A Free Gift

Grace UMC Youth and Children at the Ruston Christmas Parade 2021 (picture by Robyn Smith)

On December 11, 2021, a group of us from Grace UMC attended the Ruston Christmas Parade in Downtown Ruston, meeting in the lot of one of our local businesses located on the parade route. As a ministry to the community, our youth and children brought several 5 gallon containers full of hot chocolate, cups, marshmallows, and other goodies to serve and give away to those who attended the parade. It happened to be a rare chilly night in December of 2021, so our hot chocolate stand was a busy place. Several people passing by asked us how much we were charging and were pleasantly surprised when we said it was free. One person seemed to have such trouble accepting our gift that she asked if she could leave a donation, though we were unprepared for such a response and had not brought anything to receive her gracious offer.

This got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing), why do we have such trouble accepting a free gift? Probably like many of you, I remember my High School economics class which openly taught that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Likely, we are afraid accepting a “free” gift has strings attached or that it will leave us in the debt of the one who gives which must be paid back at a later date. We know from past experience that it is rare that a gift is truly free.

Yet, the Bible clearly tells us that this is the gift God offers us. Ephesians 2:8 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;”. Romans 6:23 writes “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What seems to be clear from these verses is that our salvation can never be earned or bought, it is the gift of God. But for it to truly be a gift, the gift must be unwrapped, accepted and put to use. So it is with the gift of God. We must accept the gift of Jesus, the salvation he offers, and put it to work in our lives and in our world.

But my economics teacher was right- “there is no free lunch”. We know that this free gift to us came at a high price for God- the gift of his only Son, Emmanuel-God with us, Jesus, the Christ. This one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas grew to be a man like us, lived among us, then died and was resurrected to offer us the gift of salvation. There was no other way. We could never be good enough or pay enough to achieve salvation for ourselves. Jesus truly gave us the best gift, his very life, death, and resurrection to bring God’s salvation to us.

In this season of giving and receiving of gifts, I hope you will receive gifts joyfully and with awe that someone loved you enough to spend the time and money to give the gift. Most of all, I pray that you will receive the most important gift of all, accepting, following, and sharing the gift of Jesus Christ with the whole world. Oh, and don’t forget to accept that free gift of hot chocolate (I like mine with a few marshmallows) that reminds us of so many other gifts that God has given to us, especially His son, Jesus Christ!

Bloom Where You are Planted

I admit it. I have a flower problem. There is something magical and miraculous about watching a plant grow, a bulb to form, then finally culminate in a beautiful bulb. Since I have a flower problem, I dug up my daylilies and irises when we moved from Winnfield to my new appointment at Grace United Methodist Church in Ruston. Now the question became where to plant them so that they could put down roots and flourish.

The author’s daylilies planted along the back fence, looking out to the woods behind the house.

After much thought, I decided to place them along a back fence. It is not an ideal location. It receives a few hours less sunlight than the full sun the flowers like best. When I tilled up the soil, it was a typical north Louisiana red clay, again not the best. But I knew the flowers would not grow in a moving box. So I planted them anyway and told them to “bloom where you are planted.”

It is a phrase I have heard our Louisiana Conference bishop tell us as clergy. “Bloom where you are planted.” In the United Methodist system clergy are appointed, or sent, from one church to another. Clergy can be sent to a church that they don’t know, to a place where they have never lived, moved from one end of the state to the other. Our calling is to “bloom where you are planted” and make a difference for Christ wherever we go.

What if we looked at life that way? What if we decided to bloom where are planted each day? What if we decided not to let our circumstances, which are often challenging, not determine our attitude? Do you have a job that is not your dream job? Bloom where you are planted. Have a class at school that is less than your favorite? Bloom anyway.
The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:12-14 “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The amazing thing is that Paul wrote these words from a Roman prison. If Paul can find contentment in a Roman prison, than surely we can find contentment in our lives.

Will my flowers grow and bloom? I hope so, but only time will tell. But you and I can make a conscious choice to be content, to make the most of each day, and to bloom where we are planted. Can you imagine what a difference that attitude could make in our lives, our community, and our world? I pray that you will bloom where you are planted today.

Blooming where I am planted,
Kevin Smith

Standing on Solid Ground

Photo by Troy Davis on Unsplash

( Author’s note: this post was written for and first published in May 2021 FUMC Winnfield newsletter “The Cross and Tower.)

