HOPE in 2018

DSCN6035One of the best things about Facebook is reconnecting with old friends, and I recently had an interesting exchange with a few far-flung friends from my school days.

We talked about the word God is leading us to choose for 2018. We may all view this word a little differently, but essentially it captures an attitude or quality we want to try to develop or focus on more during the coming year.

I’ve done this for the last couple of years, and I’ve been amazed at how much God reveals to me about that word during the course of the year. During 2016, God impressed upon me over and over the abundance of JOY in him and his word. Because I was alert for joy, I discovered it more in Scripture, in books I read, in other people, in creation, in myself, and especially in God. I’m convinced we can’t begin to comprehend the incredible fullness of God’s joy.

As I prayed and considered a word for 2017, I began thinking about PEACE. Frankly, I didn’t really want that word and was a little concerned about it. Why would I need peace? What might happen during 2017? Choosing the word generated a gnawing anxiety. Even my vivid imagination never created a scenario in which I would lose my sister, my mother, and my father within the year. But that’s what happened.

My sister’s health deteriorated quickly and she was placed in hospice care. We siblings kept vigil at her bedside for five days, and she went home to Jesus on January 12. Less than a month later, while we were still reeling from that loss, we learned that my mom’s cancer had returned with a vengeance. Her only option was hospice care. After eight extremely difficult weeks, the Lord took her home on April 10. The grief of losing our mother less than three months after our sister weighed heavily on us, but Dad’s loneliness, after 68 years with his beautiful bride, nearly crushed him.

His struggle with memory difficulties had made him heavily dependent upon her, and we doubted he could remain in his independent living apartment. Surprisingly, he lived there successfully (although not without a few concerning issues) for six months.

He had survived polio as a baby, but it may have affected his balance later in life. Falls or near falls brought him to the emergency room too often in too short a period during October. He spent ten days in nursing care, while we worked with his doctor and others to determine the proper placement for him.

In God’s providence, we were able to move him into an assisted living apartment in the same building. It even had a window overlooking the parking lot—his most crucial requirement! He adjusted amazingly well.

On Christmas Day, my husband and I planned to pick him up and bring him to our house for lunch. When we arrived, he was experiencing a great deal of pain. I called 911. We spent the rest of the day in the ER and hospital. That evening we learned that his abdominal aortic aneurysm, which we’d known for some years could kill him instantly, was enlarged and bleeding into his abdominal cavity. He could survive for a few weeks or it could be a matter of hours. He initially was doing so well, we thought we might have him with us for a month or more.

Two days later, he entered the Comfort House. He was alert, able to talk and sit in the chair. During his first night there, his condition worsened and he became unresponsive. On the last day of the year, a Sunday morning, he went home to be with his Lord.

In God’s gracious providence, I’d lived over six decades without a significant loss. In his bitter providence, he took three members of my original family home to heaven within one year. I definitely needed PEACE in 2017.

For several weeks, I’ve felt compelled to focus on HOPE during 2018. In the recent Facebook conversation, one of my school friends encouraged me to go with HOPE. She expressed her hopes for me “to start sleeping better” and for a year “with less grief and many healing memories….of great book sales and many inspired words written down” as well as “spontaneous laughter” and so on. May it be so. That is my HOPE.

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Creativity and Productivity

100_2684At the beginning of a new year, many people implement innovative strategies to increase productivity and meet specific goals. I usually consider ways to make better use of my time, work smarter, and get more accomplished. Like others who work creatively, I struggle with bringing projects to completion.

Is it possible to be productive and creative? Doesn’t creativity spring from quiet contemplation while productivity is achieved only through focused work?

While quiet contemplation is often the catalyst for writing poetry or discovering creative ways to phrase a thought, I believe it’s possible to be productively creative–or creatively productive.

Are you there with me, thinking about ways to increase both productivity and creativity? Maybe you’ve already started a new schedule or time management technique. I usually attempt some new practices, but few strategies last the year.

Success comes more from attitude adjustments than band-aid strategies. Some helpful advice I read last year wasn’t directed specifically at writers. But the basic principles apply to anyone whose work is creative, people commonly known today as “creatives.”

In The Creative Habitdancer Twyla Tharp describes how routine generates creativity. If you’re not familiar with and practicing the steps daily, new ways to use them won’t occur to you. It works the same with writing. If you’re not writing every day (or nearly every day), creativity remains elusive. Near the beginning of her book, Tharp writes:

I will keep stressing the point about creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it. In these pages a philosophical tug of war will periodically raise its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.

If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work. That’s why this book is called The Creative Habit. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell (p. 7).

Tharp’s words resonated with me. I used to think writers were an elite few, born with a creative brain and blessed with a special endowment of creative imagination that made the words flow effortlessly from their pens. Now I know they use keyboards. (Just kidding!)

