Sigh. I wish I could stay at the beach forever. Day after day I gaze at the horizon, listen to the crash of waves, marvel at the magnificence and peacefulness of the sea, and can’t help but think how much the beach mirrors God’s kingdom.
Just like God’s kingdom, everyone is welcome at the beach. All walks of people come to the shore—big, small, old, young, singles, couples, families, from all places, backgrounds, and cultures. Everyone belongs. Every. Single. Person. And we’re welcome to do the things that bring us joy here. Dog lovers play fetch with their pups. Book lovers read. Music lovers play tunes. And all kinds of dogs, books, and music are accepted here simultaneously. At any given moment you might hear The Beatles, Marshmallow and Rascal Flatts drifting through the air from various speakers. You don’t earn extra points or get any strikes against you if you read history or mystery, if you have a cutie miniature poodle or a pair of regal huskies—no judging on such wonderful individual preferences at the beach. All are included.
At the beach it doesn’t matter if you run, practice yoga, tote buckets of water back and forth from the shore or play Kan Jam. It doesn’t matter if you’re as fit as Ronaldo or haven’t moved much lately. People ride bikes, play lacrosse, and go for strolls on the beach. Yes, people rest, too—take naps, soak in the sun, because moving is good for us, and so is down time. I believe God loves to witness people taking care of the bodies He gave them—jumping, splashing, playing, restoring, and renewing.
On the beach, we’re all friends. Walls of social status, education, gender, and race dissolve. Kids approach other kids pitching in to build spectacular sandcastles, because the digging goes faster with more hands. Without hesitation strangers join in soccer games—welcome additions to the roster, no tryout necessary. If someone’s Frisbee flies astray, a passer by instinctively grabs it and tosses it back. If a fisherman reels one in, folks crowd around to see what’s on the line, ooh and ahh and snap pics of the ray or baby shark, almost as if it’s their own. Everyone joins in on one fantastic celebration of sea, sky, and sand. And if you’re lucky, folks with musical inclination burst into song for all to enjoy—no admission, no tickets necessary—just music for the pure joy of it. Isn’t this what God’s kingdom is all about? Sharing, helping, loving our neighbors? Using our talents for the good and delight of others?
People are less concerned about their outward appearance at the beach—or maybe that’s just me. But there’s no fuss over jewelry or makeup or footwear. You just slide on a swimsuit, tie your hair in a knot, or pull on a cap, slather up with sunscreen and head out the door. We’re more exposed at the beach—we hide less. Tattoos usually hidden on bellies and backs are exposed for all to see—symbols and words representing what people have been through, who or what keeps them strong, how they stay inspired. Because we come to the ocean for the ocean, not to show off or prove or hide ourselves, but to marvel at God’s creation. Sure, some say they came to “get away” or “to rest” or “for the kids.” But why here? Why not at a hotel down the street from their home? Because the beach draws us like a magnet, the waves so simultaneously powerful and soothing. Folks wake early to watch the sun rise, fiery and bright reflecting on the water in vibrant pinks, yellows, and oranges. This is how God designed it from the beginning. It’s always been about Him. It’s never been about us. Yet, I know I personally spend way too much time worried about how I’ll seem or appear to others. The beach reminds me how unimportant that is—how when I focus on God’s glory, nothing else holds much weight.
Little kids get this as they sprint as fast as their tiny, chubby legs can carry them to the water, then stop dead in their tracks, amazed by it all. We’ll do this in heaven, I think. Gaze at God’s majesty in multiple ways; be drawn to Him and His splendor. I don’t think we have to wait. I think we can do it now.
We don’t have to wait for any of it. We’re doing it here and now at the beach, and in other areas of our lives—sharing, loving, laughing, embracing, enjoying, savoring, running about, joining in. The magic of the ocean tugs my heart, reels me in, challenges, and soothes me. So what if I used what I learned here in my everyday? What if I judged less, worried less, let down my guard more, did my thing without worrying about what others thought, stood in awe more in my every day life too. I think the beach is a lovely foreshadowing of what heaven will be like. But I also think God’s kingdom is here for us today—if we lighten up, loosen up, and let His love wash over our toes and splash into our souls.
So pull up a chair, a tent, or a towel. Grab some snacks and participate full on in this marvel of a day, a life, we’ve been given. Come on…the waves are waiting.
My daughter came downstairs, her long, thick hair still wet from the shower. It had been a long day. She had one of those tired headaches that can only be solved with sleep, but she was staring down a 6:00 AM alarm waking her for school the next morning. She looked at me with giant blue eyes and held out her brush. “Could you please brush my hair? Really gently? I can’t do it softly enough myself.” This resonated so deeply. Do you wish someone would be gentle? Are you maybe not even able to be soft enough with yourself?
I’ve been blessed in the last couple of weeks to visit with some brilliant, gorgeous, strong women, who are basically rocking the socks off the world. But underneath the surface, these friends seem exhausted, run down. They’re juggling work, family, health, and the enigma of getting it all done, getting it all done well, and succeeding at this juggling act all of the time. One of my friends recently landed her dream job. But the dream job required a move and she’s exerting large amounts of effort trying to settle into her new space, meeting new friends, figuring out where to do anything—like get an oil change, and proving herself in this dream job. She’s with the opportunity, but starting fresh takes extra time and energy—more than normal. And she’s worn out.
