I spent a whirlwind 48 hours in Nashville. I was blessed to be on a panel at a fabulous writing conference, meet some new author friends, hear some great content, catch up with one of my very best friends in the world, and spend some amazing time with my daughter who moved to Nashville over the summer. Maddie and I shared scrumptious meals, went for an awesome run on a crisp November morning, talked and laughed and giggled, ate Candy Cane Joe Joe’s (think Oreos with candy cane filling) from Trader Joes and tried to watch a Hallmark Christmas movie but fell asleep. It was jam packed and fun and exhilarating.
I cried as I was leaving the house. Because in order to go to Nashville and do all those marvelous things, I had to miss my younger daughter’s soccer tournament in North Carolina and two out of four of my youngest son’s performances of A Christmas Carol where he played both Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley.
You see, there’s only one of me. And even though I would love to be multiple places at once, I can’t. I’m just a person. A well intentioned person, but a person nonetheless. My heart felt like it was being ripped in pieces--one excited, joyful part headed to Nashville for a conference and to be with Maddie and to experience all the awesomeness I described above plus two sad, achy pieces knowing I wouldn’t be able to support two of my other kids in things that really matter to them.
It’s a dilemma many of us face. And as we head into the holidays with Thanksgiving tomorrow and then the full, beautiful Christmas season right on its turkey feathered tail, most of us are trying to do too much. Most of us feel pulled a bit thin. Like there’s not enough of us to do all the things we’re supposed to or would like to do.
But here’s the great, amazing, incredible news.
We don’t have to.
Jesus tell us, ““My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”--2 Corinthians 12:9
So, I think I need a time turner or another one of me or eighty four more hours this week or another pair (or two) of hands, and Jesus says, His grace is all we need. Let that sink in. You don’t need anything else. You see, it’s Christ’s grace that whispers to our hearts, “You don’t have to do it all or be all the things. I love you for exactly who you are, even if the house isn’t clean or you fumble on your test or you miss a workout, email or meeting. I love you if you’re tired. I love you if you’re late. I love you if you get carryout or buy something from the store or whip up a box of mac and cheese as the “item you bring to the Thanksgiving meal.”
And that next part? Even though we’re trained by culture to believe we shouldn’t show our weaknesses, Jesus says, those places? The places where we’re lacking--when we don’t know how to handle the conflict with the family member we’re sure to see, when we wish we could visit everyone in our hometown but don’t have the time or energy, when we yell at our kids or burn the pies or our mental or physical health issue flairs up making us incapable of doing anything at all--these are the places Jesus shines. His power is perfect. When we stop trying to be perfect, He can step in and give us the right words, help us bite our tongues, remind us it’s okay to rest and ask for help. When we let our guard down and stop trying to be superheroes we can receive the love, peace, grace, patience, forgiveness and so much more Jesus offers.
For those of you who have been following along on the blog or on my social media, you know over the last month I’ve been on a gratitude journey, intentionally being grateful. As we dive headfirst into Thanksgiving and then Christmas and all the wonderful and multiple things that go with that. I want to continue. And I believe that starts with being grateful for Christ’s grace. That it’s ALL we need. It’s all we need when we bake, shop, wrap, send, prepare, decorate. It’s all we need as we try to juggle our work, volunteering, and other commitments, as well as all the extra things we do from now until year end. Jesus’ power is perfect. Therefore ours doesn’t need to be. Thank goodness, because it can’t be. Never will. But Jesus is so loving and good that He uses His perfect power to fill in all our cracks, tie our loose ends, hold us up and hold us tight. This Thanksgiving (and every day) let’s be thankful for all the blessings God gives us. Let’s start by exhaling and being grateful for His all sufficient grace.
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A year ago I hadn’t even heard of the Museum of the Bible (ohmygosh who’s been to this incredible interactive museum in Washington, DC?). Today, not only am I itching to take a fieldtrip there, but I’m also excited to announce the release of this book I wrote for them--The Curious Kids Guide to Heroes and Villains in the Bible. A beautiful set of God-directed circumstances allowed me to write this book with my co-author, the brilliant theologian, Doug Powell. I pray Jesus will use it to teach curious kiddos and curious grown-ups how amazing His love and grace is.
For this writing project God enrolled me in Bible 101. I pored over page after page of books like 1 and 2 Chronicles and Job—books I rarely wade any further than ankle deep. Let’s just say I got soaking wet in the Word, which was incredible. And if that wasn’t amazing enough, I also got to be doused with a wealth of Biblical knowledge from my co-author. So after all that reading, and learning here was my biggest takeaway. Ready?
