I’m emotionally raw. One of my best friends is in the hospital. Someone I adore lost his job. I just heard a friend-of-a-friend committed suicide. My heart hurts. I climbed in my freezing car, all of this swirling through my brain, fired up my heated seat, plugged my phone into the auxiliary cord, opened Spotify to whatever playlist I last had it on and hit shuffle. “Hills and Valleys” by Tauren Wells came on, and the hot tears leaked down my cold cheeks.
“In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there.”
Oh these valleys. They are no stinking fun, God. Yes, Jesus, I KNOW you are with me, with my friends, with this devastated family. You’re with us, Jesus, in all of it—in the hills and valleys and plateaus of life—always. I know Jesus is healing my one friend, has new plans for the other, and is wrapping His almighty arms around the family who is suffering loss. But, I also know today, they’re all in pain—physical, emotional, mental pain. Pain that I am incapable of easing. How about you? Are you or anyone you know suffering today? The valleys can be excruciating. Betrayal and loss hurt. Disappointments ache. Uncertainty depletes.
But I am not alone.
My friends are not alone.
You are not alone.
God knows about all of the hurt. He sees us in the rough patches, in the rigorous terrain. He knows how we ended up here. Often, it’s because the world is flawed, but sometimes it’s because either we or someone else made a bad choice, or maybe we need to learn something here, so we can thrive later when we arrive there. But God left us the Bible for instruction, and it says this: Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be afraid of them, for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. —Deuteronomy 31:6
This afternoon an acquaintance shared with my husband that her father, who had been ill, just passed away. The day before her dad went to heaven, he was anxious, flustered. Then he took a nap, woke up, and was completely calm. He wore a peaceful expression. His body was no longer twitchy, but relaxed. Upon waking he asked the family who was by his side for a picture of Jesus. Everyone fumbled for their phones, racing to get to Google images. And when someone found an acceptable representation of what we may imagine Jesus looks like, they showed it to him. “Yup!” He exclaimed, nodding fiercely and grinning. “Yup, that’s Him.”
He was dying. In Hospice. Agitated. But he wasn’t alone. Jesus knew all about it, gave this man a visit during his dream to provide the peace and reassurance he needed. The next day, he tranquilly went to heaven.
There you have it. God knows some of life’s adventures will drain us, sometimes we’ll get scraped, bruised, scarred, but He tells us to be strong and brave, to not be frightened, because the incredible God of the Universe? He’s our traveling companion. We’re not alone. Through ups and down, highs and lows, long stretches of the monotonous mundane, even in life and death. He’ll never bail on us.
And if we focus on that, and truly hold on to His love, the commonplace becomes lovely, the mountains more glorious, and the valleys bearable. Because even though there’s not a thing I can do to alleviate the pain my friends are experiencing, that there are times where I can’t do a single thing for myself, God is good. And He’s on our side. And He will never ever leave us, but instead walk with us through every trail and trial we roam on this journey of life. His backpack is full of courage and joy to pull out and offer us when we need it the most. As the song continues, “No matter what I know I’m safe inside his hand.”
So are you. So be brave. God is with you. You don’t have to do this or anything else that comes your way alone.
I was at the Ohio Christian Writer’s Conference this week and had the pleasure of meeting a lovely group of up-and-coming writers. It was such an honor to sit and chat with them about all of the things God is calling them to do. One woman lost a son to suicide. In the midst of her own tragedy, she feels called by God to write a book to help others heal from similar traumas. I was blown away by her courage and love and obedience, to wade through her own pain to help others. Another woman lost her voice completely three days before the conference. But she came anyway. She took notes and attended a dozen one-on-one meetings communicating by writing questions and answers on her iPad and showing whoever she was speaking with her screen. Such bravery and faithfulness to come despite her ailment, to not give up, to move ahead. I have at least a dozen more stories of others I met who were bravely moving through doubt and worry and all of the excuses to start writing or speaking or blogging, because they felt God was asking them to. God called these folks to some extremely challenging things, but they stepped out in faith.
I came home from the event, changed into my soft red flannel pj pants (the ones with the snowflakes on them), made a hot cup of sweet and spicy apple cinnamon tea, and watched Evan Almighty with my youngest. Have you seen it? Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls and Steve Carell from The Office star as a modern-day couple with three boys. God visits Evan (Carell), a newly elected congressman, and tells him to build an ark. 450 feet long. 75 feet high. Out of wood. By hand. Identical to what God calls Noah to do in Genesis 6:14-21. Which seems a bit crazy and completely impossible, as I’m sure it did to Noah.
