The Work at Hand
Do you know what I’d really like?
For school to be out.
For summer to be here.
To be on the beach. With my family. On a warm, breezy day. With an iced coffee. And perhaps a chocolate croissant.
You know where I am? Ohio. Where spring is having an identity crisis. Where it’s too chilly to consume any ice, especially in my morning dark roast. Where my kids are at practice. And one is at college. And we’re all trying to grind it out until summer magically appears on our calendars. I think of all the things that need to get done between now and the end of the school year—forms, assemblies, applications, schedules, field trips, celebrations, checks, envelopes, emails, and definitely a slew of soccer games.
My mind fusses over these things, and guess what God shows me—the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, which mainly revolves around a giant construction project, words I usually gloss over. But God wants me to hear it. Maybe He wants you to hear too. There’s a connection. Hang with me Fixer Upper fans. King Solomon built the most stunning temple ever—cedar and gold totally out trump shiplap. But the Babylonians destroyed the temple. Years later a guy named Nehemiah was working for the King of Babylon and asked if he could take some guys he knew and rebuild his hometown—a kind of precursor to Chip Gaines. The king agreed, so Nehemiah road tripped with some friends back to Jerusalem. There was so much work to do—the city wall, the temple, Jerusalem was a mess. They just wanted it to be finished—to snap their fingers and have everything be in place for the big reveal. But that clearly wasn’t happening. Where to start?
I feel this way, too! There’s so much to do. Everything’s a mess. I just want it all to be in place. You? Where do we start?
Nehemiah came up with a plan—you do this, you do that. And the priests? Each one was instructed to repair the section immediately across from his own house. Neh 3:28. This tampered down bickering over who would do what. It also made the construction more efficient, because you just woke up and got to work. Zero commute. This seemingly overwhelming project was completed by hand in only 52 days.
So, if Nehemiah came up with a great plan on how to delegate work, I’m pretty sure God has an even clearer understanding of what needs to get done and who should do it. Because I’m slightly dense at times, God puts the work He needs me to do right in front of me. Meaning God has put amazing, exciting, interesting things on my path today. Right before my very eyes. Yours, too.
God says, “There is so much kingdom work to do—an article to learn from, trees heavy with blossoms to marvel at, family members hastily shuffling to activities to look in the eye and tell them they are loved, neighbors to grab garbage cans or mail for, kids in a carpool or coworkers that we can truly listen to, reminding them that they matter, sandals to pull out of hibernation, cupcakes to bake and sweet frosting to lick off the spoon, an envelope for the office to draw a smiley face on, because who knows—it might make someone smile. Some days it feels like a lot.” God reassures, “But don’t worry. I have a plan. I know exactly what everyone needs to do. Let’s get going. I’ll tell you where to start.”
As I glance at what’s in front of me I see this blog I get to write, because God has blessed me with a space to speak my mind, free, and unfettered from restrictions, guidelines, or editorial direction. No one else is going to write it. God reminds me. I put these experiences, thoughts, and ideas on your specific heart. So I write what’s right in front of me.
I have an upcoming date with my husband at a delicious Italian restaurant guaranteed to have simmering garlic and fresh-baked bread. I can’t wait to let the flavors dance on my tongue, to get dressed up and go out with my lifetime boyfriend. Have fun! God insists. You always wanted a guy who truly loves you. Guess what? He’s right in front of you. Don’t be afraid to wear the red lipstick. Flirt even.
I’m involved in a wonderful Bible study with an awesome group of ladies. Each week we dive into God’s word, figure out all the ways we need more Jesus, remind each other how loved we are, and share tears, laughter, and mouth-watering muffins. We take a hiatus in the summer. I will miss them and their support. Savor it now, while it’s in front of you. God urges.
I get to cheer on my kids outdoors in the sunshine. They have solid coaches who care about their character and development. The spring soccer season is intensely condensed, but over in a flash. Why not embrace the smell of fresh-mown grass and sweet and salty Kettlecorn popping in giant vats, the energy of kids sprinting and passing balls, the excitement of the crowd. God passes me a folding chair and my water bottle.
The things God has put in front of you are probably completely different--a class to teach, an exam to pass, a trip to pack for, a marathon to run. Do those things. Do them. well. Life is good, no grand, exactly how it is, today, if we acknowledge it. There is work to do. Wonderful work. Plenty. Right in front of me. Right in front of you. Right where God put it. Right where God put us. Why would we desire or crave or covet anything else?
I don’t need to wish away the school year, or pine for summer. I don’t have to worry about when or if I’ll get the next writing project. I don’t have to hope for a cleaning fairy to sweep through my house, or question how long until it hits eighty degrees. God calls us to embrace exactly what’s in front of us today. Because guess who put it there? And guess who equipped us to handle it?
What is in front of you?
