What I’m Reading: All Made Up

television.pngYou can keep Survivor, though I watched the earliest seasons. I have no desire to watch The Voice or American Idol and never have. And I will definitely pass on The Bachelor. Don’t even get me started on everything that’s wrong with that one! I will admit to a brief fling with King of the Nerds, The Mole, and Full Metal Jousting. I would probably still watch those if their ratings had been high enough to continue the shows.

They weren’t, and so my foray into the world of reality television runs along the lines of The Worst Cooks in America and the Great British Bake-off. Zumbo’s Just Desserts was a really fun one too. But my personal favorite, now only available in reruns, was Cupcake Wars.

I loved the set of Cupcake Wars. I loved the themes the contestants had to work with. The creativity and seeing the giant displays come together at the end were inspiring to this amateur cupcake baker. The unique flavors and even the failures caught my interest and inspired me. I loved everything about the show except that it had to end.

No matter how much I enjoyed it, I know Cupcake Wars, along with all the other reality shows are less than real. The outcomes may not be rigged from the start, but there are plenty of other scenarios played up for the viewers. Drama equals ratings and ratings equal sponsors. Every disaster, argument, and failure are highlighted for the cameras. Time is warped. Planning periods are non-existent making the feats of contestants seem next to impossible. All of it works to draw the audience in, but it should leave us questioning the moniker of “reality” television.

These issues become part if the drama in All Made Up by Kara Isaac. It’s challenging enough to give this contemporary Christian romance its needed conflict when producers of a romantic reality show cast a down-to-earth, faithful farmer as it’s bachelor looking for love. Caleb Murphy is a last minute replacement, and his morals and personality aren’t exactly the stuff of exciting television.

When make-up artist Katriona McLeod is drafted to stand-in for a sick contestant, the drama is raised a notch or two. Katriona’s past with Caleb creates equal part romantic sparks and tension on the set. It’s the only thing producers can consistently count on, and her walk-on appearance doesn’t walk-off after the first episode as originally planned.

Katriona and Caleb have enough confusion and hurt to work through on their own. But determining what’s real and what’s made for television isn’t easy with lights and cameras following your every move. The question is whether or not they can be real enough with each other to deal with their past and have a second chance at love once the cameras stop rolling.

The superficial setting of All Made Up doesn’t keep Kara Isaac from diving into heartfelt conversations between Katriona and Caleb. What results is a fun, encouraging story about being real and finding love.

By the Book: While entertaining, reality television is less than real. Every conversation and situation is engineered to create the perfect picture for the viewers. That’s fine or television, but it’s damaging when the same attitudes are adopted in our faith. We want to be examples of Christ-like living to those we come in contact with. That’s kind of the point of being labeled “Christian”. But we are also called to be real, honest, and humble. While we don’t want to flaunt our sins, failures, and struggles like a badge of honor, we also don’t want give an image of perfection in our walk. We aren’t perfect. We know it. Those around us know it. When we hide our flaws, even with the good intent of showing God’s love and power in our lives, we end up doing the opposite. Not only do people know we’re being less than honest, they also end up believing God is less than He says He is. If He wasn’t, why would His people have to protect Him in this way? I don’t know about you, but I connect more with the believers in my life who are honest with me about the things they’ve been through. Their testimonies of how God has worked in and through the circumstances of their lives speak to me and encourage me because I know I’m not the only one. Romans 12:15 instructs us to rejoice with those who are in a good place and weep with those who are hurting. God’s desire is for believers to be family for each other, helping each other. We can only do this when we put aside made for television Christianity and embrace Christianity in real life with all it’s ups and downs.

Right Stuff Wednesday: Making Rainbows

“Finally the Rainbow Fish has only one shining scale left. His most prized possessions had been given away, yet he was very happy.” – The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

It’s easy to get distracted by the things we don’t have. According to the society I live in, I don’t have a lot of worthwhile material possessions. I’ve never owned a new car. I’ve never been to Disney World or Ireland which are the two very different places topping my dream vacations list. I have doors in my home that need replaced, not to mention the flooring and a couple ceilings with water damage. My emergency savings consists of a prayer for God to keep emergencies away just a little while longer.