The movie is hilarious and if you have to cast someone as God, Morgan Freeman makes a fabulous choice, but what struck me was this is exactly what God does. He asks us to do the wildest things, things that seem out of our realm, and out of our skillset. Just like He was calling the writers I met with at the conference. Just like that thing He’s calling you to do, but you’re not quite sure, or ready, or wonder how it will be received, or what the neighbors will think. But there’s always purpose when God asks. Always. Some times no one else can see or believe why this task is important (like saving folks from an unforeseeable flood during a drought), but when we know God is calling, it’s our job to take a step forward in faith, pick up our toolbox and start building.
Oh yeah, and that toolbox thing. When we think there’s no way we could tackle this project, let alone complete it by ourselves, God puts all of the exact tools we need in our toolbox when we need them. Because we’re not meant to do it on our own. God didn’t call us to that. He’ll be with us. Every step of the way. In Evan Almighty, God had a toolbox and truckloads of wood delivered to Evan’s house. Plus, duh, God gave him a copy of Building an Ark for Dummies. God didn’t make Evan shop for tools or expect him to know how to take on that construction project without guidance and materials. In the same way God has been filling your toolbox, too. Maybe He’s given you a Bible verse and then another and another that totally speaks to what He’s calling you to do. Maybe through a variety of what seemed like random encounters you’ve gotten to know someone who has expertise or contacts that could help launch you towards that next step. Perhaps God had you take a class in college, had you work a part-time job, or volunteer at that charity, so you could learn a skill that He’s asking you to pull out of your toolbox now. And although you never knew you’d need that “saw,” there it is sitting for you, right where God put it, all sharpened and ready to cut some wood.
I’m not going to tell you how the movie ends. Watch it on Netflix if you want to find out. But this is how Genesis Chapter 6 ends: So Noah did everything exactly as God had commanded him. Dang! I can’t imagine how crazy Noah felt, how long it took to build that giant boat by hand, how many people mocked him daily, what is was like rounding up all of those animals, how many times he wanted to give up, how many times Noah, asked God, “Really?” But Noah knew God asked him to do it. And so he did. All of it. Exactly how God asked him to do it.
What is God asking you to do? What tools has He put in your toolbox? What’s stopping you from starting? Don’t let it stop you anymore. Grab a metaphorical saw or hammer and get building, because God asked you to, because He’ll be with you, because He’ll use it for something phenomenal.
As part of our #thankfulnessproject for the month of November, comment on the blog or Facebook or Instagram with either something you’re thankful God has called you to do OR a tool you’re thankful God has equipped you with, and then…start building your “ark.”
P.S. If you haven’t joined our #thankfullnessproject yet, it’s not too late. Stop by Facebook and Instagram daily for prompts, so we can thank the good Lord together for all He does and provides.
The other night I was totally in the mood to bake. I got my youngest in on the endeavor and after a quick scan of the cupboards we confirmed we had all of the ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. With M&M’s. Because why skimp? Life is short.
I’ve been making chocolate chip cookies since high school. How many hundreds of batches over the years? I have no idea. We creamed the butter and the sugars and added eggs. We made sure to take a good whiff of vanilla, because the sweet, thick vapor honestly soothes me. Next came the dry ingredients, and finally the chocolate. Don’t worry we both sampled the chocolate chips AND the M&M’s. I like the dough better than the cookies and cannot resist a spoonful before I plop sticky mounds onto the pans.
But…hmm. Something tasted off. I took another taste, and it wasn’t like there was anything wrong with the dough—it wasn’t sour or rotten or anything—it just wasn’t right, and as a dough connoisseur I could tell. I had my son try it. He thought it was fine, so we baked the cookies and allowed the house to fill with the warmth and scent of chocolate chippers. Hot out of the oven the cookies tasted fine, more than fine, delicious—rich and gooey. But something still wasn’t right with the dough. I couldn’t pinpoint it, until I was cleaning up and took one last little lick. It tasted like it had a hint of banana in it. And for the record there are zero bananas in my secret recipe.
I thought through this puzzle as I sloshed the sponge along the sides of the bowl. And then it dawned on me. One of the sticks of butter had been resting on a slightly mushy banana on the door of my fridge. And bananas have this mysterious quality that their flavor permeates everything they’re near. Ever notice that? Put a banana in a lunch box and the entire lunch will taste like bananas, even the ham and cheese sandwich. I use bananas in cooking all of the time. I substitute them for cooking oil in baked goods. Mushy bananas make excellent binders in muffin, pancake, and waffle batters. You can read about my banana waffles here if you want. I’ll throw them into any of those concoctions without hesitating. But for some reason, not an actual banana, but just the proximity of one to a single ingredient in my cookie dough infused the entire bowl with the flavor.
