The Most Wonderfully Stressful Time Of The Year

chrsitmas-grace

In 1963 Andy Williams released “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” on his first ever Christmas album.  Since then, it’s become one of the best known Christmas songs in America, consistently appearing on Billboard Top Ten lists.  It’s a great song and one I find myself singing a lot this time of year.  In fact, I bet you can hear it in your head as you read this blog – “It’s the most wonderful time of the year, with kids jingle belling….”

But there’s something about the song that doesn’t sit right with me.  Or, maybe more accurately, something about the song that captures the tension of this season.  It’s a list of things to do.  Host some parties, have family over, go caroling, find some mistletoe, call friends.  And do it all with a smile.  I’m not blaming Andy; although I would like to know why he thinks kids and jingle bells are a good combination!  We’re all really good at making Christmas To-Do lists.  Get a tree, decorate the tree, decorate the house, bake cookies, put up lights, buy gifts, wrap gifts, send cards, plan meals, mandatory office party fun, go to church, do something charitable.  And do it all with effortless Pinterest perfection.  No wonder we’re all about to snap.  We’re so busy making this the most wonderful time of the year that we end up hating the whole thing.

Stick with me here – I’m not going off on an angry Christmas rant.  I love the traditions of this time of year.  But if they aren’t the overflow of something deeper, they’re going to burn us out, leave us dry and collapsed in a pile of debt on December 26th.  There’s no such thing as a perfect Christless Christmas.  But when He’s in the center, everything else finds it’s place.

The Prince of all Peace was born in a feeding trough outside of Bethlehem so that you and I would know that we don’t have to have it all together to be touched by Majesty.  The Infinite One is comfortable in the mess of our lives, our living rooms and our hearts.  He didn’t come to call us to the impossible.  He came to do the unthinkable – to die for His people.

It’s a story of grace.  Of rescue.  Of One greater than us who comes to do what we could never do for ourselves.  He’s for you.  Even if you don’t send out cards.  He loves you.  Even if you skip the party.  He died for you.  Even when you fail to live for Him.

So, breathe.  Two weeks from now the presents will be opened and the dinner will be over.  And, I pray, your heart will be full.  Full not because you finally create the perfect holiday.  But full because you’re resting in the love of the Perfect One.

He came to show the world grace.  Maybe it’s time to show ourselves some as well.

Rest For The Powerless

sleep

Little kids and sleep is a really tricky combination.  There are times when I fight like crazy to keep them awake so I won’t have to fight like crazy to make them go to bed that night.  There are nights when they just pass out in my arms and there are nights when the whole bedtime routine is an exhausting battle of wits and wills.  From what I can tell, most parents who boast about how great their kids sleep are lying…the bags under your eyes and venti coffee in your hand is what gives it away, in case you’re wondering!

Yet, there’s something about little kids sleeping that is so captivating to our adult minds and souls.  It’s not what keeps them up at night.  It’s what doesn’t keep them up at night…stress and worry.  Our amazement is compounded by how truly powerless they are.  There they lay, no ability to take care of themselves, no clue what tomorrow will bring, no control over even the smallest aspect of their days.  Yet, it doesn’t seem to bother them at all.

We, on the other hand, are experts at laying awake.  The more powerless we feel, the more sleep we lose.  And let’s be honest, there are a lot of situations in our lives that make us feel powerless: our health, a wayward child, the status of a relationship.  All to often, we feel powerless at work, powerless over our future, even powerless over the direction our country is taking.  Power feels like it belongs to someone else – teachers, professors, bosses, shareholders, politicians, whoever…just not us.

If you’re tracking with me, I want you to know there’s hope.  It comes from a Persian King named Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther.  We’ve been talking a lot about him at Restoration City the last couple of weeks and he’s helping me sleep better.  In the world’s eyes, Ahasuerus was a really big deal.  He ran the Persian Empire, which stretched from Ethiopia to India in those days.  The whole thing was massive – 127 provinces worth of massive.  And Ahasuerus was a fool.  This political giant was comically inept.  He enters the story as a drunken mess and things only get worse from there.  The man can’t make a decision to save his life, even when it comes to his own family.  He gets suckered into exterminating the Jews for a cheap bribe and then changes his mind because of two good meals and the possibility of sex.  Yes, he takes out a guy who seems to be threatening his wife but even that feels more like “don’t play with my toys” than “I’ll fight for her honor.”  The guy is a clown.  Yet, God uses him for his purposes.

