Saturday, December 31, 2011

Vacation Wrap-Up, Grace, Gratitude, and More...

We just arrived home from our 9 day adventure into the north (a.k.a. Tennessee - yep, that's "north" to me!). It was a wonderful, relaxing trip. We started the trip by driving to Alabama and spending the night with my best friend from college. I got to meet her sweet baby boy for the first time, she cooked us dinner, and we visited with her and her husband for several hours. SC's DVD player broke on the way to their house, so as a Christmas present for SC, they bought her a new DVD player. Isn't that the sweetest? I absolutely love the friendships that never grow old. I honestly can't remember the last time Iris and I spoke on the phone (at least, before I called her to see if we could come visit) and yet it was like no time had passed at all. And I was reminded again how much I love those two (now three!) and their hearts for the Lord. Such amazing people. I knew I did something right picking her for my maid of honor all those years ago. ;)

From there we went to Tennessee. We spent Christmas Eve watching football and walking around downtown Gatlinburg. It was sooooo cold! Seriously, this Louisiana girl is not cut out for super-chilly temps! Christmas Day, my mom & grandma cooked Christmas dinner and we sat around eating and lounging pretty much all day.

Monday we went to lunch as a family, then spent some time in the city before heading back to watch the Saints decimate the Dirty Birds Atlanta Falcons (and watch Drew Brees beat Dan Marino's all time single season passing record!). Tuesday we took SC to the Dixie Stampede, which was pricey but worth it. They had a live nativity, a toy shop that "came to life", lots of horse riding and tricks, and a huge meal. The only detraction was that you have to eat with your hands! I cannot stand to have anything on my hands (yes, clearly I need therapy), especially something greasy, so it was a big adjustment for me. I ended up bringing most of my meal home. But SC had a blast, and that was all that mattered.

That afternoon, it started SNOWING!!! The snow (lightly) fell off and on for the rest of the evening and night (more on this later). The next day, I went with B, SC, and my grandparents, and we hiked to Laurel Falls. I was so proud of SC for going almost the entire way without being carried. She loved seeing the waterfall up close, but it was so cold she was ready to leave as soon as we got up there. Then that evening B and I went out on a date. We got Mexican food (because we're weirdos like that) then walked to a candy store for some caramel apples to share.

Thursday we went to Ober Gatlinburg. We enjoyed it, although we didn't enjoy the long lines and high prices. We took SC on the chair lift and the Alpine Slide, then we rode the tram up and down the mountain. She also took advantage of the carousel and the kiddie area. She had such a good time, and it's hard to find something to grumble about when your kid is having so much fun.

Friday was our last full day. My grandparents left that day so it was just us and my parents. We had lunch then took SC to play mini golf. It was her first time and she had so much fun! I loved seeing her learn how to putt and by the end of the course she didn't want anyone helping her. We had a little scary moment when we took a mountain road we thought was a by-pass and it turned out it wasn't. But we (obviously) made it back safe and sound.

Now we're home and looking forward to 2 days of rest and relaxation before we all hit the ground running again on Tuesday. It was so nice to get away. My hubby hasn't had a vacation since May 2010, and he spent most of that vacation inside with me because I was sick with (what I didn't know was) multiple pulmonary embolisms. This year has definitely had its share of stresses, but it's also had its share of sheer joys. This family vacation was a wonderful way to cap off the year, and I'm so thankful my folks treated us to such a wonderful time.

* * *

Changing gears now, God has continued to reveal more and more about grace to me over these last several months. It started when we began attending our not-so-new-anymore church earlier this year. I noticed how often my pastor and his wife (my Bible study teacher and old college friend) talked about grace. At first my heckles raised a little bit - so much talk of grace concerned me that I was about to start hearing a doctrinal spill on Calvinism. But God quickly convicted me of such thoughts. He challenged me - did I really and truly believe His grace was only evident in salvation experiences and forgiveness of sins? No, His grace is in everything. (It's most definitely giving me a new approach to reading 1000 Gifts.) I started to see how every little thing in our daily lives, from breath in our lungs to sunshine on our shoulders, was indeed grace. I began to marvel anew at the awesomeness of God, at the graciousness (for lack of a better word) and generosity of God.

SC had prayed and wished fervently for snow in the weeks leading up to our trip. I checked the weather right before we left and sighed with disappointment, and broke the news to her gently that we wouldn't be seeing any snow. She still remembers the freak, 2 hour snowfall from 2008 and has begged for snow every year. She handled the disappointment OK, but I could tell she was really let down.