Another friend is a sales rep and they’ve had a change in their product line. In good ways, but also in learn new and different strategies; reinvent the process kind of ways. Plus she has a medical issue. On top of her kids, marriage, house and groceries. And she’s slightly frazzled. Yet another friend has this huge, brilliant idea to create something new and exciting. This plan won’t pop into being by itself. It takes extra hours, extra mental capacity, on top of my friend’s current carpools, current exercise routine, current commitments. And she’s pumped up about this big beautiful idea God gave her, but trying to do it all—well it’s overwhelming.
And I’m praying for all of my friends in their busyness, praying for peace, and moments where they can slow down and find things that they can let go of. I’m praying for all these friends as I’m cramming writing time into every spare minute of the day, because my manuscript is due to my publisher in a week. My son has play practice? I’m there. With five resource books and my laptop spread across a row of seats in the theatre. My daughter has gymnastics. Same. It’s Saturday? Cool. I’ll set the alarm early and respond to the comments from my project manager until my cuties wake up. And, in the meantime….I'm still hustling to get it all done. Prep for Bible study. Write notes for my kids’ lunches. Log a few miles at the gym. Keep up with the mystical clothes hamper that is miraculously always full. How does it do that?
I LOVE doing all these things. I love my family. I love to write. I love Bible study. I’m doing these things today, just like I did them yesterday, and last week, because that’s what I do. I get the stuff I want to do done.
But my husband had to sit me down, and take the figurative brush out of my hands. His words were wise, but they felt sharp: You can’t do it all?
Hmm, I thought. Why not?
Husband: You are on deadline. This is not your normal. For the next week, let go a little.
My friends are swamped, but me? I’ve got this. Right? Let go? Of what? Not my kids. Not this sweet man talking to me. And the writing, well I kind of signed a contract. Thanks, but no thanks. I’m good.
Husband: Let’s order pizza tonight. Let the kids make dinner one night. What else is easy? Let’s do that.
Me: Okay, fine. I like pizza. Sounds good for tonight. I’m so agreeable. Problem solved. Moving on.
Husband: I’ll pick the kids up from school tomorrow.
Me: But you have work. I was fine with the pizza thing, but that’s plenty of help, thank you very much.
Husband: I know, but I can grab the kids. Not every day, but tomorrow. It gives you an extra hour.
Me: Silent, but insides screaming, I’ll do it. I’ve got this. I can do this. I can make it work. Because I want to. Because I can find a way. Because I hate letting people down.
But Brett is not suggesting, he’s telling, and he never tells me what to do. I must be manifesting the symptoms I see in my friends, that look behind the eyes, that I’ve got this, but it’s hard and any minute I might slip. It took courage and love for Brett to speak this to me. I glue my lips together and try to listen. I nod. It’s like God has grabbed me and is making me lie down. And these blunt words? They actually sound like gentleness, sound a lot like grace.
I needed someone to be gentle with me, and I didn’t even know it. I saw it in my friends, but not in myself. How about you? Do you wish you could be treated gently right now? Are you incapable of being soft enough with yourself?
The good news? Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He makes us lie down in green pastures. Meaning, when we’re burning the candle at both ends, staying up too late and remedying this routine with too much coffee the next morning (anyone?), Jesus says, “Stop. Lie down. Rest.”
He leads us beside still waters. Sigh. Did somebody say still?
Take a deep breath. Look at your to do list. What can you erase or delete? What are you trying to do, because you expect you to do it, even though maybe no one else expects it, or maybe someone else could do it just as easily? Can it be delegated? Can it wait a week? Is there someone you could ask for help? Could you pay someone to watch the kids for an hour or two, or to clean the house this one time, or even pay the $5 for Clicklist to do the grocery shopping for you? You don’t have to answer every text, call, and email as they pop on your screen. You don’t have to do it all. Period.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Be gentle with yourself. I know there is so much to do, great stuff, important stuff, deadline stuff. But you don’t have to do all of it. And when you can’t even be gentle with yourself, Jesus will be. He’ll soak warm sunshine into your skin, provide a moment where for some reason the house is quiet, or maybe He’ll have your spouse or friend or coworker unexpectedly tell you, “I’ll do this thing. I’ll make this call. I’ll write this note, so you don’t have to.” Accept the grace. Lie down. Don’t fill that still moment with another to-do. Fill it with Jesus. Hand him your hairbrush or your to-do list or your expectations, and allow Him to gently restore your soul.
Gheesh. I’m done with winter. There is so much cold and snow and slush and gray in Ohio. My skin is so dry from the constant blowing of the heater. I want to roll down the windows in my car. I want to see a daffodil. I want to play outside. But it’s only February. And there’s a way to go until springtime blooms, or so the groundhog said. So, I have two choices:
I’m picking B. Because I live in Ohio. I love it here. I love how close my husband and I live to our moms. I love the four seasons. I love the idyllic college town we live in. I love that due to all this wintry weather my kids had last Wednesday off school for a snow day. And, this is where God put us. So clearly where God put us. Every time we consider even looking anywhere else, God presses us deeper into place. So I have no room to gripe. God is so good to put me here, even in February.
