I was doing fine. I was doing fine. I was doing fine. Until…my barista asked, “How are you doing with graduation happening tonight?”
“Pretty good,” I answered. “I mean graduation is symbolic of my daughter leaving high school and turning the page to what’s next, but really, I just want goodness for her.”
Here’s where I lost it. “I just want so much goodness for her.” Cue all the tears.
My poor barista.
But it’s true. This past week we’ve witnessed and experienced the last church service for my daughter at her high school dedicated to the seniors, Baccalaureate, graduation, and her graduation party. It was a lot to process in one week. A lot of times to get dressed up (Which. I Love.) A lot of programs. A lot of speeches. A lot of times to celebrate Mallory and her friends and all they’ve achieved and the ways they’ve grown. At each event I look around and see my girl, the friends she’s made, choices she’s made, things she’s learned, experiences she’s suffered and grown from, and victories and triumphs she’s accomplished. And my heart is so very full of absolute love for this young lady. I realized as I said those words out loud to my barista that this is exactly what God says of us, His children.
“I just want goodness for them. I just want so much goodness for them.”
We tend to all see God in different ways. And He’s a complex being, for sure, so this is great. He has many aspects (good father, good shepherd, protector, redeemer, comforter, savior, counselor, etc.). But when Jesus summed up His whole mission on earth it was, “I came so they (that’s us) can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of (John 10:10).”
I think of all that I pray for for my kiddos, their hopes and dreams, their relationships, their protection, that they’ll realize how real Jesus is and how real His love is for them. And it’s wild, but God wants all of that for my kids, too. Which means He also wants it for you. And for me. Jesus wants us to have a better life than we can even dream of.
At two of the services this Irish blessing was spoken over the graduating seniors:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
And as Mallory received her diploma and walked past the row where I sat, everything slowed down like a movie. In my mind I saw this blessing playing out for her–a path down a lane lined with wildflowers stretching out before her, a slight breeze blowing her long hair, a golden glow on her face. I could hear the patter of a soft rainfall and felt God’s love thick and tangible, surrounding my daughter.
To everyone reading this–this is what God wants for you! He’s holding you in the palm of His almighty hand. I’m praying it over you as I type it out. Whatever you’re facing today. Wherever you are with your relationship with God. Whatever you believe about yourself or others. No matter what you’re planning or what’s taken you by surprise…
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Our family is new to the cross country scene. Our four kids have been involved in soccer--lots and lots of soccer, flag football, theatre, ballet, track, as well as very brief stints in gymnastics, karate, and baseball, but none of them had ever run XC until now. Our youngest started high school in August and joined the school’s cross country team back in June. He’s been practicing for months, building up his mileage, increasing his speed and endurance, and making quality friends.
The morning of our first meet my husband and I weren’t really sure what to expect. We’d been told to wear comfortable shoes, because you end up darting from one spot to another to watch different parts of the race, which sounded fun. We drove to the address, parked, got out of our car and it felt more like a festival than a competition. Toby Mac was blaring from a sound system, “It’s never too late to get back up again.” Teams had tents with signs. Food trucks had parked along the perimeter, and the intoxicating smells of kettle corn and empanadas filled the air.
It was fun and festive. The whole space vibrated with energy.
Here are some things we learned about cross country that we think Jesus would love:
Doing Your Best is a Win
Hundreds of athletes run in a cross country meet. Yes, there is a first place winner, but very few of the athletes have their eye on that prize. They’re all actually running with the goal to beat their PR--personal record. They’re not comparing themselves to the other runners. They’re just trying to do their personal best--to take what God gave them and use it to the best of their ability. The world needs more of this. Yes please and now. The Apostle Paul instructs us to live like this in Galatians 5:26
That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.
What if we all did this? Stopped wishing we had as many followers as her, the job title of him, or the family of them. And instead, took what God gave us and used it to our fullest, ran our best original race. Think of all the freedom to live out our callings and all the amazing things that would ensue.
Everybody cheers for everybody
It doesn’t matter what team your kid is on or how fast they do or don’t run, other people from other teams cheer for them. Which, really? They’re cheering for my boy? Insert all the emojis. This takes place at the starting line when all the fans cheer loudly for all the runners. And it also happens throughout the three point one mile course as spectators sprint to different spots along the route to cheer on athletes as they progress.
