Today I welcome my friend, Kristan Dooley on the blog. She is passionate about taking people to a deeper place in their relationship with Christ. Kristan is a discipleship pastor at Anthem House Church in West Chester, Ohio and a discipleship coach for Gravity Leadership. Her new book, Left Turns; Following Jesus off the Beaten Path just released. I hope you’ll be inspired by her description of what going off the beaten path with Jesus looks like. Kristan, take it away....
It was early and cold for a fall morning, but the road called. I was training for a half marathon and had a five-mile run on my checklist for the day. I didn’t plan to turn. My run didn’t require it either, still, as I rounded the corner headed into mile four, I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit prompting me to turn left. Somewhat annoyed and definitely winded from the unexpected turn, I slowed my pace and made my way up the hill that now stood before me. What was God doing? Why the sudden change in direction? Where were we going?
All things He would answer in due time. I had no idea how my left turn on that morning run would soon become a foundational piece in my future formation. But here I am now, years later, still learning and growing from my experience from turning left and following Jesus off the beaten path.
What I did physically on my run that morning, the Father asked me to do spiritually with my life about a year later. He had me walk away from my job, which was a left turn I never saw coming to spend two years in ministry on a side street in East Hamilton with the homeless and the broken, hurting people of the inner city. This wasn't even on my radar. Unpaid, untitled, unequipped, these were not the ministry circumstances I was accustomed to working with.
Still, East Avenue provided me with a new understanding of my Father and how much He longs to partner with me in love and life. From this place, I have been able to posture my heart to better meet His presence and recenter myself in His perfect love. The world around me looks and feels different than it ever has before.
On my side street, I learned three valuable paradigms...
1. God is always present and always working
God is not only God of the mountain tops. He is God over all things, in all things, and available for all things. He doesn't need me continually striving for the mountain top, because He also dwells in the mundane. Neither is more important and both are invaluable to the Kingdom. During my time on the streets in a forgotten, hopeless part of town, I found the presence of God at work in ways I never knew possible. It wasn't loud or flashy, but it was pure and perfect. Joining with Him made the mundane feel like the mountains.
2. God actually likes me
The second truth I embraced is that my Father is not showing up to the table with a checklist ready to negotiate what I deserve from His Kingdom. He doesn't need me to do better, try harder, or figure more things out. He simply longs for me to be present. He's prepared a table for me and it's not based at all upon anything I already am or need to become. He likes me. The God of heaven likes me and He wants to be with me. Right now, exactly how I am.
The cool part is, as I come and spend time around the table with Him, I will change, take shape, and grow because the natural by-product of spending time with Jesus is that we begin to reflect Jesus. But I am not changing because He needs me to change. I'm changing because He's inspired me to change. My goodness does not lead to His kindness. His kindness leads to my goodness. Always. And my posture in this place is a posture allowing myself to be loved, completely, right now, regardless of how I feel and what I've done.
3. God is committed to meeting me in reality
The final paradigm I learned on those side streets in East Hamilton was how committed God was to meet me in my reality. I didn't want to be where I was. I didn't ask to turn left. It felt harsh and unnecessary. I felt left out, lonely, and rejected. But God stood in my place of rejection and He patiently waited for me to be real with my disappointment. We cannot deal with our disappointments and live in denial of them at the same time. Dealing with them will involve getting our hands dirty. And a little dirt doesn’t scare Him.
I don't know if God has a left turn prepared for you anytime in the near future, but I do know if He does, you should take it. We don't look back after a mighty move of God and wish we hadn't been a part of it. He doesn't work deeply within us only to leave us with barren trees. The fruit produced by turning left and following Jesus off the beaten path is life-changing and life-sustaining. Turning left is the way to abundance.
Ever since Disney Plus released Hamilton our family has been ob-sessed. I think most of us have the intricate lyrics (passing over the first five seconds) of the title track down pat. Well mostly.
If you haven’t seen it yet. Do. It is a gorgeous, creative, inspiring story packed with love, grace, and redemption. The talent is phenomenal and the music brilliant. There is a thread woven throughout the show of the tension between being satisfied and not. Phrases like “that will be enough” and “running out of time” “never be satisfied” “all I have” are littered throughout the lyrics.
It makes me question what is “enough” in my life? What’s enough in yours?
What’s enough money? Enough pairs of sandals or shorts? Enough house? Enough memory for our phones or laptops? Enough time on social media? What are you measuring right now? Do you have enough? Or do you want MORE? Why?
