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   and Founder:

   Dawn Wilson



A Merry Heart on a Scrooge Budget 

Wendy Hamilton wrote a thought-provoking post that she originally was going to call "Why I Cancelled Christmas." This is a Christmas UPGRADE that may sound negative, but don't miss Wendy's tender, positive heart here.

"I have always loved Christmas," Wendy says. "The lights, the colors, the echoing tinkle of The Salvation Army bell for the Red Kettle campaign and the carols—the beautiful carols—are some of my favorite things"

Yes, I (Dawn) am a Christmas-lover too! The sights and sounds of the season feed my soul. But lately I've reconsidered many of the things I think are so important. My heart even resonates with some of Wendy's words.

Wendy continues . . .

I am one of those women who thinks about Christmas all year long.

I find items that will make the perfect gifts and squirrel those away until the season arrives, and gifts are wrapped and given.

Except this year.

This year, I realized that our family had reached a point where we didn’t really need stuff other than basic things consumed throughout the year.

Another toy, another piece of tech and another sparkly thing really wasn’t a need, nor would such a purchase prove useful or helpful in what God was calling our family to do in full-time ministry.

I stared at items in the store and most of it seemed like junk.

I bought nothing throughout the year.

I realized when October rolled around that when I put my treasure of my time, talent and financial resources where my heart wasin ministrywhat was left for Christmas gift buying and giving made me seem like Scrooge instead of a generous, merry-making Santa.

I cried.

There was simply no way to do what we had done in the past.

I couldn’t emotionally, spiritually, budget-wise, or any way commit to what I used to do, which was fast becoming the ghosts of Christmases past.

It was at that point that I knew I had to cancel Christmas.

One by one, family member by family member, I shared with them my heart. I told them that I loved them and loved Christmas. I confessed that Christmas gift giving would look different. I apologized.

I asked them to hear my heart and realize that the change in the value and number of gifts given had nothing to do with them. Our family simply could not spend as much money as we had in the past as my going into full-time ministry reduced our family income, and other life changes that year—my daughter’s wedding and another daughter going to college—had pulled resources from our budgets. 

I expected hurt feelings. I expected judging and condemnation.

None of that happened.   

One hundred percent of our family was on board with canceling Christmas. They saw what God was doing and they expressed that what really mattered to them was the presence of family, not presents. They expressed that they were thankful for us and grateful to God for whatever gifts were given, no matter what.

There were more affirming statements, but all that I feared was not what happened.

Instead, our family connected on a level beyond “stuff” and that, to me, is the stuff that makes for good relationships and stronger families.

God used my change in circumstances to give me a greater gift—His presence.

The Lord promised to supply what was needed for all my needs.

  • He gave me joy.
  • He gave me strength.
  • He also triggered some wonderful ideas to use what I already had and create one-of-a-kind gifts for the people in my life.
  • He showed me that when I utilize the resources He already gave me that what He gives is enough.

God’s relationship and His relational giving to me helped me see that connecting at Christmas was more relational and intentional.

Instead of gifts no one needs, we are investing in relational giving and participating in low-cost or no cost activities.

Some of those are: 

  • Creating a family game-a-thon (Winner gets annual bragging rights!)
  • Baking treats together
  • Checking out area Christmas lights
  • Volunteering as a family for The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign
  • Caroling
  • Working on “old school” Christmas crafts like making snowflakes and stringing popcorn.

This year, if you are struggling with budgets or God is leading you to invest in something other than mountains of stuff no one really needs, instead of canceling Christmas, think relationally.

Relational giving is any gift that focuses on strengthening or building the relationship you have with a person you love. Relational giving allows you to give big love on a tiny budget. You get to show your heart, which is not two sizes too small, but full of a huge love for the people God gave you.

Some relational gifts are:

  1. Playing board games
  2. Volunteering as a family
  3. Watching a movie
  4. Seeing light displays
  5. Creating a Christmas Photo Scavenger Hunt

Instead of canceling Christmas, ask God to show you the relational gifts that allow you to really connect with the people He gave you to love.

