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Valentine’s Day: The Heart of Giving

I come from a long line of really great gift givers. You know, the ones who can walk in a store- see something that isn’t on anyone’s “list” and instantly know that it’s perfect?

As a child, this was exhilarating, because the element of surprise made opening each present a celebration in and of itself.
As a teenager, I may not have appreciated it quite as much- since every 15 year old’s list is so precise (ahem: gift cards and money please).
But now as an adult, I treasure it- like deep down in my heart treasure it- because it reminds me that someone not only loves me, but that they know me.
They know my heart, my likes, my personality, the things that will impact me- what will make me smile.
And don’t we all really long for that?
With February 14th quickly approaching, we’re all on the hunt for sweet little somethings that express to our Valentines they are both known and loved.
To help get you started, I’m sharing a few creative ideas which I have recently been the recipient of and some questions that will hopefully get your creative juices flowing!
1) What do they like- really like?
If they had a gift card to Target what section would they run to first? Some people would dart to the shoes, some to electronics… but if they’re like me, they would head right over to those cute accessories, because who doesn’t love a great bag? See, this wasn’t on any list- in fact, woe to me that I had never even heard of this awesome company, but when I unwrapped it, I was smitten! Heavy gray exterior, adorable striped interior and big enough to handle whatever I throw it’s way!
2) What’s been going on in their life lately? 
Finding a great gift really can be as easy as thinking through this question! Rather than just picking up a dozen roses, this type of gift says I see what you’re walking through and I know what’s heavy on your heart. For me, it was making this gigantic move from Florida to Georgia! So when I opened up this candle from my brother, I had to fight back the tears! He was aware of the struggles and found this thoughtful way to remind me that he cared. Every time I see this candle in our new home, I have two thoughts: I am loved. I am known.
3) Who do they cheer for?
Top of their lungs, loud as they can cheering… a favorite sports team perhaps? Then maybe a creative item that reflects their allegiance is the way to go! I love this blanket for a few reasons- one, it’s big enough for cuddling and two, it blends in with the rest of our decor. Don’t get me wrong, I love garnet and gold, but that doesn’t always fit the look of the room. Finding a favorite team item, but with a special spin is a win in my book! 
Who else might your Valentine cheer for? Their children of course! Consider having a custom necklace created so they can have them close by their hearts each day. I especially love this one because it comes with longer length chain options!
4) What inspires them? 
Remember that idea of being loved and known…well, this is the question that emphasizes the latter more than any of the others. What inspires each of us varies- for some it’s music, others it’s the written word, beautiful art, a stunning photograph. And that’s why this question will really get you digging down into your heart, so that you can see into theirs. One of the ways I’m inspired is by reading stories of women, moms specifically, who are in the trenches of parenting like me, and are doing so with great purpose. I love seeing the truth’s that God has taught them through their journeys and making similar applications to my own. I am inspired and challenged by their words and reminded that just like them, we all have a story to tell.
With a garden theme carried from cover to cover, Cultivate, encourages you to live a life of intentionality. It has truly tugged at my heart to be more aware of the grace offered to us by a loving God and to share it with all I encounter.
I have been following Ruth Chou Simons on Instagram for some time now. Her art work alone leaves me breathless, but coupled with her powerful words- the result is nothing less than magnificent. As she walks through various seasons of the heart, you’ll find this devotional to be like none other.
5) Where do their interests and passions collide?  
When my husband and I were attending seminary, we enjoyed study dates over this incredibly yummy coffee at the on campus cafe. It’s been years since we’ve sat in a grad class or studied for a final exam, but we are still passionate about the ministry training NOBTS provides. Our time there changed our lives and we are better followers of Jesus, stronger leaders and more passionate about our faith because of it. So when I open up a bag of coffee, with the Cafe New Orleans logo on it, my heart skips a beat. I love supporting a place that invested in our family!
Recently, we discovered another awesome coffee distributer that gives away up to 50% of their profits to an organization we have always been inspired by, One Life. So it goes a little something like this:
Interest = Coffee
Passion = Sharing the love of Jesus with others
And this is where they collide:
You know the things that break the heart of your Valentine better than anyone else; and finding a way to help support that cause, well, it goes a lot farther than a box of assorted chocolates!
While all of these ideas are incredibly thoughtful, none of them will ever satisfy the hole we each have in our hearts for being completely known and unconditionally loved. There is only ONE gift that could ever do that and it’s so powerful, so life giving that it’s nearly inconceivable that it’s FREE… the gift we find in a relationship with Jesus.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23 NLT
No more hiding.  No more guilt.  No more trying to be enough.  No more feelings of defeat.  No more wondering if you’re worth it.
Just this: completely known, unconditionally loved. HIS.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the worldso that we might have eternal life through him.
This is real love—not that we loved God,
but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 1 John 4:9-11 NLT
May The Greatest Gift of all be yours this Valentine’s Season!

