Fiction Tips From My Granddaughter

Last week our family welcomed a new grandbaby into the world. Mama and baby are both fine, thank the Lord. And I had the pleasure of taking care of Lyla, who is two and a half, while mama and papa were in the hospital. I thought I would be taking time off from writing, but it so happened that I learned a few lessons from my granddaughter about what makes a good story.

Lyla currently has two favorites—Moana and The Trolls. I became very familiar with them after reading the books over and over and watching the movie versions of both stories. So I asked myself, what makes the Trolls and Moana so compelling?

The trolls are tiny creatures with a big enemy—the Bergens. When a group of trolls is captured, their leader, Poppy, lays aside her fears and goes to the Bergens’ town to rescue her friends. It’s a story of friendship and courage against great odds that has a happy ending.

Moana is a young girl from a tropical island who also learns to set aside her fears and overcome great odds. Her people and her island are in trouble, so she crosses the vast ocean to try to help restore the balance of nature. Along the way, she befriends Maui and, in the end, discovers who she is really meant to be.

So, here’s what I learned about great fiction. Both stories feature villains, and my granddaughter took great delight in being scared half to death by lava monsters and fiendish Bergens, knowing it would all turn out okay in the end. Every great story needs an antagonist who the main characters have to overcome—even if it’s something intangible like hatred or unforgiveness. Like the trolls, when we struggle to overcome our difficulties, we become better people. And being a little scared is fun too, isn’t it?

Second, both stories have lessons on the importance of friendship, and the value of not trying to do everything alone. Relationships are very important, whether it’s a friendship, a marriage, or a family that’s featured. Moana and Poppy are both strong, courageous women but neither could have accomplished what she did without her friends.

A third theme of these stories is the need for courage to overcome our fears as we attempt to do what others say is impossible. Of course, God isn’t mentioned in Moana or The Trolls but good Christian fiction will always highlight what can be accomplished through faith. God is the source of our strength and courage. Someday my granddaughters will learn that He is the One who provides the courage to face impossible odds.

These are all great elements of good fiction but best of all, both stories provided a picture of redemption. In The Trolls, the power of love transforms the Bergens from enemies into friends. And in Moana, the lava monster is transformed into a beautiful, fruitful island by Moana’s act of courage. Enemies and people who seem unlovable may turn out to be good friends if we give them a chance. Redemption is at the heart of every great story, from Les Miserables to The Cat in the Hat (another of Lyla’s favorites). I hope I never tire of telling the redemption story in a dozen different ways in my novels.

And speaking of redemption, I now have a new chapter to add to the story of my daughter’s cat, Dexter. In earlier blogs, I told how Dexter, a wild, unlikeable, homeless cat from the streets of Chicago, was transformed into a loveable family pet through my daughter’s perseverance and love. He has watched over Lyla from the day she was born, bringing her little toys whenever she is upset. While I was alone with her, Lyla woke up in the night, crying for her mama and papa. I tried without success to calm her and get her back to sleep. Then Dexter came to the rescue, jumping onto her bed and curling up beside her, purring like a furry motorboat. Lyla settled down as she petted him, then curled up beside him and fell asleep, hugging him like a Teddy bear. If I hadn’t witnessed it, I would never have believed it!

That’s the power of redemptive love. It worked in Dexter’s life—and for Moana and the trolls, too. No wonder Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.

