Does someone you care about struggle with their mental health (maybe even you)? If so, how can you help?
Seeking help from a mental health professional is always the best and most important first step. But you can make a difference right now. Where should you start?
1. Take care of their physical needs. Our mental health wobbles when we’re not taking care of ourselves, so basic self care is a great place to start. Are they eating enough? Sleeping enough? Moving their bodies? Are they staying hydrated?
If not, help out how you can. Bring the person you care about a charcuterie tray or a meal or take them out to one of their favorite restaurants. Deliver a goodie bag of their favorite hydrating beverages–La Croix or some other flavored fizzy water or a box of their favorite tea with a jar of local honey. Invite them on a walk or a bike ride or to kick the soccer ball around with you (it is World Cup season, after all). Suggest they get some sleep–go to bed early, take a nap, etc.
Jesus did this. He fed crowds (John 6:5-13). He made sure the disciples were eating and resting (Mark 6:31). He cared about the people around Him and their basic needs. We can too.
2. Be a calming presence. Lean back, breathe deeply and slowly, speak in a calm voice, light a candle, or play some soft music. We live in a loud, hurried world. Show the person you love what peace looks like–that it is available.
Jesus calmed the storms at sea, showing the disciples peace was accessible to them even when they least expected it (Mark 4:35-41). We can also offer the people we care about a glimpse of calm.
3. Check in. When we’re alone is when our thoughts tend to spiral. We worry about the what ifs instead of focusing on the now. When we’re alone is when Satan loves to slither in and whisper lies to us. Make sure you’re not alone and the people you care about aren’t alone, that they have someone to talk to. Remind them that they are seen. That they matter.
Jesus made sure the disciples traveled in pairs, not solo (Luke 10:1). Jesus approached people no one else would consider speaking to or even getting near. He didn't want them to feel isolated (John 4:7-27, Matthew 8:1-3). From the get go God knew it wasn't good for people to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We can follow Jesus’ lead and send the text, better yet make the call, even better knock on and open doors to make sure the people we care about are doing okay. If you’re worried about someone’s safety, seek professional help immediately.
4. Pray. There’s just nothing like prayer. The God of the Universe, the Creator of All Things is just waiting for you to talk to Him. He loves you and every single person on earth so very much. He created us all. He died for us all. He cares about our mental health. Jesus wants to flood us with hope, joy, and peace. When we talk to Jesus, it sets things in motion. Prayer costs nothing. It doesn’t require any knowledge or skill set. All you have to do is start telling Jesus what’s on your mind.
Peter, one of Jesus’ very best friends, tells us: “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7). Peter saw first hand that Jesus cares so much about you and me, that we can hand over all our troubles and fears and concerns to Him. Ask Jesus to help the people you love(and yourself) with their mental health. I’ll get us started: Dear Jesus, please flood me and ______ with your peace, hope, and love.
5. Grab them a copy of my new book, 5 MInute Devotions for Teens: A Guide to God and Mental Health
It releases one week from today! I wrote this book as a way for people to quickly connect with Jesus, and in doing so, also care for their mental health. The short devotions are catered to teens, but early readers are saying, “It’s great for ALL ages, even adults.” Each page has a Bible verse, devotion, and prayer or activity. These books make great stocking stuffers for kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, anyone you love. Maybe even sneak an extra in your own stocking.
It’s amazing how many scientific tips for caring for our mental health are Biblical. Jesus loves us so much. He always has our best interest in mind, and cares so much about our mental health. Praying for you, for your mental health, and for the mental health of those you love.
Go, Tell it on the Mountain
I’m deep in edits and on a deadline, so I decided instead of skipping sending you a blog this week, I’d send a free chapter (a Christmas one, of course) from my book How Sweet the Sound. However busy your Christmas routine and year end to-dos have you, I pray you can take a moment to hear the sweet, sweet sound, of our Savior's amazing grace.
“I need You,” my son’s vocal coach’s harmony mingles with my son’s melody. I’m in the other room with a novel I brought to read during his lesson. The pages sit open on my lap, but I’m not reading. I can’t. The song they’re sing- ing, "Whole Heart” by Hillsong United, is too beauti- ful, too magnetic, and pulls me out of my book and into the lyrics. Last week his teacher said to us as we were leaving, “That is such a powerful song. I can’t get it out of my head.”
Did I mention his teacher is not a Christian?
And yet, this song about Jesus restoring our brokenness through His grace is stuck in her head. She’s singing it out loud, over and over. Words about clinging to the rock, about being made whole—an anthem so fitting for this wonderful woman.
Her husband passed away a few years ago. I’m not sure how old she is. In her fifties? Too young to be widowed. Any age is too young to be widowed. And she lives in the beautiful home they built together, teaching music because it’s her passion. She is kind and encouraging and every flavor of loveliness, but she doesn’t know Jesus.
She’s shared with me how much she misses her husband, how difficult it is. And then my son (I’m actually going to assume it was the Spirit prompting my son) picks this song as the piece he wants to work on. A song about Jesus pulling us upright when we’re too weak to stand.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
That’s why I can’t read today—can’t pull myself away from the marvel of a woman learning about Jesus, experiencing who He is, feeling the tug of His love. My eyes are closed. Still a tear leaks out of the right corner and glides down my cheek.
This is what sharing the gospel looks like—beautiful, moving, real. There’s an old spiritual that was passed among the plantations in the South called “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.”
Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.
Jesus calls us to this. His final conversation with the disciples (recorded in Matthew 28:19, Luke 24:47, and Acts 1:8) is Jesus instructing them (and now us) to tell the whole world about Him.
And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8 NLT)
Telling the whole earth about Jesus, over the hills and everywhere, sounds difficult, especially in our do-it-your-self culture. Where do we start? With whom? When? Under what circumstances?