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Valentine’s Day Family Traditions : Part 2

I’m not really sure how this tradition began, but much like the secret notes I shared about last week, this one stuck too!
It must have been somewhere in the mix of juggling work, ministry and raising four kids that I discovered I could often go an entire day without giving appropriate praise to my littles. So as February 1st rolled around, I thought it would be an exercise in both self discipline and good parenting to make time to encourage each of them on the 14 days leading up to Valentines.

I wanted this idea to be simple to implement, but I desperately wanted it to be powerful as well.
So I did what any last minute mom would do on January 31st, when an idea has sprouted in her heart. I brewed a pot of coffee, found the construction paper and got settled in, cutting out 14 hearts for each of my kiddos.

I knew from all the research that the words we speak to our children carry a great deal of weight and I wanted to leverage mine for their good. I wanted to sing their praises for something more than just getting an A on their math test (although that’s a reasonable celebration to be had), but I wanted to add applause for matters of the heart, character traits I wanted them to continue developing… things like “You make me smile when I watch you hold the door open for a stranger” or “I enjoy watching you grow to become more and more like Jesus, as you love the children at school who aren’t always nice.” These were the kinds of words that I knew could make a difference and these are the words I needed to be more intentional about communicating.

So armed with a stack of paper cut outs, I wrote a “love note” to each of our children and taped a single message to each of their bedroom doors before calling it a night.  I tucked the 52 remaining hearts into a drawer and wondered if this might be just the thing they needed- the thing I needed.

Indeed it was.

As the month continued, each child would pop out of bed and race to their door to see what message was waiting. There were smiles and hugs and joy- lots of joy.

And just to be sure there were some tears on my end. Tears of happiness mixed with tears of regret…

Because sometimes we just get busy as moms, right? We’re so occupied with laundry, making the meals, carting everyone to practice and praying somehow along the way we don’t mess them up- that we miss these tiny little slivers of time where we can impact their growing hearts with powerful words of encouragement and truth.

I didn’t want to miss those moments any more. I wanted to dive deeply into the sea of ways to build up my children.

I love what H. Norman Wright shares in his book How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen

One of our goals as parents should be to enable our children to think as highly of themselves as God thinks of them. A chief means for accomplishing this goal is to convey nurturing messages, both verbally and nonverbally. If you fill their lives with positive messages of their value to you and to God, they will develop self-worth and self- discipline, and become responsible, independent adults.

Nurturing messages convey to your children something good about themselves. These positive messages don’t increase your children’s value, because your children are already priceless in God’s eyes. However, nurturing messages increase your children’s value in their own eyes, thus opening the door for learning, growth, maturity and independence.


When my children pack up their last bag and leave me standing teary eyed on the front steps, that’s one thing I desperately want for them to have received under our care- the knowledge that they are of immense value- not just to us, but to God. That His love and ours is like an ocean- so vast and so deep. That we are proud of their accomplishments, but also proud of their character. And as silly as it may sound, this Valentine’s Tradition reminds me of that year after year, as I sit down with a stack of paper hearts to bear my own, in words of love and adoration to each of the blessings God has given me to nurture.

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. Ephesians 3:18


Here’s a guide to get you started on your own Love Notes Countdown. You’ll find 14 hearts with writing prompts and a few blank ones too! Use them for your kids, use them for your spouse. Encourage, applaud and cheer on the ones God has given you to love!


February 7, 2018 - 5:02 pm

Annie - Oh, we miss being at SCA every day! Thanks for your sweet words!!

