My Favorite Reads of 2022
I made some progress in my to-read stack this year, but every time I took one book off, more seemed to multiply in its place. Which is wonderful, because bring on ALL the books! I usually give you my “best” books in a couple of categories each January, but it’s so hard to pick “best” when there are so many grand books. So this year, I’m just going to share some of my favorites.
I discovered a new author, Clare Pooley. Her writing is honest and authentic. My daughter loaned me her copy of The Authenticity Project, which I devoured and loved so much I went on to read Pooley’s other novel Iona Iverson’s Rules of Commuting. It was so good I bought a copy for my girl. Both books give glimpses of a variety of individual’s lives that collide under a set of unusual circumstances. Their interactions remind us that everyone has value and deserves to be seen, and that first impressions don’t tell the real story.
I dove into Charles Martin’s third book in his Murphy Shepherd series, The Record Keeper. I raved about the first two last year here ). The Record Keeper was. So. Good. In this trilogy Martin exposes the detestable sex trafficking industry throughout the plot raising awareness of the heinous crimes being committed against young people. But it is the journeys of healing the characters travel that are the gold nuggets here. They remind us that there is hope and redemption for us all. Read these books starting with #1. Allow the stories to roll over you. Breathe them in and believe that the healing grace offered the characters is available for you, too. Because it is.
I'm trying to broaden my Midwestern white girl perspective. Two books that helped this year were I Take My Coffee Black by Tyler Merritt and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The social justice work Bryan Stevenson does and shares in Just Mercy is beautiful, hard, life-changing work. As Rosa Parks told Bryan when they met, "You're going to be tired, tired tired. So you're going to need to be brave, brave, brave."
I learned so much about systemic racism, the prison system, death row, and humanity on these pages. Bryan is so bravely loving His neighbors, taking back ground for God's kingdom, and saving and changing people's lives (Just Mercy is also a powerful movie).
Tyler Merritt is funny, smart, creative, full of faith and warm-hearted. He weaves important, historical information on systemic racism throughout his personal narrative. Merritt honestly steps into hard life situations, but always bounces back to the love and grace of Jesus. Tyler also loves all things Hamilton and almost every genre of music, which is an added bonus. For a glimpse of Tyler’s work watch his YouTube video, “If Only She Knew”
As usual, this year I spent a lot of time reading my favorite book–the Bible. I mostly hung out in the Old Testament (with extra time in the Psalms) but also had an extended stay in Ephesians, plus frequent dips into the Gospels. I read books on faith and Jesus and the Bible. I absolutely loved Shauna Niequist’s I Guess I Haven’t Learned that Yet. I read more World War II Historical Fiction set in France, like Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah, because, please, I cannot resist. I also enjoyed a couple of fun romances by Betsy St. Amant like All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes, because I have a sweet tooth for romance. You can find my reviews on everything I remembered to review on my Goodreads profile.
Other favorites of the year?
Music wise, I listened to Lion by Elevation Worship on repeat. Shows? Our family discovered a new series on Disney Plus, National Treasure: Edge of History we’re all enjoying. My favorite movies of the year were Redeeming Love, the film adaptation of Francine Rivers’ novel about the book of Hosea and ultimately God’s love for each of us, and Top Gun: Maverick, the follow up to the 80’s classic, full of fighting for what’s good and right, never leaving your wing man, plus a little romance sprinkled in. I also got new running shoes–I switched to Hokas and this running girl’s knees are so thankful! And last but not least, my mom got me to try a new mascara. Thrive, which goes on and off differently than any mascara I’ve ever tried, was super weird at first, and now I’m in love. Plus Thrive Causemetics donates money to great causes to help people suffering from domestic abuse, homelessness, cancer, etc. with every purchase. Win win.
How about you? What books, music, shoes, new things did you discover in 2022? What’s on your reading list for 2023? Leave a comment–I’m always looking for more books to add to my stack.
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Word of the Year
At the beginning of 2022 God placed a word on my heart to focus on throughout the year–JOY. It was interesting to me, because I believe most people would describe me as a joyful person. I’m definitely a glass half full kind of girl. But sometimes, I struggle to fully accept the joy Jesus offers me, as if there is a limit to the joy I am entitled to, and I don’t dare exceed that limit. Do you ever feel that way?
Jesus said He came so we can have an abundant life (John 10:10). And we’re instructed by the Apostle Paul to, “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice! (Philippians 4:4).” Turns out we’re not only allowed, but encouraged to dip our toes in the joy pool.
