I’m a super honest person. Lately, I’ve been struggling with feeling insincere when I casually run into people around town. I got downright nervous recently at the grocery store while waiting in line with my cart of items, anticipating the impending conversation. A typical, short greeting in a situation like this used to go something like “Hi! How are you?” To which I would reply, “I’m great! How are you?” And then we would carry on with casual conversation or other business. Similar encounters happen when running into friends in public places. I have to say though, these conversations are no longer working for me. They don’t ring true and leave me feeling icky.
You see, I’m not great. Hell, I’m not even good. If I were to answer honestly, I would say, “I’m having a hard time. I’m really sad. And I’m really tired. Grief is so hard. I’m overly-emotional and completely overwhelmed. I’m also a little anxious. And I’m really, really vulnerable, which makes me easily hurt and then resentful, which I absolutely hate. I’m tired of crying. And I’m so ‘over’ bad news I could scream.”
Cue the young, stunned cashier at H.E.B. with her mouth gaping open, running towards her manager for help with the crazy lady in the checkout lane. Boundaries are important in our society. Even my friends and acquaintances would struggle to respond to that emotional outburst, regardless of its truth.
What’s strange to me is that even though I myself am “not good,” God and I are good. We’re solid, in fact. My faith has not wavered. My face is still fixed on His.
So, as I struggle with social etiquette that coincides with honesty and faith, I’ve decided on the following for the time being:
“Hi! How are you?”
“I’m blessed. How are you?”
Because despite my erratic emotions, God’s blessings are consistent. Despite my hurt, God is still good. Despite my feelings changing like shifting sand with every new wave of grief, His grace still stands firm.
I had to retire my favorite pair of tennis shoes. For a tennis player, it’s a big deal. You see, the repetitive stops and starts on hard-court tennis surfaces wear and tear the soles of a player’s shoes. And if you play frequently, just about the time you get a pair of tennis shoes really comfortable and broken-in, you start to notice your feet sliding on the court more. Gone is the tell-tale squeak as you quickly move around the court. So, you check the bottom of your shoes and there it is … a smooth surface worn so thin it will render a gaping hole at any moment.
So, despite the fact that these shoes are just now feeling really nice to play in — no pinches or pulls or movement inhibition — I suddenly have to give them up for a super stiff new pair. Why? Because the old ones are no longer safe. Without proper traction, I could slip or slide on the court, injuring a muscle or turning a knee or ankle.
These shoes remind me of my life. Just when I feel like I’m hitting a pleasant stride, everything changes. Out with the familiar, in with the unknown. Whether it’s suffering like illness, or upheaval like moving, or expected but difficult change like children graduating and leaving home, nothing ever seems to stay the same. The only constant is change itself.
God is always pressing forward. Always pursuing us. He is never stagnant. So, if we are staying the same, we are by default choosing to move further away from Him. If we’re not seeking Jesus in our daily lives, we are actually seeking distance from Him. Where He leads, we must follow. Not doing so equates to disobedience.
I’d like to tell you that I embraced that new pair of tennis shoes, went out and played hard, never complained, and my feet felt great. But they didn’t. And I didn’t. My feet were aching after being thrust into their new environment. I moaned and groaned about it, too. However, I know my sneakers will adjust over time. A few more outings and they will begin to loosen up, and before I know it, I will refer to these new shoes as my old comfortable pair. And then I will have to start this process all over again.
My friends, we will adjust and loosen up with a little time, too. Don’t fight change, but look for where God is moving and join Him there. New environments may make us tense with anxiety or fear, but soon it will all begin to feel familiar and comfortable. And that’s when we know it’s time for God to stretch us with something new once again. Because it’s in the stretching where we grow in likeness to Him.
I hear the tell-tale sound of a text alert from one of my children, so I pick up the phone sitting next to my lukewarm cup of coffee that I haven’t had time to drink this morning. “Mom,” it reads, “I think I’m sick. Should I get a COVID test? Do I go to the health center on campus?” Another text alert. “Mom, the tennis meet today has been canceled. Can you pick me up from school, then take me home, then bring me back to the courts for clinic? And can you call and make sure clinic is happening? What’s for supper? Can you pick me up after clinic, because Dad may still be in his mediation?” A third notification pings, reminding me it’s time for my business meeting. I sigh as I realize I’m still in my nightgown. A fourth ping. A funny meme from the child I haven’t yet heard from this morning. I’ll read that later. The phone begins to ring now with an incoming call, and I realize it’s from one of the kid’s schools. Now the doorbell is ringing and the dogs are going berserk.