Sure, there are some things we do need more of—if we don’t have enough money to pay our rent or medical bill—yeah, we could use a few more bucks. If our doctor tells us we’re supposed to exercise at least three hours a week and we’ve been lucky to squeeze in one, we need to find a way to move more. But overall, we Americans, as a society struggle to be satisfied. We get one promotion, but what we really want is her job. We meet a great guy, but we wish we could spend even more time with him. We find an adorable home, but we want to get a coffee table for the family room, and a fresh, new comforter for our bed, oh and a couple of cute throw pillows to add a pop of color to our couch. None of these things are bad. Not at all. God created beauty and relationships and vocations and wants us to enjoy and savor all these things. I’m just asking myself, “What’s enough?” Because, Jesus tells us that He satisfies our souls.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. —John 6:35
Never hungry again? Never thirsty again?
Okay. I’m listening. But Jesus didn’t mean our physical bodies wouldn’t require food or drink. My stomach growls first thing every morning and I cannot wait to pour myself some dark chocolate granola with almonds and top it with a handful of fresh, sweet berries from the local farmer’s market. But that inner craving, that soul searching, that hunger inside that makes us antsy and itchy and twitchy and wanting more—Jesus satisfies that. When we turn to Him, soak ourselves in Him, we find complete peace and satisfaction.
We realize that yes, a cute new cozy sweater for fall would be amazing, and if we can afford it, great, and if we can’t also great, because Jesus loves us with or without that sweater. He provides joy for us with or without a paycheck, partner, or the palomino pony we thought we needed when we were kids.
Do you have enough? The answer is we already have all of Jesus’ love and grace and hope and joy and peace. Right now. Today. If we want it. If we ask Him for it. It’s ours for the taking. And when we have that? All the other things are yummy or fun, but not necessary. Our peace, hope, and joy don’t hinge on them. Because we’re already fully satisfied. The love of Jesus? Is more than enough. It’s everything!
I was presented with a wonderful ministry opportunity, but it means traveling to a different town in these crazy Covid-19 days, being away from my fabulous family for a night, and missing one of my daughter’s soccer games. It also means some extra work and preparation—translation time. I had mixed emotions. I started praying.
I shut my computer, closed my eyes, whispered the pros and cons I listed above, told God I knew that He knew my heart. I told Him I was worried if I could give both the Bible study I was teaching that same week and this opportunity my best. I asked Him to let me know what He wanted me to do. God popped into my head, What if you used the same topic for both? Sure, they’d have to be a little different, but you could use the same research, prep time, Scriptures, themes—that could make both events even better. I quickly checked the few notes I’d scribbled in pink ink for the upcoming Bible study, and thought, “Hmm. This could work.”
Are you listening?
Before transitioning out of work, I straightened my desk, picking up a stray bookmark that had fallen out of my Bible. It has the hymn I was going to reference in the Bible study printed on it. Side note: I have over a dozen bookmarks currently in my Bible. “Okay, God.” I smiled.
I headed downstairs to start dinner. I was itching to tell my husband about the invitation, because it was exciting, and I wanted his opinion. I told God if He wanted me to go, I’d need my husband’s support, because I want to be in sync with him. But Brett was on a call, so I started cooking and kept the conversation with God going. As I cracked eggs and sliced creamy avocados God whispered scriptures and stories to me as I stirred. He started writing my talk for me in my mind.
Are you listening?
One specific idea was front and center. I wanted to ponder this particular passage more while I cooked. So, I ran back up to my writing nook, found the book I needed, and discovered it was sitting open to the precise page I needed.
When Brett got off his call, I barely got three words out before he said, “You should definitely do this.”
I ask God all the time to help me discern things—know which way to go and when. I ask Him to tell me what I should do next and for the right words to say. And here’s the thing. He answers. All the time. And I’m not saying God always answers pronto like in the example I just gave. Or that He always gives me several iterations of that answer in a row—bam! Bam! Bam! But He does answer all of us when we ask Him questions in a million ways—an idea, an overwhelming sense of peace, a bookmark, a page open to a certain something, a conversation, a reminder of something we’ve talked to God about before, a note from a friend, a song on the speakers that confirms what we thought we just heard.... But do I always notice? Am I really listening?
Or am I too quick to turn on the noise—check Instagram, answer a text, put on an audiobook or music, that drowns out or muffles Christ’s voice? There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. Communicating with friends and loved ones is awesome. Christian audio books and worship music help me tune into Jesus. Secular novels and music can be great too. But what kind of conversation am I trying to have if I ask God a question and then turn to something else, instead of sitting, quietly, attentively, to hear His reply?
What if I did that to my husband?
“Hey, honey, do you have time to pick up Maguire after school?”
And then instead of waiting for Brett to answer, I immediately opened my phone or slipped in my earbuds or left the room.