The tricky thing about material possessions is that rich and poor are all in the eye of the beholder. Even down the road, there are those who are far worse off than my family. My home doesn’t leak (mostly). I have running water and electricity. I have a television and internet. My car may be well-used, but I own it. My clothes may be old, but I have warm clothes for winter and cooler ones for summer. If I need a gallon of milk, I can empty my change jar and go buy one. I have all I need and then some. To some people I am beyond rich in my possessions, and you don’t have to go to a third world country to find those people.

If these things are the things I prize most, I’m missing out. God has blessed me, but it goes far beyond whether or not I own a television or a car. God has given me a family to love that loves me back. My husband, children, children in-laws, parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins overflow the holiday dinner table when they all show up. And even though I’m no social butterfly, God has blessed me with friends at work, home, church, and various ministries. All these people provide support, encouragement, and challenge to me in my life and faith. Laughter or tears, it doesn’t matter. These people are there for both. But even these are not the greatest blessing in my life.

God has given me all these wonderful things and people, but He has also given me Himself. God looked into my life and saw my sin. My failures were evident to Him. He created me, and He knows my propensity for getting it wrong when I want to get it right. But God looked into my life and saw someone He loved no matter my mistakes. He saw someone He wanted a relationship with. He saw this, and He saw my hopelessness. He knew I could never do anything to fix the relationship sin had broken between us. But he didn’t leave me to wallow in the results of my sin. Instead, He chose to send His Son to take the punishment for my sin. He extended mercy and provided the way to forgiveness, the way to reconciliation with Himself. He gave me the way to be friends with Him again. And He didn’t stop there.

Once I accepted God’s gift of forgiveness, He chose to bless me further. He sent the Holy Spirit to live inside me to guide, teach, and correct me. He gave me His word to learn how to live like Him. And He gave me the opportunity to use my interests, talents, and the lessons He teaches me to encourage and challenge others. He lets me be part of letting others know about His gift of love.

God allows me a place in His plan, but it isn’t because of something wonderful about me. 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”

It’s all about Him working in and through me. These are the greatest blessings in my life. The other things will wear away or fail me at some point. But the treasure of God’s love and salvation won’t wear out or fail me. That’s the kind of possession to treasure above all else.

That’s why it’s important for me to take a lesson from the rainbow fish. He didn’t hoard his treasure. He gave it away. It made his world a better place for others and himself too. I need to remember that in my life of faith. I could hoard all I receive from God, but there is enough of His love for everyone. I need to share His love in my words and my actions. I need to love others the way God loves me. When I give this treasure away, God becomes clearer to those around me. They seek Him, the salvation He offers, and the love He freely gives. As others come to know God, their lives and the world we live in are changed for the better. And that’s something we can all be happy about.

