The Greatest Gift in This Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life

Guest Post by Kaitlyn Iocco

“Now, just remember that this thing isn’t as black as it appears.”

My dear friend spoke these much-needed words of encouragement to me on a day when the world felt like it was crashing down on me. I had spent my lunch break, well, having a breakdown in my car. My husband, Ben, and I were producing and directing a musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I had just found out about a terrible mix-up with our venue, which would doubtless result in having to cancel two of our performances. Seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, I felt momentarily hopeless and, like George Bailey must have felt when Uncle Billy lost the $8,000, totally blindsided.

Looking back now over the past few months, I suppose I felt a lot like George throughout the production process of the show. We experienced equal parts blessing and hardship: from big issues, like the venue confusion, to small interruptions, like costume rentals not being ready until literally the last minute—super stressful interruptions for someone like me who likes to have all her ducks in a row with time to spare. There were lots of good times, but there were also times when I thought, Why? If our purpose as a theatre company is to do good, why would God allow bad things to happen in return?

When we look at George Bailey’s life, we see someone who chose to do the right thing again and again, and each time was practically punished for it. When he rescues his brother Harry from the icy water, George loses his hearing in one ear. When he prevents Mr. Gower the druggist from poisoning the pills, he is beaten. When there’s a run on the bank, he and Mary give up their hard-earned money and honeymoon to rescue the Building and Loan.

But, also like George Bailey, “we came through the thing all right.” I prayed so hard that God would redeem the problem with the venue. I didn’t know if He would do that by reversing the situation or showing us some other solution. For a short while, part of me was half expecting to check my email and see a message from the venue saying the issue was “magically” solved and we could continue with our Sunday performances after all. But that didn’t happen, and while we had to go through the trouble of performance cancellations, refunds, and rescheduling, we moved on.

This is not to say that the entire production process was a disaster. On the contrary: while some things didn’t work out, lots of things did, and by the end of the show, in It’s a Wonderful Life fashion, I stood backstage with my husband, our cast, and crew before our closing performance, feeling enveloped by love and friendship. The hardships we faced had actually brought us all closer as a community. As people from the cast and crew shared what the story of It’s a Wonderful Life means to them personally and what they had each learned and gained by working with our theatre company, I felt overwhelmed and humbled by God’s goodness. Life can be hard at times, but God is faithful. He gave us the gift of friendship and community.

It seems like human nature to do good and expect to receive good in return. When we do the right thing or go out of our way to do something nice for someone, we expect to receive a pat on the back, a reward, a return on our investment. But perhaps the blessings that we do receive don’t always come wrapped in a beautiful package and tied with a bow. Sometimes we have to go through difficult times to realize how blessed we truly are.

Standing backstage with the cast, crew, and production team, I saw the lasting impact of everyone’s hard work on the production. Of course, I hoped that our audiences also walked away inspired and changed, but what I saw in front of me backstage was how I experienced firsthand the lasting impact of so many people uniting to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The shining faces I saw, the stories I heard of lives changed, and the hugs I received humbled and encouraged me. I thought, This is what it’s all about.

What is success? How do we define it? From George Bailey, Clarence, and the citizens of Bedford Falls, I have learned that, when it comes down to it, life is about relationships. This is a biblical principle; the first and second greatest commandments given to us by Jesus are to love God and love others. This means putting others before ourselves, loving sacrificially and unconditionally, and never giving up on love, no matter what life throws our way. Even when bad things happen and we are not met with good for the good we do, we can look around us and be reminded, “No man is a failure who has friends.”

As we celebrate the birth of the Savior and gather with friends and family this Christmas, may we open our hearts and homes and remember that while life’s greatest blessings might come in unexpected packages, they are the gifts that keep on giving.

 

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Kaitlyn IoccoKaitlyn Iocco is a social media associate and holds a BA in English and BFA in performance. A theatre lover and the author of her great-grandfather’s biography, The Lord Is Not Through With Me Yet, Kaitlyn is passionate about storytelling. She and her husband, Ben, were married in 2016 and together lead Merit Theatre Company. They live in Burlington, KY, in a cozy little cabin with their cat, Pearl.

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Winter in My Cry

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Photo by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

I cried nearly every day last winter.

The gas heat in our new apartment wrapped each room like a fleece blanket, unlike my last apartment that left me and my little dog, Dudley, shivering, and the curtains quivering in the draft sneaking through the window cracks.

But even with the comfort of this new apartment, the cold and snow of the Northern winter bore down on my Southern-girl spirit. Winter, to me, is not holidays and warm fires and cheer; it is discomfort and danger, inconvenience and depression at every turn.

