Doing Battle

Last month, our town hosted a Civil War Muster in a local park. Re-enactors from all over the country came here to camp in canvas tents, wear authentic uniforms, and re-create famous Civil War battles. A friend and I sat on a hilltop to view the battles while our husbands performed period music in the brass band. As I watched the north and the south shoot rifles and cannons at each other, I thought of two of my husband’s ancestors, Isaac Austin and his son George Hiram Austin who both fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Isaac Austin was taken captive and became a prisoner-of-war, eventually ending up in the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia. While he was away fighting, his wife died. His twin sons were too young to enlist, but after losing his mother, George Hiram lied about his age and went off to war at age sixteen. He was taken prisoner as well, and also ended up in Andersonville. His father Isaac died there, and a few years ago, my husband and I visited his grave site.

George Hiram survived and is my husband’s great-grandfather. In a photograph with his twin brother James, George Hiram looks ten years older, likely from everything he suffered during the war. After the war, he became a circuit-riding, Methodist preacher, ministering to dozens of churches before passing away in 1920. According to family history, his wartime experiences led him to become a devoted Christian and to offer his life to God.

As I watched the mock-battles taking place, I couldn’t help thinking how stupid war is. Making men line up on opposite sides of a field and shoot at each other until one side “wins,” seems idiotic. I pictured these men as my husband or my son, and I wanted to shout “Stop! Let’s just put an end to all this suffering and make peace!”

One of my loved ones is currently fighting a very difficult battle of a different kind. Everything in me wants to do something, take control, intervene, stop their pain, end their suffering. I’ve prayed and prayed and asked God, “What should I do? How can I help?” The answer I keep getting is: Nothing. Just wait. When I texted this dear one to say that I was praying, they texted in return: “These trials need to happen for our good.”

Like George Hiram Austin, my loved one is experiencing a difficult but important lesson. God can use our suffering to change us and draw us closer to Him, if we let Him. Or our pain can change us in a different way, making us bitter and angry, turning us away from God. I can’t offer an easy answer to explain the difference, but I suspect it might have something to do with our attitude when we find ourselves on the battlefront. The book of James says it this way: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

I have never met anyone who has experienced “pure joy” while suffering. But I have met many people whose suffering drew them closer to God and resulted in greater service in His kingdom—like George Hiram’s suffering did. So, I will continue to watch my loved one’s battle from the sidelines, praying that through the struggle, and when the war finally ends, they will be able to rejoice in the work that God has accomplished in their life.

Numbering Our Days

I’ve been working from breakfast until bedtime this past week, juggling three important writing projects. This blog is project #4. I feel like a circus performer spinning plates, trying not to let any of them fall. Besides my writing deadlines, I also spoke at a women’s retreat last Saturday. And I have a husband and children who I love spending time with. And grandchildren who are growing up much too fast. I don’t want to miss a single moment of their lives. And aren’t I supposed to exercise every day, and cook healthy meals, too? Not to mention find time to see the new “Downton Abbey” movie.

No matter what kind of work we do, we all have weeks like this, when the pressure is on and there’s not enough time in a day to get everything done. If I’m not careful, my life can get so overcrowded that I live each day in crisis mode. The weeks go by in a hectic blur as I try to keep all the plates spinning, and I end up not really enjoying my work or my life very much. Is there a solution?

One of my favorite passages of scripture is Psalm 90—written by none other than Moses, who certainly had a lot of plates to spin. In his prayer, he asked God to “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In other words, help me learn how to align my priorities with God’s. One of the lessons God taught me is to go to Him with my list of urgent tasks at the start of each busy day and make the list a matter of prayer. When I do, God has sometimes shown me that I’ve said “yes” to things I didn’t pray about, first. I’ve agreed to do them from wrong motives like guilt and not because God asked me to. Hopefully, I can “gain a heart of wisdom” and do things differently in the future.