What would show your family and friends you love them—beyond the typical gifts you've always given them?

Wendy Hamilton is the co-Founder of Inspired Life Ministries, a creative arts freedom ministry. She teaches writing to moms and teen girls through Inspired Moms and Inspired Teens.  She is a songwriter/writer for Valley Creek Church and serves with her husband, Mike, and their kids in a variety of ministry areas across multiple campuses within her church family. Her devotional for moms, 30 Verses to Heal a Mama’s Heart, is available on, Amazon Europe and other online and offline bookstores and retailers. You can find out more at


Open Your Gifts with a Personal Growth Retreat

With Christmas coming, we need fresh ways to think about what is important in life. My friend  Kathy Carlton Willis honed in on this when she started thinking about her birthday. In this special Christmas and Spiritual Life "almost 2018" UPGRADE post, she shares an interesting way she’s celebrating.

“Most people get gifts for their birthdays," Kathy says. "I'm choosing to look at my birthday ITSELF as a gift. I don’t want to waste it!”

I (Dawn) love it when people examine their lives so they can make the best possible choices going forward. Let’s see what Kathy plans to do with her birthday.

She continues . . .

On December 13th, I turn 55. That seems like a milestone. Double nickels.

It propels me to do a personal inventory of where I’ve been and where I’m going in life. Join me, if this is a process you’d like to undergo before we hit 2018.

Forty years ago, I started setting goals. Yes, even as a teen girl I sensed God’s direction in my life and wanted to make it count for something.

I knew I would fritter away the time unless I became intentional about how I spent my days.

I made big long-term goals, and divided those into smaller short-term goals. Then I split those into doable action steps, to keep me on track.

This birthday season (for me) or Christmas and end-of-year season (for you), let’s contemplate, celebrate, and motivate. I plan to inventory my life using these questions and intentions. You’re invited to have your own personal growth retreat, using my formula.


  • When I came to faith in Christ, what did I believe God had purposed for my life? Why did He leave me on earth rather than call me to His side? I plan to honor HIS plan.
  • What are some of the blessings from my years on earth? I will thank God for these.
  • What difficult moments did I go through? I know God will not waste any pain, struggle, heartache or disappointment I’ve gone through. I’m so glad they are behind me!
  • What are the personal growth moments I’ve experienced? I recognize how God used these to transform me.


  • What are some distinct highlights from my life journey? I will commemorate them.
  • What special people have come into my life (for a season or to stay)? I will delight in them.
  • What opportunities did God bring my way? I will express joy in them.
  • What victories over challenges did I experience? I will remember them.
  • What personal growth milestones have happened so far? I will observe and honor them.
  • What skills have I developed, through God’s gift in me? I will applaud them.
  • What answered prayers have I seen? I will rejoice in them.


  • Is God impressing on me any personal growth moments still to come?
  • How will I respond differently to crisis, attacks, or drama?
  • What goals are God setting before me?

Words for reflection:

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. (Philippians 3:12-14 NLT)

This Christmas season we celebrate the gift of Jesus as Savior. Because of Jesus, we rejoice in gifts such as peace, joy, and love.

May we also use this time of year as a gift to contemplate where we’ve been and let God motivate us to where we’re headed.   

Celebrate the Savior, the Season, and the Story yet to be told in you.

What direction is God impressing on your heart as you wrap up 2017 and enter 2018?

God’s Grin Gal, Kathy Carlton Willis, shines the light on what holds you back so you can grow. She’s a speaker and author with over a thousand articles online and in print, as well as her Bible study, Grin with GraceShe’s a bi-monthly columnist with CBN and a devotional writer for Todd Starnes. She and her husband Russ live in Texas with Jazzy, their hilarious Boston Terrier.


Christmas Doors — Invitations to Joy

In this Christmas UPGRADE, Dawn Wilson invites us to think about the doors we might open to others this holiday season.

I love to see all the pretty doors decorated at Christmas. They look so welcoming. They invite us to share together in joy.

