From the very first jingle of bells I get excited. I can’t help smiling. It literally turns on a happy switch inside my brain and heart. One day I’m raking leaves, focused on a deadline, and trying not to be late to pick up one of my kids, and the next I hear those bells and I’m instantly transformed from a mom-in-motion to a Christmas elf. I want to bake all the cookies, decorate a tree right this very minute, light a pine-scented candle and order matching polar bear pajamas for the fam.
The catalog of Christmas music can do everything from make me giggle “6 White Boomers”, tear up “Silent Night”, or belt it out at the top of my lungs “Let it Snow.” But mostly for me it sets the mood for the holiday celebrating that Jesus chose to come down to earth to be with us. It is the soundtrack of my season. I play it while I shop, cook, and wrap. It evokes so many memories--of the kids caroling with their cousins when they were little, of them singing in their preschool Christmas programs, of candlelit Christmas eve services at church growing up. But Christmas music does more than just put us in a good mood or a nostalgic state of mind.
There’s power in it.
In 1984 Bob Geldof, front man for the Boomtown Rats, organized a group of the most famous British and Irish musicians to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” His goal was to raise money and awareness for a famine in Ethiopia. Geldof’s song raised over $24 million dollars! From one song. Recorded in one day and released a week later. Why? Because there is power in music. There is power in us using our place here on earth (whether we’re a stay-at-home mom, an accountant, or a member of Duran Duran) to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, because Jesus asked us to (Matthew 25:34-39). There is power in people coming together to be light to this world.
Seventy years earlier, on December 24, 1914 soldiers in Europe were in the fray of World War. Over a million lives had already been lost. Deep in the muddy trenches a group of British soldiers saw lights and then heard their German enemies not firing guns, but singing “Stille Nacht,” which we know as “Silent Night.” The British soldiers joined in in their own language, both sides singing of the night Jesus came to bring peace on earth. And for that night, there was. Soldiers on both sides shook hands, exchanged their meager possessions--chocolate and cigarettes--as gifts and even played a game of soccer. There was a ceasefire in the midst of a bloody warzone. People loving their neighbors. I’m certain it made Jesus smile.
Christmas music can be super fun, but it can also be powerful. The old Christmas hymns like “O Holy Night” and “Away in the Manger” take us back to that very first moment when Jesus entered the earth. When He said, “Yes, I’ll leave heaven, step off my throne, put down my crown and royal robes and humble myself as a baby, and as a carpenter from Nazareth. I’ll do all of this to be with my children, the incredible individuals I created (that’s you and me). Not only do I want to be with them for a little while, but I want to be with them forever. So, while I’m down there, I’ll sacrifice myself for them. But it starts right now, in this most unlikely of places with the most unlikely of people--an unwed couple and a manger. Yeah. It’s going to be perfect.”
And the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.” May the glory of Christ Jesus and the peace He offers be with you this Christmas season and always.
I'd love to hear. What’s your favorite Christmas song?
To dive deeper into how music can inspire and empower us today grab a copy of my new book, How Sweet the Sound
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Ever since Disney Plus released Hamilton our family has been ob-sessed. I think most of us have the intricate lyrics (passing over the first five seconds) of the title track down pat. Well mostly.
If you haven’t seen it yet. Do. It is a gorgeous, creative, inspiring story packed with love, grace, and redemption. The talent is phenomenal and the music brilliant. There is a thread woven throughout the show of the tension between being satisfied and not. Phrases like “that will be enough” and “running out of time” “never be satisfied” “all I have” are littered throughout the lyrics.
It makes me question what is “enough” in my life? What’s enough in yours?
What’s enough money? Enough pairs of sandals or shorts? Enough house? Enough memory for our phones or laptops? Enough time on social media? What are you measuring right now? Do you have enough? Or do you want MORE? Why?
Sure, there are some things we do need more of—if we don’t have enough money to pay our rent or medical bill—yeah, we could use a few more bucks. If our doctor tells us we’re supposed to exercise at least three hours a week and we’ve been lucky to squeeze in one, we need to find a way to move more. But overall, we Americans, as a society struggle to be satisfied. We get one promotion, but what we really want is her job. We meet a great guy, but we wish we could spend even more time with him. We find an adorable home, but we want to get a coffee table for the family room, and a fresh, new comforter for our bed, oh and a couple of cute throw pillows to add a pop of color to our couch. None of these things are bad. Not at all. God created beauty and relationships and vocations and wants us to enjoy and savor all these things. I’m just asking myself, “What’s enough?” Because, Jesus tells us that He satisfies our souls.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. —John 6:35
Never hungry again? Never thirsty again?
Okay. I’m listening. But Jesus didn’t mean our physical bodies wouldn’t require food or drink. My stomach growls first thing every morning and I cannot wait to pour myself some dark chocolate granola with almonds and top it with a handful of fresh, sweet berries from the local farmer’s market. But that inner craving, that soul searching, that hunger inside that makes us antsy and itchy and twitchy and wanting more—Jesus satisfies that. When we turn to Him, soak ourselves in Him, we find complete peace and satisfaction.