But then, on Tuesday, we looked out the window and there it was - fat, soft flakes drifting and swirling to the ground. It wasn't a lot, and it was barely enough to stick the following morning, but to a five year old who has her heart set on seeing the one thing she never gets to experience? It was everything. It was breathtaking. It was magical. It was grace.

I found myself praising the Lord for answering such a small, simple prayer of a child. A quiet, unassuming snowfall. Something the locals would not even bat an eye at. But something my child watched, touched, molded, held with wonder.

We are surrounded by grace. Everywhere. At all times.

* * *

That brings me around to gratitude. I think it's only fitting to close out 2011 in a state of gratitude. I've learned to say "thanks" many different ways this year. For hard things that, had I had my choice of plans, would never have happened the way they did. For the complete, overwhelming graciousness and generosity of God and of those around us. For challenges. For mountain tops. For lessons learned. For valleys. For sickness. For healing. For unconditional love from God and from others. For conditional love, as hard as those relationships can be. For family. For friends. For faith. For a God that keeps His promises. For a God that sends grace through the simple, yet beautiful things. For God, because He is who He is. And He is.

* * *

I don't do resolutions. The diet ones never stick because right about the time I make a diet-related resolution, Rouse's starts putting out their king cakes, and any and all intentions of being more health-conscious fly out the window. But this year, I feel the need to set up some, not so much goals, but standards. Areas of my life that are in consistent need of strength and growth.

1. Spend a significant amount of time reading the Gospels. I thought about attaching a day limit to this. Either 90 days or even a year. But those things don't work for me, because they always end up being more about the number than the task itself. I feel compelled to spend serious time focusing on the words about the Word. This challenge has been fostered mainly by two people - my husband and my Bible study teacher (also known as pastor's wife, old college friend, etc.). My husband encourages me so much because daily we seem to have a discussion where he brings up some parable or teaching or example of Jesus. I find myself wanting that time with Jesus. I want to savor all there is about my Savior.

2. Be purposeful with relationships and firm in boundaries. Pour into and invest in the people I know and love deeply, and set (but more importantly, enforce) necessary boundaries for relationships that need healing from the Lord.

4. Be disciplined in the areas of responsibility in my life - my family, my home, my daughter's education.

I hope 2011 has been a great year for you.
Even with the ups and downs, it's been a year that I've grown to love and would not trade for anything. I am so grateful to God for all He's taught me, and I cannot wait to see what He has in store for 2012.

Happy New Year to you all!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Complete-the-Sentence

I'm linking up with Critty today for her Christmas complete-the-sentence link up!


My favorite part of December is.... my husband gets 10 days off for Christmas every year!

The Christmas song I can listen to over and over is.... What Child Is This by Kevin Max

My favorite Christmas gift when I was a child was.... This gigantic keyboard. I saw it at a Montgomery Ward (remember those?) and the price tag was like $200 (it may have been more or less; I just remember it was an astronomical amount to my 11 year old brain). I almost cried in the aisle because I knew that was WAY too much money to ask my parents to spend on a gift. I must have stood there half an hour and stared at it while my mom shopped. On Christmas morning the last package I opened was a big one, and inside was that keyboard. I burst into tears of gratitude. I will never forget that gift, because my parents made possible what I thought was impossible.

If traveling anywhere in the world were an option I would spend Christmas.... Hmm... France? Maybe Greece?

Christmas movies are.... Meh. (I know! I'm such a Scrooge!) I only really like the funny ones.

My must have Christmas treats include... French Vanilla hot chocolate!

Decorating for the season looks like.... This year? Nothing but our advent calendar. But usually a tree and some knick-knacks.

When it comes to Christmas gifts I prefer to... give one meaningful gift rather than multiple "stuff" gifts.

The Christmas season makes me feel.... SO EXCITED!!! We get to visit my best friend from college (whom I haven't seen since my almost 6 year old baby was only 6 months old!) and then spend a glorious week+ in the Tennessee mountains with my parents & grandparents! Hot tub on the chalet porch in 40 degree weather? Check and check and check.

To me Christmas means.... Immanuel. God in His grace coming to us, because we are completely unable to reach Him.

And for fun... add your own sentence! Anything you want to share about Christmas! I have absolutely loved creating and designing Christmas cards this year, and I can't wait to release new designs for 2012 (yep, I'm already thinking about it!)!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mary's Song, the Church, and the Gospel

This past Saturday was a Saturday I hope I never forget.