So, I pray about my day, and set priorities, and just when I think I have everything organized, along comes an unplanned interruption that throws my schedule out of whack! Now what? Jesus was on his way to save a dying girl, a true matter of life and death. But He was interrupted along the way by a needy woman who touched the hem of His robe. He obviously saw this as a divine interruption, so He took time to minister to her. And He was still able to accomplish His goal of healing the little girl. How did He know it was a divine interruption? Easy, He’s Divine! It’s a little harder for us.

One such interruption happened to me recently in the middle of a very busy writing day. A woman stopped by to pick up a book, and I started to get the feeling that she needed to talk. Should I stick to my schedule or God’s? I invited her to stay and have coffee, and it turned out that God was asking me to do more than hand her a book. We talked, and prayed together, and when I returned to my writing, I was still able to reach my daily goal. Chatting on Facebook or checking Twitter and Instagram may very well be a divine interruption that God can use. Or, it can be a time waster.

The work we labor so hard to accomplish can have eternal results and bring glory to God, or it can simply fill up our days and sabotage our relationships and leave us stressed out. I’m still learning how to make those daily decisions, so I will keep on praying the way Moses did: “Teach me to number my days aright, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Labor Day

I’ve learned over the more than 30 years that I’ve been writing, that I need to get away from my desk from time to time and refresh my creative juices. So, over the Labor Day weekend my husband and I decided to go on a short adventure in his little red sports car. It’s such a fun, liberating feeling to ride with the top down, with the view open to the vast, infinite sky! I not only have a new appreciation for the beauty of clouds, but it’s amazing how many different scents I smelled along the way—everything from cows and fresh hay, to campfires and the fishy aroma of the lake.

We traveled north in our own state of Michigan to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and then on to the Leelanau Peninsula, stopping to visit three different Michigan lighthouses. They were all nice, but we decided we liked our own lighthouse here in Holland—affectionately known as “Big Red”—the best. What do you think?

The purpose of these lighthouses, of course, is to shine a beacon to prevent ships from running aground, especially during storms. But as we learned from the museum displays, even a warning beacon can’t prevent a ship from becoming wrecked during a storm. There have been hundreds of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes—some even in modern times. I used two of them in my novel, Waves of Mercy. And I’ve decided I’m glad I’m not a lighthouse keeper or the captain of a sailing vessel.

I returned from our trip eager to get back to work my manuscript. I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for any other. But as we celebrate Labor Day, I can’t help wondering how many people dislike their job and wish they had a different one. One of my favorite speaking topics at retreats and conferences is about finding God’s purpose. I believe the reason God created each of us so uniquely is because He has a unique purpose for each of our lives.

Sometimes, as in my case, my profession is also my calling. I’ve met people from a variety of occupations, such a teachers and nurses, who feel the same way. A friend of mine has had an amazing ministry through her work as a beautician.

For others, their daily 9 to 5 job isn’t necessarily the same as their calling but it opens up opportunities to serve God. An accountant friend, for instance, used his skills to help a missionary agency in South Africa upgrade to a new accounting program. And I have dozens of retired friends who are no longer working at full-time jobs but are still being called by God to serve in various ways.

I know that millions of people go to work every day at jobs they dislike because of financial obligations. When my husband was in graduate school, I worked as a secretary to support us until he received his degree. I also worked at various other jobs until my books began earning royalty checks. But even if we feel “stuck” in a job, I believe it’s important to ask God what His purpose for our life might be, and how we can begin to fulfill it. It’s the willingness to serve God that counts. We can do any job for His glory. And He blesses the work of our hands when we offer it to Him.

So, as we eat our hamburgers and celebrate our work today, remember what scripture says: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Happy Labor Day!

If I Had a Dollar…

I often wonder: If I had a dollar for attending every one of my husband’s concerts over the years, how rich would I be? Probably pretty rich! Ken is a professional musician, a trumpet player. He was already the principal trumpeter of the Kalamazoo, Michigan Symphony Orchestra as a college student before we were married. This month, we will celebrate our 49th wedding anniversary. When I do the math, that adds up to a lot of concerts.

We met while we were both students at Hope College. When he told me he was a Music major, I asked, “So, do you sing, play the piano…?” He said, “I play trumpet a little.” I eventually discovered what an understatement that was! His talent had won him a full scholarship to Hope, and would later win him a full scholarship for his Master’s degree at Yale University. We married right before he started studying at Yale—and the adventure began.