At our first stop along the yellow tape marking the course, we met a man who told us his daughter was running in the next race. He cheered and clapped as each athlete ran past. I repeat, his daughter was not even in this race. This was the boys race! At the two mile marker a group of varsity runners who had already completed their race gathered along a bend in the route cheering, “You’ve got this! Keep it up! Keep it up!” Yes, to their JV teammates, but also to all the other athletes passing by.
This is beautiful. And it’s Biblical! Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us: 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—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We’re supposed to cheer each other on! We’re supposed to encourage each other! This is what living in Christ looks like.
There are snacks at the end
As the runners cross the finish line they immediately head toward their team’s tent which is laden with sandwiches, protein bars, and fruit. The Propel and Gatorade flow freely. They can get seconds or thirds or fourths, and eat their fill. Jesus would love this! Celebrating with food was Jesus’ jam. In fact his very first miracle was at a wedding feast--turning water into wine (John 2:1-10). Throughout the Gospels (the four Biblical books that serve as the biography of Jesus’ life) we find Jesus eating with his friends and people in the community (Matthew 9:10-11, Luke 7:36, Luke 10:38-40, Luke 11:37, Luke 14:1, John 12:2-3, John 21:12-13). We also see Jesus traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feasts (Mark 14:12-26, John 2:23, John 5:1, John 13:1). Jesus loved sharing food while hanging out with others.
So, yeah, cross country meets are awesome. Because they mirror some ways God wants us to be living. He wants us to stop comparing ourselves to others. He wants us to use the gifts He’s given us to the best of our ability on any given day. God wants us to cheer for one another along the way. And God also wants us to share meals with one another--to eat and laugh and swap stories and encourage one another.
I’m up for the challenge. You?
Not to compete in a cross country meet. But to keep running our races--the one God put in front of us, specifically--one full of doing our best, loving one another, both feeling encouraged and encouraging others, and of course with yummy snacks involved. On your mark. Get set. Let’s go!
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I recently received this fabulous package of goodies from one of my closest friends, Amy. Hanging out with her is better than any subscription box, because throughout the year she mails me the cutest, most adorable packages packed with things that make me smile. I knew it was from her before opening it, because even the outside of her packages are exciting—covered in star stickers and silver Sharpie swirls with fun lettering.
I began pulling out the contents one by one. This package was extra packed with goodness, because it was for my birthday. There was a separate bag within the envelope with this t-shirt in it that I kind of had to wiggle out, then unfold, and then my breath caught in my throat and a hot tear leaked out of my left eye. Not because of a t-shirt. Because of what it said: Courage, dear heart.
And yes, I am a huge Narnia fan (okay, geek) and this is a phrase Aslan says to Lucy on the Voyage of the Dawn Treader when everyone is losing hope and it reminds me that Jesus whispers the same to me when I am losing hope. When those around me only see the stormy waves. When the boat I’m standing on is rocking and I’m blinded by mist and my mouth is full of pungent salty sea water.
The words. This shirt. The ship. It all transports me to the moment Jesus and the disciples were on a boat and a storm kicked up—I mean one doozie of a storm, tossing their boat all over the place. Waves and saltwater blinded and gagged the disciples. Jesus was napping, because He wasn’t concerned. But the disciples were majorly freaked out and frightened, so they called out to Him.
The next thing they knew, they were in a severe storm. Waves were crashing into the boat—and Jesus was sound asleep! They roused him, pleading, “Master, save us! We’re going down!”
Jesus reprimanded them. “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” Then he stood up and told the wind to be silent, the sea to quiet down: “Silence!” The sea became smooth as glass. Matthew 8:23-27
Jesus turned to them before He stilled the waters and said, “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” And in His question, I hear the inverse of what He tells us to do. Jesus tells us to have courage and asks why we would ever be cowards—after all He’s right there next to us in our proverbial boats. He calls us dear hearts, because we’re dear to Him and wonders why we’ve changed our own names to ‘faint hearts’?
The words from the shirt, this scene from the boat, rang specifically true to me this past year—the one leading up to my birthday, the one I’d just concluded, and somehow without realizing it these were the exact words that had been helping me hang on.