All this happened in a mere five-minute period this morning! To say we’re in a busy season at Casa Carlson would be a gross understatement. It’s tennis season, STAAR testing season, AP/Dual credit/final exam season, preparing for college season, moving home from college for summer season, scholarship application season, confirmation season, high school graduation season, prom season, and the list goes on and on. My mother-in-law asked me just a few minutes ago, “What’s keeping you so busy?” The thought of listing for her the things I had done just today was enough to overwhelm me!
For the record, all these “things” causing me to run around like a chicken with my head cut off are actually wonderful blessings. Also, for the record, I am tired. When life gets hectic, my brain overflows with an insane number of dates and details, and the calendar fills up so tightly I can’t possibly wedge another thing in — yet here come more surprise events, plans, and needs — how do I respond? How would you?
Well first, remember that cup of coffee? I warm that precious bit of bliss back up. I’m not even kidding. But second, I try to shift my perspective from “I have to” into “I get to.” So much of the busyness I could complain about is actually a direct answer to my heartfelt prayers. I must remember to offer active prayers of praise and thanksgiving. I have a healthy, active marriage and family. This season may be all-encompassing, but it’s just that: a season. And like all seasons, it will change. And when it does, I will miss this one in all its chaotic glory.
I never want to take my role as a parent for granted. As Mother’s Day nears and the end of another school year approaches, I want to stop in the middle of the hustle and bustle and embrace the joy of watching firsthand as my children grow and move from one phase of life to another. I want to soak up every moment of learning, accomplishment, creativity, and even struggle. So many people I know would give their own lives for this privilege, so I don’t want to complain about it.
One of my favorite familiar sayings is, “The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for.” That statement hits me in the feels every time. The world’s perspective says I should focus on self-care, and that all this “living of Life” amounts to stress and nothing more. But God’s perspective says, “Look at the lavish way I am pouring out my love for you. I am pouring out more blessings than you can hold.”
Whatever season you find yourself in right now, I encourage you to stop and seek God’s perspective in the midst of it. Change your mindset from “I have to” into “I get to”. And recognize God’s love and blessings all around you.
Famous philosopher Aristotle reportedly said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Although I do agree that our habits and activities characterize us, I do not believe they are the essence of our actual being. If Aristotle were entirely correct, I would be coffee.
If we want to truly know who we are, we must look to the One who created us. The Bible tells us God created all things and called them “good.” When He created humans, however, He called them “very good.” We are a reflection of God and His nature. So, if you question who you are, remember whose you are. Look into the face of your Daddy to learn more about yourself. You are the beloved child of Father God. You are the intimate, creative handiwork of the God of the Universe. You hold within you the same Almighty-God-power that brought Jesus back to life. And don’t ever forget, you are worth the gruesome, painful, suffering and death on a cross of your sibling brother, Jesus.
Identity crises don’t exist when we cling to the truth of who we truly are. We are God’s. Everything else is just details.
I looked out the window with groggy eyes and heard the familiar “whoosh” of the remaining water filtering through the coffee maker. I pulled the filter out and noticed a lone, whole coffee bean sitting precariously on top of the black, soggy mess of coffee grounds. It reminded me that the delicious, steaming, liquid goodness I was soon to drink was once just potential, held within the confines of this tiny, hard-shelled bean. We all know what those little beans must go through before they render that wonderful coffee elixir: planting, watering, weathering storms, harvesting, transporting, manufacturing, inspecting, packaging, and more transporting. After all this, we bring the beans into our homes, put them through a metal grinder, and pour boiling water on top of their remains. Sounds rather violent, does it not?
That small, whole coffee bean I found this morning serves as a perfect reminder of the link between suffering and potential. Jesus, too, had to endure violent suffering before He could reach His full potential and purpose. Just for a moment, try to imagine Jesus without the torment of the cross. He taught, He healed, He befriended, He led, He challenged—all wonderful, important, life-changing activities. But if there were no cross—no piercing cries of agony, no spectacle of unjust torture, no pleas for forgiveness for His crucifiers, no humble obedience to God’s will for Him—He would never have met His full potential of world-changing salvation. Would Jesus be well-known and revered? Probably so, as a great man of God. But would He be the promised Messiah, the savior of mankind? No, He would not.
