Our Ohio snow is spectacularly beautiful. All gleaming white and sparkling crystals. We’ve explored the woods, gone sledding, tromped around in boots, and built cozy fires. Sunday morning, we woke to more snow, and if we were going to get to church, we were going to have to shovel. My sweet husband, who has done 90% of the shoveling, started bundling up. This time I grabbed my Oros, hat, and gloves, to join him. He didn’t ask me to. I just wanted to. Together we inhaled the crisp (9 degree) air, and shoveled the driveway. It took less than a half an hour as a team. And even though we didn’t talk much, there was something in the morning stillness, solidarity in the scrape of each other’s shovels, which was sweet and peaceful. We were in this together, and shoveling together is as much a part of our marriage as the romantic Italian dinner we went to on Friday night.
In a recent conversation with a friend the question came up: What’s the difference between saying, “I’m a Christian,” and having a “relationship” with God.
The question reminded me of my marriage, of deciding to go out and shovel. Stay with me here, they are related. It’s like asking, what’s the difference between saying, “I’m married” and “being in a relationship” with my husband? Aren’t they the same thing? Doesn’t saying “we’re Christians” mean we’re with God, part of His family. Of course. And not completely.
No matter if you’re married or single you’ve seen two people (at least in a movie) stand in front of a minister, rabbi, or some authorized person and say, “I do.” They exchange rings and sign a paper. Voila! They are officially married. The couple gets all the privileges that come with “being married”—a roommate, a date for the big events, and someone to sit next to at family gatherings. Legally, there are additional things a marriage offers that other relationships don’t. You can change your status not just on Facebook, but also on job and loan applications. If you marry someone who has better health insurance, hooray, now you get the benefits of their insurance. If you marry someone with a nicer home, you’ll probably choose to move into the better space, and bingo, you’ve upgraded your standard of living. In most states, if your spouse dies, you legally inherit their assets. All of these things come simply with the marriage status. It doesn’t require any investment in the relationship whatsoever.
It’s the same by saying, “I’m a Christian.” If you truly believe Jesus Christ died on a cross to take away your sins, and that because of His action, you will go to heaven, then you will. It’s like saying, “I do.” Ta da. You’re a Christian. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to read the Bible. You don’t have to belong to a small group or a Bible study. You’re in. It’s official. You get to go to heaven and live forever and ever in a place so incredible our human minds aren’t even capable of describing or predicting what it will be like—talk about a lifestyle upgrade. You get this major perk, just like the married folks get the ring, the house, and the insurance. If you’ve ever watched a sporting event you’ve seen John 3:16 on a sign, or shirt, or painted on someone’s face. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Eternal life. Sounds like a pretty good gig. And it is. But is that all we really want? Because Jesus offers so much more.
Let’s say you’re married and you and your spouse decide to cohabitate—be married solely for the status advantages. You decide to live your own lives, be responsible only for yourselves, go wherever you want whenever you want, even date other people, but cling to the “benefits” of marriage. Legally you can do that. You can never speak to each other, not share your hopes and dreams, not spend time with one another, not trust one another, and still get the health insurance. You can show up all decked out and nod and smile for the office parties and pictures, but skip all of the Italian dinners dipping your fork into your spouse’s risotto and clinking glasses toasting something silly that happened that week. If you skip the dinner, you’ll miss that moment in the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant when the idea you’ve been chewing on all day, but hadn’t yet been able to articulate, spills out, and together you navigate how to handle it.
You can also shovel by yourself.
You’ll miss out on all the richness of marriage. You’ll miss out on having your best friend also be your love interest. You’ll miss out on late night laugh attacks and someone to hold you when your heart hurts, and the one person in the room who truly understands you with a single glance. You’ll miss out on a completely unexpected and unprompted romantic kiss on a Monday morning before you head out to work, a walk on a Thursday evening around the neighborhood while the sun is setting, someone who will listen to the crazy rant going on in your head, someone to grab your hand when you hear the news, and someone to morph shoveling the driveway from a chore into a peaceful way to start your day. Sure, you’ll get the house, their new iPhone, and the life insurance when they die. But you’ll miss all the joys and depth of love in the every day moments.
It’s the same with Jesus. You can choose to say, “Wow, Jesus, what you did is cool. Thanks for dying for me. That was super nice. See you in heaven.” And then decide to cohabitate with Him, but not talking to Jesus about all the things on your heart—the dream you’re considering chasing, the decision someone you love is about to make, the safety of friends in a city where there’s a wildfire, how exhausted you are from your current work situation, the excitement of your upcoming audition. But then you miss out on the richness of the relationship, of knowing how much Jesus loves you. If we don’t talk to Him, don’t read His Word, when we’re at the end of our ropes how can He tell us, “I’m with you, always even to the end of the world.” If we don’t ask Him for advice, how can He guide us along the right paths? If we don’t hang out with Him, we’ll never experience the peace He’ll give us in the middle of a family argument, the love He’ll flood over us in the hospital room, the exuberant joy He’ll magnify when we get the acceptance letter or contract, the warmth of His hand on our shoulder as our nephews or kiddos take their first steps or walk down the aisle. There are no requirements. We will be saved. We’ll get the inheritance when we die. But we’ll miss the hope, joy, and love He offers every single day.
So, yes, there is a difference between saying we believe in God and being in a relationship with Him. And the beautiful, crazy thing is He lets us choose, which way we want to go. There’s no pressure. Jesus loves hanging out with us, but He wants that to be our choice. Just like we really hope our spouse or close friends want to spend time with us. We can start today, right now, simply by telling Jesus, “Good morning.” Sharing with Him what we’re hoping to get done today, what we’re worried about might happen, what’s on our minds, how we feel. It’s that easy. It’s like picking up a shovel and taking one scoop of snow.
My husband is reading a book called Rooted by Banning Liebscher. I’ve seen it lying on the steps, the coffee table, in his hands. I like the sound of the word, rooted, as if it describes itself. I picture green roots of a plant diving deep into rich soil and calling out, “Roooooooo-ted,” as they descend. As a writer I’m drawn to words. And this one keeps flashing across my radar.