Rewind a bit to when I had my annual mammogram. And the radiologist found something wonky on the film. And they had me come back in. And then it was still not clear what they were seeing, so I had to have a third mammogram. Praise Jesus, I am fine. But in the midst of the uncertainty, I heard Jesus whispering, Courage, dear heart. I saw him with me in that sterile hospital room just past the giant mammogram machine, steady and sure, giving me the courage I needed.
And again, when I had another medical test go awry, with an uncertain result, and I had to go back in for another look. My boat rocked a bit, but I saw Jesus with me as I came out of sedation, literally saw His face giving me the courage I needed, felt how much He loves me, that He holds me dear.
This year was a year of God continually asking me to be bolder, to ask bolder questions, to be bolder in my faith, to speak up more boldly in bold ways about and for Him. And, let’s just get this straight, bold is not how I lean. I prefer zero confrontation, making everyone happy, keeping the peace. But each time I would waiver and wonder, God why? Are you sure? He’d say, “Trust me. Find your strength in me. I’ll give you everything you need. Courage, dear heart.”
This phrase isn’t just cute words from a children’s book or a t-shirt. They’re a directive from God: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”—Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV
And this shirt printed who knows where delivered from Nashville in a colorful envelope from a caring friend spoke over me everything Jesus told me all year. I share this in case someone out there needs to hear it today, “Courage, dear heart.”
Whatever you’re facing, no matter how dark the storm, Christ reminds us to have courage, to be brave, because He is with us, and He is Master over the Storms. He can calm them in one word. “Silence.”
One of the fun bonus items in my envelope was a pack of Zinnia seeds. The promise of blooms in the form of tiny brown seeds. It’s a lot to ask an itty-bitty seed to bury itself in the soil, to break through its protective seed coating and drive its roots into the soil that feeds it, to stretch up out of its comfort zone into the light. But if those seeds are brave enough, they’ll bloom.
So will we. If we’ll take courage. The good news? The courage doesn’t have to come from us. We don’t have to be instinctively bold or brave. We just need to find our courage in Jesus. The bravest of them all. In Him we’ll find the hope and strength we need.
So, “Courage, dear heart.”
Jesus loves you.
He’ll give you the nutrients and light and stability you need. He’ll calm the waves and hold you tight. He’s on your side and stronger than anything you’re up against. Courage. Find it in Him.
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My husband looked at me and asked, “How are you doing with Christmas?” Before I could answer he continued, “because you seem a bit frazzled.”
Gulp. “Do I?” I asked, because I didn’t want to seem that way.
If you know me, then you know I’m a sunshine and rainbows kind of girl. I don’t want to seem stressed about anything, especially the most wonderful time of the year. I do want Christmas to be perfect for everybody. And that’s too much pressure to put on myself.
It’s two weeks before Christmas. How are you feeling?
One of my best friends doesn’t like Christmas trees, and feels pulled, because her kids really want one, and she doesn’t want to let them down. Another friend is beating herself up, because she doesn’t have her Christmas cards in the mail yet. Yikes. Me either. Yet another feels overwhelmed because she hasn’t done any shopping. Here at the Smith house full of the Christmas spirit, we bought our tree, hung our wreaths, and decked our halls the day after Thanksgiving, but somehow the lights we pulled out of the light crate are still in a tangled heap in our front hallway. How many days has it been?
Who decided we had to do All. The. Things? And that we had to do them perfectly? Christmas is not a contest. It’s not.
I adore everything to do with Christmas—dreamy twinkling lights, flickering candlelight laced with the scent of pine, spoonfuls of sweet, sticky sugar cookie batter, finding the perfect gift for someone I love, and snuggling up by the fire wrapped in fluffy, fleece blankets to watch George Bailey sing “Auld Lang Syne” one more time. But the reason I celebrate Christmas is because on that first Christmas, Jesus, who was sitting on His throne as High King of Heaven, decided to humbly come down to earth in the form of a baby, because He knew how much we needed Him, how much I needed Him. How much you need Him, too.