I got the opportunity honor to serve at a Christmas tea at a local recovery/rehab ministry for women called Mary's Song. Mary's Song is a ministry of Victory Fellowship here in NOLA and is a long-term facility where women come and live (usually for 12 months) as they overcome their addictions and begin their new lives. I was asked by my friend S. back in September if I would like to be a part of the tea. I had recently gone through an amazing though tough (as in lots of brokenness) time in my relationship with God, and I knew He was calling me to be more of a "walker" of my faith. As in go into the hard places and do hard things. Not gonna lie, I was so nervous and had no clue about ministering to women who were former (or recovering) addicts and some even coming out of the adult entertainment industry (a business choice often used to fuel their addictions). But I felt God pushing me to go, so I told S. yes.

So the tea was this past Saturday. I showed up with pretty much the intention of just being hands and feet to serve. I kept my eyes peeled for things to do, things I could do behind the scenes to make sure everything got done in time for the tea. When a volunteer was needed, I raised my hand. I didn't know what to say to any of the women of Mary's Song, but I could work.

As the clock wound down closer to the time the women would come into the fellowship room, I could feel my heart starting to race a little bit. As I helped set the tables, I saw the design was to have 3 Mary's Song women and three "volunteer" (I don't know what else to call us!) women at each table. I wanted to sit by my friend A. but I also wanted to be at a table with a volunteer who had been to the tea before. You know, so I could just kind of hang on to their coattails as they talked.

I started walking around asking whose table was whose. I started to panic even more when I realized each table had two volunteers already sitting at it. Every table but one. So A. and I sat down at the last table. I waited, just knowing another volunteer - a more seasoned, experienced volunteer (it's was A's first year volunteering too) would come and sit with us. No one came.

I almost had to laugh, because I could feel God's sense of humor over the whole thing. I was so scared to talk, and had no clue what to say, so I made my own little plans to make sure I stayed as comfortable as possible. And He said, "Nope! I'm going to put you at a table where you'll be forced to begin conversations with these women. You are not going to 'tag along' on someone else. You're not only sharing the Gospel; you're sharing your life today."


We visited for a few minutes with the three women at our table. Their names are Alice, April, & Rose (I'm writing them so I don't forget them). Each had a story - hard drug use, previous rehab experience, children taken away, jail time. Each had memories from a past before addiction overtook their lives. And each had a testimony at how far Christ has brought them in their journey. Fifteen minutes into the tea and I had tears in my eyes.

S. opened with a greeting and prayer, and then another volunteer came up and read the Christmas story from Luke 2. I chanced a glance around the room and my heart swelled. All around me, women from Mary's Song were crying into their napkins. Some had their hands thrown in the air in praise, heads back and eyes closed. I immediately become convicted again: when is the last time I was moved to that much emotion hearing about the birth of my Savior? I confess I've slipped into a complacent mentality where very often the reading of the Christmas story is just one more thing I check off my Things Christians Do At Christmas list. It goes no further than my head. I repented of the hardening of my heart over the miracle of God come down to live among His people.

Then my friend A. got up to speak and share her testimony of addiction and recovery and victory in Christ. My socks were blown off, and the tears came again. A, I'm so proud of you and I rejoice with you at how far Christ has brought you! A few other women shared their testimonies, and more tears came from around the room as the name of Christ was blessed and He was praised for His healing and deliverance.

We then moved to the time of gifts. Each woman was able to make a bracelet for her "Secret Santa" name, and each was asked to think of an encouraging word to pass on to her sister when giving the bracelet. I watched as the women hugged and cried as they blessed each other with prayer and encouragement.

Then each lady got her gift bag from under the tree. People generously donate the small collection of gifts, but you've never seen women so grateful. They looked in awe at the small journals, immediately applied the lipgloss, and shed tears over the stamped envelopes that went along with blank Christmas cards to send to their families.

Finally it was time to reveal the big surprise. About a month ago, S. was given a "Christmas list" by the director of things the women needed. These items were mostly for personal hygiene - toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo, brushes, even underwear. We received many donations - including huge gifts of dental products from LSU Dental School - and the basket was packed to overflowing. As S. pulled the blanket off the table to reveal the goodies, about 75% of the women burst into tears and raised their hands in gratitude to the Lord.

Over toothpaste. Over underwear. I couldn't keep the tears back myself.

A bagpipe player came in and played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes, which is the song they use to close their morning worship services. All around hands lifted, tears streamed. I bit a hole in the side of my cheek trying to not cry harder.