Heck, even acquiring and writing down the lyrics to “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” was a challenge. The song had been passed along verbally. There was no written record of it. As you can imagine there were several versions being sung. But John Wesley Work Jr. was passionate about collecting and preserving African American spirituals so they could be shared with people everywhere. His desire to distribute these songs proclaiming that God "sent us salvation that blessèd Christmas morn" allows us to sing these hymns and contemplate their messages today.
Collecting scores of unwritten songs composed by the enslaved, verifying words, stanzas, and melodies from the Civil War era seemed unlikely, intimidating, and maybe not super popular with early-twentieth-century American culture. But to John Wesley Work Jr. it made sense. He was a highly educated man, led the church choir, adored Jesus, and loved music. Curating and publishing books featuring the hymns of his ancestors was meaningful. Work included “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” in his second book, Folk Songs of the American Negro.
This was such a natural way for Work to share the gospel.
Similarly, a high school boy sharing how Jesus can change your life with his vocal coach in a college town today also sounds unlikely, intimidating, and a little strange. But, sharing the gospel doesn’t have to feel weird. My son didn’t pull out a tract, recite verses, or tell his teacher a story about the time he accepted Jesus at camp.
Don’t get me wrong. I write Christian content for a living, love memorizing Scripture, and actually accepted Christ at horseback riding camp in junior high.
I’m just saying we overthink this “Go tell the world” thing. We sometimes try too hard. Overanalyze.
Max is taking voice lessons so he can improve his worship leading skills. His teacher asked him what song he’d like to work on. Max suggested this one by Hillsong United. He was just honest about the kind of music he listens to, the kind he sings—worship music. It was normal, natural, unforced. The next thing you know, this lovely lady is singing to Jesus.
I don’t know if his teacher will accept Christ into her heart. But that’s not my job or Max’s. Telling people about Jesus, sharing who He is, that’s our assignment—the Great Commission. John Wesley Work Jr. probably died having no idea how many people came to Christ because of the books of spirituals he published. But his job was to get them in print, get them out there, plant the seeds through songs.
As Max and I walk to the car we hear his teacher's alto trill across the walk declaring how God’s grace holds her. Yes it does, my friend. Grace holds you. Grace holds all of us. Me. Max. You, on the other side of this book. Grace holds you.
What a gorgeous truth.
I am so grateful God allowed Max to share Christ’s grace with his teacher, maybe not on a mountain or in Judea, but on a piano bench in Oxford, Ohio. Because this is what Jesus asks us to do . . . go out and make disciples of all the nations. There’s not a perfect way to do it. You don’t have to have things written out or know all the answers. You just have to walk around loving Jesus. The rest will come naturally. You’ll find your own mountains. And there you can tell others of His love.
And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8 nlt)
If you enjoyed this chapter, you can get the book, How Sweet the Sound in its entirety at booksellers everywhere including Amazon and Our Daily Bread Publishing.
from How Sweet the Sound reprinted with permission from Our Daily Bread Publishing. Further distribution of this chapter is prohibited without permission from Our Daily Bread Publishing. For permission to use this devotional please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Together is Better
This week my gorgeous friend, Shena, is stepping in and guest blogging. Shena is a wife and mom who is breaking into a calling of discipleship and teaching. She hopes always to chase the beauty of obedience and to stir a generation to see God's kindness. Shena and I could sit for hours drinking coffee, talking about Jesus, and discussing books. After reading her inspiring words check her out here: ShenaAshcraft.com and follow her here: instagram.com/shenaashcraft/
Take it Shena....
There are twelve miles of wide-open road between my house and my church. Speed limit 45. Along that route, there's a bend in the road where I click the Jeep's cruise control down a few miles per hour to match the limit posted on the sign. In that bend, I can assume there will be a county Sherriff's deputy tucked in among the brush and rubble of an abandoned restaurant. He might be running radar or filing paperwork. Either way, his presence slows me down. The black and gold colors remind me of what I already know: The speed limit's 45, Shena! Slow. your. roll.
By the time I cross paths with Mr. Sherriff's Deputy, I'm all ten-and-two, eyes-on-the-road, doin'-the-speed-limit. Thank you very much. Because I know he's there. I know he's checking my obedience. And, hello, I don't want to get a ticket on my way to CHURCH!
Whether I'm going to a mid-week Bible study or Sunday Church Day, I get to church ticket-free (so far). And I get there fast. Because I love it. I crave church. I'm better because of it. I'm not better in the ten-and-two-driving-past-the-deputy sense of the word. I'm certainly not what some would call "better behaved"; because something about church and God's word and gathering with these folks makes me feisty, and energetic, and a bit unbridled. Actually, I think church makes me more like me. More like the me God created.
Recently, my church hosted a mid-week worship and prayer night. I was there alone. My husband and son were not flanking my sides as they do on Sundays. (I feel God so purely when the three of us worship together.) But that evening I was solo. And late. And the band was passionately quiet, singing "Do it Again." The reality of the lyrics settled into my heart. "Your promise still stands. Great is Your faithfulness. I'm still in Your hands. This is my confidence, You've never failed me yet." Thank you, Jesus, for your faithfulness.
The song ended and we were prompted to pray with the people we came with. Or, in my case, the other late-comers seated behind me--two lovely mamas whom I adore. We chatted and hugged and uncharacteristically went to our knees. Kneeling in a triangle, holding each others' hands, we prayed. I listened to the honey-sweet testimony of a child healed from infection. We prayed thanksgiving. I heard the heart-aching plea for God to show himself as kind and near. We prayed for revelation. I shared how good and clear God had been in answering my prayers. We prayed nothing. I couldn't speak.
After the service, sitting in my car preparing for the 12-mile drive home, I realized my heart had been stirred. My faith had grown. Testimonies and vulnerabilities and encouragements. These things had grown me. It's not the first time. It happens frequently. Meeting like that, in a building where other Jesus-followers are meeting, moves my introverted feet forward in my faith.
