Setting the Setting

Have you ever been in a place where you didn’t want to be? Or how about being in a place that you loved, and that quickly became your happy place? I’ve experienced both, and each time, the setting always seems to affect my mood and my emotions. A dreary place brings me down, while a beautiful place lifts my spirits. That’s how I’ve learned the importance of choosing the settings for my novels very carefully, and then describing them in enough detail to transport my readers there—if only in their imaginations. I’ve also learned that the best way to get a feel for each setting is to travel there.

The first few novels I wrote took place in Israel, and the story didn’t come alive for me until I went there. Viewing all of the tourist sites on my first trip gave me a taste for the country, but living there for a month as I volunteered on an archaeological dig, really helped me absorb the country into my bones.

I visited Virginia and the Carolinas when writing my 3-book Civil War series, walking through alligator and mosquito-filled lowlands, and touring lovely period mansions. I also saw the slave quarters behind some of the mansions, and it helped me imagine the lives of those slaves.

I visited Ellis Island with my sister and we could picture our great grandparents landing there, confused and frightened by the babble of languages and the stern officials, yet moving forward courageously. I was able to describe that setting and those emotions in my novel “Until We Reach Home,” which featured three sisters who immigrated to America and landed on Ellis Island.

My husband and I had quite an adventure a few years ago as we made our way through London’s city streets and viewed its landmarks for my novel “If I Were You.” Our experiences traveling The Underground helped me imagine what it must have been like to huddle in those deep, subterranean subway tunnels with Nazi bombs falling above my head.

For my most recent novel, “Chasing Shadows,” we rode bicycles as we explored parts of the Netherlands. We were moved by our visit to Corrie Ten Boom’s home, author of “The Hiding Place.” We saw the impossibly small, secret room where she and her family hid Jews from the Nazis, and I imagined their heart-pounding terror as they heard Nazis thundering up the steep, wooden stairs, searching for them. We visited Westerbork, a Nazi concentration camp in the Netherlands, but I still struggle to describe the emotions I experienced there.

Last year, in the middle of the Covid epidemic, my publisher asked if I would be interested in writing a Christmas novella. I had no place to go because of the lockdown, and more free time than usual since everything was closed, so I happily agreed. That book, “The Wish Book Christmas,” was just published two weeks ago, and it continues the stories of friends Eve Dawson and Audrey Clarkson from “If I Were You.”

It seems much too early to be promoting a Christmas story! The leaves are still green! I’m still wearing summer clothes! But that was also the case when I was writing that novella. I was unable to travel to research the setting, so I had to rely on my imagination and LOTS of pictures. I pasted vintage snow scenes around my desk, and pages of toys from the 1951 Sears’ Wish Book, the year in which the novella takes place. I immersed myself in photos of what fashions and houses and Christmas trees looked like in those post-war years. I even played Christmas carols (in July!) to help set the mood.

And now, sitting here at my desk, looking out at the sunlight dappling through the trees, and at the bicycle trail that is beckoning me to take a ride, I’m in my happy place. I’m doing the work I love in a setting that I love. I hope that you’re as contented in your current setting as I am. So, where is your happy place? And how does being there—or not being there—effect your attitude?

A Visit to the Past

Ken and I love to ride our bikes to the library in town whenever I need more research material, and then eat lunch at a fun restaurant. It’s about a 14-mile round-trip. There’s a sizable Hispanic population in town, so today we decided to try a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican store/taqueria that features authentic, homemade food. As soon as I stepped inside the little bodega, I was transported into the past. Early in our marriage, Ken and I spent two years in Bogota, Colombia while Ken performed with the National Symphony, a world-class orchestra. Meanwhile, I taught fourth grade in a Colombian school. I taught all of the subjects in English but my students and their families spoke Spanish, which made parent-teacher conferences very challenging.

So, when I walked into the little store and was suddenly immersed in a flow of voices chattering in Spanish, I was taken back to our adventures in Bogota. I remembered how Ken and I would traipse through little stores like this one, searching in vain for American products. Our Spanish slowly improved as we learned to decipher labels, but remind me to tell you the story, someday, of Ken’s disastrous attempt to buy cat food for our American cats. (It ends happily but a Colombian cat nearly lost one of it’s nine lives.)

The bodega’s meat counter reminded me of that incident, and also of the butcher shop down the street from our apartment, which I passed every day on my way to school. The Colombian butcher shop hung their raw meat from hooks in the front window, without refrigeration. I got really good at holding my breath for the full length of the block as I hurried to work. (We did not buy our meat there!)

