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We huddled on a blanket as fireworks launched over our heads in a burst of color and sound, the literal kind of fireworks that are so prevalent on the Fourth of July, not the figurative kind lest you think me some kind of sappy romantic. (Okay, sometimes I’m guilty.)

fireworks 1

I watched with lips parted, uttering the occasional “oh” and “wow.”

I’ve seen dozens of fireworks displays through the years, some better than others. Maybe it was the absence of our kids or the gathering of friends or something yet unnamed, but this show of sparkle and sound left me in awe.

Moments earlier, a Civil War-era cannon brigade fired 16 times during the 1812 Overture, leaving my heart pounding as I giggled like a teenager and clung to my husband.

It was, all of it, a celebration of freedom and life and even as we sat in traffic waiting to leave the mall parking lot, I was grateful.

For this and so much more.

A year ago, we sat on the edges of the group who’d gathered, unsure of ourselves and our place and how we’d fit in. We were moving soon and this would become our family and though we couldn’t stay for the entire picnic, we dropped in to say “hi” and introduce ourselves. Our kids played on the playground and we met new people and we left with hope that this whole moving to a new city thing was going to work out okay.

Later that week, people we hardly knew showed up to our house, driving nearly an hour on a Saturday to sweat and lift and pack up the life of a family they had no blood connection to. They chauffeured our stuff to our new house where Phil and I sat amazed at the amount of work accomplished in so little time.

It took us months to settle in (in truth a year later, we still have unsettled areas) at least where our “stuff” is concerned but our hearts are a different story. They began to settle that day when near-strangers adopted us as family and ushered us in to our new community with grace, love, sweat and sore muscles.

But it was only the beginning.

fireworks 3

It’s been one year. One. Year. We’ve spent a whole year of our lives in our new home, our new community, and some days I can hardly believe it’s only been a year. The people who fill our daily lives have deeply embedded themselves in our hearts.

I am always amazed at the people God brings into our lives when we move to a new area, people I can’t imagine having never known. People who love us and our kids. People who challenge our thinking and encourage us in our struggles. People who offer us tangible support and friendship.

I used to let people in only so far, never knowing if we would be sticking around only for a few years. If I didn’t get too attached, it wouldn’t be too hard to leave, I told myself.

But this year has taught me that love with abandon is deep and fulfilling. It’s scary and wild and no guarantee against hurt or disappointment.

It is overwhelming, too.

In one year I have more people I can call “friend” than I did in multiple years when we first moved to Pennsylvania. It is good and yet I am forever falling short in maintaining and investing in these relationships.

Perhaps my goal for the next year will be that.

There are years I look back on and wonder how we survived. And I marvel at the work God did to bring us through and how He has changed us.

And then there’s this year of living in Lancaster. Not perfect but altogether good, without any soul-crushing low points.fireworks 2

And I can’t hardly put into words what I feel–how a year can be filled with such goodness, not because we deserve it or have earned it but because it is a gift.

This year, it has been a gift. Better than any wrapped present or expensive purchase. It has been a year to renew our hope, restore our relationships and heal our hurts. And just as those years of trials have changed us, so has a year of goodness.

We are moving toward our best selves, the people God wants to make us. We are healthier in our whole selves, not just getting by but taking tiny steps toward thriving. We are thankful. Less grumbling. Less bitter. More aware that this journey is not about us and the plans we’ve made but about God and the dreams He has for us.

It is not perfect because we are not perfect, but it is good and I will rest in that.

And a year from now, let it be said that we embraced each day knowing that God was at work for good.

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Across the street from our house, where the Costco, the Best Buy and the Lowe’s live, something new is moving in. We’ve watched the construction with interest, our 4-year-old son, especially, as he watches the equipment move in, the workers gather and the frame take shape.

Since the early stages of its construction, when it was little more than a cleared piece of land, we’ve speculated about what it will be. We’re hoping for a restaurant.

We’ve seen it take shape, just a shell of a building without much definition. We can still see through the sides and it still lacks a roof. But driving by, we watch with expectation.

Those workers, they’re building something, and we’re waiting to see what it will be. 

