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
My youngest has always been allergic to peanuts. A few Zyrtec and Kleenex won’t take care of his problem. Peanut allergies are life threatening. We’ve cleared our home of anything remotely resembling a nut. We’ve become experts at reading ingredient labels. We bake our own treats for parties and celebrations to ensure his safety. Epipens are stashed in every car, purse, backpack and cupboard of our house.
This summer Maguire had his annual allergist appointment. The doc did a skin test to check the status of his allergy and…there was no reaction. Zero. Next came a blood test to confirm the findings of the skin test. The results…negative. No peanut allergy? What? There was still one more test. Dun, dun dun…The Peanut Challenge, which basically consists of eating peanut butter for two hours in the doctor’s office while they monitor you. If something goes wrong, the doctor has the antidote to rescue you. If all goes well, you’re officially deemed no longer allergic. That day Maguire ate spoonfuls of Jif, and he was completely fine.
It was incredible. Life changing. Freeing! Maguire was thrilled he could now eat Reese’s and go out for ice cream without having to ask the worker for a clean scoop to ensure no nutty remnants from another flavor touched his vanilla. We were thrilled our son was safer in those situations. But despite all of the joy, gratefulness, and freedom, it was oddly hard to accept. Maguire has always been allergic to peanuts. How could he just start eating them now? How was it possible that Maguire was instantly free? He hadn’t taken a class, eaten pounds of spinach, or stood on his head to remove his allergy. It just vanished.
The same is true in our relationship with Christ. We don’t have to do anything, eat anything, turn around three times or pray a set number of minutes each day. Just by accepting that Jesus died for us, cleans our slates. We are no longer soiled by our recent or long gone past. We are not condemned by our mistakes, strangled by our fears or chained to our worries. I know that. Just like I know Maguire has outgrown his allergy. But how often do I question the freedom Christ offers?
When the school office called asking where Maguire’s Epipen was, I answered hesitantly, heat pounding, “He doesn’t need one any more.” Was he safe? I knew he was, and yet…
I put a note in his lunch and saw a peanut butter sandwich nestled inside. It freaked me out. I’ll have to sanitize his lunch box. No, I don’t. Because peanuts can’t hurt him any more. And we are also safe. Free. Loved. We don’t need backup medication or extra special sanitation.
Jesus says, “I love you. Just how you are.”
And I believe Him. Most of the time. Yet some days, I feel the need to prove myself—to God, to the world, to my family. I don’t want to let others down. I don’t want to let God down. I don’t want to let down my guard. Because I want to be a good wife and mama. I want to tell great stories. I want to be the kind of person Jesus wants me to be. Which are great desires. Just like keeping my son safe is a great desire.
But I have to accept that medical tests proved Maguire is no longer allergic. And more importantly I have to full out accept Jesus’ grace. That it is truly ALL I need. I have to stop doubting and second-guessing. I don’t have to take things into my own hands, just in case God doesn’t know what’s going on, or isn’t capable of handling the situation. Because God knows everything. And He can handle everything. In my life and in yours.
My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. —2 Corinthians 12:9
What are you freaking out about right now? The balance of your bank account? Your relationship status? Your grades? Your quiet time, playing time, personal time, airtime, time of departure or arrival?
Christ’s grace is sufficient. Jesus says, “I’ve got this. I have this. Trust me. Don’t believe me? Look at all the times I’ve guided, saved, directed, and held you up in the past. Still don’t believe me? I died to save you, that’s how much I love you.”
“Right. He’s got this.” We don’t have to freak out. We do need to do our part. But then we have to trust. And when we do, we can outgrow our dependency on trying to prove ourselves worthy. Jesus says we are worthy. Jesus says He loves us. And nothing we eat or do or forget or achieve can ever change that.
I was at a musical the other night and at the first joke I heard a deep, hearty laugh from somewhere behind me. I smiled. It was the kind of laugh that made me think of a grandfather, although I barely knew mine, or of Santa Claus. It was someone’s laugh who wasn’t concerned if anyone else thought that line was funny, who could have cared less how loud or quiet his laugh was, who was comfortable in the art of being entertained, and completely ready to sit back and enjoy the show. It was a lovely, welcome sound.