I have dozens of pages marked in my Bible with brass book tabs, scraps of paper, colorful sticky notes, stiff prayer cards, whatever I can find when I come across something that stirs me so deeply I need to get back to it. The other day I flipped to a passage in Isaiah, and a piece of paper marked the page prior to the one I was reading. Out of curiosity, I turned back to see what was so profound on that page, and noticed the marker—a small square sheet of paper promoting VBS from our previous church. On the back in lime green ink I’d written “Rooted,” in thicker, swirlier letters at the top to serve as a heading. Really? Rooted? From a few years back. Hmmm.
And the next day, a coffee date with a girlfriend. I’ve only met her a couple of times, but we both speak, write, and teach for Jesus, plus we’re both soccer moms, so there is never a shortage of things to talk about. And as we were praying she spoke the word rooted over our lives and our relationships with God. There it was again standing out from all the other words as if in all-bold caps.
Okay, God, I’m listening.
On the dawn of a new year I don’t make resolutions. I used to, but they don’t serve me and my personality well, so instead I choose a word, or actually God chooses it for me—one to cling to for the year. And, well, yes, this year’s is clearly ROOTED. I know it’s a word that could pop up into multiple conversations, maybe-ish. But every time I heard “rooted” it seems to be highlighted, illuminated, like this word is an important one. Priscilla Shirer describes the Greek word, rhema, as the times when God’s words leap out of the page at you, when you truly hear God’s word being spoken directly to you. I knew rooted was one of these rhema moments for me early in December and went ahead and wrote it on the gold-framed slate a dear friend gave me that sits on my bookshelves, so I would remember. If God was giving me this word already, it didn’t seem like I should wait until January 1 to proclaim it. Rooted is something I need.
I need to be so rooted in who Jesus is and how He loves me, so I don’t sway. So I don’t crumble when I get rejections. Newsflash, writers get rejections, scads of them, over stories we’ve poured ourselves into, into stories I feel God has given me to write. And handfuls of rejections can hurt, and damage one’s self esteem. Are you in a position where you experience rejection? Then you get it. But when I write for Jesus and His glory, and stay rooted in that, then it doesn’t matter if my words get turned down, because Jesus never asked me to get my stories accepted, just to write them. Same for whatever He’s calling you, to do. Jesus calls you to the input, not the output. And when we dig down deep into that truth, then the shame or disappointment from someone passing on something we’ve worked at fades, because we remember who we did the work for. Jesus. Not them.
I need to stay rooted in who I am in Jesus, and what He did for me, so when I get acceptances I remember who gave me the stories and the words and the opportunities, who orchestrated all of the pieces so perfectly, that my agent would send my work on the specific day to the particular editor who was open to this kind of story and was able to convince their publishing board, and editorial board, and marketing team, that they should also buy into this specific manuscript. Only God could do all of that. I never could. And therefore all the glory from success goes to Him. Are things going your way? Have you had some success? Guess who got you there. Oh how I want to stay rooted in that, realizing all that Jesus does for me, knowing my stability comes from Him, seeking more and more nourishment from Him for more assignments He’ll give me by allowing my roots to dive deeper into the Lord.
I need to stay rooted in Jesus, so when one of my kids is in a funk and doesn’t want to talk to anyone, including me, I don’t feel like a worthless mom. I also won’t feel like a failure when I can’t solve my kid’s problems for them, or help them with their trigonometry (math hurts my head) or because I forgot to send in the $5 for the raffle basket or when only half of the family likes what I made for dinner. Because I’m not a failure. I’m a child of God. And so are you. But it’s easy to be blown sideways by the circumstances of life.
So, in 2019, I want to stay rooted. Rooted in Jesus. In His love. In His grace. In His forgiveness. In the identity He’s given me. Will you join me? Spread out your toes and imagine sinking them into soil, warm from the sun. Imagine when you feel shaky or uncertain that you can maintain stability by digging deeper, grounding yourself in the dark earth. Consider when you feel in control, like you nailed that project and hustled well, that if you wiggle your ankles and burrow down a few inches you’ll realize where your strength came from and while you’re at it you’ll absorb some additional nutrients of the dirt –calcium, magnesium, potassium to strengthen, calm, and regulate you to keep you going, keep you centered in whatever lies ahead.
Jesus provides us everything we need. He is our living water. The bread of life. He has overcome the world. Yes, I want to root myself in Him, realizing without Jesus, I have nothing to anchor myself in, nowhere to grow. But with Him, everything makes sense, and grows both up towards the bright sunlight and down into the cool, soothing dirt.
Is God whispering a word or phrase or instruction repeatedly in your ear? Does something appear to be highlighted or standing out to you for 2019? What is it? I’d love to hear.
Over the weekend I was at a soccer tournament in Lexington. On Saturday the girls had three games. As we were leaving the hotel one of the other moms who I adore said, “Do you guys want to ride over to the fields with us? I mean, we have a bunch of chairs and things in the car, but we can move them around and make room for you.” Riding over with friends sounded great, plus I’m always looking for a way out of driving (not my strong suit), so we hopped in their SUV.
But first they had to prepare—make a little room for us, move some stuff around, or we wouldn’t have fit.
After the first game, we went to brunch at First Watch. (Oh my goodness, have you had their banana granola pancakes? If not, find a First Watch soon and give them a try—crunchy, sweet, and lightly drizzled with syrup, of course.) We put our name in at the hostess stand and had to wait a few minutes while they got a table ready for us. Someone else had to leave. The table needed to be wiped down. New menus and silverware needed to be set up. They needed to prepare some room for us before we could dine.
As we’re entering into Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas observed as a way to “get ready” for Jesus) I wonder what I need to be moving around, shifting over, getting rid of, setting out to make more room for Jesus in my life. The familiar Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World,” says it like this: Let every heart prepare Him room.
It’s not that I don’t have Jesus in my life. I do. I go to church, read my Bible, pray, but I also do a zillion other things. Make breakfast, pick up shirts from the dry cleaner, drive the curvy country roads to and from basketball practice, sign a permission slip so my teenager can watch 12 Years a Slave in class, call the pharmacy about a prescription… to name a few. And each of those things is great—feeding the fam, getting people where they need to go, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, at least some of them. But each workout I log, counter I wipe off, text I respond to is like another folding chair I throw in my trunk or another empty coffee mug on my table. Super handy for watching a soccer game or waking up, but making my life a little more crowded. And if I want Jesus to hop in my figurative car or sit at my table with me, I’m going to have to move some things around to make room for Him.