I also now know that writing takes work. You may be blessed with a high intellect and a great imagination. You may receive revelation or direction that you recognize as a divine gift. But that doesn’t mean you can write a book without work. I don’t know anyone who crafts a manuscript of literary excellence without applied effort. Period.

The most basic principle of writing is you must work at it. You can’t fritter away time on Twitter (I still resist that siren song) or Facebook (I confess my guilt), simply hoping inspiration will hit while you’re browsing status updates. Many of those updates only increase your guilt or feelings of inferiority. They certainly aren’t going to inspire you to write the next paragraph in your novel.

But authors are encouraged to be active in social media. It’s part of building our platforms and increasing our tribes. So what to do? It’s all about finding balance, that aspect of the writing life that feels like standing on the backs of two circus ponies. Kind of like this viral Volvo truck ad with Van Damme doing his epic split.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out. And then watch this spoof featuring Chuck Norris, which made the rounds during the Christmas season.

Did I mention part of my productivity problem is that I’m easily distracted? Back to recent reading I’ve found helpful.

As I was saying, writers need to find a balance between building platform and allowing social media to sap their time and energy. More and more people recognize the addictive character of social media, and many post helpful suggestions for curbing technology urges.

John Meyer, founder and CEO of Lemonly, provides a list of Eight Simple Tips to Banish Low Productivity (the link takes a bit to load, wait for it).

An interesting book I purchased last year is Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative. While Henry writes primarily for a corporate audience, I found his basic principles intriguing. Essentially, he advocates establishing a “Creative Rhythm” in your life through structuring these five elements: Focus, Relationships, Energy, Stimuli, and Hours. Henry writes:

Practices in each of these five areas (F-R-E-S-H) provide the foundation for a life that is prolific, brilliant, and healthy (p. 22).

Who doesn’t want to be prolific, brilliant, and healthy? While that sounds like a claim more far-fetched than the Churck Norris split, I appreciate Henry’s FRESH formula because he includes the crucial elements of relationships and stimuli. These things are often overlooked in corporate models, but are important aspects of the Christian life.

A believer’s relationship with Christ affects his or her relationships with others. And a Christian’s most inspiring stimuli often comes through worship and meditation.

Busy writers tend to view relationships and stimuli as distractions, but the right attitude can help us appreciate these aspects of our lives and recognize them as part of a rhythm that increases productivity AND creativity.

What helps you increase both in your life?

New Year resolved

Resolution. We hear a lot about it at the beginning of a year. People make New Year’s resolutions to lose some weight or spend more time in personal devotions. But often the year comes and goes and we end up making the same vague resolutions at the beginning of the next year.

Perhaps the trouble is that most New Year’s resolutions are too vague. Instead of thinking about losing weight, implement a specific plan that includes meals with fewer calories. Eat smaller portions at home and pack up half your meal when dining out. Instead of thinking about spending more time in personal devotions, commit to a specific Bible reading plan. The Bible Gateway site offers several reading plans. There are also a wide variety of reading plans available on the ESV (English Standard Version) website.

Since I’m a word person, however, this morning I’m thinking about the various definitions of the word: resolution. Merriam-Webster.com defines it in six main ways:

Definition of RESOLUTION

1
: the act or process of resolving: as

a : the act of analyzing a complex notion into simpler ones

b : the act of answering : solving

c : the act of determining

d : the passing of a voice part from a dissonant to a consonant tone or the progression of a chord from dissonance to consonance

e : the separating of a chemical compound or mixture into its constituents

(1) : the division of a prosodic element into its component parts (2) : the substitution in Greek or Latin prosody of two short syllables for a long syllable

g : the analysis of a vector into two or more vectors of which it is the sum

2
: the subsidence of a pathological state (as inflammation)
3
a : something that is resolved <made a resolution to mend my ways>

b : firmness of resolve

4
: a formal expression of opinion, will, or intent voted by an official body or assembled group
5
: the point in a literary work at which the chief  dramatic complication is worked out
6
a : the process or capability of making distinguishable the individual parts of an object, closely adjacent optical images, or sources of light

b : a measure of the sharpness of an image or of the fineness with which a device (as a video display, printer, or scanner) can produce or record such an image usually expressed as the total number or density of pixels in the image <a resolution of 1200 dots per inch>

The definition that first comes to your mind may relate to the kind of work you do or your primary interests.  I initially thought of definitions 1c and 3a since today is the first day of a new year, but definition 5 was a close second since I’m a writer. I admit that definitions 1d, e, f, and g, as well as 2 were totally off my radar.

But the point I really want to make on this first day of 2013 is that the new year has already been resolved (according to M-W fourth definition: dealt with successfully, cleared up, found an answer to, made clear or understandable).

