The Voyage

I once heard a speaker compare life to a kayak trip downriver. Sometimes the waters are smooth and we can enjoy a leisurely journey, admiring the beauty all around us. But every now and then we hit the rapids and we’re suddenly thrown into a mad scramble to stay afloat. As we navigate past rocks and other dangers, overwhelmed with fear, we wonder if life will ever be serene and peaceful again. Eventually the river smooths out and we sail back into calmer waters. And if we’re wise, we will have learned some valuable lessons that can prepare us for the next patch of rough water. Here’s what I learned on last year’s voyage:

Our family hit the rapids last June when my husband suffered a heart attack. He has fully recovered now, and we’re back to smooth sailing. But during those weeks of frantic paddling, I learned that life is fragile and precious. God can call us home to Himself at any time. More than ever, I want to hold my loved ones close in the coming year, and not squander a moment of time that I have with them. I need to remember which things in life are really important and which ones aren’t worth fussing about.
In my faith walk, I came into some challenging waters last year when our church hired a new lead pastor. He is a wonderful preacher, and our church has welcomed and embraced him. But he is challenging us to get out of our comfortable ruts so we can think more like Jesus and serve more like Him. I much prefer to float in a lagoon with people who are just like me—but Jesus longs for me to reach out to those who are different, those who may be drowning in the rapids, and offer them a helping hand. Yes, the comfortable ministries I’ve been involved with in the past have been good ones. But for the sake of the kingdom, it’s time for me to stop doing “church” and get involved with the world around me in the same way Jesus did.
My writing life has been mostly calm this past year. And yet . . . I have felt God challenging me not to settle for safe waters. As an act of trust, I need to take new risks and move out into deeper water. One way I’ve been doing that is by self-publishing an out-of-print novel of mine called “Fly Away.” It took a lot of work and required learning new things—and you know what they say about teaching old dogs new tricks! But a letter from a reader made it all worthwhile when she wrote to tell me how much “Fly Away” has blessed her. Why start a new venture when I’ve been successful with a traditional publisher? Why not stay in safe waters? Because sometimes complacency masks a lack of faith. I don’t like change—does anyone? Yet I know from experience that my faith grows the most during times of change.
I wish I could see around the bend in the river at what lies ahead for 2018—but I can’t. So, I’m choosing to sail forward into the unknown, comforted by one of my favorite verses from Isaiah: “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). Bon Voyage!

Trimming the Tree

My publishing company, Bethany House, recently asked their authors to send a picture of their favorite Christmas ornament to post on their Facebook page. I had a very difficult time deciding! Let me take you on a tour of our Christmas tree so you can see why.
These beautiful crocheted ornaments came from my sister-in-law, Marion Engel, who gave them to me a few years ago when she was down-sizing. She hand-made many of them. I loved them so much that they’ve become the theme for my tree.
I have ornaments from my family when I was growing up, purchased at Woolworth’s 5&10 cent store. Remember Woolworths? They were the Dollar Store of the 1950s. Our family couldn’t afford more expensive ornaments.
I also have some that belonged to my husband’s family when he was growing up. They are fragile and fading a bit, but I love them. Very vintage!
A friend of mine made this Pooh Bear for our son Joshua when he was a baby. Poor Pooh Bear is looking a little tattered after all these years, but he’s still a well-loved favorite.
My husband Ken is a professional trumpet-player, and many of his students have given him trumpet ornaments as Christmas presents. I add more musical ornaments to his collection whenever I find some.
Every year since our granddaughter was born, I’ve purchased a small picture-frame ornament so we can watch her grow through the years.
This mailbox ornament that a Canadian friend made for us reminds me of Christmas when we lived in Canada. The mailbox provides a perfect place to hide a clue leading to a present that’s too big to wrap and put beneath the tree.
I have beautiful Delft ornaments that were given to me on my book tours to the Netherlands.
And olivewood ornaments from our trips to the Holy Land.
But my favorite ornaments? It has to be these two:
My son and daughter made them out of Styrofoam and yarn when they were in kindergarten more than thirty years ago.
Every year, our family relives many great memories when we decorate our tree. And now, my wish for you and your loved ones is for a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year!

