Best Books of 2021
This year I rediscovered my love of bookstores. In 2020 almost everything I purchased was online, including groceries. In 2021 I was able to return to places where I could preview my produce before adding it to my cart and try on clothes before taking them home. The kind of shop I most appreciated being able to return to were bookstores. There’s a lovely one in Nashville called Parnassus Books. My daughter and I popped in one day for a look around, which became over an hour of picking up book after book, feeling the different weights of a sturdy hardcover and a handy paperback in our hands. Ogling the covers as if they were candy. Delighting in familiar titles we’d read before and finding so so many books we wanted to read.
New books, new stories to dive into, more things to learn, fresh ways to examine old truths always bring me joy. A trip to a bookstore is therapeutic for my soul, but it is in the actual reading of the books, the turning of the pages, and the processing of the words that the magic happens. I don’t know how many books I read in 2021, because I did a horrible job of noting and reviewing them on my Goodreads account. Oops. But, I know I turned thousands of pages of both fiction and nonfiction. I read the books my kids were reading for school, the books that caught my eye, the books my author friends wrote, the books someone suggested, and books that would help me with my work. I learned and explored and savored them. Below are my favorite reads of 2021. I hope they help you discover a new read for your to-read pile.
The Water Keeper and The Letter Keeper by Charles Martin
These two tied. They are books one and two in the Murphy Shepherd series and I listened to the audio books back to back. Charles Martin has been a favorite of mine for years. His writing is exquisite and soulful. The way he tells hard, meaningful stories and weaves the love of Jesus naturally into the tales always causes me to pause, cry, stop, or pray mid-chapter, and then eagerly return to the story, because I need to know what happens next. If you haven’t read these two yet. Add them to your list. The third one in the series releases in July and I can’t wait to dive in.
Breaking Free from Body Shame by Jess Connolly
I didn’t think I needed this book. I felt okay with my body. I thought. But then several friends mentioned Jess Connolly’s new book had brought them freedom. I’ve been a fan of Jess and her writing for a while, so I got it. And I read it. And I, too, found freedom. Turns out, most of us have some issues with our bodies–whether that’s a scar or a size or a shape or something our bodies did or didn’t do or could or couldn’t do that brought us shame. Jess reminds us of this truth, “Your body is a good body.” She backs up that truth with the fact that God made it. He made my body and your body and all our bodies to move and laugh and make things. And because God made our bodies–they’re good. It’s simple, but I lose sight of it. Most people I know are frustrated with their bodies in some way. This beautiful reframing of all the good our bodies can do, and all the things God allows us to do with them, like hug someone we love or read or listen to a story, is good not just for our bodies, but also for our souls.
Best Kids Book:
The Grumbles by Amy Parker and Tricia Goyer
The Grumbles makes me giggle. It’s all about a family named the Grumbles who, well, grumbles. I see my own family (and my own grumbling) on the beautifully illustrated pages. Then Grandma Grateful steps in to save the day! (Isn’t the grandma always the hero?) She reminds us all to shine love to others, to be thankful for all we have. This darling story encourages us to stop grumbling, and instead be thankful. When we are, our gratitude is contagious! Sure, the book was written for kids, but this book is a great reminder for all of us to shine Christ’s love and grace and toss our grumbling in the garbage.
Your turn. I’d love to hear your favorite reads of the year, so I can add them to my stack for 2022. Happy New Year! May it be filled with wonderful reads and the incredible love of Christ Jesus.
For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
HELLO, BEAUTY FULL
Today I have the honor of having the beautiful, talented and wise, Elisa Morgan, sharing an excerpt from her best-selling book, Hello, Beauty Full for the blog....
Most of us don’t think we’re beautiful. In fact, a recent poll revealed that 96% of women globally would never use the word beautiful to describe themselves.
Even women (and men) who know they are made in the image of God. Women (and men) like you and me.
Beautiful? No…instead we feel not enough. Not pretty enough. Not smart enough. Not strong enough. Not spiritual enough.
I know. What I see is not beauty but the world of ugly within.
I say, “I’ll pray!” and I don’t.
I forget about the suffering in the world, even after I’ve seen suffering up close and personal. And then I go ahead and buy another purse, pair of shoes, trinket for my home.