So many are lonely, stressed, even in crisis during the holidays. We may feel caught up in our own holiday joy, but we can't ignore others who struggle to smile. Those who have no peace. Those who hurt and need encouragement.

I've thought about some of the doors we might open to those people. Here are five doors that I call "Invitations to Joy."


We show empathy and understanding when we learn to listen well.

James tells us to "be quick to hear [be a careful, thoughtful listener], slow to speak" (1:19, AMP).

Proverbs 1:5 says, "Let the wise listen and add to their learning." When you listen to people, you encourage them to talk, and that is fertile ground for greater understanding.

As leadership coach Becky Harling wrote in her book How to Listen So People Will Talk, "People feel more loved and valued if we are actively and attentively listening to them."

Empathetic listening is a gift not just for the holidays, but for a lifetime of ministry to those the Lord brings into our lives.


The second part of James 1:19 says, "slow to speak." We must be careful what we say, but we do need to speak up.

Good communication skills can be cultivated when our mouths are full of God's wisdom. Our words are to first be acceptable in His sight (Psalm 19:14). We can then wisely pray for others and minister to them with healing conversations.

Our words must be carefully chosen to encourage others. Speak words that will build up and "give grace" (Ephesians 4:29).

Speak words of affirmation and hope, not negative, critical and destructive words. Focus on what is worthy (Philippians 4:8) to share this Christmas!

3. The Door of SERVICE

Just as Jesus came to serve, he calls us to do the same. In Christ, we are created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10), and that includes serving people.

God notes how we serve and help others (Hebrews 6:10). He praises a servant's heart.

We are to serve with humility in love. We are to use our spiritual gifts, received from the Holy Spirit, to serve others as "faithful stewards of God's grace."

There are so many opportunities to serve during the Christmas season—both in serving individuals and groups.

Serving others "opens a door" to their hearts.

Don't overlook your next-door neighbor's need, a good place to start. You might even be opening a door to sharing the Gospel; but be willing to serve, regardless.

4. The Door of HOSPITALITY

Paul instructs Christ-followers to "share with the Lord's people who are in need" and "practice hospitality".

Hospitality isn't just inviting someone into our homes. It is first a heart attitude, a disposition, of treating others in a warm and generous way.

But it is also a virtue that extends back to Old Testament times. New Testament Christians also depended on hospitality and offered it freely. Jesus and His disciples depended on hopitality as they served in ministry (Matthew 10:9-10).

Hospitality is a kingdom trait. We bring praise to God when we show kindness, especially to the needy and love others selflessly). Hospitality is an important aspect of our walk with God, and not just during the holidays (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9).

5. The Door of LIFE

We cannot change a person, but we can speak to them about the door of life—and Jesus said He is that door (John 10:7). He is the only door by which a person can enter and receive eternal life (John 10:9; 3:16). As such, the Good Shepherd is the door to the sheepfold.

The Christmas season is an opportune time to share the Gospel. Be creative in how you share. Think of ways that would speak to specific individuals—that would help them see what God was offering when "baby Jesus" came. 

Jesus was a man on a mission. He came to "seek and to save the lost," and He has commissioned us to share this Good News with others (Matthew 28:19-20).

Think about it.

Every Christmas Door is an invitation to joy.

  • The joy of being heard and understood
  • The joy of being encouraged
  • The joy of finding needs met
  • The joy of being welcomed
  • The joy of receiving life

How can you open doors to people this holiday season?

Dawn Wilson, founder and President of Heart Choices Today, is a speaker and author, and the creator of three blogs: Heart Choices Today, LOL with God (with Pam Farrel), and Upgrade with Dawn. She is a contracted researcher/reviewer for Revive Our Hearts and a writer at She and her husband Bob live in Southern California and have two grown, married sons, three granddaughters and a rascally maltipoo, Roscoe.

Graphic adapted, courtesy of Neely Wang at Lightstock.



Decorate Yourself!

Jill Swanson makes classic fashion fun, so I invited her to write this Christmas UPGRADE to help us think about some special ways to decorate ourselves—not just our trees—for Christmas.

