A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Holiday Rerun: Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families: 10 Practical Ways to Teach Simplicity

One of my favorite aspects of my African lifestyle wass a lean muscularity of simplicity. Forget keeping up with the Joneses. You are the Joneses, when your kids are going to play with kids whose families (who may or may not be literate or have lost a child) live in one room, which may or may not have electricity and running water.

So people expect my light fixtures to, say, look like I swiped them from my church in the eighties. They anticipate that when I serve lemonade, it will cascade from an ugly plastic pitcher.

Perspective is everything.

Randy Alcorn explains in his (highly-recommended) The Treasure Principle“The more things we own—the greater their total mass, the more they grip us, setting us in orbit around them.”

We sense this, I think. We sense that where our treasure is, there our hearts will also be. That the holes in our lives are never filled by more stuff, more food, more activity.

(I want to admit freely at this point that sometimes my inner “Martha”sometimes cleans the clock of my inner Mary, leaving poor Mary bruised and dazed.)


Richard Foster observes,

To attempt to arrange an outward lifestyle of simplicity without the inward reality leads to deadly legalism.

Simplicity begins in inward focus and unity …. Experiencing the inward reality liberates us outwardly. Speech becomes truthful and honest. The lust for status and position is gone because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle. Our goods become available to others. We join the experience that Richard E. Byrd, after months alone in the barren Arctic, recorded in his journal, “I am learning … that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.”


Between my sister’s shoulder blades is tattooed a single word in Hebrew: satisfied. How many of us could choose that word to describe our souls?

Simplicity is a form of fasting; a way of cutting out the “McNuggets” portion of our belongings, our schedule, our talk, and our preoccupations that connive us into thinking we’re nourished, full, and happy.


THE KEY: Finding the freedom, joy, undivided heart, and gut-level satisfaction from lives untethered by excess. We can train our minds and hearts away from our constant appetites and the idea that more equals happiness, comfort, and convenience.


Especially in this season, how can we make intentional decisions away from the glut of the temporary, and seek a singularity of heart…without offending, say, your mother-in-law and your boss?

It’s not going to happen in nine steps. But let’s get some ideas going toward true satisfaction, and the kingdom nothing destroys, shall we?

  1. Rather than opting for quantity or expense—trinkets from the dollar aisle, or a pricey gift basket that serves as a nod to tradition—exchange number or price of gifts for intentionalityOpt for gifts that scream, I see you, and I get you. I love that my closest Ugandan friend gives her delighted grandma a chicken and a bag of sugar for Christmas. Though I will not be getting my mom that for Christmas—what can we give that expresses careful (not gluttonous) love? (Parents, imagine your kid tearing through presents and tossing each one aside in that Christmas-morning marathon. What’s that gift that would hit the spot and be the one that simply means something?)
  2. Give an experience; a memory. Maybe it’s a train ride (locally, or to a cool destination); a trip to a relative or friend; passes to the zoo, museum, or theater; a class (pottery! Drama!); a camping trip; a coupon book of outings for time together in the upcoming year; a trip to a place they’ve read about, or to one of their interests (a play, musical, concert, sporting event, a far-away friend).
  3. Plan a PR announcement. Talk to your kids. Explain things may be a little different this year; that they might get a few more meaningful gifts, and perhaps less on the gifts they don’t care about. As much as you can, explain your heart–perhaps that as a family, you want to find the freedom and generosity that comes with paring down our excess. Best case scenario? Get them brainstorming about ways they could “give away this Christmas”—turning Christmas into a chance to give rather than receive. Get relatives on board, when possible. Without shoveling your values on them, try to convey your heart and understand their interests, too. Could you collaborate on a gift or experience? Rather than the gift exchange, could the adults choose a charity or family to which you want to give—or take turns each year?
  4. Revamp everything you know about need vs. want. Tim Keller points out that when we compare our financial state, we nearly always compare ourselves to those who have more.

