Author: Elizabeth Brock (page 1 of 8)

Fight Back

On Monday night, I went to sleep with depression lurking in the corners of my room. I woke up Tuesday morning with melancholy breathing over my shoulder. As I hit snooze, as I scooped coffee grounds, as I sat down at my desk, as I opened the blinds to let the gloomy gray light in.

 

“What is the point?” it whispered savagely. “What does any of this matter? It doesn’t. It won’t help you now. Go back to bed. Settle into that hopeless place, Elizabeth. It’s the only place you have left to go.” I heard it seep through my tone in my meetings and conversations. My voice was heavy and my mind was coming up short searching for something, anything, positive. I opened Instagram mindlessly, only to scroll past every encouraging story or graphic. Not out of annoyance exactly. More like incapacity. I didn’t feel like I had space to hold a smile or a chirpy tone of voice or one more quippy version of HASHTAG WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER. The darkness loomed too large; there was just nowhere to put any light. 

 

I made a playlist a while back. It’s called “Remember Your Narrative Of Joy,” titled for a phrase from an Emily P. Freeman podcast episode I had listened to that week. She had talked about remembering the story arc of your whole life. That a chapter did not define a whole narrative. As believers, she gently reminded her listeners, ours is a narrative of joy. 

 

I wasn’t feeling particularly joyful at the time, but I knew I needed to act fast and find a way to remember my narrative. Thus the playlist. 

 

It’s not even a full hour of music. Twelve songs. Eleven to start with. I didn’t think too hard about it. It was a moment of desperation, and it’s difficult to to think critically in moments like those. I just threw in the first songs that came to mind when I asked the questions, “What calls something good out in me? What makes me smile? What will make me dance?”

 

A little voice reminded me of my playlist – made specifically to remind me of what’s true. “You should turn that on,” it whispered. “It will help.” But I don’t want help, I huffed. Like a petulant teenager, I shrugged the voice off. “I’m miserable; leave me alone in it.”

 

By 10:30AM, the living room which is currently functioning as my office was crowded with shadows, both literally and figuratively. Though I had turned on every light in the room and opened all the blinds before I set to work hours earlier, the dark skies and rain were hard to overcome with a few 40 watt bulbs. I needed more light.

 

Unable for the moment to focus on any task in front of me, I decided that it would be a good time to stretch my legs and go in search of another lamp. Somewhere in the process, it became a determined battle march. I came back in the room a few seconds later with a brighter lamp and a singular phrase rolling through my mind: 

 

“I’m going to fight back.”

 

The light clicked on with a roll of my thumb. A light came on in my chest and behind my eyes. The tide was turning, and I now held the upper hand in battle. I grabbed an unlit candle from a corner in the room and set it on my desk. “Heirloom Tomato” it was called. If I couldn’t go out in all this rain, I could very well make it smell like a garden inside. 

 

As I sat back in my seat to try it all again, I popped in my air pods and opened the playlist. Remember your narrative of joy, I told myself. My thumb hit the shuffle button and waited for the machine’s choice. The first notes of “Glorious Day” came jumping through the tiny speakers. I leaned back in the chair, breathing in the victory of the last five minutes. Everything changed because I decided I didn’t want to be bullied or dictated to by my fickle emotions or the bleakness of my present circumstances. I didn’t want to just lie down and take it. I wanted to fight back. So I did. 

 

About half an hour later, the sky brightened, lifting the whole room with it. It still rained heavily, but it wasn’t quite as dark. It felt like a beaming smile from a kind Father, a loving God. I think it felt like that because it was. 

 

“I needed rescue, my sin was heavy, but chains break at the weight of Your glory.

I needed shelter, I was an orphan, but You called me a citizen of Heaven.

When I was broken, You were my healing, now You love is the air that I’m breathing. 

I have a future, my eyes are open.”

 

With my open eyes. I saw leafy branches full for the first time in months. I saw a tiny firefighter walking with his dad, splashing in puddles. I saw birds and squirrels flitting through growing grass, trusting their Maker for the life they are living. I opened my front door and saw the rain calling out all the budding things, waking up sleeping life, softening hard ground. 

 

I saw all the things I would’ve missed with a downcast soul. For such a limited view, there is certainly a lot of goodness to be seen. Some days will be bigger battles than others, but in every one, I want to choose the fight. I want to rage against the dark that tries to creep in. To push it back with the great force of what is true. To swing my sword of truth with ferocity and wield my shield of faith with strength. All so I can see His goodness in the midst. 

 

“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, for the help of His presence.”

-Psalm 42:5

 

“For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

-Jeremiah 31:25

When We’re Ready

On Saturday, I arrived at my church’s new campus for our serve day. We’re moving in this month, and as with any move, we have a lot to do to prepare. Before we began tackling our to-do list for our serve day, our pastor stood on the steps in front of us welcoming those who gathered around him and doling out assignments to various groups. Reading a list of names from his phone, he directed some to the flower bed project outside the sanctuary doors. My name wasn’t in that group, but I let my eyes wander over to their assignment, surveying the work area and thinking how dismal it looked. Like most flower beds in mid-March, still recovering from the tough winter behind them. I heard the instructions to the team as I looked at the tiny, bright green weeds poking their leaves through the dull, gravelly bed:

“We’ll be putting down the topsoil so we can plant when we’re ready.”

