dark-3061610_960_720I was involved with our high school theater productions for my three years of high school. I had (non-serious) dreams of one day being an actress. Of course, it might have helped if I was ever actually in a play. But I wasn’t. I got the courage to try out for one, the last one possible, my senior year. I didn’t make it. No, my experience was with sets and lighting. My friends and I built, painted, and lit up the stage for the actors. Once I even put together a vase.

This production involved a vase shattering as it hit the floor. We couldn’t take the chance that it would fail to break. So, I got to take the vase home, break it, and glue it back together again. It’s easier said than done. It has to break in big chunks that can be adhered together again. If the pieces are too small, it’s nearly impossible to get the vase put back together in a way that doesn’t look compromised. Even being as careful as I was, I’m not sure I would’ve trusted it to hold water.

Often that’s what happens when things are broken. They can be put back together again, but they may not work exactly like they were first intended. They’ve changed. Sometimes, it’s for the better. Other times, not so much. It really depends on who’s doing the fixing and what kind of shape the thing was in before it was damaged to the point of needing repaired.

The same can be said for people. There are things that come along and threaten to break us. Sometimes they do break us, at least for a time. They throw water on the picture we’ve painted for our lives leaving our carefully chosen colors to run down the canvas. Our masterpiece is destroyed. These experiences are different for each person. The loss of a dream, a job, a family member or a person’s health could be the devastating blow. Disappointment, hurt, or betrayal could be what it takes to push you to the breaking point. What devastates me might seem like a cake walk for you. What seems hard for you might be easy for me. It doesn’t matter if others might be able to handle it better. What matters is that we’re in pain. We’ve found ourselves in the middle of a mess that we have no idea what to do with.

These times are the focus of Sheila Walsh’s book, In the Middle of the Mess: Strength or This Beautiful, Broken life. And what Sheila has to offer believers is desperately needed, freedom to be transparent. Starting with her own story, her own failures, her own hurts, and honesty about how these things affected her life and still do, Sheila invites the reader to be honest about their own issues. Her ability to share so openly about things she knows can bring judgement in some Christian circles is inspiring. It allows the readers to see she believes the message whole-heartedly. That alone is enough to bring hope. Everyone wants to feel they are not alone.

But it doesn’t end there. Sheila weaves scripture and practical lessons on how to deal with life’s devastations into each chapter. She challenges readers to honestly evaluate themselves each step of the way. And she does it in a way that makes you feel safe doing so.

While taking a faith-based perspective and encouraging practices that are fueled by belief in God and the scriptures, Sheila doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the need to take other practical steps to help deal with the aftermath of the circumstances that threaten to destroy our lives as we knew them. It’s this binding together of faith with the practical and illustrating with real life examples that make her lessons powerful.

For those who have not ever experienced the proverbial “dark night of the soul”, Sheila’s book is one to read. She has taken concepts that are hard to understand when they’ve not been experienced and makes them relatable. With greater understanding comes more empathy and love. Judgement is lessened, and hearts can find the One who can heal as His followers pour out His love on those in pain. Hope is given, not necessarily for a change in circumstances, though Sheila does acknowledge our God is the One who can make that happen, but that we can know peace and joy and love even in our circumstances. This book points us to His answer for our own hurts and to help others as they search for healing in their hurts.  And God is the One who can put back together the broken in ways that make them stronger than they ever were to begin with.

Write Stuff Wednesday 10

typewriter-1170657_960_720“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 18:21

Writers may not speak the words, but what we type can go places our spoken words may never reach.  Our tongues are our keyboards. And I doubt there is a writer among us who doesn’t love words. If we don’t, we may want to rethink our chosen career paths. If we ever doubted it, words, our words have power.  This is true whether those words are written or spoken.

During a particularly difficult circumstance in my life, I received a text about a possible negative development in the situation. My body reacted immediately. Anxious feelings began to creep in. I felt sick. My phone screen lit up with a few simple lines of written word, and I felt defeated.

Written words were also what shook me from a life of relative security and plunged me into a place of pain and doubt during the most challenging time in my life. For months after reading a fairly short letter from a loved one, I struggled to control my fear that the other shoe was ready to drop on my at any moment, knocking me further away from what little security I had left.

