Our first full day at the beach my husband and I went for a run. It was sunny. But the wind was fierce. And we were running straight into it. The 25-30 mph winds assaulted my eyes and whipped across my face. The loose grains of sand were visibly being blown across the beach, white and ethereal, like ghosts speeding across the surface. I felt like I was running on a treadmill, moving my body, but getting nowhere. Instinctively I glanced right, as if over there it would be easier going. But the ocean was choppy. The waves wild. I was safer on land.
My husband in all his kindness pointed ahead. “Look, I can see where we turn around. Those blue roofs. Can you see them?”
Brett meant this landmark as, “Good news, the end is in sight.”
But to me, the end looked unreachable.
How would I ever make it to there?
The answer? One intentional step at a time.
The metaphor wasn’t lost on me. There are seasons in life that feel like this. Seasons of betrayal, addiction, sorrow, pain, disease and loss. They are real. And they are hard. Each step takes tremendous effort. We’re desperately trying to catch our breaths and feel like we’re up against the impossible. Like there’s no way around, only forward. The goal, although just ahead, feels unattainable.
We’re not the only ones who have felt like this.
The great prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4 tells God, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.”
Hagar, Abraham’s slave and concubine, was pregnant, alone, and on the run in Genesis 16.
Esther’s people were about to be eliminated in a mass genocide.
In Luke 8 we meet a woman who had been bleeding continuously for twelve years, spent every dime on medical treatments to no avail, and was publicly considered “unclean,” an outcast.
All of them were running against incredibly fierce winds.
Our mighty, faithful God, cared for Elijah, and reminded the prophet how much He loved him, speaking to Elijah in a still, small voice.
Even though Hagar was on the bottom rung of society God came to her, found her, and spoke to her, letting her know she was seen and that she mattered.
God empowered Esther to save her entire nation.
And Jesus not only healed the bleeding woman, but called her His daughter.
God was always with those folks in the Bible. Every moment of their journeys. But when they felt like they couldn’t take one more step, Jesus flooded His children with His love and power in a way they couldn’t miss. Jesus will do this for us, too. When we think we can’t take one more step, He’ll change everything.
God promises: “I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go... I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15.
Normally when we hit the halfway point of a run, my husband and I simply do an about face and keep going, but when we reached the buildings with the blue roofs I turned around, away from the wind, halted, and gasped for air. I bent over. And exhaled and inhaled and breathed deeply again. I needed a moment to acknowledge that I’d made it. Not on my own, but with God talking to me the entire time. Sure, it was just a run. On the beach no less. But God’s voice in my head was strong. I got you this far, He said. I always will. No matter what winds you head into. I will protect you wherever you go. I will not leave you.
The second half of the run was the easiest I remember. With the wind at our backs, propelling us forward I barely had to exude any effort at all. No matter what you’re facing today, no matter what wind you’re running against, God is with you in these exhausting, trying steps where you feel like you’re going backwards. You might not see or feel Him, but it is actually the Lord who is keeping you going. He promises to stay and to protect you through it all. And the end truly is in sight. You’re so close to being able to turn around where the wind will be at your back. God will be with you then, too. Propelling you toward the warmth of the sun and the soothing splash of waves.
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By 8:45 a line snaked out the door of the old warehouse. The doors opened at 9:00 for the 10:00 event. No, the first 100 visitors didn’t receive free t-shirts, bobble heads, or even coffee. No one was autographing anything. There wasn’t a big screen. This wasn’t a sporting event or a concert. This was a church service my son, Max, and I attended while we were in Dallas last weekend.
When the music began folks danced and cheered. Kids crawled and skipped. What was going on? You’d think Jesus, Himself, was in the sanctuary. That’s kind of the point. Everyone there was so excited to sing to Jesus, worship Jesus, talk to Jesus, learn about Jesus, they couldn’t wait to get inside. He does tell us where two or more are gathered, He is there in our midst (Matthew 18:20). Wowza—you could feel Jesus there in our midst. And it was a-ma-zing!
The prophet, Isaiah, foretold who Jesus would be and what He would do. That He would replace our mourning with joy and our despair with praise. But do we approach life like that? Full of joy and praise? Like Jesus is with us and He can change our lives?
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion--
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair. --Isaiah 61:1-3
I LOVE my home church, but I’ve got to be honest, I don’t wait outside for them to open the doors Sunday morning. Why not?
