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.
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“Your electric will be out for most of the day.” The man with the frizzy brown beard and bright yellow hard hat standing at my front door told me almost verbatim what the woman from the electric company had said over the phone yesterday.
It was a sunny day and remarkably warm for November. I planned ahead, charged my phone and laptop, and worked by a window in the family room where there would be more light. But it was ridiculous how many times I tried to use electricity anyway.
I flipped a light switch. Tried to open the garage door. Glanced at the clock on the oven about four thousand times to see what time it was. Popped my coffee mug in the microwave to heat up my morning mocha. And laughed at myself every single time when nothing happened.
What if we depended on God like we depended on electricity? What if every time we went to plug in, turn on, crank up, reheat, or log on we reached out to Jesus?
Because He is the light of the world. He came down over 2000 years ago on that first Christmas to bring us light.
The Word gave life to everything that was created, and His life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. —John 1:4-5 NLT
A week and a half later, our power went out again. And then again just a couple of days ago. Between the six of us Smiths all at home there were countless calls and Zooms we were supposed to be on for school and work. Someone took a shower in the dark. Make that a cold shower. Someone couldn’t print the worksheet they needed to attend the online class they hoped they’d be able to attend if we regained power allowing us to regain Internet. And somebody hadn’t made their coffee yet. Yikes!
These days without power were hard. They weren’t impossible. They were doable, but they were not living my best life. Whether I saw it coming or not, a day without my power source was not as hot, cold, fresh, flowing, fruitful or efficient. The same is true if we’re living our days without Jesus. Sure, we might get through. But we won’t get all the fullness that’s available. Days will be harder, much harder, if we’re not hanging out with Him.
There’s a restored pioneer cabin near our home. I pass it on my runs. I love the historical context, a home that connects me to the past of my community. But, there is not a single time I run by, that I look at the fireplace inside and think, “Gee, I wish I could cook every meal over one of those.” Or that I envy the “bed warmer” filled with hot rocks they slid between their covers so they wouldn’t freeze at night. I’m grateful for my warm room and bed. I want my food to stay fresh in the fridge. I enjoy the freedom of being able to cook whatever I was planning on for my family for dinner--even if that’s just boiling pasta, I want to be able to boil it without fear of burning myself. As a writer I rely on my laptop which requires electricity. I’m dependent on the power that charges my home.
I’m even more grateful for and completely reliant on the ultimate power source, Jesus, who powers my heart, mind, soul, and life. He guides my steps, holds me up when I am weary, calms my brain, stops my thoughts from spiraling, and reminds me that I matter. I cannot imagine a day without Him. And I don’t have to, because ever since the Light of the World came into the world, His power has been and always will be available for everyone.
How do we stay tapped into Christ, His promises, and the life He offers? It’s as easy as flipping on the lights on our Christmas trees. We just need to reach out to Him. Before the call or doctor’s appointment. In the morning before I get out of bed I’ll pray over the thing that will put pressure on me, that I’m uber excited about, or that could be a potential challenge for the day. I’ll shoot a text to some of my most trusted prayer partners and ask them to pray for me, too. I’ll open my Bible to specific passages that speak truth to me over these situations. I might read Ephesians 6 out loud about putting on the armor of God to prepare me for whatever battles I have coming my way. I might read Scripture about who I am in God if I’m in a situation where I’m doubting my value or abilities (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 1:6, 1 Peter 2:9). I’ll journal or go on a walk or sit in a quiet place, and just be still and let God quiet my heart and mind. Then I’m able to handle that thing with a peaceful, courageous heart, one that trusts God is with me.
There will also be times that hit us out of left field. Where we’re not prepared and didn’t see something scary or stressful or sad coming and we haven’t even had our coffee yet (Kidding. Kind of). How do we cope? Jesus is the ultimate power source. He never flames out, flickers or glitches. Jesus is constant. Whether we’re prepared or not, His light still shines. The darkness can’t extinguish it. You can call out to Him as the car spins out of control, when the doctor calls, when someone confronts you, when the email lights up your screen. You can pray on the spot, out loud, in your head, whatever. It can be long and thought out, or you can just call out His name, “Jesus!” and He will be there with and for you.
Life with Jesus is richer. Both the good days and the hard times, because when we tap into Jesus, we’re reminded we are loved. We experience peace. We are flooded with hope. We’re reminded that He is with us, and promises to never leave us, so actually we’re not alone, and don’t have to walk through our day on our own. This is why we celebrate Christmas. The Light of the World, the ultimate power source came down to earth to light up our days, make them more complete, and be with us, Emmanuel.
