade. She caught the bus at my driveway every day.

One cold afternoon as Sandra and I got off the bus, I saw one of our dogs laying on the bank. I ran over to her and quickly realized that although there was hardly any traffic down our dirt road, she’d been hit by a car and didn’t make it. She had been a stray, and we hadn’t had her long, but I was (and remain to this day) a huge dog person, so I was heartbroken.

I knelt beside her and sobbed. Sweet little Sandra put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t cry, Dee. God can fix this. He can make her be okay if you ask Him! Just pray!” Even as a child, I knew I didn’t have the faith to pray that way. I believed He COULD do it, but I didn’t think He would, so I didn’t even ask.

Later, I felt the crushing weight of guilt. Why couldn’t I trust God the way Sandra did? Why hadn’t I prayed God would save my little stray dog? I felt like it was my fault she was dead as much as if I’d been the one driving the car that hit her.

Many years later, dear friends lost their baby. It remains one of the lowest points of my life, and I can’t imagine how much worse it was — and is — for them. As I held her tiny, lifeless body in my arms, I prayed with every fiber of my being that God would breathe life into her. I begged Him for all I was worth to raise her from the dead. I had never prayed so hard for anything in my life.

God didn’t answer that prayer.

After we buried her, I yet again carried a burden of guilt that I didn’t have the faith it took to save little Kaylee. It was truly a life and death situation, and I had failed the faith test.

Where once I felt I had a strong faith, now it seemed so many times in major crisis situations, my prayers were fruitless. I began to cringe inside when someone asked me to pray for them. I wanted to say, “No, please. Get someone else. I’m not the woman of faith you think I am. I’ll only let you down.”

During that low time, my friend Joey (whom I’ve quoted several times in this blog already, and there will surely be more) said while sharing his own experience,”I didn’t have a faith that worked. I had a faith that worked me.”

That’s exactly what I had — a faith that worked ME. My faith was working me to DEATH. And I was exhausted.

A faith that worked me carried the guilt of unanswered prayers. If I had more faith, if I could just have manufactured, strained, squeezed, pulled and pried a mustard seed more, then maybe Kaylee would have lived. Maybe my marriage wouldn’t have failed and my children wouldn’t have had a broken home. Maybe my Daddy wouldn’t have died. What was wrong with me? Did I have some unknown and unconfessed sin? Didn’t I quote enough Scripture? Pray eloquently enough?

I look back on all of that and shake my head. Whew! It makes me tired to even remember it!! I lived in constant fear, worry, guilt and shame. That’s a weight no one can bear.

Today, I’m so much more relaxed. I don’t get so worked up. I don’t feel like it all rides on me. I still carry deep burdens, and I still have some serious prayer concerns for loved ones that remain unanswered, but I don’t feel like I have to manufacture faith that I don’t have anymore.

I still pray! But how different my prayers are today than they were when I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders. I now let the only One who can carry it do the work.

If you ask me to pray for you, I’m going to! I’ll ask God along with you to bring your prodigal son back home, to save your marriage, heal your loved one with cancer or your sick pet, help you find a better job, and if need be, raise the dead. I have the faith that God can do ALL of those things!

Will He? That I don’t know and can’t promise. And I’m okay with that. I’m still going to ask, but I’m not taking responsibility for the results. God knows what’s best.

I wish Kaylee hadn’t died, and if I had to do it over again, I’d still beg God to breathe life into her body. However, I no longer think God didn’t save her because of something I did wrong. I’m grateful I no longer feel God is that mean. I don’t know if we’ll know this side of Heaven why she died, but I’m grateful I know we’ll see her again.

Through the most painful of life experiences, I’ve now seen wonderful things come from the darkest times, and although I don’t always understand why things have to be the way they are, I trust God more now than I did then. I realize now that He may have something even better waiting down the road, and if someone doesn’t get the job we prayed for, I know that could mean a better one awaits them.

All that trying and striving couldn’t manufacture faith — it must come from God. Romans 12:3 says,

God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

That means the burden is on God to give us faith as He sees fit!

And how cool is this? When my faith is low, I can ask for more. In Mark 9, a man who asked for healing for his son knew where faith came from and Who to ask,

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!

These days I spend a lot of my prayer time simply asking for the knowledge of God’s will, trusting that He knows better than I do, and the power to carry it out.

I finally found a faith that works.

 

 

 

Successful Parenting?

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Ever since I posted my last blog about Leaving a Legacy (click here to read it), it’s haunted me. I’ve learned when something doesn’t sit right in my spirit, when I just can’t get peace, I need to find out what’s wrong.

It didn’t take long to figure out why I’m unsettled. It’s the last paragraph. I basically said I’ll consider myself a success if my children turn out to be successful.

On the one hand, who wouldn’t want that!? Who doesn’t want to raise kids to be good people? happy? successful? Who says, “Heck no! I want my kids to lead miserable, dead end lives, full of regret and treat people like crap!”? No parent I know.