The weather chipped away at me each morning as I chiseled at another layer of ice on my windshield. It hung over me like a sigh every time I parted the blind slats to see a white-coated parking lot. It whitened my knuckles as I drove the unplowed backroads to work.

To get through another frigid day, I promised myself last winter, “I’m going to move back South!” Knowing full well I couldn’t keep that promise, I cried almost every day.

Mid-winter, on a bone-chilling trip outside, Dudley searched for a place to squat while I made a promise to God, a promise I determined to keep. Even the voice inside my head chattered as I vowed, When summer comes, I won’t complain about the heat. No matter how humid or hot it gets, there won’t ever be heard a discouraging word from me.

I kept that promise this summer. Even when my hand stung from the searing door handle or when my shirt stuck to my body on a Labor Day hike, I said a praise for the heat against the coming wind and chill, feeling even then a touch of heaviness knowing winter will soon return.

_________

I started a new job recently, taking the next step in my life which, turns out, felt a bit like stepping off a cliff. It’s harder in more ways than I’d expected. To cope, sometimes I promise myself, “I’m going to move on before next year.” Full well I know that no job will be without frustration. All this discomfort and stress has happened before, and it will all happen again no matter where I go.

Sitting in a frustrating meeting recently, I clenched my pencil in anxiety over all I don’t know yet about this position and the complications of dealing with difficult situations.

Less like a rope to pull me out and more like a rock with a message tied to it, a thought dropped in the pit of my mind: What are you putting your hope in? What is it that you really need here? Not deliverance from a hard thing but patience to deal with it. Endurance to learn the process. Willingness to face with excellence whatever is put before you, no matter how mundane or uninteresting. What is God doing right here in this meeting that you need to get before the next season of life rolls around?

_________

Last month I stepped outside into the first real fall morning that we had enjoyed so far. Fall has been my favorite season since I was very young, bundled in a lavender jacket, making acorn stew in my backyard. Still, feeling those first tendrils of coolness touching my nose and ears, I groaned inside. Winter’s coming—and too soon.

I feel like the geese in Rachel Lyman Field’s poem, “Something Told the Wild Geese.”

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go,
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered, “snow. . . .”

All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

____________

Last winter I made the promise to be thankful for the discomfort of hot, humid days. But now, with the return of frosted windshields and jacket buttons, I’m fitful and disgruntled, and something more—convicted.

Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season.” But it never said the seasons wouldn’t return and linger. The Changer of seasons, in both the weather and my life, thinks it’s good for me to shiver just as He thinks it’s good for me to shimmer with sweat. He also thinks it’s good for me to do it over and over again.

In every season, can I find my “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” not in the circumstances of the season but in the great faithfulness of the God who never changes? And can I be thankful for what each season brings? Thankful for numb fingers while anticipating my sun-tinged shoulders? Reveling in pool days while looking with peace toward icy patches?

Winter, like the harder times of my life, makes me face my weakness, drives me to seek relief, and sends me crying out to God for strength.

In every season, perhaps it pleases God to hear winter in my cry.

Made-to-Order Hospitality

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Guest Post by Laura Allnutt

Food is a universal language. What and how and with whom we eat are unwritten essays on our personalities, cultures, and emotional psychology. It’s a language so easy to speak that we often use it as a replacement for actual words, as a buffer between family togetherness and family tension. Rather than I’m sorry for what I said last week, here’s a bag of your favorite chocolates. Instead of Let’s talk about it, let’s order a pizza and scroll through Netflix.

Food is a safe space where humans of all backgrounds, preferences, religions, achievements, and politics can unite and enjoy the common experience of filling their bellies to stay alive another day and avoid the conflicts another moment—until the food becomes the conflict.

I am among the estimated 15 million Americans with food allergies. My stomach likes food far less than my mouth does. I have a taste for almost every food I’ve ever tried, and I used to never pass the chance to try something new. But as I became more and more tied to the bathroom, I knew something had to give, so I began what has been a three-year process of elimination diets and a blood test to figure out which foods my stomach doesn’t like. Here’s the shortlist of offensive foods: corn, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant), garlic, red meat, some nuts, dairy, and gluten. The nightshades cause me the most trouble, second only to corn, which is my mortal enemy. The other foods are tolerable in moderation and only if my stomach has had several good days in a row.

My stomach likes food far less than my mouth does.

There is nothing I hate more than being invited out to dinner or, worse, invited to someone else’s house. Consider how many meals involve some form of tomatoes alone. There’s hardly a recipe for chicken that doesn’t invite paprika or other peppers. Potato and corn starch are in just about every baked good, even gluten-free and vegan varieties. And let’s face it: if you cut open Americans, they bleed waffle fries and corn syrup.

