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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“Why? Just why?” My daughter asked as she entered the kitchen and slid a purple folder into her backpack.
“Why, what?” I asked.
“That coat. Just why?”
Before I could answer, my son appeared and sidled over to where I’d set out his steaming cinnamon oatmeal. “What is that coat?” He asked.
So, my kids weren’t crazy about the coat, but me? I was. I’d seen the coat in an uptown shop’s window one morning before the store opened and fell in love. I called the store later, something I never do, hoping I could afford it. The price was just under what my gift card total was. Clearly, this was meant to be. They only had one in each size.
“Could you hold it for me?” I might have begged.
The worker apologetically explained because of the holidays they could not. So, I dropped what I was doing, drove to the shop, hoped they still had it in my size. They did. Hoped it would fit well. It did. I handed over my gift card and drove away with the fluffy coat nestled in a lovely pale green bag.
When my kids (who apparently don’t understand how cute the coat is) left for school the morning I first wore the coat, I headed to our coffee shop and saw two gals I knew sitting near the door. Before I could finish saying, “Good morning,” they both complimented the coat. At last, people who understood my style. I greatly appreciated their comments, because I do love this black fuzzy coat decorated with red roses, but their appreciation did not make me like the coat more. I loved it. Period. No matter what anyone else said or thought. With or without anyone’s approval.
Why am I rambling about a coat? Because this is how Jesus loves us. Period. No matter what anyone else thinks. With or without anyone else’s approval. Jesus sees us in the window (okay, going about our daily lives), hopes today will be the day we talk to Him, trust Him, turn over that thing to Him, and then Jesus does anything to get near to us. It doesn’t matter what Jesus is doing, He’ll make time to get close. He’s not holding out until we’re on the sale rack or hoping He has time to bump into us or fit us into His schedule later. If someone else makes fun of us or adores us, it doesn’t change the way Jesus sees us. He loves us. As we are. And for the record, His love is substantially stronger than my coat obsession.
Just like my coat was created by the manufacturer, If By Sea, we were all created by the Creator of the Universe, crafted uniquely and beautifully by Him. Like the roses on my coat, we all have distinct purposes based on the one-of-a-kind mix of skills, talents, perceptions, ways of communicating, insights, etc. that God knitted together into the fabric of our being. I was made like this. You were made like this.
And so, on days when people look at us and shake their heads. On days when people question your decisions and ask, “Why would you wear that? Study that? Go there? Hang out with them? Like that song? Be involved in that activity? Have that opinion? Use your time in that way?” Please know that Jesus thinks you’re remarkable. He loves when you do the things He created you to do and when you delight in the things He created you to delight in. If you’re outdoorsy, Jesus gets excited when you go for a hike in the woods. If you’re crafty He loves when you wield a glue gun. You don’t have to justify yourself to Jesus. He’s already done way more than make a phone call, or drive to a shop for you. He came to this earth over 2000 years ago as a baby in a manger, lived the life of a man, and died a painful death on a cross to dissolve your sins and offer you a life of freedom. That’s how much He loves you.
You were created in the image of God. Therefore, you are gorgeous. And packed with purpose. And nothing anyone says, no matter how anyone treats you, can take your fabulousness from you. It’s innate. Whenever you walk into a room, hold your head up high. Be confident in who you are. Wear it well. I do love my coat, but Jesus loves you infinitely more.
In this first week of advent, a tradition in the Christian church to prepare for Christmas, we celebrate hope. Jesus offers us so much hope, and His hope is that today you will accept His love and wrap it around you. His love is beautiful and warm, fits perfectly, and will never go out of style.
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I told my son, Max, we could go somewhere crazy, fun to celebrate his senior year. Max plans to go into worship ministry, so I wasn’t surprised when he chose the Heaven Come Conferencein Dallas this past weekend. I bought conference tickets, booked flights, and reserved a rental car. I mapped out where the event was and scouted out a convenient hotel. I wanted to plan the perfect trip—make it special and memorable for my boy. Apparently God also wanted to treat Max. Everywhere we turned we were blown away by the inexplicable goodness of God.