We realize that yes, a cute new cozy sweater for fall would be amazing, and if we can afford it, great, and if we can’t also great, because Jesus loves us with or without that sweater. He provides joy for us with or without a paycheck, partner, or the palomino pony we thought we needed when we were kids.
Do you have enough? The answer is we already have all of Jesus’ love and grace and hope and joy and peace. Right now. Today. If we want it. If we ask Him for it. It’s ours for the taking. And when we have that? All the other things are yummy or fun, but not necessary. Our peace, hope, and joy don’t hinge on them. Because we’re already fully satisfied. The love of Jesus? Is more than enough. It’s everything!
Our family mainly wanted to hang out on the beach and splash in the ocean, but we also wanted to find some live music on our recent vacation. We’ve been going to Hilton Head since my oldest was one, and there’s something about the warm, salty air, the rhythm of waves, the slow down of life, the breeze blowing through your hair that makes me crave an unplugged rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl.”
We picked a restaurant with nightly live music starting at six, got there a little early, put our name in for an outdoor socially distanced table, and went for a stroll while we waited for one to open up. We were seated at a white round top with a turquoise umbrella for shade adjacent to where the band was setting up. Score!
Two men, a.k.a. “the band,” were testing mics and recording loops. By six o’clock on the dot we’d ordered our food and were ready to enjoy the show. Only the band had disappeared. We spotted them a bit later a few yards away sipping cold drinks prior to their performance.
Our meals arrived and then one of my daughters spotted an army of fire ants marching beside our table. Fire ants are pretty nasty for the normal person, but I happen to be severely allergic to them, like Epipen hospital allergic. I put my feet up on the brackets of the table and dove into the sweet oranges and fresh veggies in my quinoa bowl. The two musicians came back to the microphone stands, played a few chords on the keyboard, strummed a few bars on the bass, and walked away again. When they finally started their set we had finished our meal and were fairly freaked out by the dangerous insect parade. Although the musicians were talented, we only heard one and a half songs before we made a quick exit.
Don’t worry. We had a plan B. The Char Bar, a super fun burger joint we love, also had nightly live music. We checked their schedule, and on our last night on the island, a talented young woman we’d heard sing on previous trips was scheduled to play. Brilliant. We once again arrived a little before she was scheduled to sing, found an outdoor table, this one was a high top, so I could sit on a stool with my feet safe from any pesky ants. But here was the problem. The person with the guitar and microphone was a man not a woman. Gray hair not blonde. Disappointed, we shrugged, ordered our food, and decided to make the best of whatever music we were about to hear.
And do you know what?
It was phenomenal. This guy sang all the sing along favorites. Our whole fam was singing the bum bum bums of “Sweet Caroline,” swaying to “Wagon Wheel” and yes, the musician even handed the egg shaker and tambourine to our daughters for his “percussion section” which evolved into a tambourine solo. Brett and I danced to “Wonderful Tonight” on the sidewalk even though there wasn’t a dance floor. The kids and my mom joined in. Even after we’d paid and were walking back to our car, we were still singing along, probably a bit too loudly.
Needless to say, it was a blast. A combination of family and nostalgia and the grand finale of a beautiful week away together. It was so much more fun than we could have ever orchestrated on our own. The guys at the first place weren’t that engaged (or prompt). The gal we’d hoped to see had switched her schedule, but God, He still had the perfect plan--a plan packed with singing and laughter and new memories made.
God’s like that. Better than we ever hoped or imagined. His plans surpass ours every single time. Which is difficult to get our brains around in the moment. When we’re disappointed or dejected or down. But even when it feels like the world is against you, God is on your side. He is for you. Not against you. He has perfect plans for you. Never will He forsake you. He is fighting for you.
Our music ordeal wasn’t a big deal or major issue, just a family hoping to be entertained by some beach music on their vacation. But God works in beautiful surprising ways always. In the little things and the huge things.
So today, if things aren’t going as planned. If the band is running late or someone different than you expected shows up. Take a deep breath. Remember God is in control and He loves you.
If you’re not where you thought you’d be. If things look upside down or inside out, thank the Lord above that He is the one in control, not you. Recall that He is love. He is light. He is truth. He is the Prince of Peace. That’s the kind of guy you can depend on. Ask Jesus to help you trust in Him and His promises. Hand over the disappointment or unfamiliarity or uncertainty to Him. Ask Him what to do next.
Remember you have to do your part, too. We had to show up to that second restaurant and try again or we would have missed out altogether. Keep moving forward where He leads. And then wait for the music to play. When you hear the opening notes, clap your hands, spin in a circle, sing along, and shake your tambourine to the soundtrack our Almighty God provides.
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Here’s the thing. COVID-19 stinks. It’s taking people’s lives, putting folks at risk, depriving people of income, robbing students of their experiences, stealing people’s interactions and activities, and creating uncertainty to name a few of its negative effects.