Boats, Bikes, Beaches and Books

Wow, it’s hard to stay focused on my writing this time of the year! The weather has been beautiful—perfect for going to the beach, riding my bike, and watching the boats sail on Lake Michigan. Perfect for everything, it seems, except writing a novel. The only solution I’ve found is to plan carefully and not let myself get distracted. To get up early and get to work so I can play later on.
Yesterday we rode our bikes into town to visit the library for research, then rode home again after stopping at the lake. Eighteen miles later, I was so tired that it wasn’t hard to sit down and write. Tonight, we’re having a potluck supper on the beach with a group of our neighbors. Sometimes we ride our bikes to The General Store in the afternoon when I need a little break and have an ice cream cone. Or we’ll pack a lunch to eat as we watch the boats sail past the lighthouse. Or enjoy a corn dog at Dune Dogs. Little treats like these give me something to look forward to and help keep me at my desk.
If I need to do some reading research, I often take my books, my I-pad, and a folding chair to the beach and do it there. (And the lake is handy when I need to cool off.) Having family and friends visit actually helps, believe it or not. I’m able to concentrate and work extra hard beforehand, knowing that I’ll soon be relaxing with friends as my reward.
This part of Michigan has long been a favorite summer vacation destination. Anna’s story in my novel “Waves of Mercy” takes place at the Hotel Ottawa Resort, a large hotel that once stood near Ottawa Beach State Park. Boats carried wealthy passengers from Chicago and other cities across Lake Michigan to vacation here in the late 1800s. A fire destroyed the hotel in 1923, and all that remains is the brick pump house that once supplied electricity to the hotel and area beach cottages.
Today, the pump house is a small museum—where I’ll be a guest speaker on July 19 at 7:00 pm. New exhibits include one of the original hotel guest books from the 1890s. If you’re in the area this Thursday, please come join me! Afterwards, you can buy ice cream at the General Store and watch the sunset over the lake. This time of year, it doesn’t set until almost 9:30.
I’ve heard people say they admire writers and other artists because we’re so disciplined. But any worthwhile work we do requires discipline, especially if it’s what God called us to do. How can we do anything less than our best or give anything less than our all for Him? But God also gave us the much-needed rhythm of work balanced with rest. The Sabbath is God’s gift to us, a day to stop working and enjoy His creation—including bikes, beaches and boats.
It’s always a challenge to balance work with rest. What are some of the ways you’ve found to do it?

Life-Changing Books

I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey lately, along with my journey as a writer. The two are closely entwined. And I realized what a powerful, life-changing effect books have had on those journeys. Space doesn’t allow me to list all the books that have influenced me, but four stand out.

The first is “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie and her family lived uneventful lives in The Netherlands until the Nazis invaded. Then their faith in God and deep love for Christ compelled them to hide Jews in their home, trying to save as many people as possible. Corrie, her sister Betsy, and their father were arrested and sent to prison camps. Only Corrie survived.

I read this book when my husband and I lived in Bogota, Colombia. We had everything a young couple could possibly want; we were newly-married, working our dream jobs, and our first child, Joshua, was born there. I had been raised in a Christian home with godly parents and grandparents, yet when I read “The Hiding Place,” I realized how weak my faith was. I wouldn’t have had the courage to risk my life as Corrie did. Her story convicted me, and I hungered for what she had. I began to seriously pursue a closer walk with God.

I read the second life-changing book shortly after we returned to the United States. “Anointed for Burial” by Todd and DeAnn Burke tells the true story of missionaries to Cambodia in the final, life-threatening years before the nation fell to the Communists. Again, I was impressed by their tremendous faith to endure fiery trials. For months, they lived in such perilous conditions that they needed to hear God speaking on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. They developed the habit of reading scripture three times a day, and God miraculously spoke to them through the Bible, offering wisdom and guidance when they needed it most.

Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Anointed for Burial” convicted me of my need to feed on the Word of God every day. I was faithful to feed my physical body three times a day, so why didn’t I see the greater need to feed my spirit with His Word? I found a daily scripture-reading plan that enabled me to read through the Bible in a year. I began that very day and have continued ever since.

The Bible is the third life-changing book. Like Todd and DeAnn Burke, I have found it to be a comfort and a source of wisdom. But best of all, the picture of God and His eternal plan that emerged as I read it, accomplished what I had longed for back in Bogota—to draw closer to Him, to get to know Him, and to strengthen my spiritual walk.

Next, my husband’s work took us to Canada. My plan had been to have a second child around the time Joshua turned two. But we celebrated his second birthday, then his third and fourth and fifth—and I still wasn’t pregnant. He turned six and started school, and God didn’t seem to hear my prayers. I read the fourth life-changing book, “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok as I wrestled with unanswered prayer. This beautifully-written novel tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish father who, for reasons that aren’t told until the end, stops speaking to his beloved son. When the father finally speaks, he tells how his heart broke the entire time he had kept silent, and how he feared his son would turn away from him forever. But he did it because of the son’s arrogance and self-sufficiency, which needed to be broken. The son needed a loving, compassionate heart so he could understand other people’s pain and accomplish the work God was calling him to do.

