Shut Up And Write Already

Today is one of those days when I really KNEW for sure that I am a writer girl. I don’t just enjoy writing; it is something I need. There are observations to record, stories to tell, connections to make. If I don’t write these things down, I may explode. And that’s not good.

I was invited to join a writing group. All the books on writing that I’ve read recommend finding one. That just sounds so stinking cool – and so incredibly intimidating. On the one hand, I was pretty excited, like I’d been invited into some sort of inner sanctum, confirming to all the world that I was indeed an actual writer. What better way to get sound advice on my craft than to hang out with fellow writers? On the other hand, there is the fear that I will be way out of my league. What if I totally stink at this and no one has had the heart to tell me? Like all those awkward bird/house/tree pictures I have on my refrigerator, treasured because they were gifts from my daughter – but not exactly museum-caliber art.

As it turned out, the first meeting I was invited to was cancelled because the leader had to go out of town. Aw, man! As I hoped she would, the lady who invited me suggested that we still meet for some dedicated writing time. My friend, a fellow writer-girl, and I decided to give it a shot. We met her at a cozy old southern home turned coffee shop. This lady was someone I’d met before but had never had a real conversation with. Coffee in hand, the three of us started chatting about our lives, our writing, our dreams, our plans. The conversation flowed quickly, with many varied twists and turns. Before I knew it, well over two hours had passed. Truth be told, not one of us had jotted down a single syllable.

The interesting thing is, I believe that each of us walked away with some valuable information and ideas to spur on our individual writing projects. At one point during our discussion, my mind was swimming with fresh Inspiration. I wondered if it would be rude of me to blurt out, “Could y’all just shut up a minute? I need to write some things down!” Deciding it would, I softly made the comment in jest. We all laughed and agreed that we’d been thinking the same thing. But the conversation was so good, we just kept going. As we drove home later, before I could even talk to my friend, I immediately began to scribble down as many ideas as I could remember, willing the thoughts not to flutter out of my active memory before I could record them. Many did fly away, but the few that remained provided solid material for several upcoming blog posts.

When I got home I was so frustrated, I was grumpy. There were these amazing ideas burning holes in my mind, butterflies of stellar sentences, lighting but never staying still long enough for me to capture. And there were so many annoyances demanding my immediate attention. The dogs insisted on darting inside when I opened the door. Evicting them again took a bit of cunning, accompanied by a beef-flavored treat. There were meals to prepare and eat, dishes to wash, three separate text conversations that needed a response, and 17 emails to either answer or delete. I had five hours until my next scheduled event, and already I felt rushed. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone so I could write! I paused and considered this. It was a moment, both terrible and beautiful, that I felt deep within. My soul smiled at the knowledge that I am indeed a writer. I don’t know why it is so hard to acknowledge this. But it is.

It’s kind of like when I admitted that I am a “real runner” and a “real musician.” Certainly there are others – many, many others – who are more skilled than I am, but I count myself in their number. I am a writer.

While writing I find myself in a perpetual sparring match between the chirping crickets of a blank page and the monsoon’s raging mudslide of not being able to type the words fast enough. Both can make me a little nuts! Writing is such an oxymoron: wonderfully horrible, and yet horribly wonderful at the same time. It’s a lot like running. While I’m doing it, it’s torture. I just want it to be over. The thing is, I’m happier and more relaxed when I do these activities, and as soon as I’m done, I can hardly wait until the next time.

So what’s a girl to do? First, I take a deep breath. Then another. Maybe a few more after that. Our brains really like oxygen so I’ve started breathing every day. Turns out this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Then I prepare my environment. One thing I’ve learned is that I tend not to write especially well when the television is on. That adult ADD kicks in and I’ll be knee-deep in a “7thHeaven” mini-binge before I know what hit me. I also cannot write while listening to certain genres of music. I simply cannot have all those other people’s words cluttering up my brain. The two things I have found that I can handle, and indeed enjoy as a backdrop for my writing, are Tchaikovsky and Beethoven playing softly in the background. The “Immortal Beloved” soundtrack is a particular favorite. Ludwig gets me. Perhaps that makes me a nerd, but that’s okay. I’m willing to own it. Sometimes I write in my cozy office upstairs, sometimes while reclining on the living room couch. Lately I’ve become a yuppy writer who hangs out in coffee shops. It’s a rite of passage.

Having settled my breathing pattern and pulled up a blank document, it’s time to get busy. The allure of the unfolded laundry is strong; yet I persevere. I gather up my writing idea book, or hastily scribbled hieroglyphics on a sticky note, or church bulletin, or Dunkin Donuts napkin. At the top of my document, I name it something clever to help me remember later what on earth I started writing about. This one is called “Shut Up”. Please, don’t judge. I transfer my erratic conglomeration of ideas into bullet points at the top of the page. This helps me remember where I intend to go with the particular piece. Often a bit of shifting and combining or adding will be required. This has a mystical, dare I say, ethereal effect. My page is no longer glaring white. This takes off an incredible amount of pressure.