I don’t like telling people that I have food allergies. No one likes to be the oddball, the person who requires special exceptions, the one who adds a layer of inconvenience. But here I am. To make matters more complicated, Sarah and I decided to cut processed sugar from our diet, a lifestyle change that segued into the Keto Diet.

Recently, Sarah and I joined a Small Group at our church. When we arrived at the house, our friendly hosts led us to the kitchen where awaited a countertop of cakes, cookies, chips, sodas, and, off to the side, a tray of vegetables that looked as uncomfortable to be there as I was.

Sarah selected a few chips and a thin slice of bunt cake. I grabbed a bottle of water.

I sat in the far corner and hoped no one noticed my lack of food, because food is personal. To reject the food is to reject the person behind the food.

To reject the food is to reject the person behind the food

It doesn’t help that we live in a culture of fad dieters, vegans, and so-called health nuts. Culture mocks these people rather than acknowledging its sick obsession with food or cheering for those brave enough to choose a healthier lifestyle.

Fifteen million Americans is a lot, and that number doesn’t include the 1 million vegans, 1.6 million vegetarians, 30 million diabetics, and 45 million other dieters with food limitations. Altogether, people with food restrictions make up roughly one third of the total US population. This statistic means that one out of every three people you know likely has a food restriction.

I’m somewhat limited in foods, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy food. I even consider myself a foodie. Sometimes, learning to cook new things or cook old things a new way is an exhilarating challenge! Over the past few years, I’ve learned that food restrictions don’t have to restrict hospitality and companionship.

Here are ways to maintain togetherness regardless of food restrictions:

  1. If you have food restrictions, tell your friends and family. Most people will be glad you told them. Otherwise, they’ll perceive you as snubbing their food offerings or possibly starving yourself. They’ll also feel terrible for serving you food that might cause you suffering. A cranky nurse once left my arm with black-and-blue bruises after she jammed a needle around the crease of my elbow to draw blood. Because she labeled the vials wrong, I had to go back the next day to have more blood drawn. A different and much kinder nurse did the job, and when she saw my bruises, she cupped my chin in her strong hand and said, “You don’t let nobody hurt you. It’s your body, and you got to walk around with it.” I’ve carried her words for several years now, and I’ve since applied them to my inward and outward health. Though I hate to make things awkward, I have to tell others what I can’t eat. It’s my stomach, and I’ve got to walk around with it.
  2. If you don’t have food restrictions, start the habit of asking your guests if they have food allergies or restrictions—even if you’ve known those people for years. You’ll be surprised at how many people have kept their dietary needs private.
  3. Don’t avoid group gatherings because you have food restriction, and don’t stop inviting your friends with food restrictions to those gatherings. Isolation and segregation solve nothing and aggravate everything.
  4. Keep in mind that some people have much more serious allergies than others. I have a friend with severe allergies to shellfish, so much so that she can’t be in a room where shellfish oils might go airborne during the cooking process. Respond to each case appropriately. You may need to plan a different meal entirely if you’re the host, or you may need to politely decline the invitation if you’re the guest. In either case, don’t neglect to invite the friend with allergies or at least explain how you can’t invite them, and if you’re the one with allergies, be sure to explain why you can’t come rather than just saying no. Practice honesty, consideration, and tact to preserve relationships.
  5. Learn new recipes. Recently when a coworker invited us over, we were relieved when she asked us if we had dietary needs. For two weeks she wrote back and forth as she planned her menu around my dietary needs. “I like a good challenge!” she said. Her joy over cooking for a complicated person put me at ease—and the food was great! Cooking outside the box is fun and creative and sometimes stressful and annoying, but it’s worth it.

Sometimes, on my especially bad days, I feel sorry for myself because I can’t eat like a normal person, can’t just grab a pepperoni pizza or a sandwich and fries from Chick-fil-A. I grouse through the grocery store, thinking of the mashed potatoes I can’t eat for Thanksgiving and the Chinese carry-out I can’t eat on Friday nights. But this thinking is toxic and misses the point about food entirely. Food is not about the things we eat but about whom we eat with. It’s about the company, not the carbs. As long as we’re together, life is a feast.

 

laura.jpgLaura Allnutt is my best friend, apartment-mate, fellow writer, and dearest inspiration. She holds an MFA in fiction from Fairfield University and has recently finished writing her first novel. She works as an online teacher and editor and enjoys being adventurous in the kitchen. Learn more about her in just about any of my posts, and follow her blog Thinking With My Mind Full.

Hope and Keep Busy: Advice for Being Single . . . and Just Being

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The evangelist’s wife knelt beside me at the front church pew, her close-set eyes earnest as she asked, “Now, honey, what are you praying about?”

At 17, I’d spent the past year in mental turmoil. But now, against the piano chords of “Have Thine Own Way,” I reported a docile summary: “I don’t know what God wants me to do with my life.”

