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The Christmas season is full of light, joy, and beauty. At the center of our celebrations and family traditions is a vulnerable baby in a feeding trough—Emmanuel, God with us. As Christmas approaches, the season of Advent offers us a chance to reflect on our savior, his purpose, and the surprising ways he invited people near to him.
To help you and your church reflect on the coming, or advent, of Christ, pastor Derwin Gray spent time with our team filming Advent, a five-part series exploring the ways the birth of Jesus changes everything. We caught up with Derwin after he preached at the RightNow Conference to hear about his experience making this series and his hope for everyone who watches it.
Derwin: Filming with the RightNow Media team is not only fun—because they are all hilarious and we have good chemistry because they are great people—but also, they have professional expertise. The way they are able to take content and match it with locations and editing encourages me in my faith. I am excited about this Advent series because they make me better than I am!
Derwin: The biggest thing I learned about Advent was a greater awareness of God’s heart. Advent means “arriving” or “coming.” In the beginning, the Father had already determined that Jesus was going to come and reconcile all things to himself. The way he goes about that is beautiful, mysterious, life-giving, and powerful.
Derwin: I want them walking with Jesus more. Jesus is not just a Sunday friend; he is an all-week, all-the-time companion. He’s Lord. He’s Master.
The beauty of Advent is that we see the beauty and vulnerability of God entering into humanity in a fragile state and form. We see God use people to do incredible things! You don’t have to be the biggest or the best. Mary was just a teenager. Joseph was just some guy! God takes ordinary people and does extraordinary things.
So, I want people to be overwhelmed with God’s grace and the gift of his Son this Christmas.
A holiday brimming with delicious food, time with family and friends, and lots of football, Thanksgiving is also a day to remember what we’re thankful for. For Christians, Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to reflect on all God has done and is doing and thank him.
Gratitude should mark the people of God, but we can be tempted to reserve it for a holiday or mealtime prayers. Paul exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to “give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” His command feels extreme—does he really want us to give thanks in everything? If so, what does gratitude even look like? How can we start building a habit of thanksgiving?
The good news is we can become grateful people by the power of the Spirit, and we can begin growing in gratefulness with one simple step: noticing what God is doing in our lives.
Paul mentions fourteen times in his letters that he thanks God for the people he’s writing to. Have you ever stopped to consider why he mentioned his gratefulness for his fellow Christians? Whether he is about to write words of rebuke or correction or encouragement, he still thanks God for the church—for people. He notices them. More importantly, he notices that God has orchestrated his relationship with them, that God put them in his life for a reason, and that God works in and through them.
Just as God brings people into our lives, he also places us in our neighborhoods, jobs, and churches. When he created the world, he put humans in it to live, grow, and take care of creation. Taking time to notice the world God put you in—your workplace, your home, your car, your church, your neighborhood park—can help cultivate gratitude in your heart. Yes, difficult places exist. Brokenness riddles our world. But God’s goodness, faithfulness, and kindness always shine forth through the brokenness for us to witness and thank him for.
Have you ever paused to notice a moment? Maybe the giggles of a playing toddler, the taste of a home-cooked meal, or the words of a hymn in Sunday worship. Or maybe you look back on past moments, spending time to reminisce with old college friends or to remember a loved one who’s passed away.
Past or present, moments encapsulate beauty. Slowing down to notice important or even seemingly insignificant moments can make us more grateful.
Taking notice of your people and your world—and seeing all of it as God-given, as proof of his love and grace—is the first step toward gratitude. When we know what to notice, we can move from simply observing our lives to giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving can look different for all of us, but there are a few practical ways we can weave it into our lives.
Keeping a gratitude journal is trendy for a reason. When we put pen to paper and list what we’re grateful for, we acknowledge what God has given us in a physical way. Regularly slowing down to thank God helps solidify gratitude in our hearts and builds our thankfulness muscle. Journals can also help us remember what God has done for us when we’re facing impossible, difficult situations. In many ways, it is an act of worship to write down what we are grateful for. Grab a journal or a pad of paper and try writing down three things you’re thankful for every day, then turn your list into a prayer of praise.
