I was on a run, almost at the end, when God nudged me to go spend a few minutes in the bird blind adjacent to the trail. Which seemed weird, because I had less than a half mile left, it was freezing outside, and although I’d been in the fenced off sanctuary designed to view birds, I pass it frequently and rarely enter. But I felt pulled. So I ran off the trail and unlatched the gate.
I had no idea what God had in store for me here. But I felt like there was something, so I sat on the bench behind the wooden wall “blind” to the birds, but able to see them through the slats. And in two minutes I saw redhawks, cardinals, a blue jay, a goldfinch, a purple finch, and several other birds I couldn’t identify darting about and eating from the bird feeders. They were an actual rainbow of feathers feasting on seed someone smarter and kinder than them regularly puts out for them.
I was dazzled by their colors, but also by Jesus’ words coming to life right before my eyes, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”--Matthew 6:26
I have a lot of things I’m praying for and waiting for right now. Things that I don’t know how they’re going to turn out, what next steps are, how all the pieces will fit. And yet, God was reminding me, “Laura, look. You don’t have to worry. I will provide. In fact, you can flit around like these birds completely carefree, enjoying themselves and the feast in front of them. See these birds.” I felt God kind of tapping me on the knee, making sure I was paying attention. “I 100% care for them. But you, you are infinitely more valuable to me than these birds. I’ve got you.”
I bet you have things you’re praying for, situations you don’t know the endings to or even the middles to, as well. But Jesus tells us, “No need to worry. I love you. And I’ll provide for you. Everything you need. You mean the world to me.”
I love how this verse is translated in the Message:
Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.
Jesus invites us into this free and unfettered life. One without cares, because we know God cares for us. Sound inviting? It’s available 24/7 with no cost of admission. All we have to do is follow Jesus.
Sure, we still have responsibilities. We need to send the emails, go to the appointments, take care of ourselves, do the prep, put in the time. We’re still entrusted to do the good work God has put in front of us. Those beautiful birds I saw all had to fly to the bird blind, land on the feeders, and grab the seeds with their beaks. But they had zero worries that those feeders would be full. We can follow suit. Go where God sends us (even if that’s a bird blind), action what He calls us to do, and trust in His abundant provision, allowing us to live as carefree as birds.
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Our family is new to the cross country scene. Our four kids have been involved in soccer--lots and lots of soccer, flag football, theatre, ballet, track, as well as very brief stints in gymnastics, karate, and baseball, but none of them had ever run XC until now. Our youngest started high school in August and joined the school’s cross country team back in June. He’s been practicing for months, building up his mileage, increasing his speed and endurance, and making quality friends.
The morning of our first meet my husband and I weren’t really sure what to expect. We’d been told to wear comfortable shoes, because you end up darting from one spot to another to watch different parts of the race, which sounded fun. We drove to the address, parked, got out of our car and it felt more like a festival than a competition. Toby Mac was blaring from a sound system, “It’s never too late to get back up again.” Teams had tents with signs. Food trucks had parked along the perimeter, and the intoxicating smells of kettle corn and empanadas filled the air.
It was fun and festive. The whole space vibrated with energy.
Here are some things we learned about cross country that we think Jesus would love:
Doing Your Best is a Win
Hundreds of athletes run in a cross country meet. Yes, there is a first place winner, but very few of the athletes have their eye on that prize. They’re all actually running with the goal to beat their PR--personal record. They’re not comparing themselves to the other runners. They’re just trying to do their personal best--to take what God gave them and use it to the best of their ability. The world needs more of this. Yes please and now. The Apostle Paul instructs us to live like this in Galatians 5:26
That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.
What if we all did this? Stopped wishing we had as many followers as her, the job title of him, or the family of them. And instead, took what God gave us and used it to our fullest, ran our best original race. Think of all the freedom to live out our callings and all the amazing things that would ensue.