I don’t know much about gardening or planting, but when the decade turned a few months back, I discovered a creeping desire in my mind – I wanted to grow something. To put something new and small and fresh into a pot of soil, care for it, watch it grow. Because I know next to nothing about the process, I went to a nursery near my house last weekend, found a friend who works there, and followed her around, asking an annoying number of questions.

Can I put these things in the same pot? Can I grow these well with the amount of sunlight I get in my backyard? What kind of care do these need? Do you think I can do that? Every question revealed how far I was in over my head.

I don’t know the science behind the topsoil, how it reacts with the flower bed beneath, what nutrients connect with the roots that invade to make them grow. But I now know that you put it down first “so we can plant when we’re ready.”

I avoided the headlines for as long as I could. I put distance between myself and the mass panic I felt was growing out of control like the virus they were all talking about. I knew fear would find me if I gave it any idea about where I was hiding. So I stayed away. My news came from murmurings from coworkers far more informed than I was, funny memes I scrolled past on social media, emails from our corporate office. Fringe news. News I could forget about quickly, compartmentalize, rationalize, minimize. 

But the real thing found me eventually. Tours were cancelled. Travel was no longer an option. Other offices were closed. Our office was closed. For two weeks at a minimum, we’d work from home. Pictures of empty grocery aisles were on everyone’s feed. Like sunsets in spring, everyone had to snatch their version and share their own view alongside a witty caption. I thought of my barren refrigerator and what would I do if they were out of the thing I needed, and was I prepared for a National Emergency? The answer was a decided no. So I went to two grocery stores and bought all the things I thought would fit on my pantry and refrigerator shelves. Then I drove an hour south on the Natchez Trace, compass pointed toward home and family and freedom from the weird life developing around me. I turned around when I realized the fear was already ahead of me waiting to greet me at the door. 

But all week, underneath the growing worry that things were going to get much worse before they would find their way to getting better again, was a quiet whisper steadily repeating the refrain “what if…” 

What if this forces some rest to our hurried world? What if creativity blooms in confinement? What if grace grows in defiance of the anxiety that chases all of us? What if this is all topsoil preparing the way for us to plant new growth? When we’re ready. 

As fast as I’ve tried to run from the reality of this virus and all its socio and economic repercussions, it has found its way into my line of vision. I’m staring down the barrel of this two weeks, knowing that it’ll be a long time before any of us will be ready to plant. But I have this sense, this belief, that this will be topsoil. This interrupted life we’re all living, this new view from home with nowhere to go, this forced stillness will be a covering for us – reviving old soil to prepare it for something new to grow. 

 

Brick by Brick

I didn’t publish often in 2019, but I did spend much of the year writing. Slowly but surely, I began by typing one word after another, one sentence after the last. To what end, I wasn’t sure. But that was kind of the point. To provide space to breathe through my fingertips. To let the words out that piled up, weighty and tall, on my chest. Thousands of them offloaded onto a Google Doc or a clean sheet of notebook paper in exchange for freedom, peace, and clarity.

What follows it something I wrote last spring. 

 


 

Discontent. That’s the word I feel a little too often in this season. Rushed is the word that follows closely behind it. I feel a little like I’m hurtling forward, and in the blurry colors speeding past me, I wonder what it’s all for. What am I doing here? I’ve been chewing on some words to attach to the restlessness fluttering in my chest. Trying to chase down a feeling that keeps lurking in the corners of my mind. 

It’s April 27th, 2019. I’m in Houston for the Hillsong UNITED show – one of the first on their People Tour. About halfway through the set, the band piles onto the smaller stage about 15 feet from where I’m standing. They tell a story, set up the song, and begin to play. And the notes that fill the air echo somewhere in the chambers of my memory.

Suddenly, I’m back in a musty smelling room in Walker County, Georgia with 300 teenagers. There, standing in the middle of the crowded room during an evening summer camp service, is my sixteen-year-old self. I slip into the row beside her in the old chapel on LookOut Mountain, and I watch her face in the glow of the stage lights, changing with every expression, singing her heart out. I remember this. The words to “Inside Out” run across the screen in front of her and move her soul in a new and fresh way. I don’t interrupt, but I do wonder what she would think about my experience tonight, my experience in the life I’m living now. 

I think about her a lot recently – my younger self. I go back to her often in my mind and tell her all the things I’m doing now, and I say, “Can you believe it? This is where you go! Doesn’t that sound like a wild journey?” She doesn’t say much in response. She looks at me with incredulity and confused eyes, a little hesitant and not quite excited. “But that doesn’t make any sense. Tell me one more time how I get to where you are now.” 

“Only Jesus,” I say. “That’s how.” 

Back in Houston, I have an All Access pass draped around my neck. An hour earlier, I shook the hand attached to the brain that wrote that song. That song that moved me then. 

I sit on the second row, hear it afresh and discover that it moves me still.

It’s bizarre, the life I’m living. That thought runs frequently through my mind. It’s amazing and wonderful and special and fun and such a privilege. So why does the word discontent follow me around? 

I think I have been culturally conditioned to expect something new. Something else. Something next. I expect marriage, a family, a promotion, a house, a move, a connection. All my life, I’ve moved from adventure to adventure, new chapter to new chapter. While this isn’t the final act in the play, it doesn’t have an end in sight. No due date or leading line foreshadowing what’s to come. I’m just here. Day after day, doing the job I was given to do, interacting with the same relationships, driving the same roads, unlocking the same doors. 

And as I write this, I realize what a blessing that is. What a kindness I am missing in my discontentment.