But even as words threatened my well-being and changed my life, they were also there to hold me up. I found strength and peace in the middle of the mess. And while scripture was a source of life for me at the time, it wasn’t the only thing God used to encourage me. As I sought moments of respite from what had become my day to day life, I turned to Christian fiction.  I was surprised to find understanding. Some books broke down my walls and drew the hurt out from deep inside. Others empathized with my plight and pointed me to truths my mind was too tired to accept any other way.

The stories I read were amazing gifts. These written words worked to restore some of what I’d lost and point me to the One who could provide complete restoration.  Words had done a tremendous amount of damage, and words helped make it right again.

This is why it is important for writers, especially writers of faith, to choose their words carefully. Our fiction and non-fiction alike should be filled with the truth. Sometimes that truth is hard. In those times, we should take care to say what we say in love and with grace and mercy.  Truth doesn’t have to be compromised to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. People are sensitive creatures. We don’t ever like being told we’re in the wrong. But we can and should be careful that our attitudes are based in love. When we approach others with understanding and love, even a difficult message can hit its mark.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing sweet love stories or murder mysteries. Words that bring life can be sewn into the fabric of each one. Even fantasy worlds brought to life only by the author’s imagination can leave a reader with a deeper understanding of God. As writers, as lovers of words, we should strive to share life through what we write.

By the Book: What books have you found life in? As a writer, do you share life with your readers?

The Friend List

friendship-2156174_960_720 I met Craig at camp the summer between my seventh and eighth grade years. Living three hours away from each other, we only saw each other one other time, but he became my best friend. We wrote letters regularly, and I could tell him anything. God brought him into my life at a time when I needed that kind of friend.

I don’t make friends easily, and my grade school friends were going in directions that I couldn’t go in. We talked at school, but I couldn’t hang out with them anymore. I couldn’t go to them and get the kind of advice I was looking for. I needed someone I could trust that shared my beliefs. God brought me Craig. Though our friendship changed and eventually after we both married we lost touch with each other, that friendship will always have a special place in my life. God knew exactly what I needed through those years, and He provided.

God does that. It was never more than one or two at a time, but He always brought someone into my life when I needed it. At high school and outside of class I had Justin and Brian. I could talk them honestly. They shared with me. Though I know neither would have considered me in their best friend list, I did them.

The same goes for Jamie. God brought her when I needed a good girl friend. She was by my side through the last half of high school and into my early married life. She stood with me at my wedding. She could get me to loosen up and have fun better than anyone I knew. And she didn’t mind telling me when I was messing up. I needed that too. I’d had other girl friends in the past, but none were around as long as Jamie. I’m thankful God brought her when I needed her most.

Jodie was in my life when our children were young. As a mother with three small children and one not so small child at home, I needed someone who could relate to the idea that I was more than a mom, though it was my most important role. Our friendship allowed me to develop the side of myself that didn’t enjoy Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer. We had adult talk while our children played. We shared crafting hobbies and a love of books. God provided Jodie so I wouldn’t lose track of who I was outside of motherhood.

He hasn’t stopped providing. As a ministry minded married woman, I needed someone to confide in. It was especially true as a pastor’s wife. That’s when God brought Laura into my life. I actually met her through her husband’s time serving as chaplain in the youth camp I direct. We used to email almost daily.  Since she’s a pastor’s wife, I can talk freely and honestly with her and not worry about being misunderstood or judged. During the hardest time in my life, she was there. God knew I would have been completely lost without her strength and encouragement pointing me back to His truths. We don’t see each other much anymore, but I still count her as my best friend.

Now, as my children are quickly reaching adulthood, my husband and I find we need couple friends. God has blessed there too. While we have a few we see every now and then and love dearly, two have entered our lives on a more regular basis. Tom and Kim are not only church family but as our children marry in September, they will become real family. We met David and Reatha through camp, and we have been blessed to develop friendship outside of that ministry. I can’t imagine our lives without these two couples in them.

There are many more people God has brought into my life at just the right time. Some have come and gone quickly. Others have become life-long friends. Some are partners in my writing adventure, bringing with them encouragement and expertise. Some get me through my day at work with my sanity intact. I’m thankful for each one.

