The best gift you can give yourself this holiday season

Christmastime is such a wonderful time of year – but it can also be challenging. It’s fun to spend time with our loved ones and to choose gifts that will make them feel special. But it can also be a time when we have to face people we don’t necessarily love so much. We might … Continue reading “The best gift you can give yourself this holiday season”

Christmastime is such a wonderful time of year – but it can also be challenging. It’s fun to spend time with our loved ones and to choose gifts that will make them feel special. But it can also be a time when we have to face people we don’t necessarily love so much. We might draw these people in a secret Santa exchange, bump into them at a holiday party, or sit next to them at a large family dinner; loving difficult people (even during the holidays) is never an easy task. But showing these people love and grace might be the best gift we can give OURSELVES this holiday season. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.

Easier said than done, right? I know – this task is particularly difficult for me.

My mom has always told me that I have a strong sense of justice – that’s her motherly and loving way of telling me that I don’t always give people as much grace as I could when I feel like I’ve been wronged; I focus much more on what is “fair.”

Many of my friends frequently come to me for “vent sessions” because I’ll be the first person to say “UGH – you did NOT deserve that!” or “Well, if they were so rude or inconsiderate, how can they expect you to be polite or nice in response? That makes NO sense!” I’m not proud to admit that I sometimes respond in these scenarios with knee-jerk reactions rather than swallowing my pride and practicing forgiveness. Although I write about my faith, I am definitely no saint. God still has a lot of work to do on me and I know He won’t be finished transforming my heart until my life here on Earth is over.

But I want to be better. I want to be more like Jesus – and I don’t just mean turning the other cheek. I want to be like Him in the sense that I will be able to go out of my way to show love and grace to people who might not “deserve” it from my point of view. If I were to attempt this goal on my own, I know I’d fail, so I have to keep a key piece of wisdom at the forefront of my memory to achieve it: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – ” (Romans 5:7-8).

Sometimes I think about all of the times I’ve ignored and disobeyed Jesus, and acted as though I couldn’t care less what He thought. And then it hits me that He continues to love me and bless me anyway – and I’m filled with a sense of disbelief.

How could that be true? How could someone really love me through all of that? But it IS true. And when I remember this and truly grasp how profound and full His love is, it makes me feel like I’m the Grinch in the closing scene when his heart grows three sizes bigger (cheesy, I know, but seriously!) – I still have a lot to learn, but I have learned this much: I’m able to love better when I fully embrace God’s overflowing love for me. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

One of my favorite Christian authors, Heather Lindsey, sums up this idea perfectly: “Some people say, ‘don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t cross a puddle for you,’ but I’d say to them, No, do it. Do cross oceans for people. Love people, all people. No conditions attached, no wondering whether they’re worthy. Cross oceans, climb mountains. Life and love isn’t about what you gain, it’s about what you give.”

It can be a tough pill to swallow, but it becomes easier to accept this concept if we remember the love, forgiveness, and grace Jesus offers each and every one of us. Embrace His love. When you do, you will love better. And when you love better, you live better. To me, that is the best Christmas gift we can give ourselves.

Christen Limbaugh Bloom is the creator of Haplous, a Christian blog for women seeking peace in a stressful world. Her writing focuses on practical “baby steps” individuals can take when pursuing a relationship with God. Christen is a Missouri girl turned Manhattanite who loves God, her husband, iced coffee year-round, and connecting with other women. You can follow Christen’s blog on Instagram at @haplous_official and her website at www.haplousofficial.com.

Forget society’s standards, here’s the secret to a truly beautiful home

I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. An awful diagnosis for anyone, at any stage of life. But as a 48-year old father of four, with two still in elementary school, it has shaken everyone in our community. He’s now in a daily battle to stave off cancer, provide for his family, and both parent and husband well.

In preparing themselves for the long days and years to come, my friend and his wife decided to downsize their home – moving from 3,400 square feet to 1,800. They saw the move as an opportunity to save money, time, energy, and effort for the journey ahead – a journey that would require focus and intentionality.

