The Dancing Queen

Julia, age 3
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Many years ago, a certain little 3-year-old girl loved to twirl around our living room and say, “Look at MEEE! Dancin’ Queen!

Trust me when I say this was nothing short of a miracle.

Not the twirling … the twirling wasn’t the miracle. It was the talking that was the miracle.

It’s the truth! In fact, these words were among the first full sentences she ever spoke. Until then, her vocabulary existed of about six one-word phrases:

  • NO!
  • MINE!
  • Doe (for Joel)
  • Nay (for Nathan)
  • DaDEE
  • MAAAAAAA!

Truly, these were all the words she knew until she discovered the music of ABBA and particularly the song “Dancing Queen.”

Fortunately, good music encouraged her to increase her vocabulary. One good phrase led to another and another and another until eventually she talked so much that in 1st grade she got to sit at her very own table in the back corner of the classroom because she wouldn’t stop talking to the other children — but that’s a story for another day.

Back to Dancing Queen … You know how Dancing Queen goes, right?

“You are the dancing queen

Young and sweet

Only seventeen

Dancing queen”

lyric of Dancing Queen

My little dancing queen is currently seventeen.

Let me tell you, from my perspective, seventeen has been a pretty good year for Julia. She’s come into her own, blossoming into a beautiful young lady with a unique personality .

Last year about this time, she was fretting over being the only child left at home. I don’t know what she might tell you about it, but on the backside I can tell you that I loved every single minute of her being the “only child.” She kept Jon and I laughing with her antics. All I can tell you is that this girl is a hoot and a half. If you ever get a chance to hang with her for a while, do it! You will have the time of your life.

“The time of you life” … another line from Dancing Queen.

“You can dance

You can jive

Having the time of your life

Ooh, see that girl

Watch that scene

Digging the dancing queen”

lyrics from Dancing Queen

That’s what this past year has been for me … digging my dancing queen. 🙂

Seventeen ... still my sweet dancing queen

It’s July 1st. Later this month Julia turns 18 years old. In six weeks, she heads off to college.

I’m gonna miss that girl.

Tangled

My mom used to describe my hair as a rat’s nest.

She wasn’t wrong. My hair tangled easily into knots.

To add insult to injury, I could also be described as a tender-headed little girl. It didn’t take much pulling against the tangles in my hair to bring about cries and tears of anguish.

Throughout my childhood, I wished for my hair to be long and curly. My mother kept it cut short. No doubt, this was to keep both the tangles and the tears under control!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This morning I woke up sad.

As I moped over my coffee, Jon asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know.

Later, we worked in the yard. I didn’t want to talk or interact. My spirit felt as dry as the ground where the weeds were growing.

After mulching and lunch, we sat in the patio rockers, watching birds. Jon said, “You miss your Daddy, don’t you?” The hard knot in my throat threatened to crack open.

We are approaching the seventh anniversary of my father’s passing. It should not be this hard. Father’s Day shouldn’t bring me to my knees. I don’t remember feeling this sad last year on Father’s Day.

But this year … I’m just sad. I miss my dad

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I remember my head hurt. My wet hair was full of tangles. My mother had been working on brushing out the knots. I think my tears had her frustrated. She probably wanted to send me straight to bed, tangles and all. But she knew if she did, the mess would only be worse in the morning.

I don’t know why, but somehow my mother stepped to the side and my father took over combing out my wet, knotted hair. He worked slowly and gently, from the bottom up. The tangles seemed to fall away under the magic of my father’s gentle combing.

I think that was the moment I became a Daddy’s girl.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When my dad died, my brother suggested we put the following verse on his grave marker:

The righteous man will be remembered forever.

Psalm 112:6

Of all the things I could tell you about my dad, my favorite is that he was a righteous man who loved Jesus.

He was funny, kind, positive, loyal and gentle. He was devoted to his family. And he is remembered for the wonderful person he was.

Picture Perfect: Thoughts on Forgiveness, Family and the Future

A picture is worth a thousand words.

English language adage

Picture This.

This is my “family photo” from Julia’s graduation.

It is not the family photo I envisioned taking with my family. The one planned out in my head looked quite different.

Originally, I wanted all five of our young adult children in the picture, each one holding a chalkboard sign with the year they finished high school, from Maddie and Joel who finished in 2018 to Julia who is part of the Class of 2021.

Jon and I would hold signs too. His with the words, “Finally our nest is empty!” My sign would read, “Officially Retired Homeschool Mom.

In my mind’s eye, I could clearly see all of us, standing close together with big smiles. The image in my head was sentimental yet cute, trendy yet witty. It would definitely be a social media worthy photo.

Unfortunately, that photo was also not meant to be.

None of our kids were eager to take a photo in the first place. There were various comments and complaints from the oldest right down to the graduate herself. At best, they were an ambivalent, uncommitted group who didn’t seem to appreciate their mother’s sense of humor..

One day as I washed up the lunch dishes, I asked myself, “It it worth it to try to beg and plead just to get this photo?” As much as I loved the idea of that cute photo in my head, I also didn’t really want to have to convince my mostly grown children to do this one thing just for me. The truth was I wanted them to want to do it too. I wanted them to share in my excitement. Unfortunately, I could tell that really wasn’t the case.

I told Jon, “I really don’t want to have to beg our kids to take a special photo for me, because then every time I look at it I will remember how no one really wanted to be there. Furthermore, the last thing I want is a picture of a bunch of fake smiles because I don’t want us to just look like a happy family. I want us to actually be a happy family. I’m not sure this a photo where I had to force people into participating will truly reflect that.”

Jon understood my perspective, and so it was decided that we would just take a picture of whoever could be with us — and we would definitely not use any cute or trendy chalkboard signs.

A Well-Captured Photo

Obviously, the above photograph looks nothing like the family picture I originally envisioned. Yet, I am not unpleased with the way this photo turned out either.

