With all our time at home, we’ve been playing a lot of games. You? Clue is a fam favorite and when you play, the first thing you do is choose your character. I always choose Miss Scarlet. When it’s your turn you roll the dice, hopefully land in a room, and proceed to make some more choices. Who will you accuse? With what weapon? And as the game progresses your choices, along with some luck and deciphering, determine the winner of the game.
Today you and I get to choose. We don’t get to choose our health. We don’t get to choose where we’ll go (because, well….). But we do get to choose how we’ll let these quarantines and lockdowns affect us.
We can choose to move our bodies, because we’re still allowed outside for a walk or run or to toss a frisbee, walk a dog, shoot hoops, or hike through the woods. We can choose to eat healthy, because we have time to cook and the place we’re still allowed to go is the grocery. We can choose to love an actual neighbor in the neighborhood, by waving across the street, asking if they need anything. Sharing from our grocery delivery. We can choose to love our “neighbor” by writing a note (yes, on paper and putting it in the mail) calling someone (yes, on the phone) who lives alone or who we miss or who God has put on our hearts. We can choose to learn something new or hone that skill, because we have a zillion free podcasts plus YouTube at our fingertips, and again, we have time. We can choose to spend time with the Lord every day, because He’s here, right this moment, right by our side. He loves us. And He is the source of our strength, peace, joy, hope, and courage. All the excuses we used before as to why we couldn’t squeeze any time in our Bibles or in prayer have evaporated.
We can choose to keep going. Not give up on Bible study or that meeting we were supposed to have or even that coffee date just because we can’t meet in person. How about meeting and chatting via Google Hangout or Zoom or Houseparty?
We can choose our mood. I'm not talking about ignoring the pain or loss. Those are important emotions to process.
But we have the choice to grump and moan and complain about the inconveniences--"my investments are tanking!” “everything’s closed!” or choose to count our blessings—the grocery is still open, we have food, praise God! It’s sunny! It’s getting warm out! Thank you, Jesus, that this happened not in January when it was too cold, but now, in the spring so we can go outside and get a change of scenery and hear the twittering of the birds and take in the puffy white blossoms bursting on the Bradford pear trees. Thank you, Lord, for technology so I can still watch my church livestream, listen to music, download free e-books from the library, and do a silly Tik-Tok in the living room with my kids.
We can choose to be afraid in the midst of all this uncertainty. Or we can choose to listen to Jesus who told us on repeat, “Do not be afraid. Do not fear. Peace be with you. Worry about nothing. I will be with you always.”
We won’t always get it right and it’s not easy. We’re still either finding ourselves in close quarters day after day with the people we live with or finding ourselves alone for longer periods of time if we live alone. The grocery doesn’t have everything on our lists. A lot of us are tight on cash. There are people we care about on our hearts. This is not normal for any of us. And that can cause us to grumble or feel a little boxed in or on edge. And that’s natural. It’s okay. We’re adjusting.
But, see, God has always given us free choice, from the very beginning of time, and we can pick all the sweet, juicy fruit He’s given us access to, or we can try to go for the one He said is off limits (which at a time like this is the grumbling, the giving up, the state of fear).
Today I choose Christ. I choose the fruits of the Spirit that are ready and available to all of us—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I’ll slip and mess up, and make a poor choice, and snap at one of my kids, or not communicate well, or wish things were different, but then I pray I’ll choose to come back to who God is—good and kind and powerful and faithful—and rest in the choice to love and trust Him.
Because whether we choose to trust Jesus or not, He is in control. And He is inherently good. So, yeah, that’s where I’m choosing to focus today. Will you join me?
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A friend recently asked, “How do I connect with God when I feel distant from Him?”
My answer popped out, “You talk to Him.”
This isn’t a complete answer, and it might seem too simplistic, or maybe feel awkward to talk to someone you don’t sense is there, but this is where we start—talking to Jesus. It’s never about Jesus leaving us, because He simply doesn’t do that. Jesus told the disciples as He ascended into heaven, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”—Matthew 28:20
Always. To the very end.
So, it has nothing to do with where Jesus is. He’s with us. Always. To the end. It’s about how we’re hearing Him. Sometimes when we can’t hear His voice, it’s because we’re not even talking to Him, not inviting Him into our conversations. Sometimes, it’s because we’re not expecting Jesus to answer. And sometimes it’s because there’s so much garbage and pain between us and Him, His voice is muffled under all the things we’re muddling through.
What do I mean?
Let’s say you’re spending Thanksgiving with your family, and two of your family members aren’t exactly getting along. You’re worried about how to be nice to both, without upsetting either. You can already sense the tension, and you:
If you took any of these approaches, you might hear Jesus, but you might not. You barely asked and didn’t listen. If you had this same type of conversation with your best friend, you probably wouldn’t have heard much from them either. Jesus wants to hear from you. He loves you. He made you. He also loves and created those family members who are a hot mess. It doesn’t matter if you have even more issues than they do, or if you haven’t prayed recently or ever. Jesus is right there, with you, always, to the end. He wants to help, but we need to let Him. If we don’t turn over our issues and concerns to Jesus, we’re going to struggle to hear Him.