So plug in this Christmas. And every day afterwards. To the life source that will never go out.
To plug into how Jesus’ light can empower and strengthen us grab a copy of Laura’s new book, How Sweet the Sound
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The Ohio winter has been cold, gray, windy, dreary and long. Yes, we’ve had a few unexpected warm spells (global weirding we call it at our house), but on St. Patrick’s Day as we swirled peppermint buttercream on freshly baked green cupcakes, snowflakes flitted past our kitchen window. Snow. In mid-March.
But today, even though it’s still only a high of 40 degrees, the sun is bursting, blanketing my neighborhood in a golden glow. And these rays of sunshine make all the difference.
At least they do for me.
The sun instantly switches my perspective from survival mode of staying warm, logging miles, checking off lists…
to enjoyment mode—savoring the warmth prickling my skin, beaming at crocuses peeking up their violet heads from their slumber, and giggling at a squirrel chattering on the telephone wire overhead. God is so good and so abundant. He always is. But somehow I see it more clearly in the sunlight.
Similarly praise is a breakthrough switching our minds from worries, concerns, struggles and fears, to all the glorious ways God surrounds us with His warm, golden love. It’s like an on/off switch that literally changes our perspectives.
It’s not complicated. It begins with one simple thank you to God. Thank you, Jesus, for the daffodil stalks poking out of the earth like sharp, green spears.
And almost as soon as we utter the words of gratitude, we find another thank you follows quickly on the first one’s tail. Because thank you also, God, that I don’t have to plant daffodils every year. It’s miraculous how they not only return on their own, but multiply like blooms of sunshine scattered throughout our yard.
And then comes another. Thank you, Jesus for the text from a friend who’s praying for me, for the rat-a-tat-tat of the woodpecker on that branch with his stunningly scarlet head, for the laughter bursting from my husband and son as they shoot the Nerf basketball into the hoop on the laundry room door.
The praise pulls us away from the what-if worries for tomorrow and the if-only-things-had-been-different reservations from the past. Praise pulls us into the present—shining light onto what God has for us, right before our eyes. The things we can thank Jesus for were always there. They are just easier to see when we illuminate our lives with gratitude.
It can be difficult on an emotionally gloomy day to eek out praise—on days when clouds of concern darken our skies, when gratitude doesn’t come naturally, when thank yous aren’t bubbling from our lips. On these days we need to be intentional. Because there’s always something to be grateful for. Something. Think. What is it?
Even in a hospital room we can thank God for intelligent doctors, scientific breakthroughs, modern sanitization, a call from a caring family member. Even when someone disappoints us, we can thank God for an umbrella on a rainy day, a rich frothy latte, a warm hand holding ours.
And once we start with the tiniest of thank yous, a ripple effect occurs. We begin to find more things to thank God for, and then more. All of a sudden we find ourselves less concerned about the troubles we’re tackling, and instead acutely aware of how loved we are by a glorious Creator.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever. --Psalm 136:1
So what can you thank God for today? You can start small. You can start simple, but start. List one thing.
Can you get to ten?
And as we focus on His goodness, His enduring love, we begin to feel the breakthrough. The bad stuff fades and doesn’t feel as overwhelming anymore. The warmth of God’s love changes our perspective and helps us remember who we truly are—the ones God loves, the people He’s fighting for, radiant in the light of His Son.
My husband and I were going for a walk after dinner, but have you noticed? It’s getting dark so early! So, halfway around the block he had to turn on the flashlight on his phone. The hum of a car engine was buzzing somewhere behind us. Brett, always the gentlemen, motioned that I stand on the inside of him, closer to the curb, and said, “Let me stand nearer to the car. I want them to see our light.”
Yes, I thought. I want the whole world to see my light, the light that is Jesus living inside me. How can I do that well?
Showing up a couple of minutes before yoga started, I put my flip flops and water bottle in a cubby, grabbed a blue yoga block, and found a spot to roll out my mat. Instead of the usual instructor, a college student—a yoga trainee—was standing by the sound system looking over her notes, apparently ready to teach the class. I said, “hi,” walked past her and found some room on the highly-polished wooden floor near a giant window. I gravitate to a spot aglow in sunlight, because I soak in the warmth of the sun like a sponge. As I unrolled my gray mat with stenciled pale blue flowers stenciled the softly playing music caught up with my brain. It was “Everything” by Lifehouse. You all, have you heard this song? I have one friend who literally became a Christian after seeing a performance of this very song. I circled back from my mat, one minute until class began, and told the trainee, “I love this song. Thank you so much for playing it.”
