I made some progress in my to-read stack this year, but every time I took one book off, more seemed to multiply in its place. Which is wonderful, because bring on ALL the books! I usually give you my “best” books in a couple of categories each January, but it’s so hard to pick “best” when there are so many grand books. So this year, I’m just going to share some of my favorites.
I discovered a new author, Clare Pooley. Her writing is honest and authentic. My daughter loaned me her copy of The Authenticity Project, which I devoured and loved so much I went on to read Pooley’s other novel Iona Iverson’s Rules of Commuting. It was so good I bought a copy for my girl. Both books give glimpses of a variety of individual’s lives that collide under a set of unusual circumstances. Their interactions remind us that everyone has value and deserves to be seen, and that first impressions don’t tell the real story.
I dove into Charles Martin’s third book in his Murphy Shepherd series, The Record Keeper. I raved about the first two last year here ). The Record Keeper was. So. Good. In this trilogy Martin exposes the detestable sex trafficking industry throughout the plot raising awareness of the heinous crimes being committed against young people. But it is the journeys of healing the characters travel that are the gold nuggets here. They remind us that there is hope and redemption for us all. Read these books starting with #1. Allow the stories to roll over you. Breathe them in and believe that the healing grace offered the characters is available for you, too. Because it is.
I'm trying to broaden my Midwestern white girl perspective. Two books that helped this year were I Take My Coffee Black by Tyler Merritt and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The social justice work Bryan Stevenson does and shares in Just Mercy is beautiful, hard, life-changing work. As Rosa Parks told Bryan when they met, "You're going to be tired, tired tired. So you're going to need to be brave, brave, brave."
I learned so much about systemic racism, the prison system, death row, and humanity on these pages. Bryan is so bravely loving His neighbors, taking back ground for God's kingdom, and saving and changing people's lives (Just Mercy is also a powerful movie).
Tyler Merritt is funny, smart, creative, full of faith and warm-hearted. He weaves important, historical information on systemic racism throughout his personal narrative. Merritt honestly steps into hard life situations, but always bounces back to the love and grace of Jesus. Tyler also loves all things Hamilton and almost every genre of music, which is an added bonus. For a glimpse of Tyler’s work watch his YouTube video, “If Only She Knew”
As usual, this year I spent a lot of time reading my favorite book–the Bible. I mostly hung out in the Old Testament (with extra time in the Psalms) but also had an extended stay in Ephesians, plus frequent dips into the Gospels. I read books on faith and Jesus and the Bible. I absolutely loved Shauna Niequist’s I Guess I Haven’t Learned that Yet. I read more World War II Historical Fiction set in France, like Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah, because, please, I cannot resist. I also enjoyed a couple of fun romances by Betsy St. Amant like All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes, because I have a sweet tooth for romance. You can find my reviews on everything I remembered to review on my Goodreads profile.
Other favorites of the year?
Music wise, I listened to Lion by Elevation Worship on repeat. Shows? Our family discovered a new series on Disney Plus, National Treasure: Edge of History we’re all enjoying. My favorite movies of the year were Redeeming Love, the film adaptation of Francine Rivers’ novel about the book of Hosea and ultimately God’s love for each of us, and Top Gun: Maverick, the follow up to the 80’s classic, full of fighting for what’s good and right, never leaving your wing man, plus a little romance sprinkled in. I also got new running shoes–I switched to Hokas and this running girl’s knees are so thankful! And last but not least, my mom got me to try a new mascara. Thrive, which goes on and off differently than any mascara I’ve ever tried, was super weird at first, and now I’m in love. Plus Thrive Causemetics donates money to great causes to help people suffering from domestic abuse, homelessness, cancer, etc. with every purchase. Win win.
How about you? What books, music, shoes, new things did you discover in 2022? What’s on your reading list for 2023? Leave a comment–I’m always looking for more books to add to my stack.
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I went rogue last week. I drove around with the tag on my car expired. Crazy, right? But I am a rule follower, and I did not like it. I watched my speedometer like my life depended on it. I overpaid the parking meter when I ran inside Kofenya to grab a coffee. My eyes spent more time on my rearview mirror than on the road. I was antsy and edgy, and it was no way to live.
People talk about wishing they didn’t have any rules, about living wild and free. But I don’t buy in to it working that way. No rules, aka driving with an expired license plate and risking a ticket is no fun at all. I felt nervous. I didn’t feel free. I felt caged in.