There are some obvious parallels to our world (insert Election 2016 commentary on comically inept political giants).  But that isn’t the only link.  It also has to do with our jobs, our relationships and our finances.  It has to do with the powerless places in our lives.  The places that keep us up at night with stress and worry.

The Bible doesn’t try to talk us out of that feeling of powerlessness.  In fact, the Bible helps us see that we’re all more powerless than we imagined.  But it does hold out the promise that all of life is playing out under the watchful eye of the Almighty.  God was working through the King of Persia to accomplish His will.  Guess what?  He’s doing the same thing through your boss/landlord/professor.  Yes, even the clueless one who seems intent on doing you harm.

We lay awake at night because we’re terrified we don’t have what it takes.  Yet, our kids sleep just fine knowing they don’t have what it takes.  Their hope and security is in the power of another.  So is ours.  His name is Jesus and He holds everything together by the power of His will.  Nothing can separate you from His love.  He holds the world in His hands and He’s moving His plans and purposes forward.  Trust Him.  He won’t let you down.  And He just might help you sleep through the night.

Jesus In The Chaos

quiet-morning

 

Distraction.

More and more, it feels like my greatest battle is against distraction.  The unexpected phone call.  The “quick question” that turns into a 45 minute conversation.  Social media.  Email.  Checking out houses on Redfin even though we aren’t in the market.  Gossip.  A few texts.  Breaking news.  Netflix.

It all adds up and there are days when I wonder if I’ve really accomplished anything.  Busy? Definitely.  Tired?  Absolutely!  Productive?  I’m not sure.  Connected to God?  I know He’s with me but I don’t seem all that aware of His presence.

I know Jesus isn’t intimidated by the chaos of my life.  I know He isn’t running scared.  I know He doesn’t stay home sipping coffee while I go to work.  I know He’s with me.  He promises that in His Word, “I am with you always.” (Mt. 18:20)  He’s not the problem.  I am.  I loose sight of Him and get focused on a thousand other things.

For me, the battle for focus starts long before the sun is up.  I’m learning the more I connect with God in the morning, the more He shapes the chaos of my days.  I know how simple that sounds.  But I also know there’s a huge difference between “doing my quiet time” and connecting with God.  I can have a really well structured quiet time and totally miss God.  It happens more often than I would like to admit.  I power through a devotional book, journal a few thoughts, read some Scripture and pray a few rote prayers.  Quiet time done.  God missed.  And then there are days when those same raw ingredients combine to create a beautiful encounter with God.  His voice is clear, His presence is real, His love is almost tangible.  Most of the times, the difference is found in my expectations – power through or slow down and meet with Jesus?

When I slow down and meet with Jesus in the morning, He’s so much easier to see throughout the day.  He’s there helping me say no, avoid distractions and do what He’s called me to do.  When the unavoidable interruptions of life come, He’s there reassuring me He’s still working even though we’re off my script.  He’s near and real and everything’s better.

Yes, there are ways to manage distractions.  But it’s not like they’re going away.  And it’s not like Jesus is going away.  I’m just much more focused on staying connected with Him during the day.  And I’m finding that my best shot at connection during the day is connection before the day gets started.

51 Hours

IMG_3058Last week was a big one for the McGowan’s.  Laura enjoyed some much needed time to rest and replenish with one of her closest friends in Raleigh.  That meant Jack, Aidan and I enjoyed a little guy time around the house.  When I say a little, I mean 51 hours.

To be honest, I loved getting that time with the boys.  We had a lot of fun, ate a lot of pizza and played for hours.  I will also say I developed an even deeper appreciation for my wife and all those who spend their days caring for children.

