The “Wrong” Place Can Be the Right Place

Ever get perturbed when your carefully laid plans don’t go the way you wanted? In World War II, that happened to Captain Alvin Carlson in a dramatic way. Carlson served as chaplain to the 134th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Division in Europe. He wrote…

“One Sunday evening about sundown I had gathered with a large group of replacements (later called reinforcements) in our marshaling area, which was approximately six miles from the front lines. We had assembled in an orchard well protected by apple trees and other foliage. The service of worship was in progress when, without warning, ‘Bed-check Charlie’ started to strafe and hurl bombs at us. One of the men, detecting the first plane, shouted, ‘Enemy planes!’ and we ran for the foxholes. A short time before this I had dug a special foxhole which I could use when I remained in the area overnight, but I could not reach it. I jumped into another hole which was near. Suddenly someone shouted, ‘They got the chaplain.’ I rushed out of my foxhole and shouted, ‘No, here I am!’ A bomb had fallen in my hole – but no one was in it.” 

Friend, you may lay your plans, and God might allow those plans to work as you hope, and He might not. But for those who love the Lord, even the “wrong” place – the unplanned place – can be the right place to be when God is working behind the scenes.

Source: He Is Able, by Chaplain Alvin O. Carlson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1945), pp. 35-36.

The Blessings We Overlook…

Photo by Kiy Turk

A friend named Larry worked in a store. Larry enjoyed the job, and in general he liked his coworkers. But one coworker always sounded depressed. The man regularly complained about one thing or another. To listen to him, Larry said, you would think absolutely nothing ever went right in the man’s life.

So, Larry decided to offer the coworker some advice. “Don’t always focus on the negative things. You’ll be happier if you count your blessings.”

“Blessings?” the coworker replied. “What blessings? I don’t have any!”

“Oh, no? Come with me.” Larry led the coworker to the large window at the front of the store. “Look out there. Tell me what you see.”

The man frowned but did as Larry asked. “I don’t see anything special. Just a parking lot. Cars. People walking. Buildings. The sky. And that airplane.”

“Exactly,” Larry replied. “Those things may not be special, but do you have any idea how many people in the world would give anything to see what you see? But they never will, because they’re blind.”

That negative-mind coworker rejected the advice with a “Bah” and walked away.

But Larry’s point is on target. If you live on the planet earth, it’s absolutely guaranteed some things in life aren’t the way you wish. Yet, if we focus on the negative, we totally miss a world of blessings, starting with eyes that see, ears that hear, a brain that functions, a warm bed with a soft pillow… All of these are blessings that not everyone has.

There’s a temptation to look at others and wish we had what they have. Don’t. After all, even the rich and famous get depressed. Some people own so much—but end up committing suicide. So, instead of focusing on what we don’t have or on how we wish life were different, let’s give thanks for the blessings we do have, no matter how simple.

That one decision can transform Thanksgiving into more than a once-a-year holiday. We can make it a lifestyle.

“Praise ye the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: his mercy endureth forever.” Psalm 106:1 

 “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Schools of Life

Photo by Nils Stahl

Students rejoice when – at last! – they graduate and leave school days behind. But even if we don’t attend college, trade school, or a military academy, life has a way of forcing us through other schools.

These other schools aren’t made of brick and mortar. They’re seasons of life that teach us lessons we don’t learn in a classroom. 

For instance, years ago I knew a particular man. Truth be told, I sometimes avoided him. Not because he was bad, but because he held opinions that struck me as nutty, and he enjoyed sharing those opinions whether you wanted to listen or not. We were friends, but I didn’t highly value the friendship. Then came a summer when I needed to reroof the house. To save money, I put out a call for friends to lend a hand on Saturday. Many came! We didn’t bang out the whole job, but we made good progress. However, because I had to leave the country on Monday for a ministry trip, I needed to finish the roof on Sunday afternoon. Out of all my friends, guess which man showed up to help that second day—the one I had appreciated the least. The experience humbled me. God taught me that even people I hadn’t highly valued could be the very ones He sends to bless. 

For several years I’ve been in another season of life—caregiver to aging parents. This “school” has taught me about Medicare, Power of Attorney, etc. Just as important, I’ve had to learn lessons in patience, self-sacrifice and understanding. Caregiving even teaches that you don’t need to correct a person who firmly believes something that’s not true. (Just try to convince someone with dementia that a dream never actually happened!) 

This season of schooling has stretched me in ways I didn’t want to be stretched. Yet, through it all, God is there. He knows my situation. He knows where I’d rather be. But, as someone once noted, we usually pray for God to change our situation when God is wanting to change us. I guess my progress shows, since a family member says I’ve become kinder and gentler.