But what if, just what if, my kids don’t live up to that? What if they don’t end up with what I consider successful lives? Does that then mean I wasn’t successful at parenting them? What is the measure of successful parenting? What if they don’t turn out right? What if they live in pain and disappointment? What if they don’t walk with God? Will it be all my fault?

And what if they are successful, godly, moral, stable, well adjusted people with happy all-American lives? Can I then take all the credit?

As a new mom, I read every book on parenting I could find. I studied and worried, prayed and obsessed. I religiously did everything the experts said to do and not do. The problem with that is expert advice changes from generation to generation.

My mother said her doctor told her it was perfectly fine to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day when she was pregnant with me — it couldn’t hurt the baby. When I was born he said NOT to nurse me, but to give me Carnation (evaporated milk) in a bottle — it was better for the baby than mother’s milk.

Something told her that couldn’t be right about breast feeding, and she nursed me against medical advice. But she kept smoking. She’d brush the ashes off my little baby blanket as I nursed, choking on second hand smoke. Maybe that’s why I have such bad acid reflux . . .   

Keep in mind that at one time, doctors thought it was a good idea to put leeches on people when they were sick . . .

My point is, the current trends aren’t necessarily perfect knowledge. One day we might very well look back and be shocked at what we did, thinking we were doing what was best for our children.

It’s funny what sticks in your mind, but I actually remember what I was thinking when I took this picture on an unseasonably warm afternoon in November 1997:

Remember this snapshot in time. Soak in their innocence. They haven’t been pressured to try drugs or alcohol. They haven’t had their hearts broken by their first love. They haven’t stressed out over the SAT, college acceptance or class rank. They don’t know prejudice and injustice. They haven’t yet buried a grandparent, or lost a friend in a car wreck. They don’t yet know the world can be a hurtful, scary place. They’re just happy to play outside with their dog. 

kids with kodiak

I would have given anything in the world to protect them from those things. I knew I couldn’t, and it broke my heart.

Although I don’t think you stop parenting your children when they’re grown up, I also know they’re past their formative years and I can’t go back and fix any of my screw-ups. I don’t get a Mulligan or a do-over.

After your kids are grown, and you look back at all your mistakes, and you start to feel overwhelming guilt, it helps to remind yourself of these things:

— You’re not the only influence in your children’s lives. It’s not all about you. A lot of other things jacked your kids up too!

— You’re not responsible for their choices. You can’t choose their paths for them, and you shouldn’t even if you could. They deserve the dignity of living their own lives, and making their own mistakes.

— Your view of success isn’t necessarily the best for them. Like the doctor who told my mom she could smoke while she was pregnant and nursing, you could be clueless to how wrong you are.

If you’re like me and you worry about what they’re doing, if they’re making good choices, if they’re truly happy, how they’ll make ends meet, take heart. Whatever is happening with them right now is just a snapshot of their lives. Who they are today isn’t necessarily who they will be. You grew up a lot after you were officially grown up, and they will too.

I don’t remember which James Dobson book this came from, and trust me, I read them all, but it made a real impact on me. I’ve tried to hang on to this concept. It’s not word for word, but this was the general idea:

Adam and Eve had the perfect environment. Perfect genetics. No mother-in-law trouble. No distractions like TV or social media. No work or financial stress. Most importantly, they had the perfect Parent. He never lost his cool with them, forgot to wash their baseball uniforms, never burned dinner, or missed their awards ceremony at school.

Yet Adam and Eve sinned. They made bad choices, and they had to face the consequences of those choices. Proof positive that you can do it all right, and your kids are still going to fall and make mistakes — we can’t protect them from their humanity.

I think the only conclusion we can draw is this:

We all do the best we can with the information we have.

Give your children your best efforts, and hope and pray they aren’t so jacked up that they’ll turn out to be kindhearted, generous, hard working, happy, moral, godly and content people.

Cut yourself some slack. We should neither take all the credit when our children are successful in the world’s eyes, nor take all the blame when they’re not. Sometimes you do good to make it through the day without choking your teenage son. Remember, success is a relative term.

 

 

Leaving a Legacy

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Here are a few of my most valued possessions. This quilt rack is proudly displayed in our bedroom.

quilts

The two on front and back left were hand stitched by my Grandma Bunton, probably somewhere in the 1950’s.

Both the quilts on the right were made for me by my Mama. The front one is also hand stitched — not a sewing machine touched it, and it took her two years. The back one is made from scrap pieces of the clothes she made for me when I was little — Holly Hobbie smocks, cotton dresses and polyester pantsuits. I remember each outfit with love.

The one in the back middle was made by my daughter, Lindsey for her senior project in high school. I’m incredibly proud she would want to continue a family tradition. Four generations of quilting hang on this rack.

If the house was on fire, after making sure all family and pets were safe, I’d grab this treasure on the way out.

