There’s something fishy about the Italian village of Monterosso, one of the five towns of the Cinque Terre (literally “five lands”) nestled along the cliffs of the Ligurian Sea. The cerulean water, breathtaking views, picturesque hiking trails, lemon trees, olive groves, vineyards, and postcard perfect town comprised of candy-colored buildings makes it one of my favorite places in the world. I’m not the only one who loves Monterosso. The secret is out and this tiny town (population 1,400) now teems with tourists from around the world. Another thing I love about Monterosso is it never tries to be something that it’s not and it never forgets who it is, what it has, and what its strong suit is. It never looks to the right or left and says, “I wish I was more like Venice or Florence.”
Can we say the same?
Monterosso is a fishing village through and through situated in some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. And it fully rocks its fishy-ness.
Long before tourists flooded the train station, fishermen and their families lived in this coastal town dating back to the year 683 when people living in the hills descended to the seashore to escape barbarians. The people caught the local fish and built a life. They hiked trails or took boats to get between the neighboring villages. Today fishermen still fish daily. Every restaurant we saw serves freshly caught fish, as well as foods prepared with the olives and lemons abundant on the hills. If you google top things to do in prominent Italian cities like Rome or Milan you’ll find churches and statues topping all the lists. But Monterosso doesn’t promote tours to Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, the beautiful black and white striped Gothic church built in the 1200s, or Il Gigante, the incredible sculpture of a giant carved into the rock at the very far end of the beach (although they’re both worth a look).
No, if you search for what to do in Monterosso you’ll be directed to the things that make Monterosso unique–hike the gorgeous trails and take boat rides in the azure water. The cafes and shops aren’t decorated with pictures of famous people who have stopped by or glitzy beach scenes, but everywhere everywhere everywhere there are fish. Monterosso owns who it is.
Who were you created to be?
Are you living in your God-given identity, or trying to be like or comparing yourself to somebody else?
What do you have available to you?
What’s your strong suit?
Listen, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and trying new things. I highly encourage both. In fact, I’m currently in the midst of praying and dreaming through something totally new. But as we dream, let’s keep in mind who God created us to be, what He’s given us, and where He’s put us. It actually helps make our dreams a reality, a reality where God walks beside us.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Who did God create you to be?
What do you love doing? What are you great at? Make a list of those things–everything. What music makes you dance, what books can you not put down, what would you do with one hour of free time, what was your favorite subject in school, what’s your favorite food, who makes you laugh, what would you do with a million dollars or three weeks without responsibilities? Brainstorm. Dream. What lights you up?
What’s available to you?
The people of Monterosso have fish, lemons, olives, water, and scenic trails at their fingertips.
How about you? Has your family owned a small farm for ages? You could grow vegetables to feed your community or transform the property into a special event venue. If your workplace has a sound system, could you borrow it to start your own podcast or record the music you’re writing?
Where do you live?
In a cold or hot climate? What part of the country? What are the needs of your community? I live in a college town with brick, ivy, college students, classrooms, a large population of academics, incredible speakers and events, and all the shops and restaurants that cater to these young people. How about you? If you live in a big city you probably have public transport, skyscrapers, large crowds, an fine arts scene, and professional sports. Is your city famous for barbecue or live music or its annual sunflower festival? How do you fit into those things? Do any of those opportunities enable you to rent a booth, offer a class, share the Gospel, create a tour, lead a study, feed the hungry, or give a performance utilizing your gifts and skills?
What’s your strong suit?
Are you great at numbers or words? Do you have a keen sense of direction or an eye for details or design? Do you communicate especially well with kids or senior citizens? Can you make exceptionally tasty fish tacos or mouth-watering muffins or super cool tie-dyed t-shirts or water tight contracts or create codes?
Jesus is so intentional. He’s numbered every hair on your head. He goes before and behind you. He knit you very specifically together in your mother’s womb. He had designs on you for glorious living before you were even born. This means all those things you love to do, all those things you’re actually pretty good at, that come easily to you, even the places and spaces where Jesus has put you–they’re all part of His divine plan–there is goodness for you there, you can thrive and help others thrive, too!
Spend some time this week not worrying about what anyone else is doing. Instead journal, pray, talk to trusted Godly friends about what you like to do, what you’re great at, what resources and opportunities are around you, what you dream of doing, how that all fits into your calling and see what comes of it. There’s nothing fishy about it, just purpose, fullness, and joy waiting to be discovered.
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At the beginning of 2022 God placed a word on my heart to focus on throughout the year–JOY. It was interesting to me, because I believe most people would describe me as a joyful person. I’m definitely a glass half full kind of girl. But sometimes, I struggle to fully accept the joy Jesus offers me, as if there is a limit to the joy I am entitled to, and I don’t dare exceed that limit. Do you ever feel that way?