Everybody cheers for everybody
It doesn’t matter what team your kid is on or how fast they do or don’t run, other people from other teams cheer for them. Which, really? They’re cheering for my boy? Insert all the emojis. This takes place at the starting line when all the fans cheer loudly for all the runners. And it also happens throughout the three point one mile course as spectators sprint to different spots along the route to cheer on athletes as they progress.
At our first stop along the yellow tape marking the course, we met a man who told us his daughter was running in the next race. He cheered and clapped as each athlete ran past. I repeat, his daughter was not even in this race. This was the boys race! At the two mile marker a group of varsity runners who had already completed their race gathered along a bend in the route cheering, “You’ve got this! Keep it up! Keep it up!” Yes, to their JV teammates, but also to all the other athletes passing by.
This is beautiful. And it’s Biblical! Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us: And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We’re supposed to cheer each other on! We’re supposed to encourage each other! This is what living in Christ looks like.
There are snacks at the end
As the runners cross the finish line they immediately head toward their team’s tent which is laden with sandwiches, protein bars, and fruit. The Propel and Gatorade flow freely. They can get seconds or thirds or fourths, and eat their fill. Jesus would love this! Celebrating with food was Jesus’ jam. In fact his very first miracle was at a wedding feast--turning water into wine (John 2:1-10). Throughout the Gospels (the four Biblical books that serve as the biography of Jesus’ life) we find Jesus eating with his friends and people in the community (Matthew 9:10-11, Luke 7:36, Luke 10:38-40, Luke 11:37, Luke 14:1, John 12:2-3, John 21:12-13). We also see Jesus traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feasts (Mark 14:12-26, John 2:23, John 5:1, John 13:1). Jesus loved sharing food while hanging out with others.
So, yeah, cross country meets are awesome. Because they mirror some ways God wants us to be living. He wants us to stop comparing ourselves to others. He wants us to use the gifts He’s given us to the best of our ability on any given day. God wants us to cheer for one another along the way. And God also wants us to share meals with one another--to eat and laugh and swap stories and encourage one another.
I’m up for the challenge. You?
Not to compete in a cross country meet. But to keep running our races--the one God put in front of us, specifically--one full of doing our best, loving one another, both feeling encouraged and encouraging others, and of course with yummy snacks involved. On your mark. Get set. Let’s go!
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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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WHEN JESUS ASKS US TO TURN LEFT
Today I welcome my friend, Kristan Dooley on the blog. She is passionate about taking people to a deeper place in their relationship with Christ. Kristan is a discipleship pastor at Anthem House Church in West Chester, Ohio and a discipleship coach for Gravity Leadership. Her new book, Left Turns; Following Jesus off the Beaten Path just released. I hope you’ll be inspired by her description of what going off the beaten path with Jesus looks like. Kristan, take it away....
It was early and cold for a fall morning, but the road called. I was training for a half marathon and had a five-mile run on my checklist for the day. I didn’t plan to turn. My run didn’t require it either, still, as I rounded the corner headed into mile four, I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit prompting me to turn left. Somewhat annoyed and definitely winded from the unexpected turn, I slowed my pace and made my way up the hill that now stood before me. What was God doing? Why the sudden change in direction? Where were we going?
All things He would answer in due time. I had no idea how my left turn on that morning run would soon become a foundational piece in my future formation. But here I am now, years later, still learning and growing from my experience from turning left and following Jesus off the beaten path.
What I did physically on my run that morning, the Father asked me to do spiritually with my life about a year later. He had me walk away from my job, which was a left turn I never saw coming to spend two years in ministry on a side street in East Hamilton with the homeless and the broken, hurting people of the inner city. This wasn't even on my radar. Unpaid, untitled, unequipped, these were not the ministry circumstances I was accustomed to working with.
Still, East Avenue provided me with a new understanding of my Father and how much He longs to partner with me in love and life. From this place, I have been able to posture my heart to better meet His presence and recenter myself in His perfect love. The world around me looks and feels different than it ever has before.
On my side street, I learned three valuable paradigms...
