The Prize

Trophy

My son Jonathan has a talent for drama. The stage kind (as opposed to the angsty teenage/girlfriend/school/car/job kind).

Not that his relationship with the stage is without hairy moments. Take his last competition for example. He comes home at dinner time from his after-school activities and announces he has to leave at 6:00 am the next morning for a speech tournament.

I give him that thanks-for-informing-me-of-your-plans look you give to independent seventeen-year-olds. “Tomorrow? I didn’t even know about this tournament.”

He shrugs. “Neither did I. Just got the script today.”

“And you’re performing it tomorrow?”

“8:00 am. It’ll be fine.”

All righty then. This totally explains why I keep having nightmares where I’m about to go onstage in front of a huge audience, and I have no idea what my lines are. I’m clearly suffering some sort of vicarious terror to compensate for Jonathan’s lack thereof. I probably ought to look into that because I bet it’s not normal.

Jonathan comes home from the tournament at 10:00 pm the next night.

With a trophy.

My mouth hangs open.

He hands me the shiny statue. “I got first place.”

“I see that. Nice job.”

“Well, there was a secret to it.”

What? He pulled an all-nighter? Wrote his words on his shirt sleeves? Had someone wave giant flashcards from the back row?

Jonathan grins. “My teacher knows I’m willing to go up there and do anything. I don’t care how I look, you know?”

Umm…Doesn’t explain trophy.

“He gave me this really funny piece about a guy who starts yelling because he can’t find his blue tie. There’s this point maybe a minute and a half into it where the audience hates you.”

Not. Following. Secret.

“You have to stick with it though. You have to go full throttle and push through where they hate you, and then they’re glad you did because it’s so worth it. It’s SO funny. But you can’t show any weakness. You can’t hesitate even the slightest bit or you’ll crash and burn.”

He talks like a stunt driver flooring it to make a jump. I have this momentary urge to check if our minivan is still in one piece.

“You have to be all in. That’s the only way this scene can take first place.” Jonathan shrugs and walks off like it’s no big deal.

In that moment I have a brand new picture of what the apostle Paul means when he says we should run in such a way as to get the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24). It’s about total commitment.

Only Paul isn’t talking about a drama sketch. He’s talking about full throttle devotion to God.

Where we don’t care how we look. Where we’re all in, pushing through everything that stands in our way, and it doesn’t matter that people might hurl tomatoes at us.

Because they probably will.

But we persevere because we know the prize is worth it.

My son worked hard and came home with a well-deserved, shiny trophy, which is cool and all. But eventually it will sit forgotten and dusty on a shelf until it someday lands in a box of memorabilia.

But God’s prize doesn’t work that way. He gives us an eternal gift that can never fade, tarnish, or wear out. He gives us himself.

Heaven.

Everlasting life.

For that…I’m all in.

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Stench-oscope

dead fish

“You need to take a shower today,” I tell my teenage son.

He frowns. “Why?”

After thirteen years of bathing, you’d think he’d comprehend its basic purpose. I’ve discovered the polite response is useless. “You stink, son.”

“So? I’m not going anywhere today.” His mouth curves in a “beat that logic” grin.

I’m actually going to have to argue this out. “I don’t think you should be allowed to stink up the house.”

“Fine. I’ll put on deodorant.”

“Didn’t you use it when you got dressed this morning?”

“No. Why?”

I suck in my evaporating patience. “Deodorant helps prevent odor. I bought it so you could wear it everyday. It’s not a paperweight, it’s not a decoration for your dresser, and it’s not a ‘get out of bathing permanently’ card. Now, please go shower, and then put on deodorant.”

“Whatever.” He rolls his eyes and tromps to the shower.

When will this kid outgrow odor apathy? Is it a boy thing? I mean, I’m a girl. By the time I hit my teen years, my parents couldn’t get me out of the shower. And deodorant was self-explanatory.

I’m still shaking my head over this when I get one of those pokes from God.

My nose tunes in to physical odor well enough, but when’s the last time I took an appraising whiff of my spiritual odor?