When was the last time you lined up for church, giddy to get in the door? And if it’s been a while…why is that? There is so much joy in Jesus! The Apostle Paul reminded the Philippians (and us) to, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)
What are some things you get all amped up for, rush to get there?
Personally, I’ll wait in line to get coffee any day of the week. I’ll leave early. Perhaps place a mobile order. Plan it into my timeline. Because I am excited to get coffee—to taste the rich, bold flavor, inhale the thick, inviting aroma, feel the warm cup in my hands and the caffeine kick in, making me more alert. It brings me joy to think about my morning brew, order it (or whip one up at home), and take that first sip (and all the sips that follow).
What will you stand in line for, leave early for, make extra time for? Maybe to get a good parking spot, to beat traffic, to have time to chat with friends before the work or school day begins, or perhaps for bragging rights that you were the First One There. Why is it so easy, natural, or important to get to thatplace early? Are we as excited to get to our Bibles or to church? Are we rejoicing in the Lord like that?
Whatever it is we plan ahead for with anticipation, Jesus is infinitely better. Jesus is more satisfying than the richest, frothiest, most chocolaty mocha, revives our spirits and our souls, and is the positively BEST person to hang out with ever.
Maybe you’re not feeling the joy or the excitement at your church. Sadly, some churches have lost it. But the problem doesn’t lie solely on the Church. Part of the problem is us. Do we open our Bibles in anticipation or obligation? Do we open them at all? Do we attend a small group or study out of habit, because we think we should? Or because we can’t wait to learn more about Jesus, talk more about Jesus? Are we chomping at the bit to get to church? Or is church some place we go when we feel like it, if we feel like it, and sometimes even when we’re there, we slide in late, scoot out early and keep checking our phones (and I don’t mean the Bible App) while we’re there.
Imagine if Jesus stood at the doors greeting you. How early would you get there to hug Him? Ask Him some questions? Bow at His feet? Just look into His eyes? Treat your Bible study, small group, gathering, or church like that. Because Jesus lives in us and loves to show off when we seek Him. Why not go into our gatherings truly expecting to find Jesus there? Because, I promise He will show up.
If you’re not feeling the joy of Jesus in your current situation, why not be the one to change that—to create the joy. As Kelly Krenzel, founder of Hope Bloomssays in her TedTalk, “Sometimes to feel joy, you must first give it away to others.” We can be the change. We can be the catalyst to take something routine or rote and remind others that Jesus is there in our midst. That’s something to get pumped up about!
Why not bring doughnuts or carrot sticks, coffee, or bottled waters, for before, during, or after, depending on the setting. Heck, at my church a farmer puts out a bin of tomatoes or peppers from his field for anyone who wants them as we exit the building. There’s something so generous, unexpected, and fun about free produce freshly picked—it creates joy. Are you lacking music where you go? Take your portable speaker, cue up some hymns or brand new worship tunes or Christian rap, whatever, and play it in the background as people gather or mingle. Not appropriate for your gathering? That’s okay. Is there a piano? Do you play? Music not the right move? Then hug someone. Say, “hello,” to a stranger. Make a funny face at a toddler. Exude joy and watch it multiply! Whoever you touch with happiness will pass it on, and the excitement will build.
The sight of folks lining up to go to church brought pure happiness to my heart. It stirred something in me. The excitement in the room on Sunday was contagious. I wanted more of it. I pray all of you can feel that anticipation and hope of how Jesus is on the move, of what it feels like to hang out with Him. And I pray as you enter sanctuaries of any shape, size, or style to gather with one or one thousand brothers and sisters in Christ this week that you will bring joy with you, and like starting the wave at a sporting event, you will build the momentum, so that others can feel the joy that is Jesus.
Ten years ago I climbed out of a cab into a narrow alley in Lyon, France with two of my kids, jet-lagged and disoriented. When our driver stopped in front of the graffiti-laden door I was speechless. This was the address I’d given him. My husband and other two children would be delivered to this same spot any minute (one French taxi was not equipped to hold two parents, four kids, and six pieces of luggage). So, even though I couldn’t imagine this is where we would be living for the next month while my husband taught at the local university, this is apparently the place the school had rented for us. The small black Peugeot taxi disappeared down the steep alley, and I extended my arms like wings pulling my kids close trying to make them feel safe, even though the burning pit in my stomach and dark sense of dread enveloping my heart intensified by the second.
On our recent family vacation to France we revisited this alley hearts warm, smiles creeping across our six Smith faces.
