Month: December 2015

Last-minute “planning”?

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Sick of hearing about “jumbo shrimp”? Need a new oxymoron? Me, too. So I offer “last-minute planning.”

It sounds contradictory. If we had planned well, we wouldn’t be doing anything at the last minute, right? Second-Day Air and Overnight are almost never the shipping options I use when ordering online, because planning ahead and completing tasks well before deadline is what I do. However, there is always an exception, and the one I have in mind is related to inspiration.

Being inspired, or led, doesn’t always happen on a neat schedule. (Just ask pastors who occasionally step up to the microphone and say, “I was planning to preach on thus-and-so this morning, but I have been led to give a different message.”)

While cleaning house before Thanksgiving, I noticed a little paperback book upstairs. (You have these, too – the ones that have become décor instead of reading matter.) I took the book downstairs and placed it on the coffee table because I knew we would have a full house for Thanksgiving dinner. There were several on the guest list who came to mind; the book is Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.* My mother gave it to me a long time ago. I hoped that at least one dinner guest would notice the book, become interested, read a few pages, and gain a helpful insight. I don’t think that happened.

No one need take offense that I should say particular people – including my daughters, some coworkers, and my husband – came to mind when I thumbed through and read some of this book’s very short chapters in the early morning on the final Sunday before Christmas. I mean, I came to mind, too. After all, we all

  • know people who irritate us (chapter 27)
  • wish certain neighbors would park elsewhere or take better care of their yards (chapter 30)
  • need reminding that not every little thing is an emergency (chapter 22)
  • can benefit from realizing that little of what we stress over today will matter at all 100 years from now (chapter 82)

Dr. Carlson’s book was a number-one best-seller of the year at some point after its release in 1997. That year, my children were eight and five, and I had just become employed part-time after working solely as a mother and homemaker for about seven years. Does anyone wonder why my wise mother would choose such a book for me at that time?

An example Carlson gives of something not worth getting upset about because it won’t matter 100 years from now is when two of his counseling clients showed up at the same appointment time because of a scheduling error. I smiled over that story because it brought to mind at least one person I picture becoming highly annoyed at whomever had made the error, and another whom I would expect to be much more relaxed about it. As for me, I guess I would land somewhere between the extremes, but probably closer to the highly-annoyed end. Clearly, my mother had good reason to buy for me a book titled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.

And I want to be as good a mother as she was, which gets us back to “last-minute planning.” My sudden gift-giving inspiration required very last-minute planning. Later on that morning of December 20, before we left for church, I engaged UPS Second-Day Air to deliver two copies of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff just in the (St.)Nick of time for Christmas. The books arrived on Christmas Eve and went under the tree, one copy for each daughter. I flagged chapters 22, 27, 30, and 82, and I enclosed a printed copy of this then-future blog post. I desire that some of Carlson’s published wisdom will “stick” with us and will stealthily invade others’ thought patterns in the new year, through our improving attitudes and conversations.

I close with our own this-won’t-matter-100-years-from-now story. (That’s Carlson’s chapter 82, remember.) My husband and I recently discussed whether to make an issue over something with a certain family. I’d share more detail to make the story come alive, but every other way I have tried to write this gives too much information to keep the matter private. For several days we vented some mild steam over it, among ourselves. We thought about offering to help these friends do what we wished they would do. We considered dropping a text-message hint about it. Every option we batted around seemed certain to make us appear supercilious and overstepping.

Ultimately, we did nothing, choosing not to take the risk of offending. What was bothering us was aesthetics and nothing more; it certainly was insignificant when compared to the value of a friendship. We decided the matter was “small stuff” not to be sweated. 

*The “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” books are written by Dr. Richard Carlson and his wife, Kristine Carlson. There are nine books in the series with don’t sweat wisdom teaching mindfulness in all aspects of life. To view more, visit www.dontsweat.com.

If my life were a Hallmark Channel movie

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If my life were a Hallmark Channel movie, picture a shot of me driving my red Ford Explorer and noticing a personalized license tag on the car directly in front of me as I muddle through afternoon traffic (heavy rush-hour/Christmas-shopping traffic, of course). The tag reads PRV16 9. My brow furrows for a short moment, and then I get it: Proverbs 16:9.

Jump ahead in the movie script to the following morning. I sit in a small, deserted classroom before starting my work day in the church office. With knitting, coffee, and my tablet on the table in front of me, I glance up and notice the blackboard you see pictured at the start of this article. Cue sweet violin music. On the board in white letters appear these words: “Wise Up and Live Wisely: the Book of Proverbs.” (And PLEASE tell me you noticed the angel statue in the foreground.)

Quick flashback to an image of that license plate… And then I turn my head to the left and I see these words on a dry-erase board in the same classroom: “Proverbs: What God Said about Friendship through Solomon.”

Next, my voice is heard “thinking” (because my lips aren’t moving): “Okay… something is obviously telling me to read Proverbs.”

Now, I deftly swipe and touch the screen of my iPad until Bible Gateway is up. The voice of Dale McConachie reads Proverbs 16:9: “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.”

In my Hallmark Channel movie, this moment is pivotal. The right answer is suddenly plain. Instead of concerning a soulmate misunderstanding that is blissfully resolved, my happy ending probably has to do with my budding career as a novelist. And snow is falling as I bodily turn in circles of delight in my front yard, face upturned, arms outstretched. Christmas lights are glowing in the windows and, somewhere in the house, steam is rising from mugs of hot chocolate.

In my actual life, all but the previous paragraph happened as written. (Well, minus the violin music.) I listened to all of Proverbs 16, being reminded of gems like verse 18 – pride pretty much guarantees you’ll stumble sooner or later. That’s my off-the-cuff paraphrase.