I would never know his response. It would also be rude. But somedays I do this to God. No wonder I don’t always hear Him.
“Are you listening?
These are words Jesus spoke over and over again while He was on earth. He shared an important insight into God and love and life—something folks should be taking notes about and then because Jesus knows how distracted we get He asked, “Are you listening?”
I feel like Jesus is asking me this same question.
Maybe He’s asking you, too.
His answers are sometimes slower than we’d like in our instant gratification world. His answers aren’t always what we wanted to hear. Sometimes we get the, That’s not such a good idea or Not now from God even though we’re eager to get going. Sometimes He’ll send us a feeling of warning that we should turn around and stop doing the thing we are about to do. But only because Jesus wants us to know His will for our lives. He wants us to go the places He’s planned for us. He wants us to meet the people He hopes we will be roommates or friends or coworkers with. He wants to keep us from dangerous or toxic scenarios. He wants us to take the job and live in the city where we can live our lives for Him to the fullest. If we ask. And if we listen. He will always answer.
Jesus tells the truth. He gives the best advice. And He asks if we’re paying attention. In Matthew 13 Jesus tells the story of a sower with some seeds. He wants His disciples (and us) to know that if we dig our roots deep into Him, we’ll flourish. In this same chapter Jesus tells another story about good crops and thistles—letting us know we can grow, encouraging us to be fruitful, even in the midst of a mixed-up world and all the “thistles” we’ll encounter. In Luke 14 Jesus tells us we’re the salt of the earth—here to bring seasoning, the true flavor to this world. All these things Jesus is saying are so important. We should be hanging on every word. But because Jesus knows our attention spans are tiny, He followed up these teachings with, “Are you listening? Really listening?”
The disciples were concerned with things like politics and number of followers and taxes and who was right and who was wrong. They’d interrupt Jesus to ask about those things. They’d be listening to Him, kind of listening, but they were distracted by all the buzz about the hot topics of their culture. Oh, yeah, maybe we do that, too.
For the record I read the news and think voting is a privilege we should all exercise. We need to know what’s going on in our world, because we live here. But I don’t want to get so tangled up in all that that I miss what Jesus is telling me. I need to take time to be still. To be quiet. So I can hear Him.
Jesus calls us into a conversation. Are we sitting down to chat with Him or barking out our questions and demands and leaving the room?
How do you listen?
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Be still. Go somewhere quiet—a porch, a park, a patch of grass in your yard when everyone else is inside, a picnic table where no one else is sitting. Tell God what’s on your mind, your heart. Tell Him what you’re really worried about today, what has you tied up in knots, or what you’re confused about. And then sit. In the silence. And wait. Do it again tomorrow. And the next day and the next.
Jesus tells us in Mark 4:24-25 “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given.”
I want that. More understanding. I’m focusing on sitting still more this week. Listening better. I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I want to hear Him more clearly and more often. He tells us we can. If we pay attention. If we listen closer.
Will you join me? I’d love to hear about the ways you’re listening. Drop a comment and let me know.
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About five years ago God placed in my heart a desire to switch from writing fiction to writing nonfiction. I’d been teaching a women’s Bible study and speaking at women’s events and it felt right and good. And so, I began writing nonfiction for women. But just because I was writing it didn’t mean it was time for it to be out in the world. In fact, it would be years before it was time.
I love how Banning Liebscher explains this in his book, Rooted, “When the Lord speaks to you, it is like seeing a second line on a pregnancy test. He’s telling you that you’re pregnant and that it’s time to start preparing for that word to come to pass… The Lord doesn’t give us what we’re asking for at first. Instead, He gives us a word.”
This desire to write nonfiction for women—to dive deep into the Bible and write about what it means for us today—burned deeply in my heart. God flooded me with ideas and words. I wrote and wrote and wrote—entire chapters and manuscripts and Bible studies. But the market is hard. And because I was “known” as a YA fiction writer (which had been a fabulous thing to write, but now God was calling me into new territory) agents and editors were hesitant about me switching genres and about taking a risk on my new endeavor.
There were some extremely hard days. Days when it felt like I was wasting time pounding out stories in my writing nook for no one to read. Stretches of weeks and months when I got so many rejections, I began to second guess myself. Of course, my goal was to write for Jesus. But the world’s opinions swirl and whirl around us. They made me dizzy. And when I’m dizzy, I eventually fall.
But God was faithful. He always is. He’d give me the encouragement I needed, just when I needed it most to stand back up. My heavenly Father reminded me time and time again that the writing was for Him. That He was pleased simply because I was writing. He taught me so much about His love and the peace, joy, courage, and hope He offers. Would I just write for Him and stop worrying about worldly outcomes?