Gratitude is contagious. When we tell others what we’re thanking God for, we point them to gratefulness. Take a walk with a friend or call a family member and weave gratitude into your conversation organically. Notice how speaking with thankfulness about your life affects others. Or tell a significant person in your life that you are thankful for him or her and why, just as Paul did for the churches he wrote to.
Hardship often makes gratitude feel as impossible as asking the rain to stop pouring. When we face difficulty, the habits we’ve formed in calmer times come in handy. They give us the words to say when we have none to offer. Find verses on gratitude and memorize them (consider Psalm 100; Philippians 4:6–7; or 1 Thessalonians 5:18). Make a playlist of songs that express thanksgiving to God and return to it often. Or find a written prayer that thanks God that you can pray when words don’t come easily.
Gratitude transforms us. When we give thanks, we acknowledge God and his work in the world. We lift our eyes from looking at ourselves to see the spiritual reality of our lives.
God is at work. He always has been and always will be.
As you enter the holiday season, look for ways to build a lifestyle of gratitude. Invite your friends and family to join you and see how God grows joy, love, and hope in you as you thank him.
As we unpack our nativity scenes from eleven months of storage, placing Mary next to the manger is as normal as singing Christmas carols or watching Buddy the Elf eat gum off the subway railing.
For many of us, though, Mary never leaves the manger’s side. She goes back in storage with the wise men and reappears next year. While Mary serves the miraculous and cosmic role of birthing the Messiah, she is also a faithful witness of what it looks like to model Christ’s action of mediating between God and humanity—telling others what God is like and bringing him their concerns.
You may be thinking, “Wait, isn’t Jesus the only one who mediates between God and humanity?” And that instinct would be right. I’m not talking about mediating salvation between God and people—that’s something that only Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection has accomplished. What I am saying is that, like the prophets in the Old Testament standing as a go-between by proclaiming God’s message to the people and representing the people’s requests to God, Mary shows us how to occupy the space between God and the world as a light that points people to God.
Before traveling to Bethlehem for Jesus’s birth, Mary visited her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also miraculously pregnant. Elizabeth recognized Mary’s unique role as the “mother of [her] Lord” (Luke 1:43) and pointed toward Mary’s faith that God would “fulfill what he has spoken to her” (Luke 1:45).
In response, Mary launched into her famous speech magnifying God’s character—the Magnificat. These ten verses are more than Mary simply responding to her situation with gratitude. Mary shares God’s words not only with Elizabeth but also with us as readers thousands of years later.
Many commentators say Mary’s speech falls in the genre of prophecy. In essence, a prophet served as a mediator between God and people to provide the people with revelation of who God is. Mary comments on her own “humble condition” (Luke 1:48) and how God exalts the “lowly” (Luke 1:52), like herself. By describing herself in these terms, Mary speaks to those who may similarly feel overlooked or unimportant—much like how the people of Israel likely felt at the time of Jesus’s birth. Mary says that God has “helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever” (Luke 1:54–55) with Jesus’s birth announcement, reminding God’s people that he cares and acts on their behalf.
Through her speech, Mary stepped into the space between God and his people by proclaiming the good news that God’s “mercy is from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50) and that “he has scattered the proud . . . [and] toppled the mighty from their thrones” (Luke 1:51–52). She reminds us that God “has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). Her song reads like many of the psalms in the Old Testament that proclaim the character of God to people in desperate need.
Mary models how we should be little mediators of God’s presence on earth—declaring his good news to people who need to hear it.
The beginning of Jesus’s public ministry provides a stage for Mary to stand as a type of mediator outside of the Christmas story. Before Jesus began teaching and demonstrating his identity as Israel’s Messiah, he and his disciples were invited to a wedding Mary also attended. As John writes in John 2:1–12, the wine for the wedding in Cana ran out and presented the host family with a problem.
