Write Stuff Wednesday: Hidden Stories

old-farmhouse-2535919__340“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” Orson Scott

There’s a small dilapidated house down the road from my grandmother’s house. The wood siding has long since faded and worked loose from the house. Shutters hang in crooked lines refusing to give up their final hold on the window and plunge to the ground. The porch is in shambles, and the yard is overgrown. I wonder why the owners don’t tear it down. It doesn’t serve a purpose.

Still. It draws and keeps my attention. The dark windows pull me in to find the house’s story. It’s the story of an old farming couple, shriveled through years of manual labor in the hot southern Illinois sun. It’s the story of disappointment, a childless couple with no one to care for the home they worked so hard to create once they’re gone. It’s a melancholy story that is as beautiful as it is sad.

It’s a very different story from the one birthed by the abandoned farmhouse near my in-laws house. The simple white house is newer in style. White siding is dingy but still intact. Large, glass windows stare out at me without shutters framing their dark depths. Another farming family lived here. They worked the land but with more modern conveniences. They shared meals with their children around a large kitchen table. There was laughter and love, but there was also discontent.

As the children grew, the life of the farm didn’t offer enough to satisfy. Though it left their parents with no one to carry on the family legacy, each child chose to leave for more lucrative lives in the city. The couple worked their farm, selling off bits and pieces to make up for the bad years, until their bodies could take no more. The home was reduced to a house after their deaths, and the land waits for a time when the children can agree on the proper way to dispose of it. It’s the story of the loss of a way of life and a lack of appreciation for all it held.

Two empty houses. Two different stories. But they’re each only one of many that could be told. Who knows where the truth lies? These are simply the stories I see first when I look at the two houses. What do others see? Two empty houses.

This is why I write.

The stories I see are different from the stories anyone else may see. And some people may not see them at all. That’s why writing is important. We can share stories others can relate to but not otherwise get to hear. We can put life back into empty houses.

But it doesn’t end with story-telling or houses. As believers, we each have a different story. We also have unique ways of approaching life. Just as writers need to see stories in the world around them, believers need to see the lives of the people around them.

We’re called to be salt and light to the world. We’re called to reach into the lives of others and change them through practically showing them the love of God. To do this, we must see their story. With empty houses and a laptop, I can imagine a story and shape it to fit my desires. With people, we need to dig deeper and find the truth. What do they need? How are they hurting?

When we see these things, we can act on their story. We can give love in an unlimited number of ways that will speak to their need. We can show them God through joining them in their story for a time.

And the beauty of it is, the people in need aren’t the only ones like empty houses. Each of us is a unique house on our own. When I step into someone else’s story, I bring my unique perspective, my own story into theirs. I can minister to their needs in a way that is different than anyone else.

This carrying of each other’s burdens, sharing in their joys, and showing them God’s love in practical ways is a believer’s calling from God. Not everyone may look at an empty house and come away with a story like a writer does. But seeing and responding to the stories of others is a trait every believer should cultivate in order to live their faith each day.

Where’s your Hope?

sara 1Sometimes loving hurts.

As a mother I’ve watched my children make choices that are not only wrong but can also have devastating effects in their lives. My instincts may be to protect them from themselves, but this isn’t always the loving thing to do. There are occasions when mercy is called for, but there are also times when we try to dress up our enabling actions as the more godly characteristic of mercy. When our children are so enmeshed in patterns of poor choices, whether they are sinful or just not the best route to take, we reach the point that loving them means stepping back and letting them face hard consequences. At times like these, loving hurts.

As a friend I’ve had to respectfully and lovingly disagree with choices or beliefs held by those closest to me. When their beliefs are not in line with God’s word, the loving thing for me to do is approach them about it. It hurts to love them when they choose to continue in the wrong direction, especially when those choices are harmful to them beyond spiritually.

As a wife I’ve experienced disappointment with my spouse. We’re human, and we fail each other. At times, those failings can be devastating to our ways of life, our emotional connections, or our trust. If behaviors are repeated we can pray for our spouse but we can’t make them change. In any of these times loving someone can mean hurt for us.

If loving others can cause such pain, how can we even stand to choose love? It takes hope. Just ask Amy Dawson from Camp Hope by Sara Foust. Her childhood was marked by events that told her love wasn’t worth it. Due to a couple special people in her life, Amy was able to choose love anyway by dedicating her life to run a camp for foster children who need a safe haven and a lot of love. It isn’t always easy, especially given her own issues, but she does it every summer.  At the start of her story we also see Amy has chosen to give love to another needy child by becoming a foster mother. Balancing both takes effort, but Amy is determined.

