Friday, January 28, 2011

It's Not What it Seems

A couple of days ago, a friend called me to help her with a computer issue she experienced while trying to get a blog up and going. When I reached her house, she seemed frazzled. I could tell she’d probably been working for a few hours. We resolved her computer issue, and then I returned home.

I saw her the next day.

“Bev, as soon as I posted that article, I immediately saw something that needed to be changed. I’m sure glad I don’t have any followers yet. I’d already worked a long time on it. When I read your posts, it seems so easy.”

I cleared my throat, and took a deep breath before responding to this precious friend. The fact is, if you want to know if you’ve made any glaring errors, the best way to find out is by hitting the post button. As soon as the rest of the world can see it, you too, will find the humiliating mistakes that up to that point have been invisible to you. Same thing with emails. Invariably, I have the experience of working hard on a piece for submission, and as soon as I hit send, I have an “oops” moment.

A lot of novelists and screenwriters don’t’ write blogs because they are so time consuming. I read a quote recently from a writer who advised against it, because each word in a blog is a word that could be in a novel. I guess that’s true, but I enjoy blogging.

Bev and Elizabeth Sherrill
As for the so-called “easy” part…I turn to Elizabeth Sherrill, who along with her husband John, has authored many Christian classics including Corrie ten Boom’s story, The Hiding Place, and the story of Brother Andrew, God’s Smuggler. I had the privilege of meeting her a couple of years ago and attending a workshop she taught. She had many helpful insights, but one especially memorable one is this:

“The harder we (the writer) works, the more simple it seems to others.”

That is the absolute truth. What appears to be so effortless to the reader, even a short piece of just a few hundred words like this one, often takes hours to write. It least it takes me that long.

Contributing editor for Guideposts magazine, Marion Bond West, says, “If you can do anything else but write, you’d better do it.”

Writing is not for the faint of heart, because the work and the rejections will kill you if you’re not called to this journey. Many, including me, write in anonymity for a long time before anything sees publication.

The thing is I do feel called to this pursuit, so it doesn’t matter how hard it is, or how many rejections I get, or how long it takes.

In some ways, the writing life mirrors the Christian walk. It can be hard, long, and full of difficulties we couldn’t even imagine when we began. But, God sees us, sees the challenges, and is with us. That’s more than enough. Often, it's not what it seems, but it's much better. I, for one, wouldn’t swap this path for any other the world can offer.

“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lucy Caught a Squirrel

NO, I don’t have a picture. I was pretty aggravated with Lucy when I saw her running across the yard with the limp animal in her mouth—a rodent, I might add, which was probably still full of the black oiled sunflower seeds he’d eaten at my feeder. This carnage destroyed the utopian ideation I had about the dynamics in the backyard.

For example, Lucy and the former feral grey kitty get along famously. As soon as we let Lucy out in the morning, the grey kitty runs over, rubs against Lucy’s legs, and arches her back against the brown dog’s stomach. Very sweet. Other than a bewildered look on her face, Lucy seems to be fine with it.  

Except for the occasional ill-mannered blue jay, the birds live in harmony, as well. I haven’t seen any feathers flying over the suet, yet. On second thought, it may not have been the suet, but I have seen feathers flying. I was just working one day in my office, heard some sort of tussling sound, looked up, and grey feathers drifted down past my window. A lot of them. Turns out, the hawk that cruises my neighborhood had a snack.

This past spring, I was watching a nest birds had built in one of my hanging baskets. It thrilled me to see it soon filled with two little speckled eggs. It didn’t thrill me a couple of days later when they mysteriously disappeared. I was talking to a friend about it.

“I can’t believe a snake ate my bird eggs.”

My levelheaded friend said, “Snakes have to eat, too. It’s just nature.”

It may have been nature, but I didn’t have to like it. Those were my eggs.

Then, just this weekend, I went out and called the grey kitty. She hopped over the fence followed by not one, but two tomcats. I had no idea she was old enough for such shenanigans. She’s headed straight to the vet.