And two weeks ago, How Sweet the Sound released—a nonfiction book for women. All because God planted a desire in my heart and then over time orchestrated countless pieces in a complex puzzle to make it a reality. All because our God? He is faithful.
Jesus blessed me with so many opportunities to share about it—about the power of hymns to point us back to how powerful our God is, how very much He loves us, and that He will never ever forsake us. Like this devotional video "The Perfect Worship Song Playlist."
I encourage you today—wherever you are on your journey—to hold fast to the dreams and ideas and paths that God has instilled in your heart. He is Almighty. Meaning if He asked you to do it, gave you a passion for something, He is 100% capable of making it happen. He does love you. You are His child, His very own, made in His image. Therefore, He only wants what’s best for you. He is always on your side. And He won’t leave you or give up on you. Even if you get distracted, delayed, or give up on Him. For those of you who have been pregnant—with a business idea, brainstorm, or baby—you know it is a long, exhausting process, that seems to take for-ever. But God is faithful. Always there. Cling to Him and you’ll marvel at what He does in and through your life.
If you'd like to hear me talking more about how hymns remind us of God's great love for us, His power to overcome anything and His steadfast faithfulness click on the images below. Praying my journey will encourage you to keep fighting the good fight, taking the next step in your journey, chasing after what Jesus has put in front of you.
Early on in quarantine my oldest daughter and I were exploring the trails and landed in one of our local parks, green, spacious, and peaceful. The firepit at the edge of the park sparked an idea.
“We could make s’mores here!” Maddie declared.
On our next Clicklist we ordered all the necessary supplies—graham crackers, gluten free graham crackers, jumbo marshmallows, and Hershey bars. A few days later our family packed a cardboard box with firewood, paper, and some matches and grabbed our “s’mores kit”. When we arrived at the main entrance eager for a fun summer evening a large piece of plywood with the word “CLOSED” spray painted across it spanned the entry point of the bridge. Two large construction vehicles were parked askew blocking passage. But there was a back entrance. And as locals we knew where it was.
We meandered down the trail of entrance number two to an empty park. It was as if this giant grassy area was all ours for the night. Brett built a fire while the kids played tag. The thick scent of smoke filled the air while we told stories. We roasted marshmallows until they were charred on the outside and gooey on the inside, popped them between graham crackers and squares of chocolate, devouring the delicious sweetness that tasted like summer camp and left sticky marshmallow smears all over our faces.
We had so much fun that night, we scheduled another family s’mores night a few weeks later. And the next month we planned a small birthday celebration for our middle schooler—just three close friends plus him outside at this park for a couple of hours. They explored the trails, tossed a football, and roasted hot dogs on sticks fully able to both socially distance outside and enjoy each other’s company.
The park is simple. An old, rundown shelter, a dated swing set with four black u-shaped swings of equal height, a sand volleyball court, tons of open grassy space, and the campfire surrounded by giant logs for sitting on. No fancy soccer fields. No snazzy playground structures or gazebos. But we had it all to ourselves, except for the baby deer we saw galloping across the field and the mosquitos buzzing around our legs. Maybe other people in town stopped by when we did not, but each time we visited It felt like our very own Secret Garden (I LOVED that book as a girl) away from phones and Zoom calls and our neighborhood (which we love, but have seen quite a bit of from March to now).
Why wasn’t anyone else there? Maybe because when the college students were sent home for quarantine the population in our college town fell to half. Maybe because the main bridge was closed. I don’t really care why. We Smiths experienced the gift of space and freedom, as if God reserved the grassy expanse for us each time we needed it.
I fear in these unprecedented times we’re missing some of God’s gifts. We’re seeing the “closed” sign at the entrance and not going in. We’re turning around and heading home and missing the s’mores. But I don’t want us to. I don’t want to. I don’t want you to.
Yes, I realize the world is closed and the school year looks upside down and friends have tested positive and racism is rampant. And I’m grieving those things and feeling all the emotions. But I also know in the midst of all this awfulness I still want joy for my kids. I want them to eat gooey marshmallows and melty chocolate and laugh so hard they can’t speak. I want them to find joy every day and I’ll do whatever I can to help them find it.
I also know, as deeply as I love our four precious children somehow God loves them even more. He loves me more. He loves you more. Because He’s the Almighty Father and He created each kneecap and toenail of all of us. If I’m hoping my kiddos find joy, can you imagine how much more God wants us to find it?