Charlotte Stanton from Under Prairie Skies by Cynthia Roemer would probably understand this sentiment well. Living on the Illinois prairie in the 1850s, choices for friendships were limited. She is closest to her sister, Esther and her father. When this closeness is threatened Charlotte begins to develop a jealous and hateful heart that destroys the possibility of friendship between her and her cousin Becky. But God doesn’t leave her to fend for herself. Like He did for me, God provides just what she needs though in an unexpected way.

As Charlotte gets water from the creek by her uncle and cousin’s empty cabin, she runs into a squatter. Knowing her uncle and cousin are due back any time to reclaim their home, Becky takes matters into her own hands and confronts the man. It’s not a great start to a beautiful friendship with newcomer Chad Avery, but at least they’ve met.

Misunderstanding, past hurts, and pride all conspire to keep friendship from growing. But a spark of attraction and respect keeps them coming back together. When Becky comes home and receives a full helping of Charlotte’s hatefulness, it’s Chad who pulls Charlotte to the side. He’s gotten a glimpse of what’s beneath the hostility, and he doesn’t want to see her give in to the nastiness he’s seeing directed toward Becky. He confronts Charlotte with the behavior in an effort to help her see what she’s doing to herself.

Chad’s words don’t magically work to change her, but they start the process. As they face life challenges, both have to take a look at what they’re holding onto versus what their friendship has to offer. Misunderstandings work against them. It’s up to God to work in both their hearts to prove their friendship is exactly what each of them needs.

Like in my own life, they have to find the truth in Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.”

By the Book: Who has God brought into your life at just the right time? Have you been that person for someone else?

Write Stuff Wednesday 9

hope“A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” Junot Diaz

Some days the words won’t come. It’s not a matter of them being hard to write or not being good enough. There are days I sit at the computer, and I can’t move forward in the scene I’m writing. My brain is too tired. My day has been too long. A whirlpool of thoughts unrelated to my writing spins in my brain until I’m seasick on dry land.

I’ve read that taking a brisk walk can help your brain think in different ways and wake it up a bit. I try that sometimes, if it’s cool enough outside. I’ve tried changing scenery. I usually write in my living room sitting on my couch. But if it’s nice enough, I’ll sit on my back deck with my computer and write. I write to music most of the time. So, I even try switching up the playlist from time to time.

There are occasions when these tricks work well, and I can continue on my merry way. My writing time is salvaged, and I accomplish my goals for the day. Other days, nothing helps. But, and I know this may come as a surprise, being a writer means writing. Each day I fail to pick up my pen or turn on my laptop, I fail to be a writer.

But nothing says I have to write the same thing every day. Nothing says what I write has to be grammatically correct, interesting, or written on my current project. There are days my writing consists of journaling my prayer to God. Some days my writing is a short story or even a paragraph unrelated to anything. These I file away as starting points for future projects. The point is not that I’ve moved forward on my current project, but instead that I have taken the time to write. In doing so, I have kept the discipline that will lead me back to my current project. So, while I may not have hope for that day’s writings, I retain it for tomorrow and the day after that. I have written, and that is what it takes to be a writer.

When I look at my life recently, there have been several “no hope” moments. There are scars from the past that interfere with the present. There are things weighing heavily on my heart that don’t seem to be changing no matter how much I bring them to God. There are frustrations over situations that never seem to change and desires that have gone unrealized yet remain part of the fabric of who I am. These are the things that left uncheck will haunt us, distract us, and discourage us.

Christians are not immune to these feelings. In fact, and this is just my opinion, when these things sink their claws in I think they’re probably more problematic in the life of Christians because we see how things would be working if sin hadn’t messed everything up. It’s the devil’s way of trying to hinder the work of God. If we’re haunted, distracted, and discouraged we won’t have the focus to do what God wants or live the way He wants us to. And that’s on the mild end of things. At their worst, those times tug on a young believer’s roots of faith. Sometimes, it pulls them up completely.

