A group of ladies from church went shopping at the Charleston Farmer’s Market on Saturday. It was such a fun, relaxing day and the weather was a Christmas miracle: 79 degrees and sunny. Another Christmas miracle was my gluten-free apple cider donut with maple frosting.
The day after Thanksgiving was magical this year. We stayed up very late on Thanksgiving night and then all four of us slept until 9:00 Friday morning. It was like a revelation: this is what life could be like!
David drove to Publix and bought croissants for Brie-and-bacon sandwiches for the grown-ups and donuts for the kiddos, after which we took our respective coffee and tea to the living room and got to work Christmas decorating. It was the first time I let myself turn on Christmas music, and you better believe it will be playing nonstop in our house through December 25th.
Judah and Amie took their tree-decorating responsibilities very seriously, unpacking and laying out all the ornaments and then, once the tree was up and lit (we’re fake-tree people), helping to hang. My favorite part of this Christmas season, thus far, is overhearing Amie play make-believe with the Christmas ornaments throughout the day, which is one of my own favorite Christmas memories from being a little girl. The kids are allowed to remove ornaments and play as long as they’re very careful and put them back (another revelation: no constantly keeping little fingers from the ornaments).
As I sit and write this post, Amie’s laying on her back next to the tree, playing with Gingerbread Man and Gingerbread Woman, who are singing at the top of their lungs about their grandparents.
After the tree was finished, the kids and I made two chocolate pecan pies. Confession: I used store-bought crust. But the whipped cream was homemade. Also, I experimented with sprinkling coarse sea salt on top this year and it was divine.
Some more confessions: No, the crust was not gluten-free. Yes, I paid for it with a headache. Yes, it was worth it. Also. Yes, there is a generous helping of corn syrup in the pie recipe.
Chocolate pecan pie is the best (But it’s better with homemade crust. I’m going to start practicing for Christmas I think).
We rounded out our quiet Friday with a neighborhood walk and big plates of Thanksgiving leftovers for dinner (thanks, Mom!). Also, with our annual viewing of Elf.
Last Thanksgiving David’s parents were here in Columbia. We drank lots of coffee and cooked together in our Benton Street kitchen. I asked Linda to make the pie crust because there are few things that intimidate me like homemade pie crust. The house had very little furniture still, so we spent our evenings crowded onto the futon, pulling around chairs from the dining room. David and I consciously pushed aside the mountain of uncertainties and worries about our future in order to enjoy our family and watch football games on his laptop and take blustery November walks.
The Thanksgiving before that we were in South Asia, celebrating in our King Street flat with our friends John and Alison. Alison and I cooked together all morning — our feast was the result of many shopping trips to many parts of the city in order to locate ingredients (whipping cream being an especially elusive item I believe). We made homemade pumpkin spiced lattes (very homemade, since canned pumpkin was not to be found) and after dinner we all took the four kids up to run around and play cricket on our rooftop terrace.
And the year before that we woke up in Richey and Keli’s guest room to a white-hot sunny Thanksgiving morning, our second day ever in South Asia. Our eyes were gritty and our bodies in shock from jet lag and lack of sleep. We opened our balcony door to a seventh-floor view of our city, studded with palm trees and construction sites and colors so bright that my eyes hurt.
We spent Thanksgiving Day with brand new friends in South Asia, who cooked a full American spread. The best part of that meal was learning at the end of it that our turkey had been obtained at a local pet store. It felt good to laugh. Our minds were bewildered but our bellies were full and our hearts happy watching our kids connect with their new buddies.
These were our last three Thanksgivings.
And now it’s today.
This Thanksgiving is cold and quiet and very, very uneventful. I’m sitting in my living room with a cup of tea while David reads a book and the kids color. Andrew Peterson is playing on iTunes, the sun is shining for the first time in days, and our family is at peace. There are no life-changing moves to make or decisions to await or questions to answer. There is no mountain of worry to cast aside. There’s just this wide, bright day to enjoy.
In an hour I’ll saute a panful of green beans and mushrooms and then we’ll drive twenty minutes to Blythewood. We’ll spend our Thanksgiving in the woods at my parents’ house, with a crowd of family and delicious food and happy little voices and crunchy leaves outside.