Jesus said it like this, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" Matthew 7:11
God gifts all of us all of the time. And His gifts are often as simple as an empty park. They could be overlooked, but if we embrace them—wow! An empty park! Oh, and look at that fire pit. You know what we could do there? Then those gifts turn into joy. They are hand-picked by God for us—they are personal and ours to treasure and enjoy and savor. So, keep your eyes open. Look past the sign. And maybe pop a marshmallow on a stick. I can’t wait to hear what you discover.
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Our family mainly wanted to hang out on the beach and splash in the ocean, but we also wanted to find some live music on our recent vacation. We’ve been going to Hilton Head since my oldest was one, and there’s something about the warm, salty air, the rhythm of waves, the slow down of life, the breeze blowing through your hair that makes me crave an unplugged rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl.”
We picked a restaurant with nightly live music starting at six, got there a little early, put our name in for an outdoor socially distanced table, and went for a stroll while we waited for one to open up. We were seated at a white round top with a turquoise umbrella for shade adjacent to where the band was setting up. Score!
Two men, a.k.a. “the band,” were testing mics and recording loops. By six o’clock on the dot we’d ordered our food and were ready to enjoy the show. Only the band had disappeared. We spotted them a bit later a few yards away sipping cold drinks prior to their performance.
Our meals arrived and then one of my daughters spotted an army of fire ants marching beside our table. Fire ants are pretty nasty for the normal person, but I happen to be severely allergic to them, like Epipen hospital allergic. I put my feet up on the brackets of the table and dove into the sweet oranges and fresh veggies in my quinoa bowl. The two musicians came back to the microphone stands, played a few chords on the keyboard, strummed a few bars on the bass, and walked away again. When they finally started their set we had finished our meal and were fairly freaked out by the dangerous insect parade. Although the musicians were talented, we only heard one and a half songs before we made a quick exit.
Don’t worry. We had a plan B. The Char Bar, a super fun burger joint we love, also had nightly live music. We checked their schedule, and on our last night on the island, a talented young woman we’d heard sing on previous trips was scheduled to play. Brilliant. We once again arrived a little before she was scheduled to sing, found an outdoor table, this one was a high top, so I could sit on a stool with my feet safe from any pesky ants. But here was the problem. The person with the guitar and microphone was a man not a woman. Gray hair not blonde. Disappointed, we shrugged, ordered our food, and decided to make the best of whatever music we were about to hear.
And do you know what?
It was phenomenal. This guy sang all the sing along favorites. Our whole fam was singing the bum bum bums of “Sweet Caroline,” swaying to “Wagon Wheel” and yes, the musician even handed the egg shaker and tambourine to our daughters for his “percussion section” which evolved into a tambourine solo. Brett and I danced to “Wonderful Tonight” on the sidewalk even though there wasn’t a dance floor. The kids and my mom joined in. Even after we’d paid and were walking back to our car, we were still singing along, probably a bit too loudly.
Needless to say, it was a blast. A combination of family and nostalgia and the grand finale of a beautiful week away together. It was so much more fun than we could have ever orchestrated on our own. The guys at the first place weren’t that engaged (or prompt). The gal we’d hoped to see had switched her schedule, but God, He still had the perfect plan--a plan packed with singing and laughter and new memories made.
God’s like that. Better than we ever hoped or imagined. His plans surpass ours every single time. Which is difficult to get our brains around in the moment. When we’re disappointed or dejected or down. But even when it feels like the world is against you, God is on your side. He is for you. Not against you. He has perfect plans for you. Never will He forsake you. He is fighting for you.
Our music ordeal wasn’t a big deal or major issue, just a family hoping to be entertained by some beach music on their vacation. But God works in beautiful surprising ways always. In the little things and the huge things.
So today, if things aren’t going as planned. If the band is running late or someone different than you expected shows up. Take a deep breath. Remember God is in control and He loves you.
If you’re not where you thought you’d be. If things look upside down or inside out, thank the Lord above that He is the one in control, not you. Recall that He is love. He is light. He is truth. He is the Prince of Peace. That’s the kind of guy you can depend on. Ask Jesus to help you trust in Him and His promises. Hand over the disappointment or unfamiliarity or uncertainty to Him. Ask Him what to do next.
Remember you have to do your part, too. We had to show up to that second restaurant and try again or we would have missed out altogether. Keep moving forward where He leads. And then wait for the music to play. When you hear the opening notes, clap your hands, spin in a circle, sing along, and shake your tambourine to the soundtrack our Almighty God provides.
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There’s a trail near my house with twists and turns, where it splits and you have to go one way or another, and although I have zero sense of direction and get lost in a store, I never get lost on this trail. Because it has signs telling me where to go.
