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The Festival of Joy

This past week I had the privilege of celebrating the Jewish Festival of Succoth with some of my Jewish friends and family members. Also known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, it commemorates God’s provision in the wilderness for 40 years when His people lived in temporary shelters, protected by His Clouds of Glory. To prepare for the week-long festival, we built a temporary structure or sukkah using leaves and other natural materials. We covered it with a roof made of branches that allowed us to see the night sky above. Here is the work in progress on our back deck.

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When the booth was finished, we decorated it in fitting style for an outdoor, candlelit feast.IMG_4258

We enjoyed all our meals outside in the sukkah, but I especially loved our dinners after sunset when the air was cool and crisp and fall-scented. On the night of the lunar eclipse, we had a beautiful view of the “blood moon.” Dwelling outside is an act of faith. We leave our sturdy houses and all our material goods behind and step into a flimsy shelter to remind ourselves that our trust is in God and not in our own strength.IMG_4284

God commanded His people to “Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your feast . . .” (Deut. 16:13). Our menus included produce that we grew this summer in our garden, as well as fall favorites like carrots and beets and squash and apples from our local farmer’s market. The final harvest had been brought in, and we rejoiced in God’s provision.harvest

The Feast of Succoth is one of the three great festivals that God’s people are commanded to celebrate each year in Jerusalem (see Leviticus 23). The Festival of Passover celebrates Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt—Christians celebrate Christ’s sacrifice for our redemption on Passover (Good Friday), when we were redeemed and given new life. The Feast of Pentecost celebrates God’s gift of the Torah, the instruction book for this new life of freedom—Christians celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, equipping us to grow in faith and live for God. The Feast of Tabernacles celebrates our faith in God’s provision for our everyday lives; it’s a feast with God, our Beloved, where we invite Him to dine with us in our sukkah—Christians not only enjoy fellowship with God now, but we look forward to this promise given in Revelation 21:3– “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them and be their God.” To celebrate inside a sukkah is to get a tiny taste of the joy we will experience on that future day.IMG_4271

“Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles . . . For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete” (Deut. 16: 15). May God bless the work of your hands and give you His joy.

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A Quiet Faith

handsWhen I think of the many Christian women who’ve inspired me, I always think of my paternal grandmother. I used to spend a week or two with her during summer vacations when I was a girl, and even though we were both eager to start each day together, Grandma always spent time with God first, reading her well-worn Bible and praying. Her faithfulness made a deep impression on me.

Sunday was the Lord’s Day, and I loved going to church with her. She was a lifelong member and a gifted pianist, playing for worship services and singing in the choir. My dad sang in the choir too, and thanks to Grandma, he had a perfect record of Sunday school attendance up to the day he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 18 to fight in World War II. He was Grandma’s only child, and I believe her prayers kept him safe during those years. As scripture says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

T UnionGrandma was a teetotaler her entire life. She joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union when she was 16 and took the pledge to never touch a drop of liquor. Following the motto, “Lips that touch liquor shall not touch ours,” young temperance women vowed never to court or marry a man who used alcohol. Grandma married my grandfather when she was 25 and I never saw him drinking alcohol, either.

bookWhile researching one of my novels, I came across some fascinating information about the WCTU and it gave me even more admiration for my grandmother. I decided to feature this women’s organization in my novel, Though Waters Roar.

barThe Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was started in 1874 by a group of women who had firsthand experience of the evils of alcohol, often from family members such as their husbands, fathers or sons. At that time in America there was one saloon for every 300 people. In some towns, bars outnumbered all the schools, libraries, hospitals, theaters and parks—added together. The ladies of the WTCU vowed to do something about it. They held prayer meetings and vigils outside popular saloons (in all sorts of weather) and even went inside sometimes, to shame patrons into going home to their wives and families. When the ladies succeeded in closing one establishment, they moved on to the next, doing their work “For God, for home, and for native land.”

Carrie Nation, the wife of an alcoholic, took her protests a step further. She brought an axe to local train stations and smashed shipments of whiskey before the contents could be distributed. She was arrested numerous times, yet never quit.axe

On January 29, 1920, Congress passed the 18th Amendment and the Temperance women achieved their goal of total prohibition of the sale of alcohol throughout the United States. Remarkably, these women achieved this at a time when they still didn’t have the right to vote. Grandma was undoubtedly happy when the amendment passed—and likely disappointed when Prohibition was later rescinded in 1933.

hands pianoIf I could go back in time and relive any memory with my grandmother, I would choose the hours we spent sitting side-by-side on her piano bench, singing our way through her well-used hymnbook. How I loved to watch her soft, graceful hands caress the piano keys and hear her rich alto voice, a little shaky with age, as she harmonized with my girlish soprano. She taught me to love those old hymns, and I still enjoy them today, especially Grandma’s favorite, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Thanks to her, Jesus is my friend, too.