Jesus said He came so we can have an abundant life (John 10:10). And we’re instructed by the Apostle Paul to, “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice! (Philippians 4:4).” Turns out we’re not only allowed, but encouraged to dip our toes in the joy pool.
To remind myself, I wrote out Nehemiah 8:10 at the top of my calendar page each week of 2022, “The JOY of the Lord is my strength.” It centered me, reminding me that Jesus had joy for me, more than I could imagine, joy I should be jumping into, not just taking what I thought would suffice.
And so, because Jesus is Jesus, He kept reminding me throughout the year. A reader sent me the most adorable card with JOY on the front. My kiddos stopped in a boutique that had sticky notes with Bible verses on them. The shop owner encouraged them to take one. They selected one to bring home to me with Psalm 16:11 on it. I’d just written a book on the Psalms (you can find it here), and specifically a chapter about this Psalm. It’s all about God’s protection. But even in my studying and actual writing of that chapter on Psalm 16 I’d never paid attention to the word JOY smack in the middle of it. In Your presence is fullness of JOY. Not a little joy, not enough joy, but full-on, ridiculous amounts of JOY. This is what Jesus wants for us, not just for me, for all of us.
Over the summer God gave me more meaning to this word. I was given a wonderful opportunity, but full disclosure, I was afraid to step into it. And as I was planning a new week and writing this verse once again at the top of my planner–it hit me in a fresh way. The joy of the LORD is my strength. God’s joy is what gives me the strength to do the things He puts in front of me. We don’t have to be strong enough. Because God’s joy steps in and becomes our strength. Wow! That whole thought process really blew me away.
As the year came to an end, God used this verse one more way for me. Someone told me my joy was, wait for it, MY strength. I almost fell out of my chair. The joy of the Lord is MY strength. And I, Laura Smith, am fueled by the joy Jesus gives me. I love that. I can think of no other strength I’d rather have.
One word. Three ways it impacted me this year.
What I’m trying to say is the Bible is dang powerful. I enjoy reading every single page. Reading the entirety of the story of Jesus’s redemption and love for us that flows from Genesis all the way to Revelation is powerful. But even one tiny verse can power punch through an entire year. The Bible is alive and active. I’m not sure what word or verse God is going to give me for 2023, but I can’t wait to see how He’s going to use it!
You? Do you have a word, phrase, or verse for 2023? Any good stories of how God used a word or verse in your life last year? Share in the comments so we can marvel together at God’s word and His work in our lives.
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We had these old gross towels that we’ve had for twenty-six years (yup, wedding gifts). They were great at the time, but now some of them have holes, many are fraying, and quite frankly some of them stink. Right after Christmas I bought some nice, new towels on a ridiculously low priced clearance. And you all! They are so thick and fluffy. Every time I dry my hands or get out of the shower I am amazed by how lovely these towels are. I also wonder why I waited so long to upgrade.
I know it sounds silly. But I was settling. And sometimes we do–for old towels or a quick meal or a pair of shoes our growing child will probably only wear once or twice. But God doesn’t want us to settle for the big stuff.
Are you doing things that fulfill you? Hanging out with people who make your life rich and full? Taking classes or doing things that challenge you? Finding ways to laugh and learn? Taking care of yourself mentally and physically?
Because that’s what Jesus wants for you. An abundant life. An overflowing life. A rich, full, joyful, satisfying life! He tells us:
"But I have come to give you everything in abundance, more than you expect—life in its fullness until you overflow!" –John 10:10 TPT
Do you love your job or volunteer work? Does it bring you satisfaction? Do you use some specific skill or talent that God gave you when you’re there? Or are you settling?
Sure, there are parts of every job that are an absolute grind–filling out the forms, cleaning the bathrooms, or maybe attending the staff meetings. And sometimes we do jobs with the sole purpose of paying our bills. Years ago, I waitressed while interning at an advertising agency that didn’t pay me a cent, unless you count parking. I waitressed in the evenings and on weekends to pay my bills (which was not my dream job) and interned during normal work hours (which was my dream job and led to an actual job). It worked. Maybe you’re working a job to help pay for your education or certification, or because the flexible hours allow you to be around for someone you love or to spend time on that creative endeavor you’re so excited about. And that’s awesome. Because you’re not settling. You’re chasing after that education, family, or dream. You’re seizing the abundant life God has for you.