This year, a good friend shared this fact: “Happiness is a choice.” It’s true. Life might not turn out the way we want. We can find ourselves in seasons we’d rather skip. But rather than blame God or let circumstances rob our joy, we can rise above circumstances, focus on blessings, and choose to be happy anyway. 

That’s a lesson from life worth learning.

“Thank you for coming”

Photo by Cristian Newman

Last night, something totally unspectacular happened. Our church is one of several that visits a local nursing home to hold a little church service for the residents. The youngest resident is a 27-year-old man who receives oxygen through a nasal canula. The eldest is a little lady in a wheelchair who is now 101 and has a mind full of memories. 

Typically, our services aren’t long. We sing a couple hymns to the accompaniment of a piano. Then anyone who has a prayer request can share it with the group. One of us visitors (anywhere from 6-12) will pray, and then one of us will share a 20-minute message from the Bible. 

At the conclusion, we linger a little and chat with the residents, getting to know each other and sharing a little humor or tidbits from our daily lives. Nothing earth-shaking. 

Last night, I wasn’t the one who had shared from God’s Word (I take my turn, but not last night). I was only one of several who had gone to be part of the group. So, when a little gray-haired woman in a wheelchair shook my hand and said, “Thank you for coming,” her words left a special imprint.

What had I done? Not much. I came, sang, listened, chatted, and slipped in a comment or two that sparked smiles. The investment of time hadn’t been huge. So, for what was she thankful? First, we remembered them. The old saying declares, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and I suppose nursing home residents know the feeling of being forgotten. Yet, when our group from church arrives and greets them with smiles and holds a humble church service for them, they not only enjoy the fresh faces of visitors, but they receive proof that they aren’t forgotten. Also, we treat them with respect, like peers, not as patients. Our simple conversations allow them to feel plugged in to the outside world, not just passing time inside the same walls. 

True, any observer would declare nothing spectacular happened. Nothing worthy of a Hollywood movie. Nothing a journalist would write up for the local newspaper. Yet, we shared the love of God and brightened the evening of a group of people whose days on earth are winding down. And they say, “Thank you for coming.”

To make a positive difference in this world, you don’t need to pack enormous stadiums with people. You don’t need to be rich, famous, good-looking, or active in politics. If you’re willing to care for people, treat them with respect, and shine a little light into their lives, those small gestures have an impact. And that is pretty spectacular.

Christmas Stories

I admire the power of story. A well-told tale can pluck us from our current life then insert us into some totally different place and time. Along the way, the story can make us care about the hero/heroine and hope that person emerges victorious, whether the opposition comes in the form of bad guys, challenging goals, or a difficult situation. Through story, we can experience a wide range of emotions, almost as if we, ourselves, were living those experiences. A story that we truly enjoy will provide a feeling of satisfaction by The End. We may have even learned something about life.

As we approach the end of 2019, I notice several friends reminiscing about favorite Christmas stories, both books and movies. (A few confess already binging on Hallmark videos!) Does your own favorite story involving Christmastime include Dr. Marcia Fieldstone? Or romance? A Red Ryder BB Gun? Or maybe Cindy Who down in Whoville? 

Some stories we all know. But chances are you’ve enjoyed a Christmas story that isn’t familiar to everyone. One Christmas movie I’ve watched several times is The Christmas Card. In it, U.S. Army Master Sergeant Cody Cullen is serving in Afghanistan when a fellow soldier gives him a Christmas card from a church in that soldier’s hometown of Nevada City, California. Somehow, the sincere words of that card bolster Cody despite the violence around him. After the soldier who gave him the card is killed, Cody goes to visit his widow in little Nevada City and accidentally meets Faith, the woman who penned the Christmas card… (I could say more, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. Just trust me, this movie has a warm, feel-good ending.)

How about you? If there’s a book or movie involving Christmas that you especially like, please comment below. Give us the title, and maybe a brief word about why you like that story. Sharing now will give others a chance to see it in the 7 weeks before Christmas. 

P.S. In case you’ve never seen The Christmas Card, here are two links. The choice is yours: Watch it in English, or in Russian!

In English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GBAtOxyhEk

На русском: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzXMZ2AsGRk

Close to Giving Up?

In 1901, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright were discouraged. Struggling to find a way to make heavier-than-air objects fly, they had designed different wings for gliders. Their latest experiment in North Carolina had failed again. On the train back to Ohio, an exasperated Wilbur declared, “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly!”

