Monday, November 28, 2011

Holiday Stress Busters!

Dear Friends,

We’re all under it – as soon as the Thanksgiving weekend is over it feels like everything moves into fast forward until Christmas! We women especially feel it, don’t we? With our long to-do lists, the pressure to make everyone’s dreams come true, and the endless preparations to make Christmas perfect, how do we minimize the stress so we don’t become Mrs. Scrooge?

Prioritize and Budget Your Resources

No one can do it all. We all have only so much time, energy, and money to spend. If we want to spend it well, we need to clarify what’s most important to us and our family this holiday season. Is it making time to go to a holiday concert or ballet? Cooking a wonderful meal? Baking cookies with your children? Spending quality time with friends and family? Shopping and beautifully wrapping all your presents?

After you’ve listed everything you’d like to do, be realistic. Do you have the resources to accomplish these things? Or are you going to stress yourself out by overextending yourself? Don’t do that.

Instead, choose the most important things from your list. Use your resources for those things. Simplify the rest or let them go.


When my children were small I wanted us to bake a birthday cake for Jesus. However, the week before Christmas was always hectic, and what seemed like a good idea now felt stressful and burdensome to accomplish. Here’s a simple solution. Instead of baking a cake, buy plain white frosted cupcakes. Get tubes of sprinkles, edible glitter, and frosting, and let the kids decorate their own “cake” for Jesus’ birthday. You can do the same with plain sugar or gingerbread cookies.

You don’t have to send Christmas cards this year with a picture of the family on them; in fact, you don’t have to send them at all. Your house doesn’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. A lot of holiday stress can be avoided if we don’t put so much pressure on ourselves to do it all beautifully or perfectly. Good enough is OK.

One year we cut down a Christmas tree ourselves, got it up in the stand, and put the lights on it, but never got the ornaments on. It still looked beautiful and we all remember that as one of our best Christmases.

Pay Attention to Your Mood and Your Body

One of the ways I can tell that I’m doing too much is that my “being” is compromised by my “doing.” I’ve used up my energy resources. I’m tired and crabby. I’m short- tempered with my husband or children when they’re keeping me from accomplishing all I have to do. Something has to give, and I don’t want it to be my relationships.

Another problem with the holidays is that we tend to eat too much and skip exercise because of our busy schedule. As a result we gain weight and feel bloated and sluggish. Although I’m not suggesting you skip the wonderful foods available at holiday festivities, be mindful of how much you’re eating and what your body is telling you. Eat some fruit or a cup of vegetable soup before going to a holiday party so you’re not ravenous. You can still indulge, but you probably won’t eat as much junk.

Make Time for Quiet Prayer

I love the story in Mark 1:29-39 where Jesus was pressured by the whole town to stay and do more healing. It was during His time of quiet prayer, however, that Jesus clarified His purpose. He discerned what was best, and didn’t settle for doing what people expected from Him.

Planned times of quiet and solitude are a good balance for the hectic pace of the holidays. Guarding our quiet time helps us more fully experience His presence throughout the day.

Many of us use prayer to try to change a stressful situation. Although this is not a bad idea, prayer often doesn’t change the situation as much as it changes us. As we purposely quiet our hearts each day, the Holy Spirit has a chance to change the way we see our situation. That may be just what we need in order to better cope.

Prepare and Practice for Anticipated Difficult Family Situations

For many of us, holiday gatherings often bring up old hurts and replay family dynamics that are destructive. Don’t walk into an obviously difficult family situation without first making a plan.

Prepare yourself mentally and spiritually through prayer and practice. Imagine what difficulties you might encounter and how you want to respond to them in a godly way. Mentally rehearse your responses to difficult situations so that you handle your own reactions without regrets. You cannot change or control another person, but you can prepare yourself so that if provoked, you will not react in a sinful way.

Give some prayer and thought about how you want to go into this holiday season, so it’s a joyful time instead of a stressful one.


Leslie Vernick, DCSW, LCSW

Monday, November 21, 2011

Habits of the Grateful

by Joyce Wallace

Nineteenth century poet Celia Thaxter wrote, “There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” Those who are grateful brighten a world in need of hope. The grateful create a climate of grace and generosity that warms the chill of bitter souls. But narcissism, arrogance, and envy can lure believers into a culture of entitlement, an atmosphere where unmet expectations spawn confusion and hostility. How does one avoid this trap? Healthy Christians understand biblical gratefulness and discipline themselves to practice the habits of thanksgiving.

Detach the strings

Biblical gratefulness rejects shallow notions of gratitude. The Bible teaches us to “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Too often, being grateful in all circumstances is confused with being grateful for all circumstances. The difference, though subtle, can profoundly impact our ability to deal with life’s difficulties.

Being thankful for the momentary circumstance requires me to apply some positive spin to the situation. Biblical gratefulness says, “Thank You for holding my hand through this pain.” God wants us to give thanks in the midst of our suffering, not for some invented reward to which we feel entitled, but for who He is now. Grief and suffering sharpen our focus on the Lord and deepen our relationship with Him. The grateful have learned to stop holding out their hands expecting compensation for their trials.

