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?

Courageous Heroines

My two-year-old granddaughter is very active, and often fearless. My daughter sent me a video the other day of her attempting to climb the cat tree in their home. A more cautious, thoughtful child (like her older sister, who is four), might stop and think, first, before attempting such a climb: “Hmmm . . . I’m much heavier than a cat . . . and it looks a little wobbly . . . and . . . what will I do once I reach the top?” But my granddaughter is only two, so she scrambled up the post.

And it did wobble. And she did reach the top. She turned around and grinned in victory . . . And then she looked down. Her eyes grew very wide. Can you guess what happened next?

She didn’t fall. And she didn’t cry. She simply stretched out her little arms and said, “Papa!  Papa! Help me down, Papa!” She knew who to call upon for help.

I love to read novels that feature heroines of great inner strength and courage. I love writing novels with that kind of heroine, too. Often, the main character doesn’t see herself as brave or courageous to begin with. But when circumstances in her life bring her to a crisis point, she finds a source of strength and courage.  

Sometimes that source comes through other people. She finds deliverance through teaming up with others and fighting the battle together. Her friends may offer a variety of strengths, and victory is achieved through teamwork. This type of heroine demonstrates the wisdom in asking for help rather than remaining isolated. It’s a lesson I often need to remember.

This week, I was struggling alone with several worrying concerns. Then I met with my prayer sisters for our monthly Skype prayer meeting. We prayed for each other—for our writing projects, for our families, and for our country. I came away refreshed and restored. And no longer alone. We will continue to pray for each other throughout the month.

Sometimes, a heroine’s journey is about more than overcoming physical danger or other obstacles. In the most memorable novels, an outward crisis sends the heroine on an inner, spiritual journey that will change her in some way. And for that, she must learn to call upon God—much like my granddaughter called to her papa.

When I think back to the times of crisis and uncertainty in my own life, they always turned out to be the times when my relationship with God grew the most. When I cried out to Him in fear, I discovered that He was right there. I learned to trust Him and allow Him to change me through my circumstances. He became my source of strength and courage for the next battle.

 I don’t think my granddaughter will attempt to climb the cat tree again. But the lesson she learned is more than one of caution. She knows that Papa’s arms are strong and loving. She knows that he will help her and rescue her when she calls to him. And maybe, someday, she will become a heroine who has learned to call upon her Heavenly Father the same way.

And the Winner Is…

Is there anyone in America who doesn’t know that tomorrow is election day? With our country deeply divided between the two opposing parties, I think it’s safe to say that when the outcome is announced, half of the people will be happy and the other half won’t be. Many of us will just be relieved that it’s over!

In the midst of all the anxiety and nail-biting and fear for the future, I’m trying hard to remember two things. First, that God is in control, even if the next president isn’t the one I voted for. In Old Testament times, God’s people never would have voted for the brutal Persian dictator, King Cyrus. Yet once in power, he allowed the Jews who had been taken captive to Babylon to return to their homeland in Israel. Cyrus even paid for their trip. Why? “In order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus, King of Persia . . .” (Ezra 1). He can direct the heart of any leader to accomplish His purposes.

In New Testament times, God’s people never would have chosen the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus to rule over them. But as we all know from the Christmas story, it was this pagan emperor’s decree that led to Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem—where the prophets had foretold the Messiah would be born. God knew exactly how to direct the course of history so that scripture would be fulfilled. And He already knows the outcome of this election.

The second thing I’m reminding myself is that I have a calling to fulfill that doesn’t hinge on who becomes president. “Go and make disciples of all nations . . .” Jesus told us (Mark 28:19). God didn’t send His Son so that I could live a happy, comfortable life governed by leaders who think like me. He sent Christ so we can be forgiven and live in relationship with Him as our King. We’re supposed to spread that good news everywhere we go, to everyone we meet. And God knows the perfect conditions necessary to reach the lost. The next president’s policies and vision for America may not be to my liking, but my calling to follow Christ’s teachings and to point the way to Him isn’t going to change.