Ken proposed by saying, “If you marry me, we’ll probably never be rich, but we’ll see the world.” He was so right! His first job after graduating from Yale was as principal trumpet in the National Symphony Orchestra in Bogota, Colombia. It was a huge job with a full season of concerts. Bogota is a very cultured city and supports two orchestras, Ken’s being the larger one. We also lived in Canada for eleven years when he performed full-time with two symphony orchestras. There were numerous Broadway musicals such as “Les Miserables” and “The Sound of Music,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He toured China with “The New Sousa Band.” Many, many orchestras and performances every place we lived—too many to name—ending up in Chicago for twenty years.

During our time in Indiana, he worked with Bill and Gloria Gaither at their recording studio, and he met and performed with popular Christian artists of the time such as Steve Green and Sandi Patti. He traveled across the country with the Christian group “Truth.” Yes, lots and lots of concerts!

Now he is “semi-retired,” which means nothing. Our church has an orchestra and brass ensemble that play for our services three Sundays a month. He traveled to Germany with me earlier this year and performed at my publishing company’s 100th Celebration. A week ago, he was in Colorado as a soloist with The Great Western Rocky Mountain Brass Band. Last Tuesday, he played a solo with the Holland American Legion Band for their summer concert series. He had another concert with a Bebop group last Saturday at a Christian Conference center.

To say that I am proud of him would be like saying, “I play trumpet a little.” Thousands of concerts, thousands and thousands of hours of beautiful music. “A dollar for every concert?” My life has been enriched beyond what money could ever buy. Happy Anniversary, Ken! I can’t believe it’s been nearly fifty years!

Companions for the Journey


I’ve been going through photographs from my bicycle trip through Europe last June, and before the memories fade, I want to share some lessons I learned along the way. My bike tour, like the Body of Christ, relied on three very important people—the Guide, the Corner, and the Sweep.

The Guide, of course, is Jesus. He knows the way and all of the challenges we’ll face. He has traveled this way before us. The Guide also knows the way to our final destination—the hotel—and His Father’s House in Heaven, where there’s a place prepared for us. But we won’t get there unless we follow Him. Our Guide led us up some pretty steep paths, and through harrowing, traffic-congested cities. There were times I didn’t want to follow him. But I knew that if I went my own way, I would get lost. Jesus said, “I am the way . . . No one comes to the Father except through Me.”


The Corner can be anyone in the group. When the Guide comes to an intersection with several choices, he turns to the rider behind him and says, “I need a Corner.” The rider gets off his bike and waits at the intersection to point the way. When everyone has cycled past, the Corner rejoins the group. It’s an important responsibility.


The first day of the trip, I didn’t understand that there’d be a Corner to point the way, so I exhausted myself trying to keep the Guide in sight. And we can exhaust ourselves trying to follow Jesus, too. But He faithfully appoints members of His Body to serve as Corners at important crossroads, pointing the way. We don’t have to make this journey by ourselves. Jesus asks us to take our turn guiding others who are a little behind us on the journey. It means being ready, knowing scripture and the Guide’s voice well enough to point the way.

On the second day of the trip, another newbie like me was told to be a Corner, and when she thought everyone had passed the intersection, she left her post. It turned out that 4 riders were still behind her, and they became lost. The Guide, like the Good Shepherd, left his flock to wait along the trail while he went back to “seek and save the lost.”

The Sweep is just as important as the Corner. Before setting out in the morning, the Guide asks for a volunteer to be the Sweep. The Sweep rides behind everyone else, waiting for stragglers and dawdlers and those who’ve grown weary. Nobody enjoys being last, but a good Sweep cares about his slowpokes and waits patiently for them. When the Corner sees the Sweep, he knows that everyone has safely passed.

I think Jesus is pleased when we volunteer to be the Sweep and care for the stragglers. It’s hard being patient with those who seem slow to learn, or who keep making the same mistakes in their journey. We can grow weary of sweeping up other people’s messes. But a good Sweep shares the Shepherd’s heart for the lost.