For all who haven’t read much Bible on their own initiative lately (and I admit that includes me), Proverbs is a great place to start. The verses are short. Their meanings seem pretty clear, and their advice is so terribly practical.

“Advice,” of course, is not a strong enough word for the Word of God. Get wisdom. Get instruction. Nod your head in agreement as you read that it’s better to share a can of pork ‘n’ beans with folks who really love one another than to dine on filet mignon in an atmosphere of bickering or where walls built of selfishness protect private agendas, hindering truly-satisfying relationships.

That is my imaginative rendering of Proverbs 17:1, and just one example of the smart stuff in Proverbs.

Peacemaker – a tall order

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In my last post I promised to explain why the Bible verse John 15:13 is in the front matter of my yet-to-be-published novel, A Stranger’s Promise: “No greater love has anyone than this: that one would lay down his life for his friends.”

Several of my characters are described by that verse, diverting from their immediate plans in order to serve someone else. It was the most fascinating journey, imagining this book’s adventure story that takes a middle-aged empty-nester from Atlanta to the mountains of Tennessee, on a lark, where she makes acquaintance with a handful of mostly nice people living with a bizarre secret buried right under their noses.

Laying down His life for others is, of course, what Jesus did in coming to earth to live and dwell among us. In Sunday School we have just completed a study of Charles H. Spurgeon’s sermons on the Beatitudes. The lessons have been eye-opening, convicting, and inspiring. Jesus, who gave His life for us, commands us to live in a certain way. And we must do so. Here is a partial list of the traits that describe a peacemaker:

Listening. Understanding. Sympathizing.

Giving thanks. Honoring. Blessing. Rejoicing.

Overlooking. Forgiving. Not looking down on others. Not being conceited.

Not standing on your rights. Giving food and drink.

Obeying. Training. Instructing.

Edifying. Unifying.

Being humble, gentle, patient, and loving.

The complete list is daunting, but who can stop reading it? It draws one in. Please post a comment if you’d like to see the entire list.

Before our teacher Doug Arendall had finished reading the above marks of a peacemaker aloud to us in class, I had determined to get the list and to write each trait on a paper link, making the entire list into a colorful chain for our Christmas tree. And then, when people start talking about New Year’s resolutions, I won’t have to look any further.

My talking about something, no matter how enthusiastically, cannot “make” a chosen topic affect a reader the way I have been affected myself (though every writer dreams of his or her words doing just that). Nevertheless, I must tell you that when I look over that list of actions – actions describing one who has “climbed the Beatitudes ladder” from the lowest rung (recognizing one’s spiritual poverty) – I get tears in my eyes as I think how much I would like to be a person who is maturing into a true peacemaker.

A great Christmas debate

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Here are some questions that make for an interesting yuletide debate  –  if you’re thrilled by the idea of cozying up by the fireplace with a worthy opponent for an argument so heated you can turn the gas logs way down. (I can’t imagine that scenario exciting many people, but who am I to tell anyone how to enjoy Christmas?)

  • Did the first Christmas happen in December, or at some other time of year?
  • Was the Nativity in fact a miraculous “virgin birth”?
  • How many wise men visited Jesus?
  • Do Christians embrace too much secular culture in their celebration of Advent?

If you want to stand around with a glass of eggnog in one hand and use the other to make forceful gestures, there you have some good topics to get you started debating. But if you care to ponder a more unusual and less divisive subject, here’s a question that has the classic “yes and no” answer:

Did the first Christmas come as a surprise, or not?

Was the birth of Messiah a surprise to the nation Israel, whose prophets and faithful had foretold the event and had prayed for it, for so long? Was it a surprise to Mary? To Joseph? How about the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, both of whom recognized God in the flesh when they saw Him? Were the shepherds surprised? I’d land on the “yes” side, there. How about King Herod? So many angles! So many possible answers.

With years of Christmas observances gone by, how should we pray for Christmas 2015 to “surprise” us? Do you have a Christmas memory that involves a good surprise? A bad one? I invite you to click on “Comment” and share your thoughts.

Speaking of surprise, this week I bought some of the cutest Christmas surprise gifts for my family at a shop that may be one of Birmingham’s best-kept secrets. It’s Prime Time Treasures in the Assistance League building at 1775 Oxmoor Road. Besides wooden bird houses, nice pottery pieces, eye-catching tree ornaments, and all kinds of Bama and Auburn items, this gift shop has the mother lode of knitted & crocheted baby sweaters, booties, hats, and blankets. Similar stuff for larger people, too. Do you like unique and colorful washcloths?? Get over there!

I would give you more specifics, but I don’t want my family reading this and figuring out what’s going to be in their stockings. I can say this much: the place is like Wrapsody crossed with Christmas Village. Pull in the side entrance on Roxbury Road and get your wallet out. Just remember, the shop is closed on Mondays.

Also on the topic of surprises and not spoiling surprises, I want to talk more about my forthcoming first novel, Bend in the High Road – but without spoiling anything for readers. I’m even holding back reliving the story myself, because I’m afraid if I read the manuscript too much, I will end up changing things that are just right the way they are.

So, as I wait (and wait and wait) for a good word on publication prospects, I’m working on a second novel using the plot and characters of the first one as a springboard. When my holiday knitting frenzy dies down, I expect to enter a serious writing phase in 2016, and I do ask for your prayers. Fiction is a really amazing vehicle, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I hope lies ahead for me in that field.

In my next article, I’ll tell you what Bible verse I have placed behind the title page of my novel, and why, and how that is connected with a paper chain I plan to make for our Christmas tree – if we can find the time and the energy to get our tree up and decorated this Saturday!