In It Together

Today I had the opportunity to share in a special celebration. This morning I spent time at a local library with an author friend of mine who was launching her first book with a reading and signing. Nine months ago, it was her sharing in my book launch. It was an honor to share in her day as she did in mine.

Over the last couple of years she and I, along with the other members of our local writers’ group, have stood beside each other in the ups and downs of the writing process. We’re all in different stages, and we each have our own goals and focus. It doesn’t matter. Each member of the group has their own writing strengths and weaknesses. We’re there for each other to encourage each other when the writing gets tough or we find ourselves frustrated and discouraged. We energize each other for the next step. We learn together. And on days like today, we cheer each other on and share in the joys of success.

Writing tends to be a fairly solitary endeavor. It is made much sweeter knowing there’s a group of people in my corner cheering me on and picking me up when I fall.

gates2This feeling is something Anna Marie, the main character in Anna’s Song by Brenda Gates, hasn’t known since her mother and father disappeared without a trace. When her twin sister goes missing too, Anna Marie feels more alone than ever before. Refusing to give up on her sister and confused by mysterious and seemingly impossible clues to her sister’s whereabouts, Anna Marie begins to find people in her corner though she is unsure how she feels about their involvement.

When Anna Marie slips into the past her hopes of finding her sister grow, but the road to finding her isn’t a guaranteed success. And it definitely isn’t easy. Plunged into the middle of the Civil War, she faces dangers and obstacles she is not prepared for. But in these times, Anna Marie also finds what she’s missed in life. She finds people taking the journey by her side. They encourage her to be her best self. They hurt with her when she’s in pain. They teach her about herself and faith through their examples and words.

If she never makes it home and even if she never finds her sister, Anna Marie finds something that makes the sweet things sweeter and the tough things easier. She finds what friendship and family should be, and it makes all the difference.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. Not just for Anna Marie in Brenda’s book. Not just for writers and the writers’ groups they belong to. It’s supposed to be this way for believers too. Actually, it’s supposed to be this way especially for believers. 1 Corinthians 12:26 encourages us with these words. “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  This is just one of several instructions followers of Jesus are given in how we should interact with one another, and each scripture comes back to loving each other the way God loves us.

When we find this in our churches and with the believers in all areas of our lives, we experience one more amazing gift from God. Allowing God to use us to be this for others makes us the gift to them. Both work in our lives to ease the burden of hard times and increase the joy in the good. And it makes all the difference in the journey of our faith.

 

Write Stuff Wednesday: The Blank Page

notebook-1194456__340“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” – unknown

There is nothing more daunting to a writer than the blank page. It’s before the story gets its start that the voices of doubt can be heard the loudest. Sure, those voices continue through the first draft, the edits, and even the final copy. I’m not sure they go away even after publication. But in that empty white space that begs to be filled, doubt likes to race in and take up residence.

What if my story isn’t good enough? What if I don’t have enough story to fill all the blank pages? What if I can’t find a publisher? What if I pour my heart and soul into this only to find out I should have stayed a cashier at the grocery store? What if my perfect opening line is a boring cliché? What if I get writer’s block? What if? What if? What if?

There are people with a desire to write and a story to tell that never do. They allow the “what ifs” to drive them from the path they’re on. Giving up before they even have a chance to start, they walk away and the world loses a story that could only be told by them. Even poor writing can be overcome. Classes and workshops can help shape and grow the ability to write. The only thing that can forever keep someone from writing well is if they never pick up the pen to begin the writing journey. To be writers we must face the empty page, take up the pen, and write.

The blank page can attack in other areas as well. In our journey as Christians the blank page is seen when God calls us out to something more, something unknown. Imagine Peter with his fellow disciples in a boat on the stormy sea. This wasn’t a luxury liner that barely feels the waves crashing against it. The disciples weren’t facing minor turbulence that threatened nausea. They were in a storm in a basic, run of the mill boat. Oars and sails were its propellers. It was largely at the mercy of the weather.

Waves threatened. Wind beat against it. The water churned beneath them. Just being in that boat would have been unsettling if not for the fact that most of these men were used to the sea. If you look at other scriptures, even being familiar territory didn’t stop the disciples from worrying when a storm threatened to capsize their boat. I’m not sure this storm would have been any different. Then, in the middle of this storm, Jesus approaches walking on the water. Impulsive Peter asks Jesus to let him meet Him in the waves. Jesus agrees. Peter begins to face his blank page and steps out of the boat. It doesn’t take long for him to realize the waves and wind haven’t stopped in deference to his act of faith. The blank page stares back at him as chaos swirls around him. Peter chooses to put down his pen, leaving the blank page for another time. He looks away from Jesus, and he begins to sink. It is only by the mercy of Jesus that Peter was saved from the sea he was so focused on and distracted by.