“Oh, I like it, too,” she answered. “I just think it’s so calming.”
I smiled, nodded, and hurried back to my mat so she could get started.
Hmmm. Calming? Sure. But so much more. Maybe she doesn’t know the lyrics are all about Jesus. I mean it doesn’t mention His name and Lifehouse is a crossover band, meaning they play to Christian and mainstream audiences. But as our instructor got us seated, breathing, and focused the instrumental version of “So Will I,” by Hillsong Worship drifted over the speakers. As I swan-dived (is that swan-dived or swan-dove? I’ve never said it in the past tense before) I sang along to the melody in my head, “If the stars were made to worship, so will I.” And as I was practicing yoga I was worshipping. So sweet. This girl, working to be certified as a yoga instructor was using class to spread the light of Jesus in her. It wasn’t lightning bolt explosive light, but at the same time it absolutely was. Awesome. I wanted to be like her. I mean not exactly like her. I don’t have any desire to teach yoga or be twenty-one again. But I do want to shine Jesus where I am—how God calls me to do it.
The next day I was at Kroger, as usual, this time buying approximately 83,000 Gatorades and granola bars for soccer team snacks. It was clear this was too big a job for the YouScan, so I got in Sharon’s lane. The customer in front of me was grumbling about something or other, but by the time she was pushing her cart away the shopper was nodding and saying, “Mmm hmm,” to Sharon’s comment about counting our blessings.
When I got up to Sharon, she grinned and said, “Turn it around, turn it around.” This is her goal. To take the negative talk and turn it around. To remind people of the good in the world and the good in them—of God’s love for them, of their blessings. Sharon is an expert at this. How cool that Sharon decided to make her checkout line her ministry. This is where she shines Christ’s light daily. I can’t imagine how many people she has face to face contact with each week—the impact she’ having on God’s kingdom. Each shopper leaves her lane with a “God is so good,” or “aren’t we so blessed?” She literally pours blessings upon blessings on her customers. I want to be like Sharon. Because Sharon reminds me of Jesus. But I don’t work at Kroger. God has other ways for me to shine His light. Other ways for you, too.
I think we overthink this sharing about Jesus business. We think we have to have every Bible verse memorized or have gone through special training or know all the answers or do big gigantic acts or fix all the broken pieces of our lives in order to shine a little light. But God would never make it that hard on us. You guys there are so many ways to spread the very good news that Jesus longs to rescue us, offer us a better life, that He’s already wiped our slates clean by dying on the cross for us, that all we have to do is say we believe, and we can experience this freedom. Jesus doesn’t need us to set off fireworks, although sometimes He’ll ask us to. Even the flicker of a candle is so beautiful and changes the mood of an entire room.
I think my pastor is amazing. He does an incredible job of shining the light of Jesus during his sermons every week. But Sharon also shines light over groceries. And a college-aged yoga instructor in Ohio shares the spiritual strength and balance Jesus offers with the people coming into her room to gain strength and balance for their physical bodies. I have several friends who teach at the public university in our college town who shine so much Jesus light in their classrooms, students can’t help to catch a glimmer.
Jesus calls us to be light—to bring out God’s colors in the world (Mt 5:14), but He doesn’t tell us how that has to look. In fact, He’s created us all so uniquely, He gives us all completely different ways to do it—flash bulbs, twinkly lights, flood lights, dimmer lights, strobe lights, colored lights and energy efficient bulbs, so more people can know about Him, from several different angles, and experience multiple facets of God’s great love.
So what’s your thing? How are you going to shine some light? Where did God put you? Who do you know? What can you do? Who do you interact with? What are your talents? God put you in those places with those people for specific reasons. You don’t have to stand on a stage or work with the public. You can show off God’s colors on the sidelines of your kids’ soccer games, at the meetings you attend, to the neighbor’s you pass when you’re out walking your dog.