A few moments later I heard it again. This guy and his deep down from his belly laughter was fresh air in a stuffy theatre. He was at the high school’s production of Annie, and he was there to listen to the actors say their lines, pay attention to the performance, and savor every moment of the show.
Was I paying full attention? Allowing the fun to wash over me?
Am I that engaged in my life—listening to every line, savoring every moment, breathing in the spring air, tasting zesty tacos on Tuesday nights, laughing out loud? Or am I rushing around, shoving down bites, distracted, thinking about somewhere other than where I am, worried about what other people are doing, about how I’m going to get my to-do list done, criticizing when others make mistakes?
The man’s laughter was contagious. Because he was so comfortable cracking up, it gave others free license to join in. He got the crowd more engaged, laughing harder, which turned up the actors’ games as they played it up all that much more for the crowd. One man’s laughter made all of the jokes funnier, all of the inferences more clever, all of the performers better at their craft.
I don’t know who this man was, but I know I want to be more like him. I want to laugh out loud, and not just as an LOL abbreviation on a text, but so loud that others can hear me, that they might even join in, or at least smile. I want to chuckle, chortle, and snort and enjoy each and every moment of this amazing life. I want to gripe less and giggle more. Are you with me?
Loosen up a little today. Allow something silly to tickle your funny bone. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Laugh and laugh and laugh some more until you get others to join in—until you create a chain reaction of joy.
My favorite day of the year is Christmas Tree Day, which falls annually on whichever day my family gets our tree. To me, it represents hope.
Merriam Webster defines hope as: to cherish a desire with anticipation. Yup, that’s me about Christmas. But the word ‘hope’ seems to get watered down. I hope I get there on time. I hope the line’s not too long. I hope they still have it in my size. That’s not really cherishing a desire, is it? Then what is hope? Hope is a college in Michigan. It is a charitable wine company. It’s even one heck of a goalie for the women’s National Team. But it is so much richer than that.
We all love picking out a prickly evergreen from the local farmer’s market, taking turns standing next to this one thick with fragrance, then that one with just the right point on top, so we can all compare and choose which tree is the perfect pine to grace our family room. Our family enjoys unboxing treasured ornaments from years past, the golden twinkle of lights, and singing Christmas tunes out loud, whether we know the words or not. But I get especially emotional.
Sure, it’s because of all the reasons I’ve listed above—spending time with my favorite people on the planet, reliving old memories, creating new ones, but I believe Christmas Tree Day is so powerful to me, because of all of the hope it signifies—the hope of the entire Christmas season.
My heart fills as it anticipates carols, cookie baking, and candle light services. I flash-forward to the joy of watching my kids scramble to locate our Elf on the Shelf (his name is Frosty) each morning. My taste buds eagerly look forward to the creamy richness of a peppermint mocha, sigh, and thick dark fudge. I’m excited to hug, laugh and catch up with loved ones. I look forward to priceless moments ranging from pausing to contemplate the nativity scene to prancing through the yard at the first sign of snowflakes—the kind of memories that seem to fold one on top of another at Christmas like no other time of year. I can barely wait for it all.
Christmas Tree Day brings me all of the hope of the Christmas season. But the Christmas season brings me all of the hope wrapped up in the fact that Jesus was willing to come down to earth, among the trials, the mistakes, and flaws of mankind (that’s me and you) to save us. Some days we feel hopeless. But Christmas is the beautiful promise that no matter what we’ve done or where we’ve been, Jesus loves us anyway, and calls out to us from the manger and from the cross, and right to where we are today, saying He wants to offer us love, the perfect kind. That’s what hope is. Hope is the desire, the anticipation, for His selfless love. But unlike Christmas morning, we don’t have to wait to unwrap it. God’s love is His gift to us today, right here and now.
No wonder the start of the season, the day that commences this month packed with hope, stirs me up inside. I cherish each moment setting up and decorating the tree, but I am also overwhelmed with the promises and potential of Christmas. No matter what you’re hoping for this Christmas, know that Jesus offers you all that and more.
May your days be merry and bright
I’ve ridden in a limousine once. It was my grandfather-in-laws 90th birthday. The champagne cork was popped at the last three graduation parties of members of my husband’s family. See, there’s something my father-in-law taught me, and that is the importance of celebrating the big stuff.