"Do you feel like you’re stuck wearing black for the holidays?" Jill asks. "Black is easy! Black is thinning! Black is boring!

"Wait, what was that? Boring? Well, yes, it can be predictable and boring."

That was me (Dawn) a few years ago. When Jill visited my closet, 50% of it was black! She helped me step outside my comfort zone and experiment with more color.

Jill continues . . .

Try adding some color and sparkle to your festive events this year.

Not sure how to do it? Here are three ideas to minimize the black and infuse your closet with some holiday cheer.

First, reacquaint yourself with the other popular colors this season: gold, dark green, off-white and of course red.

I also like the “starry night” effect of using a brilliant blue or navy. Any of these colors can easily be paired with black or stand on their own.

(Yes – it is “in” to wear black and navy together, just be sure to add some shine or sparkle.)

Second, make ensembles of what you already own and add “ornaments.” 

Start with an “elevator” outfit: a solid top and bottom in the same color—ivory blouse and ivory skirt, navy sweater and navy pants or even your black top and bottom.

(This creates a column or slimming "elevator.")

Then add to that an “Accessory Encore.”  

This is a group of accessories or add-on clothing pieces such as a blazer or vest that are unified by a common theme or color. Here are some examples:



The Encore can be added to the elevator set of your choice and rotated through your wardrobe.

Use your “romantic” Encore with your dressy clothes or take your jeans and white button-down shirt to an entirely new level!

Wear the bright red Encore in the winter with black and in the summer with white.

Encores work great when traveling too: take a pair of jeans and tee, one elevator set, and two or three Encores. Then mix and match, it’s easy and fast. Plus, they will easily fit into a small suitcase!

And finally, the simplest way to add some holiday style is to bling one thing. Wear what you would normally wear and go one step beyond. Here is a list of glitz to help you decorate with style!


  1. Lame’ anything – this metallic woven fabric will sparkle!
  2. Sequined top or scarf for some shimmer
  3. Rhinestone necklaces, earrings, pins, or bracelets
  4. A flashy belt with glitter or shine
  5. A satin scarf, shirt or tank for a classy effect
  6. A felt fedora hat and gloves for a little drama
  7. Lace scarf or top to add romance
  8. Sparkly eye shadow or lip gloss
  9. A bottle of glittery nail polish
  10. Red high heels—need I say more?

Accessorizing your wardrobe with some sparkle and shine will take your look to the next level.

Complete the look by accessorizing your thoughts with His words from Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Your beauty will shine from the inside out.

Spend a little time with Jesus each day and let his Holy Spirit infuse you with His light this Holy season.

Author Jill Swanson is a Christian Image Consultant whose mission is to help women make the most of their God given beauty (inside and out) through her speaking ministry and personal consultations.  Jill’s fashion/beauty books and Simply Scarves DVD are available at and on For more information about Jill’s online services and speaking, visit her website or contact Jill at 507-250-2030.

NOTE: Jill has a FREE TIP SHEET for anyone who goes to her website and emails her from her contact page——with the words “lighten Up.” TIP SHEET: "24 Ways to Lighten Up for the Holidays."

Red dress in graphic from


Three Women Can Prepare Your 'Christmas Heart'

In this Christmas-season UPGRADE, Dawn Wilson invites us to re-read the Christmas story from a fresh perspective, through the stories of three women.

I’ve read the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke over and over again, but what struck me this year was the three women God used in the story of our Messiah’s coming and childhood.

I received the examples of these women as a gift, and their stories can help you prepare your own “Christmas heart.” Allow the Spirit of God to cultivate a heart that respond to and worships the Lord with fresh wonder.

Here are the lessons I unwrapped from these godly ladies.

1. Elizabeth - Learning to Hope in God’s Promises (Luke 1:5-25, 36-80)

The cousin of Jesus’ mother, Elizabeth played an important role of encouragement. As the wife of a Jewish priest, Zechariah, she no doubt encouraged her husband in the ministry. They were both spiritually mature, called righteous and blameless before God and obedient to His commands. But the Jewish people were getting impatient for their Messiah to come.

