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easter synchroblogThis week at the Convergent Books blog, various writers have been reflecting on the characters of the Easter story. Today, they’ve opened the topic to any blogger anywhere to write about a character in the Easter story and what their role can teach us today. To read other posts in the synchroblog, click here.

His letter begins with these words:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life–and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. (1 John 1:1-4, NASB)

He is John, the apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and here, he is adamant: We heard Him, saw Him with our eyes, touched Him with our hands. This message we spread, this Gospel we preach, we were eyewitnesses! And we want others to believe because we saw it!

He almost fades into the background of the Easter story. We see glimpses of him but he’s not the first one we think of, at least he’s not the first one I think of. There are the women and Judas and Peter and the guards and Pilate and the religious leaders and Joseph of Arimathea. The Easter story is full of colorful characters, each with their own part to play, each with much to teach us about this most holy of days.

And yet, I find myself drawn to John, the storyteller.

Several years ago in a Sunday School class, we watched a video series about John’s final days in Ephesus. In it, he was painted as an old man telling the stories of his days with Jesus to anyone who gathered. He lived the longest of any of the disciples and his account of Jesus’ life is different in almost every way than that of the other writers.

Suddenly, I had a whole new appreciation for John, who must have spent all those years telling and retelling the stories. I wondered what he must have thought when he finally began to write them down. It was his life’s work. Yet even he admits that the whole world couldn’t contain all the books that could be written about what Jesus did (John 21:25).

But back to Easter and the events leading up to it.

His account of what we  now call Holy Week begins in chapter 12 of his Gospel. Could he still hear the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!”? Could he feel the crowd pressing in, surrounding Jesus, their King who had come? “We didn’t understand at the time,” he says, “but later, we remembered.” Did he smile at their ignorance? How they thought Jesus was there to overthrow Rome when, in fact, His plan was so much greater?

He walks us through the Last Supper, providing details about the extent of Jesus’ love. Did he remember what he felt when Jesus washed his feet? Did the memory of Peter’s insistence that Jesus not wash his feet bring bittersweet thoughts of his companion and friend? Could he taste the bread and wine? Did he still wonder why none of them suspected Judas of betrayal?

I love John’s words for their attention to detail. From him we get stories and words and actions we don’t get anywhere else. He was an observer as well as a participant, and his time with Jesus changed him. How could he forget such an important time of his life?

Chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17 of John’s Gospel are almost entirely in red in my Bible, the words of Jesus highlighted to stand out. Here, John passes on teachings, some listed as favorites among pastors and leaders: the vine and the branches, the prayers of Jesus for his disciples, for the world. Years later, as he writes, does John think of the significance of those teachings? Does he realize he is the link from Jesus to the generations to come? Or does he write because he’s called to it? Because somebody has to or no one will know? Does he know that his words will outlive him?

He continues with two whole chapters on the crucifixion and the events leading up to it. Did he cry as he wrote those scenes? Was he exhausted reliving the drama from the garden to the cross to the tomb? Did he lean in to the grief of those days so that his readers, his listeners would understand just how awful this was? John would get a faraway look in his eyes as he spoke. I can imagine how the emotions would have choked him as he told the story. Read John 19 out loud. Slowly. As if you can see it happening. But not even that is close to what it must have been like for John to remember.

But remember he did. And speak, he did. And write, he did.

And then the tomb. Empty!

How his heart must have raced remembering what it was like to sprint to the tomb and find Jesus gone. And the joy of seeing Him alive! In the locked room. On the shore.

Story after story after story and John’s theme is the same: “these have been written so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31)

What I learn from John is that he didn’t keep Easter to himself. He didn’t keep Jesus to himself. He spent his life telling the story, not so that he would have a bestselling book with his name on it but so that those who weren’t there, those who didn’t see, those who don’t know, might believe and have life.

We all have a story to tell about our time with Jesus. Who needs to know what we’ve experienced so they, too, can have life?

“What’s it like when the man you married is married to God?

pastors wivesThat’s the central theme author Lisa Takeuchi Cullen explores in her debut novel, Pastors’ Wives. In it, she tells the stories of three pastors’ wives whose lives come together within the ministry of an evangelical megachurch in Atlanta.