I’m thankful for our Thanksgivings and thankful for these three:
One of my very favorite things is when speakers or writers are practical, so I’m going to give you a few straightforward, practical ways that I’m learning the habit of being content.
1. Be a good steward of my stuff.
It sounds silly but I’ve found that when I’m discontent about my house, just about the best possible solution in the moment is to stop and clean my house.
When there are piles everywhere and the kitchen floor is covered with crumbs and the laundry’s overflowing and none of the beds are made, I find myself beginning to complain more about my house in general: There isn’t enough space . . . Everything’s a mess . . . If I step on one more Lego . . . !!! I make the mistake of thinking that what I need is a different house or better things to make me like it more.
But most often what my house needs is not more stuff. What it needs is a little TLC. Mess is stressful because things get lost and tripped over and surfaces aren’t free for sitting. Do I enjoy cleaning? Not particularly. Are there at all times a dozen things I’d rather do than straighten up my house? Usually. But regular organizing and purging and cleaning peels back the layers of chaos and helps me remember why we chose this house in the first place. It gives us a space to relax in. It’s being a good steward.
While writing this blog post, I got convicted and stopped to spend an afternoon purging and organizing the kids’ bedroom. I used to have a habit of storing half their toys in plastic bins in the attic and rotating them out every couple months. We slacked off after we moved and lately, even with a bedroom overflowing with toys, Judah and Amie have been complaining and bored and asking when Christmas is coming so they can have new things.
So the three of us made a room-cleaning date on Friday afternoon. We went through every single toy box and bin. We emptied out their closet and their dresser. We made a trash bag, a giveaway bag, and two bins for the attic (I also took the opportunity to pack away their summer clothes). Yes, at some points there were great protestations. But now it’s done; their room looks great and they’ve been playing more peacefully ever since (with less than half the toys).
Getting more stuff does not makes me content. Being a good steward of my stuff makes me content.
2. Practice gratitude.
Gratitude is a habit that must be learned and practiced or it will slip away and you can be sure ingratitude will fill the void. Recently, during a frustrating day, I gave myself a time out and began writing a list of all the answered prayers I’m currently experiencing. And it was humbling — both because God is caring for me, and because I’m so quick to forget.
I’ve noticed how often I speak complaining, negative words about my life in conversation with friends rather than grateful words. This is hard to realize because you know what? My words reveal what’s in my heart. And in my heart, I too often want people to feel sorry for me. Or feel awed by how much I accomplish and what ministry I can do. I worry, deep down, that if I’m too happy with my life then it won’t look like I’m sacrificing enough for God.
The way of gratitude is the way of humility. It’s saying, “Everything about my life is a gift. I don’t deserve any of it. But I sure as heck am enjoying it.”
3. Limit advertising exposure.
I’ve avoided this one for awhile now with the excuse that it’s just plain legalistic. But recently I’m realizing that what I fill my mind with does have an effect on me. It’s hard to say, “I won’t think about the things I want right now,” when all day long I’m seeing things I want. Advertising used to mainly happen in the form of going to the mall or catalogues or television.
Now all day long I’m inundated with images of what I don’t have every time I use the internet. Even my email account and Facebook and favorite blogs happen to know what stores I prefer and daily announce sales and new products.
So I’m trying to start the hard work of limiting this exposure. I’m taking a break from Facebook. I’ve unsubscribed to my design blogs. For now, I’m checking my regular blogs no more than twice a week. Yes, sometimes it kills me to feel “left out,” to wonder what I’m missing. But in just a couple of weeks I’m already feeling way more content with my life (and interestingly enough way less guilty too).
4. Be friends with people who have less.
I’ve found that it’s very easy to get in a bubble by surrounding myself only with people who are just like me and people who have more than I do. This bubble distorts my view of reality. It makes me think of everything I don’t have, or think that I’m the one with a smallest house, fewest clothes, etc.
