Picture This

It’s the thing I dread most about having my book published. No, it’s not getting negative reviews. While I’m not eager for those, the need for thick skin is preached at every conference new authors attend. It’s part of the process. And other than my husband forbidding me from ever letting my favorite author read my book (like I thought it would happen) because, “She could say one hundred good things, but you would focus on the one negative and decide never to write again”, I’ve made my peace with the fact that my book will not be for everyone. No, negative comments aren’t my fear.

At the risk of opening myself up to ridicule, the most difficult part is accepting that I have to put my picture on the back of the book. I’ve procrastinated as long as I can. Secretly I’ve hoped my publisher would say, “Forget the picture. We’re not putting author pictures on books anymore.”

My Facebook page features my book cover. I don’t have my picture on my blog, Twitter, or Instagram. Our family snapshots are suspiciously void of me. Someone had to take those pictures, right? I’ve never liked the way I look in photos. So, I avoid them. Putting one on a book? That’s way out of my comfort zone.

Please realize, as I write this, my anxiousness increases. I fear that by bringing this up, it will encourage everyone who has read this post to immediately turn the book over and look at the photo. It’s not that the photo is poorly done. It isn’t. It’s not the quality of the photography. It’s the subject.

I don’t have to look perfect. I don’t spend time on makeup or making sure my hair is perfectly in place. I’m not the one spending hours primping or checking myself in every mirror I pass. So, why does it bother me to have photos taken?

I think it’s because photos mercilessly show me the things I don’t want to see while allowing others to see them too. I realize everyone I meet sees those things anyway, but it feels different when one single moment in time is frozen forever. If I met you on the street, you might miss some things. If you look at the picture, those things will be unavoidable. You’ll see how unruly my hair can be thanks to cowlicks and a lack of body. Depending on how bad a hair day it was, you might see my ears sticking out thanks to DNA from my dad’s side of the family. I can’t even pretend that you might miss my extra weight. I like to call it baby weight, but my baby is 15. That ship has sailed. There’s no baby. It’s just weight.

I know admitting there are things I don’t like about myself is taboo in today’s culture. I’ve heard all the messages on loving yourself because God created you just the way you are. I believe it too. It’s something I’m working on. But let’s be honest, I’m pretty sure there are things you might not like about yourself too. Doesn’t make it right, but you understand where I’m coming from. That isn’t my goal in sharing this with you. It even made me hesitate in writing it, because I don’t want a bunch of comments about accepting myself (Other comments are appreciated though!). I use my struggle only as a way to stress a much more important point. We need to understand that sometimes, it’s uncomfortable to take a good look at ourselves, and I’m not just talking about physically.

As hesitant as we may be, we need to take a good look at our spiritual photos. It’s easy in the hustle and bustle of life and ministry to pretend we’re where we need to be. It’s easy to feel good about ourselves when we don’t slow down long enough to really see who we are. However, when we look at ourselves honestly through the lens of God’s word, we begin to see those areas that aren’t so picture perfect. We see we struggle with love, joy, peace, and all the other fruits of the Spirit. We see that while we are called to have the mind of Christ, often we think more highly of ourselves than we should. We see where we fail to take care of widows and orphans while also neglecting the call to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. What about loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and loving our neighbors as ourselves? And these are just the obvious things in scripture. We haven’t talked about harboring unforgiveness, anger, or lust in our hearts.

So often we fail, but we have hope. When we come to God, asking Him to show us a clear picture of who were are spiritually, He will do it. His Spirit lives in each one of us to guide us and convict us. He will show us our sins whether they are open for the world to see or hidden deep inside. He doesn’t do it so we wallow in guilt. He does it to grow us.

When I look at my picture I see things I don’t like. But you know what? I can do something about a lot of those things. I can lose weight. I can work to find a flattering haircut. Our spiritual photos are even better. I can’t do anything about my ears sticking out, but there isn’t anything God can show us about ourselves spiritually that He can’t help us overcome. Romans encourages us to be transformed through the renewing of our minds. Scripture promises there is no temptation that doesn’t also have a way to escape it. We are more than conquerors, not because of anything we have done but because of Who lives in us giving us power to overcome.

Don’t get me wrong. Scripture never says it will be easy. Some things may take years to photoshop out of our spiritual portraits. But the end result is a life that looks more like Jesus, and that makes it worth the effort.

By the Book: Take time to evaluate your spiritual photo. Begin with the scriptures referenced above. An internet search of some of the phrases will take you to the scriptures. Or if you know some of them, feel free to leave them in the comments for other readers.

