Crooked Calendars in 2019

calendarChristmas gifts added several things to my writing space this year. I got a new lap desk to use with my lap top, almost a necessity since I refuse to write at an actual desk. Although it arrived a few days after Christmas, I received the latest edition of The Christian Writers Market Guide. And even though it couldn’t be wrapped up in a shiny box under the tree, I was also given membership in ACFW. Now, if I can just find time to use the site to its fullest potential, it will help me in my writing journey.

I asked for all of these things because I believe they will be beneficial to me as an author. But there is one gift, or maybe four depending on how you look at it, that has already started helping me in more ways than I originally hoped it would. I spent part of the day after Christmas hanging four dry-erase wall calendars on my office wall behind my writing chair. Four? Yes, four. If I wanted to track that many months at a time, why didn’t I simply get a planner? I’m horrible with using planners. I start off with great intentions, but I fail before I’m out of January. Dry erase boards are different.

These four calendars help me track a quarter of the year at a time. And I put them up for a specific purpose. One of my goals for 2019 is to improve in my marketing ability. With a full-time non-writing job, it’s hard to keep on top of things. With purple representing people scheduled to be guests on my blog and orange showing times I’m scheduled to appear on other people’s blogs, a quick look at my calendars can give me all the information I need to determine where I need to step up my game and where I’m doing alright.

I also don’t have to find my calendar every time I want to record something. I grab a marker out of the marker basket hanging on the wall and fill in as much or as little detail as I want. A planner is always a bit inconvenient. You have to carry it with you at all times or go find it every time you need it. I don’t have time for that. Besides, I’m notorious for losing things. I can’t count the number of times in a week I have to grab my spare keys because my main set is not where I thought I left it.

I asked for these four calendar boards for these reasons, but they’ve also proved useful in an unexpected way. If you actually look at the boards hanging on the wall, you can see the boards on the right are about ¼ of an inch away from being level. I purposely hung the bottom right one that way so it matched the top right one. I figured it would bother me less that way! But originally, all four boards were meant to be straight and level. I measured each one with a tape measure and pencil. I even measured multiple times before drilling the holes I needed in the wall. My first attempt left me feeling pretty good about my abilities. I placed the calendar on the hooks, and it lined up perfectly. The second one deflated my ego a bit as I realized I’d miscalculated somewhere. Maybe I stepped on the end of the tape measure with more pressure and forced it further into the carpet? I don’t know. But it’s a little off.

Why didn’t I use a laser level to project a beautifully, perfectly straight line on my wall to mark my drilling spots? It makes sense. It would have been nice. My calendars would all be straight. There was just one problem. I don’t own a level. The tool I needed to do my job efficiently and completely successfully was missing from my tool box. The result is a functional wall of calendars that would drive some people crazy due to ¼ of an inch.

When I look at my calendar, I’m reminded how important the proper tools can be. In writing this doesn’t mean I can’t write without the physical tools like my wall calendars or my lap desk. These are frills that make things easier, but they aren’t the tools that will improve me as an author. Taking time to learn from and network with other authors who are farther into their writing journey can help tremendously. Reading books on the craft of writing and the marketing side of writing will help equip me to be more proficient and efficient in what I do. Taking part in local writing groups, interacting on ACFW boards, and attending conferences are all tools authors have available to do their job and do it well.

As we come into a new year, I want to become better about using the tools I have as a writer. But more important than that, I want to apply the lesson to my faith walk. I’ve been given all the tools I need to live a life of faith that will add up to hearing “well done good and faithful servant” when my time on earth is done. There are churches on every corner, apps let us take the Bible with us everywhere, devotions and Christian living books are easily found on every topic, Christian radio can fill our cars and homes with praise, and guided journals provide easy ways to track our ups and downs. But all of these are just the extras. They aren’t the tools we have to have. They are the tools we use to make the journey a more pleasant experience. They help us, but just like my tape measure and pencil were not the perfect tools for hanging my calendars, these tools alone are not the perfect tools for growing my faith. When Jesus went back to heaven, He promised help in the form of the Holy Spirit to live in the heart of each believer. The Holy Spirit teaches and corrects us. I need to commit to listening to His quiet voice with more consistency. God gave us prayer as the way to communicate directly with Him.  It’s a powerful tool that too often gets relegated to the equivalent of rubbing a genie’s lamp and making a wish. I need to be vigilant to fashion my prayers and my reasons for them after the examples given in scripture. And that’s the final tool I need in my toolbox of faith, God’s word. Without scripture we can’t get the full picture of who God is. Scripture is able to cut to the heart of the matter and show us where our motivations fall short of our loving God. It is God’s word to us about how to live like Jesus lived. It gives us encouragement, strength, comfort, and correction. It doesn’t stop at leading us to salvation. It provides the instruction we need to live a life of faith and walk in close communion with God.