Reality? Approximately 80% of the world is living below the poverty line. I love the words of my friend Kristen, in her (yes-yes-yes this is great stuff!) book, Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World: How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life’s Biggest Yes. When her daughter grumbled, “Everyone has one, Mom,” Kristen countered gently,


“Well, do you think Ephantus [one of the children we’ve sponsored for years through Compassion International] has one?” She thought quietly. “No, his house isn’t even as big as my room.”


Kristen remarks, “Nothing makes us more grateful than perspective. Nothing. I think it’s the key to loosening the chains of entitlement in our culture.” (Her book is chock-full of ways to alter kids’ perspective and get them excited about serving.)

5. Stop competing with Martha Stewart. Dinner with my impoverished, luminous friend, Monica drove home what makes hospitality sparkle: It wasn’t her serving dishes, her perfectly-tuned recipe, or the (absent) centerpiece that made our time quality. It was simply her desire to honor us, to give generously, to connect with us and enjoy a relationship.

Toward simplicity on any day of the week, Peter Scazzero recommends creating simpler meals with fewer dishes and less prep. And at the holidays–don’t forget kids can pitch in with the extra demands of loving on others.

6. Set a capacity, and then clean your closet. Though creating beauty in our homes and appearance is natural and can be God-glorifying—as When Helping Hurts points out, we are among the wealthiest people who ever walked the planet…in all of history. Author Tony Campolo chose to restrain himself to only five changes of clothes!

Another mom’s remarkable rule: If her kids acquire new clothing, they must give an equal amount away. So consider setting a firm capacity on your possessions. Then, set a target percentage of your stuff to give away—and then up your number by 5%. For kids, in preparation for the holidays, ask them to clean out xnumber of clothes and x number of toys from their rooms, to give away.

7. Relentlessly streamline chaos. Create less noise by turning off the TV or music in the car, during meals, or while you’re milling around the house; plan the shows you will watch, and turn it off during the rest. Get a firm rein on kid’s screen time. Plan your grocery list, and “fast” from buying little tempting extras (Do we need five kinds of salad dressing?). Ask, what areas of my life feel harried? Do those express our values? What systems could we put in place to keep our schedule serving us and promoting peace–and not the opposite?

8. Fast from your constant “yes.” Start journaling—and eventually having family conversations about—your values as a family. Use those to determine your family’s schedule, and not the other way around! Say no to one thing that you could have said yes to, simply to create margin, emotional energy, and a culture of rest and peace in your home. As it has been said, Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

9. Avoid “cagey” speech, and speak the truth. Opt for simplicity and genuine concern in your speech by steering clear of flattery, white lies, gossip, and overindulgence about stuff that doesn’t matter (like an entire dinner conversation about a TV show). Obviously, small talk is polite and necessary. But choose speech that nourishes, and minimize “Cheetos”-type conversation (read: full of a lot of air and fake stuff that sticks to you).

10. Get kids geared up about giving. Together, choose one project to get geared up about for serving this year. What are your kids’ hearts beating for? Surround it with fun memories that help them associate serving with rewards and satisfaction. Maybe you have a family game night of tournaments—and the winner gets to choose a cause for a slice of your year-end giving.

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How Not to Read God’s Mind

How not to read God's mindLet me put it bluntly. Upon returning from Uganda and starting my own business as a freelancer, I was hoping for a little more…easy success. I was leaving such a good fit for the way I was made–my technicolor dream–at what felt like sacrifice. And I’ve been writing for so long. I just hoped there’d be a few more supernatural wins involved, you know? I admit to thinking of it a little formulaically: Obey God = Find “favor”.

Hmm. Favor. I mean, you could back that up with verses like “Anyone who comes to him must believe…he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” But as I type, I’m realizing I had a somewhat concrete vision of what that might look like.

Truth: God has been immensely kind–not only in my new job, but to our family in a remarkably smooth transition.

Truth: When the “favor”/blessings/kindness/grace (call it what you want) didn’t materialize, I started in on the “whys.” God must be telling me something, right?