But God is good. So inherently good. And His character is unchanging. So, God sees a bad thing, this terrible virus, and He figures out a way to use it for some good stuff. This is who our God is.
So, we are convinced that every detail of our lives is continually woven together to fit into God’s perfect plan of bringing good into our lives. Romans 8:28
I’ve read and listened to so much quality content about finding time to slow down, to be still, to breathe deeply, to listen to God, to stop striving, to take Sabbath. And as I read and listened, I agreed in my head, Yes! What a great idea! But these great ideas take a ton of intentionality. Over the past year I’ve gotten better at taking Sabbath, but I’ve been fighting obstacles and interruptions to do so. Even with a Sunday slow down, the rest of life in general pre COVID-19 was overstuffed and supersized. Every square on our white board calendar in the kitchen was full. In a world where games, practices, and rehearsals are scheduled every night of the week, it was tricky to gather our family together around the dinner table. Most meals were more grab-and-go or eat-at-your-own schedule—things like tacos.
Sundays aren’t sacred to the general public so out of town tournaments and meets were standard Sunday fare, putting a wrench on our family, and maybe yours too, attending church together. Personally, our overscheduled, exhausted Smith family’s typical weekend was titled “divide and conquer” as my husband and I went different directions to support and cheer on our kids in their activities. This life is not a bad one. In fact, it’s a great one—a full and vibrant one that I wouldn’t trade for anyone else’s life. I’m thrilled my kids get the opportunities they have. I’m grateful for their dedicated coaches and directors, their encouraging teammates and casts. It’s a beautiful thing to see our children step in and use the talents God’s gifted them. I’m thankful for a husband who is such a fantastic dad engaged with the kids and willing to help with all the things. But the kids were tired, and we were tired. We were.
But over the last week and a half, like it or not, we’ve been at home. As I’m sure you’ve noticed everything is cancelled, and we have been forced to slow down. Our family has eaten dinner together every night. Celebrated church together in our family room. Played games. Tossed hands of cards. Had family movie nights. Gone on runs and walks. Listened to worship music. We’re all better rested. I see my kids reading their Bibles, journaling, doing devotions. No, this doesn’t undo the suffering of the virus. No this doesn’t give my kiddos back the things they were looking forward to that were cancelled, but I see God in this. I see Him taking something rotten and creating beautiful opportunities for His kids (that’s you and me) to rest, recharge, and reunite.
Our family has eaten dinner together every night. Celebrated church together in our family room. Played games. Tossed hands of cards. Had family movie nights. Gone on runs and walks. Listened to worship music. We’re all better rested. I see my kids reading their Bibles, journaling, doing devotions. No, this doesn’t undo the suffering of the virus. No this doesn’t give my kiddos back the things they were looking forward to that were cancelled, but I see God in this. I see Him taking something rotten and creating beautiful opportunities for His kids (that’s you and me) to rest, recharge, and reunite.
I see Him doing all kinds of beautiful things.
The gorgeous canals in Venice, Italy are clearer than when I had the privilege of visiting ten years ago, clearer than they’ve been for a very long time. No boats or barges running along the water has cleared up the typically cloudy waterways so much so that you can see the fish where vaporetti usually zoom.Carbon dioxide emissions in China have dropped 25% since January. Again, God hates to see the sick, the infections, the financial struggles, but I notice Yahweh taking this awful thing and using it as an opportunity to give His world a spring cleaning.
People are reaching out. Giving what they have to offer. Loving their neighbors. Just like Jesus asked us to. Professional athletes are donating their salaries to arena workers. Fitness instructors like those at Root Yoga and Apps, like the FaithFit project, are offering free virtual workouts. Superstar musicians like Kelly Clarksonand John Legend are singing from home, creating free live performances, on their social feeds for their fans.
We don’t know how this is all going to pan out. But I do know that Jesus is still on the throne. That God is still good. And that He is on our side. As we all continue to shift our patterns, schedules, and expectations due to the effects of the coronavirus, I’m grateful that Christ is the solid rock I stand on. The world is not the same today as it was last week or the week before. But Jesus is. And He is good. And He is taking what He can from this pandemic and using it to orchestrate some good.
Let’s keep our eyes on Him, keep our feet planted in Him. Because Jesus is fully and completely good, we can all take an exhale. What He told the disciples just prior to His crucifixion, He tells us today, In the world there will be tribulation. But be of good cheer. I will overcome the world! John 16:33. God is fully aware of the horrible thing COVID-19 is, but be of good cheer. Jesus will find ways to make some good out of the mess, and even better, He'll overcome it.
My oldest son started running track, and although he had gym shoes, they weren’t good running shoes. Let’s just say he selected them because they sport the colors and logo of his favorite football team. But when you run competitively you need shoes designed for running, to protect yourself from injury and pain, and to maximize your speed. So we made a visit to Fleet Feet, a specialty running shoe store.
