What The Poor Really Want For Christmas

“Okay, help me pick a family,” I told my kids as we stood at the table at the back of the church and looked over the spreadsheets. Each one had several names and ages of children, with their shirt and shoe sizes listed. Next to each name was a single toy suggestion for Christmas. It’s our church’s annual version of an Angel Tree for needy children in our community.

As we looked over the families to “sponsor,” I could hear my youngest read the items on the list. Barbie doll, she whispered, and with her finger she moved to the next name, Music CD.

“Mom, is this all they will get for Christmas?” she asked.

I could tell she was trying to understand need in her world of more than enough.

We finally chose 3 kids near the ages of mine who loved music. Three kids just like mine.

This time of year, there are so many opportunities to give something to someone in need. And I’m first in line. Angel Tree-yes; Food Pantry-count us in; Fair trade gifts that employ women, you bet, dropping of secret Santa gifts to a needy family-wouldn’t miss it.

What better way to remind my kids–and myself–how much we have than by teaching them to share with those who have less?

Perspective changes Christmas. It not only shows us the needs of others, it shows us our need.

And with her finger pointing to a girl’s name, just about her age, she asked, “Is this all she wants for Christmas?”

“No, honey. She wants much more than what’s on that list. She and millions like her want one thing for Christmas:

They want to be remembered.

What the Poor Really Want for Christmas

We live in a culture that lives in excess. We have so much and we want so much more. It’s so easy to get sucked in and think everyone lives the way we do:  Everyone spends money decorating their homes, everyone bakes 8 varieties of holiday cookies, everyone gets the best cyber deals and everyone has the opportunity to make Christmas magical for their kids.

And it’s easy to forget those who don’t live like “everyone” else.

I love traditions and magical moments as much as the next person and I don’t think we should necessarily forego or forget these special holiday moments. But at the same time, we must remember the poor. When we hang our stockings with care, we must not forget those hanging on by a thread. When we bake and eat treats and sweets, we must not forget those with empty stomachs. When we light up our tree and our house, we must not forget those who live in darkness.

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And if we look around us, we will see the poor in our communities and across the globe.

This is real balanced living.

If we were all made rich alike, if God had given us all abundance, we should never know the value of his mercies, but he puts the poor side by side with us, to make their trials, like a dark shadow, set forth the brightness which he is pleased to give to us in temporal matters,” Spurgeon said.

The poor don’t want a handout this Christmas.

They don’t want platitudes.

They don’t want pity.

They don’t want our crap.

They just don’t want us to forget them.

Because do you know what really happens when we take care of someone who cannot take care of themselves?

We see the face of God.

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When we spend our lives remembering the poor, they aren’t the only ones who receive a gift.

“Whoever gives to the poor will not want.” -Proverbs 28:27

Challenge: From now until Christmas, buy in twos (one for your family, one for another). Give and give a little more. You won’t be sorry.

This is Christmas.

The Beauty of Unwrapping Christmas Every Day (Even the Ugly Ones)

I had grand plans for the first night of Advent.

Just imagine the setting with me: Holy Christmas music in the background, my family breaking bread together over a lovely home cooked meal, while we politely asked about each other’s day and write down a long list of our blessings. We would listen intently to the daily reading, reflect quietly as we pondered the truth and then gather around our Jesse tree to place the first ornament on it together.

But somehow on the first night of Advent, we ended up eating overpriced sandwiches at Schlotzsky’s across from our church because our kids were running late for youth group. We had a lovely family fight (complete with teen eye rolls, tween grumbling and whining from the whole lot) for good measure.  By the time I remembered the new Advent book I tucked into my purse at the last minute, I felt like a failure.

I’m pretty sure everyone sighed loudly when they saw it, too. Because failure is good at convincing us it’s too late, even before we even start.

Terrell pushed through and read Ann’s words aloud in that sandwich shop: “There was this family-Jesse’s family. A family that was like yours…a family that loved each other and hurt each other and forgave each other and failed each other. A family that failed God….They failed and fell and were like a fallen tree.”

I smiled at him as he read on about the miraculous shoot springing up from that hopeless family stump…”out of the stump came one tender branch that would grow right into a crown of thorns, right into a rugged cross, right into a ladder back to God….”