Having organized my thoughts, it’s time to begin. And let me tell you, nothing makes me more productive than a sense of purpose combined with a solid plan. I write some absolute poop at this point. I gush and spit and sputter and generally hurl my random assortment of thoughts onto the page. Having spent two decades as an English teacher, I do have a fairly decent internal editor; but even so, my rough drafts are indeed rough. Embarrassingly so. I squeeze the words out of my head and onto the page, safe only in the knowledge that unless I die an untimely death and my family dares open the unfinished draft, no other human will ever be subjected to these pitiful first attempts at saying something meaningful.

First drafts are wonderful in that they are supposed to be bad. I chase rabbits and say stupid stuff and generally fail to make my point in any kind of coherent fashion.  I often mix metaphors and change tenses three times in the course of one paragraph. It’s a hot mess. Finally, I just quit. A person can only produce so much garbage in the course of one day. Then I let it simmer for a day or two. Like good southern chili, the flavors deepen and improve with time. The revision is where the real art begins. Having slopped the words onto a page, like ingredients waiting to go into a pot, I sauté and stir, chopping and dicing sentences, adding a pinch of this and a dash of that until the blend is just right, or as close as it can get on that particular day.  Eventually, I call it done. Most times I read the whole piece out loud, because sometimes what I mean to say and what I actually type are two very different things. This also gives me a better sense of whether or not the words convey the message I have in mind. I fix it up, send it out, and pray for the best.

So, what am I learning as I begin to see myself as a “real writer”?

  • Write more often. That, combined with voracious reading, is the only way to improve. I’ve started setting aside certain days/hours each week that are designated writing time, just like a regular job.
  • Make the most of my minutes. When it’s writing time, those other things have to wait. The dishes will still be there when I’m done. (Where are those minions when you need them???)
  • I have things to say.
  • First drafts are going to stink. This is why editing/revising is so important.
  • Have a notepad ready at all times to record ideas, great sentences, quick impressions.
  • I may never be God’s gift to the writing world, but writing is God’s gift to me. How I use it becomes my gift back to Him.

Finding Peace

Some days I laugh out loud about funny things my mother said or did. For example, for a woman gifted with many talents, the extremely simple concept of throwing a Frisbee completely eluded her. A Frisbee toss with Florence required cat-like skills, and maybe even a football helmet. Some days I smile at things she taught me, like how to sew a simple stitch – with or without a sewing machine. Some days my smile is more wistful, as I consider the lessons I picked up on simply by watching her live her life. Some days I just miss my mom. I mean, really, really miss her.

My mom passed away a little over two years ago, during Mother’s Day weekend. I don’t have her anymore as my top cheerleader and sounding board. But I do have two treasures: a stack of her journals (which one day I’ll be brave enough to actually read) and two of her Bibles. One is the beat-up old Scofield KJV that I vividly remember from childhood; the other is an equally marked-up Amplified version that was her study Bible in her last days.

The past year has been a tough one. I find myself walking on ground I never in a million years expected to trod. Yet here I am. I wish my mom was here to guide me, to talk to, to hear her amazing blend of compassionately no-nonsense wisdom, to see those green eyes light up with fiery passion, then with sweet grace, as she prayed with me and for me. These days the missing her is a deep, unfathomable ache, almost another presence in the room.

Having been a Christ-follower for the majority of my life, I feel like I should certainly have a better grasp on what to think, what to do. But I kinda don’t have a clue. So I do what my Mama taught me: I turn to Scripture.

For the last couple months, I’ve been taking a very leisurely stroll through the book of Psalms. If anyone ever in the history of mankind understood the heart of Father God, it is David, shepherd boy turned king. My basic plan is to read one chapter per day, and then spend the day considering what it says and how it might relate to my life. Sometimes a particular psalm will require more than one day. There’s a reason the 23rdPsalm is one of the most treasured chapters in the entire Bible. I believe a person could spend time pondering it, line by line, word by word, for a year and never fully grasp its rich glimpses into the character of God. I didn’t camp out quite that long (yet), but I surely did enjoy the days spent there.

In one of those amazing planetary alignments, I was asked to share a devotional at a small women’s gathering, I was kind of caught up in Psalm 37 at the time, and I was so very much missing my Mama. As I began to pray over what to share, I was certain that Psalm 37 would be the foundational text. I had a vague idea where to go with my talk, but it just wasn’t shaping up quite right. I wondered what my mom thought about when she read King David’s words. I took her time-worn KJV off my shelf, pausing a moment to savor the weight of it in my hands, of seeing her handwriting on the pages, of catching that warm scent that happens when old leather books are opened. And wouldn’t you know it? She had marks all over Psalm 37. For a fleeting second it was like she was leaning over my shoulder, her hair brushing against my cheek as her delicate finger pointed out, “Here! Look at this!”

What follows in bold text are the verses, with underlining and points she designated. Now, knowing my Mama, she may have heard this in a sermon and thought it worthy of remembering, or it may have been something God revealed to her during a time of private study. Either option is just as likely as the other. I’ll also share a few of my own thoughts on each verse.