They hadn’t lived in their larger home for very long before the diagnosis. In fact, I still remember the first time I visited – Christmas, last year. It was for a party and their home was decorated immaculately. My wife and I arrived early for the party and offered our hosts the first thoughts that entered our mind, “Your new home is beautiful. Thank you for having us over.”

As the party attendees continued to arrive that evening, I watched as many had similar greetings for their host and hostess, “Your house is gorgeous!”; “This is stunning!”; and “Your home is absolutely beautiful!” Customary greetings, I know, but these compliments were not empty words of praise – the houseguests were genuinely impressed with their hosts’ home.

We are, after all, a culture and society that loves big houses and expensive furnishings and decorations. Most people spend their lives, and – if current stats on household debt are correct – their money pursuing bigger and bigger homes in nicer and nicer neighborhoods.

In fact, the average American home has nearly tripled in size over the last 60 years, all while the average American family has decreased in members. And if all this increased space isn’t enough, 10 percent of us rent offsite storage and 25 percent are unable to park even one car in our garage. “Bigger” and “more lavish” tend to be homes that are praised in our culture.

Sometimes I wonder if these bigger homes (and the increased furnishings and material possessions that go inside them) are actually benefiting our lives. And if they are not, are they worthy of our praise and admiration? Is it possible we are looking for “beauty” in all the wrong places?

The concept of home as an ideal for safety and comfort, of acceptance and belonging, is one that resonates with almost everyone. But somewhere along the way, we began chasing a different ideal. “Home” became a place to upscale, store an ever-increasing pile of possessions, and chase a never-realized perfection portrayed in Pottery Barn catalogs and on home-improvement reality shows.

But what is the purpose of home and what makes the concept beautiful in the first place?

Home is a place to come home to. It offers a place to relax, unwind, and rest. It provides opportunity for interaction among family members – a safe harbor from the storms of life to find acceptance, security, and stability.

But home is also a port of departure when you’re ready to brave the high seas of life again. Home offers us rest and security so we can live our best lives in the world outside – accomplishing the most good for the most amounts of people.

As John Shedd said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

These are the ideals we should strive for with the home we create: a safe harbor and effective port of departure. And when these ideals are being met, our home is beautiful. We do not need to constantly increase square footage, discounted (or not) furniture, or decorations.

In fact, often times, reducing the square footage and/or the number of possessions in our home allows us to better realize those ideals that make a house a home. When our money, time, and energy is not spent accumulating and caring for things that don’t matter, we have more resources available for the things that do.

Last week, my wife and I dropped off dinner at our friends’ new, smaller home. It had been a long day for them full of scans, doctor visits, diagnoses, and treatments. We did not intend to stay long – they needed rest as much as they needed a fresh meal.

However, while dropping off the food I asked my friend how he was liking his smaller home. He said, “It’s great! I no longer have a mortgage payment because we removed that burden when we downsized. We’re in a more stable position financially which is important to me. Sure, we’re still adjusting to living in smaller quarters as a family. But this house is easier to clean and maintain and take care of so I can focus more on the things that matter. Most importantly, it’s bringing us closer together as a family. And Joshua, that is the thing that means the most to me right now as I fight for my life and theirs.”

I looked around the room one more time. I saw a family growing closer, better prepared in this smaller space for their difficult journey ahead. “Bob, I think it’s beautiful.”

Joshua Becker is the founder and editor of “Becoming Minimalist,” a website that reaches more than 1 million readers each month inspiring people to live more by owning less. He is a national bestselling author and his new book “The Minimalist Home: A Room-By-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life” is available now.

How to make peace in a world full of hate

We’re told in the story of Christ’s birth that he was sent to bring “peace on Earth” (Luke 2:14). All throughout the Old and New Testaments, God echoes his promise of peace, and he invites us to be a part of the process as well.

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” Jesus told his disciples in his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9).

I don’t know how much of the nightly news you’ve been watching, but it looks to me like we could use a little peacemaking.

And I’m not just talking about in Israel, or Yemen, or Venezuela. I’m talking about amongst our very own family members, friends and neighbors.

