Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Different Kind of Hope

One thing that makes having a "quiet time" a lot easier is having your devotion sent right to your phone. (I know, millenials are Generation L for lazy, but it helps, okay?) I do exactly that, though... I subscribe to Daily in the Word by Paul Chappell and it's a great way to start the morning. Anyway, the other day the title of my devotion was "God's Plan for Our Dark Days." It caught my attention because a) it wasn't the kind of title that fit with the other Christmas-themed devotions this month and b) even though my life is good I sometimes fancy myself in the midst of a hard time. You know, just sometimes. =) 

I started reading (the devotion was about Joseph and his response to the news that Mary was expecting) and immediately got hung up on this quote from Robert Morgan: 

"Yes, the Bible does use the word hope. But in the Bible, hope is not synonymous with maybe. Biblical hope refers to sure and certain expectations,which, because they're still in the future, create in us a sense of anticipation. We don't always feel that God's way is right, but His faithfulness doesn't depend on our vacillating emotions, rather on His unchanging Word. It's not a matter of how we feel but of what God says."

WOW. First of all, we are offered hope in Christ. Everyone knows that, is told to cling to it, is told to claim verses like one of my favorites, Hebrews 6:19, "Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast." But even that "anchor" kind of hope, to me at least, usually feels like a maybe. Instead of trusting in God's promises and the sure and certain results they guarantee, I tend to think, "Maybe God will answer my prayer. Maybe this will all work out. Maybe...."  But when I'm hoping for something God promises, I don't have to think that maybe it will happen, I can be sure it will!

But then we run into the problem of our own will and desires. "I hope this happens... I'm trusting God for it to... so it WILL. I'm sure!" Does it always turn out that way? Unfortunately, no. So how do we reconcile these two realities? That's what the second half of the quote explains. No matter how we feel, God is faithful and good. Aren't you glad that God's goodness doesn't depend on your emotions? Good grief, mine alone are a mess often enough that I'd hate to think anything as important as that is riding on them. And since He is faithful no matter what, then He keeps His promises no matter what. That just means that sometimes His version of the story turns out quite a bit differently than the one we try to write for ourselves. 

I've heard this since I was a kid and listened to stories about Amy Carmichael in children's church. Amy prayed for blue eyes, despising her brown eyes as a little girl. In her mind, God never answered her prayer the way she wanted Him to. Then, of course, she became a missionary to India and her brown eyes fit perfectly with the disguise she used to save so many children from becoming temple slaves. I've known that story for years and yet the truth of it hit me again this week when I read the quote in my devotion. 

We've all received answers to prayer that weren't the "yes" we hoped for. But that doesn't mean we give up hope, or that our hope is just as uncertain or futile as a birthday wish. It just means that God's goodness (thank goodness!) doesn't operate on the short-sighted desires of our hearts OR the doubt, fear, or even anger we feel when those desires or requests aren't met to our liking. God is faithful despite my emotions, because His faithfulness is grounded in His word, which He always keeps. Doesn't He promise to never leave or forsake us? And to work things out for our good? And to be a "strong hold in the day of trouble"? He's never broken those promises, no matter how I feel about how a certain twist or turn in life. What we consider surprises are all part of the plan He's had for eternity... a fact that's mind-blowing and comforting at the same time.

When I was a teenager- mostly in junior high, naturally- I would sometimes wish that I could know see into my future and know who I would marry. It was terrifying and exciting at the same time.... was it someone I hadn't met? One of my crushes at school? (Ha, no, it was not.) I had no idea who that Mystery Man would turn out to be (and then, of course, he ended up being the one I'd wanted all along, or at least since around age 11. Funny how that works.) But God knew all along... when I would come home crying in 8th grade because Boy I Had a Crush On had teased me (again!), I'm sure the Lord just wanted to say, "Stop it, you silly girl. The one I have for you is so much better!" (He does tease me occasionally, though.)

The same thing happens now... when I want to cry or complain about how life is sometimes (and I know, my life is pretty great. I'm just talking about the occasional bad day we all have) I feel like God just wants to say, "Hey! I've been writing your story all along, and it's turned out pretty great, hasn't it? Just trust me. I see the whole road and you can only see this rest stop." 

My hope that everything will turn out for the best isn't just a pie-in-the-sky, we'll-see-what-happens, "maybe" kind of hope. It's an "anticipation rooted in a sureness and certainty that can only be attributed to God's promises... His faithfulness and goodness that remain no matter how I feel" kind of hope. That's the best kind, isn't it?


Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Playlist

It's that time of year... you can't turn on the radio, visit the mall, or go to church without hearing Christmas music! (Not that I'm complaining AT ALL... it's the best! Also, it's been "that time of year" in my house since September. No shame.) I made a Christmas playlist a couple years ago and I still stand by my love for each of those songs... but this list is a little more "out of the box"; either songs you've probably not heard or new arrangements of old classics. Enjoy!

1. One King by David Phelps- this is a duet and I'm not exactly sure who it's with... some versions say Sonya Isaac and some say his wife but either way it's AWESOME. Seriously, this is one of the most beautiful Christmas songs I've ever heard. I listen to it year-round. Just gorgeous.

2. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Pentatonix- I've been a fan of Pentatonix ever since hearing them on The Sing-Off (bring it back, NBC!!!) and I was thrilled to hear they were coming out with a Christmas album. I grabbed it at Sam's for $8 and this is my favorite on the album (even though everyone and their grandmother shared their "Mary, Did You Know?" on Facebook. It's good but to me this one is better.) 

3. Cold December Night by Michael Buble- ahhh, Michael. This entire album just fills me with joy, but this song in particular is one of my favorites. So pretty, catchy, and mellow- everything you love about Michael Buble. (Also I have a soft spot for this song because of a video my niece made a couple years ago lip-syncing to it. Hilarious!)

4. What Are You Doing New Year's Eve by Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt- no one will ever top the Carpenters' version of this song, but I found this video a couple years ago and I just think it's adorable. I've loved Zooey Deschanel's voice since Elf and I think she is the closest thing to a modern-day Karen that we have. Plus this song is just cute.

5. Melodies of Christmas by David Archuleta- I haven't watched American Idol in years, but I do remember this kid because he came in second (and totally should have won!) a few seasons back. Anyway, he has a great voice and I love this song. 

6. 364 Days to Go by Brad Paisley- when I was 16 my Sunday school teacher (of all people) bought me this album for Christmas. (To be fair, he was also our very close family friend and is now married to my cousin. Ha! Thanks, Dave.) I love this CD and this song is so sweet (also, check out Born on Christmas Day from the same album. The cutest!!)

7. Believe by Josh Groban- thank you, Polar Express, for bringing us one of the most magical Christmas songs of all time. It's almost enough to make up for the super creepy scene on top of the train with the hobo. I could listen to this song all day.

8. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel by Casting Crowns- I love this album but this song is my favorite one, even though it's instrumental! The violinist (Melodee) is unbelievable and this is such a gorgeous arrangement. I put this one on repeat quite a bit!

There you go... make yourself an awesome playlist! (Also, I think I deserve credit for not including the entire 'N Sync Christmas album... oops, I guess I just did. =) Make sure you tell me about other songs that are maybe less well-known! Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 4, 2014

(Not) Ugly Christmas Sweaters

I've been known to wear a festive holiday shirt or two (like putting together red and green in all kinds of ways.) There's definitely a difference between festive and "ugly sweater" territory. BUT, fortunately for those of us who want to look festive but not like we just escaped from the North Pole, there are tons of super cute holiday sweaters, sweatshirts, and tshirts available all over the place! The only problem now is narrowing down which one to buy. =)

Since I am an enabler a good friend, I've rounded up a few of my favorites and put them all together just for you! (If you're a man, I'm sorry. But Target and Old Navy do have a lot of holiday shirts if you're interested. If you're like my husband, then you're not.) 

Now, granted, some of these are not strictly for Christmas... in fact, several of them could be worn throughout the winter. If you're like me, you don't want to spend money on something that can only be worn one month a year. (Unless you're like the lady on Santa Clause 2 and wear your Christmas charm bracelet all year "just to keep the spirit alive." Best scene ever.) And granted, I'm 25 and I may be a little old for some of these but I am nothing if not a child at heart so... let's see these are cute if not sophisticated. (For dressier festive options, check out Target's embellished sweaters!)

Christmas Graphics

1.. J.Crew Factory (they have so many cute options, but thanks to Papaw I have a soft spot for (rein)deer.)
2. Old Navy (a lot of their holiday graphics are sold out online but they're still available in-store!)