But today? Today I have my new plate. After two visits to the BMV (don’t get me started) I’m legal to drive on the roads. And guess what? I feel free. As. A. Bird. If I veer a couple miles over the speed limit I’m not concerned. I’ll park in any spot I choose—I don’t care who sees me. I’ve got music playing and I’m singing along. I’m not looking over my shoulder. I’m not worried. I’ve passed three cops in the last five minutes and didn’t even wince (I might wonder why so many police were out in such a small area, but I won’t worry). I have nothing to prove and nothing to hide from.
This is what it’s like to live in obedience to Jesus. Nothing to prove. Nothing to hide from. Free.
Sure, God gave us all free choice from the get-go. We can choose to go rogue on any issue and follow our whims whenever we choose. And He will still loves us. We can decide if we want to call all the shots or trust Him to guide our decisions. The first, the “on-our-own way” is like telling the government, “I’m not going to have a valid license plate. I don’t like being told what to do. It’s not convenient to go to the BMV. I can’t stand waiting in line. Plus, I’d rather hold onto that cash than spend it on a rectangular piece of metal, thank you very much. And, what are the actual odds of a police officer noticing my expired plate, and then pulling me over? They have bigger fish to fry. There are much bigger crimes. I’ll chance it. Sure, we can choose this alternative. And then we can drive around like we’re paranoid, not enjoying the ride, thinking we need to be sneaky and stealth. Putting additional pressure on ourselves. And risking a pricey fine that could have been avoided. Or in terms of real life, we can fear like we’ll be called out for our past, doubt our worth when we don’t measure up to some worldly expectation, and feel small when we don’t know what someone else is talking about.
OR… we can decide if we want to walk with Jesus, talk with Jesus, listen to Him, and follow His perfect advice—we can simply get that metaphorical license plate. Yes, some days Jesus will ask us to do something inconvenient. Yes, sometimes it will cost us time or money. Sometimes we’ll have to wait. But when we follow Jesus, we can drive around town head held high, owning the fact that we are His sons and daughters. We don’t have to look over our shoulders because of that thing we’re trying to quit or the way we feel inside or the night from our past we wish we could change. Jesus is already clued in. We don’t have to hide anything from Him. He sees us, knows, us, and fully loves us just the same. Jesus has already forgiven all our mistakes past, present, and future. Will we make a bad decision, say something out of anger, slip back into a bad habit, choose the easy way out? We will. For sure mess up. But Jesus will be there, not with sirens wailing and lights flashing, but with a hand to help us up and point us back in the right direction.
Driving with a legitimate license plate isn’t constraining—it’s freeing. It allows me to drive the roads I want to take, to get where I need to be on time, without the potential delay of being pulled over or the unbudgeted cost of a ticket or the angst of worry.
Riding through life with Jesus also isn’t restricting. It’s so incredibly liberating. He offers us love and grace and a better way. His perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). The fruit of the Spirit implants peace in our hearts (Galatians 5:22). When we follow His call, we can turn up the tunes and enjoy the ride, because we know we are fully loved for just who we are, that we have the King of kings on our side, and that we are on a road filled with joy and freedom.
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“Why? Just why?” My daughter asked as she entered the kitchen and slid a purple folder into her backpack.
“Why, what?” I asked.
“That coat. Just why?”
Before I could answer, my son appeared and sidled over to where I’d set out his steaming cinnamon oatmeal. “What is that coat?” He asked.
So, my kids weren’t crazy about the coat, but me? I was. I’d seen the coat in an uptown shop’s window one morning before the store opened and fell in love. I called the store later, something I never do, hoping I could afford it. The price was just under what my gift card total was. Clearly, this was meant to be. They only had one in each size.
“Could you hold it for me?” I might have begged.
The worker apologetically explained because of the holidays they could not. So, I dropped what I was doing, drove to the shop, hoped they still had it in my size. They did. Hoped it would fit well. It did. I handed over my gift card and drove away with the fluffy coat nestled in a lovely pale green bag.
When my kids (who apparently don’t understand how cute the coat is) left for school the morning I first wore the coat, I headed to our coffee shop and saw two gals I knew sitting near the door. Before I could finish saying, “Good morning,” they both complimented the coat. At last, people who understood my style. I greatly appreciated their comments, because I do love this black fuzzy coat decorated with red roses, but their appreciation did not make me like the coat more. I loved it. Period. No matter what anyone else said or thought. With or without anyone’s approval.
Why am I rambling about a coat? Because this is how Jesus loves us. Period. No matter what anyone else thinks. With or without anyone else’s approval. Jesus sees us in the window (okay, going about our daily lives), hopes today will be the day we talk to Him, trust Him, turn over that thing to Him, and then Jesus does anything to get near to us. It doesn’t matter what Jesus is doing, He’ll make time to get close. He’s not holding out until we’re on the sale rack or hoping He has time to bump into us or fit us into His schedule later. If someone else makes fun of us or adores us, it doesn’t change the way Jesus sees us. He loves us. As we are. And for the record, His love is substantially stronger than my coat obsession.