Running out of wine at a celebration in Ancient Near Eastern culture was a social faux pas that would have brought enormous shame on the host family. Seeing this risk and interceding on behalf of the wedding party, Mary went to Jesus with a request without a question, “They don’t have any wine” (John 2:3).
Not only did Mary initiate stepping in as an in-between for the wedding party, but she also went straight to the person she knew could act, revealing her faith. She saw a need and entrusted it to the person who could meet that need.
While Jesus’s response appears harsh (his calling Mary “woman” isn’t derogatory or dismissive as he uses the same word when speaking tenderly to her on the cross in John 19:26), Jesus explained that he was hesitant because he had not begun to reveal his identity as Messiah—which Mary presumably knew—to everyone.
Instead of feeling rejected, Mary reaffirmed her faith in her son by telling the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do. Jesus may have chosen not to act and told the servants to stand by, but Mary accepted that possibility and left the decision in Jesus’s capable hands. In doing so, she communicated an important truth not only for the servants at the wedding but also for us reading the passage today—obey God regardless of what he calls you to do. Mary advocated for people who had nowhere else to go and instructed them on how they should respond to God’s command—much like how the church operates in the world today.
Maybe it is appropriate that we think of Mary most often during the Christmas season. Christmas often calls us to act in mediatory ways.
This may be someone’s first Christmas alone, and they need to hear from you that God sees them. Perhaps this Christmas someone received bad news and needs you to advocate for them on your knees in prayer. By imitating Mary as she imitates Christ, we can be God’s ambassadors, channeling his overpowering love for them.
From Chicago to New York to New Orleans, and in dozens more cities across the country, Irish Americans and those happy to pretend they are flock to parade routes to enjoy the annual exception to the church’s Lenten fast—St. Paddy’s Day.
Patrick himself would likely be somewhat mystified at the legend that has sprung up around his memory. He wasn’t even Irish. Born in Britain around 387, he was sixteen when he was stolen and enslaved by Irish marauders. While working for his master herding sheep, Patrick was drawn back to the faith of his family—his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest—and became a devoted follower of God. He wrote in his Confession, “More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved . . .”
Patrick credited God with coming to him in a dream to point him to a ship that would enable his return home. Though the coast was two hundred miles away, he traveled to the port and found a ship ready to take him. When they arrived in Britain only three days later, they embarked on a twenty-eight-day journey by land. They grew hungry as their food ran out, and the sailors turned on Patrick: “What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful—why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger?” Patrick answered by proclaiming God’s ability to provide, and a herd of pigs walked across their path.
Back in Britain, Patrick was reunited with his family and began his studies anew. Sometime later (records are sketchy—we don’t know how much later), he dreamed that a man brought him letters from Ireland, in which the people he had left “called out as it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’” From then on, he determined to return to Ireland to share the gospel of Christ with them.
His parents and friends, however, opposed his plan to return to Ireland. “Why does he put himself in danger among hostile people who do not know God?” they wondered. Patrick understood that they feared for him and wondered himself how qualified he could be. “I was just an unlearned country person,” he admitted.
But his call from God proved greater than family pressure, insecurity, and lack of training.
When the time was right, he returned to Ireland where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote, “I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises.”
The feeding of the sailors during Patrick’s return to England is the only miracle-turned-legend based on his own words. We learn this story straight from his pen. So where did the idea originate that Patrick used shamrocks, the common three-leaf clover, to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to local pagans? We don’t know who started that rumor, but we do know that Patrick was profoundly shaped by his trinitarian faith. In his Confession, he wrote:
There is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father . . . And his son, Jesus Christ . . . Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God . . . He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality . . . This is the one we acknowledge and adore—one God in a Trinity of the sacred name.
And those snakes? Ireland has never had snakes—yet another reason we love the Emerald Isle—but they were sacred to the local Druids. The closest explanation for the legend we can get is to see it as an allegory: When Patrick brought faith in Christ, he drove out the Druids and their pagan influence.