Truth: As my husband reminded me, new jobs take time. Especially those that build a client base. You might say the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Repeat: “Having God does not make me Teflon.” The laws of the universe still apply to me, even though I’m God’s daughter, and even when I obey. But sometimes I presume that I’ll receive grace in the way I picture it in my head. You might even call it spiritual entitlement.

The Mind Game

Have you ever invented an intricate scenario in your mind about why someone didn’t respond the way you wanted?

Example: A friend sends out an email that feels terse. You start thinking about the why’s. Could it be your relationship? Could her marriage be having problems? Is she still ticked that you forgot her birthday? etc., etc. You invent catty responses in your mind while you wash the dishes. You decide if she forgets your birthday, it’s over.

Then you come to find out–she’s not good at writing in general, and her son pushed “send” while sitting on her lap.


Geri Scazzero suggests,

The ninth commandment states, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Yet we break this commandment when we jump to conclusions about other people that likely are not true.*

And honestly, I’m guilty of doing this about God.

Reading His Mind

I can be guilty of adding clarity for God when he hasn’t actually told me anything. I’m piecing together “signs” or “open doors” to decrease my own ambiguity. I second-guess decisions when their outcome looks bleak. Grant it, sometimes I need to rethink my direction. But like the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant into battle only to get slaughtered–God is not my good-luck charm.

“The God of my plans”

It’s easy, when accounting the good ways God worked things out from a difficult situation, to justify God’s math for him. All this worked out–so clearly God was doing something there. Now, you know I believe in gratitude as a game-changer in suffering. Do it: Find the goodness, the beauty God creates from ashes.

But we can also be guilty of oversimplifying God’s complex purposes.

So often in our suffering, God doesn’t choose to show his hand. I am still riveted by Keller’s account of an Elisabeth Elliot novel written in the 60’s, No Graven Image. Elliot spins the tale of Margaret, a missionary translating the Bible for unreached South American tribes. One day, she’s walking to the home of Pedro, her translator, the sole translation link between her and the unreached tribe. She’s thanking God for the gift of Pedro; for the elaborate set of circumstances and support and training that have brought her to this point. She’s imagining bringing the Bible to a million people in this region.

But when she arrives at his home, Pedro is suffering from a severe leg infection. Having been trained in medicine, Margaret has penicillin with her, which Pedro requests. Unfortunately, Pedro has an allergic reaction. His family gathers as he seizes; his wife is saying, “You killed him.”

Margaret cries out to God…but Pedro perishes. And her work is over.

Keller reports that Elliot pointed to the last page:

“God, if He was merely my accomplice, had betrayed me. If, on the other hand, He was God, He had freed me.” She went on to explain to us that the graven image, the idol of the title, was a God who always acted the way we thought he should…That is a God of our own creation, a counterfeit god. Such a god is really just a projection of our own wisdom, of our own self.

….Many readers wrote Elliot and protested vehemently that God would never allow sch a thing to happen to a woman who has so prayerfully dedicated her life to his cause.

….However, Elisabeth told us, her own actual life experience had run almost exactly parallel to this novel–and actually had been even worse.

….She warned against trying to “find a silver lining” that would justify what happened.

….She wrote, “…There is unbelief, there is even rebellion, in the attitude that says, ‘God has no right to do this…unless…”***

This story has resonated deeply with me as it seems God pulled me away, or someone could imply “chose not to provide” for me to stay and personally complete the Gospel work in Uganda in the same capacity. Over and over I remind myself, This is Your work. You, potter. Me, clay. 

But don’t we “have the mind of Christ”?

Yes, the Holy Spirit illuminates God’s teaching and helps us to know His mind (1 Corinthians 2:16). But God still holds his secrets (Deuteronomy 29:29); we still see dimly right now (1 Corinthians 13:12). After all, “who can know the mind of the Lord? And who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34). Job, too, confesses, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3).

God begs us, I think, toward a humility of mind in understanding the immense complexity of how and why He acts.