When we let these things sideline us, we are forgetting some important things. The quote above could be re-written for believers.   A Christian is a Christian not because she lives it well or easily, because she has amazing faith, or because everything she does is exactly what God wants her to do. A Christian is a Christian because, even when it feels as if there is no hope, even when prayer, fasting, and scripture reading don’t seem to hold any promise for changing things, you keep following Christ anyway.

We don’t follow Christ because it’s easy, and we don’t follow Him because of what He’s going to do for us. The Bible never promises our lives will be sunshine and puppies. In fact, it says we will face troubles. We will be confronted with situations or ideas that make it easy to doubt. We will face hurts that seem insurmountable. And even though we don’t want to, we will fail in our fight against temptation. But one of the changes in this new quote changes everything for the believer. It’s the part that says “feels there is no hope”.

No matter how dark things get, there is always hope for the believer. Hope is more than a wish. It is braided together with our faith. You can’t have faith without hope because faith is the evidence of things hoped for. You can’t have hope without faith because our hope brings us to faith. Hope is a powerful thing in our lives, and when it takes a beating our spirits do too.

But we have to hope in the right things. We can pray for our circumstances to change, but they may not. Our hope is not in the immediate removal of whatever circumstance has us tied in knots. It’s in the promises of God. He is with us. He loves us with an everlasting love. He forgives our sin, all our sin. We have a future in heaven with Him where everything will run the way it was meant to in the first place. He wants to use the bad stuff in our lives to make us more like Him and to help us minister to others. He offers us comfort and peace. These are just the beginning of the list of promises found in scripture. God and His promises are where we put our hope. And when our hope is in the right things, we have the way to fight the circumstances that threaten our faith. We become Christians who are Christians because no matter what we will keep following Christ.

By the Book: What have you placed your hope in?

Main Character Development

apple-464182_960_720Things we know about fairy tales:

  1. If there’s a step-mother, she’s evil.
  2. The prince ends up with the girl whether he’s done anything to deserve her or not.
  3. Good always wins.
  4. The good one is always very, VERY good. Like making friends with woodland creatures and

earning the help of fairy god-mothers kind of good.

We don’t read fairy tales because they’re full of suspense. The plots are pretty cut and dry. The good one is hated by the evil one without cause. The hated one either tricks the good one creating an issue the good one overcomes or the hated one simply makes life miserable for the good one until something is done to free her from her pain. Something happens and the good ones win while the bad ones get what’s coming to them. Of course, their consequences don’t come from the good ones. They’re too good for that.

It’s become popular in recent years to retell the old stories. Instead of the same old, same old, we get backstory on both the heroes and the villains. In the movie Ever After, we find that the step-mother is jealous of Cinderella and the road to happiness for Cinderella has some potholes. In Maleficent we find there’s more to Maleficent than simply being evil. There are reasons she does what she does. In Snow White and the Huntsman we find that the evil step-mother has abuse in her past that’s helped make her into the evil she is. And in the television show Once Upon a Time, well, I don’t even know where to begin. There are more twists and turns in that one than all the roller coasters at Six Flags. And each twist points to the fact that there’s more to the characters than simply being evil or good. There are hurts and triumphs in their lives. There are losses and mistreatments.

Due to these retellings, familiar characters have taken on new depths. You may not agree with the evil they do, but you can sympathize with the hurts in the villains’ pasts. You may cheer on the heroes, but you can still get frustrated with them as they act less than heroically in sticky situations. What were once flat characters, good is good and bad is bad, are now characters we can more closely relate to. And they don’t stay the same throughout the story like the original fairy tale characters. They grow and learn. They recognize their character flaws and work to minimize them. They develop.

Character development is a vital part of any good story. Just like real life, the things our characters face should push them to change. Sometimes the change is negative. Sometimes losses cut so deeply we begin to react out of pain. But that same pain in someone else can drive them to be a more caring and empathetic individual.  There are even going to be times when your character goes one direction for a while before something nudges them into doing an about face. It depends on your character and your story.

Take time to find out who your character is. An introvert reacts differently than an extrovert to the same situation. They have unique ways of looking at it. Their paths of growth will be one of a kind, created especially for them. Personality, past experience, race, gender, economic status, and geography all play a part in determining who your character is. Get to know them. Knowing what has shaped and what motivates your character will help you know how to develop them through their circumstances. It will allow you to take your characters from predictable and one-sided to realistic and intriguing.