What if instead, you talked to Jesus like He was your best friend, because He wants to be, and just poured it all out, and let Him know all your feelings and worries, and how you long for the right words, and how you wish your family would be nice to each other. Even if you don’t sense Him, Jesus is there. Nodding and understanding. You might find yourself taking a deep breath, because Jesus offers peace. You might feel an idea of something you could initiate bubble up in your head—don’t friendly family football games seem to unite everybody? Hmmm. Or you might get a tangible response—a strong feeling of comfort, an uncanny ability to bite your tongue when they’re arguing, just the right words to ease the tension at just the right time. This is what hearing Jesus sometimes sounds like.
What worries, hopes, and fears are you clinging to? What concerns are spinning through your mind so fast, you can’t see or hear Jesus in the melee? An upcoming interview? A relationship? A health issue? One by one take your concerns to Jesus. Talk to Him about them. Go back to Him tomorrow. And the next day. Grab your Bible and read it before, during, or after you talk to Jesus. It is the Living Word of God. He will use those words to speak to you. Sit in silence and ask Him for peace, answers, energy, insights, healing, ideas, or patience.
Life can be complicated, so how do you get through all the muck and back to Jesus? Hand Him your problems, one by one. He wants to hear them.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:38-39
Jesus is there while you’re stuffing your turkey and stuffing your mouth with creamy, spicy pumpkin pie. Pass the Cool Whip please. He’s there when you’re trying to be patient with the cantankerous family member or attempting to herd the kids into the van or standing in line on Black Friday. He’s there in the big stuff and the little stuff and all the in-betweens.
There might be a lot of junk clogging your ears. There might be so many worries on your list that it’ll take you a while to empty them out of your pockets at Jesus’ feet. But as you do, you’ll start to hear Him again, feel Him again. You’ll realize you weren’t ever separated from Him. He was always there.
What do you do when you can’t feel Jesus? Go to Him. Over and over. He promises to be with you to the end of the earth, so act like you believe that truth, like you know He’s there even when you can’t “see” Him.
Let go of all the stuff that’s in the way. Jesus is always there, always has been, and always will be. That is something to be incredibly thankful for.
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I always thought it would be too hard to cut up a pineapple. I mean, look at those thorny things. Where do they even keep the fruit in there? So, when I actually treated myself to pineapple it was the approximately $94 for a small plastic tub of pineapple cubes in the produce department. Ridiculous. You guys, cutting up a pineapple is so easy! If you can extract fruit from a watermelon (and you did that all summer, right?) you can certainly dissect a pineapple. It’s practically the same thing. Yet I somehow bought into the grocery store lie that It’s way too hard for you. Let us do all the work and charge you a king’s ransom. It’s better this way. Trust us. Turns out, it’s not better that way. Pineapple is sweeter, fresher, and incredibly more delicious when it’s freshly released from its thorny protection. It’s also way cheaper.
We’ve all bought into lies. My grandma died of emphysema—a disease that destroyed her lungs brought on by smoking. When I was little, I begged her to quit and even hid her cigarettes. Every time, Grandma would argue, “I’m addicted now. It’s too late. But when I started I didn’t know it was bad for me. When I started smoking no one had any idea.” No idea? That inhaling ignited carcinogens could be lethal? But that generation honestly didn’t know. They’d been fed the lie that smoking was relaxing and glamorous and harmless.
Sometimes the lies we believe are out of convenience or lack of information. But what about the lies we’ve been told about our self worth? About how talented or smart we are or are not? About how attractive or ugly or fat or thin we are? How about the lies that we’re not good enough, can’t do it, shouldn’t even try? Or the lies that say we have to please this person and that person and achieve that thing and know those facts and cook those types of meals and do those kind of exercises if we want to be accepted or loved?
All these lies are as ludicrous as the one that you can’t chop a piece of fruit or that smoking can’t harm you.
You are loved.
You are accepted.
You are exactly as God intended you to be—brilliant, with your own set of special talents, and a unique calling that He has crafted specifically for you.
God has started a great work in you and won’t give up, or leave you alone, or fire you, or stop being proud of you, until that great work comes to completion.
You don’t have to have the fridge stocked with all the things, be on time to all of the events, wear the right pair of shoes while you’re there, and have your kids look or act a certain way to earn enough gold stars to keep going. God loves you today as you sit and read this blog, not wearing anything super spectacular, weighing exactly how much you weigh, with precisely the number of dollars you have in your bank account, the particular prospects you have in front of you, and exactly your specific social status. That’s how He loves you—how you are, not how you “have” to be, or how you think you “should” be.
What lies have you been listening to? Things someone or society or maybe even you, yourself, said about how you need to look or what you need to achieve and how and by when?
So, non-math me has been helping my daughter with Geometry proofs. Not my strong suit, but the thing about proofs, is even I can figure them out. They simply use facts to prove facts—very logical. Hard to argue or mess up. And if we want to sort out lies from truths, this seems to be a pretty good way to go. So when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” we hear that Jesus is truth. And since He’s God, and incapable of lying, let’s roll with that. Jesus is the truth. Fact.
Jesus also says, “I’ll be with you to the end of the world. I love you. I laid down my life for you. I forgive you. You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you. You are mine.”
So, if Jesus is truthful AND He claims you are precious, honored, redeemed, and loved. Then you are all of those things. FACT.