Over 2,000 years ago Mary and Joseph had the best surprise for the entire world going. Mary was pregnant and about to give birth to the Savior of the World! Get. Out! This was the promise the Israelites had been waiting for for centuries (it had been over 500 years since the last of the great Jewish prophets telling how God would come down to save His people, Malachi, put down his quill). But yet, there was no room for them in the inn. —Luke 2:8
No room? For the promised Messiah? For the guy everyone had hoped for, prayed for, yearned for? We hear these verses every Christmas and imagine exhausted Mary and Joseph wandering around Bethlehem with their gray, fuzzy donkey. But do we let the “no room” part sink in? Not just that it was super frustrating to not be able to find a hotel--ugh. And not just that poor Mary had to give birth on prickly hay in a barn that smelled like cows, no thank you. Those are important details of the story, for sure. But so is this one. All of the folks in town who were craving a Savior, who were longing for a Messiah? Not one of them was able to find room in their busy lives, in their crowded homes for Jesus to actually enter and do what He does—love. They didn’t have room. And they weren’t willing to prepare any.
So how about us? If Jesus came knocking on our doors today, would we have time in our schedules to hang out with Him? What would we have to rearrange to make room for Jesus in our days? Skip an episode of This is Us? Use an absent pass from the staff meeting? Get someone else to drive carpool? Be okay with not vacuuming? Order pizza?
Because here’s the thing. Jesus is knocking at our doors. Right now. Literally as I write this blog and you read it. He’s saying, “Don’t you just love all the twinkly lights at Christmas time?” Or, “Wow, we haven’t talked in a while, but I miss hearing from you.” Or maybe, “Hey, I know things have been rough lately. Do you want to talk?” And Jesus is waiting to see if we’ll answer the door. Are we too busy? Is our life too noisy to even hear Him knocking?
I don’t know what takes up too much time in your life, what’s a distraction from hearing His voice. But as I look at my life, the first thing that comes to mind is social media. Which I enjoy. And can be fun and helpful. But also on social media, I can totally lose track of time, translation waste valuable time, AND end up playing the comparison game, which never ends well. Plus if I could limit my time on social media, my brain would be less cluttered with the zillions of quotes and images that flash past my eyes and then immediately dissolve, AND I could be more focused on Jesus. I could have at least fifteen or so more minutes a day to pray, stop and think, or take a deep breath and talk to Jesus. So this is where I’m starting to prepare Him room. But I still have more preparing to do.
Maybe for you it’s not eliminating something, but actually intentionally doing something—setting that table or opening the door He’s knocking on by grabbing your Bible, putting aside time each day to pray, or setting the alarm one day a week to meet with that friend who is so good for your soul.
I don’t know what “chairs you need to move in your car,” or what air mattress you might need to blow up in your figurative inn. But I do know Jesus is knocking. He wants to hang out. Yup, even though that one part of your life is a mess, and that other thing you did isn’t quite resolved. Jesus just wants to come in. He doesn’t ask for anything fancy. Remember, where He made his debut was a stable. Jesus just wants to come in, so He can do what Jesus does. Love.
Will you prepare Him room?
What can you do today, to clear out some space for Jesus?
If you want to chat more about Advent, find me on Facebook and Instagram where I'll be chatting all things Advent and Christmas.
This week my gorgeous friend, Shena, is stepping in and guest blogging. Shena is a wife and mom who is breaking into a calling of discipleship and teaching. She hopes always to chase the beauty of obedience and to stir a generation to see God's kindness. Shena and I could sit for hours drinking coffee, talking about Jesus, and discussing books. After reading her inspiring words check her out here: ShenaAshcraft.com and follow her here: instagram.com/shenaashcraft/
Take it Shena....
There are twelve miles of wide-open road between my house and my church. Speed limit 45. Along that route, there's a bend in the road where I click the Jeep's cruise control down a few miles per hour to match the limit posted on the sign. In that bend, I can assume there will be a county Sherriff's deputy tucked in among the brush and rubble of an abandoned restaurant. He might be running radar or filing paperwork. Either way, his presence slows me down. The black and gold colors remind me of what I already know: The speed limit's 45, Shena! Slow. your. roll.
By the time I cross paths with Mr. Sherriff's Deputy, I'm all ten-and-two, eyes-on-the-road, doin'-the-speed-limit. Thank you very much. Because I know he's there. I know he's checking my obedience. And, hello, I don't want to get a ticket on my way to CHURCH!
Whether I'm going to a mid-week Bible study or Sunday Church Day, I get to church ticket-free (so far). And I get there fast. Because I love it. I crave church. I'm better because of it. I'm not better in the ten-and-two-driving-past-the-deputy sense of the word. I'm certainly not what some would call "better behaved"; because something about church and God's word and gathering with these folks makes me feisty, and energetic, and a bit unbridled. Actually, I think church makes me more like me. More like the me God created.
Recently, my church hosted a mid-week worship and prayer night. I was there alone. My husband and son were not flanking my sides as they do on Sundays. (I feel God so purely when the three of us worship together.) But that evening I was solo. And late. And the band was passionately quiet, singing "Do it Again." The reality of the lyrics settled into my heart. "Your promise still stands. Great is Your faithfulness. I'm still in Your hands. This is my confidence, You've never failed me yet." Thank you, Jesus, for your faithfulness.
The song ended and we were prompted to pray with the people we came with. Or, in my case, the other late-comers seated behind me--two lovely mamas whom I adore. We chatted and hugged and uncharacteristically went to our knees. Kneeling in a triangle, holding each others' hands, we prayed. I listened to the honey-sweet testimony of a child healed from infection. We prayed thanksgiving. I heard the heart-aching plea for God to show himself as kind and near. We prayed for revelation. I shared how good and clear God had been in answering my prayers. We prayed nothing. I couldn't speak.
After the service, sitting in my car preparing for the 12-mile drive home, I realized my heart had been stirred. My faith had grown. Testimonies and vulnerabilities and encouragements. These things had grown me. It's not the first time. It happens frequently. Meeting like that, in a building where other Jesus-followers are meeting, moves my introverted feet forward in my faith.