I’ll admit to being unsure what to expect from this book. I won a copy from a website where the book had been reviewed but it sat on my shelf for months. In the midst of my own doubts about being a pastor’s wife and the loss of vision for what I thought that would look like, I avoided it, afraid that it might add to my overall negative attitude. Now I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner!

Far from a glossed-over, perfect portrayal of the women married to men with a call to ministry, Pastors’ Wives is an honest glimpse of the doubts, fears, complications, expectations and survival mechanisms of these women. I loved every page, and I’d happily hand out copies of this book to most pastors’ wives I know. (I say “most” because the book contains language that some people might find offensive. I didn’t feel it detracted from the story at all.)

One of the strengths of the novel is the author’s research. Pastors’ Wives is based on research Cullen did for a magazine article, including time spent with actual pastors’ wives from a variety of denominations. (You can read more about that on her website.) Those experiences bring to life the three fictional wives–Ruthie, Candace and Ginger.

A little bit about each of them: Ruthie, a nominal Catholic, is in the midst of a crisis of faith when her husband hears a call to leave his job on Wall Street to join the ministry of a suburban Atlanta megachurch. Candace is the church’s “first lady,” wife of the senior pastor and basically the Wizard of Oz. She runs the show for, and sometimes in spite of, her husband. Ginger is married to Candace’s son and struggles to maintain the proper image of wife and mother while hiding her past.

I was surprised to find that I identified with something in each of these women. While each character represents a particular kind of pastor’s wife, none of them felt stereotypical or exaggerated. Cullen seems to have a talent for realism in characters. I hope she decides to write more of them.

Some of my favorite lines from the novel:

  • The story opens with Ruthie in an airport newstand buying a Star magazine. “I would have to call it a $3.99 act of defiance. … Funny thing about becoming a pastor’s wife: You felt watched. Not by God, exactly. Just … watched.” Can I get an “amen” for that?
  • From Candace, in reflecting on friendships: “For such a public role, being a pastor’s wife can be the loneliest job in the world. No member of a congregation wants to befriend the bedmate of their spiritual leader, lest news of their base humanity filter back to him and handicap their shot at heaven.”
  • And Ginger, when her carefully covered up past begins to emerge, wonders: “What was better–living an ugly truth or a comfortable lie?

So many more, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you. I’m passing this on to another pastor’s wife, and I’d recommend it to others, especially those who struggle with their husband’s call or their role in ministry. Definitely, it’ll be among the best books I read in the second quarter of this year.

And if  you’re not a pastor’s wife, maybe it will offer insights into the life of the woman behind the man in the pulpit at your church.

Earlier in the week, I wrote about finding joy in the here and now, no matter the circumstances, why that’s important and how I’m reluctantly accepting it.

Choosing joy. It sounds good. How do we do it?

I can’t promise that what helps me will help you, but maybe you’ll find an idea for your life based on what I’m discovering. Or maybe you won’t, and that’s okay, too! A year ago I would have said “you’re crazy” if you’d told me I could find joy no matter what. Some days, I still think it’s a little crazy.

Nevertheless, here are some suggestions.

1. Find your inner goofball. Silliness does not come naturally to me. That’s more my husband’s arena, and sometimes I just want to roll my eyes right out of my head at his antics. But here’s a secret I’ve learned in six years of parenting: the sillier you are, the more your kids laugh, and kids’ giggles are an antidote to negativity. (I’m guessing this tactic doesn’t work after a certain age, say, puberty maybe, but for now it works!) If you don’t have kids, watch a comedy. Or several. Sometimes a good laugh is just what you need. When we were at our lowest points, unsure how we were going to get through, laughter was a lifesaver. There were times that laughter led to crying, which was just the release I needed. (We’re kind of in love with Jimmy Fallon right now. If you need a good laugh, check out this video. I laugh every time.)

What joy looks like

What joy looks like

2. Do the opposite. Sometimes life is so frustrating, you just want to scream. Or is that only me? I almost never feel better when I scream or yell at someone or some circumstance. On rare occasions when I remember what does work, I sing. Whatever I can think of. Or I turn some music way up and belt it out. At the end of a long day, the last thing I want to do is sing, but it does give me a lift. Occasionally singing loudly when I want to yell leads to dancing in my kitchen when I want to run away from life. So, consider that a warning. Singing leads to dancing leads to forgetting you’re in a public place and dancing in the aisle of a grocery store. (Not that I’ve actually done that. Yet. But there’s one grocery store in our area where it could happen. And almost has. I’ll let you know if I make a fool of myself!)

