Advent | Celebrations and Stones

This time of the year is possibly my favorite. Admittedly, I love this whole season, from Thanksgiving to the New Year and experience what some might term a childish excitement as the festivities begin to take place. So many of my fondest memories take place in the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so many of my favorite family times have been interwoven with the traditions and customs that became part of the fabric of my family. Even though the world around us goes crazy with all the frivolous and self-centered consumerism that has become the unfortunate hallmark of the American Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season, there is so much to embrace and to firmly fix in our lives. We set aside a day to remember God’s goodness and thank Him for His blessings, and then we intentionally fix our eyes on the hope, love, joy, and peace that the Advent season remembers.

In a culture that increasingly tries to erase all evidence of the Christian faith from public expressions during these historically overtly Christian holidays, I think it is more important than ever that families rally themselves around traditions that draw their eyes Heavenward.

I think of the traditions my family had growing up…We had our big family Thanksgiving, usually shared with someone from our church, and in the next few days afterwards, we would usher in the Advent season by putting up our tree. Out would come all the old decorations, the lights, and the treasured Advent books we would read year after year as a family. I think of the Christmas programs at church, the traditional songs and hymns, the somber and joyful candlelight services we would attend at my grandparents church, The Little White Church in Hill City. I think of our Christmas morning Bible reading, reading through Luke’s account of the birth of Christ.

Unfortunately, America in general but even many branches of the Protestant church have either given up on Christian tradition altogether, or given up on fully appreciating and applying the traditions of the past. In the culture at large, I think it is pretty obvious why…The “old ways” have been systematically devalued and the church and expressions of faith have been essentially removed from the culture. For two religious holidays, what’s left for a culture that hates God? Nothing, really.

In the church, though, this forsaking of tradition is more complicated. It is sad to me that a lot of people find the Christmas season just another part of the year, the traditions are just kind of boring and old hat, and there’s sort of a collective eye-roll at the traditional Christmas hymns. One facet, I think, is a rather poorly-reasoned idea that too much tradition and it might become meaningless and rote.

What a loss of such a gift! How silly, to avoid a good thing because it might become less than what it should be. And can’t we having meaninglessness and roteness just as easily without our “traditional practices?” Maybe we should work on our heart attitudes instead.

Traditions of the faith join us with other Christians across the globe, through the centuries and millennia even, since we don’t just find our spiritual origin in the Christ of Christmas, but in God’s covenants with the Nation of Israel, thousands of years ago. I look at how God’s people committed His works to their memory for future generations, two big ways come to mind: Celebration and stones. Feasts and monuments.

When the Israelites were instructed on the keeping of the Passover Feast after God’s delivered them from Egypt, this was why:

And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 12:26-27)

And when years later the Israelites were under the command of Joshua, God brought them over the River Jordan, rolling back the flood-swollen river waters so that the whole nation could cross in safety. Joshua, instructed by God, directed the Israelites to take twelve stones out of the riverbed of the Jordan as they crossed over and to construct a memorial, so future generations might not forget the Lord’s power and His goodness.

And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’  then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’  For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” (Joshua 4:20-24)

Christmas and the Advent season should be a time of celebration for the Christian. A time when we can proclaim the joy we have in Christ to a world walking in darkness. And a half-hearted participation hardly communicates joy. So set up your family monuments to the goodness of God and celebrate with friends and family. Celebrate Advent. Find a live Nativity to attend. Cultivate traditions in your family. Set up your cherished Creche and ponder its significance. Sing the old songs and really taste the words. Don’t just “make memories” for the sake of the memories, but counteract the temptation to be passive at this time of year and make memories to the glory of God!

We need our celebrations and we need our stones. Celebrations to bring us into a heart-posture of thanks and praise to God, and stones to be a visual reminder of Who it is we celebrate.

The Simplicity of Thanks

Thanksgiving is almost entirely an uncomplicated holiday. I suppose we’ve kind of spoiled that with the Black Friday and Cyber Monday insanity, but Thanksgiving Day itself could hardly be simpler. Compared to the other holidays we observe culturally, such as Easter and Christmas, or even St. Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s Days, all of which have modern traditions and trappings that do something to secularize and obscure the original meaning, Thanksgiving has been relatively unsullied. There is little in the way of complication. Get together, eat together, pray together, laugh together. Its terribly simple. Yesterday, we enjoyed the company of friends and family as we always do, our traditional meal, beautiful pies, homemade bread and jams and jellies, a hike to Hole-in-the-Wall, and a Christmas movie after everyone had left. Sweet and simple. And so typical for us. IMG_1287eIMG_1307eIMG_1306eIn a culture that craves the new experiences, the best foods, the best clothes, the best vacations, where #YOLO and we desire to be the envy of those around us, and to outdo one another in matters that don’t even matter, for one day we seem to set all of that aside in favor of the familiar, the simple, the old-fashioned, the typical, the rustic. What could be less elegant or progressive than turkey and pumpkin pie? Yet that somehow brings us all back to the familiar idea culturally that we have so much to be grateful for. Even those who don’t acknowledge God understand that there is a level of gratitude we owe to someone or somewhere outside of ourselves. I’m just glad I know to whom I give thanks. And it isn’t to me or to some impersonal force of fate.