Take a quick scroll through social media and you’ll see family members in a war of words over a political disagreement. Friendships are often ruined with one harsh word. Neighbors never speak again after one trivial dispute.

Perhaps you can recall a moment when you contributed to anger and division yourself.

It’s clear to me that we desperately need Christ to work in our lives, to teach us how to respond in an age of perpetual conflict. It’s so easy in our technologically advanced era to hide behind a screen and foster division with harsh rhetoric, thinking there’ll be no larger consequences. But there most certainly will be. Proverbs 18:21 cautions us with this: “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit–you choose.”

As a follower of Christ, I know I am commanded – no matter how just the cause I am fighting for – to always refrain from stirring up division. In Hebrews 12:14 we're told, "Strive for peace with everyone." The Apostle Paul also implores us, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Romans 12:18).

In Isaiah 1:18 the Lord tell us, “Come now, let us reason together.” Conflict can’t continue if you don’t participate.

This essentially all boils down to one simple rule: Be a peacemaker, not a troublemaker.

I realize there’s a lot of shallow and hollow calls for peace out there. Many are well-intentioned, but lacking in substance.

The version of peace I’m calling for is rooted in Christ and is unattainable without him.

The honest truth is that you and I are incapable of being effective peacemakers without the redeeming love of Christ stirring in our hearts. We may broker peace among friends who are bickering, or step in to stop a squabble among family members. But what about when an offense is dealt directly toward you? An angry remark, a nasty tweet, a passive-aggressive comment from a loved one. Sooner or later we give in to our flesh and we hold a grudge, or we respond in anger ourselves, driving the wedge deeper and deeper until one day a relationship is totally destroyed.

Just as we are unable to be sinless and perfect in our own strength, we are unable to make peace with someone using our own strength. Christ tells us in John 16:33, "…In me you may have peace." Further along in the same verse he reminds us, "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."

The only way we can find lasting peace is by submitting our lives to the Prince of Peace.

We need Christ to stand in the gap for us. When we’re spent and exhausted and it seems like all hope for peace is lost, Christ calls us to put our trust in him.

This Christmas, humble yourself before the Lord. Ask him to fill you with his spirit and give you the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Not simply a temporary transaction of peace –like a ceasefire agreement between nations, or a court settlement amongst bitter enemies – but real and lasting peace. The kind that is anchored deep within our hearts and our minds.

Jentezen Franklin is the Senior Pastor of Free Chapel, a multi-campus church. Each week his television program Kingdom Connection is broadcast on major networks all over the world. A New York Times best-selling author, Jentezen has written nine books, including his newly released, “Love Like You’ve Never Been Hurt.”

The incredible lesson I learned after I failed the seventh grade

A seventh-grade student sat at his desk fearing the absolute worst. It was Friday, June 8, 1984. It was also the last day of school before summer vacation.

His knobby knees knocked. His heart raced. His palms were so sweaty, he needed a "wet floor” sign next to his desk.

The 13-year-old had slogged through a challenging year at home and, moments earlier, his homeroom teacher had revealed in dramatic fashion that when the report cards were distributed, one would show that someone had failed the seventh grade and would be retained.

Someone in the back of the room asked what the word meant. “In this case,” the teacher announced, “retained means he’s going to repeat the seventh grade.”

The young man sat at his desk and wondered how he would ever tell his parents that their son, a student with a history of good grades, had collapsed and would not advance to the eighth grade with his friends.

He’d placed third at the county science fair. He’d earned awards for his writing and excelled at band. He’d won speech competitions. But now he was poised to walk up the driveway carrying a report card that weighed more than he did.

Disclosure: I have not researched this story and it hasn’t been fact-checked. How do I know it so well? Because this is my story.

I failed the seventh grade.

I closed my eyes and with my fingertips traced the carved-in pencil slot on the bottom of the slanted desktop. In that moment, I remembered hearing the news that doctors had discovered a tumor the size of a grapefruit attached to one of my father’s kidneys. In the next moment I wondered whether my father would live to see me graduate – not from high school, but from middle.