Rather, they wrap their arms around the One who wants to hold them, love them, and comfort them today. Though the world rages around them, the grateful enjoy the warmth of His fellowship, with no expectation other than the enduring compassion of our Lord.

When Biblical gratefulness infuses our daily routine, we gain strength for life’s inevitable blows. The grateful are intentional about replacing unrighteous reactions with thanksgiving. They are able to swiftly diagnose and treat a touch of bitterness, greed, or envy because such bouts are inconsistent with their normal, healthy responses. As we grow in our understanding of Christ, prayers of thanksgiving should brim from our lips, even in the midst of crisis. To be counted among the grateful, try developing these simple habits.

Say thank you. Many forget this basic manner in the frenzy of life. Do you teach your children to write thank-you notes? Do you thank the server who filled your water glass? These expressions of gratitude root our self-centeredness and remind us to show kindness to others.

Pass gratitude on. Rare is the success that results from a single person’s efforts. Imagine you’re the coordinator for the hospital fundraiser. After a successful event, you’re presented with a thank-you gift. Would you accept the gift, without acknowledging the committee who also sacrificed for the event? Recognizing another’s contribution to your success helps guard against pride.

Celebrate God’s bounty (whether it’s yours or not). My daughter, Kailey, comes home from her friend’s house, “You wouldn’t believe Amanda’s house! They live on a lake and we got to ride on her family boat!” Your gut response is to convince Kailey that Amanda’s house isn’t so great. Squash envy by celebrating with your daughter, “You have a friend with a fantastic home who’s willing to share with you! Isn’t God kind?”

Be generous

Be generous. When we practice generosity, we increase our ability to empathize with those who sacrifice for us. I’ve known new mothers who, when stretched to their personal limits, dropped everything to call their moms and say thank you. At that moment, these new moms understood the sacrifices made by their own mothers. Gratitude was the natural response. Generosity is the antidote for greed and the feeling of entitlement.

Be honest about your sorrows and thank God for who He is. As a result of disobeying God, Jonah found himself in the belly of a big fish. He talks about being engulfed by water and having seaweed wrapped around his head. Is he thanking God when, as Jonah puts it, “my life was ebbing away?” Yes, but not for the seaweed around his head. Rather, Jonah said, “But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). In the midst of suffering, Jonah thanked God for being One who seeks and saves the lost. Honesty with God transforms shallow, self-serving prayers into intimate, life-changing conversations with the Father.

Read the Psalms. God’s Word leads us to the One who should be the object of our gratefulness. The Psalms remind us of God’s character and the many reasons we have to rejoice and give thanks. A deeper understanding of God protects us from expecting that which God never promised, but gives us hope for a future greater than we can imagine.

Maybe you want to add to my list? I’d encourage you to take some time this week and think of all the things you have to be thankful for – and then tell God and the people in your life what you’re most thankful for!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Thanking God for Purple Coats

by Shelly Esser

A number of years ago I needed a winter dress coat, but didn’t feel I could afford it. I whispered a little prayer to the Lord telling Him of my need and didn’t think about it again. A couple of weeks later, I visited a friend.

Before I left, she called me into her bedroom and asked me if I would like to have a brand-new, wool purple dress coat. I couldn’t believe it. I hurriedly tried it on. It was a perfect fit!

Every time I wear that coat, I am reminded of God’s gracious gift. It has become a visual reminder to me of just how lavish and extravagant God’s love is. To think that God is concerned with the little things in our lives to that detail never ceases to amaze me. I can’t help but wonder if He does so to continually give us opportunities to turn our hearts heavenward.

Psalm 103:2 says, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” My heart isn’t always overflowing with thanks to God for all of the ways He makes His presence known in my life. Because it’s so easy to get bogged down with the mundane tasks of living, we can often forget.

Perhaps that’s why God in His love and grace for us interrupts our lives with His gifts. Is He trying to get our attention? Trying to tell us how much He loves us? I think He is. But He also desires that we learn to be thankful so we won’t forget.

Gratitude is really a response to a gift. The more we become aware of the depth of our greatest gift – salvation – the more thankful we become because gratitude enlarges our hearts towards God. In a mysterious way, it links us to the divine.

It’s been said that God has two dwellings: one in heaven, and the other in a meek and thankful heart. Gratitude will help us keep our focus on God, the giver of all good and perfect gifts.

Here are some ways that have helped me make gratitude a more integral part of my life:

Be thankful for little things. If you’re looking, every day holds a host of things you can be grateful for ─ the sunshine, a kindness from a friend, an encouraging phone call, a Scripture verse. Look for the purple coats in your life. Last week, I was having some back problems.

When I went to my room, I found a beautiful homemade card on my bedstand that my daughter, Anna, had made, telling me she loved me and was praying I’d get well. My heart was not only uplifted, it was filled with gratitude. In a difficult moment, there was something to be thankful for.

Be thankful for creation. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find myself so much more awed by nature than I used to be. The breathtaking sunset, the ducklings swimming in the pond, the deer on the walking trail.