All you have to do is share what you already know, about who Jesus is, what He does, what a difference He makes. Lifehouse does this in that song my yoga teacher was playing, “You’re all I want. You’re all I need, You’re everything.” This song was on an album that sold over 4 million copies and was featured on the WB hit drama, Smallville. Do you know how much light that is? How many of God’s colors were revealed in 4 million copies plus all the viewers of Smallville? You can do it. Right where you are. With the gifts you’ve been given—by singing it out loud, or playing it in the background or something else altogether. Just let it be known that Jesus is your light—your everything.
Take a quick assessment of how you can get out your flashlight or spotlight and shine a little light. God won’t make this hard. It’s always easy to share good news. Just do it naturally where you are and who you’re with. It doesn’t have to be in your face and overt. It could be by choosing to do or not to do something, or maybe it’s saying or not saying something else. Someone might ask why you did that. Someone will notice. And then you’ve brightened things up a bit—you’ve let them see your light—the light of Christ. Let it shine.
ALL I KNOW
Yes, I “know” Jesus is aware of all the things, that He sees everything, but as the band and crowd sang along with Vertical Worship at the Outcry Tour on Tuesday night, God washed a truer perspective over me.
“I stand in awe, You're the God over all I know.” A simple lyric that penetrated.
I envisioned God walking me through the rooms of our house as if I was house hunting. “And here’s the kitchen…” But instead of pointing out my new subway tile, He showed me myself flying around trying to put this away, chop that, clean up this, and get dinner in the oven in time for someone to eat before practice—frenzied and snippy. Then radiant light poured over the dirty cup and the overflowing garbage. God reminded me when I think, “Doesn’t anybody notice this isn’t recyclable? Doesn’t anyone see the toaster needs put away?” God says, “I notice. I see. And it’s okay if it’s not perfect. If it’s not all in place or done in order or even done. I love you. Let me grace shine here.”
This calms everything. Because I’m not in this by myself. I’m not a better or worse mom or wife if the silverware drawer is organized or if there are fingerprints on the fridge. And I don’t have to do it on my own. Neither do you. God is in each and every detail—the God over all we know. He sees the things that drive us crazy and shines warmth onto these places. He sees ALL of it. He doesn’t let a single aspect of our lives go unnoticed.
Where are you feeling frazzled? God is with you in that place—running late to practice or a meeting, studying for exams, pacing around the family room in the middle of the night with a wailing infant. Let His grace shine here.
Next, God guided me to the door leading to our garage. He didn’t point out my kids’ artwork or comment on their Nerf hoop. Instead, He said, “This is the coming and going place.”
Most of our family greetings are sweet—full of hugs and “I love yous,” but some are strained. Someone’s had a crummy day and needs to vent about everything. Someone else is tired and not in the mood to be barraged with questions when they walk in the door. One of us needs a hug. Another cannot fathom anyone touching them right now. God allowed me to see His golden light shining on these situations. His presence encircling all members of our family—the ones who want to be left alone, the ones who need to chat, all the emotions that ensue. God whispered, “It’s always like this. I’m always here. You just don’t always see it. Don’t push. Don’t worry. I love each person in your family. Let Me guide the conversations and the greetings. I am with you all.”
Sigh. I love my husband and kids so much. But sometimes my love for them turns into me trying too hard to love them. God gave me a permission slip to step back. To not have to resolve every problem. To allow room for Him to do His glorious thing. Who do you love? Who do you live with? Are there ever rough spots in that relationship? A quarrel? A miscommunication? A frustration? God is there—loving you both. Knowing exactly what you both need. Make room for Him.
I followed God upstairs as He entered my writing nook. I saw my laptop, to-do list, pile of reference books, journal, dual coasters—one for coffee, one for water, and a smattering of pens, headphones and a stray Eos. Beams of light shot from every nook and cranny. “This is My space,” He said. “Everything you do in here should be for Me and My glory. Don’t worry about deadlines, rejections, what your next project will be, or when you’ll find out about it. Just come in here expectant of what I’ll do. Come in here to serve Me.”
Okay, wow. I know this. I know I write for Jesus, but I also know I stress over it. Too much. God reminded me not to worry, but instead just to work. What kind of work do you do? Homework? Housework? Running giant companies work? Yardwork? What kind of work would you like to do? What are you waiting to hear back about? God knows about all of it. Every single detail. And He’s working them all together for good. Take a deep breath. Say a prayer before you commence your next task or assignment. Turn it over to Him.