Is there anything in your life that’s slightly off? It might not be totally wrong, but it isn’t quite right either. An activity you’re engaged in, someone you’re hanging out with, that habit that is making the whole bowl of batter of your life taste not quite right. I couldn’t extract the flavor of banana from my cookie dough. But we can make an effort to limit and eliminate the things in our lives that are shifting things off balance.
We can say, “no.” We can choose to not answer that person’s text who always makes us feel small or not sit next to the person who brings out our negative side at the game. We can refuse to watch that show even if our whole family is watching it. We can leave the room if it does something strange to us, makes us a little off, nudges us in the wrong direction. We can turn off our phones. Even if we might miss a hilarious text. We can put our phone in another room, so we’re not distracted or consumed by that tiny screen if it’s becoming a problem. We can choose to exercise somehow today—walk or shoot hoops with our kids or even play tag. We can select something good for us on the menu (that might be good for our body, soul, or mood, depending on what’s best for today.) We can speak up someplace where we’ve remained silent, but something tells us we shouldn’t hold our tongues any longer.
Take a look at your life? Is there anything that’s throwing you out of line of the glorious plans Jesus has for you? Of His perfect love for you? Anything that clearly contradicts the Bible, and you’ve kind of been blowing it off or rationalizing, but probably shouldn’t be? Something seemingly as benign as a banana holding hands with a stick of butter? We all have these things, and God wants to help us get back on our feet with each and every one of them. He doesn’t want us to go it alone. He’ll equip us with the opportunities and endurance and patience we need. We just need to ask for help.
I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer. —Psalm 94:18-19
My cookies ended up being fine, but the dough never even tempted me to a second, or third, or tenth bite. Which is super weird. Whatever tastes a little off today, even if you can’t detect why or how, turn it over to God. Take the time to think talk over with Him what’s wrong and why. He’ll support you. He’ll comfort you. He wants to renew your hope. God wants you to stand strong. He’ll give you the tools to get back on track. Heck He might even give you some M&M’s.
Do you remember that song from preschool, “Where is Thumbkin?” Thumbkin?!!! Oh my gosh, how was that even a song? Allow me to get it stuck in your head:
Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am. Here I am.
How are you today, sir?
Very fine, I thank you.
Run and hide.
Run and hide
If you’re not familiar with this classic, there are hand-motions. Because preschool. You hold your hands behind your back and at the appointed time each thumb makes an appearance in front of your body to say, “Here I am.” After the quick thumb conversation, both thumbs run back and hide behind your back. This is repeated with all of your fingers. Okay, so honest? I loved taking my thumbs and hiding them behind my back. Why was this so fun for me? Maybe because I’m an introvert. Maybe even at the age of three I was grateful for the time a conversation (even between thumbs) could be over, and I had permission to “run and hide.”
One on one I want to talk with you all day long and get to know you and your entire life story. But put me in the middle of a group of five or more (for example a preschool classroom) and I’m done for. In front of a crowd with a microphone is easy breezy for me, oddly not an issue, but in the crowd? Yikes. Run away.
But here’s the deal. Everyone wants to be seen, to be noticed, to be acknowledged, honestly, to be loved. Every one. So when I duck my head or stick in earbuds, I may be protecting myself from a socially awkward moment, but I’m robbing someone else of being heard, of being seen. Do you ever avoid conversations? Why? How do you go about doing it?
The Bible doesn’t talk about Jesus being an extrovert or an introvert. I’m guessing, because He’s perfect at everything else, that He’s the perfect balance between the two. We see Jesus both speaking to thousands of people and intentionally getting away from crowds to pray and rest. You know what else we see as we follow Jesus’ days on earth by reading the Bible? Him talking to people. Him looking folks in the eye. All people. The ones who were in his face vying for his attention AND those who were trying to be invisible.
Jesus spoke to the obnoxious Pharisees who thought they had all the answers about religion, even though Jesus is clearly the only one who has ever had a corner on that market. Jesus called out to Zacchaeus, the rich, corrupt tax collector hiding in a tree, because He was too ashamed to face Jesus. Jesus initiated a conversation with the woman at the well who intentionally went to the well when no one else would be there, so she wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Jesus started a conversation with the woman caught in adultery who had been thrown on the street. Jesus wants to talk to you, too. No matter what your mood, or what you think you do or don’t know about a certain topic, or where you’ve been, or what you look like, or how busy you are, or what you’re ashamed of.