The Bible chronicles Israel’s long history of “good” kings and “bad” kings. Ideally, the people wouldn’t have needed a king at all if they’d trusted God as their king. But they wanted to be like the other nations. Jesus has much to say about the Kingdom of God, the kingdom to which believers today still belong. And whether your candidate wins or loses, His prayer for us is this: “I pray that all of them may be one, Father . . . so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”

Do you want to know who’s going to win the election? The man God has chosen for His purposes.

Answered Prayer

In my last blog, I asked for prayer for my mom who recently fell and broke her hip, just before her 95th birthday. I want to thank everyone who prayed for her, and to tell you that she is doing very well. The surgery went well, she’s in a rehab hospital, and she’s in good spirits. She’s starting to walk again, and hopes to be able to return home soon. I’m so thankful that I can now praise God for this wonderful answer to prayer. What an amazing privilege it is to be able to bring all of our needs and fears to God!

Lately, I’ve been almost afraid to watch the news or read the headlines with all of the tragedies that seem to be happening daily. The terrible forest fires and hurricanes. The latest Covid statistics. The social unrest and injustice. The political divisions. I think we all dislike change, and things seem to be changing faster than we can even process them. It helps me to remind myself that our Heavenly Father is unchanging. His love and mercy are the same yesterday, today and forever. His salvation in Christ is unchanging. And His Word is unchanging.

In my non-fiction devotional, Sightings, I offered three exercises that I’ve used over the years to keep me centered on Christ’s promises when the changes start happening too quickly, and life seems overwhelming. These three ideas have also helped me grow closer to God over the years.

First, I keep a prayer journal to write down people and circumstances I’m praying for. The journal helps remind me of them when I sit down to pray during my quiet times. But I also leave space after each request to record how and when God answers those prayers. My mother’s surgery will certainly go into my book. I’m always amazed to see how the things I prayed for were perfectly resolved in God’s time and according to His plan. The journal serves as a reminder of His faithfulness, especially during the hard times when I don’t even know how to pray.

The second thing I recommend is that you take note of all the “God sightings” in your life. These are the moments and places where you saw God’s hand, or little reminders of His love. It might be as simple as noticing His boundless creativity in the flowers in your garden. It could be a kind word someone offered just when you needed it. In my devotional, Sightings, I describe some of the “God sightings” in my own life. Recording these little moments will provide you with an account of His goodness to remind you when He seems far away.

Finally, I encourage you to write down scripture verses that build your faith. Keep them in a handy place where you can read them regularly and commit them to memory. The Bible says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). It offers guidance and wisdom when we need it. Scripture is also part of every Christian’s armor to battle the enemy. The Word of God is our “sword” (see Ephesians 6:10-18). We need to be well-armed.

Yes, there are a multitude of things we need to pray for in our country right now. But I want to remember to take time to praise God and to thank Him every single day for one of His blessings. Today I’m thanking Him for my mom, and for every one of you who took time to pray for her and wish her well. God bless you!

Small Miracles

Today is my mother’s birthday. She will be 95. Unfortunately, she will be celebrating it in the hospital this year, virtually alone because of Covid. A week ago, she fell while tending her flower bed and broke her hip. Mom is a lifelong Christian and an amazing example to her family of what a life of faith looks like. She is also a prayer warrior. I have been asking all of my friends to pray for her recovery, and I was reminded of this blog that I wrote about Mom ten years ago. I hope it will encourage you today to keep praying for miracles.

SMALL MIRACLES

I have a story to tell about one of God’s small miracles. A true story. If I made it part of the plot of a novel, the “coincidence” would be unbelievable.