In Hebrews 10, the author describes how life changed for God's people once Jesus came. When Jesus died on the cross, he cleared away our sins (all of them!) and then laid a path for us to draw up close to God. Then the author says, basically (my paraphrase), "Do it. Draw near and hold onto hope!" Then in verses 24 and 25 he says: "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
How kind of this friend of the Hebrews to say, "Hey, don't you forget about each other. Think about how you can support and encourage and love your fellow Christians to love better and act better. Let them do the same for you. And, by the way, you can only do this well if you're seeing them, meeting with them."
That is what I witnessed that evening at church and many days before and since! The closeness of meeting together stirred me up and spurred me on toward love and right actions. Other days, friends have come alongside to straighten my path, post a speed limit, gently call me out of my disobedience (or more likely my disbelief).
Years ago I traveled that stretch of going-to-church road to spend time studying the book of Hebrews with a woman whose example I admired greatly. One conversation wound about, per usual, from Bible study-ing to wife-ing, to mom-ing. Our chat landed on the little hurts I was letting fester. And over hot tea and honey, knees pulled up on the couch, she told me (and these are my words of her gentle reprimand) I was wrong and impulsive in my reactions to small offenses. She pointed me to Scripture that said I should be "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" because "human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires." (James 1:19-20) She encouraged me to spend the next week studying and praying about what God has to say about covering minor offenses in love.
God did a sweet, chiseling work in that "meeting together" with a woman wiser and bolder than I. He used her to tell me to slow down, to know God's truth, and act in obedience. Then He planted that time she and I spent together in my memory. It became the kinder, less intimidating deputy reminding of what I already knew: Slow to anger, Shena! Choose love.
In growing closer to God, I can study alone. I can hear the voice of God in His scriptures. I can feel His presence through prayer. But I travel the distance to meet together because, as a believer, I am placed on both sides of the Hebrews 10 passage. I meet to be encouraged and to offer encouragement. To be stirred and to stir. I need to hear and I need to say, "Be encouraged, grow your faith. And, Girl, sometimes, slow. your. roll."
Who are your "meet together" folks? Can you sense the position you fill when you meet together with other believers? I pray you can. Do you know there's a gap left when you don't? I pray you'll step into it.
My husband and I were going for a walk after dinner, but have you noticed? It’s getting dark so early! So, halfway around the block he had to turn on the flashlight on his phone. The hum of a car engine was buzzing somewhere behind us. Brett, always the gentlemen, motioned that I stand on the inside of him, closer to the curb, and said, “Let me stand nearer to the car. I want them to see our light.”
Yes, I thought. I want the whole world to see my light, the light that is Jesus living inside me. How can I do that well?
Showing up a couple of minutes before yoga started, I put my flip flops and water bottle in a cubby, grabbed a blue yoga block, and found a spot to roll out my mat. Instead of the usual instructor, a college student—a yoga trainee—was standing by the sound system looking over her notes, apparently ready to teach the class. I said, “hi,” walked past her and found some room on the highly-polished wooden floor near a giant window. I gravitate to a spot aglow in sunlight, because I soak in the warmth of the sun like a sponge. As I unrolled my gray mat with stenciled pale blue flowers stenciled the softly playing music caught up with my brain. It was “Everything” by Lifehouse. You all, have you heard this song? I have one friend who literally became a Christian after seeing a performance of this very song. I circled back from my mat, one minute until class began, and told the trainee, “I love this song. Thank you so much for playing it.”
“Oh, I like it, too,” she answered. “I just think it’s so calming.”
I smiled, nodded, and hurried back to my mat so she could get started.
Hmmm. Calming? Sure. But so much more. Maybe she doesn’t know the lyrics are all about Jesus. I mean it doesn’t mention His name and Lifehouse is a crossover band, meaning they play to Christian and mainstream audiences. But as our instructor got us seated, breathing, and focused the instrumental version of “So Will I,” by Hillsong Worship drifted over the speakers. As I swan-dived (is that swan-dived or swan-dove? I’ve never said it in the past tense before) I sang along to the melody in my head, “If the stars were made to worship, so will I.” And as I was practicing yoga I was worshipping. So sweet. This girl, working to be certified as a yoga instructor was using class to spread the light of Jesus in her. It wasn’t lightning bolt explosive light, but at the same time it absolutely was. Awesome. I wanted to be like her. I mean not exactly like her. I don’t have any desire to teach yoga or be twenty-one again. But I do want to shine Jesus where I am—how God calls me to do it.
The next day I was at Kroger, as usual, this time buying approximately 83,000 Gatorades and granola bars for soccer team snacks. It was clear this was too big a job for the YouScan, so I got in Sharon’s lane. The customer in front of me was grumbling about something or other, but by the time she was pushing her cart away the shopper was nodding and saying, “Mmm hmm,” to Sharon’s comment about counting our blessings.
When I got up to Sharon, she grinned and said, “Turn it around, turn it around.” This is her goal. To take the negative talk and turn it around. To remind people of the good in the world and the good in them—of God’s love for them, of their blessings. Sharon is an expert at this. How cool that Sharon decided to make her checkout line her ministry. This is where she shines Christ’s light daily. I can’t imagine how many people she has face to face contact with each week—the impact she’ having on God’s kingdom. Each shopper leaves her lane with a “God is so good,” or “aren’t we so blessed?” She literally pours blessings upon blessings on her customers. I want to be like Sharon. Because Sharon reminds me of Jesus. But I don’t work at Kroger. God has other ways for me to shine His light. Other ways for you, too.
I think we overthink this sharing about Jesus business. We think we have to have every Bible verse memorized or have gone through special training or know all the answers or do big gigantic acts or fix all the broken pieces of our lives in order to shine a little light. But God would never make it that hard on us. You guys there are so many ways to spread the very good news that Jesus longs to rescue us, offer us a better life, that He’s already wiped our slates clean by dying on the cross for us, that all we have to do is say we believe, and we can experience this freedom. Jesus doesn’t need us to set off fireworks, although sometimes He’ll ask us to. Even the flicker of a candle is so beautiful and changes the mood of an entire room.