1. God is always present and always working
God is not only God of the mountain tops. He is God over all things, in all things, and available for all things. He doesn't need me continually striving for the mountain top, because He also dwells in the mundane. Neither is more important and both are invaluable to the Kingdom. During my time on the streets in a forgotten, hopeless part of town, I found the presence of God at work in ways I never knew possible. It wasn't loud or flashy, but it was pure and perfect. Joining with Him made the mundane feel like the mountains.
2. God actually likes me
The second truth I embraced is that my Father is not showing up to the table with a checklist ready to negotiate what I deserve from His Kingdom. He doesn't need me to do better, try harder, or figure more things out. He simply longs for me to be present. He's prepared a table for me and it's not based at all upon anything I already am or need to become. He likes me. The God of heaven likes me and He wants to be with me. Right now, exactly how I am.
The cool part is, as I come and spend time around the table with Him, I will change, take shape, and grow because the natural by-product of spending time with Jesus is that we begin to reflect Jesus. But I am not changing because He needs me to change. I'm changing because He's inspired me to change. My goodness does not lead to His kindness. His kindness leads to my goodness. Always. And my posture in this place is a posture allowing myself to be loved, completely, right now, regardless of how I feel and what I've done.
3. God is committed to meeting me in reality
The final paradigm I learned on those side streets in East Hamilton was how committed God was to meet me in my reality. I didn't want to be where I was. I didn't ask to turn left. It felt harsh and unnecessary. I felt left out, lonely, and rejected. But God stood in my place of rejection and He patiently waited for me to be real with my disappointment. We cannot deal with our disappointments and live in denial of them at the same time. Dealing with them will involve getting our hands dirty. And a little dirt doesn’t scare Him.
I don't know if God has a left turn prepared for you anytime in the near future, but I do know if He does, you should take it. We don't look back after a mighty move of God and wish we hadn't been a part of it. He doesn't work deeply within us only to leave us with barren trees. The fruit produced by turning left and following Jesus off the beaten path is life-changing and life-sustaining. Turning left is the way to abundance.
LOST ON THE TRAIL
There’s a trail near my house with twists and turns, where it splits and you have to go one way or another, and although I have zero sense of direction and get lost in a store, I never get lost on this trail. Because it has signs telling me where to go.
I’m a planner. I like to know where I’m going ahead of time. I like to know that I’ll drive about twenty minutes before I take the exit and that the school is three miles past the turn. I want to hear the Cookie Monster voice on Waze (he makes me laugh every time) tell me, “In 18 miles exit left.” But this trail isn’t like that. The signs are right where you turn. I can’t plan, in half a mile I’ll take the left fork of the trail. I just run and when there’s a split up ahead I look for the sign and go the direction it tells me to. And I’ve never once gotten lost.
This is how God works.
We want to know what’s up ahead, how much farther? When will the pandemic end? What will this fall look like? Who will our roommates be? Will we get a job when we graduate? Where? How much will our starting salary be? What will it take for racism to be a thing of the past? Will we get married? To who? How long from now? Will we get accepted to that program? Invited to that event? How many kids will we have? Should we adopt?”
And Jesus says, “Trust me.”
He says, “Keep running until you get to the fork in the road. When you get there I’ll let you know exactly which way to go. And when you get to the next split in your path, I’ll tell you where you need to go then. You don’t need to know ahead of time. I’ll let you know in perfect time, at the exact time that you need to know.”
Right. But still we like to know. Don’t we? I do!
I believe if we search down deep, the reason we want to know all the details is because we don’t fully trust that:
1. God is in control
2. God’s plans are perfect.
If we did, we’d be just fine to keep running along and wait for Him to say, “Turn here. That’s the man I want you to meet. Email that person—they are the key to your dream job. When you’re twenty-seven. On the third try. At the second left.”
And even though I LOVE a plan I’m 100% content running without knowing the next part. Because I’ve run this trail before. And I know I can trust the signs. I know they never let me down.