God showed me all this during one song. Granted worship songs are lengthy, but still. Today I am clinging to that vision. Trying to keep my eyes open and aware that He truly is everywhere shining light into each detail. God understands when we have a headache, when we’re tired, when we’re overwhelmed, and He offers peace. God appreciates that we get confused, unsure what to do next or how to react, and He offers assurance that He knows exactly what’s going on and if we let Him, He’ll make things clear. God realizes you and your roommate or sibling or spouse are at odds. He loves you and that other person. Pray for Him to step into the conversations and the misunderstandings. Pray for Him to smooth things over where you simply cannot.
Our God is in ALL things. He is the God over all we know. All of our comings in, goings out, daily routines and grinds. God not only knows all of it, He can make it better. Allow Him to shine His love like warm sunlight into all of the rooms—literal and figurative of your life. Allow Him to do what only God can do. He’s the God over ALL we know.
HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
The last time I got my hair done I had some lowlights added. Chlorine from summer pool days, hours of sun shining on my head at soccer fields, plus the highlights only stance I’d taken the last few times I had my hair done, all added up to my tresses looking slightly less honey and a little on the platinum side. It was time. But lowlights seem so counterintuitive. I’m paying to keep the golden glow of my childhood forever, why would I darken the sheen?
Why? Because dark helps us focus on light, illuminates the glow, so it shines even brighter.
The lowlights? They show off the paler strands. The contrast is lovely, somehow richer, and fuller, than a straight up blonde. But in life we tend not to focus on our lowlights, but on our highlights—the signed contract, the win, the award, the cupcakes we frosted to look like adorable pumpkins, the stunning vistas taken during our vacation, when in truth, most of our life is lowlights.
We rarely share scrubbing the toilets before guests arrive, the rewrites and revisions on our papers, the hours of doing flashcards with our kids so they pass that time test, the acne cream we dab on our zits, or the spills and extra trips to the hardware store that went into our latest home improvement project.
This past week, I experienced some lowlights. Didn’t you? Not major ones, but some less than shining moments.
I didn’t post a single one of these events on Instagram. But guess what? In these darker spots is where I turned to Jesus and saw His glory shine so brightly.
When those soccer boys walked off the field, I knew there was nothing I could say to ease their hurt or make them smile. And so I did what I do when I can’t do anything else. I hugged my son tight and prayed. I prayed for him and his team and their sweet hearts, that they would find their worth in Christ and not in goals or wins. That they would find joy in the season instead of pain in its end. I felt God’s love fill me, remind me where my worth was, and felt Him soothing and loving those boys.
I was kicking myself for snipping at my fun-loving daughter. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I let little things go? My stomach in knots, I turned to Jesus and said, “I adore my daughter and can’t stand arguing with her. She is funny and smart and smiley and loving.” And before I even finished listing to God all the things I love about my girl (which clearly, He already knew) I was flooded with all the reasons that young lady is sunshine in my life. All my icky feelings vanished. Next day we had a laughfest baking brownies together. God is so good.
The woodpile? Yeah. Okay, so I am a klutz. My parents sent me to ballet lessons as a girl in hopes I would stop bumping into things. I fell in love with dance, but still bang into stationary objects on a regular basis. I was helping my husband lug a pile of leaves into the woods. My foot got caught. For unknown reasons I refused to let go of the tarp and catch myself. Instead I went down, smack onto a piece of sharp wood and have a nasty four-inch cut across my shin to show for it. You are so glad I didn’t post a photo! Trust me. My husband and daughter came to the rescue. Feeling the way they loved me was priceless. It hurt, sure, but it’s a mere flesh wound. This cut gave me the opportunity to thank God for people who love me, and pray for anyone I know suffering from chronic pain or lingering ailments. My sore leg gave me a fresh perspective on how jam-packed with blessings my life is.
Ever wonder what Jesus’ social media accounts would have looked like? I imagine Peter running His accounts for Him, and Jesus chastising Peter for only showing the highlights. Jesus was all about down and dirty—drawing in the dirt, making paste out of mud, touching lepers who had highly contagious skin disease, talking one on one with the town harlot, chatting with the naked guy named Legion, who liked to cut himself with rocks.
Am I dismissing the lowlights or embracing them? Am I taking time to watch Jesus open my blind eyes with the mud of life? Are you?
What tough stuff did you wade through this week? What mire are you still desperately trying to climb through? Have you turned it over to Jesus? Asked Him to bring light to the darker spaces? To use these hardships to illuminate your life?