We can’t be too hard on Peter. We’ve been there. God’s Spirit whispers in our hearts asking us to do something, go somewhere, or speak to someone. He puts a purpose or ministry in our heart. He leads us to a place where continuing on means facing uncertainty. He asks us to have faith. Like Peter, we face our blank page of faith. The times are sweet when we can say we picked up the pen and faced the fears with obedience to God’s gentle nudging. But how often do we start off thinking of how wonderful following God’s path with be only to let the unknown swirl like chaos around us distracting us from what we know to be true? How often do we take our eyes off Jesus and start to sink until God in His mercy chooses to rescue us despite our lack of faith?

Whether it’s in our writing or our faith, it is time. It’s time to become what we dream of becoming. For the writer this means picking up the pen and putting words on that blank page. For the Christian, it means seeking God’s will and going boldly in the direction He leads even when it’s full of unknowns. It’s time to get past our fear of the blank pages in our lives and choose instead to fill them with the stories only we can tell.notebook-1194456__340

Main Character Motivation Monday

why-1780726_960_720Spend a little time with a small child and you’re likely to hear one phrase repeatedly. Why? Why is the sky blue? Why did the light change? Why can’t I have ice cream for dinner? Any answer you give is not good enough. Why did you buy a hot dog? Because I was hungry. Why were you hungry? Because I hadn’t eaten. Why hadn’t you eaten? Because we were busy. Why? Why? Why?

For a small child there is never an answer good enough to stop the onslaught of questioning. Each answer begs a new why. It can be tiring and frustrating as a parent. It’s where the classics “because” and “because I said so that’s why” came from. Not a great answer, but I think all parents resort to it at some point. And as a much as it might work to stop the questioning child, we get in trouble when we take that attitude in our writing.

Characters need reasons. To be believable, they need reasons that make sense. Your character’s actions and reactions should stem from their personalities and their motivations. Our characters are no different than us. They are people who do things for reasons that make sense to them.

I’m passionate about writing, but I spend eight hours a day (nine if you include lunch break) being a receptionist. Why? It doesn’t make sense. If I love writing so much, why would I choose to use the best hours of my day doing something else? My motivation is the reality that since my husband’s unexpected job change came with a serious pay cut, I need to work so my children can eat. I’m just starting out as a writer, and if we lived on that income alone my children would starve. In light of my motivation, my decision to work suddenly makes sense.

I choose to write about books, faith, and life whether it is on this blog or in my books. Why? My faith makes me who I am. I have a firm belief that God wants me to encourage and challenge other believers in their own faith walks. I believe it was God who gave me a passion for reading and writing. I believe God wants us to use our talents and interests to minister to others. These things are my motivation for writing what I write.

Why do your characters do what they do in the ways they do it? If you can’t answer that question, study your character. Spend some time getting to know them. Their motivations don’t have to be complex. There doesn’t have to be some huge master plan driving their choices.

In my book, Faith’s Journey, Katie’s motivation was to escape the hurt caused by her fiancé’s betrayal. As the book progressed, her focus shifted to finding out how to recapture the faith she knew as a child and live it in her adult life. There were other smaller motivations within each scene, but these two played out through all of them. Her motivations, personality, and circumstances worked together in shaping her choices throughout the book.

Knowing a character’s motivation helps you stay focused on what’s important in your storytelling. It allows you to see with more clarity the things that slow your story down, the things that need cut no matter how well written they may be. When authors stay focused on the real story of our characters, the readers can tell a difference. Readers can become more invested in the character. They can understand them and relate to them with more ease. They want to know what happens next because each part of the story is building off the previous part. Knowing our character’s motivation is part of the process that deserves our attention.

Equally deserving of our attention is what motivates us in our lives. As believers, God should have the most important place in our lives. It’s easy to say but hard to live on a daily basis. Even when we do the right things, if our motivations are not in the right place, what we do loses its meaning. Galatians 6:7-8 tells us, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” If we look at Matthew 6:1-4 God’s message is plainly stated. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. ‘Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’”
It isn’t enough to simply do the right things.  We need to search our hearts and know why we do what we do. We may be able to fool some people if our motivations are selfish, but we can never fool God. Serving God is only serving God when He is our motivation.