Without the cross, there’s no mind-bending display of God’s power and authority over death. Without the cross, there’s no ultimate and final sacrifice allowing us to commune with God while still living in our filthy human bodies. Without the cross, there’s no redemption, forgiveness, and salvation offered to every person on earth for all time. Without the cross, there’s no Easter. No resurrection.
Sometimes, there’s no way around suffering. Sometimes we must endure the bean grinder and the boiling water so God can release something magnificent lying dormant inside us—our full potential in Him.
Two seven-year-old boys, sweaty and breathless from rambunctious outside play, came into the house for dinner.
“Would you like water or milk with your dinner?” the mom asked her son’s playmate.
“Milk, please,” the friend replied.
“Do you drink regular milk or chocolate milk?” the mom asked.
“Regular,” he answered, “because I gave up chocolate milk for Lent.”
The mom’s heart melted a little at the playmate’s manners and reverence. And then her own son spoke.
“I gave up girls,” he offered.
And after almost choking on her iced tea, the mom silently prayed, “Lord, help me with this one.”
Much like these seven-year-old boys, our ideas of what it means to observe Lent vary widely. As we enter this season, I am asking myself some difficult questions to guide me through this holy time of year. I pray this checklist may offer you some guidance as well.
1. Check for motive: If you have chosen to observe the Lenten season, what motivated you to do so? Is it tradition? Christian legalism? A desire to gain attention from others for being a “good” or “devout” Christian? Or do you desire to truly remember and reflect on the life, suffering, sacrifice, and teachings of Jesus, and to experience greater intimacy with God?
2. Check for posture: Giving something up for Lent is not the same as a New Year’s resolution. This practice is not about self-reliance or self-improvement. To fast from something during Lent means to humble one’s self before Him and rely on His grace and mercy to abstain from something that is blocking an authentic, close relationship with Him. The focus should be on Christ, not self.
3. Check for idolatry: Just like the Israelites, we erect all kinds of idols that have nothing to do with Almighty God. An idol is anything in our lives that takes precedence over our relationship with Him. Lent is the perfect time to eliminate anything that takes a position of importance above God in our lives.
4. Check for sin: Lent is also a time of repentance. The ashes we wear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday remind us of our sorrow and mourning over our sin, the same sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. Ask God to shine His light into every corner of your sinful heart and illuminate the dark places in need of His forgiveness.
Maybe you really do need to give up girls, or boys for that matter, for Lent. Or maybe you need to reach out to a girl or boy you know and introduce him or her to Jesus. It may look different for all of us. But I encourage you to take these next few weeks of the Lenten season and seek Him in new ways, in old ways, in proven ways, and in every way that may bring you closer to your Father in Heaven.
The familiar pop and whack of tennis balls hitting the strings of a racquet filled the air, accompanied by the high-pitched squeak of tennis shoes abruptly starting and stopping on the asphalt tennis court. My daughter, sweating profusely and after missing the last eight shots in a row, put her hands on her knees to catch her breath.
The tennis pro approached the net with his racquet in hand, and my daughter asked, clearly exasperated, “What am I doing wrong?”
He took another step closer and asked, “How many times have you hit a forehand?”
“Thousands,” she replied. “Maybe millions.”
“Exactly,” the pro said. “You know how to hit a forehand. Your body knows how to do this. But every time you see the ball coming, you fill your mind with dozens of details about what you need to do to hit the perfect shot,” he instructed. “All you need to do is relax. Stop over-thinking it. Stop trying so hard. Just allow muscle memory to take over. You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’ll try again,” she said doubtfully.
“Remember, relax. Don’t think. Just swing at the ball.”
And then, naturally, she hit dozens of perfectly placed, beautiful shots in succession, until they ran out of tennis balls in the basket.
I think of this tennis lesson often, partly because it reflects what I need to learn in my own tennis game, but also because it relates to my life generally. I am a classic over-thinker. A recovering perfectionist. A member of the “trying so hard it’s to my own detriment” club.
Just like a tennis ball, I see Christmas coming. This year, my family is recovering from illness, and work for myself and my husband has ramped up exponentially. Just like my daughter preparing to hit the approaching ball, my mind is filled daily with dozens of things I need to do — work tasks and “mom” tasks and tasks to accomplish my family’s perfect holiday.
