Category Archives: Month of Gratitude

30. the holidays…and so much more

winterVisions of decorated trees, twinkling lights, ornaments, front window holiday displays, and Santa (even though I’ve never believed in him) flutter through my mind. The sounds of Christmas carols, bells ringing and noisy family gatherings are heard through memory’s ears. The smells and taste of baked goods, holiday frosting, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and cheesecake tantalize my imagination’s senses – all of this as I think of the holidays. I absolutely love this time of year (and it’s about now that I wish the English language had other words to use besides “love”); everything about it from the Salvation Army bell ringers to the over-the-top decorations in downtown Minneapolis. Add a little Christmas snow to the mix and perfection. Close to it, anyway.

And while all of those things are good in and of themselves, I can’t stand what the holidays have become: an over-commercialized, over-marketed, top-sales event of the year for retailers and consumers around the world. Christmas displays hit store shelves in July, or earlier with each passing year, so it seems. Now, I probably shouldn’t say anything since I “salt-n-pepper” my Christmas music in starting November 1st and decorate my apartment the weekend before Thanksgiving, just so I can enjoy it longer – but hauling out Christmas displays in July and announcing Black Friday sales in September (not to mention stores being open on Thanksgiving) is beyond ridiculous. I also don’t think that will be changing anytime soon.

We live in a selfish world. One where the next dime must be pounced on immediately or you’ll miss out on the extra dough that could be lining your pocket or adding cushion to your bank account; all at the expense of community, family and relationships – the things that matter.  And it is the latter – the community, the family, and the relationships – that I adore about this time of year, and this includes the amazing, ever-deepening relationship I have Jesus.

Growing up, my family didn’t have much – I still don’t when it comes to material things. We were farmers…close to the bottom of the middle class than we would have liked, but that was okay. A typical holiday (Christmas in particular) would include donning my Christmas dress, going to church, dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s, plenty of food and at least one gift from Mom and Dad and a stocking full of sweet candy or chewing gum and a random brain-teasing toy. Note that I call it typical. Not every year was the same.

There are two Christmases that stand out in my memory above all the rest. There was always food. Mom and Dad made sure we always had food on the table and a roof over our heads – the necessities – but those two years were harder on the finances due to a hard crop year or lower prices in the markets. And while our needs were met, they decided to not do gifts that year and chose to continue giving to those in need through Operation Christmas Child and to spend time doing things as a family. Those years were spent around the kitchen table with good food, baking Christmas cookies, playing board games and watching classic holiday movies. Conversation flowed freely – the topics ranging from school activities to Jesus and more.

Those conversations meant the world to me, especially since I’m a sucker for words and my thirst for the things of God when I was kid was quenched by my mother’s allowing Him to teach us through her. You see, the church we attended taught God’s commandments and Jesus’ life from the pulpit, but never once talked about how to have a relationship with Jesus or what that would even look like lived out on a day-to-day basis. Faith was a Sunday-morning-thing and the rest of the week, you could live as you wanted. It didn’t make sense. It was dark. Empty

Save for the small flame my mother had lit in the window of her soul that shed light where the truth should have been – which to this day shines even brighter; almost like a warm, welcome-home hug. And that light has also spread, by the grace of God, into my life, my heart, my soul and my mind and continues to whet my appetite with His love, mercy and undeserved grace.

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel,’ which means, “God with us.’” Matthew 1.23

Two thousand years ago, God came in the form of His Son. He gave up His glory and arrived, wrappedchistmas in human flesh; confined to finite humanity. He lived a human life; experienced what I go through on a daily basis. He was tempted. He was betrayed. He felt sorrow, pain and joy. He gave, sacrificially. He taught not just by words, but by example. He lived. He died. He rose again and will return to call His brothers and sisters home. And He loved.

And it is that love, that joy that I allow myself to be covered in, not just this time of year, but all year round. It’s almost like living Christmas every day.