Just like my coat was created by the manufacturer, If By Sea, we were all created by the Creator of the Universe, crafted uniquely and beautifully by Him. Like the roses on my coat, we all have distinct purposes based on the one-of-a-kind mix of skills, talents, perceptions, ways of communicating, insights, etc. that God knitted together into the fabric of our being. I was made like this. You were made like this.
And so, on days when people look at us and shake their heads. On days when people question your decisions and ask, “Why would you wear that? Study that? Go there? Hang out with them? Like that song? Be involved in that activity? Have that opinion? Use your time in that way?” Please know that Jesus thinks you’re remarkable. He loves when you do the things He created you to do and when you delight in the things He created you to delight in. If you’re outdoorsy, Jesus gets excited when you go for a hike in the woods. If you’re crafty He loves when you wield a glue gun. You don’t have to justify yourself to Jesus. He’s already done way more than make a phone call, or drive to a shop for you. He came to this earth over 2000 years ago as a baby in a manger, lived the life of a man, and died a painful death on a cross to dissolve your sins and offer you a life of freedom. That’s how much He loves you.
You were created in the image of God. Therefore, you are gorgeous. And packed with purpose. And nothing anyone says, no matter how anyone treats you, can take your fabulousness from you. It’s innate. Whenever you walk into a room, hold your head up high. Be confident in who you are. Wear it well. I do love my coat, but Jesus loves you infinitely more.
In this first week of advent, a tradition in the Christian church to prepare for Christmas, we celebrate hope. Jesus offers us so much hope, and His hope is that today you will accept His love and wrap it around you. His love is beautiful and warm, fits perfectly, and will never go out of style.
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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.
My husband and I were in Dayton the night of the shooting. Being in the same city as the tragedy shook me deeply. And made me feel helpless. Because let’s be honest, I am ill equipped to stop a gunman or heal bullet wounds. I’m guessing you were also rattled by the recent shootings. Some days it feels like the world is upside down and there is nothing we can do. Like our part isn’t enough. Couldn’t make a difference. But that’s not true.
All of our parts matter. Every word we speak and action we take. God nudges me to remind this person that they’re awesome and puts you in a situation where you can share with someone in need, and through us God wonderfully and intricately loves, strengthens, heals, and empowers His world. Out of all the teachings in the Bible, Jesus named two as being the most important: 1. Love God with all our hearts. 2. Love our neighbors.So by loving our neighbors we are doing something really important, truly meaningful. And often it’s the little things that mean the most. After all, our neighbors don’t have to be people in some far off country. Quite often, our neighbors are simply, well, our neighbors.
Just this past week:
These are little things, but I was showered with love in unexpected places at unexpected times. All these actions from others made a difference to me, made my day brighter, my mood lighter, and as a result I was (hopefully) more agreeable to be around and was able to share a bit of that light wherever I went. None of these were giant things, but they all mattered to me.
God might ask you to give your neighbor’s child a ride to volleyball so they can work late, allowing them a chance to earn the extra dollars they need to pay a bill. Which keeps them out of debt. Reduces their stress. Allows them to be calmer, and therefore a better parent and spouse. Look what you did!
That same neighbor might later prepare you a meal when you’re on crutches and have no idea how you’re going to hobble around the grocery or prepare anything to eat. They not only provided you nutrition to start healing, but also alleviated your worry. Wouldn’t that make a difference to you?
Sometimes God calls us to donate money, time, and resources to important causes that show love to our neighbors. Sometimes we’re called to run a race that raises awareness, volunteer for prison ministry, or go on a mission trip. But often, it’s as simple as rolling a neighbor’s trashcans back to their garage, hugging someone tight who’s had a rough day, or tossing some clinking coins in a tip jar. We all have parts to play in loving God’s kingdom. And they all matter.
I overheard this conversation at a coffee shop the other day:
“You are beautiful. Not like Stacey. But in this really cool, weird, unique way. Everyone wants to hang out with you.”
“Thank you. That means a lot,” answered another voice.
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I was closing up my computer anyway, and this conversation was captivating. The two young women continued to encourage one another as I slid my laptop, journal, and phone into my bag. I couldn’t help but glance at them as I exited the shop. I leaned in as I passed and said, “Hey, what you two are doing is beautiful. Keep building each other up.”
Neither of them were purifying drinking water, ending poverty, curing cancer, or ending violence. But they were making a difference. Right here in Southwest Ohio over frothy fruity smoothies. They were reminding each other why they mattered, strengthening each other for whatever comes their way next. I’m guessing both young women left feeling brighter and lighter, more equipped to handle their problems, and more grateful for the goodness in their life.