The teacher began handing out the report cards and I felt my pulse skip and pop like an old vinyl record. I wiped my hands on my Levis and studied my desk until the report card slid into view. I unwound the red piece of string that held the flap closed and removed the tri-fold piece of canary cardstock. At the top of the paper my eyes immediately found the word written and circled in cherry red magic marker: “Retained."

I quickly folded and returned the paper to its envelope, like a body exhumed and returned to its casket. I fought tears, left for the restroom without permission and gazed at my reflection in the cracked mirror with graffiti scrawled in the corners.

I wondered – Will my parents still love me?

A few days later, I returned with my folks to meet with the principal and discuss my options. I could repeat the year, earn satisfactory grades and advance to the eighth grade. Or, I could attend two classes – math and English – at a local high school’s summer school program. If my grades were acceptable, I would begin the eighth grade as if nothing had ever happened.

The discussion was a short one.

In the car on the way home, in a word picture framed by enormous love and faith, my parents explained how the summer school commitment would be a sacrifice for our entire family. No doubt it would mean a different sort of summer than I’d hoped for.

While I participated in summer school, my friends went swimming at the local pool. While I studied for math tests, the gang from church went to scout camp. While I wrote essays, my best friend spent a week at Virginia Beach.

I learned a lot at summer school. I got better at math and learned to solve problems without the help of Texas Instruments. I got better at writing fiction. I got better at balancing home stress and school responsibilities.

I got A’s.

I learned a lot at home that summer, too. I learned that my parents loved me deeply. I learned that my three older siblings believed I was capable of anything. I learned to take more responsibility for my actions and to look inward at problems and upward to heaven for solutions.

I learned to pray.

I sailed through the next year and did well as my father lived cancer-free until my junior year of high school. When it returned and later claimed his life during the winter break between semesters, I easily remembered the lessons of 1984.

I often reflect on those lessons. I suppose I also count my failures since that heavy report card and I find there have been many. But, thankfully, I’ve also been blessed with just enough successes like summer school to remind me that I am not defined by the failure, but by the response.

I think I still hear the voice of that nervous 13-year-old boy reminding me that with faith, love, perseverance and by forgiving myself, I will always be capable of advancing from one trial to the next with straight A's.

He tells me that I am not destined to be retained.

And neither are you.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times bestselling author, columnist, and speaker. His newest book, “Courage to Be You: Inspiring Lessons from an Unexpected Journey.” Join him on Facebook, Instagram, and follow him on Twitter.

Not in the holiday spirit? What to do if you’re suffering this time of year

“The more noble a thing is in its perfection,” observed the sage Yohanan ben Zakkai, “the more ghastly it is in its decay.” It’s true. The further something is from its ideal state, the worse we feel about it. Which means the holidays can be awful when you or someone you love is suffering.

Even putting aside the national funk that has descended upon us in 2018 with shootings, elections, bickering and scandals, a lot of people this year are dreading the holidays. When the idea of happy family and friends gathered around the holiday table runs smack into the reality of a recent divorce, a kid in rehab, Dad in the nursing home or Mom’s funeral last month it really hurts.

This holiday season your suffering is an invitation to say no; and an invitation to find the yes behind that no.

So what do we do during the holidays if we are in pain? First, be honest. Pop culture and consumerism might not give us permission to acknowledge grief or sadness during the holidays, but you can at least grant that permission to yourself. Tell people you want to keep it low-key this year. Let them know that being around groups of people celebrating only makes things worse. In other words, don’t go.

The year that I was struggling with opioids and depression following spinal surgery, instead of showing up at any number of holiday parties to which I was invited, my wife, two kids and I served Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica. It felt wrong, impossible really, for me to celebrate. But it felt right to serve others. The ancient rabbis knew what they were doing when they forbade mourners to attend weddings and other celebrations for a year. It wasn’t because a mourner celebrating was disrespectful to the deceased, but because it was disrespectful to the mourner – an affront to his or her own pain.

