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November 30, 2012

Mandisa's Free Music Friday

Enjoy a free Christmas music download of “What Child Is This?” from American Idol finalist and CCM artist Mandisa.

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American Idol finalist, three-time Grammy nominee, and CCM artist Mandisa has produced five studio albums since appearing on season 5 of American Idol in 2006. Her holiday album, It’s Christmas, was originally released in 2008, and was re-released this year with several new tracks and a concentrated focus on the reason for the season: Jesus Christ.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Santa Claus or giving gifts or anything like that—I just think we are to remember what the holidays are about in the first place,” Mandisa said. “That’s why we titled the album It’s Christmas—the focus is on Christ. I never ever want to forget what it’s all about.”

The album contains a variety of musical influences, including a hint of Latin on “Feliz Navidad,” soaring R&B vocals on Motown-style track “What Christmas Means to Me,” and a medley of three traditional favorites—“Silver Bells,” “Carol of the Bells,” and “Caroling, Caroling”—on “Christmas Bell Medley.” Guest appearances include Michael W. Smith on original track “Christmas Day,” and fellow CCM artist Matthew West on “Christmas Makes Me Cry.”

Friday’s free download, “What Child Is This?” is a soulful rendition of the traditional carol.

"'What Child is This?' has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs," Mandisa said. “I'm always floored when I consider that the God who created the universe humbled himself to take on the human form of a baby to save me. What child is this, indeed!"

For more on Mandisa, Christianity Today magazine recently recommended It’s Christmas in their “Best New Christmas Music of 2012” article, and has also published articles covering Mandisa’s debut album, True Beauty, as well as a review of her 2011 album What if We Were Real. Mandisa will be on the road with TobyMac’s Hits Deep tour through the month of December.

You can purchase Mandisa’s Christmas album at this link, and preview “What Child Is This?” in this YouTube video:

*Friday's free download period has ended. Check back next week for a track from Steven Curtis Chapman!

November 28, 2012

Going Deeper Than “Hi!”

Why taking the time to invest in relationships is important.

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Many of us spent hours last week sitting in airports or in cars getting to and from places to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. It takes me 18 hours to get from Africa to the U. S., much longer than most Thanksgiving trips.

This gave me time to think about the blessing of travel. At home in Uganda, I love travelling with my family, especially when we do not have to deal with “Mummy, are we nearly there?”

We eat cookies, play music, and sing together. We play “I Spy” and we talk about places and imagine the lives of people we drive past. Never mind that we often argue over the music that’s playing, or complain that Daddy sometimes drives too fast.

I recently realized there is something about being crammed in a car together for a long period of time or sharing space on an aircraft that is a lot like life. It can be a joyful time or a dreadfully unpleasant one depending on whom we travel with. Miles fly past when we are busy, especially when we are enjoying a good conversation.

Life is a journey and relationships provide companions on that journey. Travelling together and sharing life’s journey can make life more enjoyable and even more bearable.

Over the years connecting with people has become complicated in spite of the ease in communication that technology brings. Email, Facebook, and all those tools allow us to stay in touch without really knowing what is going on in each other’s lives—after all, a quick line will do. We “see” each other online and seem to stay in touch, but do not necessarily “talk.”

In time, greetings have shortened. “How are you?” has been replaced with a simple “hi.” This seems sufficient as a way of greeting, but does not do much for connection.
Where I come from, some tribal greetings consist of asking about everybody in the family including the family’s cows and the goats. The idea is to start the conversation by getting people to talk about everything that concerns them.

Another tribe does not greet immediately, but prefers to wait until the guests have settled down and are able to really talk about themselves. We have no time for that today.
An old friend wrote a song called, “Brother I Need You,” and the lyrics go something like this:

“When you meet me and greet me I say I am fine, but if you try and ask again I say headache, backache, and all . . .”

Many times, however, we stop at the greeting, and fail to go on to a conversation that digs deeper and really tells us the truth about the people we are relating to. We can only make a connection that builds relationship when we go beyond the “hi.”

For most women, when something good or bad happens, we often feel as though we have to talk to someone about it, and we feel so much better after we have shared a burden or a joy. Conversation deepens relationship, and that is the essence of travelling together along life’s journey.

Conversation provides relief in life’s troubled times. How many times have you felt after listening to someone’s story that you so understand them? That maybe their story was your story? Or maybe after sharing something with a friend, you felt your burden was much lighter because you sensed an understanding of your situation? Sometimes the person we talked to cannot do anything about our situation, but still it feels good to have talked about it.

Conversation provides us with a sense of companionship, a feeling that we are not alone in this, that someone has listened to us, and felt our joy or pain. Perhaps we encounter someone who has gone through what we are going through, and we know we can be understood—we may even learn something from them to guide us on our way.