A woman with bright blue chalk all over her palms greeted us, asked how she could help, then excused herself for a moment to wash her hands. When she returned, she did all her fancy foot magic, measuring, scanning, watching my son walk around the store barefoot. As she laced up a shoe on his left foot, I noticed a slanty script running up her forearm. I’m always fascinated by tattoos and the stories they tell about their owners. I tried to make out the words but couldn’t. Should I ask? I felt extremely curious, like this was something I needed to know.
“What’s your tattoo say?”
As my son stood to walk around in the shoes, she pushed up her sleeve to reveal the black ink. “Where you go, I’ll go. Where you stay, I’ll stay,” she said almost dreamlike.
“From Ruth?” I asked, but I don’t think she heard me. She seemed lost in thought.
She ran her coral lacquered fingernail over the cross that punctuated the end of the phrase. “It’s from a song we sing at the church I go to, and kind of about everything I’m going through right now.”
“I know that song,” I said.
My son returned from his lap, so we went back to discussing fit and comfort of shoes.
At the checkout she asked if we were in her computer system. I mentioned my husband probably was. The worker asked his name.
“Brett Smith,” I answered.
She looked up wide-eyed. “That’s my name. I mean, that was my name. Smith is my old last name. I’m Brett.”
We stared at each other for a moment, marveling at this information.
“That’s wild,” I finally said.
“Yeah. Crazy.” She shook her head and finished ringing us out.
Ask her what she needs prayer for. God nudged me.
I looked around the store. No one else was there. Where had the other worker gone? Where were the two other customers who were there when we arrived?
Just ask her, I heard God whisper.
“So, Brett,” I said. “Is there something I can pray about for you?
She immediately nodded. “Yes. I’m going through an awful divorce. That’s why Smith used to be my last name.”
“Can I pray now?” I didn’t want to freak her out.
Her eyes pleaded, ‘yes,’ and her words echoed, “Yeah, that would be great.”
And there at the checkout of a fancy running shoe store I prayed for a woman I didn’t know, but who for a while shared the same name as my husband. I prayed that she would know down to her core that her identity rests in Christ. Not in a man. Or in a last name. Or in a relational status. But in Jesus. Who will always love her for exactly who she is, never leave her, and remain always faithful.
Leaving the store, I felt loved and refreshed as if someone had prayed over me. I was reminded how fully loved I am by Jesus (you are too). Because that’s what it feels like when we live in obedience.
God took my son and I to that specific store during that specific shift for that specific woman. God arranged all those details. He nudged me to ask about her tattoo, but I could have decided it felt weird or intrusive. I wanted to tell her about the passage in Ruth that those verses came from, that the song was written from, because I’m a Bible nerd and I love the book of Ruth. But I felt God telling me to hush. What if I hadn’t mentioned my husband’s name? What if when God leaned in and said, “Go ahead, ask her,” I’d refused?
God did all the heavy lifting. I just had to utter a few words. But in doing so, I felt energized and renewed in the hope of Jesus, like there was purpose to my steps and my life, because there is. For all of us. I was reminded of God’s vastness in knowing all of our needs, and at the same time His beautiful attention to the details of our lives.
Yes, I want to go where God tells me to go. And I want to stay when He tells me to stay. Because when I do, when I choose to follow Him, the things of this world fade a bit, and I catch glimpses of glory. I want to go wherever He tells me to go, because His voice is the sweetest sound I know.
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I’m excited to introduce you to my guest blogger and dear friend, Tamara Bundy. Tammy and I both have four kids (two girls and two boys each), husbands who work at Miami University, a love for coffee, books and Jesus, and a passion to write stories. Tammy’s newest title releases January 14, and in the blog this week she writes about something God taught her while writing Pixie Pushes On and she's giving away a free copy of her book (keep reading for details).
Only God could turn a trip to the hospital into an uplifting trip down memory lane. My dad had been in the hospital with, yet another case of pneumonia caused by his compromised lungs due to his Inclusion Body Myositis. We had gotten used to this rotation of hospital stays–at least as much as one can get used to it. But no matter how used to it you pretend to be, sitting with someone you love in a hospital room, while they are hooked up to beeping machines, looking older than you remember them to be, is hard.
My mom and dad both grew up on farms during the 1940’s, but they moved to the city when they got married. Because I grew up a city-kid, I remember being amazed at the farm stories they told—stories about my dad driving tractors as soon as he could see over the steering wheel. Stories of my mom’s favorite lamb, Buster. When it came time to write my second middle grade novel, I knew I wanted it to take place in that setting –and I knew it would have a lamb named Buster.
As I added the fictional elements to the story –such as my main character’s sister having polio, I wanted to ground it in more realities of my parents’ childhoods. That’s when I realized how poorly I’d been listening all those years. Sure, I’d heard their basic stories –but when you’re growing up, you assume you’ll have your parents (and their stories) your whole life. You imagine you’ll always be able to ask them important (and unimportant) things.