3. American Eagle (how cute is this polar bear? Even though they terrify me, I'll make an exception here.)

4. Aeropostale (I know, I'm not their target demographic anymore, but I wandered in the other day and this one spoke to me. Plus it has a slouchy fit so it won't look like it's designed for an 11-year-old.) 

5. eBay (There are tons of versions on eBay but I actually prefer this one from GroopDealz. I will never not love Home Alone!)

6. American Eagle (Just too perfect for Christmas, right?)

So if you're feeling especially festive (or childish, I suppose) then check these out. I'll probably break down and get at least one. (But I draw the line at clothes that light up. Looking at you, Gigi.)


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Feeling Vestive

Cheesiest title of all time? Yes. But I stand by it.

I have a bit of problem when shopping... I tend to fixate on a certain item, especially if it will complete "the perfect outfit," and then wait impatiently until it goes on sale and I can make it mine. (I totally just read that in the voice of Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas, so do with that what you will.) Anyway, I saw this vest at Old Navy back in October on our trip to Connecticut and it just happened to match perfectly the plaid flannel shirt that my darling sister (April) bought for me. She's a generous soul. And a few weeks later when it went on sale, I snatched it up. It's turned out to be a really great investment because I've already worn it a ton and it's only really been cold for a couple weeks!

I love this vest because it's a warm layer but it's not the typical "puffy" vest... those are adorable but these days I don't really benefit from anything with puffy in the name, you know? =) So the fact that this one is thin and has the quilted look I'm loving on all kinds of stuff this year is a big plus.

So, without further gushing about the vest in question, here are a few different ways to wear it! (None of them actually include that flannel shirt, a fact whose irony is not lost on me.)

I know these are all pretty Christmas-y, but it's December and I won't apologize for that.

This is alllll from Old Navy. Except the boots which I stole from Mamaw's closet solely for this picture. =)

Sweater: Old Navy (Black Friday!)
Jeans: Belk
Boots: Nine West
Necklace: J.Crew Factory

Dress: Old Navy
Scarf: Target
Tights: Target
Boots: Target

You think I shop at Old Navy a lot? Ha! No apologies... their clearance racks are my kryptonite. There's no need to "explain" these outfits (don't you love when bloggers are like "Can't wait to style _________?" I'm like, "Don't you mean wear?") but I do love this vest and even though all three outfits are fairly casual, you could probably dress it up a little if you tried. 

SO run and grab one of these if you can still find them in your local Old Navy. There are lots more styles on sale right now and they're so perfect for a warm layer, especially in these ridiculous North Carolina winters when you want warmth but not too much since the weather is so fickle.

And there you have it... far too many paragraphs about a simple vest and a few outfits. Brevity has never been my strong suit. (Oh, for crying out loud, Ashley, end the post or shoot it and put it out of its misery!)

The end.


P.S. Linked up with Lindsey!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gift Guide: A Book for Every Reader in Your Life

Since I've done more reading than ever this year, I've been in a bookish state of mind and decided a month or two ago that I wanted to get books for most, if not all, the people on my Christmas list. So after putting a lot of thought into each person I'm buying for, I made some really great picks (if I do say so myself) and I thought I'd share a few here in case you're looking for a gift idea that ISN'T another set of pajamas or hot chocolate kit. (For the record, I'd be thrilled to receive either of those!) I know the internet doesn't need another gift guide but here's my contribution to the masses. Also, if you get one of these from me this year, act surprised. Thanks. =)

For the history buffUnbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. What else? You know this is definitely at the top of my favorites this year, and anyone who enjoys history or war trivia or just an unbelievably inspiring story will enjoy it. And now that there's a young adult version available, it's a great pick for a history-loving teenager in your life. (Maybe I was the only one of those!) Anyway, the life of Louis Zamperini is just amazing (and I can't wait for the movie... I still can't watch the trailer without crying!) Read my full review here.

For the hopeless romanticThese Is My Words by Nancy Turner. Oh my... I read this book three months ago and I'm still thinking about it. It is one of the sweetest, most romantic love stories I've ever read, not too mention there's plenty of historical information and adventure and all that good stuff. It's the (fictional) diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, starting when she's around 16 and ending in her early 30s, and covers her life on the rough, dangerous prairie of the 1800s. Seriously, I want my own copy because I reread portions of it many times before reluctantly returning it to the library. Just a good, good book.