One day on our trip, I was one of only three people in my group of 12 who was pedaling the old-fashioned way. The others rode e-bikes with batteries and 3-speed power-assist motors. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for tackling the journey on my own power—until we came to a very challenging hill. (We were in Switzerland, after all!) I shifted into the lowest gears and gutted my way up the slope—still feeling proud. I was almost to the top—legs burning, lungs heaving—when I saw that the top wasn’t the top! The road curved and the steep hill continued!

I was done. I had to get off and walk. The e-bikes zoomed past. Then the Sweep caught up with me. He also had an e-bike. I told him he could wait for me at the top, but he said, “No, I’m not leaving you behind.” He got off and walked beside me. After a minute or so he said, “Here, why don’t you ride my bike and I’ll ride yours?” I knew exactly how the man in Jesus’ parable felt when he lay beaten along the road and the Good Samaritan loaned him his donkey! I swallowed the rest of my pride and accepted his offer. Zoom!—all the way to the top!

It’s difficult to be the one who needs help. It’s especially hard for me to confess that I’m weary and hurting and needing prayer. But the Guide has some very special people who have volunteered to be Sweeps. They’ll walk alongside us when the road becomes difficult—if we ask. And I also need to be willing to help someone else who has grown weary, walking with them along the way.

Our journey of discipleship, like my bike trip, is an exciting one. There are some amazing views at the top! The best advice I can give, is to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path” (Proverbs 3:6). Have a great trip!

Bucket Lists

What’s on your Bucket List—you know, that list of all the interesting things you would love to do someday before you “kick the bucket?” I had the privilege of crossing off one of my bucket list items several years ago when I worked on an archaeological dig in Israel for a month. Our team excavated the ancient city of Timnah, which is mentioned in the Bible as the town where Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman (see Judges 14). Things ended badly for Samson when she gave away his riddle and he called off the wedding. I worked in the area of the main city gate, and we uncovered the cobblestone street from Samson’s time. What a thrill to think that his feet once walked on those very stones!
My oldest son Joshua, who was 14 at the time, went on the dig with me. His wish was to find a skull (of course!) He was excavating a different section of the city and his group ended up finding a complete skeleton! He could happily cross that off his bucket list.
We started work before dawn to avoid the summer heat and finished by noon. We were on level ground when we began digging, and by the last day, we were standing in a pit that was several feet above our heads. We moved a lot of dirt! But what fun to discover buried treasures. The experience was everything I’d hoped for, and I would definitely go on a dig again if I had the chance.
A few weeks ago I was able to cross off one item on my list. Ken and I toured in Europe by bicycle with a group of friends from our church. We flew to Zurich, Switzerland to begin our bike journey around Lake Constance. We cycled 25-35 miles a day on this ten-day trip, and traveled through parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, which all border the lake.
Along the way, we visited Medieval cities, saw a zeppelin museum, and toured the oldest castle in Germany. We stayed in lovely hotels at night and sampled fine cuisine (and slept like the dead!) I kept a journal and will be posting my story and pictures on a future blog.
We’ve been preparing for this trip since January when we logged 120 miles while vacationing in Florida. The weather in Michigan this spring has been so cold and rainy (and snowy!) that we’ve only been able to log 115 miles in preparation.
But I love to bike! I feel so alive and happy as I pedal away, absorbing all the sights and sounds and smells. Riding my bike was one of my happiest pastimes as a child, which is why I feel like a kid again whenever I ride (aside from the aches and pains that now come with age). I have a feeling that I’ll be planning our next bike trip as soon as I return from this one.
So, what things have you checked off your bucket list? What’s on your list to do next?

Searching for Spring

Spring has been a long time coming to my corner of southwest Michigan. This was the view from my window just a few weeks ago in April. Not very inspiring! But the weather has finally warmed up enough for me to go biking again—if I bundle up. My husband and I took a short, twelve mile ride the other day and I decided to search for signs that spring is finally here. These are some of the sights we saw from our favorite bicycle trail:

The boats are coming out of storage for the season and filling the marina.