I wake up in the middle of the night and worry.
I think I’m better than others when my life goes well, even though I know full well that I’m not.
I eat too many Doritos. I watch too many episodes of The Queen’s Gambit.
I assume I’m the only one.
The only lonely one.
The only depressed one.
The only one who doesn’t know the answers. The only one who feels like a failure.
I don’t like my body.
I like some people more than others—a lot more than others. I pretend to be interested when I’m not.
I’m jealous when someone’s life goes better than mine.
I want to just stay in bed on some days.
I’m ugly. At least there are plenty of ugly parts of me. “Beautiful?” HA.
Some words I read a while back from Brennan Manning’s classic book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, seep up into my thoughts. Manning reported a 1677 prophecy to a thirty-four-year-old widow in Lynn, Massachusetts. God’s words to her way back then—and maybe to us in this moment? “More pleasing to Me than all your prayers, works, and penances is that you would believe I love you.”
I may think ugly thoughts and feel ugly feelings and do ugly things, but to God, I am filled with beauty and therefore beauty full. He holds out three words and calls me to receive them, knowing that when I see myself the way he sees me, I will be free to be who he made me to be and to live the life he made me to live.
Hello, Beauty Full.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who pushes away God’s pronouncement of personal value. Likely you do too. Likely you embrace the ugly and discard the beauty in yourself. And likely you feel incredibly inadequate, stuck, and even alone.
Here’s what we need to know in order to live the lives we were made to live: God loves us. He sees us through Jesus: beauty full. He wants us to see ourselves the way he sees us. We struggle with embracing such a thing. But the truth is, when we don’t embrace how God sees us, we don’t embrace God. We miss out on the very lives he created us to enjoy—and died to make sure we could experience. When we do embrace how God sees us—beauty full—we are freed to live loved, and in so doing, we love God back.
Three words reveal how God sees us – through Jesus – and how he invites us to see ourselves.
Hello. Beauty. Full.
Yes, I am.
And yes, you are too.
Elisa Morgan (MDiv) was named by Christianity Today as one of the top fifty women influencing today’s church and culture. She has authored over twenty-five books including The Beauty of Broken, Hello, Beauty Full, She Did What She Could and When We Pray Like Jesus. Her newest book, You Are Not Alone: Six Affirmations from a Loving God, releases in the Fall of 2021.
For twenty years, Elisa served as CEO of MOPS International and now is President Emerita. She speaks internationally, writes for Our Daily Bread Devotional and co-hosts Discover the Word radio and the podcast God Hears Her for Our Daily Bread Ministries.
You can find out more about Elisa, book her to speak at your event and sign up for her blog, Really, which reaches thousands at www.elisamorgan.com. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram (@elisamorganauthor) and on Twitter (@elisa_morgan).
IS THAT HOW YOU SEE ME?
I think most of us have at least two personas.
One is the uncomfortable, uncertain version of ourselves. When we are around specific people or in certain settings we tend to feel insecure and underestimate our capabilities. Personally, in these situations I lower my head, keep quiet, stay on the edges of conversations and groups, unsure of what to say, not feeling like I have much to contribute. I have friends who react the opposite in these same scenarios. They become louder, spewing things they don’t even mean to say, things that are a bit too snarky, or that challenge others as protective armor from having to reveal themselves. You might have a different default mode altogether that you use to cope with the places and people where you feel out of place. None of these is our best or brightest. These are the places we need to spend less time.
But then there is our true self. The way we feel and act when we are in our element. Where laughter comes easily, where we believe our ideas matter, where we can look people straight in the eye and say how we feel without any fear of being judged or misunderstood. When the weather seems perfect and our clothes feel comfortable and our phones stay tucked in our pockets and purses and we never glance at the clock, but wish we could stay a long while. These are the places we need to spend more time.
Which one of these personas are you currently living?
There is a scene in The Little French Bistro by Nina George where one of the main characters sees an artist’s portrayal of her. She is overwhelmed, because the woman the artist has depicted is stunning, captivating, positively beautiful and mesmerizing. Conversely, the character finds herself quite ordinary and unremarkable.
She asks the artist, “Is that how you see me?”
The artist replies, “That is how you are.”