I swallowed down my frustration and in the first few sentences of this book, I didn’t remember my failure.

I remembered what God can do with it.

When we got home, I asked my baby to place the first Jesse tree ornament on the tree. There was no music and it was far from holy. And she reminded me twice she wasn’t a baby.

But even without the perfect setting, it was still important.

We can’t quit, even on the ugly days.

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Because it’s not the gifts under the tree our children will remember–the must-have electronics, the hottest toys–it’s the traditions.

This week, she wanted the stockings hung in order, just so. She asked for loud Christmas music while we decorated the tree and she arranged and rearranged  Baby Jesus as the Star of Season- just like last year and the one before.

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Traditions are more than hot chocolate while looking at Christmas lights or opening new matching pajamas on Christmas Eve while listening to Dad read The Night Before Christmas.

And that’s why we push through our failed plans and our own failures. Because traditions are the act of passing down what we believe to our children.

It’s not just a great idea; it’s a gift we give our kids. We practice and retell truth and it works it’s way into their hearts.

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And there is no better opportunity to teach these important truths this time of year.

Because the Gift has come.

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Christmas is for The Unwrapping.

More than anything, I long to slow down the rush of the Season, to linger, to focus on the meaning behind the traditions. I want to remember why we remember and I want to pass the Truth to my children.

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Counting down the days to Christmas isn’t just a fun family activity. It’s not just another thing to add to our list. Celebrating Advent makes us reflect on the meaning behind the grand tree and gifts we give to each other. It makes us pause in the craziness of the season and remember the reason for it.

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Advent is the best tradition to unwrap Christmas with our family because it’s the best way to pass down Truth.

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It’s the retelling of the Greatest Story. And it’s not just for the first 24 days of December.

It’s the intentional, meaningful, day-by-day unwrapping of the Greatest Gift ever given.

Even on the ugly days.

Especially then.

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The book: Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas
The ornaments pictured above. Or download ornaments.

[This post is sponsored by Tyndale Publishers. All opinions and ideas are mine.]

Dear Exhausted Mothers of the World:

I lay awake with an unsettled feeling. I searched my mind going over my day, picturing names and faces until I settled on one of my kid’s tucked in bed upstairs.

Yes, that’s the one. She’s keeping me up tonight.

I thought about the tough day, the words we’d flung at each other and I prayed for her. And I prayed for me.

The night before I started thinking about how expensive college is going to be and stayed up an extra hour pondering it.

Two nights earlier, I didn’t rest well because of a tension headache from overthinking all I needed to get done.

The week before that is was the flu, strain A, that put a feverish second grader on a pallet wheezing through the night and I slept with one eye open.

I keep a notepad next to my bed and it’s always got something on it in the morning. Some worry, some reminder, some whispered prayer, something to do.

This morning’s said, “Call ortho. Tell son to stop eating chips.”

Dear Exhausted Mothers of the World

Every season of parenting is different and the same. We never move past the worry, the wonder, the what-the-heck-am-I-doing-wrong thoughts, or the bone-tired weary responsibility of raising these little people.

We work hard.

We love harder.

We look ahead at the weeks To Do List of grocery shopping and cleaning and baking and thawing that turkey followed by weeks of Christmas shopping and tree decorating and merry making and we are tired. And not just the sleepy kind (although yes, what a day in bed wouldn’t fix).

Exhausted.

Bone-weary, worn out.

Can you feel it? The noise, the never-ending piles of laundry, dishes and demands.

And some days I think we just need permission to leave the worry and the doubts, the fear and the unknown. To walk away. To turn it off. To say no. To take time for ourselves. To lay down the burden.

Here it is.

Here’s the permission to rest, to be quiet, to reflect. To be.

We can kill ourselves trying to create a perfect holiday season or rest in the fact that perfection is overrated.

Dear Exhausted Mothers of the World

This week as we prepare for company and cooking, family and friends, let’s put ourselves on the list.

God didn’t tell us to be thankful.

He told us to give thanks.

And we know all about giving, don’t we? 

We give our kids the last cookie we were saving for ourselves.

We give them our hoodie off our own back because they are cold at the park. We shiver through.