I’ve also run with God before. I know God has never let me down. Have there been moments in my life I haven’t understood? Yeah. Have there been times when I’ve wished for different outcomes? Sure. But later on, I almost always thank Him for how He orchestrated something better than I knew at the time. Oh, that relationship didn’t work out, because I was supposed to meet and marry Brett. Even though it took me a long time to get pregnant, that was because I’m supposed to have the kids I have. Oh, I didn’t even get a second interview? That’s because that wasn’t actually a job where I would thrive.
So, like the signs on my trail, I want to trust Jesus. Yes, I still wish I knew how things will look in the fall, what will be open, what won’t, what to expect. But I’m trusting God will put up the sign in bold, easy to read letters when we get to that point in the trail. He doesn’t want us to get lost or go down a dangerous fork in the road. Our Heavenly Father only wants the very best for us. He wants us to find our way. The best way. In fact, He even calls Himself the Way. I’m pretty sure He’ll show us which way to go.
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The trail near our house is a little torn up. It’s been raining a lot, because April showers were working hard to bring us May flowers, and then May had an identity crisis and thought it was April. The storms washed away parts of the trail and left puddles in other spots. It’s a bit of an obstacle course, and although I love everything about running on the trails, I have to watch my step, so I don’t turn an ankle or go down.
Part way in the dirt trail becomes a smooth paved one, and I can concentrate less on the terrain and more on the shape of the clouds and the smell of honeysuckle and fresh mown grass. My favorite spot on the run is the covered bridge that signals I’m halfway done. There’s something beautiful and nostalgic about the bridge and my feet make a lovely percussion sound when they pound against the planks. I love the idea of running while suspended over a stream. But today, my toe caught on one of those uneven boards and I lost my balance. I wiped out skinning my knee and ripping open my hand.
I’m fine. Nothing a Band-Aid, some Neosporin, and a few days won’t heal, but it reminded me how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable we all are.
I knew I had to pay extra attention on the bumpy, rocky portion of my course. I was alert. Just like there are parts of our days and lives when we need to keep our antennae up—maybe around the person who we don’t fully trust or driving at night during a thunderstorm, or how tenderly we need to handle a newborn. But it was on the stretch of my run where I felt safe and free and peaceful that I fell. Just like in life. Sometimes it’s when I’m cruising along on autopilot that I stumble.
I think COVID-19 has shown most of us that we’re more vulnerable than we thought. That even though everything was plugging along like clockwork, we’re still vulnerable. We’re at risk for losing dollars we thought would be deposited in our accounts. We’re at risk for losing events we were looking forward to. We’re at risk for germs and viruses that can infect our lungs. But I’ve also become acutely aware in my vulnerability how faithful our God is. The virus shut down shops, but all the flowers still bloomed wide open. The virus halted regularly scheduled classes, meetings, church services, but God continues to show up during Google Hangout Bible studies, Facebook live women’s conferences, church on YouTube. Unemployment is up, but so is giving and outreach and generosity.
Are these changes preferred? Some yes. Some maybe not. Some for sure no. But even when we’re vulnerable, Jesus is not. He is steady and alive and on the move and keeps on showing up. Jesus has conquered sin and death and fear. He is love and light and life.
So we’re vulnerable. We always have been. We’re human. Our bodies get sick and scraped. We have seasons of financial success and seasons where we’re pinching pennies. This isn’t the first time I’ve ever taken a tumble while on a run. And I’m guessing it won’t be my last. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be perfect. Every step I make doesn’t have to be calculated, precise, and perfect, because God’s are. It’s alright that we’re vulnerable, and that sometimes we fall, because Jesus walks beside us, picks us up when we fall, cleans out our wounds, and if we let Him get close enough with His almighty Neosporin and peroxide, heals us.
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Where You Go, I'll Go
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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ARE WE RUNNING TOWARDS JESUS?
I’m sorry, are you busy? In the middle of something?
Maybe tying that ribbon just right and if you move your finger the whole thing will fall apart? Or getting the crushed candy canes to stick to the rich, chocolatey fudge while it’s still gooey? Or finishing up the report that’s due before you take a few days off for Christmas? Or clicking “add to cart” before the last remaining pair of boots gets snatched up?