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A Parable

IMG_3246I just drove down to the post office to mail an old, worn-out pair of shoelaces to a cat! It had to be one of the weirdest packages I’ve ever sent. But Dexter, who is my “grand-cat,” was lost without those shoelaces and overjoyed to have them back. Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, here’s the story.

I’ve written about Dexter before—how he was a homeless, rescue cat that no one wanted. My daughter and her husband gave him a temporary foster home and “tamed” him to help their overcrowded, local animal shelter. When a permanent home was found and Dexter was suddenly snatched from our lives, we all realized how very much we’d grown to love him and his quirky personality. Dexter must have missed us too, because a week later, his new owners returned him to the shelter, saying things weren’t working out. My daughter and son-in-law welcomed him back, permanently adopting him into their home.IMG_2114

The old, tattered, half-unraveled shoelaces in this story came from my son-in-law’s hiking boots. He threw the laces into the garbage after replacing them with a new pair. Dexter retrieved them from the trash and made them his new favorite toy. Tied together, they make one long string that he entertains himself with for hours. He holds one end of the lace in his mouth and runs in circles around a chair or under the dining room table, wildly chasing the other end. Sometimes the shoelace gets so entangled in the chair rungs that his creation resembles a spider’s web. Unconcerned, he leaves it there when he’s finished playing. He has figured out how to unravel it again when he’s ready to renew the chase.

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I kitty-sat for Dexter and his cat-brother, Leonidas, when my daughter and her husband went on vacation two weeks ago. Dexter had a grand time chasing his shoelace all over my house while he was here and winding it around my dining room chairs. And I have to admit that I enjoyed my morning snuggles with him when he would climb onto my lap to be hugged and petted, purring like a chainsaw, shedding white fur everywhere. But when we drove the cats back to Chicago, we accidentally left the shoelace behind. No other cord or string or shoelace could take the place of the worn-out, fraying one Dexter had grown to love. So I mailed it back to him. He retrieved it from the envelope himself.IMG_3250

IMG_2662Now, I’m normally not one of those people who give human emotions to animals. But I can’t deny that Dexter’s shoelace makes him happy. And his story moves me because it’s such a perfect picture of redemption. My daughter and son-in-law took a wild, bedraggled cat into their home and redeemed him through their love and patience. He’s not the same animal that first arrived at the shelter. And Dexter’s “love” for a worn-out, discarded shoelace transformed it into a toy that was worthy of first-class postage.

indexGod redeems us because He is somehow able to look past our rough exterior and see a beloved child in need of grace. And the love He extends to us through His Son Jesus has the power to transform us and change our lives. Every time I look at Dexter and his shoelace I have to wonder how often I’ve turned away from difficult, unlovable people, judging them unredeemable, unworthy of my time or compassion or love. And I wonder what miracles might take place if I learned to see people the way this once-unlovable cat saw a piece of trash. Or the way our Heavenly Father sees me.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him; for He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103: 13-14).

 

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A Year in Review

It’s popular this time of year for TV specials to review the past 12 months and remind us of all the events that occurred. I did something similar on January 1st and looked at my own year in review. Every morning during my quiet time I keep a journal, jotting down what I’ve been doing, what I’m praying for, and any insights that God shows me as I read my Bible. Sometimes it’s easy to miss the miraculous in the details of daily living, but as I re-read my journal for 2014, God’s hand became amazingly clear.IMG_1509

His answers to prayer, for instance. I began the year with many pleas for guidance as my husband prepared to retire from his job after 22 years. All the details of his retirement seemed overwhelming to me a year ago and occupied my prayers: selling our home, packing and purging and cleaning, moving to a new home in a new state, enduring financial changes, leaving friends and family behind. But here we are, settled-in and thriving, enjoying the changes, and thanking God for bringing us here. All that worry—for nothing!