“Well, honey.” She smiled, relieved at the simplicity of my spiritual ailment. She had a handy treatment which she offered like a lozenge from her big leather purse. “You don’t need to pray about that. The Bible’s already told you God’s will for your life as a woman. You’re s’pose to stay in your daddy’s home and wait until a man comes to marry you.”

Well, then. The path had been laid with yellow bricks toward Oz. And what luck that I was in a budding relationship with a good-looking guy.

I should have risen from the pew rejoicing.

The churches of my childhood declared a woman’s place was in the home, and obligingly, in Lisa Frank journals, I outlined my dreams of a hard-working husband, three kids, a house in a cul-de-sac, and a chocolate Labrador in the backyard.

But despite my plans and conditioning, when she laid that predetermined, narrow path before me, I hesitated to accept it.

Against Mrs. Evangelist’s prescription, instead of settling in with the folks, I went to college, eventually broke up with that good-looking guy, taught college classes for seven years, earned my MFA, launched into a new career in Cincinnati, and here I sit reflecting on the past 15 years.

Sometimes I wonder if she wasn’t right.

If I’d just waited, stayed put, did the dishes and vacuumed, got highlights in my hair or giggled more, maybe I’d be packing school lunches and driving a minivan instead of checking the single box on my tax forms.

Now, at 32, understanding my odds of staying single, I try not to focus on marriage too often. No use in poking sleeping monsters.

Once awakened, discontentment can be hard to wrangle back into its cage. But every so often, something stirs it up. A movie or a book or a couple at the mall will agitate the romantic in me who wants a man to share goals with, to be the strength to his weakness, someone with a strong shoulder and a generous heart, someone to move the heavy stuff and kill the spiders.

And, if I’m honest, maybe most of all, I want someone to save me from what other people think of my singleness.

Recently, my seven-year-old niece informed me, “Aunt Sarah, you aren’t a grown up until you get married.”

While waiting for the terrifying unknown of adulthood, children stay brave by constructing and clinging to a formula for the future. And children aren’t the only ones.

When life goes “as planned” for people—they get married, have children, get a mortgage—sometimes they project those expectations onto others. They set up their single friend with that single person from the office. They judge or blame them for being too picky. They criticize them for not settling. They feel comfortable—somehow—with saying things like, “At least I’ve got a family.”

In a conversation a few weeks ago, one man came right out and said, “The whole purpose of humans on earth is to marry, procreate, and form family units. And, sorry, single ladies—I’m sure there’s some other purpose for you.” He stopped just short of saying, “But I don’t know what it is.”

Words and actions imply, “You aren’t good enough—not without a partner. You’re just a permanent resident in the waiting room of life.” Even Frank Sinatra on my Pandora station croons the reminder,

“You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you.”

If I’m not careful, I start evaluating myself by others’ estimations—maybe I am worth less than my friends who are married with kids. Maybe my body shape or overbite or personality just didn’t make the cut for love. Maybe marriage is what life is all about, and I’ve missed my chance to matter.

At those times, I want marriage more than anything, to twist the gold band on my finger and assess my worth, to feel in the night the warmth of the man to whom I have vowed my life, to read the rise and fall of his chest like the stock market of my value at the close of each day.

On the opposite end, some people consider the desire for marriage to be a sign of weakness, of desperation or dependence. You’re your best you when you’re single. 

Mrs. Evangelist told me to wait; others tell me I’ve waited too long; some people tell me to stop waiting at all. Their words leave me, at times, feeling pointless, insecure, even guilty.

But earlier this summer, I read something that has me thinking a little differently.

In the novel Little Women, Marmee is on her way to care for Mr. March who is ill inhope and keep an army hospital. As she leaves, Marmee admonishes her girls, “I am anxious that you should take this trouble rightly. Don’t grieve and fret when I am gone . . . . Go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace. Hope and keep busy, and whatever happens, remember that you never can be fatherless.”

Hope and Keep Busy. I liked this advice so much that I posted it on my cubicle wall at work. But I’ve found that I only half know how to follow Marmee’s simple directive for moving forward.

I’m good at keeping busy. When I’m creating a hand lettering or writing an essay or focused on work, I don’t cast longing glances at my future or feel discontentment start to rattle its cage. But sometimes, rather than trying to deal with my desire to be married, I stuff it beneath a full schedule and numerous pursuits. I use my busyness to convince myself that I’m fully content with being single because I’m afraid of building expectations for a future relationship.

Expectations are plans that we count on unfolding, sometimes without even working toward them. If we’re not careful, expectations render us entitled or disillusioned, disabling us to accept reality as it comes. And as someone whose spirit has been wrecked by unfulfilled expectations in the past, I’m leery of sustaining them for my future.