What if someone told you Jesus was just down the street? Right now! Even though you’re in the middle of doing something. Would you believe them? Would you leave your undertaking? Despite the consequences? How would you react?
Because over 2000 years ago there was a group of guys doing their job, a job they couldn’t cut out early from, one where they weren’t allowed to leave their posts, when an angel showed up and said, “Guess what? I have something incredible to tell you! The Messiah, the One you’ve been waiting for, the One all of Scripture points to, He was just born! Just down the road, in town.”
We read the familiar passage from Luke 2 about angels and shepherds and think, well of course, I’d run straight to where Jesus was, because I love Jesus, I want to be near Jesus. Who wouldn’t go?
But would you? Would I?
If I’m washing a dish or pulling something from the oven or typing out the perfect sentence, I usually won’t interrupt my task to answer a text or call. I wait until I’ve accomplished the thing I was in the middle of and then respond. And if it rolled over into voicemail. That’s fine. I can call them back. How many times a day do we say, “Just a minute,” “Let me finish sending this text,” or “Hang on a second”?
But if it was Jesus calling or texting or asking a question, if Jesus Himself was down the street, would we put down our to-dos to listen or seek Him? Or would we finish our things up real fast first?
Which takes me back to the shepherds. It must have been crazy freaky when an angel appeared to them. It was so frightening the first thing the angel said was, “Don’t be afraid.” And then this wild-looking heavenly host told those shepherds the Savior of the World had been born. Oh, and yeah, He was a baby.
People had been talking about the Messiah for ages. The shepherds probably thought or said something like this:
Dang, now? It’s not the best time.
We’re kind of in the middle of something.
I’m fortunate to even have this job.
I can’t afford to just abandon the sheep, can I? I could get fired. The sheep could get lost or eaten by wolves.
Maybe we can go tomorrow?
Or take turns, do it in shifts?
But, the Messiah! Really?
Wait! Did that angel say He was a baby?
The shepherds never imagined the Messiah would come as a baby. They thought Jesus would be a great king. He was. But the shepherds most likely pictured royal robes, and a golden crown encrusted with jewels, and a war horse, and a mighty sword. Not a baby in a barn. Still:
As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over, “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. —Luke 2:15-18 MSG
They ran. They went as fast as they could.
Are we doing the same? Are we running towards Jesus? If we feel prompted to pray or open our Bibles or listen to a worship song, do we do it? Or do we think to ourselves, in a minute, when I’m done eating, after I get my workout in, as soon as this episode is over?
Jesus is right here. Right now.
We don’t have to wait for centuries like the folks in the Old Testament. We don’t even have to head into town, down that hill, around the bend, to get to the manger where He lay like the shepherds did. All we have to do is say His name. Jesus. We don’t have to wait until we “have time” or “are done”. We can wake a few minutes earlier, watch less Netflix, or put down Zillow and pick up our Bibles and get into the Word. We can also pray while we wrap or bake or fold the clothes. We can listen to the Bible being read to us out loud on the Bible App or listen to a worship song on the way to pick up the groceries or the kids. You can put down this blog and talk to Jesus right this minute. In fact, please do.
Are we running to Jesus, or are we too busy?
Our twenty-first century Christmas might fill our calendars and planners with concerts, parties, cookie exchanges, and Secret Santas. But the first Christmas brought Jesus to us. Changed everything. Heaven came down to earth. To save you and me. What are we waiting for? Let’s run to Him! And like the shepherds let's tell everyone what we’ve seen.
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Out of Breath
Cerulean sky. Vibrant orange, red, and yellow leaves. A cool breeze filled with the smoky scent of a neighbor’s fireplace tickled my nose. The setting for my run was ideal, yet I felt weak and out of breath. Coming to a hill I slowed to a walk. Almost immediately a friend’s face popped into my head who’s a marathon runner. She told me in the hardest parts of a race if you just keep running—push past the hard part--you find your groove. Alright, Laura, I told myself, get going. I increased my speed. But it was hard. Unusually so. Next month I’d be running the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, and this current thing my legs and lungs were doing would not do.
