Monday, November 30, 2009


By Tracey Bianchi

I scored a new handbag earlier this year. Or purse I guess you would call it. Somehow typing "I have a new purse" sounded more like something my late grandmother would say, great as she was. "I have a new handbag" sounds very Soho to me. So, I have a new handbag. It's made from cotton and jute, and it has been fun to tote it around these past few months. But this handbag, great as it is for carrying lip gloss, sparked a few thoughts in me that may intersect all of our holiday stories this time of year.

As we all know, and much to my chagrin, this time of year is known for sales and shopping as much as it is known for thoughtful reflection on Jesus. In this season of consumption, I thought I might offer a few thoughts that I gleaned from the bottom of my purse.

It is sort of ironic to be blogging about a handbag since part of my personal story is to become less of a consumer. But I like handbags. I normally wear the same black faded yoga pants with a hoodie and running shoes and I decided long ago that a girl has to have style somewhere. And since my clothing will not reveal that I have even an ounce of chic residing in my little heart, handbags are it for me.

This past March I was on vacation with my sister and we sauntered into a store in downtown Jackson, Wyoming. Staring at me from the shelf was my little purse. At first I scoffed at it. I was not about to fall prey to a cute little purple bag, trimmed in green. Not me. I am curbing my consumption. But I still had to look. I slid it over my shoulder. It matched the horrible lime green fleece I have been wearing for the better part of 8 years. Nothing matches that jacket.
I grabbed that little tote and raced for the counter. Ring me up Sir!

Now of course I did not need a new handbag but I was on vacation. I was wearing a lime green coat. What else could I do? Say no I suppose. This was one of those moments when the question “what would Jesus buy” popped into my head.

The answer to this query is almost always “nothing.”

When I stare at all the options for gift giving this time of year, I am reminded anew of the fact that I don’t really need anything, and most people on my gift list do not need much either. Our stories intersect because we are friends or co-workers, family members or neighbors. Our lives mesh together in a web of memories and photographs, e-mails or funny facebook stories.

We have shared meals, tears, and tales of dieting gone wrong. So why do I feel the need to wrap all that history up in a package every December? Of course it is to give to those I love. But sometimes giving of ourselves is simply enough. Is it really possible to simply be happy with what we already have? The answer is of course, a resounding yes.

So as I look at my little bag I find myself sitting with two emotions. One comes with a smug little smile that says "hey, I am a woman with a stellar handbag, and all my friends need one for Christmas." The other comes with a bit more angst. It says "ugh, I just spent money and resources on one more thing I do not need."

If we were all simply a little bit happier with who we were, we would not need so many things to prove to the world that we are somebody indeed. Perhaps Christmas might be more about celebrating the person rather than the purchases. And then, with a heart like Jesus, we might sit back next to the fireplace with a cup of tea and let out a long sigh. "You have got to be kidding," we would say, "you went shopping?" "Now why would you bother to do that, we love you just the way you are."

Tracey Bianchi serves as the Coordinator of Women’s Ministries at Christ Church of Oak Brook, a congregation of 2000+ located in the suburbs of Chicago. Prior to serving women she spent over 10 years with High School students and young adults. In addition to her ministry at Christ Church she is an author and speaker for several nationally known organizations. Her first book titled Green Mama: The Guilt Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan) is due out in March of 2010. Tracey earned her BA from the University of Iowa and her MDIV from Denver Seminary.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Listening To My Life

By Sharon Swing

Experience turns belief into faith.

There is a difference between believing something to be true and knowing it to be true. I can believe the Bible, because it is the Word of God. I know certain passages are true, because my life experiences have afforded me the opportunity to experience them to the depths of my being. My life story offers me solid experience on which to base my faith in God for the present and for the future. ‘Listening’ to my life is a key source for my spiritual growth as I continue to learn who God is, and who I have been made to become.

But what if my life story goes unexamined? Am I missing out on opportunities to integrate God’s words, his truth, and his promises into life today and all my tomorrows? Is it possible to have a head-full of knowledge about God and still be blinded to his work in my life?