In Hebrews 10, the author describes how life changed for God's people once Jesus came. When Jesus died on the cross, he cleared away our sins (all of them!) and then laid a path for us to draw up close to God. Then the author says, basically (my paraphrase), "Do it. Draw near and hold onto hope!" Then in verses 24 and 25 he says: "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
How kind of this friend of the Hebrews to say, "Hey, don't you forget about each other. Think about how you can support and encourage and love your fellow Christians to love better and act better. Let them do the same for you. And, by the way, you can only do this well if you're seeing them, meeting with them."
That is what I witnessed that evening at church and many days before and since! The closeness of meeting together stirred me up and spurred me on toward love and right actions. Other days, friends have come alongside to straighten my path, post a speed limit, gently call me out of my disobedience (or more likely my disbelief).
Years ago I traveled that stretch of going-to-church road to spend time studying the book of Hebrews with a woman whose example I admired greatly. One conversation wound about, per usual, from Bible study-ing to wife-ing, to mom-ing. Our chat landed on the little hurts I was letting fester. And over hot tea and honey, knees pulled up on the couch, she told me (and these are my words of her gentle reprimand) I was wrong and impulsive in my reactions to small offenses. She pointed me to Scripture that said I should be "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" because "human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires." (James 1:19-20) She encouraged me to spend the next week studying and praying about what God has to say about covering minor offenses in love.
God did a sweet, chiseling work in that "meeting together" with a woman wiser and bolder than I. He used her to tell me to slow down, to know God's truth, and act in obedience. Then He planted that time she and I spent together in my memory. It became the kinder, less intimidating deputy reminding of what I already knew: Slow to anger, Shena! Choose love.
In growing closer to God, I can study alone. I can hear the voice of God in His scriptures. I can feel His presence through prayer. But I travel the distance to meet together because, as a believer, I am placed on both sides of the Hebrews 10 passage. I meet to be encouraged and to offer encouragement. To be stirred and to stir. I need to hear and I need to say, "Be encouraged, grow your faith. And, Girl, sometimes, slow. your. roll."
Who are your "meet together" folks? Can you sense the position you fill when you meet together with other believers? I pray you can. Do you know there's a gap left when you don't? I pray you'll step into it.
My youngest had the day off school the other day (teacher workday) and we decided to live it to the fullest. We cuddled up under the giant, red, fuzzy blanket that sits on our couch with hot cocoa (him) and coffee (me) and watched a movie he’d wanted to see. We fit together the pieces of a giant puzzle of the world, and then we headed to the corn maze.
When I’m in a corn maze I feel like I’m in an adventure story, on a mission to find the golden goose or missing clue. Okay, so I’m also dramatic, and live a bit inside my head of fairytales. But I am mystified by corn mazes, not just because they’re the perfect setting for a quest, but also because this destination, which draws people from all over for fall fun is actually just a dead corn field. The farmer grew corn in the summer (knee high by the Fourth of July is the rule in Ohio) and sold thousands of ears of it all summer long. My kids and I husked thick wrappers, and untangled shiny silks. I flash boiled the sweet, golden ears and we ate them slightly salted with watermelon and barbequed chicken all summer long. But summer is over—yikes it got so chilly in a heartbeat—and the corn has been harvested, and it’s time for steaming pots of soup and crisp apples. The farmer could have looked at the brown, dried out stalks, and simply plowed them down, preparing the soil for next year’s planting. He had that choice. Summer was over. Time to move on. But he knows better. He knows that even the stalks had purpose. That none of it has to be wasted.
There’s even more to it than immediately meets the eye. The corn has been harvested, but some dried up ears remain on the brittle stalks. These ears will be gathered and used as feed for the cows all winter long. Wild morning glories have taken seed and used the seemingly expired stalks as a support system, upon which they can grow and bloom, vibrant purple blossoms.
God, along with all of His other royal attributes, is the King of not letting anything be wasted. He looks at us, even when we feel shriveled and like we’ve been picked clean, even when we have no idea how that thing or that person could be used for our story moving forward and says, “Yup, I can use her. I can use him. I can use that class she taught or the one he took. I can use that conversation, that love for drums or jalapeno peppers, that relationship that fizzled. I can use all of that to add fervor, flair, or fun, or maybe to fortify their life.”
He About five years ago I had completed writing a novel and was struggling to find a publisher. A friend arranged for me to meet one of her editor friends, so I could pick his brain on how my book might find a slot in the current industry. The editor was savvy and kind. He gave me solid advice, but unfortunately to this day that novel has never been published. Did God waste this meeting? No. He doesn’t work like that. In January of this year the same editor contacted me and asked me to write two books for him. Two? What? Last week another ministry called saying, the very same guy suggested I might be able to help them with a writing project. What? A lunch over fried green beans, y’all, (apparently it’s a Nashville thing), five years ago did not land my novel a book deal. But it created a relationship that led to future writing adventures. Does that make sense? Of course not to me. But that’s what God is always doing.
What in your life looks like it was or is a waste of time. What are you looking at on your desk or in your planner that makes you just shake your head and ask God, “Why?” It could be a place you moved, an organization you invested in, an endeavor you tried. It might look like a dead end now, but God will use it somehow—for growth or healing, as experiences you can learn from and apply around the next bend of this adventure we call life.
Sometimes you have to circle back to the direction you just came from in a corn maze to actually progress to the finish line. It doesn’t make sense when you’re in the midst of it. It feels like you’re going backwards. But you’re advancing, gaining the steps you need to get where God really wants you to end up. And even when you hit a dead end or literally walk the same row of corn repeatedly, God uses that too. I promise. For my son and I, who were in the corn maze for over an hour—we literally passed the same couple three different times. “Hi. Again.” We laughed more. We told more stories. We experienced more one-on-one time together. We breathed in bigger gulps of brisk autumn air. And it made my mama heart so full and glad. All because we were lost in some dead corn. I’m so grateful for a brilliant, glorious God who always knows better than I do, which way I should go, when, and why.