God will delight us if we look for it. Case in point, I was folding laundry, which is super glamorous, and my youngest was looking out the window. He said, “Mom, look a blue jay.” I came to the window and my breath caught. “Wow. That’s not a blue jay. That’s a bluebird. A bluebird of happiness.” I don’t know how I know bluebirds are harbingers of happiness. It’s just one of those things I know. I remember my mom saying the words, ‘bluebird of happiness,’ but not where or when or why. Yet, each time I see one, I feel happiness, somewhere deep. It’s like God reminding me, “I bring joy. I bring it everywhere. Even in a vibrant little bird.”
What is gray in your life today? Your commute? Your statistics class? The dishes piled up in your sink? A relationship? Can you spot a bluebird—a spot of happiness amidst the clouds?
Are you seeking beautiful moments or waiting for them to hit you over the head? I’m in the middle of reading Looking for Lovely by Annie F. Downs. If you haven’t read it, go Amazon Prime yourself a copy or grab it from the library—so good. And Annie is reminding me every day to look for lovely. Everywhere. So, after seeing the bluebird I went on a quest and found beauty. Even in the most unexpected places.
After too many hours bent over my laptop researching Old Testament prophets, I decided I needed to get out and clear my head. I pulled on my mittens, popped in my earbuds, and set out. One by one the tightly wound thoughts in my head began to unravel to the rhythm of my feet crunching along the snow-covered sidewalk. And then I saw this little guy. He didn’t skitter or scamper as squirrels are prone to do, but just sat there looking at me as curiously as I was looking at him. He was perfect. His little bright squirrel eyes, how intently he was holding his acorn. His speckled fur. Look at what God made!
Two days later, my husband brought me home a gorgeous bouquet of tulips. For no reason. It wasn’t Valentine’s. They looked like a big bunch of springtime, but it was their smell that made me swoon. One sniff of the pink blooms filled my nose with sunshine, fresh mown grass, and April raindrops.
Driving my son to play rehearsal he asked to listen to the soundtrack for his show. I handed him my phone and told him to find it on Spotify. From my car speakers “Come on Eileen” and “Love Shack” sang to me like high school serenades. My head bopped and I may or may not have taken my hands off the wheel to snap my fingers along with Dexy Midnight Runner’s, “Ta-lu-ry-aye” and to point to my boy in the backseat and call out, “Hurry up and bring your jukebox money!” along with the guy from the B52s.
Brown butter sauce from a vendor at Findlay Market turned my bag of boiled pasta into a rich, savory delicacy worthy of a fine Italian restaurant. The richness of morning coffee. A warm, solid hug from my daughter. A thunderstorm whose cadence was in tune with the beat of my heart. Cabin socks cozy and soft on my feet. And then yesterday? A seventy-two degree day surprise smack in the middle of February. My crocuses peeked out their purple heads to see the sun. And last night, a sky full of the brightest stars. Orion and Cassiopeia shining clearly for all to see. The partial moon in a smile shape like the glowing grin left by the Cheshire Cat. Just because God is good. Just because He loves to delight us.
Yes, there is horror in the news. Yes people I love are suffering—from disease and divorce. My hometown of Westerville, Ohio was hit with tragedy. I know you have struggles too, dark spots, storms, fears, pain. But God is good. He is so very good. And He loves us more than we’ll ever be able to grasp. Jesus died on the cross for us as the ultimate expression of that love. But God also peppers our days with beauty and flavors and songs and smiles to remind us time and time again that the sun rises each morning after darkness and spring always comes after winter.
Look around. Go on a quest for beauty. Let me know what you find. You’ll be blown away by God's love and mercy every morning once you intentionally seek it.
I'm blessed to have my friend, Brenda Yoder, guest blogging here this week. Brenda is a certified counselor, speaker and writer who is passionate about balancing the busyness. Anyone out here need a little of that? Yeah, me too! Her newest book, Fledge: Launching Your Kids Without Losing Your Mind, released yesterday, March 13!!! To celebrate we're giving away a copy of Fledge right here and now. To find out how to enter....keep reading.
I walked out of my classroom pulling my cart of books and memorabilia behind me. I turned off the lights, shut the door, and my heart broke in two.
I had failed. I wondered why other people could handle raising a large family while teaching high schoolers but I couldn’t. While I had won teaching awards and made my US History classroom engaging to my students, the stress of teaching over 150 high schoolers and parenting four kids from high school to first grade took its toll on me.
Our busy family schedule with sports, chauffeuring kids, and homework pulled me in different directions in addition to grading papers, getting groceries, and moody teens. I was stressed out, irritable, and reactionary most of the time with yelling and angry outbursts towards my children.
I was a mom in the early fledging stage of parenting—the stage of release. My oldest was a high school sophomore and the youngest was in first grade. Life passed by school year after school year and my parenting and professional workload increased along with it. That particular school year my student numbers soared to 180. Being emotionally and physically exhausted when I got home, I had little patience for the barrage of “Mom, Mom, Mom” demands when I walked through the door. I had even less tolerance for my own teens’ snarky comments or disrespectful attitudes. I dreamed of the day when fewer kids were in the house so I could catch a break from the stress and mess that had become our life.
Then I realized there were only two years left with all four of my children at home. If something didn’t change, the memories my children would have of the years with all of us at home would be of an irritable, contentious mom. It was far from the dream I had of motherhood. Something needed to change before my firstborn went to college. That change had to come from me.
