Surviving the Depths of Despair

Destin, Florida June 2008 451This week, our family is enjoying a long-awaited respite by the sea. I’m sad to admit we have been tested in many ways this year. But the good news is – after much suffering – we have come full circle.

As I sit on shore, toes tucked beneath warm sand, the roar of white caps rushing through me, I am reminded how small and simple our problems really are in the broader scope of universal infinity.

In fact, without the frames of time or space to help us process our daily lessons, our worries seem petty, ridiculous even. And that is an important thing to remember.

The Difference One Year Makes

One year ago, life as I knew it exploded. Everything I believed to be true was proven false.The one person I loved and trusted completely destroyed us all. And I never saw it coming.

It was if we had stepped on a land mine.

Our spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being were all under attack, and the enemy’s fire was relentless. My children and I endured round after round without pause, without relief.

But all the while, no matter how pointless it sometimes felt, I clung to my faith, insisting to my children that God had not abandoned us. That we were not alone. That love would see us through.

Now, here we are, back on the same shores where one year ago I threw my hands into the air and cried to the heavens.

Only once again, we are laughing. We race waves below blue skies; chase crabs from moonlight; scoop water as we kayak; cast nets below waves; and revive our spirits in a way that only a week at the beach can do.

Do You Believe in Evil?

Our family has survived an attack from what some would refer to as Evil. When I was a child, I was taught that the enemy seeks to divide and destroy, and that is indeed how I felt.

Forces beyond my understanding seemed determined to conquer our family. To divide us and destroy us. But somehow, with a lot of prayer and a tight grasp on our faith, we have withstood the storms.

Love One Another

When my children ask someday, what does it mean to love another, I hope they remember this lesson.

Love is not always easy. Sometimes it seems impossible. But when you love someone, you don’t give up on them. Even when, especially when, they reveal their weakest hour.

God’s Grace

My faith has taught me that we are all flawed. We all sin. We all fall prey to temptations and make bad choices along the way, even the best of us. At some point, we hurt others, and sometimes, we hurt the ones we love most in this world.

If we’re lucky, and if we are brave and honest enough to admit our mistakes, seek repentance, and work hard toward healing, our loved ones will stand by us and carry us through the darkest depths.

Today, our family is enjoying days in the sun again. But it wasn’t long ago we felt as if we were deep underwater, with strong currents pulling us down beyond hope.

There were moments I was certain we would all drown. But here we are, healthy of mind, body, and spirit once again.

So, now I ask, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16)

Are you suffering? Have addiction, abuse, abandonment, betrayal, poverty, or violence shaken your spirit? Threatened all that matters to you in this world?

If so, hold tight to your faith and remember you are never alone. Protect yourself and your children from harm, and never doubt your own strength. Your own worth.

I promise, you can…you will…get through to the other side. And there, you will feel the wonder of God’s grace, as you master the ability to both love and to be loved – the one true purpose of this life.

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Julie Cantrell is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Into the Free and When Mountains Move. Learn more: www.juliecantrell.com

 

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The Heart of An Artist

Hands of Businesswoman Using LaptopWe think, we feel, we bleed on the page. We’re sewers of words, stitch by stitch until our heads unravel fuzzy.  Hey, are you talking to me?

People don’t always “get” us, and we’re okay with that because we already know we’re a bit strange, no shocker. Our dearest people love us anyway.

We writers draw boundaries and let our voice mail field calls. We plop our rears on chairs and pop up prayers and Advils and away we go, ready to transport our readers.

A thousand distractions call, but we have a dream-scream and God put it there. And if God put it there, nobody can take it away. And who needs to clean her house anyway? We have books to write.

We’re emotional creatures, God bless us. We’re well endowed with feelings. We love and hate our emotions with a passion. We get a high when we make readers laugh, cry, and get angry, boom-boom-boom, sometimes all at the same time.

My husband wipes his eyes as he reads the fruit of my year-long labor. He’s lost in the part where Ema McKinley swallows her grandsons into a hug. It’s her first hug since the miracle. And as Ema absorbs the feel of those boys, my husband sniffles and I swell. Swell with the joy of the craft and the miracles and the emotion-packed words.

Jesus had emotions. Remember how he wept? To love is to feel, and when Lazarus died, Jesus felt what we’d feel. In love, He felt for us.

We feel for our audience when we write, and this is our love gift.  We want to love them closer to something. Just like Jesus, the Living Word, wants to love us closer to Himself.

Hey, big-hearted artist, what do you love most about writing? What drives you to do what you do?

Beautiful words stir my heart. I will recite a lovely poem about the king, for my tongue is like the pen of a skillful poet. Psalm 45:1

Loving, Listening, and Writing

“The truth is that careful listening feels so much like love that most of us can hardly tell the difference.” –Dr. James Dobson

This quote was presented at a leadership meeting I attended last week and it has been on my mind ever since. February is known as the month of love. We Americans spend billions of dollars on flowers, candy, and jewelry every February 14th in an effort to communicate our love for our children, our spouses, or other significant people in our lives. Yet, according to Dr. Dobson, careful listening is one of the most loving gifts we can give to our friends and families.

