I have four children. There are many days it’s been hard to be their mom. It’s been a lot of work. But there are times when I catch myself sitting back and asking God why I was so blessed to have them in my life, to get to be their mom. In those moments, my heart almost feels like it’s going to burst with thankfulness. This mom journey has been beyond my wildest dreams, far harder, but also far better than what I even believed could be true.
God tends to do that in our lives. He has surprises for us that are beyond our imagination: something in nature that just boggles the mind, a kind word from a stranger exactly when you need it, a random text from your child that they love you, a job promotion that you did not dare to hope for, and so on. He always has something up His sleeve.
He is much bigger, kinder, more generous, stronger, more loving, and smarter than we can even begin to wrap our brains around. He extravagantly loves us as if there is only one of us. No matter what we face or what we need (you might be in the middle of something that seems beyond fixing and desperately hopeless), soak this in:
God’s limitless, tireless, unbounded, lavish power that transcends our three-dimensional world is able to provide and work far beyond what our limited selves can envision.
This God can do anything and everything. This is not “pie-in-the-sky,” magical thinking. It’s a hard fact. Don’t be afraid to dream big and ask big, but be prepared for even bigger, above-and-beyond bigger.
Be on the lookout today for all that He has for you. Be prepared for more than you can even think up. It will change your life. It has changed mine! There is great hope!
From my heart to yours.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)
I walked into Panera this past Wednesday and there was a gift waiting for me.
I climbed 20 flights of stairs last January and another gift was waiting for me.
I went to my normal chiropractor appointment at the end of the summer and a third gift was waiting for me.
I went to church on a regular Sunday and a fourth gift was waiting for me.
All the talk right now is what do I want for Christmas. What do you want? What gifts are we going to get come nine days from now (yes, I know, it’s the final countdown…9…8…7)?
Walking into Panera a few days ago stopped me in my tracks. Right there on Route 22 in Watchung, NJ was a gift I had already been given in 2018: my new friend Jackie! Her bright eyes and cheerful smile greeted me before we even reached each other for a hug! Our conversation unfolded in authenticity and grace. We didn’t really want to leave at the end of two hours, but other things beckoned us to pack up our plates and give a quick hug goodbye. As I pulled out of the parking lot, filled to the brim with joy over this wondrous gift of a budding friendship, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of all the gifts I have already opened in 2018, gifts strewn lovingly by God’s hand to my heart.
Maybe it’s just me (and somehow I would hazard a guess that it might not be), but with all the struggles that come from my average, every-day life, my mind tends to swirl around all the gifts I’m NOT getting on any given day. They range from the minuscule (I forgot something at the store and now I have to go back and I just lost a half-hour of time) to the grandiose (some of the prayers I fasted for during Lent on my Hosanna List have not been answered yet). I become discouraged and disheartened, wondering where God is in all of it and if He sees me and even cares.
Enter Panera. My 2018 AHA moment. “Take stock, Esther, of the gifts you’ve already received and opened and enjoyed this year,” a Voice inside my heart nudged, or more like prodded, “You don’t have to wait until December 25.” So on this ordinary Sunday, December 16, 2018, I am doing just that…one for each month of the year!
- The beauty of Allen’s apartment in the Strip district in Pittsburgh. Yes, it’s 20 flights up (there is an elevator for the faint of heart), but the view of the river and the sheer “one-of-a-kindness” of it takes my breath away each time I turn my key and open the door. And can I just say, Jared moving to this land of Allen’s birth is the icing on the cake!
- My solo visits to my friend Kim in prison. Who knew prison could be a place of restoration and joy? I didn’t. Who knew a long-lost friendship could be rekindled in such an unlikely place? I didn’t. And now, my women’s group penned individual notes to her for Christmas! I am undone with gratitude.
- Fellow writers, editors and podcasters like Afton, Janis, Gail, Annie, Sarah, Debbie, Tracy and so many others who are encouraging me on this new-found and scary, but exciting journey of blogging, and book-writing. (check out some of the links by clicking on their names…you won’t regret it). AND YOU READERS who this would be useless without!!! Huge thanks and shout out to those of you who read and share and encourage! You have no idea how my heart leaps with each “like,” “share” and “comment.” It means what I’m doing matters. Thank you.
- Authors who share their hearts with a waiting and skeptical world and the books that come out of them. My two favorite this year and who I am determined to meet one day soon (one moved to NYC and one moved to Pittsburgh, so I have a good chance!!! One knows a friend of mine and already emailed me back and I have a couple of friends who know the other personally…if you know them, hook me up!): Shauna Niequist and Tish Harrison Warren!
- Our cozy beach house that provides a place of respite and restoration for our family, my women’s group, our friends and even the renters who call it “our house” year after year. Memories are forged, love is shared, the salt air heals and each one leaves better than when they came. There aren’t enough words.
- Sharing at church about marriage mentoring and all the wonderful couples who came forward to be mentored and especially to mentor! This makes my heart so happy. Not only do we get to share about our own marriage journey (filled with struggles and strengths), but that others willingly come to receive and give themselves. #yayformarriage #yayforvulnerability #yayforredemption
- Budding friendships with those I didn’t even know existed a year ago. Jackie isn’t the only one, even though she’s pretty AMAZING as I’ve already told you. How about Susan, Stacey, and Tatiana, girls who jumped into my small groups and opened their hearts wide, sharing their very selves (BTW my small groups are unbelievable…don’t live without one)?! WOW! What about Liz, a young wife who loves Jesus and whose heart matches mine on this wholeness and healing journey (she’s the one who was waiting at the chiropractor, a very unlikely place)? How about Natalie, my cohort in mischief and joy on my trip to Rwanda? As a pastor’s kid, she gets the “growing up in ministry” part of me very few understand. Plus, she’s a great match for this Esthergizer Bunny.What other surprise people are in store for me? I never want to say it’s enough. As I’ve told Sarah so many times in her life, “the best friend you’ll ever make might be waiting just around the corner.”