Yes, ruthlessly locate the grace illuminating even our darkest days. But though we have the privilege of knowing much of his mind…let’s not try to read it.

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*Scazzero, Geri. The Emotionally Healthy Woman: Eight Things You Have to Quit to Change Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2014).

**Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ. Kindle Edition.

***As cited in Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.New York: Penguin Books (2013). Kindle edition.

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FREEBIE FRIDAY: Printable Watercolor Scripture Memory Cards, Colossians 3

I’ve written a lot lately about spiritual disciplines for real families (check out the series here for lots of practical ideas).

Because I want this in my own family, I spent a bit of last Saturday scouring Pinterest for some Scripture memory cards (they’re great for wallets and pockets, but great scotch-taped inside the medicine cabinet and the cupboard, too, or even dropped in a lunchbox). It’s harder for me to find Scripture memory cards where you don’t have to subscribe to a site. So today, a few pretty Scripture memory cards for you from Colossians 3:1-6, 12-17.

Colossians 3 Scripture memory printable



Speaking of a generous grace–I owe these lovely free watercolor graphics to Angie Makes. Her work is incredible!


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Sweet Self-pity: On Burying Martyrdom

It was on my birthday that I was finally convicted: Something needed to change.

So my birthday falls on a holiday. As much fun as that sounds to people under the age of twelve–it can mean celebration is an afterthought in a blizzard of school activities and family hoopla. Somehow, as an adult, that translates into a level of embarrassment: wishing for a slice of that pie on a day already blurred with excitement.

So that morning, we added to our run-of-the-mill morning chaos all the other to-do’s we were cramming into our schedule. That’s on top of what you probably face in your own morning: the compulsory sibling squabble, at least one bad attitude (with six of us, including one hormonal cycle and one teenager, odds are always good), one miscommunique, one child leaving early for choir practice. Despite the tender well-wishes of my kids and husband, when the door closed on a silent house and sinkful of dirty dishes, I confess to thinking, I hate my birthday. I hated a somewhat unreasonable desire expectation for more.

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Quick-tips Holiday Survival Guide to Awkward Family Situations

Holiday gatherings with family can be fraught with frustration, hurt, and old habits–right alongside the pumpkin pie. Here, a few ideas to help you cook up a happier, freer Thanksgiving and beyond.

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A Guest Post: FREE Printable Thanksgiving Scripture Art!

Editor’s note: This is a guest post of Personal Creations, who wanted to extend their printable Scripture art to you! Just one more thing to be grateful for this year. Happy Thanksgiving! – Janel

When it comes to Thanksgiving, we gather around the table to enjoy a the turkey, the cranberry sauce, the all-American green-bean casserole–and to celebrate each other’s company. Before carving the turkey and piling the plates with food, take the time to say a special thanks to the Ultimate Giver: God.

While prayers of gratitude have been around far before Thanksgiving in 1620, all early celebrations of thanks began with God at the center. Across many unique celebrations, people praise Him as a way to say thanks for the all the good that He’s given…and given…and given.

Illuminating the many acts of thanks and praise to God in the Bible, Personal Creations wanted to create Thanksgiving Psalms to use at your Thanksgiving feast, and for many celebrations to come. Print them here!

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Self-deprecation–and other “stupid” thoughts

self-deprecation and other "stupid" thoughtsMy friend gazed at me through FaceTime, a kind smile on her face. “I just want to let you know that I just counted you saying the word ‘stupid’ six times when talking about yourself.”


She grinned. “I’m telling you this for your sanctification.” A little church-girl humor there. I thanked her.

I was surprised not that I did it, but maybe how frequently. I know that self-deprecation is part of the stressed version of myself; it’s one of my “tells”. And as I’ve written, my behavior has been more in that vulnerable state lately. Unmoored. Tippy.