Is the person you’re in a relationship with someone who brings out the best in you, who encourages you to be the amazing person God created you to be? Are your friends people who build you up, love you for just who you are, listen well, pray for and with you? Are they there for you when you need them? Or are you settling?
Since you are an individual, you’re not going to agree with anyone 100% of the time. You won’t always think things should be done the same way or at the same speed or for the same reasons. And your friends or spouse or boy/girlfriend have their own responsibilities and lives to tend to. They can’t be there for you 24/7. But, you know what I mean. If you’re friends or significant other takes you for granted, doesn’t listen to or respect your wishes, doesn’t encourage your faith life, only wants to do things their way, God has more for you.
Jesus doesn’t want you to settle. He loves you too much. The Bible says before you were even born, God chose you and called you by His marvelous grace (Galatians 1:15). Get that? You are chosen. You have a special calling from the God of the Universe. So, no, you shouldn’t settle.
I don’t know what that means for you today. But hopefully it means being reminded of all the amazing things God has in store. Hopefully it means ditching something that does not bring life to you–that committee you’re on that completely drains you, that “friend” who only texts when they need something “desperately,” that book you’re reading that is inappropriate (put it down, there’s so many great reads out there!), the date who won’t go to church with you and who never seems to remember that crowds make you uneasy or that you’re allergic to nuts. Or maybe it's time to quit that activity that makes you grumpy.
Step one is getting rid of the things that deplete you. Step two is talking to Jesus about what He has for you. Ask Him. Right now. It’s as easy as praying: Jesus, I love You so much! Thank You for choosing me, for giving me a special calling, for Your amazing grace. Please show me how to step out of anything I'm settling for and into the abundant life You have waiting for me. Please help me keep my eyes, ears, and heart open to all You offer. Amen
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Our family is new to the cross country scene. Our four kids have been involved in soccer--lots and lots of soccer, flag football, theatre, ballet, track, as well as very brief stints in gymnastics, karate, and baseball, but none of them had ever run XC until now. Our youngest started high school in August and joined the school’s cross country team back in June. He’s been practicing for months, building up his mileage, increasing his speed and endurance, and making quality friends.
The morning of our first meet my husband and I weren’t really sure what to expect. We’d been told to wear comfortable shoes, because you end up darting from one spot to another to watch different parts of the race, which sounded fun. We drove to the address, parked, got out of our car and it felt more like a festival than a competition. Toby Mac was blaring from a sound system, “It’s never too late to get back up again.” Teams had tents with signs. Food trucks had parked along the perimeter, and the intoxicating smells of kettle corn and empanadas filled the air.
It was fun and festive. The whole space vibrated with energy.
Here are some things we learned about cross country that we think Jesus would love:
Doing Your Best is a Win
Hundreds of athletes run in a cross country meet. Yes, there is a first place winner, but very few of the athletes have their eye on that prize. They’re all actually running with the goal to beat their PR--personal record. They’re not comparing themselves to the other runners. They’re just trying to do their personal best--to take what God gave them and use it to the best of their ability. The world needs more of this. Yes please and now. The Apostle Paul instructs us to live like this in Galatians 5:26
That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.
What if we all did this? Stopped wishing we had as many followers as her, the job title of him, or the family of them. And instead, took what God gave us and used it to our fullest, ran our best original race. Think of all the freedom to live out our callings and all the amazing things that would ensue.
Everybody cheers for everybody
It doesn’t matter what team your kid is on or how fast they do or don’t run, other people from other teams cheer for them. Which, really? They’re cheering for my boy? Insert all the emojis. This takes place at the starting line when all the fans cheer loudly for all the runners. And it also happens throughout the three point one mile course as spectators sprint to different spots along the route to cheer on athletes as they progress.
At our first stop along the yellow tape marking the course, we met a man who told us his daughter was running in the next race. He cheered and clapped as each athlete ran past. I repeat, his daughter was not even in this race. This was the boys race! At the two mile marker a group of varsity runners who had already completed their race gathered along a bend in the route cheering, “You’ve got this! Keep it up! Keep it up!” Yes, to their JV teammates, but also to all the other athletes passing by.
This is beautiful. And it’s Biblical! Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us: And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We’re supposed to cheer each other on! We’re supposed to encourage each other! This is what living in Christ looks like.
There are snacks at the end
As the runners cross the finish line they immediately head toward their team’s tent which is laden with sandwiches, protein bars, and fruit. The Propel and Gatorade flow freely. They can get seconds or thirds or fourths, and eat their fill. Jesus would love this! Celebrating with food was Jesus’ jam. In fact his very first miracle was at a wedding feast--turning water into wine (John 2:1-10). Throughout the Gospels (the four Biblical books that serve as the biography of Jesus’ life) we find Jesus eating with his friends and people in the community (Matthew 9:10-11, Luke 7:36, Luke 10:38-40, Luke 11:37, Luke 14:1, John 12:2-3, John 21:12-13). We also see Jesus traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feasts (Mark 14:12-26, John 2:23, John 5:1, John 13:1). Jesus loved sharing food while hanging out with others.