Why? Because this picture is worth a thousand words.

A long time ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I was married to a different man.

My heart shattered into a million little pieces when our marriage ended. The young lady proudly wearing the cap and gown had just celebrated her 4th birthday. She cannot even remember a time when her mom and dad lived in the same house.

Over the years, with a lot of counseling, the intense grief subsided and my heart began to heal. And yet, forgiveness didn’t come easily to my wounded heart. I wanted to forgive, but the struggle to actually do it was hard and real.

When the graduate was still a little girl of just 7 years old, I remarried. While my new husband certainly brought a lot of joy into my life, being married again didn’t help me forgive my former spouse. I wanted to forgive. I prayed about a lot about forgiving. But my wounded heart still struggled to let it all go.

You’ve probably heard it said, “Forgive and forget.” Logically it seems like forgetting would be the more difficult part of that process, but for me forgetting actually came much easier than forgiving! For periods of time, I would actually forget about the pain of unforgiveness in my heart, which oddly enough fooled me into believing I had also forgiven my ex-husband. Unfortunately, just as soon as I saw him in person again those old wounds felt fresh all over again.

Forgiveness might lead to forgetting, but forgetting doesn’t mean that you’ve actually done any forgiving.

I complained to my counselor about my inability to forgive my former husband. “Detach yourself,” she said. I wasn’t exactly sure how to detach from someone you have to be around as you co-parent your children, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to try.

And so I pulled back. My kids were teens anyway. It was easy enough to just step back and let them handle their own interactions with their father. The more I detached, the more I wanted to detach. The distance grew and I suddenly discovered I felt less stress and worry than I had in years. This detachment idea was working!

But unfortunately, every time I saw my ex-husband in person, my heart felt all bruised again. Forgiveness seemed awful slow in coming.

As the months passed by, my counselor remained full of advice:

  • Give it some time. You have been holding onto the pain for a long time. It’s not going away by tonight either.
  • Practice focusing on your positive attitudes and emotions. What you spend your time thinking about will influence the way you feel.
  • As much as possible, let your children manage their relationship with their father. Your main goal is detaching.

Due to his military career, my children only see their dad a few times a year. Furthermore, for the past couple of years, he had opted to fly the kids to visit him in Kansas instead of traveling down to see them in Louisiana. As my daughter’s graduation approached, I wondered how seeing him in person would make me feel. After his last visit, I could tell that in spite of all my work on detaching and letting go, I had still not truly forgiven him. Even though I hadn’t seen him in over two years, I sort of assumed it would be the same this time around, too.

My ex-husband was due to arrive in town the day before graduation. As it happened, I was out running errands when he showed at my house well before lunch. Jon sent me a text to let me know, stating, “I told him to make himself at home.”

When I walked in the door, the first thing I noticed was he was doing exactly that. My former husband was sitting on the sofa, talking and laughing with his children and completely enjoying himself in my home. For the entire weekend my ex-husband spent most of his time hanging out with our family. It surprised me that I didn’t feel put out by his presence.

On Sunday morning, my kids left for a week of vacation with their dad. As I waved them off, I realized I had just spent the majority of the weekend in the presence of my ex-husband, and yet emotionally I felt okay. No annoyance. No anger or bitterness. My emotions were totally in check and I felt in control of myself, instead of being strung out or tied up in knots like I normally felt after interacting with him..

For half a moment, I wondered if maybe I had actually forgiven him … but I still felt too uncertain to believe it could finally be true. And since we were also in the midst of moving house, I truly didn’t think much more about it over the next several days.

A week passed before the graduation photos came back. The very first picture in the digital file sent by the photographer was my family photo. I clicked to open it up, feeling excited to see the photos of our special day, and yet as the picture loaded on my computer screen, all I could do was stare in amazement.

How could I have not noticed at the time the photo was being taken that my ex-husband was standing right there? As we all crowded around my daughter, I didn’t even see that he was standing in the group too?

I pondered this for a second, and then looked to see if we had taken another group photo with just my family. Nope. Just the one big group picture.

The strange thing I noticed was not only did my ex-husband not seem out of place in the photo, but there was no rush of negative emotion within me about having him included in my family photo either.. While both of these things certainly surprised me, what I noticed next surprised me even more.

Before graduation, all I wanted a family picture where the people in it weren’t faking smiles. I wanted a truly happy photograph — one where I wouldn’t look back and remember how I had to work hard cajoling people to participate. In fact, I wanted it so much, that I willingly gave up all my plans to try to force it happen.

And the end result was this unexpected photo, where everyone looks happy to be together. There are no fake smiles here! In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you didn’t know the backstory, you might just think all the people in this photo were part of one big, happy family who had gathered to celebrate a person they all loved.

The more I stared at that amazing picture, the more it dawned on me that my focus was finally right — and that’s when I knew forgiveness had come at last.

Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.

Proverbs 17:9

A Picture with Words

An idea for a new picture came to me two days before graduation, sort of a spin off from my original idea.

At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it but when I mentioned it to Jon, he said I should go for it.

With a little bit of hesitancy, I asked my graduate what she thought. When she said she would be delighted to take the photo with me, I think I nearly fainted. I was hoping for just an ambivalent agreement. Instead, she gave me her full enthusiasm.

I already had the chalkboards and the chalk marker. I just needed to find the time to pull it all together. Even though I had a million small task to complete on my graduation to-do list, I happily added the words “make chalkboard signs” to it.

Late on the night before graduation, I sat down and wrote out my three simple chalkboard messages.

The first for my daughter: “I’m done! Class of 2021”

The second for Jon: “College costs more than homeschool.”

And the last one for me: “Officially Retired Homeschool Mom”

Immediately after our family group photo, I asked the photographer please take a second picture. This time it was just the three of us … me and Jon and Julia … posing together for a picture.