Jesus knew we would get frazzled sometimes, and sad. He knew we would miss people, and have our feelings hurt, and get jealous, and feel left out, and think we needed to prove ourselves, and feel like we didn’t measure up. He knew there would be days when we felt stretched thin, like we couldn’t possibly do it all. Jesus knew we’d experience shame and guilt and fear. And He didn’t want that for any of us, because He loves us so much. So, Jesus came to where we live. And He lived life as we do. With friends who loved Him, but sometimes let Him down. With people who criticized Him even when He was doing good. With long days leaving Him weary, and more work than it seemed like there was the time or resources to accomplish with the limited hours in each day. People called Jesus names. And eventually they tortured Him. And Jesus did it all, experienced all of that, for us.
This is the grandest reason to celebrate. It makes me want to sing, “Joy to the World,” at the top of my lungs and send cards to everyone I know telling them how awesome Jesus is and how loved they are by Him. It makes me want to hold a feast in His honor with all the trimmings and give gifts to those I love, because the gift of love Jesus offers me is so overwhelming and life changing.
But somewhere between the reason I celebrate and how I celebrate there’s a disconnect. The wanting to sing, dance, give, and feast gets bogged down with to-do lists and getting the best deal and the free shipping and making my Christmas cookies look like they were frosted by one of the contestants on Kids Baking Championship.
Today I’m challenging myself, and you, to take a deep breath. To count to ten and then make a list of what really matters at Christmas time. Turns out my list has nothing to do with cleaning, spending, or making anything “perfect,” but has everything to do with embracing, savoring, praising, and being thankful. How about yours?
There are still things that should get done. I still want to have gifts for my kiddos. I still want to serve something other than frozen pizza for Christmas dinner. But, let’s agree to calm down about the details. Let’s release some of our self-inflicted expectations. It is not up to us to be perfect or to do it all. This isn’t a game to win, but a Savior to praise! There’s nothing wrong with having the kids draw a picture for the Christmas card instead of searching for the perfect photo, hoping to find one where everyone’s smiling and has their eyes open. We could draw names, so there are fewer gifts to shop for, buy, and wrap. Maybe you could hire someone to clean the house this year, just this once, or have a family cleaning party, where you pop some corn and have the reward of a family movie night (what Christmas special haven’t you seen yet?) if everyone pitches in and cleans together.
I love Christmas. I really do. I love all of the special celebratory things we do to embrace it. All of the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels. But the last thing I want to be about Christmas is frazzled. Let’s head back to our day, our lists, our shopping, and chopping, sending, and serving, being blown away that Jesus sees us, knows us, loves us, and the truth that what Jesus wants most for Christmas is that we be filled with the love, joy and peace that He offers. That we be filled with Him.
Joy to the world. The Lord has come. Let earth receive her King.
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By 8:45 a line snaked out the door of the old warehouse. The doors opened at 9:00 for the 10:00 event. No, the first 100 visitors didn’t receive free t-shirts, bobble heads, or even coffee. No one was autographing anything. There wasn’t a big screen. This wasn’t a sporting event or a concert. This was a church service my son, Max, and I attended while we were in Dallas last weekend.
When the music began folks danced and cheered. Kids crawled and skipped. What was going on? You’d think Jesus, Himself, was in the sanctuary. That’s kind of the point. Everyone there was so excited to sing to Jesus, worship Jesus, talk to Jesus, learn about Jesus, they couldn’t wait to get inside. He does tell us where two or more are gathered, He is there in our midst (Matthew 18:20). Wowza—you could feel Jesus there in our midst. And it was a-ma-zing!
The prophet, Isaiah, foretold who Jesus would be and what He would do. That He would replace our mourning with joy and our despair with praise. But do we approach life like that? Full of joy and praise? Like Jesus is with us and He can change our lives?
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion--
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair. --Isaiah 61:1-3
I LOVE my home church, but I’ve got to be honest, I don’t wait outside for them to open the doors Sunday morning. Why not?
When was the last time you lined up for church, giddy to get in the door? And if it’s been a while…why is that? There is so much joy in Jesus! The Apostle Paul reminded the Philippians (and us) to, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)
What are some things you get all amped up for, rush to get there?
Personally, I’ll wait in line to get coffee any day of the week. I’ll leave early. Perhaps place a mobile order. Plan it into my timeline. Because I am excited to get coffee—to taste the rich, bold flavor, inhale the thick, inviting aroma, feel the warm cup in my hands and the caffeine kick in, making me more alert. It brings me joy to think about my morning brew, order it (or whip one up at home), and take that first sip (and all the sips that follow).