Photo by bschwehn/freeimages.com

Photo by bschwehn/freeimages.com

They complained about the coffee. Again.

These sweet older ladies of the church who’ve probably been in the faith longer than I’ve been alive. God love ‘em because it’s hard for me to when they turn up their noses at the weekly offering of snacks and drinks after the service.

I shouldn’t take it personally but I do. I’m angry just thinking about it because for the love of all that is holy these are just snacks, not a gourmet meal. I fear I’m reaching my limit for holding my tongue and I’ll say something I’ll regret. After all, who am I? We’ve only been attending this church for a year. I should be more mature about this, but some days, it’s just frustrating.

And not just because I want them to like me and appreciate the effort.

But also because there are bigger things to complain about in this world. I’m finding it hard to care about the quality of our snacks when people are literally dying from lack of water. How did we become so spoiled?

Many centuries ago, a man named Nehemiah attempted a lofty task. He wanted to build a wall, repair it really, as an act of obedience and worship to God.  He left his prestigious job in the king’s court to assemble a crew to build the wall.

In the midst of their building, they faced ridicule, enough that I would have given up.

What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore it for themselves? … Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones? … Even what they are building–if a fox should jump on it, he would  break their stone wall down! (Nehemiah 4:2-3, NASB)

That last one? Ouch. If I heard that day after day, I’d begin to wonder, too. What are we doing here? This is a ridiculous idea! There’s no way we can finish this!

Discouragement. It’s ugly and mean and destructive yet oh, so easy to speak. It tears down walls, literal and figurative, demolishes dreams, and sinks projects. I wish I could tell you that I’d never done any of those things to someone else, but I am the guiltiest among the guilty. Because sometimes I believe that destroying someone else’s dream will ensure the success of mine.

How foolish.

This man, Nehemiah, he didn’t give up, though. Instead, he fought harder.

He prayed. And set up guards for protection. He encouraged the workers.

When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke: Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses. (Nehemiah 4:14, NASB)

And they continued the work.

I imagine they drew a crowd, not just of hecklers but of interested onlookers. I can almost hear the whispers of hope.

Can they really do it?

I never dreamed …

Photo by Paul Segal/freeimages.com

Photo by Paul Segal/freeimages.com

When I was a journalist what feels like a lifetime ago, I was always on the lookout for new construction or “sold” signs on businesses. Because a new building or a formerly empty space being filled was news for a small town. Jobs, taxes, income, entertainment. We’re a curious bunch and anything out of the ordinary gets our attention. It doesn’t always hold it, but for a short time, we’re interested.

The church should be getting people’s attention.

Have we forgotten that we, too, are building something and it’s not just happening someday but now?

I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s impressive Surprised by Hope and I’m ruined for it because of calls to action such as this:

The church, because it is a family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every town and village where new creativity bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope that, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise. (232)

And,

What we all need from time to time is for someone (a friend, a spiritual director, a stranger, a sermon, a verse of scripture, or simply the inner prompting of the Spirit) to say “It’s time to wake up! You’ve been asleep long enough! The sun is shining and there’s a wonderful day out there! Wake up and get a life!” (252)

Also,

People who believe that God will turn the world upside down … are not going to be backward in getting on with some world-changing activities in the present. … It is, rather, that people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present. (214)

Unstoppably motivated. I wish. Instead I linger in a place of drowsiness, lulled by meaningless work and survival. I shrink at the first sign of discouragement and convince myself that I didn’t really have any dreams anyway so it’s okay if no one catches a vision.

And I am wrong.

It is time to wake up. It is time to stop bitching about food and drinks offered to us free of charge and start being ridiculously grateful for our stupid lives. And the sooner we quit thinking about ourselves and whether all of our needs are met to our satisfaction, the sooner we can start building the kingdom right where we are.

Because I don’t know about you, but I’m not nearly as excited about a crew of construction workers taking an extra long lunch break when there’s work to be done as I am about seeing progress on the work they’re doing.

If we are serious about the world seeing Jesus, then we need to start working. And if we can’t do the work ourselves then we need to encourage the ones who can and protect them from discouragement.