And this time, the photo captured a thousand words wrapped up in my heart. It was the perfect combination of sentimental and witty; creative and silly. It’s probably even social media worthy.

Even though it is not my original idea, it’s still close enough so that it made my heart smile, intentionally and creatively demonstrating my personal decision to embrace the end of one season in anticipation of the next.

Finally, I didn’t have to beg or console anyone else to go along with my idea.

Win-Win-Win!

Life in Proper Focus

My counselor once told me I needed to practice embracing reality, regardless of whether I liked my reality or not.

Like it or not, as of May 8th, I am no longer a homeschool mother. The end of this part of my life has been coming for a long, long time. Therefore, I might as well embrace it with as much grace as I can muster.

The truth is part of my issue with unforgiveness was the fact that I felt forced into being a single mother, as if everything I ever loved about my life was stolen from me. I couldn’t see how things would ever feel right again.

I could have accepted the reality of what was happening, choosing instead to embrace the new gifts God placed in my life. But I didn’t, and that inability to accept reality cost me 14 years of pain in my own heart.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32

Once again, I’m being forced to leave behind one season of life and head into the next.

Whether I like it or not, many things I have loved and treasured about my current life are coming to a swift end. I can choose to kick and scream or moan and cry, but I cannot stop what is happening. My past experience tells me that if I choose to focus on this negatively, I will only prolong the pain of moving forward.

This time, I’m determined to embrace the next season as an adventure, even though it means I leave must behind what I once loved so dearly in order to step into a reality that I do not yet know.

As I gave Julia her high school diploma, I encouraged her with the following scripture:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Ephesians 2:10

You see, my daughter freely admits to feeling somewhat anxious about heading out to college in the fall.

“Mom,” she said to me recently, “I love my current life — my part-time job, hanging with my friends, taking long walks in our neighborhood, cuddling with my dog in bed every night. Every time I think about going away to college, I get sad because I’m going to miss so much about life right now!

Who can blame her for not wanting to trade a life she loves for something new and unknown?

She’s not alone in her anxiety.

I am anxious about upcoming changes too. Suddenly I’m not going to be a homeschool mom, which means my whole world is turning upside down. Part of me is jealous of my daughter. At least she knows that she is going to college. I still have no idea what my next season includes!

But I can choose to willingly embrace this time in my life because God already prepared it for me. He knows my life’s path and I can walk in it with Him, knowing that He is going to be there with me through every twist and turn.

So the truth is, I picked this Bible verse for me too!

Here’s to a new seasons — to accepting the reality of my life, to forgiving myself and others, to moving forward into the unknown, and to embracing all that is to come.

Most of all, here’s to knowing God walks with us so we are never alone.

Refuse to worry about tomorrow, but deal with each challenge that comes your way, one day at at time.

Matthew 6:34 (The Passion Translation)

A Letter to My Graduate

Dear Julia,

You are my surprise blessing.

In 2003, I was already a mother of two small boys. Another baby was the last thing on my mind. But God knew I needed a third child.

A few months later I was both surprised and delighted when the doctor said you were a girl. I was certain you were going to be another baby boy, but God knew I needed a little girl and so He gave me you.

After you were born, I was surprised at how different you were from your big brothers. You didn’t sleep through the night for the entire first year of your life, didn’t walk until you were nearly a year and a half old, and didn’t talk much at all (except for the word NO) until after your 3rd birthday. 

As you grew, the surprises continued – for example, I was surprised how the same little girl I didn’t think would ever learn to talk had to sit at a table all by herself in 1st grade because she wouldn’t stop talking to her classmates.

When you were in jr. high, you surprised me by suddenly becoming a vegetarian – and then I was even more surprised when you stuck with that diet for several months.

I could tell a lot of stories about how you’ve surprised me over the years. In fact, you surprise me so much that now I feel surprised when you aren’t surprising me!

But Julia, as surprising as you are to me, it’s important to know that you’ve never once taken God by surprise. Not one single time.

You see, God didn’t just decide on a whim in 2002 to create you.   

The Bible says in Ephesians chapter 1 verse 4 that God chose you as His own before the foundation of the world. For something to be chosen means it must be known because logically you can’t choose something if you don’t know it. Julia, this means that before God spoke the sun and the moon and the stars into existence, He already knew you. You were not a mystery to God.

Furthermore, the same God who knew you before the foundation of the world, created you in His image.

Ephesians 2:10 says that you are God’s workmanship. Another word for workmanship is masterpiece. Often, we talk about things like sunsets, mountain peaks, or Saturn’s rings as being God’s masterpieces, and yet the Bible never refers to any part of nature God’s masterpiece.  That title goes to you and me! Only humans were created in the image of the Creator.

A masterpiece is not just any old thing thrown together, rather it’s created with great care and intention. That’s exactly how God created you …  with intention. He gave you those beautiful green-gray eyes and your contagious laugh, and even though all your pediatricians said that based on your childhood growth charts you were going to be a very tall person, God ensured you would stop growing at 5 feet 3 ½ inches because that was exactly how tall He wanted you to be.

God took as much care creating your personality as He did with your physical features. He was the One who put that love for all animals in your heart and He gave you an overabundance of creativity. Julia, you are exactly who God intended for you to be.

But God just didn’t choose you before the foundation of the world or create you with intention, God also gave you a destiny.

The second half of Ephesians 2:10 says that you created for good works which God prepared beforehand so that you should walk in them.

For us, the future is unknown., Anything that is unknown has a way of making us feel anxious, and that’s why going into a new season of life can feel scary. And yet, God who knew you from before time began and created you to be a unique reflection of Himself, has also promised that He has a good plan for your life.