Have I been using these tools the way God intended when He gifted them to me? Do I study His word, listen to the Holy Spirit, and pray with the motives of His will being done? I have all the right tools. I need to use them. What about you?

By the Book: Read the following scriptures referenced in this devotion. Matthew 25:14-23, Luke 22:41-42, John 15:26, Acts 1:8, Hebrews 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:16

Write Stuff Wednesday: What I Need

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” –Virginia Woolf

An author friend of mine used this quote on Facebook this week as she shared about her new space dedicated to her writing. It caught my attention, and so I did what any good author does. I borrowed her quote for my blog post.

On a side note, Linda Fulkerson has four fun and creativity inspiring adult coloring books for writers available on Amazon. If you enjoy coloring, quotes, coffee, or a combination of the three you’ll enjoy her books. I have one myself and have pulled quotes from it for Write Stuff Wednesday more than once.

Anyway, back to the quote at hand. I think it resonated with me because of my own writing journey. Starting out I wrote in my room, lounging on my bed. With a house full of kids, it was the only place I could call mine. Even sequestered in my personal space, the noise of television, music, game systems, and arguing children chose to disregard my very real walls of separation. This was initially the reason I started writing to music, a practice I continue to this day.

As my family grew up and my children started working, I moved from my room to the living room couch. I had to contend with my kids’ frequent trips to the kitchen for snacks or into the utility room to do their laundry. Trying my best to block out everything that was not writing I plugged in my headphones and kept my eyes fixed on the computer screen as much as possible.

My bedroom and living room writing arrangements were less than ideal. I did the best with what I had available because I had to write. In September, things changed. My oldest son married and moved out leaving his bedroom empty. Tonight I write this post from my office. It houses everything I need to write in peace and comfort. The simple act of having my own space has increased my productivity and given me greater opportunity to keep my writing business organized.

My office makes up the corner in an L-shaped trio of rooms. The other two belong to my two remaining sons. If you have teenagers, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that I still have to deal with noise, but that’s okay. The difference is amazing.

My biggest struggle in writing has changed along with the changes in my family. Now, instead of a room of my own, I deal with lack of funds. Teenagers are expensive. I have no choice but to work a full-time non-writing related job to help pay the bills. There are nights when I come home too tired to write. There are nights when no matter what I do I can’t make enough time to write on my work in progress, blog, market, and continue to learn about the business of writing. If only I had the funds to stay home and write full-time. How much more could I accomplish? How much faster would projects be completed?

It’s frustrating and discouraging. But still, I keep going. It may not be the way I pictured it, but I’m getting to do something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little girl. I’m getting to carry out the purpose I’ve always felt God had for me. And if what I do encourages or challenges one person in their faith, then it’s worth all the difficulties.

The decision to keep on despite the hurdles is one that I find I have to carry into my faith walk too. I want to be able to spend my time in ministry and not just my writing ministry. There is so much I’d like to do, but I have to weigh each thing carefully due to a lack of time. But the issue is more than a simple shortage of time. It’s about my expectations versus God’s reality.

I want to be stronger in my faith. Spiritual growth is important to me. An increased and deepened prayer life appeals to me. I know how I’d like those things to happen. I’d like to be able to spend more time in detailed study of God’s word and enjoy closeness with Him that naturally springs for my time with Him. It happens that way sometimes, but it’s not been my experience the majority of the time.

My faith has grown and my prayers have deepened more often through the devastations of life. I’ve felt closest to Him when I’ve had no choice left but to lean on Him completely. I’ve learned first-hand the truth in “counting it all joy” and considering “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Though I never sought to go through hard times, I’ve seen God do pretty amazing things in my life because of them. I just had to keep on despite the frustrations and disappointments.

Whether in faith or in writing, it’s important to remember reality may be different than the dream. It’s not a reason to give up when frustration sets in. We choose to keep going because what we’re doing means more to us than what we’re going through. One day maybe we’ll have the room of our own and the money to go with it. Until then, keep putting pen to paper and faith into action.

