We each have a life story, penned without ink, read by the people around us. Who's writing your story?

Monday, August 6, 2018

Three Ways to Thrive in Less-Than-Ideal Conditions

At first, I thought it was just another weed sprouting up between the bricks. "I need to get out here and do some weeding," I mused, looking around the patio with a sigh. "All that rain . . . " 

Days later, after several more downpours, I passed my "weed" again, only to discover a tomato plant, several inches high. It looked healthy and even had a couple of blossoms here and there. I decided to leave it undisturbed and see what would happen.

Every day it grew a little more. When I compared it to another tomato plant in a nearby pot, I had to smile. It looked to be thriving. The plant in the pot? Not so much. 

This week, my surprise growing from a crack in the bricks reaches half-way across the path leading to the back door. Not only does it display many blossoms but also little cherry tomatoes, some with a rosy hue. I can't wait to taste their sweetness.

I've done some thinking about this unexpected bit of garden, springing up in such an unlikely place . . . crowded in with little soil, behind the gate, with its stems spread in the direct path of passing feet and hurried exits. There is nothing ideal about this small space yet my tomato plant thrives day after day, about to yield fruit. 

Life is seldom ideal. How many times do we find ourselves in a place we never intended? A place that doesn't seem suited for us? A place that feels crowded between immovable obstacles? We long for space to grow and an environment in which to thrive.

We're not alone. 

Yet, have you noticed that the heroes we respect are seldom those people with perfect circumstances? Like my tomato plant, these role models are the ones who somehow live and grow in less-than-ideal circumstances. Time and time again, they overcome various obstacles. Theirs are the stories that inspire us and offer us courage.

Perhaps they have mastered the art of choosing to be positive and making it a practice to search for the bright side of life. It's likely they have learned to be content in whatever state they find themselves. Most importantly, they've honed the habit of thankfulness in every situation. 

While our humanness and the reality of a fallen world get in the way of our ideals, one little tomato plant can serve as a wonderful reminder of what it means to thrive. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Summer Tidying

"Why are you reading a book about how to do something you're good at?" my home-from-college-for-the-summer daughter asked me.
I shrugged. "I guess I enjoy reading practical books like this one - and it gives me ideas. Besides," I insisted, glancing at her sideways, "when I'm reading up on a topic, I tend to follow-through more readily. It helps me keep my focus."

At least for a while. 

This past week, I finally rummaged through the closet under the stairs and tossed out a carpet scrap from a carpet which had been ripped up and disposed of eight years ago! If you follow my blog, you know how much I've sorted, thrown out, given away, and donated in the last few years. And I'm still at it. My latest venture? Give away our old sofa in the guest room, put my office futon in its place, re-upholster a cozy chair, and move it into my office (and tidy my desk while I'm at it). One less piece of furniture and more space. I'm getting there . . . I hope!

Life's a little like my quest for tidying. It gets messy and we feel bogged down until we take the time to clean it up. It might be a clogged-up schedule. Or a relationship that's gotten stale and cold. Or the path-of-least-resistance choice to pursue the urgent over the important. Or old familiar rhythms that have little benefit to us now. We feel the need to tidy up yet often feel stuck. Where do we begin? And how to we keep on top of it all? 

Just as I checked out a tidying manual for my home from the library, so we have a life manual available to help us know where to start, what to prioritize, and how to ask for help to tidy up our lives. God's Word helps us keep our focus. We begin at the foot of the cross as Christ exchanges our sin for His righteousness. Then He gives us the tools of forgiveness, prayer, relational grace, and the freshness of His presence.

The key is to consistently read the manual. Much like my house-tidying book, it keeps us focused on  the goal: "We make it our aim to please Him"      (2 Corinthians 5:9).

Photos from bing.com/images

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Brushstrokes of a Father

My mother would be proud of him. 

Five years ago, ill with cancer and waning in strength, she surprised my dad by asking me to take her to his art show at the Abington Senior Center. His smile showed how much her coming meant to him. He introduced her to his art-colleagues as they walked hand in hand around the room to view the paintings. We still talk about it. She passed away two short months later.

Photo by Ben Freda
Last Sunday, my sister and I made it point to attend this year's art show at the Senior Center. Barb arranged her visit from Indiana so she could attend, and my daughter and her friend also popped in to support "Grandpa." Live music, refreshments, and handshakes all around made it a memorable occasion. Ben Freda from the Abington Journal took Dad's photo and summarized the event HERE.  

Dad uses water colors to create his paintings . . . usually a still life or a scene from nature. At 82 years old, he attends class every Thursday after he has had lunch at my kitchen table and has helped me take my garbage and recycling to the curb. Our Thursday lunches have become a ritual for us, one I look forward to. 