Dostoyevsky said his greatest fear was that his life would not be worthy of his suffering. This holiday season your suffering is an invitation to say no; and an invitation to find the yes behind that no. Say no to the holiday table and yes to serving others. Say no to the hellish travel required to migrate upstream for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or New Year’s and say yes to hunkering down with a pot of tea, a good book and a warm blanket. Say no to the noise and the booze and the calories, and say yes to a quiet, healing walk with a friend who has also had a terrible year. Say no to the shopping and say yes to a charity that needs the money more than Amazon. Say no, I cannot be happy, but, yes, I can still be good and gentle and kind – especially to myself. Say no to pretending everything is OK, and yes to reaching out to the few who really do understand and love you no matter how wounded.

To put it glibly but perfectly, the people who mind if you don’t show up for the holidays this year don’t matter, and the people who matter, don’t mind.

Steve Leder is the author of “More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us,” recently published by Hay House, Inc.

I thought I was just starring in a movie, then my mom shocked me by telling me this secret

I've always considered myself pro-life but certainly not an activist.  I had no idea who Abby Johnson was when I first auditioned to play her in the biopic “Unplanned.”  I was given just six pages. Six pages that ignited my curiosity.

There was something about Abby that stuck with me. How could this incredibly passionate woman one day change her mind about everything she believed in? There had to be more to the story.

Within hours of auditioning, I had Googled every article and YouTubed every video I could find about Abby.

What I found left me in a puddle of tears on the floor. My heart was broken and my eyes were opened to the harsh reality of abortion.  The experience that she described while working at Planned Parenthood shook me to my core.

A fire was lit inside of me. I was convicted.

Nearly a month later, when I finally got the call that the role was mine, organized chaos ensued. I needed to pack for 7 weeks and get on a plane within 5 hours.

I arrived in Oklahoma on a Thursday, set to begin filming on Monday. Things happened so quickly that most of my friends and family had no idea I had even left.

When my mother called me on Saturday, I hesitantly answered. We've had a rocky relationship. I hadn't told her where I was or what I was doing, and I knew that the project I was working on would make her emotional.

When I was in high school, my mother shared with me that she'd had an abortion when she was 16. She had been devastated by her choice and 3 years later she found herself in the same predicament.  At 19, she became pregnant with me.  “I knew I could never have an abortion again,” she told me.

That was the end of the story. It was a casual conversation. I never thought twice about it until it was time to explain “Unplanned.”

As I began telling her Abby's story, I heard her fall apart. Her voice broke as she said, “I need to tell you something that I've never told you before.”  Through tears she confessed, “I was going to abort you.”

I sat in confused silence as she continued, “I was at the clinic sitting on the table when the nurse who was very pregnant came in to talk to me. I felt sick. I couldn't do it. I got up and walked out.”

I didn't know what to say. I needed time to process what I'd just heard. It didn't make sense. How could it be possible that I was here telling Abby's story while never having known my own?

Later that night I called my dad.  It wasn't an easy conversation to have.  I pleaded, “Is this true?  Why didn't someone tell me?” He confirmed the details of the experience. They agreed they were too young to have a baby. “We didn't have enough money so I pawned a shotgun so we could pay for the abortion."

How do you tell your daughter that? When is the right time to tell her that you were going to abort her?” I don't know how to put in words what it feels like to learn you were seconds away from never existing.

He sobbed on the phone, “You being there making this movie is proof to me that God is so real. That he has a plan for your life.”

It's incredible, and at times incomprehensible to me, that this is my story.

I'm so grateful that my mother believed my life was more valuable than the price of a shotgun, that the money intended to end my life was used to give me life.

I'm grateful that God, through his providence, planted me here to tell my story and that I have the privilege of sharing this film with the world.

And yes, I do secretly hope that one of the outcomes of all of these “coincidences” is that many will find the courage my mother found when she listened to her conscience and made the choice that gave me life.

Actress Ashley Bratcher stars in “Unplanned,” in theaters starting on March 22, 2019.