It’s important remember is that God isn’t orchestrating your life as you live it. He doesn’t wake up each morning and willy-nilly throw together things for you to do, nor does He let you go along doing your own thing until you run into problems and then step in with a solution. Instead, Julia, God planned every single detail of your life out beforehand, from the big moments to the small ones. He even planned out that you would be right here on this stage at this very moment receiving your high school diploma!  

That’s why as you think about your future, you can trust God already knows everything that will happen to you. And girl, if God’s got all the tiny details planned out, then you can trust He’s got it all under control too. No need to fret or worry!  

Proverbs 31 verse 25 says, “She laughs without fear of the future.”  My sweet girl, as you head out into this great big world of God’s, this is my prayer for you. The future is bright. Go with confidence.

God’s got this … and He’s got you too!

Love, Mom

X-Ray Vision

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.

~ Proverbs 15:3

image credit: https://www.retroagogo.com/x-ray-vision-patch/

Mom! Megan hurt her arm!”

Nathan’s voice had a concerned edge to it, making my heart race a little faster than normal. Sure enough, as soon as I saw Megan, pale-face and cradling her arm,  I could tell she was in pain.

“I’m fine, GiGi.  It’s nothing,” Megan said, though I could see tears still welled up in the corners of her eyes. She wiggled her fingers. “See,” she said with a wry grin,  “it’s definitely not broken.”

“It may not be broken, but I’d still like to check out your arm. Show me where it hurts.”

Megan pulled her arm instinctively closer. “Oh, really … it’s fine.”

I could see the purple tint of a bruise already beginning to show on the side of her right forearm. “Sweetie, what happened? I can see where you’ve bruised yourself. It must really hurt.”

Megan looked first at Nathan. His eyes grew wide and he shrugged his shoulders at her. Megan shook her head and signed. Finally she said, “GiGi, I just bumped up against the corner where the wall sticks out. It really doesn’t hurt me much at all.

Something about her answer and the look on Nathan’s face made me feel suspicious as to what really happened, but I could tell Megan wasn’t going to open up yet. I gave her a couple of ibuprofen tablets and suggested she find a quiet activity to rest her arm for the remainder of the morning.

An hour or so later, I saw Megan in the kitchen getting water. A huge knot stuck out, and the bruise was dark in color. I noticed my right-handed stepdaughter using her left hand to get a drink. But after a second round of questioning, she continued to insist her arm was quite alright.

At lunch, Megan winced through the meal, picking up utensils gingerly as if even the slightest movement cause her pain. However, she never uttered a complaint.

By early afternoon, it was obvious to everyone that despite Megan’s bravado, the pain was intense. The arm might not be broken, but I wondered if it was fractured. I also was curious as to why Megan was so closed-mouthed about how the injury occurred.

I called her pediatrician, who said we should bring her in to check for fractures. On the car ride to the office, I said, “Megan, I need to know exactly what happened to hurt your arm. The doctor will need to know how it happened. Casually bumping up against the corner of a wall shouldn’t cause this kind of pain. So, be honest with me and tell the truth about what happened.”

With eyes cast down, Megan sighed deeply. “I know you will be mad at me because I hurt my arm when I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing.”

“Megan, it’s okay. Just tell me and then maybe I can help,” I said as I patted her hand.

“Well … Nathan and I went into dad’s office. I know we aren’t suppose to go play in there, but we did. First I had a turn sitting in dad’s chair while Nathan spun me around. Then I let Nathan have a turn sitting in the chair. But while I was spinning him, I somehow flung my arms too fast and my right arm crashed into the wall, right on the corner where it sticks out near dad’s desk. I didn’t want to tell you because I knew we would get into trouble.” Megan finished with a sigh.

“Aw, Meg … I’m sorry you got hurt. I wish you had told me sooner. You and Nathan did disobey a direct rule. But hiding the truth never makes a situation better. You’ve been in physical pain from your arm all day, but your heart has been heavy too. And it didn’t have to be that way.”

Meg smiled shyly. “I know. It was silly not to tell you. I already feel better because the truth is out, and I don’t have to hide it anymore. GiGi, will you forgive me for playing in dad’s office … and for hiding the truth about my arm?”

I grinned back. “You bet I will! And I’d say your hurt arm is a natural consequence for your disobedience, so we are all good. Now, let’s go get this arm checked out.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

As I suspected, our doctor did want Megan to have her arm x-rayed, and in short order he sent us off to a local imaging center to get an X-ray taken. As we left the pediatrician’s office,  I called to the house to let the rest of my kids know it might be another hour or so before we got back home.

Immediately, four voices in the background began to clamor for me to come by and pick them up so they might come with us. “Why on earth would you want to come? We are just going to be sitting in a waiting room.” I asked.

“I’m really concerned about Megan,” said Julia, a little too enthusiastically.

Yeah! We want to be there in case she needs any extra support,” echoed Maddie.

“It’s just an X-ray, guys … not surgery.” Their enthusiasm for coming along to get an X-ray was nearly as strange as Megan’s initial reticence to share how exactly her arm got injured.

“Well, personally, I just want to come so I can get a free coke and a couple of cookies,” said Joel.

“And candy! Don’t forget the candy!” said Nathan, his voice gleeful and giddy.

“Aha!” I said. “There’s the truth! I forgot how that imaging center has cookies and soft drinks and lots of bowls of candy strategically placed in the waiting room. You people aren’t concerned about Megan at all!”

“But Mom! It’s not fair that Megan will be the only one who gets to enjoy the free food … especially when she was the one being disobedient in the first place,” pouted Julia.

“Fair or not, that’s just the way it is. I’m not coming to get you, but I will return home soon.” With that, I hung up my cell phone.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Fortunately, Megan’s arm was not broken or fractured. She just had a deep, severe bruise which took several days to heal.