It’s going to sound a lot like The Breakfast Club. Remember the letter at the end to the principal, Mr. Vernon?
We’re all heroes and villains. Each and every one of us.
We’re all created by God—given unique talents and gifts from our Creator. If we’re followers of Jesus we’re handed God’s armor to protect us (Ephesians 6) and have the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5) planted inside us. Which enables us all to be good guys. If we want to be.
But God also gives us free will. And we exercise it liberally. Which leads to some of our bad guy tendencies. After spending time in the stories of over ninety historical folks, it’s easy to see how, where, and why so many of them slipped. And unfortunately, how I falter in some of the same ways.
King Saul was doing great, until he tried to do things his way instead of God’s way. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to take the wheel. Mine’s in the air.
Pontius Pilate was this close to letting Jesus off the hook, but then he worried about what people would think. Ugh. How often do we worry about what someone else thinks? About even something small like if our family will like the dinner we cooked?
Judas was one of Jesus’ closest friends, but he got frustrated when Jesus didn’t do things the way Judas wanted Him to—overturn the corrupt government. Ever wish God would do things differently—hurry up with this, make this cost or hurt less, change your circumstances? Yeah. Me, too.
This is starting to look bleak. But not really. Because if we take a peek at the lives of the heroes of the Bible, they were also a hot mess. David stole his friend’s wife. Peter pretended he didn’t know Jesus. The Apostle Paul murdered Christians, to name a few. How did those guys end up as heroes? They turned back to God. And God ALWAYS welcomes His children back with open arms. No matter how villainous we've been. This is amazing news!
We will mess up. We have days (or weeks, or even years) when we feel like villains (or other people might feel like we’re villains). But as long as we go back to Jesus, lay our sins down at the foot of the cross; and allow Him to love us? We get to be heroes. We get to trade in our black hats and wear the white ones. Because as the prophet, Isaiah reminds us, If your sins are blood-red, they’ll be snow-white. —Isaiah 1:18-19 MSG
This is worth celebrating! Jesus intentionally came down to earth to live among us, to die for us, so all our sins could be removed once and for all, so we could be heroes.
I don’t know about you, but in the final scene, I want to end up wearing the white hat, not the black one. So, I’m going to work on keeping my eyes on Jesus, on day after day turning back to Him. Will you join me?
Our family watched Jumanji the other night—the latest one with the Rock. The premise for the film is four high school students from different cliques all end up with detention together—think The Breakfast Club with a much nicer principal than Mr. Vernon.
During their Saturday morning punishment the four teens learn to appreciate one another for their true selves and discover greater understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses after being sucked into a video game. Each of the four students becomes a character in the game equipped with special super powers such as “dance fighting” and weaknesses—ranging from snake venom to mosquitos.
After watching I asked my kids, “What’s your super power?” Some of them listed their talents—soccer, acting, music, etc. Some named things that sounded plain fun, like invisibility. When we chatted about our weaknesses we came up with snakes, mice, splinters, and not enough sleep.
We all have weaknesses—things that stop us in our tracks that might not bother anyone else. This could be an issue with our physical or mental health, an event in our personal history that left a permanent scar, a person who brings out the worst in us, an addiction or fear. Or maybe like one of the Jumanji characters admitted, “I explode when I eat cake.” We don’t like to talk about our real weaknesses, but we know what they are.
And our super powers? As Christians we have the mightiest powers of all up our sleeves. Like prayer. We get to talk one on one with the Lord God Almighty. Who gets to do that? Us, that’s who! I mean we don’t need an invitation, or permission, or a special V.I.P. pass. We don’t need to know the right people, have the right credentials, or go through a security scan. We just get to talk to Him about anything and everything.
Not only do we get to talk to God, but we get to tap into His strength. What? Think of a strong force that literally wipes things out—hurricanes, earthquakes, avalanches—God makes those things. And we get to tap into that power. He’s on our side. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. –Ephesians 3:20
And how about this one? You probably won’t see it in any Xbox games, because it’s intangible, but this super power makes all the difference in the most trying situations—hope. Hope for a future. Hope for redemption. Hope because after Jesus was buried in a tomb, on the third day He sprang back to life claiming victory over the grave forever more. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. —Romans 15:13
As Christians we have a slew of super powers, but the most powerful of all is love. The apostle Paul explains this in a letter to the early church in Corinth, These three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. Love never fails. --1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, take it from Dumbledore near the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone. He explains to Harry how the powerful, evil Voldemort couldn’t even touch young Harry, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.” If that’s the protection a fictitious boy wizard has from someone who died for him, think how much more protection we have from a Savior who died for us. A Savior who still lives! Love. We are loved by the God who created everything. He designed us. He wants to be with us. He didn’t want to be separated from us, so He paid the ultimate price for us. And as a result we will live forever under His protection. It is in our very skin.
