On pie, plans, and principles: or, “how we launched our book”

pie buffet

It was our first time ever hosting a book launch. We’ve been to a few such launches over the years of course. You probably can’t be a passionate reader or a writer with writer-friends and not wind up attending one or two. So when it came time to planning our own book launch for Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer, we had a few ideas about how we hoped things might go.

The launch happened this past weekend, and looking back, I believe that things went well.

I think what helped them to go well was that we tried to let our plans be guided by our principles.

As people who believe that we are called to love others as ourselves, I can see in hindsight that it was the principle of loving others that drove our decisions. Not consciously. But as I reflect on the weeks leading up to the event and the event itself, I think it was the desire to try to treat others as we would want to be treated that shaped and undergirded most of our choices.

What kind of atmosphere would we, ourselves, most like to experience at such an event? (Relaxed fun with candlelight.) How long would we want to have to sit? (Not long at all.) What sorts of things would we most enjoy hearing? (Definitely not the authors droning on and on.) Should we serve food and beverages? (Yes, of course.) Should we do a hard sell? (Definitely not.) Should we sign books? (In advance, so as not to keep people waiting. Although, truth be told, we also wanted to avoid the awkwardness of sitting at a table if no one actually wanted to buy books.)

Again and again, we came back to the realization that even though our book launch would be a celebration of something that we had done—we did not want it to be “all about us.”

So we invited other writers to tell us a bit about their writing lives, to read portions of our book, and then to respond to it. A fire blazed in the fireplace, candlelight flickered throughout the room, dinner jazz played on the sound system, and our guests visited with us and with one another and feasted on a delicious pie buffet.

As for Karen and I, once the first guests began to arrive, we relaxed and delighted in the visible reminder that we are blessed to have people in our lives who care enough to show their support and come to a party celebrating this thing that we have done. And yes, we sold some books. We also enjoyed our guests. We ate pie. Our cups overflowed. Our hearts are full.

 

A reflection on a favourite saint, for All Saints Day

Joan of Arc

Who were your childhood heroes? In honour of tomorrow being the eve of All Saints Day—a Christian celebration remembering those who’ve gone before us in the faith—I thought I’d share a little about one of my own childhood heroes. Although my faith tradition doesn’t celebrate All Saints Day—or venerate saints with a capital “S”, Joan of Arc is definitely one of those.

I first heard of Joan of Arc when I read a book about her. I was 9 or 10.

She was a 15th century, illiterate, French peasant girl.

At the age of about 17, she followed what she believed was God’s leading, and took command of an army. She liberated her country from English occupiers and changed the course of her nation’s history. At 19, she was unjustly condemned following an ecclesiastical trial during which she confounded the greatest theological minds of her day. She was burned at the stake on trumped up charges of heresy; 25 years later, the results of her trial were annulled. In 1920 the Roman Catholic Church declared her a Saint.

The book I read about Joan was one my mother passed on to me. She had read it as a girl and loved it. I loved it too. I remember the musty smell of its yellowed pages and the feel of its hard, red cover, fraying at the edges. I remember pouring over the colourful illustrations depicting “Joan the Maid” in a gleaming suit of armor atop a strutting steed. I remember feeling inspired by her courage and daring in taking on a vocation that was without precedent for a woman. I remember being moved by her ardent love and intense prayer life. I remember thinking that if God could speak to Joan then He could speak to me too. I remember crying at the injustice of her execution.

When I came to the end of the book, I mourned her for days.

But I never forgot her. Looking back, I realize she helped to shape my life by shaping my belief—early in life—that a relationship with God was not only possible, but worth pursuing.

So it was an interesting exercise to revisit the life of Joan of Arc recently, more than 40 years after we’d first met, as part of the requirements for a course I took in Christian History and Theology. This time I read biographies, scholarly research, an epic poem and—what was most compelling of all—Joan’s own words translated from letters and trial manuscripts. As I read, she came alive to me once again. I couldn’t get enough of her.

I’ve come to believe her story has lessons for us today.

Lessons about leadership, strength in the midst of suffering, human nature, and injustice.

When she took charge of her army, she gave new hope and courage to her countrymen in the midst of deep despair, reminding me that hope is essential—not only for military battles—but for all of life. It was her vision, devotion to her mission, courage, integrity, honesty, and selflessness that made her an accomplished and trusted leader.

Today, we tend to label as “crazy” those who profess to hear voices from heaven like Joan did. I don’t know what to make of her voices. But I am struck by the thought that her devotional life brought her to a place of knowing her God intimately.