February 1, 2018 - 10:42 pm

Donna Baird - Thanks Annie what a great idea! We miss you and your kiddos at SCA. Hope you are all doing well.

Thanks for always being an inspiration.

Blessings, Donna

Valentine’s Day Family Traditions : Part 1

Four years ago I had an idea.
An idea that was a bit spur of the moment; as is obvious by the scrapbook paper patterns used to bring this vision to life. No red hearts, pink stripes or glittered sweethearts were in the craft closet that day.

At the time, I had a 9, 8, 6 and 4 year old. Valentine’s Day was fast approaching and I knew I wanted to begin to create meaningful traditions for our children around this day.
I’ve always had a fond adoration of this celebration most frequently known for expressing love for others; and I wanted to develop in them a similar appreciation.
Normal sibling spats had begun to occur and our children had a propensity for pointing out the faults of their “live in roomies”, rather than dishing out words of encouragement. (Can all the Moms give a collective “Amen?”)

I wanted to work towards switching their perspectives- to help them see more good in each other, to recognize each other as gifts from God and to develop a sense of comradery. AND I also wanted to create a tradition of showering one another with words of affirmation.
So, I grabbed a stack of 12×12 paper (that stash I have in case I ever find time to scrapbook again), constructed two large hearts for every family member, applied a little glue, punched two holes, laced some twine through each and added name tags. I stuffed a stack of bright white index cards into the nearest cute container and called the children into the dining room for the big “unveiling.”
As they trickled in one by one, I carefully hung their respective heart in the window, showing that they each contained a pocket that we would soon begin filling with blessings.
It was like a covert mission, I told them: “Slip in as quiet as a mouse, write a note of kindness and drop it into a heart for someone in our family.”
This added element of secrecy made the buy-in pretty easy!

For sure, it was an idea quickly executed- but I knew if it stuck, it could deeply impact the hearts of my children.
Here’s why:
Proverbs 16:24 says, 
Kind words are like honey—
sweet to the soul and healthy for the body. NLT

Oh how I love that passage of Scripture and the visual image it helps me share with my children. All 4 of them can resonate with the sweetness of honey to their lips. They can watch the golden yellowy syrup oozing from the container, so thick and sticky. And they can begin to see how their words can have the same qualities. A simple gesture of a handwritten or spoken word can indeed sweeten someone’s day. As these positive and kind thoughts come out, they seep into the recipient’s heart; blessing and encouraging their very souls.
So, we watched and we waited, to see if this would stick.
And it did.

I would catch my littles at the table writing and my heart would nearly explode. They made their way in and out of the dining room more times than I could count, slipping those simple 4×6 cards into the hanging hearts. Before long, the pockets were bursting at the seams with kindness and blessings.
Then, on Valentine’s Day they finally got to taste the sweetness of those words.

You could almost sense the fullness of their hearts, just by gazing into their sparkling eyes.
And that’s when I knew- this was a tradition that would be around for a very long time.

Now, my children are 13, 12, 10 and 8. With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, they’ve already asked for those same hearts to be hung up again.
I thought by now I would have made a newer, cuter version…but I just can’t.
These 6 hearts have become just as much of the tradition, as the words that will soon fill them.
In fact, I’m already counting down the days until we’ll sit around the table- reading, reflecting and rejoicing in words that are as sweet as honey!
Click to download our Valentine’s Spread Love Leave a Note Sign?


February 1, 2018 - 9:45 pm

Valentine’s Family Traditions : Part 2 | annie agarwal photography | Buford, Georgia Photographer - […] not really sure how this tradition began, but much like the secret notes I shared about last week, this one stuck too! It must have been somewhere in the mix of juggling […]

January 29, 2018 - 3:20 pm

Annie - Thanks so much Jaime!!

January 25, 2018 - 12:50 am

Jaime - Love this idea!