I think my pastor is amazing. He does an incredible job of shining the light of Jesus during his sermons every week. But Sharon also shines light over groceries. And a college-aged yoga instructor in Ohio shares the spiritual strength and balance Jesus offers with the people coming into her room to gain strength and balance for their physical bodies. I have several friends who teach at the public university in our college town who shine so much Jesus light in their classrooms, students can’t help to catch a glimmer.
Jesus calls us to be light—to bring out God’s colors in the world (Mt 5:14), but He doesn’t tell us how that has to look. In fact, He’s created us all so uniquely, He gives us all completely different ways to do it—flash bulbs, twinkly lights, flood lights, dimmer lights, strobe lights, colored lights and energy efficient bulbs, so more people can know about Him, from several different angles, and experience multiple facets of God’s great love.
So what’s your thing? How are you going to shine some light? Where did God put you? Who do you know? What can you do? Who do you interact with? What are your talents? God put you in those places with those people for specific reasons. You don’t have to stand on a stage or work with the public. You can show off God’s colors on the sidelines of your kids’ soccer games, at the meetings you attend, to the neighbor’s you pass when you’re out walking your dog.
All you have to do is share what you already know, about who Jesus is, what He does, what a difference He makes. Lifehouse does this in that song my yoga teacher was playing, “You’re all I want. You’re all I need, You’re everything.” This song was on an album that sold over 4 million copies and was featured on the WB hit drama, Smallville. Do you know how much light that is? How many of God’s colors were revealed in 4 million copies plus all the viewers of Smallville? You can do it. Right where you are. With the gifts you’ve been given—by singing it out loud, or playing it in the background or something else altogether. Just let it be known that Jesus is your light—your everything.
Take a quick assessment of how you can get out your flashlight or spotlight and shine a little light. God won’t make this hard. It’s always easy to share good news. Just do it naturally where you are and who you’re with. It doesn’t have to be in your face and overt. It could be by choosing to do or not to do something, or maybe it’s saying or not saying something else. Someone might ask why you did that. Someone will notice. And then you’ve brightened things up a bit—you’ve let them see your light—the light of Christ. Let it shine.
JESUS ENGAGED IN CONVERSATIONS
Do you remember that song from preschool, “Where is Thumbkin?” Thumbkin?!!! Oh my gosh, how was that even a song? Allow me to get it stuck in your head:
Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am. Here I am.
How are you today, sir?
Very fine, I thank you.
Run and hide.
Run and hide
If you’re not familiar with this classic, there are hand-motions. Because preschool. You hold your hands behind your back and at the appointed time each thumb makes an appearance in front of your body to say, “Here I am.” After the quick thumb conversation, both thumbs run back and hide behind your back. This is repeated with all of your fingers. Okay, so honest? I loved taking my thumbs and hiding them behind my back. Why was this so fun for me? Maybe because I’m an introvert. Maybe even at the age of three I was grateful for the time a conversation (even between thumbs) could be over, and I had permission to “run and hide.”
One on one I want to talk with you all day long and get to know you and your entire life story. But put me in the middle of a group of five or more (for example a preschool classroom) and I’m done for. In front of a crowd with a microphone is easy breezy for me, oddly not an issue, but in the crowd? Yikes. Run away.
But here’s the deal. Everyone wants to be seen, to be noticed, to be acknowledged, honestly, to be loved. Every one. So when I duck my head or stick in earbuds, I may be protecting myself from a socially awkward moment, but I’m robbing someone else of being heard, of being seen. Do you ever avoid conversations? Why? How do you go about doing it?
The Bible doesn’t talk about Jesus being an extrovert or an introvert. I’m guessing, because He’s perfect at everything else, that He’s the perfect balance between the two. We see Jesus both speaking to thousands of people and intentionally getting away from crowds to pray and rest. You know what else we see as we follow Jesus’ days on earth by reading the Bible? Him talking to people. Him looking folks in the eye. All people. The ones who were in his face vying for his attention AND those who were trying to be invisible.
Jesus spoke to the obnoxious Pharisees who thought they had all the answers about religion, even though Jesus is clearly the only one who has ever had a corner on that market. Jesus called out to Zacchaeus, the rich, corrupt tax collector hiding in a tree, because He was too ashamed to face Jesus. Jesus initiated a conversation with the woman at the well who intentionally went to the well when no one else would be there, so she wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Jesus started a conversation with the woman caught in adultery who had been thrown on the street. Jesus wants to talk to you, too. No matter what your mood, or what you think you do or don’t know about a certain topic, or where you’ve been, or what you look like, or how busy you are, or what you’re ashamed of.
And Jesus calls us to do the same to the people around us.
I’m not saying we have to engage in super long conversations with every person we run into today. But I’m challenging us—both the extroverts who would prefer to be at the center of attention, to tell their stories and jokes AND the introverts who would prefer to remain silent—to look someone in the eye, congratulate them on a win or a good grade or a promotion or an anniversary. Ask a couple of questions, dig deeper than saying (or singing), “How are you today, sir?” before you ‘run and hide’ behind your comfortable group of friends, your sarcasm, your work, your to-do list, or your sunglasses.
What if each of us reached out to one additional person today in a genuine way? This could be via text or email or sending a card or yes, actually going up to someone and asking what their favorite song from the show or service was, or how their family is adjusting to the new school year, or what they thought of the guest speaker, or maybe even as simple as, “I haven’t met you yet. What’s your name?” What if we each helped one more person be known, heard, seen, understood, even in the smallest of ways. What if we all took a lesson from Jesus and helped someone else realize that they are loved, that they are accepted, that God is good? Because we are all loved. Us, too. Introverts and extroverts. We are all accepted. You, me, and the garbage man. And God is so very good. Let’s spread the word. Let’s engage.