My daddy was a wood worker. When they tore down his home place, “The Old House” as we called it, he took some of the boards off the walls first. The wood was so old it was almost petrified. He said he tore up several bands from his planer trying to sand it down.

Beside me and my beautiful daughter Kaitlyn is the cabinet he made me from those boards. He’s been gone nearly 10 years now, and my grandparents have been gone decades. Priceless doesn’t begin to describe it. I wouldn’t sell this for all the money in the world.

cabinet

When I’m gone, my children will be left with quilts and furniture from their grandparents and great grandparents, and I think they’ll appreciate it — if for no other reason than they know how much it meant to me. But if that’s all I leave them, I’ve failed as their mother. I want them to have so much more than family heirlooms.

Not to be morbid or anything, but I’m going to die one day. And Lord, please, let me die before any of our children. I want to leave them what thieves and moths can’t steal and destroy.  I want to leave them a legacy.

Here are just a few things I consider a legacy worth leaving — not just for them, but the generations that follow them. I’m going to be a grandmother in a few short months, and I’ve got a lot of dreams for that sweet little one.

A legacy of love. Crazy-like, unconditional love. I didn’t just love them when they were lovable. I loved them when they were throwing temper tantrums, messing up my clean house, sassing me, and getting in trouble. As I read to them every night, I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my babies you’ll be.

A legacy of provisionMay they remember I put their needs above mine — not just financially, but emotionally and physically. From midnight feedings and changed diapers, to being grade mother in their classes, to planning their weddings, sending them to college, and giving tax advice.

A legacy of wisdom. I allowed my children to feel the consequences of their choices, both good and bad. Although it nearly killed me, I let them feel the pain of disappointment and disobedience. It makes them good people. Many times, I shut my door and cried to see them hurting, but if it was best for them, I let pain do it’s work.

A legacy of expectationI didn’t demand all A’s, perfection on the ball field, or anywhere else. It didn’t matter how well they did, as long as they did their best. I didn’t push for success in the world’s eyes. I expected effort. Refusing to try wasn’t an option.

A legacy of dependability. The world is a crazy place. You just never know what’s going to happen. People come and go. Children need stability. I hope they saw me be the same person at home as I was everywhere else, day in and day out. They need to know their parents are always there when doubt and fear assails.

A legacy of an example. I’ve never bought into the “do as I say, not as I do” line of thinking. Sure, there are things adults get to do that kids can’t, but providing them an example of how to behave is the least I can do for them.Their personalities differ from mine in many areas, but kindness, honesty, integrity, and keeping your word should be how everyone lives.

A legacy of JesusMay they know, deep down inside, that they are so loved, so wanted, so precious to God, that there is nothing they can do to slip from His grasp or His grace. I pray I have passed His love, faithfulness and goodness to them, like Psalm 78:4 instructs us,

We’re not keeping this to ourselves,
    we’re passing it along to the next generation—
God’s fame and fortune,
    the marvelous things he has done.

I guess time will tell if I was successful or not, and I may not know in my lifetime. Although my relationship with them has morphed into more of a friendship nature now that they’re adults, when they were young, they didn’t need another friend. They had plenty of those. They needed a mom, not another buddy. My intention was never to be the coolest, hippest mom, and I’m sure they’d all agree I probably wasn’t. That’s okay with me.

If my children are as kind and respectful to the waitress as they are to their boss, if they love and honor God and people, if they walk in the grace and mercy of the Lord, uphold justice and fight for goodness, if they’re honest and keep their word, if they do their best as employees, wives and husbands, friends and neighbors, if they love their children enough to teach them what they’ve learned, I’ll have left a legacy worth passing on. In my book, that’s true success.

 

 

What’s in the Well

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Mama always took us kids with her to buy groceries in the summertime. One particular grocery day, as we got home and unloaded all the bags, Mama realized she hadn’t paid. She hadn’t done it on purpose. The cashier never asked, so Mama hadn’t given her the money.

She could have kept that to herself, you know. Daddy was a telephone man and there were mouths to feed. She could surely have used the money, and no one would have been the wiser. There was no surveillance camera. There wouldn’t have been a Crime Stoppers ad taken out in the paper, or a Facebook post saying, “Do you know this woman and these children?

But that wasn’t who she was. Without hesitation, she piled us all back in the car and we drove right back to Food Town on Randleman Road. We followed her inside, and Mama found the same cashier and said, “I’m so sorry. I forgot to pay for my groceries. Here is the receipt, and here’s the money.” I remember how Mama didn’t try to blame the girl. She took the responsibility on herself, and treated her with kindness and respect.

The girl immediately burst into tears and said, “I would have been fired. This is more money than I make in a week and I couldn’t have paid it back. I can’t thank you enough.” Mama patted her hand and said, “Oh now, don’t you cry. It was the right thing to do.” And with that, we went back home.

