ATTENTIVELY HIS

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.

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.

Psalm 34:17

In addition to hearing us, God’s word also says that He responds.

You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.

Psalm 10:17

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?

Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.

Deuteronomy 31:12

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.

Attentively His,

Nicki

____________________________________________________________________

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.

FOR THE LOVE OF DAVID

        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.

David with his beloved football team in the Homecoming parade.

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.

Do not be afraid or discouraged,

for the Lord will personally go ahead of you.

He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.

Deuteronomy 31:8

.

           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.

Genealogically His

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.

GENEALOGICALLY HIS,

Nicki

ANXIOUSLY His

This morning I very intentionally went outside to the back deck, coffee in hand, for some quiet time with God. I earnestly tried to let go of the worries and fears that seem to obsessively and endlessly circle my mind lately. Just moments before, inside the house, I shared with my husband my recent struggles with stress and anxiety … how despite prayer, exercise, and meditation, I continue to feel like my entire body is wound too tightly.

After a few minutes alone outside, I looked up to see my husband in front of me, propping my foot up on his leg. He silently began rubbing lotion into my feet. The sight of him, quietly offering this simple act of love, completely undid me. Tears rolled down my cheeks unprompted and directionless, much like my emotions.

I didn’t know what I needed in that moment. I didn’t really even know how or what to pray. But apparently, I just needed someone to take care of me, see me, and listen to me. And I know we all feel this way sometimes.

Jesus modeled how we should respond when someone around us is struggling, much like I am right now. Jesus showed up. He listened. He healed. He prayed. He fed. He forgave. He washed feet.

Honestly, I think I need to be reminded that His instructions were this simple. Stop and help the one in front of you. Just love them.

My husband reminded me by his actions today that I am deeply loved, and that life and love aren’t as complicated as I often make them.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Philippians 2:3-4

All my problems haven’t instantly disappeared. My husband’s foot rubs aren’t that magical. But I am feeling a little lighter and a lot happier. My perspective has shifted from the obstacles in front of me to the One who holds the whole world in His hands, and He is more than capable of bringing good from everything that lies before me.

Stop and help the one in front of you, because at some point we are all that person in need. It really is that simple.

Anxiously His,

Nicki

PERFECTLY His

               When I was in high school, a coach by the name of Grant Palmer asked me to lead a devotional for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathering. Despite my nerves about speaking so vulnerably in front of my peers, I selected a Bible verse, prayed over it, and wrote out a message. I chose the following verse from Matthew.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

               Admittedly, this verse was a strange choice, especially for a group of teenagers, many of whom were new to the Christian faith. But I also read the surrounding verses and explained that in this passage, Jesus is talking about how He wants us to love one another. And loving one another perfectly means loving others the way Jesus loves us.

               I remember asking all 50 or so students to stand and form a single line that stretched from one end of the gymnasium to the other. I then asked them to look at the line and imagine one end was failing at everything God wants us to do and be, and the opposite end was God-like perfection. I told them to adjust where they were standing based on where they felt they should land on that continuum. I noticed many of the students looking at others ahead of and behind them, and then adjusting their own position, which I expected. We all, especially teenagers, view ourselves in relation to those around us. Next, I instructed them to find someone they felt was “out of place” and move them where they “deserved” to stand in the line. To my relief, every single student was moved forward by another student.

               My message was this: it doesn’t matter where we land now on our journey to Christian “perfection”; what matters is that we are consistently pressing forward in our relationship with Him. What matters is our continuous pursuit to take on more and more characteristics of our Savior. What matters is that we always strive to love others the way Jesus loves us. In other words, our past doesn’t define us — our relationship with Jesus does.

               My pastor, David Payne, said in his most recent sermon that when it comes to our faith and our daily walk, we are not striving for perfect execution, but for progress. When it comes to loving others, we can all focus on improvement.

               We are perfectly, completely loved by our Heavenly Father. May we strive to love others in the same splendid way.