Who are the people in your dorm, apartment, home, class, workshop? What can you learn from them? What are the questions you want to ask? Events you want to attend? Take one step forward, to what’s right in front of you, and get going. You’ll be amazed how God will use you, and how gratifying it will be. That’s truly what the big reveal is. Not how beautiful the finished project is, but how stunning the work in progress can be.
..if you’d like more reminders about how much God loves you throughout the week, follow me on:
‘Twas the night before Christmas Eve and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even our Elf on the Shelf.
In the morning, I woke an hour before I set my alarm my brain whirring a million miles a minute. Although I’d felt like I’d been preparing nonstop for Christmas since we lit the first Advent candle, when I’d gone through my closet the day before and started sorting through bags and laying things in piles, I realized I’d done a pretty poor job of shopping for my amazing kiddos.
I’d purchased, gathered, and wrapped the teacher gifts, the cousin gifts, the baby gifts, the gifts for Columbus, and the gifts for Cincinnati. I’d planned menus, shopped for food. Had it in separate bags in the fridge, freezer, and pantry for the appointed visits and times. I’d mailed the cards.
But aye aye aye! Where was the jersey I’d ordered? Where were the p.j. pants? I did push “confirm order,” didn’t I? Did I ever buy the hat I’d considered purchasing? I felt like I had almost nothing for my four kids who were definitely on the nice list. I felt like I’d failed. Because I’m the mom. Because I love my kids. Because it’s my “job” to take care of the Christmas gifts. And I’d done a stinky job at it. I lay there under my covers tangled in self-induced guilt, then got up, read my Bible (but didn’t let it sink in—too preoccupied with failure), brushed my teeth, and was still teetering on panic mode. I confessed my freak out to my husband who kicked into the most beautiful gear.
“What do we need? I love last minute shopping. Give me a minute. I’ll go to Walmart.”
Neither of these words is even in my vocabulary, let alone in the same sentence. I do not do last minute. And I cannot do Walmart. I’m sorry. It’s just too everything for me to handle.
But my husband, he lives for this stuff. He probably passed around wassail and cookies to the workers. And he gave me the gift I needed most for Christmas, something I’d rarely get for myself—grace.
You guys. This is not a pass/fail class. I don’t know where you feel you may have failed this holiday season. Did you forget the postman? Your boss? Your assistant? Did you burn the roast or break the dish? Did the paint on your crafts smear? Jesus doesn’t care.
Or… maybe you nailed it. Maybe your turkey turned out golden-brown. Maybe you made your list, checked it twice, and got gold stars next to every single line item. Maybe Chip and JoJo called and asked how you made your cards and tree and table all look so perfect. Jesus doesn’t care. Either way. And it’s not that He doesn’t care about you. Quite the opposite. He cares so much about you and your heart and your peace, that He would never judge you on your performance. Jesus is not keeping score or judging or measuring your worth on your holiday checklists, cooking performance, or ability to find the perfect gifts.
This wasn’t going to be a blog. I was going to take the week off. So there’s only one picture and I didn’t check for spelling errors—so sorry, not sorry. But I needed you guys to know. That I fail. That you fail. That none of us are perfect. Nobody. And it’s okay. You are loved. You are valued. Exactly as is. No matter how someone (including you) would have rated your Christmas performance.
We all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight.—Romans 3:23-24
In a world where everyone is trying to advance, and make it to the next round, and get the judges to pick them, you don’t have to. You’ve already made it. Jesus came once and for all to settle the score. You’re in. By yourself there will be days when you fall short, but with Jesus you’ll still always come out on top. Curl up the fireplace with a blanket, a book, some cocoa with marshmallows and whipped cream, plus maybe a candy cane, and take a deep breath. Breathe in His grace.
Because, that’s what Christmas is all about.
These wooden chairs with dark green legs and backs looked adorable in our first home in Atlanta with the forest green kitchen counters (I cannot believe I picked that color). When we moved to Oxford sixteen years ago, my mom helped me paint all of the green parts black to look snazzy at our new address with gray floors and black shelves.
This week I’m painting them again. These chairs are lived in. I mean really lived in. Six people constantly coming and going equals approximately four billion meals and seventeen billion pushes in and out. These chairs are weathered, and not in a romantic Fixer Upper sense. In fact, I had no idea how beat up (and sticky) they were until I began their makeover. This time around I’m painting them white. First, they needed a major scrub down. Next, they needed about a dozen coats of paint. Let's just say I had to make several return trips to Ace Hardware. They are the exact same chairs that have been with us through a move, a PhD, career changes, four babies, a graduation, and hundreds of family meals and card games.
They are the same chairs, same height, weight, sturdiness, but these ol’ chairs now look like I just bought them at Pottery Barn. You guys, they’re gorgeous! I keep gazing at them. I am so pleased. Because—wow, they’ve been transformed.