He was behind the limo and the champagne. He was the one who didn’t just give up smoking, but wrapped up the last pack of cigarettes he ever bought, the unfinished pack that marked his decision to quit, and gave it to his dad for a birthday present. He was the one that when our first baby was born, grabbed my mother in law, hopped a plane from Cincinnati to Atlanta, a train from Hartsfield airport to the hospital and arrived within moments of her birth. My father-in-law, Rick, knew that the high points in life are rare, and deserved to not only be celebrated, but to be celebrated with flair, with a bang!
This is the time of year when the number of celebrations seems a bit overwhelming. There are graduations from everything from preschool to grad school. There seem to be countless parties, and thankfully sheet cake (man I love sheet cake, especially the corner pieces laden with frosting). Tis the season for ballet recitals, guitar recitals, art shows, baseball and softball tournaments, end of school year carnivals, festivals, and class parties. Not to mention, June is the month for weddings.
But don’t let the number of events lessen the importance of any of these events. Diplomas don’t come easily. There are countless pages of homework, flips of flash cards, problems solved, essays written and rewritten, study sessions that go into that piece of paper. Recitals are fun to watch, but they are a fleeting demonstration of the hours of rehearsing that go into the final performance.
My son graduated from 8th grade last night. He has spent the last nine years in his grade school with the same group of kids. During those years he’s gone from reading Jack and Annie to John Green. Moved from playing Old MacDonald on the piano to Ed Sheeran on the guitar. He’s also grown about four feet taller. So, yes, we went out to dinner, took tons of pics, and I made cheesecake, because it’s his favorite.
But there are other things we need to celebrate, too. Learning how to ride a bike, getting a driver’s license, mastering a headstand, finishing a major project—the work that went into it, the obedience to see it to completion, the satisfaction of typing “the end” or pushing send or turning it in or zooming through the neighborhood on wheels. We should take time to celebrate an acceptance of a new job, an award or scholarship, a position on a team, because it signifies an intentional “yes” to move forward to take the next step.
There are so many go to the grocery days, mow the lawn days, crank out the edits days, work an extra shift days, run one more lap days. So on the oh-my-goodness-this-is-so-exciting-days we need to celebrate.
This is the day the Lord has made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24 NKJV
How you celebrate is truly up to you, but do it big, do it grand. Don’t just tell your family about the job offer you’d been waiting for at the breakfast table as everyone is grabbing their granola bars and dispersing for the day. It’s not braggadocios to say, “I’ve been working on this for months and I can finally play the song, got my article published, broke my record, or completed the marathon.” The people who adore you will want to congratulate you. Let them. This is a chance to revel in the ways God is faithful, in the times He helped you push through the walls, kept you keeping on.
Don’t just type an email to your sister who finished her final class for her masters program or to your girlfriend who got engaged. You don’t need to send a town car or pour the bubbly, but you do need to do something special—something that signifies how awesome it is that she was faithful and used the gifts and talents God endowed her with or that God is faithful and brought the person into her life she’s been waiting for.
Think through who achieved what and then put some thought into how to celebrate. You could treat someone to a meal or a cup of coffee. You could make a poster, decorate their front door, write congratulations with washable paint on their car windows. Do they like music? Block out their calendar and take them to a free concert in the park or grab their phone when they’re not looking and download some new tunes onto it that you’re pretty sure they’ll love (pay with your Apple account of course). Do you have a green thumb? Plant flowers in their window box. Do they love to cook? Tie a bow on a fresh pot of live basil for them to snip all summer. Did they finish a really exhausting season where they gave it their all. Make cupcakes with frosting in their team colors. Be you. Be original. Be sensitive to the person you’re celebrating (if they hate crowds, please don’t throw them a giant surprise party). But do revel in life’s milestones and accomplishments.
God created this day. He’s the one who brought you or the person you adore this far. He gave each and every one of us skills and drive and motivation and time and resources and maybe even a few lucky breaks to get us where we are. And God created us to rejoice. So don’t do it half-heartedly. Be all in and go all out for your celebrations. There are plenty of days, but this Day, this one deserves something extra special. Rejoice in it.
Laura L. Smith