Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

2 Corinthians 5:17

Making A Positive Difference in Texas

Although the epic winter storm in Texas is gone, the damage it left in its wake continues. Families displaced, homes and apartments destroyed – there are many people who suffered a great deal of loss.

Here are a few links to several groups I respect and trust who are doing the hard work to help families here in Texas. These “boots on the ground” organizations are making a tangible difference in the lives of families devastated by the recent winter storm.

Operation Care: https://operationcareinternational.org/

Texas Baptist Men: https://www.tbmtx.org/

Buckner International: https://www.buckner.org/blog/hope-after-winter-storm-uri

Samaritans Purse: https://www.samaritanspurse.org/

Each of these organizations offer hope to those who are trying  to sort through the damage of the storm. Please reach out to them if you need help. These organizations also offer opportunities to volunteer and give. Each of us must prayerfully consider ways we can help.

I want to encourage you to reach out personally to those you know who may have experienced loss during the storm. Simply checking in with family, friends and neighbors can make a positive difference to someone in need. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. Let’s each take one step to serve, care, pray and give.

One specific ministry that could use your help right now is Exodus Ministries in Dallas. This ministry offers transition housing for women and their families. Our Engage Parenting program has the privilege of leading parenting classes for them. We recently found out that they experienced a tremendous amount of damage and loss at their residential apartment complex. Please consider prayerfully giving to help them in this time of need.  Click here:  www.exodusministries.org

You are a Beautiful Creation

God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Genesis 1:3

What power, what authority! God spoke and it happened.  It’s nearly impossible to comprehend that from nothing came something. Every molecule in creation fell in line at the sound of His voice. He spoke and there was light. He spoke and there was a great expanse between the waters. He spoke and dry ground appeared. He spoke and there was the sun, moon and stars. He spoke and there were birds and fish and animals.

Everything came into being by Him and for Him. He is before all things and by Him all things exist. Creation was not simply a random event. God deliberately orchestrated it. He is both the composer and conductor of the great symphony of life, written in His divine wisdom and carried out by His voice. His voice is immeasurably powerful in creation, and yet lovingly gentle as He speaks to our hearts.

God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” Genesis 1:27

After God created all the birds and fish and every kind of animal according to their own kind, there was still one creature He had in mind. This one would be different from the others. This creature would bear the image of God. Obviously humans are not created exactly like God, for an image is simply a reflection, not an exact replica of the model. We reflect certain characteristics about God which separate us from plants, animals, birds and fish. What are those characteristics? We demonstrate His nature in our ability to reason, in our creativity and imagination and in our speech. His character is reflected in our capacity to love, forgive, show patience and kindness toward one another. Just as He is an eternal being, He has given us an eternal soul which will carry on when our bodies have long since decayed.

There is dignity and worth in every human, because each human is created in God’s image. Let us recognize the value of every life including our own, for we reflect the image of our Creator.

This is an excerpt from Pursing God in the Quiet Places. Available for $5 this month!

Three Positive Questions to Ask Ourselves in 2021

Typically, as a new year begins, I take time to reflect on my goals from the past year and consider my plan for the future. This year is different. 2020 made it quite clear that we can make our plans, but they may not turn out as expected. So how do we make the best of the coming year? How do we walk in a positive direction, even though our world has been turned upside down?

As I take time this month to pray, ponder and prepare for the year ahead, I am narrowing my focus to three simple questions:

  • What life-lessons did I learn from 2020?
  • What would I like to accomplish (while remaining flexible) in 2021?
  • How can I serve others in a more loving and meaningful way this year?

Despite the challenges, this past year has been a time of learning and growth for each of us. For me personally, I developed a greater appreciation for the relationships in my life. I learned to adapt and create new ways of serving others through our Engage Outreach. I enjoyed a slower pace and clearer calendar. Most importantly, I have grown to value time alone in prayer, seeking God’s direction and guidance.

Take some time in the coming weeks to reflect on the three questions above and consider the positive steps you want to take as you move into the new year. Maintain a growth mindset as you think about all the ways  2020 made you stronger and more resilient. And as always, I encourage you to keep a daily gratitude journal and prayerfully ask God to give you a new focus for 2021.

There’s More To Be Done in 2021!

Week 4 of Advent

Joy of Emmanuel, “God with us”

My daughter Grace, wrote the following Advent curriculum for her family and friends, and I thought it was such a perfect encouragement for you and your family as well. Enjoy these ideas as you celebrate the fourth week of Advent.