Because behind the graffiti-covered front door is a walkway leading up a series of stairs to a fantastic French apartment complete with bright purple and green throw pillows on a dove gray Ikea couch, a basket of toys, and a spectacular view of a church steeple and the red-tiled rooftops of Lyon. The memories of the five weeks we spent here ten years ago are some of my fondest.
Despite my initial moments of dread, ends up we lived on the same street as the elementary school and only a two-minute walk from a peaceful playground. Safe. Quiet. Family friendly. While Brett rode the bus to the University each morning, the kids and I crossed the Saone River on a cherry red bridge to the outdoor market, purchasing fresh produce. Our next stop was the boulangerie to find fresh warm pastries and baguettes for the day. While Brett taught students from around the world about entrepreneurship, our kids played futbol with French children on the playground and tag in the large public square with a giant statue of the sun king, Louis XIV. We explored the ancient Roman ruins, and the cathedral Fourvière covered with mosaics perched atop a hill. Church on Sundays was at Saint-Georges, originally built in the year 550 at the end of our street, whose church bells serenaded us daily on the hour. We learned our way around the city, and became friends with our baker and grocer. It was like a page out of a Madeline book.
You see, you can't judge an adventure by its doors.
What looked to be a run down apartment in the bad part of town turned out to be a charming home within walking distance to everything a family with four kiddos could want in the loveliest (in my opinion) neighborhood in Lyon. Turns out the university knew exactly what they were doing when they rented the apartment. They were taking care of us. We just didn’t realize it at first glance.
How often do we do this? Decide something is bad, wrong, unsafe, finished, undoable before even waiting to see what’s behind the door. We give up before we start, or at least before we’ve allowed God to show us what He’s up to.
I think of the poor disciples after Jesus was crucified. Their Savior, leader, pastor, friend was gone. They saw Him brutally executed. Watched His body carried away and sealed in a grave with a giant forboding stone. But behind that stone the most amazing thing was going down. Jesus conquered the grave, so that we too, would never be stuck in the dark without air. The disciples couldn’t see this. Not until they looked inside the door on Sunday and realized that tomb was empty.
Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. —Mark 16:2-6
What door seems shut in your life? Or damaged or covered in grafitti or locked or knocked down or sealed with a stone?
Sometimes God closes doors. And I am so grateful for that, because the doors He’s closed in my life have forced me to turn around so I could see the things He wants to teach me, and eventually the doors He’s swung wide open for me.
But Jesus also asks us to trust Him. Trust that the skill God gave you He will use for good. Trust that the relationship that didn’t work out wasn’t supposed to last for an extremely good reason (even if you don't see that today). Trust that Jesus has something incredible in store at the new place He’s put you. Trust that the sun will shine again. Trust that the apartment He set up for your family in France will be safe. Trust that when Jesus said He was coming back, He meant it.
I can’t tell you which doors are permanently closed and which ones you need to push open in your life. But I do know God will show you. He wants us to discover His plans. It’s not some game He’s playing like Let’s Make a Deal. God would never hide a goat behind one of the doors He's set on your path or lock a door He intends for you to walk through. No. He puts exactly what we need behind precisely the right door and if we’re patient (apparently sometimes it takes about three days) and willing to unlock the door or roll back the stone we’ll discover pure love, ultimate grace, and adventures beyond our comprehension.
Are you ready to push open the door?
Our Ohio snow is spectacularly beautiful. All gleaming white and sparkling crystals. We’ve explored the woods, gone sledding, tromped around in boots, and built cozy fires. Sunday morning, we woke to more snow, and if we were going to get to church, we were going to have to shovel. My sweet husband, who has done 90% of the shoveling, started bundling up. This time I grabbed my Oros, hat, and gloves, to join him. He didn’t ask me to. I just wanted to. Together we inhaled the crisp (9 degree) air, and shoveled the driveway. It took less than a half an hour as a team. And even though we didn’t talk much, there was something in the morning stillness, solidarity in the scrape of each other’s shovels, which was sweet and peaceful. We were in this together, and shoveling together is as much a part of our marriage as the romantic Italian dinner we went to on Friday night.
In a recent conversation with a friend the question came up: What’s the difference between saying, “I’m a Christian,” and having a “relationship” with God.
The question reminded me of my marriage, of deciding to go out and shovel. Stay with me here, they are related. It’s like asking, what’s the difference between saying, “I’m married” and “being in a relationship” with my husband? Aren’t they the same thing? Doesn’t saying “we’re Christians” mean we’re with God, part of His family. Of course. And not completely.