Friends, I am preaching to myself. Those coffee ladies don’t deserve my wrath anymore than I feel like I deserve their complaints. Neither of those actions is particularly loving nor is it particularly surprising or unique to the world we live in.

If we want to do something that draws attention, we should love when we want to hate, bless when we want to curse, encourage when we want to complain, restore when we want to destroy.

It’s big, terrifying, seems-impossible work. But if we all work together, we can attract the right kind of attention for a time.

I’m in for that kind of life. Are you?

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The past year has given me more opportunity to consider what I need in my life to thrive. For so long, it was just about survival and getting through the day; anything more seemed like a luxury or too far out of reach.

As our family has moved into our first full summer in our new community, I’ve had time to think about, and experience, those elements I need to be the best me.

Have you ever thought about that?

If not, I totally understand that sometimes there isn’t time or energy to do more than survive. But if you can, try to think about the things that give you life and make you a better person no matter what else you’re doing.

Here are five (and a half) things I’ve discovered I need to thrive:

1. Access to nature. I grew up in a house that was nothing special structurally but it had a creek in the backyard with a towering weeping willow tree and a screened in back porch and some days I loved nothing more than to cross the creek and curl up underneath the willow tree and listen to the creek gurgle. My hometown had a river flowing through it and parks aplenty and even when I was working a full-time job, I still sought out nature to center me and give me space to breathe. Some days, it’s harder to find, but the colors and sounds and fragrance of the natural world refresh my soul. I’ve yet to find a favorite spot in our new community, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. windchime

1.5 In the same way nature refreshes me, so does beauty. I used to spurn beautiful things as unnecessary. I’m a practical, task-oriented girl who likes things to have purpose and meaning. Until recently, I didn’t know the purpose of surrounding yourself with beauty, and maybe I still can’t explain it but finding the beauty in our ordinary days feels like a quiet revolution. A protest against the ugly and the evil and the mundane. It’s one of the reasons I drive the back roads whenever I can, to discover what’s just off the path everyone else is treading. My in-laws bought me this wind chime for my birthday, and I wish I could describe the calming effect its song has on me. Is it functional? Not in the way I would normally think, but its sound is a song I have to tune my ear to hear above the noise of the everyday.

2. Planned solitude. Last week I had most of a day to myself. I drove back roads with the windows down, went to a library, chatted with a friend, spent a little time writing. The day was mostly quiet and uneventful but it was exactly what I needed in the midst of my busy-with-kids life. Sometimes it feels selfish to get away from it all and be alone, but it restored something inside of me and equipped to face the rest of the days ahead. I’m not sure yet how often I need this, but I need it more often than I’ve had it.

3. Participation in creative work. I do love to write and that is creative but occasionally I need to color a page with my kids or paint a piece of furniture or dabble in an artistic project that I normally wouldn’t. (I’m contemplating a couple while the kids are away next week.) I haven’t played my guitar in almost a year. That’s too long. I can appreciate beauty, but sometimes I need to be part of its creation.

4. Friends. I’m an introvert, and yes, I enjoy solitude, but if the last year has taught me anything it’s how much I need friends. For years, I was lacking, surviving on a few really great friendships. And then the floodgates opened and I have friends in abundance, which is often overwhelming because I like to invest in people but only have so much to give. I’ve had the opportunity over the past months to deepen a writing friendship that transcends our mutual talent, and when I think about the last year and all the people who have loved us despite knowing our history and not having any blood relation to us, I almost cry. I’ve taken friendships for granted in the past, and I will still cultivate them poorly, but oh, how I need friends.

5. Books. (And time to read them.) My love for books is  becoming almost legendary on Facebook. It’s almost as well-known as my love for coffee. But I’m sure I could survive and even thrive in this life without coffee. I could not without books. On a deserted island, I think I’d rather have books than food. We fill our house with books and when books arrive in the mail I am giddy for days. And when I read a book that wows me, I almost walk around dazed until its effect wears off. (And sometimes the effect doesn’t wear off.)