For decades, Patrick taught the pagan peoples of Ireland about the one true God. In the two documents still in existence written by his hand, we discover a humble man who remained grateful for God’s grace in his life. He was resilient, standing firm amid suffering, adversity, false accusations, betrayals, and more. Strengthened by his robust trust in God, Patrick the pastor loved his flock loyally. Writing his Confession late in life, he addressed a wide audience:
You all know, and God knows, how I have lived among you since my youth, in true faith and in sincerity of heart. Towards the pagan people too among whom I live, I have lived in good faith, and will continue to do so . . . I have cast myself into the hands of almighty God, who is the ruler of all places.
Patrick died March 17, 461. Saints of the church are historically celebrated on the anniversary of their death, rather than their birth, an acknowledgment that death was the “birthday” of their eternal life. Patrick graduated from life to life.
*All quotes are taken from Saint Patrick’s Confession.
Can we just skip the first seventeen verses of Matthew? The real story of Jesus starts when Joseph struggles with Mary’s news that she’s expecting a baby that isn’t his. At Christmastime, we want to read about dreams and angels and a baby’s birth, not a long list of “begats.”
Actually, no. Biblical authors always write with purpose. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the second coming of Jesus by contemplating his first coming, let’s consider what Matthew is teaching us through the orderly genealogy.
Including Jesus’s ancestry proves he was born specifically into the family of David. By tracing a direct line from David to Jeconiah to Joseph, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus was a legitimate son of David, qualified to become the future king of Israel.
The names Matthew includes are also important to understanding Jesus. Readers can go back to the Old Testament to learn more about each ancestor mentioned. Careful readers will notice that among forty-two generations in Matthew’s list, five included the mother along with the father. We are meant to note those breaks in his pattern and explore why their stories might be significant.
“Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar . . .” (Matthew 1:3)
How do you preach a family-friendly sermon about an abandoned daughter-in-law (Tamar) who seduced her father-in-law (Judah) and was declared righteous for doing it? It’s difficult, but knowing the tradition of Levirate Law helps: Judah was morally bound to provide a husband for Tamar after his two oldest sons died, but he refused. Tamar later pursued the justice owed to her by tricking (a very willing) Judah into sleeping with her. Though ready to condemn her apparent immorality, when Judah realized what had happened he admitted, “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26, NIV). She birthed twin sons, one of whom became a forefather to David and eventually Jesus. The woman often labeled “prostitute” was actually pursuing righteousness—and God blessed Israel through her.
“Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab . . .” (Matthew 1:5)
The Canaanite prostitute had heard about the nation of Israel, and their mighty God, long before they prepared to overrun her city of Jericho (Joshua 2). When she realized Israelite spies were in her inn, she hid them from her own authorities and proclaimed her allegiance to Yahweh, “for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11). Turning her back on her own people and choosing God took guts. Rahab went from the ultimate outsider—an immoral foreigner—to becoming a leading insider, accepted as a faithful member of Judah. She eventually married their leader and became a noteworthy link in the Messianic line. Her courage and faith demonstrate for all of us that God restores the repentant and welcomes all who call on his name.
“Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth” (Matthew 1:5)
Another foreigner grafted into Jesus’s heritage, Ruth came to faith through grief. A Moabite woman, she married an Israelite man who died within ten years, leaving her childless. But her devotion to her grieving mother-in-law, Naomi, reflected the unconditional loving-kindness of Israel’s God whom she pledged to serve. Ruth is, above all, loyal, just as Yahweh is. She, too, married into the leading family of Judah and became a critical link in the long line to the savior.
“David fathered Solomon by Uriah’s wife . . .” (Matthew 1:6)
By avoiding her first name and instead referencing her by her murdered husband’s name (2 Samuel 11), Matthew highlights Bathsheba as a victim. The reference isn’t so much about her as it is about David’s actions toward her. Having abused his power as king and taken her to his bed, then murdering her husband after a failed attempt to cover up the resulting pregnancy, David is the sinner in this story. In his parable to David (2 Samuel 12:1–14), the prophet Nathan confronts him with his guilt, prompting David’s confession that he indeed had sinned. But God chose to fulfill his covenant with David despite David’s evil behavior, because he is a faithful God. Even our worst sins will not discourage him from his purposes. What about Bathsheba? God raised her up through her son Solomon, who became king after David thanks in part to her advocacy (1 Kings 1:15–35). By God’s grace she survived heartbreak and grew into a woman of strength and influence.
