Family by Love

Does everyone have a favorite aunt? I do. Although living over an hour away has kept us from being as close, she has a special place in my life. She’s fun loving, with a quirky sense of humor that I relate to. She’s celebrated with me at every milestone from going to prom to getting married and having children. But it’s more than that. She’s been there in the rough times too. In high school when I faced my first real broken heart, she let me crash at her place for the weekend. She didn’t try to explain it away as kid feelings. She accepted my hurt for what it was, and she let me feel it.

That weekend we wrote a country song full of angst and drama, like great country songs should be. The resulting song was iffy, but we had a lot of great laughs and memories. It was enough to help me see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it reinforced the special relationship I have with my mom’s sister.

Only my mom doesn’t have a sister. Technically, she’s my mom’s best childhood friend. And she is, without question, family.

We aren’t family by blood, but by choice, by love. We come together to share good times and are there to help through the bad ones. Like blood family, we have our ups and downs, but we’re always there for each other. And couldn’t we all use more people like that in our lives?

Cindy and Erin Woodsmall understand this concept. It’s evident in the lives of the characters in The Gift of Christmas Past. Two of the main characters are products of the foster care system. Without biological family, they turn to each other, forming an unbreakable bond. Their family grows as they love the needy around them. Whether it’s a family struggling to make ends meet and care for their speech delayed toddler or an elderly woman trying to raise her troubled grandson, Hadley and Elliott aren’t afraid to care in practical ways. They never have a lot, but they give freely of themselves to make life better for those around them.

When hurts surface through renewed ties to people from their past, they don’t let it stop them. They face the prejudices and misconceptions head on. They keep loving people, and their world is made better because of it. Their family is a mismatched group, but the bond they share goes far deeper than blood.

It should be like this for believers. Several scriptures compare Christians to one body with many parts working together for everyone’s good. In Acts, the newly formed church pooled their resources and took care of each other’s needs. Philippians 2 reminds us to look out for the interests of others and not only ourselves, and Romans 12 implores us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn”. This is what Jesus meant when He commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

It begins with our places of worship. God has given us a specific group of people with a variety of personalities and problems. He intends for us to teach, pray for, and encourage each other. When we love those we worship with, we become family.

As we live out love with them, it spills out our church doors. It reaches other church families around us. But it doesn’t stop there. When believers start loving like Jesus loved, lives begin to change outside the church too. Those who might never step foot in a church see God clearly through us. Some will come to embrace God for the first time, and our family will grow again. With a shared passion to live the way our Savior lived, we become a spiritual family bound by God. And I can’t imagine a better family than that.

By the Book: Take time to appreciate the family you have. Choose a biological, chosen, and spiritual family member to lift up in prayer this week. Go the extra mile and send them a card or note letting them know you’re thinking of them.

Life Designed

Faiths JourneyFrom the first word to the last period, authors pour creative energy, time, and mental ability into each scene. They know their characters intimately, making relinquishing their work to an editor difficult. Beloved scenes could be drastically changed. Even waiting for cover designs can be brutal.

Creating characters and places from nothing, writers can tell you the backstory of each character even if it doesn’t end up in the book. They know what events shaped their characters’ behaviors. They have detailed physical images for each one in their minds. The writer knows every hair, freckle, and physical habit of their characters. Turning them over to the cover designer can bring on a case of nerves.

Will the designer understand the feeling of the story? Was the character described well enough to create the correct mental picture in the designer’s mind? Will the designer be able to create an image that draws prospective readers to pick the book up off the shelf?

A well-designed, interesting cover has drawn me to a book. Other covers have left me void of any interest in the book. So, when it was time to hand over Faith’s Journey to the cover designer, my excitement over growing closer to seeing my book in print was tempered by questions over whether or not the design would fit my expectations.

I shouldn’t have worried. The finished cover complemented the look and feel of the story and also the main character, Katie, better than I hoped. The background photo looks like it could have been taken in Katie’s back yard. The color scheme is perfect. Katie’s personality was captured in a single shot. My expectations and reality were perfectly balanced.