What’s wrong with me? I asked myself. When did I become such a bad runner? Why can’t I go for a simple jog at a distance and rate I usually go without huffing and puffing? I’m out of shape. I need to train. I’ll be a bad partner for my husband in the race. I’ll slow him down. I have a daughter who is a college athlete. I’m pathetic.
Regardless of how much shame I felt for not being able to breathe, I had to slow to a walk again. And then it hit me—I’d had my blood drawn an hour ago, which always makes me woozy. And because I was getting my blood drawn, I’d fasted last night and this morning. Afterwards I ate some yogurt and granola, so I thought I was good. But apparently not so much. How long does it take for the body to replace that blood?
I Googled it. The pop-up answer was four to eight weeks. What? No wonder I felt light-headed. I finally gave myself some grace and decided it was A-Okay to walk the rest of my route. When I got home, I researched a bit more. Turns out the four-eight weeks was a bit misleading, but the web consensus was that according to my weight and normal level of physical activity I could work out about five hours after having blood drawn. Hmmm. Not one hour. Weird.
Why was my first instinct to bash myself? Instead of assessing my situation and wondering why two days ago I had a phenomenal run, and today I was struggling, I listed the ways I didn’t measure up. That doesn’t make sense. But it’s what I did. Oh, how my brain can take one lie and spin it out of control.
Do you ever do this? Is there any area in your life that the talk in your head sounds like, “You’re not good enough to… get noticed, be in a relationship, earn an “A,” be picked, win the award, get the job, move up the list, have your idea accepted? Because Jesus never talks to us like that. His words are, “You are my masterpiece. You were created in my image. I came down to the world and died on the cross to save you. I love you.”
Will Jesus sometimes put up barriers? Sure. Will He sometimes say, “not now” or “not this” or “not them?” Definitely. Just like God told me to slow down as I ran. Not because Jesus thinks I’m a bad runner or doubts if I’m capable of running the Turkey Trot. Not because He’s shaking His head and wishing I would step up my workouts. But because Jesus saw me get my biometrics test. God knew my body was still recuperating, and if I kept going, I might pass out in the middle of the street, or some such thing. Jesus wasn’t telling me I wasn’t good enough. He was keeping me safe.
Because Jesus NEVER tells us we’re not good enough.
That’s always the enemy’s voice, slithering into any place we might feel doubt, anything that’s important to us, anywhere he thinks he can distract us from the truth of who we are in Christ—treasured, fearfully and wonderfully made, set aside to do good works.
What if when we start to struggle, our default was to ask God, “Hey, what’s going on? Why is this hard? Do you want me to stop? Or do different? Or go the other way?” And if it’s something that’s plain going to be hard (because some things are hard—loss, abuse, health issues both mental and physical, etc.), what if we went to God in these situations and said, “This is freaking hard, please give me the strength, energy, stamina, to get through it. Please help me know when resting makes sense. And when it’s time to push forward again.”
What, then shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? —Romans 8:31
God is for us. On our side. Not telling us where we fall short. But cheering us on over the finish line. Yes, He’ll put up some barriers sometimes—to protect us. But our Savior always wants what’s absolutely best for us. Even when we can’t see the whole picture.
The next time you hear “not enough” in your head. Slow down. Catch your breath. Stamp it out. Dismiss it as quickly as it came. Don’t let your default be one of blame or shame. Don’t let the negativity fester or multiply out of control. Because that is never of God. He is for you. He will stand strong to protect you from anything or anyone who tries to go against you, but He will also wave you forward into the glorious plans He has in store for you. Whether you’re completely in stride or feeling faint, Jesus looks at you, and says, “Oh look! There’s one of my kids! I love her so much!”