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” —John 8:12
I am thankful for all of the highlights of my life. So. Very. Grateful. I’ve been blessed with a dreamy husband, four kids whom I adore more than oxygen or chocolate, the sweetest mother, and I get to tell stories for a living. Please! This week I went to the farmer’s market, made apple crisp, had date night with my hubby—all darling photo ops. But I am also blessed by my lowlights—the learning moments, the times I turn to Jesus and say, “Help!” and watch Him turn up every single time, shining His almighty flashlight into my dark places.
Jesus is not afraid of the dark. Instead He uses it to show us how bright He is. Whatever seems murky or muddy this week, hand it over to Him and watch His sunbeams light up your life.
WHEN THE MOON DISAPPEARS
The other night my husband and I were on the back deck unwinding our day. We let the warm summer evening breeze blow through and around the thoughts, concerns, and conversations we’d experienced since our morning java. Brett was relaying something hilarious one of the kids said when he interrupted himself, pointed at the sky, and proclaimed, “Look at the moon!”
I turned my gaze upward and there it was, orange and mysterious barely peeking out from behind gauzy clouds. For the first thirty minutes of our conversation it had been hidden from view, but certainly not absent. It had been a darker than normal evening, but the moon was there. It’s always there. Even when we can’t see it.
The same is true with God.
He is always there.
Even when we can’t see Him.
Because there are days when we can’t see Him, aren’t there? Days when the clouds of unexpected expenses, unpredicted demands, and unappreciated criticism come our way and cloud our view of Him and His love for us. There are other days when we’re swamped—sprinting to the next and the next and the next, and ‘dang I forgot to text her back’ and ‘I never called the repairman’. On those days, we don’t even take time to look up. And then there are days when the brightness of fill-in-the-blank with whatever you seem fixated on lately seems as bright as the sun, a glare making it hard to see anything else but that distraction.
But just like the moon, God’s still there. He never goes away or disappears just because of circumstances, our decision not to seek Him, or the things we get distracted by. He is still there and He is still working. Consistently and constantly.
The moon, whether we see it or not, is pulling the tides of the 321,000,000 cubic miles of water in the oceans. Every single day. The moon constantly keeps the earth from wobbling as it spins. It does this at night when it glows in the sky and during the day when it’s barely visible if visible at all. The moon even tugs at babies still in the womb, beckoning them to come out into the world. Don’t believe me? You should have been walking the hallways of Northside Hospital, a.k.a. the Baby Factory, with me the night our first child was born. There were so many women who went into labor that night of a full moon there weren’t enough beds available. True story. The moon does all that, when we’re inside and have a roof blocking our views. It’s in action when we’re outside and thick storm clouds cover its glow. Even when it’s daytime and the sun is bright and the moon is dim, when all that’s observable from earth is the tiny sliver or a toenail moon, when we’re outside, but busy, distracted and not looking up, in all those times the moon never stops doing its thing.
And God created the moon. Can you imagine how much more He’s doing 24/7? When we don’t see God, we can’t dismiss His power, His attention to details, or His love for us. Even in the stressful times, the stagnant times, the struggles, and the storms God is strengthening us, building our character, and blessing us with gifts.
We never doubt that the moon is up there somewhere doing its thing, so why do we ever doubt God?
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. —Hebrews 11:1
Trust in His constancy today. No matter what cards life has dealt you, God is on your side. He is pulling you safely from the tides, steadying you from spinning out of control, and beckoning you into His loving arms.
7:50 AM Sunday morning.
Beep. Flash. Silence.
Max and I were on our way out the door. He plays in the band and was supposed to be at church by 8:00 AM. Only now our garage door wouldn’t open, because the power was out. I knew there was a way to unhook the chain, but…
“Let’s take Maddie’s car,” I called to Max while searching for her key. “And go out the front,” since fortunately her car was parked in the driveway.
Has anything fritzed out, not worked, run out of steam, let you down this week?
The lights were out at church, too. Which was ironic, since Max plays electric guitar. “Text me if you need me to bring your acoustic,” I said as Max unloaded his instrument from the trunk.
Sundays mean Starbucks. Only when I got there, they were closed!!!! Are they even allowed to be closed? No problem, I’ll make something yummy with the Nespresso. Except it plugs in. My mind raced to Plan C. I’m sure we have a Via instant coffee pack or two in the coffee drawer. I’ll just add hot water from our water dispenser. Except it also requires electricity.