 

FRET NOT: Five Active Verbs – Recipe for a Fret-Free Life

Psalm 37:1-9 (KJV)

1 Fret notthyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.

For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.

  • It is so easy to get stressed out over the things we cannot change. “Bad” people seem to get ahead while “Good” people have a hard time of it. No matter our circumstances, there is no need to fret. We can trust God.

TRUST

Trustin the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. 

  • We need to trust our heavenly Father. This sounds so very obvious, but when we have been wronged in some way, our natural tendency is to take matters into our own hands. Many is the time I have wanted to put a hand on my hip, point my finger in someone’s face, and tell them off. Man! Wouldn’t that be satisfying…for about ten seconds! Instead of retaliating, we need to seek God’s wisdom. Sometimes He will reveal a course of action, perhaps relying on the legal system or seeking mediation. Sometimes He will ask us to do the hardest thing of all – nothing. This one is hard. So stinking hard. However, when we trust God and do good (even when we REALLY don’t want to), we are submitting to His Lordship and aligning ourselves with His heart. My family is in the middle of a situation in which a person who has done wrong seems to be winning at life, whereas our every step forward is slow and methodical and earned at a great price. Yet even in this we can see the fingerprints of the Father. It will not be our job to take this person down. Our greatest responsibility here is to live justly and entrust the situation into the hands of the only One with any real power to change things.
  • When we take that monstrous leap of trusting Him, we will see that God is much more concerned with our character than our circumstances, and obedience will always precede blessings.

DELIGHT

Delightthyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

  • I used to think that this verse meant that if I just worshiped God on Sunday, He would give me anything that I wanted, kind of like a cosmic Santa Claus. And I wanted all kinds of things, many of which weren’t especially good for me. Much like a small child who has never been given the safety of reasonable limits (admit it, you’ve seen more than one toddler fling himself to the floor in a store when he wasn’t immediately given whatever it was he wanted at the time.) when we live for our own selfish desires, we can quickly spiral out of control: “So what if I don’t have enough money for those cool new shoes? I really, really want them. I’ll add them to the credit card. What’s another $200? I won’t have to pay for right away. Ooohhh! Look at those earrings!” Then ten minutes later, we want something else, then something else, then another something else. When we are grasping at the latest shiny thing, we will never be truly satisfied. There will always be that something else that we think we need. The same principle applies in our spiritual lives. I’ve grown to understand that when I delight myself in the Lord He is able to give me the desires of my heart because as we spend time together my desires begin to change. It becomes more clear that all the fancy cars and houses and shoes will never bring me joy. Not for long anyway. What my heart truly longs for is wisdom and peace and love, and for the people that I love to experience these things as well. As I invest in our relationship, I become more like my Father; what I want is what He wants.

COMMIT

Committhy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.

And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.

  • Committing my way unto the Lord means surrendering the ownership of my life. There’s that trust thing again. The whole WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) fad a few years back took an amazing, life-affirming concept and somehow managed to make it trite. This is more than just throwing out a buzz phrase or wearing the latest trendy bracelet. One of the things I’ve started doing is consecrating my day to God. Before my feet hit the floor, I make an intentional effort to focus my mind on His mind, my heart on His heart (AKA the Gospel), my thoughts, my actions on His. This takes effort and intentionality. When I realize that I am not my own, I can quit fighting. I can let go. I can quit worrying about things. When I am obedient, my only concern is doing what God says; making it happen is His job.

REST

Restin the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret notthyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.

  • Resting in the Lord is a lesson I am currently learning. My family is facing a challenging situation right now. I look at the circumstances and get so afraid, so frustrated. Nothing looks like it is going to work out right. The immediate natural impulse I have is for something – anything – besides resting. That’s when I have to take a deep breath, remember the ways God has intervened on our behalf, the way He orchestrated events as we never could, and then rehearse the goodness of God. I can rest because He is faithful. I can rest because He reminds me that what “seems” is not necessarily what “is.” I can rest because my enemies are no match for Almighty God. I can rest because He is true to His Word. I can rest because the track record for God keeping His promises is exactly 100%. Whether we can see it or not, God is at work. I can rest in Him.

CEASE

Ceasefrom anger, and forsake wrath: fret notthyself in any wise to do evil.

  • Letting go of anger is so important. This verse does not in any way imply that we are wrong to be angry about certain situations. Even Jesus got angry when people were turning His Father’s house – set aside to be a house of prayer for all people – into a place to turn a profit at the expense of others. Genuine injustices should make us angry. It’s what we do with that emotion that makes all the difference. When someone we care about is wronged, for example, we want to retaliate. We want to make that offender pay, and pay dearly, for what they have done. There have been situations when I have taken my anger to God …but had to be very careful not to pray that the offender be run over by a bus. One thing I have learned is that when I let anger get deep within me, I have allowed the other person control over me. They may not even know or care that I’m mad. People have spent decades wallowing in such anger and bitterness. And that’s just sad. Letting go of anger involves forgiving. This ain’t even easy. But it releases the control that the situation has over you. There is a difference here between forgiveness and excusing. Excusing says “That’s Okay.” And it’s not. Whatever happened was harmful or hurtful to you. Forgiveness says “That hurt me. Still, I release you from this debt” – and in doing so I release myself.