And Jesus calls us to do the same to the people around us.
I’m not saying we have to engage in super long conversations with every person we run into today. But I’m challenging us—both the extroverts who would prefer to be at the center of attention, to tell their stories and jokes AND the introverts who would prefer to remain silent—to look someone in the eye, congratulate them on a win or a good grade or a promotion or an anniversary. Ask a couple of questions, dig deeper than saying (or singing), “How are you today, sir?” before you ‘run and hide’ behind your comfortable group of friends, your sarcasm, your work, your to-do list, or your sunglasses.
What if each of us reached out to one additional person today in a genuine way? This could be via text or email or sending a card or yes, actually going up to someone and asking what their favorite song from the show or service was, or how their family is adjusting to the new school year, or what they thought of the guest speaker, or maybe even as simple as, “I haven’t met you yet. What’s your name?” What if we each helped one more person be known, heard, seen, understood, even in the smallest of ways. What if we all took a lesson from Jesus and helped someone else realize that they are loved, that they are accepted, that God is good? Because we are all loved. Us, too. Introverts and extroverts. We are all accepted. You, me, and the garbage man. And God is so very good. Let’s spread the word. Let’s engage.
And Jesus said to them (the Pharisees), “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him. —Mark 12:17
When Jesus reached the spot (where Zacchaeus was hiding), He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” –Luke 19:5
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”—John 4:7
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” —John 8:11-12
This morning one of my daughters is walking into high school for the very first time. As soon as we drop her off, we’re driving our other daughter back to college. Tomorrow my older son returns to high school and although I get my youngest for a few more days, he starts back sooner than I’d like. Me? I’m one hot mess of mama emotions.
Summer with them has been…well it’s been all kinds of things. It’s been family dinners followed by hilarious conversations on the screened in porch while the sun slowly sets through the trees. It’s been countless hands of Euchre, coffee runs, episode upon episode of Shark Tank and so very much soccer. Summer’s been walks around the neighborhood, church picnics, science experiments, crêpes, cantaloupe and crunchy cucumbers from farmer’s market adventures, and board games on rainy afternoons. Summer has been filled with giggles and tears and frustration and joy. It’s been about shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, hair pulled into ponies or buns or braids (for the girls) whatever mismatched napkins we have in the cupboard, and a seemingly endless supply of sweet, juicy watermelon kept cold in the fridge.
But today the page turns. And as with every story, the page turning simply means the story is progressing. The characters get to learn more, experience new things, meet new people, overcome more obstacles, gain courage and strength and sense of self. This is what I want for my kids. Clearly. To grow like this. But so much of my heart just wants to snuggle them and breathe them in a little longer.
I’m so proud of these kids. Of who they are. Of the choices they make. Of the things they accomplish. Of how again and again they seek God in their own ways. I know going back to school means having to fight for what they believe in, being ranked and sorted by their scores on their papers and on their teams’ fields. It means not always being heard or understood or invited. It means striving to prove yourself over and over again. I know growing up can be hard.
But I also know this. As much as I love these four precious people, and I love them more than I knew human beings could experience love, God loves them more. He does. It’s hard for me to fathom, but it’s true. And the God who put taste buds on butterflies’ feet so it would be easy for them to immediately taste the nectar of the plants they land on, who gave the adorable baby deer who have been trotting around my neighborhood speckled backs so they can blend into the dappled light of sun on leaves, and who protects crisp, golden kernels of corn under layers of silky strands and papery husks, this God is going to take care of my kids, and your kids, and you, and me. Look at how He provides and equips butterflies, deer, and corn!!! Imagine what He will do for our kids, for us!
As much as I want only the very best friends and opportunities and experiences for my kids—God wants that more. He wants that for them and for us. As much as I long for my kids to overcome the challenges they face, to let go of the burdens they each carry, and to heal from all the things that have hurt them—God wants that more. He wants all this for my kids, and your kids, and me, and for you.
Who are you sending back to school? Maybe you’re the one headed back to the hallways and classrooms. Who or what are you worried about? Who are you praying for? A family member? A friend far away? Yourself? God loves them. He loves you. And He will put you exactly where you need to be, give you all the tools you need, equip you perfectly, so that you have every opportunity necessary to grow and heal and learn and soar. He does this for the people we wish we could make everything right for. He does this for us.