This fresh produce section reminded me of the open-air market where we would shop for fruit and vegetables. Colombia has varieties of fruit that we’d never seen back home, like lulo and guanabana. Ken loved haggling over prices and trying to get a bargain. I just wanted to know “how much.” Ken said I was being gouged, but when I did the math, he was haggling over mere pennies. This little bodega even had an aisle of pottery like we used to buy in Bogota but the items all had price tags. Ken was disappointed that he couldn’t haggle.

Colombian food isn’t at all like the Mexican food the bodega served, which is good because we like Mexican cuisine much better. Here’s our lunch…and it was delicious!

We ate it as a picnic in a nearby park, something we never did in Bogota because it rained all the time. In fact, it rained every day for the two years we lived there. I always carried an umbrella. The city sits at an altitude of 8,660 feet, but if we took a bus down the mountain, we could enjoy sunny, tropical weather at a lush resort and breathe much thicker air. Of course, it required nerves of steel (or a blindfold) for the trip down the narrow, winding mountain road with no guardrails and sheer drop-offs, on a dilapidated former school bus—but that’s a story for another blog.

As we pedaled our way home from town again, I couldn’t help thinking about how our past experiences shape us and transform us into the people we are today. My time in Colombia drew me closer to God in many ways and became part of the foundation for my writing career. And it occurred to me that the things we’re experiencing right now—today—are shaping us into the people we’ll be in the future. We learned to adjust to a lot of changes when we moved to South America, and now we’ve all faced too many unwelcome changes these past two years. How we react to them will shape the people we become in the future.

In these challenging times, I don’t want to be taken captive by the constant arguing, fear-mongering, and divisiveness I see all around me. I want my faith to grow stronger and to flow out with joy everywhere I go. Right now, our journey may seem as harrowing as that bus trip down the Andes Mountains, but we’re God’s beloved children, and our future is safe in His hands.

First Book

Do you remember the first book you ever read? Not a book that someone else read to you—I heard hundreds of books read to me by my mom, grandparents, and my older sister, Bonnie, before I learned to read one myself. But what about the first book you actually read on your own? I think mine was this one:

I was introduced to Dick, Jane, and Sally in first grade, and their story intrigued me. I admired pretty, well-dressed Jane the same way I looked up to my older sister. Adorable little Sally reminded me of my baby sister, Peggy. Like them, our family also had a dog—theirs was named Spot, ours was Lady. I didn’t have any brothers, so I always had a bit of a crush on Dick—he was my first fictional, romantic hero. (Although, at the time, I was convinced he and his sisters were real people. I think all writers hope their characters will spring to life in readers’ minds.)

The book’s setting fascinated me. In the illustrations, the story’s background always seemed so much neater and more perfect than the setting of my life. I was a bit envious of it, to tell you the truth. (And I still love a novel that takes me to an exotic location or time period, don’t you?)  

In true 1950’s style, the children’s mother always wore a dress, their father usually wore a suit. The “plot” of the first few books were told mostly through the illustrations. Without them, the dialogue and narrative were pretty stilted, consisting mostly of simple words like “oh” and “look” and “see” repeated endlessly. (Today, I prefer reading novels with a rich, lush vocabulary and vivid descriptions.) Even so, I was hooked on that book!

I came across Dick, Jane and Sally and the memories they triggered while researching my newest novel, “The Wish Book Christmas.” I was looking up everything about life in the 1950’s—fashions, cars, toys, Christmas trees—and somehow I ran into my old friends. Instantly, I was a kid again, sitting at a splintery wooden desk, quietly flipping ahead to the next chapter in the lives of Dick, Jane, and Sally. (I had to flip ahead because the other kids in the class were reading much too slowly, and I needed to see how the story ended. That’s another great quality in a novel, isn’t it?)

It’s MUCH too soon to start blogging about Christmas, (even though I’m told “The Wish Book Christmas” can now be pre-ordered and will be out in September) but I wanted to show you the novella’s very 1950’s cover. I’m thrilled that it has such a nostalgic feel to it. (And the little boy admiring the tree could be Dick, right?)

We’ll talk more about that book and our Christmas memories as we get closer to the actual holiday season. But for now, I would love to know if you remember the first book you ever read—and how it affected you. What was it about the story that was most memorable to you—the plot? The characters? The setting? Or maybe it was the way it showed you something about yourself or your life? I would love to hear from you!

My older sister Bonnie reading to me.