To remind myself, I wrote out Nehemiah 8:10 at the top of my calendar page each week of 2022, “The JOY of the Lord is my strength.” It centered me, reminding me that Jesus had joy for me, more than I could imagine, joy I should be jumping into, not just taking what I thought would suffice.
And so, because Jesus is Jesus, He kept reminding me throughout the year. A reader sent me the most adorable card with JOY on the front. My kiddos stopped in a boutique that had sticky notes with Bible verses on them. The shop owner encouraged them to take one. They selected one to bring home to me with Psalm 16:11 on it. I’d just written a book on the Psalms (you can find it here), and specifically a chapter about this Psalm. It’s all about God’s protection. But even in my studying and actual writing of that chapter on Psalm 16 I’d never paid attention to the word JOY smack in the middle of it. In Your presence is fullness of JOY. Not a little joy, not enough joy, but full-on, ridiculous amounts of JOY. This is what Jesus wants for us, not just for me, for all of us.
Over the summer God gave me more meaning to this word. I was given a wonderful opportunity, but full disclosure, I was afraid to step into it. And as I was planning a new week and writing this verse once again at the top of my planner–it hit me in a fresh way. The joy of the LORD is my strength. God’s joy is what gives me the strength to do the things He puts in front of me. We don’t have to be strong enough. Because God’s joy steps in and becomes our strength. Wow! That whole thought process really blew me away.
As the year came to an end, God used this verse one more way for me. Someone told me my joy was, wait for it, MY strength. I almost fell out of my chair. The joy of the Lord is MY strength. And I, Laura Smith, am fueled by the joy Jesus gives me. I love that. I can think of no other strength I’d rather have.
One word. Three ways it impacted me this year.
What I’m trying to say is the Bible is dang powerful. I enjoy reading every single page. Reading the entirety of the story of Jesus’s redemption and love for us that flows from Genesis all the way to Revelation is powerful. But even one tiny verse can power punch through an entire year. The Bible is alive and active. I’m not sure what word or verse God is going to give me for 2023, but I can’t wait to see how He’s going to use it!
You? Do you have a word, phrase, or verse for 2023? Any good stories of how God used a word or verse in your life last year? Share in the comments so we can marvel together at God’s word and His work in our lives.
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What Does Jesus Want?
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:9-11
If you’ve ever attended a Christmas Eve service or watched A Charlie Brown Christmas you’ve heard this verse before. The night that Jesus came down from heaven where He had been living since the beginning of time with God the Father and the Holy Spirit this is how it was announced. By an angel. An angel surrounded by the glory of the Lord. Imagine the sky lighting up in the middle of a night without fireworks or a full moon–a wild, crazy, magnificent light that makes your jaw drop open and your knees shake. A lot.
And this announcement didn’t come to the government or royalty or priests or religious scholars. It didn’t come during an election, at a concert, or during a holiday or at the temple. The good news that the Israelites had been praying for and hoping for for centuries –that the Messiah had finally come to save them–was given to a group of shepherds, considered uneducated and unclean, working the night shift in a field with smelly animals.
Here are the bullet points of the news story:
This is the first thing humans besides Jesus’ very own parents, Mary and Joseph, heard about Jesus. This is why Jesus came. This is what Jesus wants. To calm our fears and worries when there are so many things we’re worried about, when anxiety is running rampant. To give us good news in a world where it’s hard and heartbreaking to watch or read the news. To bring us joy, no matter what we’re going through or what our circumstances are or how sad we feel or how deep our depression is. Because this joy is for ALL people, which certainly includes you and me.
Christmas is in three days.
Maybe you’ve checked everything off your list and all that’s left to do is celebrate with people you love. Maybe the people you love aren’t around this year and that’s harder than you knew it would be. Maybe they’re around, but you still need to shop for a few of them and bake for a few others and send one more package and eight more cards and wrap everything. Maybe your bank account or your energy is depleted. Maybe you cannot wait for a new year, a new start, a new situation.
But you guys? There is a loving peace that will calm all our fears, fill us with such incredible goodness, and flood us with joy. His name is Jesus. And He left everything–His throne in heaven with all its glory and privilege–out of love for you and me. He suffered on the cross so that our suffering would end. He rose from the grave, so that we, too, could rise from the things that have nearly killed us.
That’s good news. We don’t have to be afraid of anything. Joy is waiting for us.