This isn’t always the case in publishing or in life. We have ideas of what our lives should look like and where the future will take us. We dream of perfect marriages and fulfilling careers. If life works the way we imagined, we live in peace. But that doesn’t happen often. Instead, we lose that promotion or marriage isn’t the fairy tale we hoped for. Maybe the parent we thought would always be there dies too soon. Or little ones we hoped would fill the rooms of our dream house with laughter are never born.

Whatever the disappointment, our dreams are washed away and replaced with a picture we didn’t expect. The colors are wrong, and our warm romance feels more like a cold psychological thriller. The temptation is to lash out at the One who let our dreams shatter, blame God for our hurts and disappointments. We tend to join Job’s wife in complaining against our circumstances rather than saying, with Job, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

Scripture is clear that because of sin’s effects in our world, even believers will face trials and troubles. But if we let Him work, God promises that He will work for our good in every circumstance. Consider Joseph. I doubt he dreamed of being attacked and sold as a slave by his family. And just when things started looking up, he gets wrongly accused of rape and thrown into prison.

Joseph could have harbored resentment toward God. The favored son never expected his life to turn out this way. But he didn’t. Instead, Joseph continued to serve God. He continued to use his God-given gift to help others, and God painted Joseph a new picture. At the right time, God worked out Joseph’s release from prison and placed him in favor with the pharaoh. Promoted to a place of importance in Egypt, Joseph was in the position to extend forgiveness to his family and save God’s people from drought.

It was a different picture than Joseph imagined for himself, but God’s picture was a more incredible work of art than Joseph could have accomplished on his own. It may be hard to see when we’re looking at the ruined remains of our dreams, but if we wait patiently, faithfully, one day we will see God has taken that canvas of our lives and created the perfect picture. We only have to trust the designer.

By the Book: Read the story of Joseph. Choose a meaningful verse from it or another encouraging promise of God. Write or type it onto a sheet of paper and add your own design to make a beautiful picture reminder of the work God is doing in your life.

Adulting is Hard

Adulting is hard, especially when you’re a person who has made being socially awkward an art form. Being a responsible member of society, whether or not you like what is required of you, can be uncomfortable. Normal adulting situations like paying bills instead of going to the movies or working when you’d rather sleep are easy enough. It’s when situations veer into social arenas that problems arise.

Recently, I went to a visitation without my social butterfly husband. Twenty years ago, I would have skipped adulting and stayed home. But the grieving family means a lot to me. So, I went. As I stood in line questions plagued me. Are they going to be offended that I didn’t wear a dress? What if I say something stupid? Do I hug the person or shake their hand? What if I go to hug them, and they want a handshake? How long should I stay?

I revisited those questions a few days later when I attended a friend’s wedding alone. The sanctuary was almost full when I entered. Standing in front of everyone, completely under-dressed, again (I really should invest in a nice dress for these occasions!), I scanned the pews for a place to sit. An elderly lady motioned me to her row. That’s how I found myself sandwiched between complete strangers. If that wasn’t uncomfortable enough, there was no receiving line. Great news, right? Wrong. Instead, the new couple dismissed each row, greeting every guest. No ducking out to avoid potential embarrassment. That’s when those anxiety driven questions started again.

At this point, I’ve reached my quota for adulting. I’d love to tell you I don’t have to adult anymore for at least a year. Not going to happen. With my first book coming out, I’m going to be thrown into a whole new set of adulting situations. Book launch events, advertising with social media, and talking about myself and my book with others on a regular basis are way out of my comfort zone. The idea of these things is great. The reality that I have to be an active participant in them brings a little more anxiety. The promotion side of publishing is definitely the least comfortable part of the process for someone like me, but it is necessary. So, I have accepted the fact that the near future will find me adulting yet again.

There is truth in the idea that growing up is hard to do. We gain freedoms as we age, but with them come responsibilities. We can’t limit ourselves to doing whatever we want, whenever we want. Part of growing up is learning to do difficult things, because they are the right things to do.