Gratitude is simple, like turkey and pumpkin pie, and it is the same now as it was in yesteryears. Biblically, we are commanded to give thanks in all circumstances. Period. There are no qualifiers, no ceremonies to perform, no special prayer to pray, no specifications, instructions, or complicated user manual. Just the command to give thanks. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18) Not just to give thanks when the table is laden with food and my needs have been met. Not just when I am comfortable and making as much money as I think I need. Not just when I’m certain of where I’m going and what I’m doing and I’ve got everything under control. Not just when my vehicle is reliable and my relationships are enjoyable. Not just when life is good and I feel admired and needed. My gratitude can’t be put on hold until I’m married and living the life I thought I’d be living by the time I turned 27. I can’t put my gratitude on hold until medical bills are paid, my savings reaches a certain amount, and I feel like things are going the way they should be. My gratitude cannot be conditional. If it is…then it isn’t gratitude. It is simply a reasonable response to a good thing. But my gratitude has to be forthcoming when I am hungry, tired, and grouchy after a long day of work, and still have to fill up my fuel tank on the way home and it is 20 degrees, dark, and the wind is whipping. My gratitude has to be forthcoming when I am uncomfortable and feel sheepish because I’m not doing what most 27-year-olds do with their life and I kind of wonder if I missed something. My gratitude has to be forthcoming when I feel like I’ve failed and when I know that I’ve failed. When I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing and life feels out of control. When I feel belittled and unnecessary, depressed and anxious. When my vehicle is unreliable, my relationships are discordant, when life feels like a drag. When I’m still single at 27, and those little dreams I thought for sure would be reality by this time just aren’t coming true. When I’ve got medical bills, taxes to pay, and a bank account that isn’t as full as it seems like it should be. We each have those little things that pile up like grime on a window, obscuring and complicating our sight, those things that eat into our joy and nag our hearts, turning our thoughts away from Christ. We have to intentionally turn our thoughts to Him, trust Him, and then give thanks.

Luke 16:10 says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.” I think we can also say that one who gives thanks in very little also gives thanks in much. We cultivate a heart attitude of thankfulness by thanking God even for the mundane, normal, boring, simple things. Those are no less gifts from Him than are the big things – the marriage, the new baby, the new house, the life-saving operation. God is the giver of all good gifts, even the things we think no one wants to hear about when you’re sharing the thing you’re thankful for. I’m thankful for the air we breathe, the ground we walk on, the sky above our heads. I’m thankful for my family. For my church. For my cat sleeping on the arm of the chair. For flannel pajama pants. For hot tea. For my mattress on the floor of the loft bedroom I share with my sister. All of these extras that God didn’t need to create or facilitate, much less to gift to me for my edification and delight. The attitude of gratitude isn’t cultivated by waiting until those obvious moments when it is culturally appropriate to give thanks. Thank God for the glass of water you just drank, the bed you’re looking forward to, the cold cereal you eat for breakfast. Thank God for His sustaining power even in the things we are too callous to think about more than every once in awhile, but by which His power is displayed in ways we can’t even come close to comprehending: the balancing and continuous sustaining of our solar system, the water cycle, our supply of oxygen, gravity. Start with things we, to our shame, too often take for granted. I’m thankful for the gift of salvation. I’m thankful that this life isn’t all that there is. I’m thankful that I know there is a purpose behind all the trials, the major ones, the tragedies, as well as the little niggling trials like sales tax and singleness. I’m thankful that I know and serve and am loved by a sovereign God who loves those who are His, and does all things for their good and His glory. I’m thankful.