What will you stand in line for, leave early for, make extra time for? Maybe to get a good parking spot, to beat traffic, to have time to chat with friends before the work or school day begins, or perhaps for bragging rights that you were the First One There. Why is it so easy, natural, or important to get to thatplace early? Are we as excited to get to our Bibles or to church? Are we rejoicing in the Lord like that?
Whatever it is we plan ahead for with anticipation, Jesus is infinitely better. Jesus is more satisfying than the richest, frothiest, most chocolaty mocha, revives our spirits and our souls, and is the positively BEST person to hang out with ever.
Maybe you’re not feeling the joy or the excitement at your church. Sadly, some churches have lost it. But the problem doesn’t lie solely on the Church. Part of the problem is us. Do we open our Bibles in anticipation or obligation? Do we open them at all? Do we attend a small group or study out of habit, because we think we should? Or because we can’t wait to learn more about Jesus, talk more about Jesus? Are we chomping at the bit to get to church? Or is church some place we go when we feel like it, if we feel like it, and sometimes even when we’re there, we slide in late, scoot out early and keep checking our phones (and I don’t mean the Bible App) while we’re there.
Imagine if Jesus stood at the doors greeting you. How early would you get there to hug Him? Ask Him some questions? Bow at His feet? Just look into His eyes? Treat your Bible study, small group, gathering, or church like that. Because Jesus lives in us and loves to show off when we seek Him. Why not go into our gatherings truly expecting to find Jesus there? Because, I promise He will show up.
If you’re not feeling the joy of Jesus in your current situation, why not be the one to change that—to create the joy. As Kelly Krenzel, founder of Hope Bloomssays in her TedTalk, “Sometimes to feel joy, you must first give it away to others.” We can be the change. We can be the catalyst to take something routine or rote and remind others that Jesus is there in our midst. That’s something to get pumped up about!
Why not bring doughnuts or carrot sticks, coffee, or bottled waters, for before, during, or after, depending on the setting. Heck, at my church a farmer puts out a bin of tomatoes or peppers from his field for anyone who wants them as we exit the building. There’s something so generous, unexpected, and fun about free produce freshly picked—it creates joy. Are you lacking music where you go? Take your portable speaker, cue up some hymns or brand new worship tunes or Christian rap, whatever, and play it in the background as people gather or mingle. Not appropriate for your gathering? That’s okay. Is there a piano? Do you play? Music not the right move? Then hug someone. Say, “hello,” to a stranger. Make a funny face at a toddler. Exude joy and watch it multiply! Whoever you touch with happiness will pass it on, and the excitement will build.
The sight of folks lining up to go to church brought pure happiness to my heart. It stirred something in me. The excitement in the room on Sunday was contagious. I wanted more of it. I pray all of you can feel that anticipation and hope of how Jesus is on the move, of what it feels like to hang out with Him. And I pray as you enter sanctuaries of any shape, size, or style to gather with one or one thousand brothers and sisters in Christ this week that you will bring joy with you, and like starting the wave at a sporting event, you will build the momentum, so that others can feel the joy that is Jesus.
How was your Christmas?
Did you see the people you wanted to see?
Did you get that thing you most wanted under the tree?
Partake in your usual traditions—view the light show? Watch The Nutcracker? Attend the concert? Give the silliest present in the gift exchange?
Or are you feeling unsatisfied?
Maybe you’re full of sugar cookies topped with creamy frosting and sweet sprinkles, and memories and hugs, but now it’s over. Now what?
Or maybe it was amazing, but you’re tired. And you have a house to clean, a fridge to restock, a shopping bag full of returns and exchanges to make, plus thank you notes to write.
Or maybe Christmas at your house is hard, because of that one family member, yikes, or bitterness or jealousy or past regrets or painful memories or the unexpected tragedy and you really want to move on.