We give to our children first. Because that’s what we do.

Giving thanks might just sound like another thing on our list. Someone else who needs something from us.

But here’s the beauty of giving him Thanks when we’re empty, tired and worn down, worried and burdened:

In exchange, He gives us rest. 

‘But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31
I’m taking my own advice to rest with my family this week. We are tucked away for a quiet few days.  I’m letting go of a lot of things…
This week, take a moment to put your feet up. Trade your worry and doubt for peace and rest. Give God your exhaustion and He will renew you. “He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle’s,” Psalm 103:4
Remind yourself you’re a good mom.

Happy Thanksgiving.

An Advent Roundup

I’ll never forget eight December’s ago when I had my youngest child seven weeks early.

Gifts weren’t bought or wrapped, stockings weren’t hung with care.

I wasn’t prepared.

That year changed Christmas for me.  Most of my adult life, I had overdone Christmas-bought too many gifts, spent too much money, focused on the temporal and not the eternal. But that year, I had to let so much go and focus all my energy and strength on what really mattered.

Christmas has never been the same. It’s the year we prayed for a miracle and got it. It’s the year we gave and received the Greatest Gift. It’s the year we finally understood Advent.

Advent is a special time in December. With all the commercialism, busy activities and full calendars, it’s the best way to keep Christ in Christmas. Advent is preparing our hearts for Christmas.

There are so many way to celebrate this time with your family. We’ve done it well, we’ve done it hurried. We’ve skipped days and some years, we haven’t missed one. And some years, we’ve laughed, cried and fought our way to Dec. 25.  The point is we try.

There’s still plenty of time to prepare for a memorable Advent season with your family. Here are some of our favorite resources (there are a couple of affiliate links in this post):

1. Cradle to Cross Wooden Countdown Wreath: Activity

Every year no matter how else we count down to Christmas, we always set out our beautiful wooden wreath and light our candles and move the small wooden Holy family through the layers of the wreath until they are home. I love this tradition (even though my kids usually fight over who gets to light the candles or I catch them dipping their fingers in the wax.) It’s a beautiful tradition. It also comes with an extra wooden ring and a wooden Jesus carrying the cross to countdown the Lenten season to Easter.

2. Truth in the Tinsel: For Little Hands

I’m a big fan of this little ebook for preschool to elementary-aged kids. It’s affordable, easy to download and fun to complete with your kids. You get 24 days of Scripture reading, ornament crafts, talking points and extension activities. Plus fun printables and templates!

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3. Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas

Christmas is about tradition. I can’t wait to walk through Ann’s newest book with my family. This book is a gorgeous heirloom to pass down with vivid, full-color illustrations, downloadable ornaments, questions and answers to engage your family and moving scenes from the Bible, this book is a gift your whole family can unwrap each day leading up to Christmas.

4. Advent Tabletop Devotional: A Simple Daily Reflection

For years, I have kept one of Dayspring’s tabletop Advent devotionals on the table. Because let’s face it: the best laid plans during a busy Christmas season can get lost in the hustle and bustle. Each day has a short Scripture and thoughtful reminder to keep Jesus in the season.  And if you order it soon, you can get it FREE with any $50 purchase at Dayspring with code: PREPARE50 (P.S. Dayspring just added 8 more favorite items to their rock bottom Early Black Friday Markdown Items).

Redeemed Christmas - The Heart of Jesus - Advent Tabletop Devotional

5. Kindness Elf:  Daily Countdown in Action

I’m excited to introduce this idea to my youngest this year. We’ve never done the Elf on the Shelf, but I like this twist that suggests a daily practical reminder to be kind to others. Our Kindness Elf (I just got a little stuffed one) will show up at the door on Dec. 1 with a letter to remember that Christmas is about Jesus and for others. Each day the elf (I’ve roped my two older kids into managing this) will have a kindness suggestion like “Make cookies for the postman” or “Write your sponsored child a letter.” I think it will be fun and will keep the focus on what matters.

Let’s Give Differently This Holiday Season | 3 Ways to Change Christmas

Last week I had lunch with two women from Azerbaijan, an oil-rich, but oppressive country situated at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

They have heartbreaking, but hopeful stories and use their testimonies to work with women who are escaping violence and oppression in the Middle East. We talked about partnering together.