Okay, I admit, I’m living in denial about the backyard utopia. But, a lot of the time the denial works for me. Occasionally, when I have to get in touch with reality though, I remember that despite the gritty happenings back there, one day I’m going to get what my heart longs for.

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat…, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear…they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:6-9

One day.

But for now, the squirrels had better smarten up, because after catching a real squirrel this week, that fake floppy squirrel of Lucy’s has lost its charm.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sailing On

image copyright 2010 Cheryl Cook     used by permission
 Big congratulations to the five finalists in Operation First Novel. I know that no matter who wins first place, great things are ahead for each of you!

As for me, yes, it would've been nice to make it to the next tier, but being named in the top ten for Operation First Novel is something for which I’m incredibly grateful. So, I’m pressing ahead with the book deal I already have. Blessed to have won that award courtesy of Westbow Publishing and the East Metro Atlanta Christian Writers, I’m looking forward to working with Westbow in the next few months.

I read an article a couple of days ago by columnist, Sherri Goggin, a former Mrs. Georgia, now author of a popular column and recipe collection called Home Plate. She was lamenting in her article, “Rejection is a Part of Risk,” the fact that she had three rejections in one week

Her closing remarks: “If you let fear of failure or rejection keep you from trying something new, you’re guaranteed a sure thing: not getting it. So raise your sails high, expect a little rain, and be prepared for plenty of sunshine along the way.”

Timely for me to catch this article, and so poignant, because the ship metaphor is what God has long used concerning this writing journey (One Ringing Bell, "Ships, Sails, and Dream Come True Tales," 11-14-10). She’s right. Every time I enter a contest, submit to a publisher, or solicit a critique, I’m facing rejection, and many times, that’s what happens. But, often in surprising ways, God exceeds my expectations and brings round developments that had never been a blip on my radar screen—like the deal with Westbow.

And these unexpected blessings are always enough to keep me sailing on. "I press on..." Phillipians 3:14

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Operation First Novel

For several weeks now, due to the Westbow Publishing award I received back in November, I’ve been working hours each day making proofreading corrections to my manuscript, “Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees.” I’m so thankful for several folks who were willing to give their time to find these mistakes so I could correct them. I put proofreading corrections in the same tedious category as other necessary but dreaded things like—scrubbing the grout in the bathroom floor, clipping coupons, or sorting a basket of socks. The Chicago Manual of Style has hardly been out of my sight.

Just as I completed the last edits for submission, I received a congratulatory email from a friend. I didn’t understand what she was talking about until I scrolled down my emails to find one from the Christian Writers Guild. Sure enough, last Thursday I learned that I placed in the top ten for the “2010 Jerry Jenkins, Christian Writers Guild, Operation First Novel Contest.”

This is a national competition, and I’m humbled to be included in this group. Finalists are announced on Friday, January 21. Whether or not I make it to the next tier, making it this far is so affirming. Just about every writer I know struggles with insecurity, and God has used landing in this group of semifinalists to strengthen me during a difficult time.

I’ve previously posted about a class I had with Jerry Jenkins (One Ringing Bell, 7-5-10). I’ve met very few people who’ve achieved his level of success who exhibit such humility. He truly reflects the character of Christ. Jenkins’s heart for helping beginning writers moved him to acquire the Christian Writer’s Guild, and through it, he’s helped countless numbers of writers achieve their dreams.

In the writing arena, many quit before they even get started. After hearing Jerry Jenkins speak, I think one of his spiritual gifts must be that of encouragement. Romans 12:6-8 says “If a man’s gift is… encouraging, let him encourage…” Without a doubt, Jerry Jenkins has exercised his gift by offering to budding writers a powerful means of encouragement and help to stay the course through the Christian Writer’s Guild.

Stay tuned for the results on Friday. I have plenty of work to keep me busy until then. No matter what happens, though, I am thankful, and I am blessed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Flight 90

On January 13, 1982, a snow and ice storm gridlocked my town, as it did much of the East coast. I’d just moved here as a buyer for a department store, and had worked so much the six months prior, I hadn’t a chance to get to know many people except the folks with which I worked. I certainly didn’t know anyone in my apartment complex. So, stuck inside, I decided to paint that day—something I also hadn’t had time to do much of lately.