Since then, I’ve learned most families have some pain while raising teens and young adults. Here are 5 essential truths I’ve learned as a counselor and parent who has fledged three of my four children.
Thanks, Brenda! I especially like the part that it doesn't all fall on us! Brenda wrote Fledge to encourage parents in this season of growing pains.
TO ENTER TO WIN your very own copy of Fledge either:
1. Leave a comment below, maybe mention something you're trying to do on your own.
2. Share this blog on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (make sure you tag me on your post, so I know you shared it)
4. Open to citizens of continental U.S. only. Winner will be chosen in a random draw and notified by March 21.
When I was little I had a picture book, a Golden Book, (does anyone remember those?) starring Grover from Sesame Street. It was titled The Monster at the End of This Book. The plot is Grover warning the reader not to turn the page, because he is so frightened about the monster on the last page. Turns out, the monster on the last page is Grover. Sometimes the monsters we are most frightened of are ourselves.
You guys I am typically a smiley, happy girl. I’m a morning person. I’m a hugger. I love sunshine and daisies. My glass is half full. But there is a monster that lives inside of me. She came out yesterday, on the phone with a customer service representative. I said things out loud to this poor woman like, “I don’t need you to repeat the same sentence over and over to me.” Oh my.
What gets in to me? Why in the world would I treat someone on the other end of the phone with disrespect and unkindness? I can try to justify that I was extremely frustrated, that it was for my college daughter’s debit card, and she’s going to need it as she heads out of town and back to campus. And I love my daughter and instinctively protect her. But the woman whose job it is to process debit cards does not deserve my sass. No one does.
I don’t know if anyone else struggles with this, if the Christmas returns or bills brought out your inner-monster? Maybe you turn into monster-mode in rush hour traffic, long lines or after a long day of working or parenting or all of the above. If so, how do you handle these emotions? What does it take for you to simmer down?
Me? I literally had to get off the phone. I ended the call without any resolution whatsoever by saying, “I’m so frustrated I just need to go. Have a great day.” I did sneak in ‘have a great day’, but no one was buying my brand of fake friendliness.
Once off the phone, I walked a lap around the house, took a couple of deep breaths, and tried to figure out why I got so riled up. God reminded me no matter what happened on the other end of the phone, I could control what happened on my end, and I had chosen poorly. I immediately asked God to forgive me. Because hadn’t my pride just taken over? My feeling of entitlement? So not pretty. I apologized to my daughter who had overheard the whole conversation, because I was ashamed of how I'd handled the call. Very poor modeling on my end. I don’t know how to apologize to the woman on the phone, or to the woman from Time Warner I spoke to last month when canceling cable, or to the Samsung representative I spoke to last summer when my washing machine was exploding. But I’m doing it here. A public confession of my rudeness. I didn’t curse or call anyone names, but I was extremely impatient and ungrateful. And I am so sorry. This is not behavior becoming of anyone. And it is certainly not what Jesus had in mind when He instructed us to love our neighbors as ourselves. To all of you customer service reps, YOU ARE AMAZING FOR PUTTING UP WITH ALL OF THE NONSENSE. I appreciate each and every one of you. I can’t imagine what you hear in a day. I am so sorry I did not treat you with the love you deserve.
This monster inside of me. I do not like her. Like Grover, I fear getting to the part in the story where I emerge—possibly when I need to call the insurance company. So I’m taking this one to God. Like the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (7:15), I want to say, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
The good news? Jesus. Jesus forgives all of this yuck, and the rest of the ickiness inside us, too. He restores our brokenness and heals our wounds. He files down our fangs, clips our claws, and tames our roars. And then even though He sees plain and clear the monster part, Jesus pulls us in close, hugs us and says, “I love you.”
As Paul asks then answers a few verses down (v. 24-25) to the Romans, “Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”
Brandon Heath puts it similarly in his song, “Wait and See”:
There is hope for me yet
Because God won't forget
All the plans He's made for me
I'll have to wait and see
He's not finished with me yet
This is the very best news. If there’s any percent monster in you (even a blue, fluffy one) then know it’s okay. There’s hope for us. God loves us anyway. He’s not finished with us. He has great plans for us that go way above and beyond phone calls and driving through traffic. Whew. We can turn the page and do so with courage and expectance of how God will guide us and help us back on track when we stray.
P.S. They’ve animated The Monster at the End of This Book and Grover narrates it. If you have a little one, this is a brilliant way to entertain them when their inner monster is flaring.
You guys, I am a total book nerd, and I can’t possibly let a year come and go without taking a moment to pause and list my favorite reads of 2017 (if you missed them here are favorite reads of 2016 and 2015).
Best Mystery: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Oh my gosh, why didn't I read this sooner? I’ve heard about Sherlock Holmes my entire life, seen multiple television and film adaptations, and even spent a summer in London at Regent’s College, where to get to my Tube stop I had to pass 221 b Baker Street every day. It took my 8th grade daughter having this book assigned for class to get me to actually pick it up. No surprise—it’s a classic. Holmes and his attention to detail are brilliant. I was fascinated by how much this famous detective could learn from one man's walking stick or another's boots. This is a page-turner with plenty of intrigue, suspicion cast on almost every character, suspense and a satisfying ending. Suitable for readers of all ages who love to learn, solve, sleuth, and be entertained.