The underbrush in the woods is starting to turn green.

Wildflowers are in bloom!

Farmers are plowing their fields.

Fruit trees are blossoming.

And this park along Lake Michigan is open again—one of our favorite spots for a (chilly) picnic lunch.

All in all, these hints of spring give me hope for warmer days, and future summer bike rides. I can even begin to imagine sitting on the beach with a good book to read. Spring is a season of hope. I often wonder if Adam and Eve despaired that first winter after they left Paradise, wondering if those “dead,” barren trees would ever live again. How they must have rejoiced to see flowers bloom and new buds appear!

Perhaps nature’s changing seasons were meant to teach us that life also has seasons of darkness and cold—but that God can bring renewed life, even from situations that seem beyond hope. I don’t think it’s an accident that the joy of Easter and Christ’s resurrection come in the Springtime. And with the hope that He brings, maybe I can patiently wait just a little longer for that “hopeless” situation or “dead” relationship to finally bear fruit.

“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” Genesis 8:22

Unfailing Love

I knew the visit to the nursing home would be difficult. I wasn’t prepared for a miracle.

I went there with my friend Cathy, whose older sister suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. I knew Muriel in years past as a vibrant, happy woman who enjoyed life and dearly loved her family and her Lord. It was painful to see the empty shell she has become. She sat slumped in a wheelchair with a blank expression on her face, her eyes dead and lifeless. The other patients in the lounge looked much the same—without life, without hope. I battled tears, my heart aching for Muriel and for Cathy. I lost my older sister Bonnie to cancer a few years ago, and I miss her terribly. But this “living death” seemed much more tragic.

Cathy sat down beside Muriel and gathered her into her arms for a long, sweet hug. She kissed her, and smoothed back her hair, and told Muriel who she was, and how much she loved her. And even though there was no response or any sign of recognition, Cathy took Muriel’s hands, and looked deeply into her eyes, and continued talking, pouring out her love.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a light came into Muriel’s eyes as she began to respond to Cathy’s love. She sat up a little straighter. A gentle smile lit her face. And the love I’d seen in Cathy’s eyes soon filled Muriel’s eyes, too. She may not have known Cathy’s name or who she was, but Muriel knew that Cathy was someone who loved her, someone she had once loved in return.

It was a holy moment. Like watching the sunrise after a long, dark night. Like watching a winter-dead tree slowly bud and blossom. Even though Muriel’s mind had lost its ability to think or remember, her eternal soul knew and understood love. And for a few, precious moments, Muriel was filled with life once again. I wanted to go around the room to all of the other patients and hug them, and show them love so they could come alive, too! But, of course, I couldn’t. I had no right.

Yet, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Those of us who know the beauty and joy of God’s unfailing love—aren’t we supposed to generously give it away to everyone around us? Whether they respond or not? Whether they return it or not? I think of all the “living dead” people I see every day, going through life with blank eyes and hopeless expressions. What might happen if I found a way to draw them close to me, and look into their eyes, and tell them how much God loves them? Could I earn the right to do that through acts of undeserved grace, and kindness, and selfless sacrifice? Might their eternal souls respond to love?

That’s how Jesus demonstrated His love to me when I was “dead.” And because of His love, I am now alive with eternal, everlasting life. How He must long for me to freely give His love away to others.

Lord, open my eyes, today, to see who needs to be touched by Your love. Then give me the courage and grace to love as You do.

Spring Fever

Everyone I know has Spring Fever, including me. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the last few piles of dirty snow are melting at last. The steady drip of snowmelt from the eaves outside my office sounds like a drumbeat, summoning me to come outside and play. The season of new beginnings is here.

And it’s a new beginning for my next writing project, too. My contract schedule has me handing in my manuscript in February then completing any changes my editor asks for by May. I’m just finishing that process now, and getting ready to turn in all of my final changes and edits. That means I’ll soon be ready to start the process all over again with a new book.