Write Stuff Wednesday 6

garbage-3259455_960_720“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” – Margaret Atwood

Some days it’s all I can do to string words together to make a coherent sentence. Somedays, I’m not even sure I can qualify that sentence with “coherent”. Every writer runs into days when the words don’t come easy. But we write anyway. We struggle to put out a few hundred words, and the next day we look at those words with fresh eyes. Maybe they won’t be as awful as they felt when we wrote them. Maybe, by some miracle of the writing world, we stumbled through our writing and the resulting paragraphs are examples of writing at its finest.

It doesn’t happen that way. At least it doesn’t for me. That second look at what I’ve written makes me cringe in embarrassment. How could I stoop to such depths of telling instead of showing? Can you even have a cacophony of colors when a cacophony is a mixture of sounds? And why is my protagonist completely ignoring the events of the last three chapters?

It’s painful, and it makes me grateful that editing is part of the process of writing. I don’t have to succeed perfectly the first time. It would be strange if I did. I need to take a second look, maybe even a third and fourth. I need input from others who know the craft of writing. They can catch things that my eyes miss after being dulled by multiple readings to what is actually written on the page. It’s a long process, but every time I go through it, I learn something I can take with me to the next project.

When I internalize those lessons, they work their way into my next manuscript. It doesn’t mean that manuscript will be perfectly written the first time either. But it does mean, the editing process will be less intense this time around. It means my editors can focus on the next issue I need to get control of. It means I have grown a little more as a writer and am better at it than I was the day before. And it starts by being willing to write, even when the words don’t come easy and I know the results will be less than stellar.

Less than stellar. It’s a feeling I’ve known in more than my writing life. When I look at my Christian life, I’ve also gotten to know that feeling. I can remember times when I meant to do good and yet stumbled my way into hurting people I care about. I set out to witness to someone, and power my way through it without finesse or discernment pushing the person away in the process. As a Christian parent, I can think of so many times I have failed to be the example my children needed to see. I’ve taken some things too seriously and others not seriously enough.

It’s rough. I want to be the person God designed me to be. I don’t set out to mess it all up. But in my inexperience or overzealousness I’ve ended up going in directions that God never meant for me to go. In my own hurt and struggles, I’ve let my sinful nature get the better of me and my witness has lost its power. I relate to Paul’s assertion that “the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Romans 7:19).

But all is not lost. God looks at my heart. He knows my desire is for Him and living the way He wants me to live. He has made me a new creation, though I may struggle at times to live like it. Scripture is full of people who didn’t live the faith life perfectly, and God chose to use them in powerful ways. Our God is a redeeming God. He redeems us from our sin, and He can redeem situations when we fail for whatever reason. He’s also a forgiving God. Scripture tells us that if we confess our sins He I will forgive (1 John 1:9). It doesn’t say He’s faithful to forgive as long as that sin is never committed again, though He certainly desires for us to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). He says He forgives if we have repentant hearts.

Scripture is often the editor of my faith. In it, I learn more of what God wants His people to be like. Through it I can see my sins and mistakes. God also uses other believers in my life to help me edit my walk of faith. As with writing editors, I have to weigh what they tell me against what the experts say. In this case, the only expert I can weigh their teachings against is scripture. If what they say rings true to scripture, then I know I can apply it to my life. I can use it to help me become more of the believer God intends me to be. When I internalize lessons from scripture and other mature believers, God teaches me, and I grow into a better example of what a follower of Jesus should be.

By the Book: Are you allowing God’s truth to work in your life, shaping you into the believer He would have you be?

Past and Present

I don’t know who I am. I’m not speaking philosophically. I’m referring to a literal understanding of my family roots. There’s supposed to be a lot of German in my family tree on my dad’s side. And on my mom’s side there is a Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, which is just a fancy way of saying I have German speaking immigrants in my ancestry. But somewhere along the line, I’ve also heard I may have Irish, English, and even a tiny drop of Native American DNA.

As a child, I wanted the Irish part to outweigh the German part. No offense to anyone with German heritage, but there wasn’t anything I knew about Germany that made me want to identify with it. On the other hand, I loved everything I believed symbolized Ireland. I loved the idea of fair skin and red hair. Green was my favorite color. And I wished with everything in me that I could speak with an Irish accent. I mean, who wouldn’t want to speak with an Irish accent, right? But as little as I know about my family history, I do know my childhood hope was an impossible dream. I know German DNA plays a part in who I am more than any other DNA out there. But I still don’t know who my ancestors were or what their stories would tell me.