29. “home”

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young –
a place near you altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you!
Psalm 84.1-4

I return to the land of my upbringing several times a year since I moved out of my childhood home. At first, it was every weekend. Granted, back then I was attending a college that was less than two hours away and that made the commute home easier than it is now. Now, I’m lucky if I get home more than four times in  a year with the distance and price of gas.

And that’s where I am now: the land of birth.

I can hear the calves bawling through the windows and the stench of dairy air (yes, pun definitely intended if you’re thinking derrière) greets me every time I walk out those doors. I don’t miss the labor nor do I miss the lifestyle, but I do miss the comaderie and the pace.

Life in the middle of nowhere (literally) is slower than life in the city and even though I’ll be wishing for the lights and the sounds and the people in less than 24 hours, I do enjoy the time I get to return home, visit with my parents, reminisce and make new memories. And it’s a great place to recharge and refocus.

Home warms the heart, especially when we’re separated from it. Distance definitely makes the heart grow fonder when it comes to home…and I have several: the land of my birth (my parents’ home), my apartment in the city and my eternal home with Jesus.

Every human being yearns for home or a home that is theirs. Psalm 84 captures the soul-longing we all have: the home where God dwells. We all have that drive, no matter what walk of life or belief we share.

All of us are always on our way home, even though the intermediate experience of “coming home” is a real but temporary joy. As a Christian, my vision of the future is framed by faith and returning to the land of my youth whets my appetite for the courts of the living God and the presence of Jesus, who gave his all for me.

Such an exercise of faith can create a picture acquainted with reality: God’s home is our home. Do not waste your joy of “coming home” to be here and now – use them to focus on the anticipation you have (and the certainty) of our true home: with God.

28. extended family

The holidays

Every year, people gather together with extended family members. Some enjoy a meal together. Some watch the football game, enjoy a few beers and riotous yelling in front of the big screen in Uncle Sam’s den. Women typically flock to the kitchen – some gossip, others stand by in silence.  And others catch up with a few while avoiding those who don’t meet their personal standards or those they seem to have had a falling out with.

The joy…

  • of family and community
  • of being so closely knit together that you know what may or may not be going on in the lives of those you see once or twice a year
  • of being scrunched under one roof with forty of your closest relatives for the next three to four hours
  • of possible drama

The list goes on.

And I can hear a collective “ugh” coming from some of you.

Relax

Smile

And be thankful for what you have been given

I’ve discovered that there is so much more to these holiday gatherings than what meets the eye. Being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, I’m called to be more than what the world sees. I’m called to love in spite of differences. I’m called to forgive in spite of how I am treated. I’m called to so much more that the world doesn’t understand.

So what if a cousin raised her voice at last year’s turkey dinner?

So what if Uncle John left early without saying goodbye?

I’ve been learning that I cannot control the actions of others. I can only control myself – how I react and respond. I have a choice. I can choose to allow Jesus’ love and mercy to be extended to those around me (and not just family) rather than put up walls and be stand-off-ish. I can choose to love my family in spite of myself and maintain that love after spending four days in the same house with them. On another note, I don’t know what each of them are really going through. All I can do is pray for them and see them as valuable. They are, after all.

A challenge for you: Instead of avoiding the people you call family, take some time to really catch up with them this year. Pray for them and their needs; offer to. Love on them and if you don’t have the strength to do that, ask God to do it through you. That is what they need most.

I’m thankful for all of our differences.

I’m thankful for the power of forgiveness and what happens when love is extended.

I’m thankful for the healing that the grace of God can bring to a relationship.

And I’m thankful for you, my extended family. May God continue to bless you and keep you, not just today, but all year through.

27. the simple things

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat, drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them… Ecclesiastes 8.15

I’m a quote collector.

I’ve got this leather-bound journal full of them and with me being a reader, well, let’s just say I might have to invest in another one to start logging those I find in the years to come. During one of my “browsing sessions,” I stumbled on one that still lingers on my mind today:

“Everything is a gift from the universe.”