This is exactly what Jesus does for us, flawlessly, perfectly. He takes all of those scratches, dents, and unidentified sticky stuff we accumulate by being humans going through life—our mistakes, our shame, our regrets, our pride, the things we joke about, but aren’t really funny, the things we would never even joke about, because there’s too much there—and scrubs them down, paints over them, making us look brand new. Just like my chairs didn’t achieve anything to deserve their makeover or do anything to become bright and white, we don’t do anything or earn our fixing upping either. All we have to do is come to Jesus, and say, “You are my Lord,” and He gets out His paintbrush. He does His thing and although we’re still us—same quirks, experiences, talents, and passions—we become bright and shiny and unbelievably pretty.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. –2 Corinthians 5:17
Then six years later, sixteen years later, or the very next day we’re a mess again. Because people spill stuff on our egos and on our dreams, and we allow it to stick, and we react. Because someone bumps us a bit hard and we retaliate or internalize. Because sometimes we want to be pushed in when we’re pulled out and sometimes we want to be pulled out when we’re pushed in, and we try to do things on our own, and end up banging ourselves up, because we do not trust God and His perfect plan.
And once again, the Master Carpenter, gets out His sandpaper and paint and fixes us up over and over again, restoring us to a beautiful sheen, taking us from items for this weekend’s garage sale to something fit for His throne room. He loves us that much.
Some of these fixes are easy—a quick touch up. Some of them are hard. It was way easier to paint the green legs black than to cover up all of that ebony-colored paint with bright white. But God doesn’t care. He carefully restores us, whatever it takes, coat after clean coat of grace.
When He’s cleaned us up, God keeps gazing at us, and He is so pleased, because with His love we have been transformed. If that’s how God sees us—brand new, showroom worthy—then shouldn’t we allow ourselves to see the refurbished version of ourselves, to see our true reflections, the incredible masterpieces God created us to be?
Have you seen the movie Begin Again? My favorite scene is when Gretta, a disenchanted musician is coerced by her friend to perform at an open mic night at a pub. While she’s singing, Dan, a down and out music producer, is ordering a drink at the bar. But at the sound of her voice and her acoustic guitar he turns around. And everything stops.
Like magic, a few chords resonate from the piano on the corner of the stage, accompanying her tune. Drumsticks are raised by invisible hands to pound out a beat at the exact right moment. A cello and bow appear on stage and play a few perfectly placed notes all by themselves. Dan might be going through a rough period—with his family and with his job, but he has a God-given gift. He can produce music. And he can do it like a maestro. He rubs his chin, tilts his head, and as he nods a violin appears out of thin air playing the coup de grace for the song’s bridge. All it takes are a few notes from an unknown singer, and Dan inexplicably knows precisely what instruments, beats, and harmonies should be added in at exactly the right time to turn a good song into the kind that strikes a chord in your heart.
This is what God-given gifts look like. Effortless to those who weld them. Unbelievable to those who witness them. We usually spot them quickly in others, but falter when it comes to identifying them within ourselves. What are your God-given gifts—the things you do so naturally, that you might not even own up to them?
Recently I hit a brick wall while in the midst of responding to edits on a book I’m finishing. I knew what I wanted to say and why it was important to me. I understood what the reviewer was communicating, but I could not for the life of me make the two concepts work together. But my friend, Amy? She talked me off the ledge. She took a look at a passage that paralyzed me and said, “Oh, this is great. You just need to tweak this sentence by adding this and deleting that.” It was like she’d waved her magic wand and instantly fixed something I’d been tangled in for over an hour.
I was considering tiling the backsplash in my kitchen but I’m clueless in the home décor department, so I texted my friend, Jamie, who along with being an artist, stages houses. Five minutes and fifteen texts later she had pulled a Joanna Gaines and suggested what she would have a carpenter do on my cabinets and what color of paint would be the perfect accent to the tile.
Have you witnessed something like this? Someone who steps into a challenge and simply slides and turns what are obstacles to you as easily as the squares on a Rubik’s cube, and within moments has all of the sides and colors in neat little rows. The rest of us stand with our jaws hanging open saying, “How did they do that? What just happened?”
This is what God-given talent looks like. Effortless. What can you do like this? You might not even know you can do it, because it comes so stinking easy to you. You might not even think about it, never even consider it. It’s just what you do. But that’s not what everyone does, how everyone looks at things, this is your special thing. This is how the Creator of the Universe created you. Can you pluck a fabulous harmony on the upright bass? Can you look at a chemistry equation and immediately see which reactants and products in what quantities are necessary to balance it? When a friend is frazzled, do the right words, nods and gestures come naturally to you to calm and soothe them?
According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts…Romans 12:6
That gift you have? God placed it in you the day He made you.