How Our Family is Jumping Into The New Year

It’s true that the beginning of the new year is fresh with possibilities and simultaneously covered in a sea of resolutions that will likely sink come February 1st.
Workout everyday.
Read the Bible for 60 minutes each morning.
Eat veggies, not chocolate.
You aren’t alone- we were those people too.
But it didn’t take long to settle back into old habits.
And every time, we collectively felt like we failed.
So, a few years ago, we came at January 1 with a new approach.
Instead of unachievable goals, we decided that forward motion was a win.
We narrowed down our lists and opted for things that connected with the larger overarching theme of growth.
Exercise to be healthy.
Read our Bible every day.
And yes, eat more vegetables.
But still, that left us a little flat. We wanted more.
We wanted to start off our new year with excitement and deeper purpose and that’s when we adopted the single word strategy.
I’m sure you’ve heard it or maybe even done it yourself, but we decided to take it to the family.
Sitting around the dinner table, we considered our previous year, thought about our highs and lows and narrowed down some areas that needed to be strengthened.
Then we picked not only a word, but a verse to hide in our hearts together as a family.
2017 brought about a conversation about the power of our words and we decided on the trendy phrase LIT (because it made all 4 kids smile) as a way to instill this virtue.
Only use LIT words when speaking to others:
L– life giving
I– inspiring
T– tender
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21 NIV
For 12 months, I could utter “use LIT” words or the simple phrase “life or death” and my children would instantly know they needed to get their words into check. (And yes, they were also allowed to remind the parental units, respectfully of course.)
Was it a perfect plan?
But did it bring forward motion and progress and growth?
So this year, we deliberated again.
We felt like over the past 12 months we’ve been leaning into the peace that the Lord provides, but haven’t as quickly been focusing on the individual peace we have the opportunity to bring to our home. The move surely had something to do with that, as emotions have been more like roller coaster rides with everyone just waiting for their own turn in the seat.
Sure, we’ve grown closer as a result of the transition to a new state, but there is still work to be done.
We settled on PEACE for our word of the year and felt like James 3:18 was the encouragement we needed to revisit for the next 365 days.
And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. James 3:18
Plant Peace” is quickly becoming my favorite new phrase to rattle off these days!
To make it super practical for all of our children, here are a few things we are implementing: 
PRACTICE: We each take turns reciting the passage (from memory) on Saturday mornings over pancakes (and any other day of the week we need the gentle nudge)
TALK: We talk about it daily; in car lines and grocery stores and wherever else our feet may take us
SHOW: We display the word and verse in various places
*On the door that leads into our home, so every time we are walking through the garage heading inside we are reminded of our commitment to Jesus and our family
               *In a frame on the kitchen counter, because it’s the most frequented room in our home (hello, teenage boys)
CELEBRATE GROWTH– We spend time during family devotions talking about our progress, because that’s really the point of this all- forward motion.
We know we can’t have perfect years or perfect families; but we do serve a perfect God who desires the best for each of us.

And we believe that as we seek to honor Him through this simple exercise, He will grow us to be more like Him with each passing day…365 of them to be exact!


Do you have a unique approach to starting off the New Year with your family? 
January 22, 2018 - 7:55 pm

Annie - Thank you! We are excited to see how He uses this during our year to grow our character to be more like His!

January 20, 2018 - 12:12 am

Polly - What a fabulous idea. May God richly bless your family!