Stop believing silly lies. Stop accepting them as true without even picking up your knife and trying to pare them away. Slice off those prickly untruths today and savor the delicious truth that the One who created everything, created you. And He loves you so fully that He would do anything for you. He already has. Jesus died for you. This love. This truth. This is how we face our weeks, how we assess what truly matters and how we’re perceived. Truth. Not lies. You are precious. Honored. And loved. Believe it. Because it is true.
Have you ever watched an episode of the show Shark Tank? Our family is hooked. I mean, my husband is an entrepreneurship professor, but oddly he’s not the one driving our current obsession—it’s our twelve-year old son (insert laughing/crying emoji here). Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, it’s a reality show where real entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs (the sharks) in hopes that the seasoned professionals will invest in their new idea and help them grow their business.
People come in passionate about their ideas for everything from gourmet cupcakes to reflective life-saving devices. The entrepreneur gives a quick synopsis of what their product is, the need it fills, and why the sharks should invest in them. Next, the expert entrepreneurs (with net worths of over $50 million a piece) ask tough questions, give advice, and frequently make offers to invest in the proposed new business ideas for a percentage of the entrepreneur’s company.
It takes passion and guts to go on this show and face the scrutiny of the sharks. Our family loves to hear the wacky and interesting pitches. We also love to guess which, if any shark, will partner with the excited entrepreneur. And we are dumbfounded when the person pitching an idea refuses to listen to the advice of the seasoned millionaires and turns down deals for hundreds of thousands of dollars, because they want to do things their way. They really want their business to be a retail store instead of an online store even though the folks who have made millions online are instructing them to go away from strip malls OR they really want to sell their product for a premium price when all the sharks who have made a bundle selling things on QVC and Best Buy recommend they make their product less expensive and sell it the masses. The entrepreneurs come to the show for expert advice and funding, but they often walk away from it, because they don’t want to hear what the specialists are suggesting.
He who has ears, let him hear. –Matthew 13:9
Do we do this? Do I do this? Do I go to God for expert advice, and then turn away from Him, because what He has to say isn’t always what I want to hear? Things like; be patient, not now, not him, not here, try again, forgive, go deeper, one more time, bite your tongue…to name a few.
I get it. I’ll spend months or years pouring myself into a manuscript, searching for perfect words and phrases, studying Bible passages, rewriting, revising, and rewriting again. And then I hand it over to my critique partners, agent, or an editor. My manuscript always comes back with countless edits. And my instinct is, I can’t take out that chapter, I worked so hard on it. Or I don’t want to find a different example to use here. I felt that one illustrated my point. But then, I take a deep breath. Put aside my pride. Let go of “my way.” And realize, these opinions are expert opinions—from writers I trust, an agent who is on my side, editors who know the industry. These comments aren’t a personal affront; they are words of wisdom given with kindness, to help my writing grow. My kids get similar input from their coaches. Friends get it from their doctors or bosses—advice from those who know best. This is what the sharks are trying to give the business owners who come on Shark Tank—knowledge, wisdom, a deeper understanding.
And this is what God gives us too. We go about our lives making our choices, planning our days, doing our things, fighting our battles. We wish God would just clean up our messes, make our decisions easy, and solve our problems. But are we turning to Him to get the answers? Or just hoping He’ll drop a new job, cure, or nap, in our laps? Are we listening to the advice He’s already given us—His knowledge, wisdom, and deeper understanding that comes from Him, because He is God? Or are we walking away from it, because it conflicts with what we’d like to hear?
Should we take that job? Hang out with that person? Attend that event? Go that place? Confront this friend? The expert opinion is there—at our fingertips between the pages of the Bible. It’s also available when we pause and talk to God and let Him fill our heart with answers, or maybe when we talk to another friend who loves Jesus and she reminds us who God is and how that impacts our decisions. Yes, we want answers. We all want answers, but are we listening when God gives them to us?
I’m reminded of that story about a man in a flood who begged God to save him. A woman came along with a raft and told the man to hop on. He said, “No, thanks, I’m waiting for God to save me.” A guy came by with a boat and told him to climb aboard. The man said, “No thanks, I’m waiting on God to save me.” As the waters were surrounding him, an airplane flew overhead and dropped a rope. But the man didn’t reach out, because he was waiting on God. He died in the flood, went to heaven and asked God, “Why didn’t you save me?” God answered, “I sent you a raft, a boat, and an airplane! Why didn’t you hop on?”
I’m full of questions, too. I have big questions like how to handle a strained relationship. I have smaller questions like wondering if I should run more to build up my cardio or pull back to protect my trick knee. God wants to guide me. He wants to guide you, too. He has plans for us for glorious living, and he wants us to walk into those plans and live them full out. God’s not going to keep it a secret from us. If He really wants us to move or invite that person or take a chance, God will let us know. Maybe that’s why Jesus asks six times in the Bible, “Are you listening to this, really listening?” Mark 4:23
We need to listen to the advice He’s put in front of us. Keep our eyes open—seek Him in prayer and through studying His word. Seek Him in those around us. Take time from our whirlwind summers to allow His love and peace and joy to sink into our sunburnt skin. We need to understand that sometimes that raft or expert advice from a shark is the answer from God we’re looking for. And just because it’s different than what we hoped to hear or how we thought it might sound, doesn’t mean we should tune it out, or walk away.