For the clever kidThe Templeton Twins Have an Idea by Ellis Weiner and Jeremy Homes. I read this book to my sixth graders last year and they LOVED it... and so did I. It's seriously hilarious and the narrator is so sarcastic and funny that my kids could not stop laughing. It's about a brother and sister (twins, of course) who have to outwit a couple of bumbling criminals to save their professor dad and his invention. It's a really cute, clever plot that reminds me just a little of the Lemony Snickets series. And now there's a sequel, The Templeton Twins Make a Scene, which is sure to be just as delightful. 

For the word nerdThe Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan. This book could actually fit into a few categories, but I chose it for this one on purpose. This book is the true story of a midwestern mom who kept her family of ten children financially afloat in the 50s and 60s by entering (and winning) hundreds of jingle-writing contests. Commercials, print ads, slogans- she did them all and with great success- good thing, too, since the family had to overcome all kinds of problems. Other than being a really great story, I mostly enjoyed this book because it included dozens of examples of Mrs. Ryan's entries,which she scribbled on notebooks kept all over the house. This woman was seriously smart, and her use of words and rhyming was so fun to read. If you like words or word games or puzzles, you'll enjoy this book. (It's also a great read for moms!)

For the nerdy (I mean that in the nicest way- that was totally me!) kidBOMB: The Race to Build- and Steal- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. This is a nonfiction book about the three different journeys that were going on simultaneously by Americans, Soviets, and Germans as the atomic bomb went from an accidental discovery to the a weapon more powerful than anything in human history. This is far more than a textbook; it reads more like a mystery story, full of spies and intrigue and, well, bombs. What kid wouldn't love that? 

For the middle-schooler with an attitude problem =)Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I read this on our road trip in September and loved it. Junior high (and even elementary school) can be a cruel place, and this story of a boy with a severe facial deformity attacks the subject of bullying and meanness in a way that is different, thoughtful, and even funny. It's told from several different perspectives, which I thought would be confusing, but it's really clever because it gives a new insight into how each person perceives what's going on. Also, you must read the companion book (it's really short) called The Julian Chapter. It wraps it all up in the most beautiful, poignant way possible. This book will make any kid think differently about the way they treat others. 

For someone in a season of change: Off Script: What to Do When God Rewrites Your Life by Cary Schmidt. I read this book three years ago when my employment was very up in the air, my Papaw had just died, and I was feeling really uncertain about life in general. It was a blessing to me then and has been every time I've revisited (which has been often!). The author was dealing with cancer at the time of writing, but applies biblical principles to responding correctly to every type of life situation. (Oh, and the author happens to be my sister's pastor- too cool!) 

For the dreamerStart by Jon Acuff. If you know someone who is interested in starting a business, or being a writer, or really just accomplishing some life-long dream, get them this book. I read it after following Jon on Twitter and not only is it entertaining and often hilarious but also really helpful and motivational. It's full of great advice and isn't really specific to any one field, so it could work for a variety of people. I love the subtitle: "Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do Work that Matters." Good stuff! (Also, check out Quitter by Jon too. Another winner!)

For the lovestruck teenager: Jean and JohnnyFifteen, and The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary. When I was thirteen, I got these three books in a hardback set from Costco and I promptly read them about a million times each. I feel like it's cheating a little to include all three, and certainly you don't have to buy them all since they're not related in any way, but I just couldn't pick a favorite. Not only are all three books adorable and sweet (and just as applicable to modern-day teens as the ones in the stories that are set in the early 60s), but they're CLEAN and contain none of the smut of most teen "love" stories. Seriously, I love these books so, so much. Get them for a teenage girl in your life. They'll love them too.

For the Ramona fanThe Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary. Okay, this is a really specific category =), and I know I'm including Beverly Cleary again. But it's my gift guide and she's my favorite author, so there you have it. We all know and love the Ramona series (Ramona and Her Mother, Ramona and Her Father, Ramona and Beezus, etc.) These two books are the memoirs of Ramona's creator, Mrs. Cleary herself. The first book covers her childhood up to high school graduation and the second book is about her young adult years, married life, and her eventual success as one of the most beloved children's authors of all time. Even if you're not familiar with her books (and you really should be- they're delightful!), these are both easy, interesting reads. The second book is my favorite but read them both for the full experience. (Also, if you've read her books you'll enjoy seeing the many real-life parallels in her own story.) 