THE BEST INGREDIENTS
One of my best friends, Amy, and I have a joke about making dinner. I’ll text her a picture of the rotisserie chicken I grabbed at Kroger and make some humorous comment about secret recipes. She’ll send back a picture of her family-sized Chick-Fil-A bag and reference how she’s “cooking”. One day she messaged, “Are cake pops a meal?” We’re hilarious.
The truth is, life is busy. We’re both mamas. We’re both writers. We’re both trying to hold all the pieces together. And that means some nights the best dinner we can muster up comes in a box or a bag. This of course is absolutely fine, because our people eat a hot meal (or a meal with frosting). But there are other nights, despite our hysterical text stream, where our best dinners involve actually cooking.
Today was a cooking day. My oldest baby is home from college visiting. I wanted to make her favorite dinner—lasagna. I learned long ago from a chef friend that the secret to good food is good ingredients. The better the ingredients, the better the meal turns out. So, when I actually take time to make lasagna, I use hand-rolled, fresh mozzarella from Jungle Jim’s, this fabulous market near us. Guys, it’s not even the same substance that comes shredded in a bag. It is so amazing. I also use these tomatoes from Italy. I know. They’re canned tomatoes. Who cares, right? But they’re yummier. They’re sweeter. They just are. They’re not more expensive than regular canned tomatoes, they just taste better. And fresh basil? Sigh. This is my favorite ingredient. It adds a layer of flavor that can’t be replicated.
The better the ingredients, the better the meal. I think this mantra holds true to all parts of our lives.
Which translates into bringing our best games to everything we do, because the more we put into it, the better it will turn out. This is so true. When I prepare before a conference call, thinking through the questions I want to ask and the questions I might be asked. When I pull out my favorite notepad and a brightly-colored pen jotting down some main points prior to the call and taking notes during the call, the conversation is more productive. If I read all the passages, pray, research and journal about them for the Bible study I lead, Tuesday morning conversations at study are more focused and richer. When I get a great night’s sleep, eat healthy, am hydrated, stretch before and after, my morning runs are fantastic, energizing for my body and therapeutic for my mind.
But we all know that’s not always how it goes, is it?
Today Kroger was out of fresh basil. They just didn’t have any. They had this fresh-ish basil in a tub, which is far superior to dried basil in a spice jar, but not the same as fresh-cut leaves from my yard in the summer. Sometimes I’m rushing to my desk for the call, flying through the Bible-study lessons, and my legs feel like lead.
So how do we do this? How do we metaphorically cook with the best ingredients, when they’re not always available?
We look in our pantries, open our fridge, swing by the grocery and bring the best ingredients we have. Whatever that is today. Often this means improvising. That might mean basil in a tub. Or stewed tomatoes instead of diced tomatoes. It could mean a run that morphs into a stroll to be able to complete my route. It could mean getting to just a little of my Bible every day, the parts I can get to, and if I can’t journal, at least trying to think through some of the questions in our study book in my brain.
It always means praying. Because talking to God about all the things going on is the best ingredient I’ve got up my sleeve—the secret ingredient to save all the recipes, even the ones it looks like I’m burning or flubbing up. Praying over the conference call before the phone rings. Praying on the way to Bible study for God to fill in all the places I’m not prepared, to give me words where I need to speak, and silence when I need to hush. Praying over my children, my interactions with them. Praying over my marriage. Praying over my writing. Praying over all of the things all of the time.
Because the best ingredients available for today’s recipes might be totally different than the best ingredients that will be available tomorrow. We’re never sure how our legs or voices or patience will hold up. We can’t control if someone else is running late or running out or stands us up or if they raise the prices for the things on our list. Some days we come down with the flu or the blues. But we still need to show up. We still need to try. And we still need to sprinkle in the secret spice of prayer. My best tomorrow looks totally different than my best today and it looks completely different than yours on any day. Some days my best is homemade lasagna and others my best is pizza delivered to my doorstep. But when we keep trying, keep giving today the best ingredients we have to offer, praying over all the places we and the world falls short, together, we’ll make the tastiest lasagna. And ultimately we’ll make our world, delicious.
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Laura L. Smith