My heart is circling around three questions this week. All because of Shark Tank. Gheesh.
I’m praying for all of us this week. That we truly understand how great our God is. Those millionaires on Shark Tank have some brilliant business ideas. Can you even fathom how much greater God’s advice is? I’m praying we understand this awesomeness, and then tap into Him—the guidance and love He freely gives us, the offers He makes. I’m praying we’re bold enough to joyfully say, “God, I am so excited to go with your plan—to accept your offer!”
When I was little I had a picture book, a Golden Book, (does anyone remember those?) starring Grover from Sesame Street. It was titled The Monster at the End of This Book. The plot is Grover warning the reader not to turn the page, because he is so frightened about the monster on the last page. Turns out, the monster on the last page is Grover. Sometimes the monsters we are most frightened of are ourselves.
You guys I am typically a smiley, happy girl. I’m a morning person. I’m a hugger. I love sunshine and daisies. My glass is half full. But there is a monster that lives inside of me. She came out yesterday, on the phone with a customer service representative. I said things out loud to this poor woman like, “I don’t need you to repeat the same sentence over and over to me.” Oh my.
What gets in to me? Why in the world would I treat someone on the other end of the phone with disrespect and unkindness? I can try to justify that I was extremely frustrated, that it was for my college daughter’s debit card, and she’s going to need it as she heads out of town and back to campus. And I love my daughter and instinctively protect her. But the woman whose job it is to process debit cards does not deserve my sass. No one does.
I don’t know if anyone else struggles with this, if the Christmas returns or bills brought out your inner-monster? Maybe you turn into monster-mode in rush hour traffic, long lines or after a long day of working or parenting or all of the above. If so, how do you handle these emotions? What does it take for you to simmer down?
Me? I literally had to get off the phone. I ended the call without any resolution whatsoever by saying, “I’m so frustrated I just need to go. Have a great day.” I did sneak in ‘have a great day’, but no one was buying my brand of fake friendliness.
Once off the phone, I walked a lap around the house, took a couple of deep breaths, and tried to figure out why I got so riled up. God reminded me no matter what happened on the other end of the phone, I could control what happened on my end, and I had chosen poorly. I immediately asked God to forgive me. Because hadn’t my pride just taken over? My feeling of entitlement? So not pretty. I apologized to my daughter who had overheard the whole conversation, because I was ashamed of how I'd handled the call. Very poor modeling on my end. I don’t know how to apologize to the woman on the phone, or to the woman from Time Warner I spoke to last month when canceling cable, or to the Samsung representative I spoke to last summer when my washing machine was exploding. But I’m doing it here. A public confession of my rudeness. I didn’t curse or call anyone names, but I was extremely impatient and ungrateful. And I am so sorry. This is not behavior becoming of anyone. And it is certainly not what Jesus had in mind when He instructed us to love our neighbors as ourselves. To all of you customer service reps, YOU ARE AMAZING FOR PUTTING UP WITH ALL OF THE NONSENSE. I appreciate each and every one of you. I can’t imagine what you hear in a day. I am so sorry I did not treat you with the love you deserve.
This monster inside of me. I do not like her. Like Grover, I fear getting to the part in the story where I emerge—possibly when I need to call the insurance company. So I’m taking this one to God. Like the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (7:15), I want to say, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
The good news? Jesus. Jesus forgives all of this yuck, and the rest of the ickiness inside us, too. He restores our brokenness and heals our wounds. He files down our fangs, clips our claws, and tames our roars. And then even though He sees plain and clear the monster part, Jesus pulls us in close, hugs us and says, “I love you.”
As Paul asks then answers a few verses down (v. 24-25) to the Romans, “Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”
Brandon Heath puts it similarly in his song, “Wait and See”:
There is hope for me yet
Because God won't forget
All the plans He's made for me
I'll have to wait and see
He's not finished with me yet
This is the very best news. If there’s any percent monster in you (even a blue, fluffy one) then know it’s okay. There’s hope for us. God loves us anyway. He’s not finished with us. He has great plans for us that go way above and beyond phone calls and driving through traffic. Whew. We can turn the page and do so with courage and expectance of how God will guide us and help us back on track when we stray.
P.S. They’ve animated The Monster at the End of This Book and Grover narrates it. If you have a little one, this is a brilliant way to entertain them when their inner monster is flaring.
My husband and I joke that God’s voice might sound a whole lot like James Earl Jones'. We were reminded of that tonight. We had a family movie night and watched Field of Dreams. I hadn’t seen this movie since it first came out, which was closing on twenty years ago—yikes! But I still remembered the key line, “Build it and they will come.”
You guys I feel like that all of the time. Like God is whispering to me, “Write it and they will read. Write about your kids’ soccer games, what a bad driver you are, how you let a squirrel into church, peanut butter, that book you read.”
And I think, “Eh? Really? Who wants to hear about that?”
And God, says, “Write it. Write if for Me. I’ll do something with it.”
