Monday, December 8, 2014

How to Make the Holidays the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Even When It's Not)

December isn't always the most wonderful time of the year...especially when you're a pastor's wife. This past week officially kicked off our busy season. We have Christmas parties (one to two a week - most weeks, it's two), church activities and special services, the children's church Christmas play that I direct, plus shopping, wrapping gifts, trips to the post office, and the other normal chaos that comes along with the holiday season.

As a kid, I loved everything about the Christmas season. As an adult, I too often find myself counting the days until it's over. If I could go back to my childhood love of all things holiday, I would, but it's hard to recapture that innocent adoration of it all.

This year, I promised myself I would try to slow down and enjoy the season more. My starting point: I simplified my Christmas tree decorations. After years of begging from my boys, I gave in and replaced my white lights with multi-colored ones. I left off all the ribbons and mesh, simply putting up lights, ornaments, and a big sparkly bow for a tree topper. To my surprise (and great joy), the tree looked better than ever. The kids loved it, and I stressed over it a lot less.

My kids made their first ever gingerbread house this year. Nothing fancy - I bought a $6 kit at Walmart and turned them loose. Okay, first I tried to help, but after a couple of walls collapsed, the boys told me they could handle it themselves. I think it turned out pretty well. No wonder my youngest wants to be an architect.

There's not a lot of free time this month, but I'm trying to still squeeze in a couple of workouts a week and spend a little time on my newest hobby: knitting. I'm slowing down and enjoying the little things more. It's working. This year, I'm finding more of my Christmas joy creeping back into my life. I'm still stressed. Some days are still overwhelming. But it's getting better. 

Are you ready to make the holidays more wonderful this year? Here are a few things you can do:

1. Keep your focus.

Daily time with God is a necessity for this stressful season. Jesus is the entire reason for our celebration - we can't leave Him out. Starting each morning with a little quiet time for journaling and Bible study sets the tone for the rest of the day. Plus, time with God and a cup of coffee by the light of the Christmas tree is so special. I look forward to it all year.

2. Create joy.

Bake cookies with your kids. Listen to your favorite Christmas music. Knit. Read. Drink coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. Get outside in the snow. (Or in the balmy 70+ degree sunshine, if you live in Texas like me.) Take your kids to visit Santa.

3. Let it go.

You either want to scream or burst into song right now, I'm sure. But during this crazy season, let some things go. I decided to step back from my novel this month, taking a break from critique groups and editing until Christmas is over. Some things can't be taken off the table, but remove what you can to make the holidays easier. Less on your schedule means more time to enjoy this time of year.

4. Remember the season.

When it seems like the busyness will never end, remember that it's just a season. It will pass. Quickly. Just breathe, focus, and remember that New Year's Day will be here before you know it.

What are you doing to enjoy Christmas more this year?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Tell Them Your Stories

Our Christmas tree stands in our living room, fully decorated. You can't miss it. I bought it on sale months before we moved from Arkansas to Texas. The 5 1/2 foot wide, 7 1/2 foot tall tree would have looked great in the large parsonage we lived in, but it's huge in the living room of the small home we bought seven years ago. I've affectionately nicknamed it the "Jolly Green Giant" tree and can't imagine having anything smaller.

My boys love decorating the tree. Now that my oldest is taller than me and can easily reach the top, they're a huge help when it's time to put everything up. I was trying to balance putting up the tree and cooking dinner, so I let them handle a lot of the ornaments this year. I wasn't expecting what I heard:

"Here's Mitzy's ornament." (Our first Yorkie, who died almost three years ago.) "And here's Miley's." (Our two year old Yorkie.)
"Mom, here's the one from when you and Dad got married."
"These were Grandma's rocking horses, right?"
"Can we put up our baby ornaments?"
"Mom, here's more of your vintage Santas. What does vintage mean anyway?"

The significance of their comments didn't strike me until later, as I sat looking at the tree. My boys know the stories.