He chose us in advance. And He makes everything work out according to His plan. —Ephesians 1:11
So, don’t throw up your hands. Take a deep breath. God is with you in this very moment. He sees the work you put in, the avenues you explored, the times you bit your tongue. The day and the day after that when you tried again. He has this giant, phenomenal plan for you, and He’s so excited that you took that step to the left, and that one slightly backwards, because He knows that will lead you to where He’s pointing you. You might see dead, empty stalks. But Jesus sees a phenomenal corn maze, some nourishment for His kingdom, and something wild about to bloom.
I’ve been reading the book of Luke this summer. It’s packed with familiar stories—shepherds, a manger, the Good Samaritan. I love going back through the pages and seeing what Jesus did, how He handled situations, what His attitude was, and specifically this summer I’m trying to focus on what Jesus said, because as a word lover I’m thinking the words Jesus spoke are a pretty fantastic way to learn more about Him.
One of my favorite passages is when Jesus feeds the five thousand (Luke 9). Now, keep in mind there were five thousand men plus women and children, so the crowd exceeded ten thousand, possibly twenty thousand folks. In this passage this giant crowd has come to listen to Jesus teach. Near the end of the day everyone is getting a little fussy, tired, and downright hungry.
What’s for dinner is a question my family asks on repeat. I think through what we’ve eaten recently, peek in the pantry, consider everyone’s schedules—who has soccer, meetings, sleepovers, etc. Who is even going to be eating this meal? Just when I think of something that meets our family’s dietary needs (all of the allergies live here) that most of my people will actually consume, I realize I need cilantro and gluten free wraps if I’m going to pull this together. Another trip to Kroger and perhaps also the farmer’s market and I’m good to go, at least for tonight. But thousands of hungry folks on a hillside? Yikes! Where to start? Sure, their “pantry” held five loaves of bread and two fish, but that wouldn’t make my crew happy, let alone fill them. And there are only six Smiths. The disciples point out this problem to Jesus, suggesting they send everyone out to the closest farms and villages, so the people can grab a bite to eat and stock up on snacks. That’s what the disciples say, but Jesus responds, “You feed them.”
Wait. Wha-at? Yeah, Jesus asks them to do it. When we see a problem, He also asks us to act. Jesus seems to throw His hands up at the disciples and say, “Don’t just sit there. Do something!” He says the same to us.
I have a relationship that’s rugged. I can pray about it all day long, but at the end of the day, Jesus says, “You make the phone call. Don’t wait on the other person.” I argue, “They’re challenging to talk to. It’s not always easy or pleasant.” Jesus nods. Mmm-hmm, then hands me the phone and says, “It’s not going to dial itself.” A friend asks for prayer. Jesus elbows me and says, “Go ahead. Pray.” “Um, now?” I ask. He reminds me that it makes way more sense to pray specifically for my friend’s need with my friend right now rather then telling them politely I’ll pray and then possibly forgetting and possibly tagging it onto a run-on prayer sentence a day or two later. I dream of speaking at an event at a certain church. I Google the church, check out all their fantastic resources, wish I knew someone who could introduce me to the right people, and yeah, Jesus says, “Reach out and set up a meeting.” Wait. Wha-at? What if they don’t respond? What if they don’t want me? Jesus has zero time for that nonsense. He never argues, just urges me again, “You do it.”
It’s not that Jesus is hanging us out to dry, that He’s lazy, or uninterested in helping. Quite the contrary. With the feeding the hungry crowd situation the disciples’ jaws are still hanging open in disbelief, that Jesus, the miracle-working Messiah, thinks they should feed the crowd, when He pipes in. “Listen. Get the crowd to sit in groups. Then Jesus takes the few barley loaves and tilapia, prays over the food, and hands it to the disciples. It’s Jesus who steps in with a plan. It’s Jesus who performs a miracle by blessing the small amount of food, so it can feed the masses. But the disciples have to do the work. They have to physically organize the crowd. Get them to settle down, sit down, and hang tight. Then they have to walk around to thousands of hungry folks and serve them dinner. The disciples have to take part of it, so they can fully understand what is going on, how incredible the whole thing is. They get to see the look on the faces of the hungry crowd as they relax and take a break, the smiles from the kiddos, the relief from the mamas. They got to marvel as they put their hand in the basket time and time again and every time more food keeps coming out.
Same with us. Jesus wants us to do the work. He doesn’t expect us to do it on our own. He’ll bless the work if it’s for Him. He’ll give us a plan, a place to start. He’ll pray over the situation with us. And then He’ll say, “Get moving.” Because He wants us to be a part of it, He wants us to get in on it, marvel at what He does and how He works.
If you want that mountain moved, yes pray for it, yes have faith that God will move it, but you also better start lifting weights, invest in one heck of a shovel, and start moving that dirt. Create a website. Send the message. Attend the event. Audition. Introduce yourself. Show up. Raise your hand. Suggest the idea. And then get ready to be blown away. That hungry crowd? After they’d all eaten until they were full, no skimping, twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered up. Twelve baskets. Of extras.
I’m not promising all rainbows and roses here, although that is the way I like to roll. Just because I send in a book proposal, doesn’t mean I get a book contract. But if I don’t do the work—write the proposal, make the changes my agent suggests, incorporate the feedback we get back from editors, I’ll never get that next book deal. And more importantly I won’t learn what Jesus wants to teach me. It probably took a while to settle that giant crowd into groups. Just because you work out, doesn’t mean you’ll win the race. Just because you apply for the job, does not mean you’ll get it. But when it’s the right deal, the right race, the right job, where Jesus wants to make a change and simultaneously grow us, we will get all those things and bonus baskets to boot. The job guy won’t come knocking on your door. It will be up to you to put together your resume, check out the requirements, apply, follow up with a call or email, get dressed up and cleaned up and put together for the interview. Then let Jesus bless it and dole it out, the way only He can.
Whatever thing you see needs fixing, started, initiated, changed today? Go do it. You feed them. Yes, YOU. And be blown away by not only how Jesus blesses and works, but in all the abundance of extras He’ll provide.
My Uncle Ray (who wasn’t really an uncle, but actually my mom’s cousin) introduced me to fishing when I was about four. He was a farmer and had a pond on his property stocked with rainbow trout. Ray treated me like the Princess of Fishing, telling me what a great job I was doing, making a point of telling my mom when I was in close earshot, “Laura could make a fine fisherwoman.” At the time I had no idea how much of the work Ray did or what a “stocked” pond even meant, I just knew that he taught me how to put a worm on a hook, cast a line, and reel in a beautiful iridescent trout I could be proud of.