My wedding dance was watched by millions – I wish my 12-year-old self knew how beautiful his future would be

I knew I was gay, or at least different, when I was about eight. I hated myself for it. Every night I prayed that God would change me, would make be “normal.” Of course, there was no changing me.

By the time I was 12, I was desperate and depressed. I went to the local drugstore and slowly stocked up on sleeping pills. For years, I stashed them in a tiny space at the back of a bottom drawer in my bedroom. I wondered if I should take my own life to end my misery.

Over the past few weeks, all I’ve been thinking is: I wish my 12-year-old self could see the future I am living in today.

The smiling faces. The flashing cameras. The grooms – me and my husband-to-be, Noah – exchanging vows. The video of our wedding dance going viral, viewed by over 25 million people around the world on social media, TV news programs and websites. Yes, over 25 million!

The 15 minutes of fame. The nationwide acceptance. The worldwide love.

When I was growing up, there were signs everywhere telling me that being gay was wrong. Kids making hurtful jokes. Or beating up other kids who they thought were gay. Teachers turning a blind eye. My parents echoing their parents’ teachings that being gay was sick and sinful.

One friend’s dad telling me that he thought gay people should be rounded up and shot.

I hung on. I hid. I hid really well. I hoped I might change. I dated girls. I was the runner-up for my high school’s homecoming king. I finished in the top of my class. I got accepted to Tufts University.

I knew people were watching. I wanted to appear perfect. And to the untrained eye, I did.

When I went off to college, I felt as if it could all come crashing down at any minute. So I kept hiding my “flaw.” During graduation week, I found the courage to tell a few friends. My hope was simply that they would still manage to like me despite my “flaw” of being gay.

To my great relief, they responded with love. For the first time, I stopped feeling so alone. And for the first time, I started to dream.

But even then, I couldn’t have dreamed up all the good things that would happen.

I couldn’t image that, in my lifetime, the Supreme Court would make marriage equality the law of the land. That only a few years later I would walk down the aisle with the man of my dreams.

I couldn’t imagine that after my husband and I finished our first dance, a tough, straight, former Marine would come up to us with tears streaming down his face, saying: “This is exactly what the world needs more of right now.”

(Andrew Holtz Photography, @Holtz_Photography)

And I couldn’t imagine that I would have the guts to take his advice and share a video of the first dance with my husband online.

My 12-year-old self couldn’t have believed any of this could happen. But I get it now.

I now understand that as divisive as things can seem, most of us speak the same language. It’s a language of love.

It’s a language that led my politically conservative father to co-officiate my wedding. It’s a language that led a conservative friend to share our wedding dance video proudly on Facebook.

It’s a language that leads people across the country – in red states and blue states, in small towns and big cities – not just to tolerate but to celebrate love that’s different from their own.

As the saying goes, it does get better. It has gotten better. Because people – gay and straight –are making it better.

(Andrew Holtz Photography, @Holtz_Photography)

I know, maybe that sounds Pollyannaish. After all, there’s some really bad stuff that’s happening.

The FBI recently announced that hate crimes are up by 17 percent in the U.S., with sexual orientation and gender identity the motivating factor in nearly 1,250 cases. And in 73 countries, people like me are still considered criminals who can be sent to jail or receive a death sentence.

Still, I believe the forces of love are at work. I believe it because I’ve seen it.

(Andrew Holtz Photography, @Holtz_Photography)

Noah and I let the world see our love for each other. We danced, and millions of people watched, and way more of them loved it than hated it.

In a world that is so chaotic and complicated, this much is clear: The answer to hate is love. And sometimes, dance.

P.J. Simmons is co-founder of the Corporate Eco Forum, a membership organization of 70 leading Fortune 500 companies. He previously held senior positions at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Clinton Global Initiative.

The one good thing that happened during my worst Christmas ever

“Honey, I’m not feeling well,” I said as my stomach began churning after Christmas Eve dinner at my sister’s house.

Three hours later, I was slumped over a toilet, feeling the full effect of a merciless virus.

My wife, Raquel, peeked in the door and grimaced.

“I hope you don’t get this from me,” I said.

“Me too.”