For the sports nut (or athlete)The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. This book about the University of Washington rowing team that eventually became Olympians was one of my favorites this year. Not only is it an uplifting story of achievement and perseverance, but the information about rowing as a sport completely fascinated me. Those guys were tough. Since the boys participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there is a subplot involving the Nazis preparing for a country full of visitors and it is woven seamlessly into the story. My other favorite part was all the references to the Seattle area (hello, hometown!). Oh, and the mark of a truly great book? I cried at the end. You may think, "My sports nut is a football fan and not so much a rowing kind of guy," but I promise this is a great book. 

For the movie buffIt's Only a Movie by Charlotte Chandler. This biography of Alfred Hitchcock was really interesting but also makes me want to rewatch his movies (in the daytime, of course.) It's really funny to know that, despite terrifying movie-goers for a living, Alfred Hitchcock (or "Hitch") really didn't take the business of scaring all that seriously. When his actors would make too much of a scene or character, he would famously say, "Remember, my dear... it's only a movie." I'll try to remember that when they're keeping me up at night! =) If you know someone who likes old movies- especially the Hitchcock films- this is a great pick. There are all kinds of personal stories from Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Doris Day, and other stars of that era. For a bonus-features junkie like me, it was a great read!

For the lover of classicsJack's Life by Douglas Gresham. This biography of one of the 20th centuries most famous and prolific authors is my favorite about C.S. Lewis because it's written by his stepson and because it reads more like a story than an impersonal account. It really debunks a lot of misconceptions about Lewis, especially his reputation as a lofty, unapproachable intellectual. I loved this book (and actually just ordered it for myself. Merry Christmas to me!) Oh, and if you have a real C.S. Lewis fan on your hands, maybe throw in his Letters to Children...so sweet!

For anyone who enjoys a good book: The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Don't worry- I saved the best for last! I first heard of these books when Janssen raved about them, and I quickly learned than she was not exaggerating. I have recommended these books to anyone and everyone I can think of in the past year. Seriously, they're amazing. Both books are set in Vietman-era small towns and feature average, "all-American" middle school boys, but Okay for Now is more of a companion than a sequel to The Wednesday Wars. I thought nothing could top TWW but Okay for Now may actually be my favorite. It's so hard to choose! The first book involves a seventh grader, his English teacher, and Shakespeare- what's not to love? And the second book makes me cry every.single.time. I own both these books and have reread them many times- a sign of how much I love a book, for sure. Janssen says that if she could write a book, The Wednesday Wars is the book she would want to have written, and I couldn't agree more. These books are sweet, funny, sad, thoughtful- but overall they are just SO well-written. AH! Enough gushing... buy them- for anyone on your list. Disgruntled teenager, picky aunt, grumpy uncle, snooty cousin- they'll love these. Promise. 

So, that covers just about everyone, doesn't it? I think there's something so special and personal about giving a book. It takes thought and effort to choose a book you know someone who really enjoy. Or, you know, you can just grab random titles off the shelves at Barnes and Noble. Either way works =) but I hope this list gave you an idea or two. Also, check out half.com for really great prices! (This isn't sponsored by them or anything... I'm just cheap.) 

Merry Christmas and happy reading!


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What I Would Say If I Gave a Testimony

Every year around this time, our churches have what they call testimony services that give people the opportunity to get up and "say a word for the Lord" or, to quote our pastor, "brag on Jesus." (Just typing that phrase makes me feel like I'm on a bus full of teenagers and CP.) However, I never rarely join in at these times and pipe up with testimony because I would really rather chew off my arm than speak in front of people. My "way with words" that flows easily on paper does not translate into public speaking and, adding in my spastic shaking problem, you have my unwillingness- nay, inability- to testify, no matter how long and awkward a silence becomes.

BUT of course this decision to remain silent is accompanied by guilt every year as the opportunity to say what's in my heart comes and goes, albeit by my own choice. Now, this year I have the added excuse that I'm sick and not even at church (thank goodness for livestream!) and I've completely lost my voice. Still, I've got so much to be thankful for, and I really do wish I had the ability to get up and share it in church, but alas... everyone would be so distracted by my shaky hands and voice that any praise would get overshadowed. (The debate class scene in Princess Diaries comes to mind.) So, this is what I would say IF I had my voice, IF I were at church, and IF I weren't crippled by a fear of public speaking. Also, it's way longer than anyone at church would tolerate without kindly escorting me away from the microphone.