We then started to pack up and hug the women goodbye. April & I clung to each other and we both sobbed for probably a full minute straight. When I left, I was shaking.

And I realized then: I'd just seen the church.

* * *

About this time last year, my hubby was neck-deep in interviewing with a church that, from all outward appearances, was calling us there. In fact, had we not declined the invitation, we'd be there at this very moment. Looking back, I now know I was not ready to be a pastor's wife. My notion of church was completely screwed up.

For so long - decades, if not longer - we've defined church as a building. Growing the church doesn't mean sharing the Gospel with the lost. It means bringing in more bodies to our existing buildings by any means necessary. It's been a courting of the rich, the affluent, the powerful. (Please understand I am not criticizing those with money or power - I know rich and/or powerful people who honor Christ with their lives, their wallets, and their influence; what disgusts me is when ministers show favoritism to those individuals over individuals without those means.)

This past year has wrecked my previous notions of church. Wrecked them. Do we need to meet together as a body to worship and study God's Word and encourage one another and pray for one another? Absolutely - we're told not to forsake the fellowship of believers. But what we do inside the building is not church. Church is what happens when Christ's name and salvation are preached. Church is what happens when souls that are striving along without Christ come in contact with His glorious grace and become transformed. Church is what happens when the power of the Gospel sets people free.

It is not about getting behinds in the seats. It is not about a number on a wooden plaque at the side of the sanctuary door. It is not about fancy lights or a new projector or a dynamic speaker. It's not about how many numbers follow the heading of income on the church budget. It's not about how full the parking lot is. Ministers (and by ministers I mean everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, because we ALL have a ministry whether we think we do or not!) have got to stop chasing after the things of this world and trying to somehow reconcile them with the things of God.

Some of you who know me personally might be saying, "Tara, isn't your husband going into full time ministry? How can you say those things aren't important when they will directly affect you and your family?"

My response: So? Do you honestly mean to tell me that I can trust Christ for the eternal placement of my soul, but I can't trust Him to make sure the light bill gets paid, or that our family is provided for? That I have to balance my faith in one hand with schemes in the other to make sure the needs are met?

As I looked at these women this weekend - beautiful on the outside despite drugs and alcohol trying to destroy them, and beautiful on the inside because of the transforming, life-giving grace of Christ - I knew this was the church I wanted to be a part of. I want to be a part of the church that shares their life and their love with their communities. That shares the Gospel with society's rejects. That reaches out to those in bondage and offers them the true chain-breaker, the Rescuer, who is Jesus.

These people aren't popular. They aren't profitable. But they are loved. Loved by a Savior willing to die for them because He loved them so much.

I love the movement I am seeing among believers today, the movement to take church outside the building, and to fulfill Paul's description of being the church. I pray I never become complacent about this issue again.

I know this sounds strange for someone whose family is heading into full-time ministry. It would make sense to want what is safe, to follow the models we've seen in the past where church is "done" and yet there's still the cushy comfort zone. But there is nothing - nothing - more important than the Gospel, and there is nothing I can place over it, especially not my own security.

I am so grateful for my husband, a man who truly loves those the world deems unlovable. I am so thankful for my daughter, a child who even in her young life loves every child she meets. I'm thankful for our church, who models on a large scale this Gospel mobility God is calling me to take up.

Most of all, I am thankful to Christ - for grace. The grace to live, the grace to challenge, the grace that makes me able to repent of my mistakes, and the grace to move forward in the grace of His power.

I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful Christmas this year, and as you focus on the miraculous gift of God and love come down to reconcile to His creation, that you too will be challenged to make known the riches of His Gospel - during this season, and all seasons.

"Long lay the world in sin and error, pining
Till He appeared and the soul found its worth..."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Things and To-Do's and What-not's