IMG_0304There were prayers for family members too, chief among them for our son to find a job after earning his PhD in May. It was a nail-biter and the waiting seemed endless, but in God’s perfect timing a job opened up for him at the beginning of the college year, one he is enjoying immensely. Looking back at answered prayers gives me faith to believe that God will answer my future prayers too, in the year ahead.

IMG_0326(1)On January 1, 2014, I wrote: “A brand new year. I can’t imagine what it will bring, but I’ll trust in God. I long to live intentionally, to enjoy life every day, and not simply mark time on a calendar or check off a to-do list.” Little did I know all the places I would go or how much I would need to trust Him! In March I traveled on a speaking tour to the Netherlands. When I returned I wrote, “God gave me strength and His words to speak. He is able to do more than we can ever ask or imagine.” I also spoke at Sandy Cove Retreat Center in Maryland, and went on a wonderful speaking tour in Germany in June. In my journal I recalled how terrified I used to be of public speaking and of flying. “I wonder how often my fear and doubt have caused me to miss the good things God planned for me,” I wrote. “If I had remained fearful of speaking and flying, I would have missed the blessings of serving Him in these amazing places.” I used to have so much fear—when all along, God held my life in His faithful hand.

QuoteAs 2014 drew to a close, I wrote on December 31: “This has been a year of so many changes and new beginnings! Lord, help me to change in the days ahead and become more and more like Jesus.” And when I think about it, maybe that’s what the trials and challenges we face are really all about—teaching us to trust our Savior and to become more and more like Him. As a New Year begins, I pray that God will help me replace worry and fear with faith and trust in Him.

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Thanksgiving Joy

IMG_2618 Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, one that I’m determined not to allow our culture to hijack or separate from its faith-based roots. It has already happened with other Christian holidays—Christ’s resurrection has been replaced by chocolate bunnies and eggs, Christmas by Santa Claus and consumerism. Thanksgiving is quickly becoming a day to overindulge, watch football, and shop for bargains.

But the roots of Thanksgiving, like Christmas and Easter, are biblical. The Pilgrims got the idea for a harvest celebration from the Old Testament Feast of Tabernacles—in spite of what my daughter’s eighth grade social studies book said. The text never mentioned God and said that the Pilgrims were thanking the Indians!  When Abraham Lincoln began our modern-day celebration in 1863 it was as a religious holiday. He declared that the U.S. should observe “a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

IMG_2623I decided to consult the same source as the Pilgrims for my family’s Thanksgiving celebration. Deuteronomy 16:13-15 says: “Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress.” Feasting for seven days may not be realistic but one day isn’t nearly long enough to thank God for all my blessings—chief among them, my salvation. We try to make the long weekend a time of rest from the busyness and craziness of life, setting aside time to enjoy the people around us, and to thank God for the blessings of the past year.

“Be joyful at your feast—”  Joyful! Thanksgiving isn’t the time to nurse grudges and old wounds, it’s the time for a brand new start. A few days before the Feast of Tabernacles, God’s people knelt before Him on Yom Kippur and thoroughly examined their lives, confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness. And before daring to approach Him, they were commanded to mend any broken relationships and seek forgiveness from those they’ve harmed—and to extend forgiveness to those who asked. Imagine how joyful Thanksgiving Day would be if we celebrated it with a clean slate—a new beginning with God and with each other.

IMG_2627“…you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns.”  While I don’t have any maidservants (sigh), it’s a tradition in our family to invite people who are far from home or without family to feast with us. My husband and I started this tradition when we were “aliens” ourselves, living in South America. We invited a dozen expatriate friends to join us for Thanksgiving—and every year since then, our meal hasn’t been complete without the “aliens, fatherless and widows” at our table.

“For seven days celebrate the feast to the Lord your God . . .” I never want to forget that this is a feast dedicated to praising and thanking God. I love it that our church has a Thanksgiving Day worship service. God is at the center of our day, not the turkey. Our family also spends time around the table talking about our faith and our faithful God.IMG_2629

“For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands . . .” It’s interesting that Abraham Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving in the middle of the Civil War, a time of enormous hardship in our nation. I try to remember that God can bring blessings from our hardest trials, whether our “harvest” is big or small. The most painful times in my life were when I’ve drawn the closest to Him.