The conference was virtually nonstop worship music and phenomenal preaching. That alone would have made for an incredible trip. The tickets were open seating, so we had no idea where we’d be able to sit. But once each session began, ushers allowed anyone to move toward the stage. Okay. All of a sudden God handed Max and I had front row tickets. We knew we were going to miss the final session, but hoped we could see Dante Bowelead worship, and I really wanted to hear Christine Cainespeak. Don’t worry. God scheduled for us to see both of them.
Why did we skip the last session? My oldest daughter, who has never been to Texas, just happened to be playing two soccer games this same weekend in Dallas. Oh, and check out the sunset God doodled in the sky that night. It was insane.
Every single thing seemed to click like that. It was like we kept winning the lottery. Only better. Because we felt God’s presence. I’d be driving along on unfamiliar highways with multiple levels of twisted ramps that resembled the highways built around the Zax in that Dr. Seuss book, and need to get over five lanes. Yikes! But no problem. There was no one behind me, and I could easily scoot sideways across the highway. Which happens to me never.
While in the merchandise shop Max spotted a worship leader he admires from a church in Dallas. What? Why was he here? Selling t-shirts? I have no idea, but we got so many hugs from this guy we lost count. Walking through the lobby, we spotted another accomplished worship leader just hanging out in his flannel. Max got to chat songwriting and worship with him as if they were old friends.
It wasn’t just us. This was happening left and right around us. Friday there was a tremendous storm in Dallas that closed the airport. It took place while we were inside, so we never had to drive in it, stand in it, or even get wet. But it did stop the Friday night speaker from flying in. No worries. John Bevere, who had preached the night before couldn’t get out, so although not on the schedule, he came back and preached his guts out, in a way that moved possibly every one of the 6,000 people in attendance.
I’m leaving out a dozen other blessings—milkshakes in our parking lot, Starbucks in our lobby, an exit out of the parking lot opened right before our eyes, the free autographed poster we got handed, the fastest rental car check out and return I’ve ever experienced, and the loveliest people everywhere we turned.
Conference over, but still in Dallas, we headed to church Sunday morning. On the way Max mentioned one of his favorite worship leaders is Sean Feucht. As we waited for service to begin, in walks Sean. Yes, he’d been part of our conference, but it was totally unrelated to this church. He lives in California. Oh, and he was the guest preacher that morning. Get out!
For all the things I wanted to plan for my son, I couldn’t have prearranged any of this. There is not one thing I could have done on my own to ensure he could speak one-on-one to leaders who would encourage him to pursue his passion, that we would be in the perfect places at perfect times, or get platinum treatment with general admission tickets. But God could. And did. It’s how He operates.
Sure, I have days where I feel the opposite is true. Where it feels like everything goes wrong. I wake up with a migraine, one of my kids and I have a spat before they leave for school, and I can’t find my phone. Or keys. When I finally get everything rounded up I start my car, and realize I don’t have my bags for the grocery. And even though I’ve only allotted twenty minutes to dart into the store before I get to Bible study, my fuel light is on. Argh! But the thing is, God is with us on those days, too. He’s reminding us to grab our phone and bags before we leave. He’s whispering in our ears to slow down, take a deep breath that He loves us and is with us. The delay to find our keys or stop for gas might enable us to bump into that perfect person or keep us from getting into a fender bender. We rarely see all of the beautiful details God is orchestrating. But He always is. Do we have our eyes open?
You see, just like I want my kids’ lives to be filled with love and joy, God wants that for them (and us) even more! God is a good good Father, and He loves us perfectly. He is working everything together for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). He’s planning V.I.P. treatments, doors to open, people for us to meet at places and times we could never expect or concoct on our own.
This sometimes means breakups with the wrong person, because they weren’t right for us, not getting one job to find a better one, losing a lease, because God has a roommate that will help us cling to Jesus set up in a different apartment, or a place that will save us money, or where we’ll literally be able to sleep better at night. We can’t see all of His glorious ways. But we can trust that He is on the move.