Last Christmas, I attended a concert at Moody Church in downtown Chicago with two couples from our Bible study group. My husband Ken performed in the concert. Before the music started, I was talking with my friend Peggy about the pain she still experienced from a car accident a few years ago. I mentioned that my 85-year-old mother, who has a quiet, one-woman prayer ministry, had been praying for her.

A stranger seated in front of me suddenly turned around and said, “Would your mother please pray for me, too?” He told me his name was Shad—short for Shadrach—and he explained how he was also in great pain and had trouble sleeping at night. “What’s your mother’s name?” he asked. “If she’ll pray for me, I’ll pray for her.” We exchanged information, the concert began, and Shad and I didn’t talk again.

Every morning, my mother (who lives 800 miles away from me) faithfully prays for her daughters, sons-in-law, twelve grandchildren and their spouses, and her eleven great-grandchildren—along with countless other people she hears about, like my friend Peggy. She added Shad to her list. In fact, she told me that he often came to her mind—sometimes in the night—and she prayed for him then. Most of Mom’s prayers are answered in amazing ways, but there have been some prayers that have gone unanswered for a long, long time. She rarely asks for prayer for herself, but I knew of one particular need in her life that she was trusting God to answer—and He just didn’t seem to be listening.

Four months after the Christmas concert, I returned to Moody Church with two friends on Easter Sunday to hear my husband play for their morning service—a glorious musical experience that always makes me feel like I’m in heaven, listening to the angels sing. When Mom heard that I would be returning to Moody Church she said, “Oh, maybe you’ll see Shad again. Find out how he’s doing. I think of him so often when I pray.”

“Impossible,” I told her. “Finding him would be like finding a needle in a haystack!”

For one thing, I couldn’t even remember what he looked like, since he sat in front of me the last time. And for another, the auditorium at Moody holds close to 4,000 people and every seat is filled on Easter. I found it impossible to imagine that I would cross paths with Shad again, especially since I would be sitting in a completely different part of the auditorium this time. But for Mom’s sake, I did look around half-heartedly that morning, eyeing the nametags that ushers and some church members wore, looking for one that said “Shad.” My friend asked me who I was searching for and I told her the story. She agreed it would be nearly impossible to find a man whose face I couldn’t recall. I didn’t even pray that God would help me find him because I didn’t really believe He would answer such a difficult prayer.

A few minutes before the service started, I happened to overhear a conversation behind me. The two men who were talking had never met, so they introduced themselves. One of them said, “Nice to meet you. My name is Shad—short for Shadrach.”

No! Impossible! Right behind me?

I whirled around with tears in my eyes and reminded Shad how we had met at Christmas. He told me that my mother’s prayers were being answered. I marveled at how God had put him right behind me in an audience of nearly 4,000 people and he said, “You know, I started to sit farther back, but I heard the Lord telling me to move up. And there was only one empty seat—right behind you.”

I couldn’t wait to call Mom and tell her the story. Finding Shad was indeed a miracle, but I believe the even bigger miracle was that God would orchestrate this impossible reunion just to encourage His faithful, sometimes discouraged, prayer warrior. He wanted to let Mom know in a personal, seemingly impossible way that He loved her and was listening to her every word when she prays. He truly did hear all of her prayers, even the unanswered ones.

But this Easter miracle was meant for me, as well. I have no trouble believing in God’s big miracles like the Christmas story and the empty tomb—I was praising Him that morning for the miracle of His resurrection from the dead. But for the small things in my life? Surely God was too busy to micro-manage the little details. I have a few unanswered prayers of my own that I’ve been praying about for a long, long time. But when I consider the size of the crowd filling the auditorium—and overflowing into a second hall with a video screen—I can’t deny that He performed a miracle that Resurrection Sunday. Only He could put the very stranger I was searching for in the seat right behind mine.

My prayer time has been re-energized by my “chance” meeting with Shad. And I’ll continue to pray for all of the impossible, unanswered needs on my list. Because the God who is listening is a God of small miracles as well as big ones.