Reading the translated transcripts of her trial, I was amazed at her wisdom—and at the efforts of her judges to trip her up. They were men who represented the greatest theological minds of that time, yet they were vindictive and self-righteous, reminding me that the powerful have always made life difficult for those who threaten them. Their example can serve as a warning for those who hold positions of authority and influence—that great wrongs can be perpetrated in the desire to do what is right. Joan’s interrogators were also learned men; as such, they offer up a cautionary note to those of us who pursue academic study or intellectual development at the expense of spiritual maturity—that great learning can lead to arrogance and spiritual blindness.

But above all, Joan’s example bears witness to me today, no less than it did more than four decades ago, that remarkable things can happen when we seek God’s direction, step out boldly in faith as He leads us, and trust Him to accomplish all that He promises.

Announcing: Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer

Craft Cost Call book title

I had forgotten the sheer joy that could come with crafting words into meaningful sentences, the exuberant rush as paragraphs and pages poured out from some inner well deep within. But this new book, Craft, Cost & Call represents the most writing fun I’ve had in recent memory.

Like dancing to a favourite song when no one is watching, part of that experience came from the fact that there was no client on this project. The only people my co-author and I were striving to please were our book’s eventual readers.

The other part of writing with abandon no doubt came from the fact that my co-author happens to be a dearly loved friend. Karen Stiller is a woman I admire greatly. Anything done with a friend can be more fun than doing it alone, especially when you laugh together as much as Karen and I do. We believe that ours is a friendship that was heaven sent; it began more than a decade ago when my name literally popped into her mind one morning while she was applying mascara. She subsequently reached out to me with a partnership opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, our history will forever include this little soon-to-be-published book, Craft, Cost & Call : How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer. 

It was years in the making, not only because we worked on it together for that long, but also because it represents the sum total of decades worth of all we’ve each learned so far about what it means to earn a living as writers who are also people of faith.

I’m proud of this little book. I’m thoroughly delighted with the outcome. It gives me deep pleasure to think of passing along some of the hard-won lessons learned through decades working as a freelance writer. And I’m thankful for the way that working on this project together with Karen not only took my writing to new places—reminding me of the joy to be had in practicing this craft I believe I’ve been called to—but because it took my friendship with Karen to new places too.

When we thought we were getting close to the end of our writing, we sent the manuscript out to some other writers we admire and asked for their feedback. We were encouraged and overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response. Read their kind words of endorsement here.

Then we invited my daughter Jenna, an illustrator, into the project. Her drawings add a touch of whimsy to the book’s pages. Our hope is that readers will experience as much delight during the time they spend immersed in this book, as we did in writing it.

Craft, Cost & Call is our thanksgiving offering to the community of writers that has nurtured us over the years, and to the community of writers of faith who are yet to come.

 

 

 

When God speaks in a daffodil

Daffodil against garden shed

I believe God speaks. I believe He speaks constantly. I believe He is a communicating God, who reveals Himself in various ways and means to those who take the time to listen, who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.

No, I’ve never heard an audible voice. I’ve never seen a message written in the heavens or a burning bush. But I’ve sensed that “still small voice,” speaking within my spirit at needed times. I’ve had words jump out at me from Scripture that led or taught or directed or encouraged or comforted me in important ways at crucial moments. I’ve sensed “promptings” or “intuitions” that I’ve acted on, only to be convinced later as a result of outcomes that it was God who was leading me. And I’ve seen things in nature—incredible, memorable things—that felt like messages meant for me.

I received one such message yesterday, and then again, this morning. And it was such a lovely bit of encouragement at just the right time, that I felt it ought to be shared.

A week ago yesterday, my mother-in-law, Dora, passed away at the age of 102. Her death was expected—she’d been receiving palliative care for weeks—and my husband, Doug, and I were at her side when she took her final breath.

Doug was her only child. And while she was feisty and amazingly independent right up into her early 90s, he’d been caring for her in one way or another since his dad died 30 years ago. Thirty years is a long time to bear the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. The last 10 years, after she gave up driving, Doug’s caring meant biweekly (at least) trips to her home in Thorold, Ont. (from our own in Mississauga) to take her shopping, to the bank, or the pharmacy and then to doctor’s appointments. Four years ago, we moved her to a retirement community 10 minutes from our home, and visits and excursions became more frequent. For the past two years, she’s had several lengthy hospital stays, which have meant more frequent visits yet. Sometimes every day for weeks or months on end.

It’s felt at times like a long road, for her and for us. She told us again and again that she was ready to go. And while death is never easy, there can be a sense in which it can come as both a release and a relief. Even as we witnessed the release of her spirit last Friday, we felt relief that her suffering is over, and our long responsibility for her soon will be too.