My parents lived in Columbus and my family lived two hours away in Cincinnati. Our moments of being in the same room at the same time were few. That day in the hospital was a moment I knew God put in front of me. And so, on that winter day, with my worried mom stationed beside Dad, who didn’t want the attention on him, I tried to distract them. I told them about the new book I was writing. And then, in that scary hospital room I asked my mom and dad to tell me about when they were children.
I wanted their day-to day details of life on the farm. What did they have for lunch at school? How did they get to school? Did they have bathrooms? Electricity? These were all questions that younger-me never bothered to ask, but older-me not only wanted to take the time, but also desperately wanted to slow it down.
Then, amidst the din of the machines helping my dad breathe, another sound blissfully prevailed. This sound of youthful stories of milking cows, gathering eggs, tending gardens. Mom and Dad were no longer 80-something-year-old’s watching their lives slip away. My mom became, again, the ten-year-old chasing the fuzzy little lamb she bottle-fed. My dad, once more, was in fifth grade having to eat the cold, slimy fried-egg sandwich he didn’t like, but had to eat because, as my grandma told him, “If the chickens are laying eggs, we’re eating eggs.”
My parents remembered. They talked and talked. I swear, they even giggled. If possible, they physically grew younger in front of me. And I wrote down every exquisite detail I could manage through the happy tears gathering in my eyes.
My dad passed away not long after that treasured afternoon.
On January 14, the book I was writing, Pixie Pushes On releases from Nancy Paulsen Books. And yes, I am thrilled to have readers meet Pixie, her Granddaddy, Grandma, Sissy, Daddy –and her lamb named Buster. But most of all, I am filled with joy that if I look closely between the lines of this story, I can see traces of my parents’ childhoods. And within those pages, they will stay young forever.
My dad wouldn’t mind that attention at all. I imagine he would even say, “That’s fine and dandy.”
(click here to listen to the song "Fine and Dandy" written and performed by Tamara's kids a.k.a. The Bundys, in honor of Tamara's dad)
If you are blessed to have older people in your life – ask them about their childhoods, their special memories. You don’t have to be writing a book. You just have to ask. And then listen. Listen as the years melt away. Listen to their stories. Maybe you’ll even decide to write some of the memories down.
It’s never too late. Start today, start now. Ask God to guide you. Afterall, He managed to turn a hospital trip into an uplifting trip down memory lane, leaving me with a precious memory that is, indeed, one for the books.
To win an autographed copy of Tammy’s Pixie Pushes On leave a comment in the comment section below of the blog. One winner will be selected by number randomizer on January 13. Open to continental U.S. residents only.
Tamara Bundy is a children’s book author as well as the author of several non-fiction inspirational books. A former columnist for the Cincinnati Post, she currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Miami University. You can follow her on all social media platforms as well as at www.tamarabundy.com
My husband looked at me and asked, “How are you doing with Christmas?” Before I could answer he continued, “because you seem a bit frazzled.”
Gulp. “Do I?” I asked, because I didn’t want to seem that way.
If you know me, then you know I’m a sunshine and rainbows kind of girl. I don’t want to seem stressed about anything, especially the most wonderful time of the year. I do want Christmas to be perfect for everybody. And that’s too much pressure to put on myself.
It’s two weeks before Christmas. How are you feeling?
One of my best friends doesn’t like Christmas trees, and feels pulled, because her kids really want one, and she doesn’t want to let them down. Another friend is beating herself up, because she doesn’t have her Christmas cards in the mail yet. Yikes. Me either. Yet another feels overwhelmed because she hasn’t done any shopping. Here at the Smith house full of the Christmas spirit, we bought our tree, hung our wreaths, and decked our halls the day after Thanksgiving, but somehow the lights we pulled out of the light crate are still in a tangled heap in our front hallway. How many days has it been?
Who decided we had to do All. The. Things? And that we had to do them perfectly? Christmas is not a contest. It’s not.
I adore everything to do with Christmas—dreamy twinkling lights, flickering candlelight laced with the scent of pine, spoonfuls of sweet, sticky sugar cookie batter, finding the perfect gift for someone I love, and snuggling up by the fire wrapped in fluffy, fleece blankets to watch George Bailey sing “Auld Lang Syne” one more time. But the reason I celebrate Christmas is because on that first Christmas, Jesus, who was sitting on His throne as High King of Heaven, decided to humbly come down to earth in the form of a baby, because He knew how much we needed Him, how much I needed Him. How much you need Him, too.
Jesus knew we would get frazzled sometimes, and sad. He knew we would miss people, and have our feelings hurt, and get jealous, and feel left out, and think we needed to prove ourselves, and feel like we didn’t measure up. He knew there would be days when we felt stretched thin, like we couldn’t possibly do it all. Jesus knew we’d experience shame and guilt and fear. And He didn’t want that for any of us, because He loves us so much. So, Jesus came to where we live. And He lived life as we do. With friends who loved Him, but sometimes let Him down. With people who criticized Him even when He was doing good. With long days leaving Him weary, and more work than it seemed like there was the time or resources to accomplish with the limited hours in each day. People called Jesus names. And eventually they tortured Him. And Jesus did it all, experienced all of that, for us.