That quote isn’t in my journal for the fact that I don’t believe it’s true.simple

I’m a Christian.

Everything is a gift, yes… But from the universe?

Humanity has always grasped at straws when it comes to acknowledging a higher power. We all know that there is something or someone greater that created all that we see. It didn’t come from nothing. As Christ-followers, we know God through a relationship with Jesus Christ. God is our ultimate gift-giver and those gifts look different when we know what they are and where they came from.

I’m also a collector of simple pleasures.

Life is short. Life is adventurous and I don’t have to explore the high seas or another country to find it (although that is on my ever-growing bucket list). Life is full of gifts, if only we would take the time to stop and look for them.

Simple pleasures are a gift from God and you don’t have to go far to find them:

  • Taking a long, relaxing shower
  • A good novel
  • My favorite coffee mug filled with something warm (coffee, hot cocoa, tea)
  • Watching animals play, especially puppies and squirrels, although usually not together
  • Soaking up the warm sunshine on a brisk autumn day
  • Going on a nature hike
  • Fresh baked cookies
  • Flannel sheets in the winter
  • Egyptian cotton sheets in the summer
  • Kettle corn and a movie
  • Putting on clothes straight from the dryer
  • Walking barefoot in the grass
  • Watching a sunrise or a sunset
  • Listening to good music in the car
  • Long drives
  • Meditation on Scripture
  • Yoga or Pilates
  • Dark chocolate covered espresso beans
  • Lazy Saturdays
  • French fries and ice cream
  • An unclutter room
  • Hugs
  • A familiar smell that brings back fond memories
  • Receiving a letter via snail mail
  • Drinking water
  • A pull-through parking spot
  • My favorite sweater
  • Floating in the water
  • Iced Chai tea
  • The feeling after a good workout
  • Checking off something on my to-do list
  • Playing a game of volleyball
  • Christmas snow
  • A good laugh
  • Taking the scenic route home
  • Writing on good-quality paper with my preferred ink pen
  • Collecting quotes
  • Sleeping in on a stormy, rainy morning
  • People watching
  • Making someone smile
  • Finishing something you started
  • The small celebration you experience in that moment when something finally makes sense or a truth finally clicks within your heart
  • The still, small voice of God

We commonly think of gifts when it comes to birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and other special occasions. If we were to make a list, it might include diamond earrings (or a ring for us hopeless romantics), a car in the driveway with a huge red bow on it, toys for the kids, a new doll, a new pair of boots, a greeting card full of cash or a gift card to your favorite store… the list could go on. Who doesn’t enjoy some tangible displays of affection, especially if it was a little spendy?

There have been few in my life who have taught me to look beyond the materialism, and being the type who prefers a person’s company to a gift any day, well, I can easily relate. This was also one of the many blessings of having grown up on a farm.

There were good years and there were tough years, depending on the markets and how good the crop was. All four of us (my siblings and I) were provided for. We had a roof over our heads, food on the table and two parents who loved each other and us. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was full of blessings.

It’s the tough years that stand out most to me from my childhood. Those years, there weren’t Christmas gifts under the tree. Those were the years we all opted to pitch in a little cash and filled shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child and went without. Those were the years we played Yahtzee, Monopoly, Apples to Apples and Cranium – laughing until our sides hurt and enjoyed watching holiday movies while mom made goodies (with which I helped when I came of age) in the kitchen. It’s those years that taught me the joy of the simple things in life, those things listed above.

I’ve got a challenge for you:

simplethingsFor one day (tomorrow would be perfect, by the way), count your blessings. Carry around a little notepad if you need to and write them all down.

For example: I woke up without an alarm this morning and was able to enjoy five minutes in my warm, flannel-sheet-covered, queen-sized bed. That’s one. I enjoyed a nice, hot shower. That’s one. I enjoyed a cup of coffee with my neighbor. That’s one. Three blessings in the first 30 minutes of my morning and I hadn’t even left the house yet.