The Master Geocacher

Last month my husband and I finally went on our long-planned summer vacation to northern Michigan. We were supposed to go last June but it had to be postponed due to a family medical emergency. Our good friends Jacki and Paul organized the entire trip and took us to some of their favorite places, with quaint towns, beautiful forests, and pristine lakes and beaches. Here are just a few of the highlights.

Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National ParkBeneath the breathtaking Mackinac Bridge

Mackinac Island and the historic Grand Hotel.

Biking in Mackinac Island State Park.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Tahquamenon Falls State Park

One of the added bonuses that made the trip especially fun was that our friend Paul is a geocache enthusiast. If you aren’t familiar with the hobby of geocaching, Paul explains it as “the art of using million dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods.” According to Wikipedia, geocaching is “an outdoor recreational activity, in which participants use GPS to hide and seek containers called ‘caches’ in specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world.” It was my first time geocaching, and I called it fun!

Each of the places we visited in the photos above also had geocaches hidden nearby. If I’m already visiting a beautiful site like Tahquamenon Falls why not make it even more interesting by adding a treasure hunt?

Here’s a cache we found on Mackinac Island.

And another fun one in Sault Ste. Marie “hidden” right in someone’s front yard.

I’m hooked! You can probably expect another blog about my geocaching adventures in the future. But what I loved about this hobby is that it taught me to open my eyes and take a closer look at my surroundings instead of what’s directly in front of me. I can get so carried away with my camera that I end up seeing everything through that lens instead of looking at things in real life. The GPS coordinates would give the general area of the cache, but I had to look closer and notice little details in order to find what was hidden. Not only did caches come in all sizes and shapes, but some of them were hidden in very creative places. I learned to open my eyes and really see!

Geocaching reminded me of a lesson that our pastor has been trying to impress on us in his sermons lately: that every person on earth deserves to be treated with dignity because he or she has been created in the image of God. Scripture is clear on this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him” (Genesis 1:27). Like a Master Geocacher, God has placed the treasure of His image in every one of us. Instead of merely noticing someone’s outward appearance or behavior and judging them, I need to look for that hidden treasure of God’s image. Many of the people I meet are beautiful inside and out, making it easy to find. For others, it may take a bit of searching on my part, but it’s there nonetheless if I look hard enough.

And that’s what I want to do. From now on, may God grant me the patience to stop looking through the narrow lens of my own prejudices and keep searching for that beautiful hidden treasure within every person I meet.

 

Fearless

The real-life sisters, Agnes and Margaret Smith, who inspired my newest novel, “Where We Belong,” had a favorite motto that continues to intrigue me. Whenever they were in danger or in a precarious situation they would say, “God knows when the end of our days will be. We have nothing to fear.” I borrowed their motto for my fictional sisters, Becky and Flora Hawes, to use whenever they found themselves in a sticky situation. I added a humorous twist to it in one scene when they are onboard a steamship during a ferocious storm at sea:

Flora cried out as the ship suddenly leaned so far to one side she feared it would tip over. Her body was crushed against the wall as her bulky steamer trunk pinned her there. When the ship righted itself a moment later, Becky shoved the trunk away, freeing her.

“Are you all fight, Flora?”

“Yes, I think so.” They both took a moment to steady their nerves and secure their luggage again.

Becky exhaled. “God knows when the hour of our end will be,” she said in a shaky voice. “But I sincerely hope it isn’t tonight.”

It’s one thing for me to be fearless when I’m sitting in my armchair by the fireplace, and quite another when my airplane hits turbulence midway over the Atlantic Ocean. Or when I get bad news from my doctor. I’m not afraid of dying—but I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen yet! We live in fearful times. The most frightening thing about acts of terror is that we never know when or where they may occur. We could be enjoying a concert; sitting in a restaurant; taking in a tourist attraction; attending an office Christmas party; sitting at our desk at work or at school. The suspense of continually looking over our shoulder intensifies the fear—which is the terrorists’ goal.