As a youngster, I spent time each summer with my grandparents in the Lake Charles area. It was always fun and I have many great memories of time spent with them. Of course, one of my favorite things to do while visiting was to go fishing. My maternal grandparents, Nevada and Elmer Blount, would load their tan Nissan pickup truck, hook up the 14 foot Jon boat with a 25 HP Mariner motor, and make the 30-45 minute drive south to Cameron Parish to fish the Big Burns marsh off of LA Hwy 27.

This was always a great trip because we would put in on the Intercoastal Canal and then had a several mile run to the cut which would take us back into the marsh. Along the way we would pass huge barges and tugboats. Once we got into the marsh, we would encounter these floating islands of weeds in the middle of the water! They were so thick that birds could walk on them. But don’t get out of the boat and try it, for a person would most likely fall through. These floating weeds were called “flotant (pronounced “flow tawnt”) by the locals (and was sometimes referred to as “la prairie tremblante,” or, trembling prairie; also called quaking prairie), because it is a floating marsh that is not anchored to the ground beneath. It consists of tightly entangled plants and their roots, mixed with peat; typically there is water flowing below it, then some oozing soil, then clay. Patches of it may occur within normal marsh, and from the surface, it looks like any other marsh. If one steps on flotant marsh, one will feel like he/she is standing on a water bed. As one steps around, waves of grass spread outward from each step. It is tempting to jump up and down, but the flotant is rarely thick enough and one usually ends up falling through.” (source: http://www.americaswetlandresources.com/background_facts/detailedstory/habitat.html)

This world is full of flotant. Not literally, but it is full of shaky ground. Ground that won’t hold up when the storms and rain come. How do we find solid ground?

Finding solid ground is difficult for adults, it can be even more difficult for our young people. For the last 2 months, seven young people have been going through a process called confirmation. Confirmation means “with firmness” and is an opportunity for each young person to decide to accept Jesus Christ for himself or herself and become a professing member of the church by publicly professing his or her faith in Jesus. It is an opportunity for young people that were baptized as an infant to fulfill the promise to “accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life” (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 40.) If the young person has not been baptized, confirmation is an opportunity to publicly profess their faith in Christ and to be baptized as a follower of Christ.
Through the eight weeks of confirmation we have studied creation, crisis, covenant, Jesus Christ, the church, practiced spiritual disciplines, read the entire Gospel of Mark, and much more! I am very proud of these young men and women and the decision that they have made to stand on solid ground by following Jesus. Please join us on May 2 during the 11 AM service as these young people take a stand and take their vows to follow Jesus and to become a member of the church. A reception and dinner for them and their families will follow in the FLC after worship during First Sunday Lunch (please bring a side dish or dessert). You will also have an opportunity to write them a note to tell them that you are proud of them and will continue to pray for them, or even bring your own card from home.

Join us on May 2 and join these young people standing on the solid ground of Jesus Christ. Maybe the old hymn says it best- “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” (My Hope Is Built- United Methodist Hymnal #368)

Standing on Solid Ground,

Kevin Smith

In the Shadow of the Cross

(Author’s note: This article was first written and first appeared in the March 2021 newsletter of First United Methodist Church of Winnfield, LA “The Cross and Tower”)

I have been thinking about the cross quite a bit lately. Yes, it is because my message series during Lent is titled “At the Cross” and each week I am thinking about something that Jesus did or encountered on his way to the cross. Yes, it is because I asked my congregations (and I have joined them) to literally carry a cross during Lent. Yes, it is because it is the season of Lent and I am preparing to walk spiritually with Jesus to the cross that I might fully experience the hope and joy of the resurrection on Easter.

With the cross so much on my mind, I was struck by this image of the cross at FUMC Winnfield one evening as I was leaving church. What struck me was not so much the cross, but the shadow. The shadow was even larger than the cross. I immediately thought of a verse of the old hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” that goes this way: “3. I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place; I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face; content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss, my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.” What if we dwelt in the shadow of the cross? What if we lived each day considering and remembering what Jesus did for us through his life, death, and resurrection? How would it change us? How would it change the world?

I am not the only one thinking about the cross. When I was in Israel, I had the honor and privilege of walking the Via Dolorosa (the way of suffering) several times, pausing at the stations of the cross. Still today, you can walk the Via Dolorosa and even carry your own cross if you would like. You can even walk the Via Dolorosa virtually and visit the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem on YouTube here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc_KzfpGTwU&list=PL4m2vXv9xNr-CsbtxaH-q-RQsYw7296gv&index=3&t=22s or other places online. Mel Gibson’s R rated film “The Passion of the Christ” truthfully and brutally shows what Jesus did for us. You can even read a 1986 article from the Journal of American Medicine “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” here: https://people.bethel.edu/~pferris/ot103/Jesus_Crucifixion.pdf, though be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.