Although we don’t know exactly what will happen in our lives or our world during 2013, we can be certain that God is in control. And God doesn’t change. Malachi 3:6 (ESV) tells us:

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.

Isn’t it comforting to know that we will not be consumed in 2013? Psalm 102 provides this additional assurance about God:

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
     but you are the same, and your years have no end.
The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
    their offspring shall be established before you (25-28, ESV).

God will keep us and our children secure, even when he unmakes his created cosmos. He loves us and cares for us. We can have confidence in his love because it lasts forever:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end (Lamentations 3:22, ESV).

We can trust our unchanging and loving God to bless us in the new year with his good and perfect gifts:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17, ESV).

Our loving heavenly Father blesses us through our relationship with his Son. Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us” in the past, today, and for the future:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8, ESV).

Reflecting on the past year, we can see how God held us in his hands. Looking to the coming year, we can know with certainty that we can trust him for today and every tomorrow.

Numbering Days, Psalm 90

A bit over two years ago, I blogged on Psalm 90 under the title “Our Dwelling Place” (you can read that post here). Because Psalm 90 seems particularly appropriate for the last day of the year, I decided to break from my regular schedule and blog on it again. But before I wrote today’s entry, I began my day with Bible Gateway’s Book of Common Prayer reading plan. The Bible Gateway site implements a host of helpful features, including a variety of daily scripture reading plans. And I’ve truly been enjoying the Book of Common Prayer reading plan.

Guess what scripture passage the plan listed first for today? You guessed it: Psalm 90.

The English Standard Version (ESV) identifies Psalm 90 as a prayer of Moses, the man of God, under the heading “From Everlasting to Everlasting.” This heading immediately primes our minds to receive the truth of God’s infinity.

Moses begins by creating the metaphor of God as our dwelling place:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God (Psalm 90:1-2, ESV).

He then compares God’s infinity to man’s transience.

You return man to dust
    and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
    are but as yesterday when it is past,
    or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers (3-6, ESV).

On this last day of the year, don’t you feel the fleeting quality of life? How quickly has this past year gone? Have you accomplished all the goals you set out last year at this time? Isn’t it true that this past year initially flourished with hope and promise that has quickly faded and withered?

Some of that fading and withering resulted from our own sins:

For we are brought to an end by your anger;
    by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your presence (7-8, ESV).

Certainly the revelation of our secret sins brings consequences that feel like God’s wrath. But feeling as if we’re enduring the wrath of God isn’t always our own fault. We know from Job that the righteous suffer. In fact, I sometimes feel as if life is weighted more heavily toward suffering than joy. Does it seem to you as if life is a series of taking a tiny step forward, only to be forced two large strides backward?

Life must have seemed something like that to Moses as well (9-11, ESV):

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
    we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
    or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
    and your wrath according to the fear of you?

Even if we live to a ripe, old age, most of us are limited to only seventy or eighty productive years. And Moses describes those as full of toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and so are we. How should we view life’s brevity? Do we pause to consider the power of God’s anger and his wrath on those who do not believe in him and revere him?

Believing and revering God should be primary considerations when we take stock of our lives. Trusting in him and calling on him are ways to wisely number our days (12-13, ESV):

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
    Have pity on your servants!

Moses recommends reflection. He asks God to teach us to number our days. When we suffer or sorrow, it may seem as if God has withheld his mercy and favor for a very long time. But he is always there. He is always with us. And he is always merciful to us, even when we can’t see or feel that mercy. At those times, we can pray like Moses and ask God to have pity on us…if we are among those who serve him.

Generally each year seems to disappear more quickly than the last, but some years are so full of suffering and sorrow that we’re glad to see them end. Moses must have felt the same way at times. He pleads with God to temper evil with joy, to daily fill our hearts and minds with an awareness of his steadfast love.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and for as many years as we have seen evil (14-15, ESV).

God knows our finite frailty. He knows that we sometimes need to see evidence of his love. He motivated Moses to conclude this prayer with a request for God to show his favor to generations of believers and to keep their work from being meaningless (16-17, ESV):

Let your work be shown to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

We long to see God’s work. We long for our children to see his glorious power. We long for his favor to be upon us. And we long for our work to have meaning. It has meaning when we do it for God. This doesn’t mean we have to be a minister or a missionary; it means that everything we do–whether that’s changing diapers or changing contracts, saving pennies or saving people–should be done not for financial gain or personal glory, but for God’s glory. Missionary C.T. Studd summarized it in a popular and pithy poem: “Only one life, t’will soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.” We work not for our boss, the government, or ourselves. We work for Christ. That’s the work of our hands that we long to be established!

Psalm 90 is a marvelous prayer for this moment in your life, when you stand at the end of one year and are about to step into a new one. May God show you his work. May he show his glorious power to your children. May his favor rest upon you and may he establish the work of your hands.

Won’t you pray this prayer with me?