A Foreign Way to Worship

martialFrom the time my middle son was five until he turned twelve, my three sons and I were involved in martial arts .Their dad joined in later, and he is the only one still practicing. But for those early years, it was me and the boys participating in classes and tournaments. We traveled to Indiana, central Illinois, and even Tennessee for tournaments. I loved watching the boys compete.
My oldest is built differently than his brothers. He wasn’t the one whose forms showed long, lean lines. He was built for power, and his favorite area of study highlighted that. More than the Tae Kwon Do forms, he enjoyed weapons. More specifically, he enjoyed the Korean sword art known as Gumdo.
My middle son was built for forms and loved breaking. One of my favorite pictures that ended up in the paper is of him doing a flying kick towards a board. He enjoyed breaking and sparring. And he was good at them.
Their youngest brother was only a little guy when he started competition. His first one was when he was about three or four. He just wanted to have fun. He knew his forms. He sparred as only a kid who isn’t aggressive can, standing there letting his competitor score all the points and being happy about it. But he could draw a room’s attention with his musical forms. He would take his mini bo staff and start as soon as the music played. It wasn’t that he was so proficient. Really, he made it all up as he went along. But he was so tiny and cute, the adults in the room would stop to watch him perform. He just wanted to do what his brothers were doing.
My boys are completely different, and their martial arts interests and styles highlighted those differences. But the great thing was that they could enjoy the competitions together. They could cheer each other on and help each other out. They didn’t have to excel in the same events. They were unique in their talents, and the competitions had a place for each of them.
I was reminded of this while reading The Christmas Bride: A Legacy of Love Novel by Melanie Dobson. In this historical fiction the main characters were part of Moravian religious group that moved to Pennsylvania in the 1700s to evangelize the Native Americans in the area. I understood their desire to remain neutral in the skirmishes between European settlers and the native people. I could relate to their passion to share the gospel with those who’d never had a chance to hear it. But from the first page, I was drawn into a story that showed a way of living completely foreign to me.
Christian and Susanna didn’t meet until their wedding day. In fact, Christian wanted to marry someone else, but the elders deferred decisions like that to the lot believing God would guide the choosing of the slip of paper that would read yes, no, or wait. Christian’s first choice received a no, but he felt led to missions work in the colonies and a wife was needed for that. Elders led him to Susanna, and the lot agreed.
But the lot wasn’t the most intriguing difference in how the people lived and served God. At a time when Susanna and Christian are strangers to each other trying to figure out how to love each other, they’re kept apart by the rules of their religious group. In effort to keep its members focused on their calls to serve God, men and women lived separately. Strictly enforced tasks kept Susanna and Christian from each other through the day, and their nights were spent in separate homes called choirs. Even children were separated from their parents to be raised by women in the group gifted for the task.
Add to these marital roadblocks to intimacy the harshness of the mostly unsettled land, the tensions between English and French settlers, and the tensions between all European settlers and the native people, and it’s easy to see why Susanna and Christian struggle to make their marriage something they can take joy in. All of this doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that the woman Christian desired to marry and still desires is his wife’s best friend who has also accompanied the group to Pennsylvania.
While I couldn’t relate to the way the people lived, I could relate to the struggle to do what God would have them do. I could empathize with Susanna when doubts and fears plagued her. I could call to mind my own frustrations as I considered Christian’s overwhelming passion to live out the calling he felt God had for his life only to be held back by forces beyond his control.
My life may be very different from the lives of Susanna and Christian, but their story was intriguing because of these differences. But just because our circumstances and choices in how to live are very different, it doesn’t mean their story was without meaning for me. As I read of their journey, I found myself and my struggles in theirs.
What Christian and Susanna or my own sons have shown me is that there is a place for differences in our faith. As long as we are sinners saved by grace through the sacrifice of God’s Son made man, Jesus, on the cross our differences don’t have to keep us apart. You may take communion every week while I may take it each quarter. You may have a rigid, methodical style of worship and mine may be more flexible. Your preacher may dress in a full suit while mine wears jeans and a polo shirt. It doesn’t matter. We’re all part of the body of Christ. We can come together to pray for, encourage, and challenge one another to deeper faith.
While false teachings and perversions of the gospel message should hinder our worship together, we need to start looking past the superficial differences in how we choose to worship. We need to start working together and caring for each other as a unified body. There’s room in God’s family for you whether you raise your hands in worship or sing reservedly, participate in responsive readings or simply listen, take communion weekly or quarterly, have small groups or Sunday School, sit on pews or in chairs, dress us or dress casual, or if your preacher remains calm or shouts and walks the aisle. We need to start loving and serving others together as a way to bring the light of God’s love into the darkness of this world.

By the Book: Do you frown on others’ worship styles because you don’t “get it” or are you open to working together for the sake of the gospel?

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?

Write Stuff Wednesday 3

glass-ball-1667668_960_720“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

The afternoon was hot. The sun beat down. However, the evening brought  a cool breeze.

Waves of heat rose from her cheek, blistered by the merciless afternoon sun hours before. Only the cool evening breeze brushing across it offered brief relief from the unquenchable flame.