Um, is that even possible?

Apparently Christians do have a distinct spiritual fragrance. The apostle Paul wrote, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15).

I’m guessing God prefers Christ’s aroma over Powder Fresh Right Guard, so how do I make sure I’m wearing the fragrance of Christ everyday? It’s not like I can buy a bottle of Jesus Perfume.

Surely as God’s child, someone who has accepted Christ’s payment for my sins, I have the fundamental fragrance, but humor my fancy. What if my actions, morals, and values also have an odor to God?

What if the materialism choking my house with possessions smells like curdled milk? Or my little white lies are morning breath in a world of no toothpaste? Or maybe my subtle, selfish tendencies reek like month-old anchovies.

Yikes. Maybe God’s up there going, “My daughter, I love you, but you need an odor check.” Or worse, He’s abandoned the polite approach and is instead thinking, “You stink, dear.”

“Just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2b), so should we love and sacrifice for others.

That word spoken in love when we’d rather snip, that action done for the sole benefit of someone else, that willingness to put another ahead of ourselves even when it hurts—these carry the fragrance of Christ’s sacrifice, whether we’ve showered or not.

Let’s face it. Deodorant can never cover the rotting anchovies in our lives. But Christ can, and the attitude of a living sacrifice never stinks.

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Omni-tuitive

moon

I beg to differ with the word “intuitive” so readily applied to today’s technology. Every shiny, silicon gizmo that pops on the market is “intuitive.” What they mean is “self-explanatory if you’re twelve and convinced you cannot possibly lobotomize your new device by pressing the wrong button.”

I happen to have a healthy fear of unintentional consequences, so I won’t press anything unless I know what it does. Last time I forged bravely ahead, I got Spanish subtitles on the TV.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I just don’t speak its language.

Take the internet. How can my teenage son sit next to me, look at my computer screen, and know exactly what to do in less than half a second?

“Click on new,” he’ll say.

I search the screen.

“Click on new.”

I squint at the flashing colors and scattered words.

“New,” he’ll enunciate like I don’t know how to spell.

Well, if I could find the stinkin’ link, I would.

No matter how poorly I operate new technology, there’s no getting away from it. The other day, my trusty, uncomplicated cell phone died and doomed me to a new purchase—a smart phone.

Just what I needed. Something to prove I’m dumber than polymer.

The clerk unwrapped the sleek little doohickey I’d picked out, did some fancy finagling to its insides, and then handed it over.

“All ready.” She smiled like that was the beginning and end of our conversation.

The store was crowded, but I wasn’t about to fall for a doctor-visit routine where you got a limit of one question answerable with a yes or no before the white-robed apparition vanished from the room.

I planted myself firmly at the counter. “Thanks. But how does it work?”

The clerk blinked at me. “It’s intuitive.”

Right. Like the tax code.

I looked in the box. “Doesn’t it come with a manual?”

She frowned. “No. I told you, it’s intuitive.”

Obviously not the go-to help gal. I glanced over at my son. I’d bought him his very first cell phone five minutes ago, and he was sitting there diddling with it, totally button happy. For pity’s sake, what if he got irremovable Spanish subtitles?

He grinned at me. “I made three calls, got 42 texts from my friends, and found a Monopoly game. Isn’t that cool?”

Swell. His came with a manual that was lying untouched in the box. I didn’t even know how to answer my phone, let alone rule the world with it.

I tried one more time with the clerk. “Are you sure there’s no manual? I’m not technologically intuitive.”

“There’s online help if you really need it.” Her tone suggested I needed help all right, but not the kind I could get from a computer.

I wanted to tell her I could make lasagna, carry on a conversation with my husband, and still know when the dog was consuming the TV remote in the next room. I’m intuitive, just not like a teenage techno-whiz.

Every person is different, with varying strengths and weaknesses, intellect, and gifts. Can we really label anything universally intuitive?

Ah, but we can.