Books and Cover Art

Every now and then, my publisher sends me copies of the foreign editions of my books. It always amazes me to learn that my novels are being translated and read in different places all around the world, places that I’ll probably never get to visit. I also find the foreign covers very entertaining! Sometimes the publishers use the same cover art as the original book, but sometimes I like the foreign cover design better. And sometimes the covers are—to be honest—quite terrible! I thought I would share some of these foreign editions with you and see what you think.

I received this copy of my novel “Gods and Kings” yesterday. It’s in the Slovenian language:

Here are “Gods and Kings” in Afrikaans, Polish, and Slovakian. I love the fact that my name is Lynn Austinova in Slovakian! Doesn’t that sound cool?

And this one is in Korean:

These are all copies of my book “Hidden Places.” The one in the top row beside the original is in Danish. The bottom two are in Russian and Polish. I think the Russian version looks racier than the original, don’t you?

Here is my original “Eve’s Daughters” with the Dutch version beside it. Below it is the Danish version and the Romanian version. Which is your favorite?

My novel “Until We Reach Home” is about three Swedish sisters who immigrate to America in 1897. I find it amusing that the sisters look the same, but in the US version they are gazing at the statue of liberty, and in the Swedish version they’re saying goodbye to the Swedish coastline.

This is the American version of “Waves of Mercy” compared to the German. The novel takes place in Michigan but the German cover sure looks like Maine to me:

The cover of “Fly Away” on the left is the original US version published in 1996. (Not one of my favorites!) The middle cover is Dutch, and the one on the right is my own reprint with a cover designed by Deb Raney’s very creative, graphic-designer husband Ken Raney. The “Fly Away” cover at the top of this post is Tyndale House’s new e-version:

And finally, these are two of my least favorite foreign covers: A Woman’s Place” in Norwegian and “Fire by Night” in Romanian:

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t mean the cover isn’t important! So, what do you think of these foreign editions? I would love to hear your opinion.

Fireworks

Celebrating Independence Day

What I’ve missed the most during this virus quarantine, is being with family and friends—especially for holiday celebrations. We could invite some fearless souls for a get-together this Fourth of July and wear masks, use hand-sanitizer, and stand six feet apart. We could still have a picnic and play horseshoes on the lawn. Unfortunately, the fireworks that we usually watch from our beach on Lake Michigan have been cancelled this year. It would still be Independence Day, as my grandma used to call it, but somehow it won’t seem the same.

Lately, I’ve been remembering the Fourth of July celebrations that my grandparents used to have at their home in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. A spring-fed creek ran through their wooded property, and Grandma and Grandpa worked hard to create dams and bridges and waterfalls and a little pond, which they stocked with brook trout. The creek attracted deer, birds, frogs, turtles, and the occasional garter snake. In the middle of this paradise, my grandparents built a picnic area beneath the trees with a fireplace for roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, a hammock for lazy afternoons, and a tree swing for their grandkids. If it sounds idyllic, it was!

Grandma was one of six sisters, and every Fourth of July they’d come with their extended families, bringing food for the feast. They would smile and tug my pigtails and say how big I’d grown. My grandparents also invited all their friends and neighbors and their families. There were many, many fascinating characters in this crazy group, including my very German Uncle Otto who played cymbals in a marching band. I could write several novels about all of these characters.

The food was abundant and delicious, especially Grandma’s potato salad. The soda pop stayed cold in the creek—Grandma’s homemade root beer was my favorite. We would chase frogs beside the brook and feed bread crumbs to the trout. We carved sticks with our pocket knives to roast hotdogs over the fire. We lit sparklers after dark, and when they were gone, we’d catch fireflies. Throughout the day, the adults laughed and ate and reminisced, and there was always a lap to sit on, someone to put iodine on a scraped knee.