A handful of years later our family went to Florida for spring break and stayed with my actual uncle, Lowell. He took us out deep-sea fishing on his boat. I got so seasick I spent most of the day lying down in the cabin, but despite my nausea a gigantic barracuda bit on “my” line. Of course my uncle, my dad, and everyone else on board had to reel the big boy in, but still somehow, it felt like mine.
With those limited experiences I am hardly a fisherwoman, but when our family heads to the beach for summer vacation we always buy crab nets, string, and chicken backs for bait from either Walmart or the local hardware store and venture out to the pier posing as the crew of the Deadliest Catch for an afternoon. It’s something my husband did when he was a kid, and he’s carried on the tradition with our four kids and me.
Some years we catch scads of blue crabs. One year we didn’t catch a single one. Some spots or nets seem to be more productive than others as they dangle from the pier. Some years one of our kids will seem to catch the mother lode while others repeatedly pull up their nets empty except for the bait, exclaiming, “I caught chicken!” We’ve had expeditions where the temperatures hovered around 100 degrees, sweat pouring down our backs and dripping from our brows. This year it was sunny, then rained so hard it sent us under a shelter, only to turn sunny again a few minutes later.
Jesus hung out with fishermen and talked about fishing all of the time. I figure if He spent His time in boats with nets, there’s probably something to learn there. My takeaway from trying to figure out how to catch fish, or crab, is that it mirrors my journey in life.
First, no matter where I’m headed, I need someone to help me—a guide who’s gone before. I would have never even known where to fish, let alone what to bring, or how to use the rods, nets, hooks, etc. if it weren’t for my Uncle Ray, Uncle Lowell, and my husband leading me to the fishing spots and coaching me on how to hold, cast, and reel. In my life, I need Jesus. I can’t start an adventure, a new endeavor, assignment, job, relationship, or experiment without Him. Jesus knows the best places for us to go, and how we should get there. He knows when we need stocked ponds, and when we’re ready for deep waters. He equips us with the tools we’ll need to face whatever lays ahead and teaches us how to use them. He gently explains the best course of action along the way, and cheers for us when we get the catch.
Second, I need to be patient. Sometimes the things I’m after, the goals I set, the roads I set out on seem to take forever to obtain, achieve, or traverse. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never get there. Maybe I won’t. Maybe, just maybe, on some things I want I’ll never get, because I’m supposed to be doing something else with someone else somewhere else. Being patient could mean standing for an hour or day or month or year without so much as a nibble on my line. It could mean sending out another application or submission, running one more lap, biting my tongue one more time, praying another prayer, going to one more audition, inviting her again, rehearsing one more time. But mainly it means trusting Jesus, that He’s in control, that He knows what’s best, that He’ll move things forward, or sideways if necessary, (and it will be like a snap of the fingers for Him) when it’s time, when we’re ready, when it makes sense for His glory and the advancement of His kingdom. Sometimes the waiting, the trying again, builds the character we need to be able to take the next step or the next.
Third, I never know how things are going to go down. Some days everything goes swimmingly (sorry, couldn’t resist). Some days I’ll question why I’m out there, standing in the pouring rain or blistering heat. Some days I’ll feel queasy and others my nets will fill effortlessly. Some days I’ll catch exactly what I’m looking for, and others my nets will pull up the most random, brilliant treasures—like when my youngest pulled up a horseshoe crab too heavy for him to lift or when I caught a hermit crab, curled up inside his shell. But every day, Jesus is up to great things, kingdom building things. He always has something to teach us. When things are rough and challenging, it reminds us to be dependent on Him and His power and His grace. That we’re not going to get through unless we lean on Him, take shelter in Him, slather Him on like sunscreen to save us from being burned. When things come easily, we’re reminded of how great our God is, that He can move mountains, or fill nets, despite the circumstances. There are people He’ll have us meet walking down the boardwalk of life that need a smile or a hug, or maybe they’ll explain something in a way we never heard before, or they’ll become our new best friend. There are times when we’ll have zero idea what Jesus is up to, but we’ll sense it’s cool, amazing— like the day this week when I hadn’t caught a crab, but I pulled up a brilliantly striped zebra fish, flapping in my net.
I don’t know what your life adventure looks like. But I do know if you let Jesus guide you, if you’re patient with His perfect timing, and if you can let go of how you think things should go, then you’ll be in for an incredible adventure.
After a night of catching no fish at all, Jesus told his disciples:
“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it there, and they were unable to haul it in because of the great number of fish. —John 21:6
I’m sitting in the high school theater. One girl sits behind the piano, playing a song I’ve heard on the radio. She sings it more beautifully than I’ve ever heard. A guy sits on the stage drinking soda out of a flask—very dramatic. The students filter in, greeting each other, hugging. One girl walks in with a boot on her foot. “What happened?” “How long do you have to wear it?” “Can you still do the show?” The questions hit her rapid fire. More chatter as the teens take time to acclimate to this space—the theater, a gathering of friends, of others who love the stage.
And then, the director calls out, “Everyone on stage. We’re working on the car song. Go ahead and take a seat.” The entire room changes in five seconds from the atmosphere of a cafeteria to a scene from Rise.
There was a time to arrive, get comfortable, exchange hellos, and there is a time to get serious. To get to work. Both are important. And even in the work, it’s not predictable. Two weeks from the show, the cast typically takes it from Scene 1, all out reading lines and dancing across the stage. But this day is a day for the details, to nit pick a song apart, and make sure it’s spot on.
I’m emotional today, because I’ve also gone though a shift of what it is time for. I’ve been under an insane deadline. The number of days I had to write the number of pages that were due did not compute. It was a time to keep my head down, stay focused, cut out anything extra, eat breakfast and lunch at my desk. It was a time to write for hours on Saturdays, to wake up early on weekdays, to skip a couple of blog entries. Grinding out, page by page, trying to make the words flow, trying to make it all Biblically accurate, trying to make it right. And yesterday, I turned it in. Insert giant exhale here. I sent my manuscript to my project manager, closed the document that had sat open on my screen for weeks, shut my Mac, and went for a run.