One day when life’s demands are not as great, maybe I’ll find out more. I doubt it would change my life in a drastic way, but you never know. Seeing their stories played out could lead to new understandings about myself or even my circumstances.

This was definitely the case for Abby in Saratoga Letters by Elaine Marie Cooper. In fact, it was so true that the book itself is really two stories in one. Part historical and part contemporary fiction, Cooper did a wonderful job drawing me into both stories and keeping me engrossed until the end where she allowed me to see the complete picture.

Set in Saratoga during the Revolutionary War, the first half of the book tells the story of a young woman named Abigail whose Loyalist uncle forces her to work in a hospital for the British army. Through her time of service, Abigail must carefully guard the secret of her true allegiance. And while she wishes to see the war won and the British leaving the colonies, her time tending the wounded changes her perspective about the enemy. She sympathizes with their losses, and she learns to befriend and even love them for who they are as people. Her time isn’t without struggle though. She is plagued by fear of being found out, but fear of her uncle keeps her silent. She faces dangers too, as a woman in a camp filled with men who haven’t seen home in far too long. Abigail’s experiences are enough to fill a book in themselves, but thankfully, the author didn’t agree.

It’s in the contemporary second half of the book that we finally meet Abby. She’s like a lot of us. She’s trying to live her life. She doesn’t have time to dig into her family’s past. The little she does know has been passed down through her father, and it’s her love for him that sends her to a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Saratoga after his death. Abby learns a lot about the general history surrounding her family’s involvement in the war, but it’s what she doesn’t know that takes her time in Saratoga from relaxing vacation to deadly excursion. When the past threatens her future, Abby has to figure out the rest of the story before it’s too late.

I doubt any of us would have our lives altered as drastically by our ancestry as Abby does, but that doesn’t mean the past doesn’t play a part in who we become. And the past’s ability to shape our future doesn’t stop with our physical DNA. Each believer also has a spiritual ancestry. While it includes those of faith in our family trees, our shared ancestry comes from scripture. We have a spiritual heritage recorded for us and passed down through the years. God means it to shape and direct our lives today in a real way.  2 Timothy 3:16 tells us the entirety of scripture has been given by God for our “teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that God wants His followers to learn about Him and the history of our faith. It’s been clear since the beginning that while He doesn’t want us to live in the past, He does want us to remember it and learn from it. When we study the Old Testament, we find God’s people instructed to set up 12 memorial stones after crossing the Jordan. They did this so when future generations asked what the stones meant, the story of God’s provision would be passed on. Festivals were set by God to help His people remember the ways He intervened in their lives. The Passover and Purim recounts God’s salvation of the people.  And in the New Testament, when Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples for the last time, He instructed them to “do this in remembrance of Me.”

And the great thing about our spiritual heritage is that we don’t have to work hard to find it. We don’t have to shell out a hundred bucks and a swab of our DNA to know what God wants us to know about Him or faith. We don’t have to spend hours scouring web sites and pouring over the faded writings of long gone ancestors. Our spiritual heritage is as easily accessible as the nearest Bible.

By the Book: Have you given any thought to your spiritual heritage? Have you let it change your life?

Looking for Direction

glassesToday was filled with the stress of making choices. It started with ordering new glasses. Sounds simple enough, but it’s not. Do you know how many choices there are? Metal frames or plastic? Type of lens? Scratch resistance? Anti-glare? Bi-focal or regular? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Those choices are easy, coming down to how much I want to pay. But choosing frames? That’s a different story.

I decided to go bold, at least for me. My frames are thin and non-descript, almost invisible. I wanted a change. So, instead of being in and out in minutes, I stood for over forty minutes in front of the displays taking awkward looking selfies in anything that didn’t make me immediately snarl and pull the frames from my face. Then, I sent the best ones (frames, not selfies, I’m horrible at taking selfies) to six trusted family members and friends for their feedback. Thank goodness they all pretty much agreed, with the exception of my daughter who tried to steer me in the direction of the boldest frame I had tried on. I assured her I wasn’t quite to that stage yet, and I went with the consensus.

I placed my order and went on with my day. Imagine my horror as I stood in the aisle of Wal-Mart looking at dry erase boards, realizing I faced another choice. The board I wanted came with the option of white, black, or wood trim. After another fifteen agonizing minutes, the wood framed one ended up in my cart. Two choices in an hour? I was exhausted.