3. Reflect. On where you’ve been. On how far you’ve come. On the goodness of God. That’s one thing this song has helped me do.

We have a lot of good in our lives. Sometimes it just takes more effort to see it. <Tweet that>

4. Serve. Maybe you feel empty, like you don’t have anything to give. I get that, too. And when someone tells me to serve I want to shout, “yeah, but who’s serving me?” Selfish, much? All the time. But doing something for someone else does some mysterious thing in my heart. It connects me to the rest of humanity, reminds me of my place in the world, that I’m not alone and have a purpose. Retreating into my own misery is like letting a wound fester. It stinks and eventually does more damage than whatever caused the pain initially.

5. Say yes. I’m a notorious naysayer. For so long we didn’t have the means–money, time, physical energy–to say “yes” to much of anything. This year, I’ve vowed to say “yes” more often. To trips to the park for no other reason than it’s nice outside. To ice cream as a treat for the kids helping out around the house. To new opportunities to be involved at church. To friendships that stretch me. To experiences that scare me a little. I’m not sure I’m succeeding at this much (it was a long winter!) but it’s there in my mind. I can’t say “yes” to everything, nor should I, but automatically saying “no” robs me of the chance to find joy in something new.

joy snowman

I hate playing outside in the snow. But one day I said yes to my kids and we built these silly snowmen. The joy lasted for days.

Choosing joy isn’t a hard choice for some people. And I’m sure you all have your own methods to find ways to enjoy life. Care to share?

Months ago, as I was considering the word that would define my year, one word settled in my soul. After a year of releasing things and people and feelings and stories, it was time to enjoy.

OW_enjoyAnd in the months since choosing that word (or did it choose me? I don’t know), I’ve thought about what it looks like to enjoy life.

You ready for this earth-shattering, groundbreaking revelation?

I. HAVE. NO. IDEA.

Whew. I feel better.

When I think about a life filled with joy, a person that embodies the very word, I do not fit the bill.

Isn’t the joyful person carefree and bubbly and spontaneous and upbeat? If you know me at all, I am none of those things, so what does it really look like to enjoy life?

I read a quote recently by Henri Nouwen (it was on the Internet, and I haven’t actually read any of his books, shame on me!) that said: “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it.”

Okay, there’s one clue to this mystery. Sometimes, maybe lots of times, joy is a choice. And not a one-time choice.

That is the theme I’m seeing repeated in these first few months of the year.

When I started this joy journey, I thought of course this year would be more enjoyable because the past few years have been so awful that anything–anything–had to be better. In some ways, I was right. We are healthy in multiple ways, finally thriving after years of merely surviving, and that in itself is a reason for joy.

Still, this fear: What if it doesn’t last?

What would you say are the best years of your life?

I posed this question on Facebook after Phil and I had a conversation about “the best years of your life.” At various times in our life, people have told us “this is the best time of your life!’ They’ve said it about high school (sorry, not true); college (um, maybe?); the first year of marriage (nope); seminary (not even close); and parenting young children (sigh). I’ve heard it said your 20s are the best years, your 30s and so on for every decade of life.

Which is why I posed the question. I suspected people of varying ages would answer the question differently. And I was right!

The responses I got ranged from high school to middle age to retirement.

And I’m beginning to think the answer to enjoying life is this:

The best days are now.

The best years are now.

If we choose to let them be.

Maybe you want to throw your computer across the room when you read that. Part of me wants to give myself a stern talking to for saying those words because I have been in some days, some years that I would not consider as best and I would have cussed out anyone who tried to tell me otherwise.

But here’s another truth: Even the best of times have their faults, and if I’m looking for perfect circumstances before I let myself enjoy life, I’ll die empty and miserable, having wasted the days and years I was given waiting for something better.

When I think back on the life I’ve lived so far, high school wasn’t great, but I made some good friends. Would I do things differently if I could? Absolutely. But I had no idea who I was or who I was becoming, and I think that’s another key to enjoying who you are and where you are. College, too, had its high points, including an unbelievable semester living in a manor house in England and traveling to Scotland, Ireland, Paris and Italy. I’m constantly dreaming about going back. But college was also a time of messy self-discovery. I learned some hard lessons and made some of the biggest mistakes of my life.