My niece faced a dilemma. Her fourteen-year-old son wanted to take part in an event called the Life Chain. Participants line up shoulder to shoulder along a busy street and hold up signs to remind the people driving past that “Abortion stops a beating heart,” or “It’s a child, not a choice.” It’s a peaceful, pro-life demonstration that synced well with her son’s passionate, Christian beliefs. Understandably, my niece worried about fanatics or terrorists taking aim at her sweet son and plowing into him on the sidewalk. Should she let him take part? How would you advise her? It’s one thing to be courageous when our own life is at stake and quite another to let our precious children and grandchildren be at risk.

A friend of mine, who is the director of an international prayer ministry, recently met with a group of Christian women from South Korea. She asked how they handled living with the daily threat of destruction from North Korea. The women responded that they didn’t have time to live in fear. They were too busy preparing to flood across the border to bring the hope of the gospel to their North Korean brothers and sisters once the evil regime was finally destroyed.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately, and what the Bible has to say about it. Several favorite passages come to mind:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
These are great verses to know the next time I’m in danger. But even more, I need to know the Savior who makes those promises. If I’m ever asked to take a courageous stand for my faith, as persecuted Christians in other nations do every day, I want to be fearless, knowing without doubt that the God I know and love is with me. He knows when the end of my days will be. I have nothing to fear.

To purchase my latest book, “Where We Belong” click here.

Nearly Half a Century

Last week, my husband Ken and I celebrated our wedding anniversary, and it was an almost-big one—47 years. We are inching our way toward half a century. And what a crazy, exciting, 47- year ride it has been! When Ken proposed to me he said, “If you marry me we’ll probably never be rich, but we’ll see the world.” And he was right. We met while attending college in Michigan, got married in my home state of New York, and moved to New Haven, Connecticut where we celebrated our first anniversary.
Our very memorable third anniversary was spent camping in a pup tent in Maine and having to evacuate as a hurricane swept up the Atlantic coast. On our 5th anniversary we were living in Bogota, Colombia and trying in vain to find American-style pizza for the celebration. Anniversary #10 was spent in Indiana in 98 degree heat with no central air-conditioning in our tiny, three-bedroom house. We went to the opposite extreme for anniversary #13, living in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, where the weather starts turning frosty in August. And we celebrated # 15 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where the mosquitoes will carry you off as hostages in late August. Twenty of our most recent anniversaries were celebrated in the Chicago area, which has the best pizza in America, by the way. And now, after many vacations and trips to far-flung places, we just spent our 47th anniversary relaxing on our beach in Michigan.
Back when we were newlyweds and needed a car, Ken and I decided to splurge on a little two-seat, burgundy-colored, Triumph Spitfire convertible. We drove that little car all over the country, including a memorable cross-country trek from Connecticut to Anchorage, Alaska where Ken performed for the Alaska Festival of Music. By the time we reached our sixth anniversary, our son Joshua had just been born, and the sports car had to be traded in for a more practical vehicle. What followed were many wonderful, hectic years spent raising our three children, helping them finish school, reach their dreams, and find jobs and spouses. And now Ken and I are alone again, and that’s kind of nice, too. When we first became empty-nesters, we would gaze across the dinner table at each other and jokingly say, “Hey, I remember you!”

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About a week ago, Ken and I were out for a morning walk when we spotted a cute little second-hand, burgundy-colored, Mazda Miata convertible for sale. Wouldn’t it be fun, we thought, to return to our early years of tooling around the country together, side-by-side with the top down? It didn’t take much to convince each other, and we bought the car as our “almost-fiftieth-anniversary” present to each other.
We were barely out of our teens when we met and married, so we’ve had plenty of time to live, love, and grow old together. We began as best friends and still are. Romance is great, and every marriage needs a strong, healthy dose of it. But there’s a lot to be said for friendship, too—enjoying each other and sharing hobbies and interests. And while I don’t think we’re crazy enough to drive all the way to Alaska again, I’m looking forward to some surprising new adventures in our little sports car as we approach our fiftieth year. So, happy anniversary, Ken! I can’t wait to see where we end up next.