The shepherds took the angel up on the invitation to go and find Jesus. The Bible tells us they “hurried off” to find the baby. And once the shepherds had seen him, a baby born in an animals’ feeding trough in a cave, they were so amazed they went around and told everyone what they’d seen and heard. The shepherds didn’t doubt because Mary and Joseph and the setting of it all weren’t what they’d expected. They didn’t doubt when their circumstances didn’t change. Because their lives were changed. Their hearts were changed. The angel was right. This was good news–the best news. The shepherds weren’t afraid any more. They were filled with joy. And they wanted everyone to know that they could experience this too.
Now, it’s up to us. We can stay where we are. Or we can look for Jesus. When we do, we always find joy, peace, love and light. What are we waiting for?
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Does someone you care about struggle with their mental health (maybe even you)? If so, how can you help?
Seeking help from a mental health professional is always the best and most important first step. But you can make a difference right now. Where should you start?
1. Take care of their physical needs. Our mental health wobbles when we’re not taking care of ourselves, so basic self care is a great place to start. Are they eating enough? Sleeping enough? Moving their bodies? Are they staying hydrated?
If not, help out how you can. Bring the person you care about a charcuterie tray or a meal or take them out to one of their favorite restaurants. Deliver a goodie bag of their favorite hydrating beverages–La Croix or some other flavored fizzy water or a box of their favorite tea with a jar of local honey. Invite them on a walk or a bike ride or to kick the soccer ball around with you (it is World Cup season, after all). Suggest they get some sleep–go to bed early, take a nap, etc.
Jesus did this. He fed crowds (John 6:5-13). He made sure the disciples were eating and resting (Mark 6:31). He cared about the people around Him and their basic needs. We can too.
2. Be a calming presence. Lean back, breathe deeply and slowly, speak in a calm voice, light a candle, or play some soft music. We live in a loud, hurried world. Show the person you love what peace looks like–that it is available.
Jesus calmed the storms at sea, showing the disciples peace was accessible to them even when they least expected it (Mark 4:35-41). We can also offer the people we care about a glimpse of calm.
3. Check in. When we’re alone is when our thoughts tend to spiral. We worry about the what ifs instead of focusing on the now. When we’re alone is when Satan loves to slither in and whisper lies to us. Make sure you’re not alone and the people you care about aren’t alone, that they have someone to talk to. Remind them that they are seen. That they matter.
Jesus made sure the disciples traveled in pairs, not solo (Luke 10:1). Jesus approached people no one else would consider speaking to or even getting near. He didn't want them to feel isolated (John 4:7-27, Matthew 8:1-3). From the get go God knew it wasn't good for people to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We can follow Jesus’ lead and send the text, better yet make the call, even better knock on and open doors to make sure the people we care about are doing okay. If you’re worried about someone’s safety, seek professional help immediately.
4. Pray. There’s just nothing like prayer. The God of the Universe, the Creator of All Things is just waiting for you to talk to Him. He loves you and every single person on earth so very much. He created us all. He died for us all. He cares about our mental health. Jesus wants to flood us with hope, joy, and peace. When we talk to Jesus, it sets things in motion. Prayer costs nothing. It doesn’t require any knowledge or skill set. All you have to do is start telling Jesus what’s on your mind.
Peter, one of Jesus’ very best friends, tells us: “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7). Peter saw first hand that Jesus cares so much about you and me, that we can hand over all our troubles and fears and concerns to Him. Ask Jesus to help the people you love(and yourself) with their mental health. I’ll get us started: Dear Jesus, please flood me and ______ with your peace, hope, and love.
5. Grab them a copy of my new book, 5 MInute Devotions for Teens: A Guide to God and Mental Health
It releases one week from today! I wrote this book as a way for people to quickly connect with Jesus, and in doing so, also care for their mental health. The short devotions are catered to teens, but early readers are saying, “It’s great for ALL ages, even adults.” Each page has a Bible verse, devotion, and prayer or activity. These books make great stocking stuffers for kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, anyone you love. Maybe even sneak an extra in your own stocking.
It’s amazing how many scientific tips for caring for our mental health are Biblical. Jesus loves us so much. He always has our best interest in mind, and cares so much about our mental health. Praying for you, for your mental health, and for the mental health of those you love.
When I was a little girl I wanted to be Wonder Woman, gold bracelets and all. She was amazing–smart, resourceful, brave, and powerful. These days as I watch Marvel movies with my son I admire the strength and courage of Black Widow and Captain Marvel. Those ladies are cool. It’s the same idea. These women have super powers that make them strong and confident, that enable them to take down whatever bad things come their way. But here’s the thing.