I retrieved my watercolors and paper from my closet, set up by a window that overlooked a wooded area in the back of my apartment, then reached over and turned on the radio by my bed.

Late in the afternoon, just after four, a news bulletin announced that a Washington D.C. departing flight, Air Florida flight 90, had gone down in the Potomac just after takeoff. The immediate thought I had was, if the plane didn’t get much lift, there might be survivors. In fact, the burden to pray for those in that plane was so heavy, all I did was pray and paint, pray and paint. It was rare that I’d have so much time just to pray.

I didn’t know the drama unfolding at the time. There were survivors—six of them, one crewmember and five passengers. Flight attendant Kelly Duncan passed the only inflatable device she could find to one of the more seriously injured passengers. Passenger Arland Williams Jr., continually passed the rescue lines to help save others. A bystander on the bridge, Lenny Skutnik, jumped in the frigid water from the 14th Street Bridge to assist. All made it to safety, except for Williams who spent twenty-nine minutes in the icy water before going down with the plane’s tail—the only passenger to die by drowning. The 14th Street Bridge is now named after Arland Williams Jr. He and Lenny Skutnik , and another heroic bystander, Roger Olian, were awarded Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medals along with the Coast Guard Helicopter Pilots who heroically assisted in the rescue.

Two of the surviving passengers, Bert Hamilton and Patricia Felch, died in 2002 of natural causes. One survivor, Priscilla Tirado, rarely speaks with reporters, and another, Joseph Stiley has suffered many health problems.

Kelly Duncan later left the aviation industry, and earned a degree in early childhood education, which she’s used to teach children in a Christian school. Now married, Kelly Duncan Moore said to a CNN interviewer in 2005, that the crash changed her priorities. “I feel like everyday has been a blessing. I have a wonderful life…It sounds crazy to say it, but that accident changed my life for good. God used a bad thing to turn my life around."

I’ve often reflected on what difference my prayers and those of others like me might have made in the lives of the survivors that day. I guess I’ll never know until I reach heaven. I do have a note in one of my journals from 1988 of hearing one of the male survivors (didn’t get his name) on a “Focus on the Family” broadcast speak about how he knew he was alive, because people prayed for him.

One thing’s for sure though, I know those prayers made a difference in my life. It was early in my walk with the Lord, and as I found out there were indeed survivors of that crash, I felt my prayers had mattered, which gave me courage to continue praying and to pray boldly.

I painted several pieces that day, which I still have. Two landscapes above and below, and a portrait of a stray cat I was feeding (some things never change), which was lying on my bed at the time.

Today, the families of the seventy-eight people who died in that crash are still missing their loved ones (four died on the 14th Street Bridge when the plane hit it just before the crash). Would you join me in saying a prayer for them? And let’s thank God for the courageous spirit of those who risked their own lives to save others. May their tribe increase.

“And pray in the spirit on all occasions…” Ephesians 6:18.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow Day

“Are you ten years old or what?” my husband, Jerry, said when he finally rolled out of bed this morning.

“I am,” I said.

Who could sleep on a snow day? There’s so much to do.

First, I had to check on our new stray, the grey kitty, to see if her improved accommodations worked out for the night. They did. I was concerned the storage bin I’d made for her would collapse under the weight of so much snow, so I transferred her sleeping arrangements to an igloo cooler. She loved it, especially with Jerry’s old down ski vest for warmth and the Snuggle Safe I’d bought her. (Disks you heat in the microwave-- great for keeping outside animals warm on cold nights.)

Next, I had to feed the birds and try to keep the water going for them. Snow days bring out the birds in droves—birds I don’t see very often. Everyone’s been by today including a fat brown thrasher, gold finches, red bellied and downy woodpeckers, titmice galore, cardinals, wrens, and one squirrel that’s about to drive me crazy. Of course, I had to check in with my dad who lives north of here to see how his bird feeding is going, and I had to call my sister to see if we have as much snow as they do.