Easily Distracted

Tonight as I watched the newest Hallmark Christmas movie (Yes, I have a problem. But no, there is not a support group for that.) I was sidetracked by a realization. The main character was a writer. When working, he sat down at a clean, orderly desk in a clean, orderly room. He wouldn’t be embarrassed if a delivery man rang his doorbell. In fact, he could’ve been working in an office job with the way he was dressed. When music interrupted his quiet, he was unable to work.

In almost every movie I’ve seen about writers, the professionally dressed writer sits at some variation of the same highly organized desk in their quiet working environment. I must have missed the memo on proper writing spaces and attire. In theory, this dedicated, peaceful place to write sounds wonderful. I may even dream of someday being able to write full-time and setting aside a room in my home for that purpose. My reality is very different.

Though my passion is writing, it has yet to pay the bills. I work a full-time job as a receptionist. I live in a house with four other people. There is no room for a dedicated work space. More often than not, I write in sweat pants while stretched out on the living room couch. I’m interrupted by the cat who can’t decide if it wants in or out. My teenage sons need help with homework, something to eat, or questions that must be answered now. My husband calls to see if we need anything before heading home at and usually wants to chat too. Silence for writing? I think it’s a myth.

Some days the distractions pull me from my course. I set out with an admirable goal of writing that next chapter only to find myself hours later with one measly paragraph on the page. I turn off my computer frustrated at the wasted hours and disappointed with myself that I couldn’t get something done.

Disorder and distractions are part of my writing life, but I can’t let them keep me from what I love. Instead, I manage them. I don’t come home from work and jump straight into writing. I know I have to make supper. So, I do that first. Then, I leave it so they can eat as they arrive home.

I’ve mentioned writing to music because it sets the tone for what I’m writing, but that’s not my only reason. The music is ordered sound. It helps me block out the chaotic sounds of three teenage boys whether they’re talking, playing video games, or listening to their own music.

Distractions can do more than derail writing time. They can be a powerful source of frustration and disappointment in other areas of life as well. Distractions in our spiritual lives try to pull us from getting closer to God. There are times when our own desires provide the distractions. We let other things we want to do come between us and our personal time with God.

Other times, we shift our attention from God to what the world offers. Consider Peter’s venture onto the stormy sea. He let what was going on around him move his focus from the only one who could help him to the wind and waves. Then, he began to sink. He’s not the only one. When the people of Israel sent the twelve spies into the land God promised them, only two of those ten men kept their focus on the truth that God promised them the land. The other ten focused their attention on the challenges in front of them, and their distraction caused the people of Israel to lose out on seeing the immediate blessing of God’s promise.

Instead of becoming distracted, we need to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). We need to remember that God’s greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). When we do these things, our relationship with God will become stronger. We’ll begin to see what God wants to do in us and through us. We can become the people God intended us to be when we get rid of the distractions.

By the Book: Read the story of the twelve spies in Numbers 13-14:38. Think about the things that distract you in your relationship with God. What steps can you take to rid yourself of those distractions?

Mary’s Journal

I’m pretty sure Mary would have enjoyed journaling, especially journaling about her experiences with the birth of Jesus. I realize the shortage of paper and pens in biblical times prevents us from knowing this for sure, but I have a feeling about this one. Stick with me for a minute.

Jesus was Mary’s first born. She was new to everything about having a child, the morning sickness, the Braxton Hicks contractions, the cravings. First time expectant mothers often have a rosy outlook about even the worst parts of the process. Every milestone, pleasant or unpleasant, is met with unbridled excitement. With the first born, the mothers tend to keep every ultrasound picture and document every step of the journey. With the miraculous circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, there was so much more for Mary to want to remember.

Being a new mother isn’t the sole reason I think Mary would journal. In fact, it’s really only what I think Mary would have journaled about. My belief that Mary would have a shelf full of journals stuffed with all her precious memories comes from two separate passages of scripture. In Luke 1:46-55, Mary shares a heartfelt song of praise with Elizabeth. She has given a lot of thought to where she is in life and what God is doing in and through her. That kind of praise and creativity begs to be recorded and looked back on regularly.

The second scripture is one short verse in Luke 2:19. “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” While everyone else who had been touched by the events of the Christmas story was out telling the story to anyone who would listen, Mary took the time to let everything sink in. We know from the previous passage, Mary wasn’t afraid to share what God was doing. But she wanted it to be deeper than that. She internalized the events and let them change her. She didn’t just enjoy the events. She let them become part of her. I imagine these things were what gave Mary strength at the end of her son’s life, and the fact that she wanted to take them in as deeply as she did is one more reason I believe Mary would have loved to find a journal under the tree at Christmas.