Both paragraphs give the same information. The day went from hot to cool as afternoon became evening.  The first paragraph is functional. It gives facts. We’ve all experienced a hot afternoon and a cool evening breeze.  But reading facts doesn’t draw the experience out of your memory. It doesn’t make you picture it or feel it.

The second paragraph shows you the effects of that hot afternoon. It creates a picture in your mind. You can relate to it because you’ve felt a sunburn. You know how relief feels whether through a cool breeze or aloe. And you know how quickly that relief fades, leaving heat waves to rise off your skin again. You can see and feel the heat of this imaginary day because the paragraph does more than give you facts. It shows you the story.

Showing versus telling. It’s drilled into the minds of writers in every book and conference.  It’s a little thing with a huge impact. Do you want people to simply read your story? Or would you rather they get drawn into the story, reacting to each scene through the connections you create?

With a plethora of books, classes, and workshops on the craft of telling versus showing, we should be experts. We’ve listened to and agreed with the teaching. We’ve implemented the lessons. And then, when we think we’ve outgrown it, we find ourselves slipping back into old habits. That last scene lacks the ability to draw in the reader. We’ve reverted to telling instead of showing.  And with that change, we’ve lost the interest of the reader.

Showing rather than telling is vitally important for writers but not only for them. It’s a necessary skill for believers as well. We talk a good game. In our efforts to “go into all the world and preach the gospel”, we memorize John 3:16. We can tell the story of how sin separates us from God. We share how helpless we are to correct our current situation. Praise God that we don’t have to, because He sent Jesus to take the punishment of death that we owe. We can use the Roman road of salvation to help someone each step of the way. We can lead them in a heartfelt sinner’s prayer of repentance. We welcome them to the family and rejoice that they are now reconciled with God.  We’re good at these things. We’re good at the telling of faith and love.  And please believe me, I understand their importance and am not making light of them. But as with writing, we lose can lose impact if all we have is words.

God gave His people in the Old Testament very specific ways to live. He didn’t do it to hinder them. He did it to make them stand out. He wanted the world to see the difference He made in their lives. If the Old Testament serves as a physical example of the spiritual truth of the New Testament, a foreshadowing of the time during and after Jesus’ ministry, then isn’t the lesson of being different one we should take seriously?

God is love. Scripture says so. God’s love is unconditional, unchanging, and does what is best even when it’s hard. God’s love is active. It sent Jesus to the cross in our place. It meets people where they are without letting them excuse or continue sinful behavior. It changes lives. Can we say the same for our love? We can say God is love. But are we limiting ourselves to telling the world this or do we strive to show it in our actions each day?

Faith is “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen”. It is “by grace you have been saved through faith”. Faith is more than knowing something to be true. It is taking that belief so far into yourself that it changes the way you think and act. Knowledge that a bridge will let you cross a river safely does you no good if you don’t believe it deeply enough to step onto the bridge and cross the water. James 2:17-18 says, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works’.” James was saying without action to back it up, you’re telling faith and not showing it. He goes even further to say that when you do this faith is dead. The faith isn’t rooted deeply enough to cause action, and without action, it loses its power.

As believers, it’s time we learn the lesson of the writer. It’s time to learn how to show our faith and love rather than simply telling the message.

By the Book: Like a writer, do you find yourself slipping into old habits and telling more than showing your faith and love? Consider what causes this in your life. Are there any ways you can safeguard yourself against slipping into telling when those times come up?

Forgiving Isn’t Easy

“Say you’re sorry and give each other a hug.”

Growing up, it’s likely we all heard this phrase. After the heartfelt “sorry” mumbled under the offender’s breath, the adult would turn to the offended. The new mandate became, “Now tell him you forgive him.” The offended would then mutter an equally heartfelt “I forgive you”.

The idea is good. Teach children to accept their wrongful actions or attitudes, while simultaneously giving them a lesson in forgiving wrongs done to them. Now, I’m not knocking the use of this tactic. I’m sure I even used it with my own children. Looking back, however, I can see some problems with the method.