Choices are hard sometimes. I tend to be laid back about most things, not really caring about what to have for dinner or what my husband and I should do on date night. But choosing the glasses I have to wear for the next several years or the dry erase board that will either bring together everything or look mismatched in the office I’ll set up once my oldest son moves out in five months? That’s a different story. I have to make the right decision or I might regret it. At least in the grand scheme of things the decisions I faced today are minor.  Anne Carty isn’t so lucky in Keeper of Coin by Mary Kay Tuberty.

Anne leaves her family in Ireland at her father’s insistence. As the most frugal daughter, John believes she is the best option for making the trip, finding employment, and sending for the rest of the children. Anne believes her older sister should make the trip first, but she bows to her father’s wishes out of respect for his authority. She arrives in America and makes her way to St. Louis where things don’t go exactly as planned. Her father has hired a man to oversee her funds and help arrange passage to her uncle in Oregon. Anne has reservations about the man’s integrity, but again, she defers to her father’s decision.

When plans go awry, Anne has to choose whether or not to stay in St. Louis or keep trying to reach Oregon. Anne likes her life in St. Louis. She has friends, an adopted family, and a man who is quickly winning her heart. But her loyalty is to the promise she made her father, and she pushes aside her desires to fulfill his wishes.

After her older sister joins her in St. Louis, both girls believe saving for the other children to join them will go quickly, allowing Anne to fulfill her promise and choose the life she desires. It isn’t to be. A thief steals the fare for the next child’s trip. Their uncle in Oregon is surprisingly silent on bringing them from St. Louis. And to top it off, their parents aren’t taking care with the money the girls work so hard to send due to famine conditions in Ireland. Though Anne receives wise advice from many encouraging her to consider that her father cannot know what’s best since he’s not in America and has no idea what life is like for her, she still chooses time and again to honor her pledge. It leaves her and those she loves wondering if she will ever feel free to choose the life and love she desires.

I can understand Anne’s struggle to honor her parents and still make choices that work with her new life. I wouldn’t want to face the same decisions. She could’ve used a neon sign directing her path. I know I’ve wished for one. I desire so much to make right choices, godly choices. Sometimes my paths are clear, but not always. I’m sure we’ve all been there. We wait for God to tell us clearly what to choose, but He doesn’t give us a burning bush or even an audible voice. What are we supposed to do? How are we to decide?

Proverbs 3:5-6 gives us a starting point. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”  Trust. It is  a simple word with huge implications. Trust is when what we believe about God turns into action. Do we believe He has a plan for us? Do we believe He loves us? Do we believe He wants us to live inside His will? Do we believe God is a big enough, powerful enough to let us know if the choice we’re considering is definitely not in His plan for us? If so, then we can proceed. It may be that God’s plan can be accomplished in many ways, and the right thing for us to do may be to simply choose.

But what if it’s not? That’s where the rest of the verses come in. Lean not on your understanding. Don’t trust in yourself, that you know best. Turn to God. Go to Him. Know scripture to gain understanding of what is and isn’t inside God’s will. If your plan includes anything contrary to scripture, it can’t be what God wants. God doesn’t want any of us living in sin.

In all your ways acknowledge Him. Are you praying about your decision? Are you asking for His guidance and wanting in your heart to do things the way God wants them done? Are you remaining open to His leading, even if it is contrary to your desire? Do you end each prayer with the same desire that Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane? Not my will, but Your will be done.

He will direct your paths. It’s right there in the Bible. If you’re going in a way contrary to His plans for you, God will show you. If we do our part to seek His will and His way, He will direct us. It may not be as clearly spoken as the plan Moses received. But we will hear His quiet voice speaking to our spirit if we are going the right way. If we are open to His plans, He will close and open doors for us as we go. He will nudge us away from choices that would be detrimental. And He will work through our choices to accomplish His will when the specifics of those choices are left to us to decide. And if we make a choice God doesn’t want us to make? When I’ve seen my error and sought His forgiveness for going in a direction He told me not to go, my God is big enough to redeem even those choices and put me on the right path once again.

By the Book: If you’ve been struggling to make a choice, have you given it over to God? Do you trust Him? Are you open to seeking His will, His way? If so, listen for that small voice and look for the opened and closed doors.

The Oxford Comma and Truth

The oxford comma is a controversial little piece of grammar. I, personally, am a fan. For those who may not know, the oxford comma is the last comma used in a series of items. It may seem like an unimportant detail, but it can clarify a writer’s intent and keep misunderstandings from happening.