So, yeah, cross country meets are awesome. Because they mirror some ways God wants us to be living. He wants us to stop comparing ourselves to others. He wants us to use the gifts He’s given us to the best of our ability on any given day. God wants us to cheer for one another along the way. And God also wants us to share meals with one another--to eat and laugh and swap stories and encourage one another.
I’m up for the challenge. You?
Not to compete in a cross country meet. But to keep running our races--the one God put in front of us, specifically--one full of doing our best, loving one another, both feeling encouraged and encouraging others, and of course with yummy snacks involved. On your mark. Get set. Let’s go!
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“One of the girls in the class has her own cupcake business. One of the boys takes apart computers and puts them back together. One girl did research on the effects of mental health and sports. Another guy loved playing Gaga Ball at camp so much that he researched where the game came from, and then dove into other traditions of that culture.” I was explaining Maguire’s Passion Project, an assignment to research and present on anything you’re passionate about, to my oldest daughter, Maddie.
“What did Maguire do?” she asked.
“He did his on reducing the carbon footprint of his school to neutral by 2040 in a three-phase program.”
“Wow! Who are these cool kids?” Maddie asked on the other end of the phone. “I’m pretty sure no one in my class was that cool at that age.”
“I bet they were. If you guys had this assignment, you would have seen it. I think that’s the point,” I answered. “Everyone is actually cool, super cool, when you see the passions God put in their hearts.”
But often we look at others' coolness and think it outranks ours. It doesn’t.
Sometimes we shy away from sharing the things we’re passionate about, because we fear others will think we’re weird or won’t understand. Or we discount the value of the fact that we’ve perfected a recipe for meringues or that HGTV contacted us about making a pilot about our home business (I swear this happened to one of my friends) or that we play the saxophone or tap maple trees on our property to get actual syrup. But all this stuff is cool and important to building God’s kingdom in a zillion different ways. We need to pursue our passions and use our gifts, because God entrusted them to us to make a difference.
Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful. -- 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
God created each and every one of us and put all this awesome different stuff inside us----my next door neighbor is a professor who studies what people wore throughout history and how culture and current events affect wardrobe, a friend of ours rides in hot air balloon events several times a year, and my brother, who’s a corporate finance attorney, invented AxePaxe, a case specially designed for guitar accessories. All this is incredibly cool and awesome and creative and adds color and knowledge and perspective and whimsy to the world God created.
What is your gift? How are you using it to show who God is?
When we think of the disciples sometimes we marvel at how cool they must have been--to be invited to spend three years traveling, working and living with Jesus. What special traits did they possess? Well, they were pretty special, just like you and I are. But God thinks we’re all incredibly awesome. In fact, the disciples were all different from one another. Matthew was great at numbers. Simon had zeal. John had child-like faith. Thomas liked to have proof. Some were fishermen. Some weren’t. Some were married. Some single. Some educated. Some not. Jesus called them from numerous towns in a variety of ways. God created each disciple in His image and gave them specific talents that would help build His kingdom. And Jesus knew each disciple had varying traits, strengths, and passions that would make them His very best companions and the perfect people to tell the world about Him. Same with you and me today. The kingdom needs all of us!
So there you have it. You are one of the cool kids. You’re one of God’s chosen people. Not because of your test score or where you live or how you dress. Not because of who you’re connected to or what your title is or how many followers you have. You’re one of the cool kids, simply because God created you. Because He made you in His image and poured all the things He wanted you to have into your mind, heart and body. He intentionally gave you special unique gifts. You lack nothing to do the work God has called you to do. For some of us that’s having a booth at the farmer’s market or maybe doing market research. For others that’s managing funds or organizing fundraisers. You aren’t supposed to be like them or have their passions. You are you.
You have been given something special that shows the world another glimpse of who God is. How are you going to show it off today?
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Last Friday my husband and I went out to dinner--an absolute treat after having most of our date nights in the living room or the porch over the past year. Brett glanced over my shoulder and out the window, nodding towards something behind me. “Montgomery Inn is across the street,” he said. “I promised Maguire sometime soon I’d get him an order of their ribs.”