Back at home, we got ready in rooms with blinds wide open as pale morning light strained to streak through the gray February sky. Using phones as flashlights. Brushing teeth in the kitchen. It all worked. Mostly. By the time we got to service at 9:00 AM, the power was back on at church, and praise Jesus, they’d made coffee.
Three days later…. our vacuum is spitting out pine needles and dirt instead of sucking things up. I try to pick up the large pieces of lint and leaves with my fingers. Sigh. Two days after that…our kitchen sink is clogged, glugging up food remnants instead of washing them down. My husband and mom are wrestling with coat hangers and plungers while I wash our dinner dishes in the laundry room utility sink. A power outage, a broken vacuum or a clogged drain are all minor inconveniences, but they remind me be grateful for all that I have, for all the things I take for granted a million times a day.
But sometimes in life the obstacles are greater than a power outage or a broken appliance and slower to solve. We all have days, weeks, seasons where we feel like we’ve run into a brick wall, where things aren’t going as planned, where things we take for granted let us down, and people we depend on aren’t so dependable.
But Jesus? He never lets us down.
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” —John 8:12
Ironically the Sunday of the power outage our pastor began by asking, “What’s the one thing you can’t live without?” Most of the mismatched, ponytailed and bed-headed congregation that got ready for church in the dark might have been thinking, “power”. But the truth is, we could live without it. I could also live without a vacuum or a sink, although I’d rather not. There seemed to be plenty of Plan Bs and Plan Cs running through my mind without too much thought or planning. But even when everything else is taken away, I have Jesus. And he is all I need.
What have you run out of today? Coffee creamer? Patience?
What isn’t working in your life? Your marriage? Part of your body?
What is it that you depend on that isn’t coming through for you? Your Wi-Fi signal? A friendship?
I promise Jesus is all we need. With Him, we don’t need a plan B or C.
A family member I trusted for years lied to me. Jesus loves me fiercely.
My husband and I lost all of our grandparents. Jesus holds and comforts us.
A friend moved away. Another moved on. Jesus stays loyally right by my side.
I get frustrated with someone I love. Jesus grants me grace and teaches me how to extend it.
How about you? What are you facing? When you get the blame for something you didn’t do, Jesus knows what really happened. When you know what you should do, but it would be way easier to follow the crowd? Jesus says, “I’ll help you.” When your license expires, the light bulb burns out, the battery needs charged, Jesus is running at full capacity. You get another rejection? Somebody subtly puts you down? Jesus does the opposite. He invites you in, again and again.
He never goes out. His door is always open. He never quits on you or me. Even if everything we depend on shuts or breaks down—Jesus is there, shining brightly, standing strong. We don’t have to plug Him in, turn Him on, charge Him up, or figure out how to make His love work. He is always energized and available. He loves, listens, give us strength and courage, brightens our paths and helps us see things more clearly, unconditionally, eternally.
If everything else went out and stopped working. If all the cupboards were bare. Jesus would still be there. We don’t need to strategize or think up alternate routes. We can count on Him. No matter where you feel let down, run down, or depleted today, Jesus is there with you. He will not now, or ever, let you down.
3 Life Lessons From Nerf Wars
Ever heard of Nerf Wars? No, they're nothing like Star Wars. Nerf Wars are when teams of teens make a bracket (like you would in any sports tournament). The teams go against their assigned opponents with the goal of hitting more members of the opposing team with Nerf bullets than the opposing team hits of your team by the end of the assigned time. Shot players are out and can no longer shoot. Winning teams advance to the next bracket. It’s like an extended game of dodge ball, only with Nerf guns. Got it?
But as with most games, there’s a lot to be learned by the rules—life lessons. I’ve had the pleasure of spectating and strategizing with my daughter as she partook in this war with her friends, and I’ve learned a few strategies I want to apply to my daily life.
1. Be intentional
There is a thrill, an excitement, and a little bit of anxiety during Nerf Wars, because at any moment you could get shot. It’s all in fun—it’s just a game, so the stakes aren’t high, but still there’s that strange feeling that someone is after you. My daughter had to rethink her daily tasks. She had to be intentional about things she usually did by rote, things she took for granted. She asked if she could park in the garage instead of the driveway, so she could pull her car in, shut the garage door, and never be out in the open where she could get shot. She started conversations with people she hadn’t chatted with before, so she could decipher when and where her opponents were going. She planned new routes home from school in case she was being followed.