The people I look up to the most are my parents, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. The meaning of this sentence may leave readers believing I’m delusional. The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are my parents? One comma makes a huge difference. Try it again. The people I look up to the most are my parents, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Admittedly, I still seem a little crazy if I consider the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny people to look up to, but at least I don’t think they’re my parents in the second scenario. The oxford comma can be the difference in understanding my message clearly or being left to interpret it in an unintended way. I prefer to keep my message as clear as possible.

Misunderstanding wouldn’t be devastating in the silly example above. Many times, a misunderstanding can produce embarrassing results that turn into stories friends can laugh over in years to come. But there are times when having a proper understanding of things can make all the difference in the world.

Christy Kane, the main character from Colorblind by Amy C. Blake, learns this lesson the hard way. Christy’s father is her hero. He’s the one who has been there for her every step of the way, encouraging her in her pursuits. As the pastor of a mega-church, he is also the one who has taught her who God is and what it means to be a Christian. Her life revolves around what he considers the driving force of Christianity; that our happiness makes God happy. A life of peace and success awaited her and other believers simply because they loved God. Sin and the need for salvation were only things used to weigh down believers and keep them from knowing true success in life. Her whole outlook on faith and life were shaped by these beliefs.

Her devotion to her father is what makes the fall even harder when his affair is made public. Add to that charges of embezzlement, and Christy is devastated. Not able to face her father or his God, Christy goes to complete a summer internship with a distant relative she’s never met. Her future is up in the air, and her faith is shaken to the core. Yet in the middle of the pain, discord between the other summer volunteers, and mysterious happenings that echo events of the past, Christy is faced with the idea that her father’s faith may have been less than what God intended.

Christy fights against statements that her father is preaching a gospel not found in scripture. She may not feel it at the moment, but she does love him. He’s her father. She is convinced he only preached the truth. However, with events working out like they are in her life, Christy is finally able to consider the possibility that her father’s beliefs may not be as grounded as she’s always thought. God uses her painful circumstances to open her heart to searching out the truth of scripture for herself.

It’s these misunderstandings of scripture that can make a huge impact in our lives. When we base our values and lifestyles off faulty or partial understandings of scriptures, we build our lives on shifting sands. When the storms come, it can wash away our faith completely. This is why 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Then in  2 Timothy 2:15 we are encouraged to “Be diligent (study) to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” There is a right way to handle scripture and a wrong way. God has given us scripture so we can “renew our minds” and be “transformed” into His image as Romans 12 tells us. This doesn’t come from handpicking the verses which seem to fit our ideas of who God is and what He desires of us. It takes dedicated study of the Word in its entirety. It takes a willingness to open our hearts and minds to ideas that we may initially find hard to swallow. It requires more than reading for knowledge or to check off our daily list of good Christian behaviors. It takes reading God’s Word with the desire to listen to His message and apply it to our lives.

When we take time with God’s Word, the Holy Spirit will teach and convict us of the truth. We will be able to see the false teachings in the world and even in some of our churches and church leaders. We will come to understand more of who God really is and be protected from believing the teachings of those who have misunderstood and mishandled the Word in order to make God in their image rather than letting Him remake us in His.

By the Book: When was the last time you spent time searching God’s truth with an open heart on a subject you have a hard time accepting?

Love is a Verb

DC Talk rapped some very wise words when they told us “Luv is a verb.” So, their spelling may have intentionally left a little to be desired, but the message is clear. Love isn’t a feeling. Love isn’t something that just happens. Love is a choice, and love is an action. Love is something we are all called to exhibit in our daily lives. Active love changes lives.

No one knows this better than Anna Hartwell in Safe Refuge by Pamela S. Meyer. Growing up in a wealthy Chicago family in 1871, Anna has had opportunities others haven’t. She’s seen a lack of love in action in her family and the man she’s been promised to marry since birth. Her mother reaches out to those she considers less than herself only when it will promote her standing in society. Her sister is young, but often distracted by the trappings that come with a life of wealth and social standing. But Anna is different. Through her church and personal relationship with God, Anna has seen real love. Anna has had the opportunity to realize those her parents consider lower class and less worthy have simply not been as fortunate financially. Anna’s heart is soft to the needs of others, and she reaches across the lines to befriend and help those in need.