See where this is going? Note every moment of happiness and be thankful. By the end of the day, you’ll notice that you unwittingly unwrapped hundreds of gifts throughout your day and you will have cultivated gratitude in your heart.

King Solomon understood these simple pleasures all too well:

 

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do…Enjoy life…all the days of this [life] God has given you under the sun…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might… Ecclesiastes 9.7-10, paraphrase

The echoes from the Garden affect us more than we know. We tend to focus on the negative. One bad minute in the morning has a way of ruining your whole day, if you let it. But, what would it look like if you made it a point to collect those small, simple blessings and see how they outweigh the bad?

Everything is a gift from God and knowing that he loves me that much leads me to feel nothing less than gratitude and a deeper devotion to him.

It’s not always the expected things that affect us. It’s not always the big things that leave an impact. It’s usually the little, simple things that leave a mark so deep that the fabric of a life can be forever changed.

That’s why I’m thankful for the simple things.

26. colleagues

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2.3-4

I am thankful for my colleagues and the manager I’ve been blessed with. After experiencing what I did in the job I had prior to my move to Minneapolis, working here has been the icing on the cake. I have an amazing manager who’s the calm in storm…especially when conflict arises among her team.

Believe me, it does. We all come from different walks of life. We’ve all experienced different situations. We all see things differently, based upon the lens of our own individual situations. And yet, it’s those differences that come together and form the team that we have.

There are five of us, albeit a small team, but what we do on a given day does not leave us wanting more. We give. We help. We assist. And when the clock says it’s time to go, we leave knowing we made a difference, somewhere.

I included the verse above because that is what God has called me to do in my current position. In the corporate world where religion isn’t brought up in conversation because it’s such a hot topic and we wouldn’t want to step on another’s toes, I still need to heed to his voice and commands. It’s not a request that I be humble; it’s a characteristic of being his child; his follower. Being able to follow him in that way is a huge blessing, whether I see in a heated moment or not.

I can’t solely think about me when I’m at work. I have to think about the caller, my coworker, or my manager first and I’m still learning. God sees them as valuable. I should too.

What about you? What are you thankful for today? Be sure to take a moment to tell people that you are thankful for them. Life is way too short not to.

25. my work

“I don’t live to work. I work so I can live.”- Christina Gandhi

I couldn’t agree with that statement more. While I love my job, most days anyway, it, in no way, shape, or form, rules my life. But, I do get some sense of fulfillment out of my work. Whether it be going in to the office Monday through Friday or putting on a candle show by night, serving at church on Sunday or leading a Bible study during the week, I’ve found ways to bring glory to Jesus.

“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling if only it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self- realization slowly crushes a person.” – Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor

Truths about God’s purposes for us here on earth have been coming quite clear through reading that one book. If you look back at that garden, God gave Adam work. He gave Eve work.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock, and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground…” God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” Genesis 1.26, 28

Work gives us purpose, and, according to Tim Keller, it’s one of the few things we can take in significant doses without harm – that is, unless it has become an idol in one’s life. That’s also why God gave the ultimate example of taking time to rest: By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Genesis 2.2

“The material creation was made by God to be developed, cultivated and cared for in an endless number of ways through human labor. But even the simplest of ways is important. Without them all, human life cannot flourish.” – Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor

In light of that, any work I do matters, whether I personally thing it does on any given day or not. Being kind and listening to the callers I speak with on a daily basis does wonders on not just them, but me too. It means I intentionally listen. I intentionally discover ways to show God’s love to those around me, both over the phone and in person. I intentionally serve.

And through that, gratitude is born. I’m thankful for work, no matter what I do.

What about you? What makes your job matter? How can you intentionally bring God into your work, whether it’s through acts of service at church or your 9-5 job?

24. my pastors

There have been few men who have left a lasting impact on my life.