And Jesus said to them (the Pharisees), “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him. —Mark 12:17
When Jesus reached the spot (where Zacchaeus was hiding), He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” –Luke 19:5
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”—John 4:7
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” —John 8:11-12
YOU FEED THEM
I’ve been reading the book of Luke this summer. It’s packed with familiar stories—shepherds, a manger, the Good Samaritan. I love going back through the pages and seeing what Jesus did, how He handled situations, what His attitude was, and specifically this summer I’m trying to focus on what Jesus said, because as a word lover I’m thinking the words Jesus spoke are a pretty fantastic way to learn more about Him.
One of my favorite passages is when Jesus feeds the five thousand (Luke 9). Now, keep in mind there were five thousand men plus women and children, so the crowd exceeded ten thousand, possibly twenty thousand folks. In this passage this giant crowd has come to listen to Jesus teach. Near the end of the day everyone is getting a little fussy, tired, and downright hungry.
What’s for dinner is a question my family asks on repeat. I think through what we’ve eaten recently, peek in the pantry, consider everyone’s schedules—who has soccer, meetings, sleepovers, etc. Who is even going to be eating this meal? Just when I think of something that meets our family’s dietary needs (all of the allergies live here) that most of my people will actually consume, I realize I need cilantro and gluten free wraps if I’m going to pull this together. Another trip to Kroger and perhaps also the farmer’s market and I’m good to go, at least for tonight. But thousands of hungry folks on a hillside? Yikes! Where to start? Sure, their “pantry” held five loaves of bread and two fish, but that wouldn’t make my crew happy, let alone fill them. And there are only six Smiths. The disciples point out this problem to Jesus, suggesting they send everyone out to the closest farms and villages, so the people can grab a bite to eat and stock up on snacks. That’s what the disciples say, but Jesus responds, “You feed them.”
Wait. Wha-at? Yeah, Jesus asks them to do it. When we see a problem, He also asks us to act. Jesus seems to throw His hands up at the disciples and say, “Don’t just sit there. Do something!” He says the same to us.
I have a relationship that’s rugged. I can pray about it all day long, but at the end of the day, Jesus says, “You make the phone call. Don’t wait on the other person.” I argue, “They’re challenging to talk to. It’s not always easy or pleasant.” Jesus nods. Mmm-hmm, then hands me the phone and says, “It’s not going to dial itself.” A friend asks for prayer. Jesus elbows me and says, “Go ahead. Pray.” “Um, now?” I ask. He reminds me that it makes way more sense to pray specifically for my friend’s need with my friend right now rather then telling them politely I’ll pray and then possibly forgetting and possibly tagging it onto a run-on prayer sentence a day or two later. I dream of speaking at an event at a certain church. I Google the church, check out all their fantastic resources, wish I knew someone who could introduce me to the right people, and yeah, Jesus says, “Reach out and set up a meeting.” Wait. Wha-at? What if they don’t respond? What if they don’t want me? Jesus has zero time for that nonsense. He never argues, just urges me again, “You do it.”
It’s not that Jesus is hanging us out to dry, that He’s lazy, or uninterested in helping. Quite the contrary. With the feeding the hungry crowd situation the disciples’ jaws are still hanging open in disbelief, that Jesus, the miracle-working Messiah, thinks they should feed the crowd, when He pipes in. “Listen. Get the crowd to sit in groups. Then Jesus takes the few barley loaves and tilapia, prays over the food, and hands it to the disciples. It’s Jesus who steps in with a plan. It’s Jesus who performs a miracle by blessing the small amount of food, so it can feed the masses. But the disciples have to do the work. They have to physically organize the crowd. Get them to settle down, sit down, and hang tight. Then they have to walk around to thousands of hungry folks and serve them dinner. The disciples have to take part of it, so they can fully understand what is going on, how incredible the whole thing is. They get to see the look on the faces of the hungry crowd as they relax and take a break, the smiles from the kiddos, the relief from the mamas. They got to marvel as they put their hand in the basket time and time again and every time more food keeps coming out.
Same with us. Jesus wants us to do the work. He doesn’t expect us to do it on our own. He’ll bless the work if it’s for Him. He’ll give us a plan, a place to start. He’ll pray over the situation with us. And then He’ll say, “Get moving.” Because He wants us to be a part of it, He wants us to get in on it, marvel at what He does and how He works.
If you want that mountain moved, yes pray for it, yes have faith that God will move it, but you also better start lifting weights, invest in one heck of a shovel, and start moving that dirt. Create a website. Send the message. Attend the event. Audition. Introduce yourself. Show up. Raise your hand. Suggest the idea. And then get ready to be blown away. That hungry crowd? After they’d all eaten until they were full, no skimping, twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered up. Twelve baskets. Of extras.
I’m not promising all rainbows and roses here, although that is the way I like to roll. Just because I send in a book proposal, doesn’t mean I get a book contract. But if I don’t do the work—write the proposal, make the changes my agent suggests, incorporate the feedback we get back from editors, I’ll never get that next book deal. And more importantly I won’t learn what Jesus wants to teach me. It probably took a while to settle that giant crowd into groups. Just because you work out, doesn’t mean you’ll win the race. Just because you apply for the job, does not mean you’ll get it. But when it’s the right deal, the right race, the right job, where Jesus wants to make a change and simultaneously grow us, we will get all those things and bonus baskets to boot. The job guy won’t come knocking on your door. It will be up to you to put together your resume, check out the requirements, apply, follow up with a call or email, get dressed up and cleaned up and put together for the interview. Then let Jesus bless it and dole it out, the way only He can.
Whatever thing you see needs fixing, started, initiated, changed today? Go do it. You feed them. Yes, YOU. And be blown away by not only how Jesus blesses and works, but in all the abundance of extras He’ll provide.