If I had to answer that question, I’d say my 20s were pretty great. Post-college, I made some amazing friends, had some great experiences of hanging out, going to concerts, traveling and doing the kinds of things when you’re young, working full-time and have no other obligations or attachments. But I struggled in those years to enjoy my job and I desperately wanted an other of the significant kind in my life, and even after I found him, he spent a year in Iraq, which was another of those best-worst times. Even then, I didn’t know who I was.

And my 30s? They’ve been full of marriage messes and family messes and learning to parent and failing and getting back up and figuring out what God has planned through all this. Even though I crest the hill of my 30s next month and look at the downhill toward the next decade of life, I can’t say that my 30s have been the best, either.

So, where does that leave me? Hoping that in my 40s life will get better? It’s possible. But it’s also possible it won’t. I could get cancer. My husband could die. My kids could give me crushing grief.

I don’t know what the next decade of life could bring, so I have to draw a line now and say: This. Right here. Right now. This is the best time of my life because it’s the only time I have. <Tweet that>

best time

I know it’s not easy. I know it takes work. I’m working at it every day. And I know it’s worth it.

I hope you’ll decide to work at it, too and find it worth the effort.

On Friday, I’ll share some specific ways I’ve found to enjoy life, even when it doesn’t look like I thought it would.

In the meantime, ask other people the question: What would you say were the best years of your life? The answers will surprise you.

And if you care to share your answer, leave a comment here.

Let’s help each other choose joy in any and every circumstance.

 

Whenever I pick up a Tracy Higley book, I feel smarter after I’ve read it, and it was no different with her latest, The Queen’s Handmaid. As a non-student of ancient history, I had never considered that Cleopatra lived only decades before Jesus was born. Shows what I know. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through Litfuse Publicity Group in exchange for my review.) queen's handmaid

So, with that new knowledge, I was eager to read this story of Lydia, who is handmaid to Cleopatra in Alexandria at the time of Herod’s visit to the queen of Egypt. During his visit, Lydia is given a seemingly impossible mission by her aging mentor who is murdered not long after he reveals a secret to her. Lydia then embarks on a journey that eventually takes her to Jerusalem as lady’s maid to Herod’s wife, with the mission burdening her at every turn. What she carries with her is the hope of the Jewish people in a Messianic King, a hope Lydia, herself, will struggle with.

In typical Higley fashion, this is a suspenseful and entertaining read. But it’s also hard to follow at times, which is not necessarily the fault of the author but the scope of the story and timeframe. The book covers a lot of years, though the story is not bogged down by irrelevant events. And because the historical characters play a part in the plot, I often found myself confused by which Herod was which and who was connected and related to whom. Again, that’s information for a history book, not necessarily a novel, and I appreciate the way Higley is able to write a story using the historical context without it feeling like a textbook. I wish I knew the history of this time period better so I didn’t have to keep flipping back to the family tree at the beginning of the book.

But let me be clear: those are not reasons to not read this book. By the end, all of the connections and relationships made sense and I was excited about the possibility of another book to come that follows up the events in this one.

Higley is one of those rare authors who makes history lifelike to me, and I can see the events as they happen. Her stories enrich my understanding of Bible stories and events. For those reasons, her books are a must-read for me.

If you want to know more about the author, read the back cover synopsis or see what other people have to say, click here.

And if you want a chance to win a prize as part of the book’s release, keep reading!

Tracy L. Higley is celebrating the release of The Queen’s Handmaid with a fun giveaway.



Retailers + Resources gave it this glowing review: “Rich in historic detail, Higley’s vivid writing brings to life the plots and intrigues that swirled through the ancient world as alliances were built and broken on the calculated schemes of power-mad monarchs.” 

queen'shandmaid-400-click-1
  • A Kindle Fire HDX
  • The Queen’s Handmaid by Tracy L. Higley

Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on April 19th. Winner will be announced April 21st on Tracy’s blog.

Don’t miss a moment of the fun; enter today and be sure to stop by Tracy’s blog on April 21st to see if you won.