I, too, need to be more intentional. There are so many things I habitually do without even thinking about them. I eat the same things for breakfast, read the same blogs, and sit in the same seat at church. What if I approached each day fully aware and intent on expanding my horizons and picking the best routes for my daily life instead of the most familiar ones?
2. Never leave your wingman.
Just like in Top Gun, In Nerf Wars it’s not only important to be in constant communication with your teammates, it’s also critical to have someone with you—a wingman. Maybe your wingman will drive while you roll down the passenger window to shoot an opponent. Maybe, if they’re already out of the game, your wingman will act as a human shield to protect you from oncoming Nerf bullets. Maybe a wingman will help you find someone’s house, or just to keep you company or make you laugh while you’re on a stakeout.
I also need a wingman. We aren’t created to do life alone. We all need people to talk to, to laugh with, to plan with. Some days I need my friends and family to act as human shields, protecting me from unkind words or rejections from the world. I definitely need a small, close circle of people praying for and with me. I hope my wingmen and wingwomen and wingkids never leave my side. I’m reminded how important it is to stand by theirs
3. Stay in the light
I cracked up each night when my daughter called, asking me to turn on all the outside lights. When she pulled up to our house, she wanted a clear view—wanted to see if anyone was waiting to attack her.
I also need to stay in the light. I need to stay where I can see what’s going on, where I can tell the difference between right and wrong. There are places I’ve been and people I’ve been around, that when I’m there or with them, everything starts to get dim, maybe even dark. Where decisions are harder, where lines get blurry. You probably have your darker places, too. But Jesus is light. And when I stay grounded in Him, I can see what’s coming, and not be taken by surprise. I can see things for what they truly are, and act accordingly. When I shine His light on any situation it gets brighter and clearer, and I am immediately less concerned about the unknown.
I don’t know what battles you’re fighting today. I hope they’re just all fun and games, like Nerf Wars. But I know some days the battles are real. When they are, be intentional, keep a wingman close by, and stay in the marvelous light of Jesus.
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
As I drove home at sunset, the ginormous golden orb seemed to be directly in front of me. The light from the sun was so bright, so blinding, I literally couldn’t see where I was driving. I had to slow down to a snail’s pace of 10 MPH on a 45 MPH road. I was grateful no one was behind me, because they would not have been pleased at my pace, but I was also a bit mesmerized by the fact that I could not see the world around me. I was blinded by the light, which was beautiful and intense, yet I was fearful I might hit a deer, a runner, a tractor, or another car.
This was the same sun I see every day, but on steroids. I crave it’s warmth and light, but in this moment it was truly too bright for me to handle. I delight in spectacular sunrises each morning when I drive my kids to school. And from my back porch each evening, breathtaking sunsets gift me with beauty and peace.
I love the sun, but in this moment, it’s light was too intense for little old me, and it was verging on dangerous.
I couldn’t help but think how much the sun is like the Son of God. I embrace His love comforted by His beautiful gifts of inspiration and comfort, His warmth and light throughout the day. But He’s too bright me for me to handle in His entirety right now. In my earthly state, I would be so blinded by His stunning intensity that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the earthly roles He’s assigned to me of wife, mom, writer, and friend. His holiness is just too unfathomable for a mere human, like me, to be able to comprehend.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
Still, I love those moments of clarity, those flashing bright moments when all I see is Him! When His complete brilliance is revealed in a flash. You know that time when someone gives you a hug and you feel fully loved? Or when you’re singing a song at church and you lose track of where you’re sitting and what you’re wearing and who else is there, because you feel so close to God, that’s all you feel? Or that moment when you’re reading the Bible or doing a Bible study or chatting with a friend about how God is working in your life and you have an epiphany, an “A-ha! That’s how I’m supposed to handle it!” or “That’s why that happened!” I love those snippets in time. I cling to them. Hopefully I learn from them more about myself and my Savior, enough to keep close to Him in the day in and day out. For now those sunrises and sunsets are exactly what I need. But, man, do I look forward to the day when I can absorb His full brightness and glory.
So for now, for this weekend I will savor the bright luster of sunrises and sunsets. The gorgeous glow in the sky and of my Savior’s love. But I will also treasure the fact that these are mere samples of His greatness, and that one day I’ll be ready for His blinding loveliness.
Where in your life have you witnessed flashes of God’s intense brightness?
Laura L. Smith