Just Me is Just Right

In 1996 the Magnificent Seven of USA Gymnastics inspired little girls everywhere to become gymnasts. Their spirit, determination, and gold medal performance were a joy to watch even before Keri Strugg’s epic vault. Watching as an adult, I couldn’t help reliving my own childhood fascination with the sport. Watching Olympic gymnasts as a little girl, I wanted to join their ranks. I dreamed of one day standing on a podium, accepting an Olympic medal.

There was a hitch in my plan. I had never been in gymnastics. That could be remedied. I have no balance, rhythm, or grace. Those are not so easily overcome. Besides, there was one more issue preventing my Olympic career. I am not built like a gymnast. Growing up, I was thin as a rail and very tall. I was always one of the tallest girls in class. In fact, I was taller than most of the boys. I was much taller than your average gymnast. I was simply not made for a career in gymnastics though I often dreamed of what it would be like to live that life.

The desire to be someone else, to live another life, is one theme in Melanie Dickerson’s The Silent Songbird. Promised to a less than savory man who happens to have the necessary social standing to earn her hand, Evangeline longs to be able to marry for love like those of the servant class. Desperate to escape her circumstances, she pretends to be a mute servant in order to run from her home and unwanted suitor.

As is often the case when we are less than truthful, things don’t work out as smoothly as Evangeline hopes. Written as a retelling of the Little Mermaid, part of Evangeline’s journey is to find out who she is meant to be. Her dreams are complicated when her past and present collide. Evangeline fears the truth will ruin her future chance at love, but she is challenged to trust God with the outcome and accept who He made her to be.

Dickerson does a fantastic job rewriting this classic tale. Not a strict retelling in the details, Evangeline’s story mirrors the themes of the original. Evangeline’s struggles to be who she was created to be also serve as a reminder for each of us. God didn’t just randomly put you on this earth. It wasn’t chance that gave you the DNA that makes you special. Your personality, looks, interests, all of you is intentional. Psalm 139 tells us God planned us before we were conceived. He took time to make you just like you are. He didn’t do it for kicks. He did it for a reason. A survey of all the faithful believers in scripture shows us how God weaves together all of our unique qualities to achieve His purposes in our lives. And we don’t have to worry about whether or not we will like His plan. Jeremiah 29:11 assures us that His plan is to give us hope and a future. When we accept God’s plan for our lives and live the way He instructs us to in His Word, He can and will do amazing things through us for eternity.

By the Book: Read the story of Esther. What unique traits did God give her? How did those traits help her achieve what God had for her? Consider those things that make you who you are. How might God want to use those in your life to impact others for Him?

The Story in History

Tedious. This accurately describes my history class experiences. In many classrooms, history is reduced to lists to be memorized and regurgitated for the test. It doesn’t have to be this way. Teachers have an amazing opportunity to put the STORY into history, to give the heart of history.

To the horror of my history friends, most of my knowledge of history comes from fiction books. I’m intelligent enough to understand that they are fiction books not meant to educate. But properly written, historical fiction gives me insight into the struggles and attitudes of a time. It shows me a snapshot of how life was lived in a particular era. The textbook worthy events are the driving forces behind what the characters say, do, and believe. History becomes a story with heart, and I find myself connecting with it in ways I never could with a textbook.

A Most Precious Gift brought the life back into history as I read it. The author, Jacqueline Freeman Wheelock, did a wonderful job opening up the world of pre-civil war Natchez, Mississippi. The story chronicles the experiences of Dinah Devereaux, a house slave to a wealthy family. Struggling to find her own worth and keep alive her dreams for the future, Dinah encounters a man she could love if only she were worthy. As she gets to know him, Dinah learns even those with that rare gift called freedom are not necessarily free.

Though it isn’t the focus of the story, readers are introduced to the ugliness in the hierarchy of slavery. When proof of freedom is lost, the reader feels the fear and pain it brings to the characters. Even the simple act of helping a loved one becomes a struggle when rules must be followed. These things make the tenacity, hope, and love seen in the characters more inspiring. Even the shadows of coming war play their part in transporting the reader into the era by adding a new level of uncertainty to already uncertain lives. Though the characters are fictional, they have the important job of showing the story of the times in a real way.

Connecting people to history in inspiring and challenging ways is important. Throughout the Old Testament, God instructed His people to remember. He didn’t want them to live in the past, but He wanted them connected to their past. It wasn’t about facts. It was about finding out who they were and where they had come from as a people. When God told them His words would be “on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7), it was to understand Him and what He had done for them. He commanded remembrance through scripture, setting up altars, and observing feasts. I believe as the people carried out the yearly Passover, it brought to life the hardships of their ancestors. They glimpsed their fears and pains. God’s people became one with the story of those before them and experienced a taste of God’s past provision. It also gave those willing to believe a glimpse of what God was going to provide through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Scripture still has the power to change us as we go beyond the facts and find the story. After all, it is God’s true story written for us.