We want to see why the villain became the villain when we read. We like to see that the hero has faults and is working through them. But how often do we take the time to do the same in real life? We should be constantly developing our character. It happens naturally when we interact with our world. Hopefully, we strive to develop it in godly ways. Scripture is full of reminders that we aren’t there yet, but we should be developing the attitudes that Jesus portrayed for us in His life and ministry.

At the same time, we need to recognize others are going through the same process. Instead of putting that preacher or teacher on a pedestal, we need to realize even our spiritual heroes have failures and faults. We shouldn’t idolize anyone, even our mentors. We all make mistakes, and we need to be able to be honest about them both in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.

And the villains in our lives? We need to exhibit patience, love, and the rest of the fruits of the Spirit in our dealings with them. More than likely, they didn’t set out to be the villain in our story. No, you may not ever be besties, but you can find a lot of freedom in forgiveness. And understanding the whys sometimes makes offering that forgiveness a little easier. Take a moment to consider some of the things that made their character develop in the direction it did. Let that understanding help free you to react to them in a godly way.

Let’s put away our fairy tale definitions of the people in our lives and start taking the time to see the character development happening each day.

By the Book: Do you tend to see people in your life as only good or bad? Do you try to look beyond to the whys? Are you ever guilty of defining yourself by fairy tale definitions? Why is it important to understand you are not a one-dimensional character?

Pure and Undefiled Religion

givingSix months after I was born the Southern Illinois Christian Conference held their first summer camp. It was held at a local camp since the conference didn’t have a place of its own to use. That would quickly change. One family donated a large piece of land that would become the property of the conference after one hundred years being used as a Christian youth camp. After the first hot summer, my grandpa told the kids there would be a pond to swim in the next year. There wasn’t money for a pond. There wasn’t really money for anything since the camp was run on donations.

One night after dinner a couple men came knocking on my grandpa’s door and said they would like to build the pond for the camp free of charge. Campers still swim in that lake each summer. Cabins were built by a man who knew construction, and volunteers provided the labor to put them together. Every time there’s a need, people show up to help. Sometimes it’s just a handful of faithful workers, but the work gets done. We’re getting ready for our 42nd camp season now, and it runs like it has since day one, through love and labor of faithful volunteers and donations. It’s amazing watching God work to provide for the needs of the camp each year.

It’s that same spirit of coming together to watch God work through the faithful I found as I read Callie by Sharon Srock. Callie Stillman’s love for the hurting doesn’t seem to be a match for the pain she feels after unthinkable circumstances leave her shaken to the core. After all, it was her desire to help that put a toddler back in the home of his abuser. It was her lack of judgement that allowed that abuser to take the life of the little boy she’d come to love. And her guilt from that innocent life lost is what immobilizes her when Sam, Iris, and Bobbie come into her life.

God speaks to Callie’s spirit that something is wrong when she meets her granddaughter’s new friend, Iris. Even though Callie refuses to get involved, she feels God’s call to do so. With baby steps and a lot of wrestling with God, Callie goes from simply trying to find out what’s wrong to being fully immersed in the lives of this struggling family. But Callie isn’t alone. The core members of her Monday night Bible study are determined to be right there with her encouraging her and helping the family. When Callie shares with them the needs, they spring into action without a thought for what it will cost them. They simply love God by loving the family in a practical way, and their care opens the door for Sam, Iris, and Bobbie to experience life in ways they’ve been forced by circumstances to abandon.

It’s God’s love in action in the lives of those with needs. I’ve seen it in our church camp. Sharon Srock portrays it clearly for readers in Callie. And I’ve experienced it in my own life as God moves in people’s hearts to aid our family when we’ve had needs we couldn’t meet on our own. It’s a powerful testimony to God’s care and provision. It’s a blessing to both the receiver and the giver as God uses the act of giving to speak to their hearts and grow them in their understanding of who He is.