It was too late. In the middle of the night, Raquel sprang out of bed, clambered to the bathroom and went through the same thing.

Throughout the night, the virus was the gift that kept giving until finally, we both passed out in the early hours of Christmas morning. Around noon, we woke up in a daze and realized we had missed opening presents with the family. I was disappointed.

We had gone to so much trouble and expenses to fly down from D.C. to be with my family in Mississippi. Yet, on my favorite morning of the year, we were sprawled out in bed, fighting off nausea, quarantined from the rest of the family.

“Merry Christmas,” I mumbled, with the side of my head glued to the pillow.

Raquel just stared at the ceiling in silence.

The entire day, we laid there in bed, breathing slowly and occasionally sitting up to take a drink of water, grateful we could hold it down.

“You know,” I said, “a couple of Christmases ago, I could only dream of waking up next to the wife I had asked God for so many times. At least I’ve got that, right?”

I was absolutely right. Raquel had promised to be with me “in sickness and in health,” and that Christmas, she was fully delivering on her promise. She was as sympathetic as she could possibly be, fully identifying with my suffering – a woman who was as sick as I was and not going anywhere.

That Christmas with Raquel reminds me of the first Christmas in Bethlehem. Our world was sick – it couldn’t have gotten any sicker – and yet Jesus came into the sickness with us. He embodied His name, “Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23). He knew what we needed more than anything: We needed Him to be with us, to take on our sin and sickness and cure us forever. But it all started with Him simply being there, and He still is.

God is with you this Christmas, no matter how awful it may be. Emmanuel is there.

When there’s not enough money to give the kids decent gifts and your credit card is maxed out, He’s feeling your embarrassment.

When you have to make that heartbreaking visit to your beloved family member in the nursing facility, He’s holding that person’s hand with you.

When your spouse is growing more and more distant, He’s feeling the sting of rejection with you.

When you’re spending another Christmas without conceiving a child, He’s there in the feelings of emptiness.

When you’re feeling guilty because you’re depressed and don’t care that it’s Christmas, He’s giving you the courage to make a phone call to a friend and tell them you’re in a bad place.

This may very well be your worst Christmas ever and there’s nothing anyone can say or do to paper over that. The point is that Jesus knows. Angels may have announced His birth, but they didn’t rescue Him and his parents, who were far from home and trying to figure out what to do next.

No matter how bad things are this Christmas, never forget the promise you’ve been given: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with you. The simple fact that He’s there, fully identifying with your struggles, is the gift that makes Christmas worth celebrating.

Joshua Rogers is a writer and attorney who lives in Washington, D.C. You can follow Joshua on Twitter @MrJoshuaRogers and Facebook, and read more of his writing at JoshuaRogers.com. You can also subscribe to emails with updates about his writing.

Tim Tebow remembers final moments of ‘hero’ Chelsie Watts’ life: \”God’s got this\”

Tim Tebow had a special bond with Chelsie Watts, and although she died almost four years ago, her legacy continues to impact others.

After Texas-native Watts was diagnosed with cancer at 17-years-old, she fought with a smile and championed the slogan "God's got this" along with the Bible verse Psalm 27:1. A few years into her battle, after graduating from high school and as a student in college, cancer came back. That same year, she became a recipient of Tim Tebow Foundation’s W15H program, which gives children with life-threatening illnesses the opportunity to meet the famous Christian athlete.

“What a special girl she was,” Tebow said. “The attitude that she had, the legacy that she left. The number of people she impacted…in the midst of facing death but knowing that there’s light at the end of it, she was able to see past her temporary pain into eternal significance and because of that more lives will possibly change than we could ever imagine.

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“It meant the world to Chelsie,” Jana Watts said of the meeting in her home state of Texas for the weekend of the Texas A&M vs. Missouri game in November 2014. Tebow called Chelsie up on stage before he went on air prior to the start of the game.

“This is Chelsie Watts, my hero,” Tebow said as he embraced her, and the crowd started chanting her name.

“Of course tears are streaming down my face,” Jana said. “It gave her that extra strength just to keep fighting.”