Honestly, she didn’t do it to teach us anything, even though it surely taught me a huge lesson. She didn’t even really discuss it with us. There was no speech on the way to Food Town: “Now you young’uns watch while I do a good deed here. Let’s see if the manager will give me some sort of reward.” She never even told the manager. She did it because who she was inside was reflected in her behavior.

So many times throughout Scripture, the relationship between the heart and behavior is addressed. Who we really are, what we think and feel, comes out in how we act and how we treat others.

At first glance, what Jesus says in Matthew 5 can be a bit confusing.

27 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

and

21 You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather someone be mad at me than murder me, and I’d rather my husband commit adultery in his heart than have a physical affair! You probably would too. However, there’s more to it than just our behavior. Jesus wants to change us from the inside out. 

When we take a careful look at what He’s saying, we get the deeper meaning. He’s trying to teach us where murder and adultery starts — in the heart and mind. And He doesn’t just mean murder and adultery, but every other mean and terrible thing we can do to people. He might as well have said,

If you are greedy and selfish in your heart, you have already stolen a buggy full of groceries from Food Town.

Maybe you’re thinking you wouldn’t steal a buggy full of groceries and get a cashier fired, but there are other things in our hearts that cause us to hurt people. We say mean and hurtful things, and we do it because that’s what we’re thinking. Oh we try to excuse it with, “I didn’t mean that,” but most of the time what we mean is, “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”

Here in the South, we try to soften it with, “Bless her heart” so it doesn’t sound so harsh. We can say anything in the world as long as we tack that phrase on the end. “Her buck teeth are so bad she can eat corn through a chain link fence . . .  bless her heart.” See how that works? We can say we’re “kidding”, but I guaran-daggone-tee the girl in question is in dire need of orthodontic work, and she knows it.

Until your heart is changed, your behavior won’t change. Not for long anyway. You can try to keep it hidden, push it down, cover it up, and white knuckle your way through behavior modification. If you’re mean spirited, everyone around you knows it. Here is why, and you can quote me on this,

What’s in the well comes up in the bucket. 

Every. Single. Time. You might can fake it for a while, but who a person really is eventually comes out. Just give it some time.

We can all be that person like Mama — the one who does the right thing even if no one is looking. We can be kind to people, not out of effort, but because it’s natural. Thankfully we don’t have to do it alone. We have some Help. We can take our cold, selfish hearts and turn them over to a God who is in the heart changing business. He tells us in Ezekiel 36,

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

He will do it because He doesn’t want to just change your behavior. He wants to change you on the inside. He wants what’s in the well to be so much love, that when it comes up in the bucket, it will overflow to everyone around you. That’s the only change that will last.

 

Good, Good Father

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In November of 1995, we flew home to NC from Alaska for Thanksgiving. We left Anchorage on the red-eye and flew all night. Traveling with a 7, 5 and 2 year old could be a little tricky, so I made sure none of them had a nap that day to allow them to sleep on the plane.

Shortly after the lights went down in the cabin, all three were curled up, heads in our laps, snoozing away, looking like little angels. Mommy success moment! Now we could lay our heads back and get some shut eye too.

As we boarded, I noticed the family behind us had a 4 or 5 year old little boy. I also noticed that his mother ordered him a Mt. Dew when the flight attendant took our drink orders. This wasn’t going to end well.

Before long, little Johnny was predictably bouncing off the walls — grabbing my seat and swinging on it for all he was worth. I tried to avoid whiplash, and she tried to make him sit still. Neither of us were successful.

First Stage: Bargaining

“If you’ll be quiet and sit down, I’ll get you another Mt. Dew!”

“I’ll be good! I want another Mt. Dew!”

Bartender! Another round for Dennis the Menace!

Second Stage: Threatening

“If you don’t sit down, I’m not taking you to Disney World! I’m going to tell the Captain to turn the plane around!”

*Picks up telephone in the seat*

“Hello? Mr. Captain of the Airplane going to Disney World? Can you turn the plane around since little Johnny won’t be good?”

Little Johnny wails at the top of his lungs, “NOOOOOOO! I wanna go to Disney World! Call Mr. Captain back and tell him I’ll be a good boy!!!”

*Picks up telephone in the seat again*

“Hello? Mr. Captain of the Airplane going to Disney World? Never mind! Little Johnny is going to be good!”

And so it went. For hours. Little Johnny was rewarded with a few more Mt. Dew’s and I couldn’t wait to land in Minnesota so I could get a neck brace and call DSS to have this poor little abused child removed from his mother.

Sometimes you learn what NOT to do by watching other people parent.

My mother had planned since my kids were born to take them to Disney when they were all old enough and big enough to ride the rides, and I made a vow right then that when that day came, I would never use it to manipulate them into behaving. (And also not to give Daniel Mt. Dew. Ever.)