And so I write. And I hope someone will read the words. But more importantly I pray over each blog that it will somehow impact somebody out there, that someone will understand how much God loves them just a little bit better. That someone will truly believe in their bones a milli-moment more that they are uniquely created by the ultimate Creator to do amazing things. I pray before I open the lid of my Mac, before I click “publish” on a new blog, before I push “send” on a proposal or manuscript or revisions or fourth round of revisions to an editor, before I walk out in front of an audience, before I sync something on social media. I pray that God will use the words He gave me for His glory.
Because none of the words come from me. None of the stories come from me.
Just like Kevin Costner hears a voice in the cornfield telling him to build a baseball field, I believe God calls me to write the craziest things, the things that don’t make sense. But when I do? Something insane happens. It’s no longer about the stories I tell, it’s all about getting closer to Jesus. For a flash, I catch a glimpse His all encompassing love and power. And it is marvelous.
I also believe that God calls each of you to the zaniest most fabulous things. What is He calling you to do today? How weird does it sound? How limitless are the possibilities?
Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, built a baseball field, not because he’d always wanted to, not because it made sense, not to turn a profit, or to give his daughter a place to play, but simply in obedience to a voice. And then?
And Ray questions and wonders if he made the right decision, if he was out of his mind. But one day Ray walks outside and sees baseball legend, Shoeless Joe, standing on his field. The next day several baseball greats are playing on Ray’s field. The movie ends with Ray unexpectedly healing one of his own hurts and a line of cars coming to pay admission to see his field. Ray obeyed the voice even when it seemed counterintuitive to everything he knew. And something awesome happened. That’s how God works.
“March around a wall seven times. That’s how you’ll take this city,” God told Joshua and his army as they faced the impenetrable wall of Jericho. And the walls fell down.
“Oh yeah, fight their army of thousands carrying tons of sharp weapons with only pots and trumpets. You’re sure to win,” God told Gideon and his army of 300. And they won.
The poor will be rich.
The blind will see.
What wackiness is God calling you to?
We’ll all hear His voice in different ways. He calls us all to unique, specific work. And sometimes what God says seems out of the question, like something we would never be able or want to do. Ray’s wife, Annie, in Field of Dreams asks, “Why didn’t the voice send someone else?” And sometimes we ask that same question. Even Moses asked that question. But when God calls you. He calls YOU.
This film came out in 1989. Technology was different. Very. I laughed when Kevin Costner goes to the library and views microfiche, and when his wife answers the telephone with a cord. Plugged into the wall. My husband and I had to explain these things to the children. What if no one had followed God’s call to invent Google to replace microfiche or cell phones to replace wall phones? Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple spoke in our college town this past week about all of the things he was curious about, all the problems he wanted to solve, how if something had a glitch he wanted to fix it. What if he hadn’t? What if you don’t answer God’s voice? What will the world miss out on?
What is God calling you to do today? To build? To create? To join? To take on? To write? To learn? To say? To act upon?
What’s stopping you? Are you afraid of what someone will think or how they’ll react? Are you unsure of the numbers? Of the odds? Of yourself?
I know Field of Dreams is a movie, folks, but I was overwhelmed by how much it mirrors God’s call in our lives. Kevin Costner looks cuckoo. He risks his farm, his profit, and his reputation. But he knows it is what he is called to do. And just when everything seems to be falling apart—like he’ll lose his land and go bankrupt, everything falls into place.
Because God’s plans are perfect plans. Yes, His plans seem out there sometimes. Because, well He’s not of this world. Sometimes earthly obstacles feel like roadblocks when we try executing God’s plans. But if we’re obedient, if we listen when He asks us to do something? Then baseball legends from the past walk out of cornfields, strangers read about my quirky days and somehow feel God’s love, battles are won, slaves freed, and the meek inherit the earth.
My husband and I recently snuck away to Monterosso, a small Italian fishing village. In my eyes, it is the most beautiful place on earth. Monterosso is an adorable water-colored village nestled along the coast, protected by jagged cliffs and connected by trains and trails to four other neighboring towns that together comprise the Cinque Terre (five lands).
A train ride from one town to another lasts approximately three minutes. But if you travel by foot, the hikes take between two to three hours. The trails climb up from the centers of the towns through vineyards and past waterfalls to high peaks. They level out offering countless views of the aqua blue Ligurian Sea, then wind back down into the next adorable village. Each trail is unique—one is predominantly stairs, another slanty and muddy, some narrow, some broad, but they all promise to work your leg muscles, provide you with spectacular vistas, and guide you along the way via red and white trail markers.
Okay, I’m laughing as I type. Because the trail markers, well, they’re not like the street signs this Ohio girl is accustomed to. They are basically hand painted stripes that could show up on a rock, a tree, a signpost, or any seemingly random interval the trailblazer decided to paint them. So let’s just say as my husband and I hiked our way through the Cinque Terre, we took more than a few wrong turns at Albuquerque.
But the markers were always there, albeit sometimes hidden. And when we felt extremely uncertain and unsure, we could hone in, focus, and eventually find another set of red and white stripes—on a fence, on a wall—reminding us where to go, to keep us headed in the right direction.