Marmee said to hope, but I don’t always know how.

Maybe I confuse expectations with hope.

If I know Marmee March, she wasn’t telling her girls to launch a flurry of positive vibes toward Mr. March for healing. She was telling them to hope in good things yet to come, whatever they were, flowing freely from the hand of a benevolent Father who would never abandon them. If Mr. March had died, the girls still had reason to hope in God’s comfort and provision.

Maybe hope means putting my trust in something more secure than my plans, like a compass to guide me forward, a life preserver to hold me up, a rope to pull me in. A sure thing. If that’s true, I shouldn’t place my hope in fragile things out of my control any more than I would tie a rope around a twig and rappel off the side of a mountain.

If my hope is in marriage or any other unpromised thing (the perfect job, a book deal, a viral blog post), I might live my life unfulfilled, in a constant holding pattern for my purpose and happiness to arrive.

But if I can trust in the goodness of the heavenly Father who redeems shattered expectations, uses lives in unexpected ways and reminds us of our worth in Christ—rather than in a mate—I can experience a full life right now while working toward my goals and hoping for more fulness in the future—which might or might not include marriage. Instead of focusing on being married or being single, I can just be.

Marmee carefully posed her advice: hope first, then keep busy. When I rightly place my hope, I can contentedly thrive in what I’m called to do right now—as a magazine editor, a writer, a friend, a woman—not as a distraction but as the way forward.

When you’re praying for your single friends, don’t simply ask God to send them a partner. Ask him to shield them from shallow expectations, keep them busy in worthwhile pursuits, and make them hopeful in him.

 

 

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Note: I recently read this article, “Why Hope Isn’t Just Optimism.” It expands on my thoughts in this post. I hope you’ll read it.

Don’t Drop Your Baby

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Photo by Luma Pimentel on Unsplash

Guest Post by Dustin Brady

Having a baby is hard. In my experience, these are the hardest parts of having a baby.

Actually having the baby. (I didn’t do this one, but my wife tells me it’s hard. Also, it looked really hard while she was doing it.)

Learning diapers. When people find out you’re having a baby, they gift you an avalanche of diapers. It’s so many diapers that you start investigating Target’s diaper return policy because surely there’s no way one baby could possibly use all these diapers. Then you look around after the first week and realize the baby has used all the diapers.

That moment when you’ve stayed up all night having a baby, and then you have the baby, and then you expect to be allowed to get some sleep because that’s how it’s always worked when you’ve pulled all-nighters. Instead, the nurse plops the tiniest possible human in your arms and tells you that it’s your job to keep him alive now, good luck.

•Keeping the tiniest possible human alive.

That last point is probably the scariest one for parents (at least the 50 percent of parents not responsible for actually having the baby.) You’re holding this unspeakably small person in your arms, and you suddenly realize that you don’t know how tight to buckle a car seat. Too loose, and the baby could fly out during an accident. Too tight, and he could suffocate.

Speaking of suffocation, you really should have paid closer attention when the nurse was showing you how to swaddle a baby. Her swaddle is a beautiful burrito, while yours is currently a mess of blankets covering the baby’s . . . WAIT, GET THE BLANKET AWAY FROM HIS NOSE! Is he still breathing? Whew. Still breathing. For the 37th time today, he’s still breathing.

As a new parent, there’s a solid week where you’re genuinely nervous that someone will discover that you’re in over your head and take away your baby. Imagine my shock, then, when stumbling down the hospital hallway mere hours after my son’s birth, I noticed this bulletin board.

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I blinked at the board a few times, then squinted at the nurse’s station to find out if this was some sort of Candid Camera situation. The nurses did not acknowledge me. I turned back to stare at the sign for a few more moments (and read the horrific true tales of parents dropping their babies also posted on the bulletin board), then returned to report to my wife that our hospital was being run by the Joker. She directed my attention to the poem taped next to her bed.

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Here are my three favorite things about the literary achievement, “Don’t Drop YOUR Baby!” (Author Unknown):

3. Papyrus font.

2. The kindergarten-teacher-like care with which the poem was trimmed, laminated, and mounted to hot-pink poster board.

1. The choice to all-cap “YOUR” in the title, as if parents are so used to dropping other people’s babies that they need to be reminded to take extra good care of this one.

After reading the poem, I looked at my wife with wide eyes. She shook her head. “Can you put him in the bassinet? I think he’s done eating.” I took a deep breath, picked up my son, and walked across the room as if he were filled with nitroglycerin.

For the next two days, all my parenting fears focused into a single mantra. Don’t drop the baby. Don’t drop the baby. Don’t drop YOUR baby. I repeated it to myself. I repeated it to visitors. I repeated it to my wife, much to her dismay.