Yesterday afternoon I cooked a real dinner for my family—with sides and everything. I went for a walk with my husband, sat by the fire and watched a movie with these my kids. This morning I slept in, made crepe batter, and didn’t touch my computer until, well, now. I’ve entered a whole different zone. Not that I won’t have more writing assignments (I mean, I hope I will). But today I need to recognize I was in a season of deep, intense, work, and now I need to take a season of rest. I’ll get comments back from the editor next week, and I’ll have to get back to work, but now? Now I can hang with my family, enjoy a meal, sleep, write a blog with rambling words about how God has been working on me lately.
And here’s how He’s been working. God has shown me that just like it says in Ecclesiastes 3; there is a time for everything. God runs that eternal clock that we are all watching and checking and running around trying to stay in sync with it. But He does not see time like we do. God is less concerned with who’s first in the pick up line, who gets there early enough to get the best parking spot, who’s sitting in their desk when the boss arrives, who’s strolling into church halfway through the second song, and who arrives at the finish line in the middle of the pack.
God looks at it like this. “I have something for you to do. Please do it. Your life will be better if you do it and if you do it on my timeline.” And for each of us on each day and even in different parts of the day that’s something different—a time to plant, a time to uproot, a time to heal, a time to tear down, a time to rebuild, a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, a time to dance, a time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them… God sees us and knows what is actually best –when we need to step out, step up, step to the side, and when we need to take more steps before we’re ready. These are the assignments He gives us with our time.
For me this meant lots of coffee, reading, writing, checking, rereading, rewording. But none of this work made sense, and none of it could happen for me unless I did something first.
Each day I closed my eyes and prayed. “God, thank you for this opportunity. For the chance to write these stories for You. Please help me use my time wisely for Your glory. Please help me write the words You want written, words that point people to you. Please give me endurance. Please give me focus. I am so grateful for Your love. That You allow me to do this thing I love. Thank You for my family. I love them so. Please help me balance all the things. And trust You when I feel like I’m dropping balls and praise You when things go smoothly. Please, Lord, let me use this day to serve You.”
Because of that prayer, on the days when I was super productive, or on days when I was super not, all was well. When I took three giant steps backwards to rewrite a whole section. When we had two soccer practices and play practice and an event at school. When I felt energized or exhausted, it somehow worked. Because it was for God and for His glory. And then it didn’t matter how much I’d written. I’d written for Him. And that’s all that mattered in the first place.
What is it time for in your life? It might be time to get accustomed to new space, to familiarize yourself with the people around you, to take time to give someone a hug, to check in and see how they’re doing. It might be time to get going, to do the work in front of you. For you it might be time to practice—to run through that presentation, that drill one more time even if you’re exhausted, look through your notes, rehearse your lines, your part. It might be God wants you to take time to fix some broken things—the flat tire on your car, the broken ice maker on your freezer, the way you’ve been looking at things, the way you’ve been treating someone else or yourself.
Maybe for you it’s time to sleep, to take a hot bath, to stay inside, to do your nails, to sit by a window and gaze out as the raindrops trickle down the window, or sit outside and listen to the birds twittering, grateful for the promise of springtime.
There are times for everything. And everything works brilliantly when it’s done in God’s time. For the cast of this play, today is time to go over the third measure of one song with the vocal coach over and over, feet dangling over the edge of the stage. But in a week and a half they’ll be performing for a full theatre in costumes and makeup. It’s all important. The work. The rest. The performance. And they’re all best executed when we realize they are all from God, all part of His plan, that they all hold equal credence.
What is God calling you to do today? Work? Rest? Rebuilding? Going for it? Settling down? Nesting? Going out? Waiting? Charging forward? He will use all the times in perfect ways. Trust Him. Talk to Him. Then go out and do what He’s called you to do in this specific, priceless season.
There was a time when I had an 8, 5, 3 and 1 year old. I remember pushing the double car cart at the grocery overflowing with kids. People stopped me all the time and said, “You sure have your hands full!”
“Full of love,” I’d respond, because a) my kids were listening to every word and b) it was 100% true.
When my husband, our four kids, and me are together our hearts are full of love. It’s amazing—hilarious, story pouring over story, laughter layering over laughter, card games, movie nights, adventures, ice cream runs, prayers, music, discussions, inside jokes and so very much love. Being all together is fantastic. It escalates our fun, excitement and energy. We grow from one another’s insights and experiences. As my kids get older (too big to push in the car cart) they have more places they need and want to be. I treasure the nights we’re all in one place.
But I also treasure the rare one-on-one time. When I get one of the kiddos alone and we go on a walk, run errands, grab a meal, or have a private conversation, it’s priceless. Because this time is more personal. It’s in this alone space that I hear their favorite songs, watch their favorite shows, hear about the things bouncing around in their brains—everything from music producers to World War II battles. This is where some of the important things on their minds and hearts come out. This is where it’s easiest to share.
This is how God wants to hang out with us, too. In big groups and in more intimate space.
God loves it when we gather to learn about Him and His grace, to ask questions about Him, to share stories about how Jesus guides and loves on or fights for us, to sing to Him, to praise Him. There is something tangible, electric in this space. A group of people can be everything from a giant conference to a couple of women drinking coffee with their Bibles open. It could be a weekly church service or a one-time event. But when people gather together to know or worship Jesus, there’s a passion of shared experience, an opportunity to learn something we couldn’t learn on our own, the gift of hearing how God has worked in someone else’s life, the knowledge someone else brings to the game, the buzz of a cluster of people all praising God.
“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”—Matthew 18:20
But Jesus also loves one on one time with us. Even Jesus would go off by himself to pray. Sure, God knows everything on our hearts, understands what we need before we need it, but He loves when we talk to Him about it. God knows we have questions. He surely doesn’t expect humans to understand the vastness of the Creator of the Universe. So, God is thrilled when we come to Him with questions, and when we seek knowledge about Him in the Bible. One on one time looks different for each of us on any given day. Just like individual time with one of my kids could be baking cookies or sitting on the porch listening to a thunderstorm together, alone time with God can be reading a plan on our Bible Apps, falling down on our knees in a quiet room, or having a conversation with Jesus in our heads as we walk through the grocery. But in that space, that quiet personal place, there is the opportunity for God to show us something that applies specifically to us—a gift He’s given us to use, a person He wants us to reach out to, something He wants us to stop worrying about, a reminder that He loves and accepts us unconditionally.