By the Book: Choose a story from scripture to read again. Consider the story beyond the facts. How does your understanding of the heart of the story affect your relationship with God?

A Few of My Favorite Things

Chocolate or vanilla? Fall or spring? Christmas or Thanksgiving? We’ve all seen these posts on social media. “How well do you know me?” That phrase highlights these posts, and our friends go through the questions meant to prove how much they know about us. Of course, turn about is fair play. So, they repost it to see if we know them as much as they know us.

While fun, these quizzes don’t really give any indication as to how well we are known. Each answer has a fifty-fifty chance of being correct. Even strangers could easily come out seeming to know a lot of little facts about your likes and dislikes. Personally, I prefer chocolate, fall, and Christmas. Those are just a few of my favorites.

Another favorite  is the book The Still of Night by Kristen Heitzmann. I love all of Heitzmann’s books. Her style of writing fits my style of reading. But this book is special. This book fleshed out the story of my all-time favorite character, but it is more than that. This book contains life. Real, messy life. The heroes have flaws, just like me. They have deep sorrows and regrets. They struggle to find God’s truth in the middle of it all. Their faith is not perfect. Their lives are not perfect. Their questions are questions I have asked myself. The message of this book means something to me and challenges me in my faith.

Knowing my favorite season or book doesn’t really let you know who I am. It tells you only the superficial facts. You know me a little more by knowing why I love my favorite book, but you still don’t fully know who I am. To know that takes time and effort. It takes seeing me in various settings. It takes having conversations with me.

The same is true of God. We can know a lot of facts. We can know the Sunday School stories. We can know the books of the Bible. We can know these things and still not know Him in a personal way. To really know God and know His heart, we have to spend time with Him. We have to listen to Him.  Time spent in scripture and prayer is time well spent. As we come to know God more, we can become more of who He designed us to be. Paul summed it up in Colossians 1:9-10 when he said, “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”  Knowing God allows us to know God’s will. Knowing God’s will lets us live God’s way.

By the Book: I’ve shared my favorite Christian book with you. Now, as I said before, turn about is fair play. So, I ask you to do me a favor. Help me choose my next books to review by posting your favorite Christian book in the comments section. You can even share a little of what makes it your favorite.

Hallmark, Hot Chocolate & Doctor Who

“I never would have guessed it. You seem…different than that.” My co-worker couldn’t help commenting when she saw me wearing my “Hallmark and Hot Cocoa Kinda Girl” t-shirt. I told her my DVR was filled with Hallmark movies. She looked at me in doubt. “I guess I figured you were a sci-fi girl.” She wasn’t wrong. As much as I love Hallmark movies, I am just as quick to watch Doctor Who or a good super hero movie. As we ended our conversation, I’m not sure she bought into the idea that I love the sweet, simple Hallmark romances. It didn’t mesh with her idea of me. While not wrong, she didn’t have the whole picture.

Stone Hammond runs into that same problem in the late 1800s in Karen Witemeyer’s A Worthy Pursuit. Stone finds people and is hired by a powerful man to find is granddaughter’s kidnapper.  When he finds her hiding in Texas, Stone gets more than he bargained for. Someone is not who they seem to be, and Stone has to figure out if it is the woman he’s tracking or the man who hired him. Time isn’t on his side, as his employer has sent another tracker out with a reputation for getting the job done no matter what. In the end, Stone isn’t the only one to learn that people are often more complex than our first impressions would have us believe. All it takes is each character taking the time to get to know each other, and they come away with a clearer picture of those God has brought into their lives.

The people in our lives are no different, and they weren’t any different in David’s time. When David was still young, Samuel was sent to anoint the next king of Israel. He knew the king would come from the house of Jesse. When he arrived, he saw David’s brothers who were older, stronger, better looking, you name it. But God said no. He chose the young shepherd boy that Samuel would have overlooked. God chose him because He saw something in David that the others didn’t see, something that made David the right choice. Of course, a little later in his life, people looking to David would have seen an adulterer, a conniver, and a murderer. If he wasn’t king, he wouldn’t be the person you’d want to pal around with. But even then, God didn’t write him off. God saw a heart that would cry in repentance when faced with its sin. God looked past the failures and the outer appearance and found a man after his own heart.

The way God saw David can be an encouragement and a challenge. The challenge comes in being willing to look past the rough edges of those we meet. It isn’t always easy to get past our own ideas of who someone is and choose to look instead at how God sees them. It’s equally hard to look at ourselves the way God does. But we can find encouragement in David’s story. We will mess up. We will fail God and others. But as He did with David, God looks past that to our hearts. Are they filled with repentant spirits? Do they want to be right with God? That’s what God sees, because God always takes a look past what is easily seen to the real person underneath.

By the Book: Take time to read the story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel 16. Ask God to help you see yourself and others the way He does.