“I’m not going to drop him!”

“You were closing your eyes.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“I think you were just for like a second.”

“Well, I wasn’t. Also, I’m allowed to close my eyes for a second.”

I pointed across the room to a picture of a sleeping mother dropping a baby doll from her hospital bed. A headline over the photo read, “IT ONLY TAKES A SECOND!”

Seventy-one days since a parent dropped a baby.

I am happy to report that the hospital’s campaign of terror worked. When we passed the nurse’s station on our way out of the hospital, I smiled with pride at the sign. Seventy-one days since a parent dropped a baby.

When things finally started slowing down a few weeks later, I realized something—the hospital was right. Did they go a little far with the horrific true tales of parents dropping babies? Perhaps. But they understood that with all the worries that bury parents—breastfeeding, tummy time, skin-to-skin contact, something called BabyWise—the only thing new parents truly need to worry about is holding onto their kids. Don’t drop the baby, and everything else should take care of itself.

My son is three months old now. I would say that my wife and I are not all-star parents. Bath time is pretty hit-or-miss, for example, and the pediatrician always wags her head when we admit that we still haven’t used those Vitamin D drops she keeps recommending. But, you know what? We have yet to drop our baby.

And maybe that’s all that matters.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

Dustin

 

Dustin Brady is the author of nine children’s books, including the Amazon bestseller Trapped in a Video Game. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, two kids, and a small dog named Nugget. He has gone 601 days without dropping a baby. You can check out his work at dustinbradybooks.com.

12 Principles for Restoring Our Faith in Faith-Based Writing: Part 3

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Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

Well, here’s the last of my 12 principles for creating excellent faith-based writing. Check out part one and part two for the first 9 principles. And then practice these in your own writing!

10. Craft beautiful writing. Literature is beautiful, perhaps especially because there is no standard for its beauty. It’s Thomas Wolfe’s meandering paragraphs and Hemingway’s terse lines; it’s E. B. White’s dryness and C. S. Lewis’ chatty storytelling tone and many voices in between.

But one thing all literature has in common is lyricism—those portions of writing that make you want to underline the text or turn it into a meme. Some writers sustain this high writing throughout their entire books (Tinkers author Paul Harding to think of a recent one I’ve read). These are writers who have no flat sentences, whose books are those houses at Christmas time with lights wrapped around every post and bush and chimney. Other writers produce in patches. For more about writing strong sentences, read Cynthia Newberry Martin’s essay, “Not Every Sentence Can Be Great, But Every Sentence Must Be Good.”

Find literature that speaks to you, then emulate those writers. Don’t aspire to write merely a good story but to craft strong prose that makes reading the story a delight and that will stick with readers even after they turn the last page. (Exercise by composing a passage of your own writing in the voice of another author you admire.)

Beautiful literature holds a little bit of meaning in its back pocket.

Beautiful literature also gives you something more than surface value; it holds a little bit of meaning in its back pocket and lets you figure it out through the use of symbolism.

Anyone who has taken a literature class knows that Huck Finn isn’t riding a raft on just a river: that river symbolizes freedom from Huck’s abuse and Jim’s slavery. The eyes on T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard in The Great Gatsby are more than just a tattered sign: they represent the eyes of God watching the world. And also, just so you know, we aren’t merely discussing the feather-and-beak bird in To Kill a Mockingbird. That bird represents innocence slain at the hand of evil.

Part of being excellent means presenting your message in a beautiful, memorable way.

11. Create excellent art. Martin Luther supposedly said, “The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

In other words, by creating any excellent, beautiful work, the artist brings just as much glory to God as if he had painted a cross. And for us as writers, that translates to stories that are true and excellent, even if they don’t explicitly share the gospel.

Think of how many gospel messages you’ve heard couched in poorly written stories.

Now think of stories that did not explicitly share the gospel but displayed it better than a gospel tract. Case in point, Narnia. C. S. Lewis said, “It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”

However, George Sayer, one of Lewis’ closest friends, said, “Lewis . . . wanted to introduce similar ideas that would make it easier for children to accept Christianity: what he called ‘a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.'” I thought about this concept recently while watching Harry Potter.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort leers over Harry’s lifeless body in Hagrid’s arms and tells the students and professors of Hogwarts that they’ve lost, that they must join him. But then, at the darkest moment, Harry leaps from Hagrid’s arms, alive again and ready to send Voldemort to his doom.

Every time I read or watch this scene, I get goosebumps. Not because I believe J. K. Rowling meant to infuse her story with the message of the resurrection and Christ’s defeat of Satan and death, but because the story reminded me of a story I already know. I made the connection. I wonder if a child who had read the Harry Potter series and was then introduced to the gospel would recognize those themes, making it easier for him to accept.