When the unthinkable happens and her foster daughter is kidnapped, Amy once again faces the pain of loving. Her friends and the authorities blame the only man Amy ever loved, and at times she considers him a suspect as well. Due to the kidnapping, she faces losing her foster daughter forever even if she is found. Authorities think the search is pointless believing her little girl is dead.  Amy doesn’t believe them.

Making it her mission to find her foster daughter Amy takes off into the wilderness with meager supplies and the prayers of her friend to carry her through. The challenges of the terrain, the need to determine who she can trust, the pain of her past, and her fears for her foster daughter all push Amy further than she can handle on her own. She has to let go and find her hope in God despite the circumstances.  Learning where her hope comes from allows Amy to continue opening her heart to love even when loving hurts and the outcome is unsure.

We can find the same hope in the times when it’s difficult to love and we’re doubtful of how everything is going to turn out.  Scripture doesn’t say God will take away all the difficulties we face or smooth out all the wrinkles in our personal relationships. What He will do is change our hearts and attitudes if we let Him. He will give us strength and peace that doesn’t make sense to the world around us. When we come boldly before Him and lay our requests at His feet, He listens. When we draw near to God, He promises to draw near to us. When we focus on Him and open our hearts to what He wants to do in us through the things we face, the circumstances may still be painful but we also begin to see Him working. We see the truth that no matter how long the painful situation remains in our lives, we are not facing it alone and it is not in vain. God will bring beauty out of it, for us and for those we love when we let Him. This is our hope when loving hurts.

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5

“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both secure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” – Hebrews 6:19-20

By the Book: Take time to learn God’s promises for us. Commit them to memory or write them on a notecard. Use them to draw near to Him and meditate on them during the painful times in your life. Let His words remind you of the hope you have.

Treasure

Bread and Jam for Francis. Along with a wide selection of Berenstain Bears books, that is the first book I can actually remember reading. I got it from the school library. That’s where I got most of my books until junior high.  I was one of those students who took home the book club order sheets and painstakingly chose which books I wanted. I didn’t get them all. I rarely got them, but I studied those flyers just the same. To be honest, I still love to go through them, circling all the best children’s books and wishing I had an unlimited supply of money.

I can’t imagine a world without books. I’m a re-reader. It is with great pain that I part with a book I enjoyed. If it was just me, I wouldn’t mind a house full of books. More book shelves than chairs? Not a problem. You only need one comfy chair to enjoy a good book. My husband and children do not agree. So, I’ve known the pain of downsizing my collection. I keep only my absolute favorites. That’s going to change soon. My oldest son is getting married, and I’ve laid claim to his room for a writing office. In my space I will be able to have as many books as I want. Victory!

Books are my earthly treasure. They’re the material thing I value more than any other possession.  Notice I do say possession. There are things I value more than books like faith and family. No matter how much a book has impacted my life, it will never be as important to me as those I love. There will never be a time when my passion for books is more important than people, not just those I love but people in general. My treasure has its place.

Treasure for Alison Schuyler in Where Treasure Hides by Johnnie Alexander is found in art, not books. As an artist herself, Alison has more than just an appreciation for art. It is her passion. Not only does she value the old masters of the art world, she also participates in the creation of artistic works. Whether sketched in her notebook or painted on a canvas, Alison’s works of art are an outpouring of her connections to the world around her.

Alison’s whole world revolves around her passion. The family art gallery located in the Netherlands at the start of World War II has been passed down through the years. With everything in her life depending on and springing from the art she treasures, Alison has learned to place it at the top in her priorities. That belief is challenged as Hitler’s reach begins to extend into her world. Alison is confronted by the harsh realities of life for those around her. While trying to protect the beautiful works of art men have created, Alison comes to understand the need to protect the works of art God has created in each individual. Finding love and experiencing loss and life-threatening dangers grows in Alison an understanding that every treasure has its rightful place.

What we treasure shows in how we live our lives. In the New Testament, the Pharisees would say they treasured God above all else. Until Jesus came, everyone accepted this almost without question. They were, after all, the religious leaders. They should have known more than anyone what it means to love God. But they were wrong.

Time and again Jesus confronted the Pharisees with the idea that they were treasuring the wrong things. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath and they corrected Him, Jesus reminded them loving people is more important than specific Sabbath rules. At one point he basically called them beautiful looking graves full of death. His point was that they said they treasured God, but their real treasure was in rule making and keeping. When the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 came to Jesus questioning the way to eternal life, Jesus started where he was in understanding. Jesus pointed out all the basic commandments and ended with loving your neighbor as yourself. The rich young ruler assured Jesus that he had kept all these laws since his childhood. This is where Jesus turns the young man from what he understands to the deeper truth. He tells the man to sell all his goods and give them to the poor. The man leaves disappointed.