A Wonderful Visit

I just returned from a wonderful visit with my mother and my sister Peggy and her family in the little village in New York State where I grew up. The town is nestled in the Shawangunk Mountains, and seeing the mountains again is like seeing old friends. I always forget how much I’ve missed them while living in the flat Midwest. Peggy and I had a chance to go on several hikes while I was home, taking her new rescue dog, Franny, with us.
We hiked around a mountaintop lake.
And admired the vistas of the valley, below.
We let Franny swim in this creek and she “shared” the cool water with us as she shook herself dry.
We hiked across the Hudson River on a former railroad trestle that has been converted into a rails-to-trails pathway called “Walkway Over the Hudson.”
Hiking in the woods and enjoying nature always restores me. When I take time to look at creation, I’m reminded of what a glorious God we serve. Seeing His infinite creativity renews my own urge to create. And being with my family—the people who know me the best and love me the most—helps me remember who I am and where I’ve come from.
It puts my lifelong journey into perspective and helps me see how God has shaped me along the way. I returned to my home in Michigan refreshed and ready to dig into the work that God has given me to do. My prayer is the same one that Moses prayed:
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. . . .Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. . . . Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. . . . establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90)

When Plans Change

My husband and I planned our summer vacation months ago. All spring, we’ve looked forward to exploring the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with our friends, seeing Tahquamenon Falls, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and taking a boat tour through the Soo Locks. But then a family medical emergency cancelled our plans. We’re thankful that God answered our prayers and the emergency ended well, but our trip will have to be postponed until next summer.

Our change in plans has started me thinking about some of the summer vacations we took with our children when they were small. One of the most memorable was a trip from our home in Winnipeg, Canada to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, towing a borrowed pop-up trailer. We awoke after our first night of camping to find that all four of the trailer’s tires had gone flat. After a trip into town to buy four new ones, we were on our way again. Once we arrived in the Rockies, we discovered that the trailer had a broken heater, so after a few very cold nights, we changed our plans and headed south to the Grand Canyon and warmer weather.

Somewhere around Durango, Colorado, several warning lights on our car’s dashboard began flashing. We made a detour to a repair shop and learned that the pop-up trailer had a faulty electrical system, which was draining our car’s battery. After more repairs and a new battery, we were on our way again.

We showed up at the canyon at sunset, which is a beautiful time to arrive unless you need a campsite. All of the campgrounds were full. Signs throughout the park threatened enormous fines for camping anywhere except in designated sites. And it was a long, hot drive back to the nearest town.

Weary and desperate, we pulled into a parking lot behind a restaurant for the night. We didn’t dare to “pop up” the pop-up and risk a costly fine, so we decided to sleep in our car. All five of us. In our Toyota station wagon. Our sons Joshua and Benjamin slept in the two front seats, reclining them back as far as they would go. Ken and I emptied the luggage from the back of the car, folded down the rear seat, and slept there with our daughter, Maya. I use the term “slept” very loosely. “Dozed” is more like it as Ken and I folded ourselves around the wheel wells and tried to avoid Maya’s flailing arms and legs.

All night long, I expected to hear a dreaded knock on my window, and to face an angry park ranger ticketing us for not camping in a designated area. I planned to reply, “Does this look like we’re camping? If we were camping I would be asleep in the trailer behind us, not folded like a pretzel in our Toyota!” The long night ended without any fines. In fact by morning, the entire parking lot was filled with cars and trailers and rumpled families just like ours. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how hard it would be to find a campsite at the Grand Canyon.

We saw a lot of beautiful sites on that trip and had a lot of fun. For Ken and me, it was memorable because of the costly tires, the new battery, the electrical work, and the sleepless night. But when we asked the kids what they enjoyed most about that trip, guess what they said. “Sleeping in the car!” One of them asked if we could do it again.