Step after step, bend after bend, the twists of the trails reminded me of the journeys of life. The times I’m walking along, enjoying the sunshine, when all of a sudden I have to watch my step, hold on to the rail, because things went wonky, and if I’m not careful I could slip or fall or twist myself into a dangerous place—somewhere I shouldn’t be. The gratefulness when I regain my footing, when I successfully maneuver through a tight spot, and even when after stumbling, I’m able to stand back up, brush myself off, assess the scrapes and scratches, and say, “I’m okay.” The times I’m exhausted, out of breath, but I keep going, one step after another, and then out of the blue I’m rewarded for obediently moving forward by one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen—vibrant indigo Morning Glories blooming inexplicably out of rocks, rows of vines intricately twisted lush with grapes, whispery silver leaves on a shady olive tree, the sea as far as my eyes can focus. There’s also the awe of viewing something I’ve never seen before just when I least expect it.
And of course, like life, there are all of the splits in the trail—the should I go up or down, turn left or right places. I have so many friends facing forks in their roads—should they move? Stay put? Change jobs? Who should they room with? If they’re supposed to go, where should they go? What classes should they take? What should they give up in order to have time for the thing they’ve been called to? How will they pay for it?
How about you? Any questions on your heart—decisions you’re trying to make? Turns in your life journey?
On our Italian hikes the signs seemed irregular to me, not where I would have put them, not how I would have marked things, but they were there. And when we are not sure what our next steps in life should be, when we can’t “see the signs” they are also there. We just have to focus, intentionally hone in, because we all have someone to help us along the way. Jesus says, “I am the way.” Which sure is reassuring when we’re lost, confused, misguided, or the backs of our legs are cramping.
I know Jesus is the way. I am confident He will lead my steps and show me where to go. Only sometimes when I’m at the fork in the road, looking left and right I don’t hear Him, can’t tell which way He wants me to go. Usually, because I’m looking in the wrong places in the wrong ways and muffling His voice with the noise of the world. So I get frazzled and flustered and frustrated. My heart beats too fast, and I worry that I’m lost. Should I be in the middle of someone’s lemon grove (yes that happened)? It just doesn’t feel right.
It’s one thing on a vacation hike, but in real life when we feel lost and confused what are we supposed to do? Take a deep breath, remind ourselves that He is with us, that He will never forsake us (similar to reminding myself someone has marked this trail. I have seen the markers. There will be more). And take a few steps forward.
For the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. —Deuteronomy 31:6
And if after five minutes of hiking, or five months of praying we still feel unsettled, well then, it’s usually time to get a sip of water, maybe nibble on a granola bar from our backpacks, and circle back, to the last time we turned, to where the path split, when we last made a choice. When I’m in the wrong place and actually take time to retrace my steps, it usually becomes quite clear where I went wrong.
Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. —Hebrews 13:5
And sure enough when I go back to where I veered, there is one of those crazy sets of stripes. Red and white. Red, like Christ’s blood that He shed to save us from all of our mistakes, missteps, and wrong turns. And white like how pure and clean we are now, because of His love. With signs like that, we can be assured we’re on the right track. We just need to seek His direction, go where He leads us, then take in the views.
For me in hiking (and in life), the thrill is not in reaching the destination at the end of the journey—no the joy is in the discovery, in the learning, in the overcoming the challenges, in the surprises I could have never imagined, but that God delights me with along the way.
Where are you headed today? Follow the markers God has put out for you and delight in the journey.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a yellow ball climbing a tree.
I saw it, but was listening to my daughter tell a story, so I kept my eyes trained on her. But as it ascended higher in my peripheral, I had to look again. Of course it wasn’t actually a yellow ball climbing a tree, but it was a squirrel with a golden apple clutched between its teeth scaling high branches and seemingly defying gravity.
I recognized that apple as the slightly mushy one that had been sitting in our fruit basket yesterday, as the one I’d tossed out the window, because I’m big on composting and small on mushy apples.
The squirrel must have been out of his mind with joy when he saw that giant feast in the midst of the bleak frozen January ground. I imagine he’d been foraging for anything—a piece of bark, a forgotten acorn, but this apple was something he’d never even hoped for. About two thirds of the apple remained. He’d clearly already taken large, ravenous bites.
I started laughing. My daughter joined me at the window, and we watched the little guy for several moments, teetering from the weight of the apple, yet clearly clinging to his prize. The heaviness of the fruit threw off his balance and hindered his climb upward, but he kept at it, swerving and stepping, uncertain of what to do next. After several moments of amazing acrobatic feats he set the apple down in the crook of two branches and continued his climb without it.
Every move of this squirrel was hilarious. It also seemed to be speaking directly to me.
Because if God unexpectedly drops a giant piece of juicy fruit on my path this year, I want to take a bite. I don’t want to pass it by, because it’s not part of my normal routine, because I’ve never had an apple appear on my trail before, because I was looking for something else, because it seems bigger than I can handle. I want to learn how to embrace the gifts and opportunities God sets before me, even if it means I have to alter my gait, or rearrange things to maintain balance.
But I also want to know when something is not from God and when God says it’s time to be done. When it’s too heavy, too burdensome, when something I take on is actually hindering living fully for Him.
When new things come my way, I get excited and often say, “I want to seize the day, change the world, make a difference, dream big, have bold goals, get busy, and I want to do it N-O-W!” But I also want to be conscious of allowing for down time, Sabbath. So, other days I worry about taking on too much and say, “Maybe that will be too challenging, demand too much from me or my family. Maybe we should just stay home, pop on our pj’s and watch a movie?” I live on both sides of the balance beam, so where does that leave me? I guess with a giant apple clenched between my teeth, not sure what to do next.