My dad

My brothers

An uncle or two

Young men I served with in college ministry

Five church pastors

Growing up near several small Dutch towns left some to be desired when I was kid. Looking back, I took a lot of that for granted: the potential for community, the beauty of the area, the pace of life. I return when I can, but prefer life in the city to that of neighborhoods so small that everybody knows everyone else’s business.

My family attended a small church for almost 20 years, maybe a little longer as my folks made the change to another well after I’d left home to attend college. The teachings of the Bible were preached from the pulpit in a way that made life seem full of rules that needed to be followed in order for me to be saved; life lived on a works-based faith, if you will. I don’t recall hearing or learning about God’s great grace or what it meant to have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus during my childhood, or the gospel message…my mother actually confirmed it in a recent conversation and the realization of that truth makes my heart sad. Very sad.

Americans have been given great freedom when it comes to religion, faith and how we live our lives. I fear that freedom will be coming to an end, sooner rather than later, whether I see it in my lifetime or its effects ripple through the next few generations.

In the last two months, the Vine has been going through a set of teachings based on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) and we discussed the persecuted church just this week. Persecution in the U.S. is minimal compared to that of the Middle East or China. Christians may not be beaten, raped or murdered for their faith here, but we do face it in different ways and most of it comes from within the church.

Denominations are pitted, one against the other. Passersby are told that God is angry with them from street corners. People are judged based on what man sees every day when they should be loved, shown mercy, experience grace and the goodness of God and his love for them instead. There’s a lack of compassion for those Jesus would have hung out with in this day and age. We have the religious, the irreligious and the few who discover the truth and are set free.

Personally, I pray for the latter category. But am I?

It’s okay to question; to doubt (to an extent); to think upon.

God understands. Spiritual growth and sought-out truth can come from those moments.

I’ve seen pastors come and go in my short life and very few of them have left a lasting impact.

Gary opened my eyes to the concept of grace during confirmation classes when I was in high school. He also made it abundantly clear that my family wasn’t going to rot in hell for choosing to be an example in the public school, although it took my heart a little longer to catch up with that head knowledge.

Tim introduced me to the truth of the gospel message and how, even though I had made the choice to follow Jesus when I was four, it wasn’t a one-time thing. His authenticity, Bible-based knowledge and the truth he taught every week at Brookings Wesleyan, combined with a good dose of humor, helped pave the way for Jesus to touch my life in ways He wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. He was one of the main reasons I stayed in church and for that, I’ll forever be grateful to him for allowing God to use him in that matter and to God for opening those doors.

Nathan believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He also opened my eyes to the gift of music ministry.

Rick… I can’t help but smile over his constant teasing and his lack of mercy (spiritual gifting). He’s more than a pastor. He’s one of my best friends and you wouldn’t think the man had nearly two decades on me. He’s such a kid. But, his genuineness is hard to come by in today’s world. God gifted him with a wealth of knowledge and biblical wisdom, and gave him the ability to be real. His transparency is inspiring. His leadership points to God at every turn. He’s involved and proves it, every day. I am thankful for all of that, and so much more.

And finally, Ben: a young man I’ve had the privilege of watching grow in his relationship with Jesus. He was once lost and now found. Blind, but now he sees. His passion is contagious. His prayer life, inspiring. And his transparency too is has left an impact. In the last six years, since his walk with Jesus began, he’s learned more truth than I did as a child. I’ve had the honor and privilege of serving alongside him in our college ministry back in Brookings and again here in Minneapolis, at the Vine.

I’ve met some pretty awesome pastors, but these five men take the cake. They don’t preach from behind a pulpit, creating an image that places them higher on the holiness scale. They’re men. They are no less flawed than I am, or you. It’s through that authenticity that allows God to leave an impact in their wake. God has blessed each of them in their various forms of ministry and still uses them in their fields today to leave lasting impact for the glory of His kingdom. And God blesses those their lives touch, today and I pray that impact reaches into tomorrow.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident in this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains of defending and confirming the gospel, all of you are in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1.3-11