ADDED BONUS: A PROMISE

For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.

  • God will take care of the evildoers. We don’t have to worry about that. When we follow His leadership, God will bless us. All that we need will be supplied in just the right way and at just the right time. We can quit worrying. Period. We can enjoy our relationships with other people and with Him. This is perhaps the best part.

Going Deeper

Recently I had the opportunity to take my Sudanese friend and seven of her children to the beach. She and the three oldest girls jumped in and swam like dolphins. The three little girls, following their lead, ran headlong into the surf – and immediately wiped out. Salty and distressed, they retreated to a very nice tidal pool, eased their way in, and played for hours. It was safe there with no pesky waves, just calm, serene water. Still, there was this pull to the ocean, to frolic in that wild surf.

Eventually the little girls could resist no longer; they decided to brave the waves once more. Carefully, very carefully, they dipped their toes into the surf, breath shallow and hearts pounding. As soon as the water hit them, they ran screaming onto the dry sand, then immediately went back again. The oldest younger daughter, Sahiba, is eight. She is all dark chocolate arms and legs and dimples. Sahiba was determined to learn to swim, but she was scared. She grabbed my hand and took a couple of steps past the shore and into the water.

Sahiba was too afraid to go any farther than knee-deep. The only thing was, that’s where the waves were breaking and she (and I) was being tossed about badly from the full impact. I kept telling her, “Go a step deeper, Sahiba. Hold onto me and take one more step.” Though they have only been in the U.S. for a couple of years, my friend and her older children are reasonably proficient in English; however, once she got excited, Sahiba reverted to her native language. She pointed at the waves and began telling me all about it in Maasalit. Even though I know very few Maasalit words, I definitely understood her meaning: “Can’t you see these big waves? They are knocking me down? I can’t go any further.” But I also understood what she did not – that if she would just go a little farther out, the water would be smoother.

Later on, I was trying to teach Sahiba to float on her back. She would stretch her arms out, stick her toes up, but as soon as I made any move to release her, she immediately stood up. I told her, “If you fight me, you are going to sink.” In that instant, God spoke to my heart: “What about you?” The sun still shone, the waves still pounded, little girls still giggled between waves, but for me, it was a moment frozen in time. I simply could not get away from that question.

Little by little, small successes sprinkled with failures, Sahiba worked her way into deeper water. She still held onto me for dear life, but she conquered her fear – driven both by her desire to move beyond the tidal pool and her trust in me.

On the ride home, the girls chatted quietly about their day at the shore, then one-by-one, they fell asleep. I, however, smiled as I fought back tears. This simple day at the beach was absolutely rich with meaning as God impressed His truth upon my heart.

  • Sometimes when we rush headlong into something, we will wipe out.

We see other people doing things that we wish we could do, so we hurl ourselves into them with great gusto. Only we have no idea what we’re doing, and we might fail. Our enthusiasm can propel us forward, but it may not completely prepare us for the task at hand.

  • But that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Failing the first time, or even the 53rdtime, does not make us a failure. We may not be great at something right away. It often takes time to hone a skill like swimming or playing an instrument or developing the discernment that comes from reading Scripture. We have to practice again and again and again, learning from our mistakes and building on our successes.

  • Playing in the tidal pool builds confidence.

While it lacks the intensity of the ocean, a tidal pool still has its benefits. Sahiba found a small section about knee deep and began practicing putting her head in the water. With a few attempts she became more comfortable being under the water and holding her breath.

  • That doesn’t mean we should stay there forever.

The tidal pool is calm and serene. The baby (age 18 months) wanted nothing to do with the ocean. He was perfectly content to sit and splash in the warm, ankle-deep pool. The noise and the waves terrified him and he wanted no part of that. Sahiba, however, began to long for something more. The tidal pool may be safe, but the excitement level was quite low. More and more often Sahiba began to fix her gaze on the ocean, so close, yet just beyond her reach.

  • We want to go deeper, but we are afraid.

Sahiba saw her mom and sisters swimming and she wanted to join them. But the waves! They were big, so very big! They’d already knocked her down once. That’s a scary, out-of-control experience. But still, her family members were obviously having a great time and she wanted to join them. Sometimes following Jesus is a lot like this. We want to grow deeper in our relationship with Him, but it’s so frightening, so beyond what we are used to, so very…unknown. We long for it, but we can be afraid of what it might require of us. Our inadequacies might be revealed. People might think we are weird. Shoot, we may even have to (GULP…) change certain habits or become a missionary or something crazy like that. Scare-ree!

  • When we stop short, the waves will crash all around us.