Why? Because he couldn’t take Jesus’ message that loving Him was more than living with a constant spiritual to-do list. I’m sure that for the most part the young man did keep the letter of the law. The law says don’t lie. I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell the whole truth.

The man was following law, but he wasn’t following God in his heart. The heart goes further than the law. Following God in your heart is what Jesus referenced in Matthew 5:21-28. He pointed to the written law and then urged people to look at what the law really meant in relation to being right with God.  Jesus used these challenge to show them and us that following Him is about more than the exact written law. It’s about the heart. It’s about what the heart treasures.

By the Book: Read the passages referenced above. What do you treasure most?

We Are Family

I have more families than I can count. I have a literal family. I’ve had a few church families throughout the years. When my children were toddlers, I had a mothers’ group family. One especially close to my heart is my SICC camp family. The faces in that one have changed through the years, but all of them are still family.

Looking back, I see the importance of each family group in specific times in my life. My literal family has helped shape who I am from the beginning.  My moms’ group family helped me navigate the tough toddler years. Though each church family has impacted my life, my Scottsboro church family was there when I needed a little more spiritual encouragement and love. I owe them greatly for helping me find joy in serving. My camp family, well, I can’t even begin to tell you what it means to me. I can’t imagine my life without each member. They’ve been there since I was six months old, and they play a part in many of my best memories and most of my spiritual development.

Recently, God has added to my family list. In this new writing adventure, He has gifted me with two amazing groups. One is a local Christian Writers’ group. God has used this group to motivate, challenge, and encourage me. We have fun, but we also prioritize growth in our writing. They helped me review and prepare Faith’s Journey to be sent to publishers. They were the first people to know about and celebrate with me when I got the contract for publication.

My other new writing family is made up of the Mantle Rock Publishing authors. I’ve never actually met any of the people in this family. We talk only through social media. But this amazing group has taken me in as one of their own. They’ve answered questions and given tips on everything from using social media to running a book launch party. We cheer each other on and learn from each other. Some have been in the family a long time, but others are relative new comers like me. It doesn’t matter. We all have something to add to the family.

That’s the great thing about chosen families. They each have a special place and fill a special purpose in my life. Each member adds their own unique twist to the family unit. They contribute something special that no one else could give in quite the same way. And, hopefully, I bring something of worth to each of them too. We make each other better, stronger. That’s what family is supposed to do.

That’s also what the church is supposed to do. God didn’t create us to work independently of each other. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are two of several scriptures that compare believers to a body. Each body part is unique in what it does and how it does it. Each body part is necessary to the health of the body. It’s why we are encouraged not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). We were made to teach and encourage each other. We are meant to rejoice and cry with each other. When we show love to each other the way God intended, the world sees it and amazing things can happen. The first chapter of Acts details many times that God worked through His people and the result was an increase in believers. What starts off each of those miraculous times of ministry? Unity. The church was unified as one family of believers.

So what keeps us from working that way now? Why do so many believers choose to strike out on their own rather than being part of a body? It’s because our church families are like our literal families. If you have siblings, you know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to live without conflict in close quarters with people who are vastly different in personality and likes and dislikes. Sometimes, jealousy creates sibling rivalry. How can we admit our sibling’s idea is a good one? Won’t that mean our own idea wasn’t a good one? Why does that family member always seem to do the one thing they know bothers us worse than anything else?  Rather than holding tight to the things that unite our family, we let the differences deplete our patience, tearing us apart.

The things that creep into our literal families also threaten our chosen families, even spiritual families. What God designed to be one healthy body working in love and showing the world a different way to live, becomes a body riddled with the disease of sin. The family God gives us for our good becomes so dysfunctional that family members become estranged. As members strike out on their own, there are two losses. The person that leaves loses opportunity for the support and encouragement God meant for them to have. The ones that stay lose a little more of their ability to impact the world for God as the world judges them to be no different than everyone else. And who wants to be part of a dysfunctional family?

By the Book: Do you have a church family? If not, what keeps you from it? Ask God how to heal the hurts and find the family He has for you. If you do have a church family, is it working together as one the way God intended? Are you doing your part to help it function in love? Ask God to show you how to be the spiritual family member He designed you to be.

Behind the Curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family by Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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