Being at a conference where we were focused on Jesus, Max and I had our eyes wide open to God’s blessings. Not surprisingly, this made it easy to identify gift upon gift upon gift from the Lord. But the blessings are always there. Even in our storms, God is watering dry ground, preparing it for new growth. We just need to keep our hearts and eyes open. Where do you see Jesus blessing you today? Take a moment to thank Him for His abundant presence and presents.
“What are you taking a picture of?” my husband asked.
“I’m just going to touch them,” I said over my shoulder. I was drawn to the most beautiful willow on the other side of the street with wispy branches arching high and dropping low to the ground. After crossing the street and running my fingers through whispery leaves and vine like branches I pulled my phone from my back pocket and snapped a few pics. Which to most people would seem pretty strange, but it didn’t faze my husband.
“We both knew you were going to take pictures.”
“I just planned on touching it,” I said. “I can’t resist willows.”
Brett grinned. “And?”
“And once I touched it I needed a picture,” I conceded.
Brett held out his arms and hugged my ridiculous self—the goofball who takes pictures of trees in random people’s yards. “We both knew you were going to take a picture. I just knew first,” he said.
I am a dork. There’s no question about it. My husband knows all of my weird, quirky, nerdy behavior, and loves me not only despite it, but sometimes even because of it. I am blessed by him, no doubt. But this isn’t just how Brett sees me. This is how Jesus—the Creator of the Universe, the King of the World sees all of us!
He knows we can’t hear very well, can’t help talking strangers next to us in line, feel the need to wash our feet twice every time we shower, or require a pillow on our ear in order to fall asleep. Jesus knows all of these things about us, because He specifically designed us this way. And instead of being bothered when we yank an itchy t-shirt off our body as soon as it touches our skin, Jesus grins, and makes a softer tee more visible in our drawer.
Early in his ministry Jesus was headed toward Galilee. There was a man named Nathanael who Jesus wanted as one of his disciples. Jesus hadn’t officially been introduced, but being part of the Trinity and all, had actually been in on the creation of Nathanael. Jesus knew him inside and out.
When Jesus saw him (Nathanael) coming he said, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.”
Nathanael said, “Where did you get that idea? You don’t know me.”
Jesus answered, “One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree.”
Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi! You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!”
Jesus said, “You’ve become a believer simply because I say I saw you one day sitting under the fig tree? You haven’t seen anything yet!--John 1:47-50
In this short interchange we see that:
We spend so much time apologizing for and hiding our quirks. Why? We get nervous wondering what others will think. Why?
Jesus looks at us and says, “I love your crooked smile—it puts people at ease. Your fun laugh brings joy to a room. The fact that you count everything makes those around you aware of how much they actually have. Your quiet nature relaxes those around you. The way you can’t sit still when you hear music gets folks minds off their problems and onto the possibilities of singing or dancing—of finding joy.”
When we need a minute to collect our thoughts or because we’re meticulous about tucking in our shirt or to take a deep breath or because we are unsettled if we don’t wipe off the counter, Jesus doesn’t get frustrated or impatient. He leans back, smiles, and when we’re good to go says, “Ready?”
The disciples were worried about what people would think when Jesus sent them out to spread the good news. Jesus reassured them:
What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated. You’re worth more than a million canaries. —Matthew 10:30
Wow! I have a hecka lot of hairs on this head. And He numbers all of them? How amazing that this is how specifically and thoroughly our God loves us. He knows every single detail about us. And just as we cringe and think--Every single detail? Because there are a few details I’d rather nobody knew. Jesus follows up. He says, “I know every detail about you, and by knowing all of those details, I consider you worth more than a million canaries.”
So be yourself—your actual self—today. Be silly or serious, fast or slow, calm or crazy. Bring yourself to the game, the meeting, the coffee date, the class, and know that you are exactly who God created you to be. He sees you under your fig tree or crossing the street to touch a willow tree or researching your family tree or pulling your favorite sandals off your shoetree, and He says, “That one—I want to hang out with her.”
“Would you like a pain au chocolat?” We asked my mom when she arrived at our apartment in Paris.
“No, I’m fine,” she replied.
“We just got them from the bakery. They’re still warm.”