- Our monthly couple’s massage. Best birthday present ever given by my awesome husband. Somehow, though, he benefits from this. He’s a sneaky, but cute one.
- An invitation into the redemption story of Rwanda! To see this dream fulfilled after 10 years of our family’s “clean water obsession,” was absolutely incredible. Not only to be a small part of it on the ground, but sharing with our team, meeting the people who do this day in and day out, and being completely invigorated by the ways God is bringing true restoration to a county so broken and devastated. Even the Rwandan woman who prayed for me one day! What a gift! We cannot wait to go back with our family!
- Long, deep and abiding friendships that are too many to count! (I can’t even begin the list because I so don’t want to miss anyone. You know who you are! Some of you are even my family members!) Friendships that stand the test of time and love all the fabulous and flawed parts of me. Friendships that remind me never to give up hope and speak grace over me when I’m hurting. Friendships that keep me on course as we “limp our way together to redemption” (Tish Harrison Warren).
- The latest Podcast I listen to and online book club I am carefully venturing into with the Bible for Normal People. This is the place I get all my mental feels and my brain gets stretched and I can discuss and argue and be free to express all my doubts and questions about God and the Bible. For this girl who grew up thinking she (and a few other chosen ones) had all the answers to the big questions nailed down, it’s a huge, precarious step into the largeness of God! On a very silly note: I even got to record my voice giving a shout-out in one of their upcoming podcasts! #90secondsoffame
- Allen, Sarah, Cody, Broden, Jared, Lady, Josh, Daniella, and Rachel. Heart of my very own heart! Can you even believe that I have permission from them to share about them?! Can you believe a husband and a bunch of mostly Millennials let their stories be known? Who has that? Believe me! I don’t take it lightly! This gift of them and from them allows my voice to be heard and there is nothing I treasure more! They are even willing to go further! How about that?? Here’s the LITTLE SURPRISE: you will begin to hear more from them and from me in the New Year on my new podcast called “The Dolly Mama and the Millennials.” So excited!!
So what’s your Panera today? What gifts have you already opened this year? Take stock, my friend! And please please share at least one! Or two, or twelve! You can comment here, but even better out on social media! Or BOTH!
“The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside by a generous hand. But- and this is the point- who gets excited by a mere penny?” (Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
Allen hatched a plan at dinner one night many moons ago. He had been reading the above book (worth the read) and was captivated by an anecdote about a game Dillard used to play in her childhood. She tells the story of how she used to hide her own “precious penn(ies)” in nooks or crannies in trees or sidewalks, drawing chalk arrows to them so a stranger would find the surprise penny and pick it up. Many times, she would lie in wait to catch a glimpse of the excitement in the finder’s eyes.
Allen’s favorite thought, just like Annie Dillard, was that there are “unwrapped gifts and free surprises” straight from the heart of God, just waiting for us if we open our eyes to see them. Thus came Allen’s mission for our family: find these pennies every day and tell us about them at dinner.
What started as a game ended up changing our lives. Each one of us searched and found many things each day that we believed were “strewn by the generous hand” of God Himself, “surprises” just for us He had hidden along the path, many times with “big arrows” signaling where we might discover them. We had things like flowers, actual pennies (those were super fun to find), frogs, the best parking space at the mall on a rainy day, butterflies, a kind word from someone, scoring an unexpected goal on the soccer or field hockey field, etc. Sometimes, we would joke that what we had been given was a “nickel,” a “dime” or even a “quarter,” depending on the magnitude of what it meant to us.
Maybe I’m the only one here, but I have a confession to make. My life (and mostly my head) is filled with negativity from the news, struggles in my home, animosity on social media, work-place uncertainty, sickness and even the death of those I love, all things that consume me by what’s wrong with the world instead of what’s right. And really, truth be told, it causes me to doubt whether or not there is a God who is alive and who actually loves us people down here on this beautiful, but hurting planet.
As the events of the past week unfolded, my mind traced back (and thankfully did so) to the game we played for a whole year at our dinner table, the one that changed my life and maybe can change it again. Are there terrible things? Yes. Are there sad things? Yes. Are there things that are just downright wrong? Yes. But are they the only things? NO!
I don’t want to stick my head in the sand, but I also don’t want to be swallowed up either. I want to wisely navigate that tension between the bitter and the sweet of life, compassion rising within me in the bitter and joy enveloping my heart in the sweet.
One does not negate the other. They both matter. They both have their place in my day. I would venture to say, however, that I don’t have to look very far to see the bitter. I am bombarded from sun up until sun down. And that’s why I want to open my eyes, like Annie Dillard implores me, to search for the sweet, find it, and name it. Those “pennies” might be just what I need. And they just might quiet those doubts and remind me of a God who is alive and loves little old me, a God who has put special pennies all throughout my day, pennies just for me. This is a soothing and healing balm for my soul.
Will you play this game with me, even if it’s just for today? Pennies from heaven. Mine today was a beautiful view of the James River from outside our train window on the way to Florida taking Rachel to college. What was yours?