“…and your joy will be complete.”  Joy! Complete—with nothing lacking. Our lives will overflow with joy when we take time to express our gratitude to our God, the source of all our blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Flight of Faith

Every now and then I have the opportunity to get away from my desk and travel somewhere to speak. For months I had been looking forward to a Ladies’ Brunch at a church in St. Louis, Missouri. Flying there the day before, I arrived at O’Hare Airport in Chicago at 8:30 AM and checked the board for my gate number.

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What! I skimmed down the roster and saw that nearly every flight was DELAYED or CANCELLED. “There was a fire this morning in our main radar facility,” an airline employee explained. He pointed to a long line of passengers and said, “An agent will rebook your flight.”Chicago-Airport-FAA-Fire

I joined the line then called Bonnie, my contact at the church. “We’ll start praying,” she promised.

The line barely moved. When an hour had passed and hundreds of people were still lined up ahead of me, I called my husband in a panic. “Can you look into train schedules to St. Louis?” He called back to say that Amtrak was sold out until late tonight. I decided to wait a little longer before opting for the train. I was chewing my fingernails.breaking news

It took more than three hours to finally talk to a booking agent, so I had plenty of time to worry. All around me, people were shouting at employees and yelling into cell phones, explaining why they absolutely HAD to get to their destinations. My stomach churned with worry. Then it occurred to me that God was still in control. (I know, sometimes I’m slow-witted about these things).FAA control facility fire causes flight cancellations and delays

Did I believe that God had called me to speak at this church? Yes.

Then if He wanted me there, I would get there. And if He had another plan for the brunch tomorrow, then all the worrying in the world wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

When I finally spoke to an agent, I was calm as I explained my problem. “I can re-book you for 10:00 am tomorrow,” she said.

“That’s too late. I’m the keynote speaker at 9:00 am tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry but I have no seats available today.”

I didn’t budge. “I have to be there,” I repeated, still calm. “Can you book me on any flight out then re-route me back to St. Louis?” She explained that without radar, flights were landing and taking off one at a time. The chances of getting on any plane out of O’Hare today were grim. I still didn’t budge.

“Let me look again,” she said with a sigh. I listened as her fingers clicked across the keyboard. She looked up in surprise. “I do have a seat on a flight at 2:30 today—if the incoming plane manages to land here, that is.” I told her to book it.planes

At 3:30, I was still waiting at the gate with the other worried passengers. One young man was supposed to be the best man at his brother’s wedding. Three sweet ladies from Ireland were trying to get to their relative’s house. A young soldier on leave from Japan hadn’t seen his wife and 4-year-old son in months. He stood up and announced, “I’m renting a car. If anyone wants a ride, you’re welcome to come.”ppl waiting

Maybe this was God’s plan for me. I decided to join him. So did the Irish ladies and the best man. “But let’s check with the gate agent one last time before we give up,” I suggested. And at that very moment she learned that our airplane had finally landed. “But will it be able to take off again?” we all asked. She was reasonably certain it would. Eventually. And later that evening, it did.Ohare International Airprt

The brunch went well the next morning. I testified firsthand that God answers prayer, and told the ladies we should all stop worrying. Then I learned that all of the flights back to Chicago that day—and the next day—had been cancelled. And I had another speaking engagement in Michigan in a day and a half. I guess I needed a second lesson in faith.

Jesus urged His followers to go the extra mile, and Bonnie and her committee members lived out His command. They drove me halfway home, and my husband and his good friend drove the other half to pick me up. We all spent six hours in a car. But I made it to my next event.

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Is there a moral to this tale? Jesus said it best: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid? . . . Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

God is in control—and I’m not Him.

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Life Lessons

ÒI attended a funeral recently for a man I didn’t know well. His daughter is a friend from church, his wife a friend from book club. “It is better to go to a house of mourning,” scripture says, “than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).  I need a reminder, every now and then, of how short time my time on earth is, so I’ll make every day count. Ron’s funeral reminded me of some important life lessons.

1) Life is hard—don’t whine about it.  Ron grew up with seven siblings and little money.  To help out, he assisted his brother with his paper route so he could buy a bicycle and start his own route. Ron worked hard and finally bought a bike—and that very day a car backed over it and destroyed it. What did Ron do? He started all over again, working to save for another bike. As an adult, he applied the same work ethic and perseverance to start his own business, slowly growing it over the years.

Photo Credit: christian.senger via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: christian.senger via Compfight cc

I admit I’m a whiner. I love telling sob stories so everyone will feel sorry for me. But the trials we face build character—and often reveal our character. Yes, life is hard…but God is good.