Our family reunion in happier times

I’ve been trying to decide what it was that made those celebrations so memorable, and I think it was the feeling of joy I experienced at being part of something that was so much bigger than me—and yet I belonged! Everyone knew each other—and they knew me. They had shared joys and sorrows, good times and bad. They had experienced two world wars and the Great Depression together. And my sisters and I were part of the next chapter of their story.

My Great Aunts often told stories at these gatherings, and it thrilled me to know that their past was part of my story, my history. They’d talk about growing up on a farm without electricity or plumbing. They rode into town on horseback. Wild cats and panthers roamed the woods nearby. Grandma’s oldest sister, Aunt Martha, remembered coming to America from Germany in the 1890s as a small child and landing at Ellis Island. She had brought a little doll carriage with her, and one of the immigration agents took it away from her, saying she wasn’t allowed to have it in America. He set it aside, probably to give to his own daughter. But after her family had sorted through all the paperwork and were free to leave, little Martha marched over to her doll carriage and boldly wheeled it away. I’m proud to share her genes.

I wish I could recreate my grandparents’ celebrations for my own grandchildren, but our family members are scattered across the country, with one uncle in California, another in Indiana, more aunts and uncles and cousins and second-cousins in Texas and Florida and New York State. I would love for my granddaughters to meet their feisty great-grandmother who is 94 and still full of life. She could tell them some stories!

I would love for my home to overflow like Grandma’s did with people I have known through good times and bad, people who are glued to me with bonds of love. More than anything else, I long for my granddaughters to know they belong to a community that is much greater than just their immediate family, a community with a shared history, and with many more stories yet to be lived. It won’t happen this Fourth of July. Family reunions on Zoom just aren’t the same. I pray that next year will be different.

Until then, what are some creative ways that you’ll be celebrating the Fourth of July with your loved ones?

Be Prepared

There’s no escaping the news, the fear, the warnings. The Coronavirus is coming! Beware! Be ready! I understand that I should be worried—after all, I’m over sixty and that puts me at a greater risk of dying if I do contract the virus. But strangely, I’m not worried. While I would like to live another dozen years and watch my grandchildren grow up, my philosophy is the same as my heroines’ motto in my novel “Where We Belong.” Whenever their lives were at risk they would say, “God knows when the end of our days will be; we have nothing to fear.” The question that should concern me is not “how or when will I die,” but “how will I live in the meantime?” How well will I represent Jesus?

I keep wondering what Christians are doing in China, where the outbreak began. Or in Iran, another hard-hit country where Christians make up a tiny minority. Naturally, they must hope to survive this epidemic—we all do. But I’m guessing that believers in those hard-hit nations are reaching out to their sick and dying neighbors with the love of Christ in spite of the risk to themselves. I’m certain we’ll hear stories of their courage and faith in the days to come. And of the lives they saved.

The Apostle Peter urged us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). And non-believers are never hungrier for the hope that we have in Christ than when they are facing death. Perhaps that’s why God allows Christians to suffer through the same plagues and wars and disasters as non-Christians, side by side—so we can proclaim His love and hope to the lost.

While this particular virus is unusual, the fear and uncertainty it brings to people around the world is not. Every generation has faced life-threatening disasters, natural or man-made. In my novel “If I Were You” (releasing June 2), the main characters live in London during World War II, and experience the relentless Nazi bombings known as The Blitz. In the passage below, Eve is worried for her mum’s safety, and tries to persuade her to quit her job in London as a maidservant to Lady Rosamunde and go to a safer place.

“I don’t understand why you’re so loyal to her, Mum. Lady Rosamunde demands so much from you, working all hours of the day and night, yet she doesn’t have an ounce of consideration for you.”

Mum sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. “It isn’t easy to explain, Eve. I suppose . . . I suppose it’s because of what the vicar once said in one of his sermons. He read a Bible passage that said servants should do their work joyfully, as if serving the Lord. Jesus said if we’re ordered to go one mile, we should go two. And I feel sorry for Lady Rosamunde. For all her wealth, she is a sad, lonely woman . . . But she gave me a job at a time when I badly needed it to support you. So I’ve always thought that God must have a reason for wanting me to work for her.”