It is always, always better for me to have a variety of friends from a variety of races and economic backgrounds, for many different reasons. It gives me a fuller, more realistic view of the world. It also gives me a fresh appreciation for what God’s blessed me with (and oh my goodness, when you started befriending people from other countries you’ll really realize how much you have). It also gives me a greater desire to share what I have with people who don’t have as much, because they’re no longer “the poor;” they’re a name and a face and a family.
5. Live below our means.
Our entire married life we’ve lived below our means. I have my husband alone to thank for this. There were many times (especially when we were both working full-time) that I just plain thought he was crazy and completely disagreed with the habit of spending so much less than we make. In case you haven’t figured out, I’m the spender in this relationship.
But I’m so very grateful for it now. David got a job out of college and worked many hours over-time every week for a year to pay off his student loans. And when we both worked, he made us live on just one salary so that we’d be ready for me to stop working when we had kids. Because we’d been practicing frugal living since we got married, it helped us be able to live on very little while in seminary, raising support, and living overseas.
This summer, our first house purchase was significantly less than what our bank told us we could afford to spend. It was a decision we made together before we even started house-hunting, and I haven’t regretted it yet. We didn’t buy a house in our favorite neighborhood and it doesn’t have every feature we wanted.
And yet we are very, very happy with our neighborhood and with our home. When we discover something annoying (like the mildew problem in the bathroom that necessitates twice-weekly scrubbing and I’m still losing the battle . . .), there’s much less pressure because we knew from the beginning this wasn’t our dream house. We’re able to put money away each month for upkeep. And we have peace that comes from knowing we can afford it.
Just in case you were wondering, being in ministry does not mean you automatically live simply or live contentedly. David and I have to humble ourselves and keep learning just like everyone else.
Simple living is worth learning. It really does encourage contentment. Because we’ve intentionally chosen this lifestyle, when a desire comes up I can’t just say, “We can’t afford it,” and feel sorry for myself. Of course there are things we can’t afford, but often it’s a choice. In that way, we’re not victims; we’re living purposefully. We’ve said “no” to something so that we can say “yes” to something else. And that’s a good feeling.
6. Give generously.
I end this post by telling you probably the single biggest help for my contentment, and that is to give our money away.
After hearing a challenge from the pastor of one of our supporting churches a couple years ago, we committed to increase our giving percentage each year. Not because it will make us more righteous; because it will make us more happy.
Where I put my money is where my heart will find joy.
Support-raising for the mission field and for Columbia Presbyterian Church has truly changed our lives. Watching in awe the way friends and family and even perfect strangers have given — having an inside look into what God is doing — has had a profound influence on us.
Our supporters probably have no idea they’re not just giving to us; they’re teaching us. They’re living a life of generosity and that’s contagious. We don’t just see people giving generously — we see the way it fills them up with joy. We see God provide for them and stretch them. We see the way He uses them for His kingdom. We want the same thing for ourselves.
*** I want to say a quick word to those of you who may be struggling with debt and feel despair just reading my words. Don’t. We have friends who have been in large amounts of debt — including credit card debt — and who are now living debt-free. They would say that it’s humbling. It takes a lot of work. It takes being a learner. But you can do it. Here’s a great post at one of my favorite blogs that includes helpful links, including one to Dave Ramsey.
In the name of transparency, after my house progress post a couple weeks ago — and with the Christmas-shopping-season almost upon us — I want to share what I’m learning about contentment.
The joy of having our first very-own home is a perfect example of how my gifts and desires can be very good, but how they can also turn bad and have an unhealthy hold over me.
One of my desires is for beauty. I love beautiful things. I love color and texture and the way the light falls across surfaces. I love cozy, unique-yet-inviting spaces. I enjoy nice clothes and shoes too, but I’d choose to spend money on my house over my appearance any day.
I think it’s fine to love and appreciate beauty in this particular way. It’s fun to learn about design and how furniture and textiles and art can work together to create a mood in a space. I follow design blogs the way some people devour magazines. I desperately miss my favorite home stores in South Asia. I enjoy seeing people who are truly gifted in this area and how they can transform places — sometimes with lots of money and sometimes with almost none at all.