It is a powerful scene. Because the woman was amazing. She just couldn’t see it in herself. Just like all of us are captivating. But we’re quick to dismiss our value and often struggle to see our true reflections. But Jesus? He always sees our true selves. And He always sees us as magnificent.
When we compare ourselves to others, measure ourselves against social media, and strive to make ourselves known—to get our numbers on the board. We often sell ourselves short. We focus on our faults and the places we do not excel. But Jesus created us. He created you and I uniquely and distinctly. He formed us to do amazing works. Allow Him to remind you who you are in Him. That you are as captivating as a masterpiece in a gallery—able to make those passing by pause, ask questions, and ponder. You truly make hearts beat faster, mouths curl into smiles, and brains expand their thoughts.
How do you find this beautiful self that’s sometimes so hard to see? Start by hanging out with Jesus. When I’m with Him, I see a me that doesn’t even resemble the woman who sits awkwardly on the fringe of a conversation or pants to keep up in a race or whose brain hurts when she looks at financial statements. Instead I see a woman who gets high on telling stories, who is loved by her family, treasured by her Savior, and therefore beautiful in a distinct way. Spending time with Jesus opens our eyes to better see the people who see our true personas and to the things that make us more of our true selves.
Once you’re vision has been cleared up a bit by Jesus, start doing fewer things that empty you. Do more of the things that thrill you, bring you peace, make you feel whole—that could be kicking instead of throwing the ball, teaching or taking a class, rocking a baby, or hiking a trail. Slowly stop spending time with the folks who drain you, who make you feel small. Your stunning true reflection is lost on them. Instead seek out the people who recognize you for the treasure you are.
How do you see yourself?
How do others see you?
How do you want to be seen?
The truth is you are Christ’s masterpiece. It’s time to allow Him to show you who you truly are. You might be surprised at the capable, worthy person you see in the mirror. You might turn to Jesus and ask, “Is that how you see me?” He is certain to reply, “That is how you are.”
Just like Robert Fulghum writes that all he needed to know he learned in Kindergarten, I might argue everything I need to know I could glean from Vacation Bible School.
10. Churches don’t have to look a certain way. Ours was transformed to look like a cave for Cave Quest. And it was pretty cool. And maybe we should keep it this way.
9. Leaders should stand out. My daughter proclaimed she looked like a Cheeto and even though they were a bit bright, all the kids could find the leaders in their “leader shirts”. They knew who to ask if they had a question and who to seek if they needed help. If you are a leader of any kind, do your people know it? Is it obvious they can approach you with problems, if they’re confused, if they need guidance? What would it take (minus an orange tee) to let them know?
8. I can hope in Jesus. I can. You can. It doesn’t matter what you are currently facing—will you make the team? Will you get the job? Will you find the right guy? What next? No matter what the outcomes of your uncertainties, Jesus has plans for you, plans to give you hope and for a future Jer 29:11.
7. Cold popsicles on a hot summer day are good for you
6. I get courage from Jesus. Life is scary sometimes. There are test results looming. You’ll have interactions with people who make you feel incapable and small, and unexpected expenses when your checkbook balance is low. On our darkest days, facing tomorrow looks terrifying. But fear is never from God. Yes, when necessary He instills a sense of warning in us, so we can react accordingly. But fear? No. His perfect love casts out fear. So whatever you’re afraid of, hand it over to Him. Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Deuteronomy 31:6
5. Helping others feels good.
Through World Hope our VBS raised enough money to provide an education for Yeanoh and Samuel, two children from Sierra Leone who have dreams, but can’t afford the education to launch them. To make it interesting there was a contest held to see who could raise more money—the boys or the girls (complete with a pie in the face for the loser). Each night a huge production was made of counting the donations to see who was winning. The concept of helping kids in another part of the world became a thrill. Our kids helped provide these kids with an education, but also learned about a new culture, felt like they’d made new friends, and most importantly discovered they can make a difference. And that’s how helping others feels—gratifying and satisfying.
4. Singing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” at the top of your lungs is liberating. It was phenomenal how boldly and proudly the kids at VBS proclaimed their decision to follow Jesus. It’s amazing when I say it out loud, “Yeah, that’s what I’ve decided, no matter where everyone else is heading, I’m following Jesus,” it lessens the stress of decision making, lowers the level of anxiety about what’s next, and just plain feels good.