Some days the news leaves me speechless. But when I focus on the light of Jesus and His eternal love, I have hope. If I pass on a ray of my hope and you share a glimmer of yours, together we can make this world brighter. I urge you to look around. I will too. One great way to love God with all our hearts is by simply loving the person right next to us.
Graduation announcements are piling up on our counter—my nephew, my cousin’s boy, friend’s kids, two gals from church are all earning diplomas of one sort or another. It’s a time of celebrating what they’ve accomplished, but I’m way more jazzed about celebrating where they’re going.
Commencement means beginning. And I see all these lovely people starting new chapters in their lives—going on to college, military training, new jobs, grad school, moving to different cities. I was chatting with a couple of moms of graduating seniors and the conversation landed on how ready their boys were to graduate—to move on.
But on to what?
This is the million-dollar question. Not meaning every grad has to have their future planned out on color-coded Post It notes, but that they shouldn’t be walking away from something, but toward something. When we have something exciting or intriguing to step into then, woo hoo, forward march. But if we aren’t eager for the next page then there’s more hesitation than anticipation.
This holds true for grads, but it holds true for all of us. Doesn’t it?
With graduates it’s so easy to see one chapter of their lives ending and a new one beginning. There are caps, gowns, pomp, circumstance, and seemingly endless slices of sheet cake topped with roses made of sugary, creamy frosting. But for the rest of us these shifts from one to the next aren’t always so obvious. Sometimes we’re so busy just doing—cooking the meals, washing the clothes, logging the hours at work and the gym—that we’re not even looking for the new, don’t even have our eyes open to all the potential Jesus is constantly offering. Yet ALL of us are currently poised to graduate—from something—from an old way of thinking, a stagnant relationship, a bad habit, completed project, or complacency. We are all positioned to commence something new—a fresh approach, newfound friendship, revamped strategy, enlightened mindset.
Don’t’ keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? —Isaiah 43:18-19 MSG
I don’t know what Jesus is offering you—what’s about to burst forth for you, like a blossom from a bud. But as you complete one project, punch your time card, check that thing off your list, how about asking Jesus, “What’s next?” What if before we opened our Bibles we intentionally asked God to reveal His wishes for us in the Word? What if we all went on a walk today, left our earbuds at home, breathed in the fragrance of lilac bushes, paused to listen to the woodpecker rat-tat-tatting on a tree, and just talked to Jesus about the things He wants us to lay down and pick up and how that should look?
I went for a walk on campus with my friend, Beth, the bell tower chiming “Chim Chim Cher-ee” in the background. We chatted about crafting our current manuscripts, our recent speaking events, along with other laundry lists of continuing the work God has set in front of us. But we also asked each other the “What next?” questions. We talked about the things within our work that light us up (do more of that), drain us (do less of those), the big dreams, the daily necessities. We challenged each other to consider the next steps God is calling us to—whatever those may be.
You won’t be receiving a graduation announcement from me in the mail. I will not be handed a diploma. But I am committed to making this next season a new one, a fresh start. Not necessarily because the current season or the one before that was bad, but because there is so much to experience. Because God is asking us not to do the same old same old, but to be aware of the new things bursting out. Want to join me in this quest for new?
What does this look like? Different for all of us, of course.
It doesn’t mean we all need to move across the country and get new jobs. But it can mean that if a cool position is posted within your existing company, you can put our name in the hat. Maybe it’s time to plant a garden, or commit to eliminating something toxic from our diets. It could mean that even though the last three years we’ve volunteered, we’re not going to this summer so we can fix up our home, or our lives, or help someone we care about, or maybe learn a new skill, pursue an interesting opportunity, or launch our own business. It could mean that if reading our Bibles in the morning isn’t sticking, that we switch it up and read it during our lunch break. Maybe it’s just changing how we order our days or where we sit in class, at church, at meetings, or at the coffee shop (kidding—you don’t have to give up your favorite people watching spot, but would you?).
If God is doing new things, then I want to be a part of those new things. Don’t you?
Let’s not be stagnant, but expectant. As we graduate from the school year to summertime, let us keep our eyes open to what God is igniting. Let us commence this summer with open minds to God’s will and fresh ideas on how to best live out the lives He’s intended for us.
The odds of picking a perfect NCAA tournament bracket are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. The odds of winning the Powerball lottery (which was up to $750 million at the writing of this post) are 1 in 292 million. These numbers are easy to find with a quick Google search. But has anything extraordinary ever happened to you and you wondered, “What are the odds that could have happened?” I had one of those “what are the odds?” moments this weekend.