I could keep going, I think, but these are the basics. If I have these five (and a half) things in my life, I will be more of who I am meant to be.

What about you? What gives you life and keeps you going and makes you more of your truer self?

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I’m not much of a flower person, but when I met my husband, he was working for a landscaping company. The first flower he ever brought me was a pink Gerbera daisy plant. We weren’t dating yet, but I was hooked. On him and the flowers. In our seven years of marriage, we’ve yet to have a place to call our own, so I haven’t given much thought to lawn care and landscaping and gardens and flowers.

Until last year when we moved to a 19th century farmhouse now surrounded by commercial properties. For me, it’s a tiny bit of Eden (the name of a nearby township) in the midst of a business district, and our landlord has given us license with the yard.

Spring has been fun this year as we watch the yard burst with color. First, daffodils, then lilacs, now roses and some kind of dogwood, soon hyndrageas. Long before we lived here, someone thought to fill this space with beauty. rose bud

And I am grateful.

At the house we moved from, our landlord neighbors tended the flowers and the yard, sometimes with drastic measures. A few trees and bushes that graced the yard when we moved in gradually were removed completely until all we were left with was a towering conifer in the backyard that was sometimes stingy with its shade.

Still, it was something. But it also reflected that season of our lives.

Read the rest of my monthly post at Putting on the New here.

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Today, I’m linking up with (in)courage on the topic of “the Joy of the Lord is our strength.” You can too. Click here for details and to see what others are saying.

The rose pictured above bloomed in our seen-better-days yard of our rental home this week. Yet its beauty drew me in, and I found it impossible not to smile or stop and admire or take a sniff.

Joy is like that. It’s noticeable. Unavoidable. Worthy of pause.

And it’s only because I have seen it blooming in the most unlikely places that I believe it is supernatural and available to me no matter the circumstances.

When I surround myself with joyful people, it rubs off over time. When I take time to notice joy, it changes me. And when I stop to consider joy, the fragrant aroma lingers.

I was tempted to cut the flowers and bring them inside the house. But I left them outside for others to enjoy.

Maybe I need to do the same with my joy.

 

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Last week I wrote about my experience reading the book Restless by Jennie Allen. In the same amount of time it took me to read it, the DVD study kit has been sitting on my desk (or has been passing back and forth between me and a friend, who is leading our book club discussion). Finally, I had a chance to sit down and watch a few sessions and look over the material. (Disclaimer: I received a free DVD kit from the publisher through Shelton Interactive in exchange for my review.)

Since it’s designed for group use, it’s hard for me to give a fully accurate review, but I have some overall impressions, the first of which is: Uh-mazing.

If I thought Jennie’s passion transferred from the page to the reader, then I hadn’t seen the half of it. In front of a group of women, Jennie comes alive and, girlfriends, she can preach. She nearly had me in tears just by hearing her talk.

The kit includes an 8-session DVD, a leader guide, an individual study guide and a box of question cards (which I personally found to be an intriguing aspect of the kit).

restless DVD

The study is similar in structure to Beth Moore’s DVD studies, if you’re familiar with those. The workbook is designed for personal use throughout the week and the DVD sessions and question cards are meant to be used in a group setting.

And can I just say that this whole journey of discovery found in Restless–whether the book or the video teaching–is ridiculously scary because it’s so personal and important. And I believe that Jennie Allen believes what she’s teaching–that we’re all meant for more in this life, that God will use our experiences (even the hard ones) for His greater purposes and that we just might find ourselves in the middle of a big adventure if we allow God to show us what He’s up to. It’s one of those times that I’m almost afraid to go too deep because I might drown in the importance of it all.

I want to soak in this teaching, dig into my own experiences and uncover the connection between who God made me and what I can do in this world for Him.

If you’re looking for a group study for your church, I’d give this one an enthusiastic recommendation. And if you’ve been through it with a group or decide to do it, I’d love to hear what you think! Just be warned: there’s no skimming the surface here, unless that’s all you want to get out of it. Be prepared to do some honest digging into your life. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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restlessIt’s the rare book that takes me two months to read, especially if I like it, but such was the case with Restless by Jennie Allen. Honestly, I’d gladly take six months or a year to read this book, so full is it of reflective questions and topics for deep thinking. Two months has felt like too fast for this book. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the BookLook Bloggers program.)