3. Jesus gives me direction. Speaking of following Him, where is He leading? For all of us it’s different. Every day. Today He might be leading us to be social—to call or visit with a friend old or new. Tomorrow there might be work to be done—loads of it—clients’ questions to answer, dishes to wash, meetings to attend. The next day He might call us to rest, to recharge and renew after a crazy week. But no matter where He’s leading you today, He will always lead you in the right direction. That’s the kind of Good Shepherd He is Psalm 23.
2. Jesus gives me power. Not super powers, like x-ray vision, but He is way more powerful and necessary to me than my phone charger. He gives me strength when I’m exhausted, energy when I’m worn out, and a turbo boost to do what’s right even when it’s harder and takes longer. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength Phil 4:13. And so can you. We just need to plug in.
1. Everyone is miraculously, stunningly beautiful. AKA, you can’t judge a geode by it’s exterior. One night the kids smashed a dull stone with a hammer, revealing gorgeous crystal formations inside. Yes, geodes are packed with spectacular glimmers, but so are we. All of us. Intricate patterns and light catching features that God, our Creator, has formed inside of us.
When we take these VBS lessons and live them out in our lives, when we decide to follow Jesus, and find our hope, power, and direction from Him, then we will reflect His light like prisms—we’ll illuminate our true reflections.
How about you? Any VBS memories or life lessons learned? I'd love to hear in the comments below.
I always suspected that there was something of goodness in me, but I just couldn’t find it. Until one day—one day I discovered it here, in my heart. I found it…goodness. And ever since that day, I have always known who I was. And now, nothing can touch me. ~Miguel
How does a gang member in Los Angeles find his goodness? Racial tension is ugly. Gang violence is ugly. Drugs are ugly. Los Angeles County is home to over 1100 active gangs comprising over 86,000 people. According to the LAPD, in the last three years over 16,400 violent crimes were attributed to gangs in the City of Angels. How can someone possibly find his or her worth in the midst of this?
Miguel found his beauty thanks to Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who didn’t look at the drugs, or the crimes, or the violence, he didn’t look at the different ethnicities, or the rap sheets of his parishioners, but he looked at them as humans—as humans who were struggling to find and believe in their true value. Boyle saw a way to help gang members like Miguel find the true beauty not only in themselves, but in each other. He knew if the teens could start fresh, get a high school diploma, get a job, they could break cycles of poverty, be less reliant on the drug trade; begin to understand that they had skills and gifts. When Fr. Greg, or as his friends call him, “G”, talked to these teens, they wanted to go to school. But the schools wouldn’t take them, not with their records, their backgrounds. So, Boyle created a school for them.
And when they graduated who would hire them? As Boyle explained when I saw him speak in Cincinnati, “Surprisingly there wasn’t much of a job market for ex convicts.” Insert laughter of the crowd here. But again, the barriers of society didn’t stop G. He put on his entrepreneur hat and started his own company, Homeboy Bakery. Its purpose is “to create an environment that provides training, work experience and above all, the opportunity for rival gang members to work side by side.” Side by side? As in teaching people who have been raised to hate one another to appreciate each another, to respect one another. Boyle challenged listeners during his talk, “We belong to each other. How do we bridge the gap?” He continued to explain his motivation to bring these gang members together and to give them purpose, “What Jesus took seriously was inclusion and acceptance.” Good point.
Did it work? You bet. Not only did Homeboy Bakery take off, but it was the catalyst for Homeboy Industries, which now includes multiple businesses. It is recognized as the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the world. The jobs, the opportunities, the new life Homeboy Industries has given the poor, marginalized, desperate gang population in L.A. blows me away. But what blows me away even more is story after story about how people who hated each other now love each other. Fr. Greg told one story about “homies” who just a few months ago were shooting bullets at each other, and now they’re shooting texts at one another”. He told more tales of individuals who had always despised each other who are now not only working side by side, but calling each other “brother” and “friend”. A miracle? Not really. Because this is how Jesus always envisioned things. Treating each other as we would like to be treated. But is it easy? Are we doing a good job at keeping the Golden Rule?