Sahiba took a couple of bold steps that brought her into water about knee-deep. She was brave to even try. It took an act of courage to get her to that point. But she stopped at exactly the point where the waves were breaking. She was tossed about, clearly out of control. This made her nervous and she retreated to the safety of the shore. Time and time again she would wade out, get knocked around by the waves, then dash back to safety. She kept trying the same thing and ended up with the same results. Sahiba could see what she wanted, but she was too afraid to go past where she had already been. I think I have done the same thing hundreds of times in my walk with Jesus. I see the faith of other people and long for that kind of intimacy with my Father. There have been times, for example, when I’ve started a Bible study with great enthusiasm. Then things start getting personal. Holy Spirit starts revealing things to me. I don’t like what He’s bringing up. It will hurt if I have to deal with that stronghold. It will cost my comfort level if I actually deal with the issue at hand.  I then dash back to the safety of my status quo, gazing at the freedom Christ offers, but unwilling to take the step past the waves of guilt and remorse and pain crashing all around me.

  • A step beyond our comfort zone things are often surprisingly smoother.

As we step beyond what we have always known and into who we could be, we discover that the surf here is not as fierce as we expected. The waves are still coming in as they always have, but from this vantage point we are able to see them coming and position ourselves to gently roll over the top of them as they crash further on, well past us. Maneuvering through the waves is not nearly as difficult as we expected. It took a dedicated effort to get here, and while our vigilance is still required, the effort is not so great as it once was. Spiritually, we are able to recall our trust in our Father. Recalling the promises He has kept and the ways He has rescued us in the past gives us courage to face the future. This remembering is what I call Practicing the Goodness of God. Problems will surely come so we have to remain aware, but He gently lifts us above them, secure in His love.

  • If we fight Him, we will sink.

It took several tries for me to relay the concept of floating on her back to Sahiba. She was tense, ignored my instructions, and quickly went under. I knew what she needed to do. I needed her to listen to me. I needed her to trust what I was telling her, even if it seemed a little crazy: “WHAT? Point my toes? Let water get in my ears? Stretch my arms straight out??? I don’t think so!”  Unlikely as it may have sounded to her at the time, I knew that if she would trust me, she would float on top of the waves. If she fought even one part of the process, she would sink. As we grow in our trust, Jesus begins to develop our character. Sometimes the things He asks of us are uncomfortable and even a little scary: “Spend time with Me each day. Deal with this deep pain from your childhood. Tell that lady over there how much I love her. Quit pretending with Me; I want you to be gut-level honest in your prayers.” It’s hard sometimes. Yet Jesus knows us inside out. We need to listen to Him and to trust that not only does He know best, He also has the best in mind for our good and His glory.

  • When we are in deep water, we can cling to our Father.

Sometimes Sahiba clung tightly, eyes wide with fear, chattering away at me in Maasalit. Other times she let go for a minute and tried out her own abilities, laughing as she practiced navigating the surf. Several times Sahiba’s head went under, but she always popped back up, and I was there to catch her while she caught her breath. I never left her side. She knew I was right there with her and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Similarly, as we begin to grow deeper in our faith, Jesus is right there beside us. It is His hand we cling to. His Word promises that He will never leave us or forsake us. No matter what our fears may try to tell us, no matter what the circumstances look like, this is a truth that is steady and unchanging. When we go through deep water, He is there. Always.

Prayer Ax Part 2 – Tools & Preparation

Prayer is one of those amazing gifts from God that is as simple or as complex as you care to make it, kind of like the advertising for the game Othello: minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. Some of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever heard were from brand new Christians who hadn’t learned all the flowery language and rhetoric that can slip in over time. They only knew that they were in love with Jesus and He was in love with them. Prayer can be lovely in its simplicity. It can also be deep and complex, without being complicated, which is also beautiful. At its core, prayer is simply talking to Jesus, then listening to what He would say to us.

Just like my back yard, scattered with downed trees after Hurricane Matthew, opportunities for prayer are all around us: a friend rushing her son to the ER, communities around the globe in need of medical care and clean water, an upcoming real estate exam, deciding where to attend college, the need for forgiveness, and any of a thousand things that may come to your attention during the course of an ordinary day.

In considering the idea of the prayer ax, I am referring to our regular, consistent times of communing with our Father in prayer. Certainly there are times of emergency or despair when our approach will change. And, please bear in mind that this is simply an analogy. Anytime we compare the spiritual with physical things, eventually the analogy will break down. This is not intended as a deep theological treatise, but rather a few word pictures that helped me solidify some understandings about time spent talking with God.

So what does chopping wood have to do with prayer?

  • There is an order to things

In chopping wood, it is important to properly prepare and employ tools that are effective. So it is with prayer. We are not manipulating God, and we’d be ridiculous to even think that we could; rather we are learning Who our Father is and aligning ourselves to His will.

  • Use the right tool

One of the best tools we have for prayer is Scripture. While Facebook memes, or even advice from well-meaning friends, may sound quite clever indeed, if the words don’t line up with absolute and unchanging truth of Scripture, they are simply someone’s opinion. You can whack away at a tree all day with a plastic spoon but achieve no results. Same principle applies here.