We entered the Starbucks and the rich, inviting aroma of roasted coffee beans welcomed us inside. Our main goal was to find the bathroom. After detours and construction my friend, her husband, their daughter, me, and my daughter had been in the car for hours and still had a few to go before we arrived in Gatlinburg for the girls’ soccer tournament. While we were stopped for the restroom, treats were in order. For me? A tangy, iced peach tea sounded like the perfect pick me up.
Before any of us could order, a young woman with long brown hair and perfectly arched eyebrows hugged my friend. I didn’t know how they knew each other, or why in the world they’d bump into each other here, but I heard the gal say, “Kat’s in the car.”
Kat is my friend’s older daughter, who had been in Savannah, and was supposed to be meeting us in Gatlinburg to watch her little sister play. But moments before we pulled out of the driveway, Kat texted saying she was sick and couldn’t come. She would drive with her friend straight back to Cincinnati to get some rest. The whole family was disappointed Kat wouldn’t be at the tournament, and that they couldn’t be together when Kat was feeling so awful.
But now? As we made our random rest stop from Ohio to Tennessee and Kat took a break from her route from Savannah to Cincinnati, our paths collided at the exact same Starbucks at the exact same time.
What are the odds?
But this thing had nothing to do with odds. It was a gift from God. My friend got to see and hug her sick daughter. Her daughter got giant, comforting hugs from her mom and dad. Kat also got to wish her younger sister good luck. The whole episode only lasted about ten minutes, but it was beautiful to witness the warmth and depth of this impromptu reunion.
This is how God works. All of the time. He is orchestrating things beyond our imagination, outside of our control. We feel disappointed, stressed, impatient, concerned when things don’t go our way. When we get sick and we have to miss something we want to attend. When we’re sent out of our way or feel stuck and don’t seem to be moving ahead. When we can’t see someone we had plans to meet or go somewhere we had plans to go God says, “Be anxious about nothing. (Matthew 6:25) Don’t worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34). Trust me. I’ve got this (John 16:33).”
And then He does something crazy awesome!
Paul and Silas were two missionaries teaching folks about Jesus. They were preaching in the town of Philippi, when long story short, they ended up in jail. Not exactly what they were hoping for.
But then God.
God created an earthquake so powerful it shook the jail to its foundation. Bricks crumbled and tumbled every which way. The jailer was also shaken by this miracle and ended up believing in Jesus. So did his entire household. (Acts 16:16-40) Paul and Silas set out to teach people about Jesus, but landed in prison. But God put them there at just the right place at just the right time, so He could shake things up and convert a whole family of unlikely suspects.
What are the odds that jail would be struck by an earthquake? That the unbelieving jailer and his large clan would be transformed?
Again, I’m guessing zero.
Does something look bleak today? Disappointing? Like you’ll miss seeing your favorite person or maybe that you ended up in the opposite place of where you’d hope you would be?
God isn’t fazed. At all. He has some elaborate behind-the-scenes plan at work. He will somehow use where you are, when you’re there, mix things up and do something that will blow you away.
The odds of you being born with your exact genetic makeup are 1 in 400 trillion. And yet, here you are, reading these words right this very moment. God blows off the doors on all the odds. He intentionally and specifically created you exactly how you are. (Pretty cool, right?) And He hasn’t stopped working in and through your life since the moment He formed you. No matter how highly the odds may seem stacked against you. Trust Him. You never know who He might have you run into or what He might crumble down. But you can count on it being phenomenal. Those are odds you can bet on.
Over the weekend I was at a soccer tournament in Lexington. On Saturday the girls had three games. As we were leaving the hotel one of the other moms who I adore said, “Do you guys want to ride over to the fields with us? I mean, we have a bunch of chairs and things in the car, but we can move them around and make room for you.” Riding over with friends sounded great, plus I’m always looking for a way out of driving (not my strong suit), so we hopped in their SUV.
But first they had to prepare—make a little room for us, move some stuff around, or we wouldn’t have fit.
After the first game, we went to brunch at First Watch. (Oh my goodness, have you had their banana granola pancakes? If not, find a First Watch soon and give them a try—crunchy, sweet, and lightly drizzled with syrup, of course.) We put our name in at the hostess stand and had to wait a few minutes while they got a table ready for us. Someone else had to leave. The table needed to be wiped down. New menus and silverware needed to be set up. They needed to prepare some room for us before we could dine.
As we’re entering into Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas observed as a way to “get ready” for Jesus) I wonder what I need to be moving around, shifting over, getting rid of, setting out to make more room for Jesus in my life. The familiar Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World,” says it like this: Let every heart prepare Him room.