2) People Matter. Ron’s office manager gave one of the most touching eulogies. “He was more than my boss,” she said. “He was a father to me, and a friend.” People were very important to Ron. Even the doorman from his condominium attended his funeral, weeping throughout the service. Ron knew when to leave work behind and spend time with family, attending their sporting events and programs, taking vacations together. His “family” grew into a huge extended one with plenty of love to go around.

People matter to God, and therefore they should matter to me. Is my heart large enough to encompass all the people God sends my way—including the doorman?

3) Our legacy. Ron was generous with his time, his money and his possessions. He and his family chose “birthday verses,” using the month and day of their birth to select a Bible passage that spoke to their heart. Ron chose 2 Corinthians 9:6-7: “Whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will reap generously…for God loves a cheerful giver.” Ron loved buying gifts for his family and was generous to strangers, as well. His wife had to restrain him from over-tipping in restaurants.

BEatitudesAm I living a life of generosity or sowing sparingly? As I sifted through my closets and storage rooms in preparation for our move, I was struck by the sheer amount of stuff I had stashed away. Why didn’t I donate it years ago?

We’ve heard these truths before, in many forms: Jesus’ parable of the Rich Fool who needed to build larger barns for all his stuff; Lazarus and the rich man whose concern for his family’s spiritual life came much too late. And remember Jesus’ words about not storing up treasures on earth? There are no U-Haul trailers behind hearses.

The legacy I leave behind doesn’t consist of my possessions or the money leftover in my retirement account after I’m gone. I’m building a legacy every day with all the seemingly minor choices I make, the priorities I choose, and the way I treat people.  And when I graduate to heaven, I hope I’m remembered for showing the love of Christ to others.

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Moving Day

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My temporary office

Today is the day I’ve been anticipating for the past eight months, the day we move into our new home in Michigan. It’s the end of a journey but also the beginning of a new one.

Library shelves in our new house
Library shelves in our new house

My husband Ken and I started planning his retirement last fall as we vacationed in Michigan where he grew up—and where we met and fell in love.  As we cycled along one of our favorite bicycle trails near the lakeshore, we saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign in front of a beautiful little house that I’d long admired.  The owners were having an open house that day, so we tromped inside in our cycling clothes. As soon as I saw the custom-built library shelves in the great room, complete with a rolling library ladder, I fell in love. The house had everything we needed, including a gorgeous new office for me, and a sandy beach on Lake Michigan where we could watch the sunset every evening.

But it was only October of 2013. Ken wasn’t retiring until May, 2014. We returned home, looked over our finances, prayed long and hard, and decided that we just couldn’t afford to own two houses. Renting and/or commuting for the next eight months were also out of the question. With heavy hearts, we told the wonderful Christian couple who were selling the home that we simply couldn’t buy it right now.

As it turned out, the owners had been praying as well. In a moment I will never forget, they called to tell us, “We believe God wants you to have our home. We’re willing to take it off the market and live here until you sell your house next spring.”  It seemed like a miracle.

Packing
Packing

All winter, I sorted through twenty-two years’ worth of stuff we’ve accumulated since buying this house. As spring arrived, I began to worry about how this would all work out. Would our house sell quickly and for a good price? What if it didn’t sell at all after the sellers in Michigan had waited so patiently? We prayed and listed it for sale on a Friday morning, and after a weekend of non-stop showings, we had five offers by Monday morning. We accepted an offer for our full asking price.  The beautiful young family who bought it is as excited about their new home as we are about ours.

Ken and I at the beach
Ken and I at the beach

Now the months of packing and waiting are over. As you read this post, I will be unpacking boxes, setting up my computer, and putting books on my library shelves. From start to finish, Ken and I have seen God at work in this move, dispelling all doubts about our decision to retire in Michigan. And maybe that’s why everything happened the way it did. With a move of this magnitude involving so many changes in our life, God must have known I would have questioned and doubted and second-guessed our decision if things hadn’t gone so smoothly.

My new office
My new office

We’ve arrived at a new beginning, praising God for His goodness. I wonder if Abraham and Sarah felt this much joy and anticipation when they packed up their household to follow God?

 

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Editing—and Life!