Laura says, “Art is a reflection—not the thing itself.” It is not an exact replica of life, but so often it can be a launching point for discussing the gospel or other spiritual topics later.

I don’t think that a story should suffer by shoehorning in the gospel or faith. Paul McCusker, who writes drama for Focus on the Family and wrote the script for the movie Beyond the Mask, said, “If there’s going to be a faith element, it has to come out of the plot and the characters, as opposed to characters coming out with their faith.”

“There’s a difference when the gospel is shown rather than explained.”

As my friend Kaitlyn said, “There’s a great difference when the gospel is shown rather than explained. Showing real people live out real faith without forcing a conversion.”

In a Relevant magazine article, Micah Conkling proposes that Christians should put forth “fiction that is true. Fiction that reveals to its readers things they never knew about the world, themselves, and their Creator.”

What does excellent faith-based writing look like? Well, like all writing, it will look different for different people. But maybe it’s not about having a Christian publisher’s logo on the spine of your book or having a chapel on the cover or a tidy gospel ending. Maybe it’s just good writing written by believers—writers based in faith, even if their stories and essays are not.

12. Don’t sell out. At a conference earlier this year, Laura and I got a glimpse into the Christian publishing industry. More acquainted with mainstream publishers, we were fascinated to hear a view of the Christian industry.

After one of the sessions, Laura asked the speaker, a fiction writer and editor, if there were a place in the Christian market for literary fiction.

The woman bristled at the word literary. “Literary fiction doesn’t do well anywhere,” she fairly snapped. In her defense, I imagine she’s probably run up against many people who have snubbed her Christian romance genre.

Laura spoke to one or two other editors who said the same thing: “There’s no place for your writing in our industry.”

Laura knows that it will be a struggle to find a publisher for her book, but she’s prepared to deal with that and to keep trying indie, mainstream, or Christian publishers until someone takes her or until she has to look for alternative methods of publication. And frankly, there’s no reason for her to panic or press her novel into a mold. A lifetime of rejection letters is too soon to sell out.

Be encouraged: Christians are reading.

Look for authors whose faith stories make it in mainstream literature—Marilynn Robinson, Leif Enger, Jan Karon.

Be encouraged: people are reading. Christians are reading. Let’s give them good, true, beautiful writing, both prose and poetry, to nourish them in their faith, mind, and spirit. Let’s create writing that reflects the excellence and elegance of the Creator.

“Good art points beyond itself and helps us recognize the human condition and the divine intrusion while calling us to more faithful relationship with the world, relationship that witnesses to the hope and redemption found in the Triune God and offered to us through Christ, the incarnate image that redeems all images grasping for God. In this way art can be a powerful source of truth-telling, sometimes even uncovering the stories we would rather forget.” (Faith Imitates Art.)

 

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Note: To read more about faith-based writing, I suggest you check out Story Craft by John R. Erickson. He’s got a lot of great things to say.

12 Principles for Restoring Our Faith in Faith-Based Writing: Part 2

Fiction

Thanks for coming back for part 2 of this short blog series. If you’re just taking a look at these posts, you might want to check out the first 6 principles for producing excellent faith-based writing. This post will cover principles 7–9. The next post will cover the remaining principles.

Let’s get started.

7. Show truth through conflict. The world’s story and our own stories are products of conflict. We are born through the conflict of labor. We mature through the conflict of choices. We achieve through the conflict of resistance.

Conflict, in all its complexity, is layered. Situational conflict affects or reflects a character’s internal conflict. Moby Dick’s Ahab isn’t traversing the seas only to wreak revenge on the white whale for biting off his leg. He is also on a quest to annihilate the power of nature and perhaps even the power of God over his life.

In his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell is not just putting down a rogue bull elephant; he’s battling within himself over the tyranny of Imperialism.

In Hemingway’s novella, the Old Man is not merely angling for a great fish; he is struggling with the inevitability of his old age. (1)

Conflict is sometimes most effective when it makes the reader uncomfortable.

Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that made you feel unsettled, not necessarily because it sullied your conscience but because it addressed an issue or featured a conflict that society doesn’t like talking about—at least not in deep ways?

I recently watched Ladies in Lavender starring Judi Dench. In the movie, an elderly single woman becomes infatuated with a young man after she and her sister save his life. I’ll admit to an initial “eeesh factor.” An old lady with the hots for a teenager? It just seemed wrong somehow.

But as the movie progressed, I empathized with Dench’s character. She’s an elderly woman who doesn’t feel her age, who has never known love, who feels that her time has come and gone. We all know desire for something we don’t or can’t have. We get it. But not every story teller would have been brave enough to show longing in a conflict that opened up a new perspective for the viewer. (You’ll have to watch the movie or read the short story to see how it ends.)