Ribs are not my jam. They never even enter my mind. But my youngest loves them, and before I could respond, Brett slid out his phone and was dialing up the restaurant. When we finished our meal we picked up the ribs, drove them home, and put them in the fridge for Maguire to feast on the next day. On Saturday we went for a walk and when we stepped back into the house there was Maguire at the kitchen table with a giant slab of ribs and the biggest grin an 8th grade boy can conjure covered in barbeque.
My husband knew ribs would make Maguire happy, so he intentionally made a call, spent the money, and walked across the street. Brett loves our son so well, he not only thought about it, but went the extra mile to give Maguire joy.
This is how our God operates.
He knows you. And He knows me. He knows all the things that make us smile and sigh and laugh and He goes out of His way to put them on our paths. Like these whirligigs or helicopters or whatever you want to call them. Sure, it’s miraculous in itself to ponder that God weighted the seeds so they spin and plant themselves ensuring a future population of maple trees. But also, they are so much fun! And here they are sprinkled like confetti along the streets of our neighborhood. I can’t walk past them without picking one up, tossing it in the air, and watching it twirl. And, I can’t help but giggle as it spirals to the ground. Pure and simple childlike joy. Right along my path.
God also delights me with a baguette. One bite of its crackly crust and fresh fluffy insides take me back to that spring we lived in Lyon and bought bread like this daily from the boulangerie down the street from our apartment.
My mother in law suffers from Alzheimer’s. It seems like every time we take her for a walk and the conversation gets challenging we see a dog. She adores dogs. Always has. These four-legged animals light her up. She’ll pet them and talk to them and for a moment everything is right in her world. I’m certain God pops those dogs on our path, just for her. Because our God is a God who loves us and showers us with gifts. As the book of James tells us: Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, with whom there is no change or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
What is it for you? A certain song you heard on the radio? The feel of sand between your toes? The smell of coffee brewing in the morning?
The other night we watched two episodes of the Chosen back to back. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. In the first episode, Jesus used His carpentry skills to make a toy for a little girl. In the second, Jesus performed a miracle giving someone in extreme financial turmoil the necessary resources at the perfect moment in a ridiculously extravagant way. Each episode was different, but in both Jesus had this awesome smile on His face as He watched the person He planned the surprise for (the girl and then the man) discover what He’d given them. It reminded me so much of Brett’s smile watching Maguire gobble down those Montgomery Inn ribs.
Whatever you have going on or are facing today, don’t forget that God loves you. So much that He’s planning little treats for you around every corner--something to make you laugh, something to make you remember, something to make you feel known. Look around. Keep your eyes open. I promise God has something for you today. Something to make you smile. Something good and perfect.
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A year ago as the cast of Hamilton sings, “the world turned upside down.”
First my son and daughter’s high school business plan competition in Columbus was canceled. Then my daughter’s soccer tournament in Tennessee was called off. Next, I got a frantic call from my oldest saying she and all the other students were being sent home from her college campus immediately. Soon my packed calendar was emptied and our family who is usually going every direction and back again was together within the confines of our home.
I’m sure you have similar stories.
Prior to all the cancellations, I was in a rut. In a lot of areas in my life. I’ve talked about some of them before here and here, but even though I’m a writer, and use creativity in my work on a daily basis, my creativity seemed stunted when I stepped away from my laptop.
With six people’s taste buds and multiple food allergies, planning safe meals that everyone enjoys is a trick and a half, and I was letting it get the better of me. Not to mention, we were often on a time crunch to have dinner ready between school, practices, meetings, and rehearsals. I had a couple of full proof meals--tacos and gluten free pasta, but that was about it. I was as sick of making them as my family was of eating them.
But when last March gave us some extra time on our hands my kids sparked my creativity. Could they help plan the meals? Sure. Could we make the homemade tomato recipe they found on TikTok? We can try. Wouldn’t it be fun if we did a giant charcuterie board? Absolutely it would be fun! And so, I rediscovered how therapeutic cooking is for me.
When I stopped thinking of dinner as another task I needed to complete and instead took my time chopping and simmering, stirring and measuring it became soothing. Even better was when one of my kids joined me in the kitchen--smashing avocados for guacamole or kneading pizza dough. Their interest in the process made it more interesting to me. Their company in the kitchen--absolutely priceless. The flavors of melted brie dripping with honey and smells of garlic and onion simmering in olive oil revived my senses. I felt like Remy in Ratatouille savoring the experience instead of going through the motions. And the tangible product of creating a delicious meal for the family while transitioning from “go” mode to “relax” mode in the early evenings became something I looked forward to. Our schedules are rapidly picking back up again, but I want to find ways to continue this. Maybe not every night, but more nights.