Take some time this Lent. Think about the cross. Think about what Jesus did and how much it cost him. Then allow its shadow to fall upon you. Feel its weight, suffering and shame. Only by considering the sacrifice at the cross can we experience the true of joy of Easter. Join me in the shadow of the cross. There is enough room for all.

Dwelling in the Shadow of the Cross,
Kevin Smith

Where is God When it Hurts?

(Author’s note: this article was originally written for the September 2020 newsletter for The Cross and Tower- FUMC Winnfield’s monthly newsletter. Then was edited following Hurricane Laura’s impact on Louisiana and here in Winn Parish where many were without electricity for over a week and phone, internet and television for several weeks or longer.)

2020 has already been a year for the record books- and not in a good way. A pandemic that sickened and killed thousands, racial tensions, an election that is sure to be divisive, and so many tropical systems that the Greek alphabet is in use to name storms for only the second time in history. Thousands in Southwest Louisiana, and even some of us here in Winn Parish, are still recovering from Hurricane Laura over a month later. A friend put on Facebook, “I can’t wait for the great Louisiana blizzard of December 2020!” And it could happen! It seems we are living and singing the old Hee Haw song by Buck Owens and Roy Clark: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me! Deep, dark, depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all! Gloom, despair and agony on me!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAAKPJEq1Ew This leaves us asking the question: where is God when it hurts? Where is God when we go through pain and suffering? Where is God when everything goes wrong?

We are not the first to ask such questions. In fact, they may be the oldest questions in history, addressed in what could be the oldest book in the Bible, Job. The Bible says that Job was a righteous man, a man who turned from evil. Nonetheless, in one fell swoop everything that had meaning and purpose or made sense for Job was lost. The Sabeans rustled all his oxen and donkeys and killed all the herdsmen. Fire struck the sheep and the shepherds and burned them up. The Chaldeans raided the camels, carried them off, and put all the drivers to death. A whirlwind swept across the desert, struck his eldest son’s house, and killed all of Job’s sons and daughters while they were dining.( Job 1:13-19) To top if off, Job broke out in running sores from head to foot, and in disgust his wife said to him. “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) Everything was gone. His world had crashed.

How would you and I react? How would Job react? “Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshipped” (Job 1:20). He remembered the source of His strength. He remembered the hope of his future. He remembered that God loved and cared for him. Everything was lost, and Job fell down on the ground and worshipped. In essence, Job is saying, “Even though, tragedy has struck my life and I’ve lost it all, I trust God.” Job 19:25,26 says “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God.”

Even in difficult times, let us keep our faith and be reminded that we are not alone. God will supply us with a power that is greater than ourselves to bring us through the difficulties that we face. When our world crumbles all around us, cling to God. Where is God when it hurts? Where is God when everything goes wrong? Where is God in the worst of times? God is right there with us. Let us look to Him for hope and strength.

Looking to God When it Hurts,

Kevin D. Smith

Of Dogs and Death

walter closeup

Walter (racing name Pj’s Pasadena) 8/20/2006- 7/14/2020

(Author’s note: this article first appeared in the August 2020 FUMC Winnfield newsletter The Cross and Tower)

On July 14, 2020, my wife and I made the difficult decision to put our almost 14 year old retired racing Greyhound, Walter, to sleep. He had a good life, a successful racing career (view Pj’s Pasadena’s racing career here Pj’s Pasadena Racing Career), love and a comfy dog bed at our house for almost 9 years. Over the last few months, we had witnessed his daily decline due to spinal stenosis, cataracts, gum disease, and hearing loss. It had become difficult for him to have a quality life, even to stand, walk, or run. Still, the decision and the finality of the moment was and is very difficult.

As a pastor, one of the questions I am asked is will we see our pets in heaven? Do “all dogs go to heaven” as the movie says? In short, I don’t know. There is no direct indication in the Bible that our pets will or will not meet us in heaven. Theologians are split on the issue. Some say that animals do not have a soul in the same way as humans, thus they will not experience the afterlife in the same way that we do. Others say that since God created all the animals (Genesis 1-2), saved them during the great flood (Genesis 6), and made a covenant not only with Noah but all creation in Genesis 9, that animals could experience an afterlife similar to humans. Some also make a case that God promises us that heaven will be a happy place and if seeing our pet again will make us happy, then surely God has the power and the capability to make that happen. In Isaiah’s description (Isaiah 11) of the new heaven and new earth, several different kinds of animals are present. Revelation 19 describes Jesus’ return on white horses. It appears that animals could be  present in heaven and the afterlife.