The Bible says Elizabeth was barren, and when we are introduced to her she was “advanced in years”—past child-bearing age. Yet God was about to do a miracle! While Zechariah served in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared and gave them not only a pregnancy announcement, but a name for their soon-to-be son: John. The child would fulfill a special prophecy; John would be the “messenger” of God, preparing the way for the Messiah’s coming.

Zechariah doubted God’s messenger and the angel imposed a penalty for his unbelief; but at John’s birth, Zechariah showed he had grown in faith. Perhaps Elizabeth’s faith grew to a higher level too.

Six months after Elizabeth conceived, Mary heard the good news and went to visit her cousin. Mary—also pregnant at that time—experienced the wonder of her own child leaping in her womb as the cousins embraced; and old Elizabeth declared her joy about Mary’s pregnancy even before Mary mentioned it!  

Ever the hope-giver, Elizabeth encouraged young Mary for her own journey.

In due time, Elizabeth’s son grew to minister “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) and she indeed saw the wonder of God’s promise.

This Christmas, I want to help people see the wonder of God’s promises, fulfilled in John the Baptist and our Savior, Jesus!

2. Mary - Learning to Trust God with our Future (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-56; 2:1-52)

Young and likely still living with her parents, Mary is an example of a woman who surrendered to God’s will and trusted Him for her future. She is described as “highly favored” in scripture, meaning she fully received God’s grace; but she acknowledged her need for a Savior. An ordinary Jewish girl, God chose to use her in an extraordinary way.

She was engaged to, and later married, a carpenter named Joseph. As a virgin, she gave birth to Jesus by the Holy Spirit. She and Joseph had no sexual union until after the birth of Jesus. (They had other children later—Jesus’ half-brothers and sisters.)

Mary is an example to us of trusting God with our future, no matter how uncertain or painful.

She knew God would do a mighty work through her son, God’s “only-begotten” Son, the One who made possible the believer’s sure hope for eternal life.

Mary never received worship, adoration or prayers herself, but she pointed all glory to God alone (Luke 1:46-49).

This Christmas, I want to worship and adore the Lord, and remember my loving Father in heaven has all my tomorrows firmly in His hands.

3. Anna - Learning to Pray until the Answers Come (Luke 2:36-38)

There are only three verses in scripture about Anna, but they are rich in truth.

Like Miriam, Deborah and only a few other women in scripture, Anna was a prophetess. She was also an elder widow dedicated to the Lord. Scholars debate whether she was 84-years-old or 104 when she met Jesus.

Regardless of her age, she never left the temple after her husband’s death. She “worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”

God's people were waiting and waiting for the Promised One, the coming Messiah.

Anna prayerfully waited too. And her prayers of faith were richly rewarded.

Simeon was a fellow-servant in the temple (verses 22-35). Simeon set the stage for an important response by Anna. After he saw Jesus and said his eyes had seen God’s “salvation”—the one who would enlighten the Gentiles and bring glory to God’s people, Israel—Anna spoke up.

The Bible says she came to the place where Jesus was being dedicated in the temple that very moment and began to “give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Her prayers, all Israel’s prayers, had been answered. The Messiah had finally come!

This Christmas, I want to thank my Father God for the Messiah’s coming, and recognize Him afresh as the Promised One ... MY Promised Savior.

Join with me this Christmas:

  • Hope in God’s promises.
  • Trust God for your future.
  • Pray with confidence and expectancy.

And rejoice! The Redeemer has come!

Do you need hope, faith, a more expectant spirit? How can the example of these three godly women encourage your heart today?

Dawn Wilson, founder and President of Heart Choices Today, is a speaker and author, and the creator of three blogs: Heart Choices Today, LOL with God (with Pam Farrel), and Upgrade with Dawn. She is a contracted researcher/reviewer for Revive Our Hearts and a writer at She and her husband Bob live in Southern California and have two grown, married sons, three granddaughters and a rascally maltipoo, Roscoe.

Graphic of Mary and Elizabeth, a painting by Sebastiano Del Piombo.