As my kids grew, they each developed a love for a Disney character. Lindsey loved Tigger, Kaitlyn loved Eeyore and Daniel was a Buzz Lightyear man. For a little while, he refused to answer to “Daniel”. At suppertime, I’d have to say, “Buzz Lightyear, come to the table!”

He’d get up on his bed, hold his arms straight out and yell, “To infinity . . . . AND BEYOND!” as he jumped off and ran to the kitchen. *heart melts*

What celebration when we finally told them, “We’re going to Disney World!” It seems to me they should still be this small . . .

Disney 1

It’s safe to say it gave us every bit as much happiness as they got, if not more, to take them on this trip. Seeing the smiles on their faces, the screams of delight as they rode the rides and met their favorite Disney characters made every sacrifice worth it. It’s a toss up as to who was the most thrilled — the givers or the receivers!

Disney 3

Whenever I have trouble remembering how much God loves me, I try to remind myself of how much I love these three, and the two children I was blessed with when Todd and I got married. God is a parent, just like me — but He’s certainly a better one than I am (and Dennis the Menace’s mother on the plane!). Jesus said in Matthew 7,

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

If I have hopes and dreams for my children, and if I love to give them good gifts, how much more must God love to give to us! How much joy it must give Him to see us enjoy His creation, His blessings, His protection and love!

For some reason, I’ve had trouble with the phrase “God’s will.” It has had a harsh connotation, like it’s something being imposed on me, against my will. Sort of like it’s me vs. God, He’s bigger than me and is going to win anyway, so I might as well give in. Even though giving in might mean I’ll be forced to be a missionary to the Aborigines with no Netflix or half and half for my coffee.

(Seemed like I switched gears there, didn’t it? I didn’t. Just hang with me.)

In a recent Bible study, someone shared those same thoughts and feelings as I’ve had about God’s will. Same as me, she said it seemed like God was forcing Himself on her. But then she said if she thinks of God’s will as His DREAMS for her, she could then think of it as something wonderful to be embraced and desired, not something to fear and resist.

I can get on board with that!

God has dreams for us. Big dreams. His will for us is a hope and a future. If you haven’t memorized Jeremiah 29:11, do it.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It will help you remember that His will for you is a great big, wonderful dream. He won’t use it to manipulate you. He won’t hold it over your head to force you to behave, or threaten to take it away from you if you don’t.

If you don’t think it’s come yet, just hang on. He’ll give it to you, when it’s the right time, when you’re old enough and big enough to ride the ride. For no other reason than because He loves you.

He’s a good, good Father.

The Purpose of Pain

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I have always loved all the excitement, activity and tradition that leads up to Christmas. Mama and Daddy would take us walking through the woods on our family land in mid-December to pick out a tree. We always got a pretty cedar, and to this day, a cedar tree smells like Christmas to me.

My aunt Bet took me to see Santa every year at Sears at Friendly Center. I was never bothered by his obviously fake beard. Seemed legit.

santa

The TV shows, oh how I loved them — Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the Grinch. If you missed them, you had to wait until the next year to catch them again. It was happiest time of year for me.

Christmas Eve was the one night my parents didn’t have to make me go to bed. You remember it, right? Desperately trying to go to sleep because the sooner you could, the sooner Christmas morning would be here?

My brother and I had a plan. Whoever woke up first would go wake the other, and together we’d rush into the living room. Even if the first one woke up at 3:00 am, we’d still get up! Mama and Daddy would leave the tree lit all night on Christmas Eve, and we loved opening our gifts by only the light of the tree.

When I was 10 years old, I simply couldn’t stand waiting several more days to see what I was getting for Christmas. Finding myself alone in the house, temptation overcame me. I carefully unwrapped all my gifts — just enough to see what they were, and taped them back up again. After I’d seen all my gifts, there was no turning back. Might as well see what my brother Dean was getting too! It felt good!! For the moment anyway . . . .

When the relief of not getting caught wore off, I immediately felt the letdown. Guilt and shame flooded my heart. What had I done!? All the anticipation of Christmas morning was gone for me. What is seen cannot be unseen, and now I had nothing to look forward to AT ALL.

Christmas of 1975 was the single most disappointing Christmas of my childhood. Oh I got what I had asked for — a Cher doll (of “Sonny and” fame), a Kodak Instamatic camera and a roll of film, a purple sweater, a hip leather belt and some bell bottom velour pants. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my presents. I loved them! The problem was that I had wasted my Christmas a couple of weeks beforehand, all alone. It’s funny that I don’t remember exactly what I got for Christmas on any other year. That one year is burned in my mind.

It was too late to save the Christmas of ’75, but I was determined to save the rest of my Christmases. Never again did I want to experience that kind of pain. After that, they could have laid a Kleenex over each of my gifts and I still wouldn’t have looked!! I’d learned my lesson because pain is an excellent teacher.

That same year, I remember my 5th grade teacher telling us a story about a boy who didn’t experience pain. The boy had some sort of nerve dysfunction. He could fall down and scrape his knees and it didn’t hurt! He could eat candy for dinner and never get a stomach ache; mash his finger in the door, stump his toe on the couch, or get stung by a bee — no pain!