I dislike change, especially when it collides with my well-laid plans. But it seems as though the unplanned, unexpected changes that come our way leave a deeper imprint in our memories than when everything goes according to schedule. I will get to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula another year. But in the aftermath of our medical emergency, I saw how beautifully our family pulls together and shows our deep love for one another. Our faith has been strengthened after sensing God’s presence throughout the crisis and knowing that He hears and answers our prayers. In the end, that’s worth much more to me than a pile of vacation photos.

Where have you seen God at work when your plans were changed?

Best Friends

Everyone needs a best friend—someone to laugh with, cry with, and do fun and crazy things with. Today I’m celebrating some of my dearest friends.

Friends like Cathy who has an amazing sense of fashion and loves to go shopping with me. I was tired of my same old dreary clothes, so Cathy trolled through my closet with me and helped me decide what I should donate to charity. Then we went shopping to re-fill all those empty clothes hangers. It was especially fun to find a 60% off sale in one of our favorite stores! I had a ball trying on clothes and buying a new outfit for an upcoming speaking event. Cathy is the one who first encouraged me to speak at church events years ago. She prayed with me and gave me the courage to do it.

She is also my biking buddy. Along with our husbands, Cathy and I biked more than 200 miles while on vacation in Florida last January.

My friend Jacki went with me to two of my speaking events recently, driving me and helping me haul all of my books inside, set them up, and then sell them. I consider that “going the extra mile” for friendship’s sake.

We also went to a greenhouse together and bought flowers for our gardens. They were so beautiful and colorful and fragrant, it was like taking a mini-vacation. It’s so much more fun to do everyday things like this together.

And these are my faithful writer friends, Jane and Cleo. We have been meeting to share our lives and critique each other’s writing for more than 25 years. When we began, none of us were published—and none of our children were married. Now we all have multiple books to our credit—and multiple grandchildren!

We have celebrated each publishing milestone and cried with each other through our many disappointments. We brainstorm plots and titles together—and we laugh a lot. And eat a lot. This Indian restaurant is one of our favorite places to go for our writers’ meetings.

Where would any of us be without our friends? I know my life would be much lonelier without them. If you have friends who are dear to you, I hope you’ll take a moment this week to tell them how much they mean to you, and to celebrate God’s gift of friendship.

Apple Pie and Other Treasures

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It was supposed to be a fun excursion to do research for my next book, but icy rain poured from the winter sky as our friends, Paul and Jacki, drove my husband and me through the Michigan countryside.  Paul is a lifelong resident of Western Michigan and knows just about every back road and fun, out-of-the-way place on the map—and a few places that aren’t on the map. “I want to show you something,” he said, as we pulled into a little town I’d never heard of. “Do you like pies?”

Of course! Who doesn’t? We drove past humble houses, down streets without traffic lights or sidewalks, and pulled into the driveway of a small, unassuming, brick home. The garage door stood open but there weren’t any cars in it, only a nice-looking riding lawn mower and the usual clutter found in most garages, hanging from hooks and heaped around the perimeter. “Who lives here?” I asked.

Paul shrugged. “I don’t know.”

We piled out of the car and dashed through the rain into the open garage. I like to think of myself as adventurous but walking into a stranger’s untended garage, uninvited, seemed odd. I expected the door leading into the house to open at any moment and for the owner to ask us what we were doing.

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Two huge, ancient-looking chest freezers stood along the rear wall of the garage. Paul opened the lid of one and asked, “What kind of pie do you like? There’s apple, cherry, blueberry, pecan . . . Ooo, and homemade apple dumplings!” A hand-lettered sign listed the prices. A battered cardboard box collected the money on the honor system. “We’ve had these pies before,” Paul said. “You just take them home and bake them. They’re delicious.”