Jesus lived life ministering to those in need. He encouraged his followers to do the same. In Acts, the believers sold their individual belongings in favor of sharing all things and taking care of each other’s needs. The story of the good Samaritan shows us that giving goes beyond the boundaries of friendship and our individual houses of worship, reaching even to those we might see as enemies. James directs us to “look after widows and orphans in their distress”.  And Jesus’ own words tell show us his heart on the matter in Matthew when he tells us whatever we did “to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” A heart that listens to the Spirit when it says go or give is a heart that will leave a lasting mark, a testimony to God’s love to draw those in need into the arms of God.

By the Book: Do you take time to listen to the urgings of God when He’s directing you to go, to give, or to speak? What keeps you from it? Can you remember a time when someone else made God’s love real for you through their actions?

Write Stuff Wednesday 8

mask“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Ernest Hemmingway

The best fiction is filled with truth. The people may not be real. The scenarios may not be real. But there is honesty in the story’s portrayal of the emotional journey, the path of growth for those made up characters that speaks to the reader. It doesn’t happen in all fictional stories, but it does happen in the best. It takes place when the writer’s story proceeds from a place of complete honesty, and that takes place when writers are completely honest with themselves.

I heard a conference presenter speak one time about the need for the writer to be emotionally healthy. She said when the writer is able to draw from the pains and joys they’ve experienced, they can create scenes with more depth and realism allowing the readers to really feel what the characters go through. She cautioned writers to make sure all the junk from the past was dealt with in healthy ways and fully. Without proper handling of the past, trying to draw out the emotions from those events can be harmful to the author. With it, the author can remember the thoughts and feelings with clarity and use them to create characters that go beyond being caricatures.

To deal with their characters’ pain, the author draws from their own. It’s not too far removed from the actor that uses experiences from their past to draw out the emotions they need for their current scene. It’s one way an author writes what they know, and the author that accomplishes it creates stories that will resonate with the readers.

Thinking about it, maybe that’s one of the issues the church has had in recent years. There are exceptions, but overall, we’ve decided it’s better to put on a good face so the world can see how much better it is on the other side. When we ignore our hurts and preach a gospel that says the true believer will know only health and wealth, we create a grossly exaggerated picture of what a life of faith looks like. People try out this genie-in-a-bottle style faith, and when it doesn’t work for them, they fall away.

On the other side, we have those who embrace their own spiritual unhealthiness. They take such a laissez faire attitude towards their sinfulness that it becomes unimportant. The idea starts off well with the belief that we all sin and we should acknowledge our sin. But rather than being broken by our sin and dropped to our knees in repentance, we say, “Oh well, God forgives. There’s no need to purge it from my life.” We proudly announce our sin like the shaming signs we put over the neck of our pet cat when it eats the family goldfish. It becomes our twisted badge of honor. “See, I’m a real person, just like you.” This caricature goes to the other side of the spectrum and leave others saying, “I don’t need their God, because they are no different than me.”

It’s time for us to deal with our sins in a healthy way. We will sin. And when we do, it should break our hearts knowing it strains our relationship with our Father. It should bring us to the place of repentance. Yes, we may continue to struggle with that particular sin, but each time, we bring our failure to God and each time He will forgive. Our sin will not be something to be proud of. It will be something to learn from.

It’s time for us to deal with our struggles with honesty. Maybe you’ve never bought into the idea that the Christian life is all roses and sunshine. Great. But have you ever perpetuated the myth even in a small way by refusing to be real with others? How many times have we heard the jokes about family members biting each others’ heads off all the way to church only to get out of the car and greet others with a giant smile and an “I’m so blessed. How about you?” attitude? We put on our church face and pretend we’re fine when we’re breaking inside. We have to look like we have it all together or maybe the brother across the aisle will think we’re less Christian than he is.

I’m not saying everyone needs to know every sin or every struggle we face, but there is a level of vulnerability the church seems to lack these days. We’re supposed to share one another’s joys and pains. We’re great about announcing our blessings, but our pains hit a little too close to home. What if someone judges us because of them? What if my struggle is so much worse than everyone else’s struggles? What if I really am alone in this? Rather than face that possibility, we put on our happy church goer mask that isn’t marred by the pain of sin or struggle.