I saw in “The Chosen” an allegory of God’s inexplicable silences. And I realized that through my longing for a child, God had led me to become active in the Right-to-Life movement and to help start two crisis pregnancy centers. Through this novel, I discovered that God speaks powerfully through fiction. And it also created in me a longing to write novels like this from a Christian perspective. Christian fiction as we know it today had yet to be born, but I sensed that this was the calling God had for my life. I signed up for a creative writing course at a local college—and a month later, I learned I was pregnant with our son Benjamin. Twenty months after he arrived, our daughter Maya joined us.

My spiritual and writing journeys have been long and satisfying. I have published 25 books, now. Glowing reviews and royalty checks are great, but to me, the most gratifying rewards are letters from readers telling me how one of my stories has impacted their life.

So, how about you? What life-changing books have you read?

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!

Thanks a Lot!

Two more chapters to write and I will be able to type those wonderful words—THE END. The novel I’ve been laboring on for nearly a year is almost finished. Maybe I’ll be able to enjoy the Christmas season with my family this year without stressing over my deadline. But when I tried to start my computer yesterday morning, eager to make the final sprint to the finish line, I discovered that it had crashed. An automatic update had failed, locking everything up. The fatal blue screen wouldn’t allow me access to my computer no matter how hard I tried. I did the only thing I knew how to do—I panicked!
Unlike most writers, I am NOT computer savvy. I know enough to answer email, write my novels, and post this blog. That’s about it. I called my brother-in-law in New York who is my computer go-to person and he diagnosed the problem. The solution? I could pay a local tech $95 an hour to try to fix it (and still have an aging computer), or I could purchase a new computer and pay the tech to try to retrieve my novel and everything else from my old hard drive. I chose the new computer. (Not exactly what I wanted for a Christmas present. Sigh.) It’s going to take a few days to get my new computer back home with everything on it (hopefully) restored from my old one. In the meantime, I’m limping along at a snail’s pace with this tiny laptop.
A crashed computer isn’t the only discouraging “glitch” I’ve experienced in my writing life these past few months. On the day of my book launch—a day I waited an entire year to celebrate—the book was unavailable on Amazon. Then I learned that the members of my Launch Team wouldn’t be receiving their advance copies of the book until more than a week after the launch date. And there were several other glitches, each one frustrating and worrisome and stressful. I call them “joy stealers.” Instead of the euphoria of another successful launch or a nearly completed novel, I’m wasting my energy stewing and worrying. Joyful? Not so much.
What I needed more than a restored computer yesterday was a restored sense of perspective. I got it this morning as I read through the newsletters from several of the Christian organizations my husband and I support. People whose homes were destroyed by hurricanes and forest fires will need much more than a new computer. The children we support in Zambia and Vietnam need food and clean water on a daily basis. Christians being persecuted for their faith need prayers for their churches and families. Young girls being trafficked need deliverance and justice. I should be thankful that I can afford a new computer and still have a roof over my head and three meals a day—not to mention the freedom to enjoy them. My problem will soon be fixed. Their problems are ongoing.
This week I will celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. It’s a yearly reminder to stand back and get some perspective on how God has so richly provided for us. Have there been “glitches” and “joy stealers” this year? Of course. But in the larger view of things, my family and I have been abundantly blessed. We could have been eating Thanksgiving dinner without my husband this year if a serious health issue a few months ago hadn’t ended well. Then there are our spiritual blessings, such as God’s grace and redemption and love. The security of our heavenly home. And a calling that I love in spite of the glitches.
I think I know why the enemy tries so hard to steal our joy. Because “The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). I think I need to do some thanking and rejoicing while I wait for my new computer.

Time to Pull Weeds

I know there are people who love to garden. They enjoy nurturing seeds, planting bulbs, and planning perennial beds so that gorgeous flowers flourish in every season. My neighbor is one of them. I walk past her home (in the photos above and below) and sigh with envy at her creativity and diligence.

