“I Must Decrease” … But How?

To hear the world tell it, it’s all about me.

Being true to myself.

Doing what makes me happy.

Following my dreams.

Living my best life.

Speaking my truth.

Becoming the best version of myself.

Listening to my heart.

It’s pretty clear: the world’s loud, incessant voice tells me that in order to be happy, I need to spend more of my time, money, and attention on myself. You’ve probably heard the same message about your need for this, as well.

But knowing the human heart as I do, and correlating that to what the Bible has been telling me all along, it’s also pretty clear that for true fulfillment in life, we actually need just the opposite. In most ways, we don’t need more of ourselves. We need less.

Less need for approval. Less dedication to self-indulgence. Less striving for self-actualization.

Less of ourselves. But oh, how hard a concept this is. How difficult to adopt this lack of expectation in everyday life.

Two thousand years ago, before he was sent to prison for speaking truth to power, John the Baptist was very popular among the people. So popular, in fact, that he repeatedly had to remind and convince his adoring public that he was not the promised Messiah: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” (John 3:28)

I can see John now, standing beside the river on the dusty ground … weathered skin, tangled hair, a wry and gentle smile on his face: “People. This is about Jesus. This is not about me.”

Or in his own, more eloquent words: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) In this he speaks for all of us.

What does it mean that we, as Christians, must decrease so that Jesus can increase? It’s easy to see the “why” of this statement when the person speaking it is a rock star like John the Baptist. (Think: a celebrity preacher, or a wildly popular Christian author, or an internet sensation.) When the focus is too much on a particular person, they become an idol for their fans, followers, or parishioners and the focus strays from Christ. And sadly, the person who has tasted fame, even through promoting Jesus, can become addicted to the positive rush of their own self-importance.

Now, the vast majority of us are not rock star Christians. Yet we are susceptible to the very same temptations of focusing too greatly on satisfying our own desires, receiving applause for our God-given talents, and maintaining sovereignty in our own little Kingdom of One.

John tells us that we must decrease, and that’s so hard for us to do … yet Jesus himself goes even farther. He minces no words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23–25)

How do we decrease? How do we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake?

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“Sore Afraid” at Christmas

Who doesn’t love “A Charlie Brown Christmas”? Who doesn’t smile at Charlie Brown’s sad attempt to put on a meaningful Christmas play, Lucy and Schroeder at the piano, Snoopy’s festive doghouse, and Vince Guaraldi’s unforgettable music?

But the part of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that everyone (every Christian, at least) especially loves is the scene where Linus, on stage in a spotlight, recites the King James version of Luke 2:8–14 from memory. For several years now, the internet has been extremely excited over one particular aspect of this scene: when Linus quotes the angel as saying, “Fear not”. Because at that very moment, Linus drops his security blanket—something the average viewer (that would be me) completely missed over nearly 50 consecutive years of watching this Christmas special on TV.

And that is certainly something, that dropping of the blanket, that symbolic moment of separation from our fears, of no longer needing false security when we cling to the one true Savior. (Here’s a good explanation of this scene, along with a video clip.)

But there’s another part of that scene that has always tugged at my word-loving heart over the years, ever since the first time I heard it. As a child, I wasn’t familiar with the Bible, and Linus’s speech in  King James English sounded exotic and thrilling to me. While it was all pretty exhilarating, I had a favorite part; in fact, I still do. For this reason, and this reason only, do I strongly desire every Christmas day to hear the story of Jesus’s birth read aloud from a King James Bible.

Does anyone else love the phrase, “sore afraid” as much as I do?

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Faith · Parenting

Light of the World, or 120 Watts of Jesus

Originally posted on Dec. 22, 2020

When each of my children was around 5 years old, we did a “Names of Jesus” unit together during our Advent homeschool time. Each day we would focus on a different name that Jesus is called in the Bible, such as shepherd, king, Alpha and Omega, or light of the world. Each lesson had an activity, craft, or lesson associated with it, most of which I’ve forgotten now … except for the object lesson I used for “Light of the World.”

To begin this lesson, we would look at Bible verses together such as John 9:5, where Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It was very clear to even a young child that Jesus understood his role in the world as a light to shine in the darkness. I then proposed that we go into the darkest room in the house, a small bathroom with no windows. Always eager to get up and move, and intrigued by continuing the lesson in the bathroom (of all places!), each child would eagerly comply.

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Faith · Reading

Why Read Devotionals?

Have you ever been cautioned to not read a daily devotional? This advice seems a little counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we, as Christians, be urging each other to gain daily encouragement from a trusted author, to make it a habit in our time spent with the Lord each day?