This applies to our spiritual lives too. When we first come into a relationship with God, it’s enough that He loves us and provides forgiveness for our sins. But we can’t stay in that place forever. We are reminded to keep growing in “the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). We do this through time spent in God’s word. Hebrews 5:12 even cautions us to not be content to stay spiritual babies.

Our increased understanding provides great encouragement and freedom, but, as with physical maturing, it also brings extra responsibility. When we mature as believers, we can’t be content to simply know and feel the things God shows us. We are called to be “doers of the Word” (James 1:22). Sometimes what we are called to do is easy. Other times, God calls us to things that go against our own desires. It’s hard to forgive. It’s hard to love the unlovable. Sometimes, it’s hard to pray “Your will be done” and mean it with all of our hearts. But allowing God to work in us to do the hard things is what growing up in our faith is all about.

By the Book: What are you doing to grow in your faith? If you don’t already have one, consider joining a Bible study or hosting one yourself. There are a lot of good ones out there, and the accountability of a group can be helpful to stay on track.

Impostor Syndrome

At my first writers’ conference I wondered if people could tell I was a fake. I aspired to be an author and worked to reach that goal. But I struggled with the title “author” since I had nothing published. After publishing a couple devotions in a national magazine, I knew things would be different. I was wrong. As I considered my goal of writing books and met other writers who had already accomplished that, I again felt like an impostor.

“What do you do?” It’s a simple question with the ability to inspire doubt in those who write. The answer is simple. “I am a writer.” With my first novel being published soon, I now say boldly that I am a writer. Not really. Usually I say, “I’m a receptionist.” It’s true, but that’s my day job. My heart’s job is being a writer. Why is it incredibly difficult to acknowledge this publicly?

I’m not alone. Others in my Christian writers’ group have expressed the same struggle with impostor syndrome. And it doesn’t end there. I’ve read many blog posts and articles written by authors in all stages of writing that share the same basic struggle. “Am I good enough?”  “Do I really have what it takes to be a writer?” “What if that was the only story I had to tell?” They may dress it up a little differently depending on their level of expertise, but it means the same thing. Each of us is trying to determine if the moniker of “author” fits.

Impostor syndrome rears its ugly head in countless areas of life. Even our faith is not immune to its symptoms. How many times have we failed and had to wrestle with nagging doubts telling us maybe we don’t really believe as much as we think we do? If we were real Christians, we wouldn’t struggle so much with doing the right things and saying no to sin. How can we teach on Sunday when Monday through Saturday is a struggle to do right that we lose as much as we win? How can we call ourselves Christians when we feel we are cheap imitations of followers of Christ?

The problem is someone is always further down the road. As writers someone has more published books, higher sales, or can write full-time and still manage to pay the bills. As Christians, we look to the one who prays for hours daily and never neglects their Bible study, the one who doesn’t struggle with the sins we fail at avoiding, and the one who exhibits all the fruits of the Spirit in equal abundance while our own spiritual fruit salad is limited to a couple apple slices and maybe a grape. We see their shining examples and wonder what we’re doing wrong.

We need to stop looking at everyone else. We aren’t in competition with other believers. Scripture doesn’t say, “have the mind of the lady across the aisle”. It says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). It doesn’t say to live the way your deacon lives. Scripture says we are to walk “even as he (Jesus) walked” (1 John 2:6). When we start looking to Jesus as our example, we realize we fall woefully short, and everyone else does to. It’s not an excuse to stay where we are. Scripture tells us repeatedly to keep becoming more Christ-like. We all have a ways to go, and I’m not less of a Christian because my struggles are different than your struggles. No longer are we impostor Christians. Instead, we are works in progress, and God “who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

By the Book: Spend time finding out who God says you are. Start with 1 Corinthians 12:27, 1 Peter 2:9, 1 John 3:1-2, 1 John 1:9, 2 Corinthians 5:17, and Romans 6:11-14. Then, read the stories of Elijah, Peter, David, and Abraham. Pay attention to their failures as well as their successes. Take encouragement from knowing that just as God used them, He can use you too!