Best Middle-Grade Novel: The Danger Box by Blue Balliett
Have your kids read Blue Balliett’s books? If not, order them some on Amazon or reserve them from the library pronto. Balliett always writes brilliant stories that ignite curiosity. Her books make readers want to learn, discover, explore, and best of all think. In her previous novels, Balliett has introduced a famous artist into the plot (Calder, Vermeer, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc.), expanding the knowledge of readers while they're engrossed in her mysteries. In the Danger Box, she introduces a well-known scientist, not to stand behind or against the scientist's findings, but in the interest of making kids hungry to learn. Kudos to Balliett for always creating phenomenal characters--kids with quirks, but also with hidden gifts. She does a lovely job of reminding us that everyone has their own special talents and something to add to the conversation. I read her books, because my kids love them. But I LOVE them too!
Best Young Adult Novel: Every Last Word by Tamara Stone
I love young adult novels. Good ones are raw and real and deal with important themes like friendship, relationships, family, discovering your true self. Every Last Word does all of this and more. It also dives into mental health issues, frenemies, and sigh, poetry. As a lover of words, I was pulled into the underground writing community in Every Last Word. Tamara Stone illustrates how powerful the written word can be, how cathartic it can be to write down your emotions, dreams, thoughts, concerns, and even odes to your favorite snack foods. She also does a brilliant job of handling the issue of mental health, specifically OCD. This is a real issue so many people are dealing with--a chemical disorder that can be treated through therapy and medication. I was grateful to gain insight into this important issue.
Fiction: The Magic Stings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
I’ve enjoyed so many of Mitch Albom’s books, so I was excited to read a new one this year. If you have music in your soul, you will love Frankie Presto! I always enjoy the way Albom weaves hope and faith into his stories, but I am a music lover, and this one struck a special note with me. Magic Strings has a unique twist--with Music as the narrator--interviewing and referencing music legends I grew up listening to and admiring (everyone from Robert Johnson to Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton). Chapters alternate between Music’s interviews with the faces that have graced Rolling Stone magazine for decades to various stages of the life of a musician named Frankie Presto. The story takes the reader back and forth from Spain to New York and New Orleans like a shuffled time line all tied together with the chords of music and the power it evokes.
Best Nonfiction: Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker
I listened to Of Mess and Moxie on Hoopla. And after listening to the entire audio book, I bought it on Amazon. I'd already heard it, but I wanted a copy to underline and go back to, because, please! It's hilarious and heartfelt and authentic and faithful, just like Jen Hatmaker. If you loved For the Love, you will love Jen's new book. If you love your kids or your husband or your passion or cooking and Jesus, but sometimes you're not sure what to do with any of them, you will also love this book. Life is real and sometimes hard, but also glorious, because Jesus is with us and He loves us. What fantastic reassurance.
Best Read of 2017: Long Way Gone by Charles Martin
This is another musical tale, and also the most beautiful book I've read in a very long time. Martin is an expert storyteller. This story of a young man, his music, his passion, his relationships, his struggles, and his journey to make sense of it all broke my heart into thousands of pieces. This is my number one favorite book I read in 2017! It transports you to the musical roots and legends of Nashville. After reading it I just knew I had to see a show at the Ryman (my friend, Amy, got us tickets to see Charlie Daniels Band there—oh my gosh!) A Long Way Gone is a stunning retelling of the Prodigal Son in a way that shines new light into a classic parable that never gets old.
Of course, these are just a handful of the stories that swept me away, grabbed my attention, taught me something, or inspired me in the past year. The rest are on Goodreads. I’m looking forward to another fabulous year packed with amazing books. As I compile my “to read” list, I’d love to hear your favs from 2017. Any recommendations?
I just saw the movie, Wonder. I loved the book and was grateful the movie stayed so true to the original story line—even switching point of view, so the reader/viewer could see the backstory of each of the characters. Just when you thought you disliked a character, you saw the pain they were dealing with and found yourself sympathizing. Just when you thought another character had everything easy breezy, you saw how they felt alone.
What a powerful reminder that everyone has highs and lows, experiences that bring them joy and issues they are wrestling with. The thing is, most of us bury the big stuff and make small talk about the weather or our favorite team. We can interact, intersect and never share what’s on our hearts or discover what’s on the hearts of those around us. What if we used the art of conversation to allow others to share their triumphs and traumas, so we can better cheer for them and hold their hands more tenderly?
Tis the time of year to be invited to scads of gatherings—for work, school, family, and any other group you’ve ever affiliated with. At all of these mixers, open houses, cookie exchanges, receptions, and pot lucks (whether you love chit chat or struggle with it) there will be conversations, and they will run the gambit.
There will be delicious food and festive decorations, hopefully there will be Christmas music. I’ve been listening to it since early November—yep, I’m that girl. But it’s easy to let these celebrations come and go without utilizing these opportunities to learn new things, gain richer perspectives, encourage others, or better understand someone else’s point of view. Everyone has a story. Everyone has struggles they’re dealing with and ideas racing around their brains. We can learn so much by talking to one another. But it starts by asking better questions (oh, and yeah, putting our phones down).
What kinds of questions are you asking?