This is the grandest reason to celebrate. It makes me want to sing, “Joy to the World,” at the top of my lungs and send cards to everyone I know telling them how awesome Jesus is and how loved they are by Him. It makes me want to hold a feast in His honor with all the trimmings and give gifts to those I love, because the gift of love Jesus offers me is so overwhelming and life changing.
But somewhere between the reason I celebrate and how I celebrate there’s a disconnect. The wanting to sing, dance, give, and feast gets bogged down with to-do lists and getting the best deal and the free shipping and making my Christmas cookies look like they were frosted by one of the contestants on Kids Baking Championship.
Today I’m challenging myself, and you, to take a deep breath. To count to ten and then make a list of what really matters at Christmas time. Turns out my list has nothing to do with cleaning, spending, or making anything “perfect,” but has everything to do with embracing, savoring, praising, and being thankful. How about yours?
There are still things that should get done. I still want to have gifts for my kiddos. I still want to serve something other than frozen pizza for Christmas dinner. But, let’s agree to calm down about the details. Let’s release some of our self-inflicted expectations. It is not up to us to be perfect or to do it all. This isn’t a game to win, but a Savior to praise! There’s nothing wrong with having the kids draw a picture for the Christmas card instead of searching for the perfect photo, hoping to find one where everyone’s smiling and has their eyes open. We could draw names, so there are fewer gifts to shop for, buy, and wrap. Maybe you could hire someone to clean the house this year, just this once, or have a family cleaning party, where you pop some corn and have the reward of a family movie night (what Christmas special haven’t you seen yet?) if everyone pitches in and cleans together.
I love Christmas. I really do. I love all of the special celebratory things we do to embrace it. All of the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels. But the last thing I want to be about Christmas is frazzled. Let’s head back to our day, our lists, our shopping, and chopping, sending, and serving, being blown away that Jesus sees us, knows us, loves us, and the truth that what Jesus wants most for Christmas is that we be filled with the love, joy and peace that He offers. That we be filled with Him.
Joy to the world. The Lord has come. Let earth receive her King.
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I told my son, Max, we could go somewhere crazy, fun to celebrate his senior year. Max plans to go into worship ministry, so I wasn’t surprised when he chose the Heaven Come Conferencein Dallas this past weekend. I bought conference tickets, booked flights, and reserved a rental car. I mapped out where the event was and scouted out a convenient hotel. I wanted to plan the perfect trip—make it special and memorable for my boy. Apparently God also wanted to treat Max. Everywhere we turned we were blown away by the inexplicable goodness of God.
The conference was virtually nonstop worship music and phenomenal preaching. That alone would have made for an incredible trip. The tickets were open seating, so we had no idea where we’d be able to sit. But once each session began, ushers allowed anyone to move toward the stage. Okay. All of a sudden God handed Max and I had front row tickets. We knew we were going to miss the final session, but hoped we could see Dante Bowelead worship, and I really wanted to hear Christine Cainespeak. Don’t worry. God scheduled for us to see both of them.
Why did we skip the last session? My oldest daughter, who has never been to Texas, just happened to be playing two soccer games this same weekend in Dallas. Oh, and check out the sunset God doodled in the sky that night. It was insane.
Every single thing seemed to click like that. It was like we kept winning the lottery. Only better. Because we felt God’s presence. I’d be driving along on unfamiliar highways with multiple levels of twisted ramps that resembled the highways built around the Zax in that Dr. Seuss book, and need to get over five lanes. Yikes! But no problem. There was no one behind me, and I could easily scoot sideways across the highway. Which happens to me never.
While in the merchandise shop Max spotted a worship leader he admires from a church in Dallas. What? Why was he here? Selling t-shirts? I have no idea, but we got so many hugs from this guy we lost count. Walking through the lobby, we spotted another accomplished worship leader just hanging out in his flannel. Max got to chat songwriting and worship with him as if they were old friends.
It wasn’t just us. This was happening left and right around us. Friday there was a tremendous storm in Dallas that closed the airport. It took place while we were inside, so we never had to drive in it, stand in it, or even get wet. But it did stop the Friday night speaker from flying in. No worries. John Bevere, who had preached the night before couldn’t get out, so although not on the schedule, he came back and preached his guts out, in a way that moved possibly every one of the 6,000 people in attendance.
I’m leaving out a dozen other blessings—milkshakes in our parking lot, Starbucks in our lobby, an exit out of the parking lot opened right before our eyes, the free autographed poster we got handed, the fastest rental car check out and return I’ve ever experienced, and the loveliest people everywhere we turned.