My daughter Brianna communicated her need for my focused attention, even as a toddler.  If I attempted to do household chores or work on my computer while she was telling me a story, she would say, “Listen to me with your eyes, Mommy.”  She had a speech impediment at the time, so it sounded more like, “Lithen to me wiff your eyes, Mommy.” She was adorable. She was also correct in her assessment that her mother was not actually listening to what she was saying. Whenever possible, I would walk away from my computer or put down my dusting cloth, look her in the eyes, and give my storytelling toddler my full attention as she talked.

When asked what command in God’s Word is most important, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence. This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: Love others as well as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39 MSG).

We all like to know our thoughts have been heard. Carefully listening to the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others makes them feel validated and lets them know we value their ideas. It occurs to me that, as writers, careful listening will not only communicate love to the people we care about and enhance those relationships, but it will also improve our writing.

what did you say

Writing requires inspiration and inspiration requires input. Listening—really listening—to the people God places in our lives is a great way to spur fresh ideas. Children often have an amusing, unfiltered way of describing our world. Older adults, if we’ll take the time to listen, offer a wealth of knowledge and wisdom gained through their many life experiences. A husband brings perspective to an emotional topic. A wife enhances historical facts with empathy and compassion. Carefully listening to humanity—even strangers in a busy city park—can provide fresh ideas for a blog post or inspire a new twist in plot for a novel.

This February—the month when we talk a lot about love—let’s love like Jesus said we should. Let’s love our God with our passion and our prayers and with the intellect He has given us. Let’s love people by carefully listening to their thoughts and feelings. Keep a pen handy to jot down a quote or a blog post idea (after the conversation is over!), but be fully present as you interact with the people God has placed in your life. Listen to them with your eyes as well as with your ears.

Our relationships will be richer and we may even discover that our writing takes on new depth.

How has careful listening enhanced your relationships or your writing?

Choosing Thanksgiving

Photo/KarenJordanAs the autumn leaves began to fall this year, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t feel very thankful. So, I asked God to change my viewpoint as I focused on this Thanksgiving season.

In the past, I struggled with similar emotions, like love, forgiveness, and hope.

Love. After 40-plus years of marriage, I know that love must be a choice in every relationship. Our emotions and feelings ebb and flow with time. But as we invite God to intervene, He helps us navigate through the seasons of life.

Forgiveness. How can we release our anger and bitterness when we can’t forget the offenses? Impossible! That kind of forgiveness requires a divine source. But the Bible encourages us to offer ourselves and others the same forgiveness that Christ provides for us. And as we choose to remember what He’s done for us, He enables us to forgive ourselves and others.

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13 NIV).

Hope. In the past, I’ve been guilt-ridden when shame covered me like a dark, heavy cloak. I lost hope and succumbed to despair and depression. But when I choose to seek God and embrace His Truth, I experience His hope and peace. Hebrews 10:23 says to embrace hope, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”

Thanksgiving. Today, I choose to give thanks. Often holiday seasons bring painful memories and cloud my vision of God’s blessings. But as I confess my ingratitude and ask God to change my focus, He always offers His promises.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, notice four powerful strategies that can help us when our circumstances and emotions distract our focus on God’s blessings: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

  1. “Rejoice always …” (16). First, this passage reminds us to rejoice, even if that choice seems impossible. In Mark 10:27, we observe the disciples struggling with a seemingly impossible teaching. But “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God’” (NIV).This message is repeated in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
  2. “… pray continually …” (17). The Bible also teaches us to pray all the time, in every situation. Philippians 4:5-6 reminds us, “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
  3. “ … give thanks in all circumstances …” (18). Notice my emphasis of the words “with thanksgiving” in the previous passage. Again, the scripture tells us to give thanks in every situation.
  4. “ … for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (18). Why rejoice? Why pray? Why give thanks? This verse answers these questions for me. Philippians 4: 7 offers this promise, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Today, I choose to give thanks, even if my circumstances never change. And I plan to begin by focusing on my blessings.

YouTube/LoveOneAnother2011 (Laura Story “Blessings”)
Photo/KarenJordan

What strategies help you as you enter into this season of thanksgiving and celebration of God’s blessings?

And God Said . . .

maypoproadside flowersLast month, inspired by a woman at a conference whose phone told her where we could get a hotdog, I decided to replace my dinosaur of a cellphone.

My daughters were delighted. They soon had me instagramming photos of their dogs, whom they rarely get to see, being off at college and internships much of the year. Before long, I was posting all the time: my garden’s amazing abundance this summer, pies about to go in the oven, snakes and spotted fawns and wildflowers I see on my runs.