This Thanksgiving, I feel like my life has changed more in the past year than ever before. Jonathan and I are on a journey that I definitely didn't see us on this time last year. Our jobs, our ministry responsibilities, and even our living arrangements have changed drastically in the last few months. And as I've said before, I have not always been thankful. In fact, there have been days that I've felt sorry for myself, days I've cried over the changes, and days I've been just plain grumpy. But lately I've been so convicted at my lack of gratitude because no matter how different my life has become, it's still better than the lives of so many hurting people. 

I'm thankful for my salvation. I'm thankful for this season. I'm thankful for time to read and learn. I'm thankful for a place to live right now that is saving us a TON of money while we raise our support. I'm thankful that Mamaw allows us to live with her and didn't give it a second thought. I'm thankful to be back home at Faith, resting and being encouraged. I'm thankful to have Mr. Powell as our pastor right now. He's doing such a great job! I'm thankful to be back in the choir and be blessed every Sunday afternoon... that's been one of my favorite times since college. I'm thankful for my parents. I'm thankful for FaceTime. I'm thankful for my precious new niece. I'm thankful for Amanda and Steven, Jake and April, Amy and Ethan. I'm thankful for Emily, Steven, Leslie, Landon, and Ella. I'm thankful for the opportunity in the last few months to see a bunch of family members (a perk of living with Mamaw- they come to visit her!). I'm thankful for Uncle Jay and Aunt Annette and Matthew and our time with the Baines family this year. I'm thankful for my cousins. I'm thankful for my in-laws and Ryan and Rebecca. I'm thankful for Uncle Walter and Aunt Peggy. I'm thankful for all my family! I'm thankful for Brook and Blake, Brandi and Stuart, Stephen and Lauren, Sara, and Cheryl. I'm thankful for Kevin and Susan and Miles and Meghan. I'm thankful for Mrs. Jo. I'm thankful for my students. I'm thankful for the Powell family and the Mann family and the Edmonds and the Davises and our Sunday school class. I'm thankful for Berean Baptist Church and Emmanuel Baptist Church and the Schmidt family for taking in my family in the unknown of New England. =) (I need to stop naming people because I'm on cough medicine so there's no telling who I'll forget.)

I'm thankful for those who have supported us in this adventure. I have told so many people lately that it is incredibly humbling that there are people we don't even know- and those we do know- who somehow think that what we are doing is worthy of their money. Every faith promise card surprises me, not because I haven't expected God to work, but because it blows me away that people are generous enough to give to us every month. It really does. I'm thankful for the sweet people we've met at our services, the pastors who have allowed us to come share our work, and the prayers of countless friends and family as we prepare to go to Houston. I'm thankful for the Fergusons and the fact that they want us to come and the kindness they showed us this summer when we needed it most. 

I'm thankful for my husband, who has worked so, so hard these past few months. He has stepped outside his comfort zone in so many ways, he has encouraged me to step outside mine, and he has impressed me time and time again with his passion for and dedication to getting to Houston to minister to the kids and families at Woodforest. He tolerates my shopping habits, makes me coffee, and takes care of me when I'm sick (today included!). He is a good, good man and I'm so thankful God gave him to me. 

I could go on and on... in the past year, and in the past three months specifically, God has proven Himself to us time and time (and time and time) again. It's amazing that after times of difficulty, unrest, indecision, and fear, God directed our path. Even though that path doesn't look like the path we were on or really any path I would have conjured up, it's the best path for us and I'm thankful for it. I remember years ago (back in 2007!) being at the Powell's for the their annual Thanksgiving game night with some of the teens. I was a freshman in college and, in all the worldly wisdom of my 18 years, told the teenagers that night, "If you honor God, He'll honor you." That sounded really good at the time but my faith was largely untested when I said it. But this year has tested my faith like never before, and I can confidently agree with my naive younger self =) by saying it's so true. Staying faithful to God, even through the hardest times, allows us to receive blessings that we never could have imagined. One of my favorite songs says, "Never once did we ever walk alone." How true!

So tonight, as so many people step timidly to the microphones at church and share their heart, I'm taking the cowardly- and wordy- route and sharing here. But whether I ever say it out loud or not, I am thankful for all these things. Oh, and I'm thankful for YOU for sticking around through this dry spell and reading my sporadic posts, even ones like this that are less than coherent (again, I blame the cough medicine.) 

Happy Thanksgiving! Thanks be to our God! 