How much more powerful would our witness be if we were to humbly deal with and acknowledge sin in our lives and point to the One who is helping us overcome? How much more strength would we find through the support of others if we were honest about our struggles? And how much more open would those in the world be to embracing faith if we erased the caricatures and went forward with a true portrait of faith that included the depths of pains or disappointments we faced before God brought us out of it into our joys?

By the Book: Have you been real with others in your faith or have you become a caricature? Have you been real with yourself in your faith?

Speaking God’s Truth

While it’s the day for Main Character Monday, I have something else on my mind tonight. I had a hard weekend that didn’t leave its struggles behind as the work week started. It’s left me tired physically, mentally, and emotionally. Spiritually, it has sent me to my knees in prayer more focused and dedicated than my usual daily prayers. It is in these kinds of trials that submitting to the unknown of “Your will be done” becomes a true act of surrender.

Even though the exact nature of this situation is completely new and totally unexpected, it isn’t the first time my world has been rocked by a trial so life changing that I almost can’t wrap my mind around the idea that it is in fact my reality now. It isn’t the first time I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop or been forced to face the fact that I don’t know what comes next and fully realize that I might not like it when it comes.

The first time I faced the complete undoing of my perceptions of what my life was and was supposed to be, it broke me in ways I never thought possible. Even as I immersed myself in prayer and God’s word, I struggled with frequent panic attacks and depression. Even though I saw God working in my life and felt His strength getting me through each day, I hurt more deeply than I ever thought possible. I grew closer to God and learned to rely on Him as never before. The road to get there wasn’t easy, but God didn’t leave me on my own. In fact, a Facebook thread in one of the reading groups I’m in reminded me tonight that not only was I not left on my own, God went above and beyond to speak to me during that time in a way that was unexpected and user friendly.

When circumstances became too much, I’d read. My brain didn’t have to fight through the depressed exhaustion I felt in order to read. When I was immersed in the story, I could finally contain the thoughts running amok in my head. It was the perfect way for me to decompress for a small period of time. Little did I know that as I picked up The Still of Night by Kristen Heitzmann, that God would use it to challenge me to change my perspective on the painful hand I’d been dealt.

I’ll admit I bawled reading that book. So many points hit home. The specifics of the fictional circumstances were far from mine, but the truths about faith and life and pain were all too real. One of the moments when things clicked with me was in a quote that has stuck with me for the last fifteen years. “Things don’t always work out the way we want. The trick is to want the way they work out.” It’s simple and profound. It summed up “Thy will be done” perfectly, and it was wrapped in a story so well written that I had to finish it even though it was speaking hard truths to me.

I’ve enjoyed many well-written Christian fiction books through the years. I’ve been encouraged and challenged by them. But none have felt as much like God had it written especially for me, to help me accept where I was and encourage me on the path to healing.

Even God’s timing was perfect. I get Kristen Heitzmann’s books as soon as I know they’ve come out. If The Still of Night had come out years before, its message might not have resonated as deeply. I hadn’t been broken yet. Years later, and I would have already come through enough that the message would have merely been a reminder of a lesson learned. This one came out only a few short months before my storm hit, and I purchased it just after. Because the author chose to let God use her, my walk of faith was strengthened at a time when I needed it most.

I share this with you for two reasons. The first is as a reminder that God may choose to speak to us in unconventional ways. Scripture is of utmost importance, but He will use people, songs, and even fictional stories to open our hearts to His truth. Don’t shut Him out just because His message isn’t coming from your pastor or the 66 books of the Bible. Listen and accept His encouragements and challenges as the loving gifts they are.

The other reason I share my story is as an encouragement to let God use you. I’ve always been passionate about writing. But reading good Christian fiction sparked a desire in me to do for others what my favorite authors have done for me. I want what I write to communicate God’s truth to other believers. I want the stories I write to encourage and challenge people in their faith.  It’s my desire to let God use my stories to touch others. If God uses Faith’s Journey or any future books I write to speak to even one person the way He spoke to me through The Still of Night, I will count that as success.

By the Book: Maybe you write. Maybe not. Do you sing? Draw? Speak? Make cookies? I don’t care what talent you have or what you’re passionate about. Let God use it to speak to others.