Then, a visiting former student and I entered into a psalm-memorizing pact, and she downloaded a Bible app onto my phone that she said would help me, and soon I was listening to scripture as I ran, the voice of God booming forth from the net pouch I wear on my stomach—I hate earphones—to the astonishment of cattle, dogs, horses, and the occasional human passersby.

Almost immediately, I ditched the psalms for the gospels and soon settled on John—now esoteric, now fatherly—as my favorite voice. On one long run, I listened to everything we have of John’s writing. His three odd little letters I’d never paid much attention to before (one addressed to a woman, who knew?!) His gospel, with its baffling beginning:

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. (Genesis 1.1-3 ESV)

And Revelation, for me always an unsettling narrative, in which heaven seems such a strange and off-putting place.

Listening to John’s whole opus read aloud in one go was transformative for me. His wise, kind voice pulled everything together in a new way: the creation, the fall, Jesus’ life on Earth, the struggles and successes and sheer realness of the early church—so recognizably the church of today—and the resolution of everything in the end.

After my run, I stood sweating in my driveway and listened to the beginning of Genesis and had new thoughts about it all. The creation was a work of words:

“And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . And God said . . . Then God said . . .” (Genesis 1.3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 26 ESV).

God spoke everything into being. And speaking being a communal act, involving a speaker and a listener, God would have been speaking to someone. So, not only the Spirit hovering over the waters but the Son—or, as John calls him, “the Word”—was present. And, if John is right that the world was created through Jesus, a narrative of the conversation preceding the creation might have had Jesus speaking with his Father, making suggestions, perhaps coming up with the whole idea.

volunteer arugulaI imagined it so:

“Hey, Dad, let’s make a world swarming with swarms of creatures—live creatures like us. And in it, a beautiful garden full of people just like us that we can love, and they can love us back, just as you love me and I love you.”

And the Father, besotted with love for his Son and surely impressed by his good ideas, spoke, the very words from his mouth giving flesh and movement and life to the words of the Son.

running shadowI didn’t let myself think about what happened afterwards—when, as John tells it, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1.12 ESV). It was too horrifying. Instead, I stood there in the driveway, teary-eyed about that unwritten conversation into we’ve been invited, not only as people made in God’s image but, the more so, as Word-mongers—God-lovers in the business of inviting still others into the same conversation.

What a responsibility.

What a delight!

I Have a Secret

Taken at the Denver Chalk Art Festival, June 2012

All good writers and creative-type people need a secret that drives them. The secret should push them to write more, write with superior quality, and write with a theme of hope in all of their WIPs, or even their journal. So far my secret allows me to accomplish all of the above and more.

  1. My secret wakes me up at 5:30 a.m.  Normally, I am an 8 a.m. riser or, more specifically, someone who rolls out of bed, texts something like “god mrning” to my hubby (who has already left for work), and sits on the couch, nursing my cup of coffee with the news on mute because I don’t like noise in the morning. Lately, I have been bright eyed and bushy tailed way before the hubby. So I poke him in the arm until he wakes up. Okay, so the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call isn’t good for everyone.
  2. My secret makes me go to bed at 8 p.m. I still need my 9 hours of sleep despite my early rising habits.
  3. My secret makes me eat healthier (or at least try to). I have consumed a lot more fruits and veggies because of my secret.
  4. My secret makes me more creative. I built a piece of furniture yesterday. Okay, I put together already assembled parts of a completely built piece of furniture. Oh, okay, I held the pieces while my hubby put together the piece of furniture.
  5. My secret makes me cry. Sometimes my secret is so overwhelming that all I can do is cry out to Jesus, asking him to hold me.
  6. My secret makes me laugh. I laugh even when no one else is around and I’m standing in the hamburger aisle at the grocery store, and then someone comes into the same aisle, and I laugh even harder.
  7. My secret makes me read my Bible more. Confession time: I am not a daily Bible reader. I never have been. I am not even a daily devotional reader. But my secret might turn me into one!
  8. My secret makes me love my husband even more. I made him a pan of homemade brownies the other day and called him at work “just because.” Seriously, I love that guy.
  9. My secret makes me exercise more. And not just because I would be the first person to die in The Hunger Games.
  10. My secret is my life, my light, and my joy!

Do you see now why every writer needs a secret? Your secret can be different than mine, but it needs to make you a better person. All good (or even bad) secrets do just that. So your challenge for this next week is to find yourself a secret―one that will push you harder toward your writing goals.

P.S. Some of you already know my secret. Please don’t say anything. 🙂 For the rest of you—guess away. The big secret reveal will take place on my Facebook fan page on Wednesday, June 13.

Q4U: Do you have any secrets that motivate you? If so, what are they? KIDDING! How have they made you a better person? A stronger writer?