Summer Memories

For the past week, our new ten-year-old grandson, Aiden, stayed with us while his parents were away on their honeymoon. He came into our life after our son married his mom last weekend, and having grandparents was a new experience for him. We are his first and only ones. I think he had a great time with us, biking the nearby trails on his new bicycle, going boating, learning how to find geocaches, playing at our beach on Lake Michigan, swimming in our friends’ pool, picking blueberries, eating corndogs and ice cream, working jigsaw puzzles, and playing dominoes and Scrabble. I have to say that we had a fantastic vacation, too, doing all of these fun things with him! We made a lot of memories together, and I was sorry for our time to end.

The week brought back wonderful memories for me of the times I spent with my grandparents in the summertime when I was a girl. My sisters and I were blessed to have both sets of our grandparents in our lives growing up. Our maternal grandparents lived in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where there were magical woods to explore just beyond their house. A spring-fed creek ran through their property and my grandpa stocked it with brook trout and landscaped it with little waterfalls and ponds creating marvelous places to play. I loved exploring the woods and fishing in the nearby river—even though I never caught anything. At night, we would catch lightning bugs, and see millions of stars in the ink-black sky, and listen to grandma tell stories of when she was a girl and panthers roamed those woods.

Our paternal grandparents lived in a city, where there were also many wonderful things to do and explore. They lived in an apartment building, which was an adventure all by itself with nooks and crannies and alleyways and secret backyard lots. We could hop on the streetcar and ride downtown to the bustling city and big department stores—I especially loved riding the escalators. Grandma came from a large family and we would ride the streetcar all around town to visit her sisters and brothers and their families. I learned how to play canasta, and we spent hours playing it and other card games. Grandma played the piano at her church, and we’d sit at her keyboard and sing all of her favorite hymns together. She tried to teach me how to play but I was too fidgety to stick with it.   

As fun as all of these activities were, what stands out most in my mind now as I look back, are the deep, loving relationships that developed between my grandparents and me. I couldn’t have put it into words as I child, but they gave me an overwhelming sense that I was valued and loved simply for who I was. I didn’t do anything to earn their love except to be born, and I gave them nothing material in return. But I remember the love that shone in their eyes whenever they looked at me, and I realize, now, what a huge role they played in helping me understand God’s unconditional love.

I want to do the same for Aiden and my other two grandchildren. By setting aside time to be with them and give them my attention and love, I hope to teach them that they are valued and loved simply for who they are. People are the greatest treasure we have in this life, which is why I didn’t get any writing done this week. But I know that Aiden and my husband and I created memories that will last a lifetime.  

My 4th of July Favorites

I’ve been reminiscing this Fourth of July about all the things I love most about this holiday. I have to say that at the top of my list are outdoor band concerts. My family lived near the West Point Military Academy when I was a girl and we usually attended their outdoor concerts on the Fourth of July. The academy perches on a mountaintop overlooking the Hudson River, and we would gaze out at the amazing view on warm summer evenings while the U.S. Army Band played rousing marches and all of our other favorites. After I married, my husband and I had the privilege of hearing the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform on the Fourth of July at their outdoor concert venue in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. One of my favorites was “The 1812 Overture” with real cannons booming. Nowadays, our family attends my husband’s concerts with the American Legion Band in our hometown. These patriotic concerts are performed in the city park overlooking the lake.

Of course, a close second for Fourth of July favorites are the fireworks. When I was growing up, there was always a magnificent show of fireworks at West Point following the band concert. I loved how the exploding fireworks reflected off the river and the thunderous booms echoed off the surrounding mountains, amplifying the sound. What a thrill! Today we watch the fireworks from our beach on Lake Michigan. The sun doesn’t set here until 9:30, which means it doesn’t get dark enough to enjoy the show until 10 or 10:30 at night. The fireworks explode over the lake as dozens of private boats line the lakeshore, shining their running lights and sounding their horns in applause. We walk home in the dark afterwards, using flashlights and sparklers to light our way.

Fireworks

I can’t leave out Fourth of July family picnics when naming my favorites. My grandparents always held huge potluck picnics at their home in the country, attended by all of our relatives and friends. Grandma chilled bottles of her homemade root beer in the spring-fed creek that ran through her property. There were hamburgers, hot dogs with homemade sauerkraut, and potato salad, among other family favorites. When I’m able, I like to return to the town in New York State where most of my extended family still lives for a picnic reunion just like the old days. But now I’m my grandmother’s age, and the kids running around eating hotdogs are my grandchildren. When we can’t attend the reunions, our family enjoys backyard picnics at our house followed by a marshmallow roast over our firepit. My grandkids love to run through the sprinkler just like my sisters and I used to do, and write their initials with sparklers after dark.