I think it’s great to want to create a home that’s a haven, that’s comfortable, that’s a place where my family and friends are eager to spend time.
But. I feel like the gift of enjoying our first house and my visions for the way I want it to look can at times cross over into the murky waters of greed. Sometimes I’m startled to realize the amount of energy I’ve expended in a given week dreaming of the next change I’m going to make instead of being grateful for what’s already right here.
And so I confess to you that I sometimes struggle with discontentment even in our new, beautiful house. There are so many more things I still want to do. There are just a few tweaks to make our living room truly complete. Our front yard is sandy and rocky and practically devoid of grass. We still have hardly anything hung on the walls. And so on and so on.
As I’m showing friends around, I’m tempted to make disclaimers, “Well this is what we plan to do with the back yard . . . I know we need a coffee table . . .etc., etc.” Which is just as selfish and awkward as apologizing for the food when people come over for dinner. It communicates, This is all about me and my insecurity; not about making you feel welcome.
Don’t get me wrong; I have certain friends I love brainstorming house ideas with. And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating and enjoying the gifts of a new sofa or finally finishing a remodel. All good things are from God.
But lately I’ve crossed the line in my heart more often than not; I’ve spent more time and energy wanting what I don’t have rather than wanting what I do have.
David and I hold different views on money: on saving, on giving, and on spending. Even if we agree on an amount of money to spend we still often disagree on where exactly that money goes. Sometimes we just have to stop and laugh at how different our plans and expectations can be.
So our nine-and-a-half years of marriage have been a process of learning to have the difficult conversations, of repenting to God and each other, of praying that we’ll be less defensive and judgmental, of bringing our temptations toward greed and discontentment into the light together — and even bringing them into the light with friends — so that we can both grow in freedom and grow more like Jesus.
David has learned that being a “saver” (or a “hoarder,” as he calls it) can be just as much motivated by greed as being a “spender.” And I’m learning that my refusal to think about or openly discuss our budget and finances does not mean the issues go away: it just means I’m an avoider-of-problems (and there’s no freedom to be had in avoiding problems, in case you haven’t figured that out).
So we’ve pressed on. And I can tell you right now, just like with other areas in our marriage, that it’s been so, so worth it. I wouldn’t have told you this every year. Some years we’ve both held onto resentment. We’ve believed the lie that the other person will never change. We’ve succumbed to a fatalistic view of the Christian life that says, The way we are now is the way we’ll always be; we just have to suck it up and get through (which by the way is a lie straight from the devil).
So I’m writing here, in this space, I suppose partially as accountability. Also partially because it’s easy for me to see some of your homes, read some of your blogs, and think, How could _____ struggle with discontentment? Her house is awesome! But I’ve lived long enough and met enough people to know that having nice things does not guarantee contentment. It just doesn’t. And conversely, being poor does not mean you don’t struggle with greed. Because things don’t make us happy. So I guess I’m sharing because I want you to know I’m a real person and this is an ongoing struggle for me. I write as a learner.
And also I write to encourage you. Because over the years I have grown. I’ve been convicted and forgiven and refined. I’ve had desires shaped. And I’ve discovered that God’s rules are always given for my freedom — not to spoil my fun. I’m more happy and more relaxed and more fun to be around when I live life like He intended: when I want what I have.
(Part two of this post will give you a few practical ways I’m learning contentment right now)
We had our 12th week of Classical Conversations on Monday, which wraps up our semester. Now we have a nice long break to do some review work and keep plugging away at math and reading before starting back up with our co-op at the beginning of January. The kids were very disappointed to learn we aren’t “going to school” tomorrow which makes me happy.
We had a fire pit mid week when the temps dropped. Can I just say how much we’re enjoying our house (wait, I’ve said that about a dozen times already, I know)? It’s cozy and snug and it feels like home, even after just four months. It’s our happy place. I typically loathe anything to do with cold, but I find that I’m looking forward to our first winter right here. David just ordered the Chronicles of Narnia set on Amazon for us to read aloud together as a family now that it gets dark so fast in the evenings.