I’m a planner. I like to know where I’m going ahead of time. I like to know that I’ll drive about twenty minutes before I take the exit and that the school is three miles past the turn. I want to hear the Cookie Monster voice on Waze (he makes me laugh every time) tell me, “In 18 miles exit left.” But this trail isn’t like that. The signs are right where you turn. I can’t plan, in half a mile I’ll take the left fork of the trail. I just run and when there’s a split up ahead I look for the sign and go the direction it tells me to. And I’ve never once gotten lost.
This is how God works.
We want to know what’s up ahead, how much farther? When will the pandemic end? What will this fall look like? Who will our roommates be? Will we get a job when we graduate? Where? How much will our starting salary be? What will it take for racism to be a thing of the past? Will we get married? To who? How long from now? Will we get accepted to that program? Invited to that event? How many kids will we have? Should we adopt?”
And Jesus says, “Trust me.”
He says, “Keep running until you get to the fork in the road. When you get there I’ll let you know exactly which way to go. And when you get to the next split in your path, I’ll tell you where you need to go then. You don’t need to know ahead of time. I’ll let you know in perfect time, at the exact time that you need to know.”
Right. But still we like to know. Don’t we? I do!
I believe if we search down deep, the reason we want to know all the details is because we don’t fully trust that:
1. God is in control
2. God’s plans are perfect.
If we did, we’d be just fine to keep running along and wait for Him to say, “Turn here. That’s the man I want you to meet. Email that person—they are the key to your dream job. When you’re twenty-seven. On the third try. At the second left.”
And even though I LOVE a plan I’m 100% content running without knowing the next part. Because I’ve run this trail before. And I know I can trust the signs. I know they never let me down.
I’ve also run with God before. I know God has never let me down. Have there been moments in my life I haven’t understood? Yeah. Have there been times when I’ve wished for different outcomes? Sure. But later on, I almost always thank Him for how He orchestrated something better than I knew at the time. Oh, that relationship didn’t work out, because I was supposed to meet and marry Brett. Even though it took me a long time to get pregnant, that was because I’m supposed to have the kids I have. Oh, I didn’t even get a second interview? That’s because that wasn’t actually a job where I would thrive.
So, like the signs on my trail, I want to trust Jesus. Yes, I still wish I knew how things will look in the fall, what will be open, what won’t, what to expect. But I’m trusting God will put up the sign in bold, easy to read letters when we get to that point in the trail. He doesn’t want us to get lost or go down a dangerous fork in the road. Our Heavenly Father only wants the very best for us. He wants us to find our way. The best way. In fact, He even calls Himself the Way. I’m pretty sure He’ll show us which way to go.
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“If we’re not living in the present right now, well then…” my friend, Beth said, raising her eyebrows at all the ways quarantine has meant not being able to plan ahead for tomorrow or next week or July, because we have no idea what will be open or what will be safe or what things will look like.
Interestingly enough she said it on a day we hadn’t seen each other since before shut down, at least ten prior. Yes, we’d traded texts, calls and emails, but in person? Uh uh. Did I mention we were supposed to have taken a trip to Israel together in the midst of all this shelter in place? Instead, I hadn’t even seen her face, unless you count on Instagram.
Her son asked if he could go see the horses that day and she thought, Yeah, let’s savor this sunny day. Meanwhile at my house, I finished editing a chapter and wanted to breathe in some fresh air on the trails. And so I went. None of those details were coincidences. And here Beth and I were standing on the same trail at the same time, as if God knew how much we would benefit from seeing each other. Oh, right. He did. God planned all of it—the horses, the timing, the ideas. For this particular moment.
The sun warmed our skin. The birds twittered in the branches. Beth and I, from a distance, got caught up on our kids, writing, mental health, the state of our world and what God was whispering to us. If either Beth or I had been feeling like we needed to get another thirty minutes of work done or another load of laundry thrown in, we would have missed it. But we didn’t. Because we both decided to embrace the day and God’s calling.
The present, as it turns out, is all we have, and it’s pretty amazing.
I’m not the first person to come to this conclusion. John Mark Comer states in his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, “All the spiritual masters from inside and outside the Jesus tradition agree on this one (as do secular psychologists, mindfulness experts, etc.): if there’s a secret to happiness, it’s simple—presence to the moment. The more present we are to the now, the more joy we tap into.
Or as the Psalmist says almost identically but a bit more succinctly, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” Psalm 118:24
So the question is, what are you doing with your present? What am I doing with mine? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to talk to? What do you want to learn more about? What sounds delicious for dinner? What book have you been meaning to read?