The cravings in my brain tell my parched throat that it is looking for a specific and flavorful drink while I walk past countless glasses of cool, clear water – the only thing that will truly satisfy. 

Adventures are ahead. They will come in time, and they will be as thrilling as all the ones before. But there is a thrill here, too. In sitting still. In routine and the simple act of putting one brick on top of another of my life. Bricks and bricks and bricks, placed at an even pace with diligence and care, don’t look like much one at a time; however, when I step back, something special stands before me. 

And while I work, there is a Master Architect behind me designing something beyond my wildest imagination. Right now, it looks like just a stack of bricks, but that’s only a foundational piece of a larger cathedral He is building. A cathedral meant to show His glory to every eye that sees it. Every eye, including mine. 

I wonder if my 36-year-old self will come someday to visit me in this season. I wonder if the notes of a song that moves me now will prompt her to remember me as I am in this season, at this age. I imagine she will stand silently to the side, watching me, smiling with patience and kindness and understanding. “If you only knew,” she will say quietly. “If you only knew how it looks from here. There’s a masterpiece in the making.

“This is what you are doing here. You’re stirring mortar and stacking bricks in the only way it can be done. One at a time.”

 

Come and See

What happened when Gabriel left? When the prayer and song were through and Mary got up off her knees and went about her day? Do you think her brow furrowed over how to tell her parents? What did they say? Her friends – did they believe her?

When Joseph woke up in a cold sweat from a dream that might as well have been real, what were his first thoughts? Did he sit up the rest of the night going over and over and over it in his mind, assuring himself that it was a message from the God he loved and not just a case of a vivid imagination? 

It’s true. It’s true. It’s true? 

The wise men took a long time to get there. Contrary to every beautiful nativity scene we put out this season, those three kings didn’t make it until a few years later. Were there some cloudy nights, when the Star dipped out of view? In the darkness, did they wonder, was this the right way after all? Was this even the sign they were looking for? Would they ever find the King they believed in? Was He even real?


When the angels finished their song and all was quiet and still and dark again, I imagine there was a moment of deep silence. Eyes that had been bleary with a desire for sleep just moments before were suddenly big and round, darting from one face to another in a “what just happened” kind of way. Hearts filled to the brim with adrenaline, nearly pumping straight out of their chests.

Then the silence broke. 

A rip-roaring shout of “Let’s go” combined with yelps and laughter and the soft echo of staffs thudding quietly to the grass, swallowed in the sound of bare feet pounding the ground in a frenzied run. Scripture tells us they “hurried off,” but I like to turn that up a notch and imagine them in an all out sprint. Following the light of the star and an innate sense in their own hearts that led them, full speed, through the city, around every corner, until they arrived at the doorway of the little cave. 

They stopped on a dime. 

Breathless, they lean in and ask through deep intakes of oxygen, “Where…is…He?” Joseph steps aside so they can see Him. 

And suddenly they are in the climactic scene of the story they have been hearing about their whole lives. Something that was supposed to happen in an ambiguous Someday far from now to the Whole Big Picture World suddenly happened today, to them. There He was. The glory of the angels’ serenade in the fields is suddenly eclipsed entirely by the glory of their Messiah, here in flesh and blood before them.


I get choked up about a lot of things around Christmas time. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older. This year, there were times when I couldn’t even open my mouth to sing the words to some of my favorite tunes because I was so moved by the lyrics:

“Come and see what God has done”

“Come let us adore Him”

“We are no longer lost, because He has come down for us”

Those are the words I repeat to my own heart, to the voices in my head. 

To Fear, I motion for him to come close and look through the crowd of shepherds. “Come and see what God has done,” I say. “He’s made a way for us. There are no more shadows to run from. The light is here.” 

To Bitterness and Anger, I ask them to uncurl their fists and reach out to touch the soft newborn skin. “Come, let us adore Him, the bringer of every joy. You cannot give adoration while holding all those hurts. Lay them down.” 

To Loneliness, I pull her close to the edge of the manger and watch her lock eyes with this tiny, infinite Savior. “We are no longer lost,” I say softly. “He didn’t forget us; He’s here to save us. Right on time.”


For us, He isn’t just a Savior born in a Someday long ago, far away from the Today we’re living in now. He is the Savior for all days. The Hero of the greatest story ever told. The Creator and Redeemer of our own stories. 

Every question we have rattling inside our weary hearts finds their answer in Him. 

What would they say?

“…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11)

Is it true?

“‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:29-32) 

Was this the right way?

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life…’” (Jn. 14:5-6) 

Where is He?

“He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see…” (Mt. 28:6)

 

Home For The Holidays

I finished up my last visit tonight, and I’m headed home. When I got to the airport, I decided to get a slice of pie and a cup of coffee to celebrate the fact that the destination on my gate screen says Nashville. When the waitress came to take my order, I looked up and immediately recognized her. This was not the first time I had ordered pie and coffee here.


Last year, I came to Houston for the first time. After a good visit with my station, I zipped off to the IAH airport, only to find out that my flight was cancelled and there wouldn’t be another one until the next day. I ended up rebooking on another carrier and taking an hour Lyft ride through heavy Houston traffic to the other airport across town. I arrived, dragging my feet, dead tired,  and just really wanting to be home.

I walked into a little airport restaurant and ordered a slice of key-lime pie and coffee to ease my woes (as pie and coffee is wont to do…). I started chatting with two twin sisters working that night. Lisa & Lauren. They rolled silverware and refilled salt & pepper shakers while we chatted about Gospel music and their classes in school and hometowns and families and life. And it was the best. I walked away feeling lighter. Better. Smiley-er.