As she told the story, I remember thinking the inability to feel pain was a pretty good problem to have! What a lucky boy! But Mrs. Wray was trying to teach us a lesson about the PURPOSE OF PAIN. Eventually the boy died from injuries and infections. He didn’t know to take his hand off the hot burner because it didn’t hurt him to get burned. He didn’t know to tell his parents something was causing him pain, so they didn’t take him to the hospital until it was too late.

Pain is a gift that saves our lives. It’s nature’s way of making us stop doing something unhealthy for us.

Is something hurting you? Are you in a painful place in your life? Lonely at Christmas? Take a close look at it. Is that pain trying to tell you something? Maybe it’s time to make a change!

Do you have habits and addictions that are not only hurting you, but causing your family great heartache?

Are you sick and unhealthy because of poor eating and exercise habits?

Do you keep losing relationship after relationship because of some behavior of yours?

Maybe the problem isn’t everyone else. Maybe YOU need to change — even if that change is to stop going after the same dysfunctional relationship time and time again!

Does it finally hurt bad enough to do something different? This is a wise slogan:

Until the pain of staying the same exceeds the pain of change, most people never change.

We are given the gift of pain to force us to change. If something is bad for us, it’s GOOD for it to hurt so we will STOP IT. God Himself might be speaking to you through your pain.

One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes:

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

My husband has asked me not to look at the American Express bill online until after Christmas. He knows I look at it every day because I update our expenses on an Excel spreadsheet (I’m a tad bit obsessive about finances!). It’s not easy to skip looking at the finances for a few days, but I don’t want to know what he’s getting me. I learned my lesson 40 years ago. All Christmases are safe because of the painful Christmas of 1975.

Merry Christmas to you, one and all! God’s richest blessings on you and your family as we celebrate the birth of Christ. May we all have the love of family surrounding us, may relationships be healed, and our hearts be filled with joy! And may God give us the wisdom to change any harmful behaviors before pain forces us to! May your hearts be filled with love, hope and peace. I love you all!

The Power of Perspective

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Growing up, Mama kept my cousins Darrell and Melissa after school and all summer. She carried us along on all her shopping excursions and errands in our trusty 1968 Pontiac Catalina.

For some unknown and illogical reason, the worst, most embarrassing place in the world for her to take me shopping was K-Mart. I would beg, “No, Mama, please don’t go to K-Mart! Let’s go to Sears! Or Zayre’s! Anyplace but K-Mart!” I guess I didn’t want my schoolmates to think we were poor and couldn’t afford pricier places to shop.

My pleas fell on deaf ears.

It must have been Christmastime because, Lawd ‘a mercy, the place was packed. My worst fears were realized as I recognized a classmate from school. In full blown stealth mode, I slid into the middle of a circular clothes rack and hid, trying not to breathe. Relief flooded my soul as I peeked out through the women’s blouses to find the boy apparently hadn’t seen me. Crisis averted!

Quiet as a church mouse, I waited for him to head to a different department. A SWAT team armed with tear gas couldn’t have gotten me out of that clothes rack until then.

Much to my horror, a booming voice came over the loud speakers:

ATTENTION K-MART SHOPPERS!!! ATTENTION K-MART SHOPPERS!!! Would DEE BUNTON please come to the front desk!? Paging DEE BUNTON!  Please come to the front desk! Your cousin Melissa can’t find  you!

Oh the shame!! Melissa had me PAGED?! Now not just the boy in my class, but everyone in the whole store knows I’m here!

I was still shook up when Daddy got home from work. I tried in vain to explain why I was so upset. Didn’t they know that boy could go tell everyone at school he’d seen me there?! I’d be the talk of the entire 6th grade! Daddy said,”Why would he go tell people you were poor enough to shop at K-Mart? He was there, too!” I couldn’t see past my own selfishness to understand that logic. All that mattered was someone at school knew our dirty little family secret — we shop at K-Mart.

The boy never spoke of it as far as I know, and neither did I. Maybe he didn’t want it made public that he was a fellow K-Mart shopper. Maybe he was proud that his family took advantage of Blue Light Specials. Maybe his world didn’t revolve around me and he never gave it a second thought. Either way, my fragile 12 year old reputation was spared a painful death!

Several years and a measure of maturity later, I had graduated from college and gotten off my parents’ dime. I was home for Christmas and needed to pick up a few more small gifts. Naturally, Mama and I went to K-Mart.

When we came back, Daddy said, “Oh, you went to K-Mart, huh?! Did you hide in the clothes rack!?!”

“No, Daddy, I didn’t.” *Insert eye roll* — he was a funny guy.

“I see how it is. When it’s MY money, you hide in shame. When it’s YOUR money, you waltz in like you own the place!”