I have a thing about ornaments. I won't buy them just because they're cute - they have to have a story. There's our Santa on a motorcycle, because I've been promising my husband for years that he'd get one someday. (And he finally did, about two weeks ago.) My ballerina, because I took ballet and learned to dance on pointe (not well, but I did it). The wooden Hershey's ornaments and rocking horses that hung on my mother-in-law's tree, a small piece of my husband's childhood and his parents, who I never got to meet. The boys' first Christmas ornaments. The photo frame with the boys sitting in Santa's lap together for the first time, when our oldest was three and our youngest was just six months old.

Our tree isn't just hung with ornaments - it's hung with memories and stories.

Every family has stories. We have stories of how our family came to be: how we met, how our faith has been passed down from generation to generation. There are stories of our faith: miracles we've witnessed, answered prayers, God's faithfulness. We have family members our children will never know this side of heaven, people whose legacy shouldn't be forgotten. It's our history, and our children need to know it.

Tell your kids your stories. That's part of why I write, journal, and blog. I want to pass something down to my boys, something tangible that my children and grandchildren can see and touch. I want them to read about our family's ups and downs. When God is faithful, when He comes through in an amazing way, I want them to have a record of it.

I love the commands God gives Joshua and the Israelite's in Joshua chapter 4:

 Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”

He repeats the command just a few verses later:

21 He said to the sons of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ 22 then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’

Our stories matter to our families and to God. This Christmas, take time to sit down with your children and tell them your stories. Tell them about your family, your faith, and  the greatest story of all - the story of God's love.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

My hands shook as I fought the urge to turn and run away. What was I thinking? What had I done? I was too scared to move ahead, but the decision was made and there was no tuning back. Fearfully, reluctantly, I scoured the shelves until I found the books I needed for my college anatomy/physiology and sociology classes.

Ten years before, I made the decision to walk away from college and a full scholarship. When I graduated from high school, I was young and idealistic and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I had to go to college. It was what everyone expected, even though I was floundering through with no clear direction. A four year degree was what I was supposed to do. Direction came as my sophomore year ended, when I got engaged and dropped out of college, to the protests of my family. I promised myself that when I figured out what I really wanted to do in life, I would go back.

Ten years passed, along with seven moves, two kids, and lots of ups and downs. I worked a part-time job that I loved, but knew there was no room to advance. I wasn't satisfied. At thirty years old, I decided it was finally time to go back to school. Absolute terror gripped my heart. I had officially lost my mind. How on earth would I manage my life as a pastor's wife, mom of two little boys, children's minister, and manager of a small fitness center - with a load of college classes thrown in?

Most of my friends supported me. A few told me I was crazy. A small handful were even hurtful. But this decision wasn't made easily, and it wouldn't be changed easily. In January 2010, I dove back into college. The crazy thing was, I did really well. In 2011, I was accepted into the dental hygiene program at a local college, and in 2013, I walked across the stage to receive my diploma as my family cheered me on.

While I was in college, people often told me, "I don't know how you do it." To be perfectly honest, I don't know how I did it either. I'm nothing special. I don't have superhuman balancing abilities.  Most days, I feel completely out of balance. If I'm doing well at one thing, I'm letting something else fall apart. So how did I manage?

I didn't. God did.

I think God gives us all crazy dreams sometimes. And I don't believe He gives them if He doesn't intend for us to follow them. We may not know how we're going to manage. That's okay, because He does. Other people may criticize our dreams, but that's okay, because they're our dreams, not theirs. If our dreams seem too big for us, it's all the more opportunity for God to show His power through us.

Since that crazy decision five years ago, God has continued taking me outside of my comfort zone. It's never been easy, but it's always been worth it. In the past two years, I've graduated from college, changed careers, run my first 5K, published two short stories, finished my first novel, and entered several writing contests. The next crazy step? Editing my novel and submitting it to agents and publishers. Am I scared? No - I'm terrified.