I also rediscovered painting--not walls, but journals, Bibles, blank notecards, just creating beauty on blank spaces. In school I opted into extra art classes. I’m also the girl who could spend hours in a museum gazing at the imaginative creations of great artists. But I hadn’t painted anything since the kiddos were tiny and we’d pull out the watercolors. Getting the paints back out has been therapeutic.
It makes sense. The first time I ever baked chocolate chip cookies with my mom I was amazed I could cream butter and sift flour to make my favorite food (and eat spoonfuls of delectable dough in the process). The first time I dipped my fingers in thick, cool finger paints (I can still smell the waxy scent of the red, yellow, and blue), I was amazed how streaks of color transformed the white paper. God put these things in me when He created me. It was me that got away from them, that got too busy to play.
Think back to things that have always made you happy, the ways you “played” when you were younger. Riding bikes? Doing puzzles? When was the last time you did that thing?
I’ve heard it said that if you work with your mind you should rest with your hands and vice versa. I’m a writer, which is all words in my head, so this theory holds true as I find measuring teaspoons of cinnamon or dipping brushes and swirling colors restful and restorative.
Using your hands could mean sewing a skirt, rebuilding an engine, tiling your bathroom, or getting out a box of Crayolas and creating aliens with a cute preschooler. My friends who work with their hands--nurses who deliver babies, interior designers who lug couches across rooms--they find rest reading nonfiction books, listening to podcasts, playing games like Clue, Chess, or Risk-- things that tap into their brilliant headspace.
God worked. He wants us to do the same. And God rested. And, yup, He wants us to do the same.
Do you rest? Or are you always on the go?
Do you practice this principle of switching your processing from your mind to hands or hands to mind?
Do you incorporate playtime into your life?
If so, what brings you joy and rest, renews your body, refreshes your soul?
Find your things or rediscover ones that have been in you all along. Those things you loved to do once upon a time, Jesus put in you when He created you. And Jesus tells us that He’ll teach us how to live a free and light life--one filled with unforced rhythms of grace.
“Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” --Matthew 11:29-30 MSG
Jesus does this because He wants to awaken our senses of smell with intoxicating vanilla, invigorate us with laughter and revive us with bright cobalt blues. But we have to be willing to put down our work. We have to be willing to pause and rest and play and pray. And when Jesus shows us a fabulous way to live life more freely, we need to step into it.
Set aside some time this week to play. Talk to Jesus about some ways to intentionally do something (scrolling through social media or binge watching Netflix are fine, but not what we’re talking about here). Do something that restores you, that helps build a rhythm of grace into your life. Let me know how it goes!
Me? I plan on painting a chair or two and making homemade pizza dough.
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This is how we’re cheering for my sixteen-year old while she plays soccer this year. Yup. Through a fence. Because crowds aren’t super safe and bleachers are only so big and seating is incredibly limited—at some venues only one fan per player. And you know what? I am incredibly grateful. Because right now, she’s still getting to play. And not everyone is. And we didn’t know if she’d be able to, so for today, peering through a chain length fence feels like a ginormous blessing.
And this is how my son’s play practice looks—a small show with a limited cast instead of the splashy musical they’d planned on performing. Wearing masks on stage. Shorter rehearsals. Oh, and the show is going to be streamed. No live audiences. But wow! He gets to be in a play. His spring show was cancelled two weeks before the performances. His summer theatre was called off altogether. And my boy, who loves to act, gets to be with his fellow thespians, stand on that stage, slip into character, and act. Gift. Gift. Gift.
Life looks different. The rules seem to change every day. Our schedules and plans keep getting unended. But there is one thing we can count on—our everlasting God! As the prophet Isaiah explained to a weary nation, “Why would you ever complain, O Jacob, or, whine, Israel, saying,“God has lost track of me. He doesn’t care what happens to me”? Don’t you know anything? Haven’t you been listening? God doesn’t come and go. God lasts."
I love that.
School looks different. Sports look different. Church looks different. But God? He is sturdy and strong. He is solid and never changing. I see Him at the soccer games, giving the precious gift of camaraderie and teamwork to the girls. I see Him in the theatre allowing His creative kids to use their gifts. I know we all didn’t get to do the things we wanted to do. Although high school sports are on, college sports are cancelled. My teen can act, but Broadway is closed. Even these things I'm grateful for today could be cancelled tomorrow. And God calls us to be thankful in ALL of it.
Paul instructs the Thessalonians, in 1 Thessalonians 5:27-28 Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances;for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Is that always easy? No. I can’t begin to understand it all. But I know that God is working in those closed and cancelled spaces too. I’m not sure how, but I know He is. I know He is, because that’s the kind of God He is. A mighty God. A loving God. A faithful God. And for that I will rejoice and give Him thanks.