“. . . Mary, who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah.” (Matthew 1:16)
The culmination of Jesus’s genealogy centers on his mother, Mary. The rest of chapter one (vv 18–25) assures readers that Mary’s child comes from God himself, that Jesus is the long-promised Emmanuel that Isaiah predicted (Isaiah 7:14). We can explore Mary’s point of view in Luke 2, where we see her willing submission to God’s challenging but amazing call on her life. She was Jesus’s first disciple, believing in him from the very beginning and faithful to stand with him through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Advent season gives us time to reflect on the first coming of our savior and the longing that God’s people felt as they waited for him. But he did come! Jesus was born—Emmanuel, “God with us”—as part of an extended family whom God worked through to bless the world. As we anticipate his second coming, Jesus’s family line can teach us much about how he wants us to live: faithful, obedient, loyal, courageous, repentant, forgiving.
Yes, it is bright, merry, joyful, and the most wonderful time of the year. A season to celebrate Emmanuel, God with us. But it can also be the most difficult time of year for those who are lonely, are walking through the loss of a loved one, or have contentious relationships with their family. Even some of our most treasured Christmas songs are complicated. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was written from the point of view of World War II soldiers, dreaming of home while living in the horrors of war, while Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” resigns to “muddle through, somehow,” hoping her troubles will be gone next year. That’s not very merry or bright.
Even so, Andy Williams was right: Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. But the contrast of love, joy, peace, and hope with the reality of the wounds, wars, and worldliness of our daily lives can be jarring. How should we, the church, respond to the Christmas season in light of the pain in the world?
One solution is to ignore the darkness that surrounds us, to not talk about the news and ignore the struggles of the holidays. But that won’t do, especially for the people commanded to be light in the darkness (Matthew 5:14). We don’t have the option of hiding under a bushel to preserve our peace.
Another response would be to reject the joy of Christmas in an effort to highlight the necessary needs of the world, becoming cynical toward the ignorantly holly-jolly attitude of the season. Joylessness is not an appealing option, especially for those of us who love the decorations and music of Christmas. But a muted, honest response may feel like the only way to address the real hurt in the world around us. Is this season about Christ or the excess of materialism? Where is the joy we sing about for the starving in Yemen? Where is the peace that is heralded through the speakers of our shopping centers? Why is it here but not in Ukraine or Uvalde? In this world, Christmas can feel like glossy wrapping paper around a lump of coal. Like Frank Sinatra sings in the too-often-ignored carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:
Yes, the world is broken and can appear hopelessly irreparable. And, yes, our cultural values have infiltrated Christmas. But cynicism towards Christmas isn’t a path to wholeness. Quite the contrary: our only hope in life or death is that baby in the manger, the “reason for the season.” The world needs our celebration of Jesus. We can’t solve a crisis on the other side of the world, but we can share the joy of Jesus’s birth with everyone we meet.
So, we cannot avoid the complications of Christmas, but we also cannot reject the happiness of the holiday. We walk a third path, the way of Christ, of intermingled joy and sorrow. We groan and weep because of sin and its effects but we can do nothing but rejoice in the hope we have found in Christ (Romans 8:22–25; Philippians 4:4–5).
Just think about the way we celebrate Christmas. In the coldest season of the year, when darkness overwhelms our non-working hours, we emblazon our homes with lights and warm ourselves with hot chocolate. We brave the winter weather to be near to family, bearing gifts to (what can seem like) everyone we know. We focus on giving, serving, and compassion toward the needy in our communities. We defy the present darkness to proclaim our hope in Jesus (John 1:5). That is the Christian life!
The spirit of Christmas is neither avoidant nor despairing; it is defiantly hopeful. We are caught between the two comings of Christ and choose to live in the assurance of the second while acknowledging that we can do more to spread light of his first. Yes, we are awash with pain, loneliness, grief, war, poverty, and illness, but it will not always be that way. We can stand where and sing triumphantly with Frank Sinatra into the wintery night:
Merry Christmas. Come, Lord Jesus.