Let us give ourselves times to go beyond “hi” and really have a conversation. I am amazed at how much comes out when I go beyond “hi,” and how effective I can be in showing others the love of Christ when I intentionally focus on really getting to know the other—by really caring. Yes, I am afraid it takes time—we cannot truly listen in a hurry. Let us schedule times in which we can really connect with our friends and those around us to experience the journey of life together.

It’s more comfortable to just say “hi.” How often do you reach outside of your comfort zone? Do you have any examples of when others have reached out to you?

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Aryantu Otiti is a Ugandan writer and editor, spending time at Today’s Christian Woman to learn more about Christian media and publications. Follow her on Twitter @ARYOT.

November 26, 2012

Does Doubt Have a Place in the Church?

I found my suspicions were necessary for my faith. Here’s why.

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I remember lying on my bed on my 16th birthday, staring at the ceiling through tears, and admitting to the wide-eyed parents standing in my doorway that I just couldn’t believe in God anymore. We’d just had an argument, and somehow the conversation led to the real issue: the doubt that had crept into my heart over the past year.

The minute the words left my mouth, I felt honest and empty. The façade of a safe, “Sunday school” faith was gone forever.

I vividly recall how calm my parents were when I voiced my confession. My mom didn’t yell; my dad didn’t try to persuade me. They simply told me that everyone has to doubt or else their faith won’t be their own. Then they told me they loved me and walked out of the room, undoubtedly heading to the living room to pray for their broken daughter.

From that moment on, I desperately sought ways to claw my way back into the safety net of the belief I’d grown up in.

I spent the next few months reading the historical facts. I read about the empty tomb and about how unlikely it was for Jesus’ body to have been stolen by his disciples. I read about creation, theology, and philosophy. I read personal testaments. I talked to people I trusted, and in the end, what I’d sensed to be true all along was what I came back to: the love of Jesus. I can’t see Christ, but in the same way that I know my family loves me, I know God loves me.

I don’t see the love; I see the effects. The never-ceasing provision, the peace in the most difficult times, the beauty in the sunsets, the scandalously redemptive story of the gospel, and the warmth within those I know who are closest to Christ—these are the things that keep me believing. Faith came in and through these realizations.

Without the space my parents gave me to think, doubt, and ask hard questions, though, I probably would have walked away from the whole thing a long time ago.

As a matter of fact, everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s walked away from his or her faith has started out with the same story: “I began to ask questions, and people told me I just needed to have faith.”

When you look into the eyes of these people, they all seem to wear a thin veil of defiance over an abyss of pain. They’ve been hurt by the church, hurt by its impossible “standards,” and bruised for their lack of faith.

I fear that in the American church, we use the idea of faith as a catch-all scapegoat. Instead of diving into the questions of fellow believers and looking for the answers together, we at times suggest that they just need to believe more. We tell them to pray about it. And eventually, those people get sick of our lame responses, and stop showing up to church. They start hanging out with people who aren’t afraid of questioning things. And then, more often than not, they leave the faith altogether.

I’m curious about whether we do this out of ignorance or out of fear. Are we afraid that exploring doubts will open a Pandora’s box of theological confusion and stories that don’t line up? From the outside, nonbelievers often see Christians as individuals who have convinced themselves that Christianity is true, not using logic and research, but because they want to have something to believe in. I fear this is also how doubting Christians within the church begin to see themselves and others as they spend their Sunday mornings looking around at the smiling faces in nearby pews, wondering why they feel so alone with their struggles.

The truth is, those who fearlessly dive into the investigation of their faith rarely resurface disappointed. In the early 1980s then-atheist and hard-core journalist Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Faith, set out to investigate his wife’s newfound faith, only to come to faith himself. C. S. Lewis converted from atheism to Christianity during his time at Oxford University, after spending time talking to G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien. History is full of men and women who came to faith through asking the difficult questions, not shying away from them. And those who asked the hardest questions came out, it seems, the strongest and most effective for the kingdom.

In a world where information is so readily available and questioning millennials are leaving the church in droves, I feel deeply convicted by the importance of knowing the Bible, knowing history, and never, ever being afraid to ask the tough questions. If Christians never doubted their faith, they’d also probably know little about their faith. Encouraging one another to question is the best way to learn.

God walked with me through the doubt and the tears, and he has again, many times since my 16th birthday. His words are true—he never leaves us or forsakes us, even in times when we can’t see him. My prayer for the church is that it becomes a place for doubters, as well as believers.

Was there a time when you doubted God? What brought you back? Are there any books you recommend for the doubting believer?

Ashley Moore is the editorial coordinator for Today's Christian Woman, GiftedforLeadership.com, and ChristianBibleStudies.com, and is also a contributing writer to the TCW blog. Follow Ashley on Twitter @ashgmoore.