God loves you and wants the best for you. Even if something looks stark, God wants to carry you through the challenges, set you back upright and help you soar. He’s a good good Father.
The prophet Isaiah continued by saying:
He (the everlasting God) gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. –Isaiah 40:29-31
Yes, life looks different. Our world is changing. Some of those changes have been hard. But some of them are pretty great--less business travel as we realize Zoom is an easy way to meet, groceries we can conveniently pick up in the parking lot, and outdoor classes, meals, and meetings. I’ve loved breathing in so much fresh air! But no matter how the world shifts and changes, God is constant. He does not change. He still loves His children (that’s all of us humans) and wants to shower us with gifts. Will we receive them? Will we even notice them? Will be take time to breathe them in? Will we thank Him?
When the uncertainty and shifting schedules tangle you up, make you anxious, or leave you exhausted, God wants to strengthen you. He’ll give us power and energy to renew us. All we have to do is ask. Even though you might be weary? He’ll help you fly. We don’t have to do this on our own. We actually can’t. But if we reach out to God, put our hope in Him, He’ll help us soar.
God does not change. He is still good. He is still all powerful. He still loves you. He still has plans for you. He still forgives you. He’s still fighting for you. He will never leave you. Hold these truths in your heart today. This is something to be so thankful for! Look for the gifts our faithful God gives--they might be as simple as being able to watch your child do their thing through a fence. Breathe them in like the cool, crisp fall air, and let His love surround you.
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Early on in quarantine my oldest daughter and I were exploring the trails and landed in one of our local parks, green, spacious, and peaceful. The firepit at the edge of the park sparked an idea.
“We could make s’mores here!” Maddie declared.
On our next Clicklist we ordered all the necessary supplies—graham crackers, gluten free graham crackers, jumbo marshmallows, and Hershey bars. A few days later our family packed a cardboard box with firewood, paper, and some matches and grabbed our “s’mores kit”. When we arrived at the main entrance eager for a fun summer evening a large piece of plywood with the word “CLOSED” spray painted across it spanned the entry point of the bridge. Two large construction vehicles were parked askew blocking passage. But there was a back entrance. And as locals we knew where it was.
We meandered down the trail of entrance number two to an empty park. It was as if this giant grassy area was all ours for the night. Brett built a fire while the kids played tag. The thick scent of smoke filled the air while we told stories. We roasted marshmallows until they were charred on the outside and gooey on the inside, popped them between graham crackers and squares of chocolate, devouring the delicious sweetness that tasted like summer camp and left sticky marshmallow smears all over our faces.
We had so much fun that night, we scheduled another family s’mores night a few weeks later. And the next month we planned a small birthday celebration for our middle schooler—just three close friends plus him outside at this park for a couple of hours. They explored the trails, tossed a football, and roasted hot dogs on sticks fully able to both socially distance outside and enjoy each other’s company.
The park is simple. An old, rundown shelter, a dated swing set with four black u-shaped swings of equal height, a sand volleyball court, tons of open grassy space, and the campfire surrounded by giant logs for sitting on. No fancy soccer fields. No snazzy playground structures or gazebos. But we had it all to ourselves, except for the baby deer we saw galloping across the field and the mosquitos buzzing around our legs. Maybe other people in town stopped by when we did not, but each time we visited It felt like our very own Secret Garden (I LOVED that book as a girl) away from phones and Zoom calls and our neighborhood (which we love, but have seen quite a bit of from March to now).
Why wasn’t anyone else there? Maybe because when the college students were sent home for quarantine the population in our college town fell to half. Maybe because the main bridge was closed. I don’t really care why. We Smiths experienced the gift of space and freedom, as if God reserved the grassy expanse for us each time we needed it.
I fear in these unprecedented times we’re missing some of God’s gifts. We’re seeing the “closed” sign at the entrance and not going in. We’re turning around and heading home and missing the s’mores. But I don’t want us to. I don’t want to. I don’t want you to.
Yes, I realize the world is closed and the school year looks upside down and friends have tested positive and racism is rampant. And I’m grieving those things and feeling all the emotions. But I also know in the midst of all this awfulness I still want joy for my kids. I want them to eat gooey marshmallows and melty chocolate and laugh so hard they can’t speak. I want them to find joy every day and I’ll do whatever I can to help them find it.
I also know, as deeply as I love our four precious children somehow God loves them even more. He loves me more. He loves you more. Because He’s the Almighty Father and He created each kneecap and toenail of all of us. If I’m hoping my kiddos find joy, can you imagine how much more God wants us to find it?