How did Fr. Greg do it? He saw these individuals for the beautiful creations they were made to be. He recognized their true beauty. He proclaims, “It is our job to hold the mirror up, tell people they are exactly what God had in mind when He made them, and watch people grow into that truth.”
What if we took a lesson from Father Greg, sought beauty in all humans, realized we all have potential, we all have talents, we all deserve to be loved? How can I hold up a mirror for someone else today? How can you? Show someone who they truly are, that they are exactly what God intended when He made them? We can start with ourselves. Go find a mirror, gaze into it, and say out loud, “You are exactly what God had in mind when He made you.” And we can watch ourselves grow into our own true beautiful reflections. Then we can point others towards the mirror, and let beautiful ripple effects take over.
Open Letter to Sports Illustrated and its Swimsuit Cover Girls Why this year’s covers do the opposite of embrace true beauty
There’s been a lot of hype about the annual swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. This year, the magazine is promoting the fact that they ran not one, but three covers to promote what true beauty looks like.
“It’s always been an objective of mine to be more inclusive and be more representative of what real beauty is,” MJ Day, editor of the issue explains in an interview with People magazine.
The covers feature:
1. Typical young thin blonde model, Hailey Clauson
2. Muscular women’s fighter, Ronda Rousey
3. Countercultural size 14 model, Ashley Graham
I love the buzz around embracing different body types and being more inclusive in our definitions of beauty. I am a huge proponent of embracing true beauty, that each of us is a unique, perfect masterpiece. But, Sports Illustrated, I am so confused!
We’ve come so far in celebrating the inner strength, true beauty and athletic prowess of women’s athletes like Carli Lloyd, 2015 FIFA player of the year. We’ve brilliantly praised the true beauty of curvy-figured Adele whose heart-wrenching voice stirs our souls. So how can we be okay with the number one magazine sold and viewed by on average, 23 million people, bringing in over $1 billion, to be of naked women under the guise of “sports” and “embracing beauty”?
It disturbs me. And it breaks my heart. As a mother and advocate for women of all ages, here is what I want to say to each cover girl and to Sports Illustrated about how we should define true beauty.
Cover girl #1, Hailey Clauson you are beautiful. But Sports Illustrated, how is showcasing her wearing only a g-string and squashing her breasts with her hands embracing her true beauty? I have two daughters. There has never been a day that I have thought I would build my girls’ self-confidence by telling them to dress scantily or draw attention to themselves by exposing their bodies. Not once. This is not how I want them to view beauty, or how I hope they aspire to define their worth. I also have two sons, and I do not want them to see this image, drop their jaws, drool, and think, this is what I’m looking for in a girl. This is what defines beauty. This cover doesn’t embrace the whole beautiful package of Hailey, but only her physique displayed in objectified positions.
Cover girl #2, Ronda Rousey, you are beautiful. Sports Illustrated, you chose her to make a statement that strong, athletic bodies are beautiful. My daughters are athletes. I love that they find confidence and self-esteem in working hard, playing as a team, giving it their all and pushing their bodies to be strong. But SI, your athlete “role model” is naked. Yes, nude, as in zero clothing, just body paint. Not a stitch of swimsuit. And the last time I checked, paint does not count as clothes. How is placing Ronda, naked with a tapestry painted on her torso, embracing her talent, skill, drive, strength, accomplishments, girl power, which is integral to her true beauty?
Cover girl #3, Ashley Graham, you are beautiful. Your smile is dazzling and I’m so impressed that you have been an advocate for eliminating the word “plus size” from our vocabulary, especially within the fashion and magazine industry. You even rocked a Ted Talk proclaiming we should just say, “my size.” But Sports Illustrated, you brag Ashley is the “first plus-size cover model” to grace your publication. SI you’ve not only ignored Ashley’s personal cause, but thrown it back in her face, or should I say, her bikini.
All of this has been on my mind since I saw an interview with the cover girls on Good Morning America. I’ve been mulling it over. Thinking through it. Excited that people are out there talking about body image, that interviews are taking place about how beautiful all body types are, but at the same time truly frightened about the ramifications of good intentions with scary results.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19
When I opened my mailbox last week to see a topless Hailey Clauson smiling at me, I felt violated. My fourteen-year old son subscribes to SI. He’s a sports fanatic. But because the swimsuit issue has been risqué for years, we check the box on his subscription card to get the full year of Sports Illustrated WITHOUT the swimsuit issue. Yes, even when we deliberately chose that these images would not mold our sons’ or daughters’ views of what true beauty is Time Inc. still delivered it to our household. What?