  • Use a sharp ax

Similarly, make sure your ax is sharp. It is important to spend time in the Word of God in order to know the heart of God. As we meditate on the Word, we become sharper, and our prayers more effective. In addition to your own time spent with God, it is SO helpful to be aligned with like-minded believers. Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” We need godly people, iron, in our lives. A dull ax is highly ineffective, no matter how strong its wielder is. It is important to have – and to become for others – properly prepared tools.

  • Use the correct end

One of the things we love to do is grab a certain Scripture out of context and apply it to our situation. My sister says that we love to scan the Bible for verses that make us feel better about our circumstances. Certainly there is a time and place for that. The Bible is, after all, His Story. We were given the words of God as a guide for knowing Him and for living our lives as His children. When we take things out of context, however, we are again losing effectiveness. Some things in Scripture are general principles and some are specific promises; some are intended for everyone and others for a certain group of people at a certain moment in time. It takes a great deal of discernment to tell the difference sometimes. Beating on a tree for hours using the blunt end of the ax will only produce a badly bruised log. Use the sharp end.

But what if you don’t know what the sharp end is? Ask God: Does this particular Scripture apply to my situation? What is a promise that I can claim here? How would You have me pray about this?

  • Sometimes you only need a hatchet

Not every situation requires the full resources of heaven. Sometimes short and simple will be sufficient. Other times, a season of intense prayer is required. I experimented with three different sizes and weights of tools before I found the Mama Bear medium-sized ax was my best fit; on occasion, however, a tiny handheld hatchet was just the ticket. Use the right tool for the job, but understand that it may change periodically.

  • Let weight of ax head do its work

We can work ourselves into a frenzy trying to “help” God do His work. Here’s a real news flash – You are not the ax. You were never meant to be the ax. You just need to apply the proper tool in the proper way at the proper time. Then it can do its work.

  • Maintain solid footing

When I first started swinging the ax, I was all over the place. My feet kept shifting and I was unstable. I may or may not hit anywhere in the vicinity of my target. Flailing away required a great deal of effort but produced no meaningful results. Eventually I figured out how to stand firmly and to calmly approach the task at hand. So it should be with our regular times of prayer.

  • Watch your eyes

For the first few minutes, I just hacked at the tree root. A few minutes in, as my swings became more efficient, I actually began removing chips of wood….which flew straight at my face. So, I got the safety glasses I should have been wearing all along. When you begin a time of regular, consistent prayer, make no mistake, stuff will come flying at you. We are engaged in a spiritual battle. Anyone who thinks that the Christian life is one of absolute ease has never paid much attention to the life of Jesus or His disciples. As we draw closer to God, the enemy takes notice. It is essential that we protect ourselves. Fortunately, Scripture teaches us how to do that.

  • Start small and build up

This is sound advice for any new endeavor. My first few swings were with an ax too heavy on a root too large. Jeff, recognizing my imminent failure, quickly helped me adjust my tool and my focus. I also had to change my technique. With an experience base from the gym rather than the forest, I began chopping wood with what can only be described as a dipping bird method, which used my legs and back but not my arms. And ax-wielding is all about the arms. (That name comes from a garish pink plastic bird my grandmother had back in the 1970s. It dipped its beak in water for some reason, stood upright, then did it again. All day long.) Once I got the idea of how an ax operated, I was able to move on to larger tasks with greater success. With prayer, too, we do well to start small then progress to more complex issues. If you are in the beginning stages of establishing a regular prayer time, you will likely find that the nature of the topics you discuss with the Father become deeper, richer, more intimate over time.

  • Dress for the occasion

My first attempt at becoming a lumberjack diva was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I trotted out to the tree line wearing a pair of shorts and old running shoes. Both tangled briars and angry ants found my exposed ankles. I spent an embarrassing amount of time flapping around trying to get away from both. The next time out, I donned a pair of jeans and some work boots. My footing was more solid and there were less distractions to deal with. On a spiritual level, Ephesians 6:10-18 elaborates on how important it is to clothe ourselves in the full armor of God: the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel, helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and our only offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Putting on this armor every single day – not just in preparation for the five or fifty minutes we may spend in prayer – but for the dangers of everyday life is nothing short of crucial.

Now we have our preparation and our proper tools. Next time we will turn an eye towards our focus when praying.

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My Mama’s Journals

I had the extreme fortune of being raised by a truly amazing woman. She was little more than a girl herself when I was born, and in many ways we grew up together. But my mom excelled in certain ways that I may never match. She was an artist. Her primary medium was cloth. She made most of our clothes until I became a brand-conscious middle schooler, and she could take a pile of random scraps and create adorable dolls or stuffed animals. My mom sang beautifully and sketched realistic renditions of her creative ideas. My sister and brother respectively inherited these traits, while I shared her enthusiasm for the written word.