Lucy and I went for walk and greeted the snowmen builders along the way, and then came home to get our paws warm. After which, I put a snowball in her mouth and tried to get her to drop it in the beds of assorted sleeping family members. It’s also imperative I tune in to the weather channel periodically to see what’s next in the meteorological arena.

Of utmost importance-- a sweet girl we know is having surgery today, and I’m going online to a care site to watch for updates as we pray for her healing.

Besides all of this, snow days are great days for writing.

So, you can see how there’s no time for lazing around in the bed on a snow day. Jesus said, “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).” If I didn’t have a ten-year-old heart, the disappointments I’ve encountered in my life would make my heart ragged and bitter. The hard things would make me hard. And I don’t want to be that way. I want to have the heart of a child and still be able to see the wonder even when my heart aches.

If you live in the U.S., you’re probably under a blanket of white as well--most of the country is today. Have fun, and remember to be a ten year old.

More to this story:

Jerry kept finding things we were out of this afternoon, and I met every discovery with a way we’d make do with what we had. Then, I figured it out. He just wanted an excuse to get in his four-wheel drive vehicle and cruise around. He finally proclaimed, “We’re out of dog food.”

“Let’s go,” I said, as if Lucy wouldn’t have just loved to have a few table scraps.

As we trekked off to the grocery store crunching through the snow and ice, something hit me.

Jerry's not ten years of age; he's more like a sixteen-year old.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Berries, Broccoli, and Baby Barf

Monday, we found my husband has a very agressive type of cancer. On the Gleason scale of 2-10, it came out at nine.

Not good.

We’ve been swimming in deep water over here for so long, that the other night as I was lying in bed, I told the Lord I needed something funny to write about. God responded the next day.

Prostate cancer responds to good nutrition, and it’s possible to stall or turn back the growth by eating well. So, I left Tuesday morning with a list and high ambition. I visited three grocery stores and returned, my bags brimming with nutrients.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You’ve heard of a particularly popular healthful diet, and thought it would be a great plan for Jerry. I spoke with him about this option. Of course, this specific diet involves giving up meat. When my South Georgia bred hubby heard that, he gave me the look that always reminds me he was a lawyer for over a dozen years prior to his preacher days.

“I’d rather go be with Jesus,” he said.

You see what I’m up against.

As I chopped cantaloupe that evening to mix with the berries I bought, I suggested to Jerry that he should ask himself at every meal, “Am I getting my antioxidants?” Once more the “I used to pin people to the wall with words,” look.

Over dinner, we talked about all the wonderful things he might eat like broccoli (which he likes), lots of fruit, and tomato products, which contain lycopene, a key component in his nutrition plan.

“I bought that tomato and vegetable beverage you like which has lots of lycopene. Would you like a glass?” I asked.

“That’s a morning drink,” he said. “I could never swallow it at night.”

Now, I won’t go into my theories as to why he thinks that way, but let’s just say it has something to do with his pre-walking with Jesus days.

After we finished eating, I served up a drink I’d bought which boasted a multitude of glorious, enriching nutrients and natural fruit juices. I took out two glasses and poured some for each of us.

It was thick…and green.

I knew he’d never even try his unless I drank mine. I took a deep breath, picked up my glass, and drained it.

“Yum,” I said. “Tastes great.” I smiled hoping I didn’t have green bits in my teeth.

“It looks like baby barf,” Jerry said. (Those are not exactly the words he used.) “I’m not drinking it.” He walked away.

Sigh. I agonized over the wasted money I'd spent on the five dollar concoction.

Later, I overheard Jerry ask our son, Aaron, if there was any pecan pie left. Sugar is a big no-no.

“You can’t eat pecan pie,” I said charging into the room.

He grinned. “Aaron said there wasn’t any pie left, but you didn’t hear my response.”

“What was that?”

“I said, 'Good.'”

I turned around and left the room remembering these words from Zechariah 4:10--“Who despises the day of small things?”

Not me, that’s for sure.