Unfortunately, yes. I confess I can lose the handle on my own story. When I do, I feel disconnected from God, from myself and from others. I get self-absorbed, instead of God-absorbed. I don’t receive and give love as freely. I go through days without feeling like I am experiencing ‘LIFE to the full’ that Jesus talks about. (John 10:10)

I don’t want to merely believe that Jesus came to give me ‘LIFE to the full,’ I want to experience it and know the truth of that scripture. When I follow the plot (God loving me into his likeness) and many supporting subplots of my life, I live LIFE in its fullness.

My past informs my present, and reminds me that trusting God and his ways brings me Life.

I have faith in the reality that the Holy Spirit intercedes with groaning deeper than words when my tears ran dry with sorrow from a broken relationship.

I have faith-filled confidence that God turns ‘mourning into dancing’ because God blessed my husband and me with a child against all odds. (Psalm 30:11)

My life would be impoverished if I did not notice the reality of God walking through the valley of the shadow of death with me as I heard him say, ‘healing will come’ as I awaited news on the status of my husband’s cancer. (Psalm 24)

Faith prompts me to anxiously await the sensation of the Holy Spirit’s presence creating holy ground when gathered in soul-bearing community. Jesus’ promise of “where two or three are gathered, I will be there,” is a fact known to me, because I have taken account of these experiences in my life. (Matthew 18:20)

I have suffered the embarrassing consequences of not heeding the wisdom contained in Proverbs. Like this one, for example: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” (Proverbs 17:28)

As I read the account of the Israelites wandering in the dessert for 40 years, I can see myself following their cycles of turning away from God, and God’s faithfulness in helping them choose to turn back toward him. (Exodus)

When I look back on my story and see what has given me life and what has drained life from me, I gain clues to understand specifically how I was uniquely and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139) I was made for a purpose, (Jeremiah 29:11) and God intends to live through me, as he has made me to be. I can worship authentically when I sing songs like, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” as I take account of just a few of the many blessings that have come from his hand.

My journey toward God is wrapped up in my story, and it is inseparable from it. In The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner writes, “Christian Spirituality involves a transformation of the self that occurs only when God and self are both deeply known. Both, therefore, have an important place in Christian spirituality.”

God is inviting me to examine my story for evidence of his presence and activity every day. If I pay attention, I may just notice I am living a life that is full to overflowing – even in the valleys. This is what I know; I am most fully alive when I am recognizing and responding to God in the story of my life.

This is my prayer:

Father God,
Please continue to cause my belief be turned to faith as I experience the reality of your activity in my life. Grant me the desire and ability to notice how you are actively proving your Word to be true in the story of my life. Grow my faith and trust in you as my story unfolds. Let it be so.

Sharon Swing is a co-author of LISTEN TO MY LIFE: MAPS FOR RECOGNIZING AND RESPONDING TO GOD IN MY STORY, along with Sibyl Towner. Their book is available at This visual workbook is often used in small groups, between spiritual friends, with mentors, and as retreat and workshop curriculum. Their book is available at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Obedience in the MESS

By Karen Booker Schelhaas

I have never been one to embrace a mess, diving head first in to it, ready for action. No, no. I have always preferred a laced-up, super-together, all-facing-the-same-direction kind of life. A life in which I can predict what tomorrow will look like, and can even say with some confidence how I’ll feel at day’s end. You know, days that sync like clockwork with a carefully organized calendar in my Blackberry, and a hip-looking outfit and rocking hair. THAT kind of life. I should’ve thought this through a bit more before I embraced marriage and five children. Smile. But still.

I got my first mess at the age of 23. It’s nothing short of divine protection that got me to that point in my life with virtually no messes to speak of, but in all fairness, I had no coping skills. Or, for that matter, any real need for get-up-and-have-your-life-changed obedience. And strangely enough, it never seemed to have a negative impact on my happiness.

As the story goes, I met a nice guy, we fell in love, he hit his head after falling from a ladder, and wham, nice guy got really mean. I stayed in it for far too long, but literally heard the Lord tell me one day to get up from where I was sitting, pack my things, and head home. I stood up and found the bus stop, and within four days was at home with my parents in a different state – totally shell-shocked, with shattered dreams crackling underneath my tired, post-college feet.