No matter if you’re married or single you’ve seen two people (at least in a movie) stand in front of a minister, rabbi, or some authorized person and say, “I do.” They exchange rings and sign a paper. Voila! They are officially married. The couple gets all the privileges that come with “being married”—a roommate, a date for the big events, and someone to sit next to at family gatherings. Legally, there are additional things a marriage offers that other relationships don’t. You can change your status not just on Facebook, but also on job and loan applications. If you marry someone who has better health insurance, hooray, now you get the benefits of their insurance. If you marry someone with a nicer home, you’ll probably choose to move into the better space, and bingo, you’ve upgraded your standard of living. In most states, if your spouse dies, you legally inherit their assets. All of these things come simply with the marriage status. It doesn’t require any investment in the relationship whatsoever.
It’s the same by saying, “I’m a Christian.” If you truly believe Jesus Christ died on a cross to take away your sins, and that because of His action, you will go to heaven, then you will. It’s like saying, “I do.” Ta da. You’re a Christian. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to read the Bible. You don’t have to belong to a small group or a Bible study. You’re in. It’s official. You get to go to heaven and live forever and ever in a place so incredible our human minds aren’t even capable of describing or predicting what it will be like—talk about a lifestyle upgrade. You get this major perk, just like the married folks get the ring, the house, and the insurance. If you’ve ever watched a sporting event you’ve seen John 3:16 on a sign, or shirt, or painted on someone’s face. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Eternal life. Sounds like a pretty good gig. And it is. But is that all we really want? Because Jesus offers so much more.
Let’s say you’re married and you and your spouse decide to cohabitate—be married solely for the status advantages. You decide to live your own lives, be responsible only for yourselves, go wherever you want whenever you want, even date other people, but cling to the “benefits” of marriage. Legally you can do that. You can never speak to each other, not share your hopes and dreams, not spend time with one another, not trust one another, and still get the health insurance. You can show up all decked out and nod and smile for the office parties and pictures, but skip all of the Italian dinners dipping your fork into your spouse’s risotto and clinking glasses toasting something silly that happened that week. If you skip the dinner, you’ll miss that moment in the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant when the idea you’ve been chewing on all day, but hadn’t yet been able to articulate, spills out, and together you navigate how to handle it.
You can also shovel by yourself.
You’ll miss out on all the richness of marriage. You’ll miss out on having your best friend also be your love interest. You’ll miss out on late night laugh attacks and someone to hold you when your heart hurts, and the one person in the room who truly understands you with a single glance. You’ll miss out on a completely unexpected and unprompted romantic kiss on a Monday morning before you head out to work, a walk on a Thursday evening around the neighborhood while the sun is setting, someone who will listen to the crazy rant going on in your head, someone to grab your hand when you hear the news, and someone to morph shoveling the driveway from a chore into a peaceful way to start your day. Sure, you’ll get the house, their new iPhone, and the life insurance when they die. But you’ll miss all the joys and depth of love in the every day moments.
It’s the same with Jesus. You can choose to say, “Wow, Jesus, what you did is cool. Thanks for dying for me. That was super nice. See you in heaven.” And then decide to cohabitate with Him, but not talking to Jesus about all the things on your heart—the dream you’re considering chasing, the decision someone you love is about to make, the safety of friends in a city where there’s a wildfire, how exhausted you are from your current work situation, the excitement of your upcoming audition. But then you miss out on the richness of the relationship, of knowing how much Jesus loves you. If we don’t talk to Him, don’t read His Word, when we’re at the end of our ropes how can He tell us, “I’m with you, always even to the end of the world.” If we don’t ask Him for advice, how can He guide us along the right paths? If we don’t hang out with Him, we’ll never experience the peace He’ll give us in the middle of a family argument, the love He’ll flood over us in the hospital room, the exuberant joy He’ll magnify when we get the acceptance letter or contract, the warmth of His hand on our shoulder as our nephews or kiddos take their first steps or walk down the aisle. There are no requirements. We will be saved. We’ll get the inheritance when we die. But we’ll miss the hope, joy, and love He offers every single day.
So, yes, there is a difference between saying we believe in God and being in a relationship with Him. And the beautiful, crazy thing is He lets us choose, which way we want to go. There’s no pressure. Jesus loves hanging out with us, but He wants that to be our choice. Just like we really hope our spouse or close friends want to spend time with us. We can start today, right now, simply by telling Jesus, “Good morning.” Sharing with Him what we’re hoping to get done today, what we’re worried about might happen, what’s on our minds, how we feel. It’s that easy. It’s like picking up a shovel and taking one scoop of snow.