It was humbling to sit with these former Muslim women who daily risk their lives to follow Jesus.

It made me want to live differently, so I can give differently. 

With the gift-giving season around the corner, I want to encourage you to think and shop differently this year. Dad doesn’t want another tie and mom has enough cardigans. For the same amount of money, you can give a unique gift and change someone’s world.

Here are three ways to give differently this season:

1. Give a gift in someone’s name:

Rehema House Gift Catalog-Mercy House supports impoverished moms and babies at Rehema House in Kenya. Not only can you impact lives in Kenya, you can also do so in someone’s name. For every gift you give, you can have an e-card sent to the person of your choice. [Gift options start at $10. For example, you can gift this for $10 in  your teen daughter’s name and this for $50 in your grandma’s name.]  It’s an easy way to change the world. Check out the Gift Catalog here.

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Compassion Gift Catalog-I love Compassion and I believe in what they do. I have seen their work behind the scenes in Kenya and elsewhere and they change lives.

2. Give a gift twice:

Fair Trade Friday-Fair Trade Friday is a fun monthly subscription club (with more than 500 members) that delivers 3-4 fair trade items to your door. The items are created by impoverished women all over the world who are supported by your purchase. Join the Club or give a Fair Trade Friday Gift Box to someone who’s been extra good on your list. Get $5 off a one-time Fair Trade Friday gift box with this code:  5off 

The Refugee Project-Gorgeous hand knitted and crochet items are always on everyone’s list! Every purchase benefits a refugee who has been relocated to the USA from a refugee camp, struggling to make ends meet in their new home. I spend my Friday’s with these beautiful ladies.

the refugee project

No. 41-When you buy a lovely sewn burlap and kitenge bag from Rwanda, it not only supports the young lady who created it after she’s aged out of an orphanage, it also feeds one child, one meal, every day for one year.

Zambia Soap Company -THE PERFECT STOCKING STUFFER -Scented Organic Handmade Soaps and Lipbalms (Families harvest organically grown herbs. Workers distill the herbs to make essential oils for soap, while women widowed by the AIDS epidemic weave gift baskets and attach labels.all overseen by local Zambian churches)

3. Give a gift that provides for a future:

The Mercy Shop-A large percentage of every purchase from the Mercy Shop goes into an account for each of the Rehema House residents who created the items. After graduation, she will be able to use that money to provide school fees for her baby (while Mercy House continues to pay her school fees). So, every purchase helps provide for the future of the babies that Mercy House supports!

the mercy shop

Caring for Korah– We believe in child sponsorship. We just added our 11th child to the family (besides 3 of our own). Our dear friends are saving lives in Ethiopia and you can give a child a future this Christmas.

Let’s change Christmas this year.

Maybe It’s Time We Lay Down Our Rocks And Open Our Hands

My husband and I worked at a church the first 10 years we were married. They were good years.

But they were hard.

And it wasn’t the sinners that made our work and life challenging.

It was the saints.

We lived in a glass house. It’s sort of a given in a job where the people you serve also pay your salary. Not only could people see in, they would sometimes question how we spent our money and lived our lives: You can afford to drive that car? Oh, your child takes ballet. Must be nice. What do you do all day long? I wish I could do whatever I wanted with my time, but I have a real job.

If you throw a rock at a glass house, it will shatter and it could leave the occupants wounded. I promised I’d never live in one again.

We didn’t plan to start a non-profit. If you’ve been reading here long, you know the story. For the first 4 years of Mercy House, we worked nearly round the clock building something from nothing. We spent hours nearly every evening and every weekend (after our day jobs) working so we could help poor mothers in another country. In that time, we’ve raised more than a million dollars to do just that and many of you have been a part of it. We didn’t take a dime for ourselves as we led a volunteer movement to empower women.

Back in 2010 on that first life-changing, eye-opening trip to Africa, I never thought my husband would end up quitting his corporate America job to become the CEO of the small organization we would start as a result of that trip.

Hand holding a stone. Sky at the background. Sunset

But he did. Two months ago. It was another huge leap for us, a financial risk, an act of obedience and a pay cut. And the first month in, I realized we were back in a glass house with emails from people wondering about his salary. It’s funny since no one questioned us not being paid all those years as volunteers.

