The Power of Story

It was pitch black as my car slowly followed Micah’s along the winding mountain roads, our tires kicking up dust in our wake. My adrenaline sizzled, preparing both my mind and body for the next hours of our night hike up Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs.

My friend Brad sat next to me in the passenger seat, keeping my mind occupied on our conversation. I shared with him about my last year – graduation, what the Lord had been teaching me at Focus on the Family that summer. As he thanked me for sharing, a response spilled from my mouth without my permission.

“It’s not my story to withhold. God’s writing it. I’m just living it.”

My mind froze as I replayed that comment over and over in my head, realizing both the truth and the responsibility that came with it. Have you ever had one of those thoughts? You know it didn’t come from you because there is no way that you are that brilliant. And it both hits you and spills out of your mouth in the same breath with the unmistakable ring of truth to it. I knew it was a Holy Spirit inspired response. Divinely inspired light bulbs are great, aren’t they?

Kariss mountains

In the few years since that night hike that changed so many things for me, I have come to understand and value the power of story. The more I read and watch, I realize that there are only two stories that matter in life and everything else is a cheap imitation.

1) The story of Jesus Christ

2) Your story

That’s right! Your story is the second most important story in history. Why?

There was a man in the Bible named Nicodemus. For those of you reading this who do not claim to be Christians, you are in good company. Nicodemus wasn’t either, at least he wasn’t at the time he talked with Jesus. He was curious and confused. He came to talk with Jesus in the middle of the night. In John 3:11, Jesus tells him, “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen…”

Never mistake that Jesus has the absolute most powerful and influential story in history. But because He made you and gave you life, your story is the second most influential to people in your sphere of influence. Most people do not appreciate a know-it-all. However, your story automatically has credibility because you are standing before them and telling it, physically present and accessible to them. You lived it and they can relate to it, or at least ask questions.

Story is a powerful thing. We live in a culture where we want to hear what the next Hollywood star is up to or which politician creating a national scandal. People want to know stories. No matter how nondescript you feel yours may be, you have the ability to influence people mightily for Jesus through a willingness to share what God has brought you through.

My mom has always told me, “Never forget from whence you came.” You don’t have to have a successful career or a story worthy of Lifetime. You simply have to be willing and open to share.

Let your writing imitate life in the best ways. In fiction, no one has to know where some of the intimate details come from, but I have learned that what some of my readers love the most came from experiences I had or watched.

What the Lord laid on my heart to share with Brad is very true. My story isn’t mine to withhold. Listen for His gentle whispers. He will give you the words to say when the time comes, and He will use your story, in writing and in life. The pressure is off of you! So share. You have a powerful story because it was and is being written by a Mighty God!

How have you seen God use your story to impact others?

Sing it, Lamb Chop!

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This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

Overwhelmed by Your “To Do” List?

Photo/KarenJordan

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it” (George Bernard Shaw).

Buried beneath a mountain of paperwork? Paralyzed by some impending deadlines? Dreaming of a week on the beach?

I considered a “real job” until I read the job description: “Ability to work independently and multitask.”

I love to work independently. But I tend to hyperfocus most of the time. And I struggle with multitasking all of the time. So, I passed on that job opportunity.

I’m not so sure multitasking works well for my daughter Tara, either. She seems frustrated at times when I call as she prepares dinner—holding a screaming baby, listening to a whining preschooler, dealing with two squabbling little boys, and talking on the phone, all at the same time.

I can’t even concentrate on my writing projects at times with dishes in the sink or a hamper of dirty laundry waiting on me. And if the phone rings, I lose focus completely. Then, when I start worrying about all the details of my life, writer’s block paralyzes me.

Revelation. I woke up early one morning overwhelmed with my “to do” list. So, I decided to take an early morning walk at sunrise.

As I walked down the street toward the lake, the view of the sunrise surprised me. And I forgot about all of my worries as I soaked in the beauty of the dawn. I tried to capture the moment with my camera.

After pausing a few minutes to admire the view, I continued my walk. Most mornings, I enjoy listening to the sounds of nature as I walk the trails near my home. But since I took another route to the lake, I decided to listen to my favorite radio station.

Imagine my delight as I encountered the lyrics to “Light Up the Sky” by the Afters: “You light up the sky to show me that you are with me ….”.

In an interview with cbn.com, Matt Fuqua, vocalist/guitarist for the Afters, says, “The story behind Light Up the Sky is a part of the story of all of us … [It’s] a picture of what it looks like when you make it through [a] really challenging time, and you look back and see how God was using all of those things for good and that you were never alone.”