But, God knows exactly what to do.
So my prayer this year, is to check out those apples. And if I feel God has placed them on my path, then take large, hungry bites. But as I chew them, I want to ask God again, “Now what?” And if He says, ‘keep eating’ or ‘pick it up and run with it,’ then I want to do exactly that. And if it gets to a point where the apple grows burdensome and challenging, I want to ask God again. And if He says, ‘You can do all things through Me,’ or ‘Keep running the race,’ then I want to muster all of my energy and keep climbing fervently. But… if God says, ‘It’s time to put it down,” then I want to set that apple between the crook of two branches and walk away. No matter if that means that apple is now for another squirrel, or for me to come back to later, or so I can pick something else up, or for another reason altogether, great.
This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, “What’s next, Papa?” –Romans 8:15
I think of life like walking along a balance beam, trying not to lean too far in either direction. But this doesn’t mean taking each step, methodically and measured. Yes, the end result requires balance, but the actual journey might mean sprinting full speed ahead until our sides hurt and then pushing ourselves even further, ravenously sinking our teeth into opportunities. Being feisty, scrappy and gulping down large swallows of life. But at other times it means sipping life sweetly through a straw, going for a quiet stroll, or just sitting still. It means experiencing the absolute freedom of setting down our burdens and exhaling a deep breath of relief. It means some nights making homemade pizzas with multiple toppings and dough that needs to rise all day and other nights ordering Papa Johns. At the end of a long day, both taste delicious. Both are satisfying. Both are sometimes necessary.
So no matter what God has in store in 2017—whether that’s picking something up or setting it down, let’s do it adventurously and expectantly.
I have wobbly knees.
Apparently it’s genetic, but it wasn’t something I ever noticed like the hazel eyes from my mom or the extra large skull from my dad’s side (honestly, finding hats and headbands to fit my cranium is a struggle). But my left knee started failing me about a year ago. It would cramp and stiffen and felt like it didn’t want to bend. It was painful to go running, and I could no longer sit crisscross applesauce. I self-diagnosed. I figured I’d tweaked it running and took a month off exercise, which was a bummer, but seemingly sensible. I eased my way back in—walking instead of running, being more cautious during certain yoga poses, wearing a discarded knee brace I found in our closet. Someone suggested it was my running shoes, so I bought a new pair. A friend taught me how to frame my kneecap with kinesiology tape. I bought some and taped up. With all of these slight adjustments to my routine, my knee bent again. It was less sore. But every time I went for a run it would hold up its “on strike” sign later that evening.
So, after a year I went to see a doctor. I got an X-ray and an MRI. He looked at the soles of my running shoes and stuck his thumb in the tender, achy spot on my knee. Great news. I don’t have a torn meniscus or arthritis or any other word ending in –is or –us. I don’t need surgery or shots. The diagnosis—my kneecaps wobble like crazy. So, every time I take a step my knees do a mini version of The Charleston, causing my kneecap to rub against my meniscus until it feels raw.
Solution—physical therapy. Retraining my legs to work different muscles. Strengthening my hips and glutes to do more work, to absorb the shock of each step that lands when I run, so my knees won’t take such a beating.
I can’t remember the first time I ran. And I certainly don’t remember it being something I had to learn how to do. I was small and my brother probably taunted, “Can’t catch me,” and I tore off after him. In my twenties after dancing all my life, I switched to running as a form of exercise, but I had to learn how—how to pace myself, how to breathe. I needed a running partner to get me going, teach me the ropes, and urge me on. But in those laps around the local park with my husband, I never considered my hips or glutes or knees in the process. It’s fascinating to me, that in my forties I’m learning how to run all over again.
But it’s the same way with my faith.
I don’t remember the first time I prayed or realized there was a God. For me, as a child, there just was One. I prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” before bed and, “God is great, God is good,” before dinner. I believed God was the Creator of the world and that Jesus loved me, this I knew.
But throughout my life, I’ve injured my faith. I’ve tried to ignore problems, self diagnose, and do things on my own. At summer camp during an awkward junior high summer, I found God outside of the steeples and folded hands where I'd always seen Him. I felt Him in the warmth of a bonfire and in the exhiliration of riding a horse through trails in the woods, in gooey s'mores, and archery ranges. He was everywhere. I re-learned what it felt like to love God, to worship Him. Even though I’d always known God, this felt good and new and right.
But years passed and the world demanded I perform—that I achieve good grades, be accepted into a good school, look a certain way, and do certain things. And I believed it. As a result, my faith got rubbed raw by my wobbly self-confidence. No matter how much I achieved, no matter how hard I tried to fix my wounds of self doubt on my own, I didn’t feel loved or worthy or enough. This time God had to step in and heal me. I couldn’t mend the damage on my own. He introduced me to my future husband—a running partner, so to speak. With Brett at my side, showing me what love and acceptance looked like, I picked back up my Bible, started attending church again, and found friends who also valued their faith. With God’s (and Brett’s) help I retrained my faith muscles to find my value from Jesus. During this season I had to pace myself and learn how to breathe, but it helped me remember God loves me unconditionally, no matter how many deals I did or didn’t turn in, no matter how much money I did or didn’t make, or what brand of shoes I wore. And it changed things for me. In beautiful ways. I got married. I became a mother. I quit my day job and began writing.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. —Matthew 5:5
With my physical therapy I am doing exercises to retrain my muscles, to change my gait, balance, and landings. My therapist said I’ll only need a few sessions with her, but I’ll need to maintain these exercises the rest of my life.