Monday, November 17, 2014

A Needed Balance

Disclaimer (oooh.. one of those posts? Yep!)
What this post is NOT:
1. An exhaustive comparison of two vast arenas of thought and content
2. An invitation to debate (dialogue, sure, but not argue)
3. A means to criticize someone's preference in church music 

What this post IS:
1. A defining of some misleading terms
2. Some thoughts on the importance of blended worship
3. A reminder that we as a church need to prioritize and stop fighting over petty issues

If you're involved in church, or if you are on social media, or if you have a pulse, you're aware that for whatever reason, music has become one of the most hot-button, controversial topics among Christian people (or at least American Christians who have the freedom to quibble over this stuff while those in foreign countries fear for their lives.) I'm not sure why this is, but literally every time I get online I see another gripping headline that claims to have the answer to the seemingly incompatible sides of the issue. "Throw out the hymns!" some cry, while others insist, "Get rid of that contemporary stuff!"

I'm not here to convince you that one style or type of music is the best one (because that would be impossible and also I like blog traffic but I don't want to wade through dozens of angry, finger-pointing comments.) What I would like to talk about is something that I think we should strive for in our music AND in every other aspect of life, and that's balance. 

We can and should be "extreme" in some areas. Extremely passionate about God's love, extremely grateful for God's grace, extremely awed by His holiness, extremely involved in sharing the Gospel. But sometimes we take areas that should be balanced to extremes, and our preferences (not biblical principles, just "what we like") fall into that category. And I hope you realize what I mean here. Taking any old style of music in the name of "balance" and calling it good is not the issue. "Well, here at ___________ Church we like to really strike a balance between spiritual and carnal so today we're featuring our favorite worship songs and a little Top 40. BALANCE!" Um, no. 

I'm talking strictly about church music (as in, music performed/sung in church by the congregation and/or groups, not what you listen to personally or the lifestyles of these songwriters or anything beyond the songs themselves as they relate to church. Also, I'm assuming from the get-go that when we discuss these songs being used in church, it will be in a Christ-honoring, appropriate way. No need to debate technique or stage setup or lighting. See? The rabbit trail is endless.)

So, like I said, this topic is eeeeverywhere online, and while "both sides" of the argument have a few valid points, what I'm really tired of is generalizations like these:

"All hymns are boring."

"All contemporary music is shallow."

"All hymns are rich in intellectually stimulating lyrics."

"All contemporary music connects you straight to Jesus."

"Hymns are outdated."

"Contemporary music is worldly."

"I can't connect with any hymns."

"I can't connect with any contemporary music."

Wow... those are a little over the top, am I right? And before we go any further, it's important to take a page from C.S. Lewis and define the terms we're discussing here. Most of the time when people talk about hymns, they're referencing songs from at least a few generations ago and sometimes a few hundred years. And usually "contemporary Christian" refers to anything from the 90s to the present. But if we're being fair (and moving away from generalizations, which is part of the point of this post), let's define these in their strictest terms.

According to Webster's, the word hymn means "a religious song or poem, typically of praise to God." And the word contemporary, strictly speaking, means "living or occurring at the same time." (In other words, a contemporary work was written during my lifetime, or yours.) So obviously, we have to acknowledge that there are many, many "contemporary" songs that fall under the category of hymns, and there are many hymns (by definition) that may not have been written in my lifetime, but they're certainly current, at least with older generations.

Anyway, that seems like a lot of bookish talk but it's important to define those terms for a couple of reasons. Number one, it means that just because something isn't found in "the hymnal" doesn't mean it isn't a hymn. (Is it a song that praises God? That's the definition!) And it also means that, according to its definition, there were lots of songs written decades and even centuries ago that- hey!- were contemporary at the time. Guess what? "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was contemporary when Martin Luther wrote it in the 14th century. The "ancient" hymns didn't just arrive in a time capsule, you know? They were new at some point.

SO what's the point of all this? I guess so far, I'm just trying to point out that it's important to get our terminology straight. If you have a problem with a style of music, be specific. "Hymns" are spiritual songs (and we're commanded multiple times in Scripture to sing them) and "contemporary" means current. That's all.

So now let's address those blanket statements. Recently I read through the comments of a post discussing these two "styles" of music (again, misleading, but I digress) and some of them blew me away.

"Hymns are so lifeless and boring. I don't even understand a lot of what they're saying."

Really? Lifeless and boring?