I spent the rest of my week at home with two sick kids. Judah and Amie have been sick with upper-respiratory stuff several times this fall and I took Judah to the doctor with another asthma attack on Friday (thankfully I now know the signs so it wasn’t nearly so bad as last time). We found out after two attacks that he now officially has asthma.
You can pray for me because I’m struggling with anxiety about my kids’ health. Normally that’s not what my anxiety fixates on, but it’s bringing back a lot of memories of me being sick constantly overseas and I’m suddenly plagued with fear that they’ll experience chronic illness. Thankfully we have great resources here and a friend who has asthma is helping me consider making some diet changes to help Judah. It’ll be a lot of work, but it makes me feel like I can do something proactive to hopefully help him.
These homemade Gerald and Piggie paper dolls are my attempt at adding creativity to our homeschooling experience (if you haven’t discovered the Gerald and Piggie books by Mo Willems, you must). The kids love them, and while I was drawing Judah said, “Mommy, your mom is going to be so proud of you!” He’s the best.
And finally, a couple items of business:
1. If you’re on Facebook, I’ve decided to deactivate my account for awhile — I’m working on making better decisions with my time and when it comes to Facebook somehow my self-discipline goes out the window. As always I love to hear from you so can can reach me by email.
2. Due to the responses I got after speaking publicly about my journey with anxiety/depression, I’ve decided to write more about it on the blog, so you can look for a series coming soon. I want to share more specifics of what this type of struggle is like and give you some resources that have helped me. I know my experience is not universal, but if I can help anyone to not feel alone and to feel like there’s hope, I’ll be so encouraged. I’m deeply grateful to the people who’ve done that for me.
3. And finally, a few of you have asked if it’s possible to subscribe to our blog — so that you can be notified when I post. We’re working on that and will let you know when it’s up and running. Thank you so much for reading, dear readers.
We became friends with both of them in South Asia — Jonathan and his family are still living there and John is in the States for grad school. It makes me so happy whenever we get to see our South Asia friends, but also sad. We miss them all very much.
It feels strange that just over a week away is our three-year anniversary of moving to that big, busy, loud, dirty, colorful city. David and I sometimes joke that we’ve aged ten years in these past three. I’ll always count our life there as a gift — even the hard parts. And I’m so very grateful for the friendships that still bless us today.
Yesterday morning I stood up in front of a group of women and publicly spoke about my journey with depression and anxiety. I spoke about that dark, dark summer last year after we returned from South Asia. I spoke of what it’s like to experience the suffocating weight of depression and a crippling anxiety disorder and my process of needing medical help to bring me to a place of stability. I described what life and ministry look like now on a daily basis living with my illness, how it still affects almost every decision I make.
And I also spoke about God’s personal care and love to me. About the way He’s never left my side — even when I felt the most alone. I spoke about the healing I’ve found, about the way God shows His strength through my weakness. I spoke about how He’s used suffering to root up idols deep in my heart and begin to bring me freedom.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
And last weekend, when I was a week away from speaking, I was so paralyzed with fear I couldn’t sleep at night or focus on simple tasks during the day. I was having panic attacks — even with greater doses of medication. I desperately needed help.
I told a friend this and she said, “Why don’t you ask for help?” So even though I typically like to keep my struggles private, I humbled myself and I asked. I texted and emailed several people and said, “God is asking me to do something really hard. I am terrified. Will you pray for me?” I even told a non-Christian how I felt and that I needed help.
And you know what? They helped. They walked with me through the darkness of last week — through the re-living some of my hardest times so I could share the hope I’ve found with others. They prayed for me and texted me and visited me to pray in person and prayed over the phone and even showed up on Sunday morning to support me.
Then I stood there yesterday in fear and trembling and a few tears and told my story in front of a group of ladies who’ve known me for a long time. I laid my heart bare before people I look up to and desperately want to think well of me.
And you know what? In doing it I felt such an outpouring of love and comfort from them like I’ve almost never known before.
All of these people were the hands and feet and and tears and smiles and hugs of Jesus to me this week.
I’m sharing this story with you to illustrate what God’s been teaching me lately. He’s teaching me how to live a transparent life.