If your heart loves the LORD and your desire is to honor Him, there is so much to give thanks for, even when life doesn’t seem like it has much to offer. Over and over in the Bible, God’s people are commanded to give thanks, sometimes “because He is good,” and other times, simply because He is. And we, too, can give thanks, simply because HE IS. For no other reason. He is. He is. He is. Give thanks.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

On This Day of Thanks

How wonderful it is to have a day set aside from work and the normal routine to gather with family and friends to remember our blessings! For Christians in particular, Thanksgiving Day should be poignant and meaningful, in a way that goes beyond the sweet platitude of “an attitude of gratitude.” We must not fail to acknowledge the Person to whom we are giving thanks. We have so many things to thank God for. We thank him for family, for friends, for our church homes. We thank him for freedoms. We thank him for religious liberties that we still are able to enjoy here. We thank him for the blessing of a good job, of financial security, for good weather and good harvest. We give thanks for the sumptuous feast before us on the table, for the familiar faces of family and friends around the table with us. We thank him for health and gifts of prosperity. We thank him for successes. These are all things for which to thank God, by all means.
IMG_8464But there is a problem. We often spend our Thanksgiving cultivating gratitude for the temporal, the ephemeral. There’s nothing wrong with giving thanks for the temporary; after all every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17), so indeed, give thanks. But some, many, don’t enjoy many or any of those things that I listed. “What in the world do they have to be thankful for?” we may think in sorrow.  Or, “What in the world do I have to be thankful for?” This is wrong thinking. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church proclaimed this: Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (II Corinthians 4:16-18) If we know Christ and have the hope of Heaven, we have everything to be thankful for. Everything, that is, being God himself. For if we are in Christ, isn’t he our everything? And if he isn’t, shouldn’t he be? Circumstances of life may devastate us. Thanksgiving Day may be a day of heartbreak for many. But with an eternal hope, a hope that is realized beyond the grave, beyond pain and sorrow and hardship and trials, how much we have to be thankful for! All of this life is so temporary and so short. All the sorrow (and all the joy!) we experience in this life will be nothing compared with the resurrection joy, the eternal joy, the Heavenly joy of our future home. IMG_8502Tomorrow we could be stripped of our family by death. But the command and truth remain: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever (1 Chronicles 16:34). This sentiment was sung by Asaph and other ministering musicians appointed by King David to bless the Lord before God’s people, and this sentiment is echoed again and again throughout the Psalms. With this as a model, we should thank God, for he is good. Really, nothing else matters, except that God is God, and he is good. The secure job could be taken away: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. You or your loved one could receive a diagnosis of cancer or another terrifying illness: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Your small business could fail, cattle prices plummet destructively, crops could be destroyed by hail or drought, your home taken away through fire or flood: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Your spouse could die, your children could turn away from their faith, your wife could miscarry: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. My point isn’t to sound a bell of doom and mourning, or to make light of any tragedy. These are events that devastate families on a daily basis. The early church itself faced grief, persecution, loss, death, trials of kinds we in America can only imagine, and many trials we can too easily imagine. And yet they were commanded: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And only can we do this through the hope of what is to come, the hope of purpose beyond what we can see with our eyes. For we are also told, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4). And in Isaiah: He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:8). 
IMG_8533The James 1 passage continues: Every good and perfect gift is from above….He chose to give us birth through the word of truth…. (James 1:17-18). This is the manifestation of his love toward us, that While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We are to thank God for his glorious Gift of Salvation through the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh, God Incarnate, the Son of Mary, the Son of God. This is truly the most glorious Gift! God created mankind to glorify himself, and for mankind to enjoy fellowship with God. In Genesis 3, we are told that he walked in the Garden in the cool of the day. He fellowshipped with his creatures Adam and Eve in the lush and plentiful Garden he had created. Sin destroyed this intimate fellowship, but through the life and death of Christ, we are able to again experience fellowship with God on a spiritual level now, and one day we will actually stand before him, and come to live in a world without death or pain! And this gift is a free gift, offered to everyone. IMG_8535Thanksgiving in a Biblical sense implies a proper understanding of our place before God, and God’s place above us. We are to replace the old pattern of our sin lives with a proper understanding of our place before God. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:3-4). Our lives now are to exhibit this precious fellowship with God through Christ – With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are to weed these things from our lives, not to earn our way to Heaven, but because they are out of place in the lives of those who have been brought into fellowship with God. And that precious fellowship is exhibited in us pouring forth thanksgiving. How simple, yet how difficult. Thanksgiving. IMG_8494On this day of Thanksgiving, give thanks for all of the blessings you enjoy – God truly gives lavish gifts, the greatest being the gift of Salvation. If you are mourning rather than rejoicing, if you are struggling, experiencing loss, remember that God is good, and his love endures forever – Take comfort in the hope we have in Christ. Give thanks for the visible blessings, but don’t forget the eternal blessings.IMG_8550Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Laura Elizabeth







I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Laura Elizabeth

Daily graces

IMG_4556.1lowrezOn this day of Thanksgiving, we set aside a day to remember God’s blessings, the bountiful gifts generously given from His hands. That is well and good – Having a day set aside specifically to focus on those things is a good reminder, much like we set aside a day each week for worship of God, while (hopefully) maintaining an attitude of worship throughout the week. Similarly, thanksgiving should be a state of our hearts, not just a day on our calendars. Cultivating an attitude of thanksgiving is a way of speaking God’s truths to ourselves daily, the truths of God’s blessings, the lavish love He pours out on His undeserving children.