Conference over, but still in Dallas, we headed to church Sunday morning. On the way Max mentioned one of his favorite worship leaders is Sean Feucht. As we waited for service to begin, in walks Sean. Yes, he’d been part of our conference, but it was totally unrelated to this church. He lives in California. Oh, and he was the guest preacher that morning. Get out!
For all the things I wanted to plan for my son, I couldn’t have prearranged any of this. There is not one thing I could have done on my own to ensure he could speak one-on-one to leaders who would encourage him to pursue his passion, that we would be in the perfect places at perfect times, or get platinum treatment with general admission tickets. But God could. And did. It’s how He operates.
Sure, I have days where I feel the opposite is true. Where it feels like everything goes wrong. I wake up with a migraine, one of my kids and I have a spat before they leave for school, and I can’t find my phone. Or keys. When I finally get everything rounded up I start my car, and realize I don’t have my bags for the grocery. And even though I’ve only allotted twenty minutes to dart into the store before I get to Bible study, my fuel light is on. Argh! But the thing is, God is with us on those days, too. He’s reminding us to grab our phone and bags before we leave. He’s whispering in our ears to slow down, take a deep breath that He loves us and is with us. The delay to find our keys or stop for gas might enable us to bump into that perfect person or keep us from getting into a fender bender. We rarely see all of the beautiful details God is orchestrating. But He always is. Do we have our eyes open?
You see, just like I want my kids’ lives to be filled with love and joy, God wants that for them (and us) even more! God is a good good Father, and He loves us perfectly. He is working everything together for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). He’s planning V.I.P. treatments, doors to open, people for us to meet at places and times we could never expect or concoct on our own.
This sometimes means breakups with the wrong person, because they weren’t right for us, not getting one job to find a better one, losing a lease, because God has a roommate that will help us cling to Jesus set up in a different apartment, or a place that will save us money, or where we’ll literally be able to sleep better at night. We can’t see all of His glorious ways. But we can trust that He is on the move.
Being at a conference where we were focused on Jesus, Max and I had our eyes wide open to God’s blessings. Not surprisingly, this made it easy to identify gift upon gift upon gift from the Lord. But the blessings are always there. Even in our storms, God is watering dry ground, preparing it for new growth. We just need to keep our hearts and eyes open. Where do you see Jesus blessing you today? Take a moment to thank Him for His abundant presence and presents.
I want my kids to stay home and not return to school. I want the evenings to stay long, the air to stay warm, and to all sit around on the screened-in-porch laughing and talking with a soundtrack of crickets playing in the background.
What do you want right now? The starting position? The starring role? A different relationship status?
In Disney’s The Princess FrogTiana and Prince Naveen show up at Mama Odie’s with green skin, sticky, pink tongues, and covered in mucous. They want to be turned back into humans. But Mama Odie cautions the two “frogs” against striving for what they want, and instead digging deeper to discover what they need. Hmmm.Maybe I should do the same.
Summer forever sounds good and glorious in my mind, but God is way wiser than Mama Odie or me. He knows my kids need to go back to school. If they didn’t their soccer seasons would never commence, they wouldn’t have the conversations that will grow, challenge, and inspire them, play the music orchestrated for them, or audition for the roles they’re itching to act in. If my kids stayed home I would never complete the book I’m working on. If it stayed summer the leaves wouldn’t turn vibrant orange and deep scarlet, the apples wouldn’t ripen, crisp and tart, and we’d never get sweet, frothy Pumpkin Spiced Lattes. Tragic.
Can you picture a year without fall? What would I be forfeiting if I got what I want? We think we know what we want, but God knows better what we need.
How can I be so sure? Experience, for one thing. If all the relationships I’d wanted to work out had, I wouldn’t have married my incredible, loving husband. If we’d been able to purchase the house we wanted to buy when we moved back to Ohio, we wouldn’t have enjoyed our home for the last eighteen years. If my company had granted me the part-time position I wanted after having my first baby, I wouldn’t have pursued writing. And that’s just a sampling of the times God knew way better than I did what was best for me.
I also know God is wiser and more capable than me from reading scripture:
God’s voice is glorious in the thunder.
We can’t even imagine the greatness of His power. – Job 37:5
He is clothed in dazzling splendor.
We cannot imagine the power of the Almighty. —Job 37:22-23
This glorious, great, dazzling, powerful, Almighty God of ours knows what He’s doing and has the power to make it happen. He loves us more than we can hope or fathom. Shouldn’t we trust Him to take care of our needs?
What do you want?
What do you need?
Because they’re not always the same thing. I see this as a parent. My kids want to stay up later—which means they’ll be exhausted the next day. They want giant bowls of ice cream, which are tasty in the moment. But if they only ate ice cream, they’d get cavities and face some health issues. Mama Odie suggests to the two frogs who want to return to human form, to consider where happiness comes from before they make a wish. How do we dig deeper?