Some of you are born conversationalists. Topics flow from your mouth like tunes on Spotify. For me, I’m used to writing my thoughts out, so I’m more deliberate, but all of us can get better at communicating. The difference between a good question and a so-so question? I’m still learning, but I know when I ask my niece about her college search we both get more out of the chat if I ask, “What are your top three schools? What do you like about them?” than if I simply ask, “How’s the college search going?” Ask something that requires more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. It doesn’t have to be ground breaking. “How was your day?” often emits a ‘fine’ from one of my kids. But “What did you do at recess?” or “How did you do on your test?” or “Who in your class gave their presentations today?” act as conversation starters to discover way more than a test question. The questions don’t need to be original, just intentional. How do you like your new job? Apartment? Teacher? Coach? Roommate? Are great places to start.
Make sure you add in a tidbit or two of your own. I’m tempted to keep things to myself. But when we share, we engage others and make it easier and more comfortable for them to share too. This doesn’t mean you have to divulge personal stuff, no need to over share, just be open to revealing a little about yourself in the process. I was chatting with a friend about an internship she’d had in Nashville. I mentioned I’d been to Nashville the week before. A whole new conversation sprang from my one sentence.
There will be times when no words come. There are challenges. Someone’s not chatty or in a bad mood or distracted. Sometimes that person is you or me. We receive a one-word response or get asked a question we aren’t comfortable answering. How about when the talk turns to politics? Or when you ask someone how he likes his new boss and he begins to rant? Or someone asks you something too personal or that touches a super sensitive spot. This is when we’re called to steer conversations back to the good stuff. As the apostle Paul said, whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things and the God of peace will be with you. —Philippians 4:8. Not always easy, but great advice. If you feel the conversation veering away from these topics, try to steer it back.
Because people will gossip and complain. There will be chat about how terrible parking was at the mall or the horrible service at a certain store. There will be digs on the food served or ‘can you believe she wore that?’ I’m completely guilty of falling into these conversation patterns. It’s easy to gripe. But it’s also just as easy to speak about lovely and excellent things. The cinnamon rolls are burnt? Turn the conversation to how great the coffee tastes. The toddler out of control? Whisper a prayer of patience for the parent. Freezing outside for the family pic? Tell a joke to get people smiling. Offer to make hot cocoa as soon as everyone gives a good grin. But even better—start asking good questions. Ask for the cinnamon roll recipe, about the toddler’s preschool, about how your brother knows the photographer. It’s easy to complain. But we can find out so much more about one another, incredible things, important things, if we try.
There will be occasions where the conversation goes south. If it is not true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy and you can’t turn it around, get out. If the entire group is in on the bashing or one person’s voice is too loud (literally or figuratively) to mute, simply leave the conversation. Excuse yourself to go to the restroom, grab a snack, or see if the hostess needs help with anything. Take the moment away to reset (not to check your phone). You could repeat the verse above from Philippians, say a prayer, get a breath of fresh air, or whatever else centers you.
There will be times when you need to talk to about the hard stuff—things that are ugly and painful and scary. And that’s 100% okay in the right setting with the right people, in fact it can be noble and right to do so. Yes! Share this stuff with your trusted inner circle, so they can comfort, advise, hold, and guide you back to the truth that God is on your side, that He loves you, that He has redeemed you, and that He will never forsake you. When people you care about approach you with their hardships and heartache, point them back to these truths. Remember, these conversations are not for large social gatherings. These are important, but critical that they are spoken in safe space.
I’m not an expert at any of this. Like I said, I’m fairly awkward at conversation. But I know my mother-in-law bowls and I don’t. So I don’t have many bowling questions in my repertoire. But I can ask who she bowls with and when, and in doing so find out more about her friends, which ones make her laugh, and how some days it’s a struggle to get a ride. And all of a sudden these answers lead to new questions, and we end up understanding one another a little better. God created each person uniquely and amazingly. Use all the gatherings you’ll attend this holiday season to get to know some of God’s creations better, to shine some light, and to remind others of their worth—of their true reflections.
I am in introvert. It’s not a bad thing or a true confession. It’s just how God made me. For goodness sake, I am a writer by vocation, which translates into sitting by myself for hours on end making up stories. I love to go on runs and walks by myself. Vacation to me never includes Jet Skis and always includes sitting someplace with a view reading books, journaling, praying and basically being still. I love others immensely and treasure one-on-one time with them, I really do. Yet I require headspace and silence to create, think, cope and process.
But even us introverts crave connection. I cannot do life by myself. Cannot. None of us can. None of us were meant to. God created us for community.
Do you have a solid community? Admittedly, I hear “community” and envision four women my age who work out together, do Bible study together, swap clothes, meet for coffee every Thursday morning, with kids all on the same teams and whose husbands are also best friends—think Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants for grown ups. Maybe you have this, which is awesome. I do not, which used to make me think I didn’t have a community—that I’d failed in this arena. But that’s not true. What I have is different, but also awesome.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. –Hebrews 10:24-25
This is quality advice. Because spurring each other on toward love and good deeds is solid. But the Bible does not say this has to look like a novel. This week has been a snapshot of my fantastic and completely different and scattered community. My super tight inner circle consists of my four adorable kids and hunky husband. I love them fiercely. However, our communities must span past the walls we live in for them to fully work their magic. Girls need girls. Guys need guys. We need people who do the same kind of work and deal with the same issues, as well as friends of varying ages, different lifestyles and locations so we can gain perspective. The last twenty-four hours for me were packed with more social interaction than I may have from now through Christmas, and although that is not my default, it was good for my soul.