She peeked at the white paper bag brimming with pastries, but shook her head. “No, really.”
I’m not sure what prompted Mom to turn down the flaky croissants stuffed with chunks of dark, rich chocolate. Maybe it was the calorie count or the fat grams. Maybe she’d eaten something on the plane already. But this was special. She was in France. And these were fresh-from-the-oven French delicacies.
“You should at least try a piece of one,” my son, Max, coaxed.
“Okay, maybe one bite.”
A few nights later, I received an email inviting me to go to Israel. Instantly my mind flooded with the memory of my childhood pastor describing his trip to the Holy Land from the pulpit, and my ten-year old mind being blown. You could actually go to the places from the Bible? That was an option? You could see where Jesus was buried? You could dip your toes in the Sea of Galilee? I’d longed to go ever since. I sighed—what an incredible opportunity. What an honor to be invited. My very next thought? Of course I won’t go.
Because it costs a lot of money? I hadn’t asked how much.
Because it means leaving my family for a week? I hadn’t asked if they minded. Because I don’t deserve this kind of gift—it seems too lavish for me to experience? I hadn’t asked God what His thoughts were.
I sounded like my mom with that pastry. Oh yes, that’s marvelous. I would really enjoy it. But, nah, I won’t partake.
Have you ever done this?
Given a quick “no.” to something good, something you want, something right in front of you? I’m not talking about eating the entire blueberry cobbler, buying every pair of cute sandals at TJ Maxx, or going out with the girls (or guys) every time someone sends a group text. We have limits on our resources. It’s important to set priorities and to exercise self-control. But sometimes, God gives us presents, simply because He’s an incredible Father and wants to delight us. Think of it like God wanting to take us out for ice cream, not because it’s our birthday, or because we got an A on our report card, but because it brings Him joy to make us smile.
When God asks if we’d like to go to Graeter’s? Do we answer, “Yes please!” and grab our flip-flops? Or do we primly shake our heads.
May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. —Ephesians 3:19 NLT
I’m guilty of turning down some of the ice cream cones God offers. In my practical “get things done, take care of the fam, make sure everything is running smoothly” mentality, I sometimes lose sight of how extravagant God’s love is. It might feel like I don’t deserve it, but not necessarily to Jesus. He is over the top and loves us accordingly. He piles heaps of blessings on us like putting someone in our lives who loves us for who we are, financially providing the means to pay a bill, a parking spot up front on a day when we need the extra four minutes, or a hug from a friend when we’re feeling down.
Are you receiving these gifts? Why or why not?
If you think they’re “too much” or not for you, have you asked God what His thoughts are?
After chatting with my Mom about her flight and train into the city, I glanced at her plate. All that remained were a few buttery crumbs of pastry.
I grinned, thrilled she had allowed herself to enjoy the treat we’d selected from specifically for her. “Good thing you had that bite,” I teased.
“It was just so delicious, I ended up eating the whole thing.”
Pain au chocolats are indulgent. We don’t need them. But they are also scrumptious. Not to eat every day, but while on a family trip to France, definitely.
Mom savored each morsel.
And after some long, deep conversations with God, I said, “yes,” to the trip to Israel.
What is Jesus offering you today?
He offers all of us peace, rescue, strength, courage, and salvation. Are you taking Him on those big, beautiful gifts wrapped in shiny bows?
Jesus also has special, unique gifts He offers us, too—trips to Israel and French pastries included. Are you accepting these gifts? Maybe it’s a job you haven’t bothered applying for, because you don’t know if they’d hire you. Or maybe you haven’t gone to that event, meeting, club, because you’re not sure how you’ll fit in. Or maybe you haven’t spoken up because you’re uncertain how they’ll respond. If this is you, I urge you to look inward and ask why you’re so quick to turn these potential gifts down. Ask God His opinion. I find He likes us to go ahead and open the presents He’s wrapped for us. They don’t do much good sitting there taped shut.
You are worthy of every spiritual blessing. God says so. Go ahead—tug on the bow. I can’t wait to see what you unwrap!