And because it’s been hanging around for a while, and because summer is coming and we all want good books to read, and because it’s hitting me right where I live, I’m calling it a bonus book review on the blog this week. It won’t be light summer reading, but it might be life-changing summer reading.

Recently, I’ve told you about my restless feelings and about my journey as a writer. Both of those reflections were informed by reading Restless.

So, what is Restless? In short, it’s permission to dream. Whatever stage of life we find ourselves in, Jennie Allen encourages us to consider what we were made for. She takes readers through her own journey of discovering and rediscovering her calling in the midst of motherhood and gives us the opportunity to identify painful and meaningful experiences from our past. It was on those pages that I personally realized I’d always been a writer and that writing will be a constant in my life, no matter the other passions and pursuits I find myself exploring.

Restless is a uniquely personal journey for every reader. Our church’s book club has been reading through it, and the few times I’ve been part of those discussions, I can see that it has different meaning for everyone. (And not just for women in their 20s and 30s. Women of ALL ages can benefit from finding their purpose and passion.)

I love the way the author writes. It’s like chatting with a friend across a cafe table with coffee mugs in hand. I half expected her to reach through the pages and offer a hug like she said she wanted to do. Her words are authentic, real and challenging.

Toward the end of the book, she offers a letter from her husband to husbands about helping the women in their lives find their purpose and follow it. It was touching, and while I might hand it over to my husband to have him read it, I’m grateful that he is already on board with my passions.

So, if you pick this one up, don’t rush through it. Get a notebook and fill it with words and scribbles. Grab a friend and read it together and look over your threads, as Allen calls them, and dream together.

I think that’s what I love best about the book: its emphatic message that it’s okay to dream. Too often I think we, women, give up our dreams for our families or our families become our dreams. Sometimes that’s okay or it’s okay for a season, but for me, I know that discovering my passions and following them is a source of great fulfillment that carries over into my family. When I am doing what God made me to do, I’m a better wife and mom.

Restless confirms and encourages that, for any stage, any calling. It doesn’t discount the call to motherhood or serving families. It releases us to be whatever God made us to be.

And that, friends, is freeing.

Note: There’s also a video series available for Restless, and I have a copy to review that I haven’t had a chance to watch yet. Stay tuned for a separate review of that!

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Phil and I have been married seven years today. The passing of a year whether an anniversary, birthday or the annual turning of the calendar makes me reflective. I had intended to write a post today about marriage and the “secret” to having a happy one (with the caveat, of course, that we have no idea because ours has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster).

But after a month of relationship sermons at our church and a discussion yesterday on singleness, I have other thoughts requiring a voice. I am fired up about single people, and if that’s you, I have a message for you. If it’s not you, I have a message for you, too. Because whether single or married, we have done singleness a disservice.

First, some background.

I had one boyfriend in college before a stretch of several years of singleness until I met my husband. Well, before I knew he would be my husband, anyway. From the time I was 19 until he and I started dating seven years later, I enjoyed a period of singleness. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it that way at the time. My 20s were filled with times of longing for relationship, especially when my best friends got married and started having children. I attended more weddings in that period of my life than I have since and my question was always, “When will it be my turn?” Even when my turn came, it didn’t come fast enough. We dated for a year, got engaged and then waited two years to get married because Phil was in the Army Reserve and was expecting to be deployed to Iraq for a year. We didn’t want to start our married life apart so we waited.

I’ve written before about marriage, how it wasn’t what I expected nor did it fulfill my every longing, so I won’t repeat those messages here.

What I haven’t written about is singleness. I don’t have a lot of single friends anymore, not because I don’t want them but because I’ve needed married people and families in my life. But after hearing some words from singles yesterday at church and after thinking about my own years of singleness, I have to say this first: on behalf of married people everywhere, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that we haven’t celebrated you for you.