My parents always made sure my sisters and I knew the history behind the Fourth of July celebrations. I remember family trips to Philadelphia, where my aunt and uncle lived, and visiting all of the famous landmarks there. I especially loved hearing the story of how the Liberty Bell rang so hard to announce America’s independence and freedom that it cracked. We lived near Newburgh, NY, which was George Washington’s military headquarters during the Revolutionary War. I was amazed to think that “George Washington slept here.” We also learned the story of the giant chain that stretched across the Hudson River below West Point to stop British war ships from sailing up the river and attacking. Following my parents’ example, my husband and I took our children to Boston to walk the Freedom Trail and visit Betsy Ross’s house, where the first American flag was sewn. We saw the Old North Church where Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride, and the site of the famous Boston Tea Party. I don’t always remember important historical dates and facts, but what sticks with me are the stories. I think listening to stories is one of the best ways to learn history. It’s why I tell family stories to my grandchildren. And why I write historical fiction.

So, now it’s your turn. What do you enjoy most about the Fourth of July? What are your favorite memories and stories from the holiday?

Summer Reading Program

When I was a girl, our village library offered a summer reading program. We were each given a chart with colorful stickers to keep track of all the books we read over the summer. There were prizes for the kid in each age group who read the most books—usually a book, of course. How I loved to see that chart filled with stickers! But I couldn’t cheat—my mother was the librarian, so she knew if I was really reading or just collecting stickers. Nowadays, I don’t just collect stickers, I collect books. As you can see, my shelves are pretty full!

I still think of summertime as reading time and I look forward to long afternoons to just relax and “do nothing” and read. I’ve been very busy these past months, writing and launching “Chasing Shadows” along with a Christmas novella, “Wish Book Christmas,” which will be out this holiday season. So I have fallen behind on reading books for pleasure. But now summer is here, and it’s time to remedy that. Here are some of my favorite places to curl up with a book:

The best place is on our beach on Lake Michigan. I love the warm sand and sunshine and the sound of the waves. This is the best place to read happy, romantic stories that end “happily-ever-after.”

My second favorite is our front porch. It overlooks a bike-and-walking path, so it’s fun to watch people go by with their dogs and kids while I catch up on all my favorite magazines, (which I’ve been neglecting). The porch has rocking chairs and a swing, and is a favorite place to read books to my grandchildren when they visit.

In rainy weather, I sit inside by the front window for the same view of the bike path. This is where I pray and read and have my quiet time year-round.

We are also blessed to have a screened-in back porch with a green, leafy view of trees and the fragrance of newly-mown grass. It’s above our walk-out basement, so I feel like I’m in a treehouse. A ceiling fan adds a breeze on hot, summer nights—and this is my favorite place to read when there’s a thunderstorm.

One last place is beneath the screened porch, down by the backyard. There are lots of comfy chairs and also a hammock if I want to take a little nap. Party lights make it festive after sunset, which comes late here in Michigan in the summertime.

So now I need to take a trip to the library. Do you have any great summer reading recommendations? What are your recent favorites and the places where you like to relax and read them?

Eating Tulips

Have you ever eaten tulip bulbs? I haven’t, and I’m guessing not many of you have, either. Unless you lived in the Netherlands during World War II, that is. A Google search lists quite a few edible flowers including pansies, nasturtiums and marigolds. Tulips aren’t listed. I ate a flower at a trendy restaurant once that looked something like an orchid. It didn’t have much taste. But the Dutch didn’t eat tulips because they were trendy or tasty. The people were starving and desperate, and tulips were the only food available. Actress Audrey Hepburn, who lived in Holland during the war, has told how she survived on tulip bulbs. She said they tasted terrible.

I learned these sad but interesting facts while researching my newest novel, “Chasing Shadows.” The launch date is tomorrow, June 8, by the way, and I am super excited! (Keep reading to find out how to win a free copy!) The novel tells the stories of three women who live through the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Netherlands during WWII and have to decide how they will cope. The easiest way to survive is to befriend the enemy and collaborate with them. The middle path is to bury your head in the sand and simply try to cope by giving in to their demands, no matter how evil. The most difficult choice—and one that many, many brave Dutch people chose—is to actively resist and fight back against everything the Nazis were doing. You’ll have to read the novel to find out which of the paths my main characters chose.