I’ve gotten better about not making jokes about my body, at least. (Body issues of mine have a thick and convoluted history; read here and here.) To my sister a few years ago, I shook my head–made a comment about my hulking German shoulders making me look like a linebacker from the back. She countered me, all seriousness: “Would you ever talk that way around your daughter?” Honestly, I wouldn’t. (If you vocalize your body image issues around your kids, don’t miss this brief video–which yes, my sister passed on.) But I had to wonder: Was it a problem to say it openly to a friend?

All of this makes me wonder why I’m more comfortable with self-deprecation than talking about my strengths. Which, healthy as it is, still feels about as natural as swallowing a tennis shoe.

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Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families: 10 Ideas to Help you Build Submission and Respect

Like this series? Get more of these here.

I’ve been putting this post off.

It’s pretty much because creating a sense of respect in my kids still makes me want to tear my hair out.  Admittedly, my oldest is now 13, so we’re breaking new ground in this area.

Um, honestly? American culture demands very little of kids in this area. Our country was actually founded on some degree of…rebellion. Ugandans, for one, are mildly horrified by the manners of many American children toward their parents. But then again, African cultures are largely shame-based. I think you can solidly establish respect without shaming children–but it is harder without wielding shame. Yet they are not mutually exclusive in my book.

Our kids are going to be under authority their entire lives. With the exception of a few horrid dictators of suffering countries, everyone on this planet is under authority of some kind. (Jesus is, too.) Offering our kids the gift of submission is one of those keys that opens doors for the rest of their lives.

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Guest Post: Diversity Training for Our Kids

diversity training for our kidsWe were headed to church, exhaling clouds of steam in the still-cold car. Up in the front seat, I happily remarked to my husband about the expanding diversity in our small town–as judged authoritatively, of course, by my trips to Wal-Mart. After five and a half years in Africa, I can feel a little stifled amongst all the vanilla around me.

My daughter, from the backseat: “Why does ‘diversity’ make you happy?”

She didn’t, it turns out, know what diversity was. So we talked about it: That God expresses Himself through every culture. That differences make us more vibrant and loving and whole. That we want people of all types to be welcome here.

In light of this year’s extensive, heartrending violence, maybe you’re wondering along with Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, “How did we get here?”

Here’s what we know. The Church must–must–lead the way in accepting each other as Jesus accepted us (Romans 15:11)–when we were still His enemies. As pastor and radio host Bob Lepine recently pointed out,

The source of all racism and white supremacy is the person the Bible describes as the father of lies (John 8:44). Racism is demonic. It’s diabolical. To believe that one group of people has more value or worth than another is the spirit of antichrist…

Racism is a sin against God Himself. It is God who created us in His image, after His likeness (Genesis 1:27).

….Christians must publicly, humbly, and boldly stand against racism. Followers of Jesus should be at the forefront of the chorus speaking out against what has taken place. Especially when white supremacist groups claim that what they’re espousing is somehow a Christian way of thinking.

There should be no equivocation on this. No nuance. We must speak clearly and forcefully in proclaiming that all men and women bear the imago dei–the image of God.


So how can we instill this in our kids? Today,  I’m guest-posting with some practical ideas on this critical topic at my friend Kristen Welch’s site, WeAreTHATFamily.com. I’d love for you to chime in. Hop on over and check it out!



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Off-Season: When You’re Not Where You Wanted to Be, When You Wanted to Be There, Part III

Her: So what do you do for a living?

Me: Oh. I’m a freelance writer.

Her, crease darkening her brow as she wonders, Is this a clever way of saying “virtually unemployed”? : Okay… So what does that look like?

Now. Compare this scenario to about six months ago.

Her: So what do you do for a living?

Me: Oh. I’m homeschooling my kids because we’re in Africa. On the side I teach some refugees.

Her, a glow widening her smile: Wow! That sounds amazing!

One of these, you see, is decidedly more sexy than the other. (Even with the “homeschooling” part thrown in.)

I get it. Most of us have a hierarchy of Job Coolness Factor. (I’ve got one, too. And Christians aren’t exempt.)

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