I am not one of those people. While I do love the end result when my garden looks pristine and welcoming, I don’t enjoy doing the work to make it so. Nevertheless, I was forced to become the family gardener when my husband pulled a muscle in his shoulder. The weeds had no pity on his injury and quickly staged a take-over. Can anyone explain to me why weeds are so hearty and fast-growing while their beautiful, cultivated cousins need pampering? Or why the deer and the rabbits ignore the weeds and munch on my plants as if they’re a salad bar?

As I tackled our overgrown garden last week, it occurred to me that the process has some similarities to the way I write. My first drafts are usually an overgrown tangle of words. My strategy is to conquer the blank page and get something down, no matter how bad, and then go back and fix it later. It takes away some of the anxiety if I don’t stop to critique my work as I write. But the day eventually comes when I have to weed out the overgrown mess. Finding weeds in the garden is usually simple: if the roots seem to go down to China, it’s probably a weed. If it pulls out easily—oops! That was probably something expensive. And when I make my first editing pass on my manuscript, it’s easy to find the weeds, especially if I remind myself of the rules of good writing.

I ended up with a large recycling bin full of weeds by the time I finished pulling them, but the garden still looked overgrown. I needed to go back with my shears and trim away some of the good bushes and plants, too. I hate doing that because I’m always afraid I’m going to cut too much and kill the plant. It’s the same with my manuscript. Even after the weeds of poor grammar have been pulled, my beautiful prose sometimes needs to be trimmed. If I’m in an especially critical mood, I can come dangerously close to chopping away too much and ruining it. But it has to be done.

The photos above and below show the results of my gardening efforts. And while I hated to sacrifice writing time for the task, when I finally sat down to write again I was able to tackle some much-needed editing with renewed fervor.

Now what about weeding my spiritual garden? Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches” and “my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” That sounds a lot like gardening and editing, doesn’t it? God is looking for fruit like love, joy, and patience—and not weeds like anger, gossip, and bitterness. If I hope to look like my neighbor’s garden in Jesus’ eyes, I think I have some work to do.

Time to Fly Away

It’s nearly time for lift off! I’m happy to announce that my novel, “Fly Away” is coming soon on June 15 in both print and ebook versions. Since one of the main characters, Mike Dolan, is a pilot who owns a small, charter airplane business, I visited a local airport with my friends Susan, Bruce, and Doug Formsma to celebrate. Doug was kind enough to let me pose in his airplane.

The first thing you’ll notice about “Fly Away” is that it takes place in 1987. That time period is too new to be a historical novel like most of my other books, but too old to be a contemporary novel. That’s because “Fly Away” was one of the very first books I wrote when I was just starting to dream of being a writer. The story came to me so effortlessly that I remember writing it out longhand on a yellow legal pad. Later, I typed it into my computer and saved it on several 3 ½ inch floppy discs. It was published by Beacon Hill Press in 1996 and has since gone out of print.

I remember very well the genesis of the story. Within a short period of time, our family struggled with a series of losses. My father, a World War II veteran like the main character in “Fly Away,” was hospitalized with a stroke and died a few months later at the age of 62. Dad had been caring for my grandmother so she had to be moved to a nursing home. My father-in-law also had a stroke and was moved to a nursing home because my mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Mom and Dad Austin both passed away within a few months of each other.

My husband and I and our three children drove down to Michigan from our home in Canada to take care of my mother-in-law in her final weeks so she could remain at home rather than be hospitalized. Our daughter Maya was a newborn when we left Canada and one month old when Mom died. We took care of Mom and Maya simultaneously, one at the very beginning of her life, the other at the end; one growing stronger each day, the other weaker. After just experiencing the miracle of birth, we learned that death is also one of God’s holy moments.

As you read “Fly Away” you’ll probably see how my own thoughts and emotions became intertwined with my plot and characters. The book deals with dying and loss, but I didn’t want it to be a sad book. All of my beloved family members had loved life and lived it well. They taught me that our faith in Christ gives us the strength and courage we need to face whatever plans He has for us—even when it means saying goodbye.