Reading
The Beginning: a Perfect Home
Or Read Genesis 1-2

On Christmas Day read: 
He’s Here! & read Luke 1-2

God, the very one who created us wants to be with us all the time. Though God is separate and distinct (holy), He desperately loves and adores his children. In all the deepest places we need love and where we don’t feel loved, God loves us. Though we cannot see Him like we see other people, we are made in His image. That means we bear some of the characteristics of God. In many ways we can see His handiwork all around us in nature, colors, music and in people. Imagine that every single person is an image-bearer of God. God does not need to be seen with our two little eyes. In fact, our eyes alone don’t even allow us to see all the greatness and beauty of God. Spending time in prayer and learning more about who God is through reading the Bible and experiencing his creation, teaches us how to see with eyes more clear than the two we have on our faces. Often, these eyes are referred to in the Bible as the heart. On December 25th we will be celebrating the coming of our Jesus, God who came down and made himself a baby to be with us! This is worthy of celebration and joy.

Advent Activities
Nature Exploration
: If you are like my son Jack, you have a stuffed animal or object that you take with you everywhere. You sleep with it, you bring it around the house when you need comfort and if you ever lost it, you would be very sad. Imagine that we are like God’s lovies. The Bible says, God knows our inward being and that we were knit together by him in our mother’s wombs. He knows the words even before we speak them. This week, I want you to find an object out in nature. It can be a rock, stick, acorn leaf, flower, etc and I want you to take it with you throughout the week wherever you go. Keep it in a special place so you don’t lose it. Care for it in the way a mother would her child. It might seem silly, but by the end of the week, see if you have noticed anything new about the object.

Home Discovery: As we anticipate the celebration of Jesus’s birth, we want to prepare for the party. I am sure you have attended super fun birthday parties. This week, you are going to throw Jesus a party. Though we cannot see him, his invisible spirit lives inside of us giving us joy, hope, peace and love. This is really exciting and worthy of a party. Find a space in your house where you would like to throw a party! Make decorations (see art activity), bring cake (see baking activity) and bring gifts (your nature object). In the bible, it says that a group of magi travelled far to bring Jesus gifts! They brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Tune up the music and invite everyone who lives in the house to rejoice and dance and eat cake because king Jesus is arriving!

Food to Share: In anticipation of Jesus’ party, grab a box of confetti cake and icing, follow the box instructions and throw baby Jesus a party. Now is not the time to get all “Martha” on the details. Jesus is here, no need for elaborate recipes, let’s get this party started! Grab a box from the store and follow the instructions of make your own. Here is a link to a funfetti cake recipe!

Art Exploration: Often the task of decorating for a party can feel daunting, but the wonderful thing about Jesus is that he was born in a manger so any sort of party decoration is an upgrade from a stable. Take a couple oranges and slice them thinly. Lay them on a cooking sheet then bake at 200 for 3-4 hours to dry them out. The scent of oranges will fill the air in a celebratory way. Once the oranges are dried out. Take them out of the oven, poke two holes at the top of each orange slice then weave a string through the oranges. Then hang it up as a banner at your party.

Adventure Walk: Once the party has begun, you might quickly find that you are filled with so much joy, that you must go outside!! Take some cake and your boom box and with your whole entire family, walk to the widest field you can find. Dance, sing, do cartwheels. Lay in the sun, let its rays fall on your face and rejoice that Christ is the hope of the world.


Music
Go Tell It on the Mountain by Dolly Parton
Joy to the World by Mariah Carey
The Day That Love Began Stevie Wonder

Further Reading and Discussion:
Exodus 13: 20-22
20 After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. 21 By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

Reading and Discussion:

  1. How was God’s presence with the Israelites as they travelled from place to place?
  2. In what ways do you notice God’s presence in your own life.

Joshua 1:7-9
7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Reading and Discussion:

  1. Why do you think God does not want his people to be afraid?
  2. What are you afraid of today? Ask God to help you not be afraid.

Psalm 16:9-11
9Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Reading and Discussion:

  1. What are eternal pleasures?
  2. What gives you the most joy in your life? Now imagine having that experience of joy always and forever

Isaiah 7:14
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Reading and Discussion:

  1. Do you know what a prophesy is? It is a statement that tells of that which is yet to come? God makes many promises to his people about what he has in store for them. What are other examples of God’s promises?
  2. Why do you think that God sent Jesus to be with us as a baby?

Advent Week 2

Peace of the Priest

As we begin the second week of advent, here is a wonderful curriculum written by my daughter Grace Ladd McDonald with ideas on celebrating with your family.

Reading
Operation No More Tears
Or Read Isaiah 9 

Did you know that before there were pastors, there were priests? Today we can go to God when we are in distress, need a miracle or need forgiveness when we have done something wrong. We can come to God in our rooms, outside, in church or anywhere. The reason we are able to do that is because Jesus is our priest. Before Jesus, priests pleaded with God on behalf of people by offering sacrifices to God. Another reason we have all of the stories in the Old Testament is to show us that God is separate from humans. Though He loves and cares for each person, He is perfect. He does not fail and people do. How can a perfect God come together with non-perfect creatures? There has to be a go-between, “a priest.” Because of Jesus we no longer have to depend on any religious leader to atone for our sins. We can approach God as we are! Often when we think of peace, we think of times without war but peace is also what we experience when we no longer have to worry about separation from God. Perfect peace is found in communion, or being with God. 