I tossed the magazine in the recycler. But its contents are haunting me. It concerns me that this was delivered to at least three million other mailboxes, that at lease another million people purchased it at newsstands, that more than 23 million other pairs of eyes will see objectified, naked women under the distorted lens of calling this ‘celebrating true beauty’.
True beauty is what lights you up inside. True beauty is your laugh, the way your eyes sparkle, yes, your specific and unique curves, height, skin color and hair texture. But not as individual parts, not as body parts, and those body parts weren’t made to be exploited. Just as Seurat’s pointillism painting, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” isn’t about a certain shade of green he used or the child in the forefront of the painting or the size of the canvas, it is a masterpiece because a million dots in a range of colors, all come together to create one beautiful picture. That is like each of us, a million different components, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, talents, skills, insights, smiles, curves of eyebrows, all coming together to create beautiful, individual masterpieces. This is what we need to celebrate. I would love to see Time Inc. truly take this on, but they aren’t doing so with this year’s swimsuit covers.
How do you feel about the swimsuit issue? Leave a comment below if you think Sports Illustrated is broadening or narrowing our view of beauty?
I have coffee splatters on the console of my car and a smear of toothpaste on my bathroom counter. A drop of shimmery lavender nail polish marks the top of my planner. There’s a spot on my jeans that’s been there so long, I’m not sure how it got there, but my suspicions are it’s chocolate in one form or another. And then last night, somebody (no one will be named) dropped a piece of pizza on the living room carpet. Which happens to be white. With six of us running at full speed, our house is lived in, to say the least. The dropped pizza was no big deal. But I couldn’t let the red splash of tomato sauce just sit in the middle of the floor, so I dug under the sink for that carpet spray stuff. I read the back and sprayed and scrubbed and scrubbed a little more. And then I turned it around—reading the label, Spot Remover.
Which made me laugh, because yesterday morning when I’d washed my face and noticed the twin zits on the end of my chin, I’d gotten out a product called Super Spot Remover—the cleverly named zit gel I keep handy for just such occasions.
I am covered in spots!
But my spots aren’t just literal spots. I am also covered in spots you can’t see. Splatters when I yell at one of my kids instead of talking through a rough moment. Dribbles when I forget to bring the dessert or sign the form or write the check or text back. Giant globs when I recall how I tucked God under my pillow in college and did things my way instead of leaning on Him. Shameful spots for things I’ve done in my past. Stains as I struggle with a broken relationship. Big blobs whenever I doubt God’s perfect plans in the every day (how will I ever get everything done on my to-do list?) or in the big decisions of life (where should my daughter go to college?). I could go on. I am covered in so many spots inside and out that I resemble a leopard.
And although I use stain stick on my clothes, spot remover on my carpet and face, spray on my counters, there is no cool new product that can clean my inside spots. It’s like the animal in the children’s book, Put Me in the Zoo. He can change the color and size of his spots. He can put them on the wall or on a tree, “But then,” the animal says, “All my spots are back on me.” And I can smile and laugh and apologize. I can move forward and try to bury my past and doubts and insecurities and shame and guilt under the busyness of the week or the façade of having it all together. I can try harder, work more, do better, but in the end all my spots are back on me.
Or at least I used to think so. But I’ve discovered the ultimate spot remover. And it doesn’t come in a bottle, it never expires and it’s absolutely free. It’s having a relationship with Jesus. See, He scrubbed all of my spots clean. So clean, He who knows everything about me—all my breakdowns and blunders—completely forgives me and loves me and doesn’t notice those old spots at all.
But the fact is, it was our pains He carried--
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought He brought it on Himself,
that God was punishing Him for His own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to Him,
that ripped and tore and crushed Him--our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through His bruises we get healed. Is 53:5
No more spots to stick in a box or on a tree. No more spots can come back on me. Or on you. Whatever our spots may be, whatever color or size they are, no matter where we’ve tried to stick them or how we’ve tried to change them, Jesus died so that all of my sins and yours, all of our mistakes and failures past, present, and future were nailed to the cross and washed completely clean. And with all of those spots removed once and for all, we can clearly see our beautiful true reflections.