I don’t know if you’re also experiencing the back to school roller coaster or if your story and circumstances are totally different. But I do know as the summer chapter comes to an end and the pages of autumn tickle our fingers, God has a beautiful story planned—one filled with healing, growth, hope, grace, love. Not only is He capable of all of these things. He wants all of these things for all of His kids. Yes, I’ll cry ALL THE TEARS out of hope and love and longing for my kids. But I’m turning them over to God. Because I know He has them in His almighty hands.
Do you trust Him? Are you ready to let Him grow you? Teach you? Heal you? As you get on the figurative bus and pack your lunch or theirs, remember Jesus is with you. He’s with them. He loves us. He loved spending summer with us. But He is so excited for our fall and everything He’s planned for you and your kids in the upcoming days. I give you full on permission to miss your kids and pray for them like crazy, but let’s also breathe easily knowing this school year (and always); we (and the people we love) are loved and protected by the God of the Universe.
In all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:6
I attended an event the other night put on by Ocean Accelerator encouraging entrepreneurs to be brave in their beginnings. There was a speaker, a panel, a commentator, a cool old theatre as the venue, and of course, networking. The crux of the evening was that if you have an idea, a dream, a business you want to start, a creative endeavor you want to explore—the first step isn’t easy. You have to bravely take that first step.
It’s hard to deny that brave beginnings are both a good idea in general and necessary to propel dreams into realities. But guys, it doesn’t end with that first brave step. We all need to take brave beginnings every day.
Years ago, I took the brave step of confiding in my husband that my lifelong dream was to become a writer. From there, leaving my first born at home with Brett one evening a week, I took the brave step of taking a creative writing class at the local college. Then another brave step to actually put my ideas to paper and write some short stories. It took all the courage from the Cowardly Lion’s medal to actually submit my stories for someone else to read and evaluate their worth. The result was one story landing in the anthology, God Allows U-Turns and another in Chicken Soup for the Soul. I’d been brave, but if I’d stopped there those would have been my only two stories ever in print. You guys, I still have to take brave steps with my writing. Every. Single. Day. This week I made a list of three brave things I could do to propel my dreams. They might have been easy things for you, but for me they would have been easier to talk about and put on my to-do list and stare at than actually execute.
What brave steps do you need to take this week?
Instead of keeping your thoughts inside your head, you might need to take the brave step of telling your spouse or best friend how you really feel about something. Maybe you’ll need to be bold enough to tell somebody, ‘no.’ No, I don’t have time. No, that doesn’t make me comfortable. No, it’s not okay for my kid to watch that movie, go to that party, or talk about someone like that. Perhaps your brave step will be to get out of bed, even though it’s really hard. Maybe you’ll need to call a counselor or someone else you trust and take the first courageous step towards help. Maybe you need to be daring enough to ask God for a miracle.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." —Joshua 1:9
Our minds get flooded with ideas—some of them good, some of them bad, some of them neutral. But some of our ideas keep at us, keep nudging us, elbowing us, calling out to us from somewhere inside. These are ideas we can’t brush off. We need to take them to God, “Is this from you?” and if it is, if God shows us this is Him encouraging us, guiding us, moving us, then we need to act. Even when we’re nervous or unsure of ourselves. Because, guess what? Our ideas won't change the situation, make a difference, or change the world unless we act upon them.
My friend, Beth, was on a panel at this “Brave Beginnings” event. Her words resonate, “Sometimes brave beginnings look like fear. Sometimes being brave starts with something small.”
There’s nothing easy about being brave. It is almost always hard. Otherwise it wouldn’t take any courage at all. It’s hard to walk into a room full of people that you don’t know. It’s hard to leave a job. It’s hard to start your own business. It’s hard to admit you have a problem. It’s hard to confront someone you love about his or her problem. And being brave doesn’t have to be hugungeous. Often the biggest amount of courage is necessary to make the first call, say the first words, take the first step onto the stage, or the field, or towards recovery.
What is God calling you to be brave about this week?
You can do this! God tells us, “Do NOT be discouraged. Do NOT be afraid. I AM with you.” Even when your knees are shaking and your voice wavers. Even when last time you tried you stumbled. Even when you’ve never tried anything like this before. God is with you. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be afraid. Take a deep breath and take that step forward. It doesn’t have to be big. It’s okay if you’re heart is pounding. God is with you. Be brave.
What three things can you do this week to bravely move forward? I’d love to hear.
Laura L. Smith