Reflection. God drew my attention to the majesty of His creation as I observed the heavenly canopy of the sunrise reflected on Lake Cortez, glowing through the trees near my home the next morning.

Did God light up the sky to show me that He was with me?

I couldn’t deny it. He opened my eyes, and I could see evidence of His Presence all around me.


How has God revealed Himself to you?

Photo/KarenJordan
YouTube/theaftersvideos (“Light Up the Sky” by The Afters)

 

Training Your Writing Life

056A new puppy joined our family a year ago.

Yes, he was that cute. All puppy smells and fuzzy bums and soft little pads on his feet.

Such a baby! He could hardly run in a straight line back then. He kind of hopped and flailed with his feet, and somehow he made progress.

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There were a lot of other things he had to learn.

Like going outside to do his business.

And how to get along with the big dog.

And how to play with the cat.

 

026But he learned all of those things (although he still makes mistakes).

As he reached the ripe old age of ten months, things got interesting. That’s the adolescent age for dogs. He lost all brain power and forgot everything he had ever learned.

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The rest of the family was ready to give up on him.

But patience and consistency are the keys.

My writing life is much like training a new puppy. Is yours?

Do you sometimes feel like you can’t do the basic things like write a sentence, or come up with a verb other than “was”?

And then there are the “big dogs.” Those multi-published authors can be pretty intimidating sometimes, no matter how nice they are. And whose heart doesn’t start beating faster when you see your agent’s name in your email inbox? Or when the phone rings and you don’t recognize the number?

Have you learned to play with the “cats” in your writing life? You know – your peers who are traveling this same trail with you. Have you made friends, or are you friendly rivals? We’re all in this together, and it’s good when a friend has your back.

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Or have you passed that beginning learning stage, and are now in the throes of your writing adolescence? Sometimes I feel like my brain has forgotten how to write.

But I keep telling myself, just like with the dogs, and with my children as they were growing, my writing life is growing, too. It needs patient training and consistent discipline.

Without it, I’ll never get past the flailing puppy legs stage!

Here are the steps I’m taking:

1) A dedicated writing time every day. It’s like punching a time clock. I write from 10:00 to noon, and then from 12:30 to 3:00.

2)  A dedicated writing place. My desk is in a corner of the family room, with a view of the creek that runs behind our house. This time of year, birdsong accompanies my writing music.

3) I stay in contact with friends who are ahead of me on the trail, and can encourage me along the way. I also stay in contact with friends who are just starting out on their own writing journey, encouraging them and sharing with them what I’ve learned.

4) I take chances. I try to market myself, even though I dread talking to strangers. I try to write stories that stretch me as a writer and as a person.

 What steps are you taking to help yourself grow beyond the puppy stage of your writing?

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Creation: The Writer’s Privilege and Calling

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Easter is over. Strands of pink and yellow plastic grass are strewn all over the living room. Painted eggs will be peeled and mashed into egg salad later today. The kids are shipped off to school bleary-eyed, nursing sugar hangovers. I look around at the disaster of a house I just cleaned for company, sigh, and sit down to write.

The blank page on my computer screen stares back at me, cursor blinking at the top. Write. It is time to write. But I am empty, hollowed out, barren. I am still winter, even though yesterday at church, everything around me screamed spring. I look out the window and notice signs of new life. The lilac tree has fresh buds. The grass is becoming crisp and green.

Easter is my favorite holiday. My heart pumps fast every year. On Resurrection Sunday I get caught up in the story of Jesus in spite of whatever else is happening in my life. I can be downhearted, exhausted, bored, or troubled. Easter morning is bigger than my emotions. Easter is always bigger than me. My knees can’t help but bend. As a person of faith, how can I not be moved by Christ’s sacrifice for me and his ability to conquer death?

But today my life is back to normal. I have my to-do list. I’ll match socks at the bottom of the laundry hamper. I’ll make myself something to eat, and take small bites as I wonder where the excitement went, and how it can leave so quickly. I’ll write because of deadlines. It is my work. It’s what I do.

The blank computer screen studies my face, and I think about my feeble attempts to create something from nothing. The book of Genesis comes to mind.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. -Genesis 1: 1-3

And God said… God used words to create the world. For writers, this profound truth is even more precious because we are word people. This is what we love and it is baffling and exhilarating that God used the same method. Creation brought order out of chaos through words.