PERFECTLY His,

Nicki

TIMELY His

I dropped my son off at kindergarten one morning and went for a walk. I almost gave up on the endeavor, after a lengthy, last-minute phone call had delayed me; nevertheless, I headed up the residential street on foot as the morning sun attempted to suck the previous night’s rain from the earth. I passed a very tall, stout, elderly man on the sidewalk and said hello, continuing on my path.

As I reached the next block, I heard the unmistakable sound of someone falling. I turned and saw the man I had passed sprawled on the sidewalk with mud smeared all around him. I ran his direction only to see him try to stand up, then fall once again. The mud was too slick for him to gain his footing. I yelled at him to stay still until I could reach him. I made sure he was conscious, with no broken bones, and no profuse bleeding anywhere. He desperately wanted to get back up, but 5-foot-nothing-Me trying to lift 6-foot-2-and-200-hundred-plus-pound-helpless-man seemed impossible. No one else was around, and he was determined to get upright. All I could do was try to help him.

So, I said a prayer, assumed a squat position behind him with my arms under his armpits, and lifted with all my might. Somehow (GOD is how) we both stood upright without falling again. He thanked me and we walked together until I was sure he was okay.

Timing is everything. Had it not been for my phone call that morning, I would not have been walking at the time or place God needed me to, so I could help that straanger.

God’s timing, according to scripture, remains a mystery to us. In Acts 1, verse 7, Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” We humans don’t typically embrace “not knowing.” We’d much rather hold all the answers, or so we think. If we could just know the ending, we could better plan for the journey, right?

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.

Proverbs 16:9

When I really think about it, I know I’m better off with future times, dates, and events hidden from me. I know I would make a bigger mess of things with too much information at my disposal. Yet, I still find myself fighting against God’s timing, forgetting that the very occurrences I consider distractions or delays, are actually the very fabric of His plans for my life.

I am striving to yield and even embrace God’s timing. For a planner like myself, it’s a challenge. I get frustrated and anxious when everything isn’t going according to my schedule. But I remind myself that my timing and His timing may not be the same. I remind myself of Ecclesiastes chapter 3, and how He makes everything beautiful in its own time. And as part of His creation, I have to believe that includes me, too. Only time will tell.

TIMELY His,

Nicki

NEWLY His

Late one Saturday afternoon when my son was four years old, I left the house to celebrate the impending arrival of a friend’s baby. Upon returning home and tucking my child into bed, he asked, “Did the baby get all clean, Mommy?”

I replied, “Sweetie, the baby hasn’t been born yet. But, why did you ask if the baby is clean?”

Johnathan answered, “You said the baby was going to take a shower. But he should take a bath, like me!”

My son misunderstood the meaning of going to a “baby shower,” where we celebrate new life by giving gifts to expectant parents. His literal interpretation made me laugh, but it also made perfect sense.

New life emerging from death in my backyard.

We usher in new life with all kinds of rituals and fanfare — baby showers, wedding receptions, birth announcements — even birthdays and anniversaries focus on life in the year to come. I’m currently celebrating the new life I’m witnessing in my yard and garden. The winter storm appeared to kill everything in existence, but as temperatures warm and the sun shines and spring emerges, signs of life peek out from every branch and blade of grass. Flowers are blooming, new vegetable plants poke through the soil, and young, green leaves take up residence beside brown, dead ones. We only need to look outside to understand that death can, and does, give way to new life.

As followers of Jesus, we also understand how death can give way to new life, and we strive to focus on the new (resurrected) life of Christ and on the new life He promises to us.

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

ROmans 6:4

We are Easter people, my friends! Gone is Somber Saturday when everything appeared dead and lost. Jesus is alive, and so are we! So, what exactly does “new life in Christ” look like?

And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

2 Corinthians 5:15-17

Verses 15 and 16 say we are to no longer live for ourselves, but instead live for Christ who died for us; furthermore, we are to think about and respond to one another in the same way Christ thinks about and responds to us.