Do you have any spots you're working on removing? I'd love to hear. Leave a comment on the Read More or Comments tab below.
Have you ever eaten an apple from Walmart? Sure all of the apples in the ready-to-go, easy-to-carry, plastic bag are the same shape and size. They’re even all the same color. Even if they’re multi-colored apples, it’s uncanny how they manage to package eight apples with the exact shade and portion of yellow marbled into the exact hue and percentage of red all in the same bag. But once you bite into one of those look-alike apples, you forget you’re eating an apple. Instead you get a mouthful resembling mealy cardboard.
Have you ever picked apples in an orchard? Off a real, live tree? Or at least purchased apples from an apple farmer, at a roadside stand, or a farmer’s market? They’re all unique. One might have a ding. Another an uneven spot. You might find one with its stem and leaf still attached. Their surfaces aren’t as smooth or shiny (translate waxy) as the ones at Walmart. Even apples from the same tree are different sizes with distinctive curves. Ever bitten into one and experienced the layering of sweet and tart, crisp and juicy, like crunching morsels of cider? These apples are like ambrosia. It’s almost blasphemy to use the same word to label this fruit as the kind they’re calling apples at Walmart.
God created us to be orchard apples.
Not Walmart apples.
He designed each and every one of us in His image. He knows exactly how much water we need, what kind of fertilizer we require, how to keep the pests away. He appreciates us when we are seeds, seedlings, beautiful pink blossoms in the spring, and as we grow into solid fruit. He doesn’t judge us along the way, try to grow us in a rush, pick us too early, or stuff us in a plastic bag and ship us before we’re ripe. See, God made us; therefore He loves who we are at every stage of our life, our dings, our rough spots, our natural surfaces. He doesn’t ask us to be anything we’re not, or try to cram us into a bag, force us to like someone else. No, through His love, God helps us become the best versions of ourselves. Much like those fresh from the orchard apples. Some of us are sweet, and some of us are tart, and some of us are a mix of both. We are red and green and gold and pink and all kinds of swirling combinations.
A Granny Smith does not want to be like a Golden Delicious, she’s too sassy for that. A Pink Lady has no aspiration to be a Honey Crisp, because she’s amazingly sweet and crisp and beautiful just like she is. Each apple just tries to be itself, because that’s who it was made to be. Us too. We need to relish in who we were made to be our Creator. Remember you are an orchard apple, not a Walmart one, so delight in the layers of your personality, your one-of-a-kind shape, size and flavor.
I love to bake. One of my family’s favorites this time of year is Apple Crisp. The secret to this recipe is to use a variety of apples. The different degrees of sweet and tart, crisp and soft all meld together when they bake into something unbelievably scrumptious. We deal with gluten and nut allergies, but this dessert is safe for all of us to savor. It is warm and sweet and spicy. Top it with some vanilla ice cream that melts over the crunchy topping, and you’re pretty close to this side of heaven. You don’t need any skills to make it, just a great variety of farmer’s market apples and a peeler.
7 medium-sized apples peeled and sliced thinly. A variety is best, some gold, some green, and some red. Mix it up.
1 cup dark brown sugar
½ cup melted butter
1 ½ cups gluten free rolled oats (you can use regular, but don’t use steel cut, they don’t work as well)
½ cup gluten free flour (I use a ready-made blend, but you can make your own blend, or use GF oat flour or use regular flour. They all work the same.)
½ tsp. Cinnamon
Vanilla Ice Cream or if you’re feeling festive, whipped cream
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
What's your favorite way to serve apples in the fall?
EVERY PERSON HAS A STORY (DON'T THEY?)
Do you know that old Rod Stewart song, “Every Picture Tells A Story (Don’t It)”? I’m understanding more and more that every person has a story, and they’ll tell it to you, and it will blow you away. All you have to do is ask.