The Dutch people suffered terribly during the war. During the final year, the railroad workers went on strike to hinder the Nazis’ movements, but when the trains halted, food supplies couldn’t be distributed. The winter of 1944-45 was called the Hunger Winter. It’s estimated that 22,000 civilians starved to death. One of the few things available to eat were tulip bulbs, so the Dutch Office of Food Supply published a guide with recipes, telling people how to cook them. The most common way was to grate the dried bulbs and use it like flour to make bread.

Fortunately, most of us have never faced the hardships of warfare. But we can read novels like “Chasing Shadows” and try to put ourselves in the characters’ places, and imagine how we would have reacted to such extreme circumstances. I like to think I would have faced the enemy courageously, but I’ll never really know.

And yet . . . I do have an enemy who wants to defeat me and take me captive. I face a variety of challenges, large and small, every day, and must decide how I will react. Am I going to allow the enemy to discourage and defeat me? Will I get angry, give in, give up? Or will I allow Christ’s love and grace to shine through me regardless of the circumstances? Like the women in my novel, I must decide if I will surrender to the enemy, do nothing, or show love?

It seems like it has taken a lifetime for me to fully trust in God’s provision. Like the Israelites, I sometimes grumble and complain about the manna He provides, preferring the cuisine of captivity. Jesus said that if we ask our Heavenly Father for bread, He isn’t going to give us stones. But sometimes His answers to prayer seem pretty hard to swallow. Like tulip bulbs. Will I eat them without complaining? Will I be thankful for them, as the faithful Dutch people were? Until the enemy is fully defeated, it’s a decision I must remember to make every day.

To celebrate the release of “Chasing Shadows,” (and my characters who eat tulips bulbs), I’m giving away two free copies of my book. To enter to win, simply leave a response to this blog, below. If you’d like, you can tell me about any flowers you’ve eaten. (I don’t think cauliflower counts!) Enjoy!

A Day of Filming

We’re getting closer! My newest novel, “Chasing Shadows,” will be released in just two more months, on June 8. So, a few days ago, my publisher, Tyndale House, sent a film crew to my home to interview me about the book. It was quite interesting to have my home transformed into a recording studio, with lights and cameras and complicated-looking equipment.

It seemed like there was a lot going on around me as I sat there smiling and talking and answering questions. It was hard not to get distracted as I described the novel, which takes place in The Netherlands during World War II. I talked about the inspiration for the book, and described my three main characters, Lena de Vries, her daughter Ans de Vries, and Miriam Jacobs, a Jewish refugee.

When the interview ended, we switched gears and moved to an outdoor setting. I live in Holland, Michigan, which originally was settled by Dutch immigrants, and our town just happens to have a beautiful park with a 250-year-old windmill imported from the real Holland. It’s the only authentic, working Dutch windmill in the United States. There’s a windmill in “Chasing Shadows” but you’ll have to read the book to find out more about it. My town of Holland also has millions of tulips, which are just beginning to bloom in time for the annual Tulip Time Festival in May.

I will announce the links to the finished interview when the film is completed and edited. But in the meantime, I’m giving away an autographed copy of my novel “Waves of Mercy,” which I wrote a few years ago. It tells the story of the Dutch immigrants who settled Holland, Michigan in 1857. The area was still a wilderness, but the settlers were escaping religious persecution in the Netherlands and were happy to be here. Simply leave a comment below and I will randomly choose a winner. Happy Springtime!

A Milestone

I reached a milestone last week.

As you can see from my odometer, I have now biked 1,000 miles on my new bicycle.  Ken and I purchased the new bikes in late August—a present to ourselves to make up for all the restrictions and disappointments in 2020. We have a lovely bike trail right outside our front door, so we put on 600 miles before the weather grew too cold.

But this past month we’ve been vacationing in Florida where we finally reached the 1000 mile mark.  Some of the trails took us through an alligator habitat where I made a new friend.

We’re home now, and my bike will get a rest for the next few months. But as soon as the snow is gone and the bike trails are clear, I’ll be looking forward to the next 1,000 miles.

What milestones are you looking forward to this spring?

Meatloaf Ministry

This past November was the seventeenth anniversary of my sister Bonnie’s death from cancer. As I was trolling through files on my computer recently, I found this article I wrote in 2003. Since Covid-19 has eliminated many of the church’s visible ministries and programs, I thought my reflections might be reassuring to all of the church’s “invisible” workers.

The minivan halted in my sister Bonnie’s driveway. I helped the driver carry warm, foil-covered pans into the kitchen. The food smelled heavenly—as well it should, for this was manna from heaven, a gift from God, delivered by one of His messengers. “Please tell Bonnie we’re praying for her,” she said before driving away.