Because do you know what I love? Making new friends.


Tonight, over a year later, when I sat down at that same restaurant to order that same cup of coffee and that same slice of pie, guess who came to take my order? Lisa. I told her I recognized her and asked her if she remembered me. Does she remember how we talked about Gospel music? Yes, she says with a smile, but wasn’t I blonde then? I laughed and told her she remembered correctly. Soon they were both standing near my table with the salt and pepper shakers, asking how I’d been, telling me their plans for the holidays, updating me on how long they have left in school.

People often ask me how I like traveling. And the truth is, the plane rides get long, and trying to remember what rental car you’re in in a crowded parking lot is frustrating, and hotel rooms just aren’t ever a good substitute for home.

But, this is why I love this job. It has given me such a sweet opportunity to make friends all over the country. To connect with familiar faces over a slice of pie. To connect with my radio pals over coffee and good music. To connect about family and ministry and stories of the lives we’ve lived.

To connect.

That’s where home is anyway. In connection with people.

I’m sitting at my gate now, listening to two men talk about an NFL game coming up. One for the Texans, one for the Titans. Neither of them has introduced themselves, but names are inconsequential here. They’ve connected over something their hearts both beat for, and for a minute, they’re at ease. At home in their own skin. At home here at Gate 42.

Life really is sweet especially when it’s spent with other people living it. Don’t forget that this Christmas. Don’t blink or move too fast and miss it. Revel in it. Smile about it. Be sensitive to it. Be intentional about connecting with the hearts around you and do your best to make others feel at home when they’re with you.


Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays
‘Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home!

-Home For The Holidays

Just A Little Bit Broken

Last week, I sat behind the steering wheel of a rental car on Highway 99, driving north. Los Angeles behind me, Northern California ahead. I found myself in the third lane from the right, trailing an old Volkswagen van. It was probably red once, but the years had turned the paint color to a burnt orange. Stickers with logos I didn’t recognize were scattered across the windows, and the rear bumper hung crookedly off the back.

For the next mile or so (before I got tired of going so slowly behind it), I watched the broken piece bump and jostle with every crack and pothole. I smiled to myself, and thought, “Yea, me too.”

The day I went back to work after a blissful ten days at home, I walked in with the kind of confidence that comes only at the start of a new year.

I can do this! So what if I have to leave tomorrow for a work trip? So what if I have to travel for seven days next week? So what if I don’t have enough hours to do all the things? I’ll make them enough! I’m New Year New Me! I can accomplish anything!

And then I cracked my computer screen by mid-afternoon.

Minor setback! You can STILL do this!

And then I packed everything I needed for my trip except my phone charger (hi, this is very important because – GPS).

No worries! You have $15. You can go get a new one. It’ll be great! You can never have too many!

And then my faithful suitcase started to wobble in ways it hadn’t before, and the handle jammed at an inconvenient place.

It’s okay. You just have to get it to baggage check. And to the rental car. And up to your room. Not a big deal.

And then I discovered the charger I brought for my computer did LITERALLY NOTHING when I plugged it in.

That’s okay. This is fine. You’ll just work from your phone. Problem solved.

And then I opened my suitcase and discovered that my curling iron had broken in half on its last trip through the Las Vegas baggage claim.

EVERYTHING IS STILL FINE.

When I saw the dangling rear bumper bouncing on the road before me, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself and think about how 2019 seems to have started off a little bit broken.

Because of the broken piece at the back of the van, the vintage van looked rundown, fit only for the scrapyard. The rust and dirt and jostling parts made it look tired and less than capable of highway travel.

But it wasn’t.

Wheels were still turning. Engine was still running. Miles were still being covered. Being a little bit broken didn’t stop it. It made it stand out.

The little broken pieces of my life this week were small annoyances in the grand scheme of things (except for the curling iron, because y’all know that’s a significant tragedy). Nothing was life-threatening or devastating. Just small pieces of broken parts.

Sometimes the things that are broken are small, like legos on a bare foot. And sometimes they’re big, like a piano falling from several stories high. Sometimes they break one after the other, and sometimes they wait until you’re seated and comfortable until they decide to break again.

But the music from your beat up stereo trades places with the wind that whips through the cracks in the window. People watch and stare and say, “Look at that engine still running, still moving to fulfill its purpose, even with a broken bumper. Even with rust on the door handles and chipped paint on the hood.”

Would you look at that?

Give a little grace to the broken pieces in your life and to the people all around you. Commit to trying again when you break something else. Don’t let a broken bumper ruin your ride today.

Remember that dropping broken pieces off at a junkyard cuts them off right at the very moment they were about to say something significant to a watching world. Drive them through life instead and smile with joy behind the wheel. Be a reminder to those driving beside you that just because things are a little bit broken doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy a ride down Highway 99.

 

Expect Something Different

I have an opinion. And it isn’t very popular, so I need to make sure nobody’s holding any stones before I share it.

Alright, here goes.

I do not like Hallmark movies, Christmas or not. I can’t appreciate them for what they are. I just don’t get it. I end up shouting questions at the screen, wanting answers to plot holes and for someone to tell me who in the world wrote this dialogue.

Maybe there’s something in the predictability, the complete lack of realism. Something about a clean resolution. The guy gets the girl. The girl gets the crown or the promotion or the makeover. The town saves the Christmas pageant. The local diner is spared by the corporate tyrant. The bitter cynic is hopeful again. The problem is solved, and the credits roll.