Afterward, I began to think about Megan’s situation. She tried to hide the truth because she was afraid of being punished because she was disobedient. And then, somehow, despite her failure to obey and in spite of her lie, she was still blessed with a free soft drink and cookies as she waited to get her arm x-rayed.

Isn’t God like that with us?

We sin against Him all the time, and then lie to Him about our actions. And yet, He blesses us in so many ways. His love is deeper than all of our wrong doings. His love is greater than our inability to be truthful with ourselves. His love disciplines and yet blesses at the same time.

X is for X-Ray, 

and for the reminder that God sees right into our sinful hearts, but loves and blesses His children in spite of it.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.

~1 Peter 4:8

And It Came To Pass

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

Luke 2:1 (KJV)

Back when my children were relatively tiny people, my favorite Bible verse was actually just the phrase “and it came to pass.” 

You might laugh, but during that season of my life those five small words felt like a balm to my weary soul.  One thing moms of young children know is while the various stages and phases of infant and toddler life may feel long and arduous, they all eventually come to an end.

So, when Joel refused to eat anything other than peanut butter fold overs for the entire month of June or the winter that Nathan threw a tantrum whenever I put socks and shoes on his little feet or the time when sweet baby Julia went on a sleep strike for three weeks straight, I clung tightly to the wisdom found in that simple phrase because somehow just knowing it would eventually end made my tired spirit feel encouraged to just keep going.

And it came to pass …

Are you as ready for the new year as I am?

Normally, I love everything about New Year’s Eve. After all, it’s the day Jon and I got married, so we always have lots of great things to celebrate at our house.

But this year, I am extra excited. After all, 2020 has been a long and arduous year with its pandemic, murder hornets and locust swarms, Australian bushfires and American wildfires, rioting in the streets, racial tensions, the presidential election from you know where … not to mention, the death of Alex Trebek.

Thank goodness a year can only last twelve months! Can I get an amen?

Yet, as hopeful as I am for all the good that 2021 might bring our way, I’m also mindful that hope and peace and joy are not guarantees for the new year.  If we are expecting 2021 to bring us only good news, then we are simply setting ourselves up for a big disappointment.  

Hope isn’t found in the promises of good health.

Peace isn’t found in our elected leaders.

The state of the economy, the security of our jobs, and the amount of money in our bank accounts can never give us real or lasting joy.

Temporary circumstances cannot ever provide anything other than temporary feelings. Unfortunately, all things on this earth are temporary.

Everything, that is, except for Jesus Christ and all that belongs to Him.

The great news is that you can belong to Jesus, too.

If you already belong to Jesus, then you already understand that the very best gift of Christmas is His presence in your heart.

If you don’t belong to Jesus or aren’t sure, then I’d love to tell you more about how you can. It’s as simple as A-B-C … Admitting you are a sinner; Believing Jesus lived a perfect life, took the punishment for your sins through His death on the cross, and rose victoriously back to life; Confessing that He is Lord of all and surrendering to living your life by following Him. Trust me … doing this will be the very best Christmas present you could ever give yourself!

“But this Christmas know that He came for you. As broken and messed up as your year may have been, His love is infinitely greater. He is able. Able to restore joy, bring peace and truly bless your Christmas with the best gift of all – His presence.”

Susan Narjala, Making Space: An Advent Devotional

Wishing you all the very merriest of Christmases and the most joyous of new years!

With love,

The Tale of Three Nativities

Of all the Christmas decorations out there, Nativity scenes are my absolute favorite.

I currently own six different nativity sets, and yet every year when Christmas decorations start to appear in the stores, I have the urge to run out and buy another one or two. Jon doesn’t understand my desire to fill my house with all the beautiful Nativity scenes. I have too many as it is because I don’t have enough space to display all of the ones I own. Yet a part of me wonders if a girl can own too many Christmas Nativity sets.

As I decorated my house for Christmas and displayed my beautiful Nativities, I thought about how my love for Nativity sets started when I was a young girl, as well as some of the beautiful Christmas lessons I’ve learned from setting up Nativity scenes.

These are three of my favorite Nativity stories.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When I was a little girl, I knew the Christmas season had arrived when my mother pulled out the Nativity set.

She always got it out in early December. Sometimes we wouldn’t decorate a tree until it was almost Christmas, but the Nativity set was put out early in the season to remind us of the real story of Christmas.

My brother and sister and I played for hours with the Nativity. Ours was made from a very study plastic. It was not cheaply made nor did it look cheap, but because it was so sturdy it was also very kid friendly. Nothing could be easily broken on it — at least not until we were all grown and Brooke’s dog got hold of some of the shepherds and maybe a wise man or two.

This one is not exactly like the Nativity set my mother owned, but it’s similar. We had more shepherds, several sheep, a couple of camels, and two angels included in our set. Also, the barn did not have a ladder to the roof and the sides were solid.

Each of us had our own way of playing with the Nativity.

I liked to arrange all the characters so that it covered the entire coffee table. Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus were settled into the wooden barn. The cow and the donkey were either in the creche or nearby. Not too far off to one side were the shepherds and their sheep, while a great distance off to the other side were the wise men with their camels.

Unfortunately, I always had a big dilemma over where to place the angels. There were two of them: one kneeling and one that was standing. I typically put one angel on a little flat section of barn roof, but should it be the kneeling angel or the standing one? Once I made that critical decision, then there was the problem of where to put the other angel. Should it be inside the barn worshipping Jesus or be near the shepherds bringing them news of great joy? This problem drove my Type-A brain crazy every single Christmas of my childhood.

I don’t really recall exactly how my brother Reid played with the Nativity. He probably arranged it so that the shepherds were fighting with the wise men or some other such silly boy nonsense. Or maybe he included extra characters in the scene: Star Wars and G. I. Joe figures guarding the baby or wise men arriving on the scene riding in tiny Matchbox cars. Probably he just spent time heckling me and Brooke over how we set up the Nativity scene and informing us that we did it all wrong.