The brothers must have felt like quitting. Instead, they tried new tactics. They built a miniature wind tunnel with a fan at one end. They experimented at home, compiled data. They discovered errors in earlier calculations. They worked with a mechanic to build a lightweight, four-cylinder engine…

At last, on December 17, 1903, Orville climbed aboard their flying machine and became the first man to fly. That flight lasted only 12 seconds, 120 feet. Later that day, Wilbur took a turn. The man who had complained that mankind might live a thousand years without flying soared for 59 seconds and traveled 852 feet. Through persistence and attention to tiny details, they succeeded! *

How about you? Ever felt tempted to throw in the towel? Maybe your job frustrates you. Maybe you feel like a failure in a personal goal. When discouragement strikes, the temptation to give up grows huge. Haven’t we all been there? 

Now, I’m not going to promise you can accomplish anything by sheer effort. If you sing bass, I don’t guarantee you can become a world-class soprano. If you dropped out of school in 3rd grade, chances are you won’t become a brain surgeon. 

But even as Orville and Wilbur encouraged each other toward a difficult goal, I’m coming alongside to say, “Don’t abandon your dreams too quickly.” Instead of quitting, maybe you need to change tactics. You might need to study the problem. Or practice. Or to seek advice. But if you evaluate the situation and believe the goal is worthy and reachable, then don’t give up. Press forward. Progress may come in inches, but all progress is progress.

A final thought…

I recall a time when life was crushing me. On my own, I couldn’t survive. If God had taken my life, I would’ve been happy to go. But I clung to Him. He was my Lifeline. Each morning I opened my eyes, read the Bible, and told God I needed His help to go another day. And He helped. I survived. I grew, adapted, and tried new things. The Lord restored my joy. 

If you’re at the end of your rope, maybe it’s time to let go of that rope and cling to God instead? 

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9, ESV

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28, ESV

*https://www.thehenryford.org/explore/stories-of-innovation/what-if/wright-brothers/

Time for a New Start?

The starting line. Photo by Braden Collum.

Okay, I confess: Several years ago, I created a new author website with a blog. Somehow, though, I never seriously committed to writing that blog on a weekly basis. Oh, when I did add a new post, I appreciated the comments people left. But life got busy. I became a caregiver for aging parents. The blog slipped down the list of priorities. You know how it goes.

This week I’m committing to a new start. Each Wednesday (assuming I’m alive and not in a coma), I will add a new post to my blog. It might be an update on my writing, or an observation on life, an inspirational thought, or something else. But whatever the topic, I invite you to share it with me and then to jot your own insights in the comments. By making this commitment and exercising self-discipline, not only should I sharpen my skills in capturing thoughts in words, but you and I can share friendly connections and encourage one another, too.

Yet, even as I make this fresh commitment, I’m already wondering about you friends. Chances are, I’m not the only person in the world who let a one-time idea slide. If so, maybe you’d like to make a new start, too? One person might resolve to read at least one chapter of the Bible each morning. Another might decide it’s time to begin one healthy change in daily eating habits. Yet another might commit to reading one book a month. Or to bank some money each week. Whatever. If there’s something you would like to begin but simply haven’t started, I invite you to join me and make a new start this week. 

Of course, making a public commitment can be daunting. If I miss a week, some of you will email me: “Uh, Rick, where’s that blog post for the week?” But that’s okay. If I miss, go ahead! Because sometimes even the sincerest commitment can use a little encouragement from friends!

The Most Vital Kind of Love

As an author, I find the topics of love and relationships fascinating. Countless writers have penned love stories. Movies constantly depict love in personal relationships. These never-ending topics are intertwined with human experience.

No wonder. The Bible declares that God created people in His own image. Because God is love (1 John 4:16), it’s only natural that—despite our flaws and shortcomings—each of us contains that inner flicker, a wish to love and to be loved.

But that valuable word love has become so commonplace. People declare their love for Oreo Blizzards, hairstyles, and stylish cars. It seems there are many varieties of love. Which is most important?

A lawyer once asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22) Jesus didn’t miss a beat: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”

Boom. Jesus stated pointblank that giving our Creator our highest measure of devotion and faithfulness is more vital than the 10 Commandments and every other rule in the Bible.

But do we live that way? Even for those who have read the Bible and believe it, there are constant temptations.
Temptations to embrace sins God hates. Temptations to elevate our personal desires over His (idolatry). Temptations to step outside of His will and to pursue goals of our own choosing. (Is there anyone among us who has never done this?)

God loves us. He invites us, His creation, to embrace Him in a mutual loving relationship. But I’m afraid God understands perfectly the heartbreak of a husband or wife with an adulterous mate. He continues to bless with sunshine, rain, and provisions, even while so many ignore Him and run around with the Devil.