Creative Juices

I’m crafty. I admit it. And I’m not a simple one type of craft kind of crafter. I am an equal opportunity crafter. Pinterest and our local Hobby Lobby are a dangerous combination for me. All it takes is a cute pin, and I’m game for trying a new crafting medium. Yarn? Check. Paper crafting? Check. Soap making? Check. The list goes on and on. But it really isn’t about making crafts. It is about creating, and that can be done with craft projects, music, food, photography, writing, or any number of other pursuits. To make something new from the individual parts, to make something beautiful or playful or thought provoking, that is the whole point. There is something relaxing and satisfying about the creative process.

The professor in Kristen Heitzmann’s A Rush of Wings sums it up well when he describes to Noelle St. Clair what he saw when he watched her paint. He tells her he saw more than mere technical proficiency. He saw “someone in love with the beautiful” who sought some piece of the human spirit and maybe even the divine. This woman was on the run from her fiancé, the guarded life her father provided, and memories she couldn’t quite piece together. She fled to a completely new environment and way of life. She struggled with those around her and with herself. But in the midst of chaos and emotional fragility the heroine of the story turned to creating. True, she ended up selling some of her work, but that was only because her circumstances demanded it. She created because she couldn’t do anything else. And giving in to the creative process was a first step in doing exactly what the professor said, finding a piece of her spirit and a little more about God.

Why wouldn’t creating bring us closer to God? God is the one who invented the creative process, and when we do the same, I believe we can understand Him better. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) God took nothing and made everything we see and the things we can’t see. In fact, as beautiful as our world is now, it is a shadow of what it was in the beginning. Before the fall, everything was perfect. How much more beautiful would our world have been in its perfect state? I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like. God looked at everything He created and saw that “it is good.” I don’t know if God sighs, but if He does, I can imagine He breathed the most satisfied sigh as He considered all He made. It was complete. It was perfect.

While the results of our creativity will never be perfect, we can still appreciate their beauty and the satisfaction that comes with creating something. And in the process we may also learn something about ourselves and about our creator God.

By the Book: Everyone can find some way to exercise their creativity. Whether it is creating a new recipe, painting a masterpiece, writing a poem, or making a wreath, take time to create something this week. If this is too daunting, find an adult Bible verse coloring page to print off the internet. The act of choosing which colors will go in which area is basic creativity. Before you start your project, read Genesis chapter one for God’s creation story. Pray and meditate on it as you work on your own creative project.

Taste and See

When I think of my family, I cannot help thinking about shared meals and the foods that have been part of those meals. I remember Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house after church and the much larger meals we ate together every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember the food disasters like the time we had blue chicken for dinner. I can’t eat popcorn without thinking of Friday nights spent with my grandma. She would slice apples and pop popcorn the old-fashioned way on the stove for a late evening snack. It still tastes best that way. Of course, there are also the family recipes like the monster cookies my great-granny would make for church camp each year and the lace cookies my grandma made at Christmas. I still make those every year to add to my holiday cookie trays. Some of my best memories have happened around a kitchen table as we shared our lives with each other, and those are memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I think Beth Moore must understand the impact food can have on people, the power it has to make them a family. In The Undoing of Saint Silvanus, food isn’t the star, but it doesn’t fade into the background. Jillian Slater is a California girl with California tastes when she travels to New Orleans after the death of her father. Estranged from his side of the family since childhood, the reunion with her paternal grandmother is strained, and her relationship with the rest of the renters in her grandmother’s apartment house isn’t much better. Everything they do and how they live is strange to Jillian. Add a helping of mystery and murder to the mix, and Jillian is ready to head for home. Gradually, Jillian begins to connect with those around her. Love of a good cup of coffee gives her and her grandmother something to share. Jillian begins eating meals with the others in the house, though she is reluctant to try their foods. She even gets a job in a place where practically the only thing on the menu is beignets. Though there is plenty of drama going on in their lives, Moore uses food to draw people together much like it can in real life.

Even God understands the drawing power of food. Scripture speaks several times of meals that Jesus shared with others and the relationships that were nurtured during those meals. When the people were hungry on the hillside, Jesus didn’t send people away. Instead, he performed a miracle, shared a meal, and taught everyone an important lesson about faith and God’s provision. And remember, Psalm 34:8 doesn’t say take God out for a test spin and see if you like Him. It says “taste and see that the Lord is good”. We’ve all had the experience of biting into something that is so good, so refreshing, so unexpected that we can’t help but react to how wonderful it is. God wants us to experience Him in the same way. When we’re spiritually hungry, He wants us to come to Him, seek Him out for ourselves, and find out how awesome He is.

By the Book: Use the recipe below to make a sweet reminder to take time to reflect times when you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.

Lace Cookies

1 cup oats                    1 cup sugar                  ¼ tsp salt                     ½ tsp baking powder

1 stick butter               1 tsp vanilla                 1 egg                           3 T flour

Mix dry ingredients. Melt butter and pour over dry ingredients. Add vanilla and egg. Mix well. Refrigerate until set. Roll dough into marble sized balls. Place 2 inches apart on parchment paper covered cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Slide parchment paper off cookie sheet and let cookies cool completely before removing them from the paper.