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Ten years ago I climbed out of a cab into a narrow alley in Lyon, France with two of my kids, jet-lagged and disoriented. When our driver stopped in front of the graffiti-laden door I was speechless. This was the address I’d given him. My husband and other two children would be delivered to this same spot any minute (one French taxi was not equipped to hold two parents, four kids, and six pieces of luggage). So, even though I couldn’t imagine this is where we would be living for the next month while my husband taught at the local university, this is apparently the place the school had rented for us. The small black Peugeot taxi disappeared down the steep alley, and I extended my arms like wings pulling my kids close trying to make them feel safe, even though the burning pit in my stomach and dark sense of dread enveloping my heart intensified by the second.
On our recent family vacation to France we revisited this alley hearts warm, smiles creeping across our six Smith faces.
Because behind the graffiti-covered front door is a walkway leading up a series of stairs to a fantastic French apartment complete with bright purple and green throw pillows on a dove gray Ikea couch, a basket of toys, and a spectacular view of a church steeple and the red-tiled rooftops of Lyon. The memories of the five weeks we spent here ten years ago are some of my fondest.
Despite my initial moments of dread, ends up we lived on the same street as the elementary school and only a two-minute walk from a peaceful playground. Safe. Quiet. Family friendly. While Brett rode the bus to the University each morning, the kids and I crossed the Saone River on a cherry red bridge to the outdoor market, purchasing fresh produce. Our next stop was the boulangerie to find fresh warm pastries and baguettes for the day. While Brett taught students from around the world about entrepreneurship, our kids played futbol with French children on the playground and tag in the large public square with a giant statue of the sun king, Louis XIV. We explored the ancient Roman ruins, and the cathedral Fourvière covered with mosaics perched atop a hill. Church on Sundays was at Saint-Georges, originally built in the year 550 at the end of our street, whose church bells serenaded us daily on the hour. We learned our way around the city, and became friends with our baker and grocer. It was like a page out of a Madeline book.
You see, you can't judge an adventure by its doors.
What looked to be a run down apartment in the bad part of town turned out to be a charming home within walking distance to everything a family with four kiddos could want in the loveliest (in my opinion) neighborhood in Lyon. Turns out the university knew exactly what they were doing when they rented the apartment. They were taking care of us. We just didn’t realize it at first glance.
How often do we do this? Decide something is bad, wrong, unsafe, finished, undoable before even waiting to see what’s behind the door. We give up before we start, or at least before we’ve allowed God to show us what He’s up to.
I think of the poor disciples after Jesus was crucified. Their Savior, leader, pastor, friend was gone. They saw Him brutally executed. Watched His body carried away and sealed in a grave with a giant forboding stone. But behind that stone the most amazing thing was going down. Jesus conquered the grave, so that we too, would never be stuck in the dark without air. The disciples couldn’t see this. Not until they looked inside the door on Sunday and realized that tomb was empty.
Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. —Mark 16:2-6
What door seems shut in your life? Or damaged or covered in grafitti or locked or knocked down or sealed with a stone?
Sometimes God closes doors. And I am so grateful for that, because the doors He’s closed in my life have forced me to turn around so I could see the things He wants to teach me, and eventually the doors He’s swung wide open for me.
But Jesus also asks us to trust Him. Trust that the skill God gave you He will use for good. Trust that the relationship that didn’t work out wasn’t supposed to last for an extremely good reason (even if you don't see that today). Trust that Jesus has something incredible in store at the new place He’s put you. Trust that the sun will shine again. Trust that the apartment He set up for your family in France will be safe. Trust that when Jesus said He was coming back, He meant it.
I can’t tell you which doors are permanently closed and which ones you need to push open in your life. But I do know God will show you. He wants us to discover His plans. It’s not some game He’s playing like Let’s Make a Deal. God would never hide a goat behind one of the doors He's set on your path or lock a door He intends for you to walk through. No. He puts exactly what we need behind precisely the right door and if we’re patient (apparently sometimes it takes about three days) and willing to unlock the door or roll back the stone we’ll discover pure love, ultimate grace, and adventures beyond our comprehension.
Are you ready to push open the door?