Yet, God waits. Like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, He knows what we’re doing—but still loves and waits for our return. If your love for the Lord has faltered, He doesn’t want you to wallow in guilt. God lovingly waits for you. He’s only one prayer away!

The Author Who Entered His Own Story

Like any novelist, I conjure the characters in my stories out of my own imagination. I decide what they will look like, how they will talk, and which talents and abilities each one will possess. In the case of my fantasy novel, Kiriath’s Quest,I even invented the world in which my characters live. But no human author can finish his manuscript and then “beam down” into his story to live inside it and talk among those characters he created.

God is an author, too, but He’s definitely not limited in the way human authors are limited. Out of His imagination, and for His own good pleasure, God imagined what we call “the universe,” and He created it! He further imagined inhabitants called men and women, who would have physical natures (bodies), and would also have non-physical natures (souls). It pleased God to manifest Himself to the first humans (Adam and Eve) and to fellowship with His created beings.

But there came a time when the first two humans decided to distrust God. They wanted to be like Him, to decide  good and bad, and to ignore His one prohibition and to eat the forbidden fruit. After their disobedience, their physical bodies looked the same, but they had corrupted their own souls. They lost the perfect communion they once had with their Creator.

But God—the Author of Creation—didn’t shred His manuscript. In order redeem and restore part of mankind, God did the unimaginable plot twist: He manifested a portion of Himself to “beam down”—to be born of a virgin (the first Christmas) and to grow physically and to walk and talk inside His creation as part of it. What a mind-blowing idea! This is why the angel who explained events to Joseph, Mary’s husband to be, told him the child would be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1).

While living on earth in human form, God (named Jesus in this form) taught people spiritual Truth and healed their afflictions. But more importantly, He lived a sinless life, and then permitted flawed and sinful soldiers to capture Him and nail Him to a cross for execution. (Just imagine—an author being murdered when the violent characters in his story rise up against him? Whoa!) In this way, God Himself—in the person of Jesus—voluntarily took on Himself the punishment for the sins of the human race. But humans can’t defeat God. Jesus rose from the dead. Ever since, any person who wants to be reconciled with God and to rejoin His family can do so. “…Whoever believes in him [Jesus Christ] may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Believing in God is good, but that’s not enough. Do you believe and accept Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf? “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).

This Christmas, I wish all of you a wonderful, festive time with friends and family. But don’t let the whole purpose of Christmas slip by without recognizing its importance: our Creator did what no human could so that you and I could have cleansing from sin and rejoin His family forever. If you’ve never prayed and accepted Christ as Savior, let this be the year you do!

 

 

A Tip for New Writers

Recently a writer friend wrote to me about a problem. She’d been writing non-fiction material (and successfully selling it). However, when she returned to fiction, she felt paralyzed.

She wrote, “I’m struggling when I try to write fiction. I’ve been working on a short story for a few days, and the sentences are so slow in coming! Sometimes I fear I may be overthinking it. I’ve learned about using strong verbs instead of too many adjectives and adverbs, about showing instead of telling, about not insulting the reader with too much description, about keeping the action going, about giving my characters layers. So I sit and stare at my screen instead of writing what I think isn’t good enough….”

I can relate, and I bet many of you writing colleagues can, too. If I spend even a few days writing non-fiction, it’s challenging to switch gears back to fiction-based thinking. Composing logical non-fiction material and crafting fictional characters into stories are different skills.

Maybe this lesson I learned will unshackle your own creativity: You must give yourself permission to write junk. Nobody’s first draft is a masterpiece. Even successful authors who teach writing courses don’t produce flawless prose on the first draft.

Writing is like creating a snow sculpture. Before you can sculpt, you must expend energy amassing a big, ugly pile of snow. After you’ve done that, you can take spoons and butter knives and start shaping the mass into a statue. But you can’t simply pick up handfuls of loose snow and pat them one at a time into the final, completed sculpture. You need the intermediate stages as you chip away and shape the snow into a shape worth seeing.

Similarly, in writing don’t worry if the words you type into your first draft are bland or break rules as they appear on the monitor. The first draft is the raw, creative stage. In it, you’re accumulating all your ideas (like piling up loose snow) into one spot and into a general shape. Once all the basic characters, ideas, and plot are there, you go back with your writer tools and rework that rough manuscript into the story you envisioned. If you’re a normal writer, you’ll need to work through it multiple times before the final version emerges. Even then, you’ll want to retouch it here and polish it there to make your final creation shine!

Those are the tips I shared with my struggling friend. Some days later, she wrote back to say, “It worked! Thank you so much for the advice. I may have to start paying you, lol.”

People paying a writer for his words? Now there’s a novel idea!