“He was praying with her and they both had tears in their eyes, and she got ready to walk away and he said ‘One more hug’…just a special connection,” she said.

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But it was the moments before Chelsie passed away that were really special to all of them.

Tebow called Chelsie and had a conversation with her that left her smiling – but her family didn’t know what they had talked about until Tebow’s book, Unshaken, came out sharing that precious moment.

Tebow hadn’t been able to sleep for three days, and when he found out about Chelsie’s condition he knew why.

“I could barely hear Chelsie’s labored breathing as I prayed for and shared Scriptures with her,” Tebow wrote. “I’m proud of you, Chels. You have had such an impact on this world and I know that God is proud of you too. You’ve been an amazing role model for me, for your family, for so many people.”

Tebow told her that if she wanted to keep fighting he would hop on a plane and be with her in a matter of hours, but he told her something he’d never shared with anyone who had a life-threatening illness.

“I never said this to a kid or anyone going through a sickness or an illness and I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again,” he said.

“Chels, if you want to stop fighting, stop fighting and go home. Remember, you are leaving a legacy. You are amazing! And I love you,” he said. “Not many minutes after that Chelsie went home to be with Jesus.”

Caleb Parke is an associate editor for FoxNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter @calebparke

Meghan Markle is loving her baby bump. So what?

As soon as photos appeared online of Meghan Markle glammed up for an awards ceremony in Britain, I clicked on those shots, along with millions of others. Checking out photos of pregnant royals never really gets old. I thought she looked beautiful, glowing as only a pregnant woman does. But others who scrolled through those same photos thought much differently, hammering away on their opinion that it’s really weird to put both hands on her baby bump, that Meghan was doing something very “creepy”, and suggesting she learn from her sister-in-law, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, on how to pose properly in public when pregnant.

Regina George has nothing on these trolls.

'Meghan we know you are pregnant. You can stop holding onto the bump with both hands now. It won’t fall off', was one response on Twitter.

So what if Meghan feels like constantly touching her growing belly? Who cares. She is growing a new human being inside her and perhaps she’s just enjoying that fact and relishing the intimacy she can share with her baby for these short months.

I constantly had my hands on my baby bump when I was pregnant. It was so cool to be able to feel my growing baby, to experience something totally new and unexpected, and to nurture the budding maternal feelings I had. I never thought about it or really what others would think either. Unfortunately, Meghan does not have that same freedom.

Meghan Markle cradles her baby bump at the 2018 British Fashion Awards. (Getty)

I see the same gestures from pregnant women – they almost always have their hands on their belly, even women who have multiple kids and are no strangers to being pregnant. Women’s bodies are just that amazing.

Studies show that growing babies can feel their mother’s touch, contributing to bonding with mom. One study in Scotland found that fetuses respond more powerfully to touch than sound, moving around more when they felt their mother touch her stomach. Touching their baby bumps can also help mothers relax and experience a surge of the feel-good hormone oxytocin.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex at the official dinner in Suva, Fiji, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (Ian Vogler/Pool Photo via AP)

Meghan Markle isn’t the only celebrity to be criticized for touching her baby bump in public. Khloe Kardashian shot back at her own trolls when they lashed out at her always being photographed holding her baby bump: “I’ve waited for this VERY short moment for YEARS. I have only months to enjoy this phase in my life, so I will touch my bump and love my bump as often as I choose.”

Perfect response, Khloe.

Meghan is in her late 30s, an age where getting pregnant and having a boatload of kids becomes harder. It’s really no surprise she’s being extra attentive during her pregnancy. As someone who has struggled with infertility and is about the same age as Meghan, if I were pregnant again, every second of that pregnancy would be a belly-rubbing lovefest.

Meghan Markle shows off her growing baby bump on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. (Getty Images)

I think Meghan looks gorgeous and that she should hold her belly as much she wants and enjoy this special time in her life. It will pass quickly and these moments of being pregnant and bonding with her child in this unique way will be over.

Kristina Hernandez is a media relations professional and freelance writer. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two daughters.