This year I’ve been working on a book about music and the church and our roots. I’ve been writing the chapters out of order, which is not my style, but I knew how I wanted it to end, and there was something I wanted to change in the middle, and another chapter needed to go bye-bye and be replaced. I was working off two documents—the beautiful, polished one I’ll send my editor, and the one with lots of notes, some ideas for later, some reminders for now. So I kind of knew where I was with the project, but not completely. I thought I had at least three full chapters to write, plus edits as I pulled up the manuscript on my laptop. I was all set to start a new chapter, when one I’d been doing a major remodel on caught my eye.
I spent the day reworking the words—their order, the story they told. And when it took the shape I was hoping for, I added that chapter to my pretty document, and scrolled through. All thirty chapters had been written. What?!
I’m not saying I didn’t have some major editing to do, just that the first draft was complete, which is huge. And I didn’t even realize I’d crossed the finish line. I looked at the sky, blue and clear on the other side of the screen on my porch, and whispered, “thank you,” to Jesus, because He’s the one who gave me this book and He’s the one who truly wrote it. I just took dictation.
A completed draft is not a finished project, so I kept going, organizing the table of contents, fixing some footnotes. I didn’t take time to high five myself or journal or go beyond that one whispered phrase of gratitude. I’d save that for when I turned it in. Plus we were leaving that afternoon for an out of town soccer tournament. I still had to pack, grab a few things from the store, fill my car with gas. So, I kept going. And going.
Fast forward to that evening. I’d arrived in Columbus where the soccer games would start early the next morning. And because God is so good, my incredibly talented and lovely friend, Holly Starr, was playing a show in Columbus. Which is a huge deal, because she lives on the other side of the country, and we rarely get to see each other. But here God was—giving us this night for a hug, shared conversation, and the beautiful opportunity for me to witness her using her God-given talent. Holly sang some tunes off her latest album, Human. She sang some familiar worship music everyone knew. Her last song was “Give Me Jesus.” Which just happened to be the title of one of my book chapters.
Her rendition felt so raw and personal, like it was a gift from God, wrapped up with a shiny silver bow and delivered specifically for me. I’m sure others in the audience benefited from the reminder…but in that moment…you could have all this world, all I wanted was Jesus. He was reminding me of what happened that day—that He had given me a large assignment, walked with me every step of the way, and because I was willing to be obedient, He did a thing, a glorious thing—He wrote a book with me. And in the writing Jesus taught me so much. I felt like I would burst with appreciation.
The pastor of the church took the mic, said a prayer, and invited anyone who needed prayer to come forward while his wife sang a closing song. His adorable wife with short silver, curly hair and cherry red lips stood up and began, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus….” Yes. Oh my. I also referenced the lyrics to this song on a page of my book.
The book is about all kinds of things Jesus wants us to know, all kinds of ways we can connect with Him. And yet, the final two songs of a night that already felt like a present were straight from the conversations I’d been having with God as I wrote it. If gratitude was a liquid, my cup was running over.
This is how our God works. We go through the motions—did I pack toothpaste? And He sets up a Christmas tree packed with presents. We think, okay, check, I did that task, and He says, “Let’s celebrate! Look how wonderful things work out when we collaborate!”
I didn’t deserve to have the chance to write this book, yet I'd been spending my days penning the pages. I didn’t deserve to learn everything God taught me in the writing, yet I was full of a deeper understanding than when I began. I didn’t deserve to finish it before I thought I was done. I was ready to do more, but it was as if God wrote extra pages while I was sleeping or cooking dinner or driving carpools. I didn’t deserve to see my friend. I didn’t coordinate calendars or book a flight, but here she was smiling in front of me. And oh these beautiful songs that stirred my soul, I didn’t deserve to hear them, but God lavished them on me, like mounds of home made whipped cream, light and sweet, on top of rich, chocolate lava cake.
I didn’t deserve any of it, but just like I love to shower my kiddos with gifts, treats, and surprises, our Heavenly Father loves to love on us.