Summertime can feel like an obstacle to overcome for parents of school-aged kids. How do we keep our kids busy without over-scheduling them? How do we manage our own responsibilities while also ensuring our children’s minds don’t wither away from hours of screen time? Can anything keep kids interested, occupied, productive, and even learning during summer vacation?
Remember playdough, finger paint, and crayons? Toddler days were messy! But while the medium may (or may not) change, our kids’ creativity doesn’t. Let’s occupy their busy minds by filling their busy hands with opportunities to create. Adapt the following ideas to the ages and abilities of your children.
Set up a dedicated spot in your home—a table, nook, or entire room if you have it—for artistic endeavors stocked with a supply of paper, pencils, paint, and other creative tools. Name a particular hour of your day as “art class” and explore a passion or talent your child may possess. And if you just can’t handle glitter, paint, or modeling clay, find a friend who can and trade playdates with them. When my kids were between five and twelve years old, I always loved taking them to my friend Susie, who, as an actual artist, was happy for them to join her kids in making a huge mess on her kitchen table. They came home with glittery hair, colorful smudges, and shining eyes as they showed me their newest handmade treasures.
Books are the doorway to the future, exercising children’s imaginations, thinking, comprehension skills, and creativity. Stories help them understand the world and imagine a new world in which they can play a part. The power of reading inspired Dolly Parton, for instance, to create her Imagination Library, which sends a book per month to children from birth to five years old.
While babies are napping, toddlers can enjoy “rest time” with books until they doze off. Older kids can settle down during the heat of the day with a reading hour. Or jazz up your routine with a weekly trip to the library where they can discover new stories and foster a lifelong habit of reading.
Begin with the best book in the world, the Bible. A short time reading God’s Word will start every day with pure goodness. Don’t make it complicated—even opening your physical Bible and then retelling the story in your own words teaches your children the value of hearing from God every day. Let them participate and help you as they are able. Maybe have them draw a picture depicting something from the story that day.
Once they start reading, many children begin dramatizing the stories they love. Do your kids enjoy imitating or quoting their favorite characters and scenes? Clean out your closets and offer your rejects or old favorites to a costume bin. Encourage the kids to act out their morning Bible stories, write screenplays, get into character, and become someone new on stage. Cheer on your cotton ball-bearded Moses and blue sash-draped Mary. Ooh and aah when “Jesus” multiplies the cheese and crackers. Always say yes when they ask if you want to watch.
Reading often leads to writing. Keep old school notebooks from the recycle bin, tear out the used pages, and reuse what’s left as “dreaming and drafting” notebooks. Let your kids’ creative instincts run wild! Don’t worry about penmanship or grammar. When they feel they’ve completed a poem or short story and are ready to share, help them re-write it neatly or even type it into the computer (we can’t ignore sneaking in easy learning). Print out a final version to share with friends and family. Celebrate your child’s imagination and hard work.
Storytelling takes many forms, and video is easily the most popular type of media right now. Disney, for example, rules the screens in many households. The kids will ask to watch their favorite episodes or movies all day long, and we are often tempted to let them vegetate in front of the screen. But why not put the camera—or your iPhone—into their hands instead? Using free apps such as iMovie or InShot, young aspiring producers can learn basic editing skills for photography and video. Movie night can take on a whole new angle.
Let’s encourage our kids to tell stories that reflect their faith and God’s character. The original kids’ series The Creators, a product of the RightNow Media video production team, tells the story of a group of friends who join forces to create films that are “meaningful, virtuous, and good.” The Creators weaves biblical truths into engaging stories with humor and the right dose of seriousness. Perhaps a short time in front of a show will inspire your kids to produce their own series!
When God created humans, he made us in his image (Genesis 1:27). That means we are made to be creators too—it’s part of our DNA and our purpose. Who says we have to wait until we are adults to make wonderful things?