But here’s what’s lovely about these cheesy flicks: at the end when the screen goes dark, all my expectations have been met. Certainly, I have some questions that have yet to be answered. And certainly, I have a tiny tinge of regret at the time I just lost. But I got what I bargained for. A nice, neat bow on a relatively uncomplicated problem.

Great.

But what happens when those expectations roll over into the flesh and blood reality we live in? What happens when we sit on the edge of our seats this season, eagerly looking for our picture-perfect ending and storybook Christmas?

I wonder if Mary knew anything about unrealistic expectations. Honestly, as many times as we ask her every year, I don’t think Mary knew all the details. From the beginning, we see her fear and we hear her ask, “How will this be?” During the nine months of her pregnancy, surely she had expectations for how the birth story would unfold, and I may be wrong, but I don’t imagine she expected stable animals to be witnesses or grimy shepherds to be her first guests.

And what about those guys? The shepherds. What did they expect? Did they run to the site to which the angels sent them expecting to see a young teenager holding the Messiah they had been waiting for? A simple carpenter standing behind her? The damp smell of the cave in which they lay? Wasn’t Messiah supposed to be royal? What was He doing here? Why did the angels tell them? Shouldn’t there have been a bigger announcement to more prominent men than they? They were Jewish men who knew the prophecies. They knew the words that declared what was to come, but did they yet understand how or when or why? Maybe their expectations had had a little more color. More light. More neat lines and a fine timeline of when exactly their suffering would end. They were only human, after all.

And we can relate, can’t we? Our expectations are often outlined by our circumstances.

So often, we walk into the Christmas season with really high expectations of ourselves, of the people around us, of the celebrations and parties and gifts and food and decorations. We expect things to end neatly like our sweet, pre-packaged Hallmark movies. We expect snow to fall and love stories to have magical beginnings and happy endings. We expect our Christmas cookies to look just like that glossy photo in the magazine, and we sigh with great disappointment when they don’t.

We expect the bank accounts to swell to accommodate the gifts we desire to give. We expect the tension we’ve walked in every other month of the year to loosen its grip and let us live in peace for a few weeks. We expect the grief we’ve suffered to pause for just a minute and let us breathe.

We walk into this season expecting a whole lot. Expecting our lives to really look like the Christmas cards we send.

And maybe they do at times. Don’t get me wrong. There are beautiful moments to be had this season. Watching children and grandchildren light up the room with their belief in Christmas magic. Invitations to Christmas parties with friends and loved ones. New love, and new babies, and first Christmases spent together. And singing – oh, the singing! It is indeed a beautiful, heart-warming, fuzzy, cheesy, gloriously happy time of year in certain moments.

But in the moments when it’s not, how do we survive? And what do we do when the lights go out, the decorations are packed, and we’re left again with the bare and empty walls we started with? How do we move past our expectations when another year passes and they just aren’t entirely met?

May I submit a possibility that we are expecting the wrong things. Maybe we need to expect something else.

You see, the truth is, Jesus Himself told us we would have trouble here. And there wasn’t a caveat in that verse that told us we’d get a break at Christmas. We don’t. Life at this time of year is covered in a little more glitter, a little more light, a little more cheer and charity, but it is still life. There are still parts that hurt. There are parts that cannot be wrapped up in a neat, Hallmark Christmas bow. There are questions still unanswered. Problems still unsolved. Wounds still opened and not quite healed.

But what if we changed our expectations? What if, instead of expecting a perfect Christmas, we expected a perfect Savior? What if we took time to open our hearts and “prepare Him room”? To expect Him to show up in our lives? To expect Him to be enough for us? Because He is enough for us. Our world may not be commercially classified as merry and bright this season, but we can be sure that the Prince of Peace Himself has arrived and brought us freedom from our strife. That is cause enough for celebration. An expectation sure to be fulfilled and in Jesus, already met.

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. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

One thing we have that the shepherds didn’t that night is a view of the cross from the manger. When you look into the face of the infant Divine this Christmas, you will find a Savior. You will find a King that has conquered death. You will find a Messiah, a Deliverer, who has far exceeded “all we could ever ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

Rather than hanging all our hopes on how this Christmas will meet our needs and expectations, may we instead look at Jesus, who is the final Word on all we could ever hope for. He is the healing of our heartbreak. The new song of redemption we sing. The reason we celebrate. The restoration of our broken narrative. The joy declared to all the world.

May we turn our faces to the manger and expect with certainty to see our Savior, Jesus.

“One thing I want my soul to remember and I want your soul to know is that life isn’t always good; humans aren’t always good; but God is good. Always.”

-Amena Brown, Broken Records

 

**The magnificent cover photo for this post is by my friend, Jackson Townsend. Follow him on Instagram at @jacksontownsend_ for more beautiful photos like this one!

Borrowed Light

I specifically purchased it. Went out of my way to make sure I had it the night before I left. Packed it securely in the bottom of my suitcase. It was ready, batteries and all.

And there it stayed for the whole trip. Never actually being used. It sat quietly beneath a layer of clothes while I walked off without it. And at the moment when I needed it most, I discovered I had left it behind.


A few months ago, my dad asked me to write a short introduction for an advent booklet he was compiling for my home church. Something simple. 400 words. Just a quick welcome to the advent season.

As I thought about how to intro into a season like advent in 400 words, one in particular kept rising to the surface of my mind.