I am a Christmas fanatic. I love all of it—the songs (I’ve been listening since November 1), the baking, the decorating, the crisp scent of pine, the sharp taste of peppermint, the warm glow of candles, the Christmas movies that make me laugh (Home Alone) and cry (It’s a Wonderful Life). Yes, I adore Christmas—every millisecond of it, but I ate too much. And stayed up later than my body likes to. And I love my family so fully I might burst, but this introvert girl needs a little alone time. And sure, there are moments over the holidays that are a struggle—when family members bicker, when someone’s feelings are hurt, when a gift goes awry, or the memory of someone no longer with you leaves an ache in your heart. But Christmas isn’t something we’re supposed to rate with a five star system like the last book we read (Faith and Doubt by John Ortberg ****) or movie we watched (Incredibles 2 also ****). Christmas is something that happened one time, one night over 2000 years ago that changed the world, changed everything, changed me, and if you know Jesus changed you, too, forever.
We celebrate this phenomenal event every year despite our budgets or states of mind. It’s such a huge deal we get together with all of our favorite people and decorate evergreens—because they symbolize the everlasting life Jesus gives us, exchange gifts—because He is the greatest gift we’ll ever receive, and drink eggnog—because I have no idea why. Important things should be celebrated, remembered, reflected upon. But this important event wasn’t a one and done—like your last birthday, anniversary, or semester. Jesus was born as a baby (okay, that part only happened once), but He did it to shower His love on us for always.
Jesus loved the world. That’s what He did. That’s who He is—love. And this all-powerful King, Lord of Lords who personifies love, loves you.
When you’re questioning yourself—asking did your brother even like his present, was the turkey a little dry, what did Uncle Lester even mean by his comment, could I have changed that, or fixed that, or saved them? Remember that Jesus loves you, then as the carol, “Old Holy Night,” describes your soul will remember its worth. It’s not about the outcomes. Jesus’ love—that’s what Christmas is all about.
Peter, who hung out with Jesus nonstop during the three years Jesus preached, healed, and taught on earth says it this way:
But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people. —1 Peter 2:9-10
Chosen. Us? For high callings? To be holy people? Dang. It’s hard to feel anything but grateful and honored in the midst of these positions we’ve been appointed to.
You’re named and kept for good by the Shepherd of your souls. —1 Peter 2:35
When we feel helpless, or like no one notices us or appreciates us or understands us, we can remember that Jesus named us. He named us His prized possessions. He’s keeping us for good things. Jesus is our shepherd, the one who feeds, cares for, provides, and protects our very souls.
So, I don’t know how Christmas impacted you for the good or bad. Maybe you still have two more rounds of unruly relatives to “celebrate” with. But no matter how many stars you’d give this Christmas, it’s important to realize all of the festivities were created solely as a way to remember THE first Christmas and all the love Jesus brought for us then, for always. When we sink into the truth that He loves us, that He names us and chooses us, then our souls truly know their worth.
We no longer evaluate ourselves on how the appetizers turned out or how the presents were wrapped. We no longer let those painful memories or snide comments hijack what Christmas means. We no longer feel the need to prove ourselves. Because Jesus chose to come down to earth. Chose to live among us. Chose to die for me and for you, because He chose to love us.
Whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves. John 1:11 MSG
All we have to do is chose Him. And then Jesus will show us who we truly are, allow us to glimpse our value, our worth, fashion us into our true selves, our child-of-God selves. So, as you reflect on Christmas, reflect on that truth. That God wants to be with you, loves you. Not just on Christmas, but every day. And that is something that truly deserves to be celebrated!
Growing up we went to see the Nutcracker every year. I was mesmerized by the antique theatre with velvet curtains and gold columns, the live orchestra, and mostly by the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing on her toes in pink satin pointe shoes. As a young ballet dancer she was who I wanted to be #lifegoals.
Now, with a family of my own, we have a new Christmas tradition. Each year we go see Awaited—a modern musical production depicting the Christmas story. This is not your grade school Christmas pageant. I am amazed by the spectacular costumes—ranging from a metallic gold poisonous frog to the giant camel trodding down the aisles that looks like a Jim Henson creation. There’s a snow machine that rains snow on the audience while the cast performs a delicate rendition of “Silent Night.” The shepherds are strong and stomp around stage with giant wooden staffs. They look more like body guards then guys who hang out with sheep. The music complete with harpists, multiple drum sets, electric guitars, keyboards, etc. rivals a Broadway soundtrack. But my favorite part is the three kings.