The simple, unheralded task, bringing a meal to a fellow church member undergoing chemotherapy, was probably one of a dozen items on her to-do list. Compared to more visible ministries, her contribution may have seemed paltry to her. Perhaps she promised herself that she would do more for the kingdom of God someday, when her busy life settled down. I would like to tell her and all the other behind-the-scenes laborers how your humble meatloaf, offered in Christ’s name, ministered to my sister, to her family, and to me.

Bonnie’s cancer had robbed her of her job as well as her health. Chemotherapy caused hair and weight losses, and left her too weak to climb the stairs, let alone to be a wife and mother. As she grieved these losses, she clung to her faith in God like a lifeboat. I lived 700 miles away and felt helpless. “Don’t let her feel abandoned,” I prayed. “Let her see Your unfailing love.” When I finally was able to visit, I saw how God had been answering my prayers. For weeks, the women in Bonnie’s church had provided meals, demonstrating God’s concern, allowing her to feel the warmth of His love. These meals served as daily reminders of His presence.

Having meals delivered gave me the gift of time to spend with my sister. And when my brother-in-law returned home from work, a hot, home-cooked meal revived his spirits. The loss of income, coupled with mounting medical debts, clearly worried him. But for the weeks that the food continued, his food bills were lowered. With his prayer for “daily bread” answered, he was able to trust God for his other worries.

 My nephew was angry with God, unable understand why He would allow his mom to suffer. One night, I tempted him with a homemade apple pie that had arrived, warmed in the microwave. As we sat and talked, I said, “I think I finally understand the verse that says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’” He smiled, and for a wonderful moment, as he helped himself to seconds, a hurting son glimpsed God’s goodness in a warm slice of apple pie.

His younger brother longed to have a friend over to play video games. The many gifts of food made that invitation possible. His friend wasn’t from a Christian home. He and his stressed-out single mom rarely sat down to a meal. “I starve when I go to his house,” my nephew told me. But on game night, the bounty of food had multiplied in our refrigerator like loaves and fishes. I re-heated a week’s worth of leftovers, spreading everything out on the table like a potluck supper. Desserts overflowed onto the kitchen counter. My nephew’s friend surveyed the bounty, wide-eyed. “Did you have a party or something?” he asked. “Where’d all this food come from?”

“The people at our church keep bringing it,” my nephew explained—somewhat wide-eyed himself. The Lord had prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemy, cancer. Indeed, our cup overflowed. The boys heaped their plates with food. Our anonymous chefs had displayed the love of the Body of Christ in all its beauty to a hungry boy without a church family.

One young mother delivered a meal with two preschoolers in tow. “I helped make dessert,” the older girl said. The cake was slightly lopsided, the candy sprinkles unevenly dumped by a pair of small hands. Life can be overwhelming for a young mother with endless diapers and midnight feedings, and I recognized this woman’s gift as a true sacrifice. If anyone could be excused from preparing an extra meal, it would be her. But instead of wallowing in her own weariness, she chose to serve others. She also took a few minutes to pray with Bonnie. As I watched the children fold their hands and pray, I saw that this mother was giving a gift to her daughters, too, by her own quiet example.

One sunny afternoon a young man in his mid-twenties pulled up in his SUV bearing a loaf of garlic bread, pasta, and a pot of fresh spaghetti sauce. “I’m just learning to cook,” he explained. “All I can make is spaghetti sauce, so here it is.” He’d prepared it from scratch, simmering it in his slow cooker for two days. I thought of the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers” (1 Tim 4:12).

A middle-aged woman, suffering from Multiple Sclerosis needed help carrying her gift of pot roast and potatoes. She explained that her illness didn’t give her very many good days, and she was often unable to cook for her own family. “But I prayed for strength to do this when I signed up at church and God answered my prayer,” she said. She also gave Bonnie the gift of her time, sharing what God had taught her through her own illness, offering much-needed hope as she testified of His goodness.

After returning home, I volunteered to prepare a meal for a family from my own church. I sliced, simmered and sautéed with a sense of reverence, aware that God might use my humble offering for His glory. He’d taught me not to discount the small, unsung tasks done in His name, or to say I have no ministry simply because it isn’t visible. “Anyone who gives even a cup of cold water in my name,” Jesus said, “will certainly not lose his reward.” And I’m very sure He’ll say the same to those who’ve offered a lopsided cake and a simple meatloaf.

What ways have you found to minister to others during these unusual times?