But I know now, just like I knew when I started college, that God is the One leading me down this crazy dreamer's path, and if He called me to do it, He will give me what I need to get through it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How (and Why) I Mark My Bible

My Bible looks pretty rough these days. I've glued Genesis back in a couple of times. Papers are tucked into the back. Colored pencil marks, thoughts from sermons and Bible studies, and sticky notes fill the pages. One page in Ephesians even has tape on it. The page ripped, and a wide piece of clear tape was the only way to repair it. My Bible may not be "pretty" but it's a record of my life over the past twelve years, with the ups and downs, the heartaches and the triumphs, nothing held back.

A lot of people are reluctant to mark in their Bibles. They don't want to mar the pages, or maybe they see it as disrespectful. But I see it as an essential part of Bible study. Marking my Bible helps me connect with the truths it contains. It also serves as a concrete reminder of the faith that shapes my life - something my children and even grandchildren can hold onto one day when I'm gone.

I don't have a set-in-stone system for how I mark my Bible. It's evolved over the years and will probably change more as time goes by. There are several things I do:

1. Underlining verses

Have you ever read a verse that just seemed to jump off the page at you? What about a moment when God seems to speak directly to you through a verse or passage you're reading? When I have those "aha" moments, I grab a pen and underline it. Sometimes I'll add other symbols (like inductive study marks) or notes to the side. Other times, it's a simple underline, just enough to catch my eye the next time I read through.

2. Inductive Bible study

I'm a visual learner. When I'm learning something new, I need to see it and try it for myself until I learn. The first time I heard of inductive Bible study, I knew it was just what I needed.

Kay Arthur is the most amazing teacher. Her website is full of free information to help you get started, including an introduction to inductive study. I also highly recommend her books. Inductive study can seem a little overwhelming at first, so if you want to check it out, start small. Choose a short book - Ephesians is a great one - and work through it.

3. Notes in the margins

I was flipping through Psalms as I wrote this post, and I stumbled across notes I'd taken on Psalm 91. I dated it November 17, 2010, with the note "the day I found out about (a family member)." It was a personal situation that shook me to the core. The message my husband preached that night was called "Living in the Secret Place." It was a message full of God's promises - His refuge, His protection, His love. It was exactly what my aching heart needed that night, and it was proof that God heard my cries. He heard them before I even cried out - before I knew what was happening. Those notes are precious to me.

I have a lot of sermon notes in my Bible. A sermon can bring out exactly what I need to hear, or I may find a nugget that I want to study more. See-through Post-It notes are perfect for this!

4. Theme verses

In the front of my Bible, I have a color code for a few key areas. These are the big themes I'm passionate about: prayer, hiding God's Word, remembering what God has done and handing our faith down to the next generation. When I come across a verse that fits into one of those categories, I'll mark the verse number with the corresponding color.

Do you mark in your Bible? Do you use a certain Bible for it and keep a separate one for church, or do you use the same Bible for everything?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Who-Done-It Giveaway

Fall is the perfect time to curl up with a good book - and what can beat a great mystery/suspense novel? I'm so excited to give away SIX amazing books to one lucky reader!

Thanks so much to each and every author for taking part in this. These amazing women have taught me so much about writing. Heather, Bethany, and Sarah were some of my earliest cheerleaders when I started to seriously pursue writing. Amryn, Marcy and Heidi are members of my ACFW critique group. They are all great writers, and I'm so thankful for them.

One lucky reader will win:

Amryn Cross' Learning to Die (ebook)
Learn more about Amryn at her website 

Emily Fox died ten years ago, but she’s not dead enough for Endriago—head of the Colombian drug cartel who murdered her brother while she looked on.
A past she can’t escape…
Now living in Miami as criminalist Kate James and under the protection of the U.S. Marshals, Emily is explosively reunited with her past, propelling her headlong into a web of corruption.
A man who threatens everything…
Two men stand in her way—one threatens her heart, the other her life. Both underestimate her. Because in the race to solve her brother’s murder, she has nothing left to lose.