I’m sorry that we assume you’d like to watch our kids while we go out for dinner or that you wouldn’t want to hang out with us and be a “third wheel.”

I’m sorry we make marriage look like the ultimate fulfillment of everything everywhere.

I’m sorry we hear “single” and assume you’re lonely.

I’m sorry we don’t throw you showers for moving into your first apartment or take you out for dinner when you get a new job.

I’m sorry we talk about you like you’re some kind of freak of nature because you aren’t married.

I’m sorry we make you feel like time is running out if you don’t get married soon.

I realize those are generalizations and we don’t all do that all the time, but if I’m honest with myself, these kinds of things have come out of my mouth even when I remember how much I cringed at hearing them when I was single.

The truth is this: single is not the same as alone. When I was a single 20-something, I had an awesome group of single friends I could hang out with just about any time of the week. We took road trips. We stayed up late watching movie marathons. We did life together. We celebrated birthdays, took care of each other and helped with life transitions. We were single, but we were not alone. I think of monks who live their lives as single people but in community with other monks. Single people, you do not have to be alone in this season and you don’t have to treat every other single person like a potential date or mate. Community, I believe, is one key to fulfillment in singleness.

Singleness is also not a life sentence. Can we quit using words like “spinster” and “old maid” or condemning people to a life as “the crazy cat lady” if they don’t get married. (Nothing wrong with cats, but do we even think about how demeaning that sounds?) And why do all of those words seem to apply to women? What’s the word for a man who never marries? (Maybe I don’t want to know.) Singleness is usually a season.

But it’s also not a death sentence. I fear we do not tell good stories about the amazing things single people are doing in this world. I met a man this weekend who has never fathered a child but has adopted more than 40 kids off the street. Tell me his life as a single person doesn’t have meaning.

There are other stories like his. Kisses from Katie tells one. Sarah Thebarge’s The Invisible Girls tells another. Maybe you can think of others.

Hear me out single people: You do not have to put your life on hold because you are not married. You have gifts and passions and desires, and quite often you have something us married people lack–energy and time! Do the things you were put on this earth to do, whether you’re married or not. I guarantee you’ll find fulfillment. <Click to tweet that.>

Because the truth about marriage is that you can still feel alone, you can still wish your life was different, you can still wonder if you’ll ever do anything with meaning.

Married people, can we encourage our single friends to follow their God-given passions? Can we talk about the realities of marriage so it’s not all “happily ever after”? Can we celebrate singleness as a gift?

And can we stop assuming something’s wrong with a person if they’re not in a relationship? Sometimes I think that says more about us than it does about them.

Most days I’m glad I’m married, but I also wish I’d done more with my single years. I refuse to live with regrets so I won’t waste a lot of time wishing for those years back. My hope, though, is whatever season you find yourself in, for however long, that you live it like it will last forever (it probably won’t) and don’t wait for “someday” before you live fully.

Jesus has promised us a full and abundant life no matter our marital state. It’s time we live those lives to their fullest potential and encourage others along the way.

Single people, we’re rooting for you. And we love you for you. And we promise to stop asking you stupid questions about your love life.

I’d love it if we could share some stories of single people doing amazing work for God and for good in this world.

Are you one of those people? Tell us your story. Do you know someone like that? Tell us about them!

I would love to feature these kinds of stories on the blog. Contact me at lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com if you have a story to share.

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Once upon a time, I was part of a fun little group called an encouragement team. It was a college thing and I’d just begun to love Jesus and I needed to receive the encouragement as much as I needed to give it. We wrote notes on fun paper with stickers and prayed for people and did generally uplifting things for others. It was awesome.

And for some reason, after college, I stopped doing that.

Have you ever noticed how lacking the world is in encouragers? We have cynics and critics and discouragers aplenty, but where are the encouragers? <Click to tweet that>

I will confess that I have dropped the ball, mainly because I have felt so discouraged myself and it’s hard to encourage when your own tank is empty.

Still, it’s part of how God made me. I love receiving encouragement and I love giving it and sometimes I fail at both. Lately, though, it’s resurfacing. And I’m excited.