A few random observations:

  • When I was in college, they sold caffeinated water on campus.  We used it to make coffee.  I haven’t seen that product in a while (and it’s entirely likely the FDA has banned it).  That’s too bad.  They should sell that stuff by the gallon at Buy Buy Baby.
  • There is literally nothing a 2.5 year old boy will not try to climb.  See photo above.
  • Just because a 2.5 year old boy can climb up doesn’t mean he can climb down.  Also, see photo above.  For the record, Laura, when Jack tells you he was not being safe, got stuck and scared and that Daddy rescued him, this is what he’s talking about.  Of course, he may also be talking about trapping himself in the shower in the basement.  But there’s no photographic evidence of that one.
  • The amount of strategic planning required to plant, fund and lead a church is nothing compared to the planning it takes to use the bathroom or shower with two little kids around the house.
  • Bathing two kids at the same time leaves you as soaked as sitting on the 3rd row at Sea World.

Here’s one final one:  I love being a Dad. 

I know so many single guys who fear settling down, growing up and taking on the responsibility of a wife and kids.  I totally get it; I was one of you for years.  And, yes, I now consider 10pm staying up late and can have an in depth conversation about sleep training an infant.  But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.  So, guys, don’t fear what will be one of the greatest blessings in your life.

The Stress of Indecision

When I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, my natural tendency is to try getting as much off my plate as quickly as possible.  I’ll do anything to relieve the pressure, including pushing off decisions I don’t absolutely need to make today.  Call it intentional decision procrastination.

Or we could call it what it really is: a terrible idea!

Postponing a decision rarely relieves the stress of having to make the decision – it only guarantees you’ll carry the stress longer.  In deciding not to decide, I’m giving myself one more day to think it over, dwell on all the ways it could go bad, envision all of the people who could be upset and think over how much it could cost me if I make the wrong decision.  I end up wallowing in the stress I’m trying to reduce.

Yes, there are times we can’t make a decision today because we need more information.  I totally understand and agree with that point.  But I’m not concerned with those decisions because they don’t produce the same anxiety.  My mind really can punt those until I do more research, hear back from someone or see the outcome of another decision.  We arrive at some decisions slowly, through prayer and with outside counsel – great, no need to rush those.  But my guess is those aren’t the ones eating away at our joy.

I’m talking about the decisions where we already have all the information we need.  In some cases, we even know what we’re going to decide.  We’re stalling.  We don’t need more information.  We just need to decide.  For example:  When are we having dinner with that couple?  Am I going to break-up with this guy?  Do I go to my friend’s wedding?  Am I buying a new printer or not?  Should I approve that purchase at work or not?

Where are you suffering from decision procrastination?

Take some time this weekend to make a list of decisions you’ve been putting off and then…decide.  Right then, right there.  Make a decision, communicate it and be done with it.  You’ll feel a whole lot better as the stress of indecision fades.

Feeding Jack & The Provision Of God

Jack has developed a little habit that really needs to go.  The boy seems to think Laura and I are on a mission to starve him.  For the record, I totally understand that crying is a baby’s way of communicating.  I totally get that Jack prefers shouting to crying – fine, his prerogative.  What I don’t understand is why the shouting continues while he’s actually being fed.  There he is, strapped into his high chair, food in front of him, me feeding him and still shouting between bites!  In goes the applesauce and rice cereal, it’s happily swallowed and before I can get the next spoon to his mouth…a yelp.  It’s like he’s compelled to make sure I understand he’s still hungry, needs more and if I stop now, it will be bad news for all of us.

Let’s be clear – it’s not the volume that’s killing me.  It’s the lack of trust.  We’ve never not fed him!  Laura hasn’t slept through the night since the Super Bowl to make sure this little guy gets fed enough.  We’ve got enough food.  We love him.  Even with all that, he thinks I’m somehow going to hold out on him.  Maybe he’s afraid I’ll forget, ignore him or just cheap out.  I’m not sure but I’m pretty much offended whatever the case may be.

Of course, I tend to treat God the same way.

Matthew 6:8 tells us our Father “knows what you need before you ask him.”  Yet, I still think He’s going to come up short, not come through, forget what I need, hold out or leave me hanging.  If you watch your prayer life closely, I’m guessing you’ll notice the same thing.  We are way more focused on presenting our needs than resting in His love.

Yes, our Father wants us to bring our needs to Him.  But He wants us to do it confident of our standing in Jesus.  He wants us to come boldly to the throne of grace trusting in His character, His goodness and His love for us.  You might call this “gospel conscious praying.” In Christ, we aren’t orphans begging to be noticed.  We are beloved children of a limitlessly good Father in heaven.

Let’s start praying that way.