winter : a season of the heart // buford snow day

We left the familiar on a hot July morning, when the Florida heat was blazing, the humidity was strong and though it was summer, our hearts surely felt like it was anything but.
As we traveled the road between our new home and the place where we’d left our hearts behind, the children tried to entertain themselves with walkie talkies and chapter books, giving attention to anything but the heaviness in their souls.
For weeks they had dreaded this moment and there wasn’t much to excite them or calm their fears.
But there was talk of snow.
Yes. Snow.
A strange topic of conversation in the middle of summer, especially for these little Floridians.
The four of them would dream about the possibilities they’d heard, of blankets of white covering open spaces and days off from school.
For weeks, maybe even months after moving, it was the only positive they could find in a sea of difficult changes. We would catch glimpses of smiles and hope, as they considered what it would be like to wake up to something so beautiful.
We gently braced our brood for reality, encouraging them not to get their hopes up, all while secretly praying that the Lord would grant them this one little slice of joy in the midst of their heartache.
For the first few months we continued the mundane tasks of life in a new place… routines began to fall into place, fears of new schools began to diminish with each passing day and we tenderly nudged their hearts to settle down.
But it was hard.
For all of us.
And even though we’d found ourselves out of Summer and transitioning into Fall, our hearts continued to feel as though we were smack dab in the dead of Winter.
It felt heavy and dark, we longed for the warmth deep friendships provided and for the security that comes from feeling like you belong.
Instead, it felt cold and stagnant. We were surviving, but wanting more.
The late turning of the leaves, ushered in Winter a bit quicker than we expected and suddenly we found our hearts matching the dreary landscape we could see through our window panes.
We kept pressing on. Praying hard. Seeking Jesus. Asking for His help and hope, joy and peace, for new friendships and redefined purpose…and yes, snow.
And then it happened.
I had joined Eden on a bowling field trip with her 5th grade class and as the balls were rolling steadily down the lanes, soft white streaks slowly began dancing down from the sky.
I will never forget the look in her eyes when I moved her gaze from what was in front of her, to what was happening just beyond the doors of that alley.
Honestly, that’s what we’d all been trying to do since July- to look beyond the hard spots right in front of us and to focus on what was to come- to see beauty and purpose and joy in the waiting.
It took 5 months of waiting.
But my kids, they got their snow.
It came down so quickly and with such intensity, schools let out early and we got an entire afternoon to run and slide, to build snowmen and make snow angels, to smile and laugh and forget all the worry that had been residing in our hearts.
We were present with one another and content with the exact place God had us.
You see, it may seem silly- but that snow- it was more than just stellar precipitation.
It was a gift.
And we didn’t just unwrap it as a family. We savored it and we thanked The Giver.
Our family needed this day, we needed this moment.
Our children needed to build a strong happy memory in their new home and this was unlike anything we could have concocted on our own.
It was life giving.
A few days later, our oldest piped up on a trip to the grocery store, “Mom, that snow day was the most fun I’ve ever had with you in my entire life; and it was the best day we’ve had since moving!”
And a lump formed in my throat.
“Perhaps, buddy if we had one awesome day here, there are many, many more to follow. Let’s just keep looking beyond and trusting in what God is doing.”
For I am about to do something new.
    See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
    I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19


What we’ve learned in this season of Winter:

1) God is always with us, even when we can’t see or feel Him- HE IS THERE!
2) You can always foster a heart of gratitude and thanksgiving, even when things are tough.
3) Love others well, especially the people inside your four walls. They are gifts from above and should be treated as such. Circumstances will change, but these blessings are constant.
4) Winter is a season. Spring is coming.

Are you in a season of winter? Here are a few ways to “look beyond:”
Pray. Not just a quick, once a day prayer- but moment by moment as needed. Some of my richest prayers, and subsequently, my deepest spiritual growth has often come during a “winter season.”
Memorize a few verses that will bring you comfort and remind you God is in control. A few of our family favorites:
Psalm 56:3 But when I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. (NLT)
Psalm 94:19 When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer (NLT)
Isaiah 41:10 Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.  I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (NLT)
Wait with purpose. If you’re looking forward to a new season, but just waiting for it to come, step out of idleness and step into activity. Get focused on Jesus and then go do something! Invest in someone. Meet with someone (even a new friend) for coffee. Serve in your church or with a local ministry. Considering others and their lives, gives you perspective and can help you shift your attitude during your own season of winter.

Know someone who is in a season of winter (maybe it’s not a move, but a significant loss, a dream shattered, a longing unfulfilled)?
Here are a few easy and practical ways to minister to their hearts:

Pray for them and then let them know. Nothing warms a heart more than an email, text, phone call or handwritten note from a loved one who has lifted you up.
Listen. Especially if it’s your child(ren). And listen not to solve a problem, but to hear the hurt.
Invite them over for dinner, bake them cookies or leave a bouquet of flowers on their doorstep. Small tokens like these build strong bonds over time and help scatter both sunshine and love to those with weary hearts.
Check in on them, as the Lord prompts your heart; but also on a regular basis. It’s ok to schedule it on your calendar so you don’t forget! Your consistent care and attention to their hurts will speak volumes to their hearts!
Celebrate with them when they have a “winter breakthrough!”
How have you grown through a season of Winter or how has someone ministered to your heart during a time like this?