It’s not that I don’t have Jesus in my life. I do. I go to church, read my Bible, pray, but I also do a zillion other things. Make breakfast, pick up shirts from the dry cleaner, drive the curvy country roads to and from basketball practice, sign a permission slip so my teenager can watch 12 Years a Slave in class, call the pharmacy about a prescription… to name a few. And each of those things is great—feeding the fam, getting people where they need to go, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, at least some of them. But each workout I log, counter I wipe off, text I respond to is like another folding chair I throw in my trunk or another empty coffee mug on my table. Super handy for watching a soccer game or waking up, but making my life a little more crowded. And if I want Jesus to hop in my figurative car or sit at my table with me, I’m going to have to move some things around to make room for Him.
Over 2,000 years ago Mary and Joseph had the best surprise for the entire world going. Mary was pregnant and about to give birth to the Savior of the World! Get. Out! This was the promise the Israelites had been waiting for for centuries (it had been over 500 years since the last of the great Jewish prophets telling how God would come down to save His people, Malachi, put down his quill). But yet, there was no room for them in the inn. —Luke 2:8
No room? For the promised Messiah? For the guy everyone had hoped for, prayed for, yearned for? We hear these verses every Christmas and imagine exhausted Mary and Joseph wandering around Bethlehem with their gray, fuzzy donkey. But do we let the “no room” part sink in? Not just that it was super frustrating to not be able to find a hotel--ugh. And not just that poor Mary had to give birth on prickly hay in a barn that smelled like cows, no thank you. Those are important details of the story, for sure. But so is this one. All of the folks in town who were craving a Savior, who were longing for a Messiah? Not one of them was able to find room in their busy lives, in their crowded homes for Jesus to actually enter and do what He does—love. They didn’t have room. And they weren’t willing to prepare any.
So how about us? If Jesus came knocking on our doors today, would we have time in our schedules to hang out with Him? What would we have to rearrange to make room for Jesus in our days? Skip an episode of This is Us? Use an absent pass from the staff meeting? Get someone else to drive carpool? Be okay with not vacuuming? Order pizza?
Because here’s the thing. Jesus is knocking at our doors. Right now. Literally as I write this blog and you read it. He’s saying, “Don’t you just love all the twinkly lights at Christmas time?” Or, “Wow, we haven’t talked in a while, but I miss hearing from you.” Or maybe, “Hey, I know things have been rough lately. Do you want to talk?” And Jesus is waiting to see if we’ll answer the door. Are we too busy? Is our life too noisy to even hear Him knocking?
I don’t know what takes up too much time in your life, what’s a distraction from hearing His voice. But as I look at my life, the first thing that comes to mind is social media. Which I enjoy. And can be fun and helpful. But also on social media, I can totally lose track of time, translation waste valuable time, AND end up playing the comparison game, which never ends well. Plus if I could limit my time on social media, my brain would be less cluttered with the zillions of quotes and images that flash past my eyes and then immediately dissolve, AND I could be more focused on Jesus. I could have at least fifteen or so more minutes a day to pray, stop and think, or take a deep breath and talk to Jesus. So this is where I’m starting to prepare Him room. But I still have more preparing to do.
Maybe for you it’s not eliminating something, but actually intentionally doing something—setting that table or opening the door He’s knocking on by grabbing your Bible, putting aside time each day to pray, or setting the alarm one day a week to meet with that friend who is so good for your soul.
I don’t know what “chairs you need to move in your car,” or what air mattress you might need to blow up in your figurative inn. But I do know Jesus is knocking. He wants to hang out. Yup, even though that one part of your life is a mess, and that other thing you did isn’t quite resolved. Jesus just wants to come in. He doesn’t ask for anything fancy. Remember, where He made his debut was a stable. Jesus just wants to come in, so He can do what Jesus does. Love.
Will you prepare Him room?
What can you do today, to clear out some space for Jesus?
If you want to chat more about Advent, find me on Facebook and Instagram where I'll be chatting all things Advent and Christmas.
Due to crazy schedules and me skimming too fast through one too many emails my youngest and I pulled up to his school for basketball tryouts the other night. “Hmm,” I said. “I wonder why there aren’t any cars here.”
“Yeah, kind of strange,” he answered. “We are kinda early.”
I checked my phone. “Six minutes early.”
We got out of the car walked to the door, and you already know the scenario, the door was locked. No one was there.