Maybe you’ve seen me posting this week about (in)courage, an online community of women supporting and encouraging one another. One way is through community groups. (They start Monday! Have you found one yet? Details here.) The groups are designed to connect women with similar interests or in similar stages of life through social media to offer support and encouragement to each other.encouragement

This session, I’m leading one, and I couldn’t be more excited because encouraging is fun! Especially when you get hooked up with some cool products, like these  notecards from Dayspring. (You might be an encourager if you geek out over stationery and stickers.)

The ladies at (in)courage say encouragement is a superpower, and I would have to agree. But it isn’t the kind of superpower bestowed on only a select few (though it does seem to come naturally to some people more than others); it’s the kind of superpower we all can flex, and the more we use it, the stronger it gets.

If encouraging others intimidates or overwhelms you, can I offer some tips? Here are five steps to become an encourager, even if you don’t think of yourself as one:

  1. Assume everyone needs encouragement. I’ve had some experiences lately where I’ve given encouragement to people I thought had no need of it, but I wanted them to know how much I appreciated them. Turns out, even people who seem like they’re confident and living out God’s calling need encouragement too! Everyone needs encouragement in some way or another. If you know even one person, you know someone who needs encouragement.
  2. Notice people. I know, it sounds a little creepy, but it’s basically how I spend my life. I’m watching people all the time, and people will tell you a lot without ever saying a word. Chances are if you start looking around, you’ll find someone who needs encouragement. Maybe it’s the person standing alone in a room full of people. Maybe it’s a child who acts tough but is really sad on the inside. Sometimes the people who need encouragement are the ones we can easily overlook. Start looking.
  3. Do one easy thing now. Texts and Facebook messages are easy for me. I can send off an encouragement text or Facebook post in a matter of seconds. Sometimes, that’s all the time I have. Sometimes, it’s what I can do immediately. But I find that when I sense a need for encouragement, acting sooner rather than later is important. Because I get busy and forget. And then the easy thing becomes harder and harder.
  4. Do one hard thing later. Writing letters and notes to people is harder because it takes more time and costs a stamp and then I have to walk it out to the mailbox and plan ahead if it’s for a birthday (I’m terrible at this). Talking to people in person–even harder. But I don’t have the address for everyone in the world, nor do I always know the name of the person I’m encouraging (although I’m trying more and more to learn names, especially of those people who serve others in some way). So, maybe I write a note once a week to someone just because (we all love mail, right?). Or maybe I get over my introverted nature and tell the woman cleaning the play area at Chick-fil-a that I appreciate her work. Or maybe I do like my friend Carol and hand out restaurant gift cards to the garbage collectors at Christmas because Lord knows that is a job we underappreciate but couldn’t live without.
  5. Equip yourself. I’m much more likely to encourage if I feel prepared. I have an awesome stash of cards and postcards right now, and I can’t wait to send them! But you don’t have to be equipped with stuff.  Equip yourself with words. Practice saying “thank you” or “I appreciate you” or “Gosh, this job might seem lame but you are doing good work!” Pack a little extra tip money the next time you go out to eat. Listen to other people encourage each other and learn from them. It’s not hard, but it does take work sometimes.

Repeat the steps as necessary. I’m rediscovering that the more I encourage the more I want to encourage. And each little step in the direction of encouragement makes my burdens feel a little lighter.

Tell me, what are you experiences with encouragement? Do you dread it? Love it? Never thought about it? When do you feel most encouraged?

I’m linking up with (in)courage today to talk about The Power of Encouragement. Have a blog? Join us with your thoughts. And link up here.

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It’s been a decade since an unbelievable opportunity fell in my lap. A gift that changed my life forever.

It just so happens to be the same amount of time since I became an “us” with my husband. In 2004, we started dating. In a few days, we celebrate seven years of marriage. But the life-changing opportunity happened a week before he made his move to start dating me.

This week, 10 years ago, God made his move in the mountains of North Carolina.

I’ve been seeing on social media posts and pictures and plans for the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference. It’s a conference near and dear to my heart because it was there that God showed me the possibilities. It was there that He planted the seed of what writing could mean in my life.