Best Laid Plans

Sometimes, I’m surprised by the directions a character’s life will take them when I write. It doesn’t seem possible. I’m the one creating the character’s world. I should know what’s going to happen, but I’m often as surprised as the reader to find out where my characters are going. Once the characters develop, my direction becomes clear. But I usually don’t start with a plan.

I’ve been to enough writers’ conferences to understand most authors are not encouraged to work this way. Our stories should be planned out before writing the first word. Each little hiccup in the characters’ world is carefully planned to reach the next desired destination. The author uses these pre-planned hiccups to create questions and conflict that mirror real life for the characters. Just ask Audrey and Willard.

Living in Nebraska when Pearl Harbor is bombed, Audrey and Willard have plenty of life’s hiccups to contend with in Canteen Dreams by Cara Putman. Audrey wrestles with letting herself live life when fear, the unknown, and loss are being thrown in her face each day with the war. Being a woman, Audrey can’t serve in the military. Instead she gives herself completely to a canteen project to encourage the soldiers who are serving. It’s a great cause, but Audrey has to learn if she’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. It’s something that she loves, but what if God wants something different for her?

After his brother gives his life at Pearl Harbor, Willard feels pulled to serve against his father’s wishes. The more time he spends on the ranch, the less content he becomes. Even the joy of getting to know Audrey is tainted with his discontent. Like many men at that time, Willard struggles with feeling like he isn’t doing his part as he watches strangers and friends signing up to fight. Will God really ask him to stay home when his heart is in serving? How can he learn to accept it if that is God’s plan for him?

Finding peace, contentment, and joy are struggles for Audrey and Willard because their plans don’t seem to be connecting with God’s plan. This puts them in the hard place of surrender. While their story may be fiction, the difficulty of surrender is anything but fiction. We learn early to dream of and plan out our futures. We pair these desires with the truth the God loves us. In our limited and faulty understanding, we believe this means our dreams will be blessed by God and come true. We never stop to consider if they should.

God is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He sees the big picture. God gives us passions and dreams, but not all dreams are from Him. We start out chasing our dream, and then, the hiccups begin. Our path leads everywhere but to where our dream comes true. We struggle, holding tightly to our dream, knowing it has to be what God wants. It’s a good, worthy dream. Why God isn’t blessing it? We haven’t considered if our dream is God’s dream for us. We have to give our precious dream to God. It’s scary. He may not give it back. He may ask us to give it up in order to follow what He wants for us. Other times, we know the sweet feeling of God returning our dream with His blessing. Even then, the path may not be smooth. But if we keep seeking God, we will have hope. Soon, we may even see those hiccups were preparing us to live our dream in a better way than we ever hoped.

By the Book: Read Hebrews 11. It’s full of people who found the dreams God had for them looked a little different than they first imagined, but they followed in faith knowing His way was the best way. What dreams are you holding onto? Have you surrendered those dreams to God and asked Him to help you want His will above all else, even if it means giving up your dream?

Lining It Up

Lines are everywhere. We stand in checkout lines. I don’t like those. There are lines people shouldn’t cross but do. Not a fan of those either. Laugh lines sound good, until you realize it’s a fancy word for wrinkles. Then, not so much. But not all lines are bad. Some are enjoyable.

Movie lines are quoted. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” (Ok, that one’s quoted a lot, but is there ever a situation where it actually fits? I don’t think so.) There are pick-up lines. Most are cheesy, but they can provide a little laughter when they aren’t directed at you. Personally, I don’t think there is anything better than a great first line to a book that draws you in immediately.

“Devin Bressard scarcely blinked when Grace tossed her sweet tea in his face.” That’s how Kristen Heitzmann’s book, Told You So, begins. It sets the stage for author Grace Evangeline, the story’s larger than life main character. It also clues fans of Heitzmann’s books into the fact that this story is a departure from her usual tone and style. At first, it seems like Grace is a bit of fluff. The predicaments she finds herself in are of her own making. She seems like a living caricature of her characters. But there is more to Grace than that, as Devin soon finds. As the story progresses and their relationship grows, readers find unexpected depth and realness in the characters and the story. We are left with the understanding that even for believers, life is messy and hard. We make mistakes, but God can take our failures and redeem them for His glory. And it all starts with a great first line.