And my inbox has had a recent onslaught of complaints about me putting ads on my blog and using affiliate links for eBooks I’ve written. Really, because this is my job? Hosting my blog costs hundreds of dollars a month and it makes me wonder if the same people are offended by commercials in-between their favorite TV shows. Words are free, but not cheap.

I’m not opposed to disclosure and authenticity, if you ask, I will probably tell you what my husband makes (or you can check out Mercy House’s public 990 in a few months). And I won’t take down blog ads because they help our family to do what we do. I’ve been authentic and transparent for years in this space to invite readers into the glass house in hopes they would see really regular people. I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I say. And most days, I really don’t care about the negativity. It’s just part of it.

But maybe we should ask ourselves if we should be asking? Should we criticize our pastor for the car he drives, the expensive shoes his wife wears, the way his kids behave? Is this our right as believers? Should we criticize each other because we don’t agree with everything said or done?

I’ve lived in both kinds of houses and I’ve tossed my fair share of rocks. But I’ve learned that if I trust the people I support, even though I may have a right to ask, that doesn’t always mean I should. And if we sincerely question or disagree with the way someone lives or spends money or whatever, than maybe we should pray for them. And if we still don’t like it, maybe we should stop attending the church, supporting the cause, or reading the blog.

The thing about glass houses is we don’t always see the full picture. We don’t always know the personal sacrifices, the hardships, the long nights, the unspoken spiritual warfare.

Recently, Peter Greer, founder of HOPE International and respected author and leader, put a picture on Facebook of his kids holding hands as a form of discipline for sibling arguing. It went viral and not because everyone thought it was darling. There was a lot of personal attacking. Why? Because people put people on pedestals.  Several years ago, a blog reader and Mercy House donor, stopped reading and supporting because I wrote a post and admitted struggles. She emailed me with some very harsh words and said, “I just can’t support someone as human as you.” Just because the Internet makes us feel anonymous, it doesn’t make it right.

The next time we feel tempted to judge someone who does something differently than we do, let’s remember they are just people. Whether they are Christian leaders, pastors, small non-profit leaders or neighbors down the street, they all have marriage problems, parenting issues, financial crisis and weaknesses, too.

There’s only One worthy of being glorified. Everyone else is just like us.

Glass houses aren’t all bad. They helps us remember we aren’t alone and gives us courage to do something good together. It’s a place where I can show you my weakness and learn from your strength and vice versa. Glass houses allow for vulnerable community and authentic relationships.

It’s hard to hold rocks and also hold hands.

Our Pets Don’t Need a Halloween Costume and Other Important Truths

I always see more clearly when my first world collides with the third world. Sometimes I suffer from double vision in this culture and the line between what I need and what I want is blurred.

Perspective is a gift. And nothing brings life into focus like a shot of it.

When Maureen visited earlier this month, I couldn’t help but see my world through her eyes. On the day before her last in Texas, we took her to the zoo for a visit with our kids. We had spent the previous three weeks working nearly non-stop and I wanted to end her trip with a leisure day outdoors in the fall weather.

I didn’t realize we had chosen one of the busiest days of the year to visit the zoo. It was Boo Day- a day in which children and a lot of adults in ill-fitting tutus with face paint walk around the zoo and stop at Candy Stations.

I’m not anti-Halloween. When else do neighbors and strangers come to my house, ring my doorbell and ask me for something? For me, it’s the perfect opportunity to shine Jesus, hand out good candy and meet people who I probably wouldn’t.

But walking around the zoo that day with Maureen and trying to gauge what in the world she must think was something I won’t forget. We laughed (and okay, pointed a few times at some ridiculous (or very brave) getups). Because people are funny. She asked a few questions and at one point I whispered to my family Don’t even tell her about pet costumes.

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(source)

The week before I overheard a lady at the bank say how badly she needed to stop and get her pet a costume at Petsmart because her sister was throwing a Pet Halloween Party.

We all buy things we don’t need. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures, but some where along the way the line between what we think we need and what we want has been so blurred in our society that when we refer to our pets and costumes and made up parties dogs could give a flip about, we use the word need. I realize it’s just a word, but really it’s more than that.

