Saturday, December 31, 2016

Are Bible Reading Plans Legalistic?

It is a question I've asked. Is it legalism to use a Bible reading plan? Shouldn't I enjoy reading my Bible out of sheer love and spontaneous joy with no need of a plan?

I tend to be very structured with my Bible reading for one year, sticking close to a Bible reading plan. But then the next year I don't follow a plan, choosing to just read wherever I want. I don't think either are necessarily wrong and sometimes those "plan-free, spontaneous" years were years with an infant when life needs a little flexibility.

But guess which I like best at the end of the year? Yes. The structured years. That may have something to do with my personality and my love of lists, but the fact is that when I have a plan for my Bible reading, I do it. When I don't have a plan, it is all up to chance and there is a far greater chance that Bible reading will be crowded out of my day.

But is it legalistic to have a Bible reading plan?

I think of it this way. If a friend calls me and says, "We haven't gotten together for a while. How about meeting at the coffeeshop next week on Tuesday at 10:00?"

I don't say, "If you need to schedule a time to meet me, you don't really care about our friendship. You should love me enough to get together spontaneously."

Of course not. I appreciate my friend's effort to invest in our friendship. I will feel loved by her commitment.

If using a Bible reading plan is an asset to my walk with God, if it is the way I show that I'm committed to hearing from God's Word, then I don't think it is legalistic, but love.

Last year as a family, we used the Beginner's Bible Reading plan. This was a perfect fit for our children and I love that they built the habit of waking up with their alarm, grabbing their Bibles, and heading for the living room. In 2017 we plan to read through the New Testament with the children.

For my personal reading, I plan to read the Daily Light devotional which is Scripture arranged by themes in short morning and evening readings.

There are so many Bible reading plans. (This is a great list of Bible reading plans.) I don't believe it matters how much or how little you choose to read, but that you consciously decide to make God's Word a priority in the coming year and have a plan to make your priority a reality.

One of my favorite Bible resources is Power Bible. When Ed bought me a new laptop this past year, one of the first questions I asked was "Can you install Power Bible?" Power Bible is a very economical, easy-to-use computer Bible program. I use it all the time when I'm preparing Bible lessons, studying for Sunday School, or just in personal Bible study. When it is this easy to find a word meaning, do a word search, or check a commentary, I'm much more likely to do it.

What resources encourage your Bible study? Do you have a plan for your Bible reading in 2017?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our . 1 John 4:9-10

Wishing you a blessed Christmas and a joyful new year as you remember God's gift of love to you.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

In Search of a Mary Heart - Part 3

Continued from yesterday.

Mary Magdalene

We know little about Mary Magdalene's past except that Jesus healed her from seven demons. (Mark 16:9) Mary Magdalene is listed with several other women and it is implied that they were women of wealth who used their own money to serve Christ and his disciples. These women watched as Jesus suffered on the cross, then took spices to his grave. Mary Magdalene found tangible ways to show her gratefulness to Christ, and she was rewarded by being the first to see the risen Saviour.

Mary Magdalene gave her wealth, her time, her comfort, her reputation—to serve Christ. She served extravagantly; spices were expensive at that time. Neither do I need to be ashamed to serve others with special touches that say, “I love you.” But Mary Magdalene wasn't serving for her own glory; she was serving Christ.

Christmas shouldn't be about me, but how often are my motives to impress others? How many of my holiday traditions stem from the pressure of obligation or bondage of approval? What is my goal—to have some great photos for my blog? Or do I aim to show the love of Christ by choosing activities that will nourish my soul and the souls of my family and others?

Every December we give homemade Christmas cards to the residents at a local nursing home. I can do this out of obligation, “I should do this.” I can do it out of pride, “Look what we are doing for these poor people.” I can stress myself out trying to make cards that are picture perfect (and end up making them all myself). Or I can allow my two-year-old to color a simple star with her favorite purple crayon and focus on giving the residents a smile. I know what Mary Magdalene would choose.

December may always be a busy month, but all three of these women named Mary had busy seasons. Mary, the mother of Jesus took several long trips when Jesus was small. Mary of Bethany hosted many guests in her home. Mary Magdalene served a hungry band of travelers. Yet all of them found time to proclaim God's grace, listen to His words, and wait for His presence in a quiet garden. 

I want to praise my Lord like Jesus' mother, rejecting all the expectations and comparison games that steal my peace. 

I want to choose the best and spend time with God's Word like Mary of Bethany. I want to give my time and possessions to serve Christ with joy like Mary Magdalene. 

I want December to hold less worry and more worship, less panic and more peace, less jolly and more Jesus.