Now before you look at me and say, “Well it’s easy for you to be transparent, Julie — look at your personality. Look at all the friends you have. I could never do that.” Don’t. Because it’s not easy. I don’t think true transparency comes naturally for any human being, whether outgoing or shy, whether surrounded by people or living in isolation.
What comes naturally is to hide. To fiercely guard my heart. To be silent about my struggles. To defend my image and my reputation. To share just enough about my sin for a pat on the back but not enough to really be exposed. What comes naturally is to talk about other people’s problems and sins and overlook my own.
God is showing me that, counterintuitively, it’s those of us in full-time ministry who are most susceptible to hiding. We have so much at stake. So many people look up to us. We believe the lies of Satan that we’re here to minister to others and so we don’t share our own sins and struggles and dark places. We’re needed too much, we’re counted on to be the strong ones.
And so we wither up inside. We don’t live in freedom and joy; we live in fear and isolation.
I’ve spent most of my life hiding out of guilt and shame and insecurity. I’ve felt like I can’t possibly ever measure up. I’ve felt like I work as hard as I can but I’m still failing as a Christian. I’ve lived plenty of my thirty-one years in fear.
But now, by the grace of God, I’m learning a different way.
Yes, that’s right, I’m learning. Transparency is a learned behavior. The Holy Spirit teaches us, and you know what method He most often uses? People who are transparent.
We spend so much of our time looking up to those in ministry, but often the people I’m learning transparency from are not in full-time ministry. They are very simple, average, unassuming people who are so dependent on Jesus that they can risk hurt and ridicule by being honest with others.
This is incredibly humbling.
Can God still use me in ministry if I say “no” to transparency and say “yes” to hiding and guarding my image? Yes, of course He can. All ministry belongs to God and He can use any means He wants to bring people to Himself. He’s that big.
But you know what? He wants so much more for me.
He’s inviting me, beckoning, calling me deeper into this life of freedom. He knows that I will find nothing but fear and loneliness and striving in a life of hiding. Jesus didn’t come for that. He didn’t come for me to be the pastor’s wife who carries the weight of the world on my shoulders and plods forward each day tired and alone, just me and God.
No. He came that I may have life and have it abundantly.
Jesus knew that I didn’t need to minister to women by sharing my story on Sunday morning; He knew that I desperately needed to be ministered to. That even though I’ve come a long way in the last year, my heart always needs people to speak the truth of God’s love and my righteousness in Christ, to tell me they are cheering for me and they love me and that I’m not alone.
Today I challenge you to live a transparent life. Many of you, my friends, already do and you’ve taught me so much.
But if you’re like me, far too often you’re holding out, waiting for someone else to step forward and be transparent first. To put themselves out there. You’re gaging how deeply you’ll share in proportion to how others around you share. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve taken that risk and been burned — maybe you’ve been misunderstood, been gossiped about, been rejected.
Yes, it hurts bad. But I’m learning that there is freedom even in getting burned. Jesus doesn’t call me to live a safe, protected life. Read the Gospels: do you think He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood, to be gossiped about?
He longs to teach me that He’s enough. He’s not just enough when everyone thinks well of me. He’s not just enough when my reputation is un-tarnished and I’m popular and admired and safe. No, He’s enough, period. He’s the only truly safe Person in my whole life. The more safe I feel in Him, the bigger the risks I can take.
This life of honest, humble dependency — not only on God but on the people He’s put in my life — is bringing me more hope and joy than I’ve ever known. It’s giving me more of a freedom to be myself instead of despising myself and striving to be someone better. It’s giving me a sense of participating on a team as apart of God’s bigger story — rather than someone put here to minister to others. It’s giving me peace in the core of my being that says my life is hid with Christ on high and it’s okay if people don’t always think well of me. It’s giving me sweeter and deeper friendships.
It’s giving me rest.
If you pursue a transparent life, you are taking a big risk, yes. But this is the abundant life Jesus offers you. He will use you powerfully in the lives of people around you for His glory. He will be nearer than you ever imagined. I promise you won’t be disappointed.