So do you and I.
Our super powers make us mightier than any superhero. We have the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. And that power isn’t timid. It can’t just do little things. It is w-i-l-d! The Bible tries to explain the power of the Holy Spirit over and over.
Like here in the Old Testament:
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future. Proverbs 31:25
You and I can laugh without fear of the future. Not because we’re indifferent, or don’t care, but because we know we have the power of Jesus in us. Whatever we’re facing, whatever comes our way, we don’t have to be afraid of it. We have a strength that comes not from deep within ourselves, but from the God of the universe. We can say what needs to be said, battle the bad, and fight for cures. We never have to stoop to talking behind someone’s back or making someone else feel small. We can stand strong with dignity. Once again, not because that’s easy. Because dang it’s hard to bite my tongue sometimes. But because the power of the Holy Spirit lives in us and if we tap into it, we can garner up the self control to walk in dignity while taking down the villains.
And here in the New Testament where Paul prays that we may know:
His (God’s) incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. Ephesians 1:18-21
Wait a second. That was a mouthful and I don’t want us to miss anything. Let’s take a deeper look. The power that God put in us is incomparable. So whoever you consider powerful–a world leader, a professional athlete, a CEO– the power in you is more than theirs. Beyond compare. So whoever or whatever makes you uncomfortable, is being unkind, is making things difficult–they are no match for the power of the Holy Spirit living in you.
Next, this verse says the power in you and me is the same mighty strength that raised Jesus from the dead and put Him on the throne above everything–every power and authority, every moment in time. This power lives in me and you. Raised from the dead power!!! Authoritative power! Royal power! We are so freaking mighty!
But I don’t always act like it.
There are days and situations when I’ll think to myself:
This conversation is going to be hard.
What if I do it wrong?
What if I don’t have enough time to get it done?
What if it doesn’t work?
I don’t want to say the wrong thing.
What if I’m a nuisance?
What if they think I’m crazy?
How can I avoid this uncomfortable situation?
This feels like a lot of work, a lot of steps, like something I’ve never done before.
I don’t even know where to start.
And in that moment, where our inner critic, and sometimes the enemy, tries to tell us we’re not enough, not competent, not connected, not capable, we have a choice. We can cower or avoid or blame or pick up our phones to distract ourselves from even thinking about our struggle. Or, we can tap into the Holy Spirit. Hold our heads up high. Take the first step. Stand up for what’s right. Tell someone we don’t appreciate their derogatory comments. Walk through the door. Walk out the door. Take a deep breath. Apologize. Tell the truth, even if it makes us look less than spectacular. Make the call. Send the proposal or resume. Try one more time.
You don’t need a gold lasso or an invisible jet. You and me–our super power is a gift from the Creator of everything. Our power can be as gentle as a lamb or as fierce as a lion. It can feel like inner peace or a whipping wind. It’s there. Ready to use when the evil of the world comes our way. To protect the innocent (sometimes that’s us), seek truth and justice, fight the good fight, do things for God’s glory, and put things right.
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What Does It Mean to Love God?
What does it mean to love God? Because Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind (Matthew 22:37), so therefore it seems fairly important.
I think it’s the same as to love anyone else we love.
Think about someone you love–like your sister or best friend or spouse or parent or child–someone you would do just about anything for. Think of all the things loving them means to you. This is how we are supposed to love God.
I think of my kids–I love spending time with them. If one of them says, “Hey, want to sit with me on the porch while I eat lunch?” Or “I’m running to the store, do you want to come with me?” If at all humanly possible I answer, “Yes!” Because being with them brings me great joy. Whether that’s just running errands or sharing a meal or a lovely adventure at a show, museum, restaurant, whatever. It’s the same with Jesus. I want to spend time with Him. I really look forward to spending time with Jesus in both the big events and the everyday occurrences.
And my mom? I really want to know what she has to say. I want to lean in close when she speaks. I want to hear about her childhood, and the cookout she went to last night at her neighbor’s and her doctor’s appointment and her tennis match. I learn so much from her about how to love others and enjoy life and be positive. I also just get a kick out of hearing her stories. The same is true with Jesus. I want to hear what He has to say about everything. I look forward to opening my Bible and seeing what He did, with who, and what He said to them. I’m eager to learn from all the things He thought were important enough to put in His living word, the Bible.