I don’t believe there are any “accidents” with God. Whatever disaster may strike us—a Nazi bomb, a deadly virus, or a heart attack—we can know that it is firmly under God’s control, and that it will serve His greater purpose. We already have eternal life, and so “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We can face the end of our days with nothing to fear.

If you’d like to learn more about “If I Were You,”  follow this link to see a fun video with more information: http://bit.ly/3828FZS

 

Visiting Bethlehem

The first time I visited Bethlehem more than 25 years ago, I expected to feel a sense of the beauty and simplicity of the much-loved Christmas story: a crude stable, the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and the Son of God in the manger.  I was sadly disappointed. The traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is inside the Church of the Nativity—a truly ancient church built in 565 AD.  It has survived enemy invasions, the Crusaders, restorations, renovations, a fire and an earthquake, but it looks like . . . well, a church.  A beautifully decorated and ornamented church, with all the sacred clutter that has accumulated over the centuries, but it bore no resemblance to my image of what Jesus’ birthplace was like.

But wait—the real site was down a set of stairs and inside a natural cave that has been venerated as the place of His birth since 160 AD. But even this simple cave was so gilded and bedecked with artwork and tapestries and lamps and incense burners that I still couldn’t get a sense of what it might have looked like on that first holy night. In the center of the floor was a silver-encrusted star with a hole in the middle. By putting my hand inside, I could touch the place where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago.  I tried it, but I left Bethlehem feeling empty, unable to make the sacred connection I had so longed for.

And isn’t that how so many of our Christmases end up feeling? In spite of all the tinsel and glitter and sparkle, all the money we spend and the stress we endure as we try to create the perfect Hallmark Christmas, we’re often left with the same let-down feeling I had inside that church in Bethlehem.  We’ve lost the simple beauty of the story, that precious connection with Jesus that is the true miracle of Bethlehem.

The year after I visited Bethlehem, I began looking for ways to recapture the simplicity of Christ’s incarnation. Santa Claus has never been invited to our family’s Christmases, and we’ve always celebrated it as Jesus’ birthday, exchanging presents because God gave us the gift of His Son.  But year after year, the clutter and glitz had draped themselves over our celebrations, just like the religious trappings that have collected inside the Church of the Nativity over the centuries.  That year, I purchased a nice but inexpensive manger set. I wanted something that wasn’t a toy, but that my children could handle and touch. We placed it at their level and at the center of our holiday, and began the simple tradition of gathering together as a family to fill the empty stable while my husband read the story from the Bible. Our children divided all the people and sheep and camels among themselves and when we got to their part in the Bible story, they added their figures to the stable.

This simple tradition has become so beloved by all of us that we still do it the same way every year, even though our children are now adults. One year, our daughter was living overseas and couldn’t make it home for the holiday but we still held our family tradition while she participated via Skype. And it’s always in those moments, with a simple stable and inexpensive plaster figures, and my precious loved ones gathered around me that I feel the holy wonder of Christmas once again—Emmanuel, God with us! May you find Him this Christmas season, too.

What Christmas traditions are special for you and your family?

Perspective: Of Mountains and Seas – (Guest Post & Giveaway)

Please welcome my dear friend Elizabeth Musser as my guest blogger today. Elizabeth, Tammy Alexander, and I share the same German publisher, Francke, and the three of us traveled together on a book tour a few years ago. We had a blast! Now, I have the privilege of endorsing Elizabeth’s newest book, “When I Close my Eyes.” Make sure you enter for a chance to win a copy. ~ Lynn

Perspective: Of Mountains and Seas

by Elizabeth Musser

So much of life is about perspective: how I perceive a situation, how I accept the different circumstances that twist their way into my life.

And so it is with our stories. The novelist is giving the reader a certain perspective and hoping that it resonates with the reader.