But Brooke … well, I never will forget how she played with our Nativity set.

She worked hard, crowding all the characters right up into the barn. The pieces were literally crammed inside: shepherds stuffed next to wise men, animals doing handstands in the back corners. It was as if her goal was to get everyone as close to the infant Jesus as possible.

As a child, I never truly appreciated my sister’s way of acting out the Christmas story. I would come along behind her and put a little space between the shepherds and the wise men. However, now that I’m an adult and a parent, I have to admit I’m impressed by my sister’s innate understanding of the real meaning of Christmas.

Lesson 1: Get as close to the babe in the manger as possible.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Three years ago, my son Nathan bought me a Nativity set to add to my collection.

It was a pretty glass set, so small and sweet. He found it in a box of Christmas items at the antique store where he worked part-time, and purchased it for my birthday. His boss gave him a pretty good deal on it, and after I opened it I understood why.

Do you see the problem?

This nativity is actually the parts and pieces from several incomplete versions of the same nativity set that have been combined into one very inaccurate nativty. The absurd allotment of characters includes two Marys, three Josephs, and six Wise Men. The shepherds and angels are completely missing altogether.

I have to admit that I laughed the first time I saw it. It is just so crazy!

Every year when I pull it out from the box, I still laugh. And the giggles continue as I put the extra Mary and two of the Josephs on shepherd duty. Usually by the time I collect the Wise Men into a small horde, I am wiping away tears from the absurdity of this mismatched nativity.

And yet, every year I am reminded of a simple but oh-so-important truth as I set up my antique glass nativity, and that is that there is only one baby Jesus. I don’t have that particular piece in duplicates, nor is he missing altogether. And I think that’s really important to note.

Lesson 2: There is only one Savior. His name is Jesus.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I’ve always wanted a fancy Nativity set to display in my yard during the Christmas season.

Hobby Lobby has a beautiful outdoor nativity that costs several hundred dollars. Jon and I priced it a couple of years ago, and it’s nowhere near our price range for outdoor Christmas decor.

I have seen those simple Nativity scenes cut from plywood and painted white. These can usually be purchased for a reasonable price. I’ve also found patterns online to make them yourself. We’ve never bought or made one. Probably the biggest deterrent has been that we don’t have a truck to transport this large decorative piece or the plywood to make it to our house.

One year, Jon bought a blow-up Nativity for our yard. We had foster toddlers at the time, and they loved our Nativity. Sadly, it only lasted about three Christmases before it wouldn’t blow up anymore.

This Christmas, I told Jon that I thought of something we might be able to do for our yard and he was glad to help me make this vision come to life.

Together, we pulled out bits and pieces of wood from our shed and constructed a manger plus a cross. It took us just a couple of hours. I love the rustic appearance. Later, we went to Hobby Lobby, where I bought some straw and an old-looking piece of fabric for the swaddling cloth. All together we spent $6 on Christmas decorations for our yard.

I know it’s not a traditional Nativity, but it’s still really special to me. I’ll always cherish Jon’s enthusiasm for bringing my vision to fruition, as well as the time we spent together working on the project. And I think it will be hard for me to forget us searching through the fabrics to find the perfect one for our swaddling cloth.

But what I love the very most is that the manger is empty. Jesus didn’t stay an infant. He grew up and led a perfectly sinless life. He lived just to die and take the punishment for my sins.

Lesson 3: The manger in Bethlehem means nothing without the Cross of Calvary.

Here’s the best news of all: Jesus isn’t on the cross either.

That’s because He rose from the dead. He lives eternally, and through His death and resurrection offers me eternal life too.

How?

It’s simple. The first step is to admit that I am a sinner, incapable of living life without breaking God’s laws. The punishment for not obeying God is death or eternal separation from Him.

Next I believe that Jesus came to live that perfect life without sin, and willingly took my punishment (death on the cross). However, He rose back to life and overcame death. The tomb is empty.

Finally, I repent or turn from living life my own way and surrender to living life God’s way. I confess Jesus to be the Lord and Savior of my life. And when I do that, God says that though I die an earthly death, I will live with Him forever in Heaven.

The best Christmas present out there is the presence of Jesus in your heart and life.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

Ephesians 2:8

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9

Shine: A Story for Veteran’s Day

Do you remember the gummed foil stars teachers used to stick to schoolwork?

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I don’t think teachers give those out much anymore, but when I was in grade school every teacher had a box of star stickers in her desk drawer. The old kind you used to have to lick in order to stick.

I loved those star stickers. I really liked getting gold ones. You had to do something really good to get a gold star: make a perfect score, have the neatest handwriting, not have a single spelling mistake on your entire essay.

However, if I am honest, it wasn’t just the gold stickers I loved. Any color star stuck to the top of my paper made my type-A heart happy.

Confession: Whenever I see packages of star stickers in an office supply store or the school supply aisle in Walmart, I have a strong urge to buy a some.

They aren’t gummed anymore. No lickin’ and stickin’ these days. You just plop ’em down like any old ordinary sticker. Honestly, I don’t think that would be nearly as much fun as the using the old gummed ones.

Furthermore, even if I bought myself some star stickers, I don’t know what I would do with them.

Stick them on top of the bills I paid each month?

Mark my favorite recipes in every cookbook I own?

Print out copies of my blog posts and give myself a star rating?

I’m not sure star stickers have a place in my life anymore … but I sorta wish they did.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Of all the gummed foil stickers, the green stars were my least favorite.

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However, green stars meant something very special to my parents. Over the years, they handed out green stars to each other, but as to why I never did exactly understand.

“Thanks for taking care of the dishes tonight! You deserve a green star,” my mother might say to my father.

Or perhaps there might be a green star stuck to a note that said, “Don’t forget to pick up some dog food at the store!”