Sigh. I wish I could stay at the beach forever. Day after day I gaze at the horizon, listen to the crash of waves, marvel at the magnificence and peacefulness of the sea, and can’t help but think how much the beach mirrors God’s kingdom.
Just like God’s kingdom, everyone is welcome at the beach. All walks of people come to the shore—big, small, old, young, singles, couples, families, from all places, backgrounds, and cultures. Everyone belongs. Every. Single. Person. And we’re welcome to do the things that bring us joy here. Dog lovers play fetch with their pups. Book lovers read. Music lovers play tunes. And all kinds of dogs, books, and music are accepted here simultaneously. At any given moment you might hear The Beatles, Marshmallow and Rascal Flatts drifting through the air from various speakers. You don’t earn extra points or get any strikes against you if you read history or mystery, if you have a cutie miniature poodle or a pair of regal huskies—no judging on such wonderful individual preferences at the beach. All are included.
At the beach it doesn’t matter if you run, practice yoga, tote buckets of water back and forth from the shore or play Kan Jam. It doesn’t matter if you’re as fit as Ronaldo or haven’t moved much lately. People ride bikes, play lacrosse, and go for strolls on the beach. Yes, people rest, too—take naps, soak in the sun, because moving is good for us, and so is down time. I believe God loves to witness people taking care of the bodies He gave them—jumping, splashing, playing, restoring, and renewing.
On the beach, we’re all friends. Walls of social status, education, gender, and race dissolve. Kids approach other kids pitching in to build spectacular sandcastles, because the digging goes faster with more hands. Without hesitation strangers join in soccer games—welcome additions to the roster, no tryout necessary. If someone’s Frisbee flies astray, a passer by instinctively grabs it and tosses it back. If a fisherman reels one in, folks crowd around to see what’s on the line, ooh and ahh and snap pics of the ray or baby shark, almost as if it’s their own. Everyone joins in on one fantastic celebration of sea, sky, and sand. And if you’re lucky, folks with musical inclination burst into song for all to enjoy—no admission, no tickets necessary—just music for the pure joy of it. Isn’t this what God’s kingdom is all about? Sharing, helping, loving our neighbors? Using our talents for the good and delight of others?
People are less concerned about their outward appearance at the beach—or maybe that’s just me. But there’s no fuss over jewelry or makeup or footwear. You just slide on a swimsuit, tie your hair in a knot, or pull on a cap, slather up with sunscreen and head out the door. We’re more exposed at the beach—we hide less. Tattoos usually hidden on bellies and backs are exposed for all to see—symbols and words representing what people have been through, who or what keeps them strong, how they stay inspired. Because we come to the ocean for the ocean, not to show off or prove or hide ourselves, but to marvel at God’s creation. Sure, some say they came to “get away” or “to rest” or “for the kids.” But why here? Why not at a hotel down the street from their home? Because the beach draws us like a magnet, the waves so simultaneously powerful and soothing. Folks wake early to watch the sun rise, fiery and bright reflecting on the water in vibrant pinks, yellows, and oranges. This is how God designed it from the beginning. It’s always been about Him. It’s never been about us. Yet, I know I personally spend way too much time worried about how I’ll seem or appear to others. The beach reminds me how unimportant that is—how when I focus on God’s glory, nothing else holds much weight.
Little kids get this as they sprint as fast as their tiny, chubby legs can carry them to the water, then stop dead in their tracks, amazed by it all. We’ll do this in heaven, I think. Gaze at God’s majesty in multiple ways; be drawn to Him and His splendor. I don’t think we have to wait. I think we can do it now.
We don’t have to wait for any of it. We’re doing it here and now at the beach, and in other areas of our lives—sharing, loving, laughing, embracing, enjoying, savoring, running about, joining in. The magic of the ocean tugs my heart, reels me in, challenges, and soothes me. So what if I used what I learned here in my everyday? What if I judged less, worried less, let down my guard more, did my thing without worrying about what others thought, stood in awe more in my every day life too. I think the beach is a lovely foreshadowing of what heaven will be like. But I also think God’s kingdom is here for us today—if we lighten up, loosen up, and let His love wash over our toes and splash into our souls.
So pull up a chair, a tent, or a towel. Grab some snacks and participate full on in this marvel of a day, a life, we’ve been given. Come on…the waves are waiting.
I just saw the movie, Wonder. I loved the book and was grateful the movie stayed so true to the original story line—even switching point of view, so the reader/viewer could see the backstory of each of the characters. Just when you thought you disliked a character, you saw the pain they were dealing with and found yourself sympathizing. Just when you thought another character had everything easy breezy, you saw how they felt alone.
What a powerful reminder that everyone has highs and lows, experiences that bring them joy and issues they are wrestling with. The thing is, most of us bury the big stuff and make small talk about the weather or our favorite team. We can interact, intersect and never share what’s on our hearts or discover what’s on the hearts of those around us. What if we used the art of conversation to allow others to share their triumphs and traumas, so we can better cheer for them and hold their hands more tenderly?
Tis the time of year to be invited to scads of gatherings—for work, school, family, and any other group you’ve ever affiliated with. At all of these mixers, open houses, cookie exchanges, receptions, and pot lucks (whether you love chit chat or struggle with it) there will be conversations, and they will run the gambit.
There will be delicious food and festive decorations, hopefully there will be Christmas music. I’ve been listening to it since early November—yep, I’m that girl. But it’s easy to let these celebrations come and go without utilizing these opportunities to learn new things, gain richer perspectives, encourage others, or better understand someone else’s point of view. Everyone has a story. Everyone has struggles they’re dealing with and ideas racing around their brains. We can learn so much by talking to one another. But it starts by asking better questions (oh, and yeah, putting our phones down).
What kinds of questions are you asking?