But God doesn’t stop there.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. -John 1: 1-3

Jesus is the Word in the Gospel of John. And through his life, death, and resurrection, God continues to create. He creates new buds on barren trees in the spring. He creates a desire in a person’s heart. He makes us new creations through faith in his Son. And as his creation, we participate in the awesome privilege of proclaiming Jesus, both with words and in being the word to a world that a lot of times looks everywhere but to him.

And we get to sit down at the computer and play with words. We start with nothing and hope it turns in to something. We have all these words and thoughts and try to put them into some kind of order that will hopefully makes sense, and more importantly, bring glory to God.

It doesn’t always happen but when it does, its magic.

Easter. Through Jesus’ resurrection God makes all things new. He creates. He is always creating. Words are an essential part of how he does it. Doesn’t it just blow your mind that we are in the same business?

So, when you go to write and instead sit, look, start, stop, put words down, and erase, do this: Look outside your window for signs of creation. Look for new life because it is always there somewhere. See fresh buds on the trees as the world wakes up to warmer days and the promise of sun-kissed skin.

When you write, when you create, you participate in something bigger than you. You are emulating your creator, the one in whose image you were first created.

The one who started it all with words.

What a privilege.

What a calling.

I open the window nearest to me, and let the warm spring air in.

Two Writers Walk Into This Bar . . .

Celebratory drinkWhat happens when two writers unexpectedly find themselves with a free evening together?

A nice dinner and a glass of wine? Laughter and bonding? Sharing experiences from both on and off the author trail?

Yes. All that, and new marketing ideas, too.

At least that was my experience two weeks ago when my agency colleague Anita Agers-Brooks made a short-notice trip my way and we were able to spend a few hours together – hours that had no agenda other than getting to know each other. And even though we write in different genres (Anita is a leadership guru, while I write humorous mysteries and memoir), we had much to offer each other in the way of marketing and business ideas. Here are a few nuggets from our impromptu party to spark your own ideas:

  1. Writing is a business. Do you treat it that way? Anita reminded me that I needed to file paperwork to become an LLC (limited liability company) as legal protection of my assets. We live in a litigious world, and a writer must be a good steward of her assets both spiritually and financially. As Anita pointed out, if you wait to protect your business till someone sues you (yes, it can happen!), you’re already too late. (And be sure to include Errors & Omissions insurance while you’re at it.)
  2. Goodreads.com is a publicity goldmine. Are you on it? For my new book release, 658 people entered my giveaway drawing for 3 free copies. That’s a lot of eyes on my book the day it released. And giveaways are just the tip of what you can accomplish on Goodreads. (Read this marketing tutorial on using Goodreads.)
  3. Pay attention to casual comments. After a pastor told Anita her book would be a good topic for a sermon, she found a template online for sermons. She plans to fill it out using her book and then share the template with pastors. She’ll get her message presented by pastors, and she won’t even have to be present! (Does that qualify as bilocation – being in two places at the same time?) I’m going to take her idea and see if I can make it work for me.
  4. Take ownership for your promotional campaign, because ultimately, the book is your baby. Both Anita and I have been surprised by the limitations even large publishers can have when it comes to marketing; our publishers can pull some big coups for us (Anita spoke to a filled college auditorium thanks to her publisher, and I’m getting phone-in radio interviews thanks to mine), but the local press and on-going events calendar that make up the bulk of your PR efforts remain in your own lap, not to mention getting your launch team recruited and equipped to spread the word.
  5. Learn from each other’s experiences. After spending an evening with a writer in the same phase of our careers, I feel like I may still be in the same boat. But now I know there are other boats traveling along beside me, happy to share their own tips and advice. In fact, maybe a small-group marketing retreat would be a good idea. Hmmm….

(FYI – I was kidding about the walking into a bar. Anita and I did walk around a golf course, however. The air was much fresher.)

Working with an Editor

Kariss manuscriptsThey say that all good things must come to an end. Sadly, the same holds true in writing. As you turn your manuscript in to the publisher, you abdicate your position as ruler of your own fictional kingdom in favor of an advisor who tells you all the wonderful things you did wrong and how you can fix them. (For example, my editor would have asked me who “they” is in that opening line.)

But this “bad” thing doesn’t actually have to be bad. In fact, think of it as iron sharpening iron. Who knows your story and characters better than you? And who better to help you improve than an unbiased person who likes to read and knows a whole lot about writing and how to craft a story?