Jesus said it like this, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" Matthew 7:11
God gifts all of us all of the time. And His gifts are often as simple as an empty park. They could be overlooked, but if we embrace them—wow! An empty park! Oh, and look at that fire pit. You know what we could do there? Then those gifts turn into joy. They are hand-picked by God for us—they are personal and ours to treasure and enjoy and savor. So, keep your eyes open. Look past the sign. And maybe pop a marshmallow on a stick. I can’t wait to hear what you discover.
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Our family mainly wanted to hang out on the beach and splash in the ocean, but we also wanted to find some live music on our recent vacation. We’ve been going to Hilton Head since my oldest was one, and there’s something about the warm, salty air, the rhythm of waves, the slow down of life, the breeze blowing through your hair that makes me crave an unplugged rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl.”
We picked a restaurant with nightly live music starting at six, got there a little early, put our name in for an outdoor socially distanced table, and went for a stroll while we waited for one to open up. We were seated at a white round top with a turquoise umbrella for shade adjacent to where the band was setting up. Score!
Two men, a.k.a. “the band,” were testing mics and recording loops. By six o’clock on the dot we’d ordered our food and were ready to enjoy the show. Only the band had disappeared. We spotted them a bit later a few yards away sipping cold drinks prior to their performance.
Our meals arrived and then one of my daughters spotted an army of fire ants marching beside our table. Fire ants are pretty nasty for the normal person, but I happen to be severely allergic to them, like Epipen hospital allergic. I put my feet up on the brackets of the table and dove into the sweet oranges and fresh veggies in my quinoa bowl. The two musicians came back to the microphone stands, played a few chords on the keyboard, strummed a few bars on the bass, and walked away again. When they finally started their set we had finished our meal and were fairly freaked out by the dangerous insect parade. Although the musicians were talented, we only heard one and a half songs before we made a quick exit.
Don’t worry. We had a plan B. The Char Bar, a super fun burger joint we love, also had nightly live music. We checked their schedule, and on our last night on the island, a talented young woman we’d heard sing on previous trips was scheduled to play. Brilliant. We once again arrived a little before she was scheduled to sing, found an outdoor table, this one was a high top, so I could sit on a stool with my feet safe from any pesky ants. But here was the problem. The person with the guitar and microphone was a man not a woman. Gray hair not blonde. Disappointed, we shrugged, ordered our food, and decided to make the best of whatever music we were about to hear.
And do you know what?
It was phenomenal. This guy sang all the sing along favorites. Our whole fam was singing the bum bum bums of “Sweet Caroline,” swaying to “Wagon Wheel” and yes, the musician even handed the egg shaker and tambourine to our daughters for his “percussion section” which evolved into a tambourine solo. Brett and I danced to “Wonderful Tonight” on the sidewalk even though there wasn’t a dance floor. The kids and my mom joined in. Even after we’d paid and were walking back to our car, we were still singing along, probably a bit too loudly.
Needless to say, it was a blast. A combination of family and nostalgia and the grand finale of a beautiful week away together. It was so much more fun than we could have ever orchestrated on our own. The guys at the first place weren’t that engaged (or prompt). The gal we’d hoped to see had switched her schedule, but God, He still had the perfect plan--a plan packed with singing and laughter and new memories made.
God’s like that. Better than we ever hoped or imagined. His plans surpass ours every single time. Which is difficult to get our brains around in the moment. When we’re disappointed or dejected or down. But even when it feels like the world is against you, God is on your side. He is for you. Not against you. He has perfect plans for you. Never will He forsake you. He is fighting for you.
Our music ordeal wasn’t a big deal or major issue, just a family hoping to be entertained by some beach music on their vacation. But God works in beautiful surprising ways always. In the little things and the huge things.
So today, if things aren’t going as planned. If the band is running late or someone different than you expected shows up. Take a deep breath. Remember God is in control and He loves you.
If you’re not where you thought you’d be. If things look upside down or inside out, thank the Lord above that He is the one in control, not you. Recall that He is love. He is light. He is truth. He is the Prince of Peace. That’s the kind of guy you can depend on. Ask Jesus to help you trust in Him and His promises. Hand over the disappointment or unfamiliarity or uncertainty to Him. Ask Him what to do next.
Remember you have to do your part, too. We had to show up to that second restaurant and try again or we would have missed out altogether. Keep moving forward where He leads. And then wait for the music to play. When you hear the opening notes, clap your hands, spin in a circle, sing along, and shake your tambourine to the soundtrack our Almighty God provides.
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Laura L. Smith