How do you keep a Mary Heart at Christmas? Or any other time of the year?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

In Search of a Mary Heart - Part 2

Continued from yesterday. 

Mary of Bethany

We all know the story of Mary and Martha and their sisterly spat on which was most important—preparing a meal or listening to Jesus. (Luke 10:38-42) Jesus said that Mary made the best choice—to sit at His feet. 

But how does that work when I have laundry to fold, dishes to wash, Christmas rolls to bake, and bathrooms to clean? Reading my Bible all day just isn't an option.

From other Scriptures in the Bible, we learn that Mary and Martha's house was a regular meeting place for Jesus and his disciples. I assume that both sisters spent many hours hosting guests. The fact that Martha was irked to find Mary shirking her duties on this occasion tells me that usually Mary was right beside Martha chopping vegetables and washing mugs.

Service can be a way to worship God. 

Jesus did not condemn Martha for serving food—just pointed out her bad attitude. Martha was “troubled” in her service. Maybe if Martha would have spent time listening to Jesus with Mary she would have served with joy. Gordon MacDonald said that “the inner world of the spiritual must govern the outer world of activity.”

Each day I make decisions on how I use my time. I need to choose between many good options to find the best, especially at Christmas. There are not enough hours in the season to do everything that I want to do.

Last summer I repainted a few rooms and discovered just how much Stuff we had accumulated. After painting, I added back to the room only what I deemed necessary or meaningful. We ended up getting rid of some furniture and many boxes of books, and rehung only half the wall decorations. Less Stuff gave a feeling of freedom, cleanliness, and quiet. (Though with six children our home isn't often clean or quiet.) 

Could I do the same with my schedule? What would my December look like if I shook out the calendar, dumped out all the holiday traditions, quit listening to the voices of obligation/guilt/expectation, and then added back to December only what was necessary, meaningful, and worshipful?

Does it mean I would quit baking Christmas cookies, throw out the candles, and skip the family reunion? Not necessarily. Those things can be part of living out my life of service and worship. I can bake cookies for a fun activity with my children. I can light a candle on the table and invite others to join in the warmth of shared conversation. I can attend a reunion and strengthen family ties. But I can also decide that none of those things will be priorities this year because, for whatever reason, God is calling me to lay aside this particular Martha activity to make time and energy for Mary worship.

Looking at my priorities may mean clearing the schedule of some enjoyable activities to make time for what is truly important. If my fun day of shopping makes me too tired for the church caroling in the evening, I haven't chosen well. If I spend my afternoon chasing the children out of the kitchen so I can create a lovely meal for guests, I have Martha's troubled spirit. When I'm racing the clock, my voice sharpens, my chest tightens, and I know my priorities are skewed. Except for rare times of true emergency, I don't think God meant us to live in panic mode.

I have a tendency to accumulate traditions. We make gingerbread houses one year and think we need to do it every year. But time is limited and to keep the schedule (and me) sane, I must eliminate something every time I add an activity.

I can also learn from Mary and Martha to accept others who have made different choices. What is overwhelming to me might be relaxing to another. I love that we are not cookie-cutter gingerbread ladies, and I want to enjoy each woman's talents without comparison or judgment.

Look for the final part of this article tomorrow.

Friday, December 16, 2016

In Search of a Mary Heart - Part 1

This article was published in the winter 2016 issue of Daughters of Promise magazine. Daughters of Promise shares the art, photography, and writing of a talented group of volunteers from a wide variety of Mennonite backgrounds. The magazine isn't cheap, but with over 100 gorgeous full-color pages and inspiring articles (and no ads) I anticipate each issue. Find more information at the DOP website.

In Search of a Mary Christmas

I love Christmas. I love the music, the whispered secrets, the yummy food, and the glittering lights. 

I say I'm celebrating the birth of Jesus, but sometimes when I'm scouring Pinterest for craft ideas, printing off another Christmas cookie recipe, and sighing over the pictures of beautiful table decorations in the pages of Southern Living, I wonder what Jesus would think of my celebration.

Is my Christmas any different than society's holiday? If you evaluated my calendar, credit card statement, and to-do list what would you discern about my priorities? Would you know that the goal of my Christmas (and my life) is to lift up the name of Christ? I might not max out my credit cards or wake up with a headache from the spiked eggnog, but too often my Christmas is centered on me.