November 23, 2012

Free Music Friday with Keith & Kristyn Getty

"A Mother's Prayer" is a standout track on Irish hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty's most recent album, Hymns for the Christian Life, dedicated to their first child, Eliza.

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Keith and Kristyn Getty are best known for their work as modern-day hymn writers. Having written such well-known songs as “In Christ Alone,” their listeners have rejoiced in the new ways they’re able to connect the church in worship to our great God. Not to disappoint, the Gettys have recently released their fourth U.S. CD, Hymns for the Christian Life.

While the album focuses on such themes as work, family, money, community, and social action, it also includes a poignant song based on an intimately personal experience they’ve had—namely, the birth of their first child, Eliza Joy.

“There’s something about becoming a mother that, at least for me, was overwhelming,” Kristyn says. “There’s something about it that drives you to your knees. The fact that God would take on the humanness and helplessness that it is to be a little child, and to put himself under the care of a young girl who is just learning how to be a mother, has really struck me this year.”

Her song, “A Mother’s Prayer,” is the result of the wonderment and overwhelming sensation that comes from being a mom. As we move into the Christmas season and ponder the birth of our Savior, we hope this song leads you into deeper worship during the holidays and every day.

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*This week's Free Music Friday offer has come to a close, but you can purchase the entire album at this link.

Also, read Christianity Today's review of the couple's album here, and enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at the production of Hymns for the Christian Life in this YouTube video:

Please check back next week for a Christmas track from American gospel and CCM artist Mandisa!

November 21, 2012

TCW Staff Is Thankful For . . .

We’ve been blessed by God’s sovereignty, Sudoku, and more. Can you relate to what keeps us sane this holiday season?

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The holidays are upon us, and it’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of black Friday shopping, travel, and in-laws. Even when life gets crazy, it’s important to remember to give thanks for the blessings God has given us. Here are a few things TCW staff is thankful for this holiday season.

God’s Sovereignty

Recently, I’ve been disciplining my heart and mind to focus on God’s sovereignty. As I get caught up in (and stressed out by) the demands of life, I find myself becoming anxious and discouraged. When I shift my attention to God, I remember that his plans and power far exceed everything we feel is important. When I remember that the “grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8), I find joy in knowing this life is worthwhile when I live for what will last far longer than my earthly life will.
Amy Simpson, managing editor, Marriage Partnership, ParentConnect, and Gifted for Leadership

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Sudoku

I’m grateful for many big things! God—God’s presence—is the ultimate reason for my gratitude. But I’m also grateful for one particular small and incredibly nerdy thing: Sudoku. During some current stresses in my life, I’ve carved out moments here and there for a little brain exercise. Surprisingly, it’s actually done my soul some good. It’s been a chance to dust out brain cobwebs and love God through engaging the somewhat atrophied mathematical/strategic part of my mind. I’m thankful that we can love God and enjoy his world (he’s infused this world with mathematics after all!) in small, fun, and unexpected ways.
Kelli B. Trujillo, managing editor, Today’s Christian Woman downloads

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Family

I can’t wait to burst through the front door of my parent’s house in Minnesota to be greeted by my obnoxious puggles before jumping into the arms of my twin sister, little sister, mom, and dad—all at the same time. People often say our life is crazy enough to be a reality television show, and I agree. While it may be difficult to get a word in edgewise when conversation gets going, our vibrant love for one another supersedes any conflicts or challenges we encounter. I’m eternally grateful to be related to such exuberant individuals, and thank God every day for blessing me with life and love abundant (Jeremiah 31:12).
Allison J. Althoff, associate online editor, Today’s Christian Woman

Remembering (and Online Shopping)

The thing that keeps me spiritually sane during the holidays is remembering. Remembering what God has done in the past year; remembering the gifts he has given me; and remembering the opportunities I’ve had to grow spiritually. Sometimes I get stressed out trying to make everything perfect for family celebrations. And then I’m thankful that my husband helps me remember what’s really important: simply being together. (And I’m thankful for online shopping. I’m positive avoiding traffic and packed department stores is good for my spiritual life.)
Beatrice Schoenrock, marketing project manager, Today’s Christian Woman

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Christmas Decorations
People think I’m crazy for putting my Christmas decorations up at the beginning of November (two trees this year!), but coming home after a long day of work, meetings, and activities, and having a dark, warm house full with of shimmering, white lights seriously calms me. This time of year, when I walk in the door, I more often than not keep the house lights off, throw down my bags, and drop on the couch. I love spending time resting, praying, and thanking God for my busy, yet fulfilling life—full of work I love, a ministry I’m passionate about, and faith, friends, and family that make it all worth it.
Cory Whitehead, director of brand and digital marketing for Christianity Today