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He explained that this was a fund-raising effort on behalf of a local church. The women gathered together every so often like an old-fashioned quilting bee and spent the day baking in the church kitchen. The finished pies were sold out of this garage. I glanced around but didn’t see any security cameras. The entire endeavor operated on trust, and had become well-known in the community and surrounding area. Everyone for miles around knew where the small, brick house was, and that the garage door would always be open. The freezers would always be filled with pies. The cardboard moneybox would be waiting.

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I felt like I’d stepped back through time into a kinder, gentler era. “I don’t believe it!” I said. “Who does this kind of thing?” Until two years ago, I lived in the Chicago area along with six million other people. This pie-selling setup would never work there. No one would ever agree to leave their garage door open all day, and their lawnmower and other household goods unguarded, with only a flimsy door leading into their home—not to mention leaving several hundred dollars-worth of pies in unlocked freezers. And with soaring energy costs, no one would ever volunteer to pay the electric bill for two huge, non-energy-efficient freezers.

So, what sort of people would ever be this generous, this trusting?

People who had faith in God and wanted to support their church. People who put serving Him ahead of their material possessions. People who trusted that even if the worst happened and thieves broke in their home, God would somehow use the situation for His glory. People who believed that their “neighbors” included strangers they’d never met who might be in need of a pie.

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I’m guessing these trusting, pie-selling homeowners will have a whole pile of treasure waiting for them in heaven.

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We chose a plumb an apple pie and put a $10 dollar bill in the money box. It turned out, Paul was right—the pie was delicious!

The Secret

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The fairy-tale-themed wedding was lovely. My husband’s nephew and his bride made a beautiful couple. Afterwards at the reception, the DJ invited the bride and groom and all the other married couples out onto the dance floor for a Generations Dance. It was crowded at first, but each time the DJ called out an anniversary—five years, 10 years, and so on—couples who had been married for only that length of time had to sit down. At last, only the bride and groom and the longest-married couple remained. I was surprised to find that Ken and I had won. We’ve been married for more than 46 years.

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The DJ handed us a microphone and asked us to tell the new bride and groom the secret of our long, happy marriage. I’m not sure how I replied, having no time to prepare. But I’ve thought about it a lot since then and here are two of our “secrets.”

The most important one is to build your marriage on the foundation of Christ. There’s a very good reason why scripture tells us not to be unequally yoked with a non-believer—it’s because it doesn’t work. Since a Christian’s life-goal is to love and serve and glorify God, marriage becomes very difficult when your partner has a conflicting goal. What’s more, a successful marriage is going to require grace and forgiveness many times over, and this doesn’t come naturally to us. We learn what true love and forgiveness really are from God, who continues to love us in spite of our stupid mistakes, and who forgives us at great cost. The secret of a happy marriage is to follow His example and love each other sacrificially.

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Ken and I were fresh out of college when we married, and we each had dreams and goals for our lives. The first goal for Ken was a graduate degree at Yale University, so I postponed my dreams for a few years and worked to support us. His bigger dream was to play full-time in a symphony orchestra, and so after graduation when he won a position as principal trumpet in the National Symphony Orchestra in Bogota, Colombia, we left family and friends to move to South America. We did the same thing a few years later when Ken won principal trumpet in the orchestra in Thunder Bay, Ontario and later in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a total of eleven years of Canadian winters.

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In the meantime our family was growing, and my first dream was to be a stay-at-home mom to our children. Ken took several jobs in addition to the orchestra so I wouldn’t have to work outside the home—teaching, music minister at a church, and even playing in a dance band until the wee hours of the morning. When I began to pursue my dream of writing, Ken immediately became my greatest advocate and cheerleader. I’ll never forget the day he brought home our first computer—an expense we couldn’t afford. I hadn’t published a single word, but he told me he believed I would become a great writer, someday.

WP_000469And so my second secret to a long and happy marriage is to take time to prayerfully plan and dream together. Then do everything you can and sacrifice whenever you can, to help your partner fulfill those dreams. Thanks, Ken, for 46 wonderful years. It has been an amazing adventure!