There must be more to Christmas than uncounted calories, the pressure to find the perfect gift, and a dozen opportunities to catch the latest version of the flu. Unhappy with my me-centered holiday I began to look for ways to have less worry and more worship in December. I studied three women in the Bible named Mary who knew Jesus while He was here on earth. These women's lives were changed by Jesus. Maybe my Christmas could be changed by their stories.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

With the angel's words, “thou art highly favoured, . . . thou shalt bring forth a son,” (Luke 1:28) Mary's plans shattered. To mother the Messiah, the Promised One? This honor meant the end of a normal life for a Galilean girl, but Mary shows no hesitancy. Her answer was immediate. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Mary did not base her decision on what was popular or what would promote her in the Nazareth society. Carrying this baby made her the next possible victim for a public stoning. Mary gave up her dreams of a perfect wedding and the expectations of her firstborn's birth. Because of an oppressive tax law, her baby was born far from home in crude surroundings without even the comfort of a mom or sister to assist with the birth. That first Christmas wasn't twinkling lights and warm, fuzzy emotions. While Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Egypt and back again, I wonder if she was tempted to compare her crazy life with her friends' “perfect” lives.

Last year I waddled into Christmas with a due date in early January. My calendar was full with weekly prenatal visits. I had zero energy, limped with every step, and looked like I should stay home with an ice pack and a Tylenol. But I enjoyed a more peaceful, less frantic, more meaningful Christmas than usual.

The difference? Expectations.

Our culture places a lot of expectations on us women. I coddle daydreams of the picture-perfect Christmas: crackling fires, ten kinds of Christmas cookies, and a fun schedule with holiday concerts, cookie swaps, shopping, family reunions, and church events. When I can't keep up, I start comparing myself with all the talented ladies who appear to get it all done.

The disappointment of dashed expectations curdles the enjoyment of December and is often the enemy of my peace. But last year I felt no pressure to attend every event possible. I made plans with the caveat “if we can make it.” I didn't expect to do everything, so what I did accomplish was a treat, a gift. And for once I wasn't comparing myself with others.

Alexander Pope said, "Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." He might be right, though I prefer David's take on expectations. "My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him." (Psalm 62:5) 

There is One, only One, who never disappoints. If I, like Mary, “ponder these things in my heart,” maybe I can build expectations on the One who won't leave me feeling frustrated. I want to give up my idealistic expectations every year, not just when I'm nine months pregnant. 

Continued tomorrow

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Music of Christmas

The music is one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. Every year I seem to have a different favorite song, but I always enjoy revisiting with old friends.

Here are some videos of some of my favorite Christmas music. Some of these videos I look forward to listening/watching each year.

(If you are reading this by email or feed reader you may need to click over to the blog to view the videos.)

How Should a King Come? (My children's favorite.)

In the Bleak Midwinter (This one makes me tear up.)

Hallelujah Chorus (Another that my children beg to listen to each December)

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go (Not a Christmas song,  but one of my all-time favorite songs sung in a new recording by Oasis.)

What songs are you humming?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

More Favorite Christmas Stories

We couldn't wait. Before we had turned the calendar to December, my children had pulled out our stack of Christmas books. I plan to reserve a few of our favorites from the library later this month. I try to be careful not to keep Christmas books too long so that others can enjoy them as well. 

Several years ago I shared several lists of Christmas books. But since then I've discovered some more books, so today I'm sharing an all-new list of favorite children's picture books about Christmas. 

And as always, I'd love to hear what you are reading. 

The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
A young boy learns his father's craft of harvesting “tears” of myrrh. A special surprise at the end connects it with the Christmas story. Beautiful illustrations.

Papa Panov's Special Day by Mig Holder Illustrated by Julie Downing
A lonely shoemaker waits for a special visitor on Christmas Day. A classic Russian tale, popularized by Leo Tolstoy, is retold with excellent illustrations.


Lucy's Christmas by Donald Hall, illustrated by Michael McCurdy
In 1909 in New Hampshire, a young girl prepares for Christmas by making gifts for her family and friends. Based on the life of the author's mother, this is a warm look at life a hundred years ago. The wood engraved illustrations add to the old fashioned charm.

One Candle by Eve Bunting
A family's Hanukkah celebration remembers the dark days of the Holocaust. Beautiful story of perseverance with lovely illustrations.

Annika’s Secret Wish by Beverly Lewis, Illustrated by Pamela Querin
Annika hopes that this is the year that she will find the almond in her pudding. Take a journey to Sweden and enjoy a special Christmas celebration and the joy of giving. Dazzling illustrations bring the joy of Sweden to life.

Toot and Puddle search for the perfect gift to make for each other. A sweet Christmas story about friendship with delightful watercolor illustrations.

Winter’s Gift by Jane Monroe Donovan
A lost horse and a lonely man meet at Christmas to share the hope of new life. Warm paintings add to the beauty of this lovely Christmas tale.

Check out the past lists for more holiday reading.
Favorite Adult Christmas Books

Christmas Chapter Books for Children

Christmas Stories from Other Times and Places

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