My newly released novel, When I Close My Eyes, is about a middle-aged writer who is in a coma, remembering her past. Part of the story takes place in Asheville, NC, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains at the height of their color in the fall. The other part of the story takes place at a beach in La Grande Motte, France, beside the a Mediterranean Sea.

When I received the final cover for the novel, I absolutely loved it. They’d caught the feel of the novel down to the detail of the font fading, symbolic of someone going in and out of wakefulness. And my heroine, Josephine, is standing by the Mediterranean Sea.

When-I-Calose-My-Eyes_Elizabeth-Musser

Even though the main part of the story takes place in Asheville, I wanted to make sure the back cover copy included a mention of the Mediterranean, since that was the cover setting:

There is one story novelist Josephine Bourdillon shirked from writing. And now she may never have a chance. Trapped in her memories, she lies in a coma. The man who put her there is just as paralyzed. Former military Henry Hughes failed to complete the kill. What’s more: he failed to receive payment—funds that would ensure surgery for his son. As detectives investigate disturbing fan letters, a young but not-so-naive Paige Bourdillon turns to her mother’s tormented past for answers. Could The Awful Year be worse than one they’re living now? Set against the flaming hills of North Carolina and the peaceful shores of the Mediterranean Sea, When I Close My Eyes tells the story of two families struggling with dysfunction and finding that love is stronger than death.

Perfect!

But then I received a slew of gorgeous graphics that the team at Bethany House had designed for computer and smart phone backgrounds. And I literally caught my breath when I saw the design for the smart phone. Because of the shape of that graphic, more of the original photo is visible. And guess what? Josephine isn’t standing beside the Mediterranean Sea. She’s standing on a mountain, gazing out at the mist on the mountains.

When-I-Close-My-Eyes_Back_Elizabeth-Musser

It’s the perfect representation of the beginning of the book, a description taken from one of Josephine’s novels:

The clouds hang low, a mist caught between the carpet of mountains. I stand at the top of the lookout and gaze into a never-ending motion of undulating valleys and peaks. On and on, seemingly forever, they rise and fall in lush green hues and deep blue ridges that span past history. The mountains hold my imagination, and I feel a call to their beauty. Then they fade out of view as the mist floats above and around them, like puffs of smoke. I hover in the mist; I feel the calling of the dawn. I see the first ray of light piercing through the mist and I know. I am forgiven.

These Mountains Around Us, Josephine Bourdillon

The design team had picked the perfect picture, and in a serendipitous way, the cover perfectly fit both settings in the novel. Do you see the clouds and the mist and the mountains?

I absolutely love this cover for many reasons, but especially because it taught me a lesson in perspective. I can easily see something different because of where I am coming from.

I hope you like the cover. And I hope you also enjoy the story.

To be entered in a giveaway for a copy of When I Close My Eyes, print or e-book, leave a comment below.

BIO

ELIZABETH MUSSER writes ‘entertainment with a soul’ from her writing chalet—tool shed—outside Lyon, France. Elizabeth’s highly acclaimed, best-selling novel, The Swan House, was named one of Amazon’s Top Christian Books of the Year and one of Georgia’s Top Ten Novels of the Past 100 Years (Georgia Backroads). All of Elizabeth’s novels have been translated into multiple languages and have been international best-sellers. Two Destinies, the final novel in The Secrets of the Cross trilogy, was a finalist for the 2013 Christy Award. Her latest novel, The Long Highway Home was a finalist for the 2018 Carol Awards. Elizabeth’s novel, When I Close My Eyes, will be published in November, 2019.

For over thirty years, Elizabeth and her husband, Paul, have been involved in missions’ work in Europe with One Collective, formerly International Teams.  The Mussers have two sons, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Find more about Elizabeth’s novels at www.elizabethmusser.com and on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog.

 

Elizabeth-Musser_Headshot