Advent Activities
Nature Exploration
: The Bible has many examples of priests. Priests were the liaisons or “go-between” facilitators between God and people. One of the earliest examples of a priest in the bible is Aaron, Moses’ brother. He had a special staff that often did miraculous things for the people. God used Aaron’s staff to show the people his power. Throughout the Bible, Jesus is referred to as a “shepherd” and shepherds always have a staff to help guide their sheep. Staffs are in many ways a symbol of guidance. Priests in the Bible were spiritual guides. This week go on a nature exploration and find a large fallen branch that you can take as your staff for the week. Use it as you walk. Notice what you are inclined to do with your staff as you walk home. Why might a staff help guide sheep?

Home Discovery: Often priests wore special clothing such as robes that were so long they touched the ground, but in John 19 Jesus’ clothes are described in much more simple terms. Jesus’ clothes consisted of one piece of fabric. When I was a child, I dressed up in my mother’s old dresses and pretended to be a queen or princess. For this activity, ask your parent for a t-shirt and find some sandals. Perhaps it is too long and you need to tie it at the side. Wear them around the house for a little bit and notice what it feels like. Now imagine giving a sermon in the clothes you are wearing! Imagine if that was the sort of outfit you wore every day. Why do you think Jesus decided to wear the clothes he did?

Food to Share: Jesus referred to himself as the bread of life. On Sundays we often eat a bit of bread to remember what Christ’s body meant. Because of Christ, we no longer need a “go between” to sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus is the way to God and we can go to God directly by praying to him. To remind us of the body of Christ, we are going to make gingerbread men cookies this week. As you make these ginger bread bodies and eat them think about why God might have chosen bread to represent himself. Share these cookies with a neighbor and think about what Christ gave to the world through his human flesh. Link to gingerbread man recipe!

Art Exploration: Have you ever read a book with a pop-up in it? As humans, we instinctively want to see and know that which is hidden. Perhaps it is our sinful nature or perhaps it is an innate search for mystery. Either way, there is something about revealing that which is unknown that is deeply satisfying. In the Old Testament, each temple had a veil which prohibited people from entering the most holy places. This might sound kind of strange to us now since we can go directly to God through prayer. After Jesus came into the world and died, the veil in the temple was torn, revealing to God’s people that there was now nothing keeping people from God. For this week’s art activity, find a picture in a magazine that you find beautiful or special. Cut it out and glue in onto a sheet of paper. Then take a piece of construction paper, cutting it large enough to just cover the image and lightly crease at the tip top by folding it. Glue the tip flattened piece right above the image so that it is covering the image, making sure not to glue the flap onto your image. Invite your family members especially the babies in the family to flip the picture. Notice the sensation or revealing the hidden image.

Adventure Walk: When I think of a priest, I think of a bridge. Priests act like bridges between God and his people. Imagine needing to deliver something to a friend that lives across a bridge but not being able to cross it. Think of how it would feel to have to stop at the bridge before you could enter it, entrusting  someone else to walk across that bridge on your behalf. Now because of Jesus, we can walk on that bridge. We can experience God as father just as Jesus did. With Jesus as priest, we are able to walk across the bridge. This week, find a bridge and walk across. What is the journey like? Imagine if you were confined to only one side. What joy it is to know that bridges can connect us. What kinds of things are you able to experience because of that bridge?

Music
Isaiah 11 by Rain for Roots
Once in Royal David’s City by Sufjan Stevens
Instrument of Peace by the Porter’s Gate


Further Reading and Discussion
Numbers 17:5-11
5 The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.”
6 So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them. 7 Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant law.
8 The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. 9 Then Moses brought out all the staffs from the Lord’s presence to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each of the leaders took his own staff.
10 The Lord said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the ark of the covenant law, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.” 11 Moses did just as the Lord commanded him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When wood is cut off from a tree, its food source is cut off and it is no longer able to grow flowers or produce fruit. Why do you think it is significant that Aaron’s staff produced blossoms?
  2. What do you think the Israelites were grumbling about and why do you think God wanted to put an end to the grumbling?

Psalm 23: 1-6
1The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2  He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
  through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
  in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What attributes of a shepherd are indicators of God’s kindness and care?
  2. Jesus came into the world in a miraculous way. Usually it takes a man and a woman to make a baby, but Mary became pregnant without a man. She became pregnant because God placed life inside of her. Is there anything you feel is impossible? Talk to God about those things that feel impossible.

 Isaiah 11:1-5
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever seen a ruler act justly? What does justice for the poor mean?
  2. Isaiah talks about the rod of his mouth, what do you think he is referring to here?