I also want to share things with the people I love. I want to share everything with my husband. I want to tell Him about what I’m reading and this idea I have for a chapter I’m writing and who I saw at the grocery. I want to tell Him about my dreams and concerns and hopes and the thing I saw on social media that made me giggle. I want to do the same with Jesus–tell Him what’s on my mind, what I’m experiencing, where I’m really excited and where I’m really struggling. I trust Him with my heart and my emotions, with all the things.
Humans, although amazing, are sometimes hard to love, because we’re unreliable and moody and we mess up. I know I do. But Jesus is easy to love, because He’s dependable and constant and never makes mistakes. He always wants what’s best for us. God is filled with unfailing love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6, John 1:14). He loves us perfectly and faithfully. Which makes me want to hang out with Him and listen to Him and tell Him what’s on my heart.
Loving God is like loving anyone else. Only better. Because the way He loves us back is bigger than we can hope or imagine love could ever be.
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5 Steps for a Flourishing Fall
I feel the change in the air, the sweet scent of leaves mingled with a crispness signaling the cooler temperatures. And I see it all around me, too. Golden sunflowers and vibrant yellow mums. Bright orange pumpkins. Leaves morphing from green to scarlet. Autumn wreaths and pumpkin decorations on neighbor’s doors and local stores. And I taste it. In the crunchy apples from the farmers market bursting with flavor and pumpkin spice everything from lip gloss to lattes.
But I feel it differently, too. Not just in the air and the inner call to pull out a cozy sweater, but in my heart, in my soul. There is a change in the air, because God is on the move and He has something new for us this fall, for you and for me. Something good. No matter what your circumstances.
What is it? That’s probably different for all of us.
How do we detect it?
By spending time with Jesus.
What does that look like?
Make a List
What do you want to do this fall? What do you need to do this fall? What are you excited about? Worried about? Big things and little things. Are you starting a podcast or beginning chemo? Moving across the country or moving your body more? Painting a room or a downtown mural? Or trying some new routines or routes or recipes? Is there someone or something that makes you so happy or that’s heavy on your heart? Write it ALL down.
Open your Bible.
The Bible is God’s Living Word. It’s Him speaking to us today, even though it was written ages ago. How does that work? Well, God is God so He can do things like that. When we read the Bible, God reveals things to us. Broad ideas about who He is (loving, faithful, powerful, kind). And also, the Living Word speaks directly to our current situations. God uses what’s there on the pages to enlighten, lead, encourage, heal, and strengthen us today in all those things we wrote on our fall lists.
Talk to Jesus
Jesus loves you and wants you to come to Him with your emotions, ideas, concerns, fears, and excitement. Anything and everything that’s on your mind, that you wrote on your list, and the things that you couldn’t even bring yourself to write you can bring to Him, just like you can tell the person you trust most in the world, only better. Jesus said, “For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. (John 12:47) ” He’s not judging you. He wants to save you.
What were the goals and concerns on your list? Take them to Jesus! Are you annoyed with someone at work or school? Struggling with your physical or mental health? Have a new schedule or situation that has you feeling uncertain? Talk to Jesus about it. Are you so proud of your kid or excited about your promotion or just so dang happy you get to wear your favorite pair of boots again? Share it with Jesus! He also wants to laugh and celebrate with you. Do you have a new project or idea or roommate? Are you teaching or taking a class? Talk to Jesus about it. Let Him inspire and energize you, guide your steps and give you strength for everything you face this fall.
Open your eyes
Intentionally look for ways to find Jesus in all the things on your list.
For me fall includes soccer games and cross country meets for my kids. Does this mean a busy schedule? Yes. It. Does. Does it mean a lot of driving around the tristate area and eating meals in the car as we to and fro? Of course. And I want to embrace every single moment of it. What a blessing that I can cheer my kiddos on, that God has given them to me, that He’s allowing them to do things that light them up, that He’s given them friends on their teams and coaches who motivate them. My mom also loves to cheer for the kids, so Jesus gives Mom and I built-in excuses to see each other when she comes to a game or meet. Blessing upon blessing!
Sure, I have a lot to get done this fall–from edits to paperwork to chapters that need written and a book that releases in December (more to come on that soon), plus all the normal day to day stuff like laundry and groceries, but it’s all good work–work God has put in front of me, and I’m so grateful for it. And also…my oldest is coming home for a week this fall and already I can’t wait to go on walks in the woods and sip coffee with her. In the autumn our family eats dinner on the porch and usually finds a hayride or corn maze. We’ll get apple cider and bake pumpkin bread. Thank you Jesus for all the above!