The knowledge of God’s existence is intuitive—plain to all, because God has made it plain. The Bible says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

No matter what technology comes along to frazzle me or help me, dazzle me or harm me, it’s not a surprise to God. He’s way beyond it. He’s the beginning and end of everything. God’s undeniable signature lives in the fabulous complexity, fierce power, and wondrous beauty of the universe around us, and that is intuitive.

Even if I don’t understand my smart phone.

 

(Check out Today’s Christian Woman if you want to see where my article first appeared)

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The Plague of Unpleasant Wildlife Part III

Cartoon Car 3
Lousy stick figure cartoon by Erin. This is why my college art degree is best left unmentioned.

 

On a bright Sunday morning, my fifteen year old son with his freshly minted learner’s permit sits behind the steering wheel of the car, leaving the passenger seat to me.

Right. We’re going to church. I can start praying early.

Except I don’t get the chance.

Johnny doesn’t drive ten feet down the street before something black and hairy skitters past my right arm.

I gape.

Big. Hideous. Spider.

Heart. Palpitations.

I yank my arm away, and miraculously, I don’t scream, even if the spider is big enough to swallow Nebraska. “Johnny, you need to stop the car right now.”

“What? Why?” But he stops because he’s actually a very good driver.

My brain has now used up its capacity for rational thought, so I point stupidly to the spider. “Uh…yu…spi…der…”

It’s lodged in the crook of the handle, and I can’t open the door without getting way too close to the hairy nightmare of a beast. Think Aragog (you Harry Potter fans will understand).

Johnny gives me and Aragog a lazy glance. “Yeah. So?”

If you want sympathy, have daughters.

The spider twitches.

I jerk away. Or try, but my seat belt thinks we’re in a wreck, so it locks me in place.

New plan: Swipe Aragog with my purse (goodbye faithful purse) and knock big ugly spider to floor where I can stomp its guts out.

Eeew.

Make that: knock big ugly spider to floor, sweep out to street, and let some car squash its guts out.

My purse gets a silver star for valor, but Aragog hits the floorboard running, so I throw caution to the wind and stomp away.

Miss.

Miss.

Miss.

Dang that speedy spider.

My last stab wounds it, I think, but it scoots under my seat.

Swell.

Johnny gives me a “Can we go now?” look.

Of course we can’t go. I need to fumigate the car.

But we’re running late for Sunday school, it’s somebody’s birthday, and I’m bringing the cake, which is sitting on the floorboard behind my seat.

Does Aragog like cake?

Johnny puts the car in gear. “I’m driving now.”

I wrench my head up and down. “The spider is more scared of me than I am of it, right?”

Johnny doesn’t answer because he couldn’t care less. He’s not the one with Aragog under his chair.

I repeat my mantra to myself, and by the time we make it out of our subdivision, my heart has almost quit palpitating.

Johnny glances my way. “Why did you have to get so freaked out?”

An actual shudder runs through my body. “You would’ve—” I see movement and look down.

Aragog is in my lap.

“AAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!”

Arm waving. Shrieking. Convulsions. The whole nine yards.

Johnny simply drives on.

Mid-conniption, I somehow manage to brush Aragog off my lap, and I stomp for all I’m worth.

The hairy beast squirts under my seat again.

I squeal and clutch my legs to my chest.

Johnny gives me a withering look.

“It was on me!” I curl into tight, quivering ball. Why, why, why would that spider crawl up my thigh?

I scan the floor, the door, the dash, and my pants for Aragog, the mentally ill spider. The sweep goes nonstop until we arrive at church and I shoot out of the car. I make Johnny dig the cake box out.

No sign of Aragog, which brings me zero comfort. Obviously the spider doesn’t care for cake, and is simply waiting for another go at me.

Uh oh. New problem. I have to drive straight from church to work, which is why our family was taking separate cars to begin with.

I wave farewell to my pretty red Camry, for I can never drive it again. Then I track down my husband, Alan, at Sunday school. “Um, I need your van keys, okay?”

“Why?”

“There’s a giant spider in the car, and it’s not afraid of people.”

Alan blinks at me.

“Really. It crawled up my leg.”

I can see him trying to figure out what that has to do with the van keys.