Marcy's Dyer's Out for Blood (autographed print copy)
Find out more about Marcy at Rollercoaster Suspense

Dialysis nurse, Danielle Battershawn’s, life is turned upside down when her identical twin is murdered. As she strives to deal with yet another death, the killer sets his sights on eliminating her. Can handsome security consultant, Tyler Covington, keep her alive?

Heather Day Gilbert's Miranda Warning (autographed print copy)
Find out more about Heather at

Child of the Appalachian mountains, Tess Spencer has experienced more than her share of heartache. The Glock-wielding, knife-carrying housewife knows how to survive whatever life throws at her. But when an anonymous warning note shows up in her best friend Miranda’s mailbox—a note written in a dead woman’s handwriting—Tess quickly discovers that ghosts are alive and well in Buckneck, West Virginia. Hot on a cold trail, she must use limited clues and her keen insight into human nature to unmask the killer...or the next victim might be Tess herself. Tinged with the supernatural and overshadowed by the mountains' lush, protective presence, this twisting psychological mystery is the first in A Murder in the Mountains series. 

Heidi Glick's Dog Tags (autographed print copy)
Find out more about Heidi at Scintillating Suspense

When disabled ex-Marine Mark Graham reconnects with his best friend’s sister, he finds himself falling in love. But Beth Martindale’s presence is a constant reminder of events he’d rather forget. Mark wants to move forward, but the secrets surrounding her brother’s death as well as his own confinement to a wheelchair threaten to tear them apart. When a psychopath who calls himself The Knight fixates on Beth, Mark is determined to give her the protection he failed to give her brother on the battlefield, yet he discovers that a wheelchair isn’t the only impediment he has to keeping Beth safe. Will terror win or can Mark find the strength of mind and body to rescue Beth and find his own redemption?

Bethany Macmanus' Six Solitude Road (autographed print copy)
Find out more about Bethany at Creaking Door Suspense

One morning, Kate Marset discovers her seven-year-old student Becca is missing, and all the evidence in her disappearance points to Kate's husband Clint. At the Christian school where Becca disappeared, Kate finds more than one lead the detectives have overlooked. Armed with a Colt .45 and an incriminating flash drive file, Kate struggles to prove Clint innocent in this kidnapping. All the while, her own daughter Janna slips away emotionally. Is something dark at work in the little girl's life? Or is it just growing pains? The only way for Kate to find out is to dig into the layers of sin holding her town, her husband, and her own house captive.

Sarah Varland's Tundra Threat (print copy)
Find out more about Sarah at Espresso in a Latte World

Two murdered men are the last thing wildlife trooper McKenna Clark expected to find in the stark Alaskan wilderness. As the only law enforcement in the area, the responsibility for the case rests on her shoulders—along with the danger. Hunting guide and pilot Will Harrison wants to ease the load, but McKenna balks at the thought of letting him close enough to break her heart again. When McKenna's investigations put her in harm's way, Will must race against the clock to save his second chance at love from becoming the killer's final victim.

Enter through Rafflecopter. Winner be announced via blog and Facebook." rel="nofollow">a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, September 29, 2014

Embrace the Everyday

Vacation is over. Last Monday morning I sipped coffee on the balcony for the last time. We loaded our SUV and left our condo in paradise after spending five nights in Orange Beach, Alabama with my sister-in-law and niece. Every day was amazing - swimming, floating the Lazy River around the pool area, sitting in the hot tub, napping by the pool, writing, shopping. Before we left, my boys asked if we could buy a condo at the resort. I told them if I hit the New York Times Bestseller list, we'll talk about it.

I went home with bags of dirty clothes and a to-do list. My hair was crunchy from the salt water and chlorine, my skin was toasty, but my soul was refreshed. I honestly can't remember the last time I was so relaxed. It was probably our last big beach trip, ten years ago. This trip was exactly what a worn and weary momma needed.