My faith therapy needs to be the same. Today I feel loved and full of purpose. But I need to constantly train my soul muscles to accept Jesus’ free grace, eliminating the need to legitimize my worth to anybody. I need to focus on how I go about my days, with what intent, for what purpose, for whose glory? I need to balance the things I want to check off my to-do list with the things God calls me to do. Every time I fall down, because I do, often, I need to land on Jesus—on His love, His forgiveness, His grace. It is a constant with me, but when I retrain my focus on Jesus and how much He loves me, He absorbs the shocks, bumps, pains, and challenges of my life and allows me to land softer with less wear and tear. He took the beating, so we don’t have to. Exercise your faith muscles today and allow him to soften your landings.
Are there any faith muscles you’re working on strengthening this year? I’d love to hear about it.
I’m snuggled on the couch with my youngest on a rainy Saturday morning watching Prince Caspian with tears dripping down my cheeks.
Yes, I’m a total Narnia fangirl. Can’t even count how many times I’ve read all of the books by C.S. Lewis or watched the movies, but I am so enamored with these tales because they resonate so strongly with me and my faith journey. And just as Aslan tells Lucy in the story, “Things never happen the same way twice,” I am never hit by these stories of a magical land, and their perfect, untamed ruler, Aslan, the same way twice. This viewing I was deeply challenged about the motivations behind all I do.
In Prince Caspian, High King Peter and his royal siblings have been magically called back to the land of Narnia to help this nation and its people (um, well, citizens) in a dire, dark time. Peter is not only excited to be back in his realm, but also thrilled to be High King once more—to be respected, honored, to have people seek his opinion and listen to his ideas. And we all seek that, respect, honor, self-worth. But Peter gets it wrong. I get it wrong too, day after day.
Peter starts making plans—which way to go, how to attack the enemy, and other kingly type decisions—but he makes them without seeking guidance or direction from Aslan (who represents Jesus in this allegory). And not surprisingly, he and his companions get lost, lose time, resources, troops, and are forced to retreat. Just like when I start making plans—deciding what to do and how to do it, how to strategize my days, my goals, fight my personal battles without consulting Jesus. Guess what happens? Duh. I get lost along the way, distracted, waste time and resources, and end up feeling like a failure.
There is a pivotal point in the movie when Peter’s sister, Susan, asks Peter, “Just who are you doing this for anyway?” Ouch. Clearly this is not Peter at his best. And I had to ask myself, who am I doing life for? Who are you doing your thing for today?
Convicted, Peter changes his tune, slightly. He raises his sword and calls one of my favorite battle cries, “For Narnia!” And he almost gets it, but not quite. Just like when I make a special meal for my family and think, “This is to make my family feel loved and special.” Or when I write an article about true beauty, and think to myself, “this is to help show people how beautiful they are.” I’ve almost got it, but not quite. My family is awesome, and I want them to know it. I do write to spread the word that we are all unique beautiful individuals. You may be folding someone’s laundry so they have clean clothes, or working someone’s shift as a favor to give them some relief, or working late to help a client solve a problem, or maybe you gave up something for Lent, because it helped you with self-control. There are plenty of good causes, good reasons to do what we do, but ultimately there is one that matters more than any of the others.
May Your voice be louder
May Your voice be clearer
Than all the others
Than all the others
“Full Attention” by Jeremy Riddle
There is a turning point in the movie where the final battle is all but lost by Peter and his troops. The enemy is overtaking them in droves. Left with no choice but to attempt to save the lives of the remaining good guys, the Narnians are retreating once more, this time to their fort. But the enemy implodes their fort, their one safe place. There is nowhere left to run. Nowhere left to hide. It is only at this desperate, hopeless place that Peter looks at his companions, nods, and knows exactly what to do. Peter turns around to face the enemy he’d been running from head on, pulls out his sword and changes one word in his call “For Aslan!” He screams and rushes towards the oncoming opponent. This is Peter at his absolute best, bravest, humblest, wisest, kindest—the most brilliant version of himself. Yes, this is the part where tears stream down my face.
And in this exact moment Aslan’s reinforcements, an army of trees, appears, and overtakes the enemy. Doing it for Aslan instead of for himself, or even for the noble cause of his nation is a gamechanger for Peter. Who am I fighting my battles for? For me? For a good cause? Or for Jesus? Why am I so stupidly trying to do things my way, when time and time again God shows up and turns the tables, and knocks down my walls, and clears the way for victory?
When I call out, “For Jesus!” I’m no longer struggling, no longer feeling like not enough. My eyes are opened to unexpected opportunities. I can see myself better for who I am, and what I am called to do. I am more able to see a better version of myself, my true reflection. You can too. It only takes changing one word in our battle cries.
How about you? Who are you working, playing, studying, parenting, living for today?
Laura L. Smith