God’s Unconditional Love

I’m thankful that God’s love and grace don’t depend on our circumstances; we know his care for us is constant, even when things are going wrong. I’m also thankful that we have a holiday devoted just to giving thanks. I plan to take advantage of that and rest in his goodness over the next four days (and hopefully beyond that too)!
JoHannah Reardon, managing editor, ChristianBibleStudies.com

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Pets

God must have taken great joy when he created animals—in particular, my crazy dog, Ruby. She’s curious, thinks she’s a lap dog, and will lick you until you laugh. She also signals she has to do her business by bringing a toy to you and then running around in circles with it until you figure she either wants to play or potty—or possibly both. Hey, she’s multitalented. Every time I look at her, though, I experience a bit of God’s playfulness. And for that, I’m joy-filled and ever grateful.
Ginger Kolbaba, editor, Today’s Christian Woman

Friends

I’m thankful to God for the wonderful gift of good friends. He has given me loving, caring, giving, and welcoming friends. My friends treat me as family and make me feel I belong. My life would be much different without them, and for that I am so grateful.
Aryantu Otiti, visiting editor from Uganda, Today’s Christian Woman

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God’s Love, Protection, and Redeeming Grace

I’m thankful for God’s continual love and protection over my family. This February my sister, Erin and her husband, Jason, are, after nine years of procrastinating having a baby. The fact that I’ll soon be able to meet another new life moves me to do things like, burst into tears in the baby section at Target because I’m so overwhelmed with joy. I’m thankful that through the years God has poured his grace into my family, bringing healing and redemption, and allowing us to love one another increasingly. It’s only by his grace. Also, I cannot wait to get my hands on the pumpkin pie.
Ashley Moore, editorial coordinator, Today’s Christian Woman

What about you? What are you thankful for this year?

November 19, 2012

Joyful Living Every Day

Our days are packed—but how much do we really enjoy our routines?

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I recently spent a week with my best friend, Diana, and learned a few things from her son, Joel. He just turned four, and is a bundle of energy, enthusiasm, and joy. Every morning Joel gets up, runs to his mother’s room, shakes her awake, and says, “Wake up, Mommy! It’s a beautiful day. I need my breakfast.”

Diana, who would rather sleep in, is forced to wake up to the enthusiasm of her son. Unlike her, he just can’t wait to get on with his day.

As we drove around with Joel, he’d roll down the car window and repeat to any passerby who cared to listen (and even to those who didn’t)—all in one breath: “Hi! My family and I go to church on Sunday. I have Bonhomme Preschool on Monday, Spanish on Tuesday, gymnastics on Wednesday. I play with Mommy on Thursday, and I go to KinderCare on Friday!”

I loved hearing Joel ring off his week’s activities, and I loved his enthusiasm; his bubbly self lifted my spirits.

It’s great to have so much going on, but greater still to enjoy it. Now that I’m older, my days are often crammed full—maybe yours are too. But how much of our days do we really enjoy? How often do we wake up in the morning and say, “It’s Tuesday—yeah! Hallelujah! Let’s go!”

Life gets very busy. Sometimes we don’t notice it’s a beautiful day, and we have no time to talk about it because we’re in a rush to get to work. Janice, Joel’s big sister, has told him he doesn’t need to tell everybody his daily calendar, but for Joel, it’s part of sharing his joy in living. Maybe if we lived with such enthusiasm, our days would become shorter and more exciting.

Our schedules may not be as fun as Joel’s. We have bills to pay and really hard stuff to deal with sometimes—not just gymnastics and Spanish. Our days may be long and difficult, and we may rush from one thing to another or drag our feet to the next item on our agenda.

No matter what our plans are, there is a promise for us—that the Lord is with us and always will be; he will give us strength for each day we face. He’s been there since the beginning, is here now, and always will be (Isaiah 46:3-4).

I want to start my day with a leap of enthusiasm like Joel, grateful to be alive and grateful to have things to do. I encourage you to do the same. Tomorrow, when you wake up and think of all you have to face and get done during the day, remember what your loving creator has promised—then jump out of bed to go to your version of Spanish or gymnastics.

What Bible verse or encouragement gets you through each day? I always remember: “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength!” (Philippians 4:13).

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Aryantu Otiti is a Ugandan writer and editor, spending time at Today’s Christian Woman to learn more about Christian media and publications. Follow her on Twitter @ARYOT.

November 14, 2012

Your First Free Music Friday

TCW presents “Blush” by the Annie Moses Band as a free 24-hour download.

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With the holiday season just around the corner, Today’s Christian Woman is happy to announce a “Free Music Friday” series on the TCW blog. For the next six weeks, the TCW editorial staff will offer a free music download every Friday, available for 24 hours (from 9 a.m. Friday – 9 a.m. Saturday CST).