Light.

We string strands of it around trees and over fireplaces, place candles in window sills, and sit in their glow at silent Lord’s Supper services. Many of our most treasured traditions during this season revolve around light.

As much as we tout the merriness and brightness of Christmas, as much as we try to drown out the darkness of the previous year with our colored lights and flickering candles, and attempt to cover up the emptiness with piles of gifts and sweets, it often isn’t enough. There are those standing next to you in line while you skim these words, sitting beside you in waiting rooms, that do not look on this season with light. Or maybe it isn’t them at all; maybe it’s you. Maybe the pair of eyes reading these words are having trouble seeing the light all around them.

Maybe this holiday comes as a rude interruption to grief – the rosy cheeks and inflated decorations appearing garish next to the loss you’ve suffered. Maybe it is a reminder of someone who never came back or someone who never showed up in the first place. Maybe it is a matter of expectation versus reality. The bright colors and happy endings you see inside your TV screen make your current surroundings look dull or bleak. Maybe the string of plastic bulbs wrapped around your Christmas tree is all the light you can find this season.

But let me tell you with certainty, there is more light to be seen.


The atmosphere was cool and damp – a welcome reprieve after a long day in the hot and dusty Israeli desert. I stepped carefully down each step, paying careful attention to where and how my foot landed on the twisty iron stairs. We marched forward and continued our travels south. Stairs and stairs and stairs and then, just when I thought I’d never see the sun again, another set of stairs to top it all off. We multi-tasked the best we could, listening to our guide spout facts about these historic depths while trying to maintain our balance beneath the centuries-old stone.

By the time we arrived at the main attraction, there were 130 feet of stone and earth separating me from the sun, and I was watching my friends one by one step through a small opening in the stone wall.

Hezekiah’s tunnel. We had come all this way to experience this. Down into the depths of the earth we had walked and walked and walked for this moment. And the thing I needed most for this adventure had been left in my hotel room, miles and miles away.

My light.

Up to this point, we had still been in a place that supplied electricity, but now we were entering a space so ancient and deep, artificial light had not found a permanent place there. That silly headlamp I had taken such care to pack for this express purpose sat in my suitcase turned off and unused.

I had two options. Number one, sit this next adventure out and climb back up to the light of the sun. Or number two, borrow some light.

As we approached the tunnel, I confessed my situation to a few friends as they pulled out their own headlamps and strapped them around their ponytails.

“I forgot mine. It’s back at the hotel. Can I walk between you two so that I can see?”

They kindly agreed to this solution, and we stood in the stalled queue awaiting our turn to step into the darkness.

I will tell you candidly that while I am grateful I got the unique opportunity to walk, crouched and uncomfortable, for half an hour under the earth with ice-cold water streaming steadily over my feet, I don’t necessarily feel a distinct urge to repeat the scenario anytime soon. We were behind a group of college students that kept stopping at inopportune moments for what felt like an interminable amount of time, and while I am not traditionally claustrophobic, I did make my discomfort in the situation known to the crowd ahead of me.

But as I watched my shadow follow me through the cavern, stopping and starting as we moved along, I was distinctly and profoundly aware that the light creating it was not mine.

I was careful with each step, making sure my feet landed securely. My hands dragged along the walls beside me. My five-foot, ten-inch frame bent and stretched beneath the ever-changing ceiling. Eden walked in front of me, her curly hair squashed beneath the band of her headlight. Adrianne walked behind me, careful not to bump into my protruding backpack. Both girls had their chins tilted to the floor of the cave, and battery-operated beams from their headlamps created circles of illumination around our feet.

Our feet. Theirs and mine.

Even without my own, I could see because of theirs. I borrowed the light. I walked between them – one before me, one behind – and made it through every moment of darkness because they shared their light.


Maybe you are the one without this season. Maybe things look a little too dark for any celebration. Maybe you can’t fathom how the words peace and joy factor into this season.

Maybe you’ve found yourself staring down the barrel of a dark tunnel, and you’ve forgotten your light.

Lift your eyes, and find a light-bearer. They are there all around you willing to stand before you, behind you, beside you and let you step in the circle of their light. Ask for help, and don’t walk alone in the dark. See this truth in the borrowed light: “There is no night that can steal the promises His coming brings to us.” No night, not even the one you’re in. Jesus, the baby born in a manger, the Savior sent to rescue us, is Light enough for even this.

And listen to me, light-bearers. You who know the Light of all the world. You who know that we celebrate because He came to dispel every darkness. Be easy to find. Look at the those around you this season and declare to them “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). Point the watching world to the manger, to the cross, to the empty grave and invite them to “come and see what God has done.” 

May the ones who find themselves facing darkness this season also find themselves between Light-bearers who promise to walk with them. And may we who bear the Light remember what we carry and freely offer to share.

 

**The gorgeous cover photo for this post is by my friend, Julie Heflin. She is a gem, and I am so grateful for her generosity in letting me use this image. Follow her on Instagram at @julieheflinn for more beautiful photos like this one!

The Sam’s Club with Charman Leigh and Big John

Hey there. Yes, you. I’m talking to you sitting on your couch scrolling absentmindedly through the Facebook. I know what you’re doing. You’re procrastinating that grocery trip you have to make before All The People show up to your house for The Very Big Feast that is also sometimes called Thanksgiving. I know. It’s daunting and exhausting to even think about it. The masses will be out and about doing the very same thing, and just your luck, you WILL get the buggy with the squeaky wheel and the sticky handle. Them’s the breaks, kid. So, I get your desire to postpone the horrifying task of grocery shopping until the very last possible minute. But I think I have something that will make you up to the task.