Once, my mother colored several small wooden stars with a green marker and put them on my father’s dresser. I asked her why she was doing it. She smiled and said simply, “Your father will understand.”

I guess he did, for several years later, I came across one in a box of my father’s old things … tie tacks with missing backs, lapel pins, random keys that had nothing to open, and that old wooded star now a rather faded shade of green.

As random as seeing a shooting star in the sky, those mysterious green stars wove in and out of my parents’ relationship. It was the perhaps the biggest mystery of my childhood … well, except for the mystery of what exactly happened to Virginia Dare, which has kept historians bumfuzzled for nearly half a millennium. I read a book about Virginia when I was about 10 years old. Nearly 40 years later, there are still nights I can’t sleep due to wondering about Virginia Dare!

In case you aren’t familiar with colonial mysteries, Virginia Dare (who was the first English child born in New World, as the English called America at that time) and the rest of those brave colonists from the Roanoke Island all disappeared into thin air sometime after August 1587, leaving behind only questions without any answers.

Those curious green stars left me with a lot of unanswered questions too.

Why were my parents always giving each other green stars?

Why green stars and not red or blue or gold?

How come I never got a green star?

All I really knew about the green star mystery is that it meant something extra good.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Last weekend, my mom handed me my father’s Bronze Star.

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I had gone up to help her for the day. We spent most of our time together,  unpacking boxes in the dining room of her new house, placing her wedding china into the new china cabinet she purchased and organizing some serving dishes into the matching hutch.

In the middle of all that unpacking, my father’s army medals came to light.

How the Bronze Star came to be packed with the wedding china, I don’t know. Yet there it was, along with a few other army medals and a tin box filled with 4-H pins and a few other random items.

In her nonchalant sort of way, my mother asked if I would like to take Dad’s old army medals for my boys. Naturally, I did. The truth is that I wanted them more for myself than I did for my boys.

Somehow, standing in that room where my father never stood, touching those old army medals and 4-H pins … well, in that moment, it gave some sort of significance to my father’s life. Three years after his death, I still struggle with feeling as if he will fade away from me. I am often aware that I am grasping for the bits and pieces of what he left behind, as if it can bring him back or make him more real. Grief is strange like that.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I got back to my home that I realized I didn’t know why my father received a Bronze Star. I knew enough from my days as a military wife to recall that Bronze Stars are a significant award not given to every soldier.

What had my father done to earn it?

All I could do was ask my mother. Maybe she would remember. So I sent her a text message, asking for any information she could share with me about my father’s Bronze Star.

Within minutes, my mom replied:

Yes, I know why your father got the Bronze Star. He distinguished himself during the war. He was never in trouble. He always did his job, going beyond the call of duty. He was diligent in doing his part to win the war. He got it for his meritous service in a foreign conflict.

I read her words slowly.

Two times. Three times. Over and over and over. So many times I actually lost count.

As I stood there that night, thinking about my dad, I remembered how proud he was of his military service. But I couldn’t remember ever actually seeing his Bronze Star medal.

Slowly I opened the worn black box containing the medal. And there it was, pinned to a piece of yellowed velvet.

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The star had tarnished green.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My dad got a Bronze Star because he was a good soldier who strove for excellence. His hard work and diligent efforts were noticed. He stood out from the rest of the troops.  And because of his good work, he was rewarded with a star.

Just like I got those foil stickers pasted to the tops of my best schoolwork … the ones I worked the hardest on and gave my best efforts. Lots of gold stars added up to being on the Honor Roll.

Even as a young child, I knew stars were a very good reward. Stars, whether the gummed sort given out by teachers or the bronze ones handed out by military generals, are reserved for those who excel.

Nobody gets a star for mediocre work.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul encourages us to strive to do our best. He writes: “I urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)

When our time on earth is done, God will welcome us home with, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  (Matthew 25:21)  These are the words every Christ-follower longs to hear.

More than that, we are promised a crown. “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:4)  Crowns we will cast at the Savior’s feet.

Some days I think of my father in heaven… glorified body, worshipping the Savior, bowing before the throne.

Maybe it’s silly, but I almost hope his crown was embellished with a big green star.

It doesn’t matter though. My dad’s not wearing it.

He’s already laid it at the Savior’s feet.

The 2020 Election Shivers

photo credit: en.wikipedia.org

This is Allan Shivers.

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Shivers, don’t worry. It’s probably just proof you aren’t from Texas.

Now, you might be thinking, “Paige, I’m pretty sure you aren’t from Texas either. How did you come to know Allan Shivers?”

You are correct. I am not from Texas. I’m a Louisiana girl through and through.

My mother, however, is from Texas. She is the one who told me about Allan Shivers, just yesterday during our phone conversation. Until then, I’d never heard of him either.

As a born and bred Texan, my sweet mama knows all things Texas:

  • important facts about the great and marvelous people of that grand state, like Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Allan Shivers and so forth
  • the tiniest of details about exciting Texas historical events, such as the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto
  • all the words to the Texas, Our Texas, which is the official state song of Texas (aka the Texas National Anthem).

Fun fact: One summer, my mother and my aunts, along with my grandmother, made me and all of my cousins learn the lyrics to the Texas state song. True story. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to sing those words as I stood at attention and saluted the Texas flag every morning at school. Therefore I didn’t retain the lyrics and can no longer prove I am half-Texan.

Enough digressing. Let’s get back to my mom and Allan Shivers.

Yesterday I called my mom.

Typically, I talk to my mom on the phone several times a week. She’s not nearly as chatty as my dad used to be, but I enjoy hearing her voice. Usually we talk about her dog Zayda’s antics or my kids’ college adventures, or what our pastors preached about on Sunday. (This actually takes quite a while because my mother tunes into about 3 or 4 preachers every Sunday morning.) And because we both love to read, every so often we discuss books.