As another Father's Day rolls around, I've been reflecting on Dad's brushstrokes in my life. He's modeled the steady colors of consistency, godliness, and loyalty. His dry sense of humor and funny comments add light to our conversations. His having lived many decades brings perspective to my thinking, and His love for God's Word challenges me to remember what's truly important when "the cares of this world" seem to be calling my name. We've both lost our spouses and understand loneliness and loss, yet we help each other move forward with God's strength and with grateful hearts.

I love you, Dad. Along with Mom, I'm proud of you, too. Thanks for the brushstrokes of character you've painted for me and Barb and for your wonderful example of quiet strength and hope. Happy Father's Day!

Here are a few samples of Dad's paintings, most watercolor:

This scene is done in colored pencil.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Summer: A Season to Enjoy . . . A Season to Reflect . . .


How we've longed for warm breezes . . . fragrant flowers . . . longer days . . . burgers on the grill. What plans do you have to take advantage of this new season? Will you take a trip to the beach or even to a national park or zoo? Are your kids begging to ride their bikes or go to the playground? There's something healing about soaking up the sun, planting petunias, and catching up with neighbors over the back fence.
During those chilly, damp days of late winter and early spring, I looked forward to summer. I enjoy my gardens (both flower and vegetable), my patio with pots of flowers, and the evening sounds as I rock back and forth in the backyard swing. The best part is that my youngest daughter is home from college for a couple of months. She'll be busy with online classes and a part-time job, but it's wonderful to have her here. I'm savoring our time together.

The past ten months have been busy for me . . . namely, writing and publishing my Leader's Guide based on Penned Without Ink. Thanks to Robin Wasser, my book is also now an audio book through Audible. I spoke at four different venues this past spring. I loved rubbing shoulders with women and hearing their stories of how God is giving them the grace to "run with perseverance the race marked out" for them. It has been a time of blessing.

Little by little I'm getting on my feet again but not without some time for prayerful reflection. Where have I been since my husband passed away three years ago? What has God been doing in my life? Looking forward, what would God have me to be and to do next?

I'm seeing the importance of evaluation and assessment - as I go along - so I don't find myself drifting to a place I never intended. Do you agree?

In my quest, I have come across two resources. The first is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. He maintains that "essentialism isn't about getting more done in less time. It's about getting only the right things done." I checked out the audio book from the library. So far, it's been eye-opening. Some of what I'm reading will supplement my toolbox as I move into the future.

The second resource is Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul by Hannah Anderson. This book "reveals how cultivating humility-not scheduling or increased productivity-leads to true peace." My sister and daughter recommended this Christian book to me, thinking it would be especially helpful as I try to sort out my next steps.

So, enjoy this new season of warmth, growth, and a little less structure. Yet, let's not allow the season to slip by without also setting aside a little time for reflection. Who or what guides our thinking? Where are we going? And what will we do with the gifts God has given us?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Three Years

Armed with a pocket full of Kleenex, I walked up the hill to the Clarks Green Cemetery for the first time this spring. A delightful walk despite the traffic in the late afternoon. The stimulating fragrances of flowering trees, bushes, and lilacs surrounded me as I made my way up and down the hills between the markers, and as always, found myself stooping to read a few of the names and dates of those who have passed on.
I always save Barry's section until last. As the stone came into view, tears stung my eyes. There's something about that first look in the spring that floods my heart with the reality and finality of his death. I settled myself on the ground and cleaned the pine needles and grass clippings off the base. So much has happened in three years. As I wiped my eyes, I realized that I miss him in a different way than when crushing grief nearly swallowed me up and I wondered how I would go on without him. 

Back then I wished he could've helped Elisabeth with her college decisions. I wished he could've dialogued with all the girls and answered their questions. I wished he could've played his role as "Grandpa" to our grandsons, one of whom he never met. I wished he could've weighed in on so many decisions I had to make without him, decisions about the house, a car, our finances. He always seemed to know what to do.

Looking back, I see God's grace standing out bold on the calendar pages of the past 36 months. We made it . . . all this time. But that doesn't mean we didn't feel the ache in our hearts. And now I grieve for him in additional ways. I long for his comfortable companionship and the balance he brought to my life. I miss making his favorite dinner, hearing about his many ventures, and planning this year's garden together.  How often have I wanted to ask his thoughts about my writing and speaking? "Does this make sense? Is this topic relevant? Do these ideas sound okay? What's missing?" 

I feel for our girls . . . as each of them is in a different place now. They would benefit from his knowledge and wisdom - on education, relationships, gardening, parenting, and on and on. We often find ourselves saying, "What would Dad say?" It helps . . . a little.