I thought you might like to come with me today and accompany Big John and Charm to the Sam’s Club. It is just entertaining enough that it might do the trick, and inspire you to tackle your own grocery list.

Yes? You would? Great!

Now, step one: Walk through the door.


If you’re with Charm, you’ll notice that she already has the card out and ready. She flashes it quickly at the friendly attendant without slowing down a tiny bit. I doubt they ever actually see her identification, but no one has ever questioned her. My mother marches into Sam’s Club with all the authority and confidence of a general riding in to retrieve the prisoners of war. The battle’s already over. She has a list and a route. She’s here to collect her spoils.

As am I, frankly. There are two reasons I go to Sam’s Club. Neither have anything to do with grocery shopping. Years ago, I learned that if I volunteered to accompany Charm on her regular Sam’s run, I could coax her into paying me in a ginormous Coke and a soft, cinnamon pretzel. There’s little I won’t do for a cinnamon pretzel.

If you’re tagging along with Charm, you’ll need to step lively, please and thank you. Her legs are short, but they are quick and determined. Don’t stop to smell the roses, and don’t you even THINK about looking at the electronic section. There is invariably a sweet-smiling salesman there waiting for the teeniest flash of eye contact to greenlight him into a sales pitch. Charm does not have time for this, so please keep your head down until you pass the section with books and outdoor furniture.

Note: If you’re with Big John, this previous information is irrelevant.

Now, the second thing I go to the Sam’s Club for is the conversation. I walk beside my mama and tell her all the things I’ve been thinking on recently. So if you have anything that you’d like to get off your chest, now is the time. This L-shaped walk between the eager sales guy and the produce section is the land of grab and go. This is the part of our stroll that requires the least amount of critical thinking on Charm’s part. This is where her attention is evenly split, and now is your chance. After this, the conversation will narrow to jokes and bits that are purely for your own benefit and entertainment. Once you catch your first glimpse of fresh fruit and veggies, she loses a significant amount of her attention span. Don’t even think about discussing anything serious until you round the corner into the aisle with the canned beans. She just won’t hear you.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating: there are people who work their entire lives to have the kind of concentration my mother has in the Sam’s produce section. Experts write books about it and sell gobs of them with how-to instructions printed neatly inside. And she just has it. When she is examining heads of cauliflower, the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist. It’s like a scene in a movie when the main character is so lost in thought and their surroundings just fade away behind some kind of dream. She goes somewhere entirely different when she’s concentrating on getting the best looking box of spring mix. Sometimes I wonder what that other world must look like, how it must feel to escape the confines of this concrete warehouse of household necessities into a calm and quiet place to really examine the price difference between different types of cheese. I usually stand with my feet firmly planted on the ground, while she floats inside her own head, coming back to reality only when she sees something so attention worthy that she’ll have to point it out to me. “Now, look at that, Elizabeth,” she’ll say. “That’s one of those pre-made salads. It’s got all the little things that go with it. The dressing and all that. That might be something you might want to try.” Or “Oh! Look how cute the packaging is on these cherry tomatoes! Ugh! I am a sucker for some cute packaging!”

One of my favorite parts about the Sam’s Club are the little sample carts scattered throughout the store. There are usually about three or four in this section alone. I wander to and from my mother’s cart to the folks wrapped in hair-nets offering me tiny cups of flavored popcorn or carrots and a new veggie dip. Not Charm, though. When she is in her shopping zone, not even the tantalizing smell of a tiny cup of cider turns her head. It is otherworldly.

Now, once we move passed the bread and into the non-perishables, you can pick up your conversation here with a real hope that she’ll join back in. However, at this point in my journey

I’m usually too lost in a few bits or jokes I started when I was my only audience. Charm’s fog lifts, and it doesn’t take her long to be 100% over it. She just spent an exorbitant amount of energy back there – mental and emotional – and she’s losing steam quickly. We’re back to the land of grab and go, and we are moving fast so please keep up.

We’re nearing the end of our Sam’s Club route with Charm. In days past, this is the part when I’d actually have an opportunity to be helpful. We’d wheel the loaded down cart to the nearest (and least crowded) conveyor belt and unload every piece from inside the treasure chest only to watch it be scanned and dropped back into another buggy. Now, though, we’re in a new era of apps and technology. And let me tell you something – this thrills Charm to NO END. You’re saying that she can go into Sam’s, scan her own items, and walk right out without talking to another soul? That is music to her introverted ears.

Because Charm is typically the valiant grocery leader in our family, I should’ve known that things would end poorly when Big John and I ventured in on our own a few weeks ago. When we started at the pretzel counter and actually sat down to enjoy our snack, I was lulled into a false sense of security. “Great!” I thought. “This will be way less stressful than grocery shopping with Charm. Look how laid back we are.”

FALSE.

Even as we got started on the actual task at hand (in the PRODUCE SECTION NO LESS. What are we? SAVAGES?), I still held to the belief that this would be a perfectly lovely afternoon. But I was wrong. I was so very wrong.

We had been standing at the butcher’s counter for nearly fifteen minutes, my dad staring with a look of consternation into the freezer box below, when I realized we were in deep, deep trouble without Charman Leigh. Knowing how much time we had already lost in this section alone, I left Dad to his thoughts and started on other parts of the list. Where Charm needed not an ounce of help, Dad would need all the help I could give.