By praying. It’s that simple. Talk to Jesus. Tell Him you’re worn out, excited, nervous, sad, tired of waiting, not sure what to do next. Tell Him your hopes and dreams—what you want. He already knows exactly what’s on your heart. But He also knows exactly what will fill you with joy, help you thrive, and saturate you with peace. Yes, we all want things. But why not turn those wants into conversations. Then take time to listen to what God whispers, walk away from the doors He shuts, peek through the windows He opens, act upon His nudges, and trust Him in the process.
Our God is glorious. And He loves you so much. He might not give you everything you “want.” But He will provide you with everything you need, plus more than you could ever imagine.
This year I’ve been working on a book about music and the church and our roots. I’ve been writing the chapters out of order, which is not my style, but I knew how I wanted it to end, and there was something I wanted to change in the middle, and another chapter needed to go bye-bye and be replaced. I was working off two documents—the beautiful, polished one I’ll send my editor, and the one with lots of notes, some ideas for later, some reminders for now. So I kind of knew where I was with the project, but not completely. I thought I had at least three full chapters to write, plus edits as I pulled up the manuscript on my laptop. I was all set to start a new chapter, when one I’d been doing a major remodel on caught my eye.
I spent the day reworking the words—their order, the story they told. And when it took the shape I was hoping for, I added that chapter to my pretty document, and scrolled through. All thirty chapters had been written. What?!
I’m not saying I didn’t have some major editing to do, just that the first draft was complete, which is huge. And I didn’t even realize I’d crossed the finish line. I looked at the sky, blue and clear on the other side of the screen on my porch, and whispered, “thank you,” to Jesus, because He’s the one who gave me this book and He’s the one who truly wrote it. I just took dictation.
A completed draft is not a finished project, so I kept going, organizing the table of contents, fixing some footnotes. I didn’t take time to high five myself or journal or go beyond that one whispered phrase of gratitude. I’d save that for when I turned it in. Plus we were leaving that afternoon for an out of town soccer tournament. I still had to pack, grab a few things from the store, fill my car with gas. So, I kept going. And going.
Fast forward to that evening. I’d arrived in Columbus where the soccer games would start early the next morning. And because God is so good, my incredibly talented and lovely friend, Holly Starr, was playing a show in Columbus. Which is a huge deal, because she lives on the other side of the country, and we rarely get to see each other. But here God was—giving us this night for a hug, shared conversation, and the beautiful opportunity for me to witness her using her God-given talent. Holly sang some tunes off her latest album, Human. She sang some familiar worship music everyone knew. Her last song was “Give Me Jesus.” Which just happened to be the title of one of my book chapters.
Her rendition felt so raw and personal, like it was a gift from God, wrapped up with a shiny silver bow and delivered specifically for me. I’m sure others in the audience benefited from the reminder…but in that moment…you could have all this world, all I wanted was Jesus. He was reminding me of what happened that day—that He had given me a large assignment, walked with me every step of the way, and because I was willing to be obedient, He did a thing, a glorious thing—He wrote a book with me. And in the writing Jesus taught me so much. I felt like I would burst with appreciation.
The pastor of the church took the mic, said a prayer, and invited anyone who needed prayer to come forward while his wife sang a closing song. His adorable wife with short silver, curly hair and cherry red lips stood up and began, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus….” Yes. Oh my. I also referenced the lyrics to this song on a page of my book.
The book is about all kinds of things Jesus wants us to know, all kinds of ways we can connect with Him. And yet, the final two songs of a night that already felt like a present were straight from the conversations I’d been having with God as I wrote it. If gratitude was a liquid, my cup was running over.
This is how our God works. We go through the motions—did I pack toothpaste? And He sets up a Christmas tree packed with presents. We think, okay, check, I did that task, and He says, “Let’s celebrate! Look how wonderful things work out when we collaborate!”
I didn’t deserve to have the chance to write this book, yet I'd been spending my days penning the pages. I didn’t deserve to learn everything God taught me in the writing, yet I was full of a deeper understanding than when I began. I didn’t deserve to finish it before I thought I was done. I was ready to do more, but it was as if God wrote extra pages while I was sleeping or cooking dinner or driving carpools. I didn’t deserve to see my friend. I didn’t coordinate calendars or book a flight, but here she was smiling in front of me. And oh these beautiful songs that stirred my soul, I didn’t deserve to hear them, but God lavished them on me, like mounds of home made whipped cream, light and sweet, on top of rich, chocolate lava cake.
I didn’t deserve any of it, but just like I love to shower my kiddos with gifts, treats, and surprises, our Heavenly Father loves to love on us.
So keep on writing, or running, or researching, or rehearsing. Keep on studying, stretching, being obedient to what God is calling you to do. I don’t know when or what it will look like (I wasn’t expecting any of the presents He showered on me), but I do know He will lavish you with undeserved gifts, blessings sweet, tangible, and endless. Just keep your eyes on Him. The things of earth will grow strangely dim…in the light of His glory and grace.
Laura L. Smith