The kings wearing towering crowns and flowing robes journey down the rows of spectators with their entourages in search of The Star. Because they’re brilliant scholars, and they know when a certain star appears that the world’s savior is being born. Which is life changing, for everyone. Their performance begins with a quest, including climbing ladders on stage to search the heavens. “We three kings have traveled so far.”
And then the wise men see it. And it changes everything.
The music crescendos. The kings toss down their crowns, strip off their robes to simpler tunics, put down their treasures in awe and wonder. They are no longer concerned with their earthly status or designer clothes or monetary worth or how long their journey has taken. All they care about is that star and what it means—salvation, peace, joy, hope and love. They spin around the stage twirling on scarves, suspended in air.
Do you feel it?
A few days until Christmas are you spinning and twirling delighted in the promises Jesus offers?
Or are you frantic, frazzled or freaked out, worn out by your journey? How far have you traveled this week, this season, this year? Not just literally, but figuratively? Baking cookies, wondering why the teacher’s gift was NOT delivered by Amazon Prime in two days, picking up the extra pack of stamps you need to finish sending out your cards, staying up late or rising insanely early to concoct the side dish you’re taking to the event. I enjoy shopping for people I love, baking delicious food, and sending cards to stay in touch with far away friends. But I do NOT want to lose myself in the lists and the to-dos. How about the bigger stuff? The job hunt or college search? The acclimating to a new city? The figuring out how to do life now that your body no longer does what it used to do or now that a person you depended on is no longer there? I don’t want to get overwhelmed or preoccupied with these things either.
I want to step back and let the real Christmas story soak in. That when Jesus showed up on the scene in Bethlehem 2000 years ago the world was a wreck. There were corrupt politicians and civil wars and poverty. Spend five minutes on your favorite news app and you’ll see plenty of the same today. Mary and Joseph’s marriage wasn’t exactly starting as they’d planned or expected. Their current living situation wasn’t ideal. Doctors weren’t going to be able to help with this birth. But Jesus was coming to save the world.
To save them. To save us. To save you. To save me.
We worry about all of it—did we get everything on our list, do we have the right outfits to wear, where did we put our phones, are we going to max out our credit cards, can we get all of our work done in the midst of the Christmas festivities to please our clients, our bosses, and to pay the bills? Will we heal? Will they heal? When? But we can lay it all down. Our worldly status. Our crowns. Our treasures and revel in the peace, joy, hope, and love that Jesus brought down to the world.
Jesus came on Christmas. But His love, His promise of salvation for all of us is for every day. Breathe it in. Take a moment to stand completely still letting it soak in. Then revel in it. Merry Christmas.
P.S. If you haven't seen Awaited, or can't get tickets, a full version of the show will be available to stream at http://awaitedshow.com starting this Thursday at 7pm and also the whole show will be on WCPO (9) on 12/24 at 5pm and 11:30pm and WLWT (5) on 12/25 at 5am and 11am. Treat yourself and your family. You'll be blown away!
…if you’d like more reminders about how amazing and loved you are throughout the week, follow me on:
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.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
Are you feeling thankful?
Your house may be filled with the aroma of cloves and pumpkin. Maybe the family members you love dearly have already arrived—their footsteps echoing on the floors their laughter filling the house. Or perhaps they’re on their way as you stir the sauce or run the vacuum. But today you might also have an ache that no hot pad, bath, or amount of Advil will soothe. The people you most long to see might not be coming this year. You may have recently had some questions answered, some problems resolved or perhaps a new batch of issues recently sprouted up. The year ahead might suddenly seem exciting, uncertain, or bleak.
But we can all be thankful. Despite our circumstances. Because Jesus hears our praises and our cries. God longs to be with His people. He wants to toast all of the joys and triumphs in our lives with a glass of the finest wine. Jesus wants to heal our wounds, comfort our hurts and answer our prayers. No matter who we will or won’t see over the holidays, Jesus wants to hang out with us and hold us close. In fact, that was one of His favorite things to do while He was on earth.