But Jesus would often go to some place where he could be alone and pray. —Luke 5:16
Relationships are unpredictable, messy, lovely things. Whether they’re with God or with a family member.
We can’t plan on lightning bolts, revelations and goosebumps every time we attend Bible study or say a prayer. Sometimes I get an hour in the car with one of my kids, and they fall asleep. Which is totally fine, because what they needed most was rest. Some days I’ll read my Bible, and be like, ‘okay, that battle was interesting. Next.’ But that’s fine, too, because God will teach me something through it. He always does. We can’t be guaranteed that all interactions will be life changing. But we can be guaranteed that when we show up to a relationship, when we make the effort, when we’re open to learning and sharing and communicating, that the relationship always grows.
How’s your relationship with God? Mine? Beautiful some days. On others it can use a hecka lot of work. But no matter how I’m doing, no matter how you’re doing, God is waiting with open arms. There aren’t many relationships like that. God takes us how we are, whenever we come to Him. Whether it’s with a big group at a planned event, or if we call out to Him in the middle of the night, His love is available and abundant. It’s unlike any other relationship we’ll ever experience.
Seek God this week. In big and small places. Learn and share with others what you’re struggling with and what God’s doing for you. Talk to Him alone, and see what Jesus reveals to you.
The more ways and times you seek Him, the more your hands and heart will be full. Of love.
I have wobbly knees.
Apparently it’s genetic, but it wasn’t something I ever noticed like the hazel eyes from my mom or the extra large skull from my dad’s side (honestly, finding hats and headbands to fit my cranium is a struggle). But my left knee started failing me about a year ago. It would cramp and stiffen and felt like it didn’t want to bend. It was painful to go running, and I could no longer sit crisscross applesauce. I self-diagnosed. I figured I’d tweaked it running and took a month off exercise, which was a bummer, but seemingly sensible. I eased my way back in—walking instead of running, being more cautious during certain yoga poses, wearing a discarded knee brace I found in our closet. Someone suggested it was my running shoes, so I bought a new pair. A friend taught me how to frame my kneecap with kinesiology tape. I bought some and taped up. With all of these slight adjustments to my routine, my knee bent again. It was less sore. But every time I went for a run it would hold up its “on strike” sign later that evening.
So, after a year I went to see a doctor. I got an X-ray and an MRI. He looked at the soles of my running shoes and stuck his thumb in the tender, achy spot on my knee. Great news. I don’t have a torn meniscus or arthritis or any other word ending in –is or –us. I don’t need surgery or shots. The diagnosis—my kneecaps wobble like crazy. So, every time I take a step my knees do a mini version of The Charleston, causing my kneecap to rub against my meniscus until it feels raw.
Solution—physical therapy. Retraining my legs to work different muscles. Strengthening my hips and glutes to do more work, to absorb the shock of each step that lands when I run, so my knees won’t take such a beating.
I can’t remember the first time I ran. And I certainly don’t remember it being something I had to learn how to do. I was small and my brother probably taunted, “Can’t catch me,” and I tore off after him. In my twenties after dancing all my life, I switched to running as a form of exercise, but I had to learn how—how to pace myself, how to breathe. I needed a running partner to get me going, teach me the ropes, and urge me on. But in those laps around the local park with my husband, I never considered my hips or glutes or knees in the process. It’s fascinating to me, that in my forties I’m learning how to run all over again.
But it’s the same way with my faith.
I don’t remember the first time I prayed or realized there was a God. For me, as a child, there just was One. I prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” before bed and, “God is great, God is good,” before dinner. I believed God was the Creator of the world and that Jesus loved me, this I knew.
But throughout my life, I’ve injured my faith. I’ve tried to ignore problems, self diagnose, and do things on my own. At summer camp during an awkward junior high summer, I found God outside of the steeples and folded hands where I'd always seen Him. I felt Him in the warmth of a bonfire and in the exhiliration of riding a horse through trails in the woods, in gooey s'mores, and archery ranges. He was everywhere. I re-learned what it felt like to love God, to worship Him. Even though I’d always known God, this felt good and new and right.
But years passed and the world demanded I perform—that I achieve good grades, be accepted into a good school, look a certain way, and do certain things. And I believed it. As a result, my faith got rubbed raw by my wobbly self-confidence. No matter how much I achieved, no matter how hard I tried to fix my wounds of self doubt on my own, I didn’t feel loved or worthy or enough. This time God had to step in and heal me. I couldn’t mend the damage on my own. He introduced me to my future husband—a running partner, so to speak. With Brett at my side, showing me what love and acceptance looked like, I picked back up my Bible, started attending church again, and found friends who also valued their faith. With God’s (and Brett’s) help I retrained my faith muscles to find my value from Jesus. During this season I had to pace myself and learn how to breathe, but it helped me remember God loves me unconditionally, no matter how many deals I did or didn’t turn in, no matter how much money I did or didn’t make, or what brand of shoes I wore. And it changed things for me. In beautiful ways. I got married. I became a mother. I quit my day job and began writing.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. —Matthew 5:5
With my physical therapy I am doing exercises to retrain my muscles, to change my gait, balance, and landings. My therapist said I’ll only need a few sessions with her, but I’ll need to maintain these exercises the rest of my life.
My faith therapy needs to be the same. Today I feel loved and full of purpose. But I need to constantly train my soul muscles to accept Jesus’ free grace, eliminating the need to legitimize my worth to anybody. I need to focus on how I go about my days, with what intent, for what purpose, for whose glory? I need to balance the things I want to check off my to-do list with the things God calls me to do. Every time I fall down, because I do, often, I need to land on Jesus—on His love, His forgiveness, His grace. It is a constant with me, but when I retrain my focus on Jesus and how much He loves me, He absorbs the shocks, bumps, pains, and challenges of my life and allows me to land softer with less wear and tear. He took the beating, so we don’t have to. Exercise your faith muscles today and allow him to soften your landings.
Are there any faith muscles you’re working on strengthening this year? I’d love to hear about it.
Laura L. Smith