But I learned something in that mess. Aside from the small tasks of needing to completely restructure my future and recreate my dreams (or so I thought), I learned that God is most visible in the heap. Stripped of the script I’d carefully written, He had my full attention, maybe for the first time.

Obedience never FELT right, though, if I’m honest, at least not in the beginning. The war within me fought it with a vengeance, and the desire for happiness taunted me. And of course, my deeply rooted feelings about the relationship (and the future I thought it held for me) walloped me from all sides, proving their shallow planting in my life. But the peace God provided was trustworthy and sure, unlike anything I’d ever experienced with him, and he helped me put one foot in front of the other to walk away. I knew I heard his voice, and I knew obedience was the only right response, even though my feelings shouted otherwise. His prompting resonated clear down in to my bones, and I absolutely could not shake it.

There have been other messes, to be sure. Bigger, scarier messes. The death of my beloved baby… flawed genetic maps… no paycheck for 17 months… four unexpected surgeries I almost didn’t survive… a 10-week relationship with an ileostomy bag… and an adoption story that took 8 years to evolve, one that is currently throwing curve balls I didn’t expect. Obedience is like a salve, though… it soothes the sores I can’t address through a deep satisfaction that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, cradled in my Maker’s arms, waiting for his direction, poised to act.

I noticed something unique in the most recent “mess” in my life – after throwing my usual fit (let’s hope these abate with age), I calmed down enough to find that one morning, not long after the difficulty started, I actually woke up ready to embrace it, secure that God was not surprised by any of it. It really startled me. Obedience has become a “get to” instead of a “have to”.

I now rest in the knowledge that he chooses situations that breed lavish intimacy between the two of us, often with little regard for my earthly happiness, and I am consistently sensing his strong hand pulling me along, in to deeper relationship with him. This breeds intense joy in my spirit, which is something I find hard to explain, and there’s no going back. I don’t want to miss an ounce of what he has for me. Not one ounce. No matter how dirty my fingernails get, or how deeply my heart aches.

So the 23-year-old girl who left her boyfriend because God told her to do it, despite the longings of her heart, was very surprised to find the real love of her life and the father of her five children a mere 8 months after returning home. A door closed doesn’t always mean a window opened, I know (as I’ve lived through many a sealed window), but this girl can tell you that she’s really glad she obeyed, for once. Really, really glad.

"Karen Booker Schelhaas is finding her way back to writing after many years of navigating through the incredible joys and certain miseries of parenting. A Wheaton grad who loves to jog, bike and cook with her kids, she lives in a sea of endless material, AKA her husband and five children, in Highlands Ranch, CO."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Calling All Story-Tellers

By Nicole Unice

Last weekend my husband Dave and I took the final step in the complicated process of obtaining life insurance. Getting life insurance requires more of you than getting married, having a child, or borrowing money for a mini-mansion. The only experience that came close was the time we navigated customs in Mexico, having our bags poked to make sure we weren’t sneaking contraband cantaloupe across the border.

Our last step was a phone interview, reviewing interview questions and elaborating on bizarre queries about our chiropractic visits, plans to become pilots and capital gain history. Here’s my husband’s side of the conversation.

“No, no, yes…. Two. Speeding and failure to observe a traffic signal.”

I almost spit out my Diet Coke laughing.

I realized that those three little questions gave the woman on the other side of the phone an interesting perspective on my husband. The truth is, those two tickets are the only Dave has had in his 18 years of driving. He’s never had an accident, checks door locks every night, and goes by “Straight Arrow” in his father/son camping group. Yet those three little questions told a different story. To the woman on the other end of the phone, Dave was a speeding chiro-addict maniac.

It’s amazing how perspective changes a story.

I started to think about my own perspectives, on myself, on others, on God. I wondered what little pieces of information I learn and then use to write my own stories. Take pregnancy. Consider these words: Natural birth. Yoga. Epidural. Organic. Midwife. Elective C-section. Formula. Breastfeeding. Each word carries weight. They are heavy words, value words, words that tell stories.

Are you a natural birth touting, yoga practicing, attachment parenting breastfeeder? Or a formula-giving, C-section choosing, nanny-hiring career woman?