There are days that are rough. When we get a phone call from that person—the one who has a knack for making us feel small and incapable. Or waking up with a migraine, feeling like we’ll throw up, and a handful of Advil and hours later instead of getting better, it has gotten so much worse it’s almost paralyzing. The times we argue with someone we love, leaving both people depleted. The NO we receive when all we wanted to hear was YES. The days the thing we’ve been hoping to fix still appears broken. Jesus knows there will be seasons of pain and struggling in our lives. He warns, “In the world there will be tribulation.” But with the line up of super powers Jesus leaves us—prayer, God’s power, hope, and love, I feel like I can face anything. You can, too. Take it face on. Because the rest of Jesus’ sentence was, “But be of good cheer. For I have overcome the world.” —John 16:33.
Today you may or may not feel like a superhero. You may feel like the cute high school girl in Jumanji suddenly smashed into Jack Black’s body being gobbled up by hippos. Like you don’t fit. Like you’re not supposed to be here. Like you just want to escape this situation. But even when we’re out of breath, confused, angry, or frightened these powers are ours—immediately accessible, right this very moment. Talk to Jesus. Tap into His strength. Rest in the hope He offers. And collapse into His love. No matter how tough a challenge this level is, no matter how nasty the bad guys, no matter how much energy you do or don’t have left, He has overcome the world.
Today’s guest post is written by my friend and fellow, Playlist Fiction author, Rajdeep Paulus. She discusses inner strength, character development and her latest release, Seeing Through Stones, the sequel to her heart wrenching debut young adult novel, Swimming Through Clouds (both from Playlist Fiction).
At a recent book signing for Seeing Through Stones, an attendee asked the question, “Where does Talia (the protagonist) get her strength?”
Talia, as those of you who read Swimming Through Clouds know, has a heart-breaking background, one of which will require her to muster immense strength to get through. But like the average human (we’re talking all of us who don’t have super powers), she cannot hurdle life’s struggles without help. Talia’s help comes in a tri-fold package.
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Primarily, the first book opens with Talia finding a Post-it note. And then a second. And then several more. Her initial source of strength trickles into her heart via the words of a boy, Lagan, who is smitten over her. He not only drops petals of hope in her pathway, but he also asks her questions, never demands an answer, and shares his heart with her in little yellow square sheets. When their relationship develops to more face-to-face conversations, Lagan promises to “fight for her.” So, the hero has a crush on Talia, and as she starts to fall for him, she finds strength in him.
Talia’s second source of strength comes from her mother, or rather the memories of her mom. Talia remembers some of her deceased mother’s words, especially the plea to take care of Jesse, her brother. Deep down, Talia wants to honor her mother’s broken hearted life by not giving up, and perhaps fulfilling some of her mother’s extinguished dreams in her own life. In Seeing Through Stones, Talia has escaped the wrath of her life and found sanctuary at a women’s shelter. The women at the shelter are another huge source of strength for Talia, sharing their stories to remind Talia she’s not alone, suggesting ways to fight back she had never thought of before and filling in some of the gaps of the mom she’s lost.
Finally, the source of strength that allows Talia a new perspective of her life, shows her purpose, and reminds her of her worth comes from a Friend who speaks to her at a garden and in her dreams. A Friend she cannot see. He is referred to as The Gardener. I never name who The Gardener is, but I use symbolism to point readers to see He is no one other than Jesus. Thinking of how C.S. Lewis created Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, I longed to create a character who offered the main character hope in a way no human could. When I placed Talia under the willow tree in Chicago’s Botanical Garden, the idea of The Gardener naturally arose.
What I love about The Gardener is His ability to speak to Talia through nature. The broken branches of the willow. A sunny or cloudy day. The dirt of the earth. I also treasure the fact that He slowly becomes the father figure Talia always longed for. But my favorite aspect of their relationship is the freedom Talia has to disagree with Him. To not embrace everything He says without questioning Him. To not always get answers. I think these details authenticate Talia’s journey with The Gardener, because the strongest relationships are the ones that have been tested, and His omniscient nature allows Him to show up, regardless of Talia’s day or situation.