But what if I just relaxed? What if I stopped striving and trying so hard? What if I allowed my body’s spiritual muscle memory to take over? Because the truth is, I already know what to do to have the best Christmas ever. We all know. God created us with this very thing in mind:
You see, all of creation groans to praise God in Heaven. We were created to worship Him. And that’s what Christmas is all about: worshiping the newborn King. Kneeling before the baby Messiah. Singing “Glory” and “Hallelujah” to honor the Savior of the world. We don’t need three different cholesterol-laden casseroles, or a tree bursting with presents, or a sparkly new party dress. We need to do what we instinctively know how to do already: worship Jesus.
Maybe this year, we will all rely a little more on our spiritual muscle memory, and less on our worldly plans. Maybe this year, we will assuage our aching hearts with what we truly long for: time spent worshipping the baby in the manger.
My newly-turned-sixteen-year-old daughter sat beside me in the passenger seat while I drove her to school in the darkness of early morning. She exudes joy regardless of the time of day, while I am decidedly not a morning person. My girl loves nothing more than riding in a car, windows all the way down with wind blowing her long hair, singing at the top of her lungs to the latest pop song. In a rare moment when she’s not bubbly, an upbeat song will instantly transform her mood.
This particular morning, she sweetly asked, “Mom, can we listen to some music?” I answered, “Of course! You pick,” and instantly the sounds of an angst-ridden, yet sassy twenty-something-girl completely flooded the vehicle’s interior. All of ten seconds later, she dove into a story about a class project she’d been working on and how she was feeling about it, and I instinctively turned the volume down so I could hear her better. A disappointed glance escaped her face before she could prevent it, but she continued talking to me. I knew she wanted to listen to music, but I wanted to hear every word she was sharing with me. I didn’t want to be distracted.
Have you ever stopped to think about how God listens to us? Or how we listen to Him? Scripture says He hears us.
In addition to hearing us, God’s word also says that He responds.
Have you considered your posture as you listen to God? Do you intentionally turn down all the noise around you so you can hang on His every word, as I did in the car with my daughter? Do you free your hands from distractions, or place a pen and sheet of paper nearby so you can remember His words? Do you give Him your full attention?
Do not forget the jealousy of our God. He doesn’t want to share your affection and attention with other things. That’s numero uno in the Ten Commandments, after all.
When we enter into quiet time, prayer, or study time with the Lord, we are entering a sacred space with the God of the universe. Turn off the TV. Silence your phone. Quiet your mind. Get still. Slow your breathing. Give Him all the attention He is due. God could not care less where we seek Him, only that we do seek Him.
This was a modified excerpt from a chapter of Nicki Dechert Carlson’s book, Grace-Faced, which is currently available in e-formats and will release in paperback and hardcover on Nov. 29th. You can follow her at nickicarlson.com.
The doorbell rang and I got up from the couch where I was watching a Disney movie with my child who was home from school sick that day. Opening the door, I saw an elementary-aged David Palestrant and his mom, Doe Palestrant, who lived on the street behind us.
“Hi!” I exclaimed. “What are you guys doing here? I’m sorry, but Grace is sick, so I can’t invite you inside.”
“That’s ok,” Doe replied. “That’s why we’re here.”
A small, curly-headed David presented a Sonic cup to me with a bright, colored liquid inside. “I heard Grace’s throat hurts. I brought her a slush to make it feel better. Will you give it to her for me?”
A simple gesture of kindness from a young boy, served with a genuine and infectious smile.
I will always treasure this memory of David, especially now that the life of this young man was cut tragically short this week due to a car accident, at the age of 17. David was the light of his family’s lives. He was the only child of his parents, Doe and Mike. They adopted him from Guatemala. He was their beloved son. David was a member of our church youth group, and he attended youth retreats and gatherings. He loved Jesus. He loved singing and dancing. He loved supporting and encouraging the people he cared about. He loved his friends and family. And he loved being a Tivy Antler.
The last time I saw David, he was riding on a flatbed trailer with the rest of the Tivy football team in the annual Homecoming parade. Somehow out of the hundreds of people lining the streets, he saw me and singled me out, teasing me for dropping a piece of ice I was trying to pop into my mouth at the exact moment the team was passing in front of me. He called out, “I saw that, Mrs. Carlson!” and laughed. I pointed wildly at him and he pointed back at me, flashing that gigantic smile of his directly at me as the trailer moved out of sight. He had been injured that week and was undergoing surgery the next day, so I messaged him numerous times over the next few weeks checking on him. One of his last messages to me ended with, “Love ya’ll. Hope the family’s good.”