 

Last year, I tried to sum up the best books I’d read all year at the halfway point of the year. This year, I’m not sure I can wait that long. Maybe I’m getting soft or maybe I’m just finding better books to read, but in the first three months of this year, I’ve already read some books I won’t soon forget and would read again tomorrow if my to-read list wasn’t out of control.

I’ll try to keep it to five, but honestly, trying to pick my favorite books is like trying to pick a favorite child. I like them for different reasons! Anyway, here goes. (And they’re not ranked in order of favorite.) These five stand out because of their lasting effect on me.

QUIET_paperback_High-Res_Jacket1. Quiet by Susan Cain. You can read my full review here, but I learned so much about myself from reading this book. And I found within its pages permission to lead and influence, not in spite of being an introvert but because of it.

2. Outlaw by Ted Dekker. My first Ted Dekker book but not my last. The overall theme of this book is one I’m applying almost daily. With a unique setting and a powerful message, this is a life-changing novel. (It’s true, novels aren’t just entertaining!)  Here’s my full review.

3. A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner. You really can’t go wrong with anything by Susan Meissner but there’s something special about this one. Intertwined storylines set 100 years apart in New York City, it was everything I love about a historical and a contemporary all rolled into one. I not only enjoyed this as a fall of marigoldsreader but as a writer striving to blend contemporary and historical storylines into one. For me, this was for fun and research. Read the full review here.

4. Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider. I’m sometimes suspicious of books that offer a path to simpler living. That’s a me problem because living simply takes work and effort and I’m not always good at either. But this book by Txh Oxenreider is a helpful guide for discovering what it is each person or family values and how they can move toward a life focused on those values. She doesn’t offer one plan that must be followed to the letter but recognizes that every person and family is different. Her family’s story is just one among many. You can read the full review here.

pirate queen5. The Pirate Queen by Patricia Hickman. This was a surprising favorite, and I still can’t narrow down what exactly I liked about it. But it features a theme I’m drawn to: that of hurt and forgiveness and sacrifice and restoration. And it’s unique in that the characters are older than those I usually read about. My full review is here.

Ugh. That was hard! Stay tuned for another installment at the end of June. I’ve got some more good ones in the to-be-read pile/queue so I have no doubts I’ll have an equally hard time picking the next five best books.

What have you read so far this year that you would recommend?

The first time I read a book by Katie Ganshert, I had a strong dislike for her main character. As I followed the author on Facebook and Twitter during the writing of her latest release, I feared I’d have the same problem with this one.

Because Ivy Clark is a lost soul who doesn’t give off the appearance that she wants to be found.

broken kind of beautifulBut it’s her feelings of being unlovable–and the people who love her anyway–that make A Broken Kind of Beautiful a beautiful picture of grace and redemption. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my review.)

Ivy is a 24-year-old fashion model in New York City. With a decade in the business, her heart is hardened and her soul is empty. All she’s ever had to do is smile for the cameras and do what she’s told, nevermind her heart. But the only life she’s ever known begins to fall apart, and she has one last chance to save her career with a modeling gig linked to her broken past. In the island town of Greenbrier, South Carolina, Ivy finds herself confronted with people who see beyond her outward appearance.

One of those people is Davis Knight, who has his own demons to battle. Once a photographer in the high-powered fashion industry, Davis now lives in Greenbrier and is the maintenance man of a local church. At the request of his aunt, who owns a bridal shop, Davis picks up the camera he hasn’t held for two years to shoot a magazine spread featuring Ivy. Both of them wrestle with faith, forgiveness and calling.

Ivy is hardened by life, and she knows how to get what she wants by using her looks. Davis is living with guilt but feels a strong leading to treat Ivy unlike any man has ever treated her: as a treasure. Despite her prickly exterior, I felt sympathy for Ivy and desperately wanted her to realize her worth. And Davis … well, let’s just say he’s one of my favorite heroes ever.

As I read, I thought of Francine Rivers’ classic Redeeming Love, a book I absolutely love that leaves me sobbing. That’s a must-read in Christian fiction. A Broken Kind of Beautiful carries similar themes in a contemporary setting. If you like Redeeming Love, give Ganshert’s latest a try.

Need a sneak peek? Find Chapter One here.

And find out more about the author at her website or on Facebook.

This was a quick read for me, and I’m almost sorry I didn’t savor it. For me, it’s worth a rare re-read.

 

 

 

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