But where will my ideas come from? How will the next story begin to form in my mind? Every author is different, but I begin by replenishing my supply of words. That means reading lots and lots of books. I choose authors who not only know how to tell a great story but also have an extraordinary love of language. One of my favorite writers, Rosamunde Pilcher, can not only tell a gripping tale, but she paints word-pictures that are so vivid they make me shiver: “Antony opened the front door, and the cold wind flowed in like a sluice of icy water.” Brr!

At the same time, I start reading lots of non-fiction books about the historical time period I’ve chosen. This includes first-person accounts such as diaries or memoirs written by people who might have lived alongside my fictional characters. Whenever possible, I visit the setting for my new novel to absorb all the sights and sounds and smells, keeping track of them in a notebook for future use. I also love to ask people to tell me their love stories, or their God-stories, or their family’s story. (Warning: don’t ever tell me a story unless you’re not afraid to see it in one of my books!) I’ll be creating what I call “story soup,” tossing images and ideas and historical facts into a huge pot and letting it all simmer together in the back of my mind until I’m ready to start writing.

One of the things I love to do while these ideas and images are simmering is to go outside in the gorgeous spring sunshine and sample God’s creative handiwork. I want the theme of His redemption to flow through all of my novels—how he takes what is broken and cold and dying and fills it with renewed life. And seeing the beauty of rebirth in nature as the snow melts and the new grass and spring leaves began to peek through, inspires me to tell of His goodness and grace all over again.

After the overwhelming destruction and judgment of the flood, God promised Noah—and all of us—that “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Genesis 8:22). We will always have seasons in life that feel like a long, dark, frigid winters—those times when life hits us in the face like “a sluice of icy water.” But He is the God of Springtime and new beginnings and second chances. He breathes life into the cold, dark corners of our hearts and we begin to find joy again. “Behold! I make all things new!”

No wonder we have Spring Fever. Let’s go dance in the snow-puddles!

Arthur’s Story

I was an eager, conscientious student in elementary school. I wanted straight A’s. I wanted the approval of my teachers. My 6th grade teacher, Mr. S, was one of my favorites. Energetic and creative, stern yet fair, he was generous with his encouragement and affirmation. If a student did something noteworthy, Mr. S would honor them by writing their name on the chalkboard in huge letters, where it would remain for the rest of the day. I loved seeing my name up there.

In our small, rural community, everyone knew their classmates and their families. We were similar in many ways. Then one day, a new student joined Mr. S.’s class who was noticeably different from the rest of us. Arthur was the only student in the entire school with black skin. His clothes and shoes were more tattered than ours. He stood a head taller than the other boys and was probably older, but he had been placed in 6th grade because he could barely read. His family had come to our fruit-growing area as migrant workers, and he spoke with an accent that was probably Haitian or something similar. It was hard to tell, because Arthur barely spoke. No one befriended him.

One day in class, the topic of foreign languages happened to come up, and Mr. S. asked if any of us knew words from another language. Hands waved in the air. Students rattled off what they knew. Mr. S. turned it into a contest and began keeping score. My hand waved wildly. I knew quite a few German words that my grandmother had taught me. I could even recite a little rhyming prayer in German. I started counting my collection of words on my fingers as I awaited my turn and knew I was certain to win. But first, it was Arthur’s turn. He raised his hand for the very first time and told us he spoke French. All eyes were on Arthur. Mr. S. gushed with enthusiasm as Arthur spoke phrase after phrase. I kept score and still believed I might be able to beat him with my German poem.

Mr. S applauded when Arthur finished. His name went up on the chalkboard in huge letters. Arthur beamed as if lit from within and gave us his very first smile. Then Mr. S moved on to another subject. But wait! I didn’t get my turn! Didn’t Mr. S see my hand? I battled tears. It wasn’t fair.

I was too immature at the time to see the wisdom and grace in Mr. S’s actions. But in later years I understood, and the lesson has remained with me to this day. It was something Jesus would have done. In describing the coming Messiah, the prophet Isaiah writes, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (42:3)

I pray for eyes to see the bruised reeds around me. And I pray for the grace to tend and nurture these bruised ones, regardless of the cost to me.