Whether or not Mary would have recorded the events of her life if possible, we can still take a page from her book, so to speak. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to lose sight of what God has done for us through the birth of His Son. We get caught up in all the things we need to check off our to-do lists, and we forget to praise Him for what He has already done. We fail to let everything He did then and all He is doing in us and for us now really sink in and make a difference in our lives. We need to learn to take time to “ponder them in our hearts”.

By the Book: Whether you journal or not, use this holiday season as an opportunity to write out a prayer of praise to God. Don’t rush it.  Take time to think about all God is doing in your life before beginning your prayer.

Charlie Brown and Living Faith

I’m going to break my rules. By the Book is a blog that blends together a love of reading and a love for God. It says so right under the name. So, my posts always contain a devotional aspect and either a book review or writing insight. But tonight, as I wait for a yearly Christmas tradition to begin, I can’t help writing about it instead.

In less than an hour A Charlie Brown Christmas will begin. I have it on DVD, but there is something special about waiting for it to air on TV and tuning in with thousands of people I don’t even know to watch it, commercials and all. My kids used to watch it with me, but they are in that stage of life where they have more important, less childish things to do with their time. They haven’t lived long enough to come back to their senses and realize the childish things are some of the best things in life. I hope one day they will, but until that day, I will continue to watch this short cartoon every Christmas.

To me, A Charlie Brown Christmas is special. I mean, I love Frosty and the Grinch too, but Charlie is different. Charlie Brown includes all the fun of Christmas, while touching on enough of the adult angst of the season’s commercialism to appeal to an older audience in addition to kids. Who can’t relate to Charlie Brown’s mood when he realizes he can’t muster up the bright feelings he’s supposed to have at Christmas? But what makes this special is that it doesn’t tiptoe around the real meaning of the season either.

I love that scene where Charlie Brown has reached his limits. The gang has bludgeoned his already shaky holiday spirit by making fun of the little tree he brings from the tree lot. He has officially lost sight of everything Christmas is supposed to mean and cries out for help. What is the holiday all about? Wise-beyond-his-years Linus steps in with the answer, a beautiful recitation of the story of the first Christmas. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” It’s a reminder for Charlie, and it’s a reminder for us.

There aren’t many Christmas specials these days that aren’t afraid to mention the real reason we celebrate. Some of the old ones did, and they have either fallen by the wayside or been edited until only hints of a Christ-centered Christmas remain. Charlie Brown stands alone or very nearly so. Its message is clear. There’s no editing it out. And it still remains a staple of the holiday viewing season. It’s proof that we don’t have to abandon Christ to have fun at Christmas. We don’t have to leave Jesus at the door to appeal to a broad audience. Charlie Brown has succeeded at staying in mainstream media while letting the world remember the baby in the manger, the gift of love from God to His creation.

As believers, it’s a worthy goal to reach for. To be salt and light to the world in whatever place God takes us to. In my writing, I want people to see God’s truth. I want to encourage other believers in living out their faith. I want those who don’t know God to come away with an understanding of His love and a desire to know Him. I hope my writing speaks honestly and plainly enough about this messy life to appeal to those who may not already be believers. I want them to see not only the truth about life in what I write, but also the truth about life with God.

Okay, so I didn’t totally break my rule. There is a little about writing in this after all. But maybe you don’t write. You don’t have to. You can be an accountant or an attendant at a gas station and still share this hope of showing others Christ in what you do. The point is not where or how you reach others. It is simply to reach others with God’s love, both inside our circle of believers and in the world around us. Aim to be Linus. Be the one who isn’t afraid to say, “This is what it’s all about”, no matter where you are.

By the Book: Gather your family or friends and host a Charlie Brown Christmas viewing party. Keep it simple with cookies and hot cocoa or popcorn and soda. Use the time to remember why we celebrate.

Behind the Curtain

I think there is a bit of the wizard of Oz in all of us. We’re not purposefully deceiving people into believing in a contrived image of ourselves like he did. It’s more like we act in ways based on what we have experienced, but unless people are close enough to us to look behind the curtain, they see only our actions and not the reasons behind them. Judgements are made. We hold those who tend to be prickly at arm’s length when what they need to be pulled in close. We cling to those who are easy to love without seeing their brokenness. Sometimes, we don’t see because we don’t look. Other times, people hide behind the curtain because letting others see their hurt is hard.