But that’s getting a little bit ahead of things.

I’ve been reading Restless by Jennie Allen these past few months, and in that book, she talks about threads in your life and experiences that shape those threads. And in looking back over all of my 36 years, the times I’ve been most fulfilled are related to writing. So, whether I knew it or not, I think I’ve always been a writer. I remember filling notebooks with handwritten stories and forcing those notebooks on unsuspecting guests at our house, silently begging them to read what I’d written and to tell me it was good. (I think I’m still doing that sometimes.)

And when I worked as a journalist all those years after college, I was most satisfied by stories that made a difference. Some won awards, some didn’t, but always, always, I was filled by telling other people’s stories.

It was during those journalistic years that I was approached by a generous couple with an offer to attend the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference, all expenses paid by them, to further my writing career. Even typing those words a decade later I’m still in shock at the offer. (P.S. I lived in Illinois at the time, so it’s not like it was close.) I had no clue what a writers conference was or why I should go but when someone offers to pay your way to spend some days in North Carolina, you say “yes.”

It was scary and thrilling and overwhelming all at the same time, and I wish I could go back and appreciate the experience for what it was.

Because in truth I had no idea there were so many Christian authors and because I was clueless and didn’t know any of the authors or what they’d written, I had no episodes of being starstruck. (Though I’m sure if I went back and looked over the names, I would smack myself on the head for not being more in tune with Christian publishing.)

See, at the time, I was a journalist. I’d been a journalist for four years and I had no plans to stop being a journalist or any energy to do more writing in my “free” time. I’d dreamed of maybe writing books someday, but that’s all it was: a dream. One writer asked me why I was there and my answer was an emphatic: I have no idea.

Sometimes I think I wasted that chance, but when I look at the experience as part of the whole journey, it really was just the beginning of something bigger.

I would love to go back someday but now I’m worried I have too much information and would still squander the opportunity. Now, I know more and I’m intimidated by conferences and expectations and meetings with authors and agents and the like. Now, I have words I’d like to see published and the risk of rejection is greater. When you have nothing in the way of goals, you risk nothing, and that’s what my first experience with the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference was for me: low-risk.

But there I met people like me. People who had worked as journalists and now wrote books. People with stories bubbling inside of them. People who’d traveled the publishing path and were passing on knowledge. I still remember some of the tips from the workshops and encouragement from other writers.

It was the beginning of a journey, but I didn’t know it at the time.

But do we ever know when the journey starts?

In the last year, I’ve begun taking my writing more seriously. Yes, I’ve blogged for years but that’s always been for me first. An outlet I needed in the midst of  the early years of motherhood. If no one had ever read a word, I still would have written because I needed it.

But for years I’ve also been working on a novel. A very part-time effort that at times seemed to have no end. That’s changing, and it’s scary sometimes. I’m writing and pursuing ideas and making intentional efforts to connect with other writers and share my progress and learn about storytelling. A published novel is still very much a dream. Attending a conference has been almost impossible these past few years but it’s no longer completely out of reach.

Which is why I’ve been thinking back on that first conference.

Ten years seems like a really long time. And sometimes I wonder if I could have done more sooner. If I should have done more sooner. If I’ve missed my chance or if my chance is still out there.

I don’t know if God made me a writer at birth or not, but He has birthed something in me.

And for years He’s been building the writer in me, one brick at a time.

I’m sad and hopeful, frustrated and excited, discouraged and giddy about this crazy writing journey. I have no map or destination. I’m unfamiliar with the route. But I know where I’ve been, and I don’t think I’m lost. Not anymore. I’m seeing signs that I’m on the right path, wherever it might lead.

I have wanted to give up on it. I have wanted to call it a silly little dream. I have wanted my calling to be anything else because certainly anything else would be easier.

But I can’t. And it isn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

Sometimes, to keep moving forward, you need to look back and see where you’ve been.

That’s where I’m at this week. Looking back so I remember to keep moving forward.

(And trying not to be jealous of anyone spending the week in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mountains+writing=bliss.)

How are your dreams coming along these days?

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