Some of you are born conversationalists. Topics flow from your mouth like tunes on Spotify. For me, I’m used to writing my thoughts out, so I’m more deliberate, but all of us can get better at communicating. The difference between a good question and a so-so question? I’m still learning, but I know when I ask my niece about her college search we both get more out of the chat if I ask, “What are your top three schools? What do you like about them?” than if I simply ask, “How’s the college search going?” Ask something that requires more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. It doesn’t have to be ground breaking. “How was your day?” often emits a ‘fine’ from one of my kids. But “What did you do at recess?” or “How did you do on your test?” or “Who in your class gave their presentations today?” act as conversation starters to discover way more than a test question. The questions don’t need to be original, just intentional. How do you like your new job? Apartment? Teacher? Coach? Roommate? Are great places to start.
Make sure you add in a tidbit or two of your own. I’m tempted to keep things to myself. But when we share, we engage others and make it easier and more comfortable for them to share too. This doesn’t mean you have to divulge personal stuff, no need to over share, just be open to revealing a little about yourself in the process. I was chatting with a friend about an internship she’d had in Nashville. I mentioned I’d been to Nashville the week before. A whole new conversation sprang from my one sentence.
There will be times when no words come. There are challenges. Someone’s not chatty or in a bad mood or distracted. Sometimes that person is you or me. We receive a one-word response or get asked a question we aren’t comfortable answering. How about when the talk turns to politics? Or when you ask someone how he likes his new boss and he begins to rant? Or someone asks you something too personal or that touches a super sensitive spot. This is when we’re called to steer conversations back to the good stuff. As the apostle Paul said, whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things and the God of peace will be with you. —Philippians 4:8. Not always easy, but great advice. If you feel the conversation veering away from these topics, try to steer it back.
Because people will gossip and complain. There will be chat about how terrible parking was at the mall or the horrible service at a certain store. There will be digs on the food served or ‘can you believe she wore that?’ I’m completely guilty of falling into these conversation patterns. It’s easy to gripe. But it’s also just as easy to speak about lovely and excellent things. The cinnamon rolls are burnt? Turn the conversation to how great the coffee tastes. The toddler out of control? Whisper a prayer of patience for the parent. Freezing outside for the family pic? Tell a joke to get people smiling. Offer to make hot cocoa as soon as everyone gives a good grin. But even better—start asking good questions. Ask for the cinnamon roll recipe, about the toddler’s preschool, about how your brother knows the photographer. It’s easy to complain. But we can find out so much more about one another, incredible things, important things, if we try.
There will be occasions where the conversation goes south. If it is not true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy and you can’t turn it around, get out. If the entire group is in on the bashing or one person’s voice is too loud (literally or figuratively) to mute, simply leave the conversation. Excuse yourself to go to the restroom, grab a snack, or see if the hostess needs help with anything. Take the moment away to reset (not to check your phone). You could repeat the verse above from Philippians, say a prayer, get a breath of fresh air, or whatever else centers you.
There will be times when you need to talk to about the hard stuff—things that are ugly and painful and scary. And that’s 100% okay in the right setting with the right people, in fact it can be noble and right to do so. Yes! Share this stuff with your trusted inner circle, so they can comfort, advise, hold, and guide you back to the truth that God is on your side, that He loves you, that He has redeemed you, and that He will never forsake you. When people you care about approach you with their hardships and heartache, point them back to these truths. Remember, these conversations are not for large social gatherings. These are important, but critical that they are spoken in safe space.
I’m not an expert at any of this. Like I said, I’m fairly awkward at conversation. But I know my mother-in-law bowls and I don’t. So I don’t have many bowling questions in my repertoire. But I can ask who she bowls with and when, and in doing so find out more about her friends, which ones make her laugh, and how some days it’s a struggle to get a ride. And all of a sudden these answers lead to new questions, and we end up understanding one another a little better. God created each person uniquely and amazingly. Use all the gatherings you’ll attend this holiday season to get to know some of God’s creations better, to shine some light, and to remind others of their worth—of their true reflections.
An Introvert's Unlikely Sisterhood
I am in introvert. It’s not a bad thing or a true confession. It’s just how God made me. For goodness sake, I am a writer by vocation, which translates into sitting by myself for hours on end making up stories. I love to go on runs and walks by myself. Vacation to me never includes Jet Skis and always includes sitting someplace with a view reading books, journaling, praying and basically being still. I love others immensely and treasure one-on-one time with them, I really do. Yet I require headspace and silence to create, think, cope and process.
But even us introverts crave connection. I cannot do life by myself. Cannot. None of us can. None of us were meant to. God created us for community.
Do you have a solid community? Admittedly, I hear “community” and envision four women my age who work out together, do Bible study together, swap clothes, meet for coffee every Thursday morning, with kids all on the same teams and whose husbands are also best friends—think Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants for grown ups. Maybe you have this, which is awesome. I do not, which used to make me think I didn’t have a community—that I’d failed in this arena. But that’s not true. What I have is different, but also awesome.
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. –Hebrews 10:24-25
This is quality advice. Because spurring each other on toward love and good deeds is solid. But the Bible does not say this has to look like a novel. This week has been a snapshot of my fantastic and completely different and scattered community. My super tight inner circle consists of my four adorable kids and hunky husband. I love them fiercely. However, our communities must span past the walls we live in for them to fully work their magic. Girls need girls. Guys need guys. We need people who do the same kind of work and deal with the same issues, as well as friends of varying ages, different lifestyles and locations so we can gain perspective. The last twenty-four hours for me were packed with more social interaction than I may have from now through Christmas, and although that is not my default, it was good for my soul.
What does your community look like? When was the last time you connected with them?
I visited my daughter who is a freshman in college, away from home for the first time in her, translation my, life. (I get a hall pass to count her as my community, because although she’s still one of my adorable kids, she now sleeps in a dorm room in Indiana instead of in our house.) Our visit was priceless. We laughed, shared stories that could never translate over texts, and ate brownies topped with some kind of fudgy whipped cream. When we said goodbye I honestly felt like a piece of my heart broke off and walked down the sidewalk with a backpack slung across her shoulders. But there is beauty in knowing that some of my heart can travel with her. And some of her heart with me.