I’ll never forget the year I was going through an especially dark time when life seemed hopeless. As I pulled onto the freeway, a huge rainbow filled the sky. It was like God had dropped it there just for me ─ to remind me of His presence and promises. I am so thankful for His creative touches in my life that display His love.

Be thankful for the good around you. Too many times we only hear about the bad things going on in the world. I have determined to find the good, the inspiring story of someone’s encounter with God, a kind deed done by a stranger, a person helping another person. By concentrating on finding the good in every situation, you will discover your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude.

Be thankful with words. Practice saying thank you for both the happy and challenging experiences in your life, and to the family, friends, and other people God places there. As we express our gratitude to others, including God, we are blessed.

I like what G. K. Chesterton said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Gratitude is to be a way of life – we are to cherish what we’ve been given in every single context of our lives and use our words to convey it. Thankfulness is best when it’s expressed.

Focus on what you have. A number of years ago, I was watching a Good Morning America show at Thanksgiving time. The God Squad – a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest – interviewed numerous homeless people about what they had to be thankful for. I was in tears by the end of the segment as person after person, having nothing, could say with a smile that they were thankful to simply just be alive! And they were thankful to God for another day. Sobering!

In comparison, I have so much more and yet my heart doesn’t always gravitate towards gratitude like that. It is a wise person who doesn’t grieve for the things she doesn’t have, but rejoices for the things she has. We need to choose not to focus on what’s missing from our lives, but be grateful for the abundance that is present.

What are the purple coats you need to be thankful for in your life? In what areas have you forgotten to thank God? Don’t miss out on the wonderful opportunity to connect with God because of ingratitude. Nothing is more pleasing to God than a thankful heart. “…in everything give thanks” (Phil. 4:6).

Shelly Esser is editor of Just Between Us magazine. She and her husband, John, have four daughters.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Time for a Gratitude Check

A number of years ago I was watching a Good Morning America show at Thanksgiving time. The God Squad a Jewish Rabbi and a Catholic Priest – interviewed numerous homeless people about what they had to be thankful for. I was in tears by the end of the segment as person after person, having nothing materially – no place to even lay their head or no knowledge about where their next meal would come from could say with a smile that they are so thankful to just simply be alive, thanking God for another day! And they meant it. Sobering.

In comparison, I have so much and yet my heart doesn’t always gravitate towards gratitude like theirs did. Life in itself is an incredible gift. Because it’s so easy to get bogged down with the mundane tasks of living, we can often forget that. To further complicate things, society has made the quest to satisfy our desires the foundation on which we teach people to build their lives, and by never having enough, we have a hard time appreciating all we do have. I like what G.K. Chesterton said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink.” Gratitude is to be a way of life and we are to cherish what we’ve been given in every single context of it.

What I find interesting about the people interviewed is that they had full hearts of gratitude despite very difficult circumstances. With the hardship of their lives they could easily have failed to see past their problems, even blaming God, but instead they actively looked for God’s blessings and chose to give thanks anyway. They started by giving thanks for life. For simply being born.

1Thessalonians 5:18 commands us to “…give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Notice the focus on “all” – when we’re healthy, and when we’re not, when things are going well and when they’re not, when we’re poor and when we’re rich  it covers every conceivable thing we can ever experience. Why? Because thankfulness is the will of God for us. Wow! How many passages in Scripture actually spell things out that indisputably and clearly? The passage actually tells us, in case we don’t get it, it is the will of God to be thankful – all the time!.

Thanking God in good times is easy, but how do we do it when life goes terribly wrong? It takes an act of the will – a choice. Oftentimes, I’ve found it is the very act of gratitude itself that God uses in the dark hours to ignite my hope and change my perspective. Ultimately, a grateful spirit does wonders for our hearts and outlooks on problems and life in general. Practicing thankfulness helps us move from what isn’t to what is. It moves our attention to what God is doing wherever we find ourselves.

This past year has been a tough one. As such, I have intentionally looked for God’s hand on my shoulder throughout uncertainty and painful circumstances. What I have discovered is that when I am looking for God’s hand on my shoulder, my faith and trust in God has been strengthened and renewed, and my heart fills up with thanksgiving. At these moments, I have become acutely aware of His presence. Despite terrible circumstances, I have been able to witness His hand in ways I never would have had I not stopped to look for them. As author Craig Barnes said, “Every day of your life you face the possibility that a blessing in your life may be taken away. We are grateful that we are held by God even when the blessings are slipping through our fingers.” No matter what happens to us, we can always be thankful that we “are held my God”! Thankfulness helps us to grow in our capacity to trust God. By trusting and turning our hearts towards thankfulness we find what we need to live in the present circumstances whatever they may be.

The more we demand, complain and worry, the less we can value, cherish, savor, enjoy, accept, and see God’s hand working in our lives. Psalm 34:1 says “I will extol the Lord at all times; His praise will always be on my lips.” Maybe it’s time for a gratitude check. Looking for the blessings in our lives is a choice we make daily in all of our circumstances. If the homeless can do it, so can we!

In His service,

Shelly Esser