Truthfully, the family’s not so good right now. Not his family or mine, not his friends’ families, not our church family, not his football family, not his Tivy family, and not his Kerrville family. When death comes in and rips the life of one of our children from our grasp, we all cry out in anguish.
I wrote in a chapter about facing grief in my book, Grace-faced, that we have to experience grief with open hands and not clenched fists. We know, according to Scripture, that we are not alone in our suffering.
But how do we experience God’s comfort and presence when we are so weighted down with our own agony? The answer lies in the body of Christ. God sends His comfort through others. Ordinary people. You and me. The hands and feet of Christ. Jesus with skin on. Every hug, note, smile, meal, ride, flower—every kind gesture—comes from God the Father. If you want to know where God is when we are in our darkest moments, just look around. He is everywhere.
If you are blessed to not be personally affected by this loss, reach out to those who are grieving. Just be present with them, if nothing else. Show up so they know they’re not alone. Open your hands to share the comforts of the Holy Spirit. If you are on the painful end of this loss, I encourage you to open your hands as well. Receive the blessings God is sending your way through others. Don’t isolate yourself. God can handle all our feelings, even our anger and confusion, so raise those hands to Heaven and cry out to your Heavenly Father. He just wants to be a part of our process and stay in relationship and communication with us.
David was the kind of kid that I could always pick right back up with, like no time had passed at all, even if we hadn’t spoken in a while. He had a special way of being able to have a serious conversation with me, followed by teasing me, and somehow wrap it all up with an impressive degree of respect and manners. He was a special kid.
I write this message, for the love of David. I show up and surround the Palestrant family and the teens in our community in whatever ways I can, for the love of David. I hug my kids a little tighter, for the love of David. I wear my Tivy gear with a little more pride, for the love of David.
And I grieve. Oh, how I grieve. For the love of David.
This morning started in a not-unusual way for me: praying in the shower. Knowing I had carved time out of my schedule today to write this laity devotional, I specifically prayed, “God, clear out my own ideas of what I should write about, and instead, tell me what You want to say.”
I finished showering and began getting ready when I heard the unmistakable high-pitched whirr of a weed-eater. Assuming it was one of my neighbors, I continued on with my morning tasks. Then I remembered that my sweet Daddy showed up at our house unannounced just days before and started weed-eating the large expanse of property outside our fences. Sometimes, he does amazing, servant-minded things just like that, despite the fact that he’s in his late 70s, and despite the fact that we have an able-bodied man in his 40s and a teenaged boy both living in this house.
Sure enough, I peeked out the window and saw my daddy hard at work. I sent my son out to greet his grandfather, and to ask for a lesson in how to safely operate a weed-eater, so he could take over for him. I watched through the window as my dad offered a lesson to his grandson, then allowed the teen to take over for him. My dad stood at a distance, protectively watching his grandson’s every move. When the weed-eater stopped working, they went to the truck bed together and repaired it to proper working order, and then the work continued.
I can’t tell how much it means to have a father like mine: a father who not only believes in Jesus, but strives to exemplify Him every day. I didn’t ask my dad to do yard work at my house; he just showed up, tools at the ready. I didn’t ask my dad to patiently instruct my son on how to do yard work; he just showed up, ready to teach. I didn’t ask my dad to stay a while longer to ensure my son didn’t get hurt or encounter a problem with this new task; he just continued to watch over him. I didn’t ask my dad to greet my daughter with a bear hug; he just showed up, arms outstretched as soon as he saw her.
My dad looks like Jesus to me. He will be so embarrassed by this, because he also models Jesus’s humility. He doesn’t serve others—and especially his family—for attention or praise; he serves because he wants to love like Jesus, and because he is immensely grateful for what God has already done in his life.
I love the phrase “Jesus with skin on,” and it accurately describes my dad. Sometimes, impacting others for the kingdom of God is as simple as showing up with whatever tools you’ve been given, willing to love and serve. And sometimes, if you’re truly blessed, you get to see that kingdom work within your own family. We can all be “Jesus with skin on” to someone in our lives. Look for opportunities to love like Jesus, and know you are helping build the kingdom of God on earth in the process.