One of my favorite things about my mama was how she loved. She cared and sacrificed for us kids, even into our adulthoods. But the One she really loved was Jesus. This woman was gaga crazy over her Jesus. It was practically impossible to talk to her without His name coming up, not even as an intentional thing, but simply because of the depth of their relationship, it naturally sprang out of her. If you talked to Florence, you could know that some Jesus was going to overflow out of her and get splashed all over you. And that was a good thing.

In her latter years, one of the things Mama was famous for was her emails. Of course, as an older person just becoming savvy to the ways of technology, she forwarded every single remotely meaningful thing that someone else forwarded to her. I think perhaps there’s some sort of geriatric rite of passage involved in this. What she was most known for, however, were the emails she wrote herself. Have mercy, that woman was deep! I would grin every time her name appeared in my Inbox. I knew great wisdom was coming my way, but that I would have little or no idea what it really meant. This tiny, sassy yet meek woman understood things about God that few people ever will. She could take the most mediocre-seeming event or visual image and mine it for rich, impossibly deep truths about the heart of the Father and His great love for us. Nuggets, she called them. The words made sense, but the concepts were always juuuuuuuuust beyond my grasp.

When my mom passed away, almost two years ago now, my siblings and I each kept a few of her things that were most meaningful to us. I got her Bible, the one I remember from my childhood days, full of her notes and underlinings and personal reflections. Held together by love and duct tape, it remains the roadmap of a 50-year journey with her Savior and Best Friend. Just opening it up and catching a whiff of that soothing old leather smell brings a flood of happy memories. Seeing her familiar handwriting on the page is a bittersweet reminder of what a gift it was to have her as my mother. Reading her words never ceases to amaze me. There was more, so much more, to this brilliant, unassuming woman I thought I knew so well.

The other thing I kept was her box of journals. I’ve stored them in a closet for the past couple years, not quite ready to break open the seal and investigate the treasure inside. I knew that her deepest thoughts and a great deal of wisdom were residing inside a simple cardboard box. I haven’t felt strong enough to face it. There are so many things I wish I could talk to her about, so many things that just don’t make sense right now that I could really use her advice on, so many situations in which I wish I had the comfort of knowing my Mama was praying with me and for me. Yeah. I really miss her, ya know? So today I dug that box out of the closet and opened it up – not because I was strong enough to see what was in there, but oddly enough, because I wasn’t.

My heart was beating a little faster than normal as I lifted the lid. And I laughed. On the top was a huge binder – one of those five-inch monsters – full of pages that she had typed, and of course they were organized by date. Once I got past that, I laughed again. Underneath were probably 20 different books – legal pads, writing journals, steno pads, loose sheets of paper held together by clothespins – all filled with her comforting script. One of the legal pads had notes from a sermon on one page, tax information for her embroidery business on the next, followed by her Christmas shopping list for that year. My two favorites were some personal reflections scribbled on the back of a voter registration form, and notes on a passage of scripture that filled the front and back of a bank deposit slip. One thing that my brother, sister, and I determined after sorting through her important papers after my mother’s passing is that there most definitely was an intricate organizational system in place – we just had no idea what it might be. The same is true of this box. It is a most delightful hodgepodge if ever there was one.

I am still not quite ready to dive in and read all of her words just yet. That day will come, but this is not it. My spirits were lifted simply by sifting through the contents of her box. Today that was more than enough.