I have no organization for this whatsoever. So it's bullet points today.
  • My child has decided I am the human equivalent of the Grinch this year because we are not putting up a tree this year. I know. I'm awful. But we have a very, very, very small apartment, and we are going on a trip over Christmas break, so the whole deal of getting everything down just to enjoy it for three weeks was honestly? Not worth it to me.
  • My hubby & I got to go to the Saints/Giants game last week. We had incredible seats and the game was awesome! Definitely one of my favorite memories of living in NOLA will be attending the Saints games. Who dat!!!
  • I picked out my own Christmas gifts this year (thanks, hubby!). The first was an enameled cast iron grill pan I got for $14 at JCPenny's the day after Thanksgiving - online, mind you! No crazy crowds for me! :)
  • My second gift is the Project Life starter kit. I have been wanting this for a while. You see, I used to paper scrapbook. The papers, the embellishments, the tools - you name it, I did it. Then I had a baby and I could no longer spend 2 hours of my day working on just one page. I had printed out $100s of dollars of photos of my baby during her first year of life, determined to scrap them old school. It's now 5.5 years later and those photos are still in their envelopes from Sam's in a tupperware bin under my bed. I've considered doing a digital book for her baby book, but just couldn't bring myself to do it knowing how much money I had in photos stored under the bed. So when I saw Becky Higgins was having a Black Friday sale on her products, I ordered the core kit (in Amber; I thought it would make a nice pattern for a baby book) and some pages. It's now on my crafty to-do list to get my almost-six-year-old's baby book finished.
  • I need to finished SC's growth chart I'm painting for her. I'll post photos when I'm done!
  • My other project is a gift from my MIL. While we were in Baton Rouge over Thanksgiving, I went by the antique store Circa 1857. There I found some old paned windows for $15 each! The previous owner had painted the panes but a little paint remover with take that off. My MIL checked them over thoroughly to make sure they were structurally sound (she's a lot more knowledgable about that kind of stuff than I am), and then she got them for me as a Christmas gift. I cannot wait to start working on them! They need some TLC but when they're done, I'm going to hang them on the walls and put photos in the panes (I was inspired to do this by a window/frame my pastor's wife has in her living room).
  • I cleaned out my closet last weekend. As in, I pulled out every. single. item. of clothing and tried it on. If it didn't fit, it left. If it fit but I (honestly) knew I'd never wear it again, it left. I have a stack to take to the consignment shop now, and I feel so much better having gotten rid of what was not needed. It feels really good to declutter and only keep the things that have a use.
  • I've been trying some new recipes I've found on Pinterest. I'll post some good ones soon! :)
  • In a few weeks we leave for Tennessee for Christmas vacation with my parents & grandparents. I'm sooo stoked. We love traveling to cold weather places! (I wonder why? LOL.) SC has actually been asking for snow in her prayers. :) My parents are paying for the whole trip for us, as our Christmas gift, and B & I could not be more excited (or grateful!).
  • I'm completely done with Christmas shopping for SC and with birthday shopping for her (since her birthday is in early 2012). I also almost have her birthday party completely planned. Pretty much the only thing I have left to do is order invitations and buy the food. Hmm, I wonder where I can get some cute Fancy Nancy invitations? ;)
  • But speaking of Christmas gifts, I've been a bit crazy. You see, I went shopping with my good friend Haley the week before Thanksgiving, and we took Target by storm. We got everything on our lists for our kiddos (it was a kiddo-free night for both of us!) and we closed the place down. But I've been watching sale ads like a hawk and each time I see a sale or a coupon, I go and get it at the sale price and return the other. I even unwrapped something the other day because I was able to use a coupon and save $5 on the gift (yep, crazy). My hubby would probably argue I'm not saving any money because I have to keep driving to Metairie or Kenner, but the way I look at it is, I'm going to those places anyway - might as well make some exchanges to get the lowest price! :)
  • I completely copied this for the backs of our family Christmas cards. Seriously, what a wonderful infographic about a family! I'm already brainstorming for an infographic creation of my own to offer for Christmas cards next year!
  • We have been reading the advent devotional from A Holy Experience... soooo good, and such a wonderful way to sit back and be still and remember the true reason for this season, which is Christ.
  • Very excited about some new opportunities coming up at our church. I will post more details soon! :)
  • I am still selling bags for Asha House. Leave a comment (with a way for me to get in touch with you) if you are interested in getting a bag to help get women and children out of sex trafficking in India!
  • And finally, business stuff. I am very, very excited about some new lines I'll be launching in 2012. I plan to introduce a whole line of bridal shower/party invitations, as well as expand the baby shower line and introduce a line of baby announcements. I will spend Christmas break working to get all of these ready to launch.
  • It's cold and rainy here today (yay!), I have chicken noodle soup in the crock pot, and my baby girl and I are chilling out all day. We might make some cupcakes later, or we may just stay snuggled on the couch. It's a good day.
I'll now leave you with a photo of my super-sweet girl my super-awesome-super-talented hubby captured this weekend.

(almost can't handle the sweetness - love this girl so much!)

How about you? How is your December treating you?