Within an hour and a half of me returning home my mom came to town for an overnight visit. Can we talk about my mom? She tutors kids, volunteers at blood drives, makes meals for everyone she knows, and drives neighbors to the doctor. Plus she always wears a smile, constantly talks about how blessed she is, and means it. Being around her puts a positive spin on everything. She asks great questions, listens to all the details of my life no one else would ever want to hear (like how I saved 83 cents at Kroger and the journaling activity the middle school English teacher did with my daughter’s class). My mom makes it all feel important, like it matters, like I matter.
Literally two hours after my mom drove off (leaving behind Texas sheetcake and turkey tetrazzini for us to devour) an out of town friend got out of a meeting she was having in my town! I got to see her for exactly nine minutes and it totally refueled my tank. Energy leaks from her body into mine when we hug. She is funny, beautiful, insightful, smart as all get out and typically goes a million miles an hour. She is one of those special few I can get vulnerable with and fully trust. She loves Jesus and somehow totally gets me and accepts me and my quirks.
Next day, a handful of my sorority sisters came to town for an impromptu reunion. #perksoflivinginacollegetown. These girls? We met when they were eighteen and I was nineteen. We’ve all logged a lot of miles—careers, marriages, moves, babies, loss, struggles, overcoming since we pledged our sisterhood. To reconnect with some who I hadn’t seen in decades and others in a year meant both being flooded with memories and meeting a group of wonderful new women—the ones they’ve all grown into—all at the same instant.
A daughter, a mom, an out of town friend who I met at Bible study years ago by a fluke, and a handful of girls who wore the same shirts to Greek Week in the 90’s is not how most would define ‘community’. But it’s where I find some of mine. We all need other people to fully become who God created us to be. Their stories help form our stories. Their triumphs inspire us. Their struggles expand our viewpoints, teach us lessons. Their ideas, experiences, and thoughts prompt and broaden ours. Hearing their hearts reinforces what we hold dear and helps us dispose of ideas we should have never let enter our minds in the first place.
Please know there are broadly two kinds of community, both are incredibly valuable. There is the general, learn, gather, socialize, laugh, carpool, expand your knowledge and ideas kind. And then there is the special, safe one. No matter how fun or interesting a group may be, you can only reveal your heart to a trusted few. If you share a secret with the masses, it’s no longer a secret. If you confess your greatest fear to too many, someone will unintentionally mock it or use it against you. Both types of communities are important. The inner circle is just more sacred.
Whether you’re typically a loner or always travel with a posse, find some special people, a community or two you can plug into. This can look like just about anything. But make sure it contains some people who will listen to and hear you, who will love and encourage you, who will challenge you, build you up, energize you, feed your soul, point you back to Jesus over and over again, and remind you that you are His, that you matter, because you do. They help remind you of your true reflection.
P.S. Just for the record, my mom borrowed one of my sweatshirts for our morning walk. One of my sorority sisters was also my roommate in Atlanta when we had our first ‘real jobs’. We each owned two suits and swapped them back and forth to make it look like we had enough ‘work clothes’ to get us through to casual Friday. And, as I write this I am wearing a pair of my daughter’s jeans. So, maybe, my community looks a little more like the Traveling Pants than I gave it credit for.
WHAT DOES A PERFECT FATHER LOOK LIKE?
No man can be the perfect father. Just like I can’t be the perfect mother, sister, daughter, wife or mom. I’d like to be, but I’m not. I can’t. It’s not possible, because we’re all human.
Yet, all of us can imagine what that perfect father might look like. Maybe he’s a combination of Daniel (Liam Neeson) in Love Actually, Nemo’s dad, Marlin, Atticus Finch and Jean Val Jean—only their best parts, their scenes and dialogue that moved us the most. When we picture that, we’re getting closer to understanding who God is.
When I fall down, mess up, make the same mistake I’ve made over and over and wish I would never make again, yet find myself scuffed and bruised, how would I hope the perfect father would handle it? I’d want him to ask me where it hurts. Get out a bottle of peroxide. Clean up my wounds and hold me until I stopped shaking. Later, when I’m a bit calmer, he’d talk me through what happened, help me strategize how to prevent from falling down again.
When something interesting or hilarious happened during my day, I imagine the ideal father putting down his phone or his newspaper, looking me in the eye and listening to every word of my story, like it mattered, like I matter.
If I were having relationship trouble, I’d like to think the perfect father would make us both steaming mugs of hot cocoa with extra marshmallows and sit down with me on the couch… and listen. Then he’d share with me how he wishes my friends would treat me, how He hopes I’ll interact with the people in my life, what he hopes others see in me. How he expects me to behave. If it were boy trouble, he’d proceed to tell me the kind of guy he always dreamed I’d marry, the attributes he’d like the man I end up with to have—things like integrity and faith and honesty.
As a busy mom of four, I know I don’t always listen fully or comfort before I criticize. Sometimes I try to fix a problem when my child wants me to listen or just offer perspective. I’m far from perfect. But I know how passionately I love my children. That even in my flaws, I want to be fully present for them always and to help them grow into the very best versions of themselves.
If I want that for my kids…I can’t even imagine how much God wants that for us. And since God is perfect, he always gets it right. He’s never distracted or too busy for us. He never shoos us away or gives us half answers. He never ignores us or treats us unfairly. He always guides us on glorious paths and loves us with perfect love.
That’s what the perfect Father looks like. That’s how He loves you and me.
So, the thing I’m most thankful for is God—the perfect Father. It is through Him that a table of Thanksgiving is before me. That the people I love so dearly are gathered around it. That a feast of plenty is spread across it. My thanks are for God who sent His only son, Jesus, to save me and to save you. It is to Him that I owe all of my thanks.
Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures. —James 1:17-18
Laura L. Smith