That pretty much summed it up! I didn’t give a flip who saw me at K-Mart when I was the one paying the bills!

It was all about perspective, you see. I wasn’t able to understand my parents’ point of view until I was in their shoes, many years later. Having the benefit of age and maturity, Mama and Daddy wisely refused to spend hard earned money on a more expensive place to shop just so I wouldn’t be embarrassed. That’s a surefire way to raise a spoiled, materialistic child.

Many times we don’t understand what someone else is feeling, thinking, or going through until we ourselves are going through it. The much greater, more noble task is to be able to empathize with the plight of others without having to experience it yourself. I was way too young and immature to be able to say, “Aw shucks. Who cares what people think about me at school?! My daddy works hard for the money!”

When I was in the Valley of the Shadow of Death/the Dark Night of the Soul, there were a couple of people that had been less than gracious to me who later ended up going through a divorce themselves. One came back to say she just didn’t understand until she’d actually been there, and she sought my forgiveness. I cut her some slack — knowing I most likely have done that to someone else myself along the way.

There were others who were supportive from the get-go, putting their arms around me and comforting me with, “I’ve been there. I know you feel heartbroken. I lived through it, and you will too.” It gave me hope to see others had survived, when I wasn’t sure I would.

Then there were those who had NOT been in my circumstances, yet they were able to imagine what it might feel like. Their kindness and support made quite an impact on me both emotionally and spiritually. And equally as important to me are those who have genuinely been glad that I have found a happy, joyful life again, and have told me so!

Oh the heart of a soul who is able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, even if they have never and maybe never will walk in them —  to find a way to empathize with someone else’s pain and heartache, joys and successes, and be able to feel it in their own hearts.

Can you do that? Can you ascend to a level so deep that you can feel what others feel? Can you see their pain, or their elation, and imagine their perspective? Sometimes, empathy and compassion are what we all need most.

Romans 12:15 says,

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

All sorts of emotions encompass everyone in your life, day in and day out. Try to imagine their circumstances, see with their eyes, and feel with their hearts. If they’re grieving, grieve with them. If they’ve gotten some great news, be happy not just FOR them, but WITH them. Give them a call, send them a card, an email, or even a text. A nice pat on the back goes a long way.

There is something supernatural about stepping outside your own circumstances and into the life and heart of someone else. It makes us expressly human, and somehow we find its a better world for us all.

 

 

Singing Angels

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Merry Christmas, one and all! I suppose it’s required that all preachers, teachers and wanna-be writers like me focus on the birth of Jesus this time of year, so here’s my contribution.

Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the Christmas story. When my children were growing up, we always read Luke chapter 2 on Christmas morning. There’s something holy about reading about the birth of Jesus by the light of the tree before a single present is opened. It will always be a most treasured memory for me.  I can close my eyes and still hear their sweet young voices as they read,

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The other folks starring in our Christmas play are the Magi, or Wise Men. Matthew 2:11 tells us,

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Here are a few things you can use to wow and amaze everyone at your company Christmas party, in no particular order:

Fun Christmas Fact 1: Nowhere in the Bible does it say angels sang. It says, the angels SAID

However, it doesn’t say the angels DIDN’T sing either. They might very well have! Please don’t spoil everyone’s Advent service by yelling, NO THEY DIDN’T! in the middle of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (which by the way just came on as I’m writing this and I’m singing right along!)

Fun Christmas Fact 2: There are no female angels mentioned in Scripture. The only two angels with actual names (Gabriel and Michael) were men.

Fun Christmas Fact 3: Angels didn’t have wings. They were mighty warriors who protected children and spoke to people in dreams, announcing important news from the Lord.

Fun Christmas Fact 4: Mary is frequently riding a donkey in Christmas movies. The truth is, she probably walked.

Fun Christmas Fact 5: The innkeeper always gets a bad rap for turning away a young girl in labor, but there is no record of him at all!  We don’t know how Joseph and Mary knew all the hotels were booked. We just know there was no room for them.

Fun Christmas Fact 6: No animals or stable are mentioned. We really don’t know where Jesus was born. The only place Mary could find to lay her newborn was a manger, a feeding trough.

Fun Christmas Fact 7: Most biblical scholars think Jesus was probably born in April. No December 25. No snow.

Fun Christmas Fact 8:  The only people there that night besides Mary and Joseph were the shepherds. The Magi didn’t find a baby in a manger with Mary and Joseph. They found a child in a house. Jesus was probably two years old by the time they followed the star and found him.

Fun Christmas Fact 9: We don’t know how many Wise Men were there. We assumed there were three since they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Could be there were many and only three brought gifts. Or maybe one brought them all and the others stood there empty handed and awkward!

We won’t even DISCUSS Santa, Rudolph, Frosty or any Little Drummer Boys. I think I’ve upset everyone enough for one day.