Jesus celebrated at weddings, invited Himself over to dinner, passed around fish to a giant crowd, broke bread with His disciples, even cooked them breakfast. Jesus longs to spend Thanksgiving with us. No matter how many place settings we’ve put out, no matter if we use our finest china or paper plates, if we’re pouring wine or apple cider or water, Jesus wants to dine with us. He doesn’t care if we make cornbread stuffing from a family recipe, tear open a bag of Pepperidge Farm and add hot water, or if we’re gluten free. Jesus isn’t judging on if we let a cylinder of cranberry jel slide from a can (it is so gross, but I confess I love that stuff) or if you simmered berries over a stove and sprinkled in cinnamon.
Jesus doesn’t stress about the meal or the serving spoons or the weather. He loves to be with us. Because He loves us. And being loved? Isn’t that what we all crave? Having someone who loves us that perfectly, completely and unconditionally—isn’t that the most incredible thing?
Isn’t that the ultimate thing to be thankful for?
You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever. —Psalm 118: 28-29
Although it felt like fall was quickly tumbling into winter, today is unseasonably warm. The air feels almost soft and smells like incoming rain. I stroll along the path at the park taking in the leaves, which are in full color now—canary yellows, burnt golds, pumpkin oranges, and the cherry red of the maple trees. A flock of birds fills the horizon.
I know the birds “fly south for the winter,” but where? Do they visit my dear friend, Amy, in Nashville? My brother, Jim, in Atlanta? My cousins in Florida? Do they keep going until they hit Cuba? How far South is far enough, warm enough? Do the birds have a specific destination or temperature they can tolerate or do they just amble? What do they do once they arrive in the South? Do they make their mark, make a difference? Do they intentionally sample new insects or build nests out of different types of leaves? Do the birds have Southern bird friends they visit or are they just passing time until Ohio thaws out again?
With Thanksgiving travels just a week out and Christmas chasing rapidly behind, I contemplate how I’ll spend this holiday season. Will I be selective about my destinations, about how I spend my time and who I see? Will I be purposeful or just pass time? Time is such a precious commodity. We never seem to have enough. I don’t want to squander it. I want to spend it well. How are you spending your time? How will you spend it in the upcoming weeks?
When I was in college I remember going home for Thanksgiving and wanting to wear sweats and cozy up at home and have my mom spoil me. I wanted to tear the bread for the stuffing and bake the pumpkin pie. I also wanted to see every single friend from high school who was home for break. I tried to cram it all in.
When we had our first baby and were living in Atlanta, my husband and I were focused on flying home, seeing both sets of parents. How about now? Who do you want to make sure you see over the holidays? What do you want to accomplish during your travels? Are their cookies you like to bake? Events you enjoy volunteering at? Crafts you traditionally make? Friends you ache to catch up with? Halls you hope to deck? Carols you long to sing? Prayers you need to utter? What are the most important things to say and do? Will we make a difference this holiday season or just pass time until the calendar tells us they’re over?
There is so much that “has” to get done, that if I am not intentional I won’t be ready to run the Turkey Trot come Thanksgiving morning, get my Christmas shopping done, or even get this blog up. That doesn’t mean every minute of my day needs to be scheduled, although I do love a schedule. I am learning that being flexible is part of being intentional. Flexible to put down my stack of Christmas cards and give my full attention to a conversation with one of my kids. It could mean the opposite—ending a conversation at a family gathering to help someone juggling a plate or carrying a package.
I’m challenging myself here. Time slips by in a blink. I don’t want to waste my holidays. I want to savor them ask good questions, listen well, help where I can, offer what I have, think of others before myself, take time to be thankful and feel God’s presence in it all. How about you?
The weeks ahead are packed with potential—family gatherings, shopping, office parties, gift exchanges, wrapping, concerts, school programs—things I adore and things that take time. How will we spend them? There are pies to bake and bags to pack. But I don’t want to just flap my wings and “do the holidays.” That seems as silly as simply “flying south” with no plan or purpose. When we fly back home from wherever we’ve gone will we have just gone through the motions? Or will we have had a positive impact? Nurtured relationships? Tried new things? Made a difference?
I’m excited for how God will move this holiday season. I know we can all be a part of it, if we talk to Him, listen to Him, and act on His nudges. I’m praying as we all fly South or stay put on our branches—that we can seize the season and make it count.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians 2:6
Laura L. Smith