Featured artists will include Keith & Kristyn Getty, Steven Curtis Chapman, Mandisa, and more. This week, the series kicks off with “Blush,” a single off the Annie Moses Band’s September 25 release, Pilgrims and Prodigals.

The Annie Moses Band, a family band based in Franklin, Tennessee, has been performing southern “chamber pop” for a decade. The six siblings and their two parents perform on a variety of stringed instruments, and their voices combine to create beautiful vocal harmonies in a style reminiscent of folk group Alison Krauss & Union Station.

Pilgrims and Prodigals is the band’s first commercial album release, and it became the most-televised debut for any artist on public television in September with more than 1,000 hours of broadcasts scheduled on television stations across the country.

Pilgrims & Prodigals is based on the idea that everyone in the world is going somewhere,” Alex Wolaver, a vocalist for the band, says on the group’s website. “We’re all on a personal journey. We are all either someone who’s finding our way back home, or we’re someone who’s running away from home. Every song on this album tells one of those two stories.”

According to Annie Wolaver, the band’s lead vocalist and violin player, “Blush” is a song that explores the foundations of traditional courtship.

“‘Blush’ questions our culture’s cynicism about romance and love, and speaks a timeless truth with powerful relevance. It’s a song that yearns for a return to the beauty and dignity of innocence.”

*The free "Blush" download has officially ended. Watch the official “Blush” music video below, then purchase the entire album at this link.*

Check back next week for a free download from Keith & Kristyn Getty!

Something more Intuitive than My iPhone

Technology may get the best of me—all the time—but fortunately, I have access to something even better.

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I beg to differ with the word intuitive so readily applied to today’s technology. Every shiny, silicon gizmo that pops on the market is “intuitive.” What they mean is “self-explanatory if you’re 12 and convinced you cannot possibly lobotomize your new device by pressing the wrong button.”

I happen to have a healthy fear of unintentional consequences, so I won’t press anything unless I know what it does. Last time I forged bravely ahead, I got Spanish subtitles on the TV.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I just don’t speak its language.

Take the Internet. How can my teenage son sit next to me, look at my computer screen, and know exactly what to do in less than half a second?

“Click on ‘new,’” he’ll say.

I search the screen.

“Click on ‘new.’”

I squint at the flashing colors and scattered words.

“New,” he’ll enunciate like I don’t know how to spell.

Well, if I could find the stinkin’ link, I would.

No matter how poorly I operate new technology, there’s no getting away from it. The other day, my trusty, uncomplicated cell phone died and doomed me to a new purchase—a smartphone.

Just what I needed. Something to prove I’m dumber than polymer.

At the store, the clerk unwrapped the sleek little doohickey I’d picked out, did some fancy finagling to its insides, and handed it over.

“All ready.” She smiled as though that was the beginning and end of our conversation.

The store was crowded, but I wasn’t about to fall for a doctor-visit routine where you got a limit of one question answerable with a yes or no before the white-robed apparition vanished from the room.

I planted myself firmly at the counter. “Thanks. But how does it work?”

The clerk blinked at me. “It’s intuitive.”

Right. Like the tax code.

I looked in the box. “Doesn’t it come with a manual?”

She frowned. “No. I told you, it’s intuitive.”

Obviously not the go-to help gal. I glanced at my son. I’d bought him his first cell phone five minutes ago, and he was diddling with it, totally button happy. For pity’s sake, what if he got irremovable Spanish subtitles?

He grinned at me. “I made three calls, got 42 texts from my friends, and found a Monopoly game. Isn’t that cool?”

Swell. His came with a manual that was lying untouched in the box. I didn’t even know how to answer my phone, let alone rule the world with it.

I tried one more time with the clerk. “Are you sure there’s no manual? I’m not technologically intuitive.”

“There’s online help if you really need it.”

Her tone suggested I needed help all right, but not the kind I could get from a computer.

I wanted to tell her I could make lasagna, carry on a conversation with my husband, and still know when the dog was consuming the TV remote in the next room. I’m intuitive, just not like a teenage techno-whiz.

Every person is different, with varying strengths and weaknesses, intellect, and gifts. Can we really label anything universally intuitive?

Ah, but we can.

Scripture reminds us that the knowledge of God’s existence is intuitive—plain to all, because God has made it plain (Romans 1:19). The apostle Paul says, “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Romans 1:20).

No matter what technology comes along to frazzle me or help me, dazzle me or harm me, it’s not a surprise to God. He’s way beyond it. He’s the beginning and end of everything. God’s undeniable signature lives in the fabulous complexity, fierce power, and wondrous beauty of the universe around us, and that is intuitive.