I’ll be honest with you. I’m a private person. People often see the effects of events in my life without knowing the story I keep behind the curtain. It’s difficult to admit, but several years ago I went through the most devastating experience of my life. It led to a struggle with depression that took a long time for me to overcome. It’s hard to admit it for a couple reasons. One, it’s not a good memory. It’s a time I don’t want to revisit. Another is that many in the area where I live don’t understand depression, especially in the church. I fully believe my God can heal and that prayer and time in the Word are essential to maintaining spiritual and emotional health. But I also know how damaging it is to have well-meaning believers tell you all you need to do is pray more, study more, and have more faith to make the “sadness” go away. They don’t understand it when I say that I was closer to God than I had ever been before, and yet, I still had to fight the depression on a daily basis. Even admitting to it now, in this public way, leaves me feeling vulnerable.

So, I didn’t talk about it. But it didn’t leave me unchanged. I was stronger in my faith. Sometimes, it takes being knocked to the ground so hard you can’t get up to really understand needing God’s strength. But the change I believe people saw most was me going through the motions of daily life. Some days that’s all I could do. I became a little more jaded and a little less patient. I was more than likely moody. When you’re not eating or sleeping properly, that happens.

I found out years later that my oldest child noticed. She remembered how life was in our house before, during, and after the hard times. If a child recognized it, I know others in my life did too. Sometimes I wonder if they ever considered the reasons hidden behind the curtain of my life.

Pain changes you. Loss changes you. It’s the truth, even when it’s the subject of fiction. I was reminded of this while reading Don’t Ask Me to Leave, by Micki Clark. Four different characters faced similar heartache and loss, and each reacted in a different way. As I considered my own experiences, I could relate to the anger I saw. I could understand the desire for seclusion. I even related to the drive to push oneself into all sorts of activity to run from the pain. I could empathize with the main character’s hesitancy to let go and move on. But I could also understand the need of her friends to confront her at times with her behavior even though they understood it was pain driven.

Rachel’s story of love and loss and living was written with honesty. I ached for her to get to the other side of her pain. But it wasn’t just her story. It was also the story of Beau and Nadine, who each experienced great loss as well. Their own losses and the results of those losses were just as touching as Rachel’s. Clark wove together three versions of the same heartache into a beautifully written story of love, loss, and redemption. Reading it reminded me how important it is to take the time to consider what lies behind the curtain in the lives of those I come in contact with.

We are called as Christians to rejoice when our brothers rejoice and mourn with the brother who mourns (Romans 12:15). We are called to deal with each other in patience and with love (Ephesians 4:2-3). We don’t have to know every detail of each other’s lives. Some hurts are too deep to share with others, and we need to understand that. What we can do, though, is begin to realize that there may be more to the person in the pew next to us than the anger, apathy, fear, or impatience we see in their actions. Even the one who seems to have it all together, that leaves us feeling like we’re not measuring up, may have more going on behind the scenes than we know. Instead of judging based on the actions we see, let’s remember we all have our wizard behind the curtain and choose to act in patience and love.

By the Book: Read the verses above. Take time to pray for the people in your life that may not always be easy to love. Ask God to help you learn how to love them, even if you don’t understand the reasons why they act the way they do.

Beginning to End: The Journey

It never occurred to me that people don’t know how books get from an author’s mind to the bookstore. It sounds simple. Step one: Write a book. Step two: Get it published. Step three: Begin the sequel. If only it were that easy.

Even the writing is an exercise in patience and dedication. It starts with an idea. Maybe it’s a scripture, a place that draws a story out of you, or a situation that makes you wonder what comes next. Whatever the inspiration, it is the beginning of the journey. Some authors go from this point into a highly organized method of mapping out characters, settings, and plot lines before they begin typing the story. That’s not how I work. I don’t plan. I just sit down and write.

Whichever method is employed, there’s a lot of work in writing a book.  Authors have to move the plot along realistically, keep characters acting and reacting within their personalities and motivations, and create believable dialog and situations for the characters. Sometimes, an author gets stuck. The struggle to find the best words and actions to move the story in the desired direction can be frustrating. With perseverance, hopefully, the author finishes the story. Time to move on and start the sequel, right? Wrong.

Now remembering research lessons from school becomes important. Grabbing a computer with a good internet connection and the newest copy of the most suitable market guide, the author spends hours researching publishing houses and agents. When the most promising ones are found, the author researches the specifications for sending their manuscript to each one. Some want a query letter giving a brief synopsis of the story. Some want sample chapters. A few want the complete manuscript. They all want what they want, delivered in very particular ways down to length of submission and font size.

Once a publisher is found (either directly or after securing an agent), there are contracts to read and sign, rounds of edits to complete, the cover design process, and marketing plans to develop for the finished book. Even these steps contain multiple parts. It’s a long process from the idea to the shelf at your local book store. But the finished project makes the journey worth it.