Thursday her body was laid to rest next to her husband’s, and her long-time pastor spoke words of remembrance, comfort, and truth at her memorial. Our three children eulogized their “Granny,” the ladies of her church congregation prepared a beautiful lunch, and for dessert, everyone feasted on a buffet of pies—in her honour. (She was a wonderful baker in her younger years famous, especially, for her pies.) I couldn’t help thinking how delighted she would have been by it all.

Yesterday morning we awoke early in order to head to her apartment to begin the two-day process of clearing out her things. As I sipped my first coffee of the day, I opened the blinds to look out into our little backyard, and couldn’t help gasping. For there, up against our garden shed, was a single, bright yellow daffodil, almost ready to open.

I planted a row of daffodils against that shed 27 years ago, when we first moved into this house. Their leaves came up faithfully, year after year, but they had never yielded a single bloom, not once in all those years. Every spring I would watch as their green shoots would push through the soil and grow tall, spreading out their leaves. Every year, I would hope. But not ever in all those years did we see a flower.

Until yesterday. It felt like a sign, a message from above. As I looked at that daffodil, I sensed God saying, “It’s all okay. She is at rest. And good things are ahead.”

This morning, on the final day of the move, and what we anticipate will be the last of our significant responsibilities for her, the daffodil was in full bloom.

*

 

Life abundant

gift

Honoring the body. Hospitality. Household economics. Keeping Sabbath. Saying yes and saying no. Testimony. Discernment. Shaping communities. Forgiveness. Healing. Dying well. Singing our lives. To explore the full range and depth of any one of these would take not a single chapter but an entire library, not a single life but many lives joined together in a community that spans generations.”

So begins the fourteenth chapter of the book, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  And so, too, ends a month-long blogging project for credit towards my Master of Theological Studies at McMaster Divinity College, which was also something of a hopeful experiment for me. “Could I,” I wondered, “intensify and strengthen my own faith practices by reading, reflecting on, and writing about 12 Christian practicesand thus arrive at a new place in my journey with Christ?”

It has been an intense time of thinking deeply, of wrestling with the implications of what it means to practice my Christian faith, and of reflecting on how and why it’s worth taking the time to do both. It has also been a time of vulnerability; I’ve shared things about my life even as I’ve wondered about the wisdom of disclosing them, but trusted that American writer Frederick Buechner is correct when he writes, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

My only regrets as I look back on this experiment? That it’s over, and that due to class deadlines, I didn’t have more time to put into embracing each practice, one by one.

And yet, my learning has been profound.

I mean that. I actually think I’ve been changed in some important ways. I’ve realized among other things the need: to do a better job of caring for our planet and for my body, to live my life in an attitude of greater openness to strangers, and to more fully receive God’s gift of the Sabbath, to continue to sing my faith with confidence and boldness, and to turn to God with prayers for healing as a first—rather than last—resort.

Looking back, I realize that I began this project, somewhat naively, and with some incorrect assumptions. The first idea I had wrong was that Christian practices can ever be “practiced” in isolation. I know that there are many people today who live out their spiritual lives as lone wolves. But that was not the way of Christ, and it was not his intention for his church. That is why the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of a body to describe the community that Christ called into being. I’ve been reminded again and again over the past month that to really live in Christ and to grow and thrive and be healthy it is important to remain connected to a community of believers.

I had imagined at the outset gathering together a community of readers who might also share their experiences with practicing faith. That did not occur to the extent I had hoped; whether the timeline was too short, my musings too personal, my writing too weak, or my topic of too narrow interest, I don’t know. But I am grateful for every person who did read, comment, or tell me that you, too, were learning and thinking about what it means to live out your faith in such a way that it really seizes your life. You encouraged and energized me throughout this experiment and I thank you for giving me your time, attention, and feedback.

Necessarily and essentially communal

Part-way through this project, I interviewed the man whose leadership initiated Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, Craig Dykstra. He told me, emphatically, that Christian practices are not individual, but “necessarily and essentially communal. They’re not just devotional. They’re about a way of life—about everything we do.”

That also corrected another faulty notion I had at the start—that there were a limited number of Christian practices, and if I could somehow manage to just get them right, then I would become the sort of Christian I long to be. I learned that there are hundreds, if not thousands of practices, and that two of them, according to Practicing Our Faith, “run through all the others, fostering attention to God, who grounds this whole way of life. These practices are prayer and Bible study.”

This fact helps me understand why I’ve seen my prayer life take on new and meaningful rhythms and dimensions over the past month, and why my times spent reading or listening to my Bible have yielded good and important fruit.