“We need to trade cars.” There’s a desperate ring in my voice.

Alan’s eyes soften with understanding. I’m totally throwing him under the spider-bus, so to speak, but he doesn’t complain. He just gives me a patient “because I love you” look and hands over his keys.

That man is my hero.

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Impossible Possibilities

My dog, Henry, doesn’t believe in the word “impossible.” One day we walk past a lake and Henry spots some geese swimming happily about. His predator instinct kicks in, and he bursts toward them, nearly ripping the leash from my grasp.

Never mind that they’re twenty yards out from shore and have a clear head start. He can get them. Absolutely.

Never mind that their fat goose bodies float effortlessly, and Henry swims like an anvil.

He. Will. Prevail.

Never mind that if all else fails, those birds can spread their wings and fly.

That just means Henry has to jump really, really high.

Sometimes I think the dog is an idiot. But sometimes I yearn for his enthusiasm. Oh, to be so willing to overlook reason.

This is exactly what God called the Israelites to do when He brought them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. A bunch of former slaves with no military training were supposed to conquer the land of fierce, experienced warriors. Impossible.

Let’s face it, the Israelite resume would read: Can make bricks from straw. Experienced walkers. Good at grumbling.

They arrived at the border of the Promised Land and sent out twelve spies (Numbers 13), who reported the land was bountiful and beautiful. There was just one teensy problem. Big, scary natives with no intention of leaving.

What did the Israelites expect? Wimpy people? No people? People who said, “Hi, there. Please plunder us”?

Only two spies were willing to overlook the difficulties. The rest of the Israelites got stymied with the impossible and refused to follow God’s directions.

The result was a forty-year tour in the wilderness, with Israelites dropping left and right from plagues, venomous snakes, and attacks from disgruntled neighbors.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say I’d have been all over that Promised Land routine. Sign me up for the front lines. But could I have really stared down the wrong end of a bloody sword and not panicked?

I’m glad I wasn’t there to find out. Except there’s really no escaping the question, because doesn’t God still call us to do impossible things? If we’re really listening, won’t God thrust some opportunity at us that forces us into the territory of big, scary obstacles? Maybe it’s a new and unnerving ministry we’re not sure we can handle. Maybe it’s a career or job change with an unforeseeable future. Or what about a mission trip to someplace decidedly uncomfortable? Unsafe? Impossible?

News flash: Nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

Maybe we need to quit thinking so much, quit dwelling on reasons we could fail. Those reasons will always be there. I mean, what do we expect? Wimpy hurdles? No hurdles? The whole deal is going to be stinking hard. The sooner we absorb that piece of info, the better.

What happens if we go for it? If we close our eyes and take a flying leap off the edge of rationality? Isn’t that right where God wants us—anvils heading for deep water, trusting God to make us float.

He can do that.

 

(Check out the Today’s Christian Women Blog if you want to see where my article first appeared)

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Three World-Changer Things You Can Do Before Breakfast

Three world-changer things you can do before breakfast:

  1. End world hunger
  2. Reach every nation, tribe, and tongue for Christ
  3. Topple an oppressive government

I’m not saying you can do all these things at once, mind you. But one at a time, they’re not that daunting.

I know, I know. You have a pretty full schedule as it is. The kids, the house, the pets. Not to mention crayon on the bathroom mirror, spaghetti caked into the carpet, and something weird growing in the fridge. You’re hoping you’re going to make it to nap time without needing shock paddles–and not necessarily for your heart…

See the full article in Today’s Christian Woman.

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3 Tips for Attending a Conference

Chairs in a meeting room

So another conference is rolling around.

I know. It sounds like all I do is go to conferences. Really, the last conference was in the spring. I’ve just been turtle-speed about posting the whole story.

But I do like conferences, so I figured I’d post a three tips in case y’all go to one. (And I definitely recommend you do.)

1) Make some goals. This comes from the penny-pinching, Bohemian DNA I attribute to my mother. Conferences cost money. You want to make the most of it.