So keep on writing, or running, or researching, or rehearsing. Keep on studying, stretching, being obedient to what God is calling you to do. I don’t know when or what it will look like (I wasn’t expecting any of the presents He showered on me), but I do know He will lavish you with undeserved gifts, blessings sweet, tangible, and endless. Just keep your eyes on Him. The things of earth will grow strangely dim…in the light of His glory and grace.
The odds of picking a perfect NCAA tournament bracket are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. The odds of winning the Powerball lottery (which was up to $750 million at the writing of this post) are 1 in 292 million. These numbers are easy to find with a quick Google search. But has anything extraordinary ever happened to you and you wondered, “What are the odds that could have happened?” I had one of those “what are the odds?” moments this weekend.
We entered the Starbucks and the rich, inviting aroma of roasted coffee beans welcomed us inside. Our main goal was to find the bathroom. After detours and construction my friend, her husband, their daughter, me, and my daughter had been in the car for hours and still had a few to go before we arrived in Gatlinburg for the girls’ soccer tournament. While we were stopped for the restroom, treats were in order. For me? A tangy, iced peach tea sounded like the perfect pick me up.
Before any of us could order, a young woman with long brown hair and perfectly arched eyebrows hugged my friend. I didn’t know how they knew each other, or why in the world they’d bump into each other here, but I heard the gal say, “Kat’s in the car.”
Kat is my friend’s older daughter, who had been in Savannah, and was supposed to be meeting us in Gatlinburg to watch her little sister play. But moments before we pulled out of the driveway, Kat texted saying she was sick and couldn’t come. She would drive with her friend straight back to Cincinnati to get some rest. The whole family was disappointed Kat wouldn’t be at the tournament, and that they couldn’t be together when Kat was feeling so awful.
But now? As we made our random rest stop from Ohio to Tennessee and Kat took a break from her route from Savannah to Cincinnati, our paths collided at the exact same Starbucks at the exact same time.
What are the odds?
But this thing had nothing to do with odds. It was a gift from God. My friend got to see and hug her sick daughter. Her daughter got giant, comforting hugs from her mom and dad. Kat also got to wish her younger sister good luck. The whole episode only lasted about ten minutes, but it was beautiful to witness the warmth and depth of this impromptu reunion.
This is how God works. All of the time. He is orchestrating things beyond our imagination, outside of our control. We feel disappointed, stressed, impatient, concerned when things don’t go our way. When we get sick and we have to miss something we want to attend. When we’re sent out of our way or feel stuck and don’t seem to be moving ahead. When we can’t see someone we had plans to meet or go somewhere we had plans to go God says, “Be anxious about nothing. (Matthew 6:25) Don’t worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34). Trust me. I’ve got this (John 16:33).”
And then He does something crazy awesome!
Paul and Silas were two missionaries teaching folks about Jesus. They were preaching in the town of Philippi, when long story short, they ended up in jail. Not exactly what they were hoping for.
But then God.
God created an earthquake so powerful it shook the jail to its foundation. Bricks crumbled and tumbled every which way. The jailer was also shaken by this miracle and ended up believing in Jesus. So did his entire household. (Acts 16:16-40) Paul and Silas set out to teach people about Jesus, but landed in prison. But God put them there at just the right place at just the right time, so He could shake things up and convert a whole family of unlikely suspects.
What are the odds that jail would be struck by an earthquake? That the unbelieving jailer and his large clan would be transformed?
Again, I’m guessing zero.
Does something look bleak today? Disappointing? Like you’ll miss seeing your favorite person or maybe that you ended up in the opposite place of where you’d hope you would be?
God isn’t fazed. At all. He has some elaborate behind-the-scenes plan at work. He will somehow use where you are, when you’re there, mix things up and do something that will blow you away.
The odds of you being born with your exact genetic makeup are 1 in 400 trillion. And yet, here you are, reading these words right this very moment. God blows off the doors on all the odds. He intentionally and specifically created you exactly how you are. (Pretty cool, right?) And He hasn’t stopped working in and through your life since the moment He formed you. No matter how highly the odds may seem stacked against you. Trust Him. You never know who He might have you run into or what He might crumble down. But you can count on it being phenomenal. Those are odds you can bet on.
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.
Laura L. Smith