 "When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul." (1870)

"Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all." (1707)

"Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?" (1738)

"O, God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home!" (1719)

And then on the flipside, there's this:

"I just don't get anything out of that contemporary stuff. It just says the same thing over and over."

Hmm... do these sound shallow and empty?

"These are the days of Elijah, declaring the Word of the Lord, and these are the days of your servant Moses, righteousness being restored. And though these are days of great trial, of famine and darkness and sword, still we are the voice in the desert crying prepare ye the way of the Lord! Behold, He comes, riding on the clouds, shining like the sun, at the trumpet call! So lift your voice, it's the year of jubilee, and out of Zion's hill salvation comes!" 

"Blessed be Your name, when the sun's shining down on me, when the world's all as it should be... blessed be Your name, on road marked with suffering, though there's pain in the offering blessed be Your name."

"Jesus Messiah, name above all names, blessed redeemer, Emmanuel, the rescue for sinners, the ransomed from Heaven, Jesus Messiah, Lord of all!" 

"I come broken to be mended, I come wounded to be healed. I come desperate to be rescued, I come empty to be filled. I come guilty to be pardoned by the blood of Christ the Lamb, and I'm welcomed with open arms, praise God, just as I am." 

Of course, I could give examples of hymns that are boring, newer songs that are shallow... and vice versa. (Not every song in the hymnbook is as intellectually stimulating as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and not every modern hymn is as rich and deep as "In Christ Alone.") I think we all know this, but somehow there's a disconnect between what's clearly true and what seems okay or popular to say.

More important than style or semantics, though, is what Jesus says. Does the Bible explicitly outline Charles Wesley over Keith Getty, other that exhorting us to sing praises to God? Colossions 3:16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Patch the Pirate theme verse for the win... I can recite the club pledge for you if you want. =) Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs- that's fairly broad and I think there's quite a bit of room under that umbrella. (That's the idea here... the content of these songs and not the way in which they're performed... again assuming that their "performance," for lack of a better term, is appropriate and honoring to God.)

Here's what I'm saying... between these "two sides" (and there's a whole lot of style/preference/genre included there, but I'm narrowing it down since that's what most arguments on the topic do) there is a balance to be found. Ideally, a church service will feature what some people call "blended worship" which incorporates both new and old songs. (Our music minister has really mastered this and should probably teach classes about it. Oh wait... he does! That's a really great thing.) Why avoid all old songs or all new songs? It's safe to say that God Himself is a fan of balance, of different styles, and of "mixing things up."

 We don't have to look any further than Scripture itself to see this proven. God used over forty men to write the sixty-six books of the Bible, and it's pretty clear that not every book is the same style. Does the book of Psalms stir my emotions? Does it repeat itself a lot? YES! Should we dismiss it as shallow and repetitive? NO! Does the book of say, I Chronicles do those things? No. Does it deliver a lot of intellectually challenging information? Yes. Do we toss it out as boring and irrelevant? NO!

The same is true of music. I understand that the Bible was inspired and therefore infallible, but God still chose to use men to write it and allowed their styles to shine through very plainly in the text. He also made each of us different. That leads me to believe that God wants the content and style of our praise to Him, as long as it is biblical, to be as varied as we are! (Once again, this is not a standards/genres/evils of percussion instruments topic, for goodness' sake. Leave that to the professional forum stalkers.) Why miss the blessing of a beloved hymn OR the blessing of a song that can bring thoughts to mind in a fresh way? It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Oh, and I alluded to this at the beginning... but don't you think it's a little silly to be arguing over these issues (and the arguments are out there... in abundance) when our brothers and sisters in Christ in foreign countries would love to have the freedom to sing ANY songs- modern or ancient- above a whisper without fear of extremely dangerous repercussions. Hmm... that makes this issue and quite a bit of what we deem "important" in church seem petty, doesn't it? Arguing until you're blue in the face about a song(s) you prefer is not defending the faith, okay? Facing execution by claiming the name of Christ or answering someone's attack at the gospel is defending the faith. Defending our preferences is not "defending the faith." Okay, (that) rant over.

So... let's be balanced. I have songs and styles I prefer.. we all do. But the blanket statements and unfair generalizations need to stop. They don't benefit or edify anyone. If we come to church having already met with God and worshiped privately, our corporate worship will "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," whether the songs we're singing were written in 2014 or 1714. And that joyful noise, that "melody in our hearts," is what it's all about.