Let’s face it: it’s easier to settle for writing something safe rather than something excellent.

But think of how people must have squirmed when To Kill a Mockingbird was released. Have you ever read (or seen) August: Osage County? Talk about uncomfortable. Elements of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or any number of Charles Dickens novels may make readers feel unsettled.

The perceptive reader will never view the world the same again for having experienced that truth in the conflict along with the character.

8. Avoid answering all the questions. Recently Laura said, “You know the problem with Christians? They have answers.” It’s true. Perhaps because we believe we have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Christians feel indignant at the thought of being questioned or feel guilty for questioning the truth for ourselves.

So we often work backward rather than forward from a problem, not just in matters related to the gospel but other ones we often lump under morality or sanctification. (2)

Perhaps too often we oversimplify things.

A prepackaged answer doesn’t leave room for questions, for a dialogue in the reader’s mind, prodding him to seek out the answers. (And a script doesn’t allow for Christians to figure out the weak spots in their faith or in their thinking.)

In my last blog I ended by mentioning the blessing of not knowing and of living in that tension. When I think of tension, I inevitably think of Doubt, a Pulitzer-winning play adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Throughout the story you are left wondering if a priest has had inappropriate relations with one of the altar boys. The headstrong lead nun is determined to prove him guilty, but other evidence points to his innocence. In the end, the priest leaves the parish, but we don’t know if he left because of his guilt or because he was just tired of the nun’s judgment. The audience never knows the truth, but the ambiguous ending is not a gimmick—it is a device meant to heighten awareness to areas in our own lives where we are uncertain. In those areas we can pursue genuine truth or cultivate faith in the void. (3)

I work for an organization that frequently ponders deep biblical questions and almost as frequently comes to the decision, “We don’t have a position. We can’t know the answer.” I’ve struggled with that reality. Why would God put certain things in Scripture if we have no way of knowing the answer completely? I believe it’s his way of reminding us that we cannot know all—that we must learn to live gracefully, faithfully in the not knowing.

I say all of that to make my point: don’t try to answer all the world’s questions or give answers for all the world’s issues in your writing. Lead your readers on the trail to the answer, but let them make the final steps for themselves.

9. Not all endings need to be happy—but share hope.

I once thought it was enough to let people know they aren’t alone, to portray the world as it is with us huddled together in the darkness. But I don’t think it’s enough to merely diagnose the world’s problems without also giving a prescription.

A Tale of Two Cities. Where the Red Fern Grows. Harry Potter. Things go badly for the characters in these stories. Heart-breaking, life-changing tragedies strike. Yet there is growth, redemption, and love. Life goes on.

It’s not a book, but one of my favorite stories is Castaway, a movie starring the incomparable Tom Hanks. Talk about a loaded, melancholy ending. Yet at the end, you know that somehow things will be OK because there is still hope—in fact hope is the theme of that movie.

Think, conversely, of stories that leave you with no hope. I think of Of Mice and MenThe Great GatsbyThe Thief and the Dogs. It’s a technique that is useful in some situations, if by pointing to the despair or meaninglessness you mean to emphasize light (like Flannery O’Connor mentioned in the first part of this series.) But there should be a reason for its use. Despair does not become a believer, and it’s rarely a fulfilling story-telling technique.

We have to offer a remedy or at least the hope of a remedy. The ultimate remedy, of course, is Christ’s redemption and grace. But it’s not necessary to lead the reader all the way there by putting the gospel blatantly in a story. Just let the reader know there is hope and give him a breadcrumb trail to find it. (More about this in principle #10 . . . in the next post.)

 

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1. Often setting or time period adds another layer of conflict in heavier or lighter ways. In Little Women, though it is not a main conflict, the Civil War affects the March girls’ lives. In the Scarlet Pimpernel, the French Revolution colors the entire story. I recently watched a new musical called Horizons of Gold at a theater in the area. The play set the biblical story of Ruth in the 1930s, with the Dust Bowl in Kansas creating significant conflict. The play not only entertained and inspired me but it also informed me of an ecological catastrophe I knew very little about. If you do some digging in history, you might find little known time period conflicts that lead to a good story. And in the process of telling a good story, you can educate your readers—a pleasant bonus.

2. I’m not speaking of matters laid in black and white in Scripture (e.g., that Jesus is the only way to God or that adultery is wrong.) Though even in matters of the gospel, it’s still good to press on our beliefs, to make sure they hold up next to Scripture.

3. By the way, Silence, a novel by Shusaka Endo, also made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese, attempts the same effect at the end.