Jesus taught that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). As I’ve focussed on practicing my faith to a deeper degree over the past month, I know that I have tasted life more abundantly. I’ve relished that taste; it’s made me hunger for more. So much so that I end this project with a determination to continue to intentionally practice the practices of my faith.

And yet

I also know that this past month has challenged me in some ways that feel somewhat unsustainable; it may not be realistic to expect to keep thinking so deeply, daily, about my behaviours, actions, and reactions in the midst of life’s routine busyness, its ups and downs.

“What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be?” These were the questions that provoked me to embark on this journey. I’ve learned that there is room for improvement in every one of the 12 practices on which I’ve been focusing, even though I also know that practice will never make perfect. But that’s okay, for I’ve been reminded of the truths of Romans 5, beginning with the fact that I already have “peace with God,” through Jesus Christ.

Living the Christian life for me in 2019, then, has to begin with the recognition of God’s grace to me, which is always present. With that thought, the yearning with which I began this exercise has quieted. Because, ultimately, that’s what the Christian life comes down to for every one of us: God’s amazing grace.

“We shall not cease from exploration

And at the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

I remembered Eliot’s words this morning and looked them up as I thought of the irony of where I’ve landed. “At the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

At the end of this first phase of deliberate exploration of practices of my faith, here is what I know: Jesus loves me, in spite of my faults and failures, just as He loves you in spite of yours. And he wants us to experience life in all its fullness. The more we embrace him and the wisdom he offers, the more we receive that gift of life abundant. It’s there for the taking. The degree to which we accept it—just as the degree to which we practice the practices of our faith—is up to us.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 15 – This is the final post in a 15-part series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Dying well

Hand holds sign saying It Is Well

I suppose I first began to think about what it means to die well 19 years ago, when my mother brought my father home from the hospital to die.

She knew he was dying and he knew it. We all did. After battling colon cancer for almost five months in hospital, a doctor had confirmed our worst fears; the cancer had spread and there was nothing more they could do for Dad than to keep him comfortable.

Mom believed she could do a better job of that at home, and so that’s where Dad went joyfully, to a hospital bed set up in their living room. Together our mother, my siblings, and I established a 24/7 care team. Supported by hospice volunteers and visiting nurses we looked after dad until he died two weeks later. He passed away peacefully, holding my mother’s hand. I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling in the moments after he had taken his final breath that his was not an “ending” but a “leaving.”

Doing things with and for one another

Almost a decade later, I enrolled in a 10-week training program with my own community’s hospice organization. I thought I’d like to help others the way that the hospice volunteers had helped our family throughout my Dad’s final days. I completed the program but concluded I wasn’t ready for that kind of work just yet.

But I’ve once again been thinking—a lot—in recent months about what it means to die well. First, because I helped to usher a friend to eternity’s threshold this past summer, and more recently still, because my mother-in-law is now receiving palliative care.

“In the Christian practice of dying well,” writes Amy Plantinga Pauw in “Dying Well,” her essay composing chapter 12 in Practicing Our Faith, “Christian people do things with and for one another in response to God’s strong love, translating into concrete acts our belief in the resurrection of Christ, and for ourselves.”

Our culture has a different idea of what it means to die well. Personal autonomy reigns supreme, and so our laws today grant people help and support in ending their lives prematurely.

The Christian way

I do not believe that is the Christian way. However, faith and trust in God does allow for the “conscionable category,” as Pauw describes it, “of ‘ceasing to oppose death,’ making room for caring for the dying.”

It means recognizing that God gives and takes life. And when bodies signal that life is drawing to a close, loved ones can listen. Medical interventions that merely prolong a life that has been reduced to suffering may not be heroic but horrific.

We will all die; that is certain. And faith is not a guarantee that we will die serenely. “Christian practices hold no magic formula for transforming premature, tragic, or unjust deaths into good deaths,” Pauw observes. “When a life is cut short—by accident, suicide, disease, or violence—Christians view it as an evil.”

Dying well, then, is not something that we carry out on our own. But it is something that, in community, we can help to give to others. And if this is true, then we can also live our lives in such a way that we can hope that there will be others to help us to die well when the time comes.

Then, when we are gone, there will also be others whom we leave behind who will mourn and remember and tell the stories of our lives.

*

Note: When I saw the image at the top of this post, I knew I wanted it to illustrate the subject of this blog. One of the hymns I have been singing with my mother-in-law over the past couple of weeks has been the 1873 hymn by Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well With My Soul.” The words in the first verse of that hymn are:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul!

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 13 – This post is thirteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.