Yesterday my mother told me about a book she is currently reading: Stories from Texas: Some of Them are True by W. F. Strong. My mom said, “It’s fascinating really … at least in some parts.”

Apparently, one of the stories in this book mentioned former Texas Governor Allan Shivers, which reminded my mother that once upon a time she actually met Gov. Shivers in person at a church service back when she was a relatively young girl. She recalled that he had some connections to her hometown of Woodville, TX, the main one being that the library there was the Allan Shivers Public Library but also something about his grandparents being buried in the big cemetery in Woodville as well.

Ever the curious person, my mom decided to poke around on the internet to see if she could discover more about this former prominent Texas politician. This is what she learned:

Allan Shivers served as the 37th Governor of Texas, a position he ascended to upon the death of Gov. Beauford Jester on July 11, 1949. (At that time, Shivers was serving as Texas Lt. Governor, and therefore was next in line as Governor.) Shivers went on to be elected Texas Governor three times in his own right in 1950, 1952 and 1954. He chose not to run as a candidate in 1956 gubernatorial race , and ended his last term on January 15, 1957.

Even though a four-term governorship is fairly impressive, it’s still pretty boring stuff if you aren’t into Texas history. I figured there must be more to this story, or otherwise it would not be worthy of my mother discussing it with me over the phone. As I said, she isn’t the most chatty person around.

I was right. That wasn’t all there was to this story.

You see, Allan Shivers was quite the popular governor. In fact, he was so well loved, that on the 1952 Texas gubernatorial ballot, both the Democrats and the Republicans named him as their nominee.

Yes, you read that correctly.

In the 1952 Texas governor’s race, voters went to the poll and found that they could vote for Democrat Allan Shivers or Republican Allan Shivers. They also had an option to vote No Preference.

My mother doesn’t usually tell tall tales. That award goes to my father. But I fact checked her anyway.

Here’s what I learned: Allan Shivers won the election.

You probably expected that. However, what you might not have expected is that the votes were actually counted. The Democrats even claimed victory, not that it really effected the outcome of the election.

While the Democratic Allan Shivers handily defeated the Republican Allan Shivers, when you totaled up all the votes cast for Governor Shivers in that election, he received a whopping 98.05 % of the votes. Just under 2% of the voters selected the No Preference option.

It doesn’t matter how you look at that 1952 Texas Governor’s race, I think it is safe to say that this is probably one of the few times in all of American history that Democrats and the Republicans agreed upon who would be the best man for the job.

It’s certainly not the case for the 2020 Presidential Election.

Can we possibly be any farther away from the 1952 Texas Gubernatorial Election?

I think not.

The Republicans have their candidate. The Democrats have theirs. Not to mention Third Party candidates and extra characters vying for their place in the election.

Everyone has an opinion. No one seems to agree. And I think if most of us were to be totally honest, we are just disappointed that these are the best candidates America has to offer us.

If you are like me, some aspects of this election leaves you with the shivers. (Pun intended!)

How then should we live out these next 3 weeks?

  1. Pray

Prayer is where Christians should always start.

Begin by praying about who to cast your vote for (Not just for President but for all the offices you are voting for, and not just for this election but for every election.) Even if you think you have already chosen your candidate, go ahead and pray about it. Look intently to see if their platform and campaign promises line up with the Bible.

Pray for each candidate.

Pray for honest, peaceful voting and for clear results.

Pray for our attitudes toward others who may not vote like us.

Let’s all cover this election (and every election going forward) in prayer, and truly seek God’s will for our communities, our state and our nation.

2. Respect

It’s great to be excited about your candidate and there’s nothing wrong with spreading their campaign messages. Actually, let me clarify that statement. It’s fine to promote your candidate unless your methods don’t respect others.

Does your social media post shame or belittle someone who feels differently than you? Are you pointing fingers, making angry comments, or using guilt tactics on people who make it clear they plan to vote for another person? Are you making assumptions that other people haven’t thought about their vote just because they support a different candidate?

The Golden Rule is very simple: Treat others how you want to be treated. I think it’s safe to say that all of us want to be treated with respect.

Respect that others have a right to choose for themselves who to vote for. That respect begins with the assumption that the people in my life probably do not need my help in deciding how to vote.

Remember. You are only responsible for one vote. Your own.

3. Agree

I’m not just talking about agreeing to disagree. I’m talking about actually agreeing.

We may not all agree on who will make the best president. After all, it’s not Texas 1952 anymore.

Even so, I would venture to say that 95% of us regular Americans can agree on many things, such as the following:

  • We are for peace in the land and living in safe communities.
  • We are for seeing our nation thrive and our economy do well.
  • We are for our children and grandchildren growing up in a nation where opportunities abound.
  • We are for America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

So, instead of bickering over candidates and letting the media’s talking heads further divide this nation, let’s refocus on how we do agree with each other.

4. Vote

The biggest travesty of most elections is the lack of voter participation.

You have a voice. It matters. Get yourself to the polls and cast your vote.

Better yet, be the kind of voter who stays informed. Our elected officials work for us. Speak up. Write letters. Send emails. Sign petitions. Go to your town hall meetings or show up at the state capitol.

If you want to see our country doing better, then it’s time to resolve to be involved.

5. Trust

Finally, let’s remember the Bible says this about our elected leaders:

“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Romans 13:1

No matter who walks away from this election with the right to be President of the United States for the next four years, that person will only have that authority because it was granted to him by God. That’s why we can trust this election to our Heavenly Father. He already knows how it all turns out. He’s got everything under control.

We may not have an easy ballot like those Texans had way back in 1952, but we don’t have to shiver about this election and its results anymore either.

Why?

Because God’s got this. And we can trust this election and its results to Him.

With prayers for peace among us all,