Goals help you choose the right conference for your needs. Are you still learning basic craft? Are you ready for an agent? Looking to pitch to an editor? Choose a conference that provides those opportunities.

2) Prepare. This comes from the sensible, Pennsylvania Dutch DNA I got from my Dad. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, including attending a conference.

Research the publishers, agents, mentors, etc., you want to talk to (‘cause you’ve set goals, right??) and know what materials you’ll need for a successful meeting. If you’re not pitching, make a list of questions to ask. You want to make a good impression, of course, but you also want to get the most bang for your conference buck.

3) Pray. This comes from God’s Word. Pray before the conference, pray during, and pray after. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I’m not talking about the “Oh, dear God, what have I done?” prayers. I’m talking about the kind that acknowledge who’s running the universe.

If God can order the path of every galaxy, planet, and molecule, he can pretty well handle your conference. Trust him to send the right people across your path. And even if you say something stupid to them (I speak from experience here), don’t freak. He can make it come out okay in the end.

And anyway, somebody else will eventually say something dumber.

By the way, be open to God rearranging (without warning) everything you planned under tips 1 and 2. He does that. He’s God.

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Criticism and Why You Need It

An eagle flies

I’m not Hemingway.

Or Tolstoy, or Steinbeck. Or even Clancy, Koontz, or King.

No shock there. But it’s nice if once an a while someone gasps and says, “Really? I’m sure you’re right up there with the best.” This is a good thing coming from your non-writer friends. Or your mom. Maybe your spouse, too.

Your dog’s opinion doesn’t count—he drinks from the toilet.

Encouragement, confidence, and sheer blind belief in you are great gifts for your word-smithing mental health. Most of us writers suffer from a common GI disorder (Gaping Insecurity), and we need those little pieces of kindness to keep us from wallowing in despair.

However, we just as desperately need hard truth, tough criticism, and the nasty red pencil of objectivity. This is what you find in the best of critique partners.

Somebody somewhere has to have permission to push you harder, to make you sweat and bleed on the page, to compel you to unearth every crunchy verb buried inside you.

We need someone to slash our pet words (it’s really not okay to use “smile” 200 times in your manuscript). Someone has to sentence our favorite scene to exile for having no purpose in the plot. And someone has to confront our main character for being irrational, boring, or too stupid to live.

The key here is growth, another mile on the writing journey.

Good criticism walks you forward. Great criticism makes you fly.

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The Agent of God’s Plan, Part 2

Over the next few days, a burden presses on me. One that began with the bizarre whiplash of meeting literary agent Karen Ball. (See the whole Agent Story)

Odd that I would go into a conference thinking about the two agents I’d sent my dog book to, and then come out with a totally new plan.

I need to finish the novel. I need to send it to Karen.

The dog book will have to wait, and so will Mr. NY Times Agent. As much as I like him, I know I have to go to Karen first. I know it as sure as I know God made mountains.

The beauty part is that I really like Karen too. Actually, she’s one of those people everybody likes. You simply can’t not like her.

I send her an email, telling her I’m going to finish the novel before going back to the dog book, and does she want to see the first few chapters?

She does.

We email back and forth, and I’m delighted to see how much we have in common.

And she loves the chapters.

One thing leads to another, and the day comes when she offers representation. I’m still stunned.

Of course I say yes because I know this is where God has sent me.

But what will happen from here? God knows.

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The Agent of God’s Plan, Part 1

On the way home from the conference, I ride with my forehead against the window. I’m frozen, like the moment in time where Karen Ball, editor/author/agent extraordinaire, tells me I have an actual gift.

The night is black, with no lights below. I know we’re going over some barren section of the Rocky Mountains. No people, no trees, and maybe even no animals. But the mountains are there just the same. For God.

His creation, fashioned for his glory. Who can say to him, “What are you doing?” (Job 9:12).

So I just sit. And listen.

One thing is very clear. I will write, and I will keep writing, and I will never stop writing.

I need not keep asking that question. When my writing days are over, God will tell me so.

I feel shaken by his presence.

Sifted. Comforted. Awed.

 

(Read more Agent Story)

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