Have you been hoping to spend more time with your kids? Pull out a deck of cards or dust off your bikes. Have you been thinking you’d like to start working out? Do a dozen jumping jacks or push ups or burpees or sit ups. Been meaning to start reading the Bible. Put this blog down, open up your Bible or Bible App and go to John 1 and read the first five verses. Meditate on them. Has something been on your mind? Tell someone. Stand up for something. Support the cause. Ask for help. Are you trusting God in this day and following where He’s leading?
Will you get everything you’ve ever wanted to do completed today? Of course not. Will you end racism, cure COVID-19, build that beach house, travel to Greece, ummm maybe not today. But…today you can start. You can do something.
You can watch, read or listen to media created by black artists and thought leaders. You can wear a mask and wash your hands. You can put aside some extra change, listen to that podcast, do some research, reach out to that friend. Today is packed with possibilities. This is the day the Lord has made. This random Wednesday in June when the world has been closed, but is slowly opening back up. This day when we’re wearing masks and standing apart and systemic racism is breaking our hearts and life does not look like last summer or the one before.
Looking for ideas to embrace this day, the present? Jesus tells us, “Follow me. Love your neighbor. Go and tell the world about me. Be of good cheer. Feed the poor. Come away with me. Pray with me. Drop your nets. Do not fear. Shine your light. Those are some pretty great places to start.
We get to choose if we’ll embrace this day. If we’ll obey when we feel Jesus nudging us. If we’ll get out of the house if He asks us. If we’ll call or text the person He places in our mind or heart. If we’ll contemplate what He has in store what He wants us to say. If we’ll try some of these things Jesus instructs us to do, if we’ll trust Him, and get excited about His perfect plans, if we’ll rejoice in this day, be glad in it. Or…if we’ll complain, mope, try grinding it out by ourselves, numb all our feelings with distractions, and wish things were different.
This is the day the Lord has made (Psalm 118:24). So what are you going to do with it?
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The trail near our house is a little torn up. It’s been raining a lot, because April showers were working hard to bring us May flowers, and then May had an identity crisis and thought it was April. The storms washed away parts of the trail and left puddles in other spots. It’s a bit of an obstacle course, and although I love everything about running on the trails, I have to watch my step, so I don’t turn an ankle or go down.
Part way in the dirt trail becomes a smooth paved one, and I can concentrate less on the terrain and more on the shape of the clouds and the smell of honeysuckle and fresh mown grass. My favorite spot on the run is the covered bridge that signals I’m halfway done. There’s something beautiful and nostalgic about the bridge and my feet make a lovely percussion sound when they pound against the planks. I love the idea of running while suspended over a stream. But today, my toe caught on one of those uneven boards and I lost my balance. I wiped out skinning my knee and ripping open my hand.
I’m fine. Nothing a Band-Aid, some Neosporin, and a few days won’t heal, but it reminded me how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable we all are.
I knew I had to pay extra attention on the bumpy, rocky portion of my course. I was alert. Just like there are parts of our days and lives when we need to keep our antennae up—maybe around the person who we don’t fully trust or driving at night during a thunderstorm, or how tenderly we need to handle a newborn. But it was on the stretch of my run where I felt safe and free and peaceful that I fell. Just like in life. Sometimes it’s when I’m cruising along on autopilot that I stumble.
I think COVID-19 has shown most of us that we’re more vulnerable than we thought. That even though everything was plugging along like clockwork, we’re still vulnerable. We’re at risk for losing dollars we thought would be deposited in our accounts. We’re at risk for losing events we were looking forward to. We’re at risk for germs and viruses that can infect our lungs. But I’ve also become acutely aware in my vulnerability how faithful our God is. The virus shut down shops, but all the flowers still bloomed wide open. The virus halted regularly scheduled classes, meetings, church services, but God continues to show up during Google Hangout Bible studies, Facebook live women’s conferences, church on YouTube. Unemployment is up, but so is giving and outreach and generosity.
Are these changes preferred? Some yes. Some maybe not. Some for sure no. But even when we’re vulnerable, Jesus is not. He is steady and alive and on the move and keeps on showing up. Jesus has conquered sin and death and fear. He is love and light and life.
So we’re vulnerable. We always have been. We’re human. Our bodies get sick and scraped. We have seasons of financial success and seasons where we’re pinching pennies. This isn’t the first time I’ve ever taken a tumble while on a run. And I’m guessing it won’t be my last. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be perfect. Every step I make doesn’t have to be calculated, precise, and perfect, because God’s are. It’s alright that we’re vulnerable, and that sometimes we fall, because Jesus walks beside us, picks us up when we fall, cleans out our wounds, and if we let Him get close enough with His almighty Neosporin and peroxide, heals us.
