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.
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
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.
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.
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
I am a shedder.
I leave long, curly blonde hairs on the carpet of your car, the pillows of your couches, on the backs of the seats at church, and on your shirt when I give you a hug. My hairs clog the sink and get tangled in the rollers of the vacuum. If I’m ever a suspect for anything, the detectives won’t need to look for my fingerprints or footprints—all they’ll need to do is follow my trail of tresses.
I know I leave my hair everywhere I go (sorry about that) but what else am I leaving behind? When I leave yoga class, Bible study, your kitchen table, are there smiles lingering? Laughter? Sarcasm? Complaints? Prayers? What am I imprinting?
Are people glad I came, or do they sigh with relief, grateful for my departure?
I’ll never hear the conversations and comments after I exit a room, but I can choose how I act when I’m in that room. My husband and I went to see Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesdays With Morrie, speak last week. Mitch shared one of the most important things Morrie taught him, a lesson Albom weaves into all of his books, is that “one life touches another and another.” Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”—Matthew 22: 39
If I’m going to fully love my neighbor, if our lives are going to touch people one way or another, we can choose to try to love them and touch them in positive, meaningful ways. We all get that choice. Each time we enter a room. If we’re running late and juggling our keys and our purse and our coffee, we can grump and make excuses and make a big deal about our woes OR we can smile and laugh and greet someone. When we’re listening to someone speak—whether that’s a doctor, pastor, counselor, boss, co-worker, best friend, spouse, student or one of our own kids—we can choose to continue with our busyness, our business, on our phones OR we can choose to look them in the eye, give them our full attention, and truly listen.
Even when we’re the ones who need help, who are asking for advice, who need help carrying a load—physical, emotional or mental—(because some days we do need help) we can still choose to say, ‘thank you,’ to let the person know how much we appreciate them, how grateful we are for their help.
I’m going to be a lot of places over the next few weeks—soccer games, sports banquets, my children’s schools, church, visiting family for the holidays to name a few. How about you? Where are you headed? How will we act? What will we leave behind? In this season of thankfulness, let’s make a pact to remind others of all that they have to be thankful for, to have our presence be something they are thankful for, not because we are awesome or brilliant or have all of the right answers, but because we can choose to shine light in dark places, to choose hope over despair, and to choose compliments over criticism.
When someone finds one of my hairs—which they’re bound to do—after parting ways with me, I pray they pull it off their sleeve or pick it off their floor and smile, that I have left them with peace, strength or a little joy.
Have You Ever Experienced a Miracle?
Miracles happen quietly every day—in an operating room, on a stormy sea, in the sudden appearance of a roadside stranger. They are rarely tallied. No one keeps score.
~The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom
Have you ever experienced a miracle?
A big one? A small one?
I bet you have. I think Albom is spot on in his quote above, miracles do happen quietly, every day.
On my morning run I spotted two baby deer and their mama in a neighbor’s yard, playing tag with one another, romping about. The babies were tiny—white speckles on their backs—and they made me stop everything. Stop my conversation with my husband. Stop the rhythm of my feet. Even for a moment I stopped breathing. Because they were beautiful. And deer don’t usually play where people are. But on this morning, early enough to beat the July heat; I got to glimpse the grace and beauty of these deer. They were a gift to me. A small miracle.
On a group message I noticed someone’s title was a professor of Special Education. My daughter wants to major in Special Ed. No way! I thought. I’ll have to chat with this woman. But there was no need to call or write an email. I turned around at church the next day to see this very woman standing behind me. And my daughter was next to me. We all chatted. They set up a meeting, and ever since my daughter has worn a huge smile on her face. She got to volunteer all week with a special needs camp. It lit her up from the inside out doing something that truly makes her shine. I couldn’t have orchestrated this meeting, or this experience for her, not like this. But God could. Another miracle on the books.
I’ve experienced big, unbelievable get down on my knees miracles, too. My youngest was born with a hole in his heart. We spent the first couple of weeks of his life getting ultrasounds of his tiny ticker with the pediatric cardiologists at Children’s Hospital. And praying. A lot. But when we went in for his two month follow up—anxiety tight in my stomach, tears pricking the corners of my eyes—the ultrasound showed his hole had closed up on it’s own. It had repaired itself! This was what we’d hoped for, begged God for, the best-case scenario. There was no follow up necessary. A true lightning bolt, praise Jesus miracle.
How about you? Have you experienced a miracle? A big one that knocked your socks off? Small ones that no one else might count, that wouldn’t get you canonized or even in the local news, but a miracle none the less? Have you experienced something you could not have planned, predicted or pulled together no matter how hard you tried; yet somehow, there it was, the perfect moment just waiting for you?
The rest of the quote from The First Phone Call in Heaven reads, “But now and then, a miracle is declared to the world. And when that happens, things change.”
What if we shared our miracles? Not for bragging rights, because there’s nothing to take credit for, because we are so clearly not behind the miracles. But to be grateful. To say thanks to God who dropped them in our laps—little nuggets, that made things easier, happier, less complicated. Big reliefs and life changes and burdens lifted that overwhelmed us with gratitude. What if we shared these big and small miracles? What if we also paid attention, and took note of the miracles occurring in the lives of our friends and family?
What if by declaring our miracles to the world we really could make a change? We could help each other be more appreciate, live more in wonder, acknowledge more often that God is actively working in all of our lives on a daily basis. We could give Him not only credit, but also praise for doing so. Would we live a little less nervous, a little less anxious, knowing our God is alive and well and on our side? Would we sleep better, fret less, hug more freely? I’m guessing yes. Share with someone a miracle you’ve experienced today, and let’s see what kind of change we can make.
What miracles big or small have you experienced? I’d love to hear.
Laura L. Smith