Because $330 million dollars.

That’s what Americans spent on Halloween costumes for their pets last year.

I can hardly wrap my brain around those numbers. But according to One.org, it’s more money than the entire world spends on malaria in a year.

And we can’t pretend that the way we live is the way the rest of the world lives. We simply can’t keep living this way.

And let’s not even talk about cats and other pets at Christmas gifts (Think 5 billion).

Listen, this isn’t really about dressing up Fido as Princess Leia or stuffing a stocking for Garfield. It’s not about pets or holidays at all. It’s about spending our money on things that don’t matter and then when we discover something that does matter, we don’t feel like we have money to give.

We are approaching the most commercialized and expensive time of the year and it’s so easy to get sucked into the materialism of it all. It’s easy to spend money on ourselves and our family, on all the fun extras in life. I love splurging on my kids and enjoying leisure days like everyone else.

As Halloween decorations are replaced with Christmas, let’s approach this season with a goal to spend less on ourselves.

Because if we only give to ourselves and ignore those in need, we are wrong. We need to do both.

And sometimes, we need to obey the still voice that says less for me, more for others.

Because at the end of the day, people matter more than stuff.

And a little perspective will help us see them more clearly.

Rich and Poor | The Question That Wrecked Us Both

The last time Maureen, a child of poverty who now leads the organization in Kenya that Mercy House partners with, spent a few weeks in our home, it wrecked me. That’s what happens when you see your first world life through the eyes of someone from the third world.

When she saw five bikes hanging in our garage, she wanted to know if we sold bicycles. Why else would we have so many?

This visit has been different and the same. This time she’s not shocked seeing so many pet stores and pet hospitals. She’s not surprised by the ease of traffic-free roads or convenience of thirty minute meals. She loves America even though she doesn’t always understand it.

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I feel the same.

Driving home the other day, she asked if she could see a mansion. She’d heard about them. We laughed and said, sure.

As Terrell drove slowly thru a multi-million dollar neighborhood with sprawling lawns, massive front porches attached to 7000 square foot homes, Maureen took it all in. She asked a lot of hard questions that were even harder to answer. Only one family lives in this big house? Why?

She suggested we knock on their door and tell them about Mercy House.

We passed an enormous house decorated extravagantly for Halloween with spider webs and skulls and a graveyard complete with headstones. Try to explain that to someone who spent the first decade of her life scrounging for food in a dump.

It was sort of embarrassing seeing it through her eyes. (And it also terrified her, “I could never sleep there.”)

And then she said these words and they rocked me to the core.

“Do you remember when I led you into the slum in Kenya five years ago for the first time and you were angry at God?” Yes, I remember. I will never forget that day.

As I followed the raw sewage coursing its way into the heart of hell, I shook my fist at Heaven and asked: “God, how can you allow this?”

That’s how I feel today, she said. God how can you allow this?

How can you allow so much wealth when there are so many poor?

How do you explain something you don’t understand? How do you explain something you’re guilty of? Maybe this is the answer.

America is a land of opportunity. It’s the place where we can achieve all we want and more. But just because we have everything we want, should we get more? It’s a hard question only we can answer. Because this isn’t really about the size of a home or car or bank account. It’s not about guilt or lifestyle–it’s about the size of our heart.

Because I know people who have a lot and give a lot. I know people who have nothing and give even more.

Last week, I stirred up a lot of comments (and controversy) when I challenged the world to stop giving their crap to the poor. I’ve thought a lot about my own words and the ones that challenged mine.

I’ve come to realize it’s not really about what we choose to give, it’s our motive for giving it. Because if we give with a generous, good heart, we will give our best. And God honors that.

I love the story of the widow’s mite. She was a poor woman giving what she had. She dropped those pennies into the plate and it looked like nothing. Maybe even crap. But it was all she had and it was more than the wealthy man in line behind her. And it pleased God.

I have seen poverty through my eyes and it caused me to ask “How can I allow this? What am I doing about it?”

And now I’ve seen my wealth through the eyes of the poor and I’m asking the same thing.

Today, Maureen leaves the Land of Plenty and I’ve got plenty to think about.