I texted another mom and scrolled through emails. Pretty sure I did this simultaneously, which might be how we’d ended up here in the first place. Yes, there was a coach’s meeting tonight. No, there weren’t tryouts. Yes, there were tryouts for an elite team at a different place tonight, but those were not the tryouts we were trying to attend. Total mom fail. Although my son shrugged it off as we got back in our car, I knew he’d gotten mentally and emotionally ready for tryouts. There’s an adrenaline surge of excitement and nervousness no matter your skill level or what you’re auditioning for. It was a chilly evening and he’d had to change into basketball clothes and ride to the next town for absolutely nothing. When we got home he said, “Thanks for bringing me home.”
Ummm. “You’re welcome.” I couldn’t stifle my laughter. “Do you think I would have left you at the tryouts I thought you had, but weren’t real?”
He laughed, too. “No. But thanks for coming straight home, and for taking me in the first place.”
This kid is too much. He is honestly the most grateful person I know. This has nothing to do with parenting and everything to do with the kind spirit God has placed inside of him. This is the same boy who has said, “Thank you for letting me make dinner tonight.” As in him. Cooking for our family. And then thanking me. No lie. He oozes gratitude. Not surprisingly, he’s also one of the happiest people I know.
Does thankfulness equal joy?
There’s research that makes it sound like that’s true. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, wanted to know why some people were content with their lives, while others were not. She conducted thousands of interviews trying to discover what makes a wholehearted person. “Wholehearted living,” she says, “is about cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” These people had joy.
Do you know what she found? Every single person who made it to her “wholehearted” list practices gratitude on a regular basis. Meaning, they don’t just say, “thank you” when the barista hands them their pumpkin spiced latte, but they daily, intentionally, take time to mentally note things they can be thankful for.
I think Brene is pretty rockstar, if you haven’t watched her Ted Talks or read her books, do that and soon, but there’s a source I deem much higher than Brene, higher than any other source, the Bible. And the Bible repeatedly instructs us to be thankful.
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. —1 Thessalonians 5:18
As we enter into November and pumpkin pies and pilgrims, are we focused on which family we’ll see when and what dish we need to prepare for Thanksgiving, or are we actually taking time to be thankful?
My son has to practice basketball. Dribbling and shooting aren’t part of his daily life, unless he intentionally goes out to the garage, grabs the ball, and takes time to practice. No one else in our family plays this game. So for Maguire, this means motivating himself, dribbling up and down our cul de sac when it’s chilly outside, shooting over and over when there’s no one else to play with. The same is true for gratitude. We aren’t going to just “be thankful” unless we intentionally set aside time or habits that enable us to appreciate all we have.
Where do we start? A lot of people say grace or a prayer before they eat. Do you do this? Before every meal? Even a Starbucks scone on the fly? Even at a business dinner with clients? You could start by thanking God for every single meal, regardless, for having food, any food, when so many people in the world are literally starving, for crunchy apples the colors of fall leaves, and warm, hearty soup on a chilly day. It’s an easy place to start.
How about as a family with daily prayers? Could you all go around and say one thing you’re thankful for? Before you start your day? Before you go to bed? Both? This holds you all accountable to one another. At least once a day, even the grumpiest family member with the lousiest stuff going on can practice finding something they’re thankful for. And when we say it out loud, “Thank you God for cozy blankets or a stunning sunrise this morning,” all of a sudden, we realize we truly are grateful.
A thankful list or journal is a brilliant way, for all you planner-obsessed, list-making, color-coded folks out there (raises hand). Create a separate journal or pad of paper where you write down at least five things, or ten things, or twenty, up to you, you’re grateful for each day. Make the time consistent—when the kids get on the bus, when you arrive in the office, when you park your car in the parking lot, but before you get out—whatever time of day you can both make it fit into your schedule and it will help mentally prepare you for what’s next.
Maybe none of these ideas make sense for you, but your morning drive time would be ideal, or your lunch break, or you’d like to put up a sticky note on your mirror each day with something you’re thankful for, or change your screen saver to “Give thanks in all circumstances!” so that every time you pick up your phone, you’re reminded to thank God for something. You don’t have to limit yourself to being grateful at these set times, but scheduled times, just like brushing your teeth before you go to bed, makes it part of your routine.
Today, I’m sick. I don’t know what hit me, but I feel like my head is in a way too tight helmet and like I could sleep until Christmas. But I am so grateful. Grateful my kids are old enough to feed and dress themselves, so I don’t have to worry about their basic needs. Grateful my husband brought a rich, chocolate muffin and steaming, coffee up to me in my bed. Thankful for vitamin C packets that give my immune system a boost. Grateful I could sleep in and wear sweats, because there is only one place I had to be all day, you guessed it, actual basketball tryouts.
Throughout November, I’m going to provide a place for us to practice gratitude together for anyone who’d like to get into this habit. It is proven to bring us joy, and more importantly to please God. I’ll use #thankfulnessproject to organize the posts. I’d love for you to check out my Facebook and Instagram daily to join in. But let’s start right now. What’s one thing you’re grateful for?