That’s a tall order of selflessness for an inherently selfish people. Thank God that He gave us the example of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us along the way!

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24

New life yields a new mindset that yields a new self. From the death of our former ways of disbelief and sinfulness, springs new life and new ways of reflecting the character and nature of God to others.

From the cross to the resurrection …

From winter to spring …

From our old ways to our new lives …

From death, springs life.

NEWLY His,

Nicki

REASSURINGLY His

I returned to in-person worship inside my church building two weeks ago, for the first time in a year.

When the world as we knew it came to an abrupt stop, I imagined a return to worship filled with jubilant singing, clapping, and shouts of praise, punctuated by a buoyant, contagious energy. The room would be packed to the doors with old and new faces, all expressing relief at the return to normalcy and conclusion of a nightmare.

Instead, I returned to a socially-distanced seating arrangement with mostly empty chairs, faces covered with masks, awkward interactions (Do I hug? Am I standing too close?) and an eerie feeling of familiarity mixed with the bizarre.

Still, I worshiped. Tears ran down my cheeks as the sound of my own voice blended with the voices of others, singing to and about the God we love. Simple. Authentic. And somehow exquisite. The beauty and comfort found in a family and fellowship of believers.

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Matthew 18:20

I quickly recognized some division in my heart, though. Some of the words I sang didn’t ring completely true. I desperately wanted to sing of my faith and belief in a good God, of His faithfulness and provision, of His redemption and healing. But right beside me sat a friend, crying over the recent loss of his life partner to COVID, and my mind flooded with the countless others — known and unknown — who have struggled under the weight of this virus, as well as a terrible winter storm, loss of jobs and incomes, relationships broken by unusual strain, more typical life tragedies and deaths, and on and on.

I felt like a hypocrite. I do believe in a good God, but after months of profound suffering taking a front-row seat in our homes and communities, I’m left dealing with a great deal of hurt, sadness, and even anger. I want to cry out: Jesus, just come back already!

So, I chose to pray. I didn’t wait for quiet, privacy, or a “better time.” While the people around me sang, I closed my eyes and silently lifted up some guttural mix of confession and desperate plea:

“God, I’m so upset. I’m even upset with You. I’m so tired. I cannot understand everything You are allowing to happen in this world. But I know you love us. I know I love you. I know you are a good Father. Help me with my unbelief.

The two weeks following that worship service have been filled with reminders of God’s presence and His love. I see hearts He has put in my path at every turn. I breathe in my favorite aromas of springtime. I feel the gentle breeze and the sunshine warming my skin. He hasn’t come rushing in like a hurricane, but instead like a reassuring whisper in my ear: I’m still here. And I love you.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

1 Kings 19:11-12

God doesn’t force Himself on us. He extends an invitation, and waits for us to come to Him. I pray we receive that invitation, and if you are like me and have struggled lately to relax fully in His presence, I encourage you to pray and return to worship anyway. He is faithful and merciful to help us along the way.

God, help us in our areas of unbelief. Amen.

REASSURINGLY His,

Nicki

EMOTIONALLY His

This morning I sipped a cup of coffee and just cried.

I cried with gratitude. I cried with exhaustion. I cried with relief, thanks, frustration, weariness, and empathy.

Let’s be real: We just survived a natural disaster in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s ok to not be ok.

“Unprecedented times” fatigue continues to tear at our stamina and well-being.

Living in “survival mode” is unhealthy for us physically, mentally, and emotionally. And most of us have been living in that place for close to a year now. According to the American Psychiatric Association, common reactions in adults after a disaster include:

  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Sadness, depression, hyperactivity, irritability or anger
  • Having no feelings at all or feeling numb
  • A lack of energy or feeling exhausted all the time
  • Lack of appetite or, the opposite, eating all the time
  • Trouble concentrating or feeling confused
  • Social isolation, reduced or restricted activities
  • Thinking no one else is having the same reactions as you
  • Headaches, stomachaches, or other body pains
  • Misusing alcohol, tobacco, drugs or prescription medications to cope

In addition to all these concerns, we may also be struggling spiritually.