Telephones still had cords when I wrote “Fly Away” and hung on kitchen walls. Shag carpeting and Star Wars figures were all the rage. But I hope you’ll find that the themes of God’s goodness and love are timeless. Enjoy!

Click here to pre-order.

From Small Beginnings

I had the privilege last week of speaking to a wonderful group of women who volunteer for the International Bible League, an organization I love to support. I told them my story—how I sat down and started writing my first novel 31 years ago, even though I had no formal training, no clue how to get published, and three small children at home. I wanted my audience to know that they shouldn’t be afraid to trust God when He nudges them to step out in a new direction. He is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). I told them my story, but I also shared two other stories with them.

The first is about a Canadian mom named Fern Nichols. In 1984 her two oldest children were starting junior high school and she feared that their faith would be tested as they faced immoral values and peer pressure. She prayed for God to protect her children, and asked Him to send another mom to pray with her. He did! More moms joined them, and the group began meeting regularly to pray for their children and schools. The idea spread all across their province of British Columbia.

The following year, Fern’s family moved to California. Once again she prayed that God would raise up mothers willing to pray for their children. Again, these prayer groups multiplied, spreading around the state and across the nation.

That is how “Moms In Touch” began, now renamed “Moms in Prayer International.” Today, groups of mothers are praying in every state in the USA and in more than 140 countries. My neighbor, Marlae Gritter, joined a small prayer group years ago when her children were school-aged. She never imagined that today she would be the Director of Global Advancement for the international group. Below is a picture of Marlae and me with our new friend Kathrin Larsen from Switzerland. Kathrin also started out as a praying mom, and is now the European Director of the organization.

The second story I told my audience is about a man named William Chapman. In 1936, he became seriously ill and landed in a Chicago hospital. An elder from his church visited and prayed not only for William’s life to be spared, but that he would be led into the service of Christ.

“At the time, it seemed a strange prayer,” Bill said. “Why should God be asked to give me health and strength for this purpose? What could I possibly do for Christ? I came to the conclusion that this was a ridiculous prayer. But as the night wore on toward morning, it became increasingly apparent that my elder’s prayer could not be easily forgotten. That’s when I made my commitment to God. If God would restore my health, I would give all my strength in any avenue of service God would lead.”

William and his wife Betty purchased 1,000 Bibles and went door-to-door in Walkerton, Indiana asking, “Do you have a Bible?” If the home didn’t, they offered one for free if the owners promised to read it. From this simple beginning, William Chapman went on to form the “Bible League International,” the organization I was speaking to. Today, the “Bible League” shares Bibles and Bible study training tools in countries all around the world.

Thirty-one years ago, I laid aside my fears and excuses and started writing. Today I have 24 published books in a dozen different languages. I urged my audience not to ignore God’s little nudges. I invited them to step out in faith and to trust God, and then wait to see the amazing things He is able to do through them. I think William Chapman, Fern Nichols, my neighbor Marlae, and our Swiss friend Kathrin would all agree that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Have you felt God’s gentle nudging in your life lately?

The End

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Typing “The End” at the end of a manuscript is one of my most satisfying moments as a writer. It comes after months of sitting at my desk and writing page after page of words. A few days ago, I typed “The End” after completing my latest novel, 461 pages and 141,042 words long. It felt wonderful! By the time you read this, I will have given the novel a final edit from start to finish and sent it off to my editor.

Now what? I plan to read books in front of my fireplace, visit with friends and family, watch old movies, and go on a vacation someplace warm.shoreline

But that won’t really be “The End” of this novel—although I wish it were! When I return from vacation, I’ll find a letter from my editor with suggested changes for improvement. I have to admit that I dread this stage of the writing process the most. I’m always convinced that my novel is perfect—The End! My editor often says otherwise. I’ll spend the next month or so hashing over these suggested changes with him and re-working the parts that may need improvement. Once again, I’ll type “The End.”

But it won’t be.