 

~~~~~

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This picture by Egyptian artist Kerolos Safwat, entitled “First Day in Heaven”, immediately made me think of my Mom. This is how I envision the moment when she finally met Jesus.

Photo credit goo.gl/images/JUmrQT

An Aspiring Writer on Writing – Part Two

Yesterday I called myself out for what can best be described as fiddle farting around with writing. Mostly what I’ve been doing is shuffling around stacks of hastily scribbled notes and occasionally looking busy without actually accomplishing a whole lot. Today I have drawn my own line in the sand and put myself on a writing schedule. Some days the fruits of that labor will show up on this blog; some days it will never again see the light of day. Both are okay. The important thing is that I’ve given myself a tangible goal to achieve each week. It’s one thing to set a goal and not quite make it, and quite another to not really try. I am determined to avoid the latter, since one undeniable truth I’ve learned over the last few months is that words don’t write themselves. They’re kind of stubborn like that.

Today I’m going to take a look at the pros and cons of being a writer. I strongly suspect that the principles here can be applicable to any artistic or practical endeavor that involves stepping outside of the norm, whether that means painting, composing a symphony, getting your carcass to the gym, or launching your own retail business.

One of my biggest issues, without a doubt, is procrastination. Things that I find absolutely no joy in – like cleaning the bathroom, or sweeping the living room, or possibly cutting the grass with a pair of fingernail clippers – take on an immediate appeal when it’s time to sit down and write. Why on earth is that?? I love to write. I find joy and freedom in this form of expression. But man, let me just get these dishes done first, whoops, forgot all about posting that picture on Facebook. Next thing I know, an hour has passed and it’s time to start dinner. Well, maybe tomorrow….

Finding the rhythm to my day, choosing the best time of day to put words onto the page has been harder than I expected. I volunteer in several different capacities, so my schedule is different from one day to the next. However, having a specific goal – whether to produce a certain number of pages or to write for a specified length of time – does lend itself to my OCD nature. I thrive on being productive. Not to say that I have been lately, but it makes me feel better when I am. One of my least favorite questions is, “How’s the book coming along?” because well, honestly, it hasn’t been. I say something like, “I’ve got the outline figured out now,” which is really writer-ese for “I’ve been lazy and distracted and haven’t written a doggone thing.”

Another related factor is distraction. One thing that I have started being more intentional about is unplugging from all electronics throughout the day. I don’t know what it is about that little red notification that is SO very compelling. If I see it, I can’t not check the message. So I try to put my phone down periodically and not even look. John Eldredge calls this “creating soul space,” and rightly so. Even five minutes of stillness and silence can make a huge difference. This continues to be a work-in-progress for me, but each day I increasingly see its value. I can think more clearly and focus on things that matter. My soul is more at peace without these electronic Chihuahuas continually nipping at my heels, demanding my attention.

There’s a certain vulnerability that comes with writing. Publishing, or even sharing with a friend, what you have written is very much like standing on the stage of a very large theater wearing nothing but a very small bathing suit. In that moment it is extremely challenging to feel cool and confident. Exposed is a better description. And that’s kind of the two-edged sword of writing. There are words inside me that are clamoring to get out. A writer simply must write, even if on occasion he is the only person who reads the words. At the same time, each shared piece opens him up to trial by the Court of Public Opinion. Truth be told, I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my gut each time I hit the Publish button on my blog: “Oh no! What have I done? Will anyone like this? Anyone at all? Is it meaningful? Does it make any sense? What was I thinking???”

Having read this far, you may be thinking, “Why doesn’t this lady just get a job selling moderately priced home furnishings at Target and be done with it?” That’s simple: because I love writing! Actually, I love words – the subtleties and nuances and shades of meaning within the English language are fascinating. (Yes, I have known and willingly acknowledged for years that I am a word nerd. There is a certain coolness in being so very uncool.) There are feelings and thoughts and understandings of the world around us that I need to express. Though no writing is ever 100% completely “done”, it brings a degree of satisfaction, to know that a particular piece – whether a chapter or page or paragraph – is as good as I can make it at this moment in time.

I’m not sure that I will ever at any time in my life write something so deeply meaningful that will inspire the masses, but there are times when I learn important truths from the ordinary, the mundane, the easy-to-miss. I figure that if this was a lesson I needed, perhaps someone else does as well.

So, I will be true to myself and write more words. I hope that you enjoy them and find value in them.

If not, no worries. Just be thankful that the cover photo features a cute little kid.

 

 

Photo credit: goo.gl/images/TwJaLq

An Aspiring Writer on Writing – Part One

Two years ago I resigned from my teaching job to become a full-time writer. I dreamed of writing a book about the lives of the Holocaust Survivors I’d met. I spent a month in Israel, reconnecting with my friends on their home turf. We visited, shared meals, and toured historically significant sites. It was truly amazing. Guess how many pages of this book I’ve written? That would be zero.

Then I had the idea of writing a scripture-based devotional for women. I polled a group of friends and asked for some topics they would find interesting and helpful. They shared. I pondered. I made a very long list of ideas and even started an outline. Guess how many pages of this devotional I’ve written? That would be zero.

After a season of prayer and seeking God’s counsel on my writing, I had a thought for a book on the subtle “good” things that we allow to replace the “best” in our lives. I immediately began doing research. I found several reputable sources that touched on similar territory. I read and took careful notes. Three months later, with about three pages of information left to transfer into my notes, I still haven’t quite finished the job. A foggy outline swirls around in my head. Guess how many pages of this book I’ve actually written? Yep. Zero.

There can only be one problem here. Look at the title of this article. See that adjective. That’s the problem.

The thing holding me back is that word: Aspiring.

“Aspiring” is the infinite difference between a Writer and Wanna-Be.

My husband is an electrician, a really, really good electrician. What is the difference between him and me? I think and plot and plan. Jeff does. He gets out there every single day – rain or shine, hot or cold, sick or healthy – and he does his work. He got good at his craft by doing his work. It’s just that simple.

I recently finished reading an amazing book called the War of Art. Man, that Steven Pressfield guy is vicious. And he’s right on the money. I’ve been letting fear and distraction and procrastination rule the day. What I really need to do is show up, turn on the computer and write some words. They don’t even have to be incredibly inspiring and meaningful words. Just words. Black characters on a glaring white sheet. The crafting and sculpting and subtle nuances of meaning will come. It’s okay if they start out ugly and disorganized, with mixed metaphors and boring sentence structure. Right now, I just need to write some words.

So, that’s what I’m gonna do.

Stay tuned.

 

Photo credit: goo.gl/images/G3oDcA