Don’t worry, y’all. You don’t have to boycott Christmas plays, throw away your Nativity Scene, or stop watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It’s not my intention at all to get us to change our Christmas traditions. That would be missing the point of the season. We need a reason to focus on family, charity, love, hope and joy. I personally love the time of year we celebrate Christmas. I need something to distract me from the cold and dark! We don’t need to throw out Baby Jesus with the bath water!

Lest you think I’m Ebeneezer Scrooge, here is our manger scene displayed in our living room as we speak.

manger scene

Take a close look! The angels are girls and they have wings. Barnyard animals in the stable. I might add more — I’m a big animal lover. Three Wise Men. There’s even some random dude playing the bagpipes. I let him stay because I don’t think anyone should be alone at Christmas.

While we celebrate the birth of Christ, we also celebrate culture and tradition. We don’t have to lose the wonder just because we’re grown. May you have a blessed Christmas season, and may your heart overflow with love and joy.

Christmas — that magic blanket that wraps itself about us, that something so intangible that it is like a fragrance. It may weave a spell of nostalgia. Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance — a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved. ~Augusta E. Rundel

Choose Life

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Several years ago, I heard a woman tell her story about checking her son into rehab for alcohol and drug addiction. She spoke of his downward spiral, of the destruction and carnage left in its wake, of lost jobs, flunking out of school, sleepless nights, anxious days, and spending every waking hour wondering what in the world would happen next. She was bewildered. How had this demon of addiction invaded her family?

Finally he had agreed to go to treatment. Being a supportive mother, she went with him. Truth be told, not just for support, but also to ensure he would actually go through with it.

As they sat at the intake desk to fill out paperwork and answer questions, the counselor looked at her son and said, “Thank you for bringing your mom in. We’ll take her from here.”

Wait . . . what?

By all appearances, SHE was the one tore slap up and all to pieces. She had bags under her eyes, wild and unkempt hair, no makeup from crying, shaking hands, and wrinkled clothes hanging on her haggard frame. She wasn’t just riding the roller coaster with him. She was in the front seat.

I don’t know what happened to them. I don’t know whether he utilized the amazing tools given to him at the treatment center and stayed in recovery. I don’t know whether she got it together and made a manageable life for herself, regardless of her circumstances. I hope she went home, took a shower and SLEPT, knowing that at least for this one night, her son was safe.

What good would it do to keep pacing the floor, wringing her hands, fearing the worst, losing her mind and throwing away peace and serenity? None at all.

When my life was most unmanageable because of fear and worry, a dear friend said to me, “When the plane is going down, they tell you to put on YOUR oxygen mask before you can help others put on theirs.

When you’ve done all you can do, when you just can’t fix it or make it any better, (and many times, when you’re just making it worse anyway!!!), it’s not selfish to take care of yourself. No sense in continuing to  “waller” in misery, as we say in the South. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about your loved one — it means it won’t help for you to die too.

King David found himself in a similar situation. His newborn son was gravely ill, and it wasn’t looking good. The child been born in less than ideal circumstances. Although God described David as “a man after His own heart”, David had some serious character flaws. The baby was the product of an affair with Bathsheba, a married woman. David actually had her husband murdered, then married her himself.

Sort of makes your family seem a little less dysfunctional, doesn’t it? I love that the Bible has stories about real people with real problems. They’re just like the rest of us, only sometimes worse!

2 Samuel 12 records the story:

16 David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. 17 The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused,and he would not eat any food with them.

18 On the seventh day the child died. David’s attendants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, he wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.”

19 David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked.

“Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.”

What David feared most had happened. His son was gone. What to do now? Should he blame God for not answering his prayer? Should he blame himself for being unable to control himself with Bathsheba? Should he blame Bathsheba for tempting him? Could he turn the clock back, do the right thing, and stop this train wreck from happening? No, he couldn’t change the past. What was done was done. It didn’t matter whose fault it was. The child was dead.

20 Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

21 His attendants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”

22 He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ 23 But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

David could have chosen to let this unspeakable tragedy destroy the rest of his life. Choosing to live didn’t mean he didn’t care about his son. He went to Bathsheba and comforted her, and he comforted himself with the assurance that he would see his child again. He did the next right thing — a very simple task of bathing and nourishing his body.

The Bible records that David felt deep conviction for the things he’d done wrong. He sought and accepted forgiveness, grace and mercy. I believe he wisely realized that beating himself up over it wouldn’t help. He accepted what he couldn’t change, and he set his mind to do the best he could with what he had left.

Friends, if you’re like the distraught mother or King David, and you can’t fix or heal some person or circumstance, can’t change the past or what you’ve done wrong, please don’t let yourself go. It won’t help. Care for that wayward or sick loved one the best you can. Pray for healing. Take time to grieve the loss of hopes and dreams, or even of the loss of life.

It’s time to get up out of your sackcloth and ashes. Take a long bath, put on some lotion, grab a bite to eat. Wipe your eyes, take a deep breath, and choose life. It’s the only one you’ve got.