You have a special thing! There’s something you do that awes the people around you, that leaves them asking, “How do they do that?” And when you find that thing—do lots of it. Do more of it. Find additional ways to integrate that thing into your daily life. Seek more opportunities to apply this skill, to exercise those muscles, to play your song. Don’t let your talent sit on a shelf collecting dust. The world needs you and your gift, because the rest of us can’t do it, and even if we can somehow accomplish that thing you do so well, when we do it—it is with great struggle and frustration. I needed friends to help with edits and with decorating. The world needs you to line it up, click things into place, plug them in, and light things up.
Because God gave you that gift in the first place, when you put it in His hands, it can soar like it’s on steroids! Even more masterfully than a music producer, God inexplicably knows precisely what instruments, beats, and harmonies should be added in at exactly the right time to highlight and accentuate your talents. Ask Him to guide that gift He gave you, and watch Him turn the tune of your life into the kind that makes people dance and cry and sing at the top of their lungs, the kind people remember, and play over and over again, because it strikes a chord in their hearts. Today you can begin again. You can tap into your God-given talent, ask Him how you can use it to serve Him, and together you can fill the air with magnificent melodies.
BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES AND ENDS
I am in the midst of so many different stories.
I’m currently reading three different books for pleasure, information, and content. I’m also binge watching The Gilmore Girls with my oldest. My youngest is reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, and even though he’s a proficient reader every couple of days we snuggle up on the couch and read some out loud together. My thirteen-year old and I are trying to consume as much Fixer Upper as possible. And my fifteen-year old has recommended his favorite book of all time for me to read. I love it. All of it.
But I can’t possibly maintain full engagement in all of these stories. So…I’m skimming the commentary I’m reading, picking up and putting down my other books when a spare moment arises, and catching intermittent episodes and chapters with my kids. But jumping in and out of stories without knowing how they begin and end can be frustrating and confusing. If I miss Chipper and JoJo making a shack look chic I’ll still be okay diving into the next episode. But I need caught up on who Rory Gilmore is dating and who Count Olaf is currently disguised as… or I’ll be a little lost.
My faith story also has a beginning, a middle and an end. And in order for me to know where I am, to be caught up with what Jesus is doing for me, on what my faith even means, I need to be aware of all of the stages of this beautiful story.
The middle is easy, at least to see what’s going on. That’s where I am. Daily messing up, celebrating, stumbling, laughing, and falling short. In desperate need of God’s perfect grace. And at the same time, joyful, peaceful and fulfilled, because even though I certainly haven’t earned it (not possible), Jesus offers me His constant love.
The beginning? It doesn’t start with me. I need to go back to Season 1, Episode 1 to get a handle on the plot. Your story starts here too. Way back in chapter one it says:
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. --Genesis 1:27
Got that? God created all of us in His image! I’m hooked. You? That means no matter what you saw when you looked in the mirror today, you reflect the greatness of God. It means God could have made you look like anything, but He chose to make you exactly how you are, so you could reflect a piece of Him in some uniquely, awesome way. He loves you that much! Thinks you’re that special. So intentionally created you.
Skim ahead to the New Testament or Part Two. Jesus says, “I know there’s so much pressure to be perfect—and it’s hard. But you don’t have to be perfect for me. I love you for who you are, and I’m going to take all of that yuck—the regret, the shame, the nervousness—and I’m going to nail it to that cross with me." This is the climax of my story (and yours if you choose it). The part we can’t miss. Because Jesus did two things for our stories that no villain can ever steal:
1. Proved how loved we are.
2. Gave us grace, so we never have to prove ourselves again. Ever.
Lastly, the ending. I’m not a girl who jumps ahead, who reads the final pages of a mystery to see who did it before discovering all the clues, but in the case of my faith story I find it critical. It reminds me of when my kids were tiny and we’d watch any Disney movie, and the mom would die in the first eight seconds. I’d push pause, hold my kids and say, “It’s going to be alright. Everything ends up happy.” I need this too. Because on the days when I get stuck in a rut, or discouraged, or frightened, when I feel like I’m not enough, God tells me, “It’s okay. It’s going to be alright. Everything ends up happy.”
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”--Revelation 21:2-4
Talk about happily ever after.
So when I am worried about something one of my sweet children is dealing with or an illness of a dear friend, when I question my validity, when my stomach is in knots trying to decipher how to handle a controversial situation, I go back to the beginning and ending of my story. And I’m reminded that I was beautifully created by the Master Creator, on purpose, for His purpose. And…I know that His love conquers all. That He will wipe every tear. There will be no more pain. Then no matter what page I’m on in my life, whether it looks thrilling or bleak or fantastic, I know who I am and where I’m going. I know that I am loved. That my life has meaning. And that makes me want to keep turning page after page.
Laura L. Smith