             Dad's pics 112How long does it take to write a book?  The answer is different for every author, but for me the process takes one year. Since I write historical fiction, I begin by doing research, a step that is truly fun for me. I love reading and digesting hundreds of facts and images and ideas about different time periods and pouring that information into what I call “story soup.” For the biblical series that I’m currently writing, I’ve read several translations of the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, along with a variety of study notes and commentaries.  These historical sources are fascinating to me, especially the archaeological discoveries from this period. One book compared the details of Queen Esther’s story in the Bible with the archaeological ruins of her palace in Susa—and the Bible proved to be amazingly accurate. But my favorite part of doing research is traveling to the places I’m going to write about—in this case, the land of Israel.

            Doing research generates story ideas, and the next step in the process is creation—taking all of the raw materials and crafting them into a story. I begin by creating my characters, and I even pin pictures of how I imagine them to look on a bulletin board above my desk. This is the fun part of writing. I can let my imagination soar, using my creativity to transform historical facts and images into a story that will bring the time period to life for my readers.In my office workspace

            I try to let the story flow freely, and I since I don’t outline the novel ahead of time I make up the plot as I go along. But I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and usually can’t resist the urge to edit what I’ve written as fast as I write it. I often begin each writing day by re-reading yesterday’s pages (which seemed so brilliant as I was writing them!) and re-working them before launching into the new writing for that day.  By the time the book is finished, I’ve re-written and edited the story dozens of times.

            I’m blessed to be part of a writers’ critique group, sharing my writing life with two very special women—multi-pusharpen verseblished authors Jane Rubietta and Cleo Lampos. We’ve been meeting together for more than 21 years now, and as they critique my work-in-progress, our collaboration always makes my novels even better. As scripture says, “You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, The Message).

            When my final draft is complete, the novel still isn’t finished. I always print out the manuscript so I can read and edit the printed pages.  Then I type those edits back into the computer for one final rewrite. By now, my deadline usually has arrived so it’s time to send the manuscript to my publishing company. I always wish that this was the final step, that I could be finished with the project and move on to writing the next novel. It isn’t.

            My editor gives the manuscript to several in-house readers and compiles their comments and observationsEditing an English language document, along with her own, into a long letter of things for me to “consider” as I re-write it one more time. I confess, I dislike this step most of all, and would skip it entirely if I could. It makes me feel the way I did in school when a project I’ve worked on for a long time comes back with a grade of B instead of the A+ I was hoping for.  

            But the truth is, we are often blind to our own faults. The characters and story are clear in my own mind because I’ve lived with them for nearly a year, but to an outside reader, there may be thoughts I failed to convey, or holes in the plot that need to be filled, or maybe a loose thread left dangling. Fresh eyes can see these flaws much more clearly that I can. So in the interest of publishing the best possible book, I’ve learned to value these comments, even when they prick my pride and feel like unwelcome criticism.

            I’ve discovered that I need other people in my Christian walk of faith, too. We Americans are proud of our rugged individualism, and that attitude can carry over into our spiritual lives if we’re not careful. “Me and Jesus—that’s all I need.” But it isn’t true. I know how much my writing improves as I share it with trusted friends in my critique group, or with my editor . And the same honest sharing of my spiritual struggles can benefit me as well.

david-and-nathanIt’s difficult for me to let someone “wash my feet,” and even more difficult to be the one to point out the need for washing to someone else, especially someone I look up to. I admire the courage it took for Nathan the prophet to confront King David after he sinned with Bathsheba. And I admire the humility and courage it took for David to accept Nathan’s rebuke, knowing that it had really come from God. Psalm-139-23-24-web-nlt

            Whether it’s my manuscript or my life, I need other people to be my outside eyes, helping me stay on the right path. When I’m brave enough to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart…see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24), I shouldn’t be surprised when He sends a friend into my life to gently point the way back to the right path.

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Hezekiah’s Tunnel

Pilgrimage_compThis week’s blog is excerpted from my new non-fiction book, Pilgrimage: My Journey to a Deeper Faith In the Land Where Jesus Walked. (Bethany House Copyright 2013)

 

 

Hezekiah’s Tunnel

downloadThe icy water takes my breath away. I wade into it, stepping down, and down again, until it reaches my thighs. But the shivery water isn’t the worst part of this trek through King Hezekiah’s tunnel. There is no light in here, electric or natural, and the claustrophobic tunnel meanders underground as if excavated by drunkards. Ahead of me, a tall man stoops to keep from smacking his head on the stone ceiling. A heavyset woman looks as though she regrets this adventure as she squeezes between the slimy walls. None of us can turn back. There’s only enough room to walk single file.Gods and Kings