I am by no means an expert, but as I edit my second book, I realize how much I learned while editing Shaken. As you prepare your book for the editing process, here are some ways to prepare yourself, as well.

1. Check your pride at the door.

First of all, realize your editor is there to HELP you, not hurt you. Don’t take it personally. I thought I understood that, but I didn’t really grasp it until I received my first round of notes. Then my pride took a nose dive and shattered in a very ugly pile around my feet. This process is meant to refine both you and your story. I tend to write in a steady stream of consciousness, wrapped up in my story world. It takes someone looking at it from the outside to show me where the issues are and help me to change them.

2. Kill your darlings.

In Texas, we call this “killin’ your darlin’.” Your editor believes in your story, too, or they wouldn’t spend countless hours helping you. They want to make it better, but sometimes that means cutting important characters or scenes you love. This is the part I hated in the editing process.

It is challenging to dig into your story, delete scenes, and create new ones where you originally imagined something different. There were times my editor suggested a line of copy or dialogue that made me cringe, not because she wasn’t right, but because it wasn’t in the exact voice my character would have said it. Here’s where camaraderie came into effect. She could see the holes. I could keep the story true. We made a great team. Killing my darlings made my story stronger.

3. Fight for your story.

This may seem to contradict the previous point, but trust me, it doesn’t. Like I’ve said before, NO ONE knows your story or characters better than you. Here’s where discernment comes into play. At the beginning of the editing process, my editor asked me to cut several characters. No matter how much I played with this request, something didn’t sit right. So I fought for these characters, explained the role they would play in future books, and stood my ground. I knew keeping them would benefit the story. Once I explained their importance (and not just my emotional attachment), my editor listened and immediately replied with ways I could make these characters even stronger than what I had in mind.

It turns out that the characters I fought to keep have been some of the favorites for readers. If you know in your gut something needs to stay, fight for it. Just make sure to check your emotional attachment at the door and identify exactly why this piece adds to the story.

So, take what I’ve learned. Add your own insight. And I’ll add to the list after I finish this round of edits. I never want to be a bratty author who says I know best. I do want to collaborate. Yes, I know my story, but I need people who will help me make it better. I’m pretty excited about the possibilities. Bring on the next challenge.

What lessons have you learned while working with your editor?

The Curse And Gift of Being Called to Write

giftThere are days you totally get Jeremiah. He decides not to speak anymore, but the words burn like a fire shut up in his bones (Jeremiah 20:9). Even when you can’t write, the words burn inside, don’t they?

How often have you wished you were just normal? On those days where you’re trying to fit it all in: a full day of work, a kid’s basketball game, dinner and laundry, and somehow you’re supposed to find writing time too? There’s the agony of staring at a blank page and watching your book drop in Amazon rankings.

You’ve even decided to quit. Often. Finally, a friend or spouse tells you to stop tormenting yourself. “You’re a writer,” they say. “You know you’re not really going to quit writing. You always come back to it.”

So, if you can’t walk away from writing, isn’t it time to look at it from another perspective? “I suggest you learn to write not with blood and fear,” Jane Yolen writes, “but with joy. It’s a personal choice.”

And there is joy, lots of it.

First, you were chosen. Like Jeremiah, before you were in the womb, God chose you. Whether you started writing as soon as you could hold a pencil or didn’t begin writing until some life event pulled you to it later on, whether writing holds financial success for you or not, being a writer is a role you were personally designed for by your Creator. If that isn’t joy, I don’t know what is.

And then there’s what drew you to writing in the first place: the thrill of a coherent story coming together at last with characters who walk off the page; that zone, where reality falls away and you’re virtually swimming in your story world; and words become so sharp and real, you’d swear you could taste them.

You were the one blessed with heightened senses and the words to go with them. So while your walking partner says, “Oh, isn’t that pretty?” you see how the thick tree cover on the forest trail washes the sunlight green, and how the Spanish moss drapes from the tree limbs like ornaments. You have words to describe the warm breeze rippling across your face and how the coos of a mourning dove bring the summer evening alive.

You have the privilege of exploring and enfleshing ideas (ideas, by the way, you almost certainly would never have come to unless you’d spent day in and day out with your fingers on the keyboard). Writing brings the joy of discovering new worlds.

And when you’re done, and the book is published, you receive emails saying things like, “I read your book and was so moved by it, I turned back to page one and read it again.” Wow, you think, did I actually create something that could do that?