Even if I don’t understand my smartphone.

Erin Taylor Young is a freelance author, humorist, and praying mom who lives with her family in Oklahoma. www.erintayloryoung.com

November 12, 2012

What Shalom Taught Me about Reaching the Lost

When we approach evangelism with the sole purpose of restoring people spiritually, we’re missing our calling.

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Have you ever been treated as only a portion of yourself?

I was once asked to be part of a group simply because I was a young woman. The other members expected me to represent all young women and help them pave a path that made them more appealing to a younger demographic.

I was offended when I found out. I am, in fact, a young woman, but I’m also much more. I have unique roles, passions, interests, goals, and talents. Instead of being recognized for my whole self, I was simply filling a quota.

When we’re seen for only one role we play or as having only one talent, it can hurt. Maybe you’ve been the token woman on a committee, or you were invited to serve on the church board to represent all young moms. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to be involved in the discipleship team, but instead you’re only known for the excellent dinner rolls you bring to the potluck dinners—so you’re stuck helping in the kitchen. Or maybe you’re the happy Sunday school teacher, and no one has ever bothered to ask how you’re doing—because they assume you’re always happy.

It’s far too easy to do this to one another in our culture. What disturbs me is that we also typecast people in the church. We base our understandings of others on one small piece of their identities or lives. Although this worries me, what worries me even more is how often we do this to unbelievers and the unchurched.

Many approach evangelism believing the most important piece is preaching the gospel, telling people about Jesus, and helping people begin a relationship with him. While these components are key, taking this view means we are seeing the unchurched and unbelievers as one-dimensional people—people who simply need Jesus in their lives. We neglect their uniqueness, their past, their desires, and their needs—physical, emotional, mental, or financial.

I’ve come to believe that, as Christians, we are called to bring about shalom, what John Driver describes as an all-encompassing wholeness and health resulting “from authentically whole (healed) relationships among people as well as between person and God.” We’re called to restore the whole person—not just meet their spiritual needs. When we approach evangelism with the sole purpose of restoring people spiritually, we’re missing our calling.

Bringing shalom requires so much more. It requires that we are people who preach and live the gospel. This matches our account of Jesus in the Bible—we have both his words and his actions. And I have to believe they’re both important if they’re both included.

So when we seek to meet others’ needs—to restore them, to bring about shalom—we need to approach them as whole, unique people, completely loved by God. We must listen to them before jumping to assumptions and be genuinely interested in learning about their passions, desires, and needs.

We must pray about the best ways to restore these people to wholeness, asking God to guide us. We must serve them in ways that are helpful to them—not just what we assume will help. And we must tell them our story—the story of what Christ is doing in our lives, the reason we seek to meet their needs.

In The Cost of Community, Jamie Arpin-Ricci writes that the ways we help those in need “are not reflections of some noble gestures of holiness and self-sacrifice, but rather declarations of our satisfaction with Christ’s kingdom as it breaks forth into our lives and the lives of those around us.” If we are happy with the shalom that we experience as a result of our restored relationship with Christ, we will be compelled to bring shalom to the lives of others—and that requires total restoration.

I’m learning this lesson over and over as my small group helps under-resourced people in our community. We have to throw our assumptions about the nearly homeless, malnourished family we’re assisting out the window. We have to get to know what the 70-year-old recovering alcoholic man loves, desires, and lives for before we can assume we know what he needs.

It’s only when we get to know whole people that we can work alongside God, bringing about shalom everywhere we go.

How has helping others helped you dig deeper into your relationship with God? For more resources on outreach and evangelism, explore TCW’s “Deeper Faith: Outreach” collection, and read these two articles from ChristianBibleStudies.com: “What is True Evangelism?,” and “No More ‘One Size Fits All’ Outreach.”

Amy Jackson is associate editor of SmallGroups.com. Follow her on Twitter @amykjackson.

November 8, 2012

How I Freed Myself from Biblical Limits

What I do when I get trapped in the pharisaical maze of having to do everything right.

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It was nearing eight o’clock, and my sinful flesh was screaming for me to catch up on Grey’s Anatomy before drifting off to dreamland. On this particular evening, I nearly skipped my Beth Moore Bible study lesson, but something, or more accurately, someone, kept nagging at me.

I knew I’d feel guilty if I chose McDreamy over McSavior, so my Bible study won by default, and I proceeded to take part in a lesson on the meaning of diligently seeking God.