What does your community look like? When was the last time you connected with them?
I visited my daughter who is a freshman in college, away from home for the first time in her, translation my, life. (I get a hall pass to count her as my community, because although she’s still one of my adorable kids, she now sleeps in a dorm room in Indiana instead of in our house.) Our visit was priceless. We laughed, shared stories that could never translate over texts, and ate brownies topped with some kind of fudgy whipped cream. When we said goodbye I honestly felt like a piece of my heart broke off and walked down the sidewalk with a backpack slung across her shoulders. But there is beauty in knowing that some of my heart can travel with her. And some of her heart with me.
Within an hour and a half of me returning home my mom came to town for an overnight visit. Can we talk about my mom? She tutors kids, volunteers at blood drives, makes meals for everyone she knows, and drives neighbors to the doctor. Plus she always wears a smile, constantly talks about how blessed she is, and means it. Being around her puts a positive spin on everything. She asks great questions, listens to all the details of my life no one else would ever want to hear (like how I saved 83 cents at Kroger and the journaling activity the middle school English teacher did with my daughter’s class). My mom makes it all feel important, like it matters, like I matter.
Literally two hours after my mom drove off (leaving behind Texas sheetcake and turkey tetrazzini for us to devour) an out of town friend got out of a meeting she was having in my town! I got to see her for exactly nine minutes and it totally refueled my tank. Energy leaks from her body into mine when we hug. She is funny, beautiful, insightful, smart as all get out and typically goes a million miles an hour. She is one of those special few I can get vulnerable with and fully trust. She loves Jesus and somehow totally gets me and accepts me and my quirks.
Next day, a handful of my sorority sisters came to town for an impromptu reunion. #perksoflivinginacollegetown. These girls? We met when they were eighteen and I was nineteen. We’ve all logged a lot of miles—careers, marriages, moves, babies, loss, struggles, overcoming since we pledged our sisterhood. To reconnect with some who I hadn’t seen in decades and others in a year meant both being flooded with memories and meeting a group of wonderful new women—the ones they’ve all grown into—all at the same instant.
A daughter, a mom, an out of town friend who I met at Bible study years ago by a fluke, and a handful of girls who wore the same shirts to Greek Week in the 90’s is not how most would define ‘community’. But it’s where I find some of mine. We all need other people to fully become who God created us to be. Their stories help form our stories. Their triumphs inspire us. Their struggles expand our viewpoints, teach us lessons. Their ideas, experiences, and thoughts prompt and broaden ours. Hearing their hearts reinforces what we hold dear and helps us dispose of ideas we should have never let enter our minds in the first place.
Please know there are broadly two kinds of community, both are incredibly valuable. There is the general, learn, gather, socialize, laugh, carpool, expand your knowledge and ideas kind. And then there is the special, safe one. No matter how fun or interesting a group may be, you can only reveal your heart to a trusted few. If you share a secret with the masses, it’s no longer a secret. If you confess your greatest fear to too many, someone will unintentionally mock it or use it against you. Both types of communities are important. The inner circle is just more sacred.
Whether you’re typically a loner or always travel with a posse, find some special people, a community or two you can plug into. This can look like just about anything. But make sure it contains some people who will listen to and hear you, who will love and encourage you, who will challenge you, build you up, energize you, feed your soul, point you back to Jesus over and over again, and remind you that you are His, that you matter, because you do. They help remind you of your true reflection.
P.S. Just for the record, my mom borrowed one of my sweatshirts for our morning walk. One of my sorority sisters was also my roommate in Atlanta when we had our first ‘real jobs’. We each owned two suits and swapped them back and forth to make it look like we had enough ‘work clothes’ to get us through to casual Friday. And, as I write this I am wearing a pair of my daughter’s jeans. So, maybe, my community looks a little more like the Traveling Pants than I gave it credit for.
I think most of us have at least two personas.
One is the uncomfortable, uncertain version of ourselves. When we are around specific people or in certain settings we tend to feel insecure and underestimate our capabilities. Personally, in these situations I lower my head, keep quiet, stay on the edges of conversations and groups, unsure of what to say, not feeling like I have much to contribute. I have friends who react the opposite in these same scenarios. They become louder, spewing things they don’t even mean to say, things that are a bit too snarky, or that challenge others as protective armor from having to reveal themselves. You might have a different default mode altogether that you use to cope with the places and people where you feel out of place. None of these is our best or brightest. These are the places we need to spend less time.
But then there is our true self. The way we feel and act when we are in our element. Where laughter comes easily, where we believe our ideas matter, where we can look people straight in the eye and say how we feel without any fear of being judged or misunderstood. When the weather seems perfect and our clothes feel comfortable and our phones stay tucked in our pockets and purses and we never glance at the clock, but wish we could stay a long while. These are the places we need to spend more time.
Which one of these personas are you currently living?
There is a scene in The Little French Bistro by Nina George where one of the main characters sees an artist’s portrayal of her. She is overwhelmed, because the woman the artist has depicted is stunning, captivating, positively beautiful and mesmerizing. Conversely, the character finds herself quite ordinary and unremarkable.