I love a well-written first line, but stories also have a final line. Our life stories are no different, and the line at the end of our lives is important. Consider the kings of the Old Testament. At the end of their reigns, there is a line. A lot end with the decree “he did evil in the sight of the Lord”. But there are those who lived in ways that allowed the writer to say, “he did right in the sight of the Lord all his days”. We know they failed. Even David, a man who’s epithet is that he is a man after God’s own heart, failed miserably. But their hearts were loyal to God. Their desires were to be men of God. This allowed their final lines to focus on the fact that they did right in God’s sight.

We have only one story. It will take many twists and turns. We will make mistakes and sin, but that doesn’t have to define our lives. Hopefully, our faith continues to grow and develop. Every moment can teach us how to be people who will be remembered for doing right in the sight of the Lord all our days.

I want to hear “well done, good and faithful servant”. But when people look at my life, what will they see? Will they see someone who loved God with all her heart, mind and soul? Will they see someone who lived the command to love my neighbors as myself? I hope so. What about you? What do you want your life’s final line to say?

By the Book: Think about the things you want people to remember about you. Is your life showing these things? Do people see God through you? Write out a prayer asking God to show you how to be the type of person who does right in His sight.

Who Wants Happily Ever After?

They lived happily ever after. This idea closes many books with a contented sigh. It leaves us feeling that all is right in the world of the character. But is it life? Would we even want that? A world where everything always works out with rainbows and butterflies? I don’t think so. Though she probably didn’t see at the time, if Cinderella hadn’t had the misfortune of losing a shoe, her prince wouldn’t have found her. If Ariel had been completely at ease under the sea, would the spunky mermaid have saved her prince from drowning?  It was the conflict that brought them to something better. It taught them about the world and who they were. While everyone needs times of peace and ease, to live in a constant state of bliss can stunt growth and keep people closed off to new possibilities.

Peace and ease were quickly shattered for Mary Wade, the main character in Rescued Hearts by Hope Toler Dougherty. Thrust, against her will and much to her surprise, into a world of criminal danger, Mary Wade wrestles with fear and doubt in a tangible way from the start. Even when she finds helps in an unlikely place, she has to rely on discernment to decide whether or not Brett, her knight in shining armor, is really a toad in disguise.

In the twists and turns of her time with Brett, Mary Wade discovers what she’s made of. She finds pain and fear don’t have to incapacitate. She finds courage to do the hard things. She does it all while retaining a caring heart for those in need, even when they have caused her pain. She’s far from perfect, but Mary Wade keeps going and growing no matter what life throws at her. And, along with her faith, it makes her a better person.

The hard things in life can do the same for us. Often, unexpected and unwanted circumstances attack our happily ever after and we fight it. What would happen if, like Job, we said, “shall we accept good from God, and not trouble” (Job 2:10)? What if we held onto the promises of scripture that tell us God’s plans are to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11) and that God works in the bad to bring about good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28)? It wouldn’t take away the pain, but it can change our attitudes and perspectives. We might not like it, but we can face each trial with renewed strength and determination.

During the hardest trial of my life, I struggled to find hope, peace, and joy. Sometimes, I still struggle to find those things. I have bad days, but for the most part, God has brought me to the other side of the pain. Do you know what I found? God is using all the hurt and what I learned in my darkest time to make me more suited to the purpose He has for me. Paired with the passion He has given me for writing, God is taking the worst time of my life and using it to encourage others who are facing similar situations. If it can help someone else have a little more strength, a little more encouragement, or, possibly, even a new knowledge of a Savior that loves them, then I can live with the pain. I may not always be able to say I’m living happily ever after with my circumstances. There are days I still pray for the rainbows. I can, however, say that despite the situations, it is well with my soul.  And that is a happy ending.

By the Book: Is your life in a time of trial or peace? If you’ve come through a trial, how can God use it to help others? If you’re in the trial right now, remember God loves you. He has plans for you. Ask Him for encouragement, wisdom, and strength as you go through this hard time. You are not alone. Seek out Christian friends who can help support and pray for you.