Over the years, though, I think I’ve more often been discouraged from reading devotionals than encouraged. The reason that is almost always given is this: The danger in reading a devotional is that it may take time away from (or completely replace) your Bible reading for the day. And the goal of daily Bible reading, even just a few verses, is one that every Christian should aspire to. “Daily time in the Word” means just that: in the Word itself.

I agree with that—when it comes to what you read, what you put inside your head and heart on a daily basis, the Bible itself is the most important thing. Many people struggle to read the Bible every day (I certainly did, for years), but there are many ways to do this even when your schedule is packed or you have small children or a demanding job. (See here for letting go of certain Bible reading expectations that might be making things harder for you.)

That said, though, I really love devotionals.

Why read devotionals?

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What Does God Want of Me?

Three questions to ask the next time you’re faced with a difficult situation in life.

Several years ago, my husband and I were facing a tough situation in our lives. I don’t remember the details—who was involved, what it was about, or what the outcome was. I don’t remember if it was a minor issue that we solved in a few hours or if it was a lingering problem that went on for weeks with no resolution. I don’t even remember if it was exclusively my problem (or his) or if we faced it together.

But what I do remember are the three questions that came out of this difficulty, questions that my husband raised in the midst of this trial to help provide us with direction and guidance. These questions have stayed with me ever since, and have given me clarity and lessened my burden in a wide variety of situations: problems with children or other family members, issues in my marriage, dilemmas in church, personal trials, and more.

The questions are these:

In this difficult situation…

  • What does God want me to do?
  • What does God want me to be?
  • What does God want me to learn?
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Love Without Limits

I was nearly 30 before I ever went to a funeral. I was 27 when I first held a baby (a coworker’s niece), and well into my 20s before ever attending a wedding or any kind of shower. It took marrying into a large, loving, and functional family before I ever went to a housewarming, graduation party, or milestone birthday party.

Because I grew up not going to these kinds of events, the typical family get-together happenings (including large “church family” get-togethers) have never come easily to me. Even today, after many years of experience with my husband’s extended family, I get nervous before attending almost any large event. Thankfully, my husband, who is in most other ways more introverted than I am, is comfortable at these occasions, and he patiently supports and encourages me through each one.

My near-total inexperience with extended family events or milestones was never a surprise or a disappointment to me. I knew growing up that I lacked many things that my peers took for granted in their lives, due to my family situation and socioeconomic status. But I also grew up missing one other, much more vital thing that I never knew I was missing until much later:

I grew up thinking that the human heart is only capable of limited love.

I believed, from my experience and the examples around me, that people have a limited capacity for loving one another, and especially for loving multiple people at one time. I believed that the heart was like a small bucket, filled with a finite amount of love, which could be offered and taken back, depending on mood or circumstance or whim. I believed that all of one’s love could be given to one person, leaving nothing left to give to anyone else. And I observed that holding back one’s love was the safest route because it was a much better guarantee of never being hurt, rejected, or let down by another person.

Up until the time I got married (my late 20s), I’d had no reason to doubt my previous life experience with the heart’s limited capacity to give or receive love. Very soon, however, my world (and heart) expanded to include the ever-growing, fully functional, and exuberantly loving family that I had married into. Within just a few years, my previous experience and knowledge of the human heart were toppled by powerful and irresistible forces that convinced me I’d had it all wrong.

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Longing, Loss, and the Life to Come

I was six or seven the first time I remember the feeling. Playing by myself (a fairly common occurrence for an only child), talking to my dolls or to my cats, lost in a world of my own imagining. And then out of nowhere, the feeling—soon to be a familiar one—swept over me: a great desire, an aching yearning, a tremendous longing for something I couldn’t name.

This highly unusual feeling was a little overwhelming for such a young child, and when it came upon me from time to time, I would catch my breath and sit quietly, my mind trying to pin it down, to capture it so I could name it. It was unpredictable, visiting me a few times a year for most of my childhood. And while it was a bit disconcerting, I soon learned to relax and simply experience it as best I could. Not that I had a choice in the matter. Resistance was futile, so I learned to be okay with never understanding what it was or why it was.

During the few minutes when I sat quietly with this feeling, I knew it only as an unmistakable, unresolved longing that caused an ache in my very soul. In my child’s mind, I began to associate it with water because it seemed to me that I was remarkably thirsty, in need of liquid, and then my thoughts would shift and I would long not for a drink but to be floating in water, my whole self, surrounded and supported by gentle, comforting waves as I experienced a complete rest and peace that I never knew I craved.