That’s how it is with a lot of things in life. It’s a journey to get to the desired outcome. It’s good to remember this when we consider our spiritual lives. It seems a lot of people believe once they’ve accepted Jesus’ death and resurrection as the payment for their debt of sin, that’s all there is to it. Their sins are forgiven, and they can go about life as usual. But that isn’t what God calls us to.

Yes, God wants our relationship with Him restored through Jesus’ sacrifice. He loves us enough to offer us a way out of an eternity separated from Him. But the key word is relationship. God doesn’t just call us to be saved. He calls us into relationship. He calls us to be and make disciples. He calls us to live the way Jesus lived and to serve others as we “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).  He calls us to love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbors as ourselves. He calls us to be different, to be sanctified.

Sanctification is being set apart for a particular use or purpose, to be made holy. It is something God has done and is doing in those who follow Him. It is what He wants for us, and like many life-changing things, sanctification is a process that should continue throughout our lives.

When we accept God’s gift of salvation, it’s immediate. Scripture says we are a new creation and the old has passed away, but we don’t often live that way. Sometimes, we don’t even know what it means to be a new creation. The Spirit lives in us, guiding and empowering us, and living like Jesus is impossible without the Spirit’s help. As we spend time in God’s word, the Spirit teaches us more about what it means to be set apart for God’s purpose. Even with the Spirit strengthening us, the pull of our old ways of living can be strong. It takes time, effort, and God to help get us to the desired outcome. The process of learning to be who God made us to be is not easy, but don’t give up. The finished product makes it worth it.

By the Book: When did you last take the time to ask God what He wants for your life? Read Philippians 2, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21, and Matthew 22:34-40. Ask God to show you how to become the person He made you to be.

Christmas According to John

“They’re going to be just a few months apart. They’ll always have a best friend to play with.” I don’t want to burst the perfectly planned little bubble of expectant parents when they say this. So, I smile and nod and remember the days when those words came out of my own mouth.

My two oldest boys are fifteen months apart. As very young children, they did play well together. They did almost everything together, watched the same shows, and liked the same toys. Then, they started to grow up. Their beliefs of how they should interact with the world around them began to diverge. My oldest became very order and rule oriented. His brother is a little more of a free spirit. One is studious, the other athletic. Both are creative, but in very different ways. As their personalities developed, the comradery they had known as children was strained under the weight of their differences. Now entering adulthood, but still at home, their differences cause more friction than their similarities allow for friendship. (Though I have hope for the future. My own brothers are very different, but they found their common ground since they stopped living under the same roof!)

I am amazed at how unique my sons are. Face it, they share the same DNA. Two apples off the same tree should look and taste the same, right? Often, with people, that isn’t the case. And that is a really good thing. God has a plan for each of my children, and He made them exactly like He wants them to accomplish that purpose. Sure, He has to sand off the rough edges of their personalities, but my oldest is not equipped to fulfill the purpose of the younger brother. Nor is the younger equipped to do what God will call His brother to do. All of my children need to be unique in their personalities and passions because God needs to grow them into the person perfectly suited for the plans He has for them and not anyone else.

It’s good to remember this as we consider our differences with others, but also keep it in mind as we read scripture. Looking for a new Bible study as Christmas approached, I wanted one that deepened my understanding of Jesus. I wanted to revisit the gospels and see the Christmas story with fresh eyes.

I decided on The God Who Cares and Knows You by Kay Arthur. I’ve always enjoyed inductive Bible study, and this one in the gospel of John sounded perfect. The only problem with reading John to get a new outlook on the Christmas story is that John is one of the two gospels without mention of the Christmas story.

All the gospels were written to share the good news of Jesus. Why would John choose not to focus on Jesus coming as a baby in a manger? That’s where the story begins, right? Not exactly. While each of the gospels have the same basic purpose, the men God chose to write them are as different as my sons. They have different backgrounds, personalities, and passions. Things one remembers as important, might not have caught the attention of another.  The people being written to were different as well. They had different needs. So, the focus and information contained in the gospels written to them had to be different too. Tailored by God to meet their specific needs.

John’s sole purpose was to show people that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God. He needed to impress on the recipients the idea that Jesus, born man, was also God from the beginning. So he didn’t start with the manger. He takes us back to creation and establishes Jesus as God the Son before moving through His ministry, death, and resurrection.

Though he doesn’t include the traditional Christmas story, John introduces us to the reality of “God with us” and what that means for us. And because he does this, I can study John and come away with a fresh appreciation for the Christmas story and for our God who loves us enough to write four gospels as unique as the people they are meant to speak to.

By the Book: Read the opening chapter of John. Then, read the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke, keeping in mind who the baby in the manger really is.