Before I rose to walk home, I traced my finger over the words under his name: "Life-long Learner; Loved God and Others." Always for the other guy, that's just the kind of man he was! And somehow I gather up the courage to move ahead and "run with perseverance the race marked out for me," grateful for God's new measure of grace every single day.

I love you, Barry. We miss you.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Mother's Day Reflections

Mother's Day brings back the memory of a story, a story that turned apprehension into hope.

"Pregnant! The word jolted me as I listened to the nurse's voice on the other end of the line. I was thirty-eight with an eleven and fourteen-year-old, and God wanted me to raise another child?

I decided to keep the news quiet as long as possible. I felt embarrassment mixed with panic and needed time to get used to the idea. At the same time, I felt guilty when I thought of the many who longed for a child and found themselves grieving with empty arms.


A few weeks later we visited my parents' church. I felt as green as the dress I wore. God must have smiled as the service began. He had a special message just for me, one I would carry with me for a long time. It came in the from of a song, one written by Bill and Gloria Gaither when they, too, were expecting a child.

This child can face uncertain days because He lives!
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow . . . I know He holds the future . . .*

Tears sprang to my eyes as my husband squeezed my hand. The resurrection of Jesus . . . Of course! Because He lives, I could trust Him with our future and the future of our tiny secret, fearfully and wonderfully growing deep inside me.

November 1997

We named our baby Elisabeth Grace in remembrance of God's promise in 2 Corinthians 12:9. "My grace is sufficient for you . . ." Now a junior in college, Elisabeth brings her humor, conversation, and thoughtfulness to our family. How could I have ever doubted God's wisdom? That Easter morning holds a hallowed place in my heart. God's faithfulness during that time has given me courage to face other challenges, far more daunting.

I'll always remember the day when Elisabeth, then in elementary school, said to me, "I'm glad my middle name is Grace."

I couldn't trust my voice to answer, but gave her a wobbly smile. Me, too, Elisabeth. Me, too.

*Copyright by William J. Gaither, 1971.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

When God Opens the Door . . .

"I'm sure you could borrow my mom's notes," my youngest daughter offered.

When Elisabeth told me of her conversation with a fellow intern last summer, I hesitated. "That would be fine, but . . . I'd have to re-work them, you know, so someone else can make sense of them."

"Oh, she won't mind. Whatever you have will be fine."

Fine? While I doubted it, my mind began to race with possibilities which led me to a ten-month journey of faith. This week, I finally crossed the finish line!

Here's the backstory: After Penned Without Ink was released in September of 2016, I had the privilege of leading a small group through the study of my book chapter by chapter. We dug deeper into many relevant themes presented in Penned and linked them with biblical narratives and principles. The discussion was rich as we connected the promises of God with our own personal lives. I loved preparing for our group meetings each week, drawing truths from God's Word and learning even more about trusting God to write your story. I typed up my notes as I went along, never dreaming they would someday form the basis of something more. 
After Elisabeth offered my notes to her colleague, I began to organize and add to them, finding even more pertinent material to augment my original thoughts. One thing led to another, and soon I designed a consistent layout for each lesson. (At this point I sent what I had to Elisabeth's friend.) Yet the final presentation still remained fuzzy to me . . . Study guide? Leader's guide? Both? I talked it over with my writers group, attempted several different formats, and prayed. 

In early January, my son-in-law suggested I include two sections: a leader's guide and one-page study sheets for group participants. BINGO! That was it! I went right to work, asked my writer friends to critique each page, and ironed out the bumps.

Each lesson/chapter for leaders includes:
  • A REVEIW from the last lesson 
  • DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (and answers with supplemental material) and GROUP ACTIVITIES based on the text and additional Scriptures 
  • A TAKEAWAY summary statement
  • A suggested MEMORY VERSE. 
The REPRODUCIBLE STUDY SHEETS encourage group members to prepare for each session's discussion at home. There are 13 lessons or chapters yet the material is flexible so a group may combine chapters if desired. The book measures 8.5 x 11 and is 60 pages in length.

When I contacted my publishing company, they were excited about the project and suggested I publish my work through Create Space. I knew nothing about gutter margins, bleed, ISBN numbers, or formatting the interior much less an attractive cover. Yet again, God provided a wonderful team of people to help - including a group to pilot the material. After several of us proof-read the book (over and over and over!), I finally clicked the button last Tuesday that made the finished product available for purchase on Amazon.com! 

If your group is looking for material to study this summer or fall, I invite you to consider this study.

Only the group leader will require the Leader's Guide. Each group member will need a copy of Penned Without Ink: Trusting God to Write Your Story, a Bible, a notebook or journal, and the study sheets (distributed in your group). To learn more, click the Amazon link HERE. And feel free to email me with any questions (sarahlylnnphillips3@gmail.com). 

When has God surprised you or opened the door to an unforeseen opportunity?