This water system, deep below the city of Jerusalem, is manmade. The Bible tells us that “It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David” (2 Chronicles 32:30). I know the story well. The first novel I ever wrote, Gods and Kings, was part a three-book series about the life of King Hezekiah, who reigned in Jerusalem seven hundred years before Christ. With no supply of fresh water in the city and the vicious Assyrian army marching toward him, Hezekiah needed to find a way to safeguard the freshwater spring, located outside the city walls. His solution was to dig an underground tunnel from the spring to a new reservoir within the walls. Pressured to complete the work before the Assyrians attacked, he ordered the workers to start digging from opposite ends and meet in the middle.

IMG_0154“Hey, is it safe to trust a tunnel that was dug 2,700 years ago?” someone asks as we slosh forward. I shake my head but no one sees me in the dark. No. I don’t trust an ancient tunnel, especially in a city that has occasional earthquakes. I can only trust God—and keep moving, shining my feeble flashlight. The chiseled floor is uneven and rough, and since we can’t see our feet below the inky water, we shuffle slowly, careful not to stumble and fall. I’m not a big fan of caves, and this manmade one with its straight walls and squared-off ceiling is dark and creepy. The weight of the mountain above my head feels crush332_507041389024_3670_ning.

“How much farther?” someone asks in a shaky voice. I don’t dare tell her that this serpentine tunnel will wind for nearly a third of a mile and take about half an hour to walk through. The college students in our group try to lighten the atmosphere with laughter and jokes. Then one of them starts to sing: “Fill it up and let it overflow . . .” It’s an upbeat version of “Amazing Grace” with an added refrain, “Fill it up and let it overflow, let it overflow with love.” Soon, everyone joins in.

Siloam11We reach the middle and stop to see the spot where the two tunnels met. Here, chiseled into the rock, was the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered, written by Hezekiah’s men to explain how they had broken through after digging from opposite ends. The inscription is in a museum in Turkey, not here. We shine our flashlights on the wall and see where it once was, and also how the chisel marks slant from opposite directions at the meeting point.

This tunnel is an engineering marvel, especially when you consider that it was dug in 700 BC. Experts still aren’t sure how anyone could dig two meandering tunnels that began a third of a mile apart and get them to meet up in the middle, deep underground. Impossible! Everyone who hears the story and sees the tunnel is impressed with King Hezekiah and his men.

But God wasn’t impressed. He sent the prophet Isaiah to rebuke the king for all of his plans, saying, “You built a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the Old Pool, but you did not look to the One who made it, or have regard for the One who planned it long ago’” (Isaiah 22:11). In other words, Hezekiah was relying on his own preparations instead of trusting God.

Fifteen minutes later, a pinprick of light in the distance tells us we are almost to the end. I have a new respect for that old cliché about DSCN1594seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I hear a lot of grateful sighs, including my own, when we wade out into the blinding sunlight. As we sit in the sun to warm up and let our clothes dry out, I’m still thinking of Hezekiah.

BSBA270104100The city of Jerusalem was saved from the Assyrians, but not by this tunnel. When the most powerful army on earth surrounded Hezekiah, demanding surrender, he knew he’d reached the end of his resources. Facing an impossible situation, he went up to the Temple and knelt before God, placing his hope and trust in Him: “O Lord Almighty, God of Israel,” he prayed. “You alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth . . . Now, O Lord our God, deliver us from [the enemy’s] hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God” (Isaiah 37:16, 20). That night, the angel of the Lord walked among the sleeping Assyrian warriors and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand of them. At dawn, the horrified king of Assyria gathered up his few surviving soldiers and bolted for home.

Angel-destroying-AssyriansIt’s okay to make plans, but the lesson of Hezekiah’s tunnel is that when we put our trust in God, not only is He victorious but He is glorified. I think of the struggles I’ve experienced lately as life has veered out of my control, the times when I’ve panicked as the water has crept higher and higher until it seemed to reach my neck. In spite of all my feverish plans and schemes, the enemy has besieged and surrounded me, leaving me trapped with no way to escape. But as I sit in the sunlight outside Hezekiah’s tunnel, I think of God’s promise from Isaiah, the prophet in Hezekiah’s time: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:1-2).

light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnelWe can step into the deep water, the darkness, the unknown—and trust God. At the end of the tunnel, we will emerge into dazzling sunlight.