In 1990 Jesus Jones’ hit, “Right Here, Right Now,” hit #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 songs. This alternative tune could be heard all over the radio and at parties and dance clubs around the nation, “Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be.” Singing along to it with friends, I believed every word. Where else would a girl rather be than dancing around the family room with her besties and the music blaring? But this is how we should feel all of the time. This day. This moment right now. It is a gift. As C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters, “I believe, God wants them (humans) to attend chiefly to two things—to eternity itself, and to that point of time, which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”
Sigh. The Present. Right here. Right now. Lewis continues that all duty, grace, knowledge, and pleasure are experienced solely in the present. ALL duty, grace, knowledge, and pleasure! Why then, would we ever go, let alone linger anywhere else? Why then are we all running around so stinking worried about tomorrow?I do it all the time. Over big stuff and little stuff. This weekend…I hope all my kids get playing time in their games. And if they don’t, I pray they won’t let it affect their self worth. Some time this fall…I hope the book proposal my agent is shopping around for me finds the perfect publisher. And if not, what will be our next steps? Should we send it to different publishers? Should I write something else altogether? What should I write next? What will I make for dinner when friends come over? What if they don’t like it? Where should my oldest son go to college? What if I set off the alarm at our church at Bible study again next week? Don’t judge. It’s a real issue.GRrrr! The ‘what ifs’ in life flood our brains. “How should I act if… the next time I see that person they say that thing to me that always bugs me? Where will I live next year? What will I do once I have my degree/certificate/license? What if I don’t get offered the spot/deal/contract/extenstion? What if I do?” These are all legit concerns. Questions about our future and our well-being and about doing the right thing, taking the next step. But if God is who He says He is, and I believe with all of my self that He is, then we should actually be able to rest in the peace that He has it all under control. And we should also breathe in the moment, the very place and experience He has set us in. Right now. He calls Himself, Emmanuel, God with us. Meaning He’s with us. Right here.
Such incredible surroundings we have—rich in sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touches. It’s fall! A season packed with sensory pleasures! There are crisp apples, spicy cider, bumpy hayrides, flocks of birds flapping and calling as they fly south, ref whistles and drum cadences at football games, bright orange pumpkins, cool breezes, a gorgeous array of glimpses of eternity to inhale and savor.
Jesus didn’t worry about His next speaking gig, how He would pay taxes, how many followers He had, or what was for dinner. He knew God would take care of all of it—trusted God to take care of all the things. Big and small. Taxes—grab a fish out of the water over there and there will be money in the fish’s mouth. A ride into town—oh yeah, there should be a donkey tied up over there all set to hop on. Dinner? We have a couple of sandwiches, right? I’m sure it will be enough for this crowd of thousands of people. Jesus paid attention to the people in front of him—the woman washing his feet, the blind man begging for mercy, the lady who’s fingers barely grazed the hem of his robe in a crowd full of people. He lived in the moment. Loving those around Him. Right then.
You guys, this is it. The closest we get to eternity. Are you shrugging and thinking that it’s not that great? That your Present is pretty stressful, lonely, painful, overwhelming? I’m not doubting that you have trials. We all do. Life can be hard. There are aches and sorrow and struggles all around us. But God loves us so much. He lavishes us with scents and tastes to comfort us amidst the hurt. God gives us the Present—the gift of pure pleasure in the Present if we will drink it in. Try rethinking your Present—this exact moment—right here, right now.
This morning did you taste sweet, golden honey on your toast or salty, smoky bacon? Did you glance the snow white, fluffy tail of a baby deer darting through the yards? Get a warm hug or text from someone who loves you? Are you wearing snuggly soft slippers or socks? Or perhaps you’re barefoot, and your toes feel firm and alive on the cool floor this morning. Look at your toes? Are they painted energizing scarlet red or maybe tranquil turquoise? Do you hear the church bells or clock tower chiming the hours of a new day—ringing for your pleasure? Did you see the sunrise this morning? Glorious purples muted into pale pinks, smeared and swirled all over the sky. Right here. Right now. You missed it? No problem. Because tonight, God will give you a sunset. Live in the moment. And tomorrow morning you get another sunrise. In that moment. Right then. Right there. Drink it in.
Stop worrying about all the maybes, might bes, could bes. Instead appreciate this moment now. Use your five senses to tap into the pleasures God has created specifically for you to enjoy. Jesus reminded us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” —Matthew 6:34
Instead of fixating on what might be let’s focus on all of the duty, grace, knowledge, and pleasure at our fingertips. Right here. Right now.
Laura L. Smith