1973_00004_Kevin_s_first_year_ 1 (

The author with his family’s American Samoyed, Cotton at less than 1 years of age.

As one who learned to walk by pulling up and holding on to our American Samoyed,  Cotton, who always dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and started college as a pre-vet major, one who visited the LSU Veterinary school on many occasions, volunteered at the Baton Rouge Zoo, and has been owned by many dogs and cats through the years, I hope to see them again. But whatever comes, my trust is in Jesus and his grace, mercy, and love. Whatever comes, the animals I have known and loved have made me a happier and better person.

A veterinarian was called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolf hound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle. Belker was examined and found to be dying of cancer. The veterinarian told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.

As they made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told the vet they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience. The next day, The veterinarian felt the familiar catch in his throat as Belker’s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that he wondered if the boy understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.

The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. They sat together for a while after Belker’s death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, ‘I know why.’ Startled, they all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned them. He said, ‘People are born so that they can learn how to live a good Life – – like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?’ The six-year-old continued, ‘Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.’

Do all dogs and pets go to heaven? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.

Thinking about dogs and death,

Kevin Smith

The Birds of the Air

busy place

The bird feeder is a popular place in the mornings and evenings!

One of the benefits of the pandemic for most of us (except for essential workers- thank you!) has been to spend more time at home with friends and family. Many (including me) have also spent more time in the yard or finding ways to enjoy God’s great outdoors. While I have been spending more time at home, I have enjoyed watching the birds at my backyard feeder.

cardinal fly away

Female Cardinal flying away

As a child, I was an animal lover. My favorite show was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom hosted by Richard Perkins. The closest I could get to Wild Kingdom was our backyard bird feeder outside our large dining room window in Beaumont, Texas. We would eat meals, visit, and watch the birds. We even got a Peterson’s Book of Wild Birds and would check them off as we saw them, marveling at the many species and colors.

tufted titmouse

This Tufted Titmouse came in for a quick bite

I still have several birdfeeders in the yard. During the pandemic stay at home order, I saw cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, tufted titmouse, mourning doves, blue jay, mockingbirds, house wrens, house finches, white headed nuthatches, brown headed nuthatches, brown thrasher, red bellied woodpecker, hummingbirds, and even a few migratory rose breasted grosbeaks. Maybe even a few other species that I missed or forgot along the way. That is at least 15 species of the birds of the air who have visited my backyard!

brown thrasher

Brown Thrasher- a rare treat!

Thinking about all of these birds reminded me of a favorite passage of Scripture in Matthew 6. “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” Mathew 6:26-27 (KJV). We have had much to worry about during the pandemic. Will someone I love get sick or die? What will happen with my job? What about our students and schools? When will be able to return to church? These and a thousand other questions worry us. But every time I looked out of my window at the birds, I was reminded that God takes care of them. How much more so will God take care of me?

Every time you are worried or stressed or concerned, maybe simply look out of your window at the birds of the air and remember that God takes care of them. Since God takes care of them, surely He will take care of us!

sunset snack

Sunset snack for a male and female Cardinal

Doing Life and Church in a New Way

Who could have imagined that life could change so quickly for our world, our nation, our state, and our community? Because of the COVID-19 virus, our lives have changed. Social distancing has become a buzzword and a way of life. For a while at least, we cannot gather in large groups. Almost all large group gatherings, including church services, have been postponed or canceled. We have had to live in a new way. We have been forced to do church in a new way.

church-online-heroInstead of preaching to a congregation, I am preaching to a screen. Instead of gathering in person for worship, we sit in front of a screen. Instead of leading a Bible Study live with a small group, I am prerecording it for viewing later. Like you, I have been forced to do things out of my comfort zone, such as speaking to a camera or becoming a video editor.

isaiah 43_19The good news is that we follow a God who is always asking us to do things in a new way. Isaiah 43:19 says “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God is always in the process of doing new things, but we do not always see it. God’s promise is that even in the darkest of days, in the wilderness or in the desert, God will make a way for us.

Who knows? Maybe we will slow down. Maybe we will spend more time with our family. Maybe through living and doing church in a new way, God may speak to us in ways that would not have happened if life was “normal.” Maybe someone will see and know the message of God’s love and grace online, who would never physically venture into a church. Honestly, I am still uncomfortable with this “new” way, but it is what we must do right now for the safety of our families and our community.