You did, because you were blessed. In spite of the tortuous days of staring at a blank page, and wondering how a person can be pulled in so many directions without being ripped apart, you were given a beautiful and multilayered gift by God when He called you to write. It’s a gift you love to give back to Him, and when you’re having a thorny writing day or month, you need to remind yourself of that.

5 Ways to Drive an Editor Crazy

13761150586648bAs an aspiring writer, I thought editors had horns on their head and pitchforks perched beside their desks. After all, they sent me form “no thanks” letters after I’d slaved over an obviously brilliant manuscript. They ignored my letters and phone calls, and seemed to take joy in waiting months before replying to my oh-so-urgent emails.

Now, as both a seasoned writer and an editor for a large faith-based website, I’ve learned that editors are people, too. We love finding new voices to publish, and we try to be gentle when doling out rejections. Sure, we have our quirks, and we make mistakes. But mostly, we’re word-loving, gentle souls who find joy in a well-placed modifier.

When provoked, however, we can lose our literary minds. Several habits don’t just rub us the wrong way—they make us want to run down the street while still in our bathrobes, shouting Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” until we puke.

Here’s how you can speed that process along:

1) Treat Guidelines as Optional.

      Don’t bother reading writing guidelines; don’t even visit websites or read back issues of magazines. Send a totally inappropriate submission. In your cover letter, tell the editor that while you’ve never taken the time to familiarize yourself with their publication, you’re sure that your work is perfect for them. file3781288474089

       2) Respond viciously to rejection letters.

      When you receive a letter stating that “your submission doesn’t meet our current needs,” fire off a hateful email, chastising the editor for his lack of taste. Even better: use bad language and post your vitriolic thoughts all over social media. (This habit works well if you never want to see your work in print. Those bridges are so pretty when they burn!)

      3) Never turn in an assignment by the deadline.

Deadlines aren’t set in stone; therefore, ask for repeated extensions, paying no attention to the panicked tone of your editor’s responses. Don’t worry that you are one of several dozen moving parts in the publishing of a website, magazine or compilation book. Take all the time you want—the world does, in fact, revolve around you.

       4) Take up all your editor’s time.

Ask repeated questions about the contract or terms of your publishing agreement. Don’t get an agent or other professionals to weigh in on your questions. Don’t network with other writers so that you can learn from their experiences. Pester the editor with texts (preferably to her personal cell phone, if you can dig up the number) about when your piece will be printed, how many readers you’ll get, etc.

And finally:

5) Refuse to accept changes in your manuscript.

Since you have received your talent from God, treat every word as His direct quote. Don’t let an editor make changes to your beautiful masterpiece. Fight over each letter and punctuation mark. Don’t choose your battles. Take offense at questions. Die on every single hill.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a nasty email to delete…and I need to look up the lyrics to a certain parody song.

Help! My Life’s a Tilt-a-Whirl and I Wanna Get Off!

I watched the pink and orange eventide rise behind the bare-limbed trees lining our backyard.

The day was gone again.

Lost in a shuffle of orthodontist and doctor appointments, car pooling, awkward schedule changes due to the weather (again), blog posts and interview questions due yesterday, and a hopelessly floundering manuscript, life felt like a tilt-a-whirl and I wanted to get off.

How in the world could I keep the pace my life was going? How could I meet everyone’s expectations? How could I make sure I was being a mother and a wife first?

Through Me, I heard Abba whisper.

I’d recently forced myself to become diligent about reading the Bible again, after “forgetting” to make it a daily habit despite the five Bible applications on my smart phone and the three hard copies in a dust-covered stack on my bedside table.

No wonder I felt lost.

No wonder I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore.

I can’t.

Be still, He whispered again. Anything is possible through Me.

I can’t.

But God can.

IMG_0785Obviously He’s not going to write the blog posts for me. He’s not going to drive my kids to the orthodontist. He’s not going to bathe the five nonagenarians at the hospital for me during my nursing shifts.

But His power, through my heart staying centered on Him, can be made perfect.

And I can rest, knowing everything in His will to be done, will be done.

Eventually.

Writers or not, we all have times we feel lost and overwhelmed, insufficient and incapable. But if we keep our eyes on Him, He will renew our hearts. He will accomplish infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine (Eph. 3:20).

And best of all, we can rest in His peace.

 “Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ … have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.”

Colossians 3:15-17 (TMV)