Write Stuff Wednesday Interrupted

living roomNormally, this is the day I feature a writing quote. It’s something to inspire, encourage, or challenge us to become better writers. Of course, it ties into a faith lesson. By the Book is the place where a love of God and good books meet. All of my posts from the writing focused ones on Wednesdays to the book reviews on Saturdays and the character interviews on Mondays work to bring these passions of my life together in a way that is hopefully helpful and meaningful to readers.

I try to stay consistent. Every article on blogging and writing preaches consistency. Knowing what to expect from the blogs you’re following is great. If I like a particular feature, I want to know when I can expect more of the same. But I have a confession to make.

Hello. My name is Heather Greer, and I failed at consistency this week. I didn’t read a book this week. That’s highly unusual. I have a library full of To Be Read books on my tablet. I blog book reviews. One of the requirements to do book reviews is to read books. Sure, I can grab an old favorite to write about every now and then, but I try to make sure my reviews feature fairly recent releases. Not finishing a book during the week hinders my ability to do that.

I didn’t post a review on Saturday. Friends from church came and laid my living room floor, which looks great by the way. They were done by early evening, and I had plenty of time to write a review. But I didn’t. Ten hours of cleaning, helping lay floor (even though my contribution was only helping pull staples out of the floor), and having people in my house wore me out. I didn’t have it in me to write a review.

I also didn’t post on Monday. It was a holiday from my nine to five job. I spent the morning grilling my family’s meals for the rest of the week, after all it would be a shame to waste good, hot charcoal once you’ve got the grill lit. I spent time with my elderly grandmother who was having trouble remembering why my parents weren’t home. It helped her to have someone to eat lunch with and to take her to buy orange juice and bread. Oh, and I wrote about 5,000 words on Grasping Hope. I thought about stopping to do my post, but I have a deadline with the publisher if the book is going to be ready for its March release date.

Being inconsistent wasn’t easy. Every time I thought about my missing posts, I suffered blogger’s guilt. Is that a thing? If not, it should be. Saturday I consoled myself with the idea that I would post on Sunday. I didn’t, but I did tell myself I would do it on Monday. We know how that turned out. I felt the same guilt on Monday, but my progress on my book eased my conscience.

As I considered my posting failures, the idea that I had become a slacker nagged in the back of my mind. I don’t want to be a slacker. I want to be productive. Today, as I considered what my post should cover, I knew my focus should be my blogging struggle. But it should do more than chronicle my failures. I needed to encourage too.

I don’t think I’m the only one who occasionally struggles with being productive. Maybe you’ve had an off week and feel a little bit like a slacker yourself. For me, these slacking tendencies affect my writing because it’s my ministry. I don’t know what ministries you’re involved in, but I’d be willing to bet whatever they are, that’s where your slacker tendencies show up. Ministry takes a lot of mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. Throw life into the mix (especially if you’re dealing with outside work, kids, or family issues), and it seems like you’re on a never-ending roller coaster ride suffering from motion sickness without the help of Dramamine. It’s exhausting.

I know I said I was going to encourage. Hang in there. It’s coming. The good news is God didn’t intend us to go 24/7 without a chance to care for our own needs. He didn’t rest on the seventh day of creation because He was tired. He rested to set an example. When Jesus was on earth ministering to the masses, scripture says there were times He needed to get away by Himself to pray. He was taking time to make sure He stayed strong spiritually, and He, too, was setting an example for us. It points to the wisdom in Ecclesiastes 3. “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven”. I think passage could include something like a time to review books and a time to lay floors with friends, a time to post and a time to write on your book, a time to minister to others and a time to minister to your family.

It’s not an excuse to stay in a place of slacking off. It’s not downplaying the importance of staying consistent. But it is an escape from ministry guilt (also not a term, but I think it should be), when it’s time for that much needed rest and recharging of our emotions, minds, and spirits. Sometimes, other things need to come first for a short time. We need to take care of ourselves to continue doing what God is calling us to do. So, take your break when needed, and then return to your ministry with a fresh energy and focus. It’s okay. A brief respite doesn’t make you a slacker.

By the Book: When was the last time you were proactive about taking care of own emotional, spiritual, and physical needs?