Shattered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Stuff Wednesday 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure and Undefiled Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Stuff Wednesday 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking God’s Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith for the Fire

fire-2915539_960_720“Amazing how fire exposes our priorities.” –Sherlock in BBC’s Sherlock.

Wait. This bog is about books and faith. What in the world am I doing quoting a television show, especially one that, at times, dances across the line into trivializing faith? The quote is good. Think about it. REALLY, think about it. How many of us have staunchly stood up and promised we’d remain loyal to our faith even in the face of danger or death? But would we?

We’ve heard stories of believers asked to renounce their faith or die. In the ones we hear, the believer holds firmly to faith. It’s inspiring. I hope that if push ever came to shove, I would be as bold. That I could be like the three boys who were thrown into the fire because they refused to kneel to a golden image or Daniel who kept praying even though he faced the lion’s den.

But then I stumble in the smaller things, and it leaves me wondering, not about my faith exactly but about what I’m holding onto. I’ve recently started listening to “Home” by Chris Tomlin. It’s an upbeat song about how the troubles in life open you up to the realization that we are not made for the world as it is. We were made for God’s perfect creation that will one day be restored. We were made for heaven, a place where we can be fully in God’s presence. It speaks of wanting to go home. I sing along and look forward to that time. Well, I did until a fire showed me where I fail.

The other day, I found a lump that as a woman over forty, I knew I had to have checked out. My head told me it was nothing. It was sudden and painful, two factors that are actually considered good. Most of the time, I handled the wait for my mammogram well. But at times the worst case scenario entered my mind. Family history and the memory of my aunt’s battle with cancer would sneak their way into my thoughts. I believe my God can heal anything, but it doesn’t mean He chooses to do so every time. Cancer takes the lives of believers every day, ones with undeniable faith in God.

How did I handle the uncertain times? I decided to simply spend time in worship. No matter what, God is ultimately in control. Even the difficult times can bring us closer to Him and shape us into someone who lives and loves more like Jesus. I turned on the music and started to sing along. Home started playing. At first I was fine. Then we reached the chorus, “Oh I want to go home.” I couldn’t sing it. The only thought that ran through my head was, “But I don’t want to go now.” The relatively small fire of uncertainty over my health showed me how much I still hold on to the temporary. In my heart I know God holds my kids in His hands. I know that He loves them more than I do. But I want to see with my own eyes how they grow. I’ve given them to God, but do I struggle to keep from taking them back?

As uncomfortable and downright painful as life can be, it’s known. There’s something to be said for accepting what is known over the unknown no matter how good it’s supposed to be. We haven’t experienced it yet. Though our hearts and faith tells us it’s going to be beyond our wildest imaginations, it’s still the unknown. We struggle, I struggle, and it took one short-lived fire to show me the truth.

It’s much the same way with Cara Westling in Plummet by Brandilyn Collins. Cara has escaped an abusive situation with her daughter and started a new life in Idaho. When she immediately lands a job, she’s grateful. Though she struggles with self-esteem after what she’s been through, her faith is intact. She knows God is right there with them, helping them move to a better place in life. He’s going to see them through.

Then the fire starts. One week into her job, her boss murders a woman practically in front of her. She balks at his insistence that she help get rid of the body. When he asks her what her daughter will do without her after she’s convicted of murder, she sees it as the threat that it is. She is the new nobody in town. He’s a powerful, respected man in the community. Cara feels she has no choice. She helps him. The flame becomes a blaze as one choice leads to another down a path she can’t seem to escape.

I got the impression that if it had been Cara and no one else, she would have claimed God would help her through whatever came. She would have said no to her boss. It was when her daughter was thrown into the mix that Cara struggled. Suddenly the faith she claimed didn’t seem strong enough to stand under what would come. It was trial by fire, and Cara found her guilt growing with each new demand from her boss.

Of course, looking at trials by fire from another direction, both for Cara and ourselves, we see God uses them to grow our faith. When we finally make the godly choices we should have made in the beginning, our faith gets stronger. It’s easier to keep making the right choices in the future. That gives me hope. Maybe one day, mine will be strong enough that nothing will keep me from being able to sing, “Oh I want to go home.”

By the Book: What priorities would a fire in your life expose?

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?