IMG_4659.1lowrezIn a culture that is increasingly self-focused and, consequently, focused on everything we don’t have, thankfulness and gratitude are graces every Christian should cultivate. How can I blame God for things that go wrong, if I am unshakably focused on thanking Him for the gifts that He gives? How can I be envious of others if I am determined to thank God for what He has given me? How can I not show grace towards others if I am living a life of gratitude for God’s grace towards me? How can I be resentful for my plans that have gone wrong, when I reflect in thanksgiving on the plans of God that are always right?

IMG_4685.1lowrezThis attitude of thanksgiving isn’t easy to cultivate, and it is an attitude I fail at repeatedly. But might it not be because my vision of God’s blessings is incomplete? I, and likely all my brothers and sisters in the faith, tend to look for the big things, the big gifts, the miracles, the lightning bolts of God’s goodness, the indisputable signs of God’s providence. When my family gathers around the table for Thanksgiving dinner, we thank God for freedoms, faith, family, church community, the ability to homeschool, spiritual blessings, material blessings, the signs of God’s workings in our lives. Those things are indisputably God’s gifts and our response should be one of gratitude. But what if we have a day, or a year, or a decade, or a lifetime where we feel the weight of our own failure, or the wretchedness of the world, or experience loss, hardship, pain, tragedy? I would submit to you that God never ceases to work in our lives, and never ceases to shower blessings on us – We simply need the eyes to see those gifts. I would also submit to you that God works most often in our lives in small ways, through subtle means, a steady trickle of wonderful gifts, instead of the occasional deluge. Realizing that, there should never be a shortage of things to be thankful for, if we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the hearts to understand.

IMG_4695.1lowrez“We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I hope and pray for signs and unmistakable blessings, but what about the tiny things, the almost-invisible things? What about the small ways God has grown my faith? What about the gift of having any faith at all? Maybe this is why I love to look for beauty, to seek it out, be it as small and mundane as flakes of snow on a dried flowertop, or a drip of snow melt, or the way geese flock overhead in the cold winter sky – those things are reminders of the goodness of God.

IMG_4714.1lowrezI believe in a sovereign God, who orders all things and through whom all things are sustained. I believe that God is sovereign over the big things, like my family moving to South Dakota, and I continue to thank Him for that miracle in my life. But it also means He is sovereign over that cap of snow on the flower top, and the ringing calls of the geese that made me search them out in the clear, cold sky. He is sovereign over me seeing them, and He is sovereign over the joy I felt when I saw them. Those are as much a work of God as the fact that I now live in the place I love best in the world.

IMG_4552.1While I may not experience another “big miracle” for awhile, God gives the gift of beauty every day: the delicate stem of golden grass, the silver of sage beneath the snow, footprints on the frozen pond, the spark and flame of flakes continuing to fall in the sunlight, a nail driven deep into a snow-capped fencepost, the sound of geese overhead, the trickling tune of snow melt off the roof. And the awareness of that beauty is something that can be cultivated.

Even in the midst of failure, tragedy, fear, even when my faith seems small, I can always look to the sky and see evidence of God’s goodness. I can look to the earth and see the tiny things He has fashioned with His hands. I can look around me and see beauty that God has poured into this world, in the midst of bleakness, sorrow, and pain.

God gives those gifts and the capacity to enjoy them: eyes to see that beauty, ears to hear it, a tongue to taste the sweetness of the winter air, fingers to reach up to catch the snowflakes, lungs to breathe deep of the burning, sparkling cold, cheeks to blush and glow in the chapping breeze.

IMG_4709.1lowrezAlthough I can and do reflect on the blessings God has given me, the “big miracles,” I never have to look past today to see the blessings He is giving me now, the constant reminders that there is a God in the Heavens who is worthy of my adoration and praise. What a wonderful God to lavish such wonderful blessings. What wonderful blessings to bear witness to such a God.

Laura Elizabeth