Eventually, we made it out. We lived to tell the tale, although Big John always like to include the defense, “If you hadn’t have been buggin’ me and putting it all on Instagram, I would’ve been fine.” He’s still in denial about the trauma and my heroic contribution in getting us out in one piece.


There now. Don’t you feel better? Don’t you feel inclined to brave the cold for some canned pumpkin and jellied cranberry sauce?

I knew you would.

Best of luck! Call Charm if you need help finding anything while you’re out. Call Big John if you need help with…well, literally anything else.

 

Israel Part Four: “You Are Peter”

The sun shone and the breeze blew and I stared hard at the shore before me. The Sea of Galilee. A piece of history unburied beneath churches or rebuilt roads. This was the actual spot, preserved and waiting to tell a story. And I was all ears.

Out of all the biblical moments that happened in this place on this sea, there was one scene in particular that faded into view. As I watched it unfold in my mind, I called my imagination into action, wanting to hear the crackling fire for myself. To smell the charcoal, the fish, the sea.


Only a chapter over from last week’s story of Mary Magdalene, I stepped into John 21 and found Peter climbing back onto a boat and shoving out to sea.

“Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you” so they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”

One of my annoying habits in life is projecting feelings onto others based on my own assumptions, so maybe I’m way off-base here, but allow me a little “sanctified imagination” as my dad likes to call it. When I read the verses above, I sense a littlefrustration from Peter. Do you hear it?

His declaration isn’t an invitation to an easy night of fishing with friends. It sounds more like an “I have to get out of here and clear my head” statement. Artists use paint brushes, writers use pens and computer keyboards, runners strap on their running shoes. We all have a place we go to unwind knotted up thoughts. For Peter, it was the place he knew best—the sea.


As I stood on that shore, I wondered what Peter must have been thinking out there on the boat. What did he need to clear from his troubled mind? What thoughts pressed in like closing walls around him? Did his vision give way to the shadows and flickering flames in his memory from his hour of shame in Caiaphas’ courtyard? Did the rooster’s cry still ring in his ears with crystal clear clarity? Like a movie montage, I imagine the memories that must have crowded Peter’s mind.

“‘But what about you?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’” Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…’”

-Matthew 16:15-18a

We don’t know exactly how long it had been since the night Peter denied knowing Jesus, but I am certain it had not been so long that he had forgotten the weight of what he’d done. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, Peter had cowered before the consequences that would come from being associated with this man he had called Teacher. Hauling in an empty net in the dark hours of the morning, did the voices of shame sneak in for their attack on his vulnerable heart?  

You are no rock. That might have been true once, but after your cowardice, nothing can be built here. You are just a worthless fisherman. And judging by this empty net, you are not even a very good one. Good job, Peter. You blew it.

I leaned down to touch the water lapping the stones on the shore and felt deeply connected to Peter. I thought of what those voices have said to me before. I thought of how my shoulders have often bent beneath the weight of fear and failure. The accusatory voice of shame, whispering lies about who I am, who I will never be. But a lump caught in my throat when I remembered what happened in this spot all those years ago. How Jesus answered those voices for Peter. How He answers them for me.


Dawn was coming over the hills around them. After a fruitless night of fishing, after sleepless hours of hauling in empty nets, Peter looks to the shore where I now stand and sees a man there calling out to him. Though it took the disciples a minute to realize who He was, the light bulb eventually clicked on and they knew Who was filling their boat with fish. While the other disciples rowed quickly to shore, Peter just couldn’t wait.

Scripture tells us that he vaulted himself into the water and began swimming toward shore.

His shame was heavy, but it could not hold him to the ship. It propelled him over the edge into the water, swimming toward his Savior. Maybe the burden of what he’d done, of what he’d seen and experienced still weighed him down as he swam, but he could not be stopped. The joy of seeing His risen Savior eclipsed all that old shame. He took it to the only One who could lift it. The only One who could set him free.

Psalm 34, verse 5 says, “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” We cannot simultaneously be covered with shame while looking at the face of Jesus. Peter experienced that firsthand when he sloshed out of the waves, dripping with adrenaline, and looked at His Savior. His shame fell from his shoulders when he locked eyes with his Friend, Jesus, and saw the forgiveness waiting for him there.

“Grace exposes then forgives, confronts then comforts, commands then enables, never leaves you to yourself, but will deliver what is needed.”

-Paul David Tripp

In the verses following, Jesus restores Peter and tells him how he will be used in the kingdom going forward. Because he will be used. His sin and betrayal didn’t count him out; the blood of Jesus answered for him. There on the beach, Christ reminds Peter that there is still a place for him to serve. Still a commission to be fulfilled.Feed my sheep. Not because Peter is anything special, but because Jesus is the One who declared it so. “You are Peter,” He says. “This is Your name. This is who you are because of who I am. Because of what I have done for you.”

On that Galilean shore, I stood in overwhelming gratitude that the blood of Jesus speaks for me, too. He is not done with me after failure. He takes the broken pieces of my life and reshapes them into a frame that will display His glory. Nothing is wasted. His gaze on me removes all shame and makes my face radiant.

So maybe today is the day we need to jump out of our brooding boats, swim right past the voices of shame and fear, and emerge from the water right in front of our friend Jesus. We step onto the shore with our eyes locked on His and our ears tuned in to what He is saying about our identity and let every other voice fade away.

“With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.”

-Romans 8:1-6 (The Message)

Older posts