In our college town everything changes in the fall, because the students come back. Which means fewer parking spots and longer lines at the bagel shop, but also the entire town has more energy. The university hosts events and shows and speakers. Our college age son leads worship, and I adore going early on Friday mornings and praising Jesus in a room full of college kids. I’m so grateful God lets me live in a college town! I want to inhale the vibrancy it offers. I want to meet and chat with the students and learn from their perspectives and hear their stories. Where has Jesus put you? How can you live it to the fullest?
What can you embrace about all those things on your fall list?
There is beauty and goodness all around you. Open up, not just your eyes, but your five senses to the crowd cheering at a fall sporting event, the sweet and tart, crunchy and chewy of a caramel apple, the challenge and thrill of a new assignment, the people you meet in an unexpected situation, a breeze pulling a leaf from a tree branch. Watch it spiraling and float to the ground. Jesus’ love and goodness is all around you!
Then repeat the whole process. Go back to your list. Back to your Bible. Back to Jesus. And again and again open your eyes to the ways Jesus is actively loving you.
All four seasons hold such hope and promise–there is a change in the air and in the possibilities. Including this fall. God has so much goodness waiting for you –even if you’re in a battle, even if you feel alone, even if you’re exhausted. God still has goodness for you in this season. Start your list and let Him show you.
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I am a music lover. I love going to concerts, especially outdoor concerts in the summer with the music floating through the warm evening air and the vibrancy and excitement and energy everywhere. Therefore, when planning the summer and how to embrace it to its fullest, summer shows were on my list. And because God is God, of course He taught me things from these outdoor concerts. Mainly, He taught me about perseverance.
My husband got me tickets as a gift to see three nineties bands we’d loved way back then. We purchased our tickets in the spring, but this show had originally been planned to take place in the summer of 2020.
These musicians had scheduled their lives around dates in over thirty-five cities, booked venues, tour buses, and bus drivers. They’d arranged their calendars with their families, sold tickets, created setlists, hired crews, designed merchandise.
And then the world shut down.
The bands could have said, oh well, guess that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Or they could have gotten angry and negative and complained.
They certainly could have given up.
But instead, they waited for two years, persevered, rescheduled, and toured. All three bands shared how meaningful this tour was to them, because they’d had to wait for it, because against the odds they made it happen.
At another concert, Ryan Tedder, front man for One Republic and also acclaimed songwriter for the likes of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Beyonce, Adele, etc., also spoke of perseverance. He shared the stories of songs he’d written over the years that critics told him, “were awful,” “no one would like,” and should be “thrown in the garbage.” But Tedder believed in these songs, believed that God created Him to write songs, even after getting his work turned down by multiple artists and industry experts, so he persevered. Tedder found homes for all his rejected songs, some of them even becoming number one hits. You just might know all the words to them.
What if Ryan Tedder had given up? Listened to the criticism? Filled his head with the lies that his music didn’t cut it? What if the 90’s bands had given up touring altogether? What if you give up on the dream God placed in your heart or the work God has put in front of you or the relationship God has nudged you to tend and maybe even mend?
What if you choose to persevere?
Because the Bible instructs us:
Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. --Hebrews 10:35-36
Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this? --Esther 4:14
Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. --Philippians 1:6
Don’t be discouraged. Don’t give up. I’m saying this to myself and to you. That thing that’s hard right now–let’s persevere. Let’s cling to our confidence–not that we’re spectacular or talented, but that God is, and His work is mighty in us. That with Him we can do anything He desires. Remember, this is the God who parted seas and rivers, knocked down city walls, and sprang water to quench millions (yes millions) of Israelites in the desert. I’m pretty sure this God can help you and me with the work and projects and relationships and situations that are challenging us today.
I’m wondering what you need to persevere right now?
I know for myself I have a new book I’m writing that’s different from my previous projects. I’m passionate about the topic and fully believe that God gave me the idea and opened the doors to make this idea a reality, but it’s quite the undertaking. I need to sit down. Write it idea by idea. Page by page. Praying all along. Because God gave me this opportunity to share something important with others. I need to go to my desk and put away my phone and actually type some words. Even when the writing is hard. Even when I need to be vulnerable in the writing. Even when I’m tired. Because that’s how things get done.
I have friends who are working towards licensures, certifications, and degrees. I have other friends who are working toward health and fitness goals. Another friend has an exciting business idea. Yet another is working through some really challenging things with her counselor. One friend has something amazing she wants to implement at her church. These women inspire me with their perseverance. They have faced obstacles. They will face more. And yet, Jesus calls them to persevere.