Think about it. Was their ever a time when you followed your parent’s request with sincerity? Probably not. More than likely, you were still heated about whatever got you riled up enough to do whatever you did that you shouldn’t have done. Your apology, even asking them to forgive you, was empty of real feeling just like the hug that followed. The offended didn’t want your hug anyway. They definitely didn’t want to forgive you. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out from the glares and hateful mutterings that took place when parents weren’t watching.  The plea for forgiveness and the giving of it were meaningless, except to get you out of hot water with the adults. Besides, this method also teaches children that to extend forgiveness, forgiveness must be sought after by the offender. What happens when they run into people who hurt them without regret? Will they simply hold onto the wrong done to them?

I understand why adults try to instill the idea of seeking out and giving forgiveness. Children don’t realize how crucial these practices are to having healthy relationships, not just with others but with God. I’d wager a lot of adults don’t get it either. But harboring a grudge, not forgiving wrongs done to us, puts us in a dangerous place.

The residents of Hades, Mississippi found this out for themselves in Whitewashed, by Amy C. Blake. As she returns to her grandparents’ home to begin her journey into adulthood as a student at the local college, Patience believes everything is working out perfectly for her. It doesn’t take long for her path to become rocky. Verity College isn’t all she expects. Built out of an old plantation, the school is more run-down than she remembers. Add to that the sordid past of the plantation and undercurrents of distrust and dislike among the small town’s residents, and Patience soon finds herself tangled in a web of deceit and facing a mystery that could end up costing the lives of those she loves.

As the plantation’s past and Patience’s present are woven together, Patience has to work to find the truth before it’s too late. Patience’s quest for understanding is muddied by those who haven’t allowed themselves to forgive past wrongs. The grudges they carry make them all seem guilty, and Patience can’t see past that to find truth. In some, the hatred and lack of forgiveness has left them bitter and susceptible to rash actions. In one, it’s led to a broken mind and a sick plan to bring vengeance down on those who are seen as committing the wrongs. Finding truth would have been much easier for Patience if the people of Hades had practiced forgiveness.

While it takes a very broken person to let an unforgiving spirit lead them to a place of psychotic action, it doesn’t mean harboring an unforgiving spirit is safe for any of us. Forgiveness works to accomplish several things. For the one who offended, forgiveness can show the love of God. It can start the people involved on a path of healing for their relationship. It can help the offender more clearly relate his or her actions to the consequences of those actions for the one they hurt. Seeing first-hand the pain or hurt they caused can help keep them from practicing those behaviors again.

But what if the person doesn’t want or seek forgiveness? There are still benefits to forgiveness. First, scripture tells us that we are to forgive as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:31-32, Matthew 6:14-15, Colossians 3:13). That means we are to forgive freely, often, and before forgiveness is even sought. It’s not an option. When we withhold forgiveness, we sin. Our sin puts up walls between us and God. Forgiving others helps keep our relationship with God strong. Another positive effect of forgiving is that it frees our emotions from being controlled by what the other person has done. As long as we harbor a grudge against someone, we give them a measure of control in our lives. Because we are called to forgive as Christ forgives us, doing so helps us have a greater understanding of what Christ has done and continues to do for us.

Just because God asks us to forgive doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are some hurts so deep that giving up the right to hold those hurts against the offender is a definite struggle. Our temptation is to pick the pain back up each day, holding it close as a protective shield to keep from getting hurt again or fuel to keep our anger burning. This is especially true when the hurt comes from a betrayal or when the sin has hurt someone we love. In times like these, forgiveness may have to be a daily decision. But the good news is that forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a choice, and it is a choice that will make a huge difference in your life.

By the Book: Is there someone you are withholding forgiveness from? Consider how God has forgiven you. Ask Him to help you learn to extend that forgiveness to others.

Side note: It’s important to remember there is a difference between forgiving and putting yourself back into a bad situation. God requires forgiveness, but forgiveness does not always require a relationship to continue. Pray for God’s leading if you feel remaining in a situation may not be God’s best for you.