Citing Hebrews 11:6 and Revelation 4:11, the study concluded that our chief purpose in life is to please God, and the primary means to that end is having faith. With my heart and spirit truly refreshed by this truth, I was ready to tackle the “Faith Journal” at the end of the lesson, where the following fill-in-the-blank was posed:

“Lord, I want to please you, but . . . ”

There they were—seven words that stirred my soul and subsequently kept me up all night. The Sunday school answers of “sin” and “pride” could have both answered the question, but those weren’t good enough for me. Sure, there are all sorts of sins that hinder my ability to please my perfect, sin-hating Savior, but I wanted to be more specific. And of course, so many things fall under the umbrella of pride—laziness, selfish desires, and skewed priorities, to name a few.

There they were—seven words that stirred my soul and subsequently kept me up all night. The Sunday school answers of “sin” and “pride” could have both answered the question, but those weren’t good enough for me. Sure, there are all sorts of sins that hinder my ability to please my perfect, sin-hating Savior, but I wanted to be more specific. And of course, so many things fall under the umbrella of pride—laziness, selfish desires, and skewed priorities, to name a few.

Then it came to me: “Lord, I want to please you, but . . . I often get caught up in ‘biblical limits.’ I feel restricted in the freedom of my faith because I so badly want to do right—to follow the rules as an act of obedience.”

Wow, I thought, that was a deep reflection—even for me!

Part of me feels like a well-intentioned Pharisee. As someone with a pretty clear understanding of right and wrong, obedience to biblical principles often ranks at the top of my to-do list. However, with my desire to do the right thing comes a monster dose of guilt at the slightest violation of any rule—I was the young child who simply needed a disappointed look from my mom or dad to make my eyes well up with crocodile tears.

What’s so ironic, however, is that my uncanny desire to please others and do right is actually restricting me in pleasing God. While my intention to follow rules is motivated by a godly desire to be obedient, the outcome is, more often than not, a decrease in my faith.

How often have I held back in worship because I believe in reverence? Yes, corporate worship is to be orderly and edifying for all, but how is it wrong to celebrate a joyful spirit in the moment of genuine worship? I’ve taken God’s command to maintain order to such an extreme that I’ve ignored his call to lift my hands (Psalm 134:2), shout and sing (Isaiah 12:6), and praise him in the highest (1 Chronicles 16:25).

How often have I doubted his willingness to answer a prayer because I’ve gotten so caught up in trying to pray the right way or determine his will? In my fear to pray the right way without offending God, I’ve often decided not even to ask. Other times I ask and then second-guess myself, concerned about whether I’m asking the right way.

While I know he’s capable of doing anything, I often doubt he’s willing. In an instant, my hope has diminished, my brain begins to overanalyze, and doubt overshadows my faith. If he’s not willing, he’ll let me know, I think, but I need to let him decide that—not me!

If I’d stop overanalyzing long enough to understand the freedom and confidence he’s given me in approaching him (Ephesians 3:12), I’d take hold of the promise Paul reminds us of in Ephesians 3:20: that he is “able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”

There can be no freedom of my faith if it’s handcuffed to doubt and mistrust.

So I guess it’s that old “too much of a good thing” concept. Is too much obedience a bad thing? I can’t help but think the answer to that is “quite possibly,” especially if I’ve become so focused on following the rules that I’ve forgotten the freedom that comes with knowing and experiencing grace.

Although we never want to use God’s grace and mercy as a crutch to condone our sin, we also never want to miss feeling his gracious arms hold us instead of being held in the clutches of guilt. I don’t know about you, but I seriously doubt God’s intent in creating biblical limits was to restrict our freedom—and that’s a McDreamy worth holding onto.

Holly Mickler is a teacher, writer, and humorist who lives in Florida.

November 5, 2012

Is “Overthinking” a Blessing or a Curse?

How I turned my excitable stream of consciousness into a daily devotional practice.

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I used to think I had an overactive mind, like it was some kind of disorder. It just never seemed to turn off. One day after a particularly obnoxious amount of thinking, I googled overactive mind disorder. When no legitimate medical results popped up within the first page of search results, I breathed a sigh of relief.

With a clear prognosis, I perused the rest of the results and found I was in good company. Though I don’t share all their worries and concerns, the Google search returned hundreds of stories from people whose overactive minds made my excitable stream of consciousness seem mild.

Anyway, all of this is to say I over-think things. A lot. But when all I hear is my own voice repeating my own problems over and over, I have little space to hear God’s voice and the encouragement and direction he has for each day.

To help create margin in my cluttered mind and so I can better experience the presence of God throughout my day, I’ve developed some strategies:

1. Start each morning by “receiving the day.” This means turning my heart toward God, giving each day to him (Psalm 74:16), and receiving his agenda, with all its joys and frustrations, instead of obsessing over mine. What this looks like for me is sitting for one minute with my hands palms up and asking God to help me think the way he wants me to think today. I also take time whenever I’m doing something routine and frequent, such as washing my hands, to reopen my hands and my heart to God. Doing this helps me recenter my day around him who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).