She asks the artist, “Is that how you see me?”
The artist replies, “That is how you are.”
It is a powerful scene. Because the woman was amazing. She just couldn’t see it in herself. Just like all of us are captivating. But we’re quick to dismiss our value and often struggle to see our true reflections. But Jesus? He always sees our true selves. And He always sees us as magnificent.
When we compare ourselves to others, measure ourselves against social media, and strive to make ourselves known—to get our numbers on the board. We often sell ourselves short. We focus on our faults and the places we do not excel. But Jesus created us. He created you and I uniquely and distinctly. He formed us to do amazing works. Allow Him to remind you who you are in Him. That you are as captivating as a masterpiece in a gallery—able to make those passing by pause, ask questions, and ponder. You truly make hearts beat faster, mouths curl into smiles, and brains expand their thoughts.
How do you find this beautiful self that’s sometimes so hard to see? Start by hanging out with Jesus. When I’m with Him, I see a me that doesn’t even resemble the woman who sits awkwardly on the fringe of a conversation or pants to keep up in a race or whose brain hurts when she looks at financial statements. Instead I see a woman who gets high on telling stories, who is loved by her family, treasured by her Savior, and therefore beautiful in a distinct way. Spending time with Jesus opens our eyes to better see the people who see our true personas and to the things that make us more of our true selves.
Once you’re vision has been cleared up a bit by Jesus, start doing fewer things that empty you. Do more of the things that thrill you, bring you peace, make you feel whole—that could be kicking instead of throwing the ball, teaching or taking a class, rocking a baby, or hiking a trail. Slowly stop spending time with the folks who drain you, who make you feel small. Your stunning true reflection is lost on them. Instead seek out the people who recognize you for the treasure you are.
How do you see yourself?
How do others see you?
How do you want to be seen?
The truth is you are Christ’s masterpiece. It’s time to allow Him to show you who you truly are. You might be surprised at the capable, worthy person you see in the mirror. You might turn to Jesus and ask, “Is that how you see me?” He is certain to reply, “That is how you are.”
The thing about promises is that you keep them.
Or we’re supposed to. But everyone knows some promises hold more weight than others. There are some promises we don’t even pretend will be kept, because we know that either the maker of the promise is unreliable or the nature of the promise is impossible to keep. Think back to junior high elections—the poster that read “Jake for President, if I get elected I promise less homework and more ice cream in the cafeteria.” Um, Jake? Seventh Grade Class President doesn’t hold that kind of weight.
It’s gotten to the point that a promise isn’t enough. We have to swear by it, commit to the promise in writing, or the promise of all promises—make a pinky promise. But even those promises—contracts, vows, oaths—sometimes get broken. But God? He never breaks a promise. Never.
I’ve been working on a writing project this summer, which has put me deep in the books of the Old Testament. I’ll be honest, if I’m picking a chunk of the Bible to read, I prefer the letters from Paul. That’s not where God put me. I found myself imbedded in the pages of thick detailed books where I prefer to skip the battle scenes and go straight to the stories about lion’s dens and fiery furnaces. But it was important for my project that I read every word.
And in that reading, God blew me away. There were passages I thought I knew well, and others I hadn’t spent much time on, but page after page God opened my eyes to one particular truth—He is the God who keeps His promises. Every single time.
God said to an older man and woman with mega infertility issues, “Your kids and grandkids will outnumber the stars.” Abraham and Sarah were skeptical. They both tried to take matters into their own hands. Sarah even laughed out loud at God’s promise. But their son Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90!!! God built a nation out of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. Just like He promised.
God said to Gideon, “You’ll win this battle with a handful of men against a gigantic army. Oh, by the way, you can’t use weapons. Just bring some torches, pots and horns.” Gideon was hiding when God found him. He had a rinky-dink army and no battle skills. But God kept his promise. The enemy defeated themselves. Biggest ‘own goal’ ever.
God said to Joshua, “I’m going to give you this city. All you have to do is walk around it for a week.” And the three tiers of walls that stood four stories high around Jericho literally crumbled to the ground. I get lost easily and have circled many a city block. Thankfully, nothing has fallen down. But when God promises something, even if it sounds ludicrous or impossible, it happens. Because God keeps his promises.
I could go on, but the point is if God says something is going to happen, it will. There are some promises God has across the board promised all of us, like that He will always be with us (Matthew 28:20), which would be plenty on its own. But there are more personal promises that He’s made to me and to you. God promised the shepherd boy David he would become king of Israel. God promised Noah he would be safe from a giant flood when there wasn’t a drop of rain in sight. Those most likely aren’t the promises God has spoken to you lately, because those crazy unlikely sounding promises were very specific to David and Noah. God has other specific promises, possibly super out-there promises, for you and me.
Sometimes God’s promise is something I could never dream up, but God could and does—as in the project that planted me in the Old Testament this summer. God taught me so much through this storytelling assignment, I am blown away. And I never saw it coming.
What has God promised you? Hang on to the fact that He never breaks His promises. No matter how we mess up, how tired we are, how defeated or unworthy we feel. God’s promises don’t look like worldly promises. They’re way more spectacular. And they always come to fruition in ways richer and fuller than we could orchestrate on our own. Whatever God is promising you today, it will happen. I promise.
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