Why don't I do this more often? Not just the vacation - there are obvious reasons we can only travel periodically, like jobs and gas prices. But why don't I embrace the little things: Sipping coffee on my patio as the sun rises, watching my kids play, lingering over the pages of a good book, enjoying the stillness and quiet without feeling the need to fill the silence?

My life - and I'm guessing yours too - is full of the busy and the bustle. Do this, go here, call them, drop off that. It's a crazy blend of work and grocery shopping and errands. The clock is always ticking. Do we ever slow down and really just take a look around, appreciating what God has gifted to us? Sometimes we need to just stop and realize how beautiful life really is.
I try to appreciate the little things with my One Thousands Gifts list. It’s made a huge difference, but I spent just a few minutes each day jotting down gifts. The rest of the time, I live in the busy, negative world surrounding us all – the world that pulls us down much too quickly. How do I hang onto God’s graces?
Late last week, I went running with my family through a quiet neighborhood in our small town. My oldest son caught sight of some flowers on the side of the road and pointed them out to me. They were nothing fancy – probably just considered weeds – but they were beautiful. It made my heart smile to see him appreciating something so small. It also made me realize maybe my efforts are paying off. The boys make fun of my tendency to pull out my iPhone for photos of birds, flowers, and spider webs. Yet here’s my oldest, noticing the same things. Maybe we can teach each other to be thankful for every moment and every breath, to embrace our everyday gifts.

Friday, September 12, 2014

When It's Time for Dreams to Take Flight

Have you ever kept something a secret for a long time? You walked around every day, desperate to talk about it but terrified of what everyone would think. That's where I'm at right now. I've been working on a huge project. Only a few people knew about it, but it's consumed a lot of my time and energy over the past few months.

I wrote a book. Well, it's the beginning stages of a book, anyway. It's a rough draft. There's a still massive amount of work to be done.

This past Saturday I finished the draft. I even typed "the end" just so I could have the satisfaction of seeing those words. I was so excited. Months of work and years of dreaming culminated in my first novel. I told my husband, my critique partner, my writing group. Emails and Facebook messages flew back and forth as they helped me celebrate the milestone. I was walking on air.

Until Monday night. That's when reality set in. I pulled out my laptop, ready to start some edits, when it hit me: Oh my word. I wrote a book. Now what do I do with it?

I spent months plotting, researching, and typing. I made up characters with complex histories and motives and agendas. I can tell you what each character looks like, what they sound like, what motivates them, and what they fear most. I brought this story to life.

Now what?

Technically, I know what's next: Edits. My critique group. Lots of coffee. Probably some tears. Writing contests. Polishing. Then the search for agents and publishers and (hopefully) a book contract. But that isn't what scares me most.

This novel is mine: my story, my ideas, my dream. It's fiction, but like any writing, it's intensely personal. Up until now, this story has lived only in my head. Now I'm launching it into the world. Other people will read it. They may like it. They may not. In fact, I know already that some people will hate it, because that's just the nature of the beast. No matter what we do, we can't please everyone. I'm letting people see a part of me that's been hidden for such a long time, and I'm opening myself up to criticism. That's scary.

But my dream has reached a point where it can't stay hidden anymore. Rough drafts can be written in secret. Dreams can be hidden for a while. But if dreams are to become reality - or even have a chance of becoming reality - they have to take wing. It's time to push my dream out into the world and see if it's fragile wings can catch the wind and take flight. It's been almost two years since I wrote about being a dreamer. Now it's time to take the dream to a new level.

I'm standing on the edge, looking into the unknown and seeing only a terrifying freefall. All the while, I hear a quiet whisper, "It's time. I've got this." God have me this dream. He called me to it. Now it's time to trust and take the leap. I'm scared, but I know my Father's courage will carry me through.