One of my children spoke to me this week about feeling like she’s not growing in her faith. I assured her that we all go through phases like that, especially during dark and difficult periods in our lives. I related it to gardening. When we plant seeds in a garden, it looks and feels like nothing is happening until we can see those first green sprouts coming up from the soil. Right now, in this time of COVID-19 and winter storms, we are planting seeds. The growth and the harvest will come later. For now, we water our faith by spending time in the word, worship, and prayer. We wait for the sun to warm the ground, and we trust new life will burst forth in the Lord’s timing.

For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations.

Isaiah 61:11

It’s similar to Lent. We abstain for now and focus on God and how we can live more intentionally for Him, knowing that Easter is around the corner.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin.

Hebrews 4:14-15

In the meantime, know this last year hasn’t been easy for anyone. Help one another. Focus on opportunities to do good for those around you. Love others like Jesus loves you. And don’t forget to cut yourself some slack, too. We have all been through quite an ordeal, so extend grace and mercy to yourself and others.

The winter thaw is already happening. Look around. The sun is shining. The Son is, too.

Spring — and Easter — are coming soon, friends!

EMOTIONALLY His,

Nicki

CERTAINLY His

I remember the moment with a mixture of pride-filled validation as well as shame.

I had just arrived back at school after a morning pre-Kindergarten field trip with my five-year-old son. As the children were set loose on the playground to let out their wiggles, one of my son’s sweet classmates cuddled up against my leg and reached out and grabbed hold of my hand. Seeing this, my son came tearing across the playground screaming, “She’s not yours! She’s MINE!!” Flash-forward to the present when that same son, now a teenager, would probably rather his friends not even know I’m his mom. It’s no small wonder many mothers experience identity crises as their children grow up.

Lately I do feel a bit like a stranger in my own body. The pandemic, the political unrest, and the barrage of bad news and cancellations have all knocked me so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even remember how a comfort zone feels. The question that keeps circling in my mind asks, “Where did last year go? And what will this year bring?”

When routines and rituals are stripped away, we are forced to face the most basic truths about who we are and what is most important to us.

Periods of uncertainty can rock us to our core and make us question ourselves, our faith, our leaders, and the very lens through which we view the world around us. Where do we turn for grounding? What do we lean on for stability? What is the truth? Furthermore, who even are we?

Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” So, if I am no longer doing so many of the things that I feel defined me, has it changed who I really am? In other words, are we what we do? Or do we tend to do the things that we inherently are?

This is what I know to be true about myself: I am saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. My Heavenly Father loves me and calls me His own. I love my God and my Savior.

And honestly, that is enough.

This does not mean I will always feel super content and at peace. Honestly, right now I struggle to feel either. In response, I choose to do the following: I remind myself of the promises God has made to me, and of the reassurances Scripture provides. I reflect on all the lessons He has taught me through the course of my lifetime. I remember the stories of the faithful ones around me, and how God provided for them and proved Himself trustworthy time and time again. I spend more time in prayer and in the Word of God.

I serve a faithful God. Sometimes me faithfully serving Him looks simply like trust and a whole lot of patience. Sometimes He removes comfort and familiarity in my life to drive me more fully into His arms. Sometimes He asks me to simply be still and learn, because He is preparing me for what He’s doing next.

I choose to lean into life’s uncertainty with the certainty of who God is, and whose I am.

I pray I never doubt for a second, regardless of all the other questions that may plague me, that Jesus is running towards me screaming, “You’re MINE!”

I believe He is running towards you, too.

Rest not in what you do or who you think you are, but instead rest in who He is, and in the knowledge that you belong to Him.

Certainly His,

Nicki

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