In the end, I think Talia’s journey is not unlike our own. We need friends and family to help us through the madness of this life. Similarly, our pasts shouldn’t dictate our futures, but we are shaped by what we’ve been through and by loved ones who have left us. Finally, many of us depend on someone bigger than ourselves. God. The Creator. The one who invented love, faithfulness, peace, and hope.
And if by changing Jesus’ name to The Gardener, a few more people connect with the universal longing to be loved and accepted, pursued and treasured, Talia’s journey will be more than a success for me.
Ultimately, all these sources bolster the muscles of Talia’s resolve and influence her not to give up. Because in the end, we all need someone who won’t give up on us. That’s what helps us to keep on keepin’ on. Yep. We all need that. Especially for those times when we give up on ourselves.
And you? Who is your source of strength? Ever receive a Post-it love note? Just curious.
I recently had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle marathon with a six-year old. Granted I knew who the turtles were, some kind of super heroes who ate pizza and shouted, “Cowabunga!” But, I’d never actually watched an episode.
The thing about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is—they mutate.
Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo began as four ordinary turtles in the sewer system of New York City, but after coming in contact with OOZE they mutated into these cool ninja-like heroes and were named after Italian painters. But the problem with OOZE is it doesn’t always have positive effects.
There is an episode (trust me, I watched eight in a row) where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mutate into creepish, monster-like versions of themselves. Instead of bringing peace they bring destruction. Instead of working together (“turtle power”) they attack one another.
I find myself mutating sometimes too. I don’t have to come in contact with TGRI (the chemical nickname for the OOZE) to turn into a monstrous version of myself. All it takes is something small and quirky. It might be the train gates clanging shut just as I approach, followed by the longest cargo train ever crossing the tracks to mutate me from my smiley self to an impatient grouch. Or if I spill my dark roast with mocha down the front of my white shirt, I mutate from feeling stylin’ to feeling like an ugly beast and growling a bit for good measure. If I hear a friend has been talking behind my back, I mutate into someone with a hole in my gut, who snaps and says unkind things in return.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles needed fragments of Vortex Crystal to stabilize their mutations. I need The Word.
Snub evil and cultivate good; run after peace for all you’re worth 1 Peter 3: 11
I read that, and I’m a bit less monstrous. I feel more comfortable in my own shell and don’t’ feel the need to bad-talk those who have bad-talked me.
OR Our God gives you everything you need, makes you everything you’re to be
2 Thessalonians 1:2
And then I’m less grouchy, less negative and less worried if I’m late for a meeting or have dark brown spots down my blouse.
God’s Word reminds me I am not alone, I am loved, I am capable, God will give me strength and stand by my side. I can breathe deeply, shake it off, cross the tracks, take a sip and walk proud, knowing I am stabilized.
Only the Vortex Crystal can save the turtles? What stabilizes you?
Who commands crowds so large, there’s standing room only?
Many people came to the house where he was staying so they could hear him speak. The house was so crowded that there was no room left anywhere. Mark 2
When George Clooney was filming The Ides of March on our college campus, students and townspeople huddled around his trailers in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Hollywood heartthrob. When Dave Matthews played at our University’s arena, the show was sold out in less than an hour, not a single seat left in the house. When our hockey team plays, despite their sleeping bags and overnight vigils, many students are turned away before getting limited, coveted tickets to the games.
“Which do you think is easier to do; heal this man so he can walk again or forgive his sins? But I will show you that I do have the power to forgive sins.” So Jesus said to the paralyzed man. “Stand up! Pick up your stretcher and walk!” The man got up at once, picked up his stretcher and walked out in front of the crowd. Mark 2
Who saves people today?
In our childhood imaginations there were Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman who always saved the innocent, locked the bad guys up and restored order to Gotham City or Metropolis. These guys weren’t just heroes, they were SUPER heroes. But they weren’t real.
In reality, we do have people who save lives; doctors, nurses, fire fighters, policemen, EMT’s, soldiers -- who save human kind from tragedy from danger – sometimes they help the lame walk. Often, they save lives. They are heroes. Real life heroes.
They can save our lives. But they cannot save our souls.
“How can this man say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’? Only God can forgive sins. Mark 2
Only Jesus can do that. He is the ultimate Superhero – saving the innocent, saving us, banishing Satan so he is powerless and restoring order to His people – restoring order to us, when we ask.
Who would you camp out to get a chance to see? Who is your hero?
Laura L. Smith