I attended my first rap concert over the weekend. I’ve never been a rap girl. I prefer the coffee house playlists of bands with raspy voices pouring their hearts out like; The Fray, U2, The Goo Goo Dolls, Train, and a little worship music—Passion, Hillsong United, VCB, thrown in for good measure. But Rap? You see, my sixteen-year old son, Max, loves the Christian rapper, Lecrae. And I love my son. Plus, live music.
On the night before Advent, my son and I stood in line outside the Newport Music Hall with approximately 2000 other people waiting to be permitted into the old ballroom, touted the Longest Continually Running Rock Club in the country. With general admission (no assigned seats) everyone waits to be admitted, so they can try to wrangle a spot near the stage. The anticipation in the line that spanned multiple city blocks was palpable. Ticket holders walked up and down the queue, videoing the crowd for their Instastories and Snapchat feeds. Cars driving by cheerfully beeped their horns. One driver leaned out their window and yelled, “Who you standing in line to see?” “Lecrae!” a clump of guys behind us yelled pumping their fists. As the line lurched forward, the crowd stood on tiptoe, eager for the show, for the thing they’d been waiting for.
Much like Advent. As we prepare for Christmas, there is much waiting, much excitement and anticipating, but that’s all part of the experience, part of the fun. Are you standing on your tiptoes preparing for Jesus?
Two openers rapped with only microphones to keep them company on stage. There was a planned 15-minute intermission that dragged to 45 due to a malfunction with the DJ’s mixing board. The crowd shifted and murmured. The crew of the music hall hustled past with flashlights, screwdrivers, and concerned expressions.
Just like those Israelites waiting on the Messiah a thousand years before His birth. Just like our life as we wait for Christ to move. As we wait, sometimes things break or don’t work as expected. Sometimes life is crowded, dark, or uncomfortable. Sometimes other things have to take place first—there is an ordering of events necessary for the correct outcome. And when the waiting takes longer than we planned, we might begin to doubt or be tempted to take things into our own hands.
The Israelites grumbled. They turned to idols. They fell away from the One True God who loved them and had delivered them time and time again.
At the Newport voices grumbled, “What if they cancel the show?” “What if he won’t come on?” “Why doesn’t Lecrae just do what those other guys did, sing with just his mic? It worked for them?” People are antsy. People begin to doubt. People try to take the reins.
But God’s plan is the perfect plan. It always has been. Always will be. He knew precisely the moment Jesus needed to come down to earth over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, and He knows exactly what needs to be going on in your life today.
Keep your head to the sky, keep your eyes on the prize..—Lecrae, “8:28”
As the crowd mentality speculated about the outcome of the evening, the lights suddenly dimmed. Smoke machines emitted fog backlit with purple. “There’s mist!” the woman next to me yelled, as if she’d heard angels singing. The drummer began a cadence and the opening lyrics of Lecrae’s song, “Hammertime”, roared from the speakers. A platform at center stage rose with a huddled up figure and BANG! A cloud of red confetti and Lecrae bursting from the platform. By the way, the show was amazing.
I’m not saying a rap concert is the same as waiting on Jesus, getting ready for what He’ll do, but more of a parable of what it’s like when Jesus moves—light shows, confetti, and music that reverberates in your chest, just when you were wondering if He’d show up, if maybe it would be just fine without instruments, without lights.
Just fight a little longer my friend, it’s all worth it in the end… —Lecrae, “I’ll Find You”
This advent, as you prepare Him room in your heart, as you wait to get the medical report, the court date, the phone call, your exam grade, the text, the paycheck, take heart.
The anticipation is where God can do some of His greatest work. Allow yourself to experience the unspeakable joy that Jesus offers, because no matter what you’re waiting for these words rang true to the Israelites, and they ring true for me and you today:
Unto us a child is born. A son is given. His name shall be Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. —Isaiah 9:6-7.
In other words, the waiting is worth it.
And just like seeing and experiencing Lecrae made this girl into a rap fan, once you experience Jesus first hand, you’ll be changed forever by his love and grace. Prepare Him room.
DOWNLOAD THE DRAMA TO WIN THIS SUMMER BEACH BAG LOADED WITH GOODIES
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Laura L. Smith