Anybody need two quarts of baby barf?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

After I surrendered my life to Jesus almost three decades ago, I began to write songs—something I’d never done before. In time, I received invitations to sing and share those songs with others. One of the invitations came from the church in which I’d grown up. On the one hand, I was excited to see everyone I’d known for so long again, but on the other, those same people had witnessed how I’d almost destroyed my life as a young adult.

It was hard to go back.

But, I did, and it turned out to be a wonderful day as I experienced in a real way the unconditional love God offers us. That night when I returned home, however, a battle ensued.

As I sat at my kitchen table, the enemy of our souls began to whisper to me about how I’d made a fool of myself. “Who did I think was to believe I could minister to others? After how I’d lived?”

My hands began to shake, and fear rose up in me. I felt so weak. Had I been wrong to go? My Bible lay open on the table before me. I was reading through the New Testament at the time and began to read where I’d left off that morning beginning with I Corinthians 1:26, “…think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, and not many of noble birth, and then on through the second chapter, which includes this verse, “I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling.”

It was as if God was sitting at the table with me to bring encouragement. It brought me comfort that even the apostle Paul shook at times. I later wrote this song:

With weakness and with trembling, I stand before you now,
And ask why I should be the one to go.
Because, surely there are others who are more strong than I,
And surely there are those who never ever ask you why.

And I hear you say:

“I haven’t chosen many noble ones,
I haven’t chosen many wise.
I haven’t chosen many ones the world called strong.
But, I’ve chosen weak and foolish ones,
Even some that are despised to show the world their ideas are wrong.
Your strength comes from me alone,
All glory to me give, because through my Son your victory is won.”

Lord, I praise you
Because in my weakness you are made strong,
And in my trembling it’s you I lean upon.

It’s You I Lean Upon c1984, Beverly Chitwood Varnado

So, yesterday when I saw Dr. Bob Tuttle’s email and read his words, “Our greatest strengths are anointed weaknesses.” A huge “Yes” of agreement rose inside of me.

The battle still rages. I often feel weak in the face of the things to which God has called me—this writing journey most of all. When I get fearful about a book coming out later this year, and hear that same old song and dance, “Who do you think you are? Why do you think you can minister to others? With the addition now of “Why do you think you can write?” I remember the words God spoke into my heart while I sat at my kitchen table all those years ago.

So, here I go, weakness and all, trusting only in His strength.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Considering it Pure Joy, or Not?

Several years ago, I had the privilege of leading women in Bible Study on a mission trip to the favelas(urban slums) of Rio de Janeiro. I met a young woman on that trip who expressed a desire to have the same ministry as a well-known Bible teacher.

Having sat under that Bible teacher myself, I was pretty sure if she’d been there, she would've said, “You can’t be like me. You have to be the person God has called you to be.” But I think she also might have added, “You have no idea the cost.”

A couple of days ago, as I gathered with a group of friends to welcome the gift of another year, someone mentioned a quote by Dr. Robert Tuttle, long time seminary professor and author, recently retired from Asbury Theological School. The quote went something like, “The breadth of your ministry equals the depth of your pain.” When I emailed Dr. Tuttle this morning to make sure I was quoting him accurately, he said that statement is connected to another which I’d like to write about tomorrow—"Our greatest strengths are anointed weaknesses."

As my life seems to be moving to more of a public arena with a screenplay under option, a book forthcoming this year and of course this blog, it’s not a particularly welcome insight to realize most public ministry figures have experienced much pain to stand in their calling. Nonetheless, I believe it’s true. But conversely, when I’ve encountered heart-rending seasons in my own life as I am even now, I’ve tried to take courage, as I’ve hoped that God is preparing me for a future in which he intends to use the pain of those experiences for His glory.

I don’t know if the young woman I met in Brazil is any closer to the realization of her goal, but I know if she surrendered her dream to God, he’s refined it, and purified it. Today, she’d probably say that she’s been through some pain because of it.

If the breadth of our ministry equals the depth of our pain, we can agree with James, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds…so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything"(James 1:2). I’m thankful that we can choose to not waste our suffering.

I’m thankful God doesn’t waste it, either.
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