When tragedy strikes her family and all of Chicago in the form of the Chicago fire, the differences between her family’s version of love and real love becomes even more apparent. Anna experiences the results of love in action as her family flees their hometown for Lake Geneva and finds people willing to give of themselves to those affected by the fires, whether rich or poor. These examples strengthen Anna to keep giving of herself without reserve to the neediest of the refugees despite her own loss. And when her family’s whole world is turned upside down with devastating news, Anna learns what unconditional love really is. For Anna, love is what changes everything.

It’s a lesson we can all stand to take to heart. God is love, and His love is unconditional. His love prompted the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for people who had and would continue to reject Him and His ways. His love reached out to the unlovable. His love moved to change the lives of those the rest of the world would have considered unworthy. His love didn’t condone sin, but it also didn’t alienate the sinner in the desire to purge him of his sin. He loved the people to the truth, and that love changed hearts and lives.

The call to live lives of radical, active love is found in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:40 which encourage us that whatever we do “To one of these brothers of Mine, even to the least of them” we did it to Jesus. There are countless verses about bearing with each other in love, carrying one another’s burdens, sharing each other’s joys, taking care of the widows and fatherless, and caring for all those in need. But Jesus gave us more than His words. He gave us His example. To the ten lepers, He gave healing even though only one would ever thank Him for the gift. To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus gave mercy and encouragement to go and sin no more. To the woman at the well, He gave her the truth of her sin wrapped in the softening blanket of hope. To Peter, Jesus gave forgiveness and restoration. The 5,000 received enough food to fill their bellies so they could focus on the teachings that would fill their souls.

And for us? Jesus gave His live in exchange for ours to pay sin’s debt. He gave it before we ever loved Him, before we ever knew Him. He gave it without reservation. He gave it to us, the creation that is so much lower in standing than the Creator. He gave it without regret to people like us who, even after being forgiven, would continue to fail Him and forget Him more times than we will even admit to ourselves. He gave to show us that love is a verb.

By the Book: Study the life of Jesus. How does it teach us love? How are you showing others love in your daily life? How good are you at putting love into action unconditionally?

Treasure Hunts

eggsHiding Easter eggs well is an art form. Hiding spots must be chosen carefully, keeping several factors in mind. First is the location of the hunt. If it is rainy or cold, an indoor hunt may have to replace the traditional outdoor hunt. Age is also important. Hiding an egg in the branches of a tree is fine for an older child, but a toddler will never see it. The toddler sometimes misses the egg sitting in the open on the sidewalk. Another important factor is whether the hunt is for an individual child or a group. If it’s a group, you have to take care to hide the eggs evenly between the age appropriate hiding places and make sure older children know which ones to leave for little ones who move a slower and may not even understand the concept of hunting the eggs.

But once they get the concept, it’s so much fun to watch a child’s enthusiasm over the Easter egg hunt. You’d think someone hid gold rather than candy and hard boiled eggs! Of course, to a child, opening a plastic egg to find a favorite candy is a real treasure hunt worthy of all their excitement.

Kat Williams, from Callum’s Compass by Sara Foust, knows the feeling. When her friend Clayton passes away, he leaves her clues that start her on her own treasure hunt. Unlike egg hunts of childhood, this treasure hunt promises a big reward and lands Kat in more danger than she imagined possible. But she’s not alone in her hunt. Ryan Jenkins, a wildlife officer, reluctantly accepts his duty to help Kat in her position as a biologist doing research in the area. As they spend time together, Kat tells him of the treasure hunt, and he finds himself going along on the adventure.  All they have to do to find more rewarding treasures than they’d hoped is figure out each riddle of a clue and avoid dangers from both nature and the criminals who want to stop their treasure hunt permanently.

Most of us have outgrown Easter egg hunts, and hopefully, we won’t face a life or death treasure hunt like Kat any time soon.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t treasure for us to seek out. Colossians 2:3 tells us godly wisdom and knowledge are treasures. Several verses in Proverbs reinforce this idea. 2 Timothy tells us the gospel of Jesus is a treasure we are to guard through the Holy Spirit.  These are just some of the treasures God gives His children, and they are treasures that cannot be taken or destroyed.

By the Book: Scripture tells us what we treasure in our hearts is what comes out in our lives. Is your life showing the treasures of God or the treasures of this world?

Nature Speaks

For my husband, I believe it was the first time he saw the ocean. Our family went to South Carolina on a rare family vacation, and I can remember his face the first time we went to the beach. Being from southern Illinois, he hadn’t known what to expect. The beauty of the beach, the size of the ocean, and the sound of the waves were beyond what he’d imagined.