2. Take a break from music and other media. Instead of distracting myself from life as I go from one thing to another, I now use my driving time to transition and process in silence. I turn off the radio and pray about what I’m driving to—whether it’s about being sensitive to the friend I’m meeting or something else. Sure, I’m not up to date on the top 40 hits, but is that such a bad thing? The silence has helped me create space to notice beautiful things as I drive around town and it helps me hear God better.

3. Look at the sky at least once a day. This handy tip comes from Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. She’s a fictional detective living in Botswana who has surprisingly deep insights into life. She often takes time to look at the endless skies in Botswana as she thinks about life and the cases she must solve. I started noticing the sky a lot more as I read these books last summer, and I realized there is something humbling and quieting about looking outside your world and worries to the beauty of the sky.

4. Set a physical boundary to stop thinking about work. A friend told me a rule her dad made for himself: he would stop thinking about work when he passed the bridge on his commute home. Brilliant! I do the same thing. Now on my way home, once I turn onto a specific street, I can’t think about work any longer. Work worries try to sneak back in within 10 seconds, but I say aloud to myself, “You can’t think about work anymore because you’re not on Geneva road.” Some days I have to remind myself four or five times on my 10 minute commute—sad, I know—but I’m thankful for the peace that eventually comes from this discipline.

5. Turn off the TV, computer, iPad, and smartphone at least an hour before bed. Although this may seem like a no-brainer, it is surprisingly easy to entertain or inform myself right up to the time I need to go to bed. And then I’m surprised that my mind is racing as I try to fall asleep! Well, there’s research that shows screen time before bed interferes with sleep. If research proves it, then I’ll put my information addiction on hold. This time has now turned into my daily quiet time. I thank God for his strength during that day, and I ask for his continued strength not to dissect and overanalyze it. I often remember this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” And then I move on to spending time with the God I love.

These five things have helped me create space in my mind and heart for God—he is with me! I want to be aware of his presence and delight in it, instead of getting lost in the maze of my mind.

What has helped you with worry, over-thinking, and practicing the presence of God?

Beatrice Schoenrock is Today’s Christian Woman’s marketing project and social media manager.

November 1, 2012

5 Practical Helps for Those on the Cancer Journey

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, here are some ways to make a positive difference in the lives of those diagnosed.

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Battling cancer can sometimes seem like an insurmountable challenge. Fortunately, when illness strikes, neighbors, friends, and church groups are often willing to lend a helping hand.

According to cancer survivor and author Lynn Eib, some ways of reaching out are better than others. Here are five compassionate suggestions from her most recent book, 50 Days of Hope: Daily inspiration for your journey through cancer.

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

1. If you take a meal, make it all-inclusive and easy to serve/clean up. Put all the food and drink in disposable containers and include colorful, disposable plates, cups and utensils—I like to take wrapping ribbon and bundle each person’s utensils in a napkin and tie them together. Add a small, paper cup bouquet of flowers—either from your yard or loose ones from the grocery—for an extra touch of beauty. Disclaimer: Double-check before you stir up a big pan of lasagna. When I had chemo for colon cancer back in 1990, our freezer was full of this Italian staple!

2. Give the patient a week’s worth of encouragement. Select seven cards—include funny, inspirational and thoughtful ones—and write on the envelope the day the card is to be opened. You don’t have to add anything to the card’s sentiment, but can include motivational quotes or scripture verses. Put all the cards in one large envelope and mail/give to the patient.

3. Let the patient take the lead on whether they feel like talking about their diagnosis/prognosis or would rather avoid such discussions. I often ask our patients whether they’d like me to listen to “cancer complaints,” or if they’d prefer a “cancer-free day.” Most patients crave some sense of normalcy, even if things never truly will be “normal” again.

4. If you know the patient would appreciate prayer, offer to pray with them in person or even on the phone. Ask if there’s a specific day or time of day they would appreciate prayer—perhaps while trying to fall asleep at night, or during their treatment time. When people used to tell me “I’m praying for you,” I wanted to ask, “Are you really? Because some days I am just hanging on by the thin threads of those prayers!”

5. Offer to assist the patient in a “vacation from cancer.” You plan the vacation based on the patient’s stamina, interests, and your finances. It can be as simple as a leisurely day in the park with a picnic or as fancy as a gift certificate for an area Bed & Breakfast (free babysitting included, if needed!) Whether you participate personally or the patient enjoys the day with a family member, all parties agree to take a “vacation” from cancer talk.



Lynn Eib is a longtime cancer survivor, oncology patient advocate, and author of several books, including the newly released 50 Days of Hope: Daily inspiration for your journey through cancer. Visit her website at www.cancerpatientadvocate.com.

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