Even as I type I realize how ridiculous it sounds. Of course I wouldn’t judge others based on a few little words! Of course a woman is about more than just her choice of bottle or breast! Of course I wouldn’t write a story about myself or another based on just those things!

…or would I?

The truth is, I’ve been that woman. The one who judges. The one who takes just a little bit of information and then creates a whole story line about the person behind it. The one who also writes my own story based on the things I pride myself upon—and the things I hide.

As ridiculous as it is to determine a perception of Dave in three questions, I do the same thing all the time. Perspective truly changes a story.

My oldest child is turning seven this month. Seven years ago, I began to use those weighty pregnancy words. I began to attach value to a woman’s choices. I began to write mental stories about what made a “good” mother or a “godly” woman. Now, many mistakes later, I can see that my perspective was about as crazy as the insurance lady’s.

I get it wrong with other people. I get it wrong with myself. And I certainly get it wrong when it comes to what God has for me. Yet I find encouragement in God’s plans for women. Throughout scripture, God makes it clear that his perspective on women is much different from what their culture, their families, or even they think about themselves.

God uses women as leaders, and he uses them to empower male leaders. He uses them as mothers and wives, as encouragers and warriors. He gives them purpose in families, in relationships, and in the kingdom. His perspective is always bigger than ours. And His is right.

I recently spoke with a young woman struggling with anxiety. After a few minutes of explanation, she said, “I really want you to tell me what I need to work on. I need you to tell me what’s wrong.”

I smiled and thought about my little perspective, and then said, “I can tell you what I think based on my perspective. And you can tell me what you think based on yours. But neither of us has the full perspective. Maybe we should ask the guy who really knows. God.” She looked at me a bit sideways, but then slowly nodded. I encouraged her to spend time each day waiting for God. Asking for his perspective. Letting him take the lead.

As women leaders, we are often pioneers. We forge new paths. But we can trip on crazy questions and value words, forgetting that there is only one perspective that matters. When God writes our story, it is right, and it is true. We must allow ourselves the space to hear from him, and the grace to listen for his perspective on the people around us.

And that makes a great story.

Nicole Unice is a professional talker—counselor, writer, and teacher--and director of women’s ministries for Hope Church in Richmond, VA. She has three children and the stretch marks to prove it. Find her blogging about faith and life at

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Telling Our Leader Stories

Caryn Rivadeneira

Last month I attended a conference where author Shauna Niequist intermittently got up to give readings that ended each time with this directive: “Your story must be told.” It’s a powerful truth—one I’ve written and spoken about quite a bit myself. Although, I didn’t always agree with—or even understand—the importance of telling our own stories.

You see, I didn’t grow up in one of those story-telling families, the type that sits around the table sharing funny bits from their days or serendipitous occurrences. Neither were we the types to share stories of how God showed up, when all seemed lost (even though I’m sure this happened to each of us). Instead, we’d talk issues and current events, maybe share a bit of gossip or school news. We kept each other updated with the details of our lives with questions and answers—and certainly let each other know we loved one other—but we didn’t tell stories. At least not very often.

In fact, one of the bits of “wisdom” that was passed on through the generations in both sides my family was this: “It’s rude to talk about yourself. No one wants to hear it.” I was told this verbatim from my parents, and I was “told” it whenever I heard them mocking a person who’d go “on and on” with some story “about themselves.”

But the funny thing was, that I always loved hearing these people who went on and on, who told crazy stories of their lives, who shared the funny bits, the serendipities that make life amazing. I loved sitting around the tables of those families who talked incessantly about themselves. It was interesting and was my favorite way to get to know someone.

But even as I loved other people’s stories, I could never get over the nagging sense somewhere in my head that it was “rude” to tell my stories and that no one would care. So I didn’t. For most of my life.

And I seemed to get on fine. I went through my life with plenty of friends, with teachers who liked me, applauded my work and encouraged by gifts, and with colleagues and bosses who, well, tended to do the same. All along the way I felt known even though I didn’t share many stories.

Caryn is a well received author, speaker, and the managing editor for Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership blog. She's the author of Mama's Got a Fake ID and is the mother of three children. You can catch her musings or find information on her book at