Years later, I learned the German word that approximates this inexplicable longing or yearning: “sehnsucht.” I also learned that C. S. Lewis had written of this phenomenon several times:

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My Three Baptisms

“Tell me again why we baptize babies?”

That was the message my husband and I received from our oldest son several years ago, when he was stationed in Japan.

It was an honest question. Simply put, he had witnessed several other Marines getting baptized in the Pacific Ocean and was thinking about whether he should, as well. He had previously been baptized at age four, soon after our family had joined a church that practiced what’s commonly known as infant baptism.

I got to thinking about this just recently and began to contemplate my own baptisms. I’ve actually been baptized three times, and that seems a little out of the ordinary to me. If multiple baptisms are a common occurrence, I’m not aware of it. But then again, baptism isn’t something that comes up in everyday conversation, even among Christians, so I really have no idea.

The question of “whether to baptize” has never been a question in the Christian church—the answer is yes—but “when and how to baptize” have been valid, and often contentious, issues for hundreds of years. Since thoughtful, entirely sincere Christians have disagreed on the answers to “when and how” for centuries, and since I’m neither a theologian nor a church historian, this article won’t go there. Suffice it to say that I’ve been on both sides of this issue, I have Christian friends who are on both sides of this issue, and I believe with all my heart that God does not look upon either group with more favor than the other.

In so many areas of life, I find myself in the middle, able to see both sides of something, and baptism is no different. Maybe it’s because I’ve personally partaken in every common version of Christian baptism: infant baptism, believer’s baptism in childhood, and adult baptism. Some weren’t exactly my decision, and some I can’t actually remember. Here’s how and why they came about:

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Uncomfortable in Church

Recently I sat in an unfamiliar church, surrounded mostly by people I didn’t know, listening to a sermon preached by my oldest son. This experience wasn’t entirely new to me; I’d listened to my husband (who is not a pastor) preach a few times years ago, as he completed the requirements for his seminary degree. Sitting in those pews twenty years apart, I was more relaxed as a mother than as a wife—perhaps due to my greater age and experience, and perhaps because I no longer had several small children to wrangle as I listened.

By the time my son’s sermon began, I felt entirely at ease with the whole situation. The songs were familiar … the liturgy was familiar … there were no surprises here. I wasn’t even the least bit anxious about how my son would do, what he would say or wouldn’t say, or how he would say it. I felt calm, at peace, and ready to hear about King Saul and how he tried to kill David multiple times (1 Samuel 18:6-16 and 1 Samuel 19:8-16). It was a story I knew well. As my son stood at the pulpit to begin his sermon, I settled in and got comfortable, ready to listen.

All was fine until about fifteen minutes in. We’d been given the background of King Saul and his relationship with David—that Saul knew his (already shaky) kingship was threatened by David, his jealousy and hatred because of that threat, how he gave in to his anger and pride, and how he attempted to murder David, over and over, in order to rid himself of his “problem” and continue being king. So far, so good.

Then we were asked to think of ways in which we resemble Saul, and things took a turn that I’d never experienced before in church. It was not “comfortable” at all.

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In Defense of the Proverbs 31 Woman

I have a friend—let’s call her P31—who is sometimes unfairly misunderstood. This makes me sad, because she used to be well-liked, even highly respected, by women who shared her faith and her faithfulness, who looked up to her as a role model and who were inspired by her. I was (and am) one of those women.

Years ago, as a new Christian and very busy new mom, I was fascinated by the book of Proverbs and was especially drawn to the end of chapter 31—twenty-two verses that offer a picture of a godly wife, or as my Bible describes this passage, “The Woman Who Fears the Lord.”

Baby Christian though I was, I knew I wanted to be a woman who fears the Lord. As I read and reread verses 10-31, I grew in admiration for this godly woman who used the abilities, gifts, and energy that God gave her to bless her family, her extended household, and her community. P31 and I were soul sisters in lots of ways and she was a great blessing to me as I spent years working out what it meant for me to be a Christian wife, mother, wage-earner, neighbor, church member, and citizen.

I just assumed that everyone felt about P31 the way I did, until twenty years later when I was with a few other Christian women and one made a casual, somewhat negative comment about P31. I can’t remember the exact words, but it was accompanied by a heavy sigh and an eye roll.

Initially, I was confused. Had I misunderstood her intent? Was she actually stating a dislike for P31? Later, I did a little searching online and was shocked to find that I had entirely missed an anti-P31 movement within the church as a whole. The Proverbs 31 woman, much to my surprise, was no longer inspiring virtuous, noble qualities and habits in many of my Christian sisters, but instead was inspiring envy, anger, eye-rolling, frustration, feelings of inferiority, negative comparisons, and more.

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