Why? Because when He starts something in us, He will bring it to completion. Because there is good work to be done. Because He chose them for these things at this time.
Just like He chose you. Today. For the things He puts in front of you.
One more band, NeedtoBreathe, sang a song narrating a time when the lead singer’s father, who was a pastor, had a rumor started about him at his church. It was an extremely challenging time for their family as people believed the lies. But the pastor stood his ground in the truth. He clung to who he was in Christ. He persevered. As a result of his perseverance, God gave their dad/the pastor the strength to confront the attacks and help the truth surface.
The refrain of this song, titled “Washed by the Water,” is such a testament to how we can all persevere, not by our own strength, not by our own intellect, or flair, but by the power of the Holy Spirit living in us if we are baptized in Christ.
Even when the rain falls
Even when the flood starts rising
Even when the storm comes
I am washed by the water
How about you? What do you need to persevere right now? Keep going! You can do this! You have the power of the Holy Spirit in you, empowering and strengthening you, the God of the universe cheering you on! He wants the best for you, hang on, keep going, don't give up, persevere. What He started in you, He will bring to completion (Philippians 1:6). Jesus promises us a full life when we persevere with and for Him. I don’t want to miss out on the good good life He has in store.
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How to Bloom this Fall
I do not have a green thumb, or even a green pinkie finger for that matter, but I adore everything that blooms. So each year I give it a go. This spring I bought two large geraniums in pots from our local nursery and placed them on our front porch. They were gorgeous from the get go. Red. Vibrant. Showstoppers.
Until they weren’t.
In July all the blooms turned brown with no new buds in sight. My mom, who 1. was visiting and 2. is a fabulous gardener, instructed me to snip off the dried up blossoms. She’d been telling me for years that this encourages regrowth in plants, so I had tentatively and reluctantly snipped a few dead flowers from my gorgeous geraniums before her visit, but now? If I did that now I’d be left with nothing but stems and leaves. There were zero signs of new life on these plants.
Mom said, “Do it anyway.”
And so I did. And my plants sat and sat. Just green leaves and brown stems.
It’s not just my mom who talks about pruning. Jesus does too.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” -John 15:1-2
Living in Ohio, I don’t see grape vines on the regular, but every day I see my geraniums. And they do the trick to illustrate Jesus’ point. If we’re the branches, we’re the ones who are being pruned, just like my plants on my doorstep. This isn’t a punishment or intended to keep us from living our best life. It’s the opposite. God knows this pruning makes us more fruitful, helps us bloom more abundantly. And I want that. As I head into this fabulous season of fall my heart and soul long to bloom.
But unfortunately, part of the secret to blooming is allowing ourselves to be pruned. Pruning is scientifically proven to help plants grow stronger, be healthier, and you guessed it, produce more blooms and/or fruit. But it involves cutting, letting go, and getting rid of.
I was hesitant to snap off the dead blossoms on my flowers, even though I knew they were deadweight. Afterwards they sat just green, no sign of red for over a month. But this past week my geraniums grew buds out of seemingly dead stems, lots of them. Once again they’re brimming with stunning scarlet flowers, and there are more buds waiting to blossom as if they are starting all over again. The pruning had to happen for my geraniums to thrive.
It’s the same with us. Pruning helps us bloom. And Jesus wants us to blossom. There are things we hold onto–dead and withered parts of us that don’t bring us growth or health or peace or joy, but we hesitate to let go of. For me this includes, but is certainly not limited to some past shame, getting grumpy or hurt when things don’t go my way, and avoiding hard emotions, because, well, they’re hard. I’m sure you have your things, too. Perhaps a bad habit, or a relationship that brings out the worst in you or something that is a really poor use of your time. Maybe it’s something that’s actually toxic or dangerous for you, but it seems hard to give up. But Jesus says if we’ll let Him get rid of those things that hinder our vitality…we’ll bloom.
We’re supposed to let it go. Ouch. Yup. It hurts sometimes. But If we trust Jesus in this pruning process, He says in John 15:5 that we will bear MUCH fruit, not SOME but MUCH. Every single opportunity and healthy relationship in my life, everything blooming God has provided. All the dark times I’ve weathered, all the healing that’s taken place, all the times I’ve been doing the wrong things, saying the wrong things, acting in the wrong ways that I’ve let Jesus prune have produced fruit. What a blessing that our God loves us so much that He wants to help us get rid of anything holding us back from living a full, free, joyful and grace-filled life.