Unrefined Grace Club

My friend, Ramona and I are the President and CEO of the Unrefined Grace Club. It’s not that we are not graceful people. We have grace. It’s just in its most raw and unrefined state. My unrefined grace often asserts itself as a lack of balance. I could trip over air. Come to think of it, I probably have at one point or another. Don’t believe me? Let me illustrate.

Do you remember Pogo Balls? These demon toys came straight from the pit and, thankfully, have returned there since the 80s. Imagine two sturdy playground balls joined together at the top making a strange rubber eight. Around the center of this monstrosity is a plastic platform, not unlike the rings of Saturn. The whole idea was that you stood on the platform and bounced up and down. It was a portable trampoline of death and destruction, and my cousin had one.

Enamored with the “it” toy of the time, I jumped at the chance to try it out. (See what I did there?) So, on my grandma’s front porch, I climbed on and started jumping. Here’s a hint for the day you run across one of these toys in a vintage toy shop. They are not meant to be used with bare feet. Just as I was getting the hang of it, my foot slipped, and I couldn’t regain my balance. I fell straight into the storm door. My bent right arm went through the glass, elbow first. From his place at Grandma’s table, my brother thought it looked like a scene from an action movie. My cousin’s eyes were wide as she pointed to my upper arm. I saw blood flowing, and I freaked out. An emergency room trip and several stitches later, I determined I wouldn’t be using the Pogo Ball again. I did not have the necessary sense of balance.

I’ve been learning a lot about balance since I embarked on this writing adventure. I’ve experienced what I once only had head knowledge of: writing is about more than just writing.  There is editing on the book I’ve written to get it ready for publication. But I also need to write on my next book. I need to keep reading for my blog and also to grow as a writer. Time has to be set aside for social media from Facebook to Twitter. Learning to market my book requires time as well. Not to mention, each of these tasks has sub-tasks attached to it. Add to that my full-time job as a receptionist, my family that needs to eat, and my work with local ministries, and I have more demands on my time than I have actual time. It is easy to become overwhelmed in the face of this lengthy to-do list. To accomplish it in the best way possible, I need one thing, balance. If I fail to exercise balance in my writing life, I’ll spend too much time on one part without giving the other areas the attention they deserve. I can write the best novel out there, but if I never do anything to market it, no one will ever read it. I can read a hundred books, but if I don’t use what I read, I’ll have nothing to blog and I won’t grow as a writer. It’s all about balance.

There is something to be said for balance in our spiritual lives as well. Becoming a Christian starts with faith. It takes believing that Jesus is God made man, sent to earth to die in our place for our sins. God’s forgiveness and salvation is a gift we cannot earn through anything we do (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8-9). Scripture is clear that our adoption into God’s family is all about Him and not us. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for works. If our faith is true, it changes us. Real faith will produce action.

Think about it. I can study electricity and know how it works. I can have it installed in my home. I can make sure my light fixture has the perfect bulb with the perfect wattage. I can say I believe in the science behind electricity, but if I don’t flip the switch, I will remain in the dark. If I wanted to be in the light, and I had real faith that electricity was the answer, I would turn on the light. Real faith in something, true belief, brings action.

That is the balance we need in our spiritual lives. We understand that salvation comes through faith. But we also understand that true faith will produce change in our lives (James 2:14-26). That’s not to say we’ll be perfect. We’ll fail time and again and have to fall back on the grace that brings forgiveness. But if we believe God is who He says He is and He has done all He has said He would do, it won’t leave us unchanged. Our faith will lead us into living our lives according to what we believe. Faith and action work in harmony with each other, providing perfect balance in our spiritual lives.

By the Book: Is there balance in the activities of your life? How about your spiritual life? When you look at the scales, are faith and action balanced? If not, consider why. Is the works side of your scale too heavy as you try to earn your salvation through your own efforts? Or is the belief side heavy with head knowledge of God and His gift without really accepting it for yourself and letting it change who you are? What is needed to restore balance in areas that are lacking?

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.

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.

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.