After listening to her describe them, I believe it would have to be the Rocky Mountains for my mom. When I tell her I don’t understand her fascination with them, she tells me it is only because I have never seen them. She may have a point, but I’m not wavering in my choice.

If I were to choose that one place that caught me unprepared for what I was going to see, it would be the Smoky Mountains. I know it isn’t the rugged grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, but there is a beauty that cannot be denied in the Smoky Mountains. We passed through them on the way to Charleston, South Carolina for that family vacation to the beach. We have hills, trees, and cliffs in southern Illinois. They’re beautiful, and I love them. But seeing the Smoky Mountains rise up in front of me, covered in vibrant greens took my breath away. I’ve gone back through the area a couple times since then, and it still amazes me. One day, I intend to visit in the fall. I love fall. And I feel at peace even imagining myself wrapped up in a blanket on the front porch of one of the cabins nestled high in the mountains, drinking hot cocoa and looking out over a riot of colors for inspiration as I write. I can’t imagine anything better.

That feeling of contentment and awe was instantaneous for Sarah Crawford as she set eyes on the beaches of South Carolina in Regina Rudd Merrick’s novel, Carolina Dream. Being one to call Kentucky home, she first experienced that feeling on a family vacation. Returning years later to get more information about an unexpected inheritance, those feelings only intensified. As she spent her days walking the beaches and enjoying nature in the area surrounding the southern mansion her family inherited, Sarah was amazed time and again by the beauty she saw and the contentment she felt.

Even in the midst of difficult decisions about how the family should proceed with the inheritance of the mansion and a portion of a real estate business, Sarah could find peace in her surroundings as she met with the One who created the landscape she enjoyed. As partnership grows to friendship and friendship teases the possibility of a more personal relationship with the real estate firm’s other partner, Jared Benton, time spent together on the beach and mansion grounds helps draw them together. No matter what is going on or what questions Sarah wrestles with, God uses the serenity of His creation to encourage her to not only seek Him but to also listen to what He wants her to hear.

It doesn’t matter where we are, God can use His creation to bring us closer to Him. I don’t have to be in the Smoky Mountains to feel His presence, though I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to experience that feeling of complete amazement at what He’s created. Right here, in southern Illinois, even in my own backyard, I can enjoy the presence of God and get to know Him better through His creation. There is a single tree, apart from the woods behind our home, that brings out that feeling of peace and contentment in me every time I pull up in my driveway or look out my kitchen window. I’m not sure why that tree is so special. Nothing happened there. It’s just a regular walnut tree, but I can’t deny there is something about it that speaks to me.

God’s creation was meant for that. Job 12:7-10 tells us nature knows exactly who its creator is. And we think we’re the smart ones! There are several scriptures about nature praising God. I think it’s this unheard song of praise that we respond to whether we realize it or not. One of my favorite nature scriptures is from Romans 1:20. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” When we look at the world around us, we see the kind of God we serve. We get to know Him better. We see more of what He values. We can stand in amazement at His awesome creativity, provision, and power.

Knowing the One who created everything our world, it’s no wonder we often stand in awe as we drink in the natural world around us. It’s not surprising that we feel contentment and peace. And when we take the time to acknowledge His hand in each of these amazing scenes of beauty, we will also begin to feel His presence right where we are.

By the Book: Where have you found yourself in awe of God’s creation? Thank Him for those experiences, but don’t limit yourself to times when you can travel to new places. Take time to get to know God through His creation in the place where you live.

Nothing to Say

I guess there are times even writers run out of words. Not writer’s block. Though I know that happens too. Not running out of characters or plots. Those are on a constant loop in our heads. I’m talking about something more basic. It’s simply finding times when there are no words to say.

This week, especially the end of the week, has been like that for me. I’m trying to get back to normal life after being sick with a stomach virus. I’m crazy busy trying to keep up with my family’s needs and the book launch. My family just received heartbreaking news, the kind that leaves you unsettled and life changed. It’s a lot, and it’s left me with nothing to say.

So, rather than try to manufacture something witty about writing or dig up a favorite book to review, I’m going to let God’s word speak for itself. I hope you find encouragement and strength in the verses.

Isaiah 43:1-3b “But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, And He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.’”

Psalm 121 “I will lift my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not smite you by day, Nor the moon by night. The LORD will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul. The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in From this time forth and forever.”