I recently experienced an amazing event in Nashville called STORY. The experience was filled with presenters sharing their stories and inspiring attendees to explore and share theirs. Abigail Washburn the Mandarin speaking, banjo playing woman from Illinois, who just returned from a tour along the Great Wall of China with Yo Yo Ma was a stand in for a sick presenter. What? This was the sub?
And Jeremy Cowart, celebrity photographer who has taken photos of everyone from the Pope to the Kardashians to Sting, yet uses his celebrity to launch amazing humanitarian projects such as Help-Portrait, which offers free portraits to people who have never had their picture taken, and campaigns in Haiti, Rwanda, and Uganda to raise awareness of the devastation these people have endured and funding to help them rebuild. This guy was the guy who struggled through high school. This was the guy whose mantra growing up was, “I can’t”. But his parents repeated to him, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13). A reminder of truth that WE CAN, despite what the world tells us, despite what our achievement tests score us. Look what he’s become! Think what you can become.
Jon Guerra appeared on stage plucking his acoustic guitar and breaking into a soulful melody “We are stained it’s true, but when Your light shines through, we all look like stained glass windows to You.” And there was the lady who played the bassoon and the woman I bumped into at an after party in a warehouse who made a cotton candy tree full of wishes. And James Rhodes, world renowned classical pianist and composer, who played Chopin so beautifully it made me weep, then proceeded to share openly his story of being sexually abused as a child and how music saved him.
Not to mention the fact my sweet friend who I attended Story with and I, stayed up late in an artsy Nashville hotel wearing our pj’s watching Taylor Swift videos. We all have stories.
I could go on and on. But you get the idea. Stories. We all have them. Each and every human being was knitted together in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139:14) by God, our Creator, with skills and fears, hopes and hiccups, weaknesses and joys, leaps and bounds, whispers and screams. And God takes all of those marvelous little details and writes our stories. It’s like an Encyclopedia Brown mystery, in that God gives us the opportunity to choose if the hero (you or me) will pick A or B, will they give up or keep going, will they try harder or stop trying, will she dream bigger, smile broader, take a different path when the first one is blocked? Will he or she trust in the Author of their story for a happy ending even when the villain seems menacing and the tornado is twisting and they’re locked in a closet? Will they tap into the courage and peace their God has to offer? Will you?
What’s your story? What’s the story of the person next to you, the one you’ve never talked to, the kid who sits in the back of class, or the woman on the far side of church, or the person who always shows up late and leaves a minute early at boot camp? Are you willing to ask them? Are you willing to share yours? Because when we hear other people’s stories, we see their true reflections, often for the first time. And when we share ours, we let other people see ours. And they are all beautiful.
HOW MY NEPHEW GOT CROWNED KING
The day my nephew Chad was born, no one would have imagined one day he’d be crowned king. No one, except God, because that is exactly how our Creator saw Chad all along.
And eighteen years later at a soggy, chilly, rainy football game in a suburb of Cincinnati, thanks to the amazing true beauty of his high school community, Kings, Chad was not only elected by his peers onto the homecoming court, but called to the throne with this announcement, “And this year’s homecoming king is no other than Chad Handorf!”
And the meek shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5
Yes, my sweet, smiling nephew who somehow sustains himself on chicken nuggets and pretzels, who always carries a coaches whistle, who has faithfully cheered the loudest at every single one of his three siblings’ games, who laughs and tells the most fantastic stories, who sings the loudest and proudest when the cousins go Christmas caroling each year, the boy who came too early, who had a list of medical problems, who survived against the odds, and who lives with the implications and limitations of Down Syndrome each and every day got to see a glimpse of how God sees him. He got to see his true reflection.
But wait, there’s more.
Chad is buddies with one of the girls on the homecoming court, Emily Lima. He was convinced he should invite her to homecoming. Even though she has a boyfriend. My sister-in-law insisted he not do it, because of the boyfriend. But Chad has always been a little stubborn. And so, he made a sign, held it up in class, and asked this girl to the dance. Emily said, “Yes, I will. I’d love to.” And so, she, her boyfriend, and Chad, well, they went to the dance together. It is only fitting, that this beautiful girl, who helped show Chad his true reflection, was crowned queen.
You know what true beauty looks like? My nephew, Chad, with a crown on his head, face beaming, knowing through and through that he is a child of the one true King.
Laura L. Smith