There is much unknown about the future. What I do know is that even while living and worshiping in a new way, God has not left us or forsaken us. And maybe, this new way of living and doing church could be God doing a new thing in our hearts and lives. Do we perceive it?

Doing Life and Church in a New Way,

Kevin Smith

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

March means that spring is here. The days warm and lengthen. The flowers bloom. But the surest sign of spring, may be at the ballparks all over the country. The sound of ball hitting leather, bat hitting ball, and the umpire yelling “play ball” brings to mind memories of days and evenings spent at the ballpark. Spring training for Major League Baseball has commenced, and my beloved LSU baseball tigers are already several weeks into another season.

One sound you’re likely to hear at the ball park is the coach sayinbaseballg “keep your eye on the ball!” “Watch for your pitch!” “Focus!” Of course, focus is not exclusive to baseball and is needed for all sports such as basketball, football, track, and many others. What is true at the sports field and basketball court is true for life, we must maintain our focus and keep our eye on the ball on all things in life, including our faith.


Hebrews 12:2 reads “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, hebrews 12_2the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” It is easy to become distracted while playing ball, and it is easy to become distracted in life. In life, we can become distracted by the busyness of life, work, school, family, and so many other things. While those things are not bad things, they can distract us and take our focus off of Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Consider where your focus is. Is it on Jesus? Why or why not? What is keeping you from focusing on Jesus? Like the coach saying to his ball player “keep your eye on the ball! Focus!”, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by anything around us. Keep your eye on the ball and, most of all, on Jesus!

Keeping my eyes on the ball and on Jesus,
Kevin Smith

The Importance of Retreat

(Author’s note: This article was written for and published in the February 2020 edition of The Cross and Tower newsletter at FUMC Winnfield)

Jesus was a busy guy!  Thousands of years later, we are still talking about his short three years of full time ministry.  To tell the stories of his teachings, miracles, birth, life, death and resurrection takes 11,304 words in the Gospel of Mark; 18,346 words in Matthew; 19,482 words in Luke; and 15,635 words in John.[i]  That is a total of 64,767 words to tell the story of who Jesus was and what he came to do!

Yet Jesus also found time to spend with God and apparently he did it regularly.  Luke 5:15-16 reads “But the news about Him (Jesus) was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses.  But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.” (NASB)  If Jesus was purposeful about finding time to retreat and focus on his relationship with God, shouldn’t we?

There are many good retreats such as Cursillo, Happening, Walk to Emmaus, Youth camp, and many others that help us find focused time to spend with God. I am blessed to have been to several of them.  Maybe you have too.  Over the past few years, I have become involved in a retreat called the North Louisiana Christian Ashram and this retreat has met yearly in Louisiana for over 40 years!  In fact, the worldwide headquarters are in nearby Ruston, on US 167, near the Methodist Children’s Home.

What is an ashram?  Christian Ashrams were started by the great Methodist missionary to India, E. StanleIMG_4115y Jones.  The word “Ashram” simply means retreat.  Ashram includes a rhythm of an evangelistic speaker, Aaron Brown from Joplin, MO, Bible teaching, by Jason Ramsey from West Monroe, LA, small groups, food, fellowship and more.  The healing service on Friday night is always a highlight of the weekend.  FUMC Winnfield member Jan Beville and I are privileged to serve on the planning team for this year’s ashram which will be February 7-8, 2020 at FUMC W. Monroe, just off of Interstate 20.  This year, we are trying a new, shortened two day schedule which begins at 11 AM on Friday and concludes about 3:30 PM on Saturday.  We are hoping this will make to Ashram more accessible to out of towners (like people from Winnfield) who will only have one night’s lodging expense, as well as those who are working full-time, that would only have to take a half day off work on Friday to fully participate in the weekend.  But each Ashram is a come-and-go event, so if you cannot stay for the entire retreat you could come to some of the worship services or Bible study.  Registration (lodging not included) is only $45 (without meals) or $75 (meals included) for the entire weekend.   You can find out more about the ashram by talking to Jan Beville, Kiah Beville, me or visit http://www.christianashram.org/north-louisiana-christian-ashram.html.  I have a brochure with a registration form if you would like to register for the ashram, view the schedule, or you can register at Eventbrite.com (search Louisiana Ashram- an extra fee is required).

If Jesus thought time away with God to focus on his spiritual life was important, shouldn’t we who claim to follow Jesus follow his example?  I invite you to make retreat, an intentional time set apart for spiritual growth, a part of your life.  And I invite you to the Ashram to help you realize that goal.

Taking time to retreat,

Kevin D. Smith

[i] https://overviewbible.com/word-counts-books-of-bible/