A few months later my editor will send me a copy of my novel showing all of his editorial changes. That will be my last opportunity to edit the book myself. I’ll see it again in the form of Page Proofs, showing how the typeset words will appear on the printed page, and it will be my job to read through it for typos and other minor errors. My novel will finally become a printed book in October of 2017. Don’t ask me why it takes so long for my publishers to get to “The End” of their job. It baffles me.

By the time I hold my novel in my hands nine months from now, the euphoria I felt a few days ago when I typed “The End” will be a distant memory. I will have started the writing process all over again—coming up with an idea, researching it, creating new characters, sitting down at my computer five days a week and writing. “The End” of that book will be months away. The author of Ecclesiastes was right when he said, “Of making many books there is no end.”GetAttachmentThumbnail

One of the most stressful times for me will come next fall when this newest novel will be published. I always pray that readers will enjoy my stories and be blessed by them, and so waiting to hear from them is agonizing. Receiving an e-mail from a satisfied reader is the greatest moment of all. Only then, when readers are laughing and crying along with my characters can I finally feel the satisfaction of coming, at last, to “The End.”

When I reach “The End” of my life someday, I imagine that meeting Jesus and hearing Him say, “Well done good and faithful servant,” will be even more satisfying than finishing a novel. In the meantime, I have a lot of writing and re-writing to do to the story of my life, and lots of changes to make. I pray that with His help, I write it well.images

Waves of Mercy

Have you ever prayed about a decision but when you followed through on where God was leading, everything went wrong? You probably asked, “Did I really hear from God? How could He allow this to happen?”waves-of-mercy-cover-1

immigrantsMy newest novel, “Waves of Mercy,” (which releases on October 4) tells the true story of the Dutch immigrants who settled the town of Holland, Michigan in 1846. These faithful Christian men and women, who suffered religious persecution in the Netherlands, prayed about what to do and felt God leading them to America, where religious freedom was guaranteed. So they left beautiful, centuries-old cities to move to the virgin wilderness of Michigan and live in crude log cabins. The first summer, malaria struck the community killing many settlers. A year later, a ship called the Phoenix, carrying 225 passengers, including 175 Dutch immigrants, caught fire and sank in Lake Michigan, five miles from their destination. 180 men, women and children died. As the bewildered immigrants buried their loved ones, they must have asked, “Did we really hear from God? How could He allow these tragedies to happen?”

gods-and-kingsI battled similar questions when writing my first novel, “Gods and Kings.” I had an opportunity to go to Israel on an archeological dig to research my book, and it seemed like an answer from God. To earn money for my trip, I babysat for three small children. My husband encouraged me to go and volunteered to take over while I was away. But a few days before I was supposed to leave, our three children came down with the chicken pox. Then we discovered that my husband had never had them, and he became extremely ill. I called the tour organizers to try to cancel or at least postpone my trip only to learn that it wasn’t refundable, nor could I re-book my flight. I would lose all of the money I had worked so hard to save. In spite of his illness, my husband still encouraged me to go—while someone from church called to say, “I think it’s clear that God wants you to stay home and be a wife and mother, not a writer.” Had I really heard from God about being a writer? Why had my family become sick at the worst possible time? I wrestled with God for answers.

It’s in these times of wrestling that we often find ourselves drawing closer to God. I think of Jacob who returned to the Promised Land with his family at God’s command. Yet before he reached home, he learned that his brother, who had once threatened to kill him, was coming with a large army of men. Jacob wrestled with God all night long, and was changed from Jacob the “deceiver,” to Israel, which means “he struggles with God.”

As I wrestled with God about my trip to Israel, the reading for my morning devotions happened to be Psalm 48: “Walk about Jerusalem, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation.” I trusted God to take care of my family, and walked into my calling as a writer. The novel I researched, “Gods and Kings,” has since been translated into nine languages.fullsizerender

And what happened to the Dutch settlers in my novel “Waves of Mercy?” I won’t reveal any “spoilers” in case you’d like to read the book, but if you visit the town of Holland, Michigan today, you’ll find that the immigrants’ faith remains strong and vibrant. The town, with a population of 33,000, has more than 71 churches, including Pillar Church, built by the first settlers in 1856.pillar-church

1co15-58“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).