Jesus says there’s more fruit for you and for me.
No matter how much you do or don’t have today. If you feel like a withered stem or the opposite–a vibrant bouquet, Jesus has more for you. All you have to do? Abide in Him, which means spending time with Him, making Him the go-to person you ask for advice, trust with your dreams, lean on when you’re discouraged or sad. Allow Jesus to prune the dead stuff away, the stuff that’s stealing sunlight, the withered leaves that have become a home for pests, the things that jeopardize the healthy parts of your life.
Listen. It’s the end of August. It’s back to school time, or if you’re a sports fan, football or futbol season. The last couple of evenings I’ve even felt a slight chill in the air. Sweaters and pumpkin spice and crunchy apples and hayrides and cozy blankets are just around the corner. But Jesus promises even better than all of that. I want to let go of anything holding me back from the abundant life Jesus offers. I want to step into the fall light, free, and ready to bloom. I know it will take some pruning, some letting go of this or that but it will be so worth it.
You? What in your life could use a little pruning, so you can bloom this fall?
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Follow the Yellow Brick Road
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in her role as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz on display. The shoes are iconic. Even though Dorothy’s charmed slippers were silver in Frank L. Baum’s book, they were changed to a spectacular ruby red for one of the first major motion pictures to be filmed in color. And Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gives me goosebumps every time. But I believe this pair of shoes is considered a piece of American History because of Dorothy’s story.
If you recall, Dorothy is a farm girl living in Kansas wishing for a more spectacular life. When a tornado blows through her farm, she gets hit in the head and has a fantastical dream about going to the land of Oz. In Oz she is instructed to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,”. It is along this road that Dorothy meets three friends, all of who are critical in figuring out who she is, her strengths and weaknesses, when she should step up, when she needs to ask for help, what she is capable of, what she truly wants, and how to get there.
That’s what we all want--isn’t it? Directions on how to get from where we are to where we hope we’ll be? The right people to help us get there? A better understanding of what our heart’s desires actually are? And once we’ve figured that out, we want to know how to find those heart’s desires--how to act and ask for assistance and use our gifts and rely on others to find them.
Those ruby slippers that walked and danced along the yellow bricks are kept on display, because they are symbolic of our own life’s journeys and the steps we’re taking.
But we don’t need jeweled heels or someone to paint our sidewalks and Instafeeds canary yellow. We have the God of the Universe. The Psalms repeat this refrain to us, of a God who leads the way to a life better than we’ve ever imagined.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he may fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand.--Psalm 37:23-24
Our steps are established. So if you don’t know what you want to be when you “grow up” or if you’ll ever get married or if you should move or start your own business or retire or stay awhile longer, you can be assured that the God of the Universe has already established your steps. He knows what happens in your next chapter. If you have three choices, God knows how things will go if you pick A, B, or C. Don’t worry, He’s going to guide you along the way, nudging you to select the choice He knows is best for you. Just like Dorothy saw a sign that read, ”I’d turn back if I were you” and met the Scarecrow to help her think through things, God will give you signs and introduce you to wise friends who can help you discern God’s ultimate route for you.
Verse 5 of this same Psalm says, “Give God the right to direct your life,
and as you trust him along the way,
you’ll find he pulled it off perfectly!” TPT
If we trust Him--God pulls it off perfectly! I love that.
But what if we pick the wrong route? Or don't trust God’s signs or nudges? Unfortunately sometimes I want an answer now, and force-fit a decision into my timetable or parameters. What then? Are we lost in the woods to be locked in the Wicked Witch’s castle forever?
Because our God loves us too much for that.
Even if we choose differently, God holds our hands and helps us get back on track if we’ll let Him. The Psalms remind us of this truth over and over again:
He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.--Psalm 40:2
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.-Psalm 23:3
When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD; he brought me into a spacious place.-Psalm 118:5
Life throws a lot of questions our way. Some days it feels like we’ll never know if we should accept that offer or turn it down, start dating again or take a break, apply for that position or the other one, keep quiet or speak up? But God has already ordered our steps and wants to lead us in paths of righteousness, put us in spacious places, lift us up, and hold our hands along the way.
So what are we waiting for? What are we worried about? All we have to do to find our heart’s greatest desires is not follow the yellow brick road, but follow Jesus. He’ll lead us to joy, love, grace, and freedom.
For more on the Psalms discover my new book Restore My Soul: The Power and Promise of 30 Psalms
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Laura L. Smith