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I recently received this fabulous package of goodies from one of my closest friends, Amy. Hanging out with her is better than any subscription box, because throughout the year she mails me the cutest, most adorable packages packed with things that make me smile. I knew it was from her before opening it, because even the outside of her packages are exciting—covered in star stickers and silver Sharpie swirls with fun lettering.
I began pulling out the contents one by one. This package was extra packed with goodness, because it was for my birthday. There was a separate bag within the envelope with this t-shirt in it that I kind of had to wiggle out, then unfold, and then my breath caught in my throat and a hot tear leaked out of my left eye. Not because of a t-shirt. Because of what it said: Courage, dear heart.
And yes, I am a huge Narnia fan (okay, geek) and this is a phrase Aslan says to Lucy on the Voyage of the Dawn Treader when everyone is losing hope and it reminds me that Jesus whispers the same to me when I am losing hope. When those around me only see the stormy waves. When the boat I’m standing on is rocking and I’m blinded by mist and my mouth is full of pungent salty sea water.
The words. This shirt. The ship. It all transports me to the moment Jesus and the disciples were on a boat and a storm kicked up—I mean one doozie of a storm, tossing their boat all over the place. Waves and saltwater blinded and gagged the disciples. Jesus was napping, because He wasn’t concerned. But the disciples were majorly freaked out and frightened, so they called out to Him.
The next thing they knew, they were in a severe storm. Waves were crashing into the boat—and Jesus was sound asleep! They roused him, pleading, “Master, save us! We’re going down!”
Jesus reprimanded them. “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” Then he stood up and told the wind to be silent, the sea to quiet down: “Silence!” The sea became smooth as glass. Matthew 8:23-27
Jesus turned to them before He stilled the waters and said, “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” And in His question, I hear the inverse of what He tells us to do. Jesus tells us to have courage and asks why we would ever be cowards—after all He’s right there next to us in our proverbial boats. He calls us dear hearts, because we’re dear to Him and wonders why we’ve changed our own names to ‘faint hearts’?
The words from the shirt, this scene from the boat, rang specifically true to me this past year—the one leading up to my birthday, the one I’d just concluded, and somehow without realizing it these were the exact words that had been helping me hang on.
Rewind a bit to when I had my annual mammogram. And the radiologist found something wonky on the film. And they had me come back in. And then it was still not clear what they were seeing, so I had to have a third mammogram. Praise Jesus, I am fine. But in the midst of the uncertainty, I heard Jesus whispering, Courage, dear heart. I saw him with me in that sterile hospital room just past the giant mammogram machine, steady and sure, giving me the courage I needed.
And again, when I had another medical test go awry, with an uncertain result, and I had to go back in for another look. My boat rocked a bit, but I saw Jesus with me as I came out of sedation, literally saw His face giving me the courage I needed, felt how much He loves me, that He holds me dear.
This year was a year of God continually asking me to be bolder, to ask bolder questions, to be bolder in my faith, to speak up more boldly in bold ways about and for Him. And, let’s just get this straight, bold is not how I lean. I prefer zero confrontation, making everyone happy, keeping the peace. But each time I would waiver and wonder, God why? Are you sure? He’d say, “Trust me. Find your strength in me. I’ll give you everything you need. Courage, dear heart.”
This phrase isn’t just cute words from a children’s book or a t-shirt. They’re a directive from God: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”—Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV
And this shirt printed who knows where delivered from Nashville in a colorful envelope from a caring friend spoke over me everything Jesus told me all year. I share this in case someone out there needs to hear it today, “Courage, dear heart.”
Whatever you’re facing, no matter how dark the storm, Christ reminds us to have courage, to be brave, because He is with us, and He is Master over the Storms. He can calm them in one word. “Silence.”
One of the fun bonus items in my envelope was a pack of Zinnia seeds. The promise of blooms in the form of tiny brown seeds. It’s a lot to ask an itty-bitty seed to bury itself in the soil, to break through its protective seed coating and drive its roots into the soil that feeds it, to stretch up out of its comfort zone into the light. But if those seeds are brave enough, they’ll bloom.
So will we. If we’ll take courage. The good news? The courage doesn’t have to come from us. We don’t have to be instinctively bold or brave. We just need to find our courage in Jesus. The bravest of them all. In Him we’ll find the hope and strength we need.
So, “Courage, dear heart.”
Jesus loves you.
He’ll give you